Monday, 27 January 2014

Quality Vs Quantity - The Runner's Dilemma?

Quality versus quantity. Which do you choose?

In almost every walk of modern life the sophisticated, intelligent answer is always "quality".

I often sit through work meetings where people wheel out trite phrase such as "we should focus on the quality not the quantity" as if they have said something new and profound. And everyone in the meeting nods knowingly.

Who aspires to be the "bargain basement" piling them high and flogging them cheap? Everyone wants to be that "quality" product that everyone else admires, wants to be and buy.

My recent marathon training has caused me to question this accepted wisdom and I'm starting to think it's all about quantity.

On Saturday I ran 30km, on Friday I ran a fast timed 5km and the day before that I ran a half marathon in training. According to the running schedule I downloaded from a sports website I am meant to run between 70 and 80 kilometres every week between now and my marathon in April, some weeks I'm even meant to run over 90 kilometres. Mo Farah is famously meant to run 120 miles a week when in training.

A large part of distance running training is all about quantity.

Far from quality being in opposition to quantity, the latter is not achievable without the former. Quantity leads to quality. The more you do anything the better you become and the more likely you will be able to achieve the best quality.

Now I know what you're thinking; there's a difference between "training quantity" and "performance   quality".

In my experience the more half marathons I run in training as close to race conditions as possible the better my marathon times when I finally race for real. Also when I think about other examples in life quality seems to be predicated on quantity. Two of the greatest jazz musicians that ever lived; John Coltrane and Miles Davis were prolific in their output often producing several albums a year. I doubt they would have been able to create the masterpieces they created if they hadn't constantly been performing, recording and honing their skills. (The Spice Girls only ever recorded three albums - a cheap shot I know but I doubt anyone will be listening to 2 become 1 in forty years time the way they listen to Coltrane's Love Supreme today).

So next time I'm in a work meeting and I start hearing someone talking about doing "less but with greater impact" or "we want quality not quantity" I think I'll just start humming "Viva Forever" and ask them if they want to join me on a work-lunch run.

(The picture today is of just a few of John Coltrane's albums a clear example where quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive)

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Art Of Running (or lessons in running by Chris Ofili)

The other day I was at an African wedding reception in London and I saw the internationally renowned artist Chris Ofili there. (Don’t worry that is the end of the name dropping).

As I was collecting my coat from the cloakroom at the end of the night Chris was also there with his wife collecting their belongings. We'd met a couple of years ago, and after a quick catch up we ended up talking about one of his pictures.

In 2011 he painted a picture that deeply resonated with me; “For The Unknown Runner”. It was a commission as a poster for the London 2012 Olympics and shows a runner on an ancient Greek type vase with the spectators just represented as colourful spots in the background. In Ancient Greece sporting achievement was often depicted on these types of vases as well as representing various gods and mythical creatures.

I first found out about the picture through twitter and I now have a print of “For The Unknown Runner” hanging in my kitchen. Not a day goes by when I don’t look at it and enjoy it, which is why, at the risk of embarrassing Chris with my love of his work, I told him how much his picture means to me. 

The primary reason I love it is because it marries two aspects of my identity that often seem mutually exclusive – my black British identity and my running identity. I’ve written previously about the lack of ordinary fellow black distance runners when I do marathons and other races. As a black British artist Chris Ofili’s work often speaks to my black British identity. For example his piece “No Woman No Cry” is a tribute to Doreen Lawrence and her fight for justice for her murdered son Stephen Lawrence a seminal moment in black British history (as well as race relations as a whole).

And so when Ofili turns his hand to painting a runner I feel I no longer have to place these two aspects of my character into different silos. It can be part of black British culture in just the same way as his other work is.

The title “For The Unknown Runner” serves to give me further ownership of this beautiful piece of work. At first the title didn’t seem to make sense to me because this was a commission for the London Olympics and Olympian athletes are far from unknown, Ofili has gone on record previously saying that the figure was based on a picture of Usain Bolt possibly the most famous known athlete in the world.

But in a typically egotistical way I now interpret the picture not to be of an Olympian but of myself or everybody who runs.

When I run a marathon I am running my own private Olympics. To 99.9% of the spectators I am the “unknown runner”, (thanks for cheering me on mum - the 0.1%), and the spectators are nothing more to me than the colourful spots in the pictures background. But in my mind I am running to glory. I am achieving my own super human feat worthy of any Ancient Greek Olympian vase.

As I tried to express all this to Chris Ofili, through the haze of a little bit too much wedding reception alcohol, the complexity of all those thoughts ended up as “I love your picture ‘The Unknown Runner’ it really inspires me”. And after graciously thanking me, he explained how he too likes to run and how it really serves to clear his head.

Once again I learn that running can fuel great achievements (such as Ofili's art), but possibly more importantly I learnt I have more in common with one of Britain’s greatest living artists than I ever realised.

(The picture today is of Chris Ofili's "For The Unknown Runner". If you want to see Chris talk about painting the picture there is a great short film here. Also thanks to my twitter friend @GoFeetBlog who first told me about the picture)

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Running with Buddha

When I was in my early twenties I used to teach maths to African-Caribbean children at a Saturday morning supplementary school - the Mandela Free School (it was originally called the Winnie Mandela Free School but that’s another story). The school was a grassroots effort to address some of the failings that the education system had in educating young black children, failings that seem to continue to this day.  

As a teacher I discovered young children learn best if you give them the information in more than one sensory experience. They learn about fractions far better if they can physically cut up the cake. Lego was a brilliant tool when I was trying to teach them abstract concepts in physics. The technical term for this is “multi-sensory learning”.

I bring this up because I’m finding that I’m now re-discovering this truth about learning - not with children but about myself. 

Running is that extra sensory information.

There are abstract philosophical concepts that I’m either only now beginning to grasp or getting a deeper understanding of because of my marathon running and training. It seems that every time I learn something new about about marathon running I discover parallels with philosophical teachings about life.

Take the concept of of the “Middle Way” in Buddhism. At it’s most basic it is about avoiding extremes - plotting a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. According to Buddha this was the path of wisdom bringing you to enlightenment.

Not being a Buddhist myself I think I understood the idea in theory but it didn’t chime with my reality. I always thought my greatest achievements were achieved through extremes. Pushing myself to my limits. 

For me the “Middle Way” was wonderful if you wanted to have a “nice, calm, serene life”, but not great if you wanted to be the very best you could be.

That was before I started running marathons.

Achieving your best in the marathon is all about moderation.

When you are racing it is about not going out too fast nor going off to slowly at the start.

In training it’s realising that any fool can train themselves into the ground but you have to train with moderation. Not adding too many miles in a week but not doing too few. The best marathon runners even recognise they can’t even concentrate too much on running and need to add cross training into the schedule (I currently try and swim or do yoga at least once a week).

The “Big Push” might be great in a sprint but then you come crashing down. Extremes might seem to work as you cram for an exam but short-term memory does not make you wise in the long run.

Marathon running is life. Time and again it is the physical embodiment of my thinking. It puts the flesh on my abstract philosophical thinking and enriches it.

The ultimate paradox of marathon running, and life, is when you see someone achieving the impossible and seemingly pushing themselves to the extreme they usually got their through moderation.

The new year - 2014 - is just over two weeks old and I’ve just started my training for the Boston Marathon in April. I have a feeling there will be a few more philosophical insights I’ll be learning as I grind out the miles over the coming months - but always in moderation of course! 

(The picture today is of people being the best they can be through moderation at the Cannes Semi-Marathon)