Friday, 26 April 2013

How My Twitter "Friends" Helped Me Run The Marathon

What is a friend? 

In this social media age of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that question is invariably asked rhetorically by people in their thirties and older. I say “rhetorically” because it is often followed with a criticism of how shallow these “friendships” are. The argument goes that no one can really have 200+ “friends” and the people who are listed as “friends” on Facebok are far from that. The argument usually concludes that this all points to the superficiality of the digital times we live in today. 

I normally agree with this view and staring middle age in the eyes I am condescending enough to think that somehow I know best and the young people on Facebook etc don’t really understand what friendship is.

Last Sunday when I ran the London Marathon I was forced to rethink this.

In the preparation for the marathon I asked people to sponsor me (and you still can even though I’ve now run it by clicking here: A lot of my friends and colleagues sponsored me, but more surprising is that a lot of people who follow me on twitter sponsored me.

On the day of the marathon I also received a lot of tweets of encouragement from Twitter “friends” I have never met. Emotionally those tweets meant a lot to me, and psychologically there is no way you can tell me I didn’t feel these were people I had a real connection with.

In this social media age far from these people not being “real friends” I had a whole new reservoir of “friendship” to draw on for strength. And at 23miles when running the marathon I was drawing on every possible source of strength I could.

Every sponsorship I received and every tweet I was mentioned in helped me to keep on going when I thought I couldn’t take another step.

At the end of the marathon when I tweeted that I didn’t do quite as well as I’d hoped one of my twitter “friends” said I should run in Berlin. And in the true spirit of friendship suggested I do it with a group of them who are also doing the Berlin marathon. The only reason I didn’t take them up on their offer is because the Berlin marathon is already sold out. Now you can't tell me that isn't friendship.

When it comes to Instagram I’ve surprised myself by looking for a possible marathon in Atlanta to meet one of my “instagram friends". You don't travel half way around the world to meet someone who isn't a friend. 

Once again running has taught me something far more than how to place one foot in front of the other as fast as possible for as long as possible.  It has taught me about friendship, social media and how I can still be emotionally surprised.

(The picture today is of a map of the different countries that use twitter, I wonder where my next “friend” will come from?)

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Running Is All About Focus

On Sunday I completed the London marathon.

I finished in a time of 3hours 13minutes, although it is only 2 minutes off my PB, in light of all my training and where my physical fitness is right now it was not a good result.

People say that distance running is at least 50% mental. I always thought that was about pushing through pain, being mentally tough to never give up and stuff like that. On Sunday I found out that it is so much more than that and I really wasn’t prepared.

As well as giving you inner strength and determination the mental side of the running is also about focus; focus to run your own race, focus not to be distracted by what is around you, focus to stick to your training. On Sunday I lost focus.

Here is my story of losing focus:

The London marathon starts at 3 different places, one for elite athletes, another for good runners and the last for fun runners. At different points the three sets of marathon runners all merge. I was in the middle start for good runners. The runners I was with were not expected to run much faster than 3hours 15 minutes and I wanted to run a 3 hour marathon. So when I started I ran away from my fellow runners. I went off far too fast. I lost focus.

After about a mile I merged with some of the really good runners. They were running really fast (well a lot faster than I am used to) and they were overtaking me. I am not used to being overtaken so much and so I started running at their pace. Again I lost focus and instead of running my race I ran someone else’s race.

I crossed the 10km point in 39minutes. If I had kept going at that pace I would have finished the marathon in a sub 2hour 50minute time!

I knew I was going far too fast but if running is mental I had left my mind at the starting line, I just kept going for it.

And here is where I completely lost focus. With the crowds swelling and cheering us on I felt invincible. I finished the next 10km in 40 minutes. I had really convinced myself I could complete my marathon with a PB of 2 hours 50! Within an hour and a half of starting the race I had slashed my target time by 10 minutes!!

As the race progressed my body paid for my mind’s stupidity.

At 16miles I started floundering and the last 6 miles was pure agony. All those people I had arrogantly run away from at the start in my group all effortlessly overtook me.

As one friend said to me afterwards, “You went off like a hare and finished like a tortoise”.

In the last 4 months I had trained my body. What the London Marathon taught me was that next time I need to train my mind as well. 

- For the people who are reading this who either sponsored me or tweeted their encouragement my next blog post will be about you - but in the meantime - THANKS!!

(The picture today is of the vest I ran in with my number still attached - I do that after each marathon as you can see from my profile picture which is of my first marathon vest following the Rio marathon)

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Are Marathon Runners Children of Thatcher?

Two days ago I wrote a blog post on how running might be an antidote for the worse excesses of materialism associated with Thatcher. Very few people want to be thought of as materialistic and so as a runner this was a comforting tale to tell myself.

But two days, and a few chats with my wife, later I'm not so sure that running is a spiritual “cure” for the “evils” of Thatcherism ("evil" in inverted commas depending which side of the political divide you are). Maybe running instead of being an "antidote" to the materialism of the 80's is the perfect Thatcherite sport and a reflection of Anglo-Saxon individualism.

Let me explain why mass participation running might capture the spirit of the 1980’s down to a “T” (pun intended):

First of all mass participation running, like the London Marathon, took off in the 80’s, this happened simultaneously as the trade union movement declined.

Secondly running is all about the individual. You might have thousands of people descend on a single race but we are all running alone. It is the ultimate physical manifestation of the capitalist rat race and the (in)famous Thatcher misquote; "there is no such thing as society".

Where once we had tried to achieve things as a team (be that football, cricket or rugby) now we believe we can only achieve things alone (marathon running).

What matters to us is our individual times, our individual places. We might not think we are going to win but none of us want to come last.

Is it any wonder the French were suspicious of President Sarkozy's running? He admires Thatcher and his running was seen as part of his right wing, Anglo-Saxon leanings. Is it a surprise that it's Matthew Paris (an ex-Conservative MP) who has the fastest marathon time for any MP? (And let's not forget Seb Coe - although he's never run a marathon).

Running is all about the individual and surprise, surprise just as you had an ideology that championed the individual over the community marathon running took off!

So which of my blog posts is correct? What is the true nature of mass participation distance running and Thatcher’s legacy? An activity that grew up in response to Thatcher's materialism helping people fight against the era’s excesses or a sport that captured the zeitgeist of the age - there is no such thing as society and we are all individuals.

I want to have my cake and eat it too because the truth is they are both correct.

Running is about releasing the potential of the individual. It captures the aspirational nature in us all to be the best we can be. A nature that so many of Thatchers policies tapped into, possibly the reason she won three elections. But being the best you can be doesn't have to be materialistic and I believe that running combats this unbridled materialism like no other activity (as explained in my previous post).

The only thing I worry about now is whether running is really a middle way and instead of being a Thatcherite legacy is a New Labour phenomenon. We are all Blair’s babies now whether we like it or not! 

(The picture I've picked today is of Margaret Thatcher holding up three fingers after she won her third General Election - it's a purely personal choice because next Sunday I will be running my third marathon)

Friday, 12 April 2013

Marathon Running - A "Cure" for Thatcherism

With the death of Thatcher much has been written about her legacy and how she changed the country. Could marathon running actually combat one of the most pernicious excesses of the Thatcher era: increased materialism?

To answer that you have to go back three years before she came to power:
In 1976 two things happened:

1. The seminal film “Marathon Man” starring Dustin Hoffman was released. 
2. Philosopher Erich Fromm’s ground-breaking book “To Have or To Be” was published.

Marathon Man” is a thriller about a Nazi war criminal and a Jewish keen amateur runner in New York, it’s a great film and one of Hoffman’s best performances before he went all Tootsie on us. Irrespective of the plot and acting however the film brilliantly captures the nascent phenomenon of mass participation distance running that started in America and eventually spread across the world.
In Erich Fromm’s book “To Have or To Be” he outlines how modern society has become materialistic and prefers "having" than "being". As individuals we have become disconnected from our true natures as we measure our self-worth, our existence and our experiences by our possessions rather than what we are inside – our “being”. The book concludes that in every mode of life people should ponder more on their "being" nature and less towards their "having" nature.

I do not think it is a coincidence that both seminal pieces of work were produced at the same time. They both reflect a zeitgeist feeling that large swaths of people were unhappy with trying to find meaning through increasing material acquisition. It seemed as if the love of money and “having” accelerated when Thatcher was in power. In the 80's you had the creation of “Yuppies”, “Loads-Of-Money” stereotypes and the explosion of the City. It is little wonder that many people needed a refuge from this brash form of “having”.
For me marathon running is the ultimate form of “being”. No amount of money will improve my running, make me run longer or make me run faster, (despite the promises of some sports apparel manufacturers). In fact there have even been studies that suggest that marathon running, by increasing the level of natural endorphins, even reduces people’s desire for money and material possessions.

Mass participation running which was just beginning in the 1970’s is also possibly the ultimate “being” sporting activity. The vast majority (98%) of people running in a mass participation marathon are not running with any expectation of winning. We are not running to achieve anything recognised by the outside world. Our achievements are deeply personal (my PB time is important to me and no one else) and our joy is about taking part not whether we win or lose. Or to put it another way our joy is in “being” a runner not “having” won or lost.
In the last 37 years I think it would be fair to say that society has become even more materialistic. Like Fromm I believe that we will never be able to achieve true happiness through material gain, but when I’m lacing up my running shoes and go for my next run I might at least get some relief from it.

(Today's picture is of an early mass participation marathons in the late 1970's) 

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Where Are All The Black Runners?

In 1980 only 11% of marathon finishers in America were women, last year it was 42%. For half-marathon runners women are now in the majority (approximately 60%). While those stats are for American runners I suspect that a similar trend is mirrored here in the UK. The number of women taking part in distance running has grown beyond recognition from when large participatory marathons first started in the 1970’s and 80’s. And let’s not forget it wasn’t until 1984 that women were even allowed to run the marathon at the Olympics.

So while the gender barriers seem to be tumbling down their seems to be another barrier when it comes to distance racing:


This is all the more surprising considering that nearly all the top marathon runners, both male and female, are African. The one statistics that I have found is striking; according to the largest survey of runners in America, the biannual National Runner Survey, only 1.6% of marathon runners are black. While those types of statistics are not kept in Britain it definitely chimes with my own personal experience. I have run four marathons and several smaller distances in the last year and I would be surprised if even 1% of my fellow runners were black – and this includes the Rio de Janerio Marathon – a city with a sizable non-white population.

I am consistently one of only a handful of black people at races and when I read running blogs and running magazines they are clearly aimed at a well healed middleclass white demographic.

The question is “Why?”. Why aren’t more black people running marathons, half marathons or even 5k fun runs? 

The barriers to entry to start running are incredibly low. In fact you could argue that it is the cheapest participatory sport to start, needing only a pair of running shoes, shorts and T-shirt.

I’ve never experienced any racism (overt or otherwise) from my fellow runners. The lack of black runners is definitely not equivalent to the lack of female participation 30 years ago when the sexism was often overt and crude.
No - I think the barriers are cultural and self-perpetuating. Black people don’t run marathons because they don’t see people like them at running clubs where they train. Where there are running clubs that make a conscious effort to attract a multicultural membership like the Run Dem Crew, organised by a black person, black people are disproportionately represented.

Another problem is that black people are often portrayed, and marketed to, as elite athletes. I could wax lyrical about some of the stereotypes in this but the reality is a lot of black people buy into the stereotypes. And so it takes a shift in perception that taking part in a race has almost nothing to do with the position you finish or the time you complete it in. It is a way of taking part in sports that culturally has not been marketed towards black people previously. You are definitely not trying to "Be Like Mike" or any other great sports personality when you are running a marathon, you are just trying to be better than the person you were yesterday and the day before that.
But Black people do want to run. Every black friend I have tells me how they want to run but always have a reason why they can’t (an old sports injury, lack of free time, etc). Running and all the sports we do have a huge cultural dynamic - Why pick cricket over basketball? Or basketball over football? Or even chess over poker?

I believe that black participation in running is a sleeping giant. Right now participation might be only 1% but given the right running clubs and targeting the right races that could easily change and hopefully will.

(The picture today is of me running the Amsterdam marathon feeling very much in a cultural minority)

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Devil Makes Work For Idle Feet

It is two weeks to go before the London Marathon and I have developed a few unhealthy obsessions. In an attempt to better my Personal Best (PB) time by more than eleven minutes and run a sub 3 hour marathon I have pushed my body harder than I have ever trained before.

I have been doing sprint intervals, hill training, three hour long trail runs, weight training and even cut caffeine out of my diet. My muscles and body are tired after all this work and I am now on the “taper” reducing the amount of exercise running up to the big day so my muscles are as fit but rested as possible.

The fact of the matter is I have done all the hard work and now I am simply cruising for the next two weeks. The problem is that this gives me far too much time to worry and obsess over things I would have literally taken in my stride before (pun very much intended).

To paraphrase: The devil makes work for idle feet.

So here is some of the work I’ve created for myself while I have been running less:

I have a slight ache in my lower abdominal muscles - my muscles are sore I’ve been running hundreds of miles in the last four months – this is quite normal I should not be surprised. The whole point of the taper is to rest the sore muscles. Instead of feeling relaxed however I am going online and googling “sore lower abdominal muscles in runners”. I am now convinced I have a sports hernia and may never be able to run again without undergoing extreme surgery!

Here is the next symptom of my idleness: Despite running two previous marathons, a half marathon, a 16 mile race just a month ago and a 10k race (all in the last year) I do not have the right shorts to run the London marathon. I am absolutely convinced that what I need is a pair of shorts that have a cycle shorts type inner lining with side pockets for my jelly babies. I have shorts with a cycle shorts inner lining but without side pockets, I have shorts with side pockets but with mesh lining. So yesterday I went on a wasted shopping journey looking for these elusive perfect marathon shorts.

I have no doubt I will be able to run the London marathon with or without these shorts (just as I have run all my other races) and I am also sure that a bit of rest will “cure” my supposed “sports hernia”. However I am also sure that there will be a raft of other “problems” that will come up as my exercise is reduced even further and I rest my legs before I line up at the start of the marathon.

(The picture today is of the only remedy for my “idle running condition” and that’s of legs running.)

Friday, 5 April 2013

Running Like An Olympic Athlete

Running a marathon is hard no matter whom you are, your level of ability or experience. And that is what makes the marathon great.

Two months ago my wife and I ran the Cannes half marathon. The race is a double loop but the loops themselves involve running up one side of the beach front road and then running down the other side. This means that some of the runners get to see the race leaders and strong club runners four times as they run past them on the opposite side of the road.

At the end of the race my wife told me that seeing the runners at the front running past her was a revelation; “They are in pain! I thought it was only average runners like me that found the marathon hard but seeing their faces as we passed each other I realised they are finding it just as hard

It reminded me of when I was at school and used to run cross country every week in games. I absolutely hated cross country but I was quite good at it normally coming second or third in my year. The other kids who were not good at cross country were sure cross country didn’t cause me pain because I was good at it and they frequently told me so. Unlike my wife running the Cannes half marathon they never saw the pain in my face. It was not a face of joy.

Perversely it is in fact this pain that makes the marathon so great.

A marathon is a test both mentally and physically regardless of your age, gender or ability.

If you are trying to run 42.2km as fast as you can you will experience pain. Your body will hurt and your brain will tell you to give up at some point. This is true if you are an Olympian athlete or doing your first marathon in over five hours. And this is what my wife realised when she pushed herself to run a sub 2 hour half marathon for the first time in France and saw the elite athletes pushing themselves to run it in just over an hour.

Everyone in a marathon is pushing their bodies and minds to the limit. I might never be able to be as fast as an elite marathon runner but unlike almost any other sport I do feel their pain.Which is why I can say with a slightly pained expression on my face; "I run like an Olympian".

(The picture today is of me at the end of the Amsterdam Marathon feeling the pain)