I’m teaching myself to run a marathon. I’ve never run a marathon before, and this is not just any marathon – it’s a marathon after having swum 2.4 miles and ridden my bike for 8 hours. I am taking part in the Lakesman iron-distance triathlon this summer, something I’d never even considered six months ago. I have wanted to do a triathlon for a while – as someone who can swim and cycle it’s an obvious event in which to compete. But I am not a runner. For years I’ve been saying, “I’ll enter a triathlon this year,” but have never got round to it.
Then, as all ‘good’ ideas start, a pub conversation with a friend sowed the seed of the Ironman. This friend has taken part in triathlons before, and somehow he convinced me that I could do a half ironman without having had any prior Tri experience. So we agreed to both enter a half ironman. But the more I considered it, the more I decided that with all the training I would have to do to complete a half-ironman, I might as well go for the whole thing. It’s a skewed logic perhaps, but long distance appeals. And I’m a bit of a sucker for labels: why would I put ‘half ironman’ on my CV when I could put ‘Ironman’?
So, here I am, two and a half months into my training: bike, swim, run. I am a member of a swim club and I train with them twice a week. I ride my bike every day and I ride long distance as much as I can. I do half an hour strength training each weekday, and I rest on the weekend. All this I find easy.
Then there’s the running.
Before the start of this year, I had never run any distance, ever. I used to run the 1500 metres when I was at school, but I was terrible at it. I would often be on the verge of hyperventilation after the 3 3/4 laps that the distance requires. I think they chose me because no one else would do it.
My training started on January 4th with a 10.5 mile run. Straight off, just like that. I don’t know why I decided to jump straight in at the deep end, but I think part of me wanted to see what I was capable of. I took it really slow. It hurt, a lot: after three or so miles the tops of my quads and my hips were in significant pain. But I kept going, and though I walked a large portion of it, I finished it. It took me two hours and by the end I was in agony – I was unable to walk normally for three days. But it served its purpose – I knew, if I could run 10 miles having never run before, I could do a marathon.
So, I started training, properly, building up the distance, starting at 3.5 miles, and increasing incrementally. The pain in my upper quads returned on the first few runs but soon disappeared completely. I started having knee pain once I’d reached 5+ miles (one night so bad that it kept me awake) but, with a knee support and some strategic resting, that too eased. I invested in some proper running trainers which support my ankles and cushion my tread, and I haven’t felt pain since. The distances steadily increased and now I’m up to 12 miles, and going strong (well, I’m totally exhausted by the end of the 12 miles but at least I am physically able to walk afterwards).
I always resisted running because I thought cycling was so much of a better thing. I am a cyclist – I don’t even like walking that much. Running hurts, there is no resting, it’s slow and it’s boring. But much to my surprise and pleasure, once I’d started running, I found none of these things to be true. I really enjoy my running sessions. I didn’t take long to become run-fit, and for it to stop hurting. Sure, there is no freewheeling with running, but if I’m tired I can reduce my pace or simply walk for a while. Yes, it is slower than cycling, but it isn’t supposed to be fast. And it certainly is not boring. Running has allowed me to discover the world at a new pace, and I like it.
I don’t wear an ipod when I run – instead of listening to music I listen to my body, the breaths, the feet, the rhythm of the stride. The one occasion in which I did listen to music, I found it incredibly distracting, and I didn’t feel comfortable with my run. It’s like long-distance cycling: music is an escape, a blocking-out of your current situation. When I’m touring this is the last thing I want – I want to be in the moment, noticing my surroundings, accompanied by the soundtrack of whichever road I am riding. In all my touring, I find my iPod stays in the bottom of my bag, unused, even though part of my preparation in the last few days before departure is preparing a good playlist to pump me up and encourage me and keep me going when it gets tough. When on the road I find I don’t need it. The sounds of the ride, of nature, and the thoughts in my head keep me occupied.
So it is with running. As I run, I tune in to my body. I notice what’s going on around me. I look at the ground beneath my feet and I look up to the sky. I hear birdlife and traffic. My thoughts wander and I am content.
More than ever, I have to be in the present. It’s taken many miles of cycle touring to learn that I shouldn’t worry about what’s around the corner, or count down the miles to the next town, (things I am still learning). With running I think I am learning this more quickly. Because running is a little more relentless and higher impact on the body, the minute I start thinking about how much there is to go, it’s over. If I start wishing desperately for the end, or for a rest, or torture myself about how hard the next mile and the one after that are going to be, the run becomes impossibly hard.
A significant lesson in this is that physical strength alone is not enough; I must also be mentally strong. I have to consciously avoid thinking about how much distance there is to go, or how much I have already done. I think only about the step I’m taking at that moment. Everything is absolutely in the present. I concentrate on my body – how am I feeling? How are my legs feeling? How are my muscles? How is my breathing? I concentrate on my posture: head up, shoulders back, upright, core muscles tight, no bouncing. It doesn’t matter how I might feel after two more miles – what matters is how I feel now. And as long as I am still putting one foot in front of the next, I am doing OK. I don’t think about how much more I might be able to take. As long as I am taking it at that very moment, I am doing fine. Even at my most tired, as soon as I stop projecting and start thinking about the here and now, I feel better. I try to avoid thinking about distances or halfways or miles. Halfway is a fact, and miles are a fact, that’s all. What matters is how you’re feeling. Each stride will lead to the next, and will add up to be the number of strides I need to finish. And that is all I need to know.
Any Ironman is a culmination of months of training. Mine is going to be in the Lake District – a beautiful part of the world that I’m really excited about running/cycling/swimming in. But I can’t just look forward to that day – more than ever, I have to make the journey there count. Wouldn’t it be awful if my six months of training were just a miserable blur of struggle for the sake of a one day event? What if it rains on that day, or I become injured, or I don’t reach the time targets required to continue? What a misuse of my time and effort that would be! It’s a lesson I’ve struggled to learn in the past – in all my long journeys, it’s so easy to focus purely on the destination and forget that the journey there is a major part of it. It’s not just the achievement of reaching your end goal – it’s all the miles that lead to that point. I am guilty of having spent miles in the saddle staring at the tarmac ahead of my front wheel just to get it over with. It’s a tough lesson to learn, one that I still struggle with, but now that I’m running, I’m getting better at it with each step.