Tuesday, 13 March 2012

5 things I've learned from running a half marathon...

I'm feeling quite good at the moment - well in fact I'm feeling pretty damn awesome.  On Sunday I ran the Bath Half Marathon in a time of 1 hour, 44 minutes and 36 seconds - beating my previous time by over 8 minutes from way back in 2007 (i.e. the time before the booze and bad food really took hold, and definitely before I had a 9-5 office job to sit around not exercising all day).  How did I achieve this?  Simple - practice, I trained and changed a few things about my lifestyle... and I did one thing that was inconceivable to me just a year or so ago - I joined a gym!  This experience has also taught me/reminded me of a few things that I'd like to share for the benefit of those doubters - the people who probably scoffed when they read that it took practice or those who want to do something themselves but are too scared or not motivated enough to:

1. Not all people who go to a gym is a steroid taking, body-building Arnold Schwarzenegger wannabe's who want to embarrass you

Well there are some steroid/supplement users, there is the odd body builder and I'm sure some of them would dream of being Mr Universe but they are far from the norm (at least in the gym I attend so if you're at one and there are so many that you feel uncomfortable shop around!) and even those who are are pretty polite and friendly or just stick to themselves, they are their for their own goals, not to embarrass you. 

In actual fact I've found the gym a vast mix of people, from those training towards specific events (like myself), those who like to keep fit/want to stay in shape, those who want to lose weight, and those who want to build muscle (most of whom are far below Arnie standard).  Not one of these people have been anything less than pleasant, at worst they keep to themselves and at best they are friendly with the occasional conversation every week or two which is mutually encouraging.  

The staff as well are incredibly helpful and approachable - even the one who would be Arnie's closest match, they spend all day with people and are used to the nervous newcomer so are really good at putting you at ease, giving you that initial confidence you might need.

2. You don't have to be the best - you can just do your best

My favourite banner I saw whilst running along the 13.1miles was one that said "It's you against you, the paradox that drives us".  I loved that, however the paradox lies in the fact you can't win, whereas you can - I did.  I beat my last time, I beat my target time, I didn't get lapped (it is pretty much a two lap race, other than the first & last mile or so, the middle 5ish miles are done twice) and I didn't walk at all - therefore I beat myself, I won.

Thinking back to PE as a kid, it was the only subject that wasn't segregated by ability where it was possible to differentiate by ability.  I remember what it was like, every single person was made to do the same thing and then you were ridiculed if you couldn't do as well as other kids (either the PE teachers would be on your back or the other students would be afterwards).  

I was fairly lucky, not the best athlete but I always tried which often meant me being picked a little above my ability when it came to teams being chosen and I didn't get 'stick' from the teachers (plus the head PE teacher was afraid of my mother - always a bonus).  The whole system revolved around you having to be able to do everything, not just what you are capable of - a system designed for the kids who are already good at it to show off whilst reducing the self esteem of the others.  As a result lots of children are put off and try to avoid PE, this quite easily lasts into later life as well.

However, since training again you see all sorts of people taking part, including those who are quite clearly out of shape who just do a slow mile on a treadmill and week on week you see their improvement.  It happened with myself, I couldn't run 5 miles solidly not so long ago, so I did what I could, ran for as long as I felt able then walked, before running again.  In school this would have been allowed - otherwise you'd be punished, where as in reality this helped me build up to being capable of my goals.  

If you think about it it's ridiculous to think just cause you can't do 13.1 miles doesn't mean you shouldn't do 1 mile - that's like saying because you can't save 13 injured people (an amazing thing) doesn't mean you shouldn't save 1 injured person (amazing in it's own right).

3. Specialist equipment is not just an attempt to bleed every drop of cash out of you - it makes a difference

I'm not going to say that every last bit of equipment people buy is worth the price they pay for it, but if you really do want to improve then it's amazing what just a small change in attire or intake can do for you.  For instance, when I first started running years and years ago (before my 4 year break) I did so in some scruffy old trainers I had.  Then, for my birthday, my parents kindly bought me some running shoes (maybe to try and encourage me to keep it up), and oh my, what a difference.  Suddenly I could feel the extra support when my feet landed - previously I put too much pressure at one particular place and it had lead to a constant niggley pain in my left leg.  Running in these shoes in no time at all that pain had gone.  

Now step forward to this training, gone are my heavy shorts (the only ones I had) and normal t-shirts, in come nice lightweight actual sportswear and you know what, you feel a lot freer.  The running shoes themselves are much lighter than the normal trainers and that lighter feel really makes a difference to your time and your attitude, less weighing you down, more free as a bird.

4. You do actually improve

This sounds silly I know, but when you first start off your goals could seem impossible.  Granted I wasn't starting from scratch but like I said above I couldn't run 5 consecutive miles, that really wasn't too long ago.  If you go back 6 months before then I struggled past 2 miles.  However over the past month or so every single distance I've ran on a treadmill I've done so at a personal best.  I now run 6 miles in under the time I used to run 5.  My time for 8 miles has come down by over 10 minutes since the turn of the year - that's under 3 months!  

You don't have to be able to run a marathon straight away in order to be capable of doing it eventually. You just need the determination to keep at it.

What's better is the sense of achievement you feel when you do lift weights you didn't think possible, when you finally manage to do an unaided pull-up (here's hoping!) or when you beat an hour for 8 miles - you really do feel unbeatable, which leads me nicely on to...

5. It is actually enjoyable and makes you feel good

... and not only when you actually achieve your goals (as above).  How many times have you seen those annoyingly happy people on TV as they push others through a gruelling workout?  That's just because they are an annoying personality right? Possibly.  How about those people who swear by their morning run as a way to wake them up and make them feel like they can take on the world - well I only know one of those people but if truth be told they are right, as is every other sanctimonious exercise freak who has told you that it makes them feel good - because it does.  I enjoy it.  I didn't at first, at first it was tough - ridiculously hard work, but now I look forward to it.  The endorphins  kick in and you feel like you can take on the world.  

You do also have more energy as a result.  I know that on the few lunch times when I've had a "social" run with a colleague my afternoon productivity has been much higher.  I feel less lethargic, I need less sleep (as the sleep I do have is better) and I am more restless - as I want to be doing something more active than just a sedate activity.  

The other week I was actually feeling really rough, taking 2 paracetamol and 2 ibuprofen every four hours to try and shake a headache that just wouldn't leave.  The only thing that made me feel better for the entire week was the couple of occasions I made it to the gym and jumped on a treadmill - I was then considerably better for the rest of the evening.  Now I'm not proposing running as a cure to all of life's illnesses, but it helped me in this case!

One thing that has helped me be so pleased with myself and helped with the motivation was the fact that I was raising money for a charity - a small local charity that I now have quite a bit to do with.  I posted about this a little while ago, the fact that I don't give to big charities any more (unless I'm sponsoring someone for something and I know it means something to them) whereas, Charles and I raised over £800 for a cause where I will actually see the money help.   In that blog post I mentioned that this will make you a superhero, and I can tell you whilst running that half marathon that knowing how much I had helped to raise for such a small charity made me feel like a superhero - and I didn't need to be one of those people in fancy dress! 

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