A lesson from Space
It was May 5th 1961, and astronaut Alan Shephard had been sitting in his capsule Freedom 7 on top of a Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket for 4 hours. His mission was to become the first American in space and only the second astronaut to make this hazardous flight. (Russia’s Yuri Gagarin had beaten him to the “first man in space” honour a few weeks before.) Shephard’s mission in space was only supposed to have lasted a little over 15 minutes but several delays had led to him waiting a few hours for lift-off and also to his becoming increasingly frustrated. Several morning cups of coffee and orange juice had already resulted in Shephard having to urinate inside his spacesuit. Shephard was impatient to fly. He was the one in danger and he was ready. He took little comfort in the knowledge that every piece of his spacecraft had “been built by the lowest bidder “Nevertheless, he was prepared to fly. Several small irritating problems had led to mission control repeatedly delaying the launch. He knew mission control was ready. He was ready, and so he finally demanded “c’mon, let’s light this candle.”
15 minutes and 22 seconds later Alan Shepherd’s Freedom 7 splashed down in the North Atlantic Ocean at the end of a successful mission.
In some ways waiting for the start of a major marathon can be an impatient nerve- wracking experience rather like that of an astronaut waiting to launch. After months of preparation and training there is nothing to do, except wait, and watch the clock tick slowly along. It is almost like the vacuum of space. A void filled with nothingness. There are a few important tasks that help to pass a little of the time; collecting race numbers, filling drinks bottles, and scribbling indelible ink time schedules on wrists and scraps of paper. But most of the time it is an irritating and slow waiting game. A waiting game filled with doubts. “Why is my knee clicking? That was only two flights of stairs why am I so breathless? My throat is scratchy, I’m catching flu. Tomorrow’s weather doesn’t look promising.”
I remember the nervousness and impatience I always felt the day before running the Comrades Marathon. I recall gazing out of my Durban hotel window high up on the 17th floor nervously watching the tide rolling in and out of the harbour and noticing the retreating water exposing the sandbanks and then rolling in to submerge them again. Eventually the shadows of the dockside cranes would lengthen across the harbour and the slowly creeping day would signal its end. I often thought of Alan Shepard’s words and would mutter.
“I’m ready, the race is ready, we’re all ready.”
“It’s time to light this candle.”
But how do we know when we’re truly ready for that big effort, that major race.
Well, firstly our training should tell us. If we’ve been training consistently for about 8 to 10 weeks without any interruptions from injuries or illness, then we can be fairly confident that the hard work is going to pay dividends. When I was training intensely for the Comrades marathon I always knew that I was ready when I had trained consistently and successfully during the critical months of March, April and early May. What had happened before that was irrelevant. As long as I had ground out consistent weeks of between 160 to 200 kilometres of training at the time and then had an adequate rest and training taper, I knew the results would surely follow.
Then there are certain key sessions that give us the answers we wish to hear. A solid, fast time or better still, personal best performance at a short distance race, training session or time trial a couple of weeks before race day is a very encouraging sign. We don’t need to run very long distances quickly to check that we’re ready. In fact if we do we are inviting injury. Our faster sessions give us that information. I always enjoyed a hard burn at a club time trial or indulging in my favourite secret session in the 1980s’. This was a session which began with a five kilometres warm up run followed by six repetition sprints up the first flight of the Westcliff stairs. I bounded up the stairs two or three at a time in about 60 seconds or faster. My only companion was a playful Border Collie who ran up and down the stone wall next to me. At the end of my sixth climb I would turn to the Collie and whisper, “ Don’t tell anyone, but I’m ready” He would appear to nod in agreement. The biscuit I brought for him might have helped his enthusiasm.
Within reason weight loss is also a sign of fitness. After all great running is often determined by our strength to weight ratio. Of course, It is always possible to lose too much weight and become unhealthy and to lose strength. Severe weight loss can result in injuries such as stress fractures. However, I always knew I was ready to race when the bathroom scales told me so. If I weighed about 55 kgs. I knew I was in peak form. If my sunken eyes looked back at me from a mirror and gave me a haunted hollow stare, I knew I was in race shape. Even more convincing were zygomatic arches that stuck out like sharp knives on my cheeks.
If we bumped into each other at the Comrades Marathon pre- race expo Merle Robb, wife of 4 times champion Alan, would pinch my bottom and loudly declare to one and all. “ Bruce is ready to race everyone. There is nothing to pinch on his bum. In fact, he doesn’t have a bum. He is in great shape “
We can all benefit from an adequate pre-race training taper. For an ultramarathon I prefer a long gradual taper over about two weeks. I found that this left me pent up and bursting with energy and enthusiasm to race.
But finally, the confidence that we are ready to race is almost a gut feel. During the weeks of training the brain programmes itself for a major effort. We become nervous, irritable, and excited. External factors can also signal that it is time. In my case living on the Highveld in Johannesburg brought with it seasonal stimulations. Dark Winter mornings and autumn leaves blowing across frosty fields were always massive signals that it was time. So much so that even today,many years after my best efforts in the Comrades, I can still feel the excitement when I notice the first frost on the grass or Cosmos flowers blooming on the sides of the roads.
As race day approaches running should be easy almost effortless. We should feel that we are light and nimble. Each run should be a pleasure, and not unpleasant drudgery. In the week or so before the race I remember feeling as if I was floating and I recall tapping the tips of each of my fingers with my thumb as I floated effortlessly along. When we are adequately trained, when we have raced well at shorter distances and are feeling light and excited then a successful race is guaranteed.
Eight years after Alan Shepherd’s historic flight an even more important space flight readied itself for its launch. It was July 16th 1969 and sitting on top of a giant Saturn V rocket two minutes before launch the most famous astronaut of all, Neil Armstrong, went through his pre-flight check list and spoke to mission control in Houston and to everyone on Earth who was watching and listening.
When mission control wished him “good luck and God speed”
“Thank you we know it will be a good flight”
With a little over a minute to the launch he affirmed
“It’s been a real smooth count-down”
And then with 25 seconds to go he uttered the words we all like to believe and to hear when we are about to embark on our own great endeavours,
“It feels good”.
Armstrong was correct; it did feel good, it was good, and the most famous space flight ever was on its way to into the pages of history.
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My latest book “Winged Messenger” has received some good reviews. I wrote it as a guide for Comrades novices using my training diaries from my first Comrades Marathon run. However experienced runners will enjoy it too. It has been described as a nice mix of professional advice personal anecdotes and the politics of the time.
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