Saturday, 29 March 2008

Charlottesville ten miler

Ten more miles and I'm still here. I survived the 2008 Charlottesville Ten Miler, its 33rd running. The preparation was immaculate, of course. No training, unless you count the four-month taper. I stayed with my friends Dean and Maurie the night before, and ate a delicious seafood gumbo, together with their friends Tim, Christy and Sandra. Tim was running in the morning too. Dean insisted that as I wasn't really racing in the morning, just jogging, I should have a drink. I conceded to half a glass of pinot noir. Dean found a 16 oz glass, and carefully half-filled it, so a couple of those later and I was well hydrated.

Instead of my usual evening-before meticulous kit preparation and pinning of number to shirt -- hard to do, given that I didn't bring an appropriate shirt, not knowing that I was going to be racing -- I went to bed, wrote emails and read Robert Lowell's correspondence. The bed was very comfortable, however, and I did manage a few hours' sleep. I rose in the dark and ate instant oatmeal, drank some coffee, wrote more emails and read Robert Lowell and pondered the problem of the shirt. I really wanted to wear my C&C vest, so I would look fast, even if I was going to be slow. Dean lent me a shirt, which meant that I was running a race with a brand new, unworn pair of shoes and a shirt I'd never worn before. The gel in my shorts pocket was leaking. I didn't even bother with the watch.

Dean is a man of action, and meticulous in his organisation. At 7:10 he announced we would be leaving at 7:15. I pinned my number, 2395, to the shirt. At 7:15 he bundled me into the lexus and drove me to the start, without baggage, warm clothing, or a race plan, but with intensifying nausea. At 7:24 he bundled me out of the lexus 200 metres from the start at the John Paul Jones stadium. He went home to nurse his hangover; I went to find a toilet, successfully as it turned out. The start was clearly marked Start. All the slow people moved instinctively to the back (contrast other entries in this blog). In front of me were a bunch of guys wearing vests. They had trained, and looked fast. Someone sang that song about the flag. The weather was cool and clear, and the light warm and full of life. The gun fired at 7:45. We started uphill.

There were many more uphills to come, and downhills too. There were no mountains, but plenty of foothills to foot up and down. I reminded myself that I was meant to be having fun. No watch, just the tell-tale beating of the heart. I fell in behind a bunch of women. I can usually keep up with women. Falling in behind other runners means that you don't have to concentrate. And women have less testosterone than men, which means that they're more likely to run sensibly (this is founded on extensive empirical observation). After about half a mile I developed shinsplints, really painful shinsplints. I saw I wasn't going to be able to finish. They went away after a couple more miles, I think. The first mile came up in six-twenty-something. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea. Then, when I heard someone call out "first woman", I realised the magnitude of my error. This only diminished slightly when other spectators called out, correctly, "second woman".

There's little else to tell. The course is a hilly and very attractive one, which loops through part of the university campus before swinging through the brick-paved streets of downtown Charlottesville. The marshalling and the water stations were impeccable. At five miles I was feeling ok. I was watchless, but it went through in 32-something, much quicker than I had intended. I stayed behind the pack of women (diminished by the fact that one of the four had surged ahead) until about six and a half miles, when I foolishly decided to press on ahead. I regretted this almost immediately, though I did catch up with the surging woman. Some faintly distressing urban hills followed, and I plodded on until I realised that the end must be near, and pushed a little beyond the 6:30 pace that I had entirely inadvertently and consistently maintained. I finished a couple of seconds behind the woman I had pitched in behind optimistically at the start. She was obviously a keeper.

The time was 64-something.

The finish area was magnificent: bananas, endless choices of drink, bagels, cookies ... not sure about the pizza though. There was no queue at the massage tables. Everything seemed to be working too: nothing bleeding or broken. The masseuse was a little disturbed by the state of my neck and shoulders, which had little to do with running. The results were being pinned up, as they came out of the computer, on a noticeboard in the sports arena. I was 62nd (out of about 2400), with a time of 64:41. Not too disappointing for a middle-aged fat runner. Six months ago I would have been pleased with that as a tempo run. The bananas were good too. Heading for more water I bumped into Tim and scored a lift back to Dean & Maurie's with Tim's friend Greg, in the backseat of a SUV with running gear, golfballs, a baseball glove, a child seat and no doubt other sports equipment buried and ready for the weekend.

I will wear the pink and lilac finishing shirt ("what kind of man is going to wear that?" I overheard a female UVa student ask outside the arena) with some satisfaction. Unless someone else wants it? Lesson: running slowly is ok, and race whenever you can, because, even when it seems like you're one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind, things may very well be fine. And this is a race worth doing if you're ever in town.


PS: check out the ragged mountain running shop for races in Charlottesville; and it's a good place to buy shoes too.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Fat runner strikes back

First, a point of clarification. I have been receiving correspondence from all kinds of readers who think that my not training for London involves cutting back on speedwork. Let me clarify: I'm not training. I've been going out maybe two or three times a week, and running a handful of eight-minute miles. I'm about half a stone overweight. When I run London I will be facing hitting the wall long before Tower Bridge.

However ... I was in Ragged Mountain Running Shop in Charlottesville Virginia on Monday, buying a new pair of running shoes for my youngest. They didn't have any of my model in my size in stock, which is a shame as the pair that I'm carrying around with me on my US sojourn are very worn out, and the exhausted rear cuts into my heels. But just as I was going to pay I asked the sales assistant whether there were any local races this weekend. Yes, she said, the ten-miler is on Saturday.

The Charlottesville ten miler is a big deal. It's a large race (2300 runners) a few weeks before the marathon. Now the CVille marathon is a bloody affair with some very big hills. It attracts obsessives, you know the kinds. The ten miler is less bloody, I think, but it's a popular and famed race that loops around the downtown area and through picturesque Jeffersonian architecture. So having asked, I could hardly decline, no matter how much I wanted to. This may well be my last trip to CVille ever, and I happen to be in town on the day of the race ...

So I signed up, and went and ran some hill intervals in my worn-out Sauconys. Then I drove down to Durham, North Carolina, winding through the hills of southern Virginia on route 15S, and this morning ran gently around a Duke University cross-country track, which winds around the golf course, with my friend Nigel, who is recovering from a major health crisis. It was good to ease the red wine toxins out of my blood. Two days' training should be enough, no? I would have won a prize this time last year: this year I'll be luck to break 75 minutes.

It's nice to be running again, in the open skies and clean air of country, and up and down some real hills, of the kind that Cambridge can't afford. I may have forgotten to mention over the past few weeks how much I like running. Everyone needs to do it. Now I have to pray that my new shoes arrive before Saturday, else I'm running ten miles barefoot.


Saturday, 15 March 2008

Fat runner

As you know, I'm a deep-rooted optimist, always looking for the silver lining among the rainclouds in which I live. The London marathon comes ever closer, and my training recedes further and further into the past. It would clearly be unwise to run. However, instead of just ducking out, I have found a way of turning this round, by becoming the subject of my own experiment.

I have tended to go into Marathons reasonably well-prepared. I have raised eyebrows at those who think they can show up and make it to the finish line. Those who don't respect the distance. Ingenues, neophytes, amateurs, people who just don't get the life-and-death reality of marathon running. Fat runners. Runners who aren't going to test the mental strength that is, even more than intelligent training, the foundation of a good race, but will, instead, just see what happens.

Now I have decided to be the fat runner. I'm going to run London without training. I may put a few miles on the Garmin in the last week of March and the first week of April. Then I'll have a week or so's taper, and then I'll run and see what happens.

I won't be alone. I will be running with Ned Boulting (one of my hosts last year). Ned's running his first marathon, and he's been injured. Ned is raising - has so far raised three and a half grand - sponsorship for ECHO at Guy's Hospital, London. He's running to thank them for all of the support they have given for his daughter Edie, who has a heart problem. You can find out more and sponsor him here. Sean will also be running, and he too has been injured - the podiatrist says that his legs don't work, or something like that. I'm not sure if we'll be three wise men or three blind mice.

One thing is for sure. I won't have respected the distance. I will see the marathon from the other side, from the perspective of the unprepared fat boy pushing his luck. We will see what happens. Let's look upon it as an existential experiment.

Perhaps it will be fun. Watch this space.


Monday, 3 March 2008

So what am I running from?

No account of how one began running can possibly explain how one becomes a marathon runner. It's easy enough to understand why someone would run a marathon -- it's festive, it's fun-of-sorts, it's a way of connecting with people -- but harder to explain is the life of the marathon runner (a quite different thing) the emotional or psychological impulses that drive you into running twenty or more miles on a weekend in preparation for a marathon, especially when the preparation is at best tenuous. I haven't run 20 miles since 2 December, but I did have a two-hour child-free slot last weekend, and eked out 16, which felt like an accomplishment. But it was also pleasurable. It's what I do. Now why would anyone do that? What am I -- or anyone -- running to? What am I -- or you -- running from?

People -- sane, non addicted people that is -- assume you think when you run, and for me that's half true. I fret about the things that are wrong in my life (there have been some of them of late), I dabble around in explanatory narratives (it all happened, because ...). But if I push those things aside, or if there aren't such things to worry about, in fact I think about very little. As the heart rises, and the mind finds its way into a rhythm, as your eyes begin to see things as they really are, as you see unaccommodated man and unfiltered space, as the blood takes over, there are no abstract or complex thoughts. The moment is what matters -- and perhaps, if you're racing, the moment at which you're going to collapse, literally or metaphorically, which has a nasty habit of fixing itself in your horizons -- and the moment tends to be free from anything but meditation on the immediate, material surroundings, or at most a good feeling about a friend, a lover, or the running itself.

This is the runner's secret. I think. For all I might claim right now that running is running from the pain of the winter, from realities I'd rather not stare in the slavering eye, or to the pleasures that the spring will bring, to the turning of the air, to the arms that might catch me, the truth is much less poetic and simpler than that. Running is its own down time. Running is a recovery period for the mind. That space, that unabashed intimacy with the naked, bony self, is both what we're running to, and what we're running from.