Saturday, 31 October 2015

And there we were ...

And there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again.

We’re in the dead heart of the temporal interstice that lies between ordinary life and tomorrow morning’s marathon. It begins with this morning’s massage, courtesy of Jessica in Brooklyn, who leaves me unable to speak. Lots of history buried in those messed up muscles, and she’s really good. Her hands are strong as chrysolite. She recommends epsom salts pre- and post-race. I didn’t know about that. I meet with Sean, then Simon and finally Brad and we eat and eat. Except Simon: he drinks and drinks, while we look on in envy, punctuated occasionally by his pointed apologies. We watch New Zealand beat Australia in the final of the Ruby World Cup in an unpromising Brooklyn sports bar, called 200fifth. We have a whole bank of televisions in front of us, and can hear the American commentary, delivered by a pair of men who’ve carefully read the rulebook and haven’t grasped the nature of the game. But it’s all good. The burgers are excellent, the sweet potato fries doused in cinnamon.

On the way back to the hotel I buy 4 kg of epsom salts for me, and 4 kg for Sean. That’s a lot of salt. Most of the chemists have sold out; in this one the young cashier suppresses giggles.

It's Halloween, and the walk back is slowed by hordes of children and teenagers in ghoulish costumes (18% of Americans believe they've seen a ghost, this morning's paper tells me) collecting candy from people and shops. Actually some of them are adults. Unaccompanied adults dressed as superheroes and bumble bees, the living dead and the dead living.

Sean’s asleep, so I sit and write in the hotel bar. This isn’t real time. It’s all about waiting in that space, expending no energy or adrenaline, waiting for it to start. Everything is muffled, but for the quiet soundtrack in my head, playing music I can’t quite remember. I've been here before.

See you tomorrow.

We’re doing this for charity. Please don’t forget to give:

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Why you should sponsor me for the New York Marathon 1/11/15

Baby daughters do nonplussed with more severity than any adult.

Here Celia looks nonplussed in the finish area of the Hackney Half Marathon in May. Every day I remember to think how blessed I am that I have a healthy baby. This is easy to do when you have friends whose children need operations, even relatively minor ones, and you’re reminded of what an extraordinary strain it is upon them, how it shakes the foundations upon which ordinary complaints – about workload or running injuries or the heartless, self-serving pomposities who run our country – rest.

So the charity Sean, Brad (aka Brash) and I are running for, the Childhood Cancer Association, provides support for families who have children with cancer. Most of the charity I give is to cancer organisations – because it’s affected me, because I think there’s a cure around the corner, because its incidence can be reduced through informed choices, and because I am in awe of people who provide hospice care. And it’s been on my mind this week because of my friend Lisa Jardine, who finally succumbed to it aged only 71 and still at the peak of her powers. And of course I tend to give to British charities, for sound tax reasons and because that’s what I know. So Brad’s suggestion of a South Australia charity made perfect sense. Let’s think more globally, starting with SA.

Much as I would like to, I don’t believe in the power of prayer, so that’s what we need to do. Sermon over. Please give.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Things you can’t take away from me

In the torturously long middle bit of Shakespeare’s most bleak tragedy, King Lear, the eponymous hero wanders across a blasted heath having lost his kingdom, his daughters, his knights, his clothes and ultimately his mind, becoming the naked reduction of humanity. What is unaccommodated man? No more than a frame with a straying mind, blasted by the elements.

King Lear’s problem was that he wasn’t a runner.

[I love the printed name, don't you? It's like when I showed up at the Centre for Advanced Studies at the Central European University, and they had already put my name on the door, even though I was there for a few days ... UEA took about two years.]

I have lapsed, I know. I promised to revive the blog, and I failed. I promised to run, and discovered excuses, injuries, excessive alcohol, two stalkers, an extra 2% body fat. Still there are things you can’t take away from me: the taxman might steal my purse, the ex-wife might take away my good name, the years take away my youth, hair, the alleged resemblance to JohnnyDepp, my children my vitality, and the mortgage company stands poised to snatch the house should I stumble.

But, as you all know, at the start line, Santander, the taxman, your ex-, and the years, they all stand behind you. So it was on 18 April when took a commuter riverboat to St Margaret’s island, in the Danube in Budapest, and collected my number from race headquarters. It was bright and sunny and people of all nations lay on the grass and talked and laughed nervously. The start and finish gantries had been erected for a junior race that afternoon. The air was all salt and sweat and the heat off the river. Men and women from all over Europe checked through their race bags to see if they had their pins. And I thought to myself: I was born to do this, why don’t I do it anymore?

Next morning I jogged over the road bridge to that same place, lined up and ran. Slow, it’s true, but through the cool sunshine of a Budapest morning, up and down the river, around the parliament, over bridges, and back. What could be more beautiful? It’s true that I’ve grown weak in the head, and that when I saw the finish line I persuaded myself that befejez, if that’s what it was, wasn’t Hungarian for ‘finish’, and that I needed to hold back my final dash ... and then I was over the line. Weak headed. But that hardly matters. Then a massage at the nearby spa, then goulash and black beer, then the airport. I was born to do this, why don’t I do it anymore?

And now I’m back on the heath, and the New York Marathon is a remote country, over the sea. It’s whole weeks away.

I'm running the New York City marathon (1/11/15) to raise money for South Australia's Childhood Cancer Association. Please donate!

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Shame about the weather

As I was loping through the fens yesterday ... no, that sounds much too glamorous: the sheer ugliness of 99% of the fens depends on the fact that a landscape that was lacking in either pastoral charm or sublimity has been wrecked by a modicum of human intervention by humans with little or no interest in beauty reinforced by an almost theological conviction that they understand the countryside in a way you don't ... so: as I was running along the B1102 yesterday in the glorious, sweltering heat, I decided that I liked running in the sun. Sunshine has a similar mood-improving effect to running. You feel relaxed and let your arms move freely, you don't worry too much about your pace, you absorb the dusty air through your pores.

It reminded me of a run with Sean a couple of years ago in the dark days of rehabilitation (from injury, not from Sean's encouragement of late-evening-prior-to-long-run toping). At 7 am we looked out into a dreary Nottingham cloudscape and, pooh like, wondered if it would rain. Gilets on, we started the run and it started to rain. 'It's bloody started to rain,' I said, by way of making what passes for conversation between runners who don't want to be running.

'It's perfect race conditions,' he said, 'only a year ago you would have thought this was perfect.'

And he was right. When on a relaxed lope through the countryside you want to enjoy the weather and pretend all is well with the world and rack up some miles without too much boredom or suffering. And when in the monocular tunnel of training or, worse, racing, you want a slight bite in the air and a little drizzle. Look out of your door at those conditions when you just want to run, and they seem inhospitable and you try to think of some other commitment that insists on being addressed immediately and require you to take your shoes off; look out on race day, and you know that whatever time you rack up this morning, the weather will have been on your side. You won't overheat, you'll be focussed on that space floating above the road.

Runners can always find something to complain about. Or enjoy: they're happy people. The fact is, running and racing prefer antithetical weather, and that's just the way it is. It's another mental obstacle to overcome on this long road to recovery: the weather doesn't have to be great.

I look at Facebook later and see that my friend Simon was running the Milton Keynes marathon, and was crucified on the altar of the sun. It was not a good day for breaking three hours. Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved; do not presume: one of the thieves was damned. It's a fair percentage.


Sunday, 21 April 2013

Pieces of a Runner

Running and runners have been on my mind for the past few weeks. I started running again. My boy was training for a half marathon, and I ran it with him. He's 16. I had a moment of pride a few weeks before that when he did a fitness test in order to get into an elite rowing programme. He did the collapse test and ran into the toilet to throw up. I felt proud. And I thought: I need to pull myself together. So we ran the Cambridge Boundary Run, and I discovered it was no effort at all. And it was a lovely day.

So I've been running, in snow, rain and sun. With and without dog. Slowly and very slowly. And then of course came Monday, and the news of the Boston Marathon. Many things went quickly through my mind – many of them about the way that news works today – but the one my mind kept returning to was: why a marathon? Of all of the events to attack in the name of God or a political ideology or whatever, why a marathon? There is nothing less divisive, less nationalist, less imperialist than marathons. The same might be true for running in general, but marathon runners seem to me to be a truly open community, and a community-minded community, one that rejects national interests, one that embraces the globe. One that recognises that you share something with everyone else who's been through miles 16-18, and especially the things that bring you to confront miles 16-18. I could tell a thousand stories, but I would be digging into memories of when I was a runner.

So this morning I set off from Lower Clapton on my fixie at 6:30 am and cycled to Greenwich. I took the towpath along the River Lee Navigation canal, turned onto the Herford Union Canal and crossed Victoria Park before heading down to the Isle of Dogs. I crossed by the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which was completely deserted. An echoing, sallow artery. Outside the air was cold but bright with sun, the air that wakes your spirit. I ground the single gear north into Greenwich Park, and found the marathon route, near the start. Then I rode the marathon route.When I run I manage to miss everything, as though I have tunnel vision; and with my new-found knowledge of London topography and putting the pieces and perspectives together this was completely different. And it was fun slowly riding the cleared streets (only one jobsworth of a copper – one in 20-odd miles – told me to get off the road), and taking roads on the wrong side, recklessly following the triple blue lines, and riding the wrong way down one-way streets. And reliving those meteoric, aphasic flashbacks of joy and suffering from the four previous times I followed this route (or was it five: there might have been a fifth too painful to recall). All of that was just beautiful.

But what was most wonderous was the logistical preparation. Thousands of volunteers. The hundred of helpers erect barriers; hundreds of schoolchildren setting up the drink tables; lorries delivering showers; bands doing soundchecks; pubs putting out tables; the marshalls standing in groups agreeing on roles; marshalls setting up the arches; technicians laying the chip readers under mats at the 5k points; hundreds of charity volunteers setting up banners to cheer the runners ruining their knees raising thousands of pounds for them; well-wrapped sexagenarians carrying their camping chairs to watch from the roadside; hard against the barriers; families with their personal banners. The race was less than an hour away and towards the end helpers were still getting things in place. And everyone – except said copper – was smiley. And I saw a couple of references to Boston, one reading "running London, thinking of Boston", and I thought: you terrorists are trying to deter the wrong people.


Monday, 6 June 2011

Constitution Hill

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Probably two thousand of mine. So here's a picture:
 Constitution Hill, Swansea. Friday 10 June.

And here are some more pictures:

Y Bwlch, north of Price Town, which is north of Bridgend. And two cyclists chilling out immediately after the above:


Friday, 22 April 2011

Even marathon runners need to nap

London is a great, mysterious city, with always a surprise, so I suppose you have to run around it every year, on a pilgrimage of self-exploration and self-abuse. It was time for the marathon again. I took the train in, finally opened the envelope with my entry documents (sitting on desk for months), read the Virgin London Marathon magazine and almost cried. Adrenaline was - at least - seeping out through my tearducts. I'd forgotten what adrenaline tasted like. Today it tasted like defeat and tomorrow's hope in a pitiful cocktail. I was trying to think of a name for this cocktail when the train pulled into King's Cross.

I dodged the crowds at the ExCel Centre exposition, went to the hotel, checked in, wandered around Carnaby Street and wondered when it had been swallowed whole by the Evil Chains. I went out for dinner at the worst pizza express on the planet (Byward Street), near All Hallows by the Tower Church. My pasta came burned black, the sauce shrivelled away. They must have lost it at the back of the oven. After a tine on my fork shattered on first contact I proposed to the waiter that he might want to bring another one (I've never done this before, honest). He looked puzzled, so I explained, perfectly nicely, that it seemed quite burned to me. He scowled and carried it away. A couple of minutes later the manager showed up. "What it is?" he said, and glared at me. I explained again. "It's because it's warmed in the over," he said. "I think perhaps it was in the oven a bit long," I said. "No, it's just that the oven is very hot at the top." He was glaring now. "Well, would it be possible for me to have another one that's a bit less burnt?" "DO you want to choose another plate?" he asked, "I can bring you another, but it'll be just the same." I had lasagna, which the manager had probably spat on, but at least it wasn't burnt through. I needed my carbohydrate. The restaurant appeared to be full of runners, all in their casual sports gear, carrying backpacks. I still think wearing cufflinks saves adrenaline.

The hotel was nice (Apex, near Tower Bridge), quiet and roomy, with a view of St Olave's church. The phone was nice, a Jensen phone. I didn't use it. The TV looked ok. I didn't use that either. The shower was excellent, and I used that. The bed was huge, and I used that. I finally got around to looking at the train timetable for the following morning, and thought I could get away with the 8:10 from London Bridge overground station. Not caring about your performance can be pleasingly relaxing. Gone are the days of tense evenings with Sean micromanaging our breakfast and checking the contents of the race bag for the twentieth time. I could barely be bothered to crumple my race number before pinning it to my shirt (for aerodynamic purposes). I slept with my feet up on a pillow and dreamed of my dog running across the fens.

The morning was overcast, but the air was humid and the clouds promised to break later. A few runners haunted the streets. Most were at the station, taking their hydration seriously, their bladders inexorably filling.

I fell asleep on the train to Blackheath. Then I made my fraudulent way to the Fast Good For Age pen. Because I had held over my place from last year, when I had obtained it by merit of being fast. But I was no longer Fast, nor even Good For Age. I am an overweight sluggard, with my best miles left behind me, spent with a bottle on the sofa. The problem with middle-age runner culture is that no one believes you, because talking your race down is universal.

I see the old crowd there, and they're still runners, proper runners. I bump into Chanti from Long Eaton. "How's it going?" I ask. "Not great, digestive problems ... I won't run flat out," he says, dismissively, meaning "I'm hoping for 2:49." Then Giulio, "oh, ok," he says, which Giacomo glosses as "sub 3 for sure".  Giacomo says "not bad", and Giulio explains that means 2:45. Then Ish, who is a new father and hasn't trained, so he's going to trot around in 3:15.

You? They all ask. I'm fat and I haven't trained, I say. They all think that means 2:59. I explain that I'd be happy with 3:59. They all think I'm talking my race down. I'm not, but not one of them believes me. Only I know how very not-pretty it's going to be.
I creep my way to the back of the Fast Good For Age starting pen, at the very front of the red start. The sides are lined with men - there are almost no women here - peeing under the barriers, away from the pen. They had a choice between peeing in the toilets, or making it to the front of the pen, a choice that was none.

We crammed in together, in a fug of testosterone and adrenaline and watery urine. There were a couple of idiots talking over the PA, which I think may have been the TV or radio coverage. 9:45 approached. There was a countdown. And nothing happened. Gradually I saw a few heads begin to move. And then it all began.

I was running without a watch. I didn't need to know how slow or fast I was: my target was to enjoy myself. It never really works as a target that (am I enjoying myself yet?). Having people run past me was a new experience. One guy asked me a question or said something - I forget what - and we fell into conversation. We hit the two mile mark and he looked at his watch. "Oh this is good," he said, "I didn't think I was going to be able to pace myself because I've no practice at doing that, but we've run the first two miles in exactly 7:20 each." Oh Christ, I think, slow down.

I run (if you can call that running). I see a lot more than usual. The sun emerges - gently at first, but soon intensely, and licks London with sparkling light. Around the water stations the roads coruscate.

Oddly enough, running a marathon slowly isn't very different from running one quickly. You go through all the same moments of apprehension and of fear that you won't finish. You worry whether that twingeing in the toe is the start of a blister. The pain is quite similar, though I did have a new one this time: the pain caused by completely worn out shoes. I'd tried to buy a new pair of shoes, but they turned out not to be quite right. So I wore a pair that were a couple of years old, with many hundreds of miles in them.

I ignored the slow people passing me, and reminded myself that I was here to enjoy it. A woman said "hello". I looked over at her. "Oh Christ," I think, "Nell McAndrew is speaking to me." A thousand reasons run through my head why Nell might want to speak to me. Actually none do. I can't think of a single one. Some of this must be legible on my face, and so Nell says: "I'm from your running club - my name's Caroline." I look down, and she is indeed wearing a Cambridge & Coleridge vest. She runs nicely and I follow her for five to eight miles before I lose her.

Tower Bridge is great, except you know that the next few miles are a bit boring. I'm still feeling pretty good. I see the leaders -- Mutai has a twenty second lead on Lel, and he looks strong and determined; you can see the resolution in his face, and I think, yes, I want to be like him. Then it is - as always, just as it is when I'm fast - in the three miles after Tower Bridge that people pass me. This time people in fancy dress. Short overweight people. Everything is in slow motion. I pray for the turn when we start to head back west.

You can't lie to the Marathon. You can't cheat it. You think you can sneak around, but 26.2 miles won't let you get away with it. When your training schedule includes a couple of thousand miles on the bike together with a couple of crashes, scars and a broken hand, one long run (26.2 miles), plus another when you got lost in the fens and ran out of water, one abandoned set of hill repeats, plus a handful of 7-mile runs, you cannot hope that a poker face is going to persuade the Marathon to let you get away with it. I keep on waiting for the hamstring to give up.

But I think I'm going to be ok.

And then the turn happens and I'm feeling pretty good, and I pick my heels up a bit. And I pass all of those people who passed me. They're slowing, some are stretching against the barriers, many are walking. And I'm feeling pretty good. I look at the clocks on the mile markers and figure out that I should make 4 hours. Then I calculate that I will make four hours even if I have to stop and walk a bit. Then I work out that 3:45 is quite plausible. I'm deeply confused because I am passed by the 3:30 pacers twice, and I have no idea - having no watch - why they should be anywhere near.

While the thirteenth mile had been the longest mile of my life - at least until the fourteenth, which only held its pre-eminence until the fifteenth - after about twenty everything speeded up. Though the markers do seem to go a bit funny for the last couple of miles, and that "800 metres to go" was an age in coming. It reminded me of my old friend Ned's complaints in 2008 when I cheerily exclaimed "that's only twice around a track"; but once I hit that the metres disappeared pretty quickly, and I bounded past a few old codgers and cripples towards the finish.

I saw Ish and Caroline, who complained about the heat, but kept on walking, and within minutes was in Trafalgar Square, sitting on the steps in front of the National Gallery.

Here's a useful bit: an advanced marathoning technique Sean taught me. Take flip-flops for after the race. I haven't had a running blister in years, today the flip-flops were an exquisite relief. In Trafalgar Square the sun at last went away, giving some relief to the 4+ hour slowcoaches.

The waiter at Les Deux Salons brought me a bavette steak that was the shape of my fist, and somewhat bigger, good and bloody on the inside. Somewhere deep inside me the memory of thirty years of vegetarianism stirred, and I ate every inch. That's how to recover. Maybe I'll become a runner again one day, and I'll be able to forget this 3:34.20, and return to lighter numbers. In the heart of this bavette steak I look for inspiration for the autumn, and it's perhaps a sign of being a runner, however faint and inaudible, that the inner chorus is asking "where next?". First, however, I need a new pair of shoes.