I’m not a tennis fan, I don’t watch much. I’m not Scottish either. But for some reason, like many other “Brits” I find myself drawn to the big Andy Murray matches, as I want to witness another piece of sporting history being made. Essentially I’m a glory supporter, but for me there’s more to it than that. It is an opportunity to see a world class example of mental toughness and resolve in a sport that relies upon composure, ability and skill under pressure.
Andy Murray finds himself in the position of world number one with a number of major trophies because he dared to dream. He has grafted to achieve those dreams, some might argue, over achieving. There are a couple of reasons why I find him so inspiring, most notably his steely grit to keep on digging (and disregard for how he may come across). For the record, I find he comes across very well. In an age where the obsession of most players is to maximise media exposure to further their income, Murray doesn’t force a false personality; he is who he is. I really admire that.
What to target next?
The recent events in Tennis have left me pondering my own psychological make up, both in relation to my running and other aspects of my life. Pretty deep, I know. It comes at a point where I am seriously pondering my next running goals and where I want to focus my efforts. My deliberations currently hinge around finding the balance between dedication to the sport that I love so much and feeling selfish with regards to my time spent with my little family (not to mention my energy levels to do anything quality with them!). It all has to be worth it. I’m also not entirely sure which races I want to focus on post cross country.
I have absolutely loved training for the last two marathons, but the training can be a little tedious in comparison to what else is out there. Also, following the last campaign that ended in injury I felt a little cheated having spent ten weeks away from the adrenaline and fun of racing. Marathon training culminates with a time related outcome, which can be so dependant upon conditions on the day, your body on the day and the course. Although it is nice to have a time to be proud of which quantifies your ability, I’m not so sure I want to spend my last few years of serious training chasing a time I may never achieve.
In contrast, my 2016 summer exploits of training for and competing in mountain races were the most exhilarating and fun months of my life. I met some amazing people whilst training and racing in beautiful locations. But what I find most interesting is that although I did enter the races daring to dream of bigger goals such as representing England, I had no prior experience and the pressure was well and truly off. I just turned up, raced and ultimately, genuinely surprised myself by being competitive in a field of lads I rate very highly and didn’t expect to compete with.
What happened next? Pressure arrived. Admittedly I did have a little bit of misfortune with an infection, but I think it is fair to say that I possibly trained a bit too hard and allowed the weight of representing my country get to me. I was so bothered about what people might think if I ran poorly in my England vest that I didn’t rest well and ultimately didn’t recover from hard training.
I mentioned earlier that I didn’t have many sporting heroes; this is partly due to the negative impact that money in sports such as football has had- I just can’t idolise players who are more interested in finances than their country and I find the leagues uninspiring due to the effects of rich clubs/ owners. In endurance sport the effects of performance enhancing drugs has affected us as a family and I find it hard to really look up to many high profile athletes (but I do trust some!!)
Consequently my heroes tend to be closer to home, people I can relate to, people such as my wife for one. I know she is a clean athlete and is extremely talented, but also a very aggressive and exciting racer.
Many of my other heroes undoubtedly are extremely good competitors, but it tends to be other characteristics that I find so inspiring. My club-mate Andy Heyes always amazes me with way he attacks races; he is another fantastic racer. Dave Norman and Steve Vernon are hugely inspiring, energising personalities and leaders within the sport. I admire Andy Baddeley for tackling so publicly the impact of depression, something that many of us are reluctant to embrace. Yet he was so private in tackling the injuries that have previously affected some of his high profile performances, never making excuses.
Steph Twell, again not just for her blatant athletic prowess but for the positivity with which she tackled a career threatening injury and came back to live an Olympic dream. Then from a coaching perspective there is Bud Baldaro, yes an amazing coach, but such an extraordinarily talented communicator, motivator and essentially a facilitator of dreams. I could go on, our sport contains so many amazing people.
Whilst at the Home Countries international I was paired to room-up with an obstacle course racing champion who had beaten me in the trial race. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, knowing nothing about the discipline and the kind of people who it attracts. But little did I know that it would be an experience that I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. The lad in question was Jonathon Albon. What struck me about him was his outlook on life, extremely positive, philosophical and completely flexible with his life choices.
Essentially he lives out of a suitcase for months on end, leaving this country to live with his Norwegian wife and ultimately forging a global career out of his uncovered talent of being an outstanding obstacle course racer. Most importantly he appears to take pride in trying new things (and generally being good at them), he places no pressure on himself, no pressure to succeed just a determination to enjoy life and see where it takes him.
Almost a polar opposite of me where I place far too much pressure on myself at times stifling my enjoyment or perception of success, in fact it felt like a psychological special edition of supersize vs. super skinny; “super optimist vs super pessimist”. I will certainly always remember the Home Countries race for the epiphany that I experienced: “I’m doing this all wrong!” The experience was also enhanced because many of the people who made up the team were very much of this mind-set and a really inspiring bunch to be around.
What can I do differently?
So, how to use these examples to improve my own endeavours? Well, I certainly don’t feel I need to study sports psychology books, I just need to try and adopt the aspects of these philosophies that were so enlightening. Over the years I have tried lots of training approaches; I have included big mileage, hard sessions, and gym 4-5 times a week. I have backed off and tried less, with a focus on quality or HR training. I’ve been to altitude a few times and I’ve trained with some of the best guys in the country.
Despite this I’ve only really achieved 3 of around 10 of my major goals. I often wonder if they are two lofty, deep down do I really have the required ability? I know I can train very hard, but there’s more to it than that. After lots of soul searching I recognise that my perception of “achievement” is slightly distorted due to the fact that I’m married to a regular Great Britain international and have spent a lot of time with her peers. To be honest it kind of makes anything I achieve feel quite insignificant. As I enter the twilight of my running career I really want to ensure I go out happy and with that elusive sense of achievement.
So do I alter my goals? Or is there anything else I can try? To be honest, I really would love to achieve them, so I think I’ll have one more stab. I’ve tried pretty much everything in training, but what I haven’t done is relax and take the pressure away from myself (although I noticed a much better psychological approach in the Berlin build-up). Now my predominant goal is just to make sure everything I do is enjoyable!
Through Andy Murray I now know its ok to dare to dream and not be embarrassed about it. But through Jon Albon and the mountain guys (great name for a band) I need to not take it so seriously, enjoy the experiences, the processes and embrace new things. In doing so, the pressure is off and the experience enhanced. I’ll always need a goal to aim for, its what gets me out of bed on those cold, weary winter mornings but once set I’ll just enjoy running to achieve it.
The process of writing this blog has helped me to solve my conundrum; “which races should I target in the spring/summer?” The great races come thick and fast in all disciplines, but I want to get my teeth into a new adventure, which I know I’ll enjoy. So, in order to enjoy the next training and racing block my goals have been placed in envelopes corresponding to each month and I will open them at the end of each month and see how I did, until then they are (relatively) forgotten.
It might seem a bit cheesy, but I still want to have that motivation in the back of my mind, at the same time I want to guard it from the forefront and just enjoy running. The envelope idea is really just a prompt to stop myself delving too deep into the emotional side of the goals!
I won’t detail my summer targets but I’m looking forward to enjoying fell and mountain races next year. This is going to involve the acquisition of a lot of new skills and training methods, most notably downhill running. It will be a real challenge; quite daunting…I’m just going to enjoy it. Look out for future blogs as I try to develop some off road fitness and skills!
But first…I need to enjoy the XC season…