I’ve always been fairly active and have enjoyed a wide variety of sports over the years. But, I never excelled at any of them, instead, being just about good enough to enjoy whichever sport.

Twenty years ago, I ventured in to running. I’d got up to 8 miles on the treadmill in the gym when it suddenly occurred that running outside might be more fun. I’ve been a keen runner ever since. During that time, I progressed from distinctly average to pretty good. It’s worth pointing out that this assessment was based on the speed I could run at. This single focus on always pushing the pace led to a significant injury and not being able to run for over three years while it was sorted out.

So, in addition to massively increasing injury risk, I now think using pace is an indicator of how ‘good’ a runner we are limits our potential. How do you know you’re a 4 or 5 hour marathoner. You might be a 3 hour marathoner and just don’t know it…………yet.

Let me explain.

My wife, Julie, and I run at very different speeds but we can walk at the same pace so we have done many marathons as a walk, taking about 9 hours on average. In 2022 we signed up for the Snowdon Trail marathon, which had a time limit of 10 hours. When the day arrived it was baking hot and Julie had to drop out at 20 miles with heatstroke. Once she was being safely looked after we agreed I should carry on to the finish, which was the last 7 miles up Snowdon to the summit and back down to the finish in Llanberis.

I enjoyed the challenge so much I decided to sign up for the 2023 event, but to do it as a run. A confirmed road runner, the idea of doing a trail run was a step into the unknown and quite appealing.

Race day came and I set off without any expectations of pace or finish time telling myself ‘let’s just see how it goes’. I walked the ups, jogged the flat bits and ran the downhills. I finished, very tired but elated, in a time of 6 hours 43 minutes. This placed me second in the 65-69 age category. But because the age group winner was 2 years younger than me I scored more ranking points.

This got me a surprise invite to the Xterra World Trail Championships in the USA.

This couldn’t be right. I contacted them to check if there had been a mistake but they assured me I’d earned my place.

So, off we went to the US. Race day arrived and, again, I set off without any expectation of pace or time. Unlike the Snowdon course, which I enjoyed, the Championship course didn’t suit me at all. It was all tree roots and rocks, a surface I struggled to run on. I was ready to quit at 9 miles but kept going.

And I’m glad I did. I managed to place 3rd missing 2nd place by only 2 minutes. I was pleased with the result but the edge was taken off by the mental struggle of trying to complete a course that was so tough. But, obviously, it was a tough course for everyone else as well.

Two weeks after we got home from the US I checked my results online only to discover that I’d topped the age group points table. I’d beaten the second placed runner by 30 minutes at Snowdon and lost by two minutes to him at the Championships. I was a world champion and had become an ‘athlete’ quite by accident!

So why am I telling you all this?

Reflecting on my trail running exploits has given me new insights:

  1. Running without any preconceived expectations of a finish time or target pace allowed me run freely on both occasions and realise an ability I never knew existed
  2. Feeling rubbish during a run isn’t a good indicator. You’ve no idea how everyone else is feeling and they might be having an even worse time of it. So, just keep going and see what happens
  3. Learn to enjoy every run and relax, you might be on your way to becoming a world champion😊
  4. What else might I be capable of!

These have combined to give me a new awareness and desire to discover my true potential. No longer defined by finish times or training paces I:

  • Do most of my running at a conversational pace going slower uphill and steady on the flat so that I never get out of breath or feel strained. This also means that I’m less likely to pick up an injury
  • Have increased my weekly running from 30 to over 50 miles without ever feeling completely knackered (although I do sometimes have an afternoon snooze)
  • Enjoy my running more than I ever have before
  • Am committed to running consistently over the coming months and years, just to see where it takes me

I should point out that this has all been enabled by the fact that I am newly retired and so have the time. But, I could just as easily be finding excuses (sometimes we call them reasons) not to go out for a run as planned.

By changing my focus from defining my running by the paces I can hit and, instead, just enjoying the process of discovery to see where it might take me I have just run my fastest 10k since 2018. And, I didn’t check the pace I was running at once in the whole race. I ran to how I felt and enjoyed every step, crossing the line with a huge smile on my face, just happy to have been able to still be running.

So many runners quit because they feel obliged to run ‘fast’ before they’re ready, getting injured in the process. ‘My knees can’t take it’ is a regular refrain I hear. ‘What if you just walk more and add a short, 100 step, jog in once or twice, is my reply. Satr off from what you are capable of today and build up very slowly. But keep at it. You’ll almost certainly enjoy it more and will unlock abilities you probably didn’t know you had.

Who knows, one day you might even think of yourself as an ‘athlete’!

Happy running.

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