The journey, not the prize
This post is inspired by Brad Stulberg, co-author of Do Hard Things which he wrote alongside ex-marathoner, author and performance coach Steve Magness. And marathon running is where this post starts.
When I trained for my first marathon in 2019, the marathon was the goal, the whole point of the exercise. In training for the marathon, I made some incredible memories along the way with clubmates and friends alike whose influence and presence made training all the more worthwhile. But, when I crossed the line in April 2019, I arguably didn’t get it.
Nor did I quite understand what I was trying to achieve when I set out to run a sub-4 marathon at Manchester Marathon 2020. Training was going brilliantly but my inner and outer narrative was all about times, mile splits, hills and training. COVID-19 struck, the marathon didn’t happen, the rest is history.
Arguably, I only started to get running when I couldn’t. Striving for a PB is no longer an option when you are 10-months injured and just starting out again. Recovery was painful and slow. My recovery was slowed further by two months out ill.
And so 2022 rolled around and I finally understood the why. I understood that it was about the journey, the people, the memories, the post long run beers and the sheer madness of it all. But then race day came and it all felt a bit, hollow. Feeling ropey from the start, my race plan fell apart from 5k onwards, I didn’t enjoy the run, nor achieve what I was capable of.
In June of this year, I set out on a crazy homemade marathon attempt. I was ably and enthusiastically supported by 3 fellow Ramsbottom Running Club members. Only, we didn’t set out for a time. Not to begin with anyway. The only goal was to have a good time and so the marathon began.
The early miles ticked by at a faster-than-4 hour-pace. The middle miles were a grind, but an enjoyable one. I had two miles alone at 17 and 18 and they were perhaps the most poignant miles and thoughts I’ve had this year. The latter miles were a celebration and, at some point in the last 5k dawned the realisation that a sub-4 hour marathon was on. Then it mattered, I pushed hard with ever more encouragement. After 26.2 miles, my watch showed 3:58:41. The sub-4 marathon was in the bag.
But in the making of that journey, it dawned on me that achieving an arbitrary target wasn’t fulfilling at all. Striving for something out of your comfort zone can bring you a sense of purpose and drive. Achieving it? Not so much. The mission is accomplished once the goal has been achieved. There’s no longer a purpose to drive action. The cycle has to begin again. But, perhaps the most infuriating thing about distance running is that you can’t train for back-to-back marathons endlessly. There has to be a period of rest, the body demands it.
What to do in those months in between training cycles is still something that I’m working out. Nobody can flourish all the time, just like a flower doesn’t stay in bloom all year. I’ve used the time since the marathons to work on core stability and strength and perhaps that will allow me to improve my athletic performance in the months ahead as more racing resumes.
But something interesting happened between being injured and the Manchester Marathon this year. I learned that the journey, the company and the memories we make are worth so much more than the arbitrary times we achieve. The clock doesn’t matter, not really.
The people we go on that journey with are, perhaps, the most important part of the jigsaw. They impart flavour on the experience, bring impetus born of their own perspective and can act as a sounding board in a difficult moment when you don’t fancy that long run. Training buddies can provide motivation to stay true to yourself during a hard hill repeat session and be good conversation during those long run, making miles pass by more easily. Most importantly of all, that post-run beer tastes all the sweeter too.
I’ll always be intensely driven and to that end, I am already planning my next marathon adventure next year. The opportunity to ‘plug in’ to a project that is essentially one of self-improvement will likely never get old. But I will. And there will come a time when PBs are no longer attainable, although that is hopefully some way off yet.
Brad Stulburg kindly replied to a recent tweet with an article on The Arrival Fallacy. It describes the science behind the journey I have found myself on, far more articulately than I could.
And so I’m glad to have found the greater reason for running, that the pursuit of a goal, in good company, is the foundation for a fulfilled life.