What People Don't Tell You About Messing Up Your Race Time

20 May 2020
Workout, Fitness, Exercise, Running, Health, Usain Bolt, Eluid Kipchoge, Nike React Infinity Run, Nike
Image: Illustration by Michael Hoeweler
One GQ Editor on the mental strength needed to let things go

Under the normal run of things, the idea of attempting a half marathon with just under four weeks’ training time would be considered unusual. Fair enough, I suppose, 21.1km is really far.

Build up slowly, people tell you. Perhaps start 15 weeks ahead of race time and gradually increase your pace, stamina and mental toughness. That’s how it’s done. So I should really have said no, but then I can sometimes have a problem with that.

I’m not sure where I get it from, but I have a ridiculous competitive streak. I keep it fairly well hidden in broad daylight, but even the merest glimpse of a contest is enough to prick the hairs on the back of my neck. It doesn’t have to be a sporting endeavour, either. Chess, baking, decorating, mowing the lawn, cooking a roast... tell me you’re doing it and I will wonder if I could do it better. I won’t say that, of course. I’m aware of how much of a jerk it makes me sound, but I think it.

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If I’m not the best – which is often – then I will sit and stare, sulking like a professional footballer whose four-year-old daughter has just beaten them at ping-pong. So, yeah, I would do a woefully underprepared half marathon in RAK, and (internal monologue) I might even win it.

The way I looked at it was this: I’m no runner, but I’ve always had a reasonable level of fitness. My five kilometre time will fluctuate by six or seven minutes, depending on what I’m doing – or more likely not doing – but it’ll never go beyond half an hour. I wasn’t expecting miracles, but felt that a sub-two hour run was a possibility.

I should explain the lack of training was part of a request to try Nike’s new injury prevention shoe, and I could certainly excel there. “Give him a fraction of the time,” they probably said, as word of my wooden knee reached Nike HQ in Portland. “Make him run three times a week for a month. If he’s still standing for a half marathon at the end of it all then this thing probably works!” Sportingly, they gave me a chance. I would have a trainer and pace man to get me up to speed.

Here are three things I learned from training for a half marathon: One: The conventional wisdom of building up to just shy of race distance with lots of long runs might well be flawed. Trainer Karl offered a mix of speed and distance, usually just five and seven kilometre runs, with a long one thrown in each week. Two: Your limbs will take some very serious damage. Counter the impact with foam rolling, Pilates and knee strengthening exercises. Three: There will be a lot of mid-run high-fives. Deal with it.

I won’t bore you with the details when it comes to the race, but the salient points are these: At 5km I felt great. At 10km likewise. At about 12km my brain started to rattle inside my skull – nobody tells you about the brain rattling. At 15km I was slowing down (a lot), but still just about on course for a sub-two hour time. At 17km things blew up.

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When the wall came, it wasn’t really what I was expecting. I was tired, but not dead on my feet. The battle was internal. I began to canvass my own opinion. Why does anybody need to run this far anyway? I stopped and walked. I started again. I stopped. This went on for about 2km, at which point my hoped-for time was dead and buried.

Once over the line, the reaction wasn’t relief, but disappointment. When it came to the crunch, I had been tested and found wanting. Not physically, but mentally.

Here’s something they don’t tell you about messing up your race time: the sympathetic, “Ah, well, it was your first go and you still managed to finish” reaction. Even though it’s true, and it really was a big achievement, it felt like the only thing missing was a pat on the head. I smiled and said thanks as my blood quietly boiled.

So I resolved to continue running, fuelled mainly by annoyance and anger, which I took as a good sign. Hey, I wasn’t at home brooding – I was pushing for improvement, but none of it made me feel any better. Not really.

In the end, it was Andy Puddicombe that helped most; the velvety tones of the former Tibetan monk and co-founder of wellness company Headspace, via the Nike Running app, offering a different perspective. Running can be a great release – you run, you think, and when you’re done you feel better. But it can also be an increased pressure, too. If progress stalls it’s often just another reason to beat yourself up. In reality, you need to let it go.

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For those with a competitive streak that can be easier said than done, but just as you need mental strength to succeed, sometimes you need it to move on, too. Even if you’re running slowly, it’s the best you can do in that moment. And that’s all it is: a moment in time.

Acknowledge it then let it go – just like you would a good run. Other than that, keep working, keep trying, and hope that tomorrow will be better. So, weeks after the race, on a cool pre-pandemic Dubai evening, that’s what I did. I let it go, and it helped. I felt calmer, energised, and fairly content. At least for a few kilometres. Then I was angry again. Hey, nobody said this was going to be easy. Now, who’s up for an arm wrestle?