Morning Run with Paula Radcliffe: On the Breaking2 Project, Marathoning and Being a Woman Athlete
It was a Monday when I received a text message from a friend ‚Hey, do you want to donate to Helene’s organization, there’s a pretty high chance you could win a run and brunch with Paula Radcliffe‘. I didn’t think long, but went directly on to the website and donated my part to St. George's Society through her company CONCERN. CONCERN Worldwide is a nonprofit organization raising funds for people in need in countries such as Nepal, South Sudan, Liberia, Haiti and Lebanon. For this special happening they partnered with St. George's Society NYC (another charity here) to host this run.
It was a raffle and only a couple hours later, the draw happened and my friend texted me back ‚You might have a run in the near future.‘ I was smiling and very excited when the email came in later that day, attached a picture of my name which made it officially official.
Going into this, I thought about her World Record in the Marathon (set at the London Marathon in 2003), but also about the fact that I wasn’t there when it happened. I was nowhere near London, nowhere near the sport of running and nowhere near a TV screen. I was eleven years old and was probably sitting somewhere and playing with my little brother. Yet, in the past years running and living in New York, I’ve been very fortunate enough to train with some of my older teammates and friends from whom I would always hear about Paula. Her world record, her running form, her training, her grit and hard work, but also the suspicion in regards to her performances and times, whether or not she was doping back then. Whether or not she really holds those records. I decided for myself that when it comes down to it: she's another great female athlete promoting the sport. I definitely wanted to meet her!
Thus, two weeks ago, I met a small group of runners at Columbus Circle and Paula took us for a jog (7:30 min per mile as easy!) in Central Park.. we ended up with lots of pancakes and had the chance to ask her a few questions. Gary Lough, her husband and coach, who now coaches Mo Farah joined us for breakfast as well.
What is your running schedule like, how many miles do you run in a week?
I actually surprise myself sometimes, I don’t really start my watch nor do I measure how far I’ve run. If I had to guess, I probably run between 7 and 10 miles every day. Sometimes, when traveling, I can’t fit it in or it’s less. What I don’t really do anymore is workouts. Maybe, I turn the run into a tempo or do a little bit of hills, but I am nowhere near as fit as I was, but I am still running a reasonable amount but use it more for personal time, thinking time.
How do you improve speed? What’s the best technique for improving speed?
You’ve got to run at varied pace, you need reps of running quicker, whether its just a fartlek, hill reps or whether it’s going on the track and doing laps. You need that much quicker pace compared to your targeted race pace. You definitely need that in there. You can’t just improve by running every day. And even putting in some strides after a run can make a big difference.
Do your kids run?
Yes, they both run, my daughter is 10, my son is 7. I don’t really think I can compare to them since I joined the club when I was 9 and we were running 800ms. I am probably running similar to what my daughter is running. With my son, I don’t have any comparison since I wasn’t running at his age.
How important do you think is it for children to get into sports?
Paula: I think it’s really important, the biggest thing is that they try a lot of different sports to find that one that they really enjoy because it may not be what their parents did, it won’t be, but if it's something they really love, they can keep going a lot further. I did a project with the World Health Organization a couple years ago and they did an investigation on obesity and kind of looking globally at the problems and it’s shocking how unfit some of these kids are and how they are not able to get out and be physically active. What that means for them moving forward, this generation in particular is predicted to live 5 years less than the generation before them. It’ the first time that’s happened.
A lot of things contribute to that, like safety. Less kids walk to school now when they used and playing in the playground, it’s not safe. It’s just happening less and less. Doing sport is also happening less and less at school.
Gary: Teachers are also spending less time with the kids.
Paula: Yes, after school sports don’t happen as often anymore. And then the parents don’t do regular activities with the kids so the family time spending outside, that doesn’t happen as much anymore, so it's reversing all of that but instead a lot of the scientists look at it: we have to eat better, we have to reduce all the sugary snacks that are available to kids. Yes, that plays a role, but I am sure the kids nowadays are not eating worse than we were back then. It’s just the activity is not there to burn it off.
Are there any unwritten rules as an elite marathoner?
Paula: I think generally, marathon running - distance running, there's a different camaraderie compared to let’s say the sprints or the throw events. In the sprints, it’s such a short distance, they really spend a lot of time kind of psyching each other out, and not speaking to each other whereas in the marathon or distance events, all of the racing is out there on the roads, and there's different camaraderie and respect because there's so much going into the preparation in something like the marathon and you're very similar people, so we tend to get on pretty well. It’s very rare that there's another athlete that I don't get on with. Once you're out there racing, you want to beat them but there's enough time out there on the road where you can be really good friends. A lot of my best friends are runners as well, so I think there's not that kind of animality amongst marathoners.
Gary: There is way more communication between the Africans than there is like with the other people. They are going to communicate with each other.
Paula: Yeah, they work together as a team. More on the men’s side than the women’s. It’s quite brutal sometimes. In London, this summer, for the Men’s 10K, there was definitely a combined Kenyan / Ethiopian plan of working together and trying to block.
Someone makes a comment about Meb Keflezighi's Boston Marathon win in 2014: 'I don’t remember what happened with the pacing, but he got away and it allowed him to actually win the race.'
Gary: I think sometimes in their head, they discount people and I think that’s what happened there and he was the one who got away and they weren't able to do anything about it.
Another participant makes a comment about Shalane Flanagan’s recent win at the NYC Marathon 2017 and whether or not she will retire after this.
Paula: Being from Boston and winning Boston is such a big thing for her that now she feels like she’s got more of a chance when she won New York, then that would be a factor to just keep trying. I don’t think she would run another marathon other than Boston in the spring.
How about Tokyo 2020?
Paula: I think she has more of a chance to win Boston than going on to win Tokyo.
How come that with runners you peak in your mid-30s?
I think you just get stronger endurance wise as you get older and that matters more in the marathon. Experience, maturity. All of those things matter.
So, do you have the two fastest marathon times?
No, I have 1st, 3rd and 4th.
To break 2.15 hrs in the marathon, what is it going to take?
Perfect conditions, good pacing.. either being on your own or being in a really tight battle. But more likely someone being on their own should be able to do it.
How do you feel about the male pacers and them helping to help break the record.
It’s different because everyone is different. Some people will run a lot faster with pace makers, I actually don’t think it makes too much of a difference for me, because the actual racing happens with myself in my head anyway and some people can push themselves really hard without the pace makers but some people need the pace makers to do it. It’s difficult because on the women’s side, it’s getting easier now but it was really hard to find a really good pace making job past half way whereas on the men's side it was much easier to get good pace makers. They would have pace makers to 30, 35k regularly. I was never able to get a female pace maker past 5miles in the marathon so I think that’s why they brought in the pace makers.
How come the women’s elite start before the men?
Gary: It’s definitely a TV thing.
Paula: It’s a TV thing that brought it in and now that’s why they pushed for the two records because it does make a difference so the women's race is pushed to be recognized.
Do you think Kipchoge will break the world record in London?
Paula: I definitely think he is very capable of it. It was very inspiring to be there (at the Breaking 2 project in Monza, Italy) and to see it. I guess, my only thing was that.. he had a big motivation to be there, there was a lot of awareness on it and he really wants to do it but there was no atmosphere. The only atmosphere there was, was that 100-200m stretch and I just think, all of the investment that he put into that, if he had done that on a legal course, he could have smashed the world record. I am not sure it would have been much different time wise. It was a lot of loops, there was no atmosphere, he had the race easily won. I am sure he could have run that too and I am not sure if he burned that now in that race because you only have a certain number of really hard races.
Did you think he was gonna do it or not?
Paula: No, I didn’t think he was going to be that close. I didn't think he was going to break two hours. I thought he was going to run around 2:01 hrs.
How important do you think is the mind?
Very important. Particularly in the marathon. I think all the way through the marathon, it's just being able to turn off those body signals that are telling you to slow down and to know your body really well and to stay focused. We were talking on the run about Mary Keitany (represents Kenya, second fastest female marathoner with 2:17:01) this past New York race. I think her mind was just not there at that point and she just drifted. Being able to stay focused is really important and I don't think it's really something that you can train, but you can work on it.
What do you think about when you're running?
All sorts of things, when I am training I think about absolutely anything. Thinking about the things happening around me. The things I need to do that day, lots of things. In a race, I am very very focused. Kind of focused on different mile markers. Sometimes breaking mile markers into smaller segments. Watching train stations, listening and engaging with people, how they sound and look.
Do you practice any meditation?
No, not really. I used to rehearse in my mind. In training, how you’re going to feel in the race. Sitting down and doing meditation, no. My meditation was kind of like, when I was running.
And do you miss competing?
Paula: I do but not as much as I thought I would. I thought I would really struggle to be able to switch off that competitive side but I found it easier than I thought.
Gary: It helps that you’re talking about it and that you’re still involved instead of being outside of the sport.
Do you like commentating? (Paula is now a commentator and analyst for major races with BBC)
Paula: Yeah, I really enjoy that and I’ve had some coaching, some coaching feedback meetings at BBC, but the biggest thing has been learning and I get to sit alongside Steve Cram and I’ve kind of learned from him and Brendan Foster. As well as Andrew Cotter, he's helped me a lot with the commentating learning and I’ve helped him with the athletics learning. So, we kind of helped each other and it has been really good.
The hardest part for me is speaking slowly because I tend to speak too fast, and speaking clearly. And also learning who your audience is. So explaining everything for people who don’t know the sport.
Gary: I also think the hardest part is that you have someone in your ear talking constantly. What we’re going to show next and where we’re going with the camera next. So, you’re talking about what you see, but at the same time you’re talking to the producer ‚Ok, we’re going to switch to this, we’re going to cut to the long jump, we’re going to go back to Mile 5,' so you’re listening subconsciously to them but watch the TV.
Paula: Yeah, that’s really difficult and sometimes they talk rubbish in your ear, things you don't need to know. It’s hard to ignore, but it's really good camaraderie that I like. It's a nice team that works together and we have a lot of fun and you're also in the front row. You're not out there taking part, but you kind of get the next best seat which is really nice.
When you won Sportsperson of the Year in 2002, that was such a big achievement..
Yeah, it was really special because it is voted and back then people actually had to take their time and cut out the coupon, write it down and send it in. It’s not something you can win by only your achievements so you cant really influence it, so it means a lot.
Analyzing every maneuver and counting the splits, do you think your running is metric based or just going out and getting after it?
Paula: I mean some of it was influenced by the fact that it just wasn't around. They only had stopwatches when I was running, so we would time our runs. My coach would make up the reps whereas now people are really governed by their Garmins. I also think it's a mindset too.
Gary: You can only plan so much.. if somebody makes a move, you have to react, so if you’re governed by splits all the time, sometimes it's better to just run to time rather than distance because then you have to, you kind of lose this ‚Ok, I have to get to there.' With time its more reactive.
Paula: It’s running on feel. For me, I started with XC so times didn't matter at all and they didn't have a place which is funny because when I started racing on the road my mind was always aiming for times but even now when I go out and I go run with Steve Cram, he would start his Garmin and he can't even turn it off. He’s always raced or trained to the watch so he still does it now even though he's been much slower but he wants to make sure that he doesn't run anything more than 5 miles instead of saying ‚We’re just gonna run for 40 minutes.‘
With the whole Breaking 2 Project, do you think they will be able to recreate it?
Gary: I don’t think they will be but they will possibly do another event like that, but in terms of bringing it to real life, I don't think so. Opening it up to a course with a mass, I don't think it's possible. It's such a controlled thing — they tried to control too many variables, some of it didn't really matter. The physiology of the people, conditions.. pacing, pacing was like a big thing with the formation they proved how much benefit he got from this arrow head formations. It’s not really possible other than like in a Monza controlled course with people popping in and out every 5K and stuff, that's not even legal. I think it'll be very hard to recreate on the road but I think they’ll have another go. Yeah, Kipchoge will run London, but I think it (the breaking 2) will happen somewhere else.
Running is such a male dominated sport, how were you able to push through and have the confidence to keep on running, training?
Paula: I never really thought about it being male vs. female. I was lucky in a lot of respect. So, I have a brother and within my family, I was never brought up as ‚I couldn't do anything that my brother could do.‘ We just did the same things. The same sports. I had a lot of really good female role models when I grew up, in athletics.. Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen, Joan Benoit.. so I never saw a reason I couldn't do as much and that's what I translate to my daughter as well ‚You can achieve as much you want.‘ You can be better than boys at some stuff and the boys can be better than you at other stuff, it's just a strength issue, but mentally I think females are much stronger. Mentally, there shouldn't be a barrier. There is no reason, you cant achieve as much as they can if not more.
Why do you think women are mentally stronger?
I think we’re much better organized. And we’re much better thinking about several things at the same time. Much better at handling pain, we can just block it out. I think the guys feel the things a lot more. We're much better at perseverance and just generally intuition. I agree men might be physically stronger, but it’s balanced with the strengths we have.
Did you train with women?
So I grew up with a girls group and was training with girls until I was 18 and then when I went to university I trained with predominantly men. In the bigger part of my career I trained with males but growing up it was with girls all the time.
The men you trained with, they never imposed a barrier on you or said ‚You can't run with us‘?
No, some did, but not the ones I ran with all the time. But yeah, some didn't like me running with them and they'd get really annoyed if I was training with them but I would only get more fired up and obviously they'd get upset about it if I sticked with them longer. I used to be quite mean like that.. but most of the guys I trained with on a regular basis.. they were brilliant, they treated me like a little sister and I would run with them and they would help me and support me a lot.
It’s different and I think we’re lucky. Sports and running, there is not like a huge.. like I never felt like I suffered from not having equal rights with men. I feel like it’s a very even, open, equal sport. So I find it really hard when I find out that people have been excluded as women because I've never really seen it even amongst my peers and I haven't really seen it in the sport.
Hope you enjoyed this one and have learned as much as I did!
Big thank you to Helene and Zach again for thinking of me when it came to the raffle xx
Thank you dear friends for following along and reading. As always, I am more than happy to hear thoughts, feedback, tips and advice. If you enjoyed this, feel free to pass this link forward or leave a comment below.
Have a wonderful Tuesday and happy, healthy runnings!