Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Beachy Head Marathon - The Importance of Having Positve Self Expectations

Hi again,

Well yes it has been quite a while since my last post.  In fact over 5 weeks!  I got to post number 33, exactly six months after my first post, and since then??? well I have just been taking it easy! In both the running and thinking sense!  Tonight's post consists mainly of my race report on the Beachy Head Marathon which I recently ran.  Although with most of my race reports I will try to link it to a theme.  For tonight - The Importance of Having Positive Self Expectations.

The Beachy Head Marathon took place on the 23rd October, a little over a week ago.  It was promoted as the 30th Beachy Head Marathon, although the first 21 of these were known as the Seven Sisters Marathon.  The course is entirely off-road and has loads of climbing, with the best bit of the race being the last 8 miles, which involves running over the Sevens Sisters, (short sharp hills) and then the lengthy climb up to the top of Beachy Head.  The image below shows the course profile.

It is a great event, with over 1700 starters.  There is a great atmosphere, before, during and after the race.  With good support along the course, and great views throughout, one can't really ask for more!  Last week was the ninth time I have raced it.  I have won the race on numerous occasions, in fact six times prior to last week, and I have a personal best time of 2 hours 57 minutes in 2007, finishing 2nd, and a personal worst time of 3 hours 11 minutes in 2006, also finishing 2nd.

Going into last weeks race, I felt fully recovered from all of my ultra races earlier in the year.  I was therefore expecting to run reasonably well.  Chatting to colleagues at work, (we had seven of us doing it from Chelsea School, University of Brighton), I mentioned to a few of them that I felt a sub 3hour time for me this year was probably not quite possible, and that 3:02 was more likely.  The reasoning for the 3:02 was that I felt that after running five ultra races this year, where the race intensity is so much lower than for a marathon, that I had become a wee bit 'soft'.  I wasn't expecting to be able to sustain such a high intensity as usual, having got used to 'taking it easy'!  This combined with the fact that I hadn't completed any 'quick stuff' in training prior to the race, led me to believe that sub 3 hours was not possible.

Come race day, with the race immediately starting with a 100+ metre climb up towards Beachy Head, straight away I am puffing and blowing hard, but not really enjoying it!  At the top of the first climb there are three of us together.  Myself and Matt Bradford from Lewes AC gradually pull away from the third guy.  The pace feels rather 'uncomfortable' and rather than pushing hard, I decide not to push the pace and simply let Matt decide how fast we should run.

At around the 3.3 mile mark there is a nice long descent down into the village of Jevington.  During the descent, I put a small gap on Matt. He quickly pulls me back in, up the next climb, but then on the following descent I pull away again.  The next climb shortly after is quite lengthy as we run up to above the Long Man of Wilmington.  Matt not only pulls me in again, but goes pretty well straight past me.  I try to stay with him, but after a pretty pitiful attempt to stay with him, I decide to let him go.  For the last two years, 2008 and 2009, which I have won on both occasions, I  have 'let' the lead runner go ahead.  The term 'let' is probably a bit misleading as I recall on those two occasions I didn't really have much choice, with my heart rate hitting 184 and 182 bpm respectively, rather high, considering my max is only around 187bpm.  This year, I let Matt go at a heart rate of 176bmp, so as you can see, not really after the same 'fight'!  However, I am not overly concerned, as I have the expectation, that as for the previous two years, I can catch and go past the lead runner later on in the race.

Matt therefore gradually pulls away, to around 20 - 25 metres and then surprisingly appears to slow down and wait for me as he pauses for a few seconds holding a gate open for me.  Shortly after this I catch him up, where upon I drop him again, on the long descent into Alfriston. 

Coming out of Alfriston (9.5 miles) there is a long climb of around 2.5 miles.  Shortly after we begin climbing Matt again goes straight past me.  But this time as the climb is so long, by the time we reach the top, and the checkpoint/feedstation, at Bo Peep carpark, he must be around 1 minute 15 seconds ahead.  On the long descent I gradually gain on him, and just before the next checkpoint at Litlington (16.5 miles), after being in second place for the previous 45 minutes or so, I pull up level with him.  Matt gives me a friendly welcome, with a comment something like "Hi Stuart, I wondered how long it would be until you caught me up".

Shortly after the checkpoint there is a short steep climb.  Realising that Matt was expecting me to catch him, I thought I better not disappoint him by allowing him to pull away from me again on the uphill.  So I decide that now is the time to up the intensity, to reinforce his belief that I am just cruising and that as he expects, I will just run away from him.  So I up the intensity, grit my teeth, not that he can see how hard I am now working, and pull away from him.  About two minutes later there is another steep climb and then a few minutes later there is an even steeper climb, up the Bagpipe steps, as every year there is a bagpiper playing, which really adds to the occasion, on probably the steepest part of the whole race.  After really 'giving it heaps' for the last 10 - 12 minutes, I am expecting that Matt by now would have given up, quite happily accepted 2nd place, and I can return to a more comfortable intensity.  Unfortunately, he hasn't yet given up, and he isn't that far behind me as we approach Cuckmere Haven.  I therefore keep the high effort up quite a steady climb before we actually start the first of the seven short and steep climbs of the Seven Sisters.

As I start climbing this initial climb, finally, I am back to my usual racing self.  I am enjoying running hard, I am no longer worried about Matt behind me.  I am now wanting to run as hard as I can from now until the finish.  From that moment on, I don't even take a glance behind.  I am running now solely for the joy of running hard.  Not running for the win, but running for the feeling of running as hard as I can.  It is strange, that once I start running for self satisfaction, and not being 'worried' about my finishing place, the running not only becomes more enjoyable, but feels easier, even though the intensity remains high.  With the renewed self expectation that I am capable of running fast, and that I can run strong all the way to the finish, this enables me to focus on running faster.  There is a massive increase in positivity.  No negative thoughts about will I get beaten, no thoughts on comparing myself to the other runner.  Simply positive thoughts about how fast I am moving at this later part of a rather undulating marathon.

As I climb over the Seven Sisters I am really attacking the short steep hills.  It is as if I am doing repetitions. Really attack up the climb, recover on the descent.  After being 'loads' down on schedule for a 3:02 marathon, I am gaining back time fast.  It now becomes apparent that a 3:02 marathon, as expected prior to the start is possible.  As I begin the drop back down to the start line in Eastbourne, I know I will run 3:02.  I am literally 'flying' down the hill, running the last section at 5:28 mile pace as shown by the GPS trace.  I cross the line in an official time of 3:02:15.  Although my watch indicates 3:02:25.

So what have I learnt from the 2010 Beachy Head Marathon?  The marathon has reinforced my philosophy that how one performs on the day is so so very much influenced by their self expectations.  What you achieve is literally what you expect!  Not what you want, but what you honestly, deep down expect to achieve.  Did Matt Bradford expect to win the marathon?  I don't think so.  In fact chatting to him after the race, in which he did finish in second place in 3:10, I asked him about his hesitation, holding open the gate for me.  His reply was that, he thought he better slow down, as he must be going far too fast, if he was leaving Stuart Mills behind!  How much did his expectation that I would beat him contribute to the expectation becoming reality?

For me, during the first half of the race, I was not running well.  For whatever reason, my mind was not in 'the right place'.  By checkpoint 2 at Bo Peep car park I was 4 minutes down on my 2008 time of 3:02:55.  I had run slower on 11 of the 12 mile splits.  Then coming back to Eastbourne, I ran faster on 13 of the 14 mile splits and ended up running 30 seconds quicker than 2008, in pretty well identical conditions, with a tail wind blowing us back to Eastbourne.  Although the tailwind was probably a wee bit stronger this year, which may account for some explanation on why I ran quicker than 2008 during the second half of the race.  However, I think the main reason for running quicker was due to the changed 'mind set' during the race.  The increase in positivity, and increase in self expectation of my capabilities, the increased focus on what I was doing, not on what others were doing. 

I always state that prior to race day, you can never know in what position you will finish or on whether you can win the race or not, as it is largely out of your control.  It is dependent upon the capabilities of the other runners that turn up.  If someone simply better than you turns up, as occurred in 2007, when Tim Short ran amazingly quick winning in 2:47, then there is nothing you can do about it.  Therefore it is not wise to generate a self expectation that you will win the race, or of a certain finishing place.  (Although, what is surprising on a number of occasions in the past, where I have had an expectation of a certain finishing place, this finishing place has resulted.  How this happens I don't really know.  Is the influence of self expectation actually strong enough to result in creating a reality of the expectation!  I'll leave an attempt at expanding and explaning this for another day.)  But the benefit one gains by having a strong positive self expectation of one's performance, is that it allows the body and mind together to run unhindered, without there being any doubts, any worry about; am I running to fast, have I carried out the necessary training, can I last the distance, etc. etc.  These doubts, created by low/negative self expectations, therefore contribute significantly towards the less than ideal performance.  If you have the positive self expectation, everything will just flow, as if by 'auto-pilot'! 

Try to think back to your best performances, when you ran faster than normal.  Did it feel harder?  Or did it seem easier?  What were your self expectations that day?  When those days occur, it is important that you learn from it.  Too often, the improved performance is credited to the increased physical training people may have carried out prior to the event.  Marathon running performance, and even more for Ultra running performance is largely determined by self expectation.  I believe it is the heightened self expectation following a good bout of training that leads to the improved performance, not the actual training per se!  So only indirectly has the increased physical training lead to the improved performance. 

But are there other ways, more direct methods to generate high positive self expectations that you deep down truly belief?  That really is the secret to ultra and marathon running training and performance.   I have some ideas.  I have discovered/stumbled on some strategies, but these will have to wait until another post, once I have a clearer understanding of how it all works!  Until then, work on your own strategies to develop positive self expectations.

Time to sign off with a quote; "There was a time, not so long ago, when we really did know everything about human physiology.  After all, it was all so very simple.   ......  But the more compelling challenge for the traditional model (of fatigue) is that it simply cannot expalin the obvious."  Tim Noakes (2007) From the foreword for the book:Brain Training fro Runners, by Matt Fitzgerald.

All the best with your training,



  1. Congratulations on a great race.

    Loved the report ... really interesting to read your thoughts on having a positive expectation.

    Thanks for taking time to write it all down.

  2. Well done on your win Stuart. It's fascinating to read the report of someone capable of racing a marathon (rather than just "running" one as most of us do!). I'm beginning to believe your expectation theory, but doesn't it still link back to training - expectation comes from confidence, confidence comes form having done the work?

  3. Stuart, great read.
    3:02 is an amazing result considering the climbs and descents. How fast do you think would you be able to complete a "flat" Marathon (eg London), what do you think?

    See you in Milngavie!