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


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Today's lesson

Lunchtime run. Find some decent flow for the first time in ages. Get in the zone. iPhone randomly shuffles to massive tune. Lean into the hill and lift knees with determined expression and gritted teeth and flowing sweat and jubilant endorphin anticipation and…

…and spot untied shoelace. Slow down. Stop. Tie shoelace. Tie other shoelace to be sure. Feel a bit cold and tired. Rain and wind increase. Jog back. Gingerbread man.

Today’s lesson is to tie your shoelaces properly. Sigh.


2014 to date: miles run - 3.1

Monday, 9 December 2013

Remember me?

I used to do that running thing and then I’d write about it and some people would laugh a bit and others would say nice things and a few would get annoyed and faintly aggressive. It was fun, remember?

I don’t really remember. Weird.

I was at a Christmas party on Saturday with some friends whom I only see every few months. Someone said ‘no-one actually likes running, except for Dave of course!’. Everyone turned to me, expecting the usual slightly apologetic shrug and some anecdote about how I ran to Belgium and back this morning. Actually I just shrugged and said ‘to be honest I don’t think I like it at the moment either’.

Let me take you back to June 22nd and 23rd. I ran The Wall Run with three heroic human beings, and I was a fairly calamitous disaster despite having done – by some distance – the most training out of the four of us. I was sick and broken and sick and tired and battered and slow, but above all I was sick. My only redeeming feature was that I didn’t give up, and even that was only because of the immense stubbornness of Kommissar Gray.

The Crew Chief was not impressed, to put it lightly. I naively expected some sort of wide-eyed admiration at my superhuman feat of endurance. Instead she saw that I had put myself through needless, pointless suffering and that I repeatedly refused to acknowledge that I had made a foolish decision in carrying on with no food in my stomach, exhaustion, nausea, some mild hallucination and an almost manic obsession with Matt Monro. When the race was over she used her serious voice to make it clear that I would not be doing anything so stupid ever again.

Last time I was a runner
 I took two weeks off running altogether to recover. Two turned into three. In the fourth week I went for one run. I deferred my GNR place and cancelled other racing plans. The local running shops reported their worst quarters ever as I stopped buying shoes and gear every ten minutes. I started using the next notch on my belts and resenting my monthly direct debit to the gym. It is now nearly 6 months later, and I have run less than 100 miles in total since the finish line in Gateshead, compared to nearly 700 for the first half of the year.

I may have taken the Crew Chief’s reprimands too seriously.

I am further out of a training routine than I ever have been since I took up the sport in autumn 2008, when George W. Bush was still President of the USA. We were learning the term ‘Credit Crunch’ and expecting it all to blow over in a year or so. I was 21 years old and had never run more than a couple of miles.

Until recently I theorised that my lack of motivation stems from a nagging idea that, by completing an ultramarathon, I had also completed my running journey. Perhaps I subconsciously think there is little left to pursue – perhaps lowering PBs and running ever greater distances are just a pair of arduous and endless, pointless goals.

Last night all that changed. The Crew Chief suggested that her project for 2014 (following the baking challenge of 2013) is to ‘get fit’, and could we do it together, maybe go for little runs together?

And just like that, I’m back at the beginning. But this time I’ve got company.

Happy running.


2013 to date: miles run: 739.55, races: 5 and a bit, parkruns: 3, miles biked: 55, metres swum: 1850

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Pay attention! I might not be completely crap!

I’ve written before about the tragicomic history of my early sporting career. As you’ll know, I never really seemed to find the same wavelength as my peers during school sports – the ones who knew things about football and seemed to drift effortlessly between a rugby XV in winter and a cricket XI in summer. I watched this happen from a distance as I erratically swung an ancient cricket bat around on the tennis courts (considered a safe containment venue for fourth-stream games lessons), or happily churned up the ‘cabbage patch’ rugby pitch reserved for the derogatively-named ‘Recreational Rugby’ group. Despite the fact that I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) rugby, was actually a half-decent runner and even showed some promise as a swimmer, I happily resigned to being in this sub-class of sporting types and found other things to focus on.  As I’ve written before, I logically settled on considering myself ‘not sporty’.

It wasn’t until my peers started becoming teachers and witnessed the factors which influence this sort of thing, however, that I realised that my logical self-labelling may have had less to do with objective assessment of ability and more to do with snap decisions, ingrained habits and good old fashioned laziness. In the wake of London 2012 and build-up to Glasgow 2014, I am frequently seeing statements from numerous female athletes professing a desire to boost participation rates among girls in PE lessons, which is doubtless a worthy cause. But my own experience makes me feel I should champion the cause of greater nurturing and support for the potential of all students. Allow me to explain.

It is the first Wednesday of the new school year at an entirely fictional grammar school in the late 1990s. 121 new boys, drawn from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and primary schools, are assembled in their arbitrarily-assigned form groups on a rugby pitch, wearing brand new and slightly-too-big rugby shirts, shorts, socks, boots and gum shields still fresh from the previous night’s moulding. A large crowd of teachers – all male, all impossibly tall and broad compared to their 11 year old charges – are corralling boys into groups and starting simple drills laid out in squares; passing, dodging, running, you know the sort.

Within a few moments it is apparent who has played rugby before. Not long after that it is clear who is a natural sportsman and is adapting skills from football or other pursuits. It is also clear who is far, far out of their comfort zone. Perhaps 70 boys are caught between these two extremes.

The following Wednesday, 121 boys are assembled on the rugby pitch again but this time in groups according to ability, which had been published on a noticeboard earlier in the week. Group 1 have important training to do – it is only a few days until the first U12 clash of the season, against another entirely fictional grammar school. Luckily they have all played rugby before and are raring to go. Group 2 likewise, as there will be a B team and probably a C team fielded for the same fixture. Some of them have some learning to do, but are fast movers and eager to pick up new skills. Groups 3 and 4 are less frantic. Group 5 doesn’t have quite enough rugby balls to complete their basic drills, and their training is naturally progressing a little slower. Group 6 are not allowed to practise full contact yet.

Fast forward seven years and it is the end of the season. The first XV, a group of strapping 17 and 18-year-olds who have recently discovered shaving, are celebrating a handsome win. They reminisce about the day they met on the rugby pitch in their second week at school. As you might have guessed, all but one or two were assigned to Group 1. The head coach pats himself on the back for having so quickly and efficiently made his selections in the last millennium.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Is the coach a visionary, a genius who can pinpoint future potential from 121 children in a matter of minutes, and therefore make most efficient use of his valuable coaching capacity over the coming years? Or is he a man of tunnel vision, who focussed on a core of 20 or 30 boys for the best part of a decade, never thinking to source and nurture talent from a pool of the other hundred?

My point is not that the other hundred were ignored because of their lack of rugby prowess – many other sports were on offer. But it will not surprise you that those same 20 or 30 sporty boys tended to also feature in starting squads in cricket, basketball and athletics – with just a few notable exceptions added to the mix. They developed relationships with the coaches and PE teachers - it was only natural that they should be called on to represent their entirely fictional school in other sports.  I used to be baffled as to how people got into teams. When were decisions made? Who should I talk to if I wanted to be considered? Was it already too late to ever get an opportunity? I fictionally discovered that one of my fictional friends at this fictional school had an hour's one-to-one coaching with the head of games every Friday night, to perfect his technique at the hammer throw. I had no idea how this came about, but I felt with total conviction that there would be no way I could access anything similar. Was my haphazard performance at my first ever rugby lesson to blame?

A few years after that first Wednesday, the winter sports options list expanded. There was tennis, judo, hockey, golf and probably some others I've forgotten, most either lightly-supervised or run by external coaches. I stuck with rugby because I enjoyed it, and thought I was reasonably good at it - perhaps a mistake as I could have taken the opportunity of a blank slate. Our sporting trajectories were now firmly set, with many still wanting for any individual attention or support to develop their athletic potential, even if some of them genuinely still harboured a desire to succeed. In this category you would have found me: a slightly-above-average rugby player, perhaps decent runner, reasonably competent with a tennis racket and vaguely committed to tae kwon-do outside of school, but never a star at anything. And staying that way.

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about.
I don’t want this post to sound like a rant or a complaint. Far from it. In rereading it I sound petty and jealous, which if I ever was then I certainly am not now. What I am is filled with regret that I didn’t do something – anything – to attract a PE teacher’s attention, although now I think about it that would have been difficult. Having been set on the path of mediocrity at the age of 11, and finding myself in low-ranked lessons, my ‘coaches’ were spare members of staff whose role was little more than to crowd-control these groups –teachers with little or no training in sport science or coaching. How are children with little or no previous sporting experience supposed to realise their potential if they are given the least-talented staff, the duff old equipment and a dozen other signs that they are only participating in sport because it is a government requirement? A useful analogy would be to transpose this situation onto any other subject: imagine for instance that the most promising English students are coached for debating tournaments and short story competitions by the head of the department, an Oxbridge graduate with decades of experience, whilst those struggling with the subject are given battered copies of Harry Potter to read under the supervision of a spare art teacher. There would be uproar. And rightly so, as no-one could justify those extra-curricular activities for the few draining mainstream resources away from the many. The same is true, I put it, for competitive sports training during school hours.

Don't believe me? Here are some examples:

  • My ‘recreational rugby’ sessions were run and refereed by a man (whom I deeply respect as a teacher) who often made shocking decisions because he couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game. If a breakaway run didn’t suit his capacity to give chase and perhaps award a resultant try, he would call a knock-on or offside to bring the game back to where he was standing.
  • My sixth-form swimming sessions were entirely unsupervised – we were not improving our skills in the sport or targeting progress or even measuring activity, but rather splashing about as if visiting a pool on an idle Saturday afternoon.
  • Cross-country squads – to my recollection - were chosen by a simple race of all 120-odd boys at the start of the season. One year I finished 20th, a position that got me an invitation to a whole-school handicap race the following week. I had no training or advice or guidance of what to expect. I finished somewhere in the anonymous middle of the pack, having started the race eyeballs-out and faded quickly, not even knowing what distance it was or how long I should expect to be running for. That was it – I was clearly not a runner, and was forgotten about as I did not merit further attention. In retrospect, after five marathons of varying pedigree, an arduous ultra, a few decent PBs, a University vest and thousands of miles on my trainers otherwise, I dare to disagree. 

I understand that my school (any resemblance to this entirely fictional school is completely coincidental) is one of the better-respected of its kind for sports provision.

So yes, by all means, encourage girls to participate in PE lessons. But for goodness’ sake – don’t limit any child’s potential to succeed through laziness, favouritism or a resource or staff deficit. Think of all the talent being wasted, all the confidence-boosting, self-esteem raising opportunity that sporting success could offer.

All this campaign needs is a snappy name and a celebrity endorsement, but for now we'll stick with 'Pay attention! I might not be completely crap!' and, for what it's worth, the endorsement of my intense and faintly vitriolic regret.

Happy running


2013 to date: miles run - , races: 5 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 47, metres swum: 1300