Exam time during my senior school and university days meant constructing detailed swotting schedules so that, in this otherwise anxious time, I could draw some comfort from the appearance that I had a plan. As swot leave started, the very first task was to sit down and create the plan. My schedules were neatly and painstakingly drawn up on foolscap paper and written in multi-coloured pens. A red pen would signify two hours swotting for “Geog” and a green pen two hours for “Hist”, Afrik”” or “Eng”. Black always signified the harsh reality of the exam itself.
Of course, these schedules were almost impossible to stick to. Important distractions would play havoc with my neat schedule. There would always be just too many interruptions and diversions; that big game on the radio (these were the days before television) or that hour-long phone conversation with a demanding girlfriend (these were also the days before social media).
Often, the result of these distractions was that “ Geog” was crammed into one panic-stricken day and “Hist“ was spurned until the eleventh hour. While this last- minute cramming was taking place, the now the bent- cornered, frayed swotting schedule would dangle mockingly from my study wall, reminding me just how awry the best-laid plans can go.
In a sense, the Comrades marathon is very similar to one of those taxing examinations we have all had to write at some stage in our lives. In fact, it is one of the greatest examinations of the human spirit known to sport. On June 9th this Winter, 20,000 Comrades runners will 'sit' that great examination. Although 'sit' seems a rather inappropriate word. Some will be lucky enough to 'put their pens down' after 6 hours or less; others will toil away for the full 12 hours.
And, at this critical stage of the journey to Comrades, many runners will have written detailed training plans for June 9th. After all, the beginning of March is the time to get serious. My own Comrades plans were almost more detailed than those of my final University exams. And, rather like the experiences I had with my academic examinations, each year, without exception, I was unable to stick to them to the letter. The enemies of my meticulous planning were always those diversions: injury, illness, bad weather and, occasionally, poor motivation.
I still have the beautifully penned and underlined double-page spread I prepared for my campaign to try and win a top-10 gold medal in the 1979 Comrades marathon. Interestingly, I decided to pencil in post-mortem scrawled notes of the actual training I managed to complete during that 1979 campaign.
Here are 3 days of training I intended running in April 1979:
- Wednesday. Speed work ( Total 12 km)
- Thursday. Morning, 8 km. Evening, 15 km.
- Friday. 20 km.
Here is what I actually managed to achieve:
- Wednesday. Slightly-strained calf muscle, easy 12 km. No speed work.
- Thursday. Calf still sore. One easy 10 km run.
- Friday. 15 km. Run interrupted by major thunderstorm with lightning.
Clearly, I was having to make frequent adjustments to my carefully thought-out plan. Nevertheless, the plan was still acting as a rough, but useful, training guide. Despite these and many other adjustments in those weeks of training, I was still able to achieve my goal and I finished a delighted 3rd in that year’s race.
I still remain a great believer in the detailed training programme and, I suppose if I were ever to return to an academic life, the carefully-planned swotting schedule as well. Not only because it helps to give direction, but also because it serves as a motivating commitment.
However, the training schedule should always be viewed as no more than a guide, a rough map of the journey ahead and of what has already been achieved. Interruptions should be seen blessings in disguise and as an opportunity to regroup and, possibly, also to rest and recover.
Comrades runners are now in the thick of things, Training will be hard and, at times, tedious for the next two months. The odd interruption should be viewed as a good thing; a chance to grab a quick treat in the form of a rest. The graph of fitness does not climb upwards at a steep angle, but rather in a series of steps and plateaus. The plateaus are where runners rest and recover, and build strength for the next upward step.
Interruptions to planned training sessions often compel us to recover on a plateau and reconsider the road ahead. These interruptions force us to be flexible and to make adjustments that help us continue on the training journey. They should also teach us to let go of that which is lost. We shouldn’t worry about the odd missed training run, but rather to focus on the new adjusted programme.
Most importantly we should avoid cramming. Last-minute cramming might help the pupil about to sit a tough exam. It won’t help the worried runner. In fact, cramming (or trying to make up for lost training) almost always results in catastrophe; usually in the form of an injury.
Those who are not convinced should consider that even this year’s Comrades favourites (Camille, Ann, Gerda, Bongmusa, Gift, David et al) will not experience faultless, uninterrupted training days and weeks. Even the best have to make adjustments and cope with setbacks. That’s what makes training for the Comrades marathon the great challenge that it is.
With thanks to The Citizen Newspaper, South Africa.
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