Thursday, August 31

Pain and suffering anyone?

After a workshop at Fleet Feet Boulder I collared former world marathon record-holder Steve Jones and asked him my burning question of the time: how did he handle the pain involved in running a world-record performance? I mean, what strategy does he have for red-lining and being able to keep going?

I was expecting some revolutionary secret tip. Instead, Jonesy looked at me as if I was a bit crazy and said, "Well, it's got to hurt!"

The problem is that when every race hurts, you rapidly lose your appetite for racing. Gabino has taught me a little bit of what it means to suffer like a Mexican in races. He's passing on what he had to go through to beat the first wave of Kenyan runners arriving in the US hungry for prize money. "The Kenyans will go out at 4:02 pace", he told me. "They are in pain from the first mile and they are dying until the end -- that's why you see the fast times".

But who can race like that all the time? Certainly not the elites like Jonesy, who picked his races very carefully; nor the Kenyans, who were usually burnt out quite quickly. So I don't believe any more that racing is always about huge amounts of suffering: it doesn't have to hurt -- unless you are going for a world record or doing whatever it takes to win. I agree with Ahmee's comment: "Yet, a PR isn't nearly enticing enough to forgo a beautiful marathon venue or to push through barely tolerable pain (there are limits to my masochism). "

Lately I've been experimenting with running some low-key races and keeping my effort on the easy side of my pain threshold. As a result, I am able to focus on staying relaxed and looking good! I can monitor my form, my cadence and my breathing, and talk-feel my way into an ideal rhythm. I like it! In a 5k at the weekend I took it easy; with a mile to go I was still relaxed and waiting to be caught by the guys behind me (I was in third), but then realised I was actually gaining on the runner in second place. I caught him and went straight past, feeling strong and fast. I didn't suffer at all. Amazing!

Meanwhile, back to marathon-bashing... and Ahmee's comments. No, you don't have to have gobbets of pain and suffering to be racing, but you do have to be pushing your limits in some way, surely? Otherwise, why race? Why make an exhibition of yourself in funny clothes on pubic roads for hours on end? In fact, the scenes of carnage at the end of the average marathon (and even half-marathon) are not to do with the fact that running 26.2 miles is hard, but because people don't prepare for them properly. For most of the people at the back end of the field, it will be the first time they have got anywhere near the distance. That is no way to train for anything, but I guess it helps them with the charade that it is some sort of unbelievable challenge.

Here's a guy who says it all better -- and more strongly -- than I can. The aptly named "The Rage" of has been ranting about John "The Penguin" Bingham, a man who seems to thnk that finishing a 5k (that's just three miles), let alone a marathon, at walking pace, is a Very Big Deal.

"The key problem I have with Bingham in the context of running is that I don't see him interested in testing the limits of what he as an individual can really physically do…what it's like for Joe Average to really explore the boundaries of his comfort zone once he has committed to put down the channel changer, the pack of smokes and strayed more than 20 feet from the fridge. He overdoes 'the courage to start' thing to an extreme, almost as if a little anaerobic breathing might scare someone right back onto the couch again. I wish he would do more to encourage people to push themselves to another level. I believe this is what the human spirit is all about...not about making excuses like " was not comfortable, so I quit…"

"The Rage" concludes: "If mediocrity is his thing, fine. He can still encourage his followers to finish a marathon. Just leave out the 'run' part and I'm OK. Just to set the record straight, I didn't run my last marathon, either. I walked part of it. Of the six I have completed, I have run four…but I am still proud of all six. And I also admired every one of the people in the race, too. Runners, walkers...and joggers."

* Read the full Rage on the The Penguin here.

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