Friday, 14 January 2011

I need goals

I’ve been a bit under the weather recently. Nothing major, just a bit of a chesty cough and a chronic case of feeling-rather-sorry-for-myself. So my grand plan to launch into 2011 with a few high-mileage weeks has been shelved and instead I’ve scaled back my time on the roads. I hate doing this, but luckily I don’t have any major races looming so I can afford to take a break and let my immune system do its thing.

So I’m doing exactly what I always do when I’m taking time off from regular running – thinking about my running and getting a little carried away from reality. Specifically, I’m thinking about my goals. Runners are usually goal-oriented folks, and running-based goals are, to my mind, the purest form there is. Some people, usually city-boy types, are driven to distraction by their work-based goals – targets, quotas, promotions, ‘making partner’ (whatever that means) or ‘landing the Henderson contract’ (who is this Henderson? and why is he handing out so many contracts on American TV?). But however driven and talented you are, no matter how many TM Lewin shirts you own, a goal you set for your professional life can always be affected by any number of factors beyond your control, like the economy, your employer’s priorities or your colleagues’ behaviour.  

Running goals are different. No-one else can accomplish your running goals for you, and no-one else is to blame if you can’t achieve them. It’s just you, a pair of trainers, and the target you’ve set yourself. But there is one thing that others can do in pursuit of your goals – they can make you accountable for them. Since I started this blog I have been avoiding doing something which I think most runners should.  I have avoided writing down, and thereby becoming accountable for, my ultimate goal. 

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I want to tell you what it is. You’ll know what my aspirations are, what I’m working towards, and what measure of success I’ve chosen for myself. You might laugh at my delusions of grandeur, or baulk at the madness of it all. You’ll be able to sit there, on the sofa, half an eye on the TV, laptop gently overheating next to you, and judge me for how far I’ve progressed (or not) towards what I want to achieve. You’ll be able to witness my success or failure. You’ll have all the power, and I’ll be the one doing all the work. It hardly seems fair.

But I’m going to tell you anyway. Because I want you to have the power. I want you to quietly judge me and silently bully me into achieving my goal. Nobody made me choose this objective – it was entirely my own decision. Your role, as guardians of public consciousness, is to make me feel incredibly guilty if I’m not taking steps towards reaching it.

But first, to contextualise my goal.

Runners fall into two broad categories: those with time goals, and those with distance goals. The former are tenacious in that they put in a lot of work to improving their form and technique over particular distances. The latter are tenacious in that they’ll just keep going further and further until they reach a ceiling of endurance for one reason or another, and eventually join the former category.

I have always been a ‘distance goal’ runner. With less than a year’s experience of running, in a haphazard and fairly lazy way, I had registered for a marathon. I reasoned that since I couldn’t run faster than most people, I would run further instead. I ran my marathon, got my medal, but crossed the finish line with an odd lack of satisfaction. I think I suffer from a dangerous combination of being a distance goal runner and having oddly low self-esteem. I crossed that line thinking; ‘if I can do this, it must be easy’.

I ran another marathon in pursuit of that satisfaction, thinking maybe that if I ran faster I would reach a sense of completeness, that I would have properly achieved something. I ran the second one just a minute faster than the first (partly to do with a chest complaint similar to what I have now) – which didn’t help, but still I knew that my goals needed to be further, not faster.

Paris 4:06:43
Brighton 4:05:24
The night before I ran that second marathon, I read the first two chapters of a book by some random bloke called Dean Karnazes. His memoir, ‘Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner’ has, in no small way, changed my life. ‘Karno’ as he is known in the world of ultrarunning is a very public advocate of a very little-known sport – racing over distances further than a marathon. Google this kind of nonsense and you’ll discover a wealth of 50k, 50 mile, 100k, even 100 mile races and beyond.

Karno has been near the top of this sport for the last 15 years, and has been at the forefront of innovating mad new events and challenges for a similar amount of time. He’s run marathons at the South Pole. He swam across the San Francisco bay. He ‘regularly’ runs more than 200 miles non-stop, without sleep, without more than a few minutes’ rest, eating on the run. He once ran 100 miles through the night to enter a marathon, arriving at the start line 5 minutes before the gun fired, then completed the race in 3:15 (‘not superfast, but pretty good’ he adds). He ran 50 marathons, in 50 days, in 50 US states, then decided to run back home, from New York to San Francisco, unsupported. (He got as far as St Louis, Missouri, before deciding that he missed his family and hopped on a plane back to SF). He’s like Chuck Norris, except that he has actually done those things.

One of the longer passages of his first book is devoted to a race called the Western States Endurance Run. A 100-mile race over mountain ranges in California, including snow-capped peaks and bone-dry, desert-like valleys, a total climb of 18,000 feet and descent of 23,000 feet. Competitors aim to complete the distance in under 24 hours, putting themselves through almost unimaginable torment just to earn a silver belt buckle for their trouble. Here's a video illustrating some of this utter insanity, featuring people who make it look easy along the course and at the compulsory checkpoints. Note that they're running on taxing mountain trails, not lovely smooth tarmac or carefully-maintained footpaths:

I want to earn one of those belt buckles.

Entry to the Western States is by lottery, with extremely high qualifying standards. Essentially one has to be an experienced ultramarathoner, with fast qualifying times over a minimum of 50 miles. Those 50 miles have to have been completed on a course similar to the Western States, i.e. great big fuck-off mountains. One often has to be an experienced marathoner and hill runner just to qualify for the races which would qualify you to enter the Western States. This race is for the best of the best, and even then only 75% will finish at all.

So where does a mediocre marathoner like me start? By running a lot of races, for one. A lot of marathons really, and before too long, a lot of ‘ordinary’ ultras, too. I am provisionally planning to tackle my first ultra in summer 2012, most likely by entering a 40-50 mile race like the Devil o' the Highlands Footrace or the Glasgow to Edinburgh Double Marathon. Training will become life – no more the leisurely trot home from work, no more the lazy, slow adventure run on a Saturday afternoon. If I’m to achieve my goal I’ll need to be running 70+ miles a week minimum, and make significant adjustments to my nutrition and sleeping habits. Earning that belt buckle will take years.

I am terrified of this goal. Not just because of the many challenges I’ll face on the way, or because of the pain and suffering that the race will almost certainly cause. But because I know that when I cross that finish line in Auburn, California; broken, bleeding, ruined, traumatised, possibly having gone temporarily blind (as happened to Karno at his first Western States) or simply drained of all life, but somehow sneaking under the 24 hour cut-off and earning my silver belt buckle, I’m going to look at it and smile sadly.

Then I’ll probably say in a croaking, broken voice, to no-one in particular: ‘If I can do this, it must be easy’.

Happy running.


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