How The Tortoise Won ‘That Race’

It’s more about taking part than looking the part.

Capturing the pain of climbing in the Campsie’s, Mar 2014

If I asked you which is faster, a hare or a tortoise, you’d probably laugh and think it was a trick question right? For sure, you’d know the answer. But did you know that, on average, Tortoises outlive hares by a factor of about 20 times the lifespan? Perhaps there’s a lot to be said for taking your time and moving at your own pace.

We all know the story of The Hare And The Tortoise. The slowest of the animals takes on the fastest in a race. As the arrogant hare takes a nap close to the finish line, the lowly tortoise plods past and wins the race.

Slow and steady wins the day. Credit – Bedtime Stories Collection

Very often in my experience the proverbial hare is all you can see or hear from when looking into a mountain climb, a run or a swim. All too often, I feel very like the tortoise. The fact is however, you can be the tortoise and still reach the summit or cross the finish line. All it takes is a sense of adventure and some humility to accept your physical limits and work within them.

Perceived Marathon

“People who were nothing like me doing something which would be impossible to me.”

Lets look at the London Marathon as an example. I was ecstatic when I got the letter last year telling me that I had got through the ballot to run in this year’s London Marathon. I eagerly started watching videos on YouTube to see everybody’s stories of the previous runs. My screen was full of pictures of Athletes and advice on how to run a sub 3 hour marathon. The London Marathon, as depicted in those videos, was for people who were nothing like me doing something which would be impossible to me.

Even searching ‘London Marathon in 7 hours’ you still see nothing but athletes and even a video of someone completing a sub 3 hour marathon. Credit YouTube

Real Marathon

“You could finish that marathon within your own capabilities and with time to spare.”

If you search beyond the videos however, the fact is that those who complete the London Marathon before 7pm on race day qualify for a medal. With a start close to 10am that’s almost 9 hours to complete the course. My training runs often have as much, or more, walking than running in them. Certainly one of the paces I will describe and demonstrate in a future post covers a 7 hour marathon. You may feel like the proverbial tortoise watching the videos online but you could finish that marathon within your own capabilities and with time to spare.

Find Your Own Pace

“Having the humility to accept your physical limits and work within them … can bring you to some of the most amazing moments of your life.”

Walking at the back, Kilimanjaro Sep 2018

It was on the second day of the Kilimanjaro Trek, as we climbed out of the jungle into the long grass towards the Shira Plateau, that I started to fall behind. I knew that a 30 second burst of pace would take me back to the main group. Previous experience of endurance events helped me to stay where I was, walking within myself, at a pace I knew I could manage. Had I pushed to catch the group and struggled to stay with them, my trek would have been over as soon as we reached altitude.

Experiencing the breath-taking views from Stella Point a few days later, on one of the most incredible mornings of my life, cost little more than swallowing a wee bit of pride and finishing 3 to 5 minutes behind the main group each day of the trek.

Having the humility to accept your physical limits and work within them, even if other people seem more physically capable than you, can bring you to some of the most amazing moments of your life. More to the point, high up in the mountains, it can actually save your life.

Slowly, Slowly

“I’ve learnt to say “Slowly, slowly” in Nepali, Swahili and Arabic.”

I’ve learnt to say “Slowly, slowly” in NepaliSwahili and Arabic. These are the languages of the countries in which I have climbed over 4,000m above mean sea level. I’ve seen people race ahead only to be lifted off the mountain hours later or the next morning suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). In the meantime those of us plodding along at the back get to reach our goals.

At altitude, you may have to stop for a rest and a breath after every single step. The longest mile I have ever covered in my life was the mile from the Mera La to High Camp, a climb of 500 vertical meters on the Mera Glacier and it took 5 hours. A general rule of thumb for ascending at high altitude is that it takes around 1 hour to cover 100 vertical meters.

Head Above Water

“I was swimming ‘head up’ breaststroke.”

Open Water Swimathon Course, River Mersey, Liverpool, Sep 2017

Almost immediately after the start of the Open Water Swimathon 2017, I found myself last swimmer by a good distance. By the time I reached the first Safety Boat they were asking if I was ok. Same as I completed the first of three 500m laps of the Open Water Swimming area of the Liverpool Water Sports Centre on the banks of the River Mersey.

The fact was that, where most of the swimmers were cutting slickly through the water swimming front crawl, I was swimming ‘head up’ breaststroke. Some people told me afterwards that the reason there was concern shown for me was that the stroke I was using is generally used when swimmers either tire or get into trouble.

I had decided to swim breaststroke because I knew I could cover a distance with it. My front crawl was clumsy and no way I’d have completed 1,500m with it. In the end up, slow as I was, I finished the course, got my medal and was proud as punch.

Slow And Steady

“We can still venture into the realm of the hare and finish the race.”

Walk every time you have to on a run and you’ll complete a Marathon. Slow down high on a mountain to save vital oxygen and you can reach the summit. Swim whatever stroke you’re comfortable with on an Open Water Swim and you’ll cross the finish. We may move slow and steady like a tortoise but we can still venture into the realm of the hare and finish the race. Whether the hare falls asleep and we win or not doesn’t really matter that much. It’s the taking part, as they say, that counts after all.

Open Water Swimathon Finish, River Mersey, Liverpool, Sep 2017

Find out how to bring a healthy heart into your training in my next post. Read it here.

Learning to carry your weight can be just as amazing as managing to lose it. Learn how by reading this series, Worth Your Weight In Gold, from the start here.

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