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Friday, 12 September 2014

A valuable lesson from Eastern Europe...

As I write this I am sitting in a generic hotel room, in the beautiful (but currently very wet) city of Budapest.  Perhaps it is the generous local hospitality (Palinka), or the fact that when one is travelling on business one spends more time thinking about home, but I felt moved to add another post to this blog.  No doubt for our committed fans, the near fortnight of silence has been deafening, and difficult to take.  For that, I apologise.
It has been an interesting two weeks.  My preparations for the Great North Run reached their climax when I returned to the site of my inaugural Parkrun, and defeated my 8 year-old nemesis (The Story so Far), by a clear three minutes.  I reflected on my improvement with some pride, knowing that my #RoadToSub20 competitors had both opted for a lie in on this particular Saturday morning.
In truth though, my real focus was a long way north, as I was frantically wondering if I was going to be able to make from Newcastle to South Shields without the help of St John’s Ambulance staff.  I remind you dear reader, I had only started running at the beginning of this year, and had never run anywhere close to 13 miles before.  I was (by my own admission) horrendously under-prepared.
But time waits for no man, and the day came.  In spite of issues with equipment, I took my place on the start line with 50,000 others.  It was a warm day.  Sunburn became an issue before the gun had even fired, and organisers were suggesting it may not be a race for personal bests.
What happened next was something of a blur.  Great North Runners are made to feel akin to rockstars, with the wonderful people of the northeast lining the streets, handing out water, sweets, oranges, and, in one case, beer.  What I do know is that I made it round, in just a shade over 2 hours (32 seconds over to be exact), and a mere 12,333 places behind Mo Farah (he got a better start then me, and I was always struggling to catch up).
Two days later, and I’m on a plane to Budapest, legs still aching, but still feeling the pride from my achievement.  On arrival, I meet a whole load of locals, and it turns out that running is big business in these parts.  Nearly all of them listed it as a hobby.  I got talking to one about my antics on the previous weekend.  In near perfect English she said:
“Aha, I am running a half marathon in a couple of weeks’ time, with two other friends.  We are each doing 7km of it”
I wondered if that really counted as running a half marathon, but nevertheless I remained polite and engaged her in conversation further.  It turned out she was also new to running.  Others in the group joined in, and we shared our stories of why we did it (ranging from “I felt I had to do something active since I sit at a desk all day” to “I just need to spend some time away from my wife and children occasionally!”).  Of course, all of us were different standards, and had different targets.
I reflected on this, and a startling moment of clarity hit me: In running (as in any sporting endeavour) we don’t compete with others, we compete with ourselves.  If we continue to see an improvement we are happy, if we don’t we get angry, unhappy or despondent, possibly to the point of giving up.  But if we keep going further, faster, or both we have succeeded, regardless if we are last in the race.
Adrian, Tommy and I are lucky, in that the three of us are broadly similar in our athletic ability, but in truth, there are so many variables that decide this, and most of them we have no control over.  We simply seek to control what we can.
So, really what amateur athletes need to identify, is how they can get the best out of themselves.  For the three of us, it is a friendly wager, but for others it might be that they can one day make it all the way round a half marathon with their friends, or that as they get fitter they spend more time out of the house and away from screaming children.
Perhaps the age old adage associated with sport is the best one here: “Always remember why you started it in the first place.”  So I wish my 8 year-old competitor well, and I hope that, no matter how good she gets, she always remembers why she does it.

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