Consistency is number one, with good reason. You cannot achieve anything worthwhile without it. Consistent running has put me in a position whereby I can get ‘preferred entry’ to start at the front of large scale road races. I feel justified wearing a race singlet and a pair of flats, rather than a t-shirt and a pair of jogging shoes. Consistency has brought me top 12 finishes in Auckland and Christchurch and a personal best not seen for 10 years. The question is, where to after consistency?
The Mid-Pack Runner Turned Competitive Amateur
When you’ve been injured on and off for many years, as was the case with me, there’s a deep joy in making the start line. The more consistent you become, the faster you start to run and the more times you toe the line. Progress? Yes, to a point. Eventually, you amass so much consistency that almost subconsciously, you’ve become a competitive amateur athlete again. In other words, you’re starting to play with the small margins in relation to improvement.
This progress is a double-edged sword. Your relaxed and consistent approach must be maintained in order to prepare for future progress but your mindset in relation to the preparation and execution of races has to change.
In the early stages of consistency, you’re still a mid-pack runner in races. This means, in every race you enter there is always tonnes of guys around you to run with, chase etc. At this point, you gauge your fitness and your main priority is not to go too fast early on – run an even paced race. Your preparation in the lead up to the race is pretty relaxed. You do slightly less of what you’ve been doing every other week. What time the race is on or what you have for breakfast is of little consequence to the overall progress status of the mid-pack runner.
For the first time in around 12 years, I found myself, at the beginning of the 2017 summer season, fully fit. No niggles or illness in preparation. I had completed around 70+ weeks of training. Yes, there were some weeks better than others, but generally speaking I was uninterrupted. This might have been expected to bring an added degree of pressure. My expectations were slightly higher but pressure, not really. Again, the joy of being able to compete removes a lot of pressure.
Preparing to Fail
However, I prepared for my season opener, the Sydney half-marathon, as though I was still a mid-pack runner when in reality, my physiology was very different. So, as per normal, the week leading into the race, I just did slightly less than normal, forgetting that I was coming off a far more substantial training block. The second error I made was booking a flight out of Auckland at 7 am, not fully thinking through that this would require a 3:30 am start, two days before I raced. I spent Saturday catching up with family rather than catching up on rest which meant consumption of large amounts of caffeine to stay engaged. The race started at 6:45 am, which was not the end of the world, I usually train at 7 am. Again, I did not consider that getting up, having breakfast and travelling to the start line would require another 3:30 am start – very different to rolling out of bed for 7 am training. By mile 5 in the race, I knew I wasn’t going to achieve my goals and by mile 7, I had dropped out. Frustrating, but maturity is a blessing in the long run.
Learning from Mistakes
The Christchurch 10 km was two weeks away at this point. I had not been used to planning a season involving more than one race for some time. Anticipating this challenge, I had asked Steven Macklin, several weeks in advance, to manage the two weeks of training between races. This was a clever act of self-control on my part to try to avoid over-training between races. It turned out to be an even greater blessing with what unfolded in Sydney. As much as I was berating myself, I had no say in the training coming up – perfect!
Steven gave me training involving two track sessions, one of which was the most demanding I’d performed in years. I really enjoyed being back on the track again. I had to shift my mind – ‘shit, you’re actually fit enough to start doing this type of work again’. A track workout two years ago would have seemed like a far-flung dream.
My race preparation for Christchurch was far better. I flew at 11 am Friday. Decided where and what time I would have breakfast, practiced it Saturday and executed it Sunday. The athletic preparation part of me was back in gear – like riding a bike.
Race Decision Making
What I hadn’t prepared for was that I would be somewhere in the top 12 and that there would be the possibility of lone running. Running my PB in Leeds last November, there was huge strength and depth in the field, meaning lone running for an extended period of time was almost impossible.
Instead of racing, my goal was not to set off too fast and build, aiming toward a sub 34-minute clocking. This was a sensible strategy, particularly during the first 2 km, when people lose the run of themselves as adrenaline takes over. However, I had a decision to make at 4 km, to go with two runners or hang back. Fearing it was too early and assuming there would be runners coming back in my direction, I decided to bide my time. I missed my 4 km time check and by 6 km, I was at least 20 seconds behind schedule. I had fallen asleep running on my own.
I then accelerated the remainder of the race and went from averaging 5:38 minute-miles mid race (mile 2 – 4) to closing with 5:27 and 5:11 for mile 5 and 6. The result of all this was a mere 1 second PB. It was a hollow PB based on my current fitness. The two things I have taken from the experience are; races need to be chosen carefully to have enough competition but also that you have to have an alternative strategy when you are closer toward the front of the race – you’re no-longer a mid-pack runner and the mind-set has to change.
Running the race again, of course with hindsight, I would have realised there was nothing only the abyss ahead of the guys I was running with and I would have gone with them.
Onward to Sydney on July 9th – 26 runners went under 34-minutes there last year. That’ll help, but what will help more is me being alert to the fact that I’m an athlete once more – time to start thinking like one.