Thursday, 13 December 2012

My Major headache

One of my wildly overambitious running goals recently became even more ambitious.

Like many runners, I identified that I would love to complete all five of the World Marathon Majors, a group of five international races which form a two-year rolling competition: London, New York, Chicago, Boston and Berlin. For elite athletes, there is a huge prize pot for those who score highest across the races during the two years; this in addition to the prizes awarded at each individual race. For the rest of us, the Majors represent the biggest, the best, the most prestigious marathons in the world and just completing them would be a fantastic accomplishment. 132 of the world’s greatest miles on just five (admittedly non-consecutive) days.

But yet another layer of difficulty has just been added to the challenge by the introduction of a sixth Major: Tokyo. We’re up to 158.2 miles in six days. The accomplishment of running six marathons is one thing, but getting to the start line of these races is the real headache. The original five majors are fiendishly difficult and/or frighteningly expensive to get into as a non-elite runner, and Tokyo will be no exception. Let’s investigate…

London – Access is relatively easy if you’re prepared and able to raise the minimum £1,600 typically asked for a charity place, but for those of us less confident in achieving such figures, the prospects are fairly bleak. The ballot for general entry takes over 100,000 applications every year, for an undisclosed number of places which must be well below 10,000. I have been rejected four times, and my place in the 2013 race was guaranteed only by a well-placed phone call. More info to follow…

New York City – Again, those with the dollars can get in with relative ease. Companies like Sports Tours International and 2:06 Events usually offer packages for the weekend – indeed as a non-US runner this is pretty much the only means of getting a place. You can search for yourself, but I think you’ll struggle to find a package that will leave you much change from £1,200. The race entry component of that fee is around £300.

Chicago – general entry, but a lightning-fast sellout.

Boston – runners require an age-related qualifying time from a previous marathon, which for me would be sub-3:10. In reality to guarantee entry I would need a sub-3:00 marathon, as faster runners are given priority. This of course is part of the race’s appeal, but means I will most likely be doing Boston as my last Major, if at all.

Berlin – general entry, but again sells out in a matter of minutes.

Which leaves Tokyo. A new Major, in fact a very new marathon only established as a mass-participation event in 2008. Staggeringly, the organisers receive 300,000 applications to run every year (which will only increase) and are able to offer ‘only’ 36,000 places.

So if you, like me, fancy collecting medals from each of the - now six - World Marathon Majors, I would start saving (for entry and plane fares), start crossing your fingers and start running really, really fast…

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 448.3, miles biked - 106.1, metres swum - 3950, surfing hours - 2, races - 5

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Race Report - Glasgow MoRun 2012

Having registered for the Glasgow MoRun 10k on a whim, in a hurry and unimpeded by the Crew Chief’s appeals for logic and sanity when designing my calendar, I approached the whole business with a certain reckless enthusiasm and revelling in the timeless ‘ignorance is bliss’ maxim. So much so that I had overlooked the need for a disastrously early start, the unimaginative two-lap course design or that most heinous of race-organisers’ crimes: a finishers’ T-shirt that you have to pay for separately…

But we had paid up and made a plan, and so it was that the Crew Chief and I left our lovely warm flat in Edinburgh at 8am to hit the motorway, picking up the usual troublemakers Neil ‘4:33’ Gray and his own Crew Chief Karlie. With absolutely no mishaps to do with multi-storey car parks, green buttons, slip roads or traffic lights, we made it to Glasgow with an embarrassingly large amount of time to spare, luxurious Mo’s adorning our faces as we wandered around the chilly Saturday morning bustle of the city.

Arriving at Glasgow Green and spotting the event village not far off, a marshall asked us if we were here for the race. Dressed in our running gear and with large painted moustaches smeared on our faces, I decided to humorously say ‘no’, which went down like a lead balloon. After a brief lecture we were pointed to the fairly obvious event village, and meandered over to register.
Ready for the off.

Being achingly early, we had plenty of time to pin on our race numbers (which had a space to write your ‘Mo Name’ – we chose Dave and Neil because we are boring), watch other runners arrive in a variety of ill-thought-out costumes, and above all, get very cold. When the time at last came for the ubiquitous mass warm-up, a fairly sizable crowd of runners and supporters had assembled and the mood was buoyant and light-hearted, but this did nothing to warm the morning's bitter temperatures. Neil and I participated in the mass warm-up with our hands firmly wedged in our pockets.

The 5k race took off ten  minutes before our 10k – a ragtag bunch of runners in lycras mixed in with people dressed as Mario, Scooby Doo and dozens of others. Almost everyone sported a Mo – real or otherwise – and this includes the large number of women and children in the race. It was an impressive sight.

Ten minutes later it was our own turn, and we finally relinquished our tracksuit bottoms to reveal running shorts and freezing knees underneath… We were a little slow off the mark to get lined up, meaning that we found ourselves some way down the pack, which proved a significant issue with early bottlenecking. Although we had no loftier aspirations than to trot round in under 50 minutes, Neil and I are terrible together when it comes to competition, and we gleefully picked off swathes of runners as we worked our way towards the front of the race. Just as with my Edinburgh Christmas Run in 2010, I had a feeling that this was closer to a fun run than a race, and we risked doing embarrassingly well in terms of rankings for our quite average pace.

So the goal was upgraded – we would aim for steady kilometres between 4:30 and 4:45. Which, as with most of our goals, failed miserably.

Our first k was the slowest at five minutes dead - we spent the entirety of it jostling for position and squeezing through tiny gaps on a narrow course. Shortly after clocking such a disappointing opener we overtook some of the Crew Chief's colleagues - a pair of female ultramarathoners whose running CVs were a bit intimidating. We were genuinely worried that they might beat us over the course, and spent the rest of the race nervously looking over our shoulders in case they were catching us... But otherwise we got our heads down and ploughed on, overtaking most of the costumed fundraisers as we found a comfortable pace towards the front of the pack. 

The course winds its way around the roads and footpaths in Glasgow Green, including a lengthy out-and-back along the Clyde, where various rowing clubs were preparing for what looked like a large scale race. In Glasgow of all places. Our own racing instincts were hampered and confused, however, as we fairly swiftly caught the back of the 5k race and found ourselves mixed in with slower fun runners, once again restarting our overtaking mission. Nonetheless we managed to crank out some faster kilometres, gradually speeding up  until we were regularly producing km's between 4:30 and 4:40.

We saw the leaders ahead of us as they switched back after 3k. Two club runners jostled for position, though third place was a good minute or so behind them. We are not talking about a serious race here - more a fun run that a few decent runners had rocked up to for a laugh. As frustrating as it was for us to weave between Mario and Luigi, it must have been incredibly annoying for them.

5km rolled around in a flash as we looped the event village. Despite the ten minute lead afforded to the shorter race, Neil and I would probably have placed quite well in the 5k, as a steady stream of funrunners were still finishing around this point. We peeled off to the right and looped an enormous obelisk to start our second lap, grimly realising that we only had three miles left in which to make something of this race.

The second lap was a change of tone. Due to some dodgy marshalling we overshot one of the turns early on which threw us a little, and when we did find the right path we found ourselves now running against the flow of most runners - 5 and 10k alike. Though this was a sign that we were placing reasonably well, it was a major hindrance to finding a rhythm... 

Sprinting to stay ahead of the woman
overtaking on Neil's right shoulder...
After the second out-and-back our conversation waned entirely. We were accelerating with every passing km, playing cat and mouse with a few individuals who had dared to overtake us. When our respective wives came into view with 2k to go, toting cameras and waving, we could summon little but a grimaced smile. I am sparing you from reproducing that photo. Things were starting to fall apart in that exciting way they do at the end of a short race. Neil told me to go on ahead if I felt like it. I did not feel like it.

Amazingly, we were still overtaking slow 5k runners.

With less than a km to go we grunted an agreement that there would be no competitive sprint finish. We were too tired and feeling too rough for that kind of nonsense. As we entered the final straight, however, a preened and comfortable-looking woman made to overtake us, and like chauvinistic idiots, we cranked up an inevitable sprint for the line. Thinking we may as well go for it, we overtook a couple of other runners too, almost knocking one chap down as we crossed the line. Feel a bit bad about that. 

I had forgotten to stop my watch at the finish, so we queued to get our result from a tent full of timing equipment. When our turn eventually rolled around, we were delighted to discover a self-service computer with a keypad - just key in your race number and it prints a receipt showing your time and position. What a great idea. It wasn't until some days later, however, that we realised that it printed gun time and not chip time, which means we were pleased to upgrade our results from 47:24 to 46:49, and our positions improved by one each. The final results gave us exactly the same time, but for some reason assigned me 49th place and Neil 50th. Can't complain...

A cool idea. Shame it doesn't specify that this is gun time, though.
Now I've said this before, but that probably is it for me in terms of racing in 2012. This was fun - and after some much lengthier goals have been accomplished in 2013 I think I'll revisit the 10k and try to train for it specifically . It would be nice to get a sub-40 run on my PB list...

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 417.5, miles biked - 79.2, metres swum - 3950, races - 5

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A most profitable run

Last night I had a plan to go for a run with almost-elite athlete and total jobbyhead Megan Crawford. Megan is an awful lot faster than me and tougher than a pile of tough things tied together with iron chains of toughness, so whenever I can I like to think of a way to slow down our runs so as to save my lungs from exploding. Luckily last night I had a truly excellent idea indeed.

If you’re a whisky fan, you will already know about Jura, an island on the west coast of Scotland with a population of 200 and a major export industry of incredible whiskies. If you’re a whisky fan on Twitter you can follow them on @jura_whisky. This week they’ve started a competition to promote their ‘Superstition’ bottling, a beautiful single malt full of peat - surprisingly smooth and one of my favourites. Jura’s Twitter people hid a number of ‘lucky pennies’ in Edinburgh since, as you know, if you see a lucky penny, and pick it up, then all day long you’ll have good luck. In this case, you win a bottle of Superstition. Jura’s Twitter feed and the hashtag #JuraPennies gave clues as to their locations - first one to find the penny wins the whisky. Simples.

Around lunchtime and early afternoon, three clues went up on Twitter. By the time I left work around 5pm, one penny had already been found, and my heart sank. Surely the others would be gone well before I was meeting Megan at 6.30pm? I sat at home and fretted.

Undeterred, when the time rolled around I explained the plan to Megan, and though quite reasonably confused and slightly suspicious, she agreed to the hunt. Here’s the first clue we pursued:

So near something called Thomas on Princes Street. With no time to lose, we ran straight there, me trying to explain the wider context of the marketing campaign as we went, though most of our conversation revolved elsewhere. Such was our distraction, that by the time we reached Princes Street I felt a little silly for dragging Megan up here, where there’s loads of traffic and plenty of interruptions to running, which is what she actually wanted from the evening. Pressure to find the penny mounted.

We jogged passed a few of the imposing statues on the south side of the street, looking for anyone called Thomas. We settled on Thomas Guthrie, whose statue sat inside Princes Street Gardens but faced north towards the street. It being dark and late and windy and horrible, the gardens were locked. Without hesitation, we levered ourselves gingerly over the fence – though clearly not gingerly enough as one of the fence spikes went straight through my trainer and into the insole, poking me in the foot but causing no lasting damage. We looked nervously at each other once into the gardens, wondering if this was a tad ridiculous, and what on earth we would say to a groundskeeper or PC should they ask. Eager to move on, we started scouring around the base of the statue using the headtorch I’d brought for the purpose, but to no avail. Bringing Megan was a stroke of genius – she gamely rummaged through piles of leaves and clambered all over the statue feeling for hiding places, but still nothing. Things were looking bleak. We had trespassed on council property on a whim and had nothing to show for it. Hmm.

Just as I thought all was probably lost, I pulled out my phone to re-read the clue. ‘Take a seat to find your penny.’ That’s it! The penny must be under or near a seat! If you know Princes Street gardens and the general area, you will know that there are dozens of benches to hide things under, and we started the process of scouring all of them around the statue. Again having two of us to share the search was ideal. But still nothing.

Hopping carefully back over the fence (no puncture wounds this time) we crossed the road to try the benches which faced the statue, but again found only chewing gum mixed with disappointment. We agreed to give up on this clue and started thinking about the second, though we agreed to have a cursory look on the last few benches on the south side of the street before we left the area.

And we only ruddy well found the penny.

We leapt around like season-winning F1 drivers, confusing the commuters and drawing a load of mad looks. I held the penny aloft like Charlie (of Chocolate Factory fame) and we hastily read the rules on the packet. No doubt about it – we had won ourselves a bottle of Superstition.

But wait, only one? To share?

Five seconds later the penny was stowed in my pack and we were sprinting along Princes Street, heading up the Mound and onto the Castle Esplanade. We had tasted victory and we wanted more. The last unclaimed clue was as follows:

The side of the castle. Hmm. Have you seen Edinburgh Castle? It’s enormous and built on a volcano. It has more sides than you can shake a stick at, and even if you did you would need a stick that could shake at dozens of roads, footpaths, building, alleyways, a railway and plenty of other stuff. And a map? Like a tourist information board, perhaps? Again there are hundreds of those all over the centre of Edinburgh. This could take hours to find.

Running straight up to the castle and through a ghost tour (we probably looked dead and can only have added to the effect) we carefully toured the perimeter of the castle esplanade, looking for a map. In the near-total darkness, we convinced each other that many things were maps – memorial plaques, a guardsman’s hut, a blank wall. Megan even closely inspected a drain cover in case that turned out to be a map. But no joy. Returning to the top of the Royal Mile, we spotted the Scotch Whisky Experience, a visitor attraction all about whisky – and lo and behold it had a map of its many attractions displayed on the wall outside the building! This had to be it.

It wasn’t. We ran our fingers over every possible nook and cranny. We focussed on the phrase ‘lead to your penny’, thinking maybe that it could be hidden near something made of lead. We dismissed this idea. Eventually.

There are some stairs running down the south side of Castle Rock near the entrance to the esplanade, and I suggested we go down them looking for an info board or map, maybe somewhere towards the Grassmarket. Megan eventually agreed after I promised we could come back to the Scotch Whisky Experience and look again if we still couldn’t find it. We ran just a few steps down before coming across a black box, stood on a post on its own at the edge of the stairs. A box that dispensed something. A paper something. A tourist map kind-of-paper something. And taped underneath the box was only another ruddy penny! No doubt you got this hours ago, but here we were on some steps to the side of the castle, finding a map. Obvious when you know how. The ghost tour guide looked a bit miffed at our whooping and laughing and cheering, but we didn’t care. We had two pennies.

The pennies were safe but the night was young. We ran another four or five miles around Edinburgh, taking in a few little hills and chatting some more. When we got back to my flat we took photos, laughed at the madness of it all and sent tweets to Jura so we could claim our prizes. I tried to tempt Megan with a wee celebratory dram, but she took her penny home, probably for some sports supplements and stretching or whatever it is she does of an evening. I stared at the penny I was left with and laughed. What a wonderful and mad evening.

The competition continues throughout the UK as the Edinburgh competition is just the beginning – you should follow @jura_whisky and get your own paws on some tasty aqua vita. I strongly recommend running as a way to find your quarry. If nothing else, runners tend to know their cities inside out, and you may find the clues much easier than the competition will...

Happy running (and hunting!)


2012 to date: miles run - 402.8, miles biked - 73.2, metres swum - 3950, races - 4

Sunday, 4 November 2012

A change of pace

I have been lazy so far this year.

There's no denying it - even accounting for the hernia/oedema worries at the start of the year, even giving some leeway for the wrecked left ankle that has bothered me since summer, I have really not put in the hours or the miles this year. 2012 has been rather busy for the Crew Chief and me, between her finishing her Masters and starting a new job, us planning the wedding, me changing job, recently trying to buy a house, several other weddings, travel and work - I have found plenty of excuses to push running down my priority list. That said I have still managed respectable performances at some cool races like the Deerstalker and the Edinburgh RnR half, and though it nearly took me five hours I did also tick off my fifth lifetime marathon. But the mind and body have been weak. I could have done better.

Something has shifted my thinking and approach. I feel like I'm back in the groove. Maybe it's the exciting news about the Virgin London Marathon that I'm not sure I'm allowed to tell you about yet. Maybe it's the ever-shrinking gap between my PBs and those of my friends whom I have bullied into taking up the sport. Whatever it is, I am registering for races and making ambitious plans like they're going out of style. Here are a few:

Next weekend I'm having a bash at the MoRunning 10k in Glasgow with notorious Orcadian troublemaker Neil Gray. I registered for this race on a whim and while the Crew Chief was out of the house... I had just published my Survival of the Fittest race report on Facebook under the banner 'last race of the year' and felt a pang of sadness that the year was drawing to a close, so googled the date and venue that I wanted and found a race that fitted the bill. Ten minutes later they had my money and I was on the phone to Neil suggesting he should do the same. I haven't run a proper 10k since May 2010 so this will be interesting.

Shortly after that, the Crew Chief and I fly to Australia then New Zealand for our three-week honeymoon. There will have to be some running done there (and a race, if I can find one) so I can tick off my third running continent after Europe and North America.

Then next year rolls around, and in February I'll be back on Kentish soil for a half-marathon smackdown in Tunbridge Wells with (or possibly against) some rather dashing men whom I've known since we were 10 years old - a certain Matt 'Bathmat' Pritchard, Ed 'Naked Dash' Coughlan and Chris 'these guys call me Steve' Stevens. We have never really raced against each other before and it is going to be immense. Building up to this I have another idea; that I'd like to try and run at least a mile on every single day of 2013, completing a 365 day runstreak. Could be tricky.

Some other plans aside (more anon) it looks like 2013 will also be the year that I finally break the 26.2 barrier and run my first ultra. And if I'm already planning one marathon in spring and a multi-day ultra in summer, I may as well run another marathon in autumn, bringing my tally of marathon-plus races to nine (that ultra is more than a marathon on both of two consecutive days, so I'm counting it as two marathons). Plus, in the context of a changing hometown and job, I'm once again thinking of joining a running club and a gym. Watch this space.

Must dash, gotta run.


2012 to date: miles run - 392.9, miles biked - 73.2, metres swum - 3950, races - 4

Monday, 22 October 2012

Race Report - Survival of the Fittest (Edinburgh) 2012

After all that nonsense back in March at The Mighty Deerstalker, I approached the Men's Health Survival of the Fittest – run by the same company of hardcore athletes and escaped mental patients - with a much greater level of suspicion, a heftier training regime and several bucketloads more fear.  I wasn’t getting caught out by half an hour of surprise scree-climbing again, nor was I planning to leap into any rivers unprepared. This time I was going to do things properly.

To my utter astonishment, it appears to have paid off.

Venture Trust’s showing at Survival was pretty weak compared to the team we fielded at the Deerstalker. Whilst more than 20 VT types were up for the mud-eating hill-climbing mountain-scrambling nonsense down in Innerleithen, a mere half-dozen volunteered to test whether or not they were among ‘the fittest’ in Edinburgh. Perhaps the lack of sewage tunnels and mudbaths put people off? Weird. But we mustered nonetheless and donned traditional green VT warpaint, basing ourselves practically on top of the finish line in Princes Street gardens, basking in the glorious October weather – bright, crisp, clear and perfect for running – and distracting ourselves by the company of good friends and an excitable Labrador puppy.

Rubbing the VT puppy for luck.
Due to the narrow, twisty-turny course and the constraints of the obstacles we would be encountering, the race sets off its 3,000 competitors in ten waves of 300 people, arbitrarily assigned so as to minimise the potential for bottlenecking (something I had been darkly warned about by Survival veterans). We had randomly chosen wave 7, starting at 11.30 am, and thus had the pleasure of watching six other waves warm up and receive a pre-race briefing before walking to the start line on The Royal Mile. A little before we crowded round for our own briefing, the race winner appeared from the western end of Princes Street Gardens. Laden with muscles but covered in bruises and scrapes, as well as being completely soaked with water, this Herculean figure nimbly leapt up and over the 8-foot high, 3-foot deep wall that separated him from the finish line and his prizes. Second place was nowhere to be seen for some minutes to come, but when he did arrive he was snarling and lurching like a man possessed. The steam rising off his body was more testament to how hard he had worked than how cold it was. We looked at each other nervously. What on earth had we let ourselves in for?

Actually, I knew most of what we had let ourselves in for, and had trained appropriately. A full (and exact) 10km of running, interspersed with nonsense including monkey bars, cargo nets, almost endless staircases and at least a small quantity of mud and water. My training had been adjusted appropriately, regularly taking in some of the nastier staircases used on the course, and incorporating the adventure/assault course recently installed in Inverleith park. So when our time came for the longer-than-you-remember walk from the event’s finish line in the gardens up to its start line in front of St Giles’ Cathedral (which had services in progress, muting the starter’s pistol to a quiet clap), I was energised, excited, ready to tackle what was coming up.

I knew that speed was of the essence in the early kilometres, and happily jostled for position as I hurdled hay bales and barrelled down steep closes. Dodging traffic was to become a theme too, since none of the roads were closed, but before long I had already overcome the first km marker and was preparing mentally for Jacob’s Ladder. But those sneaky organisers had other ideas, and had set up the first obstacle section in a vacant lot immediately before the stairs. We carried heavy cones, heaved ourselves over pyramids of scaffolding, swung on monkey bars and otherwise navigated a pair of heavily-obstructed finger loops, before eventually being released to tackle the stairs.

They’re awful, no doubt about it. I’ve practised running them at least half a dozen times, and they really don’t get much easier. I wheezed my way to the top, clutching my exploding chest with one rugby-gloved hand and propelling myself onwards with the other. Round to the summit of Calton Hill my least favourite type of people awaited us: Army PT instructors. Here we moved some sandbags around (I was pleased to help but unsure whether there was a flood warning at the top of the hill – most confusing), launched on rope swings, scrambled over more cargo nets (can anyone explain what this is preparation for? How much modern warfare involves cargo nets? Are wars being fought on container ships?) and generally spoiled a stunning view of the city, sea, Fife and the Borders with the kind of nonsense you can only get from Rat Race events. I was having a ball.

Assault course finished, I flew back down Calton Hill, looking forward to the next challenge. I had caught the back of the previous wave by now, and was picking my way through slower runners, notably a group of approximately a hundred million women dressed in hessian sacks labelled ‘Hot Potatoes’ who were trying hard to stick together. Behind the Parliament and into Holyrood park, the course posed no more obstacles for another couple of km, as the real challenge involved picking one’s way up and through a muddy, hilly section that would have suited trail shoes much better than my knackered road Asics. But the reward was worth it – a huge waterslide, set up to launch you sideways into the next part of the race along the Innocent cyclepath.

What surprised me here was the amount of uninterrupted path to run on – for at least two kilometres this could just as well have been any other road race, although imaginatively designed to take in footpaths, a very long disused railway tunnel and some interesting parts of town. I picked off a few more groups and individuals in this section, hampered only slightly by some slightly rubbish obstacles that clearly were low on the priority list, being placed at the furthest outreaches of the course around 6-7k. I would regret these observations.

Because the next few sections were very, very tough. We moved along the Cowgate for just a few hundred metres before slowly slogging up another previously-unnoticed ancient close, popping out back on the Royal Mile.  An articulated lorry with its sides open stood blocking our progress, and the challenge here was to haul ourselves off the road and into the lorry and back down over the other side. Three times. For me this was – by far – the toughest obstacle on the course, and it left me drained and aching. The merciful downhill back to the Cowgate came as some relief as I tend to recharge on the run, and I hit the Grassmarket flying, weaving in and out between groups of tourists. At the far end of the Grassmarket I barrelled into a maze constructed of the kind of silver-grey mesh fencing you see at building sites, a disorientating experience as the near- and middle-distance fences all blended into one. I had two enormous guys running right on my shoulder, looking for a spot to overtake in the impossibly tight maze, and was astonished to find that when I eventually escaped the fence-tastic labyrinth they were nowhere to be seen. They must have given up on overtaking and gambled on taking a different - much longer - route through the maze, because their mad-dash sprints only overtook me another 500 metres later. Just luck, I suppose, as they were definitely closer to the much-overused label ‘the fittest’ than me.

It was almost over. Back in Princes Street Gardens there was more very important clambering to do, before a quick hop in a huge, inflatable pool full of filthy water that bore signs of already having been trampled through by 600 muddy runners. A last few hundred metres and then my own crack at the final wall, by now too congested and covered in writhing bodies for anyone to attempt a solo leap. Just as at the Deerstalker, runners now selflessly launched one another up and over, and after paying my dues I took my turn, happily running the few yards to the finish line.

Job done.
Having estimated around two hours to complete the course, thinking that congestion and constant obstacles would be its MO, I was startled to find that I'd finished in just 64 minutes. The Crew Chief, who had planned to come and see me finish an hour later, was still at home eating her lunch. I had overtaken hundreds of people from waves ahead of mine, and secured a final position of 586th out of nearly 3,000. High fives to the rest of the VT crew - Kathryn, Sherien and Ruth (plus a couple who I didn't even set eyes on!). I am a little bruised, very sore and covered in scrapes, but utterly delighted and very eager to do it again, knowing now that I can plan for much more running and much less cardio than anticipated. This one – and by association its sister events in London, Cardiff and Nottingham – come highly recommended despite the hefty price tag. (Which, incidentally, is lower if you’re a real cool frood and do it for Venture Trust).

Coming soon on – some thoughts that may be of genuine non-narcissistic value, some exciting VLM news and more of the usual tosh. Exciting times.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 369.9, miles biked - 73.2, metres swum - 3950, races - 4

Friday, 5 October 2012

Best run of the year (2012 edition)

Despite accusations by my Best Man during his speech that this blog is merely a conduit for my own self-aggrandisement (it is) among enquiries of ‘what is with all the running?’ (don’t know), I still managed to incorporate quite a lot of running into my own wedding. Which is entirely how I wanted it.

This blogpost is NOT about the wedding – one day I might write something down about what the day meant to me, but not today. No, this post is about The Third Traditional Pre-Wedding Run. I’ve already written about the first, and bypassed the second as it wasn’t my run to write about. So here goes with the third.

A glorious, crisp morning broke over St Andrews on Saturday 29th September, and with several hours still remaining before my 3pm appointment at the altar I invited guests to join me for a wee jog, leaving from the Martyr’s Monument at 10.30am.  I expected a couple of ushers, my brother/best man and maybe one or two other hardy souls to form a motley crew. I was not entirely prepared to find a group of a dozen enthusiastic runners ready for a few swift miles...

And so we took off. A bizarre cross-section of the social circles of my life cheerily jogging in a loose group, composed of my brother, some friends from University, others from school, my brother-in-law-to-be’s girlfriend, friends whose provenance is lost in the happy mists of time and probably a couple I’ve forgotten. We headed east along The Scores, running in the middle of the deserted road and taking in the sights and sounds of St Andrews. Unbeknownst to me, one of my non-running ushers had just moments before bundled my bride off the road to avoid us meeting on the morning of the wedding. Thinking she was still in her rented cottage at the corner of The Scores and North Castle Street, we sprinted past the front door and onwards, descending fast to the harbour. A small boy shouted out to me ‘be careful!’. We tried not to take it as an omen.

Rounding the medieval stone walls we joined the beach-side path, and the field spread out. At the front a couple of marathoners, a former international sprinter and a hardy triathlete, towards the back a few ground-pounders who apply less haste and more refinement to their technique. All running together, all smiling and chatting and enjoying the scenery. I couldn’t have been happier.

Reaching the end of East Sands we folded back on ourselves, taking the road into town and meeting what can only be described as a pirate en route – an older gent with an eyepatch, large beard and a stick. We tried not to take this as an omen either. I put an usher in charge of leading the pack as I dropped back to mingle with others, and he led us down a sharp left along Queen’s Terrace, a beautiful tree-lined road which transforms abruptly into the Lade Braes, a footpath which could take you on all kinds of adventures if you had the time. We didn't, and so instead headed through the western end of town, pointing out local landmarks to the out-of-towners as we headed gently towards West Sands.

We regathered the pack for a dash across Grannie Clark's Wynd - the perilous road which crosses the 1st and 18th fairways of the world famous Old Course. The faster amongst us summoned wild sprints under the pretext of minimising the risk of being taken out by low-flying golf balls, and before long the pack was spread out again, snaking along West Sands. My intentions to keep the team together were proving impossible, but no matter, it's hard to get lost on a giant empty beach... We remarked on our obligatory Chariots of Fire moment, and I smiled enormously and inwardly, watching 12 people whom I love dearly, gathered in a funny little corner of Fife, ran along the beach where I proposed to my Crew Chief. The sun peeked out from behind a tiny cloud and everything was well with the world. 

Imagine synth music...
As we reached the turnaround and slogged through a gap in the dunes, the field became irretrievably spread out as the faster runners jostled for supremacy – I chose to stick with the back marker rather than join in the ruckus at the front. By the time we got back to the Martyr’s Monument, where a receiving party of other wedding guests had assembled, we had clocked just over four miles. An impeccable start to the day.

The day got quite a lot better after that.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 326, miles biked - 69.2, metres swum - 3350, races - 3

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

You want a Legacy?

Right you lot – you’ve had your fun. The Olympics facilitated your gorging on evening and weekend TV, generated your boss’s good-natured tolerance of streaming events during work hours, and provided endless hours of gasps and cheers and tears and triumph. And now it’s your turn to contribute.

I hear a lot of people asking – nay demanding – to know what LOCOG intend to do about London 2012’s Legacy. These people say it with a capital ‘L’ to emphasise that this Legacy is Very Important to them. And LOCOG do their best to explain what they will do with their facilities and venues, how they will make sporting equipment and expertise available, and put their athletes in front of cameras heavily laden with medals and white-toothed grins. Meanwhile Mr Cameron does his best to insist that money will go in large volumes to the right places and that selling-off sports pitches isn’t a thing that’s happening at all. They are pleading with you to believe in their vision of Legacy and their capacity to deliver it.

I put it to you, however, that this Legacy is your responsibility as much as Coe’s and Cameron’s. You have been inspired by sport because it turned up in your living room for a fortnight. Now you have to go out and find it. If you want sport to be a part of your life or your children’s lives, then do something to make it so – Jess Ennis isn’t going to pop round with a set of hurdles and a javelin to teach you the heptathlon. Greg Rutherford isn’t going to suddenly leap into your garden with his coach’s whistle and a measuring tape. You are going to need to build on your own momentum. Here are a few suggestions as to how you can do that:

Go and see some sport
If you missed out on getting tickets for the Olympics, then why not go and see something else? Professional and high-level amateur sport happens every week in this country - your options really aren't limited to Wimbledon and endless football matches. I’m going to the EMC tests at Murrayfield in November, which were cheap. I’m planning to finally get to the Edinburgh International Cross-Country in January, which is free. If I was desperate to see Olympic mainstays like athletics/track & field, there are endless events up and down the country, including massive inter-county championships – here’s a list. Every Olympic sport will have public, usually quite cheap events that you can go to and have an awesome time at. What's stopping you?

Sign up for a race
I say this all the time – but if you want running motivation then put some money where your mouth is and sign up for a race. Incidentally, you could do Survival of the Fittest for Venture Trust, which would be cool. Or why not run an event that your local running/athletics club is putting on? If you usually run the big, famous races, why not try something unusual and local? Or if you’re short of pennies then go to parkrun – it’s FREE, there’s one near where you live and I’ve told you to do it already.

Get behind the Commonwealth Games
Glasgow 2014, baby. Here we come.

Join a club
This is hypocritical – I haven’t been in a sports club since University – but you may find that joining your local athletics, football, rugby, cycling, hockey, triathlon, shooting, swimming, canoeing or any-other club will give you much easier routes to participation and a new social circle to boot.

Take up something new
One of the most bizarre and wonderful parts of the Olympics for me is watching athletes compete at the highest level in events which I was only dimly aware of. This should be the moment that Britain recruits a generation of talented handballers, finds swathes of future BMX champs and hundreds of people passionate about that weird 8-man kayak thing. I hate to think of the number of people who didn’t shine at the mainstream sports which were offered at school, who became labelled (and therefore learnt to think of themselves) as ‘not sporty’.  I saw a great tweet by Jeremy Vine that said “Facts that have emerged from the Olympics: Britain’s not rubbish. Football is not the only sport. The Queen can do jokes.” – why not dedicate yourself to a minority event? You might be naturally gifted at it. And, by contrast and in a ‘just saying’ kind-of way, Britain is pretty rubbish at football.

Jog on
I think I may have said this somewhere before. But I mean this in its broadest possible sense - leave the car at home and walk into town, buy a bike and use it to commute, go for a swim, hike up a reasonably big hill. Do literally anything to keep moving and active and energised. 

You want a legacy? Make it happen. The time is now.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 282, miles biked - 69.2, metres swum - 2350, races - 3

Thursday, 26 July 2012

15 things about the Olympics

How I will be watching the Olympics.

  1. Very much on purpose. I already have a plan for where and when I’ll be watching the major excitement, which for me is the 5,000m, 10,000m, marathon, triathlon, wheelchair rugby and a couple of other finals. Very exciting times.
  2. Entirely by mistake. I’m expecting to catch the best of the random other stuff by accidentally flicking on the BBC or Channel 4 whilst looking for something else, only to catch the final of the women’s super-heavy-weight-lifting or a mad definitely-not-sprint finish in the men’s racewalk. This is definitely the best bit of the Games being on 24/7. How else would anyone see the modern pentathlon?
  3. Not at all. Specifically, I am deliberately avoiding football. Football is not a proper Olympic sport. There is already too much football in the world. In fact as punishment for the ongoing farce of allowing it as an Olympic sport I am cancelling the next football World Cup and replacing it with perhaps a javelin/shot-putt showcase.
  4. At work, online. I have no qualms whatsoever about this. It’s the Olympics.
  5. With booze. There’s something wonderful about watching finely toned athletes at the top of their game whilst swigging another beer. Although 5 is somewhat incompatible with 4.

Some predictions. If I get them all right you have to buy me a small gift.

  1. Mo Farah to win the 10,000m but take 3rd or lower in the 5,000.
  2. Paula Radcliffe to run a decent marathon but miss out on the medals.
  3. Usain Bolt to settle for silver in the 100m, possibly beaten by Blake.
  4. A 1-2 in the triathlon from the Fabulous Brownlee Brothers. One or both to try to ascend the podium with a Yorkshire flag.
  5. Richard Whitehead to clean up in the Paralympics, probably setting a couple of new ORs or WRs.

Desperate hopes

  1. Team GB to finish top-three in the medal table
  2. No stupidity from hippies, nudists, terrorists, naysayers, Liberal Democrats or tax-evaders
  3. No major embarrassments of infrastructure or planning.
  4. A successor to Ernie the Eagle & Eric the Eel
  5. A new OR for the marathon (either/both men’s and/or women’s)
I am almost definitely not allowed to put this here.

Let the good times roll.

Happy Olympics.


2012 to date: miles run - 279.7, miles biked - 69.2, metres swum - 2350, races - 3

Monday, 2 July 2012

More drinking, less running (Hadrian's Wall 1/2)

Isle of Wight Festival: mudbath. Olympic torch: extinguished. England vs West Indies ODI: cancelled. Great North Swim: cancelled. Hutton horse trials: cancelled. Flood warnings, gridlocked traffic, landslides and high winds.

And the Hadrian’s Wall Half Marathon? Cancelled.

Yet another Nicholson-Haines Running Adventure gone horribly wrong before it’s even started. We met in Newcastle, Ben having got a train up from London and me having driven down from Edinburgh, when we both received emails confirming that the race was definitely off due to flooding and risky conditions. But we’d cleared a weekend for the purpose of running in border country, and we were bloody well going to do it anyway.

Pod sweet pod
After lunch in Newcastle we drove deep into the countryside, eventually locating Saughy Rigg Farm, where we had booked a rather basic but entirely satisfactory ‘camping pod’. We bumped into some other runners and assumed that they had reached a similar decision to us, but when I mentioned that the race was cancelled they looked horrified and confused. It transpired that they were taking part in Rat Race’s ‘The Wall Run’, a 70 mile ultra spread over two days. Our companions, whom I shall refer to as Action Man, Reluctant Hiker, Captain Moustache and The Lawyer, were running the event as a relay in pairs, still covering a total of 39 miles each over the weekend. They very gently mocked our puny half marathon for being cancelled.

Finding ourselves on a remote farm, with only mocking ultrarunners and each other for company, we decided to do what we came for and went for a run, late-ish on Saturday afternoon. We donned trail and fell shoes and hit the hills for an hour, running the brutal path along the wall. The ascents were exhausting and the descents were suicidal, tripping between rocks, mud, knee-deep puddles, slick grass and leaping (later clambering, later still, hauling ourselves) over stiles. We laughed and wheezed our way alongside the lough, through a forest and into fields full of livestock, generally feeling delighted with ourselves. Just over half an hour in we turned around, and realised the enormous force of the tailwind which had looked after us on the way out. The way home was like running through a river of soup. Cold, wet, driving-rain-flavoured soup. The wind picked up and the rain lashed our poor, unprepared bodies, and we laughed less and wheezed more. We were a little bit relieved not to be racing that afternoon.

Back in the safety of our peculiar little pod, we set about the real business of the trip – a proper catch-up and quite a lot of beers (as soon as we discovered that the farm had a bar). The ultra-runners sat around drinking tea, keeping their hearts and minds clear for their run to Newcastle in the morning. We decided to drink more so that they could enjoy it vicariously. Captain Moustache seemed appreciative but the others were a bit put-out. Reluctant Hiker confided in Ben that he wasn’t really a runner and was terrified of the day ahead – Captain Moustache had bullied him into it. We watched the dismal France vs. Spain match in the bar, which was filling up with a group of loud and slightly deranged women who had walked a marathon along the wall that day. Our race was now the only one of three to be cancelled in the area, and the shortest by half.

Late in the evening another runner, whom we shall call Mr Exhausted, slumped into the bar. He was running the full 70 miles on his own, and had called the farm in a panic earlier in the day. As soon as he bedded down in his tent for the night, he suffered a panic attack of claustrophobia, and had rung around endless B&Bs before being invited to crash on a sofa at Saughy Rigg. As Ben and I put away more drinks and told taller tales, Mr Exhausted looked increasingly, well, exhausted. He had run more than 30 miles that day, having never done more than 22 before. His shut-eye wouldn’t come until the bar had emptied of raucous women, a prospect that looked increasingly distant. Ben and I went to crash out around midnight – Mr Exhausted’s night was still far from over.

The following morning, when we should have been running, we took our hangovers out for a couple of hours’ walk along the wall, in the other direction to the previous day’s run. We met horses, took photos and enjoyed the scenic rain. Later we went to a Roman fort. It was quite a strange day.

Hadrian's Wall fails to keep out a one-man horde of marauding gingers.
The race is being rescheduled for September – and what’s more we discovered that it went ahead on that Sunday anyway, with the 16 runners who hadn’t got the cancellation message or just turned up anyway. We felt a little put out. Fingers crossed I can be back to run it next year (and get something for my entry fee!), but we had a good weekend nonetheless.

More drinks, less running. Who am I to complain?

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 252.3, miles biked - 69.2, metres swum - 2350, races - 3

Monday, 11 June 2012

Edinbra Moonwalk 2012 - playing hard to get

It is a little-known fact that the Crew Chief became a marathoner before I did.

In spring 2008 Linds completed the Edinburgh Moonwalk with a motley crew of about twenty others. Wearing their decorated bras and reflective hi-viz caps they walked a marathon around the streets of the capital, starting at midnight and ploughing on until dawn broke and they finally completed their 26.2 miles. That same night I was in Oxford at the Christ Church Commemoration Ball with my brother, enjoying a 12 hour dusk-til-dawn white tie festival of extravagance and gluttony. I joked at the time that I had completed my own endurance event while Linds was power-walking around freezing cold and largely empty parts of Edinburgh, and was of the opinion that covering nearly 30 miles on foot, at any speed, was utter nonsense. After Paris, Brighton, SF, Loch Ness and Edinburgh, I’m still of the same opinion.

Our shared involvement with the Moonwalk has plodded alongside my obsession with marathon running, and Linds has since completed the ‘half moon’ part of the event in 2010 in a much-diminished team of just two. That night I crewed for her and Louise, running ahead of them to source a good supporting/photo spot and ready to dispense the requested warm clothes and spare food. I ran all over the city until around 2.30am, when I decided it was high time for my bed.

But this year I set upon the idea of leaving my nice warm bed in the early hours, then going out to find the loneliest, the emptiest, the most miserable and forlorn part of the route I could find, and bringing some cheer and banter to the poor souls still out there. Among my  very few premeditated altruistic gestures, I reckoned that this was a pretty good one. But then I came across a problem. A problem which led me to discover other problems. Fascinating problems.

The Moonwalk is a quality event, and achieves a great deal both in terms of promoting fitness and fundraising for its charity. Let us be in no doubt that I am in favour of fighting breast cancer. But I think the event has a tiny bit of an attitude problem. In trying to plan my early-morning solo cheer station, I wanted to check the route and work out roughly where I should go. But there’s no map. It’s deliberately withheld, apparently ‘for health and safety reasons’ – unlike any other event of its kind that I’ve ever heard of. Instead I found a vague description of the areas it covers, which isn’t what I needed. I needed street names and mile markers, so I could work out where the majority of people would be at a given time. I needed this because I wanted to go and support people I’ve never met, who are out walking in my home city in the middle of the night. Clearly I must be a health and safety risk.

In scouring the FAQs and other material on the Moonwalk website, I consistently come across the same overly-protective and sometimes haughty tone. No, you can’t wear your decorated bra over a T-shirt (they did). No, you can’t use walking poles (they did). No, we haven’t shut the roads, you should walk on the pavement (they didn’t). No, your family can’t come to the event village. No, you can’t run. No, there’s no recognition for being first or having your time recorded (but there are timing clocks, for some reason). No, you can’t raise money for other charities. No No No No No.

I can sort-of see why the organisers have done most of these things, perhaps in protecting their brand, fears of overcrowding or other quasi-legitimate concerns, but I can’t help but feel that as a non-participant  I was unwelcome. This is the opposite of what I adore about big city marathons – that buzzy, community, happy atmosphere that includes everyone. Races that have webpages devoted to helping spectators plan their cheering. Events that encourage people to be involved at all levels and in all ways. Finish line areas that are more like wonderfully chaotic festivals. The Moonwalk felt more like a private function. Maybe they're playing hard to get?

But despite the organisers more or less actively discouraging spectators, I decided that the walkers deserved support nonetheless and was out of the door shortly after 6am. I took a stab at a likely direction, and headed east on my trusty bike to find one of the further outreaches of the course. I snaked my way through the city, piecing together a rough idea of the route from mile markers and glimpses of walkers. 20 minutes later I parked the bike and set up shop on a grey, concrete and otherwise abandoned part of the seafront, with the rear of a bus depot as my backdrop.

As the buses idled their filthy engines, puttering diesel fumes towards the walkers, and with spray from the sea occasionally harassing them from the other side, I cheered like an American. I handed out sweets, engaged in banter and generally tried to raise a smile from the poor unfortunates who had only covered 19 ½ miles since the official start seven hours ago. They would be on their feet for at least another two. The crazy-awesome-women-together-Dunkirk-spirit had ebbed a bit, replaced by a grim determination to get the job done. No more decorated bras and jolly fairy lights. I was cheering for women bundled up in fleeces, cardigans, ponchos, jackets, hoodies, scarves and plenty of other very sensible things to be wearing on exposed seafront in the drizzle. A couple were sheepishly scoffing on a takeaway McDonalds. One was carrying a Lidl shopping bag. I stayed there until I could see the very last walker, offering her a cheery ‘good morning’. She was, quite reasonably, not cheery.

Mile 26, in Inverleith park
On the way home I stopped in Inverleith park to congratulate some finishers, and contemplated bartering access to the event village – a sprawling city of enormous marquees, noise, light and cheery excitement, occupying a quarter of the park. But on seeing the fences and security drones in place, at that very moment turning away the bleary-eyed husband and children of a recent finisher, I thought better of it and headed for home a little deflated. Linds stayed in bed. Just saying.

I am suggesting very little in the way of change:
  • Publicise a route map, like every other event. I will use it to plan my cheering and promise not to be a health or safety risk. 
  • Remove some of the 'No's from the website and be a bit more flexible.
  • Provide an event village which supporters can share in, particularly if you're going to take over a large part of a public park.

Edinburgh may be a capital city, but it's really just a small community, which rallies behind events like this. Please don't shut us out.

Happy walking


2012 to date: miles run - 221.95, miles biked - 69.2, metres swum - 2350, races - 3

Monday, 28 May 2012

Race Report - Edinburgh Marathon 2012

Hot. Very hot. Hotter than the surface of the sun on quite a warm day indeed.

These are the words which followed us around the Edinburgh marathon and the few panicked days beforehand. Forget the abysmal training regime, the injuries, the sleepless night, the fact that our entire running and supporting crew had their minds elsewhere, it was the heat that really kicked us in the face all the way to Gosford House and most of the way back. But what a kicking. What a run. What a day. What a weekend.

Allow me to introduce the players in this story. You should definitely know the Crew Chief by now – she cheers like an American, crews like a trooper and is generally awesome in many ways. You may have heard of Neil Gray: he was a crucial part of my dress rehearsal disaster, he took a cool photo of some surprising zebras, and about a hundred years ago was an international standard age-group sprinter for Orkney and Scotland.  His fiancĂ©e Karlie Robinson is his own personal crew – and pacer, as it turns out. Finally the inimitable Alex B Dixon, a man of boundless talent and energy, who was there for my first ever Edinburgh marathon relay back in 2008, and was there for the whole thing yesterday too. In a supporting role was Rebecca Schmidt, herself a marathoner but today acting in a professional capacity, cheering from one of the Barnardo’s stands. Neil, Alex and I were running, and Linds, Karlie and Rebecca were crewing. We were all to be very hot.

I’d like to write this post purely about the race, but that doesn’t feel remotely possible. Late on Saturday night a mutual friend of us all passed away in sudden, tragic and unexpected circumstances. The shock and devastation sat incongruously, impossibly, miserably alongside a glorious summer’s day and the pre-race marathon nerves. None of us slept well, and in the morning I would have happily traded anything to be waking up without that news. I lay in bed for an hour or so as the early morning light crept into the room, too sad and angry to imagine running a marathon.

But a marathon is what we had signed up for, and no good would come of us abandoning our endeavours. No-one spoke a word of dissent as the early morning preparations unfolded. Perhaps I was the only one who doubted whether we should be doing this. Perhaps everyone did.

Our plan started to falter immediately. Living just a couple of miles from the start line, I guessed that we could easily call a cab to shuttle us from the flat to the off. Amazingly, one or two other marathoners had the same idea, and as the clock ticked to 9:20 (for a 9:50 start!) there was still no taxi to be seen, evidently busy ferrying others around. We gave a small sigh at our atrocious failure and started to walk there, eventually hailing a cab for the last mile or so, and arriving at the start line with about eight minutes to spare.

Back when I registered for this race, hot on the heels of my 3:49 PB in ‘the race even marathoners fear’, I had optimistically put 3:40 as my target time for ‘the fastest marathon in the UK’. Seven months later, with a wrecked ankle, an aching oedema and having run less than 200 miles in training, I knew I would be nowhere near that so positioned myself at the very back of the London Road start. Neil and Alex, who had predicted finishes of 3:59 and 4:05 respectively, were starting from Regent Road, and it was for this reason that I loitered outside Holyrood Palace, less than a mile into the race, waiting for Neil to arrive. For those few early miles together nothing could have been better. A beautiful day, out for a run, with my mate and 12,000 others, having some headspace to try to unpick the sad events of the past 24 hours. Marathoning isn’t therapy, it’s just time, space, and the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Which is what we needed.

We ran to mile three together, already sweating heavily through our factor 50 sun cream, where Neil left me to pursue my run/walk strategy. I planned to walk the first 30-60 seconds of every mile, running thereafter, in the hope of staving off serious fatigue until later in the race. Which sort-of worked. Around mile 5 Alex overtook me too, and I kept him in sight for the next four miles or so, letting him slip away as I walked then catching up to within a few feet on the runs. Crowd support was much better than in previous years, and even early on people were out in their gardens launching sprays of water across the course. No hosepipe ban for us.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, at mile 7 or 8 you really aren’t in Edinburgh any more, instead running through small coastal towns in East Lothian. By the time I reached Linds and Karlie’s cheer station in Musselburgh, just before mile 10, I felt good and strong, ready for more. Unpressured by time or racing, I took in the luxury of stopping to chat to them, wolfing down Haribo and reassuring them that the heat wasn’t getting to me just yet. However, the blistering was. Though I had no complaints from my awful ankle, the balls of my feet were starting to blister. At mile 11 I ran into a first aid tent, and with very little haste a well-meaning but possibly rather simple volunteer taped some padding to the underside of my feet. I reapplied socks and shoes, and wondered how on earth I was going to cover another 15 miles on these uncomfortable things...

With very little shade and having already stopped three times, I thought it best to push on for a few miles and make some good progress. But by the halfway point, clocking around 2:08, I was starting to feel the energy sapped from my muscles and was having difficulty balancing between taking on water and staying cool with it. I did not want hyponatremia for my trouble. But the heat was serious, and I probably saw at least 10 runners being tended to at the side of the road, some on drips, others with oxygen. I counted my blessings and thought of other things. For a mile or two it looked like a haar was coming in off the sea, but sadly it never materialised and we continued to roast in the sun. I struggled to maintain enthusiasm and focus as I passed such delightful landmarks as Cockenzie power station and bland featureless roads, but unconditionally adored the enthused crowd support in the pockets of civilisation, and sporadically remembered why I love this sport so much.

Between 16 and 18 I gradually felt my strength rebuilding, and on one of the switchbacks, impossibly, I saw that Neil was behind me by around 40 seconds. Enthused by this miraculous turnaround I pushed on into the grounds of Gosford House, where I paused briefly to give a TV interview to a woman who told me it was ‘only 6 miles to go!’, which was an outrageous lie. I suspect that I may have been too rude for transmission. Some small respite from the sun came in a wooded path, and it was here that I stopped for a while to help a woman who had tripped over her feet and landed nastily, cutting her knee and hand. I walked with her for a while as she got over the shock. We ambled and talked and eventually she disappeared back into the crowd. I saw her briefly a little later as she sailed past me looking strong and determined. I was genuinely delighted for her.

And from here, it was a struggle. I ran/walked/hobbled/walked/power-walked/ran in intermittent bursts, going as fast as my cramping, popping muscles would allow. I chatted to some people, remarked that it was really rather warm and generally enjoyed the atmosphere and banter. I made a point of running past the bloody awful power station, wanting it out of my sight as quickly as possible, but otherwise chose my pace according to hills, company and the whim of the universe. It felt like it took weeks but eventually, by some miracle, I loped into mile 25 where Linds was waiting for me. Karlie had left with Neil about 10 minutes earlier, incredibly, pacing him to the finish line in her flip-flops. With two bags and two folding chairs to carry, the Crew Chief declined to pace me home, so I jogged as much of the last mile as I could manage before finally turning into the park and the finish line, crossing in a spectacular PW of 4:44:15.

Me, Alex and Neil with our impossibly enormous medals.
Despite the trademark Edinburgh Marathon disappointment of the reunion areas and general finish logistics, we eventually found each other. Neil finished in a solid 4:33, and Alex ran a stonking 4:14. Both will improve massively on a cooler day, and I look forward to writing about their next accomplishments one day soon. We lay on the grass under a cloudless sky and thought about things. After a small period of regrouping, swapping war stories, stretching and admiring sunburn we hauled ourselves up a 900-mile hill to the shuttle bus departure point. We joined the back of a queue of 1.2 million people and eventually got a bus back to the city, and another cab back home. We talked about our day, and our weekend, and what it meant to us. We laughed. We had a lot of food and a small amount of beer, and eventually our day was done. I was asleep just before 10pm.

Never again will I run a marathon without adequate training. I enjoyed this experience and the opportunity to take time over things, and being released from time pressure meant that my head was clearer to just have fun with it. But the constant feeling that I could have done better was nagging me all the way round, if only I had done some training.

Quite separately, painful thoughts affected all of us throughout the day, and in a way I took strength from an ongoing determination to make this whole mad enterprise worthwhile. Neil and I agreed later that if we were going to run a marathon with a lost friend in our thoughts, then we should bloody well do it properly. DNF was never an option.

Happy running, friends. And rest in peace Steven.


2012 to date: miles run - 215.2, miles biked - 52.2, metres swum - 1150, races - 3

Monday, 21 May 2012

Redemption and Urban Zebras

After the dress rehearsal disasters which plagued my mind and feet last weekend, I was a little apprehensive about scheduling another run with my partner-in-suffering Neil Gray. But fortune favours the brave and so we valiantly planned to meet in South Gyle, just to the west of Edinburgh, aiming to run 13 miles. Or 9, or maybe 8, or maybe just for an hour...

The sun blazed overhead as we met in the car park. Neil’s better half Karlie and Karlie’s better half Nic were also there to greet me, and Karlie immediately grassed Neil up: 'HE’S BEEN DRINKING, YOU KNOW!!' she declared with a small amount of incredulous glee. I admitted that I too, had had a few beers and maybe a whisky the night before and only made it to bed around 1am. Neil looked at his shoes and mumbled that he’d only got to sleep at 5. So once again we started a run on the back foot, bemoaning our pathetic inability to stick to a plan.

But after last week’s excessive hype and subsequent deflation, we had abandoned all preconceptions and aspirations about this run. We were just going to go out for a few good miles and to rebuild our shattered running confidence. Heading out of South Gyle at a comfortable trot, we took in old Corstorphine before following the main road towards the city. I had a notion of climbing Corstorphine hill, but had missed my planned turn-off and ended up careering around residential areas before schlepping up the longest, most gradual ascent to the peak.

Neil silently cursed my route planning and I remarked on how my hill-climbing skills had all but vanished since my fitness peak for SF and Loch Ness. The brilliant blue sky and warm sun set a stunning backdrop to our long, slow slog, and the heat sapped our energy just as it had last weekend. In the final few feet before the top Neil managed to slip off the trail and earn himself a few nettle stings, and when we did finally reach the highest point of the hill we found our view blocked by trees. Neil attempted to – er – undo some of the effects of the previous night’s drinking, providing an incongruous soundtrack for our obscured view. We were in danger of not enjoying ourselves again.

But then we rounded a corner. And our fortunes changed.

All of Edinburgh spread out before us. The entire route of next weekend’s marathon stretched out along the stunning Forth coast all the way to Bass rock and beyond, flanked by the Castle, Scott Monument, Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, the broad streets of the New Town and everything else about my favourite city in the world, all of it lit up by brilliant sunshine on a cloudless day. The struggle and strife melted away as the rewards for our toil came into glorious, sharp focus. We looked at the view for a while.

After some time of gazing at the incredible vista, I explained to Neil that there were several ways down – I suggested either a route I knew would take us back to a main road on the other side of the hill, or another which I had never tried but guessed was more direct. Enthused and excited, we chose the road less travelled and launched into the unknown.

And then there were zebras.

Neil's photo from his iPhone. Not Attenborough, but proof nonetheless.

Yes, zebras. Just a few feet from the incredible view, we found ourselves on the perimeter fence of Edinburgh zoo, staring at a herd of zebras. The day could surely not get any better. We watched in quiet awe as the animals calmly grazed near where we stood, separated from us by a couple of fences. What luck that we had come this way. What good fortune we were running at all. How lucky that we didn't crawl back to bed and cancel this run, that we didn't choose a flat easy route somewhere else. How lucky that we took up running in the first place. How much better life is when we take the chances the universe has to offer. What an incredible amount of joy that running offers us, and what little it asks in return.

Eventually, we remembered that we had gone out for a run and not a safari, and launched ourselves through the ancient wood that borders the zoo. We could easily have been in the gorilla enclosure for all we knew, such was the solitude and rugged landscape of the place. We ran, hopped and leaped down the steep path as it wound through clusters of trees, under an ancient stone arch and generally through a beautiful piece of wild countryside, deep in the heart of the city.

As the path spat us back out onto the main road and we gleefully trotted back to South Gyle, we remarked that we had no idea what our pace was, no clue how far we had run and no cares about either. We had enjoyed a brilliant run, in glorious weather, and remembered why we bother in the first place. Redemption.

Haven't had one of these in a while: I run because of urban zebras.

6 days to 26.2, and I cannot bloody wait.

Very happy running.


2012 to date: miles run - 185.02, miles biked - 52.2, metres swum - 1150, races - 2