Thursday, 25 December 2008

Fenland brine



The Hereward Relay came around again, on Sunday 23rd November. The weather, unusually mild for the season, suddenly turned, and the ground froze as hard as a psychiatrist's smile, and the air bit cold as a Texan republican's heart. Snow was promised, though little came. Cold rain drifted in and out. The fens rested in total indifference to anything that might happen, with nothing to lose.

Things had not gone well since Istanbul. First had been the invasive amoeba ... I'll spare you the liquid details ... then a cold. Then a dampness of the spirit. All deterred me from running. Instead the children needed to be parented, and a book needed to be finished. That's sometimes how it takes you: and if there's no joy, what's the point in doing it?

At least the diarrhea had gone by the time I was waiting at Welney for the handover. Welney is the starting point for the fourth and final 9.6 mile stage in the Hereward Relay, which extends from Peterborough to Ely. It is the glory stage. Already long gaps extended between the teams. I stared into the unbleached-wool air.

My handover came, and I ran off across the fenland. Nothing happened. No one came, no one left.

Sixty minutes later (an hour in which I had cause to regret the ancient off-road shoes I was wearing, inflexible, hard, and fitted to the less-efficient style with which I ran a couple of years ago) I found myself slipping off a narrow path with a ditch on either side heading up a steep incline. There was nothing for my feet to hold on to. This is not a metaphor: it was just the most memorable moment, in all the dull homogeneity of the fens.



Ten minutes later the race ended in a sports field near Ely. I was handed another horse brass, to match the two I already have. Alas I missed the first race in 2005, so I don't have a full set. I enjoyed lunch by the river in Ely. This time I remembered to visit the toilets before lunch so I could wash the sweat and spittle from my face, and not immediately repel my beautiful lunch date. An old dog can learn new tricks.

J

Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Muezzin's Call

It is 9:00 am on Sunday 26th October and I am standing in Asia for the first time in my life. Asia looks like a big bridge. It is the start of the Istanbul Marathon, and it has been raining hard for twelve hours, during most of which I lay in bed and listened to the rain and wished I'd brought something more to wear than my Cambridge and Coleridge vest. I imagined myself being carted to an Istanbul hospital for hypothermia, and wondered if I'd need to pay the ambulance cash. It was raining hard, and it would rain hard all day. I stood at the start line in my vest, gloves and a woolly hat facing the Bosphorous Bridge (seen below in much better weather, the longest suspension bridge in the world).

The weeks of preparation had been the best of times and the worst of times. At one speed training session at Jesus Green, where us oldies at the running club had doubled up with the glorious, muscular, lycra-d and confident track-based youngsters, I discovered that I was faster than most of them provided we were doing endless multiple-kilometre repetitions. They're good for 200m, but the years tell over the longer distances. It was a confidence-building moment. And on 12 October I had set a new half-marathon Persona Best of 1:21:36 at the Great Easter Run, scooping a part in the second men's team prize at the same time (last year we won the third men's team prize). It was the first PB of the year, and I had run with my head high.

And then it all went wrong. A few days before the race I started showing cold symptoms. I weighed in at 3 kg over my best weight. And then, on the Thursday night, the day before flying to Turkey, I went out for a final run -- 2k slow, 2k at race pace, and 2k slow -- and turned my ankle. Instead of icing it up I had to catch a train to London to go to the Esquire James Bond party. On Friday I was limping and couldn't lift my suitcase without pain. Over the next two days I consumed about half a kilogram of ibuprofen. On Saturday I limp around the exhibition hall and through the Spice Bazaar.

And then it got worse. Though on the night before I do manage to persuade the restaurant to give me some rice with the grilled meat, I realise that breakfast in the hotel starts half an hour after I need to leave for the race start. There will, of course, be no porridge for me on Sunday morning. So I go to a cafe and buy a bowl of rice pudding and put it in the hotel room fridge. Then through Saturday night I lie awake and hear the rain blow in. It rains hard. It rains torrentially. I think about hypothermia and ambulances.

Eventually I get up, eat my rice pudding - delicious and creamy, but there's not much rice in there - and head off to Hagia Sophia square with an umbrella, to catch the bus to Asia. There the buses are, lined up mainly for overseas competitors: this is the only well-organised part of the race. When the buses arrive a mile or two from the start at 8:00 am we are told to get off. It's raining very hard, thrumming on the roof. There's no sheltered area, and we can see that it's a long way to the start. Almost everyone refuses. Then the police car that is blocking the bus moves off, and the bus unexpectedly starts up and moves closer to the start. This happens another four times. Conversations break out in many broken European languages throughout the bus. Russian, English, French, German, Italian. Eventually we find ourselves quite close to the start. Where there don't seem to be any toilets. At 8:50 I get off the bus, pee over the edge where the bridge starts, and stand freezing at the start. I forgot to bring a bag to shelter under. There is no effort to sift the swift from the slow, except the elite have their own pen at the front. I look enviously. I will beat some of them.

The gun fires. We start. I run a hundred metres, keeping close to the centre of the bridge fearing an attack of acute vertigo. A journalist steps from the central reservation straight into me. We bounce off each other. Evidently I got in his way. Nothing seems to be hurt. I carry on, and fifty metres later I have to run through a big puddle. The water permeates my shoes and socks. There is now no inch of me that is not completely soaked, and I only have another 26 miles to run. The view over the Bosphorous, disappearing into the grey rain, is spectacular. I pass from Asia into Europe. (The welcome sign was photographed in an earlier, sunnier year.)

My left ankle, the twisted one, is utterly inflexible. I wonder how long it's going to last. It feels like my foot is welded to my shin.

It is a shocking race. Twenty-six miles of puddles, floods and sheet water. All around strong men (and there are few women, though more than in the exclusively Turkish male photograph that's part of the poster for the event, overlooking the consistent wins of Ethiopians and Kenyans) break. They peel off. Some probably drown. At one point I run through three inches of standing water under a bridge that turn out to be overflow from a sewer. And it is not flat. "Mostly flat" said the website, lacking an elevation profile. It was not. Most of it may have been mostly flat, but the rest of it, and much of the mostly flat bits, is hilly. Some of those hills are long and slow, some short and sharp.

There are some human moments. At one point I pass in turn a German who had passed me on the first bridge, and a short Turkish man who is chasing him. Running up the long hill to the viaduct the latter accelerated, dragging the German with him. I had a plan to be the first western European, and I am not going to let this twenty-something get in my way. He doesn't. He drifts back. I will see him half an hour or more after I finish, dragging himself up the mean finish of all mean finishes. But the Turk, who is about 5'2", passes me. Then I pass him on the downhill. Then he catches up, and slips an inch in front of me, moving over so his should is almost touching mine, an aggressive stance. Our arms brush, and he turns to me ... with a huge smile. He sticks his thumb up. And then falls back, ever so quickly, so that within a hundred metres he's lost. I'm glad he enjoyed the moment, because I think the next fourteen miles were a disappointment.

After the bridge, the course takes you through through the Besiktas and Karakoy regions before you cross the Galata bridge just short of 10k. By this point my left ankle feels normal, and I realise that I'm probably not going to catch hypothermia, at least while I'm still running. Someone calls out and cheers me on there -- she was quite fetching, actually, and I can't tell you how glad I was that she was there -- but then I have to wait another 20k before anyone else cheers. There's no applause and no calling out of names. In fact there are no crowds and little support at all, apart from a few lonely souls in shop doorways and bus shelters watching the rain.

We turn right and run 6k along the Golden Horn to Eyüp before doubling back, cut across Fatih, which is where some of the grim hills greet us, hit the Marmara sea, and run for about 10k into Bakirköy before doubling back again. The weather doesn't improve, but the turn makes things easier, because you know that you're heading towards the finish.

I set out for Istanbul targetting 2:52. I set out that morning hoping not to catch hypothermia. I run the first half in 1:28. All is not lost with a good negative split, but it's hard to see how I could speed up that much in the second half. The hills and riptides of sheetwater in the road see to that. Throughout the second half I pass other runner, one by one, with wide spaces between. It's lonely and there's no one to race, just the occasional broken runner decelerating into the gathering wind. I try to keep at my target 4:05 pace, but keep on drifting down to 4:15s. It is a struggle. But down in that core protected from the wind and the rain I feel proud at the effort I'm still making.

Around the 30k mark someone calls my name. I'm bruised and beaten by this time, and it takes me a second to realise that something odd has happened. I'm in a remote area of apartment-block Istanbul and someone has pronounced my name correctly. Then she calls out "Cambridge and Coleridge, go Cambridge and Coleridge". I smile and wave. I have no idea of who she was, but I am grateful.

Even though the finish line is only 10k or so ahead, I am finding it hard to keep up the 4.05 pace. I know that 2.52 is out of my reach, but can't do the maths to figure out where I really stand. And there's no one to race against. It's lonely. No one is pushing me. The people I pass put up no resistance, but despondently watch me go by. Even the elite African woman, despondently holding on. I'm on my own. And then I remember the Round Norfolk Relay. If you can run the twenty miles from Scole to Thetford on your own in the middle of the night, then this must be manageable. The RNR is specific training for this guts-out anti-clement masochism.

Then the angels descend. About 2k from the finish line I hear the call to prayer at the Blue Mosque, and know that as the call-and-response wind up, spiralling down from the high pitches, I will be approaching the finish line. The final hills are shocking. Worst of all, five hundred metres from the end there's a hugely stiff uphill, too steep to descend in heels even when it's dry. But it leads you up past the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque to the Hippodrome, what's left of a C6th AD athletic stadium, with a 3500 year old obelisk in the middle. At least the last 200m are flat. The Muezzin sings. The universe fractures. There will never be an experience like this again: running from Asia to Europe through an unremitting downpour to the soundtrack of an ethereal call to prayer. The clock says 2:59. My time will turn out to be 2.58.57. The pictures show my shoulders tight even as I pump my arms. The finish line is like daylight.

The organisation at the end is as choatic as you might have predicted, but let me leave that for now .. eventually I locate my kit bag ... at least no one tried to sell me a kilim or bargain over the contents of the goody bag. The medal - you can see it as I stand by the side door of the Blue Mosque - is two sided, in Turkish on one, English on the other. My breath returns with suprising speed. That's an extraordinary sensation, that no one to my knowledge has ever written about - the way that after the finish the air in your lungs swiftly and smoothly becomes enough, and a recalcitrant ease settles on your shoulders as the film over your eyes thins. Someone should write something about that.

It would rain all day, as I walked around the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. I drank a blueberry margarita at the Four Seasons Hotel as a pianist played. I drank some bad wine. In my heart I was content. The following morning I went to a Turkish Baths, where my scrubber/masseur massaged my stomach crying 'shish-kebab', and my calves crying 'maraton', as the water dripped from the high marble dome onto the warm marble plinth where I lay. I walked and walked, through the Mosque and Tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, and snake around the Grand Bazaar, where I am fed apple tea and coffee by many merchants, sitting on stools in bright, busy shops, as we talk around the issue of money.

I get the results at home. I knew that my 2.59 ish was a true effort, perhaps better even than my PBs in NYC and then Berlin. The official results may confirm this. I came 33rd. No one older than me beat me. The one man, a Turk, who passed me and stayed ahead during the entire marathon -- this happened just before the half-way point -- finished 24 seconds ahead of me and was first veteran. Once again, strange fortunes, I was second vet. One other western European was in front, hence I was thwarted in my other target of being the first. It seems a shame to reproduce poetry to numbers. What matters is the line that reaches from Asia, through rain and the splash of waters over the ankles, to an ancient stadium and the Muezzin's song, one sense collapsed into the other.

J

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Running in the cold dark night

The heading is meant literally. But before I go there, let me mention Grunty Fen. If you're not local there are a lot of fens around here. They are flat, farmed, not very interesting pieces of land. They were rescued from the sea by imported dutchmen in the C17th, and therefore saved for maybe 400 years. People won't be terribly sad when that process is reversed later this century.Except their owners, perhaps, though I think they're very prone to suicide in any case. Fenland is ugly. It breathes that permeability between boredom and despair.

The weekend before last, that is, 14 September, was the Grunty Fen Half Marathon. Two laps of Grunty Fen and the spur of the start and finish. I didn't have high hopes, but I started manfully hoping to make about 1:26. After a couple of miles I found myself running with my club mates Ish and Simon and David (who runs with the club but hasn't signed up, and hence runs with a shirt from his old Midlands club ... and he, incidentally, beat me by two minutes in the last 5k I raced). That was nice. I felt like a real runner. I was at the front. We were a club. Then it all fell apart ... David pulled off, I held onto him, and the rest of the team drifted back. And all around us was fenland.

The wind was hard, but it's a flat course. I sheltered in others' lee until the field was too disparate, then made my own headway. I was pleased when David came back in sight, and doubly pleased when he came within reach as we turned off the fen into the village, and towards the finish. I engaged in a sprint for the line with the guy in front of me, and was surprised when we passed the said David. 1.24 something. That was just fine. But I was 35th, which wasn't good, and, it turned out, there were a lot of old men in front of me. No second vet this time. Nonetheless the reward was a lovely lunch in Ely with my support team, sitting by the river on a perfect English sunny autumn afternoon.

Now for the Round Norfolk Relay. Norfolk is a county in England. If Britain is shaped like a bunny rabbit (ok, a pregnant one), Norfolk is the tail. It is about 193 miles around. On 20 September this year, at 10:30 am, a relay began. It finished about 23.5 hours later. Seventeen stages, tracing the boundary of Norfolk, through the night. And, unlike the Hereward relay, there is an actual baton that needs to be carried ("in the hand" specify the race instructions -- you are explicitly not permitted to stuff it down your shorts).

I arrive at my start, in Scole, which is three miles east of Diss, a name which has always amused me as it's a metonym for Hell (Proserpine "herself a fairer flower / By gloomy Diss was gathered", or something like that, from somewhere in Paradise Lost, probably book 9). It's a dark field, fragmentally lit by uplights. The race has been in progress for about 14 hours, and this, coupled with the staggered start, means that most of the rest of the 48 teams have already passed, and it's going to be a long, lonely night for me. I meet up with the co-ordinators for my team, Andy and Carmel, who are asleep in a car with the number '30' on the back. In the corner of the field there's a van selling hot tea, and the survivors gather around it. Andy gives me and my support team, Nicky, a flashing orange light to go on top of my support car, and tapes another "30" on the back. I load the passenger seat with gels and water bottles. I'm freezing at this point, shivering and bewildered after an hour's nap earlier. It's about 2:15 in the morning and a mist is settling. A couple of cars with flashing orange lights pass, and a couple of other runners take off. I'm waiting for Adam, who is due in at about 2:30.

He arrives on cue, and I set off into the depths of Norfolk oblivion, Nicky driving a few metres behind me. I pass through Diss and hit the A1066, and run along it for about 16 miles ... almost nothing happens. I run for 2 hours and fourteen minutes and see 2 other runners. I run a thin pool of light, the rest of the night obscure to me. Deprived of your senses it's hard to stay motivated. Deprived of competition, it's hard to race. I run a very modest pace of about 4'20" per kilometre, occasionally up to 4'09". I try to push, but there's no adrenaline on tap to help me along. There's a learning experience smothered in this.

I see another runner a mile or so ahead. It's had to tell in the dark ... the other runner is a flashing yellow light, of course. It takes me about 40 minutes to catch him up. Then I steam past him, suddenly invigorated. And then I'm a little regretful. He might be the only runner I'll see all night. Learning that there will be no glory in this run is a hard lesson.

There's a lot of roadkill. That's the thing I notice most. Pigeons, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, indecipherable entrails ground into the tarmac, casting black and white silhouettes. At one point I hear a chorus of crickets. That's the highlight of the run. A chorus of insomniac crickets in the narcotic Norfolk night.

And who said Norfolk was flat? I have GPS proof that it is not. There's at least one mountain between Scole and Thetford. I listen to Nicky shifting between first and second, and second anf first, and first and second. Her car isn't particularly happy at 9 mph. We work out hand signals when I want a gel or a drink. The air varies between a disdainful cold and oddly humid warmth. The hours pass, as does a guy from another nameless athletic club (plus his car and his accompanying cyclist, is coaching him along). He stays with me for a while, turns a corner, and then is gone with suspicious acceleration.

Finally I hit a roundabout, turn left, and begin a 3k ascent to the handover. It's the loneliest approach to a finish I've ever known. I hand over to Brian, whom I've never met, but identify through his shirt and because there's hardly anyone else there anyway. Assuming that this will be like an Olympic 4x400 handover I shout 'go' and keep running and hold the baton out to his hand -- he starts up but has difficulty keeping up, and I pull him along for a couple of metres before I realise that the time probably doesn't matter anyway. At least we don't drop the baton. Another support car takes over. And there at the finish are Andy and Carmel. Nicky gives them the flashing light. And it's over. It's a quarter to five in the morning and the dawn is still some time away.

My team arrives at King's Lynn - where the race also started - after 23:38:28, and is placed 13th overall. I don't see this because I've gone back to Cambridgeshire to nap, though at the moment they finish I'm chasing a dog with separation anxiety through the streets of a Cambridgeshire village, though that is another story. The night has passed. And, no doubt, I'm mentally stronger for it. I'd post some photos, but they'd be black on black.

J

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Edmonton

"To get to the trail I just head out of the door and turn left, right?" I asked the doorman of the Varscona Hotel in Edmonton. "Yes," he said, "along Whyte, but you go about two blocks to 94th street, and then you turn right. It turns into the trail ...". I had to check this because to get to Whyte you have to turn right out of the door, and then go left to 94th, but it seemed he assumed that to go out of the hotel meant to go through the door and walk around the corner to the front of the hotel, where the front door would be if it were not at the side ...

So I followed his directions and found myself, after several miles, on what seemed an unending highway of 6 am traffic in cold rain. Eventually I saw a sign saying "Calgary Trail" and realised that, though I was wearing my running kit, the doorman obviously thought I wanted to drive to the airport. It seemed I was about halfway there. I turned back and my fingers froze before I found the hotel. I had brought no running kit other than vests and shorts for the week.

Later in the day, and after that inauspicious start, I followed my nose and headed left out of the hotel, and found, after some winding through barbed wire and ominously empty stretches of tarmac, the entrance to the trail that follows the North Sakatchewan River. Down a flight of stairs that reminded me of Sacre Coeur, I turned to run west. It's a beautiful stretch of river valley, perfect for running: narrow and soft, gently undulating, traffic- and almost human-free. I only turned back, after about six miles, when I had to for dinner ...

The following morning I looked out of my window and waited for the sun to rise. It began to -- reluctantly -- and I headed to the river and took the cycle path east. As I followed the bends in the river, up and down a steeply undulating path, the sunlight caught the tall buildings in the downtown area on the far side, and, briefly, Edmonton looked glorious, rich with imaginative architecture, Scottish domes, neo-Victorian stone gothic, glass bubbles and a red ziggurat. I turned back, again, because I needed to make my conference ...

I've never been to Canada before, and Edmonton, Alberta might not have been my first choice, but the valley and the running it offers (comprising, by the way, the largest system of Urban parks in Canada) was very satisfying. But never trust a doorman.
J

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

5k league

My running club, The Cambridge and Coleridge Athletics Club, particpates in a summer 5k league with three other local clubs: Newmarket, Saffron Walden and Haverhill. Each hosts a 5k race on a Thursday evening. With an elaborate scoring procedure, each event has a winning male and female team, and this results in a winning male and female team and a winning club for the league. It's a nice event, better since Haverhill decided to hold theirs in Kedington, a nice village a few miles from Haverhill, which makes Peterborough look like Florence. And though Haverhill became my PB course last year, it certainly wasn't on account of the friendly local teenagers shouting obscenities between sniffs from their paper bags.

The Cambridge 5k last month saw a welcome comeback. Last year, when I was seriously fit and on the road to Berlin, I ran it in 18:20 (though I was running a fever for several days after, which may have affected that time). This year, when I am fat, slow and uncommitted, I ran it in 18:24.

A few days later I went running with my friend and fellow Miltonist Edward Jones. Edward is an advertisement for the beneficial effects of running. He looks about 45, is seriously fit, and confessesto being in his late 50s. I am genuinely and pleasantly surprised. Edward once ran Boston in 2:40. I would be interested to know if there has ever been a faster Miltonist, or an early modernist for that matter (I know of another 2:41 man). Edward is bemused by my PB of 18:06, and tells me that I don't run like an 18-minute man, suggesting, with an extraordinary air of confidence, based on years of experience at the track, a somewhat faster time. I like friends like that.

Last week was the Haverhill / Keddington leg. It was hilly and windy. The first 2k were more or less continuously uphill, and the first 500 metres were pretty sharpish. It was an attractive run, however, and I was perfectly content with 19:09. Though that brought me in 18th, which seemed a long was down the field. There are some fast people in the league these days.

Which brings me at meandering last to my point: again my times haven't fallen as much as they should have, given the shortcomings of my training (and the long-absent principle of fairness). So have my training patterns been useless? Or has the experience of divorce and single-parentdom over the past nine months merely raised my pain threshold? I would be interested to hear if there are any studies on the relationship between divorce and athletic performance. There must be some funding for such research with 2012 bearing down upon us.

J

Thursday, 31 July 2008

What a runner does when he doesn't run

It's been a long time since I tarnished this wearied page, for which I apologise. I shall try to apply myself weekly from henceforth. It's been a funny year. The miles have been few, but they have been pleasurable. And there have been some unexpected outcomes.

First, there was the Brandon half, in which I was placed second vet. Then there was the Stansted 10k. Guess what? I scraped home in a miserable 40.59 (official time), 12th overall and was placed ... second vet. No prize this time.

Then there was the Stathern 10k, on 22 June 2008. Once again, the preparation could have been better. I was staying with Sean and Meike (a few days before they became parents ... more on that on another occasion), and we had a very splendid dinner and drank far too much. I could barely face getting in the car the following morning, and Sean and I did our usual routine of talking down expectations. It was a glorious but windy morning, and I was pleased at the discipline I showed in not throwing up at the start. It's a very attractive course through countryside and village, with a couple of significant ascents. The wind was a little heartbreaking at times, but I came in in a little over 39. The finish line was over a very short footbridge (not really a bridge, more a 3' platform) stepping into the finish tent. It's an odd finish, as it didn't encourage you to sprint into the darkness, and there wasn't much room to decelerate. Sean arrived a couple of minutes later.

We collected our lurid, lurid green polo shirts, and headed off to Langar Hall, where -- and then I knew we weren't in the south anymore -- the management allowed us to use the shower in one of the guest rooms, before we sat down to lunch, courtesy of Sean's dad Malcolm, a noted gastrophile. Langar Hall is a country house (1837) turned into a hotel with an excellent restaurant. As an end to the race and a recovery strategy it was a cut above the Stathern Beer Festival. There is a splendid garden, and the walk to be had there takes in the village church, whose former rectors include Thomas Butler, father of Samuel (Erewhon) Butler.

The results were posted on the internet a week later: 39.21 amounted to 9th place, and I doubt there was anyone over 40 ahead of me ...

So there have been some good moments in this strange, non-running era. But something has troubled me in the intervening weeks. These results aren't great, but coming in second vet as a matter of some consistency suggests that the racing is better than the clock indicates. But I have not been training. Does this mean that my former training practices had a deleterious effect on my running? Perhaps the autumn marathon will show. In the meantime it's lovely running in the humidity along the banks of the Cam, while Mercury pants along.

J

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Down and out in Stansted

The Stansted 10k took place on Sunday 15 June. It involved chasing Jamie Oliver as he ran between the anti-new-runway-for-Stansted campaign, and the clubhouse for the first-class only airline he flies to NYC.

It didn't. It was, instead a very pleasant course around Stansted Mountfitchet and nearby farms and villages, multi-terrain and not very flat. It's a fun run, so there were no timing chips, no lead car (or cycle), and some people had dogs. I wished I'd brought Mercury because we would have won the first person with dog category, had there been one. And it would have been more fun.

I travelled there with my friend Michelle from running club. Neither of us wanted to do it, but that's the great thing about friends from running clubs. They make you do things you don't want to do, just as you're making them do something they don't want to do, in a perfect symbiosis of mutually assured gloom.

I've had a cold for a week, though I never get colds, a cold so severe I've been unable to run for fear of getting really ill. So I knew that my time wasn't going to be great. Accordingly I was more than happy to accept a dinner invitation for the preceding evening, with my friends Eivind and Sudeshna. And I was very good with the wine. I restrained myself to a couple of glasses of rosé. At least until the food arrived. Then Eivind pulled out a classy Riesling. And then a 1999 Gevrey-Chambertin, which was gorgeous in its gloomy and resinous intensity. And then he had a desert wine that we had to try out for some reason. So when I called on Michelle on Sunday morning I had a hangover and couldn't breathe.

We made it to the start in good time, but the finish was another matter.

There was a sharp right turn five metres in front of the start line. That was interesting. And then it wasn't very flat at all. And there were hills too. Hills up fields, with uneven footing. Fields of corn. And it rapidly grew lonely. There was no passing or direct competition. After a couple of miles there were ten or so men out of sight in front of me, and no one audible behind, not even barking dogs. Occasionally there was a marshall. However, the Stansted 10k is a biannual fun run, so the marshalls don't get much practice. Only one didn't have his or her hands in his or her pockets, and he was holding a camera. I wasn't always sure of where I was going, and once had to ask. What with the pain, the gloom, and the loneliness I objected to this a little.

Still, the last kilometre was rather splendidly downhill , and for a while I was chasing someone thinking I might catch him up. After a decent first half (about 19), the more severe second half took its toll, and I came home in a miserable 41:03, close to a personal worst. Still I got to cheer Michelle - who had no idea of how quickly or slowly she had run it, being watchless and fundamentally disinterested - and we went for a beer at the Rose and Crown pub overlooking the finish line. It was a funny beer. It had a funny real-aleish sort of name and had undertones of rancid lime. Still, Roger Bannister used to go for a beer after his sessions at the Cowley Road track, so I'm sticking with it.

J

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Brandon Forest


It doesn't pay well, this running gig.

Monday last week, the bank holiday, I ran the Brandon Forest Half-Marathon, my first race since puffing around London. Brandon Forest is near Elvedon, near Thetford, half-way between Cambridge and Norwich ... ok, it's nowhere really. But it is a very nice forest. No lions and tigers and bears, just vistas and gentle slopes and trees and howling winds and driving rain.

I've been running most days, quite slowly, occasionally fishing Mercury out of the river and picking up his poop. Still nothing that would constitute training. Nonetheless I toed the line of the race feeling quite cheerful, an unfamiliar sensation of late. I like this racing game. When the horn went off I followed the leaders into the woods.

The course is superb. It follows a three-leaf clover shape, and you run it twice. This means that you pass the area around the start six times, so supporters can cheer their runners frequently, more or less every two miles. It's a splendid design, and the marshalls are good too. The race organisation is perfect. I commend it to everyone. As for the course, in the second half you know what to expect, and I rather like that experience, except for the outward stretch of the second leaf. The race is noisy and exciting at the start. And suddenly it gets very quiet. You're in the forest, and the mid-packers have receded into the distance. There are a couple of guys in front, a couple of guys behind, and that's it. And it gets worse. But then it gets better. You return to the start, the drinks table, and the cheering crowd. And then it gets quiet again.

And on the outward leg of that second leaf there is a mile-long stretch into a roaring headwind that almost stops forward progress. It's a little dispiriting. My Garmin considers autopause. But eventually I turn a corner and I'm winding through the trees again, stepping over the rocks and puddles, trying not to turn an ankle on the corners, picking my footing. My legs hurt like hell because it's off-road, and being an urban type I don't much use those muscles required for lateral support. I contemplate the humiliation of not finishing as hurting turns to burning turns to numbness.

There's a nice moment when a tall, slim, attractive, dark-haired woman wearing a light raincoat billowing in the wind cheers me on by name as I pass by the drinks table. I have my name on my shirt, which was evidently a good investment. She does it next time too. The next time I lift my heels a little harder as I approach this central nexus. Then I smile. Then the next time I wave. By the last time I'm a bit less sociable, however.

After six miles there is no other runner in sight, though there is a guy a hundred metres behind me puffing away. It's alarming I can hear him, all things considered (it's the tailwind I suppose). After ten miles the end is nigh, and when I enter that final leaf I know that everything is going to be just fine. It's not quite, as the twenty-year old who has been behind me barrels past just as my ankle goes on a rough patch with 200 metres to go. I can't be bothered to catch him (the difference between a trained runner and a runner between training schedules). Nonetheless I figure it's been a decent outing. 1:25.30, which isn't bad for an unfit runner off-road.

There is a magnificent mound of bananas at the finish. Everyone ahead of me seems to have done it before. They're swapping war stories. "D'ya win?" asks one. "Yeah," says his interlocutor.

I chat to the dark-haired woman. She seems quite nice. Then I head off home.

Imagine my surprise when I look up the results online and find I was second M40. I won ten pounds, which followed by post. That's the first individual prize I've ever won. You know, being 41 isn't so bad at all. Looked at in strictly financial terms, £10 isn't great for an hour and a half's work. But I was just a little bit pleased with myself anyway.

J

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Dean's knees


My friend Dean has bad knees. Bad knees in that they don't work. One in particular. It hurts when he runs. It also hurts when he cycles, but especially when he runs. This is not good for Dean because he is an endurance athlete. He's been unable to run at all or cycle far for many months. He's defaulted on at least two NYC marathons because of injuries picked up on long runs in the spring. A recent injection of steroids felt nice, but had no long term benefit. So last Monday he had surgery. Some other stuff was injected into his knees in the hope of simulating nice soft cartilage. But anything would be better than facing the prospect of not being able to compete again ...

How would you react to the prospect of surgery? Dean emailed me last week to ask if he should sign up for the New York Marathon. Prudence held the day, but he's looking forward to adventure racing in 2009.

However, it's going to be a long haul. He's in bed on a machine that rehabilitates his knee by slowly moving the joint (I bet adventure racers don't get that on the NHS). He tells me that it moves 150 degrees per minute, and bends his knee to 85 degrees (which takes approximately 65 seconds - on his facebook page Dean lists "practical maths" as one of his interests). He is required to do at least 500 repetitions per day. Sound like fun? You should visit his facebook page and request to be his friend, because I would imagine he's going spare. He's going to be measuring and counting every one. He's even started collecting and speaking to soft toys.


I have no doubt that every reader of this page has contemplated the prospect of injury over the past six months (and if not, shame on you); Dean has been out of action for a year, and has been forced to concentrate on his job. So say a prayer for Dean and wish his knee a speedy recovery.

J

Thursday, 1 May 2008

My new running buddy

Mercury no longer eats running watches, and has started to run with me. His first birthday was last Saturday, and I decided he was old enough to go out for more than 20-25 minutes. Of course when we walk he runs around like a madman, and if I throw a ball he'll do 25x100 metre repeats at 30 mph with 10 second recoveries (see the pictures, featuring a demonstration by my assistant), so I figured a run with me would be a cakewalk.



We've been out a few times now, a mile and a half on lead, four off lead, then a mile and a half back on lead, out to and over Baits Bite Lock. He rushes ahead and lags behind, of course, but he's less inclined to eat cow shit when running with me. He's good company, and it's fun to watch him sprint effortlessly past when he's catching up.

This morning as we were heading back along the tow path he didn't catch up. I called for him. He didn't come. A sculler went by. "I think he's in the river". Sure enough, I looked to the water, and there he was, a hundred metres behind, his pointy head poking out, splashing furious. Despite being a bird dog he's not very confident in water. He must have fallen in, or perhaps jumped in after a duck. Or decided that, having conquered running, he was going to train for a duathlon. I sprinted back. The bank was quite high, and he was panting, doing the doggy paddle, drifting along the riverbank.

There was nothing for it but to lie in the bed of nettles -- I was wearing shorts -- and lean into the river to haul him out. He was cold and wet. I was stinging and cold and wet. It started to rain. We ran back. He learned his lesson. He's sitting in the kitchen smelling like a sewer. And I have big nettle weals on my bare legs. He's a good running buddy, but he needs to work on his training schedule.

J

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The Runner's Fear of Injury

First of all an apology. In my list of recent Welsh sporting triumphs I omitted to mention my old sparring partner Joe Calzaghe whose latest victories include being noticed by the English press after years of being the greatest British boxer. Pound for pound you're the man, Joe.

I'm back running, and have probably notched up a respectable 50 miles this past week. I'm not committed enough to find time to plug my Garmin in and find out how much I've actually run, but it's about 50 miles, including two hour-long runs with Mercury (on which more anon). And of course I went out yesterday morning and coming home felt some pain around my right ankle. A combination of stiffness and shooting pain as it rotated. A couple of cycle rides later (a few miles -- practical transport rather than fun) it was still hurting. So this morning I'm going to rest, of course. Of course not: I'm going to notch up some more miles.

Why do all runners do this? I've given so much advice about the importance of resting niggles to novice runners ... and I have shared the same advice mutually with non-novitiates, as you all probably have (ohhh ... I don't know ...). We know what the dangers are, we know what we should do, and we don't. So why?

Here's a theory: because it feels good. Not the machismo of putting your body right on the edge of self-harm, though there's probably something in that. But one of the joys of running is that grey area between comfortable training and fierce unholy excess. That's where the spiritual release and the endorphins lie. On the edge of injury the body finds itself. This is built into the practicalities of marathon training, which is always about doing more and doing more faster until the event, and then getting back on the road as soon as possible. For non-marathoners it's just a temptation. It's because being there feels good that we do it.

So where are my shoes?

J

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

And still they come







When April, with its sweet showers has soothed March’s deep-rooted drought, pilgrims descend on London, the tired, the hungry, the ill-shod, full of longing and apprehension, they swell towards the Excel centre, then again at Blackheath, in search of joy, redemption, absolution. They clutch their energy gels in their hands like pardons, their hearts beat as in their heart of hearts they confront the almighty. It is time for the London Marathon, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the distance being established at 26 miles 385 yards – prior to the marathon in the London Olympics of 1908 the distance had been a long race of about 25 miles … you know the story about Queen Alexandra wanting to see the finish outside the palace.

2008 has been a good year for Welsh sport. First the well-deserved Grand Slam in the Six Nations rugby union championship, then the bizarre progression of Cardiff FC to the FA cup final (when I didn’t know there were eleven – is that the right number? – people in Wales who know the rules for football). But my running does not form part of this picture. Instead it has been a year of retreating from light drizzle, of contemplating fine wines, of reading and writing and generally shrinking from the field where glory is sought, not without dust and heat.

Odd then to find myself at the green (fast-for-age and celebrity) start at the Flora London Marathon this past Sunday, next to Sean, perennial daemon, and to Ned Boulting, host, self-styled minor celebrity and significant fundraiser for ECHO (see here for ECHO, and here for his hospitality last year). If I was in poor shape, Sean was possibly worse off, untrained and vying with Meike for that seven-months pregnant look. Looking in fact like foie gras, of which I understand he has eaten a good deal recently, along with a number of French regional wines.

The preparation had been less than perfect. Again. Friday night the kids were off at sleepovers and I thought that I would aid my rest by trying to make margaritas with the tequila I brought back from DC. And I discovered that I could make a cracking margarita. Which was pleasing, because I’m always keen on finding new skills and potential new careers. And then I drank some wine, and was lulled to sleep by the spicy fumes of mourvedre, the bandol varietal. And then I woke up after a few hours feeling less than athletic, and had to cycle to Grantchester through an East Anglian gale to Collect Elias. A few hours later, on the train to London with Elias, my quads were cramping, and the nausea had less to do with the hangover than the anticipation of the marathon the following morning. And life remains full of surprises. Elias and I took a taxi to the station to save my legs: who should be driving it but Giacomo? Giacomo has been injured since Milan, and still runs with pain. An MRI has failed to reveal what’s wrong. It’s perverse that he’s not running, and I am, and I begin to wonder if my blog is reading like a soap opera. Giacomo tells me that Pietro will be there, and, despite a poor performance in Milan, he’ll be at the elite start, trading on his 2:30 marathon from some years ago …

Elias and I collected my number at the Excel expo, met up with Jon “Hero” Crannage and Sarah “Squealer” Crannage (Saturday Striders pseudonyms) and we all headed off to Ned’s in Woolwich.

Ned and Kath’s house is brilliant. It’s like a rural farmhouse in Woolwich, full of comfort and nice floors and warmth and character and the smells of cooking. Elias loves it: he thinks it’s happy living without ostentation (I think those were more or less his words). Kath had cooked up a storm with her mother-in-law Juliet, and we ate pasta until we all looked a bit like Sean. Suzy and Edie had painted a banner with their mum, to support not only their dad but all of us sorry marathoners who had descended upon them that weekend: all the above-mentioned plus Ned’s old friend Simon, a spry triathlete who had trained, his neighbour Graeme and others I didn’t meet. You can see it in the photograph, accompanying (right to left) Sean, Sarah, Jon, Ned, Simon and me. It choked me up a little seeing it. Family life is different when your parents are young anarchists in Tiger Bay in the heady ’60s, and when you’re not a single dad. Elias and I slept in the living room, and my head was full of quiet thoughts of the dawn.

I love marathon dawns. Someone should write a book about them. Coffee never tastes better. You have just the one cup, lest you end up peeing too much, but it’s always a great cup. Wearing half a tracksuit you force yourself to eat porridge as the sun rises, with your safety pins and race number in front of you. You know it’s coming at you and there’s nothing you can do but save adrenaline and give in to the wait for that starting horn. You live in a perfect balance of wellbeing and trepidation. Gradually people come and go in the kitchen. It gets light. You watch the minutes go by, visit the bathroom frequently, think abut pinning your number to your shirt. Someone puts motivational music on the stereo (but Dr Hook, Ned?) Then it’s time to vaseline up, pack your kit bag, and head to the start. Ned and I walked a couple of miles through the cold brightness to Blackheath and to the green start. I received a bunch of misdirected texts from people I didn't know who can't spell. We met Sean there; Sarah and Jon and Simon were at a different start.

You know the rest: toilets, bag check, starting pens, the rising storm of excitement, checking out the other runners. The start and holding yourself back, suppressing that urge to run how you feel, which would be much too fast. Ned, running his first marathon, had set himself a target of 3:45, and Sean and I planned to run with him, hoping that 26.2 miles without real training wouldn’t leave us crippled. We wound through the April streets, manifesting the support that London always provides, cheers, bands and beer.

Soon we found ourselves behind the Masai warriors, raising money for a water supply to their Tanzanian village, with car-tyre tread strapped to their feet, carrying spears and shields. We ran with them for a mile or so. They were chanting and dancing and generally expending energy doing things that weren’t running. I moved on after I almost lost an eye for the second time. It was a bright and beautiful morning, perfect for running. We passed Elias and Suzy and Edie and Kath holding their banner and cheering. There was nothing wrong with this picture.

It was shortly after this that Sean discovered that he needed a toilet break. But we didn’t spot any toilets for a while. This was the reason he disappeared into a dodgy-looking pub in Deptford. I prayed that he didn’t start an argument over any bills involved. We didn’t see him again for quite a while. We are still trying to establish the precise sequence of events.

Ned and I trudged on at about 8’25” to 8’35” pace, which would bring us home in requisite time. I love running. I’ve really missed it. I love races too. I love drinking Lucozade to keep you buoyant during the long middle miles. And the comfort of energy gels. There were more supporters: Meike, whom I missed, Juliet and Norry, Ned’s parents, whom I missed, Glenn Tilbrook (yes, of Squeeze fame), who’s a friend of Ned’s, and Nicky, a friend from Cambridge, who brightened Commercial Road, usually the dullest part of the race. Plus lots of people who called out Ned’s name, no doubt because it’s easier to pronounce than mine.

As we headed towards Tower Bridge, the skies opened. We were soaked, cold (I hope the people running in underwear were suitably punished) and heavy-shoed, running into the wind. That was the only point at which I wished I was running faster. We went over Tower Bridge, which was such an enormous boost, a mainline injection of adrenaline and good-feeling. I couldn’t see anything until I realised I was still wearing my wrap-arounds in the downpour. The gang waited for us with their vast banner at another point on the route, about 15 miles, but found the banner was dripping paint over other spectators.

For some reason I kept on hearing the crowd repeatedly shout “go, toilet”. I pondered on this for a while. Then I became intensely worried that Sean, who still hadn’t reappeared, had for some reason been forced to escape from his Deptford pub with the toilet, or that the toilet had been wrapped around him in some way, which would explain why it was taking so long for him to catch up. Then the toilet passed us, and it was only a guy in fancy dress, and soon Sean reappeared, without a toilet.

Ned was doing well. He was pushing the pace, feeling good. He went ahead for a while. He didn’t seem apprehensive. He didn’t know what was coming. At about 22 miles we passed Jon and Sarah. They were also aiming for 3:45, but Sarah was flagging. Ned didn’t begin to really suffer until shortly after this. His head went down. His face turned red-orange. His eyes looked like they were going to pop out in disgust. But he more or less held the pace with exemplary determination. Sean and I adopted the pacers’ role, sitting in front of him, urging him on. We were probably very culpable in our smug encouraging remarks. But before long Big Ben was in sight. We entered the uncountable series of turns that comprise the palace gardens and the home stretch.

And still they came! How does it feel to be part of that great sea of humanity, everyone with his or her own story? To be among the tired, the poor, the hungry, the chafed and bleeding? How does it feel to live in the imaginary centre of those tv commentators’ clichés? Just fine.

We hit the sign that marked 800 metres to the finish. We ran for what seemed like a kilometre. Then we hit the sign that marked 600 metres to the finish. Then eventually the finish line came into view. Ned started pumping his arms. We fell in behind him. At the finish we took hands, and crossed as finishers numbers 7637-39, in 3 hours, 45 minutes and 47 seconds. As we came to a halt a race marshal instructed Sean and I to hold Ned up, as he didn’t look very good.

Soon he was fine though. We collected our medals, met up with friends, were once again soaked in a fierce downpour. Ian Chanty, of Berlin and Saturday Striders fame, was there: he’d missed another sub-3:00 by a handful of cruel seconds. He treated it with Roman fortitude, notwithstanding the rain. We didn’t see Pietro, but he’d achieved 3:00 with a few seconds to spare. Then headed back to Woolwich, where we were feted with family compassion and lots of food and wine. See grand family picture, missing Kath behind the camera. Simon had missed his three-hour target by a couple of minutes. Jon and Sarah had run the race 12 seconds faster than us (they must have started out behind us in time, as they were at the mass start). Martin Lel had set a new course record. We ate and ate and drank wine and were photographed again, with medals and then with family and friends, including Jon and Jane, last year’s co-hosts. You’ll see Elias holding Pops, Suzy also in front, Edie perched on Ned. Elias is planning on running London soon he tells me.

Ned described the experience as horrible, surprisingly horrible, indescribably horrible and more horrible than he’d imagined. Nonetheless he made his target, struggled through the pain and desperation to finish despite an injury sustained during training, and he will now be a shining light to other first-timers, and a credit to ECHO. Sean and I hope to persuade him to come back next year; and we’re working on Jon and Jane. This was the first day in our next campaign. Maybe Welsh sporting victories will pick up again in the autumn.


(l-r: Sean, Graeme, Simon, me, Ned)

J

Friday, 4 April 2008

Washington DC













I have been in the nation's capital this week, living on Capitol Hill and working in the Folger Shakespeare Library, one of the finest working environments on the planet. And I have been running along the Mall. It's beautiful. It inspires me with poetry. I run a gentle 4-5k up to the Lincoln Memorial, and read the Gettysburg address, then cross the hall, passing Lincoln looking ever so lean, and read the second presidential address. Then I run back, around the reflecting pools, past the heart-stopping Vietnam memorial, the Washington monument, the Smithsonian, around the Capitol. An easy 10-12 k could not be more invigorating.
















The only hitch is that I seem to have done something to my calf - it feels like minor tearing - and it hurts like hell, and the London marathon is next weekend. I can sense impending disaster. Perhaps taking the ten-miler too quickly (see pictures below - it does look like I'm making an effort) was imprudent.

J

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Charlottesville ten miler












Ten more miles and I'm still here. I survived the 2008 Charlottesville Ten Miler, its 33rd running. The preparation was immaculate, of course. No training, unless you count the four-month taper. I stayed with my friends Dean and Maurie the night before, and ate a delicious seafood gumbo, together with their friends Tim, Christy and Sandra. Tim was running in the morning too. Dean insisted that as I wasn't really racing in the morning, just jogging, I should have a drink. I conceded to half a glass of pinot noir. Dean found a 16 oz glass, and carefully half-filled it, so a couple of those later and I was well hydrated.

Instead of my usual evening-before meticulous kit preparation and pinning of number to shirt -- hard to do, given that I didn't bring an appropriate shirt, not knowing that I was going to be racing -- I went to bed, wrote emails and read Robert Lowell's correspondence. The bed was very comfortable, however, and I did manage a few hours' sleep. I rose in the dark and ate instant oatmeal, drank some coffee, wrote more emails and read Robert Lowell and pondered the problem of the shirt. I really wanted to wear my C&C vest, so I would look fast, even if I was going to be slow. Dean lent me a shirt, which meant that I was running a race with a brand new, unworn pair of shoes and a shirt I'd never worn before. The gel in my shorts pocket was leaking. I didn't even bother with the watch.

Dean is a man of action, and meticulous in his organisation. At 7:10 he announced we would be leaving at 7:15. I pinned my number, 2395, to the shirt. At 7:15 he bundled me into the lexus and drove me to the start, without baggage, warm clothing, or a race plan, but with intensifying nausea. At 7:24 he bundled me out of the lexus 200 metres from the start at the John Paul Jones stadium. He went home to nurse his hangover; I went to find a toilet, successfully as it turned out. The start was clearly marked Start. All the slow people moved instinctively to the back (contrast other entries in this blog). In front of me were a bunch of guys wearing vests. They had trained, and looked fast. Someone sang that song about the flag. The weather was cool and clear, and the light warm and full of life. The gun fired at 7:45. We started uphill.

There were many more uphills to come, and downhills too. There were no mountains, but plenty of foothills to foot up and down. I reminded myself that I was meant to be having fun. No watch, just the tell-tale beating of the heart. I fell in behind a bunch of women. I can usually keep up with women. Falling in behind other runners means that you don't have to concentrate. And women have less testosterone than men, which means that they're more likely to run sensibly (this is founded on extensive empirical observation). After about half a mile I developed shinsplints, really painful shinsplints. I saw I wasn't going to be able to finish. They went away after a couple more miles, I think. The first mile came up in six-twenty-something. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea. Then, when I heard someone call out "first woman", I realised the magnitude of my error. This only diminished slightly when other spectators called out, correctly, "second woman".

There's little else to tell. The course is a hilly and very attractive one, which loops through part of the university campus before swinging through the brick-paved streets of downtown Charlottesville. The marshalling and the water stations were impeccable. At five miles I was feeling ok. I was watchless, but it went through in 32-something, much quicker than I had intended. I stayed behind the pack of women (diminished by the fact that one of the four had surged ahead) until about six and a half miles, when I foolishly decided to press on ahead. I regretted this almost immediately, though I did catch up with the surging woman. Some faintly distressing urban hills followed, and I plodded on until I realised that the end must be near, and pushed a little beyond the 6:30 pace that I had entirely inadvertently and consistently maintained. I finished a couple of seconds behind the woman I had pitched in behind optimistically at the start. She was obviously a keeper.

The time was 64-something.

The finish area was magnificent: bananas, endless choices of drink, bagels, cookies ... not sure about the pizza though. There was no queue at the massage tables. Everything seemed to be working too: nothing bleeding or broken. The masseuse was a little disturbed by the state of my neck and shoulders, which had little to do with running. The results were being pinned up, as they came out of the computer, on a noticeboard in the sports arena. I was 62nd (out of about 2400), with a time of 64:41. Not too disappointing for a middle-aged fat runner. Six months ago I would have been pleased with that as a tempo run. The bananas were good too. Heading for more water I bumped into Tim and scored a lift back to Dean & Maurie's with Tim's friend Greg, in the backseat of a SUV with running gear, golfballs, a baseball glove, a child seat and no doubt other sports equipment buried and ready for the weekend.

I will wear the pink and lilac finishing shirt ("what kind of man is going to wear that?" I overheard a female UVa student ask outside the arena) with some satisfaction. Unless someone else wants it? Lesson: running slowly is ok, and race whenever you can, because, even when it seems like you're one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind, things may very well be fine. And this is a race worth doing if you're ever in town.

J

PS: check out the ragged mountain running shop for races in Charlottesville; and it's a good place to buy shoes too.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Fat runner strikes back

First, a point of clarification. I have been receiving correspondence from all kinds of readers who think that my not training for London involves cutting back on speedwork. Let me clarify: I'm not training. I've been going out maybe two or three times a week, and running a handful of eight-minute miles. I'm about half a stone overweight. When I run London I will be facing hitting the wall long before Tower Bridge.

However ... I was in Ragged Mountain Running Shop in Charlottesville Virginia on Monday, buying a new pair of running shoes for my youngest. They didn't have any of my model in my size in stock, which is a shame as the pair that I'm carrying around with me on my US sojourn are very worn out, and the exhausted rear cuts into my heels. But just as I was going to pay I asked the sales assistant whether there were any local races this weekend. Yes, she said, the ten-miler is on Saturday.

The Charlottesville ten miler is a big deal. It's a large race (2300 runners) a few weeks before the marathon. Now the CVille marathon is a bloody affair with some very big hills. It attracts obsessives, you know the kinds. The ten miler is less bloody, I think, but it's a popular and famed race that loops around the downtown area and through picturesque Jeffersonian architecture. So having asked, I could hardly decline, no matter how much I wanted to. This may well be my last trip to CVille ever, and I happen to be in town on the day of the race ...


So I signed up, and went and ran some hill intervals in my worn-out Sauconys. Then I drove down to Durham, North Carolina, winding through the hills of southern Virginia on route 15S, and this morning ran gently around a Duke University cross-country track, which winds around the golf course, with my friend Nigel, who is recovering from a major health crisis. It was good to ease the red wine toxins out of my blood. Two days' training should be enough, no? I would have won a prize this time last year: this year I'll be luck to break 75 minutes.

It's nice to be running again, in the open skies and clean air of country, and up and down some real hills, of the kind that Cambridge can't afford. I may have forgotten to mention over the past few weeks how much I like running. Everyone needs to do it. Now I have to pray that my new shoes arrive before Saturday, else I'm running ten miles barefoot.

J

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Fat runner

As you know, I'm a deep-rooted optimist, always looking for the silver lining among the rainclouds in which I live. The London marathon comes ever closer, and my training recedes further and further into the past. It would clearly be unwise to run. However, instead of just ducking out, I have found a way of turning this round, by becoming the subject of my own experiment.

I have tended to go into Marathons reasonably well-prepared. I have raised eyebrows at those who think they can show up and make it to the finish line. Those who don't respect the distance. Ingenues, neophytes, amateurs, people who just don't get the life-and-death reality of marathon running. Fat runners. Runners who aren't going to test the mental strength that is, even more than intelligent training, the foundation of a good race, but will, instead, just see what happens.

Now I have decided to be the fat runner. I'm going to run London without training. I may put a few miles on the Garmin in the last week of March and the first week of April. Then I'll have a week or so's taper, and then I'll run and see what happens.

I won't be alone. I will be running with Ned Boulting (one of my hosts last year). Ned's running his first marathon, and he's been injured. Ned is raising - has so far raised three and a half grand - sponsorship for ECHO at Guy's Hospital, London. He's running to thank them for all of the support they have given for his daughter Edie, who has a heart problem. You can find out more and sponsor him here. Sean will also be running, and he too has been injured - the podiatrist says that his legs don't work, or something like that. I'm not sure if we'll be three wise men or three blind mice.

One thing is for sure. I won't have respected the distance. I will see the marathon from the other side, from the perspective of the unprepared fat boy pushing his luck. We will see what happens. Let's look upon it as an existential experiment.

Perhaps it will be fun. Watch this space.

J

Monday, 3 March 2008

So what am I running from?

No account of how one began running can possibly explain how one becomes a marathon runner. It's easy enough to understand why someone would run a marathon -- it's festive, it's fun-of-sorts, it's a way of connecting with people -- but harder to explain is the life of the marathon runner (a quite different thing) the emotional or psychological impulses that drive you into running twenty or more miles on a weekend in preparation for a marathon, especially when the preparation is at best tenuous. I haven't run 20 miles since 2 December, but I did have a two-hour child-free slot last weekend, and eked out 16, which felt like an accomplishment. But it was also pleasurable. It's what I do. Now why would anyone do that? What am I -- or anyone -- running to? What am I -- or you -- running from?

People -- sane, non addicted people that is -- assume you think when you run, and for me that's half true. I fret about the things that are wrong in my life (there have been some of them of late), I dabble around in explanatory narratives (it all happened, because ...). But if I push those things aside, or if there aren't such things to worry about, in fact I think about very little. As the heart rises, and the mind finds its way into a rhythm, as your eyes begin to see things as they really are, as you see unaccommodated man and unfiltered space, as the blood takes over, there are no abstract or complex thoughts. The moment is what matters -- and perhaps, if you're racing, the moment at which you're going to collapse, literally or metaphorically, which has a nasty habit of fixing itself in your horizons -- and the moment tends to be free from anything but meditation on the immediate, material surroundings, or at most a good feeling about a friend, a lover, or the running itself.

This is the runner's secret. I think. For all I might claim right now that running is running from the pain of the winter, from realities I'd rather not stare in the slavering eye, or to the pleasures that the spring will bring, to the turning of the air, to the arms that might catch me, the truth is much less poetic and simpler than that. Running is its own down time. Running is a recovery period for the mind. That space, that unabashed intimacy with the naked, bony self, is both what we're running to, and what we're running from.

J

Monday, 18 February 2008

Why run?

A lot of people ask me why I am a runner. I guess it kills the time. The question has gained new depths since I ceased to be a runner, and became someone who trundles off for a few miles a couple of times a week. Maybe. If the weather looks good.

However, I think it's worth taking a pass at an answer to the question. It takes the convergence of a number of life-threatening elements to persuade a previously mostly-sane and largely indolent man to take to the road, and to see anything less than a fifty-mile week as a recovery period. These are the answers that came to me in late November -- when I was still a runner -- as I trod softly by the Cam in the dark, along the stretch that extends from Lammasland to Grantchester, when I began to reflect on the many thousands of miles I had run since my Road-to-Damascus like conversion in 2004. Ten thousand probably. Where did they all come from? How and why did a sedentary scholar discover the pleasures of lycra and stability shoes?

There were four reasons that suggested themselves to me.

One. Aging. It happens. One moment you're fine, the next you have soaring cholesterol and thinning hair. Something has to be done. Having not done any exercise for the preceding sixteen years, I bought a pair of running shoes in the early summer of 2003. But they weren't running shoes: they were Nike cross trainers. The only reason I didn't cripple myself was because I ran for no more than twelve minutes, which almost took me to the end of the street. I tried this maybe half a dozen times and didn't like it much. Then ...

Two. Sean Matthews, my then colleague. He suggested we go out for a run after work. We did so. In retrospect it was not unreasonable that he should get me to run 10-11 k, but 54 minutes later I thought I had been disembowelled. He announced that he'd done the same route the preceding day in 44 minutes. He was training for the New York Marathon that year. That experience taught me that whatever I was doing before, it wasn't running. I bought a running watch.

Interlude: it's the evening of the New York Marathon 2003, and I'm sitting in Bouley in Manhattan, a stunning restaurant, with my friends Sean and John Beech. Sean is being studiedly vague about his time. The sub-3 had not appeared. Only the stunning wine fed us by the then-sommelier Brad Hickey (see his blog) can cheer him. Sean and John try to convince me that I need to run marathons. It's a deucedly ridiculous notion.

Three: drowning my father-in-law's Audi 6. It all really begins with my climbing out of the window of an Audi into a flash flood in central New Jersey, and lifting my youngest son from the roof (he'd climbed through the sun roof). This was in December 2003, and it was meltwater from the long-frosted snows on a nearby golf course that gave rise to the flood. The waters had caught us, killed the engine. Things looked bad when the waters started to come in through the door. We began bailing with plastic cups. We watched with alarm when my youngest dropped his, and it shot off in the floodwaters, like a racing yacht.

The Audi was a write off, and so, nearly, was my back. I waded through the waist high water towards the flashing police lights ("stay in the car") they were shouting at me, but I'd had enough at that point. I'd watched a deer stare at me from the elevated woods, before stalking off, and had felt the sting of his scorn.

So my youngest was fine, but when I lay on the floor back at the apartment later that evening I found it hard to get up. And then my leg started to go numb. Plenty of pain medication -- some black market demerol from a neurosurgeon friend (think childbirth painkillers) -- later I found myself having an MRI. The scan showed a problem with my spine, and threw up some strange shadows. Another, much longer scan was called for (I napped for 90 minutes in the machine -- it was quite restful). On reading the scans I was told that I was lucky I could walk. This was nothing to do with the flash-flood: instead the scan had turned up a congenital defect, hydromyelia, or water on the spine. My father in law remarked that I was luck I wasn't a poster-boy for the March of Dimes (a disabled charity in the US). The hospital asked if they could scan my brain to work out what was going on, i.e. why I seemed to be able to walk. They were a little surprised when I declined. So I left with a prescription for physiotherapy, serious physio of the kind you get with private health insurance in the US. An hour or two, twice a week.

It was great. And starting to run again (I used to increase the speed on the treadmills when the physiotherapist wasn't looking) taught me how much I had missed it. In the spring of 2004, I recommenced running around the woods in Princeton, peaceful and restorative, then along the canal. It was a life-transforming experience. I was utterly hooked. Being told that you shouldn't be able to walk, being told that you're not allowed to run -- these are the ultimate motivators. Not to speak of the bucolic delights of running along the New Jersey -Delaware canal.

Four. My brother in law Steve signed me up for a race, the four-mile Run for the Parks in Central Park, New York. He's a footballer rather than a runner, but he thought it might be fun. The boys did it too (see picture). It was a carnival. The weather was perfect. The crowds cheered. It was central park, one of the most improbably nice places on earth. It was too crowded to race, but I knew, from the moment my heart rate passed the comfortable zone, that I was instantly addicted to the drug of racing. I've never been one for parties and dancing, but if I had been, this was it. As we walked back to Steve's apartment on the upper west side New Yorkers thanked us for our support of the Parks charity. Soon after that I signed up for the Cardiff Marathon in the Autumn of 04. And the rest is pain, blisters, bleeding, limping, obsessive record keeping, torn calves, carbo-loading, free t-shirts, worn out shoes, stretching and binge-teetotalling.

I really should start doing it again.

J

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Standing at the Crossroads

On Saturday morning outside the free library in Long Eaton, Notts., I lay down and wept. More precisely I clasped the wall and tried not to throw up. It was a turning point in the morning's long run.

It began a couple of house earlier with the Seven AM Saturday Striders. The Striders do a twelve mile loop every Saturday morning at seven o'clock. They are an informal group attached to Long Eaton Running Club (see here) who like to take in the great views of Nottinghamshire at dawn, hills and mud and all. Sean and I had just done these twelve with Hornet (Ian Chant, of Berlin marathon fame); Hero (Jon Crannage, of Heroes of Switzerland fame; look back to the Cardiff half-/marathon, where he made his debut: I rather regret not having made more of it at the time); Squealer; Rookirunna; Rollerman; Dodgycalf. They're a cheerful bunch, given the time and the percentage gradients. I suppose that, unlike Sean and me, they had not drunk four bottles of wine (and we may have lost count) and watched five episodes of the West Wing the night before.

So at a leisurely pace, with plenty of banter (Hornet trying to persuade me to publish this in hard copy, or get sponsorship from Lucozade, for example; and the most appalling series of puns on "stride" and "striders" you can imagine) and bodily-function stops, we went from the Long Eaton sports centre through Strawberry Fields (just gorgeous as the sun is coming up), across the Erewash golf club, up to No Man's Lane (at this point the sky was purple) then a lung-bursting climb to Risley Lodge Farm. I think it was there that I performed the initiation rite of jumping over a horse fence. Which I managed. Despite the mud. And the fine Bordeaux. Then down from the ridge until we made our way back to the Erewash Canal, which we followed for a mile or so back in Long Eaton.

Then we waved breathless farewells to the Striders, and found ourselves at the crossroads. To the right was Sean's house. To the left was the Trent, and the path back to The University of Nottingham (About which D.H. Lawrence memorably wrote: "In Nottingham, that dismal town / where I went to school and college, / they've built a new university / for a new dispensation of knowledge"; note the pun on dispensation, as UoN was funded by Boot's the chemist). Sean had left his car there.

At the crossroads I was on my knees, trying really hard not to throw up after a mere twelve miles. It's all gone, you see, all that fitness has dissipated. Sean gave me half a cereal bar. The problem was that I'd persuaded him, when he'd been trying not to throw up ten minutes earlier, that it's really important to finish the run you'd planned, because if you don't you take a mental defeat. So we took the road less travelled, to the Trent and along its glorious path to the University, probably nineteen miles in all.

My thanks to the Striders, and to Sean as ever. Without them I wouldn't have made the distance, and would have felt really guilty when we opened that bottle of wine for lunch.

J

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference.