All relative

On Sunday I have a trail running race. So this lunchtime I went for a final taper jog; a gentle half-hour, three-mile leg-stretcher. The sun was out and my music was great, so I just bobbed along in my own little bubble.

When I got home, my body said, “Nice warmup! What are we going to do now?”

I hadn’t broken into a sweat, my heart rate was barely up and I wasn’t even breathing hard. In fact, apart from the usual post-run glow, it was almost as if I hadn’t done a thing.

I’m not trying to brag. It’s just that when you’ve run a marathon or even an ultra, your scale shifts. It literally changes your perspective.

I distinctly remember being petrified before my first marathon. OK, so I’d run a slew of half marathons and therefore wasn’t a complete novice. But here I was contemplating running TWICE the longest distance I had EVER gone all in one go.

This fear spurred me on. I got myself a plan and I trained. Harder than I had ever trained. Maybe harder than I have ever trained since. And I nailed it. Not easily, but certainly within the time limit I had set myself.

My wife came to cheer me on with our then 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. She took a photo of me at 35km/22mi, the point at which marathon runners often hit the dreaded “wall”. That photo has stood in a frame on my desk ever since.

In the picture, I have a huge grin plastered across my face and I’m making a victory sign with both hands. I’m obviously having the time of my life. To the left of me is another runner. In contrast to me, he is walking. His arms are hanging down limply by his sides and his shoulders are slumped. At the instant the photo was taken, he had turned his head towards me and was puffing out his cheeks dejectedly as if in the middle of an exasperated sigh. The look on his face clearly says, “What are you doing, you clown? Don’t you know you should be suffering?”

We’re probably roughly the same age. We’re at exactly the same stage in the race. We’ve completed the same distance in about the same time under the same climatic conditions, and we have the same distance ahead of us. Yet his sentiments at that moment are profoundly different and maybe even diametrically opposed to mine.

That’s because all experience is relative. Subjective. All about YOU.

Of course towards the end of that marathon I eventually got tired. Really tired. An ultra-runner friend of mine says long-distance running is 90 percent mental and the rest is all in your head. Although I wasn’t yet privy to his wisdom back then, I started playing mind games. Instead of worrying about how far I still had to go, I pretended that I was on my usual run along the river. I said to myself, “Now you’re at your usual turn-around. That means you only need to head back. Now you’ve reached the house-boats. Now you’re already by the footbridge. Now you’ve reached the baker. This is simple: we’re just running back home.”

By thus converting the marathon mile markers into familiar waypoints on an oft-trodden route, I turned what could have become a death march into a pleasant experience. Turning the fearful and unknown into the everyday and mundane. I was relativizing it.

And I finished.

That first marathon put everything into perspective. Now whenever I ran along the river, it seemed so easy, so trivial, so minor compared to this huge thing I had achieved that I couldn’t possibly imagine that this had ever felt hard. Although at times it really had.

Again, I was relativizing.

The same thing happened as I prepared for my first 50-miler. It seemed impossibly far at first, too far to even grasp. But I got a training plan and put in the mileage – including one insanely long 37-mile run starting at 5am. Come race day, rather than heading out for 50 miles, I broke the course down into manageable chunks: so-and-so-many miles until the first aid station, so-and-so-many miles until the next, so-and-so-many miles until I saw my wife and kids, so-and-so-many until the end of the first loop …

Of course mind games played an even bigger part in getting me to the finishing line this time. I even had to resort to my tactic of last resort; literally hypnotising myself with the mantra “left, right, left, right, left, right” when I was so drained I could think of nothing else.

I completed those 50 miles in a fairly decent 9 hours and 45 minutes. Partly by relativizing the entire race.

A good friend of mine is currently doing an eight-week “couch to 5k”programme. He and I are ten days apart in age. When we were young, he could thrash me at tennis (I suspect he probably still could!). But an insanely busy work schedule now leaves him little time off for his family life, let alone sport. When he started training, he couldn’t run for more than two minutes without stopping. After several weeks’ on the programme, he can now keep going for 20; a tenfold improvement.

Some people spend many months – and maybe longer – on a C25K, as they’re dubbed. Their eventual, sometimes seemingly unattainable goal is to complete a distance that I finished this lunchtime almost without thinking.

That’s not a value judgement. It’s simply proof that experiences are relative.

Pounding the pavements today, I ran past a quadriplegic man in an electric wheelchair. I was already pondering relativity, but the stark contrast between our conditions – the relative differences between him and me – really set my mental cogs whirring.

Before I continue, I should point out that I am not the slightest bit religious. However what happened to me during today’s run I can only describe in quasi-Christian terms. Albeit without any spiritual significance, implied or otherwise.

Aside over, back to the story.

Running past that guy in his wheelchair, I had an epiphany; a flash of insight, a “brainwave”. At that precise moment, I realised that I am blessed in the true sense of the word. Not only am I physically healthy. I am supremely fortunate that, if I choose to, I can walk or run more-or-less anywhere for great distances. In all weathers, unaided and without reliance on batteries.

That is very special. Not relatively. Actually.

So there’s no point in worrying about how far others can and do run. No matter whether you can run 5 yards or 500 miles, the crucial thing to remember is that YOU CAN. And that’s something to be proud of.

I think I’m going to enjoy Sunday’s race.


  1. My running buddy and I talk about this from time to time. We just did the Walt Disney World Marathon three weeks ago. I ran the Goofy Challenge (half on Saturday, full on Sunday). Lots of people wore race medals to the parks afterwards, and we saw a number of people sporting the 5K medal.

    While it would be easy to roll one's eyes at someone for being so proud of what amounts to a quick warm-up, we also both recalled our own beginner's stories. I remember how the first 8K I ran as a 12-year-old got me hooked; the pride that came with that medal helped inspire me to run more. My running partner didn't start running until his forties; he remembers how difficult it was to get into the sport in those early years.

    I enjoyed your post and hope that your race went well!

  2. And think about it, you're back to finding 5k an insurmountable challenge again. Of course, it's all relative, as you just ran a marathon yesterday.


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