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Has ambition made me less fit: The Impact of Goals on Fell Running

““Fit? The Dean looks like a man who’s swallered a bed!” ”Ah, but Master,” said the Bursar, smiling indulgently, “the word ‘fit,’ as I understand it, means ‘appropriate to a purpose,’ and I would say the body of the Dean is supremely appropriate to the purpose of sitting around all day and eating big heavy meals.””

— Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures

To be fit is, of course, a personal construct of ambition. A benchmark in the mind. There is no value that will determine whether or not you are fit, no test nor threshold that separates one who is fit from one who is not fit. It is, in a manner of speaking, made up, a fairy tale, an elusive state of mind many people strive for. Fitness is, in a sense, an opinion. The ability to achieve goals and outcomes can be used to measure fitness however, can an individual ever be happy with their achievements without looking to the future of how they will top it? Can one ever truly be fit?

Some people would consider me fit, the ability to run up mountains unrealistic to them and only possible if they were “fit”. Some people would also consider me unfit. Spanish Born Ultra Runner Kílian Jornet would no doubt be one of these. My body, fit to run up the fells of the Lake District, is not adapted to bag records on some of the worlds highest mountains. In this case Kílian would quite rightly consider me unfit.

Last year, I would have considered myself fit. This year, I would not. Over the same time period of a year, my stamina and strength has increased, my ability to move on the fells is also superior. My confidence on the descents and my descending speed has, if you pardon the pun, come on in leaps and bounds. So why am I, after all these improvements, now less fit then when I started?

To understand this, I would need to look at my motivations to run. I run, quite simply, because I enjoy it. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. Sure, there are some days, often when it is heavy rain and wind, when I don’t really want to go for a run in the hills, but I always enjoy it when I am out. I love the landscape of the fells and being able to move and through these landscapes. Quite simply, I love hills. The reason I run, is to be in these hills. To move between landscapes, see a hill from many angles. See fells in the distance and to have been on them before the end of the day. Last year, speed didn’t matter. I didn’t measure progress. VO2 max and splits were irrelevant to me. I just wanted to be in the hills. In this sense, I was fit. My body was fit enough to sustain me through a day out in the hills. Moving over the Lake District Fells, unaware of speed, just doing it for the sheer love of the outdoors was enough. In that respect I was fit.

Loftier ambitions came to me this year. I had always wanted to run a Bob Graham Round (in fact The Round was one of the reasons I started running). It always seemed far off, something I knew I would do, but in the future. Never a fixed date, just some point. During the summer, I helped on two rounds. Legs 4 and 5 of the Bob Graham and Leg 2 of its Scottish counterpart, Ramsay’s Round. Helping these rounds felt like a stepping stone. A way to visualise success. “If I can run two legs of The Round” I reasoned with myself “surely soon, I could run the whole thing”.

The moment this thought became a conscious decision to do the round was the minute of the switch. No Longer was my only ambition to enjoy being in the hills (although this was still a major factor). Hard work and training would be needed if I was to be fit enough to complete the round. The switch between fit and unfit happened just like that. In that moment, I became no less able to enjoy a long day running in the hills, but I became unable to achieve my, now, more ambitious goals. The goal of completing the Round. To run over 42 Lake District fells, covering 64 miles in 24 hours. A task that, as of this moment, I am not fit to do.

Ambition, in a sense, has rendered me unfit.

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