Paul’s aiming for a sub-3:00 marathon. It’s hard
I’ve been thinking about the will, that inner muscle that we exercise to a degree every time we pull on our running shoes, that we train when we do anything hard and that we test to the limit when we race.
Imagine the moment that comes at different points to every one of us: maybe halfway through a Parkrun – you’ve set off too fast, can you hold it? It could be 22 miles into a marathon – you felt fine half a mile back but now you’re having a serious wobble. Perhaps you’re 80km into a 100km ultra (I’m imagining this one) – its dark, you’ve gone beyond all rational metrics of fatigue and there’s a powerful urge to stop.
In all these cases you’re in a battle between two voices. One says, ‘ Dig deep! Keep pushing! You can find more!’ The other says, ‘Chill out. You’ve done really well. Ease up.’ It’s a moment of two tormenting truths. This is the race you’ve trained for, but you also have done really well so far. There is always more but you could slow down. I’ve been trying to work out which is the good voice and which is the bad. Which one should I listen to?
It’s clear to me that in recent years I’ve tended to pay more attention to the inner chill-out guru. You can give the impression you’re trying in a race – and in life – but deep down you know you’re not. You set up excuses, laying down get-out clauses that undermine whatever endeavour you’re engaged in. To put on my psychologist’s hat for a second, it’s probably linked to the dominant voices you heard when growing up. Did the encouragement come from a loving place or a harsh, cold, judgmental one? If you tend to associate striving with a lack of self-worth, then it can seem more attractive to ease up, as an act of rebellion or even selfpreservation. Who hasn’t felt the relief at the moment of surrender amid great struggle, the realisation that all things will eventually pass; that it’s all irrelevant in the grand scheme of things?
But when does this become a position of gentle despair? Because to try, to say that things do matter is to put yourself in a vulnerable position. This has all been put into sharper focus by my attempt this year to crack the three-hour marathon. For the first time I’m doing everything I can. I’m listening to the clear voice of sacrifice. So as well as exercise and running, I’m not boozing till after the marathon. This has involved resisting my inner booze hound. The best description I have heard of deciding not to drink or drink heavily on a particular occasion is ‘showing empathy to your future self’. So I’m running with that for a while. And life feels calmer.
I’ve realised also that the inner motivational voice doesn’t have to be tied to childhood associations of never being good enough; it can, instead, be liberating, an optimistic surge into an unknown future.
I’ll leave you with a vignette from a club track session the other week. It was a few weeks into my no-booze period and I was coming to the last 1,200m interval of a long session. Traditionally, I fade at the end – they are tough sessions and I’m usually nursing a slight hangover from the weekend. Better runners tend to breeze past me as my form disintegrates. This night, with 250m to go, I could see a shadow to my right, backlit by the floodlights, long strides eating up the distance. I almost laughed at the symbolism of it. Here I was, faced with a visual metaphor for my doubt and fear catching up on me. Did I surrender as usual? Slow down in relief? No.
I kicked into the last bend and then I kicked again. I listened to the voice that said, ‘There’s more.’ The shadow receded. For a moment there was more. It felt new; I felt free.