This past weekend I was invited to speak to a group of athletes taking part in an SBR Sport triathlon training camp hosted by Mike Roscoe and Tracy Dennis in the Cradle, outside Johannesburg. Initially I was hesitant… what exactly could a long distance runner share with a group of triathletes about training – I haven’t even cycled on the road since high school?!
But, being guided by Mike as to what sort of “message” his training group might like to hear, I eventually settled on something closer to home: “The Rise and Fall of Ann Ashworth”. For roughly 45 minutes I shared the story of my journey to Comrades 2018, and my own understanding of everything that went wrong for me this year. Gratefully, my message was well received and I was able to indulge in a glass or two of wine afterwards, trading war stories, personal experiences and jokes about the sport we love and the lessons we have learnt along the way.
One question asked of me at the end of the evening was: how do I deal with pain or, more accurately, how do I make myself comfortable in the “pain cave”; that place of suffering each and every one of us experience at some point in a race. After a few seconds thought, I answered as follows: I expect it, welcome it and then I deal with it. In other words – anticipate, accept, persevere. Pain really is just one of those things you need to get through.*
Two days later, while working on a particularly acrimonious legal matter, I was struck by how my approach to pain and suffering when racing, applies equally to many things in life, including personal conflict or turmoil. In fact, those three words: anticipation; acceptance; and perseverance, may be applied just as easily to my own racing and training experiences this year.
Being the defending champion at Comrades was always going to be hard. Performance pressure and the anxiety associated with that has never been something I’ve dealt with particularly well. In contrast to my professional countenance, where impeccable preparation and fast thinking (and even faster talking) should assist you in getting out of a tight spot, it is entirely possible to over-prepare, over-train and over-think ahead of a major race.
In addition, and particularly in a race such as a marathon, ultramarathon and especially Comrades, there are too many things out of a runner’s control to properly anticipate and plan for every eventuality. One cannot control the weather, the placement of the water tables, the conduct of the crowd or even your competitors. The only thing you can control is your own pacing, your race nutrition, the placement of your seconding team (if any) and, most importantly, your response to uncontrollable external factors.
Last year I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would manage “the controllables” – when would I eat; what would I eat; what were my time targets through certain stages of the race; who would I expect to see at certain points. Importantly I did not think about who I would be racing against, or the times that they would be chasing. In contrast, this year I became obsessed with (and started to fear) those things I could not control. I didn’t have a race plan, I had no time targets for different points in the race, and the only “fuel” I took consistently for 87km were painkillers. It was not a day well spent.
Shortly after the race, someone commented that I had already given up on Comrades before I’d even started, and perhaps… very deep in my subconscious that is true. By the time I lined up to race on 9 June 2019, I was so afraid of failure that perhaps I was also too afraid to really start.
I don’t think so – I fought tooth and nail to keep going that day, urging my broken body over the line; but mentally, psychologically, perhaps that was not my best effort.
So what now? I can’t go back and do it all again. In any event, life is simply too short for regrets. I’ve picked myself up, dusted myself off and I’m ready to start again. Let’s just write this year off to experience.
Importantly, “acceptance” doesn’t have to mean “resignation”. I don’t have to give up or accept that hey, I’m soon to be 36 years old and well past my marathon racing prime – I’ve had my turn to chase dreams and now it’s time to move on. Nope, it doesn’t have to mean that at all. After a slight wobbly in the weeks immediately following the race, when I was 100% sure that I’d never toe the line again, I’m back on the road hungry for some good racing and a few more PBs.
Importantly, I’ve taken stock of everything I’ve been through this year and have been able to identify exactly what went wrong, and when. The very simplest explanation I have is this – don’t fix what isn’t broken. I had a formula in 2017-2018, a carefully crafted 9 month build-up, race strategy and training plan, which I stuck to like glue. Rather than following a similar methodology in 2018-2019 everything shifted – more mileage, more strength work, more pressure and less (legal) work. That was a mistake, one often made by athletes who achieve success one year only to crash and burn the next.
Having said that, what I didn’t do was make adjustments for my age, my changing dietary needs or my emotional or physical wellbeing. For three years I followed exactly the same diet without recognising that my body had plateaued and was no longer able to utilise the nutrients I was giving it with the same efficiency or results as it had done previously. My dangerously low body weight started to affected my hormones, my mood and my temperament. With each passing day that I tried to work harder, push further, do more, be more; I drove myself further and further into what I believe was classic Over-Training Syndrome (OTS).
In this context, “acceptance” does not mean that I should simply accept that I will never be able to achieve what I did in the past, or that my days of being a competitive athlete are over; rather it means that I need to accept where I am now, what no longer works for me in terms of diet and training, and accept that things need to change. Life is all about progression.
Over the past few months I have spent a considerable amount of time and energy researching the training styles and methodologies used by top US athletes, teams and coaches such as Sweat Elite, Naz Elite, Matt Fitzgerald, Bob Larsen, Meb Keflezighi, Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall, desperately trying to understand what went wrong for me this year; but also, how I am going to make things right in the year ahead. I want to experiment with alternative training styles; to figure out if there’s a better way to manage my body given my age and the fact that I’ve now returned to work.
I’m not alone in this quest – many, many runners are asking themselves whether the traditional approach to training – do more, run more, train harder, really is the only way to win – or whether there may be a more scientific, efficient way to run. Apart from being one hellava nice guy, this is one of the reasons why Lindsey Parry is so successful as a coach – he uses his scientific knowledge and experience to individually tailor a program for each of his athletes, based on their personal circumstance. It’s not simply the case that an athlete follows a set program or not, and whoever survives stands a good chance of being a champion. Times, and training methods, are changing.
The same may be said of the “allied sciences” – sports medicine and biokinetics. Many old school coaches shrug off the invaluable contributions these professionals have to the sport of athletics. While I agree that the best way to train for a running race is to run, there is undoubtably a place for strength cross training, dealing with muscle imbalances, joint instability and the like. If our bodies are to operate like well oiled machines – should we not be taking them in for a regular service and checking that all the nuts and bolts are properly aligned and screwed in? Makes sense to me.
After the year I’ve had, it would be very easy for me to pack away my running shoes and put this competitive athlete lark behind me. Going into Comrades 2019, all I wanted to do was retire to my office and bury myself in my legal career. But, I’ve been reborn.
Over the past three weeks I’ve started working with a new coach, one who believes that I still have potential to do great things and that, contrary to the message I received earlier this year, I should still have a long “career” of running ahead of me. This new coach isn’t telling me to chase impossible dreams, or pressurising me to run a marathon time my 25 year-old self could only dream of (after all, most elite athletes focused on the marathon distance retire by age 35), rather we are focused on the process, rekindling my love for running and slowly pulling out some quality ultra-distance performances once again. I am no longer afraid of failure. The only person to whom I have anything to prove is myself.
And so, in the same way that tearing my glute on the startline at Comrades 2017 was an exercise in humility – a lesson not to count my chickens before they hatch and that all good things in life take time and an awful lot of hard work – Comrades 2019 has been a lesson in perspective. I’ve been reminded that coming first is not the only thing that matters, and that not coming first is not a failure. As cliched as it sounds, the only thing that really matters is my love for, and enjoyment of, running. And if I have both those things, results will follow.
I still believe that running is my purpose. And in exercising that purpose there will be pain, there will be suffering and an incredible amount of hard running. But rather than giving up, out of fear that it will be too hard; I will persevere. Good things are yet to come.
*For more on this I highly recommend reading (or listening to on audible) ‘How Bad Do You Want It‘ by Matt Fitzgerald.