I had the idea for this blog post as I was running the Phnom Penh 10k last month.
My friend Matthieu had convinced me a few weeks prior to join him and his girlfriend Pauline on the run. I was really keen to take part, as I'd taken part in my first race in London last year (something that I'd never thought I'd manage with my historical knee problem) and I felt like I could beat my previous time. I also thought it would be awesome to have run a race in a new country!
Those who know me personally will know that I'm not a runner. I'm a keen gym-goer, but as Hazel keeps on pointing out, I severely neglect cardio. We tried a few months ago to get into a habit of running around the Independence Monument but we rarely ran more than 15 minutes and continually got overtaken. It was also a short-lived "habit". We ran three times.
I'm also physically limited by my knee condition. At least that's what I've been telling myself for years following several (smallish) operations on my knee to treat for PVNS. As people with PVNS we're told to avoid exercises that have a high impact on the knee, so I've generally avoided running. I even get slightly swollen knees after a half-hour cycle, so I'm not best equipped to run races!
Last year I ran the 10k in London with my friend Johana (she's also a talented photographer when she's not running races - check her out). We ran/walked together all the way and completed the race in 1 hour and 6 minutes with no training. We were chuffed to just finish the race and not come last, as neither of us had run anything close to 10k before.
When I signed up to the Phnom Penh 10k, Matthieu and I set ourselves a stretch goal of under 1hr for the run. This would mean shaving at least 6 minutes from my last time. This would be no mean feat but not impossible.
When I ran the race last time, I was cycling more than an hour everyday to and from work. In Phnom Penh, I hardly even walk as I ride a taxi or motorbike everywhere. London roads are in significantly better condition. The race last time also started later on in the day, with the Phnom Penh race starting at 6:30am. All these factors would work against me.
Yet I also knew that I took two toilet breaks during the race last time. That'd be around a minute extra that I could save if I could cut that down to one or no toilet breaks. I also had a running partner this time who'd push me more than Johana. Johana was great to run with, but she's a little over 150cm whereas Matthieu is a lanky fellow over 6 feet tall who'd run races before. In addition to mentally and physically pushing myself, I'd have to work smart to give myself best chance of meeting my goal. More on that now.
Move quickly at the beginning
I somehow managed to wake up on time to make myself some fried eggs and down a can of sugar free Bacchus that I'd bought the night before in preparation. The race was due to start outside the Royal Palace and I met Matthieu and Pauline there at the starting line. I put on my favourite podcast (the Robcast, followed by an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show) and got ready to go.
The first step was getting free of the herd. There was a huge crowd at the starting line and for some reason it seemed like the majority of the people who were right at the front started the race by walking, holding up everyone else behind! Matthieu led the charge, zigzagging his way through the walkers and me following closely behind.
As I did this, I reflected on where else I'd done this in my life, or seen others do it. I looked back to my past jobs, which weren't my passion, but where I'd been relatively successful. I was highly regarded wherever I was employed. When people early on in their career ask me for a piece of advice, I always tell this this. Work your socks off to impress when you first start. Make a good impression. Label yourself in your bosses' minds as a hard working and capable employee. It'll pay off in the long run, and you can even take your foot off the gas when you need or want to, because you put the effort in at the start.
Low hanging fruit
At various stages during the race we encountered corners and two roundabouts. I noticed something rather puzzling and also funny. The majority of runners would take the outside lane, as close to the edge of the road as possible. I was doing the opposite, taking the inside lane and running as close to the inner edge as possible without leaving the road. And at every corner I'd overtake around five to ten runners. The roads we were running on were quite wide, so I estimated that I was taking around ten strides fewer than my counterparts that took the longer route. Over the course of the entire race this would add up to shave more minutes off.
I made a mental note to talk about this at some point. Why do people choose to take the longer way, when the shorter one is more favourable to them and no more effort to take? Why do companies, managers and employees employ outdated practices that have been proven to be inefficient and ineffective? Why do we not look for easy wins in our working day that will maximise our output for little effort? Examples of this include:
- Doing different tasks at different times in the day depending on when we'd be most effective at doing them
- Batching email checking
- Prioritising tasks using this four quadrant technique
- Taking regular breaks away from the screen and leaving work early
- Eating and sleeping well
- Exercising regularly
I wasn't doing much thinking while running. I'm not a runner so I don't know what runners generally do, but I had a podcast on and was taking in some sound wisdom from Rob Bell. It helped to pass the time and I guess was a sort of Sunday sermon too!
In terms of running the race and keeping pace, I have to give credit to my running pal Matthieu whom I ran behind for most of the race. This helped in a couple of ways. Firstly, he's a better and faster runner than me, but he isn't so much better than I'm completely out of his league. He helped me to be stretched but not torn. As a competitive person by nature, having that to strive for was really helpful. Secondly, it psychologically helped that he was carving out a route and speed for me - as a chef devises a recipe for his or her readers to follow. It's so much easier to follow.
There are areas and times in your life where you are the person leading the charge and breaking new ground. Where you have to take the difficult steps of being a pioneer and figuring things out, and others will follow in your footsteps and have it much easier than you. In other areas in your life, it's just easier and beneficial for you to follow the easy way that others have provided. It helps you conserve energy for the areas that you really care about in which you have to be the one going first.
When you're the leading, it's difficult. It can be lonely at times. But knowing that there are others who are benefiting from your effort, who would not be able to do the things they do without the work you've already done, can be a great source of encouragement.
There were a few moments in the race where I sped up and I was in front of Matthieu. I hope he found it helpful following for those short periods. I reflected on how I'd seen people so used to leading (my dad is an example that pops to mind) that struggle to let other people take the reins (he's much better at this now, I should add). For those so used to leading all the time, it might be beneficial to take a step back once in a while in other areas of your life and let others lead for a change. You might even learn something through the way others lead.
There were a couple of set backs that I encountered on the run. One was my left ankle, which started hurting a third of the way through. Because of my weak right knee, I use my left leg much more than my right. Normally this works okay, with my larger leg muscles in the left leg soaking up the extra pressure in day to day life. On the run, however, my left ankle became the weak point and I could feel it giving way. Thankfully I found that I could run it off.
The other was as we approached the finishing line. We could see the Royal Palace in the distance. Matthieu shouted to me, "We've got 500m to go, come on we can do it!" I mustered up the remainder of my energy and started to pick up the pace for a half-sprint finish. I noticed that 50 minutes had not even passed yet and thought I was making an insanely good time. Unfortunately, what we thought was the Royal Palace was not the Royal Palace (it was a pagoda) and we were actually 1.5km out.
I felt cheated. I'd given everything I had in the tank to reach the goal but found out that the goalposts had been moved. I was so tired. My legs were starting to cramp up. I was exhausted mentally.
There are moments in life when you face this. When you feel like giving up, because you'd given everything and you were being asked for even more. I recall moments working at every single job I had, when I'd stayed behind late for working to produce urgent materials for the clients to review. It was approaching midnight and I'd given every ounce of my dedication and concentration to get it finished, only to discover another hour's work that needed to be done before I could go home. It's those make or break moments that can define you. You can either waste your precious energy throwing a fit (or worse, give up) or you can save it and get it done.
I dug deep. Thankfully I had, as I mentioned before, a running companion pushing me on with his words and with his hind parts that I was chasing.
Matthieu and I made it in 57 minutes (he was ten or 20 seconds ahead of me). That's a whole nine minutes shaved off my personal best (yes, I rounded up in the title).
I couldn't believe it. I was so chuffed. I wrote a quick reflection on Instagram talking about why it was so significant for me, explaining my knee condition. Being grateful about how I went from being a person who thought he was never going to be able to even walk properly at some point to someone who ran two 10k races and smashed his personal best by ten minutes!
I learned the power of setting stretch goals for yourself and challenging the limiting beliefs you have about yourself. How having someone beside you to push you to improve is so valuable. I learned that any seemingly insignificant moment can be an opportunity for reflection, given attention, which also means that I can just about squeeze a blog post out of anything too.
Oh I also learned that somethings you can't help. I still ended up having one toilet break (down from two last time, at least!). Maybe I should look into bladder training. Or actually train next time.