The World’s Slowest 5k

Fatigue is an emotionally-driven state.” Ross Edgley

I’m not normally a huge fan of training diaries or typical race reports – while at the elite level they can certainly grant the audience fascinating insight into the mind of an individual during a particularly gruelling event, generally speaking, I am personally less interested in hearing recaps, the ‘what’, and more interested in learning the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind athletic performance.

This being said, I thought I’d break my own paradigm on Misogi thus far and recount the latest personal boundary-exploring workout that my training team and I have endured – an attempt at climbing a vertical rock-wall as many times as possible, to failure, with the aims of comparing the vertical gain to famous mountain peaks across the globe.

The end result? A nine-hour, maximal-output effort (for three athletes with absolutely no pedigree in the world of rock climbing) of 5800 completely vertical metres (the altitude of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania).

The 1160 repetitions of the relatively short, but entirely unforgiving, wall brought on more blisters and callouses than our unprepared hands had previously thought possible. What started as a relatively sustainable and consistent pace, blocked into climbing sets of one hundreds metres at a time, slowed throughout the course of the day, until eventually each single climb of the wall seemed entirely impossible.

As with all Misogi attempts to date, the day commenced with a group meditation session – a habit that I am finding increasingly useful for building a strong mental disposition at the outset of a task, and one that I certainly plan on employing in each and every future endeavour. The meditation is a chance to decompress from the stress and distractions that naturally accompany preparation for any big event, and facilitates increased mental clarity and the opportunity to emotionally ‘brace’ for the challenge at hand.

More than anything, the time spent in silence best allows me to properly consider how I may feel in two, or three, or nine hours time, and to meet those historically ‘negative’ feelings with a sense of peace and acceptance. Rather than naively hoping that perhaps I’ll be spared from any huge discomfort on this particular day, the minutes devoted to pre-event mindfulness allow me to prepare for the inevitability of this discomfort – and grants me the opportunity to consider how I will respond, ahead of time.

The entire endeavour was just one great exercise in the development of work capacity, “the most underrated aspect of physical fitness” – put simply, the total amount of stress that the body can physically perform, recover from and positively adapt to. Building a higher work capacity allows us to train harder, more frequently, and to recover more rapidly. Hard work is all that separates elite athletes from aspiring athletes. We can get so easily caught in the weeds of specificity, and complex training methods, that we can gloss over the fact that, eventually, to improve, we just need to do more work.

The hope was that in introducing a huge amount of ‘stress and stimuli’ in the form of vertical climbing, both my and my training partners’ bodies would become more fatigue-resistant, our skeletal muscle better able to make sustained contraction after contraction, and our working minds more adept at handling fatigue – useful traits to have when undertaking a marathon swim, as I will be in three weeks time.

The ultimate goal, rather than achieving a particular vertical mileage, was simply to get to a point of complete exhaustion and physical discomfort, and, crucially, to continue. Part one was far more easily achieved than part two.

The whole point was for the event to get messy and unpleasant, as I had to continually remind myself when things did indeed get rather unpleasant. If this had been avoided, and we had stopped at the onset of fatigue and physical pain, then the hours already put in would have largely been for nothing.

I think so many athletes only really hit this huge mental barrier of pain and discomfort typically on the day of a race, rather than in training. The two-hour mark of the marathon becomes the only time in the training calendar where these hugely important occasions of ‘true’ exhaustion are experienced. These moments, with energy stores depleted, muscles screaming, and defeat looming on the peripheries, are the ‘bread and butter’ of endurance sports – and therefore how we respond to them defines our ability as endurance athletes.

Why then do so many of us seek to avoid these instances? In doing so, when the unavoidable fatigue does indeed set in at the late stages of an event, we are taken almost by surprise – unprepared for its arrival, and ill-equipped to manage it. Grit and mental toughness are not just trainable – they are only trainable; attained only through first hand experience.

A Misogi effort like this is essentially a dress-rehearsal for race day; plunging oneself into this too-often-avoided scenario, and forcefully providing an opportunity to develop the cognitive skills and techniques to endure more and more discomfort.

I’m hugely fortunate, as I have mentioned in earlier articles, to have the team that I currently have to train with. They all share an appreciation for these teaching moments of total bodily exhaustion. Jack is only a late-notice phone call away, eager to jump into any ridiculous challenge, and Julie wakes up next to me every day. The two of them are some of the toughest people I know – and both of their attitudes, their strength and fortitude, and their desires for self-improvement are completely contagious.

So the three of us climbed, well into the realms of genuine physical complaints. When we came close to pulling the pin, at the eight hour mark, I asked Jack how long he felt like he had been “genuinely in trouble, physically”. We both agreed that we had been in this position of increasingly difficult-to-endure fatigue for about four hours.

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Interestingly, as with perhaps all endurance events, the pain had gradually increased to a point, until it suddenly ceased to worsen – before returning with a vengeance, hours later, and ending our day at 5800 metres of altitude. For the majority of the day, however, the pain had been present, but manageable. In only the first hour of climbing, large blisters had appeared and torn on both of my hands. The pangs of early panic were undeniable, as I imagined how my hands might look and perform in six hours time.

But the blisters never worsened. My hands – or my climbing technique, or my mind, or a complex mix of all factors – managed to adjust to the challenge they were presented with, and I climbed on unimpeded, until finally complete exhaustion took over, and I was unable to complete a single repetition of the rock wall. Despite the blisters, it was a powerful reminder of the sheer adaptability of human physiology.

The day was a success for the three of us who climbed, in that we achieved what we had set out to do in the mindset in which it should have been achieved. The focus was far more on the process, rather than the outcome. Total height climbed, although a strong motivator, remained appropriately second to the more intangible development of mental strength and resilience.

I hobbled away from the training day proud of the physical output, but far more proud of the grounded, mindful and diligently self-reflective manner the three of us had performed it in.

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Swinging For The Fences

Far better it is to dare mighty things – to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure – than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much; for they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory, nor defeat.”       Theodore Roosevelt

Strategy and considerate preparation have almost always been crucial factors in most true athletic achievements to date. We collectively marvel at the perfect execution of a carefully constructed game-plan on the big stages, and rightly so. Countless NBA titles, heavyweight championship belts and Olympic medals have been won and defended due to strict adherence to a calculated strategy, capitalising on an opponent’s weaknesses or one’s own strengths.

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Alex Hutchinson raised what I thought was a very interesting point in the closing chapters of Endure (his most recent book, mentioned several times here so far), reflecting on both his own experiences as an aspiring Olympic middle-distance runner, and as a life-time spectator and colour-commentator for elite road running events. He explored the idea that, while indeed adherence to pacing strategies has been behind some of the most consistently successful distance running careers, and has prevented many an amateur runner from metaphorically falling apart mid-race, perhaps pacing in this manner places a self-imposed barrier in the way of an athlete achieving their full potential.

Logic would suggest that having minimal variance in average pace, for both elite and non-elite athletes, would produce a more even and predictable finish time – saving an athlete from the heartache of a race falling apart. With this in mind, setting out with a premeditated idea of what a realistic sustainable pace is for the individual, and adhering to it, would be more likely to produce a favourable result.

Hutchinson recounts, in his commentary of the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon, that this approach is far from the ‘kamikaze’ style pacing variability of the East African champions who dominate the sport.

There is a certain ‘do-or-die’ attitude that surrounds elite Kenyan and Ethiopian distance running; perhaps motivated by national and personal pride, by the economic importance that prize money and endorsements hold in the developing world, and/or innate confidence stemming from the legacy of great athletes originating from the region.  Enormous group fartlek sessions in the thin airs of the Rift Valley are renowned for both the brutal speed at which they are performed, and the complete willingness for up-and-coming athletes to suffer, even if only briefly, alongside the established champions.

African distance athletes are known for this variance from ‘traditional’ Western approaches to running strategy – where North Americans and Europeans are typically methodical and deliberate, East Africans employ an unrelenting and seemingly unsustainable pace. When 96 of the 100 fastest marathon times in 2016 were run by athletes from East Africa, it would surely be a mistake to be dismissive of their unconventionally risky pacing strategies.

Hutchinson argues that performing in the traditional approach of carefully calculated kilometre splits may be unnecessarily confining – stating, “there is something inherently limiting about the fetishization of even pacing”. Modern sports science has for a long time distanced itself from the twentieth-century view of the ‘the body as machine’, understanding that more nuanced and often intangible factors affect athletic performance rather than just sheer measurable cardiovascular output.

Long distance races, subsequently, are more than just “plumbing contests, measuring whose heart can deliver the most oxygen to their muscles” – and yet why do we apply this old-school, limited looking-glass when discussing pacing for maximal performance? Why do we forget the very real role that abstracts like motivation, pain tolerance and sheer willingness have in such sporting achievements?

The criticism of traditional pacing, put simply, is if one decides how quickly one is going to run each mile split, then one negates the possibility of a faster finishing time – “you’ve put a ceiling on your potential achievement… if you execute the perfect race pace, that means you have effectively decided, within the first few strides, how fast you could complete the full distance.”

Certainly, over the course of a career, one might have better average finish times by sticking to careful pacing plans, but could it not be argued that the capacity for having one of those ‘run of your life’-type days is self-denied?

There is no opportunity to surprise yourself with an unexpectedly good day; you’ve put a ceiling on your potential for achievement, from the moment the starting gun fires. As a result, this approach may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers – jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.”

I should perhaps have prefaced this article by stating that I’m not entirely sure myself what to do with this idea, rather than simply trying to rewire how we think about our own limits. Pretty stock-standard Misogi writing, undeniably.

What I found perhaps most useful in Hutchinson’s investigation, and the application of his findings to his own relatively successful running career, was his speculation that perhaps he never really reached his own physiological limits, as he had sometimes believed to be the case. After a perfectly executed pacing strategy at the 2003 Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, which saw him run impeccably-disciplined splits and surge past struggling athletes in the late stages to finish eighth place, he was comfortable in the belief that, even on his best possible day, he simply lacked the sheer speed and cardiovascular engine to ever beat the seven athletes in front of him – and he was fine with that. It was simply biological, and as much as anything is, out of his hands.

Later, following decades of research and publishing in the fields of human physiology, he questioned the accuracy of his conclusion concerning his biological limitations. What might have happened if he had thrown caution to the wind and ran to win, despite the pacing plans? Sure, if he applied this brazen attitude at every event, his career would be littered with disappointing results – but is it possible that among the blow-outs, there may have been some truly extraordinary outcomes?

And what about ourselves? How often do we impose these unnecessarily low bars on ourselves? If we never swung for the fence, we might go our entire lives (safe from embarrassingly unimpressive results, but) never realising our true capacities.

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Speaking only anecdotally, I do find it interesting how improved my testing results generally are compared to my training results – for instance, when pushed to do as many strict pull-ups as I possibly can in one maximal effort test, I find myself almost comfortably doubling what feels like almost my maximum when in training. I’m not one to ignore hard work whilst training, but the difference is undeniable. Somewhere along the way, I’ve conditioned myself to feel like twelve repetitions is nearly the most I can complete for a set of pull-up exercises, as part of a training session. Although the metaphorical bar here feels appropriate, my testing results would suggesting otherwise – I’m selling myself short, and I don’t even realise it.

I suppose this is just something to think about, next time we are setting goals for ourselves – both in the big picture, and the small. Is that really as fast, or as heavy, or as as long as we are capable?

I’m now three weeks away from my first training attempt at the full, thirty-five kilometre distance for the Channel-length swim – a dress rehearsal, of sorts – so the time to put my money where my mouth is draws ever closer.