What is your measure of success?

I was invited to maintain a short running column in our department newsletter – probably in the hope that if they gave me an outlet to write about running, I would talk about it less! I agreed (of course!) and arranged for me to re-publish those articles on this blog with a short delay. As the newsletter is aimed at our whole department of 150+ people, I will try to keep these of general enough to appeal to a mixed audience (runners and non-runners). This is the first such article, I hope you enjoy:

We talk about a whole range of things when out on a long run with Kyriako, as runners tend to when endorphins flow and our guards drop. But one of the subjects we keep coming back to, and which causes me the most anguish is whether, with a singled-minded devotion to our training and nutrition, we would have ever been able to run a sub 3-hour marathon. Kyriakos (who has not yet run a marathon but is faster than me over any distance from 3 to 20 miles) is certain we would, while I (who have run 10, but all over 3h 35’) not so much. In any event, these chats leave us with mixed feelings of regret and gratitude: Regret that we have never been given a chance to dedicate ourselves so single-mindedly to running (but in a deeper sense, perhaps anything), and gratitude for all the things that we have and which have prevented us from doing so (families, children, full-time jobs…). But out on the run, as miles build and fatigue sets it, the prevailing sensation is one of regret: Why did I leave it so late to pick up running? Why did I ‘waste’ all those years when it was just a younger me, a very fit German Pointer and the Lakeland trails within reach? 

And then I listened to the interview Chrissie Wellington (4 times Ironman champion, never having lost an Ironman) gave to Adharanand Finn for his excellent The Way Of The Runner podcast (available online, Spotify, Acast and all reputable podcast providers). Her every word is a gem, but the section that stayed with me was where she talks about her retirement: How after what she considers the best race of her life (the 2011 Ironman World Championship), which she finished ‘completely annihilated’ as she puts it, having answered all her questions about how good she could be, she was left with nothing more to prove… but also the knowledge that nothing would ever come close to that feeling again.  

So, having retired at the height of her success, her biggest struggle was transitioning from the addictive focus of her 6-hour training days to a more “normal” lifestyle. With it came an aversion towards anything with a tangible measure of success: She still runs and competes hard but has moved away from activities with hard targets and towards those that take her on more of a journey instead, like ultra running.  

With it, she has found a greater sense of balance and joy in things other than running and competing: her daughter and husband, her work with parkrun, her “holistically gratifying life” as she wonderfully puts it. She is adamant that she still races as hard as ever (and her recent results bear that out), but she would no longer sacrifice three hours with her daughter to get a sports massage.  

Does that mean that she won’t be the best athlete she can be? Probably, she answers her own question, but she shall be the best athlete she can be, in the context of the life she has chosen. 

I have dwelled on this a lot, and not only in a running context. I find it amazingly liberating and it turns Kyriako’s and my dilemma on its head: I will probably never be the fastest runner that I could ever be, but I will work tirelessly to become as good as I can in the context of the holistically gratifying life I have chosen! 

It also turned my lockdown guilt on its head: I could not give my whole undivided attention to our son, or my dog, or my training, or my wife… But I can honestly say that I was the best runner, dad, husband, son, brother and – whisper it – Contract Manager that I could be in the context of the life I have chosen to live. And, of course, the vagaries of chance that we are all subject to.  Thank you for reading the whole article! As a token of my gratitude, may I wholeheartedly recommend “The Runners”, a beautiful, thought-provoking short film (11’) about other things that runners talk about when running, far superior to my own meanderings:

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