Zen and the Art of Marathon Running

A milestone birthday feels like an appropriate a time to reflect.  In my experience, looking back can engender pangs of regret and isn’t always healthy.   However, since turning 50, I haven’t been able to completely resist the urge to review and reflect on running and on life in general (don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with any of the life stuff).

A Facebook friend whom I don’t see in person anymore commented last year on one of the numerous running posts on my timeline.  She asked “Why on Earth do you do that to yourself, why put yourself through all that pain?”

Initially, I found it difficult to provide her with a coherent answer. To a non-runner, going out running looks ridiculous and maybe fundamentally pointless. The only answer I could provide was to simply say “I run because I have to”.

Sport has always been the central focus of my leisure time.  As a boy of 7 or 8, I whiled away hundreds hours on my own on the back patio throwing a tennis ball against the garage wall and hitting the rebound with my cricket bat.  I fantasized that I was opening the batting for England against Australia, playing imaginary commentary through my head.

I’ve always loved the competition that sport provides, the struggle to beat your rivals producing either the ecstasy of victory or the despair of narrow but heroic defeat.  Sport is beautiful.

In my view running is the purest sport – there’s little equipment required, no judges, no subjective scoring and hardly any rules – simply propel yourself as fast as you can over the distance and try to beat your rivals.

Although I love the sport of running, competing isn’t the sole reason why I run.  In fact, it’s a minor element. Even if I couldn’t race, I would still run nearly every day. I crave the feeling of having a fit and able body and of connecting with nature.

My single favourite run of the whole of this year was not a race or even a time when I ran quickly. It was a slow solitarily jog on woodland trails in Athens Georgia in April.

At the start of 2016, I’d suffered three or four months of chronic and depressing achilles injury. For several weeks, I couldn’t run at all – not even twenty yards. Finally as the injury started to recede I was able to venture out.

On holiday in the USA and still jetlagged, I snuck out of the hotel at 7 a.m. on the first morning and found some deserted forest trails alongside a river. It was an idyllic day – like a cool early summer’s day in England with heady scents of blossom and growth in the air.

I jogged slowly along the unfamiliar springy trails and then all of a sudden chanced across a deer, startled but motionless – staring straight at me and maybe only 10 metres away. We shared one of those incredible frozen moments – it felt like ages but was probably only a second or two before he bolted off in fright. Running alone in such a beautiful place that morning was unforgettable.


It wasn’t always a runner. Ten years ago, I would have called myself a cricketer. I was mediocre at best, but I loved the game and had played it on most summer weekends throughout my life since being twelve years old.

Running was a minor interest, a means to keep fit and to enjoy the occasional race, but my primary focus was on playing cricket.

However, I knew that the cricket love affair was coming to a conclusion. My body was failing a bit, my abilities diminishing – only slightly, but I knew that I wasn’t as good as I was. Consequently, I didn’t enjoy playing as much and the craic at my club wasn’t that great any more.

I used to run a bit, I’d jog a 2.4 mile loop around my village two or three times a week and being a competitive soul I’d sometimes record my time and try to beat it every couple of weeks. I also ran the Abbey Dash 10K race most years, usually completing it between 40 and 45 minutes.

However, on Saturday January 8th 2008 I had something of an epiphany, a transformative life moment. I didn’t find religion,  I found parkrun.

I ran my first parkrun in just under 22 minutes, finishing wheezing with hands on knees, but I soon became addicted. In common with most parkrunners, I improved rapidly in the early days – by April that year my PB was just over 19 minutes. Since then, I’ve run a parkrun on most Saturday mornings, it’s now part of my life.

Eight and a half years later, I no longer call myself a cricketer – I am a runner.


Although I (largely) enjoy my job, my working environment is not particular conducive to good mental health. I work in a broom-cupboard sized office entirely on my own. This wouldn’t suit everyone and I’m not sure it really suits me, though I am able to cope with it.

When I worked for my previous employer, I headed up a small insurance office with four others in central Leeds. Because of holidays, illness, training courses etc, there were occasionally days when one would be in the office all alone.

I employed a gregarious chap from another firm who’d worked for fifteen years in a large noisy office. A couple of weeks into his time working for me, he had to spend most of the day entirely by himself in the office.  When I returned late in the afternoon after a client visit, he was almost in tears, saying that he couldn’t possibly stand another day all alone like that, he would go out of his mind.

I’m better able to cope, more used to spending time on my own, but I have a fear that the isolation will be injurious to my sanity.  An old friend suffered a horrendous mental breakdown some years back after working alone at home for a number of months. There were probably other factors at play, but lone working is risky to good mental health. Running isn’t the antidote, but I know it helps enormously.

My favourite runs during the week are my lunchtime excursions along the Leeds-Liverpool canal.  They are an escape from insidious and intrusive demands for immediate response that curse modern life – a chance to unplug and let the mind meander for an hour. Its nourishment for the soul.


I love radio. There are at least six radios in my house, one for every room so that I can quickly switch on and listen no matter what I’m doing.  If I had to choose between radio or TV, radio would win.

In common with many people, as I get older the proportion of my listening time devoted to Radio 4 has increased.

One of my favourite programmes is Desert Island Discs. I’m sure everyone knows the format – each week a notable person is marooned on an imaginary desert island and alongside a probing interview they reveal the eight records that they would take together with a book and a ‘luxury’.

To me, revealing your eight favourite records is like baring your soul – it is wonderful way to learn a lot about a person (good or bad).

If I were asked to go on Desert Island Discs, I’d struggle to select eight records, in common with most people the arbitrary list  of my eight favourite records would change almost daily (If anyone is interested, today’s list in a footnote below, feel free to tell me your list.)

However, I am certain which book I would choose. A book that I first read around the age of twenty and one of the few books that I have re-read more than once as you can see from this vigorously thumbed copy:


It’s a mind-blowing work. Part travelogue, part ghost story, part detailed treatise on the history of Philosophy, part motorcycle maintenance manual – it got under my skin the first time I read it and still intrigues me each time I read it again.

At times it’s a difficult and confusing book, drilling deep into the nature of what it means to even exist; yet at other times it is amazingly clear and wise. It’s also a deeply dark and troubling book – the author has a dark secret and a deep malcontent that is slowly revealed.  If you haven’t read it, you must try. Many people will hate it, but I hope many will love it as I do.

One of Pirsig’s core philosophical ideas is the struggle between the Romantic and the Classical personalities. By Romantic he means a carefree, muddle through and leave things to chance philosophy. His friend and fellow motorcycle traveller is like that. He doesn’t bother to look after his motorcycle much and when it breaks down, he is forced to pay for expensive professional repairs.

Pirsig is of the Classical mould – rational, logical, problem-solving.  He doesn’t leave things to chance. His motorcycle doesn’t break down much because (a) he knows how to maintain it and (b) he actually cares about looking after it. Pirsig views the Classical way as the way to achieve Quality in life (whatever that means…)

Of course the central ideas of the book are much more numerous and complex than this, I can’t possible do justice to such a work of genius in a few lines.

As a runner, I used to be very much in the Romantic mould – I didn’t think about it or plan much. I’d simply put on my trainers and set off with only a vague idea of a route or how long I would be out.  At races, I wouldn’t even do a warm-up or think about pacing, I’d just set off and see what happened. Consequently, I wasn’t very good.

Over the years, as I have improved and learned, I have moved much more into the Classical mode.  I now plan out my training, building towards a sequence of short term goals with longer-term goals in the background. I think carefully about how fast I should run intervals and how many miles I should do per week. Prior to races I analyse my training times and research websites to see what pace I might expect to run over each race distance.  I get to parkruns and races early and warm up for at least 20 minutes. I even undertake a bit of maintenance on my body – going to yoga each Monday and sometimes treating myself to a sports massage.

Unsurprisingly, the more I became engaged in the details of running, the harder I worked and the faster I got. I also care more about doing better. As Malcolm Gladwell espouses, talent is overrated – hard work is usually what’s required.

So after my spluttering near 22 minute parkrun on that winter’s morning in January 2008, I reflect that I’ve come a long way with running in 8 years.

This week I learned that I have qualified to run in an England vest next year as part of the age group marathon team.

It’s not perhaps as grand as it sounds.  To earn the right, you simply had to be a registered athlete and then finish in the top 5 in your age category group in one of five qualifying marathon races.  I was third MV50 at the Yorkshire marathon so I’m in.

Still, from a twenty two minute mid-pack parkrunner to an international vest, I think that’s quite cool.


My Desert Island Discs:

  1. Pretty Vacant – The Sex Pistols
  2. Hello Earth – Kate Bush
  3. Scheherazade – Rimsky Korsakov
  4. Lover, You Should have come over – Jeff Buckley
  5. S.O.S – Abba
  6. Thrill has Gone (Live at Crossroads festival) – B.B. King
  7. Nimrod – Elgar
  8. America – Simon & Garfunkel

The Plusnet Yorkshire Marathon 2016

Regular readers will know that running has been going well for me over the past few weeks, culminating in my 5K PB last Saturday at York parkrun.

This caused me to agonise about my pacing strategy for the marathon. I’d previously resolved to go out at 6:35 per mile, which would be a target of 2:52.36 and a halfway even split of 1:26.18.

However, I must have contracted a case of hubris because in the final couple of days I decided to go out in 6:30s, for a target of 2:50.25. This was certainly very ambitious and would represent a PB by over six minutes.

Marathon pacing is a fine art – a marathon is run primarily below the aerobic threshold (i.e. you don’t get out of breath much), but if you overcook it there is a risk that the legs will pack in before the end, and nobody wants to experience that feeling. The marathon is very much a race about self-control.

On an almost perfect day for marathon running, I travelled over to York with fellow Strider Tim. We used the park and ride at Elvington airfield which worked efficiently.

Tim and I lined up a few rows back from the front, wished each other well and then we were off.

There really isn’t a lot to say about the first few miles, I settled into my 6:30 target pace and basically just knocked the miles off.  The first mile was slightly downhill and I felt that loads of runners had gone off much too quickly.

I went through 5K in 20:15, 10k in 40:30, so I was nailing even pacing, steadily passing those that set off too quickly.

I joined a small group that was being tracked by a TV cameraman on a motorbike. I realised that he was filming the leading lady – Joasia Jakrzewski. I knew about Jo through my Comrades buddies Jock and James Love, she had finished in the top ten at Comrades in 2015 in 7 hours flat! and had a sub 2:40 marathon PB… I was indeed in elevated company.

pic John Rainsforthjo-yorks

I ran with Jo for a few miles, she looked to be going incredibly easily, but to be frank it was a bit irritating having a TV camera right in our faces. At least I experienced a little of what Mo Farah has to put up with!

At around 8 or 9 miles, Jo stepped on it – she must have run a couple of 6:10 miles or quicker because she soon dropped me. I kept on with my monotonous 6:30s, with the 3rd and 4th 5K sections run in 20:22 and 20:08. Another lady soon passed me, obviously intent on giving Jo a race.

Halfway was reached in 1:25.02, a tad quicker than level 6:30s.  I knew that I was a little bit fast, but all was feeling good, so I decided to press on and just HTFU…

I found myself running quite a lot of the second half in the company of the third lady, a lovely person called Michelle from Gateshead. She had won an ultra marathon only last Sunday and was running really strongly. In cycling parlance, she looked like a good wheel to follow.

The course was generally very pleasant to run on – predominantly on country lanes and often through shaded forest, though there was one slightly less enjoyable section.

Just after halfway, we turned left onto a wide A road towards Stamford Bridge, then doubled back at a turnaround point to run 5 miles back down the same A road, only to double back and run 2 miles back up the same road.  The crowds at the turn points were huge and I got a great lift from many cheers in this section from friends and teammates.

At the 18 mile turnaround point my spirits lifted when I heard a familar voice call my name and saw the beaming smile and bounding figure of great pal Hannah, who was doing a sterling job in leading the cheering. The next two miles back up the A road were tough – up a draggy incline, and into the breeze. For the first time, I knew that I was having to work hard.

I had passed Michelle a couple of miles earlier, but she caught me again on the drag and we ran together for a few miles. Again we were frequently buzzed by one of the TV camera motorbikes. I expect my ugly mug will appear on the TV highlights next week.

Despite a couple of slower miles on the drag (6:44 then 7:00) I still was just about holding it together, though I knew that I was in for a very tough last 6 miles.  I resolved to just try to follow Michelle for as long as possible, but my legs were getting heavy as I started paying it back for my earlier exuberance.

I was beginning to leak some time – the 7th and 8th 5K sections took 21:17 then 22:12. As it slipped away I felt a bit frustrated, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, my legs were basically shot. Teammate Jerry passed me in the last three miles, going very strongly. There was no way I could latch on to him.

With a mile to go I felt a sinister shot of pain down my left hamstring – the first pangs of a cramp. Shit, that’s all I need I thought.  I had a single salt tablet in my shorts pocket and hoping that it would be some kind of magic bullet I reached in a swallowed it. I slightly altered my gait to try to keep my left leg straighter and keep the insidious cramp at bay.

At mile 25, I was close to shuffling – a 7:40 26th mile tells that story.  I made my way up the 400m incline back onto the university campus then ran as best as I could to the line.

I finished in 2:55.08 and felt wobbly for a few minutes at the finish. Luckily, I just about managed to hold myself together.

My Strava record

My time is a 90 second personal best and I finished 54th overall and third in my age category.  The first two MV50s were miles in front of me in 2:41 and 2:47 so third is the best that I could have achieved.

Overall, I am happy with my run. It is mildly frustrating to lose over 2 minutes in the last three miles, however, I console myself in knowing that I really went for it, I challenged myself to see if I could run a low 2:50s marathon and for 23 miles I was absolutely bang on it. It simply leaves unfinished business to be dealt with at London next April.

Tim ran a superbly evenly paced race to nail his first sub three marathon in 2:59.14 – a brilliant run.

My other big news is that I am having a year off from Comrades next year.  I would love to run it every year, but lots of other big and exciting stuff happening next year means that I just cannot spare the requisite time off work. I will be back though.

Yorkshire marathon today!
39.9 miles, longest run 26.2 miles
Weight 10 st 12.4lb
parkrun (Stretford) 22:49, 123rd

The New Forty

Tomorrow, I move into a new age category – MV50.

That sentence gives me away as a runner – every other human being would express that thought as “tomorrow is my 50th birthday”…

In common with most people, when I was a teenager, I thought 50 was old, really old. I actually thought that 30 was old. At University, I remember laughing at my mate Ronnie’s brother-in-law when he came out drinking with us because we thought he was an old man.  He was 25 at the time.

Fifty is past halfway in a normal lifespan, but luckily I am healthy and fit.  In fact, despite having led an active life and always participated in sport, I don’t think I have ever been fitter. I don’t know how that can possibly be, but I’m very grateful and intend to ride the wave for as long as I can.


With a week to go to the marathon, this was the middle week of my taper so there were no long runs, but I still covered 47 miles and did some faster running.

On Tuesday, I went to the Valley Striders session. Somewhat depressingly, it was the first one on our winter urban routes away from the tranquillity of the Eccup reservoir where we run in the summer.

The fourth Tuesday in the month means hills – six times up a longish hill (about two and a half minutes) then a jog back recovery.  I put it in and gave chase to one of our fastest runners – Simon. I didn’t catch him on any of the reps, but at least I made him work a bit I think.

I had earmarked Saturday morning to have a dig at my 5K personal best –officially 17:36, but that was set on the old John Carr course (net downhill), so it’s got an asterisk next to it in my eyes. The true mark to beat was 17:41.

I ran an unofficial 17:25 last week for 5K (according to my Garmin) at the Northern 6 stage road relays so I knew I was in decent nick.

The York parkun course is on the ambulance track at the racecourse. It is almost perfectly flat and comprises one and a half laps of the Knavesmire, so there are no problems with congestion or overtaking. The only issue is that it is exposed and can be very windy.

Luckily, yesterday in York the weather was still and misty, there was barely a zephyr – near perfect conditions.  I did a decent warm-up – as I have to these days, and positioned myself near the front rank at the start.

The winner at York usually runs under 17 minutes, sometimes under 16, so I stood behind a small group of young skinny lads, whom I’d guessed would hare off at the start.

My plan was to try to run each kilometre as close to 3 minutes 30 seconds as possible, for an overall 17:30 target.  I hoped to take some shelter from other runners to help me to reach my goal.

We set off and one lad zoomed off way ahead. I found myself just behind a clutch of three, who obviously knew each other and were idly chatting.

The first km was covered in 3:32, which was a little slow, but I felt that I was holding back. The other runners then seemed to slow and I had no option but to go past them and pick up the pace.

I ran kilometre 2 in 3:29 and realised that I was catching the leader quite quickly. I used the old race craft trick of holding back for a few seconds just before I caught him, gathering myself and then surging past him really hard, hoping to prevent him from latching onto me.

I knew that the third and fourth kilometres were the key. It’s this portion of race when one can slip off the pace – the third lap problem for mile runners.

Fighting to overcome the lactic acid and oxygen debt, I dug in as hard as I could – kilometres 3 and 4 were covered in 3:32 and 3:35.  My brain was a little scrambled with the effort but I knew that I was falling off my 17:30 target.  I needed to dig deep and try to find some more speed for a big final kilometre. I got on my toes and drove my arms and tried to endure the agony.

The final 250m included a couple of turns, then a 125m sprint to the finish line, at the final turn I heard people screaming “Come on James!”.

“How the hell do they know my name?” I thought to myself, only to realise that they were cheering a young lad in second place who was gaining rapidly on me.

I stared down the finish line and sprinted for all I was worth, I caught sight of his orange vest alongside me in my peripheral vision. With 40 metres to go I was absolutely all out, but I managed to find another kick and I might have even dipped for the line, just pipping him to cross the line first.

As it was such a desperate finish, I didn’t stop my Garmin for quite a few seconds, so I didn’t know my time until I saw the results a few hours later:


A lifetime PB just two days short of my 50th birthday – I’m pleased with that.

Sunday was the first race of the cross country season at Thornes Park in Wakefield. It was sunny and warm and the course was firm.

I ran OK, maintaining a consistent 6:20ish pace throughout the undulating 9.5K course and was passing other runners for most of the race.


(pic Andy Pagdin)

I finished in 37:58 for 53rd place and 4th in my age category, though if the race had been held just one day later I would have won my new age category…

The standard at the West Yorkshire cross country league is high and Valley Striders did well – the ladies coming 5th and the men 3rd. I was the 6th counter for the team.

Tomorrow, I’ll spend my birthday going for a run around Swinsty and Fewston reservoirs, having lunch with my friend Hannah, then a sports massage and will round off the day with a Thai meal and beers with my family.

Now that’s what I call tapering.


YM -1 week

46.9 miles, longest run 11 miles

Weight 11st 1.6lb

parkrun (York) 17:30, 1st