Perfect is the enemy of great

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This is a post written in two parts: before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus. Settle in with a drink, if you’ve got any left. 

BC

Perfect is the enemy of great.

Like almost everything I know about the modern world, I found that quote on Instagram.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you can’t think of the exact right word, or even the words to describe it, and you skirt hopelessly around it like a tipsy Christmas day game of Taboo… and the person next to you gets it straight away? That’s how I felt about this quote. I didn’t know how to articulate myself, but apparently the internet has a babelfish to my brain. As soon as I found this phrase, I realised just how much I have been trying to be perfect instead of great.

I have grasped at the edges of this philosophy so many times over the last two years, and for want of a way to articulate it I’ve given up and ploughed merrily on, somewhere between fear of failure and fear of doing nothing. Now I think, perhaps they’re the same thing? Perhaps, to mitigate the risk of failure, I’ve been trying to give myself more chances at success in something, anything. There must be something that I’m successful at, and success means perfection. And if I’m not going to be perfect at it, why bother trying it at all.

Because the difference between success and perfection isn’t always that easy to recognise, is it? If you were to ask me what I’ve done since June 2018, I’d probably say not much. I’d be thinking, “well I DNS’d that race, and we missed out on our big honeymoon, and I’ve not been keeping up with the blog, and my uni grades have been so-so…” I’d be thinking of all the targets my scattergun approach to achievement failed to hit, not remembering that I’ve been firing with ten fingers on ten different triggers. Achievement is much easier to remember if it has context. Failure is memorable regardless.

Here’s the thing – I’ve actually ticked off quite a few things from the bucket list since we last caught up.
I am now OFFICIALLY an Associate Member of the 100 Marathon Club, having completed 50 marathons and ultras. *smug dance*
I’ve done my 100th parkrun and my 25th volunteer stint 🙂
I’ve started my dream job as a production manager in a producing house. It’s literally the answer I’ve given every time an interviewer asked “where do you see yourself in x years”. NOW I HAVE TO THINK OF A NEW ONE.
I’ve passed my first half year of uni with a respectable result. Not bad considering I barely got GCSEs in the subjects I’m studying.
I got married, rescued one and three quarter cats, renovated the hallway, embraced my Turkish eyebrows, got my QPR season ticket back, started therapy, and finally won a ballot place for the London Marathon.

The problem is, I don’t immediately remember these moments. (That last paragraph took as long to write as the whole rest of the post). I remember the races I didn’t start or finish; I think about how much sooner I’d have hit my fiftieth if I’d done them all. Or how much my average time has come down, or how long it’s been since I went sub 4, or ran 50 miles, or how Western States doesn’t seem to be any closer. Focusing on perfect has made it impossible to recognise smaller successes, let alone enjoy or remember them. And in being so afraid of documenting failure, I have to admit I gave up on writing full stop… forgetting that the reason I started this blog in the first place was to share and to reflect.

And to challenge myself.

2020 target – 20 challenges:

Including…
London Marathon – and finishing with a GFA time. YES I SAID IT.
Sub-23 parkrun again
Race to the Tower in a day
Autumn 100. Adam M, I’m getting my name on that list if it kills me.
Ealing Half Marathon, sub 1:40

to be continued…

AC

To anyone who guessed that it would literally take a global pandemic for me to get off my arse and finish this bloody post: congratulations! You win a bonus bog roll. (Disclaimer: may be made of the unread pages of the London Marathon commiserations magazines…)

How many times have I sat down to finish this and not even opened WordPress? Behold an increasingly inventive list of diversionary tactics. Weekday evenings are so tiring. Maybe I should try another blog platform. I shouldn’t spend my weekends blogging. That old classic about not having time. Look, a moth.

Talk about taking your own advice…

I started my job last April with good enough intentions: take your lunch breaks, don’t get caught up in other people’s projects (subtitled: don’t be a busybody), don’t volunteer for all the exciting jobs, leave time for running and uni and life. Because that’s who you are.
But-
London training plan!
so many fun shows
learn calculus in three weeks kthnxbye
ooh new books to read
we need you we need you we need you
did you learn calculus yet
new book stack getting highhhhh
SHINY BAUBLES
So there I am, knee deep in work again, frustrated with myself for slipping into that well-worn groove: NOTenoughtimeNOTenoughtimeNOTenoughTIMEnotenoughTIMEnotenoughTIME

When suddenly, wrapped in a big velvety bow: time.
My job is to make things that bring hundreds of people into a room together. As I write, that doesn’t look likely to happen for months. I can’t pretend I’ve got my head around that yet.

Having been too busy to finish anything seems like a churlish thing to complain about with the context of the last two weeks, in this new reality. My dream job – which has been more like one of those exhilarating, exhausting, directed-by-Michael-Bay type vivid dreams – now consists of me replying to emails from home, with no shows to production manage and next to no human interaction. Two weeks ago a 50 hour week was me taking it easy. Soon I’ll barely be able to fill 5 and 4 of those will be on Zoom.

Wary as I am of productivity porn, I did a thing that makes me prouder, in a way, than all my challenges combined. I spent last week and a great many Post-It notes reconstructing and practicing my ideal daily timetable. Instead of waiting for routine to find me, I finally went out and tracked that wily bastard down, and in doing so I realised that it’s not time I’ve been short of so much as structure. I remember being able to multitask. In fact, I remember it being something I excelled in – once upon a time.

Which led to me rediscovering, not just the liberation of routine, but something of my old self. A problem solver, which is sort of key to my job. A person who could look at a tangle of wool and immediately see the end of it buried deep. Impervious to decision fatigue, able to tune out the noise. Someone who could dig into imperfection and find greatness. I miss being that person.

Rereading the last full-length post I published, I reflected on the theme of identity; or in that particular situation, a lack of one. There’s also an argument that too many identities is as bad as none. So now when I ask myself “what have I done since I last posted?”, I feel compelled to rephrase it: who have I been for the last eighteen months? Who do I want to be?

I’ve been a mid pack runner.
I’ve been a freelance production manager.
I’ve been a resident production manager.
I’ve been a mentor.
I’ve been a mentee.
I’ve been a wife.
I’ve been a friend (albeit a rubbish one).
I’ve been a sister (an EXCELLENT one).
I’ve been a university student.
I’ve been a therapy patient.
I’ve been anything but perfect.

What I want to be is a normal someone who does great things. And I think, perhaps, the key to becoming that is simply deciding to.

Cover image from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. A film that embodies this philosophy and is also awesome in every conceivable way. 

London Marathon 2018 – the day after

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Cover photo courtesy of the supremely talented Neil Dejyothin

Resume the position. Feet up, laptop on, well, lap. I’ve even got the glass of wine (don’t judge me).

So, did I leave it all out on the course yesterday? It’s hard to tell; I certainly left about six pints of water out there in the form of sweat (and a handful of tears). Did I run hard? No, no I fucking didn’t. I ran smart; I wanted to get to the end on my own two feet and not in the back of an ambulance. It was 24 degrees out there but it felt closer to 34; the only marathon I’ve ever run that was hotter was the Hampshire Hoppit last year and I pretty much had to walk that guy from start to finish. Did I confront my fears?

You know what, I think I did.

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I faced up to the danger of the heat, and embraced it. It’s just another factor you can’t control, and frankly it was nice to get a decent bit of sun. I faced up to the likelihood of a slow finish time. That is to say, I started off like the clappers, but in a pace that was comfortable and hardly troubling my heart rate. In fact the lead I gained over my 4hr20 pace band was over 8 minutes after halfway and I’d been on course for sub 4hrs for the first 10k. But when I realised it was becoming unsustainable, I did the sensible thing and dialled back. After seeing the countless bodies lying on the side of the road I’m bloody glad I did.

I’m not exaggerating about the perceived heat by the way – as someone with experience of near-equatorial temperatures, that was proper sunblasted bone dry heat. Not the muggy fug like a bad trip in a sauna that you usually get in what passes for an English summer. But gosh it was fun. Like a 26 mile long carnival with runners instead of floats. One of my clubmates even stopped for a cider on the way round. Let’s be honest, nobody’s counting times for yesterday.

London 2018 pace chart

London 2018 map

I faced up to the reality of not being able to finish, right from the start. But I also decided that I would finish this race come hell or high water (not far off), and I knew exactly what I’d have to do to make it so. Drink, eat, drink. After mile 2 there were water stops pretty much every mile plus Lucozade drink and gel stops sprinkled in between, not to mention the good residents of East London and their many slices of orange and buckets of jelly babies. The trick turned out to be keeping my body temperature down from the outside as well as in: namely, drinking half of every bottle of water and dousing my thighs, head and neck with the other half. It worked a treat, but I was still bone dry before the next water station.

I faced up to the crowds. However overwhelming I found them last time round, I realised the only thing to do would be to embrace them. And my god did they put on a show. This is what makes London Marathon so great, and so different from any other – the indescribable atmosphere. Whenever I felt a bit wobbly all I had to do was wave back and smile and I was carried along with another surge of cheer. London Marathon IS the crowds and yesterday made me so blisteringly proud to be an adopted Londoner.

I faced the no mans land beyond my comfort zone. This would be my 41st official marathon finish, but the majority of those have been on trails, in ultras or on low key races, where the pressure doesn’t affect me. The runners there are a different breed altogether; a co-operative of like-minded people, a subculture even. A runner drops, and three people stop to help them up – a few seconds is unlikely to matter, and a race is just another race. On the other hand London is, for most people, their first or only experience of a marathon, and it is nervewracking as fuck. I was pushed and elbowed – not accidentally – on a number of occasions, including one where a guy shoved me out of the water queue to pick up the bottle I was reaching for. It pissed me off, but then I remembered how he must be feeling, imagined how he saw yet another body between him and the water on a hot day. These aren’t the SVN regulars, or the Centurion regulars, or the perennially friendly 100 Marathon Clubbers – there’s no place for etiquette here. These are people miles out of their own comfort zones while I’m barely dipping a toe out of mine. For me, the scariest thing about London will always be other people. But I faced them.

I faced the fear of failure, and in doing so took my own fate into my hands. Instead of handicaps, I found challenges. Instead of disappointment, I have resolve. Yesterday made me realise what I could do if I stopped finding excuses not to try. Four hours and thirty nine minutes on the road is nothing to write home about, for me, but it’s also a pretty respectable time for the second hottest race I’ve ever run – Hampshire, by comparison, took me almost an hour longer. I know I did well yesterday, and I know I can go faster.

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Finally, I faced myself; or rather, I faced my definition of myself. I am not defined by my fears, my hates, my foibles. I am defined by what I want to define myself by. We all are.

#spiritoflondon

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London Marathon 2018 – the night before

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I’m stretched out on the sofa, my feet on Andy’s lap like they usually are, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc within reach of my left hand. We’ve had our thin crust pizza and salad for dinner, a pre-race routine of mine which Andy is happy to adopt for the night. Bedtime won’t be later than 8pm, but there’s no legislating for when I’ll actually get to sleep.

Having exchanged fitness for about a stone in weight, I’m not at my peak for a road marathon. Or any marathon. Or running at all. And the last week at work has included managing a broadcast rehearsal on top of a large scale office move, and consequently chronic pain that became so bad on Tuesday night I had to get a cab home from work because I couldn’t even walk to the station. So, there will be some management of expectations tomorrow.

Is that right though; is that the mindset to take in? Treat the race with respect, certainly, don’t take a finish for granted – but that’s not the same as preparing excuses. That paragraph up there, that’s a classic fear of failure. I take up to a month to write blogs because I’m afraid of putting something out that people will hate, or has mistakes, or is constructed poorly. I’m afraid of going into work some days because I still have no natural aptitude for my job, two and a half years in, and constantly fucking it up is kind of exhausting. I have to persuade myself to attend running sessions with my club because I don’t know if I can get to the end of a 6 mile run. I used to run the damn sessions.

I hadn’t been aware of how much this fear pervades my every decision until recently, but now every time I catch myself in a negative mindset I ask myself “Am I just afraid of failing?” and the answer is never “No, absolutely not.” I mean it’s not always a resounding yes either, but as long as it remains a possibility I’m not making the best of the opportunity I have.

That opportunity is a place in the London Marathon, one I almost didn’t get. I had wanted to run this race ever since I started running, and had applied for the ballot unsuccessfully year after year. I finally earned it with a Good for Age run in the 2015 Manchester Marathon, found out a week before London 2016 that the Manchester course had been incorrectly measured and believed I would lose my spot despite being basically on the start line. Happily, even the penalty applied to the qualifying threshold was within my now unofficial PB finish time and I had two years’ worth of entry to the race.

Running it in 2016, I was still relatively fit but very out of practice, and I was so nervous around the crowds that I didn’t pick up a single drink or gel on the whole course. It was miserable. I finished under 4 hrs, but I blew up at the end and nearly passed out at supper. Turns out, running a marathon on a warm day without calories or water is a fucking stupid idea. You’re welcome, anyone who thought they’d try that.

So my memory of London has so far been one of failure. I failed to get my target time, I failed to manage my fluids and energy levels, I failed to run hard and I failed to run for fun. Blah blah blah. Probably best not to bother again then eh? So when a freelance job opportunity with my favourite company came up and the build day was marathon day in 2017, I was almost relieved to be deferring my place for the following year.

That gave me enough time to recover, train properly, reassess. Wait, that’s the wrong order. Assessment: another GFA time might be on the cards – if you have jet packs on your heels. Recovery: ha ha. Train properly: time to pick up a book. And I did, and I stuck to it, right up until the last 4 weeks. I’ve learned what I’m capable of and it turns out that, in the cold light of day, I think I can comfortably do a 4hr20 run, and if I go out of my comfort zone I could even skirt around 4hrs. But I’ve also learned that being afraid to say those words out loud is only hampering my ability to try.

What I know I can do though, absolutely KNOW for certain, is that I can enjoy it if I want to, and that enjoyment doesn’t need to be linked to (or totally divorced from) my expectations. I mean that, I need to accept failure as a possibility, but not be so obsessed with avoiding it that I miss the chance to do something great. Excuses are just another mechanism for dealing with this fear; I have to stop handicapping myself. So before I reach the Blue Start tomorrow, lose my nerve and simultaneously decide I’ll barely finish but also go off at 6:30 minute miles, I’m going to record the things I am thankful for:

  1. My place in the race. I worked really hard for it, and it wasn’t a fluke. And it doesn’t mean that I’m any less deserving of it now, even though I’m three years older and half an hour slower than I used to be. This is something I wanted to do for years and in honour of the many versions of me that couldn’t get in, not to mention the countless others still yet to get their ballot place, I’m going to bloody well have fun.
  2. The sun and the heat. This winter seemed interminable and penetrating. I’m damned if I’m going to complain about nice dry heat now. Running in the heat was a bit of a monkey on my back but I’ve embraced it and now, frankly, I sort of love it. Running in any extreme is fun actually.
  3. My Andrew W.K. playlist. It got me through Manchester. Pure, heart-busting joy.
  4. My health. Dammit, I can run. There are days when I am in so much pain that I can barely see, and there are days when I feel like my limbs are made of stardust. For those days, for those handful of moments, it’s all worth it.
  5. My job. There’s no getting around the fact that it is stressful and physically taxing, but it pays my bills and my entry fees to races, so to be ungrateful for it would be hypocritical. I have a wonderful boss and an exceptionally talented team, and no-one has ever failed to be impressed when I tell them what I do.
  6. My friends and family. The people who we thought would never dream of coming all the way to Northern Cyprus to be at our wedding. The people who probably would have joined us at the drop of a hat, if only we hadn’t underestimated the table plan. The people who will instead (or as well as) celebrate sat at a rickety little table in Shepherds Bush with us, who will share a Thai food platter and a pint of Pride. The people who do every week. The people who will wait in the sun for hours tomorrow for the three second view of me passing.
  7. Me.

Fellow marathoners – what are you thankful for? What will you take with you to tomorrow’s race?

Whatever it is, don’t let it be fear.