Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

‘We only have one life. Anyone is capable of achieving great things.’

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In the run-up to the Yorkshire Marathon a couple of weeks ago there was some media interest in my up-coming extreme footrace, the Ancient Khmer Path, for which I was using my 51st marathon as part of the training. BBC Radio York’s Ellie Fiorentini got in touch wanting a live interview on her programme (listen again here until 6 November starting at 49 minutes) and I’d been talking to the Yorkshire Post’s Catherine Scott for a while about an article she wanted to run (read it here). When being interviewed on the hoof it takes some concentration to think about a coherent answer while also putting across a message that’s hopefully relevant and engaging for the interviewer’s audience . . . there’s no prior knowledge about the live questions that will be asked!

I’ve had enough time though now over the years to think about the overall message I do want to get across and I find myself over time developing a missionary zeal about it. That message is the title of this post but also the words used by Catherine in the headline of her Yorkshire Post article. It’s a message that, across that article and the radio interview, formed into a shape I hadn’t really fixed before the interviews: I thought I was just going to talk about a tough race in the outbacks of the Cambodian countryside for which the Yorkshire Marathon was part of the training.

Yep, it really is that stark: you are here for a one-time only performance for which there is no preparation time or a second attempt. I’ll be blunt: we are all going to die. Repeat that to yourself. I don’t mean to be macabre or miserable about it: it’s an undeniable fact. Whenever I’ve mentioned this in conversation a common response is something along the lines of what a depressing stance to have when, actually, I am thinking the opposite: reflecting on this certainty is actually a very positive thing to do.

Here’s why. How many times in our days, weeks, or years, do we find ourselves saying “I wish I could [stop][start][change] . . .” or “I really don’t like doing x, y, z . . .” Then, having moaned about it, carry on doing more of the same?

Stop. What could happen if we changed our approach? What could happen if, in reflecting on whatever is bothering us at any one time, we instead reminded ourselves that we only have one life? That constant reminder, I’m sure, could result in so many positive outcomes: for example, leaving a miserable circumstance for something far more life-enhancing; or lower levels of stress in being less concerned about whatever someone said or did.

The positive outcome arises from one thing only: making a change. It seems obvious but accepting change is the one sure way to start moving towards those positive outcomes. Life doesn’t have to be an unending series of negative episodes or failing to reach potential because someone or a set of circumstances says you can’t.

Ignore them. If whatever it is isn’t right, change it. Go your own way with your own belief system that you can. And when I talk about anyone being “capable of achieving great things” this, of course, is all relative. Here’s my definition of achieving a great thing: completing or accomplishing any act that, for yourself, you recognise as an achievement because of the amount of difficulty it represented to you, and no-one else. Achievements are made on so many levels in our daily lives, but do we notice?

Attaining “achievements” is not exclusively preserved for activities generally considered beyond the norm. Yes, scaling Mount Everest is the achievement of a great thing, but so is running or walking one’s first mile without stopping when it was previously considered incomprehensible, as is resolving to not say any negative word to our family or colleagues in the course of a day if you usually do otherwise.

In thinking about achievement in this way, lives become richer. And here’s a tip: whatever great thing you achieve this day, week or year, wallow in it for a while and fully appreciate it rather than for a fleeting few seconds before moving on to the next conscious thought. Actively reflect on that achievement of something, big or small, not previously thought possible or likely. In this way, a multitude of achievements builds one on top of the other, creating an impenetrable pyramid over time which changes the perception of what else can be achieved.

My Yorkshire Marathon two weeks ago, my 51st marathon or ultra, saw my fastest time in 17 years and was technically a personal best (because my chip time of 4 hours, 3 minutes is less than my official second marathon time of 4 hours, 5 minutes: that was London in 1998 when it took around 10 minutes or so to cross the line but when chips attached to your shoe or race number to record the time taken over the actual marathon distance did not exist . . . so I’m claiming a PB!). Last week I ran a new PB for the 5K distance: 23 minutes, 4 seconds, knocking 3 seconds off my previous fastest time set 2 years ago.

For me, they are great achievements, something to wallow in for a while. They are nowhere near winning times but that’s irrelevant. Just a few years ago they were incomprehensible: as it turns out, they never needed to be. Makes you think . . .

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