Never give up – Running and masochism

"I'm just having a quick nap... wake me when we get there..."

“I’m just having a quick nap… wake me when we get there…”

In last year’s boat race (2012) Oxford’s bow rower Alex Woods passed out from what was described by Oxford’s coach as “pushing himself beyond his limits”. Obviously this sparked a certain amount of debate about the expectation of endurance sport and is all the more interesting when compared to the case of Sally Robbins in the Women’s coxless fours in the 2004 Athens Olympics…  Sally took the other option available to the maxed-out athlete in rowing: she stopped rowing. This move by Sally was initially one of instinctual self-preservation but it resulted in isolation and a complete absence of sympathy from not only her teammates and coach, but from the entire nation of Australia.  Sally was described as a wimp, piker, bludger and then the biggest insult possible for an Australian in a sporting context…. She was described as:



So… If Sally Robbins is “Un-Australian”, then I guess Alex Woods, who was prepared to blackout before quitting is, to quote Dick Nasty, “more Australian than a book of bush poetry written by Russell Crowe”.

Eyeball Paul:”Imagine pushing so hard that you actually black out. And then you wake up knowing that you’ve definitely given 100%!”

One interesting aspect of this whole rowing story was the reaction of one of my mates (and hardcore marathon training partner): “Eyeball Paul”.  “Eyeball Paul” (whose name is in homage to Kevin and Perry and for his penchant for running at “eyeballs-out” pace) had a very straightforward take on the whole rowing incident:

“That was awesome!”

I looked at Paul in astonishment but he was smiling and staring into the distance, shaking his head in disbelief:

“Imagine pushing so hard that you actually black out. And then you wake up knowing that you’ve definitely given 100%!”

“Yeah, with a heart rate monitor on and an IV drip in your arm”

I couldn’t help but add.  Paul seemed unfazed:

“I’d rather that than knowing that I hadn’t given everything I had.”

And although I personally think Paul is missing a couple of neural pathways that join the pain receptors to the brain, his attitude is in no way strange in the world of endurance running. A runner who can withstand the most pain, for the longest duration with the minimum of fuss, is almost always the worshiped figurehead of any running group.  The sad reality of it is:

If you want to get somewhere with your running, you are going to need to become friends with pain.

"Not only will House of Pain not be your friends... it won't help your running..."

“Not only will House of Pain not be your friends… it won’t help your running…”

At my work running club we frequently do an 8 minute mile run on a Monday.  For the experienced runners it serves as a recovery run and for some of the newer runners it is a tempo run. The recovery runners chirp away without appearing to be out of breath, whilst the tempo runners gasp like asthmatic seals doing altitude training through hessian facemasks (do such scenes exist?). When we get to the end of the run, the tempo runners are doubled-over, gasping and sweating. At which point the more experienced runners roll out the standard lines…

Experienced runner:

“Hurts don’t it? I guess we could do this the easy way that doesn’t hurt and doesn’t burn your lungs?”

New runner:


Experienced runner:

“Yeah, sure… There’s just one problem with that…”

New runner:

 “What’s that?”

Experienced runner:

“It doesn’t exist!”

When you take a step back and think about it, intervals workouts down the running track with my local running club are a strange concept: runners actually appear to revel in the pain. An “awesome” workout is one where you pushed so hard that you almost (but didn’t) puke. Before the session, the interval workout is read out like a sumptuous menu of pain:

“Then we do 6x400m with 30 seconds of recovery…”


“Then a 30 minute tempo run…”


“Then 6x400m again…”



“This is going to hurt SO much.  It’s gonna be awesome!”

Eyeball Paul:

“I’m going to treat myself and do 8x400m!”

Can you imagine just how ridiculous an interval session would be if you removed the running and just left the pain:

“Then we’ll do 6×90 seconds with the electrodes on the toes…”


“Then 30 minutes of Chinese burns…”


“Then 6×90 seconds in the stinging nettle bath…”


“Then 6×90 seconds in the stinging nettle bath…”

Running pain is a little bit different to normal pain in that it is mixed up with some feelgood endorphins. In fact, even in a brutal interval session, you start to feel the endorphins about halfway through; giving you a taste of just how good you’ll feel if you close your eyes and totally bury yourself (not literally). In fact, all the best long distance runners that I know are masters of pain management. They are far more afraid of not giving their all and not wringing every last drop out of a workout than they are of the pain. The beginner runner, on the other hand, approaches the intervals workout with foolhardy, Brumbyeque machismo:

“I’ll just go out as fast as I can… And deal with the consequences…”

The consequences which will be that you’ll have a 1km interval split that looks like this:

1) 3:20
2) 3:28
3) 3:58
4) 4:34
5) 2 hours and 15 minutes

whereas the seasoned runner will reach the “maximum pain point” on the final straight of the final rep, thus maximizing the effect of the workout…  I guess the message is: embrace the pain… and never give up!

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3 Responses to Never give up – Running and masochism

  1. John Leo says:

    I may be pissing myself on the train home after drinks at the JP Morgan Chase corporate run but I don’t care – cracking article – so true. Long live Eyeball Paul!

  2. John Leo says:

    Catering was excellent as always. Not worth talking about my time as I was in the slowest group – I caught up with the groups in front of me, which meant walking at some points (e.g. behind 5-wide-gossiping-women(and men)) – but was enjoyable all the same. Will definitely have to come back next year!

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