Friday, 11 November 2005

Five bridges, five boroughs and a lake of fire

Good morning.

It's 10:05 am on 6 November, I'm standing on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge looking out at the river-mist over the shoulders of about 3,000 people standing in front of me, and humidity is 97%. Then the clouds more or less instantaneously pull back, the mist burns off, and it's suddenly 62%. Why am I doing this?, I think. Someone's singing 'Good Bless America', but a bunch of Mexicans or Colombians standing next to me are singing something else. The Austrians are picking their noses, and the patriots are getting really quite itchy about the disrespect. A cannon fires, and 3,000 people start running really very very slowly. i pass most of them over the next few miles, but it's a bloody irritating few miles. The V-N bridge is packed from side to side with overexerting Italians, who've forgotten about the next 25 miles, relieved only when the odd man darts over to the other side of the central barrier to pee (yes, it's still mile one). The only really fun moment is when the bridge starts violently swaying and a bunch of people start squealing in unnatural voices, fearing that the bridge is going to throw them off (they should be so lucky). By the top of the incline everyone is slowing down even further. They are funny shapes, with rear-ends like rhinos, running form like gorillas, the urgency of a spanish waiter, and all they've learned from watching Paula is that jerky head-movement she gets at 22 miles.

Flashback to Heathrow 3 days earlier: on the escalator out of the tube station I turned around to see three guys carrying a rhino costume, that looked like it weighed 500 lbs, with a frame that sits on their shoulders as they run. It might have been useful if the predicted thunderstorms had arrived. But they didn't: we're now halfway through brooklyn, and the temperature is in the mid-60s. And the rhino asses in front of me are all perfectly natural and will raise no money for charity.

It's impossible to get in a groove all of the way through Brooklyn, what with dodging all of the lollopping runners who pushed their way to the start. The high point is passing a bunch of athletic, aryan germans carrying a flag. It feels good to bring a bit of trans-European prejudice into the streets of Brooklyn. Brooklyn has the most bands, some of whom are quite good. After 4 miles the runners from the other two starts appear: the men merge, while the women run on the other side of the median. It looks nice over there: not too crowded. After 8 miles they swing round a block and we meet at a T-junction, which is a bit of a surprise, before heading over the Pulaski bridge. That's two down. Queens is entertaining, with the Hassidic jews taking photographs with their camera-phones, and their other-worldly daughters handing out boiled sweets. The groove happens about the time we hit the Queensborough bridge, by which point more or less everyone is dying. So this is why I do this, i think. Unfortunately it's a 7'20" groove, not the sweet 6'52" groove I'd been hoping for. In fact the Queensborough bridge is just fine for me, no doubt egged on by the pleasures of watching other people with severe cramp, some of them looking over the side of the bridge and contemplating ending it there. Though it's at that point that I begin to notice that the only people who are not suffering are the 5-foot 2-inch women, who keep pushing on with little apparent effort.

Round that horrible and pointless curve that takes you under the Q bridge, and we're soon enough on Manhattan's first avenue, which must be the most horrible street in New York. It's breathtakingly crowded, and the cheers are awe-inspiring. And at this point there aren't too many other people around to appreciate them. But it's really bloody long, and we're now in the low 70s. I think it's at this point that I begin to get sunburned. It's not meant to happen like this. The pain begins in the other extremity too, and a blister begins to appear on a toe. People say first avenue is mostly downhill and that the crowd pulls you through. For me it's the low point, especially as I'm still faintly conscious at this stage. I finish off my gels here I think: after all, there's less than ten miles to go. Maybe eight, I've lost count.

Entirely forgotten now is that tranquil passage from Battery Park to Staten Island on the ferry, with the Statue of Liberty saluting us through the mist. This is plain nasty. Maybe she was waving goodbye to the three-hour target. Me too now. Actually I waved goodbye to it at the 13.1 stage, which took 1:34:08. But I didn't know this was going to happen as we sailed by Liberty.

Eventually there's a bridge at the end of first avenue, a metal one with a grid surface that digs right into the feet as you run over it. Fortunately the race organisers have decorated it with a brightly orange rubber mat to cheer you up. There's a quick mile in the bronx with plenty of signs saying "welcome to the bronx". I don't know whether that's with more or less irony than the bastard who has a sign that says: "The first 20 miles are in the legs, the next six are all in the heart." I almost punched him.

Out of the bronx, over bridge number five and back into manhattan, and there's a little loop round Marcus Garvey park. And I'm feeling good at this point. Some wag has discovered a new running song for me: they're playing the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" at great volume. I think I start singing along. That's funny, i think.

Then we're on fifth avenue, and guess what: it's uphill. It's uphill for what seems like forever. Now those 7'20" miles look speedy, and I hit the low point of a 7'45" pace. I'm briefly cheered by seeing Nicky (my sister-in-law) by the side of the road. That lasts about 0.05 seconds. Noah, in his pram, doesn't look impressed. He's probably crawled faster. Steve (my brother-in-law) suddenly appears and runs with me along fifth avenue. Did I mention that it was uphill? He keeps saying "You're doing great". I can't hear the punctuation at the end. I keep wondering why I can't run faster. I don't even feel like throwing up. It's just that my legs won't do much more. This is the point where Susan Chapkemei started throwing up (without slowing down). At least she was pushing herself as hard as she could. Maybe I need to work on this throwing up business.

Steve decides family life is more rewarding than trying to drag along stunned and overheating marathoners who are now in a fully post-human stage of consciousness. We turn right into the park and at last I pick up some speed. Here the twisted and fallen forms of marathoners are scattered like the damned on the lake of fire. The path gets more crowded because I'm passing the walking sinners. But the crowd are now amazing. It sounds like a football match. These people actually want you to finish. They call your name. They press in from the sides. They shout "looking good" and "looking strong" and "not far to go". You reckon? Now I finally remember how to race. I know how to do this, I think. We're in a park and I've about 2.5 miles to go, and I remember how I couldn't remember the last two miles in London, despite the crowds and Buckingham palace. That's not going to happen today. Then some Puerto Rican shows up at my shoulder and tries to pass me. maybe fifty or a hundred people have done it so far, but this one isn't. Never mind the fact that he looks about fifty and is a foot shorter, this is a race damnit. We hit the southern side of central park and head up to the fountains of Columbus circle. The two of us are jumping over bodies at this point. And I remember why I like doing this. I think he tripped over one of the bodies then, because I didn't see him again -- I wanted to thank him at the finish line. The New York Road Runners think it's a good idea to mark each of the last 400 metres. So after 25 miles, you get signs that read "I mile to go", "1/2 mile to go", "26 miles", "400 meters", "300 meters", "200 meters" and "100 meters". This is all quite confusing at this point. I'm not sure that they're not my heart rate.

And at this point the US TV camera catches me. I don't notice it now, but watch it on TV later. At first I'm in the margins of the frame, then it zooms in on me and holds me in close up. I'm hyperventilating and trying to remember how to count. and I'm immortalised doing so on national TV. I look a bit like George Bush in the kindergarten classroom on the morning of 9/11, holding that book upside down and trying to remember what the shapes are.

It may have been at this point that I saw a man on a stretcher, within sight of the finish line. Which was alarming. Especially as he seemed to be entirely covered. There are no medals for running 26.1 miles, however fast.

The last 100 metres is one of those great moments that you'll remember forever even if you can't remember exactly why. It's uphill, perversely, for most of the last 100 metres, but it doesn't seem to matter that much, perhaps on the "in for a penny ..." philosophy. And in that last 100m you're entirely carried away by the sight of that arch -- if a little dolorous about the clock -- and the deafening noise of the crowd, and the promise of imminent relief, even if your heart does feel like it's finally hit 204. At that point, everything -- the light and sound and the pain -- is absorbed through the skin and turns to adrenaline, and it feels like no one could ever pass you, not even Paul Tergat. It was a shame he'd been through an hour earlier.

I have my moment after the finish line, paying the price of that adrenaline. A medical assistant insists that I have it elsewhere. She's missing the point a little. It feels like it's 80 degrees, and I need to be in the shadow of that arch. Sean is waiting up ahead, having arrived 80 seconds earlier and had his moment. The medal is great (and there's a ribbon). And suddenly you're a prince for a day. The citizens of NYC all walk up to you and congratulate you. Even the following day they spot the T-shirt and call out "looking good for the next day". It's almost like the world is a nice place. It's like watching the West Wing.

We visit the finish line again the next day. Never has a wood-covered scaffold looked so much like a roman arch. But, yes, dolorous about the clock. So here are the stats:
3:11:12 (PB). That's an average pace of 7'17". I threw a good 6'30" in somewhere in Brooklyn, but a couple around 7:45 in Manhattan, and only one precisely on the 6'52" I was aiming for. I came in 1183rd, including the world's elite. That's good enough for the first page of the New York Times results. Which is, in itself, some consolation.

I'm not typing in my splits, but if you've nothing better to do, you can watch a charming simulation of the pace at the following site:
type in the following runner numbers for the runners you wish to simulate:
15332 -- this is me
45725 -- this is Sean
and "Paul Tergat"
You'll see us as dots running around the course. Paul is pretty fast.

Ok I'm slower than I think I should be. But I have more moral fibre than last week, and a place in Boston finally awaits. Many thanks to Nicky and Steve and Noah for their hospitality on the upper west side.


Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Weighing medals

The Cardiff marathon and half marathon took place last weekend. It's the 100th anniversary of Cardiff's incorporation as a city, and the 50th anniversary of it controversially achieving the status of the capital city of Wales. Someone sympathetic planned the weather: it was cool and overcast and still, at least until the clouds parted for a glorious afternoon well after I'd finished. The weather was the only thing that was planned, however. The finish line was a mess. Fortunately Sean and I hit the finish line early, so we got a massage immediately on a fresh bed. Then we had to plough our way through a mass of sweaty men to collect our medals and goody bags. The medal came with a display case and ... no ribbon. What good's a medal without a ribbon? How are you meant to wear it in your post race stupor, feeling, through the weight around your neck, that you might have accomplished something? Medals are in short supply in academic careers, and when I get one I want to wear it for at least 12 hours, before it goes on a shelf somewhere. The plastic display case might look great down in the basement or attic or whatever, but I want to wear the thing. Unlike the T-Shirt, which is right up there with the worst designed race finisher T-Shirts I've ever seen. At least it's so badly made that the design will come off after a couple of washes. And then there was the goody bag. It was a small carrier bag which had an advert for a ford dealership on the outside, and inside ... two leaflets. And a banana. Plenty of room for the medal display case.

Still, I ran a good time, 1:25:13, a personal best (PB) by more than a minute. And I came 60th out of 4,200+ finishers. Not as good as Sean, however, who's undergone something of a moral reformation. And John, Sean's friend from Nottingham, finished his first marathon in a distinctive time. Photographs below. Admire the muscle definition. DON'T look at the shorts. We've all read that article about the beneficial effects of nitric oxide in Runners' World, but no one's mentioned this consequence. It must be that funny light in south wales. The first two shots are on the Severn Barrage, one of the nice stretches on the route; the finish is in the millennium stadium.

But I'm still pissed off about the medal. I found a piece of ribbon that night and wore it the following day. With some satisfaction. I've not written up a lot of races this summer -- a bunch of 5ks, a couple of 10ks (I still haven't figured out how the 10k works), a couple of halves etc. This is the last before the New York Marathon on the 6th, a route already beset by injury and a head-cold. Say a prayer to your hearth gods for me.


Monday, 5 September 2005

older, faster, harder

Dear all,

Today was the Cardiff Kidney Research Wales 10k open road race. I could tell I wasn't going to win it even before I started, when I was standing in line to use the toilets. There was a bloke in front of me who was 5' 10" and about 110 lbs and had the smallest feet. I bet he wore children's shoes. And there was no fat on him, nor much muscle to be honest, just aerodynamic bone. And he was wearing a jacket, though it was about 25 celsius and warming up. I sensed the race slipping from my grasp. Did I mention that he was Kenyan?

A year ago today I ran a personal best of 42:30 at this same race, despite blowing up about half way through; it was only a PB because I'd never run this distance before. Today I managed a new PB of 39:48, which was, frankly, a slouch's effort, as you can tell from the picture below, where you can see me in the background shuffling towards the finish line and operating my stop watch, which I NEVER remember to do when I've run properly. Anyway, it was a nice day, stupidly warm, stupidly crowded at the start (why do all the slow people push their way to the starting line? Do they actually enjoy being continuously passed for the next 60 mins?), and all in a good cause. The Kenyan was only about 11 minutes faster than me, which was less than last time.

When I arrived back in Cambridge, the only interesting piece of mail awaiting me was my runners' number for the Robin Hood half-marathon in Nottingham next weekend; and no, that's not my next race, because I have a 5k on Thursday. For a moment I almost thought that this was a strange way to live.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia there was a memorial service for my brother in law Tom -- you will all remember earlier postings about his circumstances -- who died eight days ago. Please spare a thought for his family.


Tuesday, 24 May 2005

East Cambs half marathon 22 May 2005

In case you were inclined to think that I'd hung my shoes up on the bedroom wall (now there's an idea) since that last bout of muscle spasm, let me report on last Sunday's outing. I thought I'd avoid a decently long training run this weekend, so decided to limit myself by racing a half marathon. The East Cambridgeshire Half Marathon (=13.1 miles) started at 11:15 on Sunday, in the car park of the Soham sports centre (Soham is a village near Ely). It ended, for me at least, at 12:44.47 in same car park, to the sound of the worst band I ever heard. It was sunny and windy in an east anglian way (I think there were probably hills around this place once, they were just blown flat) as we wound our way along various country roads between real, bona fide farms, with barns, tractors and all. There were about 250-300 runners in all, the usual mix of haunted, hunted, stunted and overfed. There being none of the London-style crush, we were able to string ourselves out in an orderly fashion: it was the first race I ever ran which didn't involve dodging the overenthusiastic who'd set off at a 6'00" pace, or who had decided to put themselves at the very front at the start, on the grounds that they'd never run a race before and thought they might be really fast. In fact after the first half mile I passed a total of four people, and three people passed me ("people" is a euphemism: I didn't see any women after the start line -- in fact if I got a sex change today maybe I could start pulling in prize money ... [Ed.: actually it doesn't work like that -- there's been some interesting research into transexual athletes]). One of those latter people, a member of the Great Yarmouth Road Runners' club wearing a nice purple vest, got about 50 metres in front of me before he hauled over to the side of the road and started vomiting. That gave me a real boost.

I hit the finish line in 89 mins and 47 seconds, a pace of 6'51" per mile; I think I was twenty-somethingth. The band were, I think, playing "keep on running" at that point -- I almost kept on running in the opposite direction in order to get away from the noise, but was glad I didn't as I was then given a nice little medal with a picture of a bunch of skinny men wearing vests running through trees. There are no photographs as no one came to watch. It's a lonely business.

runner no. 197

Monday, 18 April 2005

Good effort, but could do better

First of all, many thanks for your generosity. And greetings to the new recipients of this popular list. So far I have raised in excess of £1800 for the World Cancer Research Fund. You already know the story behind me running for cancer research, and it has been weighing on me and, I know, on many of my friends recently. Yesterday was a big day for the people at WCRF. This email is to thank you for your kindness, to recount Sunday's experience, to give you the results, and to offer a plea and guidance for payment.


Notwithstanding gloomy predictions early in the week, the weather, as you will have noticed, was fantastic -- it was sunny and cool and mostly wind-free for most of the run (it warmed up a little too much towards the end). At the mass start in Greenwich park there was a part-like atmosphere on the grass at 8 am, as runners dozed in the morning breeze, and others looked askance at where the old hands were rubbing their vaseline. Running does funny things to your head, as well as your hormones. Once hooked you become compelled, obsessive. Not only do you spend hours reading reviews of running shoes in the magazines; you think ignorance of heart-rate training methods is quaint; you even schedule days when you don't run with a watch and calculate your mileage. You twitch when someone calls it "jogging" (at 8+ mph?). But it also develops an extraordinary sense of camaraderie. You offer nervous first-time-marathoners your spare power bar or immodium (Paula was obviously out of this), pleased to meet someone who understands obsession. Everyone gazed around them and repeated, "it's the perfect morning ...." London is a beautiful city to run around -- even the Isle of Dogs looks good -- and the race is entirely efficient (no 15-min late starts like the Italians, or confusion about where the start is meant to be like the Welsh). It started at 9:45, after a mass rush from the toilets where we'd all been standing in line for about 20 mins -- as we hit 9:35 and were still in the queue stopwatches were being used to time each visit to the cubicle. I suppose it must be different at the elite runner's start.

One of the high spots was when I passed Paul Tergat and Stefano Baldini. The thrill was only slightly softened by the fact that they were running in the opposite direction -- at that stretch of the highway when I was at 14 miles, and they'd just passed 21. I didn't see Paula because she'd been given a 45-minute head start. Tower Bridge (at about 12.5 miles) is a breathtaking sight (ok I was out of breath for other reasons) when it's lined with a deafening crowd -- it's where the WCRF supporters were stationed, and I hope there's a decent photo to emerge from there.

35,000+ runners passed the start line. The pack never really thins out along the route -- even in the last couple of miles the limping and prostate forms of middle-aged men with surplus testosterone assure you that you're not alone -- so it's difficult to build up a rhythm, and the entire race is spent passing people and having to duck and weave one's way through. The spectacle and sense of occasion pushes you on and makes up for any minor irritation. In fact the only irritation was a triad of celebrities who seemed to be following my pace between about 16 and 20 miles -- the crowd kept on calling their names "James", "Dave" and "Willy" or something or other. I have no idea who they were, though I bet they were young. However, I wore my name on my shirt and learned to appreciate the cheers of the crowd -- you could really float on the crowd's support in the last few miles. The crowds were fantastic, and more or less covered the entire route. On my not floating, however, see below.

One of my co-runners for WCRF deserves a special mention. Tootus Maximus, the London Gladiator, has been wearing a gladiator costume for a month without respite. He's a trainee-teacher, and I guess someone pointed out that being a Gladiator carries transferable skills, at least in Tooting. He was hoping to run the race in about 4, but I passed him after about 8 miles (meaning he'd set off like a greyhound). Everyone should have a space in their life where they can strike hands with a man in a gladiator costume, shout 'strength and honour', and carry on running, all without the faintest hint of irony. As I said, it does things to your head.

Everything was going fabulously and according to my rigorous plan. I hit the halfway point at 1:38.11, a few seconds slower than I'd intended, but knowing for certain that a very modest negative split (i.e. running the second half slightly faster than the first half, because you're warmed up and intent upon emptying the tank) would achieve my target time of 3:15; and the next eight and a half miles sped past like an episode of '24'. Then just shy of 22 miles I felt a ripple run down my right calf, like a gentle wave. I shook it off, and a couple of minutes later it hit again and my leg momentarily froze. I stopped, and watched my time sprint ahead. I hauled over to the railings at the side and stretched both calves and the right hamstring. A nice lady there gave me a concerned look and enquired solicitously, "Are you alright Joad? would you like some water?"

I started off again, able to run, but within a few hundred metres the rippling effect was back, though without the tidal wave. So for the last four miles I couldn't pick up my pace as I had intended, but ran solidly on with distinctly odd form, my right leg rolling. The pain was like being in a tunnel, and I have little recollection of Buckingham Palace or the Mall. Though I do remember that that last mile was the longest 7'30"-er in my life. My stretching had taken only a little longer than Paula's 15-second squat, but the lost time, combined with my inability to run my projected 7'00" pace for the final four, meant that I missed my 3:15 target. But not by very much. I collected my medal. Lauren saw me on TV a couple of times at the end and says I looked cheerful. You never feel bad after a good run, they say. Tell that to the emaciated men supporting themselves on trees around the baggage collection area. I limped briskly to the WCRF's hotel suite and got a quick massage and showered, then sat around talking to the WCRF people waiting for the other runners to show up. London is completely consumed by the event -- you see the runners' bags everywhere, runners' magazines, empty water bottles; the area around Westminster and the Palace is a grand party, and even the public transport system is geared up to accommodate participants and spectators: it's hard to believe on a Monday morning that it's over.


This morning I checked the official results: 3:16.07.

I missed my target by 67 seconds. And this also means that I failed to qualify for the exclusive, fast-runners-only-please-we're-not-British Boston marathon by 8 seconds. Yes, that's less than 1/3 second per mile. When I thought I had missed by over a minute I was a bit upset. When I found out it was just 8 seconds, it seemed only funny. My overall position was 2,528; among male runners I was 2,364. Among people in their 30s I was 908. If anyone wants the splits in an excel spreadsheet, email me.

If I had not felt the eyes of absent sponsors, I might have taken a more lackadaisical approach. My thanks.


If anyone who hasn't sponsored me wishes to do so it's not too late. It's like a horse bet when you know the outcome of the race. If you knew the outcome of a race it might seem odd to bet on a horse that loses, but the WCRF is a very worthy outfit. You can learn more about their activities here:
I am still hoping to make my target of £2,000. You can sponsor me by email, and using the payment methods below.

Could I ask everyone who did sponsor me to send payment to me asap. This can be done a number of ways:
1. via the website:
You can pay here even if you've written your name on a sponsorship form -- obviously I'll cross-check. This method is fast and convenient, and you can use a credit card to make a payment direct to WCRF. Your name also appears on a very grand list (though you can also do it anonymously). The only problem with this method is that the site won't work with the Firefox browser.

2. by check, made payable to "World Cancer Research Fund - UK". You can send this to me at 68 Eden Street, Cambridge CB1 1EL; OR you can send it through the Cambridge internal post to Lauren Kassell at HPS or Pembroke; OR to me in the School of Literature, UEA.

3. by cash, in any currency, which you can give to Lauren or to me.

ALSO, for donations made by those who pay income tax in Britain, the charity can claim back tax (28%). In order for this to take effect, you need to indicate your willingness online or on the sponsorship form AND to give your address including postcode. So if you wrote your name down on a sponsorship form and didn't give this information, or if you sent me an email, please could you indicate to me if you are willing to allow the charity to claim the tax and give me your address including postcode at the same time you make payment.


Again, thanks to you all from me and from WCRF-UK for your support.

no. 49,356