Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Down and out in Stansted

The Stansted 10k took place on Sunday 15 June. It involved chasing Jamie Oliver as he ran between the anti-new-runway-for-Stansted campaign, and the clubhouse for the first-class only airline he flies to NYC.

It didn't. It was, instead a very pleasant course around Stansted Mountfitchet and nearby farms and villages, multi-terrain and not very flat. It's a fun run, so there were no timing chips, no lead car (or cycle), and some people had dogs. I wished I'd brought Mercury because we would have won the first person with dog category, had there been one. And it would have been more fun.

I travelled there with my friend Michelle from running club. Neither of us wanted to do it, but that's the great thing about friends from running clubs. They make you do things you don't want to do, just as you're making them do something they don't want to do, in a perfect symbiosis of mutually assured gloom.

I've had a cold for a week, though I never get colds, a cold so severe I've been unable to run for fear of getting really ill. So I knew that my time wasn't going to be great. Accordingly I was more than happy to accept a dinner invitation for the preceding evening, with my friends Eivind and Sudeshna. And I was very good with the wine. I restrained myself to a couple of glasses of rosé. At least until the food arrived. Then Eivind pulled out a classy Riesling. And then a 1999 Gevrey-Chambertin, which was gorgeous in its gloomy and resinous intensity. And then he had a desert wine that we had to try out for some reason. So when I called on Michelle on Sunday morning I had a hangover and couldn't breathe.

We made it to the start in good time, but the finish was another matter.

There was a sharp right turn five metres in front of the start line. That was interesting. And then it wasn't very flat at all. And there were hills too. Hills up fields, with uneven footing. Fields of corn. And it rapidly grew lonely. There was no passing or direct competition. After a couple of miles there were ten or so men out of sight in front of me, and no one audible behind, not even barking dogs. Occasionally there was a marshall. However, the Stansted 10k is a biannual fun run, so the marshalls don't get much practice. Only one didn't have his or her hands in his or her pockets, and he was holding a camera. I wasn't always sure of where I was going, and once had to ask. What with the pain, the gloom, and the loneliness I objected to this a little.

Still, the last kilometre was rather splendidly downhill , and for a while I was chasing someone thinking I might catch him up. After a decent first half (about 19), the more severe second half took its toll, and I came home in a miserable 41:03, close to a personal worst. Still I got to cheer Michelle - who had no idea of how quickly or slowly she had run it, being watchless and fundamentally disinterested - and we went for a beer at the Rose and Crown pub overlooking the finish line. It was a funny beer. It had a funny real-aleish sort of name and had undertones of rancid lime. Still, Roger Bannister used to go for a beer after his sessions at the Cowley Road track, so I'm sticking with it.


Thursday, 5 June 2008

Brandon Forest

It doesn't pay well, this running gig.

Monday last week, the bank holiday, I ran the Brandon Forest Half-Marathon, my first race since puffing around London. Brandon Forest is near Elvedon, near Thetford, half-way between Cambridge and Norwich ... ok, it's nowhere really. But it is a very nice forest. No lions and tigers and bears, just vistas and gentle slopes and trees and howling winds and driving rain.

I've been running most days, quite slowly, occasionally fishing Mercury out of the river and picking up his poop. Still nothing that would constitute training. Nonetheless I toed the line of the race feeling quite cheerful, an unfamiliar sensation of late. I like this racing game. When the horn went off I followed the leaders into the woods.

The course is superb. It follows a three-leaf clover shape, and you run it twice. This means that you pass the area around the start six times, so supporters can cheer their runners frequently, more or less every two miles. It's a splendid design, and the marshalls are good too. The race organisation is perfect. I commend it to everyone. As for the course, in the second half you know what to expect, and I rather like that experience, except for the outward stretch of the second leaf. The race is noisy and exciting at the start. And suddenly it gets very quiet. You're in the forest, and the mid-packers have receded into the distance. There are a couple of guys in front, a couple of guys behind, and that's it. And it gets worse. But then it gets better. You return to the start, the drinks table, and the cheering crowd. And then it gets quiet again.

And on the outward leg of that second leaf there is a mile-long stretch into a roaring headwind that almost stops forward progress. It's a little dispiriting. My Garmin considers autopause. But eventually I turn a corner and I'm winding through the trees again, stepping over the rocks and puddles, trying not to turn an ankle on the corners, picking my footing. My legs hurt like hell because it's off-road, and being an urban type I don't much use those muscles required for lateral support. I contemplate the humiliation of not finishing as hurting turns to burning turns to numbness.

There's a nice moment when a tall, slim, attractive, dark-haired woman wearing a light raincoat billowing in the wind cheers me on by name as I pass by the drinks table. I have my name on my shirt, which was evidently a good investment. She does it next time too. The next time I lift my heels a little harder as I approach this central nexus. Then I smile. Then the next time I wave. By the last time I'm a bit less sociable, however.

After six miles there is no other runner in sight, though there is a guy a hundred metres behind me puffing away. It's alarming I can hear him, all things considered (it's the tailwind I suppose). After ten miles the end is nigh, and when I enter that final leaf I know that everything is going to be just fine. It's not quite, as the twenty-year old who has been behind me barrels past just as my ankle goes on a rough patch with 200 metres to go. I can't be bothered to catch him (the difference between a trained runner and a runner between training schedules). Nonetheless I figure it's been a decent outing. 1:25.30, which isn't bad for an unfit runner off-road.

There is a magnificent mound of bananas at the finish. Everyone ahead of me seems to have done it before. They're swapping war stories. "D'ya win?" asks one. "Yeah," says his interlocutor.

I chat to the dark-haired woman. She seems quite nice. Then I head off home.

Imagine my surprise when I look up the results online and find I was second M40. I won ten pounds, which followed by post. That's the first individual prize I've ever won. You know, being 41 isn't so bad at all. Looked at in strictly financial terms, £10 isn't great for an hour and a half's work. But I was just a little bit pleased with myself anyway.