Once every two weeks I branch out beyond the borders of my Sandton-Rosebank-Cresta triangle to visit Tim Pearson, biokineticist-in-chief at Pinnacle Health, located in the Hobart Centre, Bryanston.
Tim was in the process of rehabing my back injury (what was initially suspected to be a stress fracture, but subsequently presented as a bulging disc) when I came off second best to a very, very small rock along the spruit near Emmerentia, tearing two ligaments and developing an avulsion fracture at the bottom of my fibula. It’s been a very dramatic non-start to the new racing season (accepting that for ultra-distance runners, the day after Comrades is essentially the first day of the new running year).
Driving into work along William Nicol, one of the major arteries into the Sandton CDB, I’ve noticed one particular telephone pole ad which states: “You’re not here to blend in”, and a few poles later: “You’re here to STAND OUT”. The theme ties in rather nicely with one of the motivational posters I’ve stuck up in my home gym which reads:
” You’ve got to be odd to be number number 1.”Dr. Seuss
Having agreed to speak at a school assembly on Friday morning, I was looking for some inspiration in terms of topic when I came across a similar quote.
” If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”Maya Angelou
Three strikes in a row and I’d be a fool not to pay attention.
Since winning the Comrades Marathon in 2018, I’ve been invited to a lot of talks and functions at which people all want to know: What’s the secret? How did I do it? And for eleven months between this year’s Comrades and the last, I would have told you that really, there is no secret; hard work triumphs talent and the not-so-secret to success is to work hard every day in the pursuit of your passion. And that’s true.
But something that I’ve learnt this year, both before and after Comrades, is that becoming, and being, a champion, also requires you to be a little bit strange. It’s not exactly normal to train, compete or live as we (runners) do. And we’re unlikely to be very popular when skiving off early from a social function, foregoing that extra drink, or splurging out on running gear or a sports massage, rather than using that money for a fancy dinner or the something sexy to slip out of later. Non-runners think we are quite mad.
Fortunately for me, I’ve never been one to fit in. I doubt very much that my parents ever received a school report or testimonial which read: “Ann is popular and well liked by her peers”. I’ve never had an enormous group of friends, preferring instead to remain close to a strong core of people I regard to be almost like family.
At work I’ve always been a non-conformist. As much as I enjoy forming part of a team, I’m strong willed and opinionated, hardly ideal corporate material. I lead from the front and have recently been described (by a friend) as someone who thrives on conflict. Lol… I guess it’s just as well that I’ve chosen a career as an advocate.
But before I disappear down that garden path, let me share with you something else I have learnt in the past year: that to be a champion, or to be extraordinary, you may also have to be different to other athletes. You need to be brave enough to say: “what A or B person are doing in their training, racing and preparation is not the approach that works for me”.
Now, that might seem obvious to many of you – within a legal context, one would describe such a statement or principle to be “trite” – in other words, we don’t need to reference it, its such a generally accepted principle, that its veracity cannot be challenged. But, in the heat of the moment, or when preparing for a particular event, it’s very easy to slip into a comparative mindset: “How much track work is X doing? How many kilometers a week is Y running? Is Z doing a lot of cross training or speed work? I think I should try and do the same”. This is particularly true where you perceive X, Y and Z to be better or more experienced athletes than yourself.
You are uniquely you. You respond to different stimuli in an individual way and your body will breakdown, adapt and build at its own speed and in its own time. You cannot compare yourself, or your preparation, to others. For example, I’ve learnt by trial and error that I am a “high milage” athlete – I need to log serious miles to get my body into its peak physical state. But I have a limit – I cannot handle as many miles as an elite man, I need more rest, both in terms of days off and recovery sessions. In contrast, Jenni Kruse – one of the athletes I coach – has thrived (by necessity) on a low milage program with loads of cross training and strength work, as have our fellow Team Massmart elites, Vicky Hansen and Lizzy Babili.
Similarly, within the context of a race, you need to stick to your own personally tailored race plan. You cannot start a race watching to see what other runners do and hope to tag along. Everything about your build up to race day has been individualised in order for YOU to reach YOUR full potential – you can’t hope to run someone else’s race and still ultimately prevail. One of the worst mistakes I have made was to start a race thinking that I would just watch what the leaders did, stay close and then make a move toward the end – it meant I got caught up in a pace with which I was not comfortable and ended up suffering tremendously in the second half. Lesson learnt. Charne Bosman has always stuck to the strategy of running her own race – and last time I checked – she was still one of South Africa’s most successful and long-standing distance runners.
Off the road, you’ll also need to be a little strange, primarily in terms of what you eat, and how you recover.
For the past three years I have followed a nutrition plan designed for me by John Hamlett utilising products such as New Nutrition Pure Whey Isolate (a protein powder I add to tea, coffee, hot/cold milk and cereal), Glutamine and a zinc-magnesium supplement called ZMA. I’ve grown super lean and my legs super strong. Without a doubt, I am in the physical form that I am because of John’s training and nutritional advice. But, I haven’t always got my diet right – I’ve regularly under-fuelled and there have been consequences – my body fat content dropped dangerously low, interfering with my hormones and morphing me into someone crossed between Cruella de Vil and Malificent, both with PMS (pity my poor husband). There’s only one way to describe my personality – filled with rage.
For many athletes, a low body fat leads to bone degeneration which in turn causes stress fractures. For women, the absence of menstruation makes this risk even more real. Despite the majority of female athletes being aware of these risks, you will struggle to find more than few elite and sub-elite endurance athletes who do not have some kind of issue with food. Whether it qualifies as a full-blown eating disorder or just an unhealthy relationship with food – the results are the same and pose a great risk to both the mental and physical wellbeing of a runner.
I’ve found it particularly difficult to compare my eating habits to those of others. For example, dinner with a group of ladies might prompt me to feel shame when ordering a choice of starch with my meal instead of a green salad (no dressing), preferred by my peers. I also need to snack constantly, but am often too embarrassed to eat in front of other people. In doing this, I recognise that I’m being ridiculous, that my nutritional needs are unique to those of the people around me, particularly my work colleagues who do not run. The same applies to you – you need to fuel your body in a way, and in such quantities, that are unique to you.
Similarly, at races, you need to trust the food and/or supplements that you are familiar with and that work for you. If you are most comfortable chugging down baby potatoes and a banana every 10km – then do it! You don’t need to use expensive international products such as Maurten in an effort to race like the Kenyans – they were running super fast long before those gels came out!
Finally, I’d like to share with you some thoughts on recovery.
Top US athlete Gwen Jorgenson posted recently about the steps taken at her training camp to ensure that, outside of a training session, she has everything she needs to be super comfortable and relaxed. This is done to afford her the best possible opportunity to rest and recover. Now, I’ve always thought that in order to be a champion, you need to suffer. Training for Comrades needs to be a struggle – it has to hurt, you’ve got to earn your medal with blood, sweat and tears. But after three years of the most hardcore and difficult training I have ever encountered, particularly this year, I’ve started to second guess my founding principles – surely there must be another way; a way to have fun and enjoy your training while also generating excellent results.
After much thought, reading and research I’ve come to the conclusion that while training needs to be hard, the key to enjoying my running comes from recovery. I need to find a way to truly relax and recover in between my hard sessions. And I don’t mean just taking time off work in the form of a leave of absence (as I did this year), I need to find my zen – my happy place, both on and off the road.
Instrumental in this realisation is a book written by Christie Aschwanden called ‘Good to Go: How to Eat, Sleep and Rest like a Champion‘. Over a series of chapters, Christie has systematically debunked many of the myths surrounding recovery, including ice baths, cryotherapy, infra-red heat treatment and those products I refer to as “squeezy boots” which are supposed to massage your legs and assist with the release of lactic acid. In fact, from what I’ve read, the only thing we really need is sleep and regular downtime, preferably in the form of meditation or sensory deprivation (as you would have in a floatation pod, or strong Epsom Salts bath).
Having said that, you might feel that ice baths are the bees knees and that its absolutely critical for you to have a regular sports massage. And that’s totally fine too – because we’re all different… and what works for me doesn’t need to work for you (and vice versa). No one thing is going to be suitable or appropriate for everyone. There is no “norm”.
Tying this blog back to my founding premises – be extraordinary – my point is this. In the same way that each person needs to (by trial and error) identify their true purpose, one aspect of which may be the cultivation of their athletic potential, you also need to identify the best way for you to realise that purpose and potential. Don’t let your search for truth, passion and glory be influenced by the “popular choice” or the methods used by others, not even your rolemodels. Don’t be afraid to break the mould, to do something different – do whatever you need to do, to ensure that your full potential is realised.
Don’t conform, don’t blend in – be extraordinary… and then… be a pioneering champion.