Project 20 – parkrun PB – small stones

Cliff next to the sea overlaid by the ordinary runner logo

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” So says Confucius.

It doesn’t matter how big the task, it’s possible to succeed when you break it down into small enough pieces. Whether you’re moving mountains, learning the piano or attempting to best your parkrun PB, you begin by moving small stones.

If we extend the small stone approach to include the Dave Brailsford philosophy of marginal gains, then the challenge seems more achievable. For anyone who hasn’t heard of marginal gains, the idea is simple – you break a process into individual components, then improve each of them by a small amount. Each tiny improvement amounts to a substantial overall benefit.  

The theory was adopted by British Cycling in the early 2010s (the Tenties, as I still insist on calling them). From the cyclists’ weight to the equipment they used, from antibac hand gel to special seats on the bus, everything underwent review and improvement.

And it worked. From being the poor man of world cycling, to cleaning up at the 2012 Olympics and producing the first ever British Tour de France winner, British Cycling and, latterly, Team Sky set the gold standard. Of course, it helped that they threw a huge sack of cash at the problem as well. One coin at a time.

The Core Principle

“You’re not exactly Bradley Wiggins,” is what I’d say if I were you. And I (you) would be right – I (me) am not. Nor am I Geraint Thomas or Eliud Kipchoge or any other elite athlete. I’m a slightly chubby man in his mid-forties who’s best 5K is a full six minutes off the world record.

That doesn’t mean I can’t borrow from the elites in pursuit of my parkrun PB and marginal gains are a good place to start. However, I’m also interested in the other principle outlined in the video above.

CORE stands for Commitment, Ownership, Responsibility and Excellence and describes the expectations placed upon and characteristics expected of the athletes who won all those cycling races. If you already watched the video, you could probably skip this section. I don’t think I’ll explain the principle better than the man who devised it. If you want a crudely rehashed summary, then you’re in luck – that’s what I do best!

Commitment feels like an obvious starting point. No one won Olympic gold without commitment. The same way you can’t move a mountain or master the piano without being fully committed. I’m not learning the piano by the way; it just felt like a good example and now I’m stuck with it.

Ownership is one of those awful corporate terms that crops up in job descriptions as a shorthand for “do the job we pay you for without us having to nag you all the time.” That’s not what it means in this acronym. Here, it means that athletes should set their own training plans. It means that coaches aren’t dictators, employed to bellow instructions at their charges. Apparently, it worked wonders for the British cycling team.

By Responsibility, what they really mean is Accountability. But ‘COAE’ doesn’t work as well as CORE. Accountability means turning up and putting the effort in. It’s like commitment, but applied to every training session, every personal requirement, and every marginal gain. I guess, in the simplest terms, it’s about not hiding behind excuses. If you don’t do what you set out to do, then you must own your failures and do better next time.

All the above leads to Excellence (in theory). Although, Brailsford expands this idea to include personal excellence – being the best you that you can be. My daughter’s school embraces the same philosophy. And I like it. You won’t win at everything all the time (or any of the time). But if you give the very best of you, you will achieve personal excellence.

Big stones in Floras Lake State - parkrun PB
Image by Eric Muhr on Unsplash

Cop out

Now, at this point I’ll remind you of the conversation we had earlier, where you pointed out that I’m no Bradley Wiggins. Remember that? Good. Because it’s a convenient cop out that I’ll fall back on several times in my pursuit of sub-20.

There’s a drive and determination that characterises elite athletes – and I don’t have it. Not to anything like the same level, anyway. Sure, I want to achieve sub-20. But I also want to enjoy my life. And that means I’m not prepared to break myself in pursuit of my parkrun PB. Not like an elite would.

None of that means I going to not try. I am going to try. And I’ll apply the CORE Principle – combined with Marginal Gains – to get there. In fact, I’ve already begun. You didn’t think I spent the last two weeks just sitting around thinking about blog posts, did you?

For starters, I’ve identified some of those all-important gains that I need to concentrate on. I’ll elaborate in a later post; hopefully it’ll be helpful to you, my dear readers. It’ll also force me to think about them more carefully. Secondly, I’ve revisited my training plan (Ownership, see!) to break free of my plodding mindset. Again, more on that later.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to report that I’ve knocked 90 seconds off the 23:30 I reported in my previous post. It still leaves me two minutes off my parkrun PB, but it’s a step in the right direction. Each second is a small stone, and each stone is part of the mountain. Those first 90 stones weren’t difficult to shift; the remaining 121 won’t be so easy.