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Know Thyself

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018


Inscribed above the entrance to the Oracle of Delphi’s temple in ancient Greece were two words:

Know thyself.

The idea being that before you go off and make your mark on the world, you need to, whatever you’re doing, look at your strengths and weaknesses, and hatch a realistic plan for success.

But, armed with this self-knowledge, the key is not to impose limitations. Belief is a powerful force.

As Milton said in Paradise Lost:

The mind is its own place and itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.

As anyone who’s been following my series of yuletide 2017 Crimbo blog posts will know, I now have one goal as a (45-year-old) runner: breaking 2h 40 minutes in a marathon.

And for the last three years, all my running training has centred on achieving that goal.

Unfortunately, my body hasn’t agreed with my mind.

And, aside from a 2:42:14 on a dodgy left Achilles at the London two years eight months ago, I spent pretty much all of 2015 and 2016 injured (most people would have given up).

So injured that by the time I came to pen my review-of-previous-year-set-goals-for-year-ahead blog post 12 months ago, I wrote:

This year I’m not going to write one. No running goals. All I want to do is enjoy my running, and get the bit back between my teeth.

And I did.

Best Year Running

2017’s been my best year’s running to-date. For the first time I’ve run for most of the year (11 months versus eight each in 2013 and 2014 and not a whole lot in 2015 and 16).

April saw me get a sub-2:45 at London in my best performance ever.

A big 1:40-minute PB gave me my first 2:40 marathon in late September.

And I made my first foray into ultra-running a highly memorable one, finishing a very close second at Glen Ogle in early November.

Me, at around 25 miles, running back along the famous viaduct in Glen Ogle.

Me, at around 25 miles, running back along the famous viaduct in Glen Ogle.

So, how to make sense of it all?

But First This

I had a really interesting conversation on Facebook with a running mate two days ago, and it got me to thinking.

In post five in this series I mentioned that if you can run a 5k in a certain time, you should be able to run any other distance (with the right training) in a time commensurate to your 5k performance.

Leaving the marathon aside, my PBs are as follows: 5k – 17:25, 5M 28:09, 10k – 35:52, 10M – 58:43, HM – 1:17:41.

Now, if you stick these into Runner’s World’s Pace Time Predictor calculator, my marathon times should be: 5k – 2:47:03, 5M – 2:43:03, 10K – 2:45:00, 10M – 2:43:07, HM – 2:41:58.

Nowhere is mentioned 2:39:59.

So, Why is This?

Could it be that I’m not fulfilling my potential at any distance bar the marathon?

Or am I outperforming over 26.2?

(Bear with me, here):

The answer to these questions, after a day’s reflection since that conversation with my mate, are: 1 – maybe, but probably not and 2:  no, probably the opposite.


  • I’ve done around a hundred races since starting running five years ago, and my times are pretty consistent. So, it’s likely the times for every distance bar the marathon are about right. It’s hard to say definitively but I reckon at every distance bar 26.2 I’m fulfilling my potential.
  • But when it comes to the marathon, it’s a different story. I’ve done well but perhaps there’s more to come.
  • All my training builds to my (usually) two marathons a year. I peak for the marathons.
  • I only do other races if it helps my marathon training and, while I always do my best, I’ve never once trained specifically for anything less than 26.2. The only exception to this would be the half marathon, which I always do between three and five weeks out from my target marathon (at which time, I’m in pretty good shape). But even here, I’ve never tapered or rested for the race: you just can’t do that when you’re a month out from a marathon.
  • If you look at the predicted marathon times above, there’s a pattern. The longer the race, the better the time the marathon race time predictor spews out. This probably mean longer distance races suit me more than shorter.
  • And finally, I take the marathon taper very seriously. When I toe the line for a marathon I’ve done everything I can (legally:O) to optimise my performance on that day. It therefore follows that my times should be better than that which, for instance, even my half marathon time five weeks out is predicting.

Why Was 2017 Such a Good Year?

Returning to the theme of this final blog (of seven) exploring some universal concepts through the medium of running, it could be put down to two words: “know thyself”.

Everyone’s different. You are. I am.

When it comes to marathoning there are very few stones I have left unturned. And as the years have gone on, I’ve adapted my training to suit my body and mind. This has included (2013-14):

  • Fairly low mileage (I get injured a lot so the lower the mileage the fewer the injuries).
  • High quality (I used to run just four or five times a week, including two speedwork sessions and a long run at the weekend with increasing marathon pace towards the end).
  • Early starts (I have a young family so I try and impact as little as possible).

2017 Was Different

But 2017 was different. Coming back after two years beset by injury, I doubled up on the knowing thyself schtick with the following:

  • Eighty per cent of my training was off road. Everything bar a predominantly Tarmac Thursday session with Giffnock North A.C. Man was not designed to run on Tarmac and neither was my left Achilles.
  • Lots of slow solo runs, often very early in the morning (minimum impact on body and family life).
  • Mini-doublers (three miles in the morning, three in the evening) a couple of times a week (good for recovery).
  • Hills. Every slow session was hilly. Making me work a little harder at the slower pace and building my leg muscles (hills are speedwork in disguise and while lots of speedwork leads to injury, lots of hills doesn’t).

So, I wasn’t caring what everyone else was doing. I took actions suited to me.

The way this manifested itself was different for each target race. For the London block I had a pretty rigid plan; for Berlin, I was a lot more flexible, and for Glen Ogle I just tried to take a little break then hang on to the Berlin fitness and trust the taper.

Like most things, it’s the principles that are most important, not the method.

Finally, for this section, when it comes to optimising your performance, knowing thyself is nothing without the belief. I’m really glad I’ve done the analysis above because it’s redoubled my belief in going sub-2:40, but I always believe I’ll perform when it comes to a marathon anyway.

If you don’t believe you can do something, what’s the point in doing it?

Running Highlight of 2017

This one’s easy. I’m 31 miles into a 32.5-mile ultramarathon in Highland Perthshire.


A clubmate and I had been running together, working together, since the start, moving into second and third place at around 14 miles.

As we hit Killin High Street, we overtook what turned out to be a 71-minute half marathoner, boosting past. We’re running at 5:45 pace, legging it down the centre of the road, dodging bin lorries and traffic. Job done. Or is it?

Twenty seconds later, the erstwhile leader comes back past me into second place.

And I’m there thinking: “This is amazing, he’s just retaken me, how did he do that, what mental strength, I’ll never take him back, He’s five yards ahead now, he’s getting away.”

So I summon all my reserves, increase the speed, really want it, focus, and I’m back past him, and, one minute later, running with my clubmate (we finished 50 seconds ahead of him).

Now that’s living alright.

Running Goals for 2018

I have just one: go sub-2:40 in a marathon. This is how I’m going to do it:

  • Continue what I’m doing (see above) and pray that the left Achilles that has just started niggling again buggers off whence it came.
  • I did nine races in 2017 (including my three target races). I don’t intend increasing that amount in 2018.
  • I’m going to take one shot at the marathon: Berlin in mid-September. This is a high-risk strategy BUT hopefully worth it.
  • I have a big personal/work project to complete in the first half of 2018 so won’t be doing a spring marathon.
  • I will, however, be doing the Highland Fling (53 miles, and my second ultra) in late April. I am going to enjoy the training, not take it as seriously as a marathon, and see what happens. This is not diminishing the ultra in any way shape or form (I intend to move up to ultras very soon and am looking forward to learning all about every nook and cranny of the discipline, just not this year). Anyway, it just seems to involve walking (rather than running) up hills so how hard can it be:O).
  • This Fling training will get me out into the hills more (which I love), double-down on the hill-training and, generally, freshen up my running. Leaving me gagging for that as-yet-incomplete 10-week Steve Way weekly marathon pace session when June rolls around.


Whatever you’re up to in life, you need to take actions repeatedly over time to achieve any objective worth its salt. You’ve got to do, not watch and moan.

Once you’ve done enough doing, at whatever you’re doing, you’ll get pretty good at whatever it is you’ve chosen to do. You understand the core principles and are applying them.

That’s good. But to really fulfil your potential you’ve got to know yourself. However, having done that, it’s important not to impose limitations; to have belief.

This applies to big things and small things. For instance, taking the action of writing this post, and analysing my times, has given me renewed belief in achieving my running goal.

And looking back at my running highlight of my year has given me a final insight:

Just like Charlie Spedding in the 1984 Olympic marathon, on that day in November (my 45th birthday), at that moment, all that body and mind training was paying off. I was flying. I was fulfilling my potential.

And if I can be permitted a parting thought at the end of this series of seven daily running blogs, isn’t fulfilling your potential what life’s all about?


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