Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Whose NHS is it anyway?

The morning after the Deerstalker I debriefed the Crew Chief. With her professional interest in medical provision at sports events I knew she’d be intrigued to hear how the organisers had managed to get first aiders and mountain rescue staff to accessible places on an entirely inaccessible course. We have pretty romantic conversations, the Crew Chief and I…

Anyway we got on to talking about the more extreme end of obstacle races, and the relatively high incidence of serious medical emergencies. This is almost inevitable as gung-ho but technically inept runners throw themselves off increasingly wild obstacles dreamt up by event organisers trying to innovate the next big thing in challenge runs. She mentioned with horror the sheer costs involved of getting ambulances and helicopters to these (often remote) events, calling out highly skilled medical professionals to airlift showboating mud runners to A&E because they’ve somehow got half a femur sticking out of their backsides. Her valid point is that this voluntary, reckless activity is a drain on resources, is unnecessarily dangerous and – crucially - is entirely preventable.

I nodded sagely in agreement because I am good at marriage.

Ambulance crew at Tough Guy 2009
Then I mulled it over for a while. Who else is using the health service’s resources? Where might that ambulance be if not responding to the self-inflicted ailments of runners so desperate to prove themselves that they’ll happily leap through flames or take an electric shock to the face? And most crucially, how many users of our beloved NHS rely on it to treat preventable ailments?

Smokers are an obvious place to start. The latest research suggests that smoking is likely to be costing the NHS between £2.5 and £6 billion every year. Preventable. It’s a similar figure for alcohol-related treatment. Preventable. Obese and overweight patients are more or less a bargain at just £4 billion every year. In many cases, that’s preventable too.

And here’s the fundamental difference; whilst puffing away on a fag, drinking 100 pints of Carling a week or stuffing your face with McDonald’s has literally no discernible health benefit to weigh against the massive cost of related healthcare, those reckless fools launching their fragile bodies off some monkey bars and into a freezing pond are at least being active. To me that really is the crux of the issue; whilst the occasional accident might make obstacle racing seem like a pointless endeavour, it’s reaching a demographic who might otherwise not engage in physical activity. And surely anything that gets people off the sofa and momentarily away from packing their arteries with Greggs sausage rolls has to be a good thing? Take this thought a step further and surely the only conclusion is that any physical activity that raises your heartrate, strengthens your muscles and improves your mental wellbeing has to be a good thing.

And let’s not for a moment discount the health charities and Air Ambulance services who profit considerably from the fundraising efforts of thousands of runners every year. I’m pretty sure that no smoker has ever used their habit as a means of raising money for a cancer charity. It would be a pretty audacious pitch on justgiving, that’s for sure…

I concede that these events are dangerous, and whilst there have been deaths in Tough Mudder races in the USA, it's worth remembering that people also die running marathons, and skiing slightly off-piste, and crossing the street, and in industrial accidents, and from diseases contracted on exotic holidays. Nothing is entirely without risk. I concede also, of course, that rescuing a daft bloke in fancy dress who’s broken an ankle by leaping off a cargo net is a less worthy use of an air ambulance’s limited resources than, say, hastening to the aid of a road traffic accident or to uplift someone suffering a heart attack.

But if ever a Health Minister decides to definitively rank the order of precedence for using our National Health Service, I would petition for the stricken runners to get a decent spot in the queue, to my mind well ahead of people who are eating or smoking or drinking themselves to death. If it’s a race for spots, we’ll probably do alright anyway.

Happy running (be safe out there)


2015 to date: miles run 234.2, parkruns 3, races 1

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Race Report - Charleston Half Marathon 2015

Guest blogging and race reports! I used to do loads of these and I'd forgotten how brilliant they are until Elizabeth 'Pumpkin Square Wifey' Fitzpatrick hit the mean streets of Charleston to race her first half marathon. Given that I know for a fact that E has had an awesome running outfit waiting for an outing since at least 2007, this is both immensely welcome and long overdue. So over to our American Correspondent...

I would never in a million years have considered myself to be a runner; in high school, we used to have to run a half mile prior to the start of gym class and it was possibly the worst thing on the planet (let's be honest, I was 16 and had to wear a horrible gym costume). But when I think back on that now, I realize how ridiculous I was considering that a 5 mile run seems like a breeze and I just ran my first half marathon (12.6 miles longer than back in high school).

So why, if i despise(d) running, would I tackle 13.1 miles? It was a challenge. Back in June, a close friend moved to Kentucky and we both were lacking serious motivation. We decided that in order to get our booties back in shape we would sign up for a half and use it as an excuse to go somewhere fun. Gung-ho Sally's that we are, our credit cards were charged, motivation was high and the Charleston Half Marathon was our challenge.

What can I say, along the way life, minor injuries, school, lack of motivation, so there were a lot of starts and stops in the training process. Unfortunately my friend ended up having to pull out due to an intensive school semester. My mom kindly stepped in and decided to join the challenge, she would walk and I would run and it was a great excuse for a mother/daughter trip.

Off we went on January 16 to fantastic Charleston. We landed at the airport late in the afternoon, dropped our bags at our hotel and power walked off to the high school where packet pick-up/and the start of the race was. Numbers, timing chips, and token race shirts collected we headed off for an early dinner. Hundreds of calories consumed, what can we say, we like good food and when in Charleston you must partake.

The big day dawned a little chillier than expected but sunny and it was definitely a lot warmer than back at home in Baltimore, so who were we to complain? The masses started to congregate at the start line, music was playing, enthusiasm was high and we actually met two girls who were also from Maryland whilst killing time. There were about 4,900 participants from 49 states and 7 countries, not too shabby.

Looking not at all nervous
I am not going to lie, I was a little nervous as it got closer to 8am. I had two goals: finish in under 2 hours and 30 minutes and not to walk, and of course doubt settled in. Could I make it? Had I done enough training? But soon enough the gun went off and we were away, with a big smile on my face, what I had been planning on and working towards for almost 6 months was finally about to happen.

The race is a bit of a blur, I mean 13.1 miles tend to start to run together. But what I do know for certain, the first few miles when we were running through Charleston proper was amazing. The scenery was incredible, the route took you through these incredible neighborhoods past these gorgeous houses, by the water, and then it was back up through the city along King Street.

And the crowd, there were fans along the entire route which was amazing and they were all so enthusiastic, it definitely helped around mile 11 when it started to get a little tough. Also, the money raised by the running festival went to benefit the arts programs in the local Charleston schools. So at periodic intervals along the route, there were bands/dance troupes etc. from all the schools performing, it was such a wonderful element and nice to see what we were funding.

Nice work ladies!
So what can I say from this experience... would I do it again, definitely, in fact I told my mom the Charleston half should maybe become an annual event. Will I do a full marathon, doubtful. I will definitely be more consistent in training for my next one, have a plan and stick to it.

Would I consider myself a runner after this experience, no, but maybe I will get there. For now, it's been a few weeks off, no running, but I think it's time to get back out there. I am loathe to put this in writing (Dave knows, cause I used to give him a lot of grief and call him crazy with all his running) but I may miss hitting the pavement just a little bit.

But did you achieve your sub-2:30 goal?

I most certainly did.

Thanks E! Super proud of you. It is definitely time to get back out there...

2015 to date: miles 117.9, parkruns 2

Friday, 23 January 2015

A very ordinary superpower

Let's be honest, it's not a strong look.
I was out for a run the other night in the absolute Baltic cold of January in Scotland. Leggings aren’t a strong look for me but who cares how you look when it’s dark and you’re out running, right? 

But imagine my horror when I thought I spotted a member of my employer’s senior management team up ahead when out for a run dressed in stretchy fluorescent garb. I imagined their cheerful greeting followed by an incredulous "What are you out running for in this weather?" as their eyes scanned down to my spindly ankles, wrapped in lycra and gently steaming.

The first answer that popped into my head was “Oh I like to keep fit so I’ll be ready when the revolution comes.”

Luckily the senior colleague I spotted turned out to be a low-quality lookalike and not the real thing (it was dark and snowing) and this conversation didn’t actually happen, because if it did I feel certain that there would be some detailed notes appended to my HR file quicker than you can say “We think your talents would be better deployed literally anywhere but here.”

But this hypothetical conversation made me think about running as an actual practical skill. If I’m honest there really are few scenarios in which running would be the quickest, or the easiest, or the only form of transport left in a crisis.

We’re going to need a War of the Worlds-eque apocalyptic event in which every car on the planet suffers a simultaneous electrical fault (for example), in which every bicycle is also stolen by a marauding alien overlord (could happen), all the horses have been put into Iceland burgers (underway) and there are also leaves on the line and/or overrunning engineering works at Darlington (all but guaranteed). Seems a tall order.

Even then, the heroic task that will save the day needs to be no more than about 20 miles away if I’m to be any use when I get there to do it and ideally this cataclysmic event shouldn’t happen too close to lunch because I am really not up to much - let alone saving the world - with a side stitch.

I once read that Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond became stranded in a winter flood 16 miles from home at 3am, and rather than miss his daughter’s birthday the following day he abandoned his car, changed into some running kit he happened to have with him, and ran the rest of the way. That makes running seem like a skill worth having.

I suppose the closest I’ve ever come to genuinely using my one and only very mediocre superpower is that I’ve caught a few trains and buses that others would have missed, because I don’t mind running a mile or two flat out if needs must. I once caught a series of connections that meant a sprint to a tube station, a run across the concourse into a train station and later an amazingly long jog to an airport bus. I sweated in the queue for security then sprinted through the terminal and was the last one on the plane, which took me from London to Edinburgh. The following day I had a job interview, a day after that I had a job offer, and a month later I moved back to Scotland and into a flat with the Crew Chief.

That was five years ago, and I’m so glad I ran for it.

Happy running


2015 to date: miles run 71.59

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Not another new plan

The Crew Chief keeps nagging me to register for a marathon.  This is a bizarre reversal of just a few years ago, when I wrote this blogpost about the perils of bartering with your other half about excessive race schedules. As I’ve mentioned before, in the 15 months since completing The Wall Run I’ve struggled with motivation, injury, distractions, work, lethargy, drinking too much beer and becoming a dreadful fatty. I don’t want to register for a marathon.

But I do want to be a runner again. I want to be the one who spends hours every week dashing down footpaths and hauling himself up hills and discovering secret views that folk trapped in cars don’t see. I want to be out in the cold and the rain and the snow and the heat, barrelling down wild descents and bursting through narrow gaps in hedgerows and dry stone walls. I want to buy new running shoes and pair them with ancient race T-shirts. I want my non-running friends to be a bit exasperated, and for my running friends to invite me to train with them again.

The old demons are still there. I’m at least a bit heavier than I was and the trouble in my left ankle that I’ve been carrying for four years now is still a problem. My commute still saps my energy and I still can't get out of bed in time for a run before work. I’m a hell of a lot slower than I was, too. Like two minutes a mile slower. 

But I do want to be a runner again.

The Crew Chief wants me to register for a race because she knows that in the past it’s been the main motivator for my running, which I can then legitimately call ‘training’. But more recently I’ve managed to tie myself up in knots with pre-race anxiety over even the least intimidating runs. I need to address that before I sign up to something big.

So my new plan (sorry) is to create a strong base with which to run a marathon, not register for a marathon for which I will need to create a strong base. The training, the health benefits, the sense of wellbeing and satisfaction will be the output, and a marathon might be one the outcomes. When I’m fit enough, then I’ll think about another 26.2.

That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but trust me, it is. I want to be a fit guy who could run a decent marathon, not a guy who is fit because he is planning to run a marathon. The relief of that pressure is enormous, and I hope it will make me a runner again.

Happy running


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

What I did on my summer holidays

At less than three seconds’ notice, I am shoving my oversized accreditation and lanyard inside my polo shirt (bad for the TV cameras) and sprinting up the trackside access stairs – normally strictly reserved for medal ceremonies – up onto the field of play. Suddenly I am front and centre for 45,000 people at Hampden Park stadium, in the middle of the athletics arena for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

“Where is he?” I have to shout in the ear of a steward over the immense noise of the crowd.

“Up there, somewhere.” She points to the stands, presumably in the rough direction that Will Sharman, the English silver medallist in the 110m hurdles who has just received his medal, has dashed off to.  My job – assigned still less than five seconds ago – is to find him, keep him in sight, and get him back down to the Competition Management area below the stadium as soon as possible.

I run off the trackside and up into the stands, looking for my missing athlete. After furtively looking up and down every aisle I find him, eventually,  on a sort of hidden platform taking photos with his partner and son, cradling his silver medal. Another volunteer, presumably from spectator services, looks very relieved to see me.

A few minutes and a few thousand photos later I manage to convince Will back down the way we came, so he can be channelled through his various press and other post-event obligations.

We jog down the steps towards the track. As I open the gate onto the field of playWill laughs;

“You could have hurdled that.” I’m not quite quick enough with a response.

But as we reach the top of the medal ceremony stairs and I am about to breathe a sigh of relief and hand Will back into the efficient stage management of the stewards, the gun fires in the women’s 1500m final, just a few feet from where we’re standing. Will looks me in the eye and asks, with a masterful balance of humility and confidence, whether he can watch the race from here.

So there I am, crouching at the top of the stairs, watching the women’s 1500m final of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, while an English silver medallist gives me a running commentary on his teammates’ tactics and positioning.

I have a lot of stories from my volunteering experience at Glasgow 2014, but this is definitely my favourite.


Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Race Report - Bedgebury Forest Trailblazer 10k 2014

Holy cow, a race report!  It’s almost exactly a year since my last race, The Wall RunUltramarathon 2013, so you’d be forgiven for being startled by this post. My apologies. Take a moment to recover.

But first, a quandary. What on earth do you buy for someone who has no birthday gift list and no Christmas list, but has his birthday four days before Christmas?  You’ve got to start with buying two things, obviously, one for each gift-receiving event. And they’re both for your brother.

I ummed and aahed. I rejected clothes (I don’t think he believes in clothes), I rejected DVDs (no-one buys DVDs any more, do they?) and I rejected anything that was explicitly marketed as a gift (ie a disposable thing of inflated value and limited longevity). I pondered. I almost bought things. Then I had an idea. The Crew Chief and I have a habit of buying each other weekends away, theatre tickets or other such experience-based gifts, so I applied this idea to my conundrum.

So I signed Nick and I up to run the Trailblazer.

On his/our birthday I presented him first with a new pair of running gloves (something he actually needed), then with an envelope containing a print-out of our race entry confirmations. I prepared my gracious-gift-giving-face.

He didn’t seem impressed.

But fast forward six months or so, and he seemed pretty keen as we laced up our trainers and headed down to the forest for a few miles of muddy adventure. Nick had never run a Rat Race event before and I had a feeling he would enjoy it. The only recent occasions we had run together had highlighted that he’s in much better shape than me – doubtless owed equally to his 10-mile round-trip of a commute on his bike every day and a convincingly motivated running schedule which I do not possess. I had neither of these things to boost my confidence and hoped only to be able to hang on to whatever speed he brought with him.

In fact I had even less to work with. My stomach was misbehaving and the Gingerbread Man was a nagging concern all morning in the build-up to our wave’s 11.15am start time. Perhaps my sushi-and-lager dinner the night before, hurriedly wolfed down in Edinburgh airport before I dashed to my Gatwick flight, had done me no favours. But something tells me that I’ve developed a habit of inflicting physiologically-manifesting pre-race nerves on myself which I really need to get under control…

Things started predictably in Bedgebury. I’ve never been to this particular forest/country park/pinetum (new word for the day) and it makes for a great venue for the usual Rat Race set up of beer tent, kit store, warm-up area, stage, registration tent etc. We mumbled quiet curses at the summer rain and it eventually got the message and shoved off before our start time, leaving a sunburn-inflicting cloudless sky. By the time our wave was deemed warm and ready to go we processed down a steep gradient to the start, as I mentally and with muttered curses registered the number of feet that would later need to be regained in ascent. A final briefing (‘the park is open, mind the mountain bikes!’) and we were off.

Tight early turns and a narrow course, even for our small-ish wave of runners, made the first couple of kilometres a tough exercise in positioning and finding a comfortable pace. Nick seemed to fall into an early rhythm, and I tried to slip into his step but found myself working harder than I should have. Before long I started to worry about my stomach – I was sure that I was going to vomit or do something worse at a microsecond’s notice. I tried to suppress negative thoughts and enjoy the view.

The course is set in a lovely environment, along rough, stone or muddy roads and trails through a dense forest, and a wholly pleasant place to be of a Saturday morning. As ever with Rat Race events, the marshalls were cheerful and eager and the drinks table (cleverly visited twice on the course without having to run laps) was well stocked and was staffed by smiling, eager faces attached to quick hands. If I had any criticism it was that there wasn’t enough muddy, technical trail and a little too much tarmac for something billed as a trail race, but part of the issue may have been that we changed surface so many times that it was difficult to find any consistent rhythm. I guess I was hoping for something like a chunky, entertaining cross-countryish course rather than a forest-based road race with some muddy bits, but I can hardly complain. Rat Race offer plenty of races with much more nonsense if you’re so inclined. The only ‘obstacle’, as far as I remember, was a very small ditch, but the deceptively long hills, undulating profile and tight corners were more challenging than they first appeared.

Regardless of surroundings, my stomach was wretched. Nick and I had gone through 5k together in a little over 24 minutes, but at a water station shortly afterwards I slowed to drink while Nick carried on. I fought to catch up but only to tell him to stop waiting and to go on ahead. He didn’t need telling twice.

I lumbered through the next few km’s keeping Nick in my sights, usually about 15-20 metres ahead of me. At this stage I was sustaining myself by thinking that I could still partly salvage, if not entirely save face. But just before 9km the race chucked us out onto tarmac, and Nick lit the afterburners. I had nothing in the tank to respond with and watched him go.

Nick about to finish
I hauled myself onwards and up a final grassy incline to the event village, relieved to arrive in the finger-loop which immediately preceded the finish line. I tried to pick up the pace and look a little more impressive for the only section of the course to feature any spectators (including both of our parents), but spoiled it by immediately by landing on all-fours once over the line, anticipating a return appearance of my breakfast, which mercifully never came. My chip time read 50:37, Nick’s was 49:43, which was good enough for 68th (me) and 59th (Nick) from a field of around 600. Not bad.

Very relieved to be done. Ace goody bag.
We hustled ourselves more or less straight into the beer tent for some pints and watched the last few waves warm up and process down to the start. My dad, who I don’t think has seen me race before, took a lot of photos and marvelled at the slick set-up of the event village. My mum cursed her hayfever and gave the bored-looking first aiders something to do by soliciting an antihistamine.  They both fussed over us with towels and spare clothes, then immediately uploaded their finish-line photos to Facebook, accurately capturing how totally wrecked we were. A classic race day.

It’s rather good, this racing lark, eh? I might do some more of it.

Happy running


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Social Anthropology: The Gym

I don’t think I belong in the gym.

There are so many types of people who use my gym that I’m going to have to give you a thorough run-down. I also need to be clear that I’m pretty sure I don’t belong there at all.

The douchebags
Plimsolls. Long socks. Wife-beater vests. Slicked-back hair. Pastel coloured shorts rolled up to just above the knee. The douchebags do a few gentle weights reps – arms only – as slowly as possible so they can watch their muscles gently flex in the mirror. They are douchebags.

The footballers
A couple of very minor league football teams are sometimes based from the sports centre which houses my gym. Their squad comes in as a group of no less than 20, dressed in their full kit, to sit on exercise bikes, occasionally pedalling gently, and watching themselves in the mirror. Occasionally they rearrange their kit so the logo is more prominently displayed. After 15 minutes they start to go down to the cafĂ© and ‘reserve’ all the sofas.

The wannabe footballers
As above but clearly not in the team. Desperately try to get onto machines next to the footballers. Embarrass us all.

Triangular muscle beasts
Where have these men come from? They’re huge! And genuinely triangular. They must have normal
jobs somewhere, they can’t all be employed to haul tractor tyres around car parks, can they? They briefly enter the changing rooms (sideways) to take off a tracksuit – leave it on a bench rather than in a locker – and then heave their enormous shoulders off to the Massive Weights Room of Fear downstairs. I take solace in the fact that they must look ridiculous in normal clothes – perhaps this is a vicious circle that explains why they are always in the gym. When they get back to the changing rooms they chug an enormous plastic cup full of ground-up bison and girders.

Pleasingly, this is a Google Image result for 'triangular muscle beast'
Members of the Pussycat Dolls
I assume they are students. But I don’t remember students like this when I was at St Andrews. These girls are ridiculous manifestations of the Essex WAG ideal – miniscule waists, long blonde hair, leggings, immaculate pink trainers and matching sweat bands on their beadless brows. To give them their due, the dolls work out. Hard. Do not make eye contact. They will crush you in their thighs of steel or abrade your face with their abs of titanium.

The female footballers
Opposite of the Pussycat Dolls. The ladies football team are hard as nails. Running sprints on the treadmills, then annihilating the cross-trainer, then weights then crunches then something else then another thing then more sprints. They are all 5 foot nothing and wearing baggy football kit, possibly a hand-me-down from the men’s team 3 years ago. The pace is relentless. They are there when you arrive and also there when you leave. They’re there now.

The old boys
My favourites. Aged anywhere from early-60s to late-120s, the old boys do not give a damn that their saggy race T-shirt from 1989 is full of holes or that the sweat flying off them is offending the Pussycat Dolls, they’re old and working out and it’s amazing and they’re going to keep doing it. Invariably wearing way too many layers for this level of activity, they can be seen noting the figures of the machine next them, occupied by a student who is one-third of their age, doing one-quarter of their workout.

“It’s off-season”
These guys and girls do not want to be in the gym. They want to be on the hockey pitch or golf course or ski slopes. They’re only in the gym because they have no other option to vent their extreme need for sport (and they kind of want you to know it). Easily identifiable by their club kit, elderly trainers and longing looks out of the window at the lashing rain and gathering clouds. They are not at all happy about the douchebags.

Happy running