Monday, 9 December 2013

Remember me?

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

I don’t really remember. Weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy running.


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

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Pay attention! I might not be completely crap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't believe me? Here are some examples:

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

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

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

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

Happy running


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

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Race Report - The Wall Run 2013 (part two)

Nothing builds suspense like a fortnight's break between supposedly concurrent posts, eh? Sorry about that. But here goes.

After a Saturday night spent marvelling in equal measure at the scale of the day's achievements and the magnitude of Sunday's challenge, we made it to bed even earlier than the night before. Due to a slight undersupply of bedspaces in the vicinity of Vindolanda, the four of us shared a family room designed for Mum, Dad and two kids. Neil and I made the executive decision to be the kids and left Ben and Alex to share the double bed, an arrangement damaged only by Alex's early morning Vaseline regime and Ben's intolerance of some casual flatulence. Neil and I had less eventful sleeps.

Awake at 6am for the second time this weekend, we were incredibly lucky to be given breakfast at 6.45 by our too-good-for-us hosts at the Westfield B&B. They served us a Full English each, lovingly cooked to order on an Aga, accompanied by endless coffees and teas and juices and kind words of encouragement all served in a grand Georgian dining room. The rest of the day's meals would be in less auspicious surroundings.

Limited by the number of seats in the car, Karlie drove us four runners to the start line, the wee Corsa straining under the weight of our bodies, bags and rising sense of impending doom. We reached Vindolanda to find the start corral already massing - not a problem as each timing chip is scanned individually - but giving me a sense of being on the back foot already. We hustled ourselves in and did our best to listen another PA announcement lost to the elements. A hooter hooted, and day two was underway.

I don't think part one of this story adequately captured the pain and suffering we went through. If you understand that after about 24 miles of day one, each step became hard, concentrated work, and after 27 miles each pace started erring towards excruciating pain in my feet and hips, you will understand the fear I felt as we started day two.

But the start was joyous. It was downhill. I had forgotten what downhill was like. We skipped lightly down the road, the previous day's pains all but forgotten. Some small undulations were irrelevant. We were,  by this point, ultrarunners - a fact Alex kept pointing out and asking why we had decided to start our ultra careers with 'a double ultra'? Good question.

The downhill didn't last. We ran to the back of a queue of runners waiting to pass through the world's narrowest kissing gate, which led to a scramble up a heather-laden bank at an angle that reminded me of the scree slope of The Mighty Deerstalker last year. It was outrageous and insane, and therefore typical Rat Race. The change of terrain actually suited me rather well, and I found unused power in my legs as I stamped one foot after the other into the heather. At the top of the ridge a cairn marked some point or other where light-hearted participants stopped for photos of the magnificent view, but sadly Kommissar Gray was having none of it and Team Venture Trust got on with the business of the day: running very very far indeed.

At mile 39 we actually passed the Westfield B&B, where the crew had set us up a private pit stop complete with inspirational music and the usual mountains of food. Neil had phoned ahead, requesting a knee support for the joint he wrecked some years ago in a tragic running-around-in-circles accident, and while the girls set to work with bandages and tape Alex went over to accept the totally unnecessary and generous applause that our hosts were offering. Honestly, we we just some customers, who would probably never pass this way again, but there they were: standing in the rain and clapping (everyone, but mostly) us. It gave me some sense of context - to us the endless miles had become routine. To them what we were doing was extraordinary. It took their small act of kindness to remind me of that, and I resolved to be worthy of their support.

We trucked onwards. As the route picked up a cycle path we started seeing signs for places on our itinerary accompanied by distances in miles, but these alternately filled us with false hope and dread as we knew that these numbers didn't necessarily reflect our peculiar route. We tried to ignore them.

In a low point (a walking point, and inevitably low) alongside a railway track, the urge to sing hit us. We had sung a little towards the end of day one and it had boosted morale, but today was something different. A fair number of people had overtaken us in the previous few minutes, but as soon as the singing started, the running followed. Suddenly we were flying and singing, belting out Queen hits and Bop classics. Where was the lungpower coming from? No idea. As you may know, Ben is practically Michael Bublé and was handling the tricky parts with vigour, whilst the rest of us got by on enthusiasm and goodwill. Our reception was mixed, some runners and bystanders were amazed and delighted, others were downright hostile. As we overtook them we asked every walking racer for requests, and one in the hostile category replied 'some bloody peace and quiet'. We picked up the pace and the volume.

Incredibly, we also picked up some friends from among the other runners. Our four-man boyband had become a six-piece choir including a female vocalist who ably picked out the top notes in Bohemian Rhapsody. I think they were relay runners and therefore fresher than us, but our pace had cranked up in time with the beat so completely that they almost struggled to keep up. The girl whispered to the guy 'These guys are amazing'. I beamed.

We were coming up to the first checkpoint at 45 miles, and were still in full flow of running and singing. But then we approached a golf course, and out of respect for the local patrons decided to lower the volume. If anything this made the experience more intense. Don't believe me? Find three tired but fiercely united friends, two random extras who are slightly in awe of the above, and run  with them at a metronomic pace in the rain whilst intoning Mr Brightside under your breath. I have shivers just thinking about it.

Sadly Mr Brightside had already come out of his cage and demanded to know how it ended up like this several hundred yards before we reached the checkpoint, and rather embarrassingly we found ourselves  offering a lacklustre rendition of Uptown Girl as we were clapped in by a modest but vocal crowd.

Karlie and Linds helped us to refill our hydration bladders, change shirts and otherwise do the pit stop things as we hid inside the marquee during a brief rain shower. The break once again passed in a flash and before long we were off, walking out of the checkpoint to digest our latest intake. We had 17 miles to the next checkpoint and 24 in total before the finish. Still a devastatingly long way to go.

But we got on with it. Memories blur I'm afraid, but I recall this being tough. We failed to recapture the magic of the singing period, and endured agonising, long walking periods up modest hills that would normally have barely registered as an incline. Time was against us too: Alex had booked a 5.40 train from Newcastle to Birmingham. It was already gone 11, leaving us (in theory) just enough hours to knock off the miles. Luckily Alex is the least outwardly-stressed person in the world, so if he felt the pressure to meet his deadline he didn't share it with us.

The rain tumbled down in relentless drizzle interspersed with heavy showers. Our routine was falling apart and we found ourselves stopping more and more for minor things: slightly loose shoelaces, uncomfortable shoulder straps, opening a gel. By contrast we became tighter and tighter as a unit; yesterday's split into two pairs for a hill was unthinkable. The route profile varied madly which at least kept us on our toes, walking the long slow drags followed by running down quad-busting descents, all the time pulling us further and further towards the industrial north-east.

Near the top of another endless hill, the heavens opened in dramatic fashion. Torrents of water crashed down on us and we dashed for cover under some trees, joining a small group of other runners rearranging their kit to deal with the sudden downpour. Ben, Alex and Neil donned their rainjackets, but I was already soaked to the bone and didn't see the point. We finally summoned the energy to get back on the road just as the rain eased off, only to then find a pit stop just a few hundred metres later, making our previous break seem pre-emptive and ridiculous. I threw cup after cup of water down my throat, a welcome relief from the salty electrolytes in my hydration pack, and we once again got back on our way.

The route took a sharp downhill which rolled on for an age - we ran the fastest we had all day and kept up the pace with enthusiasm. We chatted to a bloke who had 'run a couple of 10k's, so he thought he'd give this a go' and ploughed onwards until the route levelled off then joined the climb again. As we slowed my stomach turned, and the water I had so enthusiastically chugged at the pit stop re-emerged as quickly as I had drunk it. Two days, two ultras, two major vomiting episodes. Not great, but still manageable.

The pain and exhaustion were becoming intense. We started splitting up the task even further to try to give us some hope: just six miles to the next pit stop, then four to the checkpoint, then seven to the finish line in Newcastle. 17 long miles to go.

Alex's ankle had been bothering him for some time, but in the absence of anything practical he or anyone else could do about it, he had generally ploughed on with little complaint. Alex possesses the spindliest calves ever to be used for an ultra - indeed perhaps the spindliest calves ever to feature on a grown man. Even the women had beefier lower legs than Alex, it's no wonder he lacked stability in his ankles and the time had come for them to turn into a real nuisance. On a single track road flanked by high hedgerows he slowed, his usual insufferably jovial demeanour gone and replaced by a genuinely worried expression that I don't think I've ever seen on his face. Miles from everywhere, things looked bleak.

I am a practical and positively-minded person, a trait which I owe in part to the ethos and philosophy of Venture Trust. At this particular moment I was feeling particularly practical, and we instructed Alex in a variety of made-up stretches whilst I took the opportunity to replace my sodden socks with a dry pair from my rucksack. It was all we could do, except of course to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Alex leant on a signpost to stretch out his lower legs, heaving so much effort into it that the post nearly wrenched out of the ground. The sign of a serious need for relief.

We trudged onward. The route became more surreal as we turned onto a paved single track road that led us through a field of corn. The road looked like it went nowhere, so we were bemused to hear the chimes of an ice cream van approaching behind us. I genuinely contemplated getting a 99. The van overtook and pulled up a few hundred yards ahead and we soon understood why - a bizarre village of static wooden caravans flanked the road. These were clearly not holiday lets, but also too downright bizarre to be permanent residences. Some were decked out like cottages from a Grimms fairy tale, others sat heavily laden with satellite dishes and neglected gardens. Very few humans were in evidence. We pushed onwards.

Sneaking onto a footpath at the rear of the site, the route suddenly chucked us onto a tight path that hugged the banks of the river Tyne. In single file we inexplicably started running: dodging and ducking the nettles and carefully placing each footstep on the muddy, rocky, loose path. I can't tell you what it felt like to come out into the open of this section to be confronted with a rocky river crossing, necessitating an ankle-deep march through a tributary to the Tyne. We were 52 miles into the weekend and scrambling across a river. A river!

Who else was doing this? Who else could be so sure that they were grasping life by the balls and giving their all to their pursuits? No-one. We were kings in those moments. Soggy kings. One of whom regretted having already put on his dry socks.

We pulled into the next pit stop and sat on a fence. One of the marshals offered me a massage, hastily followed by 'I am a real massage therapist!'. I declined, not because I didn't want one, but simply because I didn't know where she would start. Everything was wrecked. A van load of someone's crew sat on the sidelines, offering encouraging words. I didn't need bloody words, I needed some unrefined liquid sugar and asked if they had any squash or juice. One of the women baulked at the idea and instead offered me some sort of effervescent tablet that she seemed to be flogging, and Neil and I accepted these free samples and dropped them in cups of water. She handed me her business card and asked me to email her because 'I need to know what they do'. My confidence in her and her tablets ebbed.

We got back on the road with a promise that there were no more river crossings and just four miles to the next checkpoint. Time was running away from us as we were walking towards Newcastle, so we did our best to get back into the whole running idea. Somewhere around here we crossed the marathon point for the day - my seventh lifetime 26.2, everyone's second of the weekend, and everyone's PW by a country mile. The end was gradually being whittled down towards single figures.

Receiving line at mile 60
Our crew's ranks had grown as my parents-in-law Cathy and Archie had generously decided to drive up to
meet us at mile 62. One's instincts to attempt to impress one's parents-in-law at all times do occasionally conflict with one's total and utter self-induced exhaustion, but I was determined to pull together something of myself worth waiting for. They had driven up to rendez-vous based on us achieving an impossibly optimistic 10 minute mile pace, and we were now averaging more like 13. Over 30 miles this means we were an hour and a half late to the checkpoint, already not in the category of good impressions. Anticipating some justified impatience, we came across a sign promising that the checkpoint was just a quarter of a mile away and summoned some primal urge to show off. We gathered just enough pace to save face.

We ran into the checkpoint, overwhelmed by the reception. Our four-person crew cheered and took photos and offered handshakes and kisses. We hustled over to have our chips scanned for the penultimate time, and the marshal with the beeper insisted on issuing a man hug to each of us. I have never been so receptive to a hug from a stranger.

Inside the warm marquee we debriefed on the previous 17 miles. The marshals had set up a trestle table buffet, but there were so many of them and they were so eager to help and support us that they practically insisted on providing a waiter service. A banana and a strong black coffee appeared before my eyes as I changed into a dry shirt for the third and final time in this race. Somehow I still had a spare shirt left, which I gave to Ben, and the Crew Chief despairingly took our sodden shirts off us for decontamination or possible exorcism. A croissant and some of Linds's incredible cookies materialised moments later. Things were looking up.

I told the Crew Chief about my mistimed sock replacement and  she magically produced the pair I had worn yesterday, somehow washed and dried and ready to go. What on earth have I done to deserve this woman? As I replaced my socks with the third pair of the day I decided to lance the blister brewing on my heel, using one of my bib number safety pins in classic improv style. Karlie went pale again and Cathy made herself scarce.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye. Cathy and Archie declined our invitation to Newcastle and headed for home. We braced ourselves for the longest seven miles of our lives.

What can I say of those last seven miles? We ran, we walked, we reminisced. Every footstep was agonising and magnificent. Every mile done, a handsome victory. We each said what our high points had been and we laughed ourselves hoarse at the low points. At one time, with Ben driving, we ran what felt like six minute miles for what felt like an hour, almost effortlessly. In reality, of course, it was probably a ten minute mile pace for less than ten minutes, but it felt glorious. Our uphill walks were no resigned trudges but determined, metronomic marches. We were nearly done.

Newcastle called us in at last. As the route spat us out of a wooded footpath onto the north bank of the Tyne, we started to see things we recognised. Bridges. The Angel of the North. Broken brown ale bottles. Shops with Newcastle in their names. We had all but done it.

Ben was suffering. We had all suffered at points - me and my rotten stomach, Alex's miserly ankle, Neil's wretched knee, but now it was Ben's turn and he was just good old fashioned spent. We sort-of wanted to run, but Ben just couldn't. This wasn't a time for us to try to rally round him and cure the problem with cheery banter, this was just his dip, and it was coincidence that it came at the end. But no matter. We rounded a corner at a walk, and caught sight of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the finish line in the distance. I burst into tears but none came, perhaps I was dehydrated. Perhaps I couldn't distinguish between the rain and my own emotions, such was the volume of both. They were happy tears, if they were anything.

We marched onwards, passing bridge after bridge. Ben could see we wanted to pick up the pace and urged us to go on without him, an implausible and ridiculous suggestion. After 68 and a half miles together, we were damned well going to finish together. Long ago we had promised each other no sprint finishes. We linked arms in a fairly homosexual way as we started to cross the bridge, marching to its high midpoint and planning to run like the wind from there. Finding linked arms too difficult we reverted to a much more manly hand-holding arrangement, and as the run started we all shouted and screamed with emotion and excruciating pain (on my part, any way). The girls were there, of course, loud and enthusiastic and loving as ever. Ben's mum was there too, preparing to admonish him for being so late. We crossed the line. Job done.

We hugged and looked at one another in disbelief. In a way a spell had been broken, something I knew we would probably never get back. But by Thor I was glad to be done.

Medals and photos and t-shirts and massages and food and drink and lying down indoors. Alex had missed his train, of course, and Ben had to dash to catch his. We piled into the overworked Corsa and dropped Alex at the station before hitting the road back to Scotland, stopping only for five hundred chicken nuggets and an enormous milkshake.

Never again. And that's a promise.

If you haven't already, get your wallet over to

Happy running


P.S. in many ways it doesn't matter, but if you're interested, our total time for 69 miles was 17 hours, 30 minutes and 55 seconds. And that's a very long time indeed.

2013 to date: miles run - 668.15, races: 4 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 23, metres swum: 1300

Monday, 1 July 2013

Race Report - The Wall Run 2013 (part one)

I do apologise, have you been waiting long?

As I'm sure you appreciate, I usually make a point of publishing race reports within a few days of completing the race, but here we are a week on from The Wall Run and still I haven't managed to get my thoughts down. Truth is, I finished my first ultra on Sunday night and within a couple of hours was responding to work emails on my phone in anticipation of Monday morning - the start of an intense week of deadlines, long hours, and no time at all to write up the most magnificent weekend in my running career. So here goes.

Day zero
The story really starts in Carlisle station on Friday night - where I met Ben, then we met Alex, then eventually Neil reluctantly slunk up the platform to complete our four-man ultra team. We hauled ourselves over to the start line and race HQ at Carlisle Castle to register and check out the competition. Lithe, chiseled action men and hard-as-nails-looking women strode purposefully about the place, many of them inexplicably already wearing running kit. Had they run here? Did they run everywhere!? Who were these people? We were not these people.

After a few joyful moments when it seemed like Rat Race might have lost our registration and we might be spared the whole atrocious ordeal, we were issued with our numbers, timing cards and some surreal final instructions ("when passing through fields of livestock, try singing to let them know you're there") and sent on our way . All that was left for the evening was to check in to our B&B and then spend an odd couple of hours at 'our' Italian restaurant, where Neil's dessert was a) mostly Baileys and b) awful. How we laughed.

It was bedtime. An 8am race start and a very long pair of days thereafter meant we were tucked up with lights off just after ten. Not quite lads on tour. Yet.

Day one
Ben and I shared a twin room and Neil and Alex took another, so when Ben and I chapped at our teammates' door at the agreed RV time of 7am, fully dressed, bags kitted and checked we were slightly taken aback to find Neil topless save for some nipple tape, Alex ferociously brushing his teeth and Matt Monro belting out 'Born Free' from Alex's iPod. We gently shut the door and left them to finish their ablutions.

At the stroke of 7.17 we set off from the B&B towards the start line, joking and laughing and terrified. I was straining at the bit to get started, desperate to get some miles, even some yards done and start chipping away at that monstrous 69-mile total. Carlisle Castle swarmed with Lycra and serious expressions. But very notable among this group were folk who looked - well - like us.  Normal. Some much older, a few clearly planning to hike the whole day and run none of it, many afflicted by abject terror, some very girly-looking girls, a lower leg amputee and the rest of the marvellous mixed-up spectrum of the running world. Last night's sense of being out of place lifted a little.

This may be, of course, because we had put ourselves in the Challenger category - choosing to split the race into two days of 32 and 37 miles. The Expert category, comprising those who planned to knock off the whole 69 miles in a oner, had started their race an hour earlier to give them as much daylight as possible, on this the longest weekend of the year. Our category was for multi-day ultra legends, theirs was for one-hit ultra demigods. With one exception. Whom we shall come to.

All too quickly our hydration bladders were filled, kit adjusted and the tannoy called us into the starting corral, pointing us out of the castle grounds directly at the stone bridge over the moat. Some muffled instructions were lost in the wind and rain. A hooter hooted, the crowd surged forward and the longest run of our lives was underway.

At the Castle, ready for the off. Sort of.

We had agreed long ago that the four of us would stay as a four, no matter what, and this promise would be tested many times in the miles and hours to come. But we hadn't anticipated it being tested so thoroughly right from the beginning, because just as in any race, the crowd is at its most densely packed at the very start and we found ourselves in a jumbled procession of stop-start running as we left the city centre and headed into the countryside. About 400 yards from the start Alex chose a slippery bank of grass rather than the congested stairs, and losing his footing flung himself headlong towards an iron railing, avoiding concussion and certain withdrawal from the race by mere inches. We tried to relax after that.

Another element of our agreement was the 5:1 ratio. We knew that there was no hope of us running every step of the weekend, but reasoned that it would be destructive both physically and psychologically to simply run until we were spent and then resign to walking. We agreed instead to run five miles, then walk a mile, then repeat. This meant we could get going at an enjoyable, familiar speed during the runs and recover properly during the walks, using the time to drink, eat, or dash behind a bush for a pee. The first five miles passed in a flash and we felt ridiculous to start walking so soon, but told each other that it was necessary for later. We were right.

Towards the end of the second block of running, now deep in England's green and pleasant land, we came to the first pit stop: a trestle table laid out with sweets, chocolate raisins and cups of water under a gazebo. We knew that our timing chips had to be held against a handheld card reader, like those contactless debit cards, and we started pulling them out for this purpose before being told that this was 'just' a pit stop and not a checkpoint. The difference between these became significant. Pit stop - momentary respite, checkpoint - oasis in the desert. Remember that.

Crowded trudge up a hill

Swiftly back on the road, the hills started in earnest. Every ultrarunner in the world knows the importance of respecting the lumpy bits, but we were not yet ultrarunners and gleefully overtook scores of people on these ascents. With the first checkpoint at mile 15, we were nearing a break anyway, so why not just enjoy the ride? We had developed the concept of the driver: we mostly ran in a square formation, the front right runner being the 'driver' and responsible for pacesetting. The front passenger helped, the kids in the back were chastised for asking if we were nearly there yet. Oddly, this worked well and being a 'passenger' always felt to me like a fractionally easier effort, whilst being the 'driver' gave you a welcome sense of control. We took turns in each role and tried not to let Neil and his competitive instincts in the driving seat too often.

We ran into the checkpoint in the grounds of a historic abbey to be met by our support crew, comprising my Crew Chief, Linds, and Neil's, Karlie. We scanned our timing chips and then went to see the crew. They had driven down from West Lothian that morning bearing all manner of goodies and spare kit to supplement the changes of clothes we hauled around with us in our bulging rucksacks, and we rearranged some gear while we scoffed food, told them of the adventure so far, stretched a little and drank a lot. Alex disappeared momentarily only to reemerge munching on a waffle. Ben found some rocky road, which we thought was appropriate as the surface had recently changed from tarmac to broken farm roads. Things would deteriorate further soon.

All too soon it was time to get back to it, our planned ten minutes' break already slightly exceeded, and with a wave and a kiss the girls left us to our mission. Still digesting, we walked out of the checkpoint and back on the route, only to be confronted with an alpine hill that no-one was running up. Except us.

Before long Alex dropped off the back of our peloton - his skill is in fearless descents, not in low-geared climbs. As I slowed to wait for him Ben, king of the hills, and Neil, usually hill averse but always irreconcilably competitive, fell into step with one another and trucked onwards. The gap between our two pairs widened quickly as Alex and I settled in to a march and the others ploughed ahead, perhaps 2-300 yards in the distance. The hill climbed on for weeks, but we were eventually reunited near the top where we finally joined the thing we had come to see: Hadrian's Wall.

Now I admit I don't know much about Hadrian or his wall, whether it was supposed to keep the Picts out or the Romans in or whatever, but to be honest I'm not sure it would do either. Any enterprising troublemaker could have scaled it with a small stepladder, or at a push, a competent leg-up. Its antiquity is awe-inspiring and its length is ambitious, but its height leaves much to be desired. Just saying.

Suddenly my stomach started to cramp. Within moments of knowing something was wrong I was doubled over, clinging to the wall itself and being violently sick on a UNESCO World Heritage site. I had clearly take on too much liquid and not enough food, and now felt so repulsed by eating or drinking that I would be running on empty for some time. We were just over 20 miles in at this point, and the ghosts of my DNF at London felt very close indeed.

While this was happening the others got caught in the crossfire of a conversation with a ginger-bearded runner. He was lolling on a fencepost taking photos and telling others that he was in the Expert category - we had caught up with his one hour head start. The crux of his argument, perhaps protested too much, was that 'doing it in one day was actually easier'. He looked a bit like Ed Sheeran. But less endearing. I staggered over to my teammates to rescue them from his chat and we got on our way.

The landscape opened up as my optimism shut down. Vast verdant valleys mocked us with their massiveness, challenging us to get through them in one piece. We trotted down mad switchbacks and started encountering endless gates, stiles and cattlegrids. I reserved my deepest disdain for the cattlegrids, slippery and challenging to run across with tired legs. I cursed them loudly and often.

On another outrageous ascent, around mile 23, my nutritional emptiness caught up with me. I couldn't keep up with even a steady march up the hill, and slowed, then swayed, then sat down. I felt a failure, again. I started contemplating my options, again.

The team gave me no options. Alex removed my cap, soaked with rain and sweat, and replaced it with his own that he had been keeping dry in his bag. Ben told jokes to distract me while Neil started rearranging my pack, and Alex dropped a salt tablet into my hydration bladder to add some nutritional value to my water, the only thing I felt able to consume. They worked on me like an F1 pit team, all of them just as tired and sore as I was. I am pathetically grateful.

I had a quiet word with myself. The next pit stop, where the crew were waiting, was just a couple of miles away. From there it was just seven or eight miles to Vindolanda, today's finish. I had to do this. For all the people who kept me sane through the London DNF. And for myself, and for our charity. No excuses, play like a champion.

Alex and Neil hauled me to my feet and we marched onwards, I munched a lucozade tablet that Ben had produced and cautiously sipped on my salty water. I felt some strength returning. I saw a future in which I could carry on. Those salt and lucozade tablets are the two best gifts that anyone has ever given me.

We hauled ourselves into the pit stop, the girls aghast at my ashen face. I told them I was craving a Lucozade, and on hearing this it was Karlie's turn to go pale. She had just finished drinking one, guzzling every last drop. Linds dashed off to see what she could do, and moments later reappeared with a full bottle from somewhere, utterly magic as I don't even remember there being a shop (but I also couldn't remember my name at the time so am probably an unreliable witness). She started googling local pharmacies to find me some sickness medicine. I love this woman more than I can tell you.

We trudged on, the 5:1 ratio out of the window and running/walking periods being determined by mutual agreement. We ground down the grassy, rocky miles and eventually passed the 26.2 mile mark - everything from here on would make us ultrarunners and constitute an all-time distance PB, a fact we celebrated regularly. Suddenly, from nowhere, the white tents of the finish line village at Vindolanda came into view. We practically screamed with delight and picked up the pace as this joyous view coincided with a massive improvement in terrain.

Back on Tarmac, we sang and ran and whooped and hollered. But then the route turned us away from the white tents. We had a cruel and vicious loop to complete before finishing, up a sharply inclined and rocky farm track. It was dispiriting, but just a blip in our mood. The day was nearly done. Into the finish chute, Alex and Neil broke into an unfathomable sprint finish, running straight past the poor marshal waiting to beep their chips. Ben trotted in behind them, I lumbered in a few yards behind. 32 miles of mad hills and muddy nonsense: finished in just over seven hours - good enough for 156th place from a field that we were told was 500 but later turned out to be more like 280.

We ate, we drank, we stretched. Alex had potato with extra potato. Linds had a more than competent go at being a sports masseuse, everyone had a go at the foam roller, and we slept. Day two loomed large.

Happy running (for now)


2013 to date: miles run - 659.85, races: 4 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 23, metres swum: 1000

Monday, 27 May 2013

Race Report - Edinburgh Marathon Relay 2013

It has been one year since Steven Sims passed away. If you’re not up to speed on his story please go back and read this, then read that. Then come back here. Sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

Team Simsply the Best – Neil, Alex, Ben and myself - was put together to do something challenging and positive and awesome to remember Steven, as well as a team-building exercise for our Wall Run assault. The goal was to absolutely fly round the Edinburgh marathon’s Hairy Haggis Relay – a four man relay over 26.2 miles run concurrently with the main marathon. I’ve done the relay event three times before, twice for Team Clan McLion alongside Steven’s sister Nic as charity runs, and once for Team TOAD on a whim. But Simsply the Best was about speed.

The race was the pinnacle of the team’s elite training weekend, which started in a pub in Pitlochry on Friday night (minus Neil who had a better offer). Some time and a few cold drinks later we played an intense game of Scrabble and passed out in the wee hours, only to wake up at the crack of half eight for a trail run along the loch. Then four tonnes of pork products for breakfast, and a distillery tour. Quite the training weekend indeed and it was only noon on Saturday.

We motored back down to Linlithgow, had another pint, then settled in for a disproportionately massive carb-loading session with Neil (who was by now well behind on the in-jokes), Adam, who was preparing for his debut full marathon, and their respective crews Karlie and Holly. The Crew Chief made ninety kilos of pasta and worried about logistics. Business as usual, then.

The following morning Ben ran the first leg – 8.4 miles from the city centre to just beyond Portobello prom. The ginger arrow flew down the relay chute at a thousand miles an hour, slowing just enough to pass me the red bracelet that played a poor substitute for a relay baton. I sprinted out of the changeover, eager for Ben to notice how fast I was running whilst I was still in his sights, but I never really got as far as slowing down for a rest. A stitch crept up on me, the result of idly eating flapjacks for something to do during the last two hours of waiting around, but there was no way I was easing off. Steven’s maxim stuck with me: No excuses, play like a champion. Too much of my running has been caveated by excuses. Not today.

I was nearing internal combustion, still overtaking dozens of full-marathon and relay runners, when I dashed over the halfway line that signalled that my leg was nearly done. I lifted my knees and picked up the pace, determined to look strong and fast at the changeover, 5.6 miles complete. I spotted Neil waiting at the gate – he was chomping at the bit to get going and hared off into the distance for his 7.8 miles of gently but persistently rolling hills. I had a little sit down while my lungs reinflated and my normal human faculties returned.

Karlie and Linds had rocked up at this part of the course to crack on with their expert American-style supporting, and Alex was already in place waiting to sprint the last leg when Neil finished his out-and-back loop. Just as I had caught my breath Adam tore past – over halfway into his race and shifting like a steam train. I sprinted to catch up with him and exchanged a few words as he barrelled along looking fresh and strong. I left him to it.

The team looking totally normal.
The flow of runners gradually switched to the other side of the out-and-back, at a point just before the 22 mile mark, and business was brisk in the Haribo-dispensing trade. Supporting races, I’ve decided, is much easier, cheaper and in many ways more rewarding than actually running the blasted things. While we were there Neil piled into the changeover point and Alex burst onto the course like a skinny-legged gazelle. Neil took a few moments to try to remember his own name and then joined us in dispensing Haribo. Just a few minutes later Adam came past again, looking tired but still moving unbelievably quickly. He was on for an incredible time, no doubt about that.

Once the sweets were all gone and we had run out of amusing words of encouragement we began the tedious public transport conundrum to get us back to the finish line. I say this every year but here goes again – this race needs some better transport solutions, or possibly a total course redesign. But you almost definitely know that already. After a walk, a bus and then a very long walk we made it to Pinkie Park and met up with Ben, Alex, Adam and Holly for photos and war stories. Adam clocked 3:32 – a truly monumental debut run. He looked like he’d just jogged for a bus. Our team effort seemed a bit weak by comparison, but our 3:16:51 was good enough for 30th place overall out of almost 1000 relay teams. We missed our 3:10 target but could hardly complain; everyone gave their all and Stevie might at least have got a laugh out of our team name.

Alex, Ben and I faced further transport shenanigans – a very long walk, a very long bus, then a very very long walk to finally back to the car. We nipped off for burritos before drawing the elite training weekend to a close with an innuendo-laden goodbye at Edinburgh Waverley. I will see them again in a very small number of weeks.

Well after ten p.m. in these northern latitudes the sun set on the 365th day since Steven Sims passed away. A new tree was planted for him with a plaque bearing his motto:

“No excuses, play like a champion.”

Happy running


P.S. Donations to ITP Support Association and The Wooden Spoon, in Steven’s memory, can be made via the Steven Sims Cavaliers here: 

2013 to date: miles run - 483.14, races: 3 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 23, metres swum: 1000

Friday, 10 May 2013

Simsply the best

Almost one year ago, an impossible tragedy shook us to the core.

On a balmy Edinburgh night in May, Steven Sims passed away very suddenly. He had been diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) – an illness that wiped out all the platelets in his blood – no treatment could have saved him. He had complained of feeling unwell on the Tuesday, and died on the Saturday night. He was 23.

The following morning, I ran an arduous PW at the Edinburgh marathon. A couple of friends ran their debuts. We spent the day thinking of Steve and getting sunburnt. You may have read about it already.

The next few days and weeks dragged by, sustained by an enormous outpouring of love for Steven coming from all corners. Tributes came in their hundreds, if not thousands, from every facet of Steven’s life. A statement of condolence from the Scottish Rugby Union came on the same day as a card from a sandwich shop in St Andrews. His funeral was attended by over 600 people, including his enormous family, legions of friends, his two rugby clubs, school, university, and his pipe band. The highlight was a video that captured everything Steven was about: rugby, jokes, music, banter. Being a good guy. Watch it now:

The last year has not been easy for Steven’s family or his friends. But ‘wonderboy’ continues to motivate people – his friends running marathons and starting rugby clubs in his name to raise money for the ITP Support Association and Wooden Spoon, the rugby charity. People are giving him the kind of legacy he deserves. Doing the kind of things he would be impressed by.

So where do I fit into this? And what of Neil and Alex, the two men who summoned the strength to run their first marathons with such horrific news sitting raw and heavily on their shoulders?

We’re going back to the Edinburgh marathon, of course.

This year we are running the marathon relay, our team name – Simsply the best - inspired by Steve’s affection for atrocious puns and a nifty summary of the man himself. Joined by Ben, our Wall Run team mate, we will be busting out the most lung-wrenching, eyeballs-out race we can manage, as a tribute to Steven and a positive means of marking the anniversary of that atrocious day. We might raise a little awareness about ITP, or a few pounds for the charities he has become associated with. It’s not much, but it’s what we do best.

In full flow representing the finest University RFC in the world
It is a cliché to idolise those who die young, but in Steven Sims the terms are justified. Very few people’s memories generate so much positivity out of such devastating tragedy. One friend put it: “Steve has done in passing what he was famous for in life- inspiring everyone around him to be and do better.”

Simsply the best indeed.

Happy running,


P.S. If you feel compelled and enthused to donate some cash in Steven's memory, go for it via the Steven Sims Cavaliers page:

2013 to date: miles run - 425.77, races: 2 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 23, metres swum: 1000

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Race Report - Virgin London Marathon 2013

Some people criticise distance running for being a solitary sport. I learnt this weekend that they are wrong.

My Virgin London Marathon started with a bit of a wobble and ended in minor catastrophe. I’ll spare you any attempts at witty hyperbole about my race-week prep,  travel to London, race registration and the rest of my lengthy and exhaustive weekend, but I’ll paint you this picture:

Saturday night before the race, the Crew Chief and I are tucked away in a corner of a Pizza Express in Greenwich. I cannot eat and can barely speak as I am such a bag of nerves about finally running the VLM the following morning - a race I have been trying to enter since 2008. A plate of pasta and pesto and lightly grilled chicken is gently cooling in front of me.

I am ostensibly worried about my knees. They’ve been a little painful recently, but I had taken solace in the fact that the pain didn’t actually stop me running – in fact I had done my last 20 mile training run with a dull ache throughout. I’d seen a sports injury professional who specialises in knees just a few days before and he had given me some light treatment and a green light to run. But there are other worries. The enormity of the pacing challenge has hit home as I’m now in possession of the rucksack/harness that will hold the pacing flag. It’s not the pace I’m afraid of – I have run many thousands of miles and dozens of races including multiple marathons much faster. It’s the pressure of maintaining that pace consistently, of being accountable and reliable and watched and scrutinised. Barriers around the Cutty Sark and the naval college are being built up around us and my stomach fills with dread at the prospect of the task.

My psyche lurches in the opposite direction on the walk back to our comedy-basic hotel. I regain utmost confidence in my abilities and am certain that the race tomorrow will be easy. Just another marathon. Just another long run really. No biggie.

I drifted through race morning in a daze. People recognised the pacing kit and started asking me questions immediately: Where is pen 6? Where are the toilets? Where should I put my bag? Will you be running that pace exactly? WHERE is pen 6? It’s my first VLM and I don’t know the answers to these questions. The crowds are huge and buoyant and excited and I felt my enthusiasm swelling with them as we get into our pens. A portly runner in front of me was wearing a yellow T-shirt that read ‘Dave – Believe’. I took it as a sign. A very literal sign. This was going to be excellent. A 30 second silence before the off in memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings reminded me to count my blessings.

Mercifully I was not alone – Sam Murphy, the author of Runner’s World’s column Murphy’s Lore was also pacing this group. Between us we got the first few miles under control, all within seconds of our 10:18/mile target. There was little hope of us staying side-by-side as the field was densely packed and we seemed to be doing a lot of overtaking. I saw the Crew Chief as planned at mile 5 and progress was generally looking good. Our only confusion came when the race’s three starts (red, blue and green) merged, because there were pacers in each starting zone and we were running to very different chip times. Sam and I overtook a 4:45 pacer to much muttering, but there was no way for us to explain to the runners around us that we were both right. But I understood their confusion and sympathised – in the sense that all I could do was to keep banging out 10:18s as best I could.

Elsewhere on the course I was privileged and grateful to see old friends cheering me on. Ben, Jess, Sarah, Ed, Tom, Erin, Heather, Adam, Louise, John, Bernie (also Rach, Matt, Ross and Thea probably, though I don’t remember seeing you) – each a friendly face picked out of the monumental crowd that made the whole thing seem worthwhile. The Crew Chief saw me more than I caught sight of her, and became rather more acquainted with the tube than any non-Londoner would really want to on a Sunday. I don’t think I’ve ever run a race with so many friends out supporting, and it changed my mindset and attitude for the better. They reminded me that people believe in my ability to do these things.

But I was struggling. Nothing seemed to click. I remember seeing a sign at mile 9 saying ‘17 miles to go’ and silently despairing at the prospect. The only thing keeping me focussed was the relentless pursuit of 10:18 minute miles, something that Sam and I were still achieving. We rolled over halfway perhaps 10 seconds early.

It wasn’t until around mile 15 that I had to concede that I was suffering, and, more dangerously, slowing down. Lurching to a fence I stretched my thighs and wrenched a gel out of my rucksack. I yanked the knee supports off my knees, as I felt they were limiting circulation to my thighs, and set off again, feeling renewed and refreshed.

I caught up to within 20 metres of Sam but found myself in a congested part of the race, content to hold my place just behind her. The field hadn’t thinned out and in places spectators were spilling onto the road, narrowing the course. I felt a little closed-in and conspicuous with a giant flag on my back. The pacing gear was generally good and relatively lightweight, but the flag was a sail in the wind and a nuisance in tight spaces. As the day heated up I sweated like a turkey at Christmas and the straps started to rub painfully on my neck. I thought of other things. Oddly, I struggled to enjoy or appreciate the crowds and the sights. This is what I had come to London for: a big city marathon with all the trimmings, but for some reason I couldn’t appreciate it. Tower Bridge didn’t even do it for me. All I wanted was for it to be over, preferably in exactly 4:30.

As the pain set in and 17 then 18 miles rolled around I lost some self-awareness, instead focussing on the rhythm of my pace and the number of miles left to go – now in single figures. I recited mantras and zoned out the noise of the crowd. Tough though it was, I reckoned I could stay in this blinkered existence for the next 8 miles. I felt like things were going well.

Things were not going well. The Crew Chief was waiting in the crowd around mile 18-19, though I wasn’t looking at the crowds and didn’t see her.  She burst into tears when she saw me, mournfully hauling myself through Canary Wharf with grim determination and apparently a pronounced limp.

The next thing I know I am leaning on a metal fence, arms locked straight and thighs stretching, with my eyes closed and head down. A number of people – I couldn’t say how many – are asking me a lot of questions. I tell them that I’m fine and will be continuing shortly. My legs and the people disagree.

Next I am in a wheelchair, eyes still closed, a mixture of relief and shame pounding my head along with three letters: DNF. Did Not Finish. So many people were expecting something of me in this race. Runners’ World. My contact there, Kerry McCarthy, who has been ridiculously generous to me professionally. Sam, the other pacer. My brother. The Crew Chief. Christ, she would be unimpressed by this. All those people out supporting. All my friends out supporting. Hundreds – if not thousands - of people wanting to run 4:30 who were looking to me for some sort of expertise. The 450,000 readers of this blog. My 2.2 million Twitter followers. My parents. My colleagues. Myself.

I lay on a stretcher inside under an awning erected on one side of a St John’s Ambulance. The paramedic took my temperature, looked at the thermometer and shook his head. He got a different thermometer and took it again. I was 41.1 degrees Celsius. Stripped to the waist, they covered me in soaking wet blankets in an effort to cool me down. My legs cramped up and I could barely move anything from the neck down without huge pain – I suddenly realised how painful my back was, presumably from the rucksack. Painkillers and electrolyte replacements and more cold wet things. Attempts at banter from my part were probably delirious ramblings.

After 40 minutes my temperature had gone down to 40.2. Over the next hour it quickly dropped down to a normal, safe, human temperature. The ambulance crew looked less worried and administered two cups of coffee and three Jaffa cakes, which I devoured greedily. My sister-in-law Erin was the first one able to answer her phone so she made it over to see me first, and went more or less straight back out to buy me some dry clothes. The Crew Chief arrived not long after, tearful, relieved and livid and relentlessly practical as always.

Unbelievably, my mobile rang. A doctor was on the line, telling me not to worry. Strange, I thought, I’ve got a doctor right here saying something similar. Turns out he was calling from the medical station at mile 22, where my brother Nick, sorry, my identical twin Nick, had suffered exactly the same outcome and was exactly the same temperature. Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. Erin dashed off to attend to her second Haines twin emergency of the hour, and left Linds to mop up the pieces of my VLM attempt. They would later emerge and get on the sweeper bus at the back of the race, left to endure the longest and slowest bus ride in London. Nick advises against this if you ever find yourself in such a situation. He also later reminded me that in the latter stages of a marathon, 'DNF' really means 'Did Nothing Fatal'.

A complicated and expensive logistical exercise to get back to the airport in one piece and with all the right bags was totally, utterly saved by Louise’s selfless help in moving all our junk around London. Unable to offer suggestions or make any objections, I did as I was told as Lou and the Crew Chief installed me in a hotel near London City airport for an hour’s sleep before our flight, while between them they picked up suitcases from Waterloo East and returned the blasted rucksack to a hotel in St James.

After speaking to my parents in Qatar and my sister in Southampton, I put a note on Facebook explaining what had happened, unable to face the prospect of fielding dozens of individual queries. My phone palpitated with messages of condolence and love and support over the next few hours. It might have been the exhaustion but I burst into tears reading them, in the middle of a hotel lobby. No-one was disappointed. No-one cracked a joke. Everyone wanted me to feel better, not to worry, to look forward to next time, that they knew I would bounce back shortly. One person said I was an inspiration. My dad said he was proud of me. The Crew Chief said she loved me.

Running is not a solitary sport. I promise never to forget that.

Happy running


2013 to date: miles run - 412.14, races: 2 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 18, metres swum: 500

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

We are runners

There are so many layers to the Boston Marathon terror attack, and so much has been written already that I will try to keep this brief and make my point distinct.

For those who maybe don’t know the context; the Boston Marathon is hallowed turf for mass-participation marathoners. It is the only major race in the world where the general public are welcome to enter, but only if they meet demanding qualifying times, creating a uniquely meritocratic environment in public sport. For runners like me, this makes qualifying for Boston seem a distant and ultimate goal, something to aspire to as we slowly whittle our PBs down towards a fast enough time. Some people train to qualify and don’t even need to run the race – just being the proud holder of a marathon PB that equates to a ‘Boston Qualifier’ (BQ) is enough. The finish line is an even more distant part of that challenge, I think of it as an almost mythical, ethereal entity - crossing it would certify my ultimate achievement in ‘recreational’ distance running.

I watched the news unfold open-mouthed. The finishing line of the Boston Marathon - a symbol of achievement beyond achievement, of years of hard work and sacrifice – left battered and blood-stained. The spell was broken. Boston’s finish line was revealed for what it was: an arbitrary line drawn on an ordinary street, that could be anywhere in the world. Just another in the long list of places where the scum of the earth had set out to force chaos, tragedy and hatred on innocent people.

For a few devastating moments, I doubted whether the magic and wonder of the marathon could ever be the same again. Perhaps this was a watershed occasion, where our passion was shown to be a frivolous, pointless and arbitrary act. Unimportant. Self-important. Self-absorbed.  Dangerous, expensive and vulnerable.

Then more stories emerged. Not of runners complaining that they missed their moment in the spotlight. Not of crowds panicking and fighting to get away from the scene. Not of chaos and violence.

Stories of courage and hope and selflessness. Of fearless runners and volunteers and emergency services. Endless offers of accommodation, queues to donate blood, messages of condolence and solidarity and love and support. Survival, persistence, and mutual respect. The spirit of the marathon, laid bare.

As one tweeter put it: "If you're trying to defeat the human spirit, marathon runners are the wrong group to target."

I will be running the Virgin London Marathon on Sunday, along with tens of thousands of others. We are runners, and we are not afraid.

Happy running


Monday, 15 April 2013

Race Report - Rock n Roll Edinburgh Half Marathon 2013

The problem with racing – and writing about racing – is that sometimes the thing which colours your experience and memory of the event is something entirely out of the organisers’ control. This year’s Rock n Roll Edinburgh Half Marathon was one of those events, and the thing was weather.

When I ran the Mokrun back in 2011 more or less the entire field of a few hundred hardy souls huddled for shelter in a flimsy marquee mere minutes before the off, sheltering from the howling wind and torrential rain that were relentlessly buffeting the small town.  Miraculously, at the last possible minute the rain stopped and the wind dropped just enough to lift our spirits and set an optimistic tone. It was a wonderful moment.

I thought the same was about to happen in Edinburgh yesterday when a rainbow formed above Holyrood Park, a beacon of hope inside a thrashing storm of bullet rain and monstrous wind. For the last hour the circle of vendors’ marquees that formed the event village had become a parade of shelters for runners desperately hoping for some respite from the grim weather, but as the announcer gamely insisted that the weather was cheering up a bit and that the race would start in mere minutes, we put on our brave faces and headed for our pens.

When I registered for this race, I hadn’t really considered that it was a week out from the VLM and that therefore it would be ridiculous to chase a fast time. I had madly stuck myself in pen two, aiming for sub 1:40. This would have put me just behind the elites, and a couple of pens ahead of Neil ‘4:33’ Gray who was racing his first half marathon. Realising the absurdity of this plan and its potential impact on my pacing duties at VLM, I decided it would be better for my mental and physical well-being to stick with the pacer running the equivalent of my VLM target – i.e. a 2:15 HM. My self-imposed relegation involved an awfully long walk down Queen’s Drive from pen two to pen nine.

The rain continued.

Staggered pen starts – mildly delayed by the weather, apparently – sensibly got the race off to a well-moderated tempo. My pacer carried an enormous blue helium balloon, which flailed around wildly in the huge wind and repeatedly bopped runners within a 4ft radius until he shortened its string to just a couple of inches. The rain hammered loudly on its surface and the wind swung it back and forward. We exchanged conciliatory words at the absurdity of it all.

My knees started bothering me almost immediately, and the pain in one or both would be a constant feature of the race. But the gentle pace and cheery company at this end of the field made for an otherwise good experience physically – in fact I was feeling incredibly fit and well, restrained only by the foul mess I’ve somehow made of my knees. My silent mantras became increasingly profane.

The route of this event should be a major draw for everyone – it is probably the best running race ever designed in Edinburgh. The first few miles loosely copy the Edinburgh marathon: through Holyrood, around Meadowbank and then out towards Portobello prom. But whereas the Edinburgh marathon then winds its way through tediously distant parts of East Lothian, the RnR half does justice to its location and folds back into the city, via Duddingston and then into the city centre – Cowgate, Grassmarket, Meadows, George IV bridge, the Mound, Market Street and the Royal Mile. Regrettably this does create an unfortunate moment where, after 8 miles, you can see the finish line but are cruelly directed uphill and away from it, but otherwise is the kind of ambitious and impressive course that the city deserves.

The rain continued.

The RnR brand is about mixing music and running, but in Edinburgh this year it was about mixing music and running and weather. The bands playing to us throughout the route – perhaps five live acts and two or three DJs – did their best to rock out despite the conditions, but those unlucky enough to be playing on stages facing the horizontal rain seemed understandably lacking in vigour. Nonetheless, the turnout of runners included some impressive facial hair, a plethora of Elvis and Freddie Mercury tributes, and a full wardrobe of tatty band T-shirts. Some of them were even pretty decent runners, too…

I hauled myself around the course, stubbornly keeping level or slightly ahead of my friend with the blue balloon, who did a fantastic job of maintaining his pace even up significant gradients and down promising descents. He also offered cheery advice to the nervous newbies around us, and I think I learnt a thing or two from him that I’ll be applying at the VLM. For a few brief moments I even forgot how much my knees hurt.

Great medals (2012 top, 2013 bottom)
I lumbered across the finish with 2:11 on my watch, slightly ahead of my 2:15 goal – the result of doggedly following the pacer who sped up a fair bit in the last two miles. As I slowed to a walk my right knee immediately locked and I wrenched off the tubigrip that was holding it, which luckily did the trick and let me walk normally again. A huge medal, water, banana, haribo and crisps were gratefully received, but I heard over the tannoy that there were some issues with bag check.

The rain continued, and the wind picked up.

I wandered into the event village, gawping at the enormous queues stretched in every direction. Neil, in the middle of one of them, called me over, a note of confused desperation in his voice. He had finished 30 minutes before me and was not even halfway to the front of the line to retrieve our bags. A similarly massive queue stretched to the tent containing goody-bags and T-shirts. Many runners huddled in foil wraps but I couldn’t find anyone distributing them, so I shivered in my wet gear and bare legs. The queue inched forwards.

After eighteen months of queueing (or thereabouts) we reached the front and some Scouts cheerfully took our numbers and gamely maintained their beaming Scoutly expressions as they fetched our bags. We threw on some clothes to protect us from the force 9 hurricane that was tearing through the village, and decided not to bother with the 40-mile tailback queue for T-shirts. In the classic post-race hobble, we gingerly walked back to the car, stopping only to chat to fellow runners who were incredulous or angry about the bag/T-shirt situations. Eventually we folded ourselves into Neil’s car and set the heaters for ‘surface of the sun’.

Unbelievably, the rain stopped.

Overall, this is a great event that was badly damaged by the weather and the organisers’ reaction to it. The finish area management was not up to scratch, perhaps because contingencies had to be enacted to deal with the high winds or due to a lack of staff. Either way, it was a sad end to a positive experience. No bands were playing on the main stage in the event village as Neil and I scurried back into the city, perhaps because the rain was lashing a lot of electrical equipment, and one side of the stage was flapping wildly in the wind.

I mean there’s Rock n Roll, and there’s downright unpleasant.

Happy running,


P.S. Oh go on then, as if I wouldn’t mention it. Neil ran a cracking debut half-marathon in 1:44:44, which is much more representative of his general athletic ability than that marathon debut of his which I definitely won’t mention again.

P.P.S. It was 4:33.

2013 to date: miles run - 389.04, races: 2, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 18, metres swum: 500

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

I am not a runner

Some months ago I heard a rumour that lifelong non-runner Rachel Fox Barber had signed up to the Bath Half Marathon, raising money for the Alzheimer’s Society. Suspicious and confused by this fundamental shift in the natural order of things, I asked her to write something about the experience. The following - rather humbling - account is very much in her own words.

I am not a runner.

I don’t think that pain is a good thing, I’m not fussed about PBs and I believe endorphins are a corporate conspiracy dreamed up by the sales team at Fitness First.

Yet at just after 11 in the morning on a freezing cold Sunday at the start of March, with a meagre 85 unenthused training miles behind me, I found myself whispering a prayer to Jesus as I crossed the start line of the Bath Half Marathon 2013.

Starting out felt like checking my bag to make sure I’d got my keys. Was I okay? Was anything hurting yet? Had my little timer chip thingy fallen off my shoe? I was so busy worrying and taking in my bizarre surroundings of determined athletes and cheering spectators that it was a surprise to see that first mile marker as my friend Alex told me we’d covered it in 11 minutes. 11 minutes! I’d been running just over 12 minute miles at best in training. But we kept going and got through mile two in 10 minutes 45.
Looking pretty happy about being in a race.

Somewhere in mile four, we got lapped by the elite runners – you know, the superhuman ones who can run for days without breaking a sweat. I mentally greeted each of them with a disgruntled “show off!” as they merrily sprinted by on their second lap. Alex and I, and my fiancé Matt, carried on at a slightly steadier pace, entertaining ourselves by discussing the next Star Wars movie (I didn’t have a lot to add to this), worrying about chafing (or to this, thank goodness) and pointing out every single giant boob carried by the Coppafeel runners (yeah, this was mostly me).

After the eight mile mark, it all started to get slightly too much. My longest training run had been eight miles, so passing that marker on race day was entering unknown territory. Through the next few miles, I’d had enough. I was stopping and starting, my legs were aching, I was finding it difficult to breathe, which was pretty scary as it hadn’t really been an issue before, and I was hating the whole experience. Those happy, cheering people were starting to get on my nerves – in no other situation but sport is it okay to yell at strangers – and I was convinced that my view of running as the most ridiculous of endeavours had been right all along.

But once I’d got past the 12 mile mark and was onto the home stretch, it got so much better. My legs killed and I was super tired, but I was so close! I had to make myself keep running until I turned the corner and could see the finish line – from then, it was easy.

Obviously, I had a little cry. That’s code for basically dissolving into a sweaty, sobbing flood of girl tears as I crossed the finish line. I’d done it! Just like that. 13.1 miles in a vaguely respectable (well, I wasn’t last) 2 hours 38 minutes. A nice boy from the cadets gave me a medal before I went in search of a cup of tea and some chocolate.

Alex, Matt and Rach

Since I was asked to write for this blog, I’ve been thinking about how I’d finish that sentence: ‘I run because…’, and partially, it was an experiment. I’d heard so much about why it was brilliant, how my life would be enriched, how good it would make me feel, and oh my goodness, the running, I figured I should try it out for myself. My findings? Well, I’m sorry to tell you, I still don’t really get it. It’s hard! You have to go outside! I’d much rather whack Strictly Come Dancersize on the telly and prance around the living room to Elton John’s I’m Still Standing.

Tell you what though, I don’t think I was quite prepared for how much I’d like – actually like! – the race day itself. I’ve gone along as a spectator before, but being part of the thing, having all those strangers willing me to finish, high-fiving excited little kids and trying to remember to run not dance past the steel bands was kind of brilliant. That’s not the sort of thing you forget in a hurry, and I’m glad to have been part of that, just the once.

But there’s a bigger reason that that. I don’t run for the thrill of the race, I don’t run because I want to go faster or beat a certain time and I don’t run because of how it makes me feel. When someone you care about is so far along Dementia Lane that seeing him be able to blow out the candles on his birthday cake seems like a miracle, it makes you feel pretty helpless. I ran the Bath Half in an Alzheimer’s Society t-shirt, along with a hundred or so others, all running for ‘Grandma’ or ‘Dad’ or ‘my lovely mother-in-law’. I ran because of my grandad, Phil, who turned 86 on 24 February with all his family around him and had no idea about any of it. So raising a grand for a cracking cause by doing something I hate seems as worthwhile as anything else. That’s why I run, and if you asked me if it was worth it, I would tell you unequivocally yes. Will I be doing it again?

Probably not.

I think you’ll be back. Congrats Rach, fantastic achievement.

Happy running


2013 to date: miles run - 238.44, races: 1, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 3