What is success?
I reflected on this question over the weekend. It is hard to define success, and it is subjective to what you are trying to achieve. How we individually view success is very subjective as well. Some define success in terms of acquisition and material possessions. Others define success in terms of status and wealth. Some may define success as the outcome of a target or goal they are working towards. I looked at some of the goals and targets I am working towards this year and re-evaluated them in terms of what is success. Did merely ticking them all off mean that I’ve had a successful year?
I looked at my training for the ultra and looked at whether it had been a success or not.
I really broke this down into much smaller components. Firstly, I had identified something I wanted to achieve – finish an ultra-marathon. It has been something I’ve wanted to do for a number of years and despite a few previous unsuccessful attempts I feel that I’ve got my act together this year and because of the training and commitment I’ve put in I am going to achieve that goal.
Has the training been a success so far though? I’ve completed every session I’ve scheduled in this year (at the time of writing that is 98 training sessions). This is two-fold though – the planning can be a success but not necessarily the execution of that plan. I’ve spent time building up the distance and time so that every session is working towards building the endurance I need to finish the ultra.
At the weekend I did another long run (21.1 miles) and in terms of that session it was a success – my pace was consistent, the kit I used was suited to the purpose and worked really well, my nutrition was correct, and my focus was exceptional. I can’t pin-point one area of that session that did not go to plan. Compared to the previous weeks long run it was a much better run – whereas the previous week the last 3 miles were a slog this week I felt strong in the last 3 miles. I was mentally prepared for hitting a mental dip in places and knew how to overcome this and knew that physically I was able to move forwards.
But there is going to be a huge difference from finishing a 21.1mile training run and finishing a 31-mile event. Therefore, the sessions will get longer and the parameters of success will change – sometimes it isn’t just about the physical element or distance covered but the mental element as well – that ability to shut out the negative inner dialogue, to carry on when the mind is saying stop.
It got me thinking about what will I deem as being a success on the day of the ultra in just over 2 months’ time. Is just crossing the finish line going to be a success? In terms of achieving the overall goal it is, but other elements will also come into play. I’ve not got a specific time I’m aiming for – at present that is a bit of an unknown, and I’m only just scratching the surface in terms of distance. I’ll have a much better idea in the coming month as I work towards a long run training run of 26-28 miles.
Success on the day will also need to factor in how I handle things not going to plan and how I overcome these challenges. I know there is a good chance I will have an existential crisis during the event asking myself - Why the hell I’m doing this? What am I trying to prove? Why did I think this was a good idea? Being able to overcome my mental demons will be key to success.
Success will be sticking rigidly to my nutrition plan and fuelling properly before the event and during the event. Success will be standing on that start line, knowing I’ve done everything I needed to do to make sure that 31 miles later I am crossing that finish line, that I have done all the training required. There will be a certain amount of satisfaction in crossing that finish line and how I answer those questions of what I define as success will hopefully have been answered along the way.
Having completed in many, many endurance events over the years I know that after the event in the coming days and weeks many questions will arise – could I have done things differently? Could I have gone quicker? Could I find a different event with a more challenging terrain? Could I do a longer distance - 50 miles? 100km? 100miles?
Then the measurement of success changes yet again.
One thing I am learning is that the measurement of success isn’t always about achieving the goal or the target but the learning that takes place on the way to achieving it.
I completed a run of just over 20 miles on Saturday. It has been quite a few years since I’ve done that distance. It was good despite the last 3 miles being a bit of a slog and I had to dig deep a few times to keep going. I didn’t give up, felt motivated, and was fully focused on getting that distance completed.
It got me to thinking about why I enjoy endurance sports and where that interest comes from.
I saw my Mum on Sunday, and she had found some old photos for me (some of which I had forgotten about) – some of those may answer the question of why I enjoy endurance events.
I did my first triathlon 25 years ago. Back then very few people took part in the sport and my training was very much trial and error. Back then the internet didn’t exist, so my main points of reference were a book I had bought about triathlon (which wasn’t a huge help) and a few copies of Triathlon magazine (not a great deal of help either as it focused on what races some of the elite had done and what was happening in the USA). I trained for a few months and just hoped for the best on the day.
Looking at those photos on Sunday made me realise that my interest in endurance sports developed years before. There is one photo of me when I’m about 10 years of age having just finished a cross-country fun-run with my first finishers medal around my neck.
My Dad was into cycling and as a teenager I did a few charity rides with him – usually around 50-60 miles (which is a decent distance for a 14-year-old to ride. And looking at one of those photos and how skinny my legs look (!!!) I’m somewhat shocked I was able to ride those distances at that age). This led to being interested in races like the Tour de France (years before Britain even had a winner of the event – just having a British rider on the start line was a huge deal back then).
At school I played football, rugby, (hated cricket), and swam. I was OK, nothing exceptional. Outside of school I canoed for a little while (as part of my Duke of Edinburgh bronze award). I tried out a few other sports as well – again nothing really stuck in terms of wanting to participate long term. I went on a couple of outward bounds trips with the school to the Lake District and for a kid growing up in London that was a real eye-opener. The open space, the hills, the vastness of the place, and the sense of achievement making it up some of the mountains.
I remember going to watch the first ever London Marathon with my Nan in 1981. We stood outside Embankment station cheering and clapping the runners on, and I remember saying to my Nan that I would run a marathon one day (and probably didn’t realise what was involved, it just looked pretty cool to me).
I never joined any cycling or athletics clubs as a kid and at school there was never really that interest or encouragement from teachers to pursue any sports outside of school. I remember watching various sports programmes as a kid and that is where some of that interest really developed – city centre cycling shown on Channel Four, very brief highlights (2-5 minutes) of the Ironman in Hawaii, the Olympic Games in Moscow and Los Angeles (1980 and 1984).
When I was growing up there was a bloke who lived on the same estate who was a long distance runner and as kids we thought he was Superman!!!! We'd see him run off and then hours later (whilst we were still playing football and hitting windows he'd return, and we'd be amazed at how far he'd run!) All of those things have contributed in a small way to the journey I have been on in terms of endurance sports. All of those things have had a lasting influence on this journey.
There have been times when I’ve not entered events for a couple of years and just trained with no end goal or main purpose – but something has always drawn me back into finding an event, entering it, putting in the training, completing it and moving onto the next goal.
When I completed my first triathlon 25 years ago I wanted to see what else I could achieve and over the years went from short distance events to much longer distance events. When I completed my first marathon in 1998, once my legs had recovered, I wanted to see if I could get quicker over the distance.
I remember speaking to people that took part in ultra-marathons (and also reading a few books about the sport) thinking that is unbelievable and not for me, way too far. I think deep down I’ve always looked to push myself on my terms on what I can achieve. Taking part in endurance sports allows me to do that, and it has been an incredible journey and one where I have learnt a lot about myself. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone and seeing what is beyond that – both physically and mentally.
I look at that photo of me as a 10-year-old with that finishers' medal around my neck and wonder if someone told me then that in 40 years’ time I would be training to run 50 km what my reaction would have been.
Every time I think that the journey is complete there has always been something else that has drawn me back in, motivated me, fuelled that curiosity, made me wonder ‘what if’, and given me another goal to work towards.
Saturday provided me another opportunity for a long run, and it was a 15-mile session with a decent amount of off-road terrain. I’m enjoying the long runs, even more so when they are off-road. The long runs are providing me that opportunity to test out kit (this week was my new trail running shoes – perfect) and nutrition (again worked well, combination of energy drink, gels, and salt-chews to make sure my electrolytes are in balance).
Another way that the long runs help is with focus and this week I found that to be a lot sharper. I’d done some work for my external study (more on that in a bit) on mindfulness and ‘being in the moment’. I had a rough idea of the distance I wanted to cover on Saturday and the route. I just focused on what was in front of me there and then. I didn’t focus on the miles I’d just done or the miles ahead of me either (neither of which I can have any amount of influence over). Instead, I just concentrated on the there and then, nothing else.
I think that it is vitally important to put this type of training into practice in the build up to the ultra. Like the physical aspect, like getting my nutrition spot on, and like using the correct kit if my head and focus are in the right place that is going to count for a lot.
I’ve watched a few documentaries recently on ultra-distancing running and one of the things that is constantly mentioned is the mental aspect – having your head in the right place throughout. And these athletes are racing some very tough events (Badwater 135, Barkley Marathons, Hardrock 100, and Western States 100), much tougher than the 50k ultra I’m training for but that mental aspect is of the same importance.
The more I can focus, in training, on 'being in the moment,' the more beneficial it is going to be on the day. I’m covering the miles I need to do in training but if my focus and belief is not there then those miles count for nothing because when the going gets tough the focus will not be 'in the moment,' the 'there and then,' it will be on the miles I have ahead of me (and I can’t do a thing about that), it will be on things I can’t control, it will be those niggling little doubts.
There was another plus point that happened in the week as well – 12 week review with my tutor for my external study. I’d submitted around 6 pieces of work which hadn’t been marked or signed off just prior to the meeting. I was a slightly concerned and didn’t fancy the prospect of spending a few evenings making changes, rewriting parts and having to resubmit the work. There were also some doubts around whether I was good enough to be doing the study in the first place (again the imposter syndrome rearing its head to put those doubts in my mind once more).
The meeting went well. I’m ahead of schedule, the quality of my work is outstanding, I am showing a great understanding of the subject matter and how I am applying it. If anything, I’m doing work that I’m not evidencing, and I was told to include this as well. It was quite a relief but also highlighted that those self-doubts are still there but more importantly when I knuckle down what I can achieve.
I don’t always give myself enough credit for what I have and do achieve (I tend to focus more on what else I can do, what more needs to be done, or my personal favourite of what more I could have done – and this is almost belittling my achievements).
This was highlighted during the week when I was giving someone some advice on different aspects of run training – I didn’t think a great deal about it in the grand scheme of things and gave some advice based on personal experience over the years, what has worked well and what hasn’t, and a few other observations. I also wondered why they were asking me – and someone told me (because I don’t see it myself). I have a wealth of knowledge and experience of training for and competing in endurance events. Most people would be happy with finishing one marathon, I’ve finished 9 (and am planning to do a few more), most people would be happy to finish one triathlon, I’ve finished more than I care to remember including 4 Ironman distance and also raced for Great Britain. I don’t tend to place on a lot of emphasis on what I have achieved, the emphasis seems to be what I want to achieve or what I could have done better.
I remember over the years seeking advice from people with much more experience and knowledge of training and racing and being in awe of what they had achieved. Maybe, just maybe I’m now in that position myself?
On Saturday I did my longest run of the year so far – 16.6 miles. It was a pretty decent run. That is the longest run I’ve done for about 10 years.
Portsmouth is an island and one of the things I’d wanted to do was to run around the perimeter of it (where feasible as things such as the dockyard mean that this isn’t entirely possible). So, on Saturday morning I headed out to do just that – run around the island. It also gave me an opportunity to test out some of the kit I will be using during the ultra in July.
I know from experience that the long runs also provide an opportunity to get an idea of the ‘plan b’ if something goes wrong, it isn’t just about covering a certain distance, and there were one or two of those moments on Saturday.
So out I headed to run around the island, the pace at the start was a bit quicker than I had originally anticipated, but I wasn’t overly concerned. Then 1.5 miles in I noticed that the cable from my earphones was starting to get on my nerves a bit as it wasn’t tucked away properly – so a quick stop to sort that out.
Roughly 2.5 miles in and something was irritating my left eye. Again a quick stop to sort that out as best I could and off I go again only to realise it isn’t sorted and after rubbing my eye a bit more my contact lens had come out and had split (thankfully it had all come out). I had a choice to make now – did I head home and pop another lens in or did I carry on. I decided to carry on with the run – if that happens on the day of the ultra I’m not going to have the luxury of sorting that out until I get to an aid station (and is it worth carrying a set of spare contact lenses with me. Is that something I now need to consider doing? Again, what is the ‘plan b’ on the day.) Ironically, the problem with the contact lens happened just as I was passing the statue of Lord Nelson in Old Portsmouth!!!!!!!
My pace comfortable, I was in a decent flow, and it was going well.
I’d decided before I went out that I would walk, briefly take on fluids (and it was the first time I was using my ultra-backpack which has a hydration bladder in it and I can stow away my nutrition and anything I else I need) – again this worked pretty well but I do think I need to be able to take fluids on whilst running (so note to self – practice this on future runs). On the day of the ultra I’m going to need to fill the hydration bladder up at the aid stations and think about taking an additional soft flask to fill with flat coke for the later part of the run (flat coke works absolute wonders – a real pick up and energy boost).
I hit the half marathon mark (13.1 miles) in exactly 2 hours. This is the quickest I’ve covered that distance in training so far. The next 3.5 miles were a little slower, but I had anticipated this and had also decided to slow my pace slightly as well. I tried to push the pace a bit in the last mile and if I’m being honest it was a bit of a struggle. I’m not overly concerned about that at this point in my training though. I finished the 16.6 miles in 2 hours 34 minutes. I was relatively pleased with that and had noted a few things I need to be aware of for longer runs and during the ultra. My focus was brilliant, I just concentrated on moving forwards all the time and not being concerned about anything but moving forwards.
A bit of a mishap after I’d got back. I was waiting for some books to be delivered and just as I was stepping out of the shower the doorbell went. I went rushing across the bathroom floor and slipped landing heavily on my left knee and face-planting onto the floor!!! Ironically, one of the books being delivered was called ‘Bounce’ – not something I did when I went down in a heap!!! The left knee is bruised at the moment, but it won’t stop me from training.
In the past I would have let things like the contact lens and slipping over bug me, but they haven’t, I’ve seen the humour and irony of it and accepted it for what it is.
Doing the run around the island was great and something I can tick off of my training targets for the year. In terms of distance and terrain it was OK. The ultra is being run off-road on trails. All of my training has been done on road. I need to look at some different routes for my longer runs and get on some trails and in order for that to work well I need to be upping the distance to 20 mile upwards for those longer runs – and that is something I’m really looking forward to doing.
Richard Guy, 47 years of age, born and grew up in London and have lived in Portsmouth since 2017.