George was early. In fact he was a week early. I didn’t expect his email. “I’m standing at the entrance, are you down the stairs, or on the shop floor level?” I was actually at the top of Box Hill. I had a minor panic. Had I given him the wrong day? No. That was good. We tried again the following week. This time, George was late. He left university last year but looked younger. Just under 6ft, he was obviously athletic but came across as nervous. He took his time to find the right words … but always did.
I’m George, I recently graduated from university. Thank you very much! I only started running while I was there. Before that I used to row.
The first reason I gave up rowing is that the guys who are good at rowing are big. They’re 6ft 5in, and massive. It got to a stage where I decided that I was bored that other people were beating me just because they were bigger. I wanted to eliminate that. The second reason is that I fancied a change. I wanted to try the physical activity side of running. Through rowing I got used to training most days of the week. There were lots of early mornings and I loved that side of it. That lent itself to running and triathlon.
I’ve always been sporty. I started rowing competitively from the age of 11. I started off coxing and then moved on from that. My family were very sporty as well, so I’ve been exposed to competition from a young age.
Going to my first couple of sessions at university was pretty daunting. The standard was phenomenal. But the training group was inclusive, and I ended up training with people of a very good standard. That meant that I was off the back of 99% of the sessions there. I found that quite hard to deal with.
It wasn’t until I went back home and joined another running club, that I felt like I was more involved in the sessions. I was pleased when I could run well. So yeah, it was fun. It made me think, actually, I’m not terrible at this.
The training sessions at university were long and tough. They tended to be very high volume, long distances, with lots of hills. It’s hard work and everyone around me was very quick. The hill sessions feel hard, but a lot can vary from session to session. If you’re having a good day you can get yourself into a zone. If you’re feeling tired and you’re having a bad day, you can also feel down and dejected. There are good days and bad days.
Each hill session we will do three minute up-slopes with a jog back down, anywhere up to eight times. With a warm up and a warm down, you can rack up eight miles or so. That’s what we do in the winter. As it gets towards the summer we start building up some strength. That can come down to sixty second up-slopes. We do that 14 times and jog back down. I couldn’t give you a gradient but they’re pretty steep. Steep enough that you’d have to get out your saddle if you were cycling up them.
Running does create a good team environment, especially through the winter cross-country races. That’s where the team environment really shines through.
A typical cross-country course involves hills, mud and the occasional ditch. You end up soaked. The hills make it hard work and the races tend to be between 10km and 12km long. I enjoy it for a change, and I’ll do one or two a year. My first ever running race, was the Leamington Spa cross-country. There was a massive ditch, and it was broad enough that you had to put your feet into it, up to nearly your thighs. You end up covered in mud.
If I had to pick a discipline, I would choose track every day. I’ve always struggled at cross-country with the mud, and that’s probably a big part of it. You tend to enjoy what you’re better at as a rule, but if I could take the cross-country team environment and put it on the track, that would be ideal.
What makes the team environment? I don’t know. We get a bit of face-paint out. There’s usually some chanting going on. What it really comes down to though is the format of the racing. There are five scorers per team and each position is worth a certain number of points. There is one point for first, two points for second, and so on. The team that finishes a race with the lowest number of points wins, which means that you’re invested in the other runners a little bit more. That makes it a bit more fun.
During a race on the road, you can get yourself into much more of a rhythm. If you’re running well and you feel good you zone out and your eyes glaze over. How long you can stay in that rhythm will affect how you do in the race. You can’t really get away with that in cross-country. You’ve always got to be aware of where you put your feet, who’s getting their elbows out, or what’s coming up next.
When I race, I race to win. There’s probably … I’m trying to put this right … I’m aware before the race that there’s a good chance I won’t win, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t enjoy racing to win. That’s the best way to put it. Yes, I am a very competitive person for things I have invested in and worked at. I’m not nasty, but I care about how I do.
There’s always a safety mechanism when you’re training. Even when you’re doing a really hard session on the track, you know that there’s another gear. That’s a big difference between racing and training. When you’re racing you know that whatever you put in at that moment in time is going to reflected in the final result.
I tend to do my longer runs on my own, and my sessions as a group. With the easier running it’s just about getting it done. It can be quite personal in terms of the pace that you want to do. I tend to do my easier running at a higher pace than other people. I’ve found that I avoid injuries that way. If people could hear me say that they would tell me that it’s ridiculous. They would say that running faster is not good for you, but that’s what I’ve found works for me. It’s easier to do that by yourself. People have different opinions as to how that works. In a session, it’s more important to stay switched on. It’s more important to be aware of your times, and who’s around you. It’s good race prep. If we’re doing fast 400m and someone cuts in front of me, I know that it could happen in a race, so it’s good to have that environment. It’s more fun as well when you’re in a team.
We did some fast 400m on Tuesday. It was sixty seconds flat, and we did five that night. That’s the fastest bit of running that I’ve done this year so far.
Running those last few 400m felt hard. It felt leggy. That sort of session doesn’t get to my lungs so badly, which makes sense because it’s faster running. But your legs by that point are swimming in lactic. It feels like your legs are going to jelly. I suppose that’s the expression that loads of people use. I’m trying to find the right phrasing. It feels like when your leg strikes the ground your knee might buckle. That’s the feeling. Your brain is working quite hard to tell your legs what to do. Running becomes less natural and you’re actually having to say “left leg, right leg.”
What is the difference between the cultures for rowing and running? The obvious answer would be that rowing is more of a team-based sport, and so there is more camaraderie. I wouldn’t say that was true though, as there is lots of camaraderie in running as well. I suppose I had more early mornings with rowing and there was less flexibility. If you don’t turn up at your session with rowing, you are affecting the training of the other people in the boat. If you’re running, and you’ve had a big lunch and you’re feeling full, you can push your run back for half an hour and have a cup of tea. Rowing you are obliged to stick to the training time. Everyone else is waiting on you. That is quite a big change.
Both groups of people have been very social so I wouldn’t say that one was more social than the other. They are both similar. When people are involved in those two sports, they are committed to it. They are rowers, or they are runners. It’s not just something that they do for fun. I’m trying to avoid saying ‘way of life’ but it’s quite often all they do outside of work. It’s all they are committing their weekends to. I was ready to make that commitment. That helped me transition from one to the other.
There is a big cultural difference in racing as well. There is a difference between the camaraderie on the start line in a boat, and when you’re on the line for a race. When you’re rowing there are another three people behind you, who can pat you on the back. I preferred sitting on the start line in a rowing boat with three people behind me, than I do standing on the start line on the track. On the track you feel quite alone.
On the start line, I hope that I’m feeling OK. It’s hard to know how well you’re going to perform until you have run the first lap. You have days where you warm up, feel terrible, but race really well. Conversely, when I’m warming up I can sometimes feel like I’m going to win the race but after the first lap, I realize that it’s not my day. A lot of anxiety comes from that.
When I race, I don’t always know who is around me. I sometimes wonder how good the other guys around you are. At the end of the day, none of it’s really going to help. You’ve just got to cling on and run your own race.
No. Anxiety is not a big feature of racing for me. I love racing. It’s not anxiety really. That’s the wrong word. It’s mainly excitement. If I’m racing Saturday, I’m not stressing about it on Wednesday. Obviously I’m conscious of it, and I’m thinking I need to take the two days before a race easy because I want to be fresh, but there’s no anxiety, no stress really. Not until I’m on the line anyway. Then I start thinking what am I doing?
A lot of what tells me that I’m feeling good before a race is how awake I feel. On a start line, you never feel drowsy or tired, but sometimes you feel really on it and awake. You sometimes see the best athletes jumping up as high as they can – they’re showing their inner feeling.
You always do strides before a race. Strides are a short section between 60m and a 100m, where you build into running at a fast pace. Acceleration over a short distance. It wakes your legs up and gets you prepared.
Personally I try and use people around me to settle into race pace. No matter what you do in the first 200m, people always panic. People are always really keen to hit the front, so you’ve got to control yourself and tell yourself that the pace will come down.
When a race settles in, it’s about finding rhythm. It’s about being comfortably uncomfortable. You feel more settled if you’re found your rhythm, and you’re also matching the pace of the people around you. If it’s a good pace, and you feel good and everyone feels good, then it gets fun. At that point you’re looking around. Everyone’s looking around and you’re thinking, who’s going to go? Who’s going to kick this? That’s exciting. It’s quite hard to make actual eye contact, but you’re conscious of who’s around you. Normally it’s someone who is behind you that comes up – whoomph!
In general I am more comfortable running behind someone else. I don’t always trust myself to set a pace. If you’re on the front, you’re thinking – ah, he’s running easy, he’s going to kick past me at any second. I haven’t got a whole childhood of running miles and miles and miles, so I’m not historically as strong or fit as other runners. I tend to try and rely on my top end speed. So if I can sit behind and surprise them down the back straight, that’s a good race for me.
I have never really sat down and given myself realistic achievable targets for the season, which I should do. I might even do that now I have said it. Up to now, if anyone ever asked me if I had any goals, it would be to run as well as I could. Which is never good, because you can never achieve that. I want to start running in slightly higher level competitions. I would love to compete at a British Milers Club event, or a more prestigious running event. That would be cool. I want to run under 16 minutes for 5km, and under two minutes for the 800m. Those are numbers I have in mind. Most of my goals are focused on the track in the summer, rather than on the road.
At the moment, marathons and longer races are pushed to one side of my brain. The only moment I have been tempted to do something like a marathon is when a good friend of mine ran the New York Marathon. That’s the first time that I have thought, man, I wish that I could do that. That would be an experience. For now, I enjoy being competitive over the 800m. To get really good at a marathon, you would want to work your way up to ninety miles a week rather than thirty, which I don’t think I could do very well. In it to win it? Yeah, kind of. I suppose everyone is really.
One side of why I run is for self-esteem. If I have a bad day at work, or a different element of my life, I can always fall back on the fact that I am doing that, as well as running. I don’t know if that’s a safety net, or a comfort blanket. That’s one side of it.
The second is that there is a big part of me that hasn’t grown out of thinking that in three years time I could be a professional athlete. I appreciate that it’s quite immature, but I’m conscious that it is still in my head. Maybe I will grow out of that. Who knows? For the time being, it is a reason why I run. Who knows? If I stick at this for another two years, I could go to the Olympics or the World Championships.
Here’s a good one if we’re doing this anonymously. Two Tuesdays ago, I ran my best ever 5km – 16:48 which is good but obviously everything is relative. I did go home and check online, and I saw how many Brits had run faster than that this year. It wasn’t that many actually. It was about fifty. That made me really happy. I’m pretty sure people have run quicker than that over 10km, and in unchipped races, but online it was between forty and fifty. I’ll take that.
The best thing about running? It’s hard to say. Just to remake the point about rowing and running. Running is different from football, or rugby, or hockey. If you play those sports you enjoy it, you enjoy doing them, but if you’re training to run you spend a lot of time not having fun. You don’t really do it for the time you’re doing it. You do it for the time you’re not doing it, where you can tell people that you run. It’s different in that respect. It’s something that people tend to do as a lifestyle and they really do commit to it, rather than going to a running club and doing it for fun.
No, I don’t use Strava. I have got Strava and I’ve used it in the past but I don’t upload to it. I’m not anti-Strava. I think it’s a good idea, but there was a perception in the club that if you ran more miles a week then you were better. I didn’t like that. Ha! I can see the cogs turning in your head, thinking this guy is super competitive!
There’s a part of that. Ah man! That’s good actually. That’s a good call out. But Strava is honestly not a very good reflection of how well your training is going. You could be running the mileage, and feel terrible every single step. Or you could run four miles at training on Tuesday, and feel amazing. I don’t know. Maybe it is that I’m not going to win so I’m not going to play! Maybe. Who knows?
I would say that over 50% of my friends are runners. They’re great. There’s a really good understanding of how hard we work to get good. And the camaraderie is fantastic.
Runners are good people. That is how I would say it.
© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019