Sunday, 30 December 2007

When your legs are taken from under you

I wrote too hastily in my last post. I said that I had run the Milan marathon at the end of one of the more stressful weeks of my life. I had not foreseen the subsequent week. Nor the week after that. And don't ask me about Christmas. On the night of the Milan marathon, and in the three weeks that followed it, my life fell apart. Or some major part of it.

I was going to write a post about winning the Cambridge and Coleridge Athletics Club marathon trophy for my Berlin performance. You can see it sitting on my mantlepiece in the accompanying photograph. It's next to the horse brass for a stage in the Hereward Relay (a crazy and wonderful off-road four-stage relay from Peterborough to Ely in late November. I ran it with a cold). You can also see there a very attractive plaque - for third (male) team in the Great Eastern Run (the Peterborough half marathon). I've never won any silverware before, ever, so the cup is quite pleasing. When I start running again, it will probably motivate me.

But I'm not going to write that post. Nor the post about struggling runs, trying to eke out a few miles through the gloom. Nor a trite post about convalescence, the recuperative powers of running, and the consolations of hope. I was tempted to write a sequel to "Recovery Runs" (see here) in which I reflected on how putting one foot before the other pulls you through. Though I should mention, not really by way of digression, Sean's big news, his imminent husbandhood and fatherhood, which can be appreciated in Brad Hickey's wonderful and mouthwatering blog:
Wine Odyssey (no, I insist, go and look at it).

But nor am I going to write a post about my life falling apart. Instead I am going to reflect on a comment a friend sent me in an email -- and it's been good to have such committed friends who are rallying round and offering recuperation and hope. As I look to a new future, one that had been entirely uncontemplated on 1 December, I think of these words: "Don't let it get in the way of the blog."

It has got in the way of the blog, obviously, and I apologise for the silence. I will now return to form, though as a slower runner, and will be more diligent in writing the blog. The blog has a life of its own, and is the space where narrative clashes with judgement, perspective and morality. Reader, please don't give up on it.


Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Basta Problemi

As Sean and I stood at the start line of the 2007 Milan marathon, I knew that the preparations were not auspicious. I had a cold, my first of the year, which left me short of air. My legs were still a bit ponderous from Berlin, nine weeks earlier. In between I'd heard that my cholesterol levels had increased significantly over the past few years. Training had been short, sweet and slow. I was wearing contact lenses, only a few days old, and I'd not run a marathon in them before. I had intended to bring my usual shoes and my new ones, but had forgotten my usual ones, so I only had my new ones, not only new but a brand new model (Saucony Paramounts), and I hadn't run more than eight miles in them. And I'd just lived one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I hadn't slept properly in longer than I could remember (literally: it does terrible things to my memory). I stood there, tired, sore, technically-challenged and emotionally beaten to a pulp.

But this was a revenge match. Milan had thrashed us three years earlier in 04 (see Veni, vidi, serpsi), when I ran it injured (tear in calf) and Sean ran it hung over, neither of use having put on our shoes over the preceding six weeks. Today we were seeking revenge -- by enjoying a good run. As the name of the sex shop 200 metres from the finish proclaimed, "basta problemi".

At least I had remembered one pair of shoes. We were on the bus from the Stansted airport car park to the terminal, with Sean showing me how minimalist a packer he is and how much space there was in his bag, when he realised that this was in part because all of his running kit was still in the car. Once that was fixed we made it to the terminal and suffered the best that British airport procedures have to offer. The upside was that we saw Giulio and Giacomo, two fellow-runners from the Cambridge and Coleridge Athletics club. The three of us (G, G and Me; Sean is from Long Eaton) constituted in fact the team that had come third in the Great East Run, despite our advancing years. Giulio alas had taken an injury ten days earlier, so was coming along to watch. Giacomo's a whippet and was going to do great things.

Why was I doing this, so soon after Berlin? For pleasure, of course. And because I'm not one to pass by a bargain. I received an email from the race organisers stating that entry was a mere five euros to all runners who had run in former Milan marathons. I checked the cost of the flights: two pence for a return flight, plus tax (rather a lot more than the flight itself, of course). So I signed us up. Only later did I realise that I had speed-read the Italian, and the discount was meant only for those who had run all former Milan marathons. So a double-bargain, in a sense. All that was left was for us to book into a hotel -- the Hotel Milton Milano, no less (in real life I'm writing a book about the C17th poet) -- and we were ready.

The expo, where we picked up our race numbers, was near the Duomo: you see it here, with the upper two-thirds cleaned, the bottom third still under boards. It was Italian-style chaos: expos are all about queues, and Italians have a love-hate relationship with queues. As soon as we made it within the tent it was a free for all. After the chaos we started talking to a lean-looking man at the Saucony stall. For some reason Sean asked him what his PB was -- more about PBs later -- and he said that the marathon was not his distance. He ran shorter distances. "My name is Genny di Napoli," he said, "I was twice world champion at 3000 metres." We shook his hand. Sean asked for his autograph. He agreed and signed his autograph, then wrote down his times. We thought it was a bit pompous at first. Then, over lunch we read them.
1500: 3'32"78
Mile: 3'51"
2000 m: 4'55"00
3000 m: 7'39"
He was twice world champion at 3000 metres.
Bloody hell. Three k in 7:39??? Sean saw him at the finish, but he wouldn't say his time, and I can't find him in the official results.

Otherwise it was a perfectly normal expo. Except that there was a very comely woman standing on a podium wearing skimpy knickers and bra, being painted as if she were wearing a running kit. I just didn't get that. I didn't get it at all.

We ate some good food (at Peck, the wonderful delicatessen and restaurant in the city centre), we ate some less good food. I didn't sleep. I lay awake in a broad white bed. We hung out with Sean's brother Karl, and his girlfriend Nora. We ate more. My eyelids turned into styrofoam. Shellfish. The night before, we checked out the start and finish, near the castle. Sean and I practised on the podium (see photo). Just in case.

On the Sunday morning itself we met over breakfast. The hotel breakfast was great, provided you persuaded the waiter to make you a cappucino, instead of accepting the diffidently labeled "american coffee" at the buffet table. I'd had a long breakfast there on the Saturday: from about 7:00 to about 10:00, when Sean woke up. I read my novel, sitting facing a nordic-looking woman who was also reading. We did that read-look up-smile-read thing. Then at one point I looked up and she had her finger in her nose. What's more, she was looking at me with terror. I could see what she was about to do, she knew what she was about to do, she knew that she was going to be unable to stop herself, and, worse, she knew that I was going to see it, and that there was nothing she could do to prevent this, and this spawned terror in her eyes ... she removed her finger from her nostril and slipped it into her mouth ...

Anyway, back to Sunday. Breakfasted, we left the hotel. What was playing on the stereo? Bronski Beat, singing "(Tell me) Why?". We got into a taxi. What was playing on the stereo? Frank Sinatra, "My Way". It was a cool and misty morning.

After a long discussion of what to wear - Sean and I could bore for Britain on this - we opted to leave the baselayer, and wear vest and gloves. Sean was uncertain, but I was adamant, and I was right. Then we both peed about 15 times as we walked to the start. Then we surreptitiously peed in our empty bottles (hidden by the rubbish bags you wear until just before the start, to stop the cold). We peed copiously. We both stopped to pee in the race. That hasn't happened me in years. Could it have been the cappucino?

Now, as I said, this was a revenge match. We were going to get our own back on Milan. But there was a sub-plot. I ran 2:54:36 in Berlin, effortlessly crushing Sean's PB of 2:56:something. And Sean is very competitive. Very competitive, and he's actually a much better runner than me (he's much more determined, in his own way; he pushes himself harder, and runs more easily). And his pride was hurt. So while I was out there to beat Milan, Sean was out there to beat me, retrospectively. And the conditions were perfect. Cool. No wind. A pancake-flat course. Off went the start gun.

I took it easy. I put one foot in front of the other (I'm getting good at doing that). There's no scenery worth looking at in Milan -- though the loop around the Duomo was great -- so I emptied my mind and took it easy. The splits were fine, when I bothered to pay any attention to them.

More than ever before, I felt the rewards and comforts of support. Giulio called out to me from three different spots on the course, and Karl and Nora too. I felt the glow of the universe in its connected sort of way. Milan 04 was being exorcised. I went through the half in just under 1:29, which felt pleasantly pedestrian. Funny, that wasn't that much slower than Berlin. The only sad moment of the race was passing Giacomo a little after half way: he'd badly injured his hip and was walking by the side of the road. My heart went out to him. He's a great runner, and has had a string of bad luck.

After about 30 k I lost my zen. I allowed to enter into my mind all the stresses of the previous few days. My pace went up from about 4:12 a kilometre to an even 4:00. Even before that, however, I was amazed at the way I was passing people (on average more than one every hundred metres after the first 10k, the stats say). These were people who were until recently in front of me, ergo they must have been good runners. But they went out too fast. A few elite women limping by the side of the road, dozens of men with cramp, dozens and dozens of those who were simply slowing. One person passed me. It was as if they had not respected the distance.

I hit the final kilometre, as far as I could tell from my hazy memory of the preceding evening. There were a few too many cobbles for my liking. I passed Basta Problemi. I kept on running. At this point I was cramping, but fleet of foot -- the finish video shows a middle-aged man pumping his arms and cruising effortlessly under the arch. The clock said a little over 2:56. My chip time was 2:55:58. I came 229th. Now where did that come from?

What would have happened if I had made an effort? I was only 82 seconds behind my Berlin PB. Could I have broken it? One answer to that question is: undoubtedly. But that would be to miss the point. This was not about times, but about running. I wasn't in the right place for a hard run. My legs would have been fine, but I was not emotionally prepared. One has to save these things for when they matter. It would not have been the right thing to do. I ran a sensible race, and happened to end up with a silly time. Silly in a good way. Unanticipated. There's a lesson I learned here, though. Skip to the next paragraph if you're not a runner. I said at the end of Berlin that I didn't think I could necessarily go any faster. But after running sub-2:56 without focussing on time, without the mental preparation necessary to pass through the darkness, I now know that I have it within me to beat that Berlin time. I may not do it immediately, but it can happen. Taking it easy can make you mentally stronger.

I met Sean. He wasn't saying anything, but he was clearly confident that he'd broken my PB. Eventually the computer confirmed: 2:54:33. Three seconds. Fair enough. Congratulations to Sean: I'm proud of him. That's him with the smile, in the picture, over lunch doing our gay marathoning couple routine in our finish shirts.

The finish area was hysterical. The first race 700 numbers were assigned according to predicted time. And bags were put into half a dozen storage bays according to number. i.e. everyone predicted under 3 hours had their bags in the same place. It was chaos. a hundred sweaty, lean and chilled men climbed over each other to collect their bags with tracksuits and washing stuff. Why not spread their bags out? Numbers, numbers!

The massage tent was better. There were five massage tables. Yes five, for a race of 5-6,000. I hear that there was another ten with perhaps another five tables. Nonetheless I was dealt with almost immediately, and received a copiously-oiled leg massage from four twenty-year old Italian girls. There were no cameras. Then the showers. The shower rooms were equally small, but they were crammed with lean, naked, tanned bodies, few of them showing any inhibitions with respect to sight or touch, all squeezing under the heads to get wet and lather up. It was Dante-esque. I hardly know how to explain it to my American friends. I've been in the showers after rugby matches before, but there was something much more ... naked about this.

We all met up. Then lunch. Bizarrely we couldn't find a nice restaurant that was open, so we found ourselves lunching at the same faintly dire restaurant that we ate at when we arrived in 04. We ate pasta. We had defeated Milan, but we ended in the same place we started. We found our bags in the soaring arches of the central station. They don't build ceilings so pointlessly high these days. Then the motorway, then more Italian-style queues at the airport, then the flight home. I read Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on the plane, and thought about the joys of being part of the universe, and the pain that we sometimes have to go through to get there.


Sunday, 11 November 2007

Recovery Runs

Last Thursday, in Nottinghamshire, I went for an extraordinary run. It was a little short of ten miles, late afternoon, into a cold north wind. I was running with my friend Sean (who has appeared often in the pixels of this blog). We followed a canal for some miles, then turned into farmlands. As we followed the hedges it grew so dark that we could barely see where we were placing our feet, especially with the cold wind drawing tears from our eyes. What was extraordinary was the fact that we were doing it. A few hours earlier Sean had delivered the eulogy at his mum's funeral.

Running demands that you observe patterns in the crazy demands of everyday work. It also gives you a space to make, acknowledge, and filter through the blood, the singular moments that change you. Being able to live through these things, to trust instinct on where to place one's feet in the unsure-footing of the dark, by steadily and surely pacing through fields, is a consolation and a potent resource. The run, anything but a training run, made me reflect on what privilege is found not only in friendship but in being able to run.

(Note: in training parlance, a recovery run is a short run at a very easy pace usually performed the day after a hard training session. The theory is that the run will speed recovery to muscle tissue by stimulating circulation, clean out accumulated waste products and accelerate the realignment of fibres, or at least diminish soreness. Recovery runs should not be ten miles long.)


Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Addendum (ii)

I'll take it, seconds and all. No sooner had I posted my reflections on the last two digits of a race time, than I discovered that having lost the dash against the clock, the race against the competition had been more successful. Apparently my team came third overall in the Great Eastern Run. The fastest three men from each club qualify, and their overall time is measured against other clubs and teams. Notwithstanding the fact that all three of us were vets (40+), we came in third position. There's a plaque waiting for me somewhere. (Incidentally there's a women's competition as well as a men's, and our women also came third.) Which makes those 00 seconds easier to appreciate. I believe this is the first time I have ever been placed in a race. Even though 41 (the age, not the seconds) is whistling over the horizon. There's a lesson here (and not that knackered legs will never take you anywhere): you can't always see what you're racing against.


Thursday, 25 October 2007

What a difference a second makes

1:23:00. Why does that sound slower than 1:22:59? More than a second slower, that is? It's the £5.99 mentality, isn't it? Though I'm sure a million schoolchildren have discussed how £5.99 sounds more than £6.00 to them, really, except when they think about it, and that few runners have pointed out the irrational foundations of runners' targets. When was the last time you heard anyone say that they were targeting 3:00 for a marathon (except, perhaps, as a figure of speech), or 3:15 and so on? Never. It's always 2:59:59 or sub-3. When was the last time you heard someone target 3:00:01? Surely not. The :01 and :00, even the :07 (I know someone who ran 3:00:07 and stayed there for some years) are as welcome as a blister, a slippery shoelace, a pile of dog deposit. The :59 is a close getaway. :31 - :49 is "some change". But :00 to :09 is unforgiving.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

It's not about the watch

Peterborough. Again. So named because the "Slough of Despond" had already been taken. Ah, but that was an allegory, you'll say: well, so is Peterborough. Imagine the place where you queue for your passport, fretting that you've failed one of the 146 numbered requirements for the photograph; Peterborough is the town that surrounds such a place. It's what Kafka would have encountered if he'd have left the castle or the courtroom and decided to look for an expresso.

Still, it's a fine pace for a race, because there's no chance you'll want to slow down to look at anything interesting. Also because the good citizens want you to have a good time -- they really do -- and they put on an excellent race. The said race was the Great Eastern Run, a half marathon, where I scored a still-standing PB of 1:24:39 last year. There was plenty of parking. There were enough toilets (read that again). The baggage lorry was straightforward. Finding the start line was straightforward. Getting into the start pens was a little tricky. My ankle was already gushing blood before I started. But once there it wasn't too crowded, nor full of obese civil servants on their first race. It was really very easy.

Did I mention that my watch wasn't working? Completely dead. I have used it most days this week, but this morning it just wouldn't start up. No watch again. As dedicated readers will know, this is the third time my watch has died, though the first occasion on which I wasn't running a marathon. And on both previous occasions, I'd set new PBs, going under three hours in NYC and Berlin. No pressure then. Just run it according to how you feel. Which was, of course, not very good, since I had reduced myself to near-retching at a tempo run with the club on Thursday (why I don't know, as I was setting the pace from the front), and then had spent Friday limping because of a stabbing pain in my left upper inside thigh that left me staring with bloodshot eyes even after the ibuprofen and contemplating amputation.

It all went just fine. I had no conversations. There was a little bit of racing. At 7.5 miles I thought about giving up but decided to hold on because I needed to get home, and an ambulance was going to take a long time. Peterborough is flat. Everyone who'd done it before -- including myself -- was telling neophytes that at the start. Yet miles 5 through 10 seemed pretty constantly uphill to me this time. Nonetheless, it was very straight. And quite green. Wide verges, rather than parks, but just fine. There's a really very annoying bit when you see the cathedral at about 10 miles, and it seems terribly close. After all, when you see the Brandenburg gate or the duomo at Milan or Buckingham Palace you know everything is going to end soon. Yet there's another three miles of desperation to go. My true moment of darkness was when I began to push things after ten miles, and my heart race passed into the heart-rate zone known in technical circles as the time-and-space-and-numbers-no-longer-make-sense zone; in a frenzied delusion I began my final surge at about 12 miles, and was near-catatonic when I saw the 13-mile marker. Still, I held on and managed a real sprint for the last few metres. And then it was all over. A goody bag with -- wait for it -- a real bag that you can use, a towel, a t-shirt, a key fob, and a medal??? And a huge table of organic bananas. After my new-born children I honestly think that a table of organic bananas is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I ate a bunch, spoke to some runners from the club, who'd put in excellent, PB times, and then drove home.

My time? I don't know. No watch, you see. The clock above the gantry said 1:23 plus a handful of seconds as I passed under, but I don't know how many seconds, or at what point I crossed the start line. Small change either side of 83 minutes. Which is fair compensation for having to go to Peterborough. And I would recommend to anyone that the next time they renew their passport in person they time their visit to coincide with the Great Eastern Run.

So, new PB of unspecified proportions. I would ask Garmin to sponsor me, and supply me a new watch. But recent form suggests that racing with watches only slows you down. We need to run with the ashen resources of the heart, and with visions of mounds of bananas.


Sunday, 7 October 2007

A correction, mexican politics, and stolen elections

One of my competitors last weekend was a Mexican politician. Fifty-five year old Roberto Madrazo came third in the presidential election last year, and ran 2:40 last week, coming in 146th. Which was an impressive improvement on his previous (London) PB of 3:43. According to yesterday's Independent it was the Mexican newspaper Reforma that dug deeper into the statistics. Reforma had its gripes: in 1988 Madrazo's party "won" an election when the computerised voting system went down, and a recent investigation into the man himself found an impressive portfolio of real estate.

Madrazo's splits were a little erratic. He did the first 20k in 1:42:42. (I ran them in 1:23:08). The computer records then went silent, and no 25 or 30 splits were recorded. Nor does there seem to be any photographic or video evidence of those painful miles. And then he reemerged somewhere before the 35 mat, before finishing at 2:40. Which means he ran the last 22k in 58 minutes. Which would be world record ... Even Gebreselassie didn't manage to run his second half that fast.

A glance at the map suggests an alternative explanation. The course loops around so that 20k and 35k aren't so far apart. It looks like Mr Madrazo took a short detour. Perhaps he even stopped for an expresso on Potsdamer Strasse. Then he bypassed a couple of thousand runners for a glorious finish. I suppose it looked like he was struggling with the wall, as he finished with the six-minute miling guys (and a very few gals) at an eight-minute pace.

It seems the race managers have been persuaded: while Madrazo's name still appears with the aforementioned time on the race website, his splits and finishers certificate have disappeared, and his place isn't recorded. My thanks to Reforma: I have moved up a place and now came 630th. But I do look forward to seeing whether George Bush will try to improve on his marathon PB of 3:40.


Monday, 1 October 2007

The Dog Ate my Watch

This is Haile at the Berlin Marathon 30 September 2007. He won. He won in 2:04:26, shaving 29 seconds off Paul Tergat's world record for 42.195 k. I was there. I didn't see him though.

I was running with Sean again. "With" being an overstatement: we seldom stay together for long, usually because he hares off in front of me after the long pre-race negotiation of a race plan that involves a few miles together. We were also with Ian, a friend of Sean's from Long Eaton, who was allegedly starting in the pen behind us. We'd all suffered at London earlier this year. Today looked more promising. There'd be no exuses. Sean and I made it to our start pen about 5 mins before the starting gun. Just long enough to hear the strains of Chariots of Fire. Why, if endurance runners are so inured to pain, can you always rely on them to tear up when Vangelis plays those plaintive opening chords? The gun went off, Gebrselassie went off like a rocket, and the rest of us shuffled towards the start with the peoples of the world in front of us.

It really was very crowded on the Strasse des 17 Juni. as we elbowed our way around the Siegessaule. Those first few kilometers seemed to pass very slowly. The miles even slower. It's tricky running in Real Europe: you don't know whether to go native and run it in kilometers, or to stick with the remnants of the imperial system and count the miles. Depending on what time you're aiming for the maths can be easier with either. I went for setting my watch to clock the miles and having a race plan in my head for the kilometers. Of course the kilometers splits would be indicated by clocks around the course. This becomes important later ...

How was the preparation? Perhaps not clockwork. As I've said earlier, I'd worried that I'd simply not put enough miles under my shoelaces. But then the speedwork had been great. I'd focussed on track sessions rather than the longer road intervals, and the race times (see below) had been promising. I thought things were really coming together just before the flight, when I weighed myself in at 157 pounds after lunch. 157 is good: not much excess baggage there. It may only have been a precursor to weighing the luggage (naked after lunch and a shower?), but one gets sucked into reading the runes. Especially after reading an article about how tall people can't be great endurance runners.

After that first 5k I settled into a steady pace. The course was still really crowded for the first hour, but it became possible to keep a constant leg turnover and head in a straight line. And this part of the course was quite pleasant, passing along the north side the Bundeskanzleramt and the Reichstag in a great big loop that would swing us clockwise around the city. Things got duller after that, passing through Fredrichshain and Kreuzberg. Even the course map couldn't find anything remotely interesting to identify on that 7k stretch. It has to be said that Berlin isn't the most attractive city in the world. But it's perhaps not the place of a Brit to say that. I'd been reading Max Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction on the plane as part of my race preparation, to get me in the right mindset.

Then into the depths of suburbia in Shoneberg. This was near where we were staying, with the family of a friend of Sean's. They were very splendid, gave us a great breakfast with acres of cereals, fruit, yoghurts, meat and cheese. And on Sunday afternoon we were fed Kaffee und Kuchen. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The crowd unexpectedly picked up in Shoneberg. We passed a samba band. And, outside a church, a line of girls dressed all in white, with blue ribbons. They were a little like the three groups of cheerleaders we passed on the route, but not quite. They weren't moving at all for a start. I raked my brains for bits of Luther that might help me, but couldn't find any.

The bands in Berlin are great: mainly jazz, but plenty of drumming and some grungy rock. I was deeply grateful to them: it's hard playing to a transient audience. I passed a guy wearing a vest with a Welsh dragon design. "Bore da i chi," I called out. He grunted. He didn't seem to be enjoying himself enough. I passed a million Danish shirts, but I'd forgotten every word of Danish small-talk I once knew.

So everything was going well. The 5k splits were looking fine, perhaps a little slow, but not too bad. The weather conditions were perfect: cool, and only a little wind now and again. The half went through in a little shy of 1:28, I thought. I just had to speed up a little and hold on, and I wasn't feeling too bad. But, I consoled myself, 3 hours would be just fine, wouldn't it, if it came to that? Or at least a new PB. Only another ... how long to go?

I looked at my watch. It didn't seem to have a signal. This is not just any watch, of course, this is my beloved Garmin Forerunner 305, the GPS training device that accompanies me along the beaches of North Carolina, over the mountains of Virginia, and through the bitter fens of East Anglia, the same watch that ran out of power at the start of the New York Marathon. No signal. Then it started flashing, flickering between its various screens, blinking random numbers at me. My training partner was dead. After ten minutes I tried turning it off. It wouldn't turn off.

I blame Mercury. Possessed by a spirit of madness L and I had acquired a dog three weeks earlier. On the eve of the Cardiff 10k we'd found a four-month old German Shorthaired Pointer. Perhaps it was the good spirits associated with being a dog owner that had given me the fillip during the 10k. However, it also has drawbacks. Like having to stay up with him until he falls asleep. And the fact that if you leave the house for 15 minutes he'll get your Garmin down from the kitchen counter and chew it. Only now, doing an unknown pace around the streets of Berlin, did I realise that the hole in the back of the watch that I thought had been caused by the rough handling of my bag on the plane, had in fact been caused by puppy teeth. You can see him on the right. The Jacques Brel boxed set behind him has a song entitled 'Les Filles et les Chiens'. Regard it with caution.

So where was I? 16 miles or 18? Was that 27 k I'd just passed? My heart sank when I saw the 25 k marker approaching. When was I going to hit the danger zone (18-22 miles: and what was that in k)? There was only one remedy left. Chin up, and run it with the heart. I tried again, and this time the watch went off. Focussing on my cadence I headed into Charlottenberg. The crowds were getting even better, and the course built a sense of expectation ... we were heading back into the city centre, and around Potsdamer Plaz the air grew electric. Passing people was no longer a matter of gliding past those who'd started too far forward, or went off to fast. These were runners struggling for times. They didn't want to be passed. These were proud people. At 37 k the end was in their mind's eye. On Potsdamer Strasse I was already thinking about a massage and a shower.

And it was beginning to hurt. My right calf began to show the fore-signs of cramp. My breathing grew tense. We hit a couple of right angle turns and the acceleration was getting harder. At 40 k I knew I was on for a real time. I did the math. Keep at about a four-minute-kilometre pace and I might make 2:55. No I wouldn't, I'd ... I can't do math when my heart rate's at 200+ the 41st kilometre was surely the slowest. I think that was the wall. My legs were heavy, my pace drifted down, and focussing on my cadence didn't seem to make any difference. Then came the dawn. We turned into Unter den Linden, and ahead, less than 1,000 metres away, was the Brandenburg Gate.

The body is in many ways its own master. After 40 kilometres it is really not interested in anything the mind may have to say. Sometimes it falls back, and sometimes it purrs forward, draining the tank. It went for draining the tank, pushing past another bunch of runners, all of us magnetised by the sight of the gate. 250 metres from the finish line one runner decided to stop me from passing him by shoving sideways into me as I did so, pressing me into the barrier ... I caught the kerb, almost toppled over the barrier, and only just kept my balance with my toes. No matter. I saw the finish and that was where I went in the mental dusk that is the end of a marathon. I'm not sure what that 100 metres between the Gate and the finish line were like. I think I was looking at the clock over the finish line. It was blinking towards 2:56. I was under the impression that I had crossed the start line about 90 seconds after the gun. I finished. The thought in my mind was, of course, that 2:55 had been sealed. But of course I did not know, because the dog ate my watch.

I felt quite tired at that point. The legs seemed to be just about able to move forward, but the rest was nauseous. It took as much willpower as I had to head towards the finish area, despite the showers and masseuses. The medal was just fine, with a nice German-flag ribbon. I smiled for the photographers.

One of the good things about being fairly quick is that you don't have to wait for the massage. It was very exciting to see the masseuse holding a bottle of arnica massage oil. I threw myself down on the bed and asked, "sprechen sie English?" She smiled and shook her head. "Italiano?" Blank look. "Francais?" She looked positively irritated at that point. I smiled and shrugged, figuring that it wasn't essential to our relationship.

Next the showers. They were just great. The start had seemed somewhat chaotic. The usual problem with slower runners in front of faster runners; and new problems, such as the fact that the signs to the start disappeared half way there, hence the fact that Sean and I were almost late. This wasn't what one expected from German hosts. Surely it would run with the oiled precision of an Audi six series. Actually it didn't, but it was fabulous at the end, because the finish area was the same as the start area, so you knew where everything was, and there wasn't the London problem of your bags being transported 20 miles to some place that you really can't be bothered to walk to find ... the organisation was relaxed and admirably effective. And there was a nice big piece of grass, where we'd vaselined up beforehand (fortunately the nice security guard at Stansted decided not to confiscate my vaseline when I failed to put it in a zip-loc bag, thus causing all the sirens to go off at security). And it had been great before the start to see all the peoples of the world dropping their inhibitions and happy to pee into the hedges in the big piece of grass, regardless of nationality, gender or probable speed.

The communal showers were big tents with beds at one end and hot water piping from the ceiling at the other. There was something faintly world war oneish about standing in the steam as emaciated men soaped themselves. Outside again: was that beer that the other finishers were drinking? Sure enough, I found the beer stall. I'd tried to mix my recovery drink with the water bottle I'd been given at the finish, unaware that it was carbonated. A good deal ended up over my tracksuit, so I thought I'd try a beer. Seldom has beer tasted so good. Clutching a beer I wandered back to the massage area. Now it was filling up. It was an open space (luckily no rain ...) with six rows of metal beds, about fifteen in a row. That's a lot of beds. On each lay one prone figure, and at the head of most were hunched one or two forlorn and physically drained figures, waiting for relief. It was strangely quiet. I though I'd walked into a hospital behind the trenches.

I couldn't find Sean or Ian there, so I headed off to the Reichstag where we we had agreed to meet. By this point all the grey had drained from the world, and everything was rainbow coloured. The day had lost all of its sharp edges and all of its granularity. All of the pain had gone. It was just me and my beer and my two-forty-or-fifty-something. I checked my phone messages, but no one had told me what the something was. So I took a self-portrait in front of the Reichstag.

Obviously my arms aren't long enough. Sean and Ian were on the steps of the Reichstag. If you look carefully you can see them on the left-hand side, at the top of the stairs, Ian in fluorescent, and Sean in his new grey Sugoi water-resistant running jacket with reflective piping. Ian had taken nine minutes off his personal best, and gone under three hours. That's a huge shift. It may be the time it takes to make a good coffee, but in runners' terms that puts you in a different league. Does it get better than that? Does it get better than breaking (note the verb) three hours and slashing nine minutes off your Personal Best? Actually, it's only racing, and of course there are many things that are better than that, but it's not bad fare for a Sunday morning. Sean had - despite a distinctly self-indulgent summer in the south of France, his pursuit of Michelin stars, and despite his growing resemblance to Michelin Man - run another sub-3, a few second ahead of Ian. You'd think they would have had a sprint finish in the shadow of the Gate (metaphorical: the sky was overcast), but in fact they hadn't seen each other during the race, though they finished five seconds apart, because Ian had started a minute ahead. Sean was magnanimous about the breaking of his PB, and I could see in his eye an iron resolve to return the favour at his next race (Milan), at least until we made it to the bar.

So that night we headed back to Berlin Shonefeld airport, they to Nottingham and I to Stansted, where Mercury was waiting for me. He'd thrown up in the back of the car.

The following day I got the results. 2:54.36. Fifty minutes and ten seconds behind Haile (he's now 2-1 up in our head-to-head series, thanks to his failure to finish in London). Four minutes off PB. 631st finisher, 137 in age group (forty-something males). The 5k splits verged on the metronomic. Running eight 5ks and / or four 10ks is the future. It's now eight weeks to Milan. I was suckered into entering the Milan marathon when the entrance fee was dropped to €5 for previous competitors, and I found a £1.98 return flight. That was pretty foolish. Maybe I'll just treat it as tourism. I don't know where to go now, because I don't think I can do it much faster.


Sunday, 16 September 2007

sub elite

I dislike the nomenclature "weekend warrior", but I have to confess that us middle-age almost-fast runners with thinning hair and Swedish cars do have a competitive streak in us. I was at the Cardiff 10k this weekend, feeling sprightly, and almost gleeful at the thought of the prizes for the first ten places, plus one each for age groups. It's the fourth time I've run this race (the first was only my second race), and I've never made a good time, mainly because I can't run 10ks. I run them at the same speed as half marathons. But I was feeling quite up, and strangely sleepy before this outing, which is usually a good sign. Maybe I could even get placed. Then the announcer read out the names of the elite runners who were participating. There were twenty four of them. This is my home town. You can't go and flood it with ringers. No prizes then, but the weather was fine, mild without being warm or sunny, and the air clear.

I'd sliced almost twenty seconds off my 5k PB at Haverhill on the preceding Thursday, coming in 8th at 18:06. That felt pretty good. And I'd put in some miles on Friday morning. These races aren't targeted for good times. They're just stepping stones and speed workouts and fun events on the road to Berlin. The Berlin marathon is now only a fortnight away, and that's the target. Not that I've got sufficient miles in ...

They changed the course at Cardiff this year. Instead of a hairpin turn followed by a couple of loops around the museum block before heading into the park, the race started in Sofia Gardens -- the castle grounds -- and headed towards Llandaff, before turning into cathedral road -- and even this looked good at this speed -- looping around the castle and back into the grounds. The various contiguous parks around the castle, and the river banks that curve through them, are a wonderful resource, that we don't always appreciate. I appreciated every step as, at 6k, I checked my watch and realised that I was going to break my target of 37:59 even if my pace dropped off to a relatively easy four-minute-kilometres. Instead they kept rolling in at around 3:40, and I gained enough confidence to pass some pretty decent runners. The clouds were rolling back, and it was proving to be a glorious day.

I came in at 36:42, 58th place, shearing 100 seconds off my PB. I enjoyed every minute. Even though I didn't win a prize. But by now I've learned something great about racing. Running knowing that you're always going to lose, and running hard anyway, is a statement of character. It's a perverse and valuable conception of "competition".

So, despite the low mileage, the speed is looking good, and maybe Berlin will be ok.


Monday, 20 August 2007

Running and all sorts of animals

I've had some strange encounters running with, to, by and from animals during the past four years. But none as strange as last Saturday's.

I've almost stepped on a snake in Princeton, and saw it jump from me as precipitously as I jumped from it. I've bounded over turtles. I've run alongside dolphins as they've leaped from the waves, just ten metres from my shoulder, on the coast of North Carolina, running on the beach at dawn. I've run into a vulture (not a buzzard, mind, a real hook-beaked, arch-winged, fleshy and bulbous vulture) eating roadkill in Virginia: I had to run at it shouting before it finally conceded lazily to flap its wings and clear the road.

One Sunday in Virginia a dog started to follow me. I was about 8 miles into a 20-mile run over mountains. I tried to persuade her to leave, but she wouldn't; and in any case I couldn't see where she had come from. I reasoned that she must know what she was doing. 12 miles later she was visibly exhausted and still following me. She flopped onto the floor when we got home. My kids ran into the house and she barked protectively, defending her new master. I checked her name tag. It read "Sunday". It was a Sunday. It's providence -- I thought -- I've been given a dog. What on earth am I going to do with a dog, and how am I going to get her back to England? There was also a phone number on the tag too, so I called it. Sure they were in, and they were wondering where she was, and they gave me their address. I opened the back of the truck and Sunday leaped right in; she knew how to do this. I started driving into the hills. And then I thought: what if Sunday's owners are a couple of careless, or, worse, callous and cruel Virginian rednecks who don't care if their dog wanders off? What if Sunday chose me? Will I turn the car around and drive away? They seemed ok, though, so I left Sunday with them. Weird, perhaps, a couple of young Jewish kids in a redneck neighborhood.

I was once attacked by an overprotective goose: he flew at me and hammered me in the sternum with his beak. Onlooking hikers panicked and turned away.

Then there was the morning I was chased by a buffalo. It was a beautiful misty morning on a farm in Virginia. It was about six, and I was running gently past a field with bison. The tranquility was disturbed a little by the emergence through the mist of a great bull, towering above me. He began to get really jumpy as I passed. Now these beasts are behind an electrified fence (at least, I thought it was electrified), but the fence is really quite flimsy, and the cable holding the charge quite narrow. Then the bull starts to flex and bound. The animals around him get really jumpy too, and start to jog. That's an awful lot of muscle on the move (and it's doing no good to the meat, either). I realise that this is a bad idea and turn off onto a different path. I descend a short, steep hill, and there emerges in front of me ... a baby bison. This one, however, is not in the adjacent field but on the path. It's slipped under the fence. I hesitate. The bison starts the panic, spinning around. I think about turning back. Then its mother shows up at the fence. I turn around and ascend the hill. The baby starts to run at the fence, and can't find a place to ease under, so it comes towards me; the mother panics. The mother's friends and relations panic. They all start to run alongside me, on the other side of another flimsy fence.

I put in a good six-minute mile up that hill.

Once I ran past a hedge in Cambridgeshire and was suddenly and overwhelmingly surrounded by a cloud of yellow butterflies that spawned from its leaves, thousands of them, swarming and dancing in and out of the hedge and all around me for a quarter of a mile.

A grey heron once accompanied me for miles, taking off from the path, gliding in that inimitable languid style (there's a great Derek Walcott poem about that), and landing ahead of me on the path, only to do the whole sequence again. A couple of weeks ago I saw a miniature donkey trying to mount a pony. And I've seen many other kids of animal and insects.

But Saturday was decidedly strange. I was going a gentle seven-mile run accompanied by my youngest, E, on his bike, from our house, through Fen Ditton, over Baits Bite Lock, and back along the towpath. We were crossing Midsummer Common when I saw, not far from the path, a half-naked obese couple having sex in the grass. He was staring into her eyes, while her legs reached from the soil like the rainforest's fallen and rotten trunks. A prim woman on the path was on the phone with the police. What was wrong with them? Well I don't know: they were obese, and they were having afternoon sex on midsummer common.

Oh the things you see that might pass you by if you did not run.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

reflective silver balls in Charlottesville VA

Jay Dicharry can make you feel inadequate, or at least very inefficient. You have no idea of this when he sticks little silver balls to your joints - knees, hips, ankles - and tapes over the reflective patches on your shoes. He then makes you run on a treadmill: no treadmill like you've seen before, but a grand platform with a moving section split into three parts in the centre, with a great arch overhead and eleven cameras positioned around the room. How fast do you want it? asks the techie whose hands move over keyboard and mouse.

This biomechanical test happens in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I happen to be killing time. The Speed Clinic is not a bad place to kill time. Even if there is a faint undertone of mockery. I guess they don't mock the elite who pass through their doors seeking a 3D analysis that can only be obtained in a handful of research labs, but the majority of their customers must be the aging and the hapless, the desperate-to-improve whose day jobs won't let them, or the well-heeled curious. I'd recommend it to anyone.

The treadmill measures pressure, the cameras measure the movement of the balls. Next thing you know the computer is spilling out graphs showing the forward, lateral and rotational movement of each joint. Then Jay is telling you that the 5 degree reverse mobility in your right hip is somewhat less than the 18 or 19 he'd hope for. And that there's too much vertical motion. And your cadence is too low. And your right leg tends not to cross the line of movement. And the power is delivered too late in your stride. And your right foot seems to have no idea what it's doing, sometimes landing on the inside, sometimes on the outside. And guess what: you're a heel striker (not news).

And I have the graphs to prove it. Pages and pages that represent the inefficiencies and irregularities of what seems a natural motion. This is me running on paper in two-dimensional linear form. It's pretty amazing. I should scan and blog them so you can laugh.

The outcome is a series of stretches, exercises and drills to improve your form, your tranverse abdominals, your stability more generally. And a DVD showing you running and presenting the same exercises. Oddly enough I watch a video of me running and everything looks fine, even quite efficient. But according to Jay I'm a series of thinly-disguised train wrecks happening in quick succession.

I've upped my cadence, running early to avoid the humidity and high temperatures of Charlottesville in August. I've tried lifting my heels more. I've worked on that core stability. I've done my time on a foam roller. I've no idea if it's going anywhere. Unfortunately when you've had graphs made, it increasingly looks like the only point is to go somewhere and to go there faster.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

British 10k

I should have written this up before. I haven't though, because I no longer own a computer. This isn't because I have plans to give up being an academic and commit myself to being a full-time athlete, but because my old one died, and my hopeless pathetic university won't buy me a new one. Apparently computers for those who generate 100% of the university's income aren't as important as support technicians who don't know what the jobs of those whom they're allegedly supporting are ...

enough. Recent races: on Sunday 1 July I ran the London 10k. At about 1k I passed Catherine Ndereba. Read that again, because I won't be able to write it again.

The start of the British 10k is crazy. 20,000 people line up along the north side of Green park. On the other side of the road, separated from them by the entrance to an underpass, the elite line up before the actual start line (the usual inflatable arch). They do their strides and enjoy freedom of movement. The rest of us squeeze, though packed like sardines in a can, trying to get closer to the start. There's not much to do except wiggle, inhale a heady mix of traffic fumes and sweat, and watch the elite warm up. Catherine Ndereba looks very cool. I don't spot Baldini, but there's an awesome guy in a Morocan shirt. And two, twin models. I think they're meant to be celebrities.

Just before the actual start, at 10 am, the crowds are released so they can walk over a bridge in an orderly fashion to stand behind the elite. In other words push like hell to save those extra seconds. A fat middle-aged lady in a a yellow t-shirt is overheard saying, "perhaps we shouldn't be so close to the front?" It's ugly out there, and uncharitable. The gun goes and the sub-elite trample the overweight, undertrained and genetically disadvantaged.

It's a beautiful cool and sunny morning, though, and the course could not be nicer. And there's Ndereba fiddling with her shoe by the side of the road. There's not much point in having a nice warm-up area, and a 10 second advantage over the plebs, if you can't tie your shoelaces right from the first. Six k later we hit a switchback and I see her in front of me. She passed so silently and effortlessly that I didn't even see her. She ran 33:11, coming in second woman.

The kilometre markers disappeared about half way through, and I realised while plodding along about a kilometre from the end that it was almost over. I charged what was left. I was greatly assisted by a woman wearing a Cambridge University Hare and Hounds who materialised thirty metres ahead of me in the final straight. The photographs show me bounding past her. Far too much vertical movement. I spoke to Emily afterwards: it turned out she'd just finished an advanced degree at Oxford, and was no longer associated with CU. So I needn't have bothered.

I took ten seconds off my PB -- it would have been more had I paid more attention in kilometres 6-9 -- coming in at 38:24. However, the official time was, irritatingly, 38:34. That's watch and pencil timing for you. I was 69th. Stefano Baldini won in 29:27.

The following thursday the eastern clubs 5k league (the Kevin Henry league) race was held in Cambridge. I brought my PB down to 18:20 and felt pretty good. Sub 18:00 may be in sight.

More pressingly, I've signed up for the Berlin Marathon on 30 September. It was Sean's idea. It means doing my long runs in the blistering heat of Virginia over the summer. Watch this space.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Round the houses

The Henham 10k was held in the picturesque Cambridgeshire village of Henham last Sunday. Henham is a well-kept secret. To get there you have to leave the M11 at Junction 8 and either head through Stansted or go to Stansted Mountfitchet and cross a bridge that is currently under construction (i.e. closed). Fifteen minutes before the race started and I was still trying to find my way out of Stansted airport, having been circling it for about half an hour (I even tried heading to Colchester and doubling back). Only when I took a sign marked for the service station did I find a tiny exit (and no service station), that enabled me to zig-zag between the villages and find the race car park and run to the start, in the car park of Henham and Ugley School and Community Hall. The clouds parted with exquisite timing, and the sun beamed down.

My club mate Pietro was there at the start area, looking spry. We shoved our way to the front. And at 11:30, after a lecture from a medic about the dangers of dehydration, off we went. Henham looked fine enough in the sun, though there's not 10k of it: we went along country trail, through some farms, up some off-road hills, and back again. At about 1k in I was only ten or fifteen metres behind Pietro, which didn't seem like a sensible place to be. He was running side by side with the leaders. He's the guy with the red hair in the picture, no. 2, behind the guy with the tight shoulders. Then he evidently got bored and disappeared. By 2k he was out of sight. I'm in the picture too, about a third of the way over from the right, biding my time. Slowly I picked off the runners in front of me, one by one, with increasing frequency. There was a very grim and quite long off-road uphill, before a long downhill. Suddenly we were back in the village and I picked my heels up to leave one forlorn looking veteran behind me and commence a very lonely finish. They cheered charitably enough at the end, and gave me a t-shirt. Pietro won of course, in 35:13. He was going to have to hang around to receive his prize. What a nuisance.

I jogged back to the car park, and it was a beautiful Cambridgeshire afternoon, and I'd completed my first race since London. Alas it wasn't a PB, as 38:49 is half a minute behind that target. But you get old and these things happen. It later emerged that I was sixth overall (of 400, many very young or old, mind you), and the third vet. Someone's changed the rules, so that now that I'm 40 vet status comes at 36. Which is a serious moving of the goalposts. However it was a nice day, and I didn't mind too much when I discovered the closed bridge as I approached junction 8 from the other side.

Monday, 23 April 2007

The thousandth man

One Sunday London lay burning in the unseasonable morning sun. At eight am, in the blue start area, I lay on the grass and admired the pure cerulean. The cloud cover that had dogged the week's temperatures was far away. It was going to be a scorcher. In fact, this, the 27th running, was the warmest London Marathon ever.

The preparation had been immaculate. A string of PBs, weekly mileage from 50 to 75, followed by a good rest. Everything was pointing towards a successful run. I was strong, and I knew it. Sean and I were well fed and well rested, courtesy of Kath and Ned and John and Jane, Sean's old friends from Cambridge days. We'd stayed in Blackheath itself, only a short drive and walk from the start areas. Oh, it was all perfect. And, like John Milton, "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." Bring it on, we were thinking, fools that we were.

There were even enough toilets this time. Though the queues for the urinals were so long that men began peeing on the outside canopy of the urinals.

A former student of mine approached and spoke to me. I didn't recognise him at first. He was aiming for sub 3:00. Everyone was aiming for sub 3:00. He ran 3:08 it transpired.

I applied sun cream. I have mixed feelings about this. The problem is that it can impede your perspiration. On the other hand, it can help prevent dehydration, not to speak of melanoma. So I applied it to my ears and nose and shoulders and suprasternal notch. Which is why I now have a burnt forehead. I was more liberal in the application of vaseline to the usual places.

It was hot. Thousands of extra bottles of water were used. I saw one half conscious man attended by paramedics at about 25 miles. Someone died. Shakespeare writes: "These high wild hills and rough uneven ways / Draws out our miles and makes them wearisome" (R2, 2.3.4-5) perhaps suggesting that he'd run in the north. But hills are not as fierce as the blaze of the noonday sun.

Ok, I'm going to cut to the miserable stuff and cut it short, because I've already complained enough over the past 24 hours. The start was slow. There were too many people. Too many slow people. At the end of the first mile I succeeded in passing two sexagenarians carrying a big Saltire and wearing t-shirts that said they were "Proud to be a Scottish Sikh". Now, impressive as they were, the front pen is meant for sub-3:00 runners anyway, and these guys weren't in that league without the ten-foot flagpole. So what were they doing there? And what were the other thousand or so people I passed in the first half hour doing starting in front of me? So it started slow. Over 8 minutes for the first mile. Then it continued slow. I couldn't find a rhythm as I was continuously dodging people in order to make progress (and at the end, my watch told me that I'd run 26.7 miles). And it warmed up. And then I couldn't find a rhythm because my heart rate was lifted by the heat, and my 6'40" pace was not in its proper, fitting, moderate effort zone. After hitting this pace in all those hilly 20 milers in blustery, adverse conditions somehow it wasn't going to come today. Halfway came at 1:29:30, and I still hoped for a big negative split. But it was still crowded and still heating up. And then I was running 6'45"-6'50", more like it, but with a little too much effort.

I wasn't alone in finding this. I passed quite comfortably at this stage a number of people I've seen in local races whom I know are around my level. Good, well-trained runners struggling. Joyfully I passed "the beautiful couple", who always steam past me at the midway point of local 20-milers, running a huge negative split. It was my turn. But there the joy ended. All around me runners were falling like late April cherry blossom, peeling off to the barriers and walking, holding their sides, puffing their cheeks, stretching their calves, looking like the haunted or hunted. And I was passing them in their dozens, but I was slowing too. At some point I revised down my target. Perhaps a PB was still on, even if my initial target wasn't. Then I revised it down again. Sub 3:00 would do fine. Please. Until close to the end it was still possible. I did the math at 20 to check, and knew that 6:50s plus a little sprint would get me there. I increased my effort, but drifted down.

Some point after 22 I hit the wall. I've never hit the wall before. It wasn't sudden. I gradually became aware that I was running with real effort, yet my watch was telling me that I was running at 7'20" pace, and it felt like there was a big piece of elastic attached to the back of my shorts. This was no fun at all. This was hard, and I wasn't enjoying myself. Why couldn't I run like I normally can? Where were all those 5'40" mile intervals? The answer: behind me, on the streets of Cambridge.

I lumbered through the last few miles. At 24 I was almost sick and had to ease off a bit. At 25 I realised that I was struggling to keep the sphincters sealed at both ends. The finish wasn't at all interesting. I got a medal and a t-shirt that reads "You see impossible, I saw the finish line". But not really; at least I didn't see it clearly because I was on the wrong side of it. The official time was 3:03:26. I came 1000th among men (the women's is a separate race in London, and it really was today, as their race started 45 minutes earlier -- though many women run in the mass race as well). Sean, aiming for 2:50, and running so strongly of late, ran a 2:59:59, placing him on the right side of the line that really matters, with only a second gracing him.

There's a life lesson here: when it's hot revise down your target before you start. Not when the statistics are beginning to tell against you. Not when the chemical shifts in your blood are offering you advice. MEMO to self: learn this lesson. There will be other races.

So, it turns out that heat is worse than hills and rain and wind and sleet. My interest in running the Mumbai marathon or the Marathon des Sables has evaporated. Perhaps I'll go for the Midnight Sun Marathon in Alaska, or maybe something in Greenland or Norway. Or perhaps I should give up everything else in my life and go to train in South Africa, with its combination of heat, hills and altitude.

I beat myself up quite a bit about this. And felt crushed. How could all of that careful preparation be thwarted by an adverse meteorological coincidence? And then today I sat down to read Lucy Hutchinson's Order and Disorder (an epic on the book of Genesis written in the 1660s and early 1670s). Calvinist moralisers are seldom good sources of comfort in times of darkness. However, this is what I read:
O the unperfect state of human bliss!
The happiest mortals still some comforts miss,
And such man's wayward nature is that, one
Felicity denied, all else seem none.
I guess she has a point. Or maybe that 3:03 wasn't the call of a predestinarian God or a malign global warming deity and I'll try again.

After a visit to Blackheath, and a barbecue -- the sun had, with mordant irony, already hidden its glory behind a veil of cloud cover -- and here thanks to John and Jane and Ned and Kath and Suzie and Edie for company and hospitality -- Sean drove me home. We sat in the garden under the blossoming cherry tree and drank a bottle of '96 Chateauneuf de Pape and had a chocolate tasting. And felt a little better. Sense of humour to be restored soon.


Wednesday, 18 April 2007

The Red and the Burning

Dear all,

The London marathon takes place on Sunday 22 April 2007, at 9:45 (mass start). I will be at the blue start, and wearing number 1283.

I'm not going to tell you my target time for fear of eternal humiliation. However, it might involve running at around 6 minutes and 40 seconds per mile, or 4 mins and 9 seconds per kilometre. All the training has been promising. Only one small, though distressing injury, and I've managed to get the miles in. A good week's sleep and everything should be fine. Now we just have to wait for the unexpected train wreck ... which is probably taking shape in the profoundly sore throat I've had since Monday. Could it be hayfever, or is there an aerobic-capacity infection brooding there?

There are no online runner alerts on the London Marathon website, as far as I can see. You will have to wait for the email, or check for provisional listings after the race is completed (i.e. Sunday evening):
News will also be available on BBC Radio Five Live, and
Or if you get lucky you'll see me at the finish on TV on BBC One. Start looking at 12:35, but don't expect me until 12:40 plus however long it takes me to crawl over the neophytes who push their way to the front in order to walk the first mile.

It's been some time since I last wrote. I have not been stationary since the 2:58.46 outcome in November. There have been some good moments. For example, the one when I woke with a hangover on Boxing Day after a splendid Christmas dinner that concluded with port. Being more or less incapable of anything else I read the running club newsletter and saw that there was a race at Lamasland at 11:00. It was 10:45. Lamasland is just over a mile away. I got my kit on and ran to the start line. The gun went off as I arrived at the back of the crowd. So I started and after half a mile or so managed to ask someone how long the race was ... 4 miles. I wasn't too unhappy with 24:32, given the port. It was certainly an improvement on the Bedford Half Marathon a couple of weeks earlier, where I fully expected a PB and spent the last ten miles wondering if I was going to collapse from dehydration or hypothermia first. It was my only bad race so far -- and I learned just how damaging a bad race can be -- and it taught me that in fact you can't just ignore serious diarrhea in the morning, no matter how fit you are.

Since then there's also been the Buntingford year end 10, the Folksworth 15, the Stamford St Valentines 30k, the Bury 20, the Cambridge Boundary Run, the Stafford 20, the Ashby 20, the Sandy 10, and the Oakley 20, all of them but one involving new personal bests (and it did shine, snow, hail, sleet and blow very fiercely during that one). That's a lot of 20 mile races.

The Cambridge Boundary Run is worth a mention. You run around the boundary of the City, as close as you can without running in silly places. There were only a handful of burning tyres on the route. There are very few signs to direct you: you carry a map. At the start of the week it was billed as a 22 mile run. Every day it crept up, until it reached 25.6 on the Saturday. That's 0.6 miles short of a marathon. A friend of mine took a wrong turn, and ran a marathon. It had been raining heavily all week, and most of the course was off-road. Some of the paths hadn't been cut free of brambles. I was bleeding at the end, though you couldn't really see for the mud. It was a tough course. I jogged it at 7.6 mph, and came 10th, albeit only because I saw a mile from the end that there were three Cambridge University Hare and Hounds shirts 400 metres in front of me. There's nothing like a little institutional animosity to pick up your heels. There was a room full of trainee masseuses at the end. One took my calves in hand, leaned over to her colleagues and said "these people: their muscles is different from ours, isn't they?"

The Oakley 20 miler was the last, one I'd intended to run slowly, and succeeded for the first mile by falling in behind some 50 year olds who didn't look like they were going anywhere fast. Then they ran miles 2-12 at 6'35"-6'40". Then one of them stopped (the end of the first lap) and went home, and the other started jogging. I had no choice but to carry on at more or less the same pace, and inadvertently hit a new PB. I spoke to a guy who finished just ahead of me. "Well chased" I said, as he'd fallen well behind on one hill then later flew past me. He explained: he had to go up the hills slowly because his hip didn't rotate properly. In fact he was technically disabled. Now that's not the first time that I've had a conversation like that, and I'm wondering if it tells you something about the competitors or the consequences of the sport.

I'm a little nervous, and desperate to stand behind that ribbon. All we -- me and forty thousand others -- can do is rest and hope that the sweltering weather forecast is wrong. Say a silent pagan prayer on Sunday morning.