Be Content with your Changes

Running has taught me many things about life.

This weekend’s lesson running: no matter what I do, I will probably be as discontent with my health as I was when I first laced up my trainers. I realised this while signing up for Freeletics at the weekend. I had to place myself on a three tier scale. I realised that while some of you may percieve me as “definitely fit”, I would percieve myself somewhere between “not so” and “quite” fit. When I did the Edinburgh Marathon, there were at least 6000 people far fitter than me! But that I finished showed me I’m fitter than others. Simply put – my fitness is not where I would like it to be. Will I ever be content? I was content to have finished a marathon, but not content with how I finished it. I was content to get a great PR on Sunday, but I look forward to the day when I do a sub 2:00 Half Marathon.

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Where would you place yourself on the scale? Where would others place you?

Some of this is healthy: discontent breeds positive change. On the other hand, if I obsessed, (as I often do) about the science, nutrition, plans, pacing, getting the best out of my body in the time I have, that is unhealthy. So there is a tension between good discontent and contentment, and the question is – how to use discontent in a healthy way?

The answer is, I think, in how we choose to make those changes. Yes, I would like to be stronger than I am. Looking at my marathon training, which starts this week, helped me narrow the appropriate strength work. I need to go for functional strength. My core is useless. And I need to make a change that I can live with forever. There is no point in implementing a heavy weights program which I will only be able to utilise until week 12, would hate, and couldn’t actually fit into an already tight training schedule. Far better to take what I have and do it well and often throughout my training. The beauty of Freeletics seems to be that they are short, intense sessions. Highly achievable while your wife is watching Casualty, or after a run or bike commute. And they work. I’m still sore from Saturday’s session.

This morning I also changed my morning routine from:
coffee pot on hob, cereal in bowl, faff on facebook, pour coffee, to:
coffee pot on hob, cereal in bowl, plank, pour coffee.

Because a plank a day is doable. I don’t know whether I will do it at the weekends too. Probably not. Because I can see myself doing it five days a week, during a time I am not already using.

Likewise, instead of filling my eyes and kind with junk during my coffee I am reading at least one chapter of Scripture a day. Because one, although small, is a heck of a lot better than nothing.

I am content with my goals. I am not sure whether I will do another marathon after this – it really depends how race day goes. The training will be tough, particularly around weeks 1 through 16. But I am content with the content of the training program, which makes it a lot more manageable. That said, I am currently putting off my first pyramid treadmill session. Mean as you start to go on…

Workout your salvation

I often think one goal of any race is to make it to the start line having done the best you can to prepare yourself for however many miles are ahead of you. This takes months of preparation – my training for yesterday’s half marathon began 12 weeks ago!

But the half wasn’t the real goal, which is the Stirling Marathon (21st May). Only 17 weeks and 6 days to go! The half was really training for the 21st itself and to force myself to have a bigger base to work from than I did last time. So you could argue that by the time May 21st rolls around, I’ll have been preparing for it for nearly seven months!

Taking such a long view sounds ridiculous, but I think it is incredibly wise. It forces you to think about what steps you can take today to make that day in the future the best it can possibly be.

I think there should be in our Christian lives a very similar way of thinking. At the end of my life, I would like to be able to say that I have endured my race, I have kept the faith; I’d very much like to hear Jesus say “well done, good and faithful servant.” I’d like to do the best with what He’s given me.

Those months of training for a marathon can be likened to years of continuous training for daily life as a Christian. I gained a new appreciation of the phrase “work out your salvation” (Phillippians 2:12) yesterday during the sermon. Our minister gave three analogies, one of which I forget precisely (to do with sowing in a field): when you work out a maths sum you use the figures you have and try to get the outcome – the answer; when you work out physically, you take what you have and try to get a different outcome – stronger, faster.

He didn’t say any more than that, as the sermon had to cover more ground, but as a runner it makes a whole lot of sense. Very quickly, here’s how the analogy carries forward.

You should be doing different types of workout:

  • long, slow distance: in which you are taking the cardiovascular system and making it more efficient at pumping blood and oxygen round the body.
  • speed work (of whatever variety: fartlek, hill sprints, sprints), takes your lactate threshold and aims to increase it, so that you can run faster for longer.
  • strength work, where you take your muscles and put them under stress and let them heal stronger, which helps both speed and endurance. For instance, my core is terrible; so I know in the 17 weeks I have I need to do as much as I can to strengthen it, so that I’m able to keep proper form for longer and so avoid the calf cramps which plagued my last one!

Now, there are different things we can and should be doing to train us for the Christian life.

  • praying. Helps us to focus on God’s greatness, and therefore our folly, taking our sin and repenting so that he can remove it and replace it with a new desire for his will.
  • reading the bible. Takes whatever knowledge we have of God and deepens it: how can we know his will without reading the bible?
  • listening to sermons, reading devotionals and other books: as with the last point, can help us deepen our knowledge and love for Christ.
  • Meeting with other Christians, not just on Sunday. Helps us appreciate others more, and can help us love them deeper.

God gives salvation today for our sins of the past and today, and a new hope: that is the greatest gift. We must use it and do these things out of reverence for that. He has also given us the above resources. Let’s use ’em gladly!

As I stated, the training can take a long time, and results can be frustratingly slow. But they can come. Yesterday’s half was physically demanding. I was working on roughly 2.5/3 hours sleep,  felt sick multiple times, and went into it not thinking a PR would even be possible. My squelchy stomach meant I just had to adapt to using fewer food gels than planned – all I could do was continually plod as best I could. My legs weren’t really willing to speed up after a small surge at mile 6, but they were at least willing to keep going (apart from mile 11 and 12, in which I had two small walk breaks) and I was able to sprint finish by forcing my body to ignore my squelchy stomach. And I felt exhilarated at the end and justified by the work I put in, although I should have done much more!

Old PR: May (during the marathon, totally not meaning to PR) 2hr 24m 17s.
New PR: 2hr 17m 58s.

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A remarkably consistently paced but Personal Record setting Half Marathon

 

Yep, I shaved 6 minutes and 17 seconds off. I did so mostly by giving myself a bigger base through, for example, commuting by bike more, doing the different types of workout, using a cross country 10k in November as a side goal. And yesterday, I was remarkably consistent with the splits. Not record breaking, but it made me realise: take the steps today, no matter what, and in a few months time or in many years, I may just creep under the 2hr mark – but much more importantly, hear those words “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Psychological preparedness

No runner wants to see those three letters against their name in a results page: DNF. Did Not Finish. Take a look at Paula Radcliffe’s grief – and there is no other word for it – as her body forces her to stop at mile 22 of the Athens Olympic Marathon. Every runner who has taken part in any event, be it their first 5k or Nth marathon, implicitly understands her anguish. It is as horrible to rewatch as it was to see it happen live.

Clearly the feeling is amplified for her, having been pitted as a favourite given her world records a year earlier. But the fear of failing can be huge, even for plodders like me.

This week I have wrapped my head around the DB12 half marathon at Strathclyde Country Park, which is tomorrow morning – at 8.30! It has taken me a week, I am psychologically prepared for a DNF.  Although I will do my best, if it becomes clear I am going to do myself an injury which may set me back weeks into my marathon training there will be little to no point in finishing. Ironically, accepting I may get a DNF will free me to do the best I can, and allow me to finish; if I pig-headedly refused a DNF I would probably not actually finish, as I would push myself too hard early on.

So why leave the house at ridiculous o’clock and drive for an hour on a Sunday morning to plod 13.1 – or maybe fewer – miles? Because, having accepted that I may not complete the run, I have thought about what the run means for me tomorrow, and evaluated my goals. Tomorrow’s run is not the be all and end all; the marathon isn’t but is the real goal behind tomorrow. So I have tweaked them a little:

  • Pre-marathon-training assessment. Difficult to do in training runs, so is better done in a race environment. So whether I finish or not – that will be where my fitness is at!
  • Keep fitter during the Christmas period. Although I don’t feel totally ready for tomorrow, my resting heart rate is bang on where it was pre-christmas (60 BPM) and my breathing is much the same. I also think I ate slightly less than last year…
  • Knock 13 minutes off my last half marathon. Possible, given some great training runs. But tomorrow won’t be the day. I have removed this goal.
  • Practice same strategy for the marathon: slow first half, medium middle, and push as hard as I can for the last bit.
  • Finish strong. My last training run was supposed to be a banger, but a 2 hour psychological booster became a 1 and a half hour physical and mental struggle. I did finish strong though.

In addition I have some tools to help:

  • My running cap, bought while in training for my first half marathon. A physical reminder that I can do it.

    mde

    Tools of the trade

  • A friend’s running belt. Reminder that friends are rooting for me, and the pink will cheer me – and probably others – up (Glaswegians are a friendly bunch).
  • Mantras, such as “you’re slacking” – after a friend’s son told me 13.1 miles is nothing given what ultramarathoners do; “no matter how high your mountain, never ever give up” – Dick Beardsley
  • A reason for every mile. Adapted from Tina Muir’s positivity bottles. These include (mile 1) to burn fat (has the additional benefit of keeping me at that slow pace); (mile 6) inspire others; (mile 10) bragging rights; (mile 13/13.1) finishing.

 


No matter what, I am prepared for the result – and the result will be good. If I finish, I have a well timed psychological boost reminding me I can do it, regardless of my time. If I finish well, that boost will be bigger. If I don’t finish, I’ll become more resilient for next time and be able to do next year’s better, and I’ll still have an accurate pointer as to my fitness. I am still nervous about tomorrow, but having thought it all through, I am now not so worried – and I’m actually looking forward to the experience. The lesson for you for your challenge – think about it, tweak what you can, enjoy as much as possible.

Expect some bragging on Monday.

Planning Ahead

It was the first day back at work today. I spent a fair whack of it writing in key dates into my diary. Boring, maybe, but it doesn’t take much for this dyslexic to get derailed. Writing these dates helps me get a handle of what’s happening when – I have discovered that writing it again in our main calendar really drills it into my head. I like to have a sense of what is happening when, and I sometimes get stressed when I don’t. Like the first time I went to a highly liturgical church service in Edinburgh as a lad. Not knowing the page numbers, and having to guess where we were and watch others for cues as to when to sit and to stand added unnecessary stress – the leader gave no direction, even minute.

That said, I don’t always marry my desire to be organised with actually being so. Sure, I use a diary well, when I use it. And I have posts mapped out, but I could do far better.

I once heard of a church minister who prepares his sermons five weeks in advance. That sounds ludicrous to some, and many in the room had a good chortle at the man’s expense. But I think it makes sense.

Out of 29 blogposts, most have been written on the day of publishing. Most of those have been in the morning. A couple, this one included, have been written with Tuesday watching over my shoulder, teasing me, laughing at my attitude and my failure to be better organised. When I have finished a post at the weekend and scheduled it to post automatically I feel so much more peaceful. It means the pressure is off, and I am not scrambling for topic, words, sentences that make sense and cramming it all together into the limited time I have.

I am impressed that only two have been written under such circumstances and that the majority have been done earlier.

Yet for the sake of peace, and clarity of thought, I shall from here on out endeavour to write earlier on, before Monday.

As well as peace, there is another advantage to being organised: You get to do things, like take part in competitions, which I aim to do more of this year. Looking ahead at this month I know I might be performing at the last ever Blind Poetics, and the Shore Poets‘ slam. If I had been aimless I wouldn’t have been able earmark them. Oh, and it would also mean I wouldn’t know about Tom Paxton’s upcoming tour. Yes, I have a ticket for the 27th. No, you aren’t having it. You should have been more organised.

Remember your destination.

Happy New Year, readers. I wonder what you have planned for this year, where you want to go physically or spiritually.

I discovered on Friday that the cliche ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ is largely bunk. The journey wouldn’t happen without a destination in mind. Obvious, maybe, but it was writ large to me on Friday. Having planned to cycle 25 miles,  I became worried about my post-Christmas fitness and that I wouldn’t be back in good time, so I decided  to cycle the three miles up to Craigie’s Farmshop and Cafe for some notebooking – the coffee, and views of rolling hills and the Firth of Forth make it perfect for contemplation – and the three miles back home.

james-the-river-almond-3

Bike at destination number 2 – the River Almond, Kirkliston

On my way, I felt better than I anticipated, even through the wind, and ended up extending my route by 4 miles. At Craigies I looked at the map and decided that on the way home I would reach the River Almond, instead of going straight home. Not a particularly beautiful spot, but pretty in its own way, and it added a few miles. My next stop after this: home.  I was ahead of schedule – so extended my route further,  via the Forth Rail Bridge. Total mileage for the day: 19.5 – only 5.5 short of my original aim! It may sound obvious, but without the destinations in mind I would not have gone out in the first place, and I would not have made the route longer. In some ways, the journey was really tough – my legs ached, i was dehydrated amd windswept, but the lure of the destinations kept me going.

I think there are parallels with this and many things we do.

When I started this blog last year, I set off with the journey rather than the destination in mind. I did not really think about topic etc (perhaps wrongly), as I didn’t anticipate so many people finding my words helpful, especially given that the blog is teething. I set off with the aim of having a journey, with no clear destination. Any writer will tell you to consider who you are writing for; some will say to write the first draft for yourself, and then subsequent drafts for your immediate readership (i.e, you). I find that I am primarily writing for myself (soz) – I write many more words than I eventually publish – but I  also contemplate what you most responded to by liking, commenting here or on social media or speaking to me in person!

I have been encouraged that so many people have thanked me for this little corner of the web. It makes me realise that these words have been helpful, and this is my aim. So I will continue to post once a week.

I am going through a heart change about blogging. Do I want to have more readers? Yes – what blogger doesn’t? Why? Selfish reasons. I agree that I shouldn’t have this desire for more readers. But these reasons stand side by side with my desire to be as helpful to as many people as possible. Yet there are better questions to ask: What topic(s) to write about (unless I keep this as a form primarily for me and you, I need to hone this down)? Should I be topical? Should I be personal? Are more devotional type posts better? What suits me? What is helpful? What can I contribute? What is my unique selling point? What is certain that one post a week is manageable for you and me both.

I started blogging as an experiment to keep me writing through all that life throws, and I am still playing with form – although getting tighter on the types of posts as I am discovering what people respond to. So I have roughly plotted the posts I will do in the first half of the year, in much the same way I plotted my route for Friday. Expect detailed discussions on depression as a person of faith in February, some topical posts around Lent and Easter; journey with me on my second marathon (May). I will probably change the route along the journey along the blog, but my destination will remain the same: to be as helpful to as many people as possible.

Whatever your goals are for this year, remember that the destination means a reason to keep going, regardless of the route you take.