Belief vs Ability?

How much of what we are able to achieve is down to our physical ability and how much our self-belief? Is there actually a cross-over between the two?

Positive mental attitude is a very powerful tool in life generally, but especially in running. Having the confidence that you are able to pull of your goal when you lace up is surely a large part of getting you there. Without it you would fold at the first sign of adversity.

Two years ago, as part of the training for my first ultra, my good buddy Bear devised a simple sticker chart which detailed twelve of Bath’s hills on it. At lunchtimes we would tackle one hill at a time, often struggling up it before collecting our sticker like a small child who’s finished their broccoli.

At the time running the hills was new. We were building up to them, but with many of them being around a mile in length they were never an easy run. However, slowly and surely as our fitness improved and our confidence grew we ticked off each of the hills. Partly because we were fitter, but also because we believed we could. We’d done one, we could do the next one.

When you stand on the start line of a race, be it a 5K or a marathon, if you have run that distance before then you already have the knowledge and confidence that you can complete it. It then all comes down to how your training has gone and how hard you want to push yourself to run the time you want.

It is a meld of belief and ability that will get you to the finish line. But how much of each is important? Can a positive “can do” attitude get you to the finish even if your training hasn’t been up to scratch and you haven’t done the miles? I think so. As long as you’re not completely deluded.

Last year I spoke to Carl Zalek, who after reading about the hills on our sticker sheet in my book, said he was interested in running them – only he wanted to run them all at once. Bonkers I thought – how can that be possible? But sure enough he went out and ran all twelve in one run, racking up some 28 miles while doing so. It was amazing running, but it was also proof that it could be done.

So as part of my training for my next ultra, which has *ahem* a few hills, it seemed like a good idea to go out and take on the big twelve myself. I’ve been doing more miles as part of my training, but not a ridiculous amount of hill climbing.

To match the challenge of how we did each single hill, the route had to always return to the same starting point, close to my office, where we would set out on our lunchtime runs. This meant that as well as the 4400ft of hills we also had to factor in the distance, some 26.something miles.

The interesting thing is that while my current fitness is pretty good, I don’t feel it is much more than it was this time a couple of years ago when one or two hills were a big ask. So going into this challenge it was belief; confidence; mental strength even that would get me through as much as my fitness.

To cap it off, the past two weekends I had already spent running long distances. The previous week I had run the 42 miles of Country to Capital, and the week before that 33 miles through the night leading into my local parkrun. Whilst my physical fitness may have been reasonable, I certainly had plenty of miles in my legs. Belief today was indeed key.

I ran the dozen peaks today and whilst it wasn’t exactly the Bob Graham Round or a tour of the Brecons, it was definitely a morning of climbing to remember. It was a tough run at times, but there was never a time when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to finish, despite my previous lack of climbing. I started with a positive mental attitude and that belief that I could complete all twelve kept me going all the way up to the top of the last climb. Something fitness alone I don’t think would have got me through. Positive thinking kids.

How much do you think belief and ability go hand in hand?

Running Away To London (Town)

Is Chalfont and Latimer station located in Siberia? That’s one question I asked myself as we sat there with the doors open for what seemed like an unnecessary length of time with nobody getting on or off. I didn’t have a thermometer to hand but I’ll bet it was somewhere around -20°C, I don’t care what the BBC weather app said.

Is Chalfont and Latimer even a real place was another question I had. I mean it seemed like we’d been on this train forever and getting nowhere fast. When I say we, I of course mean my fellow running companion, Mr Bear and I, who were on our way to Stoke Mandeville station en-route to our hotel for the night.

The hotel (a recommendation from other runners) looked – on a map – to be a very short walk from the station. That was bullshit too. Google Maps tells lies. It also didn’t bother to inform us that the only way to walk there was down the darkest road in the world, even passing World’s End Lane on the way – an omen if ever there was one. After a day in the office followed by two hours on public transport the evening was already wearing thin.

It was Friday 16th January and Bear and I had travelled up from Bath to somewhere north of London to enable us to do nothing simpler than run all the way back to London. It wasn’t a random location for the start of a run, although that argument could hold water, this was for Country to Capital, a 42.5 mile ultramarathon that takes runners from Wendover to Paddington.

Organised by Go Beyond Ultra, I’d heard good things about the race, in particular the cake. I like cake, and I like fruitcake even more, so what better way to spend a Saturday in January plodding my way back to London eating lots of it.

After checking into our hotel we made our way up to the nice little room and ditched our bags ready for a quick break before heading back down to the bar for some food.

“Look, there’s a letter here addressed to you”, said Bear. I looked. He wasn’t lying. Sure enough, on the desk was a letter that had been posted to the hotel yet addressed to me. I was a little bit scared.

Even worse, as I gingerly opened it, inside was another envelope with my name handwritten on it and a magic wand with a twinkly star drawn next to it, sealed with a wax stamp. This had now gone past odd and was veering into creepy territory.

Here we were in a small hotel, in the middle of nowhere – past the end of the world – that somebody else had recommended and there was a letter for me.

It was all a bit Hammer House of Horror. I wondered if I opened the envelope if a finger might fall out or the lights go out and a floating pig appear at the window. I actually began to shake.

Bear and I looked at each other giggling in fear but desperate to know what lay inside the handwritten A5 envelope.

I opened it up and slid out a letter, a postcard and another envelope. My mind was whizzing with possibilities and Bear stood behind me at enough of a distance so as to not get hit with the Anthrax as I pulled open the final envelope.

I slowly unfolded the letter and read the note inside. It was one of those moments when you don’t fully take in what is in front of you. I had to read it about three times before I properly understood it.

There was no finger, there was no deadly poison. What there was however was a note from Danielle at I don’t personally know anybody called Danielle, but this particular one worked in the Magic Making Department and had written to me to thank me for booking through them and by way of a thank you had sent me a £100 voucher for Up & Running, just in case I ran low of anything.

Now I’m a cynical old fool and know that nobody ever really does anything for nothing. But despite the fact that I know obviously carry out this kind of thing to generate good publicity as much as a warm feeling of loyalty among their customers, it was clearly something that some thought and effort had gone into. Fair play I say to them, because once I’d gotten over the shock of it all and realised it wasn’t actually sinister, it made me smile.

I of course completely fulfil their unwritten remit by even writing about it here, but do you know what I think they deserve it. Take note other booking services.

Nerves settled, Bear and I made our way down the the restaurant for our seemingly obligatory pre-race steak and chips. Very nice it was too. Whilst in the bar we also met up with fellow ultra runners, and the very people who put me onto the hotel in the first place, Phil Hall and Simon Welch.

Over our steak and chips we chatted about the upcoming race as well as others, including the South Downs Way 100 we are also all running in June.

Dinner sorted we headed back up to our room to grab an early night ready for the run in the morning. It had been an exciting night for two little boys away from home. Tomorrow we were going to London.

After a fairly good night’s sleep we got up, waited around a bit for the breakfast to be delivered to our room, realised it wasn’t going to be, so got dressed and ready to head down and out.

As I was pulling on my tights and thermal top I spotted a framed poem on the wall that I hadn’t seen in all the excitement the night before. It was a copy of If by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a poem I knew a little of but not all. I stood there momentarily and skimmed over it, until I came to the last section. Unless there was a poem written about running along a bland industrial canal almost being attacked by swans there couldn’t have been a more apt thought for the day.

I smiled at the relevance of it. We were certainly going to be running for more than sixty seconds, I was looking forward to becoming a Man. With a capital M.

After getting a taxi to Wendover where the race started (by a taxi driver who didn’t seem to know where Wendover was), we registered in the pub and collected our race numbers.

Heading back outside into the car park there were hundreds of people milling about deciding quite how warm or cold it was going to be that day. The outlook was for heavy snow, but as I looked up into the clear sky and saw the low winter sun rising it seemed that yet again the forecast was complete bullshit.

Looking around I bumped into James Adams, Andrew Cooney and Susie Chan, all runners whom I follow and talk to on Twitter. As with the guys the night before it’s always nice to be able to put real live faces to digital names.

We had a bit of a natter and before we knew it it was time for the off. Three-hundred or so runners blasted out of the car park of the Shoulder of Mutton heading towards one small kissing gate at the bottom of the high street. Bear and I ambled down at the back, not really bothered about getting there first. It was going to be a long day and we weren’t really in that much of a hurry.

The first “half” of the race took place running through the scenic Chiltern Hills, which to be honest I always thought were around Malvern. Just shows how much use a Geography ‘O’ Level is in real life. But hey – stay in school kids.

It was a mix of woodland trail path and little villages, which slowly passed by as we ran. The first half an hour or so was very pleasant, like a jog in the countryside. Then the weather changed. The forecast wasn’t bullshit after all. The snow came, and came it did with a vengeance.

Within a span of a few short minutes we went from no snow to near blizzard conditions. The snowflakes were huge too. It was like somebody had left the washing machine on and the bubbles had filled their house and escaped out of the chimney before falling back to Earth (I didn’t study science at school).

We ran on for sometime with the snow coming down, but then almost as abruptly as it arrived, it stopped and vanished again. By the time we reached the second checkpoint the sun was out and it was warming up. We ditched our jackets and donned our shades.

Miles passed and as we made our way over the M25 we had a sense of coming closer to the big city. The route was still winding even after reaching the Grand Union Canal. You might think that canals are long and straight beasts, but that is a complete fallacy. Lucky really otherwise it would have been even more boring than it was.

To be fair it wasn’t a completely dull route, and the benefits of following the canal meant it was very difficult to get lost, unless you found yourself swimming. I guess it’s just the flat repetitive nature of it that make it slightly less interesting to run on than through a wooded trail. Still, being flat meant for a much better pace.

Earlier in the week Bear and I had decided that we would look at running something around the nine to ten hour mark. This was based on nothing short of guesswork. We felt in reasonable shape, but not in any kind of position to be knocking out a prize-winning performance.

For me it was more of a training run anyway (how bonkers does that even sound – when 42 miles has become a training run?) for the upcoming 77 mile TransGrancanaria I’m running at the start of March. For me it was all about seeing how my fitness was and how I felt afterwards. Being able to get up the next day and keep running, day after day. If I couldn’t run well on a fairly flat course like this then the 28,000ft I’m going to be climbing in Gran Canaria was going to be even more of a worry than it already was.

Ticking off checkpoints as we ran down the canal, we hit the one turning point onto the Paddington spur of the canal, took a left and carried on towards the endpoint. This section of canal was even more run down in places and the mud was so thick it was like being back in the woods.

Unlike squirrels and mice running around however the only wildlife we had to endure were several groups of drunks and a national conference of swans. Now I’m an animal lover, but as I ran through the bevy of swans all I could think about was how they are supposed to be able to break a man’s arm. Ready for any attack, I ran through with fists clenched ready to punch any swan in the head that thought they were a bit tasty. As luck would have it – for me and them – none of them moved.

We ran through checkpoint four and then five (obviously stopping to register) and with just six miles left we picked up our pace and headed for the bright lights of Paddington. Without knowing quite how far it was (the official distances varied) we took up the approach of running a mile quickly (I say quickly – about 9 minute pace) before walking briskly for a minute as the mile clocked over.

Much to our surprise our pace for the day had been much quicker than we had anticipated. We were not on for a ten hour time, nor a nine. With some quick super maths on behalf of the Bear we realised we could be on for a sub eight hour time. That wasn’t something we even thought possible, let alone factored for.

With the distance left ticking down quickly we soon found ourselves running through blocks of flats towards the finish. People lined the canal and stood on bridges cheering us on. The miles climbed with the time. Eight hours slowly came and with the finish not quite in sight we knew we wouldn’t quite make it. But given it was a goal we never had in the first place, it didn’t really matter.

As we came around the final corner we saw the banner across the bridge and the bright lights of the finish. We crossed the line in 08:03:45. What a result. I was so excited I even forgot to stop my watch for another minute.

Country to Capital done. 42.5 miles completed in a much faster time than we ever thought possible. Overall very pleased with that. We expected something so much slower. We could have run faster had we put our mind to it and I think certainly gotten in under eight hours if we really had that as a target. Another time maybe.

A great race and an ideal one as your first ultra if you fancy stepping up the distance past a marathon and want something a little different. Just go dressed for the weather, and don’t get off at Chalfont and Latimer. No such place exists.

Elapsed Time Moving Time Distance Average Speed Max Speed Elevation Gain
08:04:33 07:22:37 42.53 5.27 14.54 1,901.90
hours hours mi. mph mph ft.

The Night We Went To The Seaside

Sometimes when you read things they pass through your head like custard through a sieve. Other times snippets stick- ideas, things that inspire you or make you think of the world differently.

A few years ago I read Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes and loved how the book opened with Karnazes running through the Napa Valley in California at midnight. It seemed like a bonkers idea, running right through the night, I mean who does that? Well Dean obviously, but it wasn’t something that I’d ever thought of doing. It isn’t normal – is it?

But clearly it was an idea that became lodged somewhere in my normally woolly and busy head. Placed somewhere accessible enough for me to think it was a good idea and quite normal. That’s how I found myself stood outside the Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare after midnight on a Friday night, almost twenty-six miles away from home with no way back other than on foot.

This wasn’t by accident though, it was all part of a grand plan of long-distance night training for events that I have coming up, races that I wouldn’t even have contemplated doing were it not for Karnazes in the first place.

This was why as I sat in my front room waiting to get ready to go out for a very different Friday night than I would have maybe once had I posted a tweet of my plans.

As well as the usual sharing my plans with the world kind of purpose I also posted the tweet because I knew by doing so it would force my hand and mean I couldn’t back out of my night of fun.

Not that I planned to, but the weather outside was literally blowing a gale and the rain was battering the front of the house. The idea of heading out and spending most the night running didn’t seem quite as appealing as it would were I in California.

I wasn’t running this alone however, I had somehow managed to enlist my good running buddy and old school friend Paul Wootten to join me, perhaps rightly so given that I had also managed to persuade him to sign up to the same races as me (much to the annoyance of his wife).

After posting my tweet though I was also contacted by fellow Bitton Road Runner and dedicated ultrarunner Brian Robb who thought – at half nine at night – that it sounded like fun. We were now a trio.

An hour later the three of us met up and ran the five miles down to Bristol Temple Meads station to start our night. As we ran along the River Avon heading into town, to looks of confusion from ducks and dog-walkers alike, our spirits were high for our night of adventure despite the seriously adverse weather. We were out now, there was no going back – especially after Dean Karnazes himself responded to my tweet.

After almost missing our train from Bristol to the coast (due to a last minute platform change not our ineptitude at reading screens), dodging drunks and a relatively short rail journey we found ourselves at the seaside. At night. In winter.

But just as the old saying goes, fortune favours the brave. Whether we were brave or simply foolish we had yet to learn, but by braving one of the worst storms for some time we found that the weather in Weston-super-Mare was actually dry and warm. Far from the gusty monsoon we had left behind in Bristol. Result.

One of the other things I remember vividly from Karnazes’ book were his night tales of eating pizza on the run. Sounded great. The trouble is, you try standing around in a takeaway in Weston-super-Mare after midnight on a Friday, wearing tights and a running backpack. It certainly doesn’t take long to get into a conversation with other ‘more jolly’ folk. Just not one you want to be having. Pizza plan shelved.

Once we got running, it became pretty apparent we were all overdressed for the warmer weather and we had to stop more than once to strip down to fewer layers, to looks of even more confusion from passing drunks and police cars alike.

As we headed away from civilisation, following the A370 towards the distant orange glow of Bristol, both mine and Brian’s torches were eclipsed by the car headlight Paul seemed to have strapped to his head, which if nothing else allowed us to pass the time with a shadow puppet show as we ran.

Running through the night is very different to taking on the same course during daylight hours. For one, you can’t really see where you’re going past the narrow beam shining out of your head, and for two it is deathly quiet.

Stopping as we did on random bus stops for a midnight feast of Jaffa Cakes and chicken slices it was somewhat eerie. There were no buses, no people and mostly no noise bar the odd owl. It was as if everyone else had simply vanished. Creepy.

To move further into Hammer House of Horror territory after running out of water Brian suggested we look for a churchyard, not to seek holy salvation, but to find a tap. Apparently most churchyards have outside taps to enable flowers to be watered. Who knew?

Sure enough, after wandering between graves somewhere around Backwell at 3:30AM, we came across a tap and refilled our bottles. Everyday is a school day.

By this time we had been up for approaching twenty hours and had ran even more miles. We were starting to get tired, yet still had a good eight more to go. The novelty of the night had long worn off and I was pretty much ready for bed. I also had a desperate hankering for a can of Coke, but with a long three or four miles to go until we hit Bristol and any chance at all of somewhere being open it was something that at least occupied my mind for a while.

As we reached the top of the Long Ashton bypass and the bright lights of Bristol the bad weather switched back on and and we slowly ran head first into the wind and rain in search of super sugary pop. Running past Ashton Gate stadium we plodded on down towards Bedminster all but ready to curl up and sleep.

After so many miles of dark country roads and increasingly heavy eyelids we were pretty much ready to stop. But with five miles still to go we didn’t have a choice – that was until we reached a 24 hour Asda and we were blessed by a whole empty superstore of choice. Including Coke. By that point though I was past caring. I bought the Coke, but didn’t really want it any more. The only thing that was going through my head (other than “I need to sleep”) was who is doing a weekly shop at 04:30?

We sat in Asda for a short while, preparing ourselves for the last five miles home, to more looks of confusion, coupled with suspicion, from the security guard on the front door. You know he really wanted to ask why did we all have torches on our heads, but probably couldn’t leave his post.

Putting Asda behind us we plodded off again along the Feeder Canal heading home. It was a slow plod at best, but after having already run twenty-eight miles the last couple were pretty irrelevant. We knew we were going to do them even if it was slower than walking (pretty accurate).

I walked in my front door at just after 05:20 after leaving the house the day before and having run some thirty miles. It was fair to say I was tired, but I didn’t have long to sleep, as I was planning to get to Pomphrey Hill parkrun to add another three miles to the day’s tally. Yeah it sounded a bit crazy, but then again I’d just run thirty miles through the night – how much more crazy can it get.

After two hours sleep, I got up, drove over to Pomphrey Hill and ran a further 5K at my local parkrun. It was a slow plod, but it fulfilled my crazy idea of running through the night. It also gave me the opportunity to destroy a bacon roll as I waited for the rest of the finishers.

It strikes me that sometimes wacky ideas are the best ones. They are the ones that you will remember the most. They are the ones that change the way you see things, how you change your perception of your own capabilities. Sometimes you read something and that something sparks an idea that plants a seed. Who knows when that seed will take root and grow into something that takes you somewhere. This time that seed took me to Weston-super-Mare. In January. At midnight. The only trouble is the tide was out and the pier was closed. I guess I’ll just have to go back another day.

What wacky ideas do you have?

Here’s the geek data for those interested.

Down to Temple Meads – #runstreak 119

Elapsed Time Moving Time Distance Average Speed Max Speed Elevation Gain
00:43:53 00:41:30 4.59 6.64 12.30 353.35
hours hours mi. mph mph ft.

Back to Bristol – #runstreak 120/1

Elapsed Time Moving Time Distance Average Speed Max Speed Elevation Gain
05:10:12 04:36:50 25.70 5.57 9.62 1,634.19
hours hours mi. mph mph ft.

Pomphrey Hill parkrun – #runstreak 120/2

Elapsed Time Moving Time Distance Average Speed Max Speed Elevation Gain
00:29:38 00:29:38 3.09 6.26 10.96 314.96
hours hours mi. mph mph ft.

The Alphabet Game

One of the things people who don’t run often ask is, what do you think about when you’re running long distances?

It depends who I run with and what we’re talking about, but even when you run with the best of friends for hours at a time there are periods when silence is just what you need and you simply entertain yourself in your own head.

Most of the time I tend to look around and take in the scenery, but occasionally there are runs when all you need to do is get your head down and just get on with it, then it becomes a game of distraction – keeping yourself mentally occupied as the miles tick by.

As a parent to young children distraction techniques aren’t anything new to me. Whenever we need to entertain the kids (keep them quiet) while waiting for something, such as in a restaurant waiting for food we play games. One of our recent popular games is the alphabet game, where we roll through the A to Z naming things on a chosen topic.

This explains why during a long run this morning I spent at least fifteen minutes racking my brain trying to think of a country beginning with the letter O.

You see this morning was no ordinary run. It was one that needed a touch more distraction than normal, as I was running one-hundred laps around a running track. Not as a race, just for fun. Yes, I said one-hundred laps. I also said fun.

Back in September, the day after my forty-fifth birthday, I started on a runstreak – running at least 5K everyday. This isn’t a new or a revolutionary idea and there are runners who have been doing it much longer than me, most notably Ron Hill who celebrated fifty years of running every single day at Heaton parkrun on Saturday 20th December this year.

I’m nowhere near that advanced in terms of days, but today, Sunday 21st December, was day one-hundred for me and that was why I wanted to celebrate with something different. Hence my idea to run one-hundred laps of a running track – it’s all about the numbers you see.

One-hundred laps of lane one of a standard 400m running tracking equates to just a touch over twenty-five miles. Not a real problem in terms of distance as I’m upping my mileage right now, but given the time it would take I decided that I wanted to start early to make sure it didn’t eat too much into the day.

One problem with that idea though is that Sunday 21st December is also the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year, so starting at 06:00 meant I would be starting – and running for some time – in the dark.

I am lucky enough to have a great running track five minutes down the road from my house and even luckier still that the guys from Bristol & West AC who use it were kind enough to lend me a set of keys to let myself in and run at such a stupid hour on a Sunday morning. My luck however didn’t extend far enough to getting use the floodlights. No problem, headtorches until dawn it was.

I wasn’t going to run this alone as I had persuaded my old schoolmate running buddy Paul to join me, rightly so really given we are training for the same mental list of ultramarathons in 2015.

Our plan was to install a camping table at the start line, loaded with flasks of coffee and Christmas cake, then run reps of twenty laps before stopping for a quick refuel and going again. Simple. The best plans always are.

Twenty laps works out to about five miles in distance, which in the realms of breaking big problems down into smaller manageable chunks worked well. We weren’t planning on running it fast and it was never about the time, it was purely about the laps.

So at 06:15 we set off on our first chunk of twenty, heads down into the wind and sideways rain. Chatting away we ticked off the first set round and before we knew it we were stopping for our first fruitcake-based breakfast. Yummy.

As we kept running we ran lap after lap conversation continuing, covering all manner of topics from letting young kids go to the shops on their own to what we were having for Christmas dinner (lamb). The sun came up but the rain didn’t abate. Thank heavens really for my Ron Hill Tempest trail jacket. Quite simply one of the best bits of running kit I own.

The hours ticked by and as the lap count got up in the low seventies the conversation went quiet as we worked our way towards the next cake stop. This is when I started playing the alphabet game in my head – countries.

Algeria; Belgium; China; Denmark, went the thinking, flying off multiple countries per lap, but then I got to the letter O and my brain froze. The thing with running, as I’m sure you’ll be aware if you have ever tried to work out your splits as you run, is that your brain loses the ability of clear thought.

I honestly can’t tell you how many laps I ran around that track trying to think of a country beginning with the letter O. It was certainly a lot. Much like a goldfish swimming around a bowl, every lap I seemed to come up with the same ideas. For some reason the only word I could think of that began with O was Orangutan. Pretty certain that’s not a country.

The thing was though, the game did it’s job. Despite my inability to recall international geography the laps were building up nicely and we were getting closer to the magical one-hundred required.

As we set off on our final set of twenty laps without any real trouble, I began to think about how I have now been running for the last one-hundred days straight. Over that time I have found that despite my initial concern about getting too tired or getting injured I have in fact found myself getting fitter and stronger each week.

As the days have counted up, and with the use of Strava, I’ve seen my mileage go up and my times go down. I don’t treat everyday as a hilly, hard or challenging run. Some days they are just a simple jog. As long as it covers the required 5K I’m happy.

Today I covered a lot more than the basic distance I needed to tick the day off my runstreak calendar, and it could be said that variety of course is the spice of life.

We finished our one-hundred laps in just under four hours, by which time it had got light, we had eaten lots of cake, but it still hadn’t stopped raining. Not that it really mattered.

As Bear reminded me a few days ago, there was a time when running twenty-five miles around a 400m running track seemed like a bloody stupid idea. How times have changed. I actually really enjoyed it today. Runstreak day one-hundred done.

Oh, and it was Oman. The country I needed was Oman. But what about the letter X?