Running can be a confidence game. I’ve always felt that you need freedom in your mind to enjoy freedom in your legs. But for me it’s a been a while since I enjoyed either of those. When I stepped off the course of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in June, 25km from the 117km finish line, after 21.5 hours of running, as much as I tried to put a brave face on it, it was a big blow to my confidence.
What made it worse was that my first DNF came after a number of races where I’d not quite felt myself. The Copenhagen Marathon was my second slowest 26.2 and easily the biggest struggle I’d ever had over that distance. On training runs too, I was finding that I just couldn’t settle into a rhythm.
On occasions I was forced to pause an easy 10km a few miles in and take a breather before dragging the final miles out in slow discomfort. It’s not that I had any specific injuries to speak of but something wasn’t quite clicking. I’d lost my running mojo. Unsurprisingly I wasn’t enjoying any of this. I was starting to wonder if I’d run my best races and it might be time to take up swimming.
I’ve always felt that you need freedom in your mind to enjoy freedom in your legs.
A few months on and thanks to Team Lucozade Sport and the Great North Run, I can happily say that’s not the case. I can put my Speedos back in the draw. Because on the streets of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Shields, I finally came out of the running fog.
On very limited training (I only ran 14 times in the two and a half months between plodding off the Lavaredo course and lining up at the start of the world’s most famous half marathon) I managed to run a 1:35. It’s a way off my 1:22 personal best over this distance but it’s still a lot faster than I thought my build up would let me run. Most importantly though, for the first time in a long time, I felt good on my feet. I felt like a runner again.
What change at the Great North Run?
Whether you run well or you run badly, it’s essential to try and figure out why. When things go bad, I always tell people that you have to look for the wins in every race. It’s important to find some positives, particularly for the runs where you didn’t break records or you came up short of your expectations. At the Copenhagen Marathon I took comfort in the fact that I dug deeper than I’ve ever had to dig to complete a marathon. After the Lavaredo I focused on the fact I’d smashed my PB for the longest time I’d spent running by a about eight hours.
And when things go well, like they did for me at the Great North Run, you also need to ask why.
1. I had no expectations
I didn’t set a target time. That’s easier said than done. All too often I’ve been at start lines with the intention of running ‘free’ and really I’m still looking at the watch with some kind of vague target in my head. For this race I genuinely ran to see what I’d get rather then pushing for what I hoped I could get.
2. I hadn’t overtrained
Quite the opposite, I upped my mileage a bit in the month leading up to the Great North Run but I didn’t really follow a half marathon plan. I’d actually rested more than I ran. In the week before I put in three all out 5km runs just to blow the cobwebs away and see how my body felt when I was pushing hard but that was it.
3. I knew I had some speed
One of those 5km runs turned out to be a 17:XX 5km on the treadmill just a few days before the race. I think that’s my fastest 5km time and it translated into confidence come race day. It told me that I still had enough to do a fairly decent job.
4. I ran to feel not on the watch
I didn’t put pressure on myself to run on the watch. I went out to run by feel and see what I’d get. As a result I ran smart and avoided pushing too hard
5. I limited my water intake on the course
It might sound odd but even though I’ve run 20+ marathons and over 40 half marathons, I still haven’t quite got my fluid and fuelling sport on, at least not consistently. This race was a great chance to try something different and so rather than taking on lots of water, in the fear of dehydration, at each water station I simply took a mouthful. I drank enough but not too much and I didn’t suffer any of the nausea I often get in the latter stages of a race.
6. I had something to hold onto for inspiration
If you’re going to run without a target time, you need something to motivate you. My nan (who’s no longer with us) was from the South Shields area and it seemed fitting that I ran this race for her. I imagined how proud she’d be had she been here to see me run in her home town and when it got tough I had a reason to dig a little deeper. You always need a reason.
Call it a comeback?
I’ve been running ’seriously’ for around five years now and in that time I’ve been lucky enough to complete all kinds of challenges. But this is the first time I’ve had to battle my way out of a prolonged spell of running badly. I needed a race that made me feel good about running again and this was it.
On the dual carriage way of the Great North Run I found my running feet again but not just my feet. And the most interesting thing about this comeback? It really came from the head as much as the heart. I ran smart. I gave myself the mental freedom to run well and my body responded in kind.
Now it’s onwards and upwards to the Bournemouth Marathon on 2 Oct. Let’s see if I can apply the same logic and make it work over 26.2.
(Kieran Alger was running the Great North Run with Lucozade Sport)