Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Run for the hills!

‘Warning: 5% Battery Remaining’. Oh, shit.

I am several miles from the nearest human, over a thousand feet above sea level and have no food, no water and no map. Soon I will have no phone either, which to be honest is largely irrelevant as I have no signal. I am dressed in running shorts and a T-shirt, with my ordinary road shoes on – probably two miles from the nearest road. It looks like it’s going to rain. The sheep are laughing at me, and with good reason.

Rewind a few days and the root of this madness might become apparent. I was delighted to be invited down to a house in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish Borders, for a long weekend of eating, drinking, countryside appreciation and, quite explicitly, running. Our host, a gentleman of Yorkshire extraction who has previously made me run with whisky demons and made major demands on my race schedule, was envisioning a group of a dozen guests having a jolly time, of whom quite a few would be up for a wee jog, including himself. We were to celebrate his 25th birthday.

We were good at eating. We were excellent at drinking. We were exemplary at banter. But the running element came under threat almost immediately. The night before the pre-determined Saturday morning run our esteemed host, giddy with birthday excitement, managed to smash up his knee during an altercation with a skip and some rocks. At 6am the following morning one of the running party laced up her trainers and headed off solo, several hours before the rest of the team regained consciousness. This left just three of us still keen for a run; ‘Aye Aye’ Jenny Mackay – queen of the Kilomathon, veteran of the London Marathon and regular Great North Runner, Roger ‘Shades’ Thornton, who rows a lot and owns a pair of trainers, and yours truly, keen for some miles and fresh air. We were all very hungover.

We head out in search of a rumoured farm track which promised lovely views, some lambs to look at and a nice, easy-to follow route.  Nobody mentioned that it was quite so spectacularly uphill, pitched at an angle that a ski jumper might have baulked at.  What we then did looked like running, but was really just a little faster than walking. In fact, before long, it was walking. But the further we climbed uphill, ‘adopting a run-walk strategy’, the more amazing the views became. A warm breeze cooled our struggling bodies, and soon the track gave way to a ruined, ancient road running alongside a dry-stone wall. The terrain evened out and the flocks of newborn lambs became more spread out. We were a thousand feet in the sky, with a staggering view in every direction.

The rumoured farm track. This is the best condition it was in.

It was wonderful. I was over the moon.

But Jenny and Roger had had enough. They insisted that their usual training routine in Cambridge had not prepared them for these hills. No-one in Cambridge has even heard of hills, apparently. We agree to part ways – I need to run a little further, and they intend to turn tail back towards the house, to make full use of the downhill reward they’ve earned for all their hard work on the way up. I fail to notice that my phone is dying, I have no water,  no watch and no clue.

Once I finally stop climbing at 1053 feet above sea level, (having ascended 569 feet in 1.4 miles), I reach a signposted crossroads. I know for sure that the English border isn't actually that far from here, if only it weren't for the ridiculous hills in the way. I have a rough idea that if I make it to the border there'll be a nice road to follow back - again, if only I knew which direction to head in. I choose one direction, but have to turn back before long as the track peters out, reclaimed by the wilderness. Back to the crossroads.

So I take the other option - downhill. I am descending into the neighbouring valley, away from the way I came. And by descending, I mean falling, fast, trying to make my legs keep up with the momentum imposed by gravity, that wily old dog. At the bottom of the valley I reach two ruined cottages, a tiny stream, and a minuscule bridge. It's all very lovely, but I have a 200 foot climb followed by a 500 foot drop before I make it home. On my own. 

‘Warning: 5% Battery Remaining’. Oh, that again.

The track has deteriorated somewhat...
But somehow this is brilliant. The warm breeze is still lovely. The silence is absolute - I haven't brought my headphones. The solitude is immense, and the view is fantastic. I love everything about it. Much as this situation isn't ideal from a safety perspective, there's something primal about being alone in the middle of nowhere, relying on my own two feet to get me home. About being completely alone in the hills.

As you might have guessed, I do eventually make it home. The straight-line distance is just 3.55 miles, but it has taken me over 45 minutes to go the distance. The RunKeeper record of this jaunt is a bit dubious as I had to manually enter the last section after my phone died. But what this has taught me is the running isn't always about numbers and stats - this run was about me, mostly on my own, conquering whole valleys with just my two feet. I bloody love running.

Happy adventuring.


2011 to date - miles: 386.41, parkruns: 4, races: 2, miles biked: 12.85

P.S. Happy Birthday Ben, you lovely man.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Marathon Madness

The weekend just passed saw records tumble at two of the World Marathon Majors; London and Boston, with tens of thousands of finishers between them demonstrating that marathon running is alive, well, and awesome.  Rather than rehash what better men and women have written about the two events, I thought I would highlight a few of my favourite stories from the two races and point you to others’ work on the topics:

Men’s course record smashed at London – Emmanuel Mutai of Kenya won the London Marathon for the men in a new personal best and course record of 2:04:40.  Mutai has been the perennial runner-up, having recorded numerous finishes just off the top spot at major races. London 2011 was his day to break out of that routine and step up to the world stage. He even adopted my Alloa tactic and chundered all over the finish line. Nice one, Emmanuel.

Martin Lel ran the most exciting second-placed race ever – Lel was only added to the London field a few weeks ago after Sammy Wainjiru dropped out with an injury, but pulled off an amazing performance to steal second place from Patrick Makau with just yards to go. Both recorded a time of 2:05:45. If you believe in such things, this was a clear example of Lel deciding to come second and Makau deciding to finish third. Lel has won in London three times already.

Mutai, Lel and Makau completed a Kenyan one-two-three, the first clean sweep by any nation since Great Britain did it in 1985.

British women are really rather good in London – top quality debut performances from Jo Pavey (2:28) and Louise Damen (2:29), though Liz Yelling had a more difficult day (finishing in 2:41, 13 minutes off her PB). Louise and Jo have both qualified for the world championships in South Korea this summer and next year’s Olympics. Mara Yamauchi was out with injury and Paul Radcliffe will be making a return to marathoning in the autumn, probably at Chicago or Berlin.

British men are only quite good in London – Scotland’s Andrew Lemoncello (born in Japan, has an American father, lives and trains in Arizona, but is half Scottish and grew up in St Andrews so represents GB, good times) faded and ran a painful race to finish in 2:15, missing his 2:12 target to meet the Olympic qualifying ‘A’ standard, and finishing 15th compared to 8th last year.  Guernsey’s Lee Merrien busted out a personal best of 2:14 to finish as first Briton and is on track to improve further. Both met the ‘B’ standard for the world championships and the London Olympics, which means they have qualified for the team events but not the individual competition. Sad times.

Two fairly ordinary blokes ran the Paris marathon, then ran to London, then ran the London marathon. Legends. Their website features a great and very detailed blog, as well as photos and maps and the like. I quite fancy this challenge for a future year, anybody else keen? Not sure I could step up to the gruelling pace these guys set, but who knows?

The usual round-up of ridiculous Guinness World Record attempts this year included a bloke in a gas mask, several fairies, a marching band, a married couple, an astronaut, several fruits and a Viking, among others. The most impressive is the fastest, David Stone's superhero record of 2:42:46 dressed as Superman. This isn't just the usual - where you find a record no-one has attempted and trot off a leisurely time - this is tackling an already-fast mark (3:01, Batman at London 2010), and smashing it. A cracking effort.

Two fairly ordinary people ran the London marathon, then hopped on a plane to the US, then ran the Boston Marathon the following day. Now that is amazing. Which brings me neatly on to:

Fastest marathon ever is run at Boston 2011, in an outrageous 2:03:02 by Geoffrey Mutai. Second place is Moses Mosop, finishing his first ever marathon in 2:03:06! Haile Gebresalassie’s world record of 2:03:59 (Berlin 2008) is safe, however, as Boston has too great a net downhill and the 20mph tailwind will have had an unduly generous effect, so this time doesn’t qualify. But absolutely amazing nonetheless. The dream of a sub-2 hour marathon is still alive, no doubt about it.

Ryan Hall breaks the American record at Boston with 2:04:58, and actually is probably responsible for Mutai’s amazing time as he pushed the pace for the entire race. American running is back on track, and Hall is probably the only man in the world right now who can step up next to the East Africans. Nice one, Ryan.

Speaking of East Africans, London and Boston's men's and women's races were all won by Kenyans. In the men's races, the two podiums were claimed by five Kenyans...and an Ethiopian. Amazing stuff.

In less world-shaking news, I've had a fairly turbulent running week, which I'll write up in the next few days. Stay tuned.

Happy running


2011 to date - miles: 362.1, parkruns: 4, races: 2, miles biked: 12.85

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Race Report - Brighton Marathon 2010

Second in my series of historic race reports (after the Paris Marathon 2009 report), I thought I'd publish my report on the Brighton Marathon from my experiences last year...

'Do not run if you have been unwell'. 'You should not engage in any strenuous exercise until your chest pain has completely subsided'. 'Running with a serious cough is extremely ill-advised'. Being as I am very sensible, I followed this advice to the letter for the two days before the Brighton Marathon. The day itself, however, I didn't entirely do as I was told...

The race's first challenge was getting to the damn thing. After the Icelandic nonsense my flight was very cancelled, so I shelled out for return train tickets instead and squeezed myself into a packed train from Edinburgh Waverley to Sevenoaks, where I met Nick and made it home to Hollycroft late on Friday night. Dad wasn't so lucky, being as he was stuck in Delhi, eventually making it back to Sevenoaks via Dubai, Cairo, Madrid, Brussels and Ebbsfleet. So sadly he missed the fun in Brighton and Nick was promoted to the 6.30am chauffeur duty on Sunday.

Saturday was a familial and friend-filled day where everyone had too much to drink, except me as my 6 week teetotalling has been very strictly observed, to do otherwise the night before the marathon probably wouldn't have been advisable. My way-hardcore triathlete buddies Liz and Chris popped in to swap race-day plans, though not at the same time... Early to bed on Saturday night, having done my race-day prep led to a light and troubled sleep.

Early to rise on Sunday for a shower (warms the muscles), bowl of porridge (slow-release energy) and my usual glass of Berocca (fizzy things are fun). After wrestling some helium balloons into the car Nick and I set off around 6.30 to head for Brighton... 

After getting slightly lost, taking a devious short-cut and hopping on one of the Park&Ride buses, Nick and I made it to the start line, where the very charming Alex Boyd showed up, much to my delight. He ran Brighton as his first marathon and did extremely well (the overachieving git - love you Alex!). Shortly after bumping into Alex I met one of my heroes, Rosie Swale Pope, who was running Brighton as part of her 26 marathons in 26 days challenge, towing behind her a trailer which she stays in every night of the challenge. See her website/blog/fb page for details. I was very unimpressively star struck and didn't manage much conversation other than to ask to shake her hand.

Alex preparing to beat me quite convincingly.
Alex and I joined the start line at a fairly random point, but as the corral was so thin and long it moved very slowly, it took us a good 15 minutes just to cross the start line where the rather uncharismatic Steve Ovett was toting his starter's pistol. (All I wanted was a high-5...) The first few miles were an absolute delight. Running around central Brighton, through the beautiful lanes, past the Pavilion and the incredible Regency buildings in the blazing sunshine with a few thousand friends was just excellent. Running with a balloon pinned to my back so as Nick could see me, I rather annoyed a few folk as I overtook in tight spots, but as a result Nick got loads of great photos. The boy really is skilled in marathon supporting... In these few miles I probably overtook about 2000 people, including people walking within the first mile, 'Mr Testicles', a pair of breasts, some army chaps carrying full packs, a fireman with a heavy cylinder on his back, and SpongeBob SquarePants. Having run a marathon in Paris the previous year, where charity and fun runners are relatively unheard of, this was a great and very cheerful experience.

After around 5 or 6 miles the course turned out of the city and onto the seafront, heading east past Roedean school and on through Ovingdean village and school. Up to mile 8 and again from 9-11 were steady hills, which slowed a lot of people down, but having trained on Edinburgh's seven hills I'm used to this kind of terrain and actually enjoy running uphill (this is Alex Gnanapragasm's fault...). An arbitrary turnaround point had us going back downhill towards the city again, a proper milestone as I knew that Nick, Mum, Tor and Erin were planning on being somewhere around the halfway point. In the event, having overtaken an Indian chief, I passed Nick again where he did his pit-stop duty impeccably and I picked up more energy gels. In the end I think I had 8 of them. Good stuff. The halfway point was very close to the eventual finish line, and the crowds were really excellent in the city centre (though just a hint of what was to come!). Just after this point I saw the eventual winner steaming past in the opposite direction at least a mile ahead of his competition; the Mongolian national champion finished in around 2:18 - not world class, but pretty damn quick.

At this point the course turns back inland and does a fairly tedious out-and-back along one residential road, with runners 2-3 miles ahead of us coming back in the opposite direction, which was a little dispiriting. But the crowds were still good and I was still overtaking people, though not at the rate I was earlier in the race. After the turnaround my blisters were starting to really cause me trouble, and just after mile 16 the inevitable happened, and the biggest one - about the size and shape of half a digestive biscuit - burst, and I ran the next 10 miles in a puddle of my own blood and pus. Nice.

Having run through the out-and-back loop, I made it back into the city centre briefly before heading out west towards Hove. As the miles add up and the day gets hotter, this is where the race starts to take its toll. Suddenly there are as many people running as walking, and by mile 18 it's as if I'm running through the set of a zombie film. Brighton seems to have been a popular race for beginners, and it's around this point that you can see who hasn't experienced this distance before... Been there! Sympathy vibes and enthusiastic words were exchanged before I got on with it and ploughed onwards.

Miles 19 - 23 were a loop through an industrial estate and power station. Novel, certainly, and elements were even picturesque. An arch formed by a huge digger was a great addition. At this point, of course, one hits the wall, but in Brighton one runs through it - yes, they really did set up a wooden wall painted as if it were brick. Witty at first, then so preposterously dispiriting as to come full circle and be funny again. By now I was in trouble. The blisters were raw and getting worse, as if I were running on a cheese grater. My tired legs were complaining and even my arms were getting tired, with pins and needles taking their toll at various points. Then the cramp. Just as in Paris last year, a huge, debilitating cramp shot up my left thigh, forcing an involuntary guttural shout and slowing me to a brisk walk for a minute or so. Once I started running again I knew it was only a matter of time before the right one did the same thing. When it did, just after mile 23, I had just about reached the seafront and the crowded area again, and my involuntary shout surprised and visibly troubled some spectators. When I shouted again and restarted running at a faster pace they cheered, though, which was charming.

By now the crowds were getting bigger with every step and they carried me over the last few miles. Having run the whole race at a deliberately conservative 9 minute/mile pace, hoping to sneak in under 4 hours without aggravating my chest problems, I was now down to around 10-11 minute miles and saw the magic 4 hour mark slip away. No matter - as I neared the city the crowd's shouts were more and more enthusing, and when I finally did see Mum, Erin, Tori and Nick around mile 25, only for Nick to sprint off ahead of me, I knew I would pick up the pace a little for the last few hundred yards. Nick's figure in the distance, weaving in and out of crowds, at least gave me something to focus on, even if I was struggling to keep up with him...

800 metres to go, 400 metres to go, 200 metres to go, Finish. Handsome medal, banana, goody-bag, t-shirt, foil wrap, hug from Nick. A brief patching up from the wonderful people at St John's Ambulance helped my ruined feet a little, and then it was all over bar a picnic on the beach and a leisurely journey home.

Just about to finish
Despite receiving a text from the organisers saying my time was 4:03:20, the results published on the Monday and my watch disagreed and put my time at 4:05:24, which I've decided to settle on. I'm happy with that, and I know I'll do better next time.

Enormous thanks to Mum, Dad (in absentia), Nick, Tori, Erin, Alex, Rosie, Mr Testicles and Linds for tolerating Sundays dominated by running.

Happy racing


2011 to date - miles: 338.8, parkruns: 4, races: 2, miles biked: 12.85

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Pedestrians and other animals

I heard recently of a pilot scheme in one of London’s bigger parks which would introduce ‘jogging lanes’ alongside the existing cycle lanes which criss-cross the greenery.  The suggestion was met with derision, outcry, mockery, confusion, exasperation and other forms of half-arsed middle-class protest about things which don’t really matter. Cue sarcastic letter to the Editor of the Times, a few column inches in cycling and running publications, and eventually things quietening down irrelevant of the eventual outcome.

But why would anyone think this was a sensible use of the precious taxpayer pennies, when there are perfectly good wars and public sector bonuses we could spending them on? Why can’t runners just share pavements and footpaths with the rest of the bipedal population?

I’ll tell you why. Because no brain activity has ever been recorded in any pedestrian in the moments before, during or immediately after they are passed by a runner. Pedestrians become jibbering wrecks, incapable of processing any decision-making thought processes at the time of interacting with a runner.

They see us coming, and they panic.

Should they step aside, and if so, which side? Should they try to speed up to avoid the looming bottleneck, or slow down, or stop entirely? Maybe they should do nothing at all and steadfastly continue on their trajectory of doom (yes, this is definitely the best bet), because the runner, as a second-class citizen, won’t mind being forced into the road to tango with oncoming traffic.  Or how about a snide and hilarious comment to accompany the encounter, just to let me know how annoying it is that you had to move half an inch to accommodate another human being? That would be brilliant, thanks.

Worse still, they don’t see me coming – I’m stuck behind them, trying to overtake. I politely say ‘excuse me’, and they scream in surprise, run around in circles, or completely ignore me. My pace is reduced to zero, and after having been forced into the road again, I sprint off into the distance, eager to thoroughly demonstrate the difference between a lazy pedestrian and a ground-pounding runner.  This makes me tired and grumpy. I go back to punch the pedestrian in the face, but he’s still spinning in circles so I leave him to it.

Beware; runners. 
Large groups produce even more unusual behaviour. Their brain waves not only shut down unilaterally, but also force the group to lock on to one another like a shoal of fish, moving, as one, in the most inconvenient direction imaginable.  Sometimes this forces a large group to continue occupying every inch of available space, making overtaking impossible without a tight squeeze or a rendition of the bus-lane tango.

Even people who weren’t previously together are spontaneously unified in their mission to make me stop or slow down. Are they being controlled by the dark forces of some anti-running supervillain? If they are then he’s doing a bloody good job. On special occasions the messages get crossed, and the well-meaning individuals will leap in opposite directions to get out of the way, creating no net difference in their human barrier but providing a charmingly symmetrical example of the good-intentioned-but-poorly-executed double leap. Unless this is another supervillain trick, in which case he’s even more dastardly than I first thought.

Then there are the dogs. I think it’s probably lovely to take a dog for a long rambling walk in the countryside, where you can let him off the lead and think beautiful thoughts about nature and clouds and the special relationship between a man and his hound. But is your dog reliable and well-mannered? Or is she actually really lovely when you get to know her, but sometimes gets a little bit bitey around new people, particularly new people moving at speed? The bitey one? Thought so. The problem with the rambling walk in the countryside is that there are other people in the countryside, and unless your dog is extremely well-connected, many of them are likely to be unfamiliar. This will come as a shock, I know. Sorry.

My local running club out for a quick jog/snack
 So when your dog runs headlong at me; a slobbering, barking, 2 ½ tonne juggernaut that looks like a cross between a pitbull and a Mk2 Challenger Tank, maybe you could take half a second to consider investing in a lead, before, perhaps, calling her off? Oh, she doesn’t come when you call? I see. That must be because you’re such a responsible dog owner and she’s such a sweetie that you didn’t think training was important. Oh well. Never mind, I don’t use my lower legs very much anyway.

What I’m getting at here is that I am a road user, a footpath user and a real live human being. I’m not a nuisance in hi-viz seeking to deliberately inconvenience you, delay your journey or deprive your dog of a tasty ankle-bone treat. I'm just a guy out for a run. 

Jogging lanes? Yes please.

Happy running


2011 to date - miles: 316.41, parkruns: 4, races: 2, miles biked: 12.85