The Fitness Test and The Plan

A plan? Follow a plan? As in some kind of structured thing put together by an expert? Don’t be so ridiculous.

It was October 2014, and I was on a roll. I’d just surpassed any possible running fantasies I’d ever had, and got my marathon PB of 3:16:29. And if truth be told – it felt pretty easy. It wasn’t laboured. I floated round the entire 26.2 miles. I mildly hate myself for sounding so glib, but it’s true.

“Where do I go from here?” I mused to myself. “How can I possibly better this – or even match it?” And worse still “What if this is just a fluke – a freak of nature, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence? What if this was my one moment in time, never to be repeated?”

As elated as I was with my dream marathon – plus dream marathon time – it pushed me into a corner. I was terrified.

I hadn’t planned it. I hadn’t followed a plan. I’d just run, and then run some more, and entered races, and turned up on the start line, and taken home the medal, and woken up the next day, and run again. And so on, and so forth…

Groundhog day had nothing on my non-existent running plan: I was Bill Murray.

So what did I do? Well, I just kept running, of course. I did what I’d always done.

Christmas came, and I opened my present from Gav. It was unreal. An artist had captured my One Moment In Time on a canvas. I was hand-drawn – albeit with slightly hefty thighs – alongside my 3:16:29 time. I couldn’t get my head around how this guy could paint like that. How is it even fair for one person to have so much talent? Was it the best gift in the world? Quite possibly.

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Artist: Richard Everett. Runner: Rachel Cullen. Race: Yorkshire Marathon 2014

And then I opened my card from Gav. Inside, there was a printed email.

“Dear Gavin and Rachel,

Thank you for booking two full physiological assessments at Loughborough University Sports Science Performance Centre, with our Sports Science Manager, Rhona Pearce.

Instructions for the day are attached. We look forward to seeing you then.”

Shit. What’s this? A full physiological assessment, you say? What, as in a fitness test? And what will that achieve, exactly? I wasn’t ungrateful so much as shit scared. Surely they’d discover that I was a complete fraud. It was a fluke that I’d run 3:16 – they must know that!

[Gulp] “Thanks Gav, that’s…erm, ACE!” I looked in the diary and was comforted by the few months reprieve I had until The Test Day would come.

February turned up, as it always does. I willed it to be somehow delayed, to cling on to January for a bit longer, but it wouldn’t play ball.

We travelled down to Loughborough, a car ride of weird, nervous apprehension. Gav was excited. “This is going to be AMAZING!” he gushed.

”Yeah. Do you want another Percy Pig?” I offered, as I tucked in to my bag of sweets. I’d got a BOGOF deal at M&S.

We arrived, and were taken to what looked like the fitness epicentre of the world. I’d never seen a treadmill that big. “There’s a bloody harness on it, Gav. What the hell is that for?” All of a sudden, that second bag of Percy Pigs didn’t seem like such a good idea as nausea arose from the pit of my stomach. Shit. This is happening. Right now. I fucking hate February for turning up.

I warmed up on the ‘other’ Land Rover Discovery-sized treadmill whilst Gav underwent his assessment. I kept glancing over. They stopped him every few minutes to take his blood, and then he was made to run like his life depended on it. Again. It seemed to never end.

When he finished, I could see what the harness was there for.

And then it was my turn. I felt weak and limp, scared to death, and way out of my depth. “This is completely unnecessary. It’s wasted on me. I’m a fraud, don’t you know? You’d be best testing REAL athletes.” This was the message I was telepathically transmitting to Rhona as she and her assistant managed their polite, pre-arse-kicking chitchat.

They put a mask over my face. It was Hannibal Lector / Fierce Dog mouth guard. I was only standing still, yet I could barely breathe.

“Are you ready, Rachel? We’ll take your blood every 3 minutes, and the pace will increase incrementally. Do you understand? Are you happy to proceed?

I’m starting the treadmill in 3,2,1…”

I nodded, my mouthpiece already irritating me as I commenced running with a tubular piece of plumbing sticking out of my face.

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“They’ve muzzled me, Gav! They’ve bloody muzzled me!”

If truth be told, and joking aside, my downfall I’m sure had been the BOGOF double bag of Percy Pigs on the journey down. I knew I hadn’t performed to the best of my ability, but hey – on that day, after copious amounts of pig-shaped sugary shit – I did what I could.

We travelled home, and eagerly awaited the results and subsequent report from Rhona. She was lovely, and didn’t treat me like the non-athletic fraudster who had somehow found herself on the Land Rover Discovery treadmill.

The next day, our reports came through. They were incredibly detailed, and told us EXACTLY what we needed to do in order to progress and move from point A (Percy Pig eating, fraudulent running) to point B (perhaps – just possibly – improving.) Mine was very clear:

VO2 MAX NEEDS WORK; RUNNING ECONOMY PROBABLY AS GOOD AS IT’S GOING TO GET, SO FOCUS ON IMPROVING VO2 MAX.

Rhona went into some detail regarding how I could improve my VO2 Max – some speed interval sessions (she’d even given me the exact paces I should be running at), and how to improve my lactate threshold. It was all in there.

That was February 2015. What did I do? I read the report a couple of times; I did a handful of the ‘prescribed’ speed sessions on the treadmill (the Reliant Robin ones at Sowerby Bridge gym) and then, before long, I turned back into Bill Murray. I reverted back to my “Just run, and then run a bit more, and – without any particular goal or purpose in mind – go out and run…” It was Groundhog Day once more.

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That’s me, holding on to the wheel.

Stupid is as stupid does.

So, since my epiphany over the past few months, when it has become very apparent that Rhona is in fact the expert, and I am not – I’ve dug out her report again. I’ve had a re-think of my running, my training and my purpose. There simply HAS to be a purpose.

I’ve come back today from a ten mile tempo run. I knew EXACTLY what I was trying to achieve, and why. I know EXACTLY how much recovery I have until my next session, which will be speed work on Tuesday.

Knowing all this is giving me great comfort on the very weekend when I SHOULD be running the London Marathon, and I’m not – because I stupidly thought I knew better.

I didn’t, and Rhona did.

*Oh, and I haven’t touched a Percy Pig since.

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