“So which pill are you going to take guys,” was what Tony said as he basically locked eyes with the entire room of attendees are out last injury free running workshop towards the end of the second day. My goals for my next marathon were never clearer than in the seconds after this and so I begin my next marathon quest but with a very different objective. For this goal, the time is not the most important objective but rather the “how”. Running the marathon with perfect form in my VivoBarefoot Aqua Lite shoes and arriving at the finish line with my legs in good working order.
Most movie-goers from the last decade will now what metaphor Tony invoked with the pill and they would also know that one of the two pills is the one taking you back into the oblivious dreamworld of “The Matrix”. This is the modern cushioned running shoes and symptomatic strength and conditioning and medical treatment. Or you can reject this “magic bullet” quick gratification solution and face the real facts and what really needs to be done to run injury free and have the most possible success in the long-term. “Why are you so concerned about the next marathon, how long do you plan to keep running,” Tony asked us. A very long time in my case, so there could no retreat and no attempt to go back to a hybrid approach of adopting Tony’s method when it suits but still running in the very same footwear that has ruined my running mechanics throughout my lifetime from the very first moment my dad inadvertently, and unknowingly, stuck me into a pair of ASICS.
I tried “both pills” during my “first marathon quest” and achieved the best spell of training in four years with this method. Based mainly on seven weeks of very high solid mileage in the early half of my training plan, I ran eight personal bests and ran a 2:55:56 under very difficult conditions in Copenhagen. As I will cover in my upcoming article “Champion mindset”, the key to success is running well when things are not optimal. They were not optimal in Copenhagen and I did not get the stretch goal of 2:48 but I handled the situation perfectly once I was in it, faced down the obstacles and put everything I had into creating what was possible on the day.
“It depends on what you class as “better”: to have your limbs being stuck back on, right, who looks better in a marathon, the one’s with good technique or the one’s with shod running styles? The one’s with shod running styles are sticking their limbs back on, right, they seriously are. They are practically hobbling through by the time they reach the end. I don’t want to end up like that. What’s that all about? Those with good running form run like this (shows running form) by the time they get over the line. They look like they could do it again. That’s were you want to be, right? If you can get over that finish line, intact, forget about time so much, FOR NOW. ” – Tony Riddle, during discussion at Run Injury Free workshop on 19th August
A new definition of success
But this time I want things to be different, I want to define success differently. To use Tony’s explanation, quoted above, initially we must redefine success from being purely about time to being about the condition you cross the finish line in. The runner who can achieve perfect running form will not destroy his body to the same extent. While he is adapting, he may run a few races slower than he did before. But this is a temporary set-back. He’s setting himself up to gain a more efficient running stride than he ever had before and at the same time ensuring his body will have a longevity that competitors who fail to take the same path will not be able to match. Look only at the price Nadal pays for using muscle action and willpower whereas Federer relies on perfect natural technique. I know which one I want to be.
I plan to run for a very long time – thirty years or more, at the highest possible level. I also wish to finish races with a body that may be exhausted but is still in one piece. Finally, I want to fulfil my true potential, and not just the potential of the current zoo-human shell I inhabit. The Stone Age genes are in there, waiting to be unlocked and unleashed. My upcoming key-note speech “Can anyone run 2:30 for the marathon” addresses this exact point. Without ruining suspense, I believe that at least that time should be a target for all able-bodied men and that much more is possible for many. But only with the right approach. This means first perfecting your technique and then having the willingness to understand what our Olympians of the 50s, 60s and 70s needed to do over a period of 3 to 10 years to achieve their full potential. Running technique can be taught, because while it is natural most people now run unnaturally due to our modern environment. We know this. Poor technique is the main reason for injury. We know this. Injury is the main threat to fulfilling your potential and achieving consistency. We know this. To me that leaves just one logical conclusion: first learn to run injury free. This has to precede all other objectives. Even the sub-2:10 marathoner who fails to do this, may only truly be relatively successful. He will still be less than he could have been. This is fine if you don’t know you could have been more. It’s hard to accept if you know you could have gone further. If only…
The goal restated
So this will be the focus of this next marathon quest and it begins with a simple objective: run the Dublin Marathon in barefoot technology footwear, maintaining strong form throughout and crossing the finish line without injury or niggle. Any time that comes out will be a bonus at this stage. “How many marathons do you plan to run?” echoes Tony’s question again. Many, is the answer, and the next question is can I set aside pride, ego and the search for instant gratification for just a brief period to serve the long-term master plan? I hope so. When I took stock after Copenhagen, my evaluation of the situation was that if I kept doing what I was doing, I may eventually run around 2:40 for the marathon but it would require stepping up to a level of mileage that my technical ability would probably not be able to handle.
I decided for myself that this was just not enough for me: at the end of a life you need to look back and know that you gave yourself the best chance, not just a chance , to become the best you can be at your chosen pursuit. My current technique was simply not at a level to allow the type of performance I believe I am ultimately capable of. So nothing I would do with that technique would be something I could derive pride or satisfaction from – because it would always be accompanied by the question “what if…I had perfected my technique first.” I imagined myself, three years from now, perhaps having run 2:40 or 2:45 but this time at a much higher cost than the mild stress fracture I suffered on the last 10 miles of Copenhagen. I would run that knowing that the body might not take much more and that ultimately, despite the result, I was still not fulfilling my potential. “There is no middle-ground,” is how Tony wrapped up our talk on this topic. And he is right, at least as far as I am concerned. I need a level of technical ability that will allow me to run for 10-12 hours at steady paces for years on end, for as much as a decade, without getting injured. Anything less than that is a waste of time, the way I view running. To me, running is only fun when it can be done this way and when the body becomes tireless and unbreakable.
When you put your heart and soul into something, you cannot allow it to be crushed by injuries or left to chance. I have been lucky to meet a man who understands the running stride perfectly and knows how to teach it. He has laid the gauntlet down in front of me. It’s up to me to pick it up. Forty years from now, I will know that I had every opportunity to make the most of it. The new marathon quest is to ensure I do not rue the fact I failed to put in the effort to take it. So I take the red pill and we’ll see if I fall down the rabbit hole…