What Running 42 km Showed Me About Learning

In January 2020, I set out to run a full marathon by the end of the year, as a way to challenge myself. My intention was to push myself to go beyond what I am used to (a half marathon) and to see what benefits I can gain from the journey.

The journey was not smooth going. I had signed up for a 30 km race scheduled for February 2020, only to see this race postponed, then converted to a virtual race over two 15 km distances. So much for trying to challenge myself in a race.

Then COVID came, and as we all know, a lot of measures were introduced by governments to prevent people from gathering in masses. Only virtual runs were allowed for the rest of the year. No organiser held any races more than 21 km, for good reasons.

With COVID and circuit breaker, work from home became the norm. Work hours somehow stretched into the evenings, and occasionally night time. After all, if a country is almost in lockdown mode, and residents are urged to stay at home as much as possible, there are only that many options to do at home.

The end result? Not much motivation to run. The busyness in work also upset my running routine. By the middle of the year, my weekly mileage has dropped to about 15 km. This is no good.

My mid year review of my running goal got me thinking how I could refresh my goal so that I could still reach the objective of running a full marathon by the end of the year. This refreshed goal helped me understand that a change in context requires a deliberate shift in plans. It also helped me understand how framing a plan in a stackable and bite size manner can become a source of motivation too.

The Day I Ran 42 km

It was almost a no-go. By early December, I had reached a weekly mileage of 30 km. Closer to my target but still not near. If I want to hit 42 km in one shot, I will have to plan to make it happen.

For one, I cannot increase my weekly mileage from 30 km too much at one go. An increase of 10 percent is the maximum I can go. For another, I cannot increase the distance for one run by too much too. If I want to hit 42 km, I will need to clock minimally 35 km at one go in the days before the actual run.

Which I did. I increased my weekly mileage in this manner:

  • 1st week of Dec – 32 km
  • 2nd week of Dec – 32 km
  • 3rd week of Dec – 38 km
  • 4th week of Dec – 40 km

It is not just my weekly mileage that I increased. I also increased my long distance run, while reducing the short distance run too. So I moved from a 22 km run in early December to 35 km by the last week of December, with an increase of about 3 to 5 km per increment.

Finally I was ready. I attempted 42 km on 31 December, and made it in just under 5 hours.

Learning Is A Journey

There were some hits and misses in my actual 42 km run. I think I will leave that for another day. What I want to reflect upon here is the process in shaping up for the actual 42 km run, and how it is linked to the learning process.

1. Setting a goal is different from formulating a plan.

At the beginning of 2020, I set the goal of a marathon. I thought the step of signing up for a 30 km run would lead to the formation of a training roadmap. I didn’t expect COVID to happen.

On hindsight, it isn’t COVID but the lack of a plan that almost derailed my goal. I had a goal, but I didn’t formulate a plan. In fact, I didn’t develop a plan with actionable steps. If I had, my weekly mileage wouldn’t have dropped drastically.

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

2. Be prepared to change your learning process.

After running for a couple of years, I had taken pride at being able to run at a fairly good pace. Of course I would love to improve my pace, but I had come to depend on physical races to let this happen.

COVID put a stop to physical races. Virtual races started popping up. I don’t really fancy such races because they don’t provide the same kind of competition and feel for me. Yet it is also important to have some element of competition to push myself.

So what I did was to create a competitive element for myself by comparing my average pace for each run, to find out how I can improve. If my average pace improves, I will give myself a small reward, such as getting a cold drink instead of water at the end of the run.

3. Getting affirmation or positive results create motivation.

When I started trying out negative splits, I saw how my average pace started coming down, and I became more motivated to keep running. When I discovered how my weekly mileage is slowly increasing because the method I used contributes to it, I became more motivated to want to keep going.

We need positive feedback to keep going in the learning process. If you don’t receive positive feedback, you may not feel motivated to want to continue learning. While negative feedback can also spur us to want to improve, it also creates a dampener in the learning process. You may feel disheartened with a greater disposition to stop trying.

How do you get that positive affirmation when learning? Try formulating a plan with small steps, and take note of the progress you made with each step. Even if the outcomes do not match what you expect, you could try reframing what you see into positive feedback. So rather than say you didn’t hit the expected pace for the run, you could say you are within 5% of your expected pace, and that you could do better next time.

Learning Is Measuring Success Intentionally

Perhaps the learning point I took away is that if you want to learn something well, you have to plan for success to happen. Measuring success need not be looking at the intended goal. One can look at securing success along the journey to build confidence and perseverance in moving towards the goal. This helps to create motivation and the will to continue.

Yet we also need to be prepared to alter the plan if necessary. Just because a plan is formed doesn’t mean execution must be carried to the tee. Stay nimble and adaptable, and chances are whatever change in environment conditions that may come, we are more than ready to pivot.

How do you know if you have mastered what you learn? What keeps you going in the learning process?

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