Besides the usual bank statements and junk mail, don’t you just love getting something in the post?
This week my race number for Manchester Marathon arrived! After various setbacks, it brought excitement, nerves, and reality. But a few weeks earlier, the response could easily have been different, and I could have torn the thing in half.
This inspired a blog post about overcoming the setbacks that training for a marathon – or pursuing pretty much any goal in life – inevitably brings.
Let’s go back to the start. Something sparks inside and you’re set on a goal. You (hopefully) form a plan, do your homework and start taking the steps required. Then BANG! Hello setback.
If you don’t get any setbacks, then you’ve either been lucky, or the goal was too achievable to begin with. That’s not to say you haven’t achieved anything but I firmly believe that the most rewarding and meaningful goals are those that throw you in the deep end and teach you to swim.
With ongoing writing and speaking commitments (and a mum on her fourth batch of kittens) I was on house arrest for a while. But I needed something to satisfy the need for physical challenge and so running a sub-three hour marathon fitted the bill. Most runners will relate to sub-three being the magic number; a benchmark that holds prestige and aura amongst the running community. It’s the runners equivalent of an Aston Martin, or a Michelin star for a chef. Marathons are hard regardless of how fast you go, but I’ve always liked suffering meaningfully; raising my own threshold. Statistically, less than 2% of marathoners run under three hours… and I’d soon find out why.
Starting late into a sixteen-week plan was sort of asking for trouble, but with a decent mileage base it wasn’t unrealistic… until week two of the training plan I felt a twang during mile repeats and came home with Achilles tendonitis. This tendon is notoriously difficult to heal.
Tip 1 – React quickly
I went straight to see my physio who I know and trust. There is normally an opportunity to reduce the damage by arming yourself with the best possible knowledge, so you’re acting on the facts rather than uncertainty. With non-physical goals this could be simply speaking to an expert or someone with experience in the area you’re struggling with. I had to return to cycling for a bit and lost nearly two weeks quality training. But had I continued running, it would only deteriorate until I couldn’t run at all.
Tip 2 – Take it one day/step at a time
It would be easy to panic about what’s going to happen in three weeks or three months. The fact is we worry about things that mostly never happen. Stop! In the first week of the plan I was goosed after fifteen steady miles. How am I going to run faster than that, for another eleven miles? Then I ran twenty at the same pace, including ten miles at race pace, and felt great. Break it down into small steps and compare yourself only to where you used to be.
Managed another two weeks before knee pain appeared. What now? With a few days forced rest I returned pain-free only to feel another twang on the outside of the knee. I hobbled home, diagnosing this as some sort of horrific injury that might put me out for six months. Actually, I had IT Band syndrome. No, it’s not a cool seventies Pop group, but a very sore condition caused by the illotibial band (thick tissue from your hips to your knee). Instead of worrying when I’d run next, I focused on the days until my physio appointment, and didn’t look any further ahead. Within two days I was running again.
Tip 3 – Make a Plan B
I enjoyed a week of careful and consistent training. Happy days! Then I was side-lined by another bout of tendonitis, now in the bursa of my foot. This got worse until I had to stop running again. Time was ticking, I was behind in training and the sub-three goal now felt unachievable, so I started looking for other marathons in May. Though I didn’t sign up to anything. Then you are almost giving yourself a reason to give up. But it’s useful to have another option to ease some of the pressure of uncertainty, and as a last resort if you really had no other option (i.e. breaking your leg).
For example, last Sunday should have been the Wilmslow Half Marathon, a vital session in my training plan to gauge fitness, but it was cancelled due to the weather/good old health and safety. Defiantly northern, I went out for twenty miles and entered the Liverpool Half marathon for the following weekend. Problem solved.
Tip 4 – Focus on the positives
This is a hard one but the truth is so much in life is out of our control. There’s no point fretting about how life is unfair. Ask instead: “what will this teach me?”. My injuries gave me the chance to recover from arduous long runs. And they also gave me time, to rehearse for talks, write my book, reply to emails, and make phone calls. You need to factor in more than just the run itself – I seem to spend the same time stretching, foam-rolling muscles, eating, lying comatose on my bed, and trying to choose which of my awful mid-run selfies to post on Instagram. When running six days a week it soon adds up.
Most of all, these setbacks helped address weaknesses that I could work on and ultimately become a better, wiser athlete in the long run (…literally). Treat everything as a learning opportunity. For example, I learnt that having a sports massage on your IT band is technically a method of torture. Also, that energy gels are horrendous – I’ll spare you the details on that.
Tip 5 – Stay motivated
I already loved competitive running, so motivating myself was fairly easy with the end goal in mind. But if you become focused on a particular result and the goalposts are suddenly shifted, it can be hard to find the reason to keep motivating yourself. This is when tip #3 comes in handy and we have to tweak the end goal so we know what success looks like – I decided finishing in 2:59:59 would do. My marathon PB is currently 3:23 so anything faster is still an improvement. Albeit, that was a solo training run last Easter Sunday to earn more chocolate, rather than a race, so setting that as my main goal would probably lead to under-performance.
When things get repetitive it’s time to shake it up and try something different, like a new route, or in my case bringing the iPod along. Recently I’ve loved the Your Speaking Career podcast by Debra Searle, so I can hopefully become a better speaker whilst becoming a better runner.
Adapt and overcome…
It’s less than two weeks to Manchester Marathon so I’m not out of the woods yet. But as the mileage decreases, hopefully there should be no more ‘taper tantrums’, as my physio Jane calls them. Looking back, I probably did too much mileage, too soon. Luckily, my age has helped me get away with it. I’m just hoping Nurofen will sponsor me next time round. Hopefully on race day, all the pieces will come together. Any worthwhile goal has an element of risk and that’s what makes the achievement so rewarding.
Being totally honest, the last two weeks have brought an entirely different setback to deal with. I’ve had a minor relapse of depression and my eating disorder, despite making apparent progress. I’m just about on my feet again, but that’s one for my next blog post…
Life often throws curve balls but if we give up on ourselves, others will give up on us too. Keep going!
Glyn Morris says
Very useful post, Alex. I would advise all readers to take a moment to think of when they could have benefitted from putting them into practice.
Thanks for the tips.
Thanks Glyn for taking the time to read. Really do hope that anyone, runners or not, can apply them in the every day challenges we face. Using the old analogy that life is a marathon, not a sprint 🙂
Keep going Alex, you’re doing amazingly. You’re right, these things are there to test us. I have already been set back by injury on numerous occasions in the last 6 months and have barely been out on my bike or in the water, yet I still managed to complete the Harlech Sprint Triathlon last week in a reasonable time (for me). That’s the first one of the season out of the way so psychologically a big boost. Now to focus on the remaining five and the half marathon I have programmed in… 😮
Good luck in Manchester. I’m sure you’ll give it your best which is all you can ask yourself for xx
Thanks Tabitha! Appreciate the encouragement. Like you say, there’s always a way to get round (literally) despite the setbacks and a good event result is often all we need for the boost. Good luck with your upcoming events… I could swim only to save my life, so rather you than me :o)