What I’ve learned this year about self-imposed limits

By | June 9, 2019

This isn’t about technology at all, I’m afraid, but I wanted a place to think through and document a learning experience I had earlier this year and this is the best spot I could come up with. It’s really long and self-indulgent. If you decide to read on, that’s on you. Don’t complain when you reach the end and haven’t enjoyed it, OK?

This also feels like a nice post with which to bookend my blog. To date I’ve written about educational technology in schools (and across groups of them). I was, for many years, a teacher and then a school leader who made use of technology where it made sense and offered clear benefits, and later on my job became about trying to scale these.

I say ‘bookend’ because from September my role is changing. For the past 6 years I’ve held the post of Technology Director for a large group (now around 70) of English schools and have been ever more conscious of the distance between my classroom experience and my current day to day, my blogs naturally growing towards system-level observations and thinking.

From the start of the next academic year I will become the COO of my organisation, a role which encompasses Technology, Marketing & Communications and Human Resources, further distancing me from the credibility needed to make comment on the use of technology for learning! I imagine that anything I post on here will reflect where my current experience and expertise lies.

Personal professional news out of the way, on to the point of this post. There’s a fairly lengthy pre-amble before we reach the bit about what I’ve learned, but the context is important detail.

If you’ve met me in real life, you will have experienced the tedium of politely listening while I tell you more than you ever wanted to know about my marathon running. It’s something I obsess over – let’s not examine why.

18 marathons in and I need a new rack

I’ve kind of thrown my personal life at it for the past decade, but have reaped only modest returns. My first marathon (Paris, 2010) was a respectable first-timer’s 3:56. My twelfth (Paris 2017) an incrementally achieved slightly better 3:28. In between those efforts were thousands of intervals, tempos, hill and long runs, racking up tens of thousands of miles. A fairly meagre improvement, in reality – high effort, low impact. I remain a ‘middle of the pack’ runner.

It’s worth noting that this 2017 3:28 was the hardest thing I’d ever done, right on the edge of what I thought I could possibly do. I was 40, looking down the barrel of diminishing maximum heart rates and slower recovery times. I was crazy-fit then too, proud owner of two 1:29 half marathons from March. I was at a peak from where I couldn’t really see myself improving on that performance.

But like many ageing and obstinate runners, I decided at that point that more intensity was the answer and spent the summer of 2017 running back-to-back 20 milers at marathon pace, slowly grinding my body down into state of chronic overtraining which hit me like a truck from the blindside and left me unable to run a mile without pain by Christmas. I’d done something unforgivable to the muscles in my core and they had definitively downed tools in protest.

Expensive diagnosis was followed by equally expensive physio, tedious daily strengthening exercises and a slow crawl back towards normality. It’s testament to the benefits of years of endurance training that after literally two short runs in late March 2018, I was able to jog round Paris in the Spring of 2018, my wife almost dragging me the final couple of miles, to keep the streak going (it was my ninth consecutive Paris Marathon).

2018 was a tough one

Fast forwards to this season. Autumn marathons in Berlin and Ljubljana were great experiences but garnered indifferent, slightly under-trained times. Hey ho.

Then a speculative entry to Tokyo via the ballot found me unexpectedly given a place for this early-March 2019 race. Tokyo, in case you don’t know, is one of the ‘Big Six’ (alongside London, Berlin, NY, Boston and Chicago) and very hard to get into, so I wasn’t going to spurn the chance to run it.

It seemed do-able, with 6 weeks to recover before Paris in April, but as the combo was a bit unusual I decided to run these two for Cancer Research UK, something I don’t usually do as I don’t want to be that guy who’s constantly asking friends and family to donate in support of a hobby.

In January 2019, I came up with a suitable challenge that spanned both races and represented a stretch target – to run a combined 7 hours across the two, representing two performances of close-to-PB 3 hours and 30 minutes.

To further incentivise me to train hard, I put some personal skin in the game by promising to match all donations if I failed to break 7 hours. The addition of a loss aversion lever is something I’ve found works wonders on my commitment to an unpleasant task and I encourage you to lean heavily on its power if you too benefit from being a world-class miser.

So – I made a grand announcement to all and sundry of my intentions to do something worthy of the world’s sponsorship, headed out of the door for a long run… and immediately tore my calf.

The physio chuckled to himself about this classic ‘middle-age weekend warrior’ injury and said I’d be lucky to make the start line in Tokyo in five weeks’ time. I went home and internet shopped for any recovery snake oil I could find. I now own a mini-TENS machine, foam rolling stick (this is actually quite good) and various ice and heat packs that I used to blister my skin whilst leaving the muscle beneath apparently untroubled by all the noise going on outside.

There were the usual false dawns (nope, still hurts!), bargaining with a barely remembered higher-power and desperate gaming of marginal gains – I drank more beetroot juice than could ever be desirable and spent hours coming up with the perfect mantra… Once I got to Tokyo, I pumped 100-Yen coins into Buddhist shrines until I got a blessing that was at least cautiously optimistic. I even bought a health charm from one temple, reasoning that it couldn’t hurt. I was willing to grasp at any passing straw, in summary.

This did actually turn out to be accurate

That first Spring marathon was bitterly cold and wet and my strategy was to go out at 3:30 pace (8-minute miles) and hope that the right calf held up. It was taped heavily, I was wearing compression socks and – crucially – I had inhaled deeply of the holy incense at the Senso-ji, as is traditional. Not sure if this counts as doping.

I could write a post of equal length about the unique experience of the Tokyo Marathon!

My mantras worked well. I was using a combination of things, including the incredibly powerful 26.2 miles of gratitude approach, where you spend each mile thinking about how grateful you are to someone in your life. It puts you in a very positive headspace, externalises your thinking and quite effectively fills the time.

However, at the 20m point, disaster struck and my right calf ‘went’, as they say. I stopped and stretched for a bit before hobbling on very, very slowly, convinced it had re-torn. It must just have been cramp though (or perhaps the mystical effects of my health charms!), as after two painful miles, things started to loosen up until I was back on pace and finished with my fastest mile of all 26.

But those two slow miles had cost me dearly, and a finish of 3:36:00 meant I was chasing 3:23:59 in Paris. For reference, that would be a 4 minute Personal Best, two years on from my peak, measurably less fit (VO2 Max in 2017 = 62. 2019 = 54) and, fundamentally, a bit broken.

It felt unlikely.

In the intervening six weeks, I struggled to manage my pretty mangled legs and the compensatory injuries to all sorts of unsuspected muscle groups higher up the body, whilst also trying to add some fitness. Sports massage was helpful, as was gait analysis and the resulting coaching advice (lean forwards from the ankles, apparently). I questioned whether all this was throwing good money after bad (those beetroot shots ain’t cheap!) but figured if I was in for a penny, I was in for a pound.

Thinking back, my psychology during March and early April was pretty messed up. I obviously felt the pressure of the impending self-imposed £1000+ fine I’d committed to, compounded by enterprising colleagues re-upping their donations once they realised who’d also be paying. But the over-riding emotion I experienced was shame. Shame that I’d publicly said I was going to do something that I wasn’t going to be able to follow through on. Shame that I saw myself as a reasonable marathon runner and was coming up short – the cognitive dissonance was painful and exposing. Obviously it’s all relative and my problems were about as first world as it gets, but inside my head things looked bleak.

On April 14th, stood at the start on the Champs-Élysées (blessedly cool and dry, rare conditions for a Paris Marathon, which is often quite hot), I had a decision to make, a decision which had been created by the jeopardy I had made for myself.

I knew that I could probably do 8-minute miles and survive – I had almost done so in Tokyo. I also knew that to do this would be admitting that I’d already lost before I’d even begun as I’d finish around 3:30 and miss my target by the seemingly trivial margin of 6 minutes.

So I decided to do what no marathon runner should ever do, which was to go out hard and try and hang on, despite the lack of fitness, despite the recent history of injury, despite the years of experience teaching me what I was capable of sustaining.

7:40s, I calculated, would just about get me there. 7:40 per mile would be the razor’s edge I would need to walk between physically breaking down or ‘blowing up’, and failure brought about by ‘the soft prejudice of low expectations’ as Mr Gove once put it.

The only issue was that 7:40s are really fast for me, faster than I’ve ever tried to run a marathon before. It would only be a matter of time before I ran out of heart beats or carbohydrate and hit the wall. How much time though?

The feeling at the start of Paris has come to symbolise Spring for me over the past decade

The first mile was fine. It’s mostly downhill, towards the obelisk at Place de la Concorde, which is always glinting in the sun at that time of the morning. The anticipated crash had failed to materialise by half-way, by which point we’d snaked past Palais Garnier and Place Vendôme, out through the Marais to the Bois de Vincennes and back towards Notre Dame (the day before it caught fire).

The miles ticked by. I thought about to whom I was grateful. I leaned forwards from my ankles whilst chugging slow-carbs and forcing down fructose. My calf complained and grumbled and I had to adjust my stride at times to keep it in check, but it didn’t seize up.

At 18m my wife was at the appointed spot below Trocadero to swap an empty bottle for a full one. Her video reveals that I thanked her and said I was feeling OK.

20, 21, 22, 23…

The race was 4 days after the first Brexit deadline so I thought I should make my feelings plain

At 24m I realised that I was going to make it and I can still taste the hot, guilty euphoria two months later. The wheels had somehow not come off and I was going to surpass all reasonable expectations. I crossed the line on Avenue Foch in 3:20:58 in abject confusion at what had just happened.

Even the consistency of my splits defies explanation. This is not normal (for me)

Unfit, injured, older, but a whole lot faster than the fastest I’d ever thought I’d be. The strangest thing was the the entire race had felt comfortably hard. Not easy – no marathon is ever easy – but at no point did I think “I can’t sustain this”.

Once you account for the marginal gains, which at best offset a fraction of the maximal losses to fitness and health, the only explanation I can find is a psychological one.

For years I had laboured in a self-constructed cage framed by my perception of my capabilities. My brain, sensibly but unhelpfully, underestimated what I could safely do, and convinced me it was right. 8:00 minute miles are survivable. Any faster and you will crash and burn.

The perfect storm of jeopardy that my public statement of intent, combined with the loss of control the injury brought to the mix meant that living within my limits was no longer an option. I was forced to do something I would never normally even attempt. And nothing went wrong.

Bravo

What has this all taught me? In running terms, it makes me wonder what I can really achieve. I’ve always thought a Good For Age for the majors to be out of reach, but I was within 58 seconds of qualifying for Chicago. Perhaps, in the Autumn of 2021, when being 45 will earn me a super-generous extra 5 minutes’ grace, I could even qualify for Boston. Who knows? I’m certain that I don’t – but I no longer think that it’s not possible.

In my wider life, this Spring has caused me to re-evaluate how self-defeating so much of our internal monologue can be. For years, my line manager has patiently listened to me whine about what I can’t change and has consistently suggested that these limits may be imposed by my own thinking. It’s really annoying that he’s probably correct.

We’re all capable of so much more than our history and circumstances lead us to believe, but rarely does life contrive to demonstrate this as clearly as it did for me this year.

I will return to this post whenever I catch myself slipping backwards into negative mindsets.

2 thoughts on “What I’ve learned this year about self-imposed limits

  1. James Weatherill

    This is my favourite blog of yours so far. It feels much more personal, and I liked the miles of gratitude approach – some good psychology in there for remaining focused and positive and what that can drive you to accomplish. As an aside I lived with a flatmate who trained less but ran faster than my other friends, he has a positive mindset and no preconceptions about what is a ‘good’ time. Just gets his head down, enjoys the journey, and it shows in the result.

    Reply
  2. Raph

    Thanks for sharing Dominic, I’m not a marathon runner but can relate to the benefits of opening your mind to possibilities and that sometimes it takes an external factor to “open it for you”.

    Reply

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