Having just watched the final 10 minutes of the Nike team’s efforts to smash the 2 hour marathon barrier I reflected on my own running experience this week.
While I’m no Olympic standard athlete – and my race of choice is the half-marathon, I learnt an interesting lesson when I used a different tactic in this week’s run. For my 5th half-marathon, I decided to ditch my standard practice of listening to music through my headphones and using the rhythm of music to spur me along, instead opting to follow one of the pacers that were provided for the race.
Pacers were provided at the Milton Keynes Half Marathon, each with their target time emblazoned across their neon running vests, holding balloons aloft, so you could find them amidst the 10,000+ runners taking part that day. I spotted the 2 hours 15 pacer, a tall lady, which appealed to me. I sidled over and made contact and stood near her while we were waiting for the race to start. My usual half marathon completion time is around 2:25 so I thought following her would be a good target for me. She was actually the slowest pacer available, so it was follow Janet and try for a faster than usual time or run my own race with headphones and a questionable outcome.
We started and the usual chaos of the opening few miles with runners all around cutting in and overtaking were made steadier as I only had one thing to focus on, keeping Janet in my peripheral vision. I enjoyed not having my headphones on, as I could take in the sounds from the crowd lining those early streets cheering us, the gospel band singing as we made it into the town centre, the music blasting out under bridges. It was clear Janet was well-known and ran for one of the running clubs as there was lots of banter and encouragement from the crowd as I and others in her posse made our way around the course.
The starting pace seemed slow and it was good to know that the usual mistake of over-exertion in those opening miles wasn’t made as the pace we started at remained constant. The early miles flew by, and the first time I was aware how far we’d run we were at 7 miles already. All the time Janet had been either in front of me, to the side, or slightly behind. I stayed close to her, rather than running further away and just keeping her in my sights. For some reason it felt reassuring. I enjoyed not having to think about my pace, not to think about anything, just keeping next to Janet. If too many people got in-between Janet and I, I would work so that I could get back in close.
The feeling that I had following Janet and keeping pace, that certainty that her pace was right, and the trust that I had in her steadiness surprised me. A slight panic would come if I drifted and got more than a couple of metres behind. What could this tell me? I thought about the role models we have in our lives, and how we all need someone to aspire to. Sometimes when we can’t think, and we can’t see the wood for the trees, we need those ‘go-to’ people that can guide us, because they know us, they know our true selves and if we are panicked, lost and under stress they can be our harbour of safety, setting us back on course and pointing the way. I also thought if we don’t have these role models, these people we aspire to learn from, to draw on, we need to seek them out, and cultivate those relationships.
I compared my race so far with my previous races, with my headphones and music pumping. I would be lost in my own world, out of tune with what was going on around me, isolated. The music could help at times, a good song, a good beat, could help step up the pace, but at other times a change in song could disrupt a running rhythm that would have otherwise continued.
As we were nearing the 9 mile marker the sun was out. It was warm, a runner’s nightmare. To my surprise Janet pulled off her neon vest and said ‘Carry on ladies’ to our little group as she slowed and then stepped out of the race – I was dumbfounded! What? My pacer had gone! OK I thought – I just need to keep going, to keep the same pace. Although now I could feel how tired I was, when I hadn’t felt it before as my only focus was on Janet. I managed another mile, wondering what had happened. All of a sudden I felt very alone, the ‘team’ that had formed around Janet had dispersed, and I was running my own race. At around 10 miles I thought maybe I should try the music, and fiddled with my headphones, dropping them, picking them up, I could feel I was losing my rhythm, my focus. A couple of good songs helped, then, as the sun was beating down heavier now, and a hill loomed in front of me, I stopped running and walked. I knew I was failing myself, but I couldn’t get past the feeling of being slightly adrift, and lost, after relying on my pacer for so long.
The wry thought crossed my mind that this is like life too, we shouldn’t rely on others so much that we can’t then stand on our own two feet. There are times when we need to. There are times when we need to be the one to set the pace. I thought about times in my life when I have stood alone, and stepped out into brave, unchartered territory, and made tough life choices. I thought about my children and how I have to be a role model for them, and the hard things they have to deal with and how important it is that they can see me leading from the front. I managed to walk/run the rest of the way dispensing with the headphones and instead using the crowd cheering us on through the final couple of miles until I passed the finish line.
My final time was 2:21, which wasn’t bad. I’m not so worried about the time achieved, but more on my own personal battle – I am cross that I lost focus when my pacer stopped, and wish I could have been more resilient to have kept pace after that. I will take that with me into the next race, as there is always a next time, and always a chance to improve, and to strengthen and train more for the physical challenge, which in turn helps to build up the mental resolve, and plan for unexpected surprises on the way.
Note: I met up with my pacer Janet afterwards, and found she had stopped due to an asthma attack. Brave lady, she took a break for 4 minutes and then carried on the race.