Where is it all going?


It’s a week ago.

We’re trotting round the park. The sun is bright and in the distance we see lots of runners who, out of habit, have also chosen to get a few miles in at 9AM on a Saturday morning. The air is still and the leaves have fallen, lending the ground various shades of gold, yellow, and in places, red. We’re running at 9 minute miles. Hardly breathing. The whole run has a dream-like quality and we both remark that we could probably run all day.

My friend Shay turns and asks, ‘Where is it all going?’

At first I think that he is talking about the paths and trails, for some twist away to various other open spaces and some hidden places. I realise within the next few steps that he is, of course, talking metaphorically – where is this all leading to?

It’s a question that I often ask. My answer is always the fact that it doesn’t matter. I return home from running in a better frame of mind than when I left. My mind is still. My lungs feel clean. My body tired. All is good. Running is enough. But this marathon has also grabbed my attention in other ways. By how much can I improve? Can I get any better? Where are my limits? Sure, I want to continue to feel grounded and happier after each run. And yet, perhaps, at 45 I also have to face the reality that I won’t have forever in which to improve and in which to really push myself harder than I have before.

So yes, Shay, where is it all going?

The answer is simple. My goal clear; my target unambiguous.

I want to run the Bolton Marathon in under three hours next May.

It’s a proper challenge for a proper marathon. My current PB is on a flat course. My current PB is 3:28. Getting down to this from my slowest marathon of 4:45 has been a hugely rewarding effort. I have no idea if I’m capable of running a marathon in under three hours on any course, let alone on one as hilly as Bolton. I’m about as unsure of whether I can do this as I am certain. I have no idea if I am physically capable. None.

To me, the feeling of challenging ourselves in the hope that we can learn something about where our limits lie is priceless. To me, it is the very stuff of life. To me, the future memory of having run a marathon in under three hours is what is going to get me out on the roads. I’ll be listening, learning, watching, observing as much as I can. I’ll be sharing what I learn on the way. And mostly, I’ll be convincing myself that I can somehow do it.

It’s nothing personal


I was up and out running this morning before anyone really noticed. I returned 13 miles later and nobody particularly cared.


My children don’t really know about the time before I ran: miserable, overweight, unfit, hopeless. I’m pleased that running has become something so unexceptional that they see it as normal. Perhaps, one day, they too will run because it’s the normal thing to do. It never bothers me that they hardly notice that I’ve been out. It’s nothing personal.

And yet, of course, running is entirely personal. We have our own reasons and our own motivations. Or at least we should have our own reasons; rarely have I met a runner who is doing it solely for someone else. Marathon training seems to be an exercise in continuing to focus on these reasons. I coach and mentor a lot of people (not in running, alas) and the reasons why people want to achieve a particular goal are always interesting – at least they are once they’ve finally been revealed. It can take a while to finally enable people to articulate why they want to do something. The more coherent the ‘why’, the more definitive the ‘why’, the greater chance of them being successful because they have a solid mental framework within which to locate their efforts. Success is always personal and it’s always an inside job.

All of this I’ve thinking about at various points this week. I’ve run 53 miles. Most of these have been really easy, some of them have been steady, a couple have been a bit quicker. It’s still very much the foundation stage of training which really does allow us time to think and ponder why we’re doing it. My ‘why’ is simple: I want to improve over the distance. There’s a ‘why behind the why’ (there always is!): I want to prove to myself that at 46 I can continue to step away from the wreckage that was once my mental and physical health. There are other ‘whys’ there too, but I’ll save those for another blog if you don’t mind. It’s nothing personal.

Lots of easy running…lots of time to think about why

Next week it’s more of the same. The long run will be about 14 miles and the session will be 5 x 2 minutes. It’s nothing too hard, nothing too taxing at this stage. The mini-session I did this week was 3 x 2 minutes and it hurt towards the end. I could get frustrated that this was the sort of thing that I could do in my sleep at the start of the year; but that’s life and injury, that’s lockdown and illness.

Besides, it’s nothing personal!

Week three: 53 miles

The problem with motivation


Running is, at heart, an incredibly simple activity. The fact that so much has been written about it doesn’t take away from this essential truth about running: it’s about putting one foot in front of the other.

If we want to run faster, we have to run, at times, faster. If we want to go longer, we have to run, at times, longer. When we need to recover, we go slower. It’s as basic as that. It’s also an honest sport. Nearly all runners get better through running more. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. But if we look at what the best do, the one thing that I guarantee that they have in common and the thing that sets them apart from me is simply the volume of miles that they run.

I’ve been asking the best runners that I know about how they go about training for a marathon. All have said ‘run more’.

Interestingly, nobody has said work on your motivation. It’s interesting, but not really surprising for me. I’ve worked as a teacher for the last 20 years. I’ve lost count of the the number of teachers I’ve mentored, coached, trained, guided and advised. Successful teachers are the ones who get the work done. Successful students are the ones who get the work done. Like the marathon, successful examination results are based on actions, not motivation. I’m not hugely interested in what people say they are going to do. I am fascinated by what people have done. I explain this to students almost every day for I honestly believe that our fascination with motivation is damaging.

Here’s why:

If I waited until I was motivated, I’d hardly ever run. I’m not motivated to run at 8PM when I’ve been up since 5AM and I’ve already done 12,000 steps at work. How motivated I am at 8PM is utterly irrelevant. What matters is simply getting the work done.

The marathon does not care how motivated I am. How motivated I have been in my training won’t help at all when things get really challenging. What will matter is how well prepared I am. What will matter is the miles that I have run in training. Mental strength in the marathon comes from knowing that I did the work even when I didn’t want to.

Motivation often follows the action. I think that motivation means being in the right frame of mind. This is why I run. It helps my frame of mind. And that’s why I’m not bothered about how motivated I am when I step out the door. It doesn’t matter because I know that I will return home feeling in a better frame of mind. My motivation rises after I’ve been running.

We don’t need to be motivated to do anything. This is a bit of a con. We just need to do it. These days I keep it simple. Do I want to do well I the marathon? Yes. Then I need to get the work done. Adding in to this simple equation the question of how motivated I am or am not risks derailing the whole project.

A proper marathon deserves proper training. Motivation is optional.

I’ve been mulling all of this over this week. It’s been my second week as a Bolton Marathon Ambassador. I’ve covered slightly more than last week and most of it has been really comfortable. This is the foundation stage of the training and the aim is getting fit enough to do the training that I want to do in the final eighteen weeks before the marathon. I have decided that each week I’ll end one of the runs with a mile that is quicker. I ended Tuesday’s run with a mile at 7:10. It dawned on me that this is still over 20 seconds slower than sub 3 hour pace. A 2:45 marathon is a staggering 6:17 minutes per mile. There is a lot to do and yes, I am motivated to do it. If I wasn’t, I’d still be doing it anyway.

I’m also going to start a session each week. Initially this will simply be strides as a way to try and reconnect with the idea of running faster. At the moment I still feel very uncoordinated and I feel like I’m shuffling along.

What isn’t shuffling along is the community that has built up around this event, for good reason too. This will be the first marathon in the world to avoid using single use plastics. There will be a ban on littering the course. Thought has gone into how the water stations will be supplied. It’s going to be a challenge that is significantly different from other road marathons, not least because of the 1800 feet of climbing involved. I need to start thinking about hills.

No I don’t.

I need to start running on them. Keep it simple.

Week two: 34 miles

The samurai in autumn


It’s Tuesday evening and I’m already late for a Zoom meeting. Just before it’s about to start, I hear a howl of protest from my daughter who is blankly staring at her phone, exclaiming that the internet won’t work. It won’t and it doesn’t until I’ve gone through the process of turning the router off and then back on again.

It takes two minutes; it feels like an age.

As I wait for my laptop to connect I’m ruminating on the false starts that my training has had of late. In fact, to call it training is, indeed, asking a lot of the verb ‘training’. I’ve been shuffling, walking, limping, suffering. I’ve not really been running. Injury, illness, injury, busy work, then a horrendous stomach bug have all put paid to any chance of training over the last few months. False starts…I’ve had a few. And so, in my first week of being an ambassador for the Bolton Marathon it seems only fitting that I can’t actually get on to Zoom to meet everyone on time. I hate being late too.

I eventually do manage to meet everyone and what a great bunch we all appear to be. I’m already enjoying the community that has built up around this event and I’m really looking forward to watching everyone progress and to learning from them all. We have a Facebook training group and some of the names and faces are already familiar to me. Come and join us!

I spend the rest of the week trying to cut out some time each evening to do some running. Everything is around 9 – 10 minute mile pace and it feels much harder than it should be. I can feel the 14 pounds that I have put on since we first went into lockdown. They are under my ribs, round my neck, on my chest. I know that, when I get my act together and start to eat like a responsible adult again, they will go. As someone who spent a lot of his life eating like Homer Simpson (and looking like him too), I’m always aware of how easy it is to fall back into destructive habits. On Saturday I make a mental note to actually do something about it again. I’ll start on Monday, I make the mistake of thinking.

I get to the weekend feeling full of optimism. Last weekend I was full of a stomach bug, so it’s great to be up and out to watch the little one play football. In the afternoon, we watch BWFC lose and even that can’t dampen the feeling that it’s ok not be where I thought I would be. Yes, I’m really unfit compared to where I was at the start of the year, and that’s ok. I jog round Leverhulme and make a film about why it’s all alright.

The highlight of the week is running with Chris.  It’s months since we’ve been able to. I manage 8 miles. We’re both chatting away, both taking some comfort from the fact that although this year hasn’t really worked out for us, with a change of perspective, perhaps it’s all meant to be. We are where we are and that’s ok. I’m thinking of my friend Shay. He can’t run with us today and I’m hoping that he’s ok too.

In the afternoon I walk another couple of miles with the dog. I stop and take a photo of a tree. It’s a habit I’ve got into this year and I’m finding it relaxing to take a little time out and observe nature do its thing.

The first shot is awful and half of a branch is missing. I have to twist a bit round a puddle that’s formed on the grass. As I do, I’m reminded of the lines in a Pet Shop Boys song, ‘Its not as easy as it was, or as difficult as it could be/For the Samurai in autumn’. It’s not. It’s not as easy as it was or as difficult as it could be. That’s running. That’s life. And, mostly, that’s ok.

Week one: 32 miles

Bolton Marathon 2021 – weeks 3 and 4

The pavements of Bolton sparkle at times.

(01/06/20 – 14/06/20)

One of the abiding images from my childhood is glue-sniffing. I didn’t do it, but plenty of people did. I’d see them on a boundary wall of an abandoned cricket club near to where we lived. They were easy enough to spot with their faces submerged in polythene bags; when they emerged it was often with the telltale sores and scabs adorning edges of their mouths and the tips of their noses.

For far too many the mid 1980s was a grim time. It’s easy to see why so many who felt hopeless or disempowered felt the need to get out of it. I certainly did – but my own escape was not in solvents but in books, stories, narratives and my own imagination. Many were not so lucky.

The pavements of Bolton sparkle at times. You notice it frequently while running. A sudden glint, a shine, a sparkle that catches the corner of your eye. Invariably it’s from a used canister of nitrous oxide. Any association with a potentially bejeweled pavement evaporates quickly when you see them for what they are. Litter. The leftovers from an attempt to disassociate. The refuse of a desperate escapologist.

The irony is that I seem to notice them more when I’m running. I run not because I want to escape the present, but rather because I want a better future. It seems to me that these ubiquitous canisters are symbols of lives lived the other way round: a desire to get out of the present with scant regard for the future.

As I build for the future Bolton Marathon I feel that it’s been a positive two weeks. I’ve run 118 miles. I’ve completed two sessions and also two long runs. Saturday’s long run came in under 8 minute miles, which considering I’d run a hard 10 mile hill session the evening before was pleasing progress. I’ve lost 4 pounds too. It’s been great to run with friends after a long period of not being able to. As we dodge the used silver canisters littering the pavements on our routes, I hope we can continue to push on to better times.

Bolton Marathon 2021 – week 2

I’ve felt like a runner again for the first time in a while.

(WC 25/05/20)

I bought a pair of Saucony Jazz this week. I’ve had a pair before and liked the lightness of them. Great for parkruns and faster tempo runs where you want to be up on your toes a little bit more.

I took them out for a short run early one morning before quickly realising that I’m not at the stage of being up on my toes just yet. They felt hard underfoot and whatever the Everrun foam is, they didn’t inspire any confidence that I could run forever. I’m still too heavy. I’m looking forward to the day when parkrun returns and when at least a stone of my middle has disappeared again. I think the shoes will be just fine then.

I ran 58 miles this week. Longest run was 17 miles at a very sedate 8:30 m/m and I also did a session in the heat. It felt fantastic to dip under 5 minute miling for part of the 400 metre reps. I’ve felt like a runner again for the first time in a while and although it’s clear where I need to develop, it’s also clear to me that my motivation is high and my willingness to get stuck in is likewise.

Bolton Marathon 2021 – week 1

I’ll be out on the trails while the sun shines.

(WC 18/05/20)

As I tap away, the sun shines. As I write, the disappointment that I felt last week at not running the Bolton Marathon has been replaced by a determination to make next year’s event a personal success. I will go boldly over the next twelve months.

A year is a long time in running. The time has to be broken down into phases and those periods into weeks, into days, into runs.

The aim this week has simply been to run very easily. After observing a period of self-isolation I’ve now completed six weeks of building up my mileage slowly to fifty-three mostly slow, easy miles. I’m back to running every day and have done for the last four weeks. Clearly this is just base building. The marathon demands a huge aerobic base and the results reward those who successfully train to push the range of their aerobic fitness.

So the aim for next week is to run sixty miles. I’ll do some form of session in there too. Calling it a session maybe a bit of a push, because in all honesty it’ll simply be something like 8 x 1 minute of quicker running. But this will be the start of explicitly addressing the notion that I will need to be running much, much quicker over the marathon next year.

The other area that I am going to concentrate on this next week is nutrition. I’ve put twelve pounds on during lockdown: partly due to a decrease in running; partly due to the fact that I’m not as active during the day; partly due to the fact that through that unhealthy mixture of stress and anxiety, I have lapsed back into eating too much. I started training for the marathon at 172 pounds. By the time that we had to isolate I was 168. I am now 182 pounds. Oh dear!

I’ll be out on the trails while the sun shines. We’ve had some very warm days recently. They have been a lovely counterpoint to some dark times.

I’m just not good enough, my son

I’m already explaining to him why I can’t win a marathon. Not now, not ever. I’m just not good enough, my son.

I go running with my 8 year old son. We walk, jog, run, sprint. We talk as we make our way down ‘secret’ paths and trails with the spring sun on our faces.

He asks me about the Bolton Marathon an event which he knows I am training for. Was training for.

I explain to him that the event has been cancelled because of the coronavirus and that it won’t be on until next year. I tell him that although I’m disappointed, I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. The health of him, his sister, my wife, our family. It’s a difficult time I tell him, but it’s just a race.

He looks at me earnestly and tells me that with an extra year I should be able to win it. I smile at his innocence and away we trot. He sprints ahead and wins the imaginary race that he’s now placed himself in. It is, however, a race of one because I falter and stop with his words ringing in my ears: you should be able to win it dad.

He’s only just turned 8. The world is still a bit win or lose for him. I find myself assessing my own position in a marathon that will not take place. I’m certainly not first. I default to the monologue that plays out at times like this: you’re just not good enough. Before I know it I’ve imagined myself on the finish line with a dull feeling of disappointment hovering somewhere between my head and stomach. I’ve been OK. I’ve not been bad. I’ve had a decent run. I’m in the results, somewhere. I’m already explaining to him why I can’t win a marathon. Not now, not ever. I’m just not good enough, my son.

Before I know it I’ve made a list of reasons why I can’t win a marathon. It’s a great list: I’m too old; I’ve not got the genetic potential; I’ve done too much damage to my body through previously smoking, drinking, being overweight; I’m just not that type of runner; I’m just not good enough; my work is too time demanding; I’m too busy; I’m just not good enough; I’m scared of really trying; I’m just not good enough; I’m frightened of having a go. It’s all true. It’s all lies. And it’s all true.

Ahead of me the path opens out on to a field and it is to this that my son and dog now charge on to. Before I take another step, habit forces me to scan the edges. I’m a careful parent and imagined danger lurks behind each bush and besides every tree. The field is expansive. It stretches away to my left. I’ve run on it many times and in the summer the dark, densely bladed green somehow feels cooler than the road that edges one side. With his arms raised in victory and his eyes raised to the sky my son proclaims that he is the winner. He’s done it. In his mind he’s already collected his medal and is busy celebrating his victory with the dog.

In that moment I know that I have to get out of my own way. I understand that I have to stop asking for permission. I have to promise to myself to stop making excuses however reasonable they may seem. I have to make this next year count. I have to make all this running mean something. I have to win my own race.

But mostly, I have to get off this well-trodden path and join him.