Joe Wilkinson was on track to becoming an English athletics star. Not only did he secure selection for England and Team GB, place 17th at the British XC Championships and seduce a brand sponsorship, he did it all before his 25th birthday. This is all he had ever dreamed and worked for, until recently. After a long time away from competition, he recently resurfaced at the Midsummer Night 10,000m Classic where he paced the B race through 6km. In his first KOTWF log, Joe reflects on his past year and honestly re-examines his priorities in the sport. Ambitious and driven athletes, pay attention! This is what sustainable growth looks like.
Last month I turned 25. That’s not just a quarter of a century, for me it also marked a decade of athletics training. Reflecting on my time in the sport has made me realise how my motivation to remain committed to training has evolved over time. I think many would agree that when starting in the sport, particularly at a young age, the main goal is to end up as an elite athlete – competing for your country at major championships. To be perfectly honest, this has been my focus for the majority of my time in running.
Over the years I have tried to convince myself that I train because I enjoy pushing myself to the limit and adore spending endless hours building up the mileage, but that would be a lie. I have always wanted to represent England and Great Britain on the worldwide stage, and that was the reason I put myself through the physical and mental pain of it all. I am extremely fortunate to say that it has somewhat paid off. I have had the opportunity to run for England, I have been selected to represent GB at the World University XC Championships (unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic) and I have competed in events across numerous countries including Ireland, France and Belgium. I know that for most athletes, these opportunities remain a dream for their entire career. I will never take these experiences for granted and it will be a constant reminder of all the hard work paying off.
However, my perspective on the sport has changed since then. Over the past year, I have been through teacher training. Honestly, that has truly opened my eyes to the dedication needed to excel in sport whilst maintaining progression in a career. The relentless commutes, the long hours, the physical and mental exhaustion of the course left me with little or no motivation left at the end of the day to put my running shoes on and go out for anything over an hour. Weekly mileage dropped, fitness declined and competition fell off the menu. I just did not see the point in entering a race knowing I would be nowhere near the level I was over the past few years.
But sure enough, after a while of this, I adapted. I used to think of going out for a run as a chore, something I needed to do to reach my goals. By winter, this changed to becoming a way to unwind from the day, getting into a new routine and just having some alone time to think. Without even realising, the amount of time I was running was increasing again, to the point where I felt like doing sessions and eventually getting back in good enough shape to compete at a high standard. The difference now is that competing at a high level is a by-product of what ultimately is a stress release from life and its challenges, rather than being the sole motivation.
What does this mean for me long-term? Ultimately I still want to progress in the sport and reach my potential as an athlete, but my new attitude means I no longer go into sessions or key workouts thinking it’s the be-all–end-all. If the session doesn’t go to plan, I won’t beat myself up over it. If I don’t feel like going for a run after a long day at work, I won’t force it. It has given me a sense of freedom in the sport that I have never felt before. I feel like this new mentality has benefited me already, as I am edging closer to my best but not feeling like I am putting myself through anguish to get there. In the long run, I would rather have this more positive outlook to training and be a consistent national level athlete than making running a laborious task to try to become ‘elite’. I believe they call that sustainable growth. Never underestimate the power of flexibility.
In September, I start a new job in a new city. It will be difficult to adjust to the pressures of a new environment, a challenging career and new responsibilities. But writing this has made me realise for the first time I am no longer worried about running to become elite, because I now feel that training is a facilitator in my life not a burden. So, if this attitude takes me to running PBs and representing my country at international events then that will be awesome. If it doesn’t then, so be it. Without this sport I wouldn’t be in the great place I am today. Running is no longer my identity; it is only a piece of the puzzle and I look forward to seeing how the pieces shift next.
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