Reborn To Run – Women's Running

Reborn To Run

Author: Women's Running Magazine

Read Time:   |  August 2, 2017

Reborn to Run iStock

There’s a cupboard in my house that makes an alarming noise if anyone bumps into the door – a cacophony of clanging from the dozens of running and triathlon finish medals hung on hooks just inside. I’m sure plenty of runners have a space like this at home, full of the memorabilia of years of taking part in events. A few weeks ago I finally had to sort out this cupboard, and among the old numbers, certificates and medals I found a blurry photo of a 27-year-old woman, waterproof jacket flapping around her legs, running down a nondescript suburban road.

It doesn’t look like much, but that picture represents the pinnacle of my competitive running career. It was taken between 18 and 19 miles of the 2006 Abingdon Marathon. Seven or eight miles later I ‘sprinted’ into Tilsley Park athletics ground to finish in 3hrs 28mins 4secs. I had finally smashed 3:30, something I never thought possible. I had run a marathon PB for the second time that year and felt sure that my London Marathon Championship place (sub 3:15) was just another year of training away.

Reborn to Run

Liz on her way to her marathon PB, back in 2006

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. I’d already asked a lot of my body, botching my way through various injuries, on the way to that sub-3:30. The following spring, getting carried away on a training camp, I did something to my left ITB and – to cut a long story short – I’ve never quite been the same runner since. That’s how the photo came to be stashed away in a cupboard. I used to look at it with sadness but, when I found it again and realised the race was 10 years ago this month, I also came to realise something else. I’m not sad about that race any more. I would face an uphill struggle to run those kinds of finish times again, even if I was completely injury free – I am 10 years older, after all. But that no longer matters to me. In the intervening years, not being able to run marathons ‘properly’ has meant finding new ways to run, learning how to swim, completing two Ironman triathlons, making new friends. I’m not the runner I used to be – and but I’m a happy runner, nonetheless.

Of course, it has taken me a long time to get over the idea of chasing those finish times. As the pages of Women’s Running show, many runners are driven to train by the thought of achieving faster finishers or completing longer courses. “It’s very tangible,” says coach and runner Laura Fountain (lazygirlrunning.com). “You can put in four weeks of training and then take maybe a minute off your parkrun time, and it’s justification for going out there and doing it. I don’t know that you get that in other forms of exercise like gym classes – you might enjoy it, but you don’t have a measurable thing that says ‘You came and you worked hard, and look at this improvement.’”

I certainly know how addictive it can be to work and improve times – by the time my marathon PB came around, I’d already been running for eight years, steadily slicing minutes off my times for everything from a lap around the park to half-marathons to the full distance. It’s not surprising that so many women find it satisfying – after all, we live in a results-driven society. This Mum Runs founder Mel Bound says that, in her early running career, working for faster times was part of a wider picture of striving for measurable achievements. “I’ve always been someone that pushes myself quite hard,” she says. “I came from an academic school and an academic university, and then a career that was all about numbers. It was just part of a broader landscape of my life at the time.”

Learning the hard way

For some women, the allure of chasing PBs wears off naturally – but for most of us, we don’t so much stop chasing, as run headfirst into obstacles that stop our pursuit in its tracks. Only when you are forced to stop training hard by injury, life commitments or the ageing process, do you realise how much your life has become defined by your ability to race and achieve faster times. “It’s very difficult when you’re injured, and you see the people that you chat to carrying on and doing races – maybe races that you were meant to be lined up for,” says Fountain. “Last year I was injured and had to pull out of a marathon halfway and that was difficult – not only in running, but as a coach, having to go around on my bike encouraging others to run.”

Dealing with an injury that is temporary, even one that takes a few months to heal, is hard enough. But what about when runners have to accept that they will never again be able to race at the same level? Psychologist Dr Karen Howells, a sport and fitness lecturer at The Open University, says that the reason we find it so tough is that running often comes to define our entire identity as a person. “That is central to the runner,” she says. “[They think] people see me as a runner, it is what I do. And then when they get to the point where they think, ‘What I do now is no longer coherent with that identity, so who am I? What do I do?’ That aspect is quite difficult to deal with.”

Howells, who works with elite and masters swimmers who experience the same issues, says that part of the struggle also has to do with being part of a society that places value on results. “We’re a nation of sport watchers: we watch the Olympics and the Paralympics, we watch people winning medals, the unpleasant aspect of losing, and the emotions that go with it, so we have this perception of success which is framed in the outcome.”

For more serious runners, outcome goals might be to win, or to place in the top 10, and they will suffer emotionally when they’re no longer able to achieve these high placed finishes. However, it can be just as problematic to focus on your own results all the time and measure success that way. “Say we have a runner who wants to finish her first marathon in 4hrs 30mins. She runs her first marathon in 4hrs 35 and thinks, ‘that’s not bad’. The next time she runs 4hrs 25mins, then she gets under 4hrs 15mins. She’s starting to feel really good about her running and about herself. I think this is the trap a lot of runners fall into: they start to rely on these times. While we’re racing against our own times and doing well, we’re feeling good.

“Unfortunately, injury happens, work happens, children happen, we get older and our bodies deteriorate. It may happen slowly, but that 4hrs 15mins marathon goes down to 4hrs 25mins. That is hugely damaging to our self esteem and we start to see ourselves as a failure.”

This can result in a long, slow grieving process for some runners – like me – as they battle to find their way back to a level of perceived success. For other women, though, finally letting go of the finish times can bring release. Mel Bound says, “When I had kids, and then injured my back – which was probably more pivotal because I just couldn’t move – running became about just loving the fact that I could run. That part of me that had chased times had just gone, and what had replaced it was the enjoyment. I never really questioned whether I wanted that part of me back, because what’s replaced it is so much more rewarding.”

If you’ve ever been injured for a long time, you’ll recognise that feeling of sheer joy at just being able to run around the block – but it’s important to realise that running for finish times and longer distances is a habit that’s hard to break. Fountain advises runners returning from injury to keep a diary to make sure they don’t immediately start trying to jump back into hard training again. “Although your fitness might hvae dropped off significantly, depending on how long you’ve had off, your enthusiasm is sky-high,” she says. “So although you might not be following a plan because you’re not fixed on a race goal, it’s important to keep a record of what you’re doing to make sure you’re not doing too much too soon.”

Starting over

Even once you’ve accepted that you’re not going for that London Marathon Championship place any more, and you’re grateful just to be running, you may still be left feeling a bit lost and wondering who you are as a runner. The first thing you need to do is try to loosen the ties that bind your self-esteem so tightly to your running – and, sorry to get deep, but that means finding out more about who you are as a person. “What we should be doing with athletes, prior to them giving up running, is ensuring that their lives are not all about the sport,” says Howells. “It’s about them finding something else for an interim period that doesn’t involve running, so taking on other responsibilities and following up other interests, and then re-engaging with running and finding their love for it again.”

When you’ve reached the point that you’re genuinely just happy to run again, you may find that you still struggle for motivation without a goal to aim for. But removing the focus on performance and outcome doesn’t mean you can’t enter races or complete training sessions – you just have to change the way you approach them. “Often, if someone is a serious runner but not an elite athlete, they will have continually beaten their times because they’ev done more training and got fitter, so they’ve had the physiological adaptations – but actually, they’re not very good technically.

At that point, I ask athletes to look at what we can in psychology ‘process goals’. The focus is not on beating your previous times, but on doing the race or training well in a certain way. So it might be about getting a couple of coaching sessions and learning about gait and moving properly, or it might be about breathing techniques. What this allows us to do is to change our perception of success.”

The beauty of setting process goals, says Howells, is that you can almost always find something to work on and endlessly improve – and there’s often an added bonus to training this way. “if we set ourselves process goals both in training and racing, it protects self-esteem and, the irony is, we often get faster,” she says.

If you’re not quite ready to get technical, then a simple way to enjoy racing again is just to change the type of event that you do. “Try running cross-country if you never have before,” says Fountain. “There’s not really a time goal because they’re so varied, you’re just running and and down hills trying not to get covered in too much mud or fall over.”

Mel Bound has largely left the roads and her Garmin behind and discovered a love of running in the woods and along the coast. “Running when you’re in an amazing environment that’s really beautiful, and that’s why you’re doing it, is so much more enjoyable than just pounding the streets training for a marathon,” she says.

Reflecting Howells’ experience with her athletes, Bound says that – ironically – varying her training and taking the pressure off her finish times has meant she often runs faster, and because she runs according to how her body feels, she suffers far fewer injuries. She has an almost spiritual approach to running now. “The joy of being able to go out and run, and not really caring at all, has been transformative for me,” she says.

It’s something I can certainly relate to when I look back at that photo from 2006. Even if I could run on the road six days a week without injury, I’m not sure I would want to now. It’s more than enough to be able to put my shoes on, step out and run through woods and fields – stopping to walk if the view’s particularly nice, or I just don’t feel like pushing it. I’ve realised that my 3:28:04 marathon time will always be part of me – but so will my love of running.

Women's Running Magazine

NMA’s 2020 Lifestyle Magazine of the Year, Women’s Running provides expert advice on gear and training, motivation from your favourite runners and the latest running news.

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