Running with the elites

In my earlier blogs, I have generally tried to offer something which might be of interest or useful to others… however this one probably goes under the heading of “Need to get it off my chest”. I suspect it may well also be ill-informed, so I apologise for that at the outset.

Something’s been bugging me for a long time and this last few weeks has brought it to a head, with the dramas of the final selections for Team GB, the early Olympic action, Paula Radcliffe’s withdrawal… and I have also suffered a recurrence of an old injury.

It begins with the commentator’s now-traditional description of the London Marathon as “where the ordinary runners can take part in the same event as the elite champions”. At its simplest level that’s true: the elites and the masses both do 26.2 miles, and over the same course, at the same time. The similarities end there, because of course by any rational criteria it’s nonsense to put ourselves in their company.

But, is it? I think there may be more in common than people recognise… and some critical differences. I would even go so far as to say that in some ways the elites have it easier than we masses, we middle-of-the-pack plodders.

What separates us most is their physiology, the biomechanics, heart and lungs with which they are blessed. Of course they work incredibly hard and push themselves to their limits; and they make massive sacrifices (though some refer to them as “choices”). But we work hard too, at our level; we too push our bodies to – often beyond – their limits; we also sacrifice substantial parts of our lives to our goals and obsession, and our families support or suffer that. And who is to say we wouldn’t make similar choices, if our physiologies made them available to us?

  • Once we enter an event, whether that’s a charity 10k or a marathon, we also feel a sense of  commitment which dominates our lives for a period, and with it an equal fear of failure. Is that so different?
  • Then there is the training: more miles, more occasions, hopefully faster, now with more structure. This may be normal for them, but for us it introduces a new pressure that comes with “training” instead of simply going for a run, with the compulsion and the measures it brings. So we stress about missed targets, days when we can’t go, nursing the figures just short of injury. We know that what happens on race-day is only down to the months of hard work and sometimes pain, unseen, which has gone before. Is that so different?
  • We feel an elation at hitting our goals, maybe even the joy and pride of exceeding them and surprising ourselves. Also the crushing disappointment of those days when we feel we are going well, but still miss the numbers, filling us with doubts. We pick ourselves up, adjust, re-set and talk ourselves into success. Is that so different?
  • Then of course there are the injuries. We are on track and then suddenly <Bang!!>, something stops us, takes our dreams away and leaves us emotionally as well as physically shattered, with a feeling of  loss, bereavement even, of what we’ve been aiming for, living with, for so long.  Is that so different?

Sometimes (and this is when I really risk causing offence) I even think they have it easy. I’ve spent the last few weeks juggling ice with massage (which I can’t reach), with stretching, with Ibuprofen and arnica. I have also been juggling with work and driving and sitting at the PC and conference-calls for hours on end (inescapably immobile), plus a lovely but poorly-timed family break. I can’t afford a couple of sessions of physio each day, or have ready access to a gym or pool. I don’t have a specialist  to supervise my rehab and strengthening, or to analyse and correct my gait and coach me how to avoid a recurrence of the problem. Or, any structured time to do it in. So I’ve muddled through until I can just about jog again, carrying a weakness which will join all the other partly-healed scar-tissue from my collection of old injuries, and probably come back to hurt me once more in future. If I had the facilities, support and time they have, I probably wouldn’t be in this mess so often.

Then there is the juggling of training and recovery with work and family. In some ways we all enjoy the same pleasures that children bring, of broken sleep, parents-evenings or teenage-traumas and taxi-service; of in-laws, supermarket trips, car problems… everyday family life. The elites don’t have servants to take all this away any more than we do. But the difference is, we have to fit it in alongside work and other demands on our time, whereas for elites everyone recognises it IS their work and takes a priority. I accept that the demands of sponsors and teams must be a nuisance.  But so is having to run in some dreadful ring-road industrial estate from a grotty budget hotel after a 4-hour drive in traffic jams, because if I don’t go tonight I won’t be back tomorrow and can’t do this week’s targets. I have to run tonight because I have been travelling with work all week and have that school-governor meeting tomorrow… which funnily-enough are precisely the same reasons why my wife believes I can’t run tonight.

Of course many elites do have day-jobs, albeit that their employers may recognise and allow them to flex work for their running. Also, I will accept that there is one major issue for the professionals: it is an extremely fragile and all-too-brief career, with the problem of what to do afterwards unless media, coaching or similar are an option. The emotional loss of their life’s focus must be very disorientating. By contrast, even allowing for redundancy and other problems, by and large those of us with “normal” jobs can hope to keep the regular mortgage payments going.

And fundamentally, we run for pleasure, whereas they have to run to provide for their lives and families. If I miss an event through injury it is frustrating and upsetting, but it does not threaten my family’s security or standard of living.

So, maybe we have it easy because our running is not our livelihood; or maybe they have it easy because running is their livelihood, and everything is geared around that.


I guess the bottom line (literally) is that “elite” means something: they are a small select group, not like the rest of us, above us. This is certainly true in terms of race-times, and pure athletic performance. Put me alongside Scott Overall for a Marathon and he would finish over an hour ahead of even my PB, let alone now. An hour for goodness sake!

So I can’t possibly put myself alongside them, can’t compare what I do, can’t say I feel the same; I certainly can’t complain that I have it harder than them. By any objective rational judgement that’s patent nonsense.


In my spirit, in my heart, I feel a connection. I feel that allowing for our different levels, what I do is the same as what they do.

So this weekend I am taking my daughter to London to watch the women’s marathon. I’ll take my marathon medals with me. I’ll stand there and yell and shout just as much as the lump in my throat will allow, a middle-of-the-pack-plodder in awe at the sight of true athletes.

And somehow, I will feel like something more than just a spectator.


About johntleeds

In amongst the perpetual juggling of work, family and things on my mind, this is MY time, MY escape. Any this is what my mind comes up with when it has time to wonder, as I wander on the trails... twitter @johntleeds
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