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.