Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Advanced Marathoning tips (ii): great expectorations

Have you ever found yourself running along a pavement or a towpath, somewhere with limited width, and seen your way obstructed by pedestrians or other malingerers walking two or three or four abreast? You expect that they'll accommodate you, make way, move over a little, share the space. You make eye contact. You hurtle towards them. And nothing happens. The block your way. You slow down. You slow down more. You stop. And then they issue a big smile and clear some room.

Once this has happened a few dozen times you begin to puzzle about it. Are they stupid? Do they think that you like to stop? Are they incapable of judging your speed, and thus inadvertently move over too late? At least with dogs you know what will happen: they look over their shoulder and invariable drift into your path. Dogs are reliable, and thus can be negotiated. People are blockish.

Now, you may have read the odd letter in Runners' World, or the odd personal email for that matter, complaining about runners spitting. It's an unpleasant habit, apparently. I suppose that in most contexts I would agree. However, I can assure you that nothing gets the obstructive pedestrian's attention than a throat clearing followed by a modest expectoration into the pathside. Nothing substantial or portentous, just a functional vacating of the airwaves. It's not clear to me why this should be the case. It's not as if spitting runners are faster, or need more room than others. But there's something about the confident and focussed spit, performed with a rhythmic indifference, or even insouciance, that declares to obstinate path-blockers, 'excuse me, could you move over a little in order to let me through?' Even if you think spitting in public (or in private?) an unpleasant activity, it is one you need to master. Other columns can supply you with mere rudimentary details.

So ignore the social opprobrium attached to the business. Regard conspicuous spitting as an essential training technique, especially when running intervals. And the good news is that in these days of swine 'flu panic it is more effective than ever.


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Advanced Marathoning tips (i): refection

Since I am on the road to recovery, now being able to run 10 miles, albeit in a painfully and shamefully tedious 85 minutes, I thought it time to dig into the slagheaps of my memory in search of inspirational training tips. And, bombarded with complaints about how long it is since I wrote a post (if a week's silence in the blogosphere is death, I am père lachaise), I thought I would share these nuggets of wisdom with you. Old runners are worse than old fishermen. The older I get, the better I could have been.

So this is the first post in a series of tips for marathoners looking to improve their PBs. Post ii, on advanced spitting technique, will follow shortly.

Eating. We need to do it a lot. When I first started running I couldn't figure out what was happening to me: I would begin to slow down towards the end of a run, as if I was out of energy. And I lost kilogrammes. These days, now I am more of an I-could-have-been-really-good runner, I am piling the kilogrammes on, of course, because at some point in between these events I learned how to eat. I have not, however, yet learned how not to eat. I am even contemplating running the London Marathon next year as Mr Blobby. Without fancy dress. Sean and I could compete to be the fastest Mr Blobby (long gone are the days when I contemplated competing to win the fastest Elvis race). I should add that I have never seen Mr Blobby, and don't know what he looks like, but I have read about him - or it - in newspapers.

So what to eat to get faster? Fruit of course, and protein and carbs in well-timed and measured doses. Of course, I'm too lazy and too busy for all that, so, malingering in the kitchen this morning with an hambre, I thought I would take a short cut. I would satisfy my complex nutritional needs with something that would really accelerate me. And then I remembered the biscuits my gorgeous girlfriend brought me back from her summer holiday in Bulgaria. Feast your eyes ...

Yes, no small claims made by these biscuits. They should be available on the NHS. And anything that cheers you up should make you go faster, right? You have to love Bulgaria: political rights, civil liberties, a temperate climate, centuries of empire concluded by centuries of Ottoman domination, (I'll skip World War II), and now biscuits that cheer you up. 'Antidepressant' is a better name even than 'Nice', better than biscuits named after mathematicians, like 'Leibniz' and 'Fig Newton'.

But they don't taste as good. They are chocolate wafers that taste like coffee you bought at a gas station in New Mexico and left sitting in the armrest before you drove through Texas and decide belatedly to drink in, I don't know, Georgia or somewhere. And they do not -- let me make this clear -- make you any faster or any less depressed. In fact, if you find yourself at a crossroads one day, out running along the Cam or the Mississippi, and the one path is labeled 'Antidepressant', that'll be the one that leads you to being the second fastest Mr Blobby in the spring.

So, advanced marathoning tip (i): eat wisely.


Monday, 5 October 2009

Curryworst and Weissbier

It is just before 9:00 am on Sunday 20 September, the morning of the Berlin marathon, and the race is about to start. The air is crisp with expectations and the scent of loose bowels. Haile glances at his flourescent adidas racing flats. The race organisers run through the usual preparations, and check that Vangelis' Chariots of Fire theme is cued to play. I look at my watch. Painedly. It's almost 9 am, and here I am in bed, looking first at my watch, then at the limbs of my beautiful girlfriend, crumpled beneath white sheets, and here I am nursing a sore head.

The hotel coffee is bad. More or less all drinks in Berlin are bad, except for the bier (though the spatburgunder is pleasant enough in context, you probably wouldn't go to an effort to import it). So I put on my jeans and wander off to a nearby strasse where I saw a row of cafes yesterday. As soon as I turn onto it there's a familiar guitar riff, and a band breaks into 'I Shot the Sheriff'. Groovy. I limp along the street, and the memories of passing down the long, straight, vacant strasse that lies ahead of me come rushing back. I used to be an athlete, I remember that now. And then there came the hamstring.

Hi-vis marshalls crowd water tables. Haile will be 8k into the race by now. He'll pass by here in a little less than an hour. I find a cafe and buy a large, muddy coffee, a large tea, and a couple of pieces of cake.

If I am guilty I will pay.

I limp back to the hotel, wrestle with the door holding drinks. It's the art-otel Berlin, elegantly themed in lime green and full of pictures of Andy Warhol, and the fancy electronic keys don't work. My head begins to clear, and soon I've dragged Nicky from the room so we can watch the end of the race. In the bright and cool sun we stand half a kilometre from the end, close to the Brandenburg gate. Cyclists pass by on the route, soaking up the atmosphere as if anyone cares about cyclists here.

Nicky charitably goes to Starbucks, which I've reluctantly learned to accept as a guarantee of a half-decent coffee. Then the runners approach. Haile first, and he passes us at 2:03:59, the same time at which he crossed the finish line last year. It's funny: he doesn't look like he's running very fast at all. I fumble with the camera and shoot the floor because I'm too busy watching him. Then the others. They're all wearing flourescent adidas racing shoes. I make a mental note to get a pair. Here's Kiprop, who came second in 2:07.04 (Haile finished in a leisurely 2:06.08, which isn't particularly overwhelming these days):

Note the shoes. And then came the others, including the pacer. I think his name was Negari Terfa, and he came in half a minute after Kiprop. It struck me as a little unfair that he ran under 2:08, and ran by as anonymously as the fat cyclists. It made me want to offer a little thought for all of the pacers in the world, who lead in the names for an agreed fee, and almost never win.

Then others pass, thousands of them. As the mortals run by I'm beginning to feel despondent. I see my own time from two years before pass ... that could be me. We don't stay but wander off to lunch. It's bad Italian food, but the weissbier is just fine. I will be back next year, and, racing flats or not, I will be neither hung over nor slow. It's time to get righteous again.


Thursday, 3 September 2009

Return to the physiotherapist

I have been reading The Body Broken by Lynne Greenberg, a fellow Milton scholar. This is not a book about Milton, but a memoir about pain. Having recovered, with miraculous speed, from serious injuries sustained in a car crash when she was 18, nearly two decades later her body began to disintegrate, to un-heal. I remember meeting her between these two episodes, on a paddle steamer in Beaufort, South Carolina. That was before I became a runner, and before she fell apart. Her reflections are harrowing, and reading them has chastened me: I'm not going to write about my self-inflicted injury in terms of pain again, because it's just not up to it.

What I do need to write about is age and recovery. I also need to apologise for my last, out-of-character post, which has received more complaints than any previous post has received compliments. Sorry, sorry, sorry. I won’t do it again. Instead, I’m going to reflect upon my shortcomings.

Among the expressions of goodwill I received when news of my Decline and Fall spread was the following from Edward Jones, another Miltonist, and the fastest academic I have the pleasure to know (2:40 in Boston):

"Unfortunately the kind of injury you have combined with your personality do not match up well. The injury usually wins in the end by both chastening and not forgiving the personality. It is surely no comfort for you to know nor me to remember the decade of injuries I experienced from my early thirties to my early forties--except in one respect. After adjusting in my early forties in little ways (not beating myself up with speed, allowing ample recovery between quality workouts [4 days between them], and alternating shoes [3-4 pairs]), I have run 335 days a year since then. Last year I had a pr in terms of miles logged.

"You still have good years ahead and opportunities for better marathon times, but over forty runners must manipulate their bodies in ever so subtle ways in order to balance wear and tear with slowly decreasing VO2 max. I wish you good fortune with all of that."

So there’s my future: a Manichean struggle between a failing body and a raging struggle to outwit the inevitable. Lengthening times (race times, that is), shortening hamstrings. I hear the Raven look at my limp organs, and say: pathetic.

The physiotherapist took me seriously the second time. I explained that I'd found it hard to run. She nodded with her usual lack of concern. She goes through it again. “So how long do you run each day.” Last time she evidently switched off somewhere around “It depends …”

So I try to be more succinct. “My shortest run is eleven kilometres. My longest run is 37 kilometres.”

She looks confused. “In one go?”

Now I have her. “Yes.” She blinks twice before asking:

“Ok. Did you bring shorts?”

I still hadn’t brought shorts. I explained I was wearing decent underwear, without adding that my underwear is a lot more decent than my running shorts, even those pairs that are not torn, and certainly more decent than my Skins.

She begins to massage my leg, and this time there is plenty of pain. There is also a big bruise. She looks for some cause other than the injury, but there is none. She’s impressed.

I go out running every other day. It’s slow and I don’t enjoy it. I can’t understand why at first, but it begins to become apparent. One of the reasons I used to enjoy running was because it felt natural. I was good at it, and developed nice, efficient form. These days it’s all a struggle, and with concentration and effort I can run slowly. My footplant is quiet, at least, but I can feel the decline in efficiency that comes with a loss of core strength. I used to enjoy running because I was good; and I’m no longer good.

The next visit to the physio, I’m barely through the door before she says, “Could you get undressed please.” She massages the offending leg once again. It troubles her that I still don’t have much flexibility. Of course it’s not news to me. I’ve been like this for months, and have grown grimly accustomed to it. I’m just not getting any better. Is it because I’m not diligent enough in doing my prescribed stretches?

You see, I’m beginning to worry that it’s in my head. Perhaps running was just like this when I started five years ago, and I’ve forgotten that it involves struggle. Perhaps I am no longer motivated. Perhaps the weakness is in my mind. What’s injured is character. I re-read Edward’s email and think: do I really have the strength and resolve to go through that? Do I need to adjust to my age? Is mind or body inadequate here? Are they racing each other, to see which will give up first? Running used to be my struggle against adversity, an encounter with the non-rhetorical, the immiscibility of the physical world.

I think of John Milton writing glibly (in Greek) in the visitors books of European friends: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” I try to think of ways that through my weakness I will be made more perfect in my strength. I hear an empty conch. Next weekend is the Berlin marathon, which I was scheduled to run. I’ll go anyway. And over my shoulder I hear the Raven look at my legs and say … pathetic.


Monday, 24 August 2009


I've been writing about i) angels and ii) asperger syndrome this month, so I have been thinking at length about memes, or cognate concepts bearing different names. I was a little surprised, then, to find that I'd been 'tagged' with a 'meme', which apparently means that I have an answer some questions and then invite some other people to answer the same questions. The tagger was my dear friend Mrs Trefusis, here, who has an inflated notion of me, for which I am very grateful. She makes the very valid point that as I'm no longer in a position to call myself a runner, then I need something else to blog about. So here goes.

What's the favourite thing you've ever written?
Milton's Angels: The Early Modern Imagination, forthcoming from Oxford University Press next February. If the question specifically designates a blog, then I have to confess that I am quite proud of some entries, while I regard others as fillers. I put much more effort into the entries on marathons. Only followers of this blog will have read the really good ones. They are:
  • The Muezzin's Call - the Istanbul marathon.
  • Five Bridges, Five Boroughs, and a Lake of Fire -- the 2005 NYC marathon.
  • New York, 5 November 2006 -- the 2006 NYC marathon, with a guest appearance by Lance Armstrong.
  • Basta problemi, on re-running the Milan marathon, was also quite good -- especially with the benefit of hindsight (the end of my 17-year marriage would begin when I got off the plane)
These were good because of the occasions. I was also quite pleased with an entry about the place that running sometimes holds in the bigger movements of your life, Recovery Runs, though that's a much more understated piece of writing.

What blog post do you wish you'd written?
Probably something by Brad Hickey -- such as this one -- because I would have liked to have had the meal (though the man isn't short of good meals, good wine and good company). I would also like to have won the Tour de France.

Choose a favourite quotation
Too many to choose from. Perhaps:

"Leaning, half rais'd, with looks of cordial love /
Hung over her enamoured"


"Hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way."


"Put me back on my bike."


"Sunt lachrymae rerum". (Because I love the economy of the Latin: "these are the tears of things" doesn't quite do it. See also: "Coelo tegitur non urnam habet.")


"Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea."


"Between the thought ..."


"Who if I cried would hear me among the angelic orders ..."

How could one possibly choose?

Three favourite words
That's tough again. Are the three words linked? Are they context sensitive? In which case "Agent Provocateur Shorts" have to be right up there with the most sublime words. If we're just talking nice, fancy words, my 14-year old self would have had a proper answer: umbrageous, incarnadine, desuetude. Perhaps numinous too. These days, I like all of my words, and feel that I need to hang onto as many as I can, as the years strip the elasticity of my brain cells and the words slip beyond reach.

Do you have a writing mentor, role model, influence or inspiration
Mnemosyne and Erato. And sometimes Clio.

What's your writing ambition?
Oh, to be Shakespeare, Joyce, the usual stuff.

Now I have to recommend three bloggers, which is tricky, because Mrs T. and all her friends -- MTFF, Belgian Waffle and so on -- have already been involved in this meme. And it seems unfair to drag in others, who have better things to write about: Brad Hickey, Fat Cyclist, Chris Priestly. So I respond: no. Basta.


Thursday, 6 August 2009

The physiotherapist

Nurse Ratchett looked unimpressed as she dug her thumb deep into my hamstring and waited for a response.

That's how I had planned to start this, together with appropriate disclaimers about any resemblance between truth and blog being purely coincidental, but it worked out quite differently. My NHS physiotherapist was a diminutive Indian woman with a pleasant disposition. Having evidently signed up to the job in anticipation of helping people who can barely make it through the door, she adjusted to dealing with an endurance athlete suffering from a self-inflicted condition with equanimity.

Her diagnosis: I need to stretch. Who'd have thunk? We debate the merits of short versus long stretches. She is on the other side to me. She does stick her thumbs into the wound and can't find any soreness. Which is peculiar, as my masseuse, Zoe, who is almost qualified as a physio and should be hired by the British cycling team -- really -- had me writhing around on the table in the most exquisite raptures of agony not so long ago. You probably have to pay for that kind of stuff.

And then my physio tells me that I'll be running, slowly, and for 20 minutes, in a couple of weeks. And ushers me out of the door.

So I went home, and stretched. And then I put in my contact lenses and donned the lycra, got on my bike, and took to the B roads around the fens. And I put the hammer down. I cycled until my heart was louder than the air. And I held it right there, on the slight inclines and declines, through the cross winds, until my vision blurred at the edges. I held it just until the end of the kilometre, waiting for the beep of my GPS watch. And then I eased off, and then I went there again, and again. And then I cycled home and lay on the kitchen floor, and my head was as empty and echoing as a conch.


Tuesday, 21 July 2009

On inhabiting that liminal space between not yet being able to say 'I used to run' but being able to say 'I used to be a runner'

Or, why I hate Scotland (ii) ...

Seven weeks without running left me grimacing, but I knew that leaving it so long, without even trying a short one, was doing me good. When I put my shoes on again I would be ready to start training for the Berlin Marathon in September. I would come back refreshed, determined and therefore focussed.

So on Saturday I looked out of the window at a bright dawn, put my shoes on, adjusted the orthotics, and headed out along the Cam.
kilometre 1: I am slow to the point of stretching my own credulity. I hope that no one will see me. I knew, however, that it was going to be tough to start with. I have to remember how to run, how to pick my feet up, how to stay relaxed.
kilometer 2: still very slow, slower than 5'00" per kilometre, or 8 minute miling. I find the physical movement unfamiliar. I really have forgotten how to run.
kilometre 3: I'm stiff, but am I loosening up a little. I look at the watch and see that I'm running at 4'30" a kilometre, which is a bit more like it. I slow down almost immediately upon apprehending this.
kilometre 4: back to slow again. I think about turning around and heading back, having at least made a start. But I'm almost at the half-way point. It's nice along the river bank. My lungs feel ok, though my heart rate is probably a little high. Be still my heart.
kilometre 5-9: gradually I realise that my legs aren't going to loosen up. In fact the left is beginning to feel the same stiffness it felt in Edinburgh, a dull referred pain spreading along the leg. No stabbing or burning pain, but an immobile woodenness.
kilometre 10: in desperation I try to run faster. Perhaps I can just run through this. I can't. A rowing crew catch up with me as I lollop homewards.
kilometre 11: I really don't feel very good about this. I've made a start on the road to recovery, but it isn't going to be like it's been in the past, when I've been able to pick things up very quickly, and build mileage back to normal levels within a few weeks.

I walk the last few hundred metres. It's hard to walk. I stretch as best I can.

And then everything goes really pear-shaped. That afternoon I find it hard to walk. The next day the pain is real, stabbing, aching, undermining, just like it was after the ruin of Edinburgh. It hurts to sit. There's deep pain with movement, but also surface pain. I go for a cycle, but even that is hurting now. The injury hasn't gone away after all, despite 7 weeks of real rest.

Yesterday I went to see my GP. He uses words like "chronic" and "months", "physiotherapy" and "just one mile with walking". He draws some pictures to suggest the kinds of tearing I might have caused. Berlin in September? Not a chance. I am no longer a runner, and it's not clear that I ever will be again.


Thursday, 2 July 2009

The King is Dead, Long Live ...

People have stopped asking me about my hamstring. It's probably as well: it's getting boring for everyone. I haven't run a step. I do have a new friend, though: Ms Bianchi. She's made of aluminium and carbon fibre. I hope that she'll stop my VO2 from plummeting into an asthmatic rut.

I picked her up yesterday, and soon remembered how to use clip-ins and brake-head gear shifters. And this morning I woke early and couldn't get back to sleep. So I downed a good load of coffee, and took to the road. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny morning, with only the faintest of mists rising from the fens, the breeze perfect for summer lycra. Somehow, however, while my legs and lungs presented no problem, my hands went numb, as if I was doing the death vice grip. I could barely change gear, or lift my hands from the drops. Seldom do technical problems present themselves in running. I wasn't even sure I was going to be able to get home. If a lorry didn't smash me into the ditch, I would fall off in any case, unable to manoeuvre.

By the time I reached Swaffham Bulbeck (via Midsummer Common, the river, Fen Ditton and then Quy and Lode), I was thinking of my friend Dean. Dean lost the use of a knee last year, and had to stop running. He has successfully returned, however, to his main sport, cycling. And last weekend he was involved in a two-day 600k race. That's a very long race. I'd only done about 16k, and was already contemplating my demise. I haven't heard from him since he set off ... does anyone know his whereabouts?

An hour after setting off, at about 6:30, I arrived at Nicky's house in Burwell. No one was awake. I stood outside her bedroom window and threw stones at it. I kept on missing, because my hands were numb. I called out and eventually she came downstairs and let me in. I made her a cup of tea, and set off home again. Could this be romance, I asked myself? This time my hands didn't feel so bad, and I made it in time to take the loaf out of the breadmaker. I miss running, but there's nothing like an early morning ride. I just need to fix the hands business - perhaps a month of intensively watching cycling on the TV would do it?

Normal service will be resumed shortly; in the meantime say hello to Ms Bianchi.J

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The silent blogger

I haven't blogged for a fortnight, which, as I am told, is blogosphere death. I no longer have any readers, let alone followers. I am once again speaking into the silence.

What does a running-blogger blog about when there's no running? I suppose I could write about not running, about society, about history (the history of running, or anything else for that matter). But the fact is that I don't feel much like writing because I'm not running. And runners who can't run inhabit a certain darkness that they talk around but seldom say anything interesting about about, because runners are on the whole positive people, and that darkness is pain and withdrawal.

Injury is a terrible thing. My hamstring still hurts; I'm still limping; I haven't run at all since crashing to a halt in Edinburgh; I haven't succeeded in buying a bike; it hurts when I sit down. I saw my excellent masseuse Zoe last week, and she located the tear, but it will take time to heal. I had to cancel my entry to the Stathern 10k. That's the practical picture. Then there's the affective, subjective picture. I wake each morning, at dawn, feeling stressed. I move to get up and remember why. There a blunt pain in my glute. Throughout the day the pain shifts between a dull ache, a tightness that makes me stumble, and a throb. I look for things to say about this.

Elaine Scarry wrote a book called The Body in Pain, which begins with a discussion of the difficulties of describing pain (I read it as an undergraduate, so forgive me if I'm making this up). Our language is inarticulate. Physicians have devised questionnaires offering a standarised range of terms, so patients can quickly bypass their fumbling with the language and get to meaningful statements: stabbing, aching, throbbing ...

What's this pain like?
it's a despondency in the heart, like the one you feel when your standing by the side of the road, watching slow runners pass, knowing they're faster than you now
it's the black defeat of the soul, when you can't bring yourself to think about when you might be able to run again
it's the ache in the head that paracetamol won't dull, because you know that you don't like yourself when you don't run
it's a leadenness in the muscle cells, as they gradually decay
it's the fear in the lungs and the closing of the veins

That's what I want to say into the silence, as I sit at my desk, but I really don't know how.


Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Why I hate Scotland (i)

This is the first time I've been back to Scotland in several years. I used to live in the north east of the country, the land of the midnight sun and midday eclipse, depending on the time of year. Things have changed a little. For a start, it's a beautiful hot day, and the granite looks almost like marble in the bleaching sunlight. And since I left I became a runner, and now I'm standing at the start of the Edinburgh marathon, sweating in the morning sun, and I haven't yet started running.

Edinburgh is crowded with tourists spilling in and out of the discount cashmere and rent-a-kilt and full-rugby-kit (cheap kilt, rugby shirt, sporran, box of tissues) shops; and with runners too, some putting in a final run on the morning before the race, all complaining about the prospective heat. Boots is running out of suncream, which no one thought to pack. Come to Edinburgh for a spring marathon and ... bake?!? I'm a Welshman, of course - indeed a Welsh Icon, as I read this week, though I appear in the list of writers, rather than athletes - and this just doesn't seem right.

I'm relaxed, notwithstanding a sleepless night. The previous evening Nicky and I had watched cyclists tear around a small, hilly loop on the other side of the city. I thought, once again, about taking up cycling as another sport, with all of the spare time I have. I like the idea of a non-impact sport (except I'd probably be coming off all the time), and the nice bike, not to speak of the lycra. We walked past Greyfriar's Kirk, home of Greyfriars Bobby.

Thinking about it, Greyfriars Bobby is a useful cultural point of reference, so I should unpack just what I intend by alluding to him. He was a Skye Terrier, whose master John Gray, a policeman, died in 1858, leaving Bobby alone. So poor Bobby sat on his master's grave for fourteen years, a sign of unerring devotion. References to, and statues of him, are scattered across Edinburgh. The cycle race whizzed around one, opposite the Greyfriars Bobby Pub, the tightest bend of the circuit, just before the big downhill. You can buy miniatures and brooches. Wikipedia says this: "A red granite stone was erected on Bobby's grave by The Dog Aid Society of Scotland, and unveiled by the Duke of Gloucester on 13 May 1981. It reads: "Greyfriars Bobby — died 14th January 1872 — aged 16 years — Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.""

Me, I feel sorry for the terrier. After all, why did he sit there for 14 years? Because this two-year old watched his master be put under the ground and no one explained he wouldn't be coming back again. No one advised him to move on. Instead Bobby sat there waiting for his master to climb out of the soil, when he could have been off having a life - chasing balls, sniffing other dog's bottoms, making puppies, the things that dogs do. And I think to really grasp the nature of Edinburgh I think you need not only to see this, but to appreciate the fact that they turned him into an unwitting local hero for doing this, and then sell keyrings.

Then I'd lain awake half the night, and watched the sun slowly burn through the darkness and the tall curtains. The hotel room has the feel of expansive Scottish architecture: big proportions, high ceiling, square and uncomplicated. Breakfast at the hotel was too late - I passed the puzzled runners getting anxious, standing outside the cafe - so I went around the corner to starbucks and bought a large coffee, a breakfast muffin, a granola bar, and tea for Nicky. I've given up on doing these things properly: surely by now I must have enough glycogen stored. I drank my coffee, ate as much as I can, then lay in bed, listened the shower, read the newspaper.

We walk down to the start, with hundreds of runners. There are about three portaloos, and a queue for them a mile long. The race information pack tells us that there are CCTV cameras everywhere, and that if we're caught on one we'll be disqualified. But they can't keep runners down: there's a little copse of shrubs and trees right near the start, and runners pile in without gender discrimination.

At the start I'm calm and still. I don't stretch or warm up. These are the closing moments of my short and deep taper. From pen no. 2 (sub elite, 2:30 to 3:15) I'm led to the start line. It begins, in the usual way.

Except there's no music, no chariots of fire, no bagpipes even. We just run, down the hill, through streets and parkland and it's all very pleasant. And then, between two and three miles in, my left hamstring begins to hurt. It's not a stabbing pain, nor a tearing pain (which is hard to describe, but distinctive if you've experienced it), but a harsh and unforgiving ache. Despite the heat, which is a clean, dry heat with a fresh breeze, I'm feeling pretty good. The first few k have passed in sub 4'00" pace (because it's downhill), and I'm up for a PB. But the pain won't go away. It begins to spread up and down the leg. I think to myself that it will ease off as the muscles warms and stretches. But the pain doesn't go away: it intensifies. I can do this, I tell myself, I know pain, I know it intimately, and this is just pain. But it gradually clouds my mind, even as I pass people, one after another, with my relentless plodding marathon pace. I'm now hitting the target pace of 4'06" - though I'm not watching my watch, which would tell me this, because I have decided to run zen - a pace that would bring me in with a new PB of around 2:52. But I am deluding myself, because you can't run with this pain for so long. Gulls circle and call mockery.

We turn onto the coastal path. In a way I'm running well: I can feel the miles tick away underneath my feet, and my heart maintains its consoled pace. But by the time I hit 8 miles I know that it's over, and I decide that I will run until I see Nicky, and then abandon. By now my pace has drifted down to a shoddy 4'30", which wouldn't even earn me a sub-3-hour marathon. The pain has spread to my ankle, and I understand that I must be limping as I run. People begin to pass me. I'm not used to this, and I'm not sure what to do. I am inhabiting a cloud of pain that shuts me off from other sensations: it's ceased to be an obstacle, and has become the environment.

At ten miles I haven't seen Nicky, so I stop anyway. I can hardly walk. As soon as the adrenaline's gone I am hobbling and stumbling. Other runners flood by, more and more slowly. A very kind family of spectators, concerned, offer me water, ice spray, and lend me a phone. With a struggle, because I can't bend over, I remove the tag from my shoe so I can read Nicky's number. I call her, and she's half a mile back, delayed on the bus. We walk towards each other and when we meet we head to the finish area at Musselborough racecourse.

There a race official explains that they need to keep track of all the runners, and all the chips, and he takes me to the finish line. "You need to cross it," he says. "You want me to walk over the finish line?" He nods. It's unbelievably embarrassing. In front of a gathering crowd of spectators I hobble to the finish line, look up at the gantry clock and, half an hour before the winner, cross the line, the first runner to do so.

Then I eat two bananas and watch the end of the race with Nicky. I've never not finished a race before, never, as I had hubristically said (in answer to a question - I didn't ask for it that much) the day before. The emotions are strange.

At the end of a marathon you'll often see runners having a moment. They'll sit by the side of the road, head in hands (somewhere between Rodin's Thinker and Munch's Scream), coming to terms with something about themselves they've just learned. It's an intense, delicious, impenetrable emotion, a release of wordless experiences accumulated over the preceding few hours. They flush through you, breaking down your rational soul. That's after a good race too: the moment precedes the beatific calm that follows and stays with you for a week or so. After my first dnf ("did not finish") I had one of these, but in a different form: it was a moment of hopelessness, in which those half-formed emotions found no outlet, and simply fell to the ground, passing through muscles as their uncooperative conduit. For a while I couldn't speak.

A Scot won, in 2:18. As he crossed the line he gestured to the crowd to lend him more voice. A pipe band played him in: you can see them in green tartan in the picture. Then an Englishman followed. We watched them, light on their feet, carrying no fat.

Then we went to catch the race bus back to the hotel, and learned another reason (beyond the lack of mile markers and clocks, and infrequency of water stops) why the Edinburgh Marathon has a reputation for appalling organisation. Let's put that to one side for now.

In the taxi to the hotel pictures of what just happened come back to me. I visualise my watch at ten miles, just after I'd hit 'stop'. It say 1:07. Even after slowing down for a couple of miles I'd been running quickly. I think about this, and why it had happened. Perhaps the taper had been too deep, perhaps I'd needed to stretch before running downhill. It could have been one or more of a number of things. But it could have been the lightning strike of providence, and provided no lesson and nothing to be learned. I could be Greyfriars Bobby perched mournfully on the flinty soil, and I wouldn't know it.

I hobble to a great lunch in the sun, and we take the train home. The pain keeps coming back, and my balance is poor. I won't be running for a couple of weeks, or longer. So does anyone want to sell me a racing bike? I need a 58cm frame and I like interesting colours.


Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Foie gras

I love running. I love those early mornings on the wet grass; those late nights through city streetlighting, when the cats watch from fenceposts; I love track sessions when you count down the repetitions, feeling yourself drawn ever thinner on each one.

But sometimes I don't enjoy it much at all. Every runner has been there: the training session you face joylessly, but need to complete because it's on your schedule. The session you feel you need to do because you ate too much yesterday (and the day before). And not running is often not much fun.

And then there are occasions like last week, when ten days before a marathon I find myself in Paris, with Thing 2 (aged 12), showing him the delights of that city. Because I only had five weeks between two marathons, and because I am not a professional athlete, and have too much else to do in a professional capacity, I decided that I would have a brief, deep taper (a taper is the period in which you cut down on your running in preparation for a race -- it gives an opportunity for muscle tissue to repair, and for your mind and body to build strength in preparation). This means that I trained very hard on Tuesday, then took the train to Paris on Wednesday. And I did not pack my running shoes. So my taper is going to be short and deep -- ten days of total rest.

The problem was that I was in Paris. And no matter how much I restrained myself, L'Avant-Gout, one of my very favourite restaurants, is just irresistible. It was a conflict I could not win. And many other places and foodstuffs in Paris are irresistible. I ate macaroons, pain au chocolat, pot au feu, fois gras, pate de fois gras, snails, steak, moulleux chocolat and more. And I have returned looking, and feeling like foie gras. And this is the burden I have to bear for 26.2 miles around Edinburgh this coming Sunday. And this is why, sometimes, I do not like the self-denying rigours of being a runner.


Saturday, 9 May 2009

Fields of pain

Because I am a fool I am running two marathons with five weeks (i.e. four weekends) between them. I am devising new and innovative training schedules. Runners' World should hire me (though this month they've been speaking to Jay Dicharry at UVA, and he is very worthwhile; see p. 64 and my discussion of silver balls). So here I am, 13 days after London, running 20 miles. At least it is a nice day.

I drop my youngest off at the chess tournament and head north east towards Ely. I plan to run 10 miles out, turn round, and then run back. It's late on a Saturday for a long run, but you have to steal the opportunities that present themselves. I'm not concerned about time. I have single bottle of water. Picture me.

I don't feel too bad. It's a lovely day. I meet some obstacles. This one slowed me down.I pass some cows. And then the path becomes a little overgrown.
I am of course wearing shorts. Either I turn back, and find some unsatisfactory back-and-forth substitute for this run I had planned, or I plough on through the nettles. On I go.

And then happens the magic part that has to inhabit every run ... Ely Cathedral peeks around some trees, lying flat on the horizon. I run towards Ely, thinking that this is how it would have looked half a millennium ago, and that I am in contact with some raw history. The end of the journey is in sight; I am not lost; humans can make their modest impressions on the inherited land (and the land says that it does not mind). I almost think - if you discount the wicking fabrics, the neoprene, and the GPS watch - that I could have been born centuries ago.
I stop to take a photograph, and then - blissful moment - I hear the swat of wings, and four swans fly over my shoulder. I catch them as they pass by, with the cathedral in the background. This is what long runs should be about, and I almost don't mind that I am running out of fluids.
(I wish camera manufacturers would introduce better lenses: this was all almost touching my eyelashes on Saturday)

But I don't make it to Ely: a few miles short I see that I've run ten miles already, so I turn around. And then the headwind strikes my chest, and I see that it's going to be a long return. Past the cows again, over the tree, through the nettles. And everything is hurting in the wrong way. I'm not tired and my heart is almost still; though my ankles are rioting from all the slipping on the invisible footing. No: the problem is the parched mouth and the stinging shins. Eventually I find a doc leaf ("docleaf"?) and learn that you can't run through nettles for half an hour and then apply the salve. Perhaps it would work if you broke the medicinal leaf up and rubbed it into your skin before running through the nettles; but by now the stinging cells have already worked their way deep into my skin, and they won't be neutralised (I go out tango dancing that night, and my shins still have that uncomfortable nettle-tingle, along with all the other customary pains). Runners learn from me.

But eventually I make it back to civilisation, and an unconscionably slow two hours and fifty-five minutes later I'm back at the chess tournament and guzzling Science in Sport electrolyte. My boy's been doing well, and has hopes of qualifying for the national competition.

We recover with an ice-cream. Dairy's a good recovery fluid, though I'm not sure that this soft scoop - more of a squirt really - ice cream has any cream in it. It's welcome in the drought-desert-dryness of my oesophagus, though.
Then - what else is there to do? - I head home, open a meaty bottle of Malbec, and cook. Runners learn from my poor and fated example.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

"Welcome back," said Tom, as I hung on his shoulder on yet another 500m repeat on the track, referring, I inferred, despite the racing pulse, to the fact that I hadn't been away long enough. Eight days after London I was at the Cambridge University sports track doing speedwork. This is not sensible behaviour. The body needs to recover after a marathon. Common wisdom says - in fact the training manuals say it too - that for every mile you race you should recover for one day. This does not mean not exercising at all: it means swimming, perhaps cycling and then some gentle running. It does not mean haring after Tom in a headwind, doing 500m hard, 100m jog recovery, 600m hard, 100m jog recovery, 700m hard, 4 mins rest, then repeating the whole routine twice.

At the end of the session I felt worse than I had done on Marathon Sunday. My lungs were empty. My muscle fibres were like spaghetti that's been cooked, drained then left to dry on highland gorse. But I was righteous. Running hard is so much more fun than those long, slow runs. "Welcome back," I thought to myself. The London Marathon is over and done - glory is very transient - and Edinburgh beckons at the end of the month, and perhaps all manner of things will be well.


Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Light of Day

There are two ways of running: from within or from without. Both are equally valid. They're like different ways of seeing the world, though it is not possible to hold both at the same time. The second is probably faster.

London could almost become a habit or a tradition. Elias and I took the train down to Lewisham on Saturday afternoon, stopped to meet my friend (marathoner and French book historian) Sophia for a smoothie on the way, met with Nicky, and landed at Ned and Kath's. John and Jane were there, plus Sean and Meike with Janni. And they were all drinking. It could almost have been a re-run of last year. John Crannage, of Heroes of Switzerland fame (you can see them live, or at least hear them, gazing at their shoes here, or, better, here, where you can also buy the CD) was there too. He's a minor character in this blog, here and here, for instance. Except that this year Ned and Kath had moved to a house a few doors down from John and Jane. And Sean, of course, was injured. So the teetotallers were in the tortured minority of two: me and John C. John and I sat quietly through a riot of 80s pop and light rock (someone had left Sean with the stereo controls) and harboured our thoughts. As the hour draws near you begin to feel insulated from things. Not tense, but peaceful, an air-eater. Surrounded by sirens and lotus-eaters.

What did we eat? Pasta of course, spaghetti bolognese. And apricot crumble and chocolate brownies. And when we were full we knew we'd had enough, and we just wanted to retire to bed, and plant our feet up on cushions and dream of lines.

Nicky and I slept upstairs in John and Jane's studio attic, a brackish night. Sleep was interrupted in the way it always is on pre-marathon nights. Elias curled up in a sleeping bag in a day bed, and the house was as quiet as a church mouse. Because the riot was still going on three doors up the road, where John C was being kept awake by drinking and singing along with Abba and so on.

Dawn came with a flush of light through the curtains, and I saw the future. The weather forecasts had varied between heavy showers and light showers (I'd been watching them nervously all week). But instead what I saw and felt was April sun, tenuous at first, but then fat and full. It was going to be warm. Pulses would be raised. The water tables would be crowded. The spillage would evaporate from the tarmac. The crowds would be full-throated and happy. The runners would expire and slow.

I put on my vest - I had pinned on the number last thing the night before - and leggings. Five years ago, when I took up running, I had to wear really baggy shorts because I was faintly embarrassed both about the running and about showing my legs. These days I wear lycra compression tights. Elias thinks it's embarrassing; Nicky rather likes it. If I were to stop and think about it I'd probably stop: 42-year old English professors should never, never wear lycra. In fact after writing this I may well stop. They feel great. But they are rather revealing (and I've never seen the back). I picked up a text from John C, telling me that up the road the porridge was ready. Outside the air was still crisp, but you knew it was going to turn.

A room full of hangovers and a bowl of porridge. You drink water hard, and then stop. Endless ribbing (a bit premature for pinning your number, don't you think? What shoes are you wearing? You're not really going to carry the gels, are you? Have some of this, you'll be grateful at the 20-mile mark). Your muscles heavy with glycogen, your stomach hot with carbs.

The number business matters. Because this year my number looks like this:

The green stripe says it all. It means I'm at the new 'Fast Good for Age' start, which is at the front of the red, mass start. The old 'Good for Age' start was at the very small green start, but it was positioned behind the celebrities, which meant you had to shove your way past the good, the bad and the ugly before you got an open road (at which point you joined the runners from the blue start, causing more mayhem). The Fast start has a lovely small pen, and you can show up late and still be near the front. So even though 31591 has no music, that green diagonal does.

Then we all congregate and walk to blackheath, a twenty minute walk full of emotions that you can't distinguish well enough to name. Blackheath is lovely at this hour. The blimps indicating the three starts float high. The grass is bright. All smells of spring.

We say goodbye to the gang. I exchange expressions of support with John C, as he heads off to the red mass start (unfortunate: hence, perhaps, the face), find my pen, and join the toilet queue. I speak to the two guys in front of me. That's one of the great things about races: social boundaries break down, and you can speak to strangers knowing they'll share something.

I speak to Giulio (Boundary Run and Milan), Alessandro, Simon, and Fergie, all at the Fast start. Fergie and I are looking at about the same time: we've been training together, including a very fast long run, and some Yasso 800s with Simon too).

three wise men: Fergie, Simon and me

Even the Fast start has its share of fancy dress. There's a smurf. And a Lara Croft: I wished I'd had a camera for her. The really odd thing about the fast start, however - it's definitely noticeable - is that most of the men have shaved heads or crew cuts. My curls are out of place. I begin to worry that either a) they slow you down, or b) no one will think you can run. But it's too late to dwell on that, because the next thing I know is that it's 9:40 and everyone is already at the start line, forcing me, Simon and Fergie to line up at the back. Not everyone in front looks very Fast. Perhaps they'll consider a 'Fast (really)' start next year.

And it begins. I watch the clock at the start gantry. Seconds tick by as we nudge forward. It's a full 45 seconds before I cross the start line (last time I did New York, I think it was a mere 20 seconds, and I was at the mass start - now why is that?). And there are 20,000 people behind me. It doesn't bear thinking about.

So we run. Fergie's sometimes in front, sometimes behind, Simon usually just behind. I can't see Giulio. I can see lots of other people getting in my path though: it's the way with London. You just have to be patient, and not waste energy getting irritated. It's been worse. I realise with some regret at the first mile marker that I seem to have run it in 6:15, which is disappointingly fast. I've forgotten that universal lesson, which I have dispensed to others on countless occasions: don't start out too fast.

And we run. And it grows warm. And I grow hot. I take on board lots of fluids, but I can feel that this is far too much effort. The heart diverts blood to the skin to cool down, and this can accelerate your heart rate by 10 beats per minute. You begin to feel that after a while. There are no clouds, just a hot, cerulean canopy, cruelly smiling on us.

At 10 miles I know I'm cooked. I'm too hot. There's this irritating bloke called Simon (not my Simon, whom I've lost track of) behind me. The crowd keen on cheering out his name. He's obviously some minor celebrity. At one point I look at him. He's in his twenties. I don't recognise him. Which confirms that he must be a minor celebrity. Probably presents a TV programme, or was once in a TV programme. Recycles other people's ideas about fashion or house decoration. Probably works about two hours a day, and gets to run as often as he wants, which explains how some minor celebrity can keep up with me. Worse, John has drifted off ahead of me. I lost that psychological contact at some point, then I lost sight of him. I'm running at about 4:11 a kilometre, not the 4:06 for which I was hoping. My left ankle is going to carry me - I can tell that much - but it is sore and stiff. I'm developing a blister on my right heel. I'm cooked.

London looks nice in the sun, however. It's a nice day for watching. The clouds drift in for about a minute, a temporary cooling period, but they soon evaporate. It's quite glorious really. Tower Bridge is magnificent. For a wonderful moment I'm on my own: there are no runners in the ten metres in front or behind me. I've never seen that at London before. I'm slowing, though I keep passing people. London marathoners must all run huge positive splits (where the second half of the race is slower than the first). Every mile I pass dozens. Unfortunately at about 14 miles I hear people shouting encouragement to Father Christmas. And then it happens. A man in a fancy dress costume passes me. A shaven-head Santa.

It is about the half-way point that I realise that I'm not getting a new Personal Best today. The halfway point passes at 1:27:58. A good time is going to take a big negative split, and I can feel that I don't have it in me. I calculate the numbers a million ways (I'm a maths wiz normally, but it's the first thing that goes when my pulse tops 100) and I can see that it won't happen. So I do the only sensible thing. I relax a little. I accept that I'm not going to break 2:54:36, not today, and so I resolve to take things a bit easier and enjoy myself. So I run from within.

It's a funny thing. When you race, and when you train hard, it's often about beating other people. Times are things too abstract to focus on, so, although you may be aiming for a time, you use other runners as markers for that time. You'll say: in order to run under X, I will pass him ... then her ... then him. Your body may be very good at feeling and sticking to a certain speed, but external markers of time help you focus. When training at the track you learn to hang on to the runner that's faster than you; perhaps you try to pass him on the final repetition.

Sometimes, however, you run within yourself. People say that to me often: 'you look like you're running within yourself'. It usually means that I'm comfortable and am not trying hard enough, when I shoul dperhaps be in the red zone. But there's another, underappreciated aspect to this. When you run within yourself you are powered by the positive feelings of pleasure, and sometimes those numb pain and push you along anyway. Once, in a particularly disastrous period of my life, I ran the Milan marathon a mere six weeks after the Berlin marathon, and deliberately took it easy, running only for the pleasure and not caring about time. Somehow I ran 2:55:58. Whatever pushed me along at that pace came entirely from within. Unfortunately the outcome would be very different today, but I nonetheless carried with me that ease of movement and lightness of spirit, which made the race a more pleasurable thing.

They say that you have five or six good marathons in you, when everything comes together and you run well. I've had New York, and Berlin. This wasn't one of those occasions. I was doing fine, but the chemistry of age-defying brilliance wasn't there. Perhaps it will come another day. With my foot off the accelerator, but knowing that I would probably come in under three hours, I ran on, and looked around, feeling like a child smelling new things and seeing the light of day.

I pass dozens of people, some now walking, some stretching muscles against barriers. There are so many faces. Everyone is alive and living, so many centres of consciousness. Imagine you could hear their thoughts, pitched at this intensity. I imagine that every single one has as many things going through his or her head as I do every second, I imagine the countless moments of consciousness of 40,000+ runners as they run 26.2 miles, and I imagine I can hear them all, like one of the angels in Wings of Desire. It would be heartbreaking - and deafening. I have to stop imagining that.

I have little positive to say about miles 17 through 22. They're mostly very dull and ugly. But once you're at 22 miles you feel closer to the Thames, and you know that you are free to do what you want because you will probably finish. Simon was history. The crowds were vocal, calling out names as if they cared. Children proffered Jelly Babies through the railings. I dumped bottle after bottle of water over my head.

The wild darkness I had looked for does not come. These miles go by all too quickly. I'm running at - as I discover later - three hour pace, and all feels fine. There is the usual horrible moment when I feel a rippling in my calves (this time it's both), as if cramp is beginnning to set in. But I just alter my form slightly, by speeding up, and it goes away. I count down the miles: 22, 23, 24. I like running by a river in the sun - not racing, running - it's my fourth favourite pastime. I pass Parliament, and hear the voices chanting in favour of Tamil separation within Sri Lanka. Someone there is dying. We run on, through the crowds, now really deafening (and, I have to say, in a mushy kind of way, it really is heartening to hear people calling support as if it matters, as if they know how it feels). I know that this stretch has more turns than appears possible when you look at the map, but this year it doesn't matter. I'm running within myself, and I'm doing fine.

And then for a moment, with about a kilometer to go, I think I see Fergie. I look harder. I realise I must be hallucinating in the heat. I run on. And then, I see him for certain. He's under the '600m to go' sign. And I think: 'I'll have him'. Now Fergie is fast. He doesn't have a job and gets to train a lot. And he has a shaved head. And I know for sure that he's faster than me, because I've been training with him (read 'behind him') this season. Except on some sessions I can tear in front of him on the final repetition (of 6 or 10). So the prospect of catching him when he's 100m or 150m ahead of me and we have 600m to go is simply not realistic. But, discounting this, in that magical zone you only inhabit when you're in a big marathon on a sunny day and you feel good, I start running outside of myself. And sure enough, with 100m to go, or less, and with the finish line in plain sight, I fly past Fergie.

The heart is a strange place. When it sees a finish line it can do untold things. It knows more than it lets on. This is one of the reasons why runners are runners, I think, though they can't explain it. Sometimes it lets you do things that are born in chaos. I fly to the finish line. Only as I am two or three metres short do I feel a sharp knock on my right arm, and know that Fergie is there. I am sandwiched between him and another runner on my left. I think he passes me. I don't know. Perhaps we cross the line together. Not that it matters: for some unaccountable reason I've stopped competing at that point.

Fergie and I head off through the maelstrom of the finish area, collect medals and goodies (valedictory medals and T-Shirts for Flora, which is withdrawing is sponsorship of the marathon) and part ways. 'Honourable draw' he says in his gruff way. He looks a bit tired.

Now, there's a great paragraph on the last minute instructions for the London Marathon that says that 'runners numbers are assigned randomly to avoid congestion at the baggage lorries'. Because you wouldn't want to do what they do in Milan -- assign numbers according to predicted speed, and then put numbers 1-500 on one lorry, 501-1000 on the next, and so on, so runners all congregate around the same lorry at the same time. London has sensibly avoided this idiocy. Except with the Fast Good For Age. We're essentially all the runners who come in between 2:45-3:15, and we all have to claim our baggage from the same lorry. But it's not so bad, and it's not long before I meet Sean and Nicky, and have my photo taken with Meike and Janni. Sean's glum because he didn't run, and I don't blame him. Meike exclaims: how can you look so normal after doing that? But the good feelings always overcome any pain, and you soon get your breath back. And what, I ask myself, have I learned? I suppose I now know, without any doubt, what it takes to run this game.

Nicky and I head off to the pub, just off Trafalgar Square, where my club, Cambridge and Coleridge, is meeting. But they're not there yet So we sit at a window seat, with the sun warming our backs, and drink a glass of red wine. My recovery drink after a week on the wagon.

And then we travel back to Lewisham, through other runners, limping, smiling and not, meet up with Elias (who's not feeling well: back to parenthood, and the rest of the week begins), and catch up on the news of the other runners. Chanti (Ian Chant) has done well. John Crannage has made a big leap to 3:03 from 3:11, though those in the know thinks he may have more in him. and so on (more below). Simon doesn't show up in the results, and so I worry about him. When I hear of people who've run good times I think - and I wouldn't say this in public - why didn't I try harder? But the feeling is a good one. And after a while we beat our ways back to the fens, and back to more measured, more accountable life.

And besides, after all the noise and doubt, I'm running Edinburgh in five weeks, so I always have another chance to run outside.

I may receive some more photographs shortly, so I'll add them in as they arrive.


The roll of honour:
Alessandro: 2:45.07
Chanti: 2:57.05
Fergie: 2:57.10
Joad: 2:57.11
John C: 3:03.50
Giulio: 3:07.12
Sophia: 3:40.49
Simon: dnf

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Into the darkness

The London Marathon is less than a week away. It's time for marathoners to fall quiet. Talking drains reserves of adrenalin. Instead they let their limbs grow heavy with glycogen, and breathe temperately.

Runners become peculiarly, obsessively reflexive at this time of year. They think about details far too much. It's been a funny season. I should not be confident. My left ankle hurts, my shinsplints keep threatening to return. I've run nowhere near enough miles. Yet I've had the fastest long run of my career (faster than I used to run 20-mile races a couple of years ago), and the best yasso800s session I've ever run: but perhaps those were based on so much rest time between training runs. But whatever happens now is beyond significant adjustment (at least upwards), and I will no doubt learn some lessons about my body on Sunday. And I would would venture that everyone -- everyone who is not injured outright, and out of the running -- is in the same place. Everyone is judging and judging, and measuring and measuring.

And everyone who's been through this before is trying to suppress the excitement. Thinking too much about it will use up the reserves that will be needed on Sunday: reserves of energy and stoicism and fortitude (and perhaps a lot less talent). But it's hard to shut it out altogether: it's a looming figure waiting at the end of the week. Sometimes you catch a sight of him out of the corner of an eye.

But I am looking forward to it. Not in the way I sometimes do -- when I just want it to be Sunday, so I can get on with it and run, when the anticipation overwhelms, and I want to know how it will go. But I'm looking forward to the physical experience itself. I'm remembering that hard passage, which begins after about 18 miles, when you don't know what's going to happen (and it has the potential to be catastrophic). Other races don't have this quality: they have periods when you feel you may have to slow down, but not when you your spirit may break; not the passage empty of voices, uncharted and without form. Over this morning's generous bowl of porridge and dried fruit I can sense that shadow looming, and the thing I most look forward to is also that which I most fear: that wild, unpopulated darkness that lies before the finish line.


Monday, 13 April 2009

Half Measures and fair percentages

A fortnight before the London Marathon and calves are tight and hamstrings drawn thin. Runners fall into two categories at this time of year: either as fit as they will be all year, bounding with energy as they anticipate the deep taper; or at breaking point, trained to the point of collapse, longing for the rest that will capitalise on the suffering that has brought them to this point. One of the thieves was saved; one of the thieves was damned. It's a fair percentage. Don't despair or presume: get on with it, and sleep with your feet in the air.

So I found myself nesting the night with Sean in Long Eaton, home of great runs and ignominy, preparing for the Belvoir Half Marathon on 12 April. As you will see from the photographs, we decided to treat the event as a training run, which means we weren't going to push it hard, and were therefore entitled to drink the preceding evening. We cooked camembert and cannelini bean risotto. When Sean was warming the stock he said: "make some dessert while I do this ... no we have to have desert ... why don't you make a meringue or something." So Sean stirred the risotto while I whisked the egg whites and made a pavlova. Meika played with Janni. You can see them smile.

Deep in the evening, Meika took a photograph.

You can see us here, with Sean's running number. He unburied that when we realised that neither of us knew at what time the race started. Then Meika went to bed. And then everything took a turn for the worse. Somehow I tried to describe the argument of the last chapter of my book, and Sean and I set about making some fine distinctions between narratives of transition, multiplications of ways of talking about things, discourse, and practices ...

This is not ideal preparation for a half marathon, especially when it takes place over a couple of bottles of wine. And if you look closely at the pavlova - blueberries and sour cherries soaked in cherry brandy, with my apologies for the lack of whipping or double cream: what you see is a stream of Jersey single cream - you'll see a large carton of very good sake behind it.

The next morning we drove in my new convertible (sic.) to Belvoir without much gusto, though with the roof down, and much complaining about headaches and wondering whether there was any ibuprofen in the boot, parked in a big field, and greeted Sean's clubmates, including John Crannage (he ran Cardiff and London in former entries, though some of the photos seem to have disappeared). After 90 seconds of warm up we lined up and started.

It's a very nice course, a PB course they say, though that's probably in part because of the time of year. What counts as flat in Derbyshire is positively alpine in Cambridgeshire terms. It's picturesque, straightforward, flat for Derbyshire (a bit like "normal for Norfolk", I suppose). The single lap is well marshalled, and there are four water stops. We've agreed to run at about 6:40 a mile for the first couple, and then perhaps pick up the pace. Nothing that will risk injury. The first mile we run on target. And then two things happen. I forget myself, and accidentally run a 6:15. And Sean disappears. These two things look as if they're connected -- but this is one of those stories when there's another story underneath the one on top. I slow down, and run for 85 minutes, taking it fairly easy. It's not a jog, mind you, but it doesn't hurt. I pick it up for the last mile, which I run in about 6 minutes. And I am very surprised when I see Sean, not out of breath, at the finish line.

And then the story goes horribly wrong. Sean pulled a hamstring a couple of miles into the race, and had to walk back. He thinks he's put himself out of action for London. He's the model of gloom. I give him a fiver to pay the physiotherapist. There's John Crannage too, having set a new PB with 1:24 something. I'm given a crystal cuboid trophy, with a lazer engraving of two runners. I'm delighted. I needed a paperweight.

Sean and I head off to Langar Hall, this time with the roof up. It's raining now. Easter rain.

At Langar hall we shower and meet up with Meika and Janni and Malcolm, Sean's dad. We have a great meal: in my case a poached duck egg on salad with bacon; braised shoulder of lamb with roast veg; and sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream.

Even with the single glass of wine I can feel my weight increasing. Sean is fretful. He describes the sound of a hamstring popping. "Pop", and the etiolation of muscle, as the runner slows to a walk, bends over, and breaths the crystal air. I think, and say, that he may recover in time, if he rests hard enough. He remains fretful.

We take turns with the baby. And lunch ends with, as you can see ...

Malcolm racing Janni across the floor of Langar Hall. It's in the genes.

I drove home through Melton, Rutland Water, and a pentameter of places I'd like to live in or near. It rained intermittently. Running is a solitary business, and I like it for that settled loneliness, the temperate glimpse into the woods. But it's not always so lonely.


Monday, 6 April 2009

Perceived Exertion

The road to the start line of a marathon is paved with little bits of debris that runners try to turn into signs and prognostications. Mostly they're just debris. This week three things made me reflect on and triangulate my position.

1. I read a tweet from Sally, a cartographer and personal trainer, reminding me that alcohol provides useless calories. Not that I don't know this, but I used to go on the wagon about a month before a marathon, and these days my cupboard has no Science in Sport Go or Gels or Rego, but plenty of good wine from Chile, Argentina and France. Subsequently, knowing that I'm not as light as I used to be, and having hidden from the reality for months, I give in and one morning I weigh myself. I'm 3 kgs overweight, and 5 kgs over ideal race weight. I look in the mirror. It's not obvious. There is a thin band of fat around the waist, however, and my abs don't protrude as much as they used to. I begin to worry. My ex- used to complain about my concern with weight (she also used to complain that my legs were disproportionately muscular), but she never had to carry an extra few kilogrammes for 26.2 miles. Staring in the mirror I persuade myself this is entirely different from an eating disorder.

2. Someone at the running club asks me what my half-marathon PB is. I fumble. "1:23? No, maybe about 1:21." Have I lost focus? Running magazines and trainers will tell you that pain is temporary and glory lasts forever. This is not true. It's ass backwards. The glory of my fastest half marathon has long faded, and I can't remember how long it took. But the pain is pretty constant. This morning my ankle really hurts (thanks to yesterday's 20-miler). I have my feet up and my computer on my knees. I'm worried I won't be able to run tomorrow.

3. On Thursday, at the club session, we ran a 5k loop on the roads, had a five minute recovery, then ran a 3.5k loop, five minute recovery, then ran 800m on the track. In the middle of the second effort, the coach tried a new technique. Fast David was 80m up ahead. Everyone else was behind and out of sight. My Perceived Exertion was very high, and I was happy where I was in the chain. The coach pulled alongside me on the Blue Bike of Hell -- the club's new piece of training equipment -- and started shouting in my ear. "Try harder. For the next 30 seconds I want you to close the gap with David." I had been running perfectly well, I thought, but I succumbed to his advice and ran harder. Coach replaced ego. He continued to express similar opinions at a similar volume for half a minute or so. I narrowed the gap with David. Everything began to burn nicely, and the Blue Bike went off to torture someone else. I almost caught David (if 30 metres counts as almost catching). But I'm not that fast.

What do we triangulate from this? Only that I'm living in the Comfort Zone. And the Comfort Zone is ... perfectly warm and bearable, which is probably why I'm going to stay here for a while. I will no doubt curse myself for this on 26 April, when I count the costs and the seconds drizzle away. I have nothing but respect for those who push themselves into the red zone day-in-day-out, week after week, risk their physical and mental health, in order to shave those seconds off their PBs: respect, but they're borderline crazy.


Monday, 30 March 2009


Saturday morning's run, the penultimate long run before London, was very different from last week's. Instead of a sunny river trail, it was mostly along pavements, through the cold, rain, and wind. It was miserable. I could barely bring myself to leave the house, and probably wouldn't have were it not for the fact that I was momentarily duped into thinking that the weather was going to clear up.

Fortunately I was not alone, but joined a group from the running club. As we ran we talked about training, and then about work, and this gave me time to think about what a distinctive sociology lies behind distance running. I don't think there's much overlap with football. I ran with a psychiatrist (still in training), a speech therapist and a teacher at a private sixth-form college. I regularly run with other professionals. In case you don't know, I'm an English professor (not "something to do with finance" as The Sunday Times averred) We don't talk about work much, and social background is never an issue, but it struck me that running marathons, and finding time on a sunday or saturday morning to run for three hours, was something that appealed to the extensively educated. I wonder if this has less to do with the economics pushing it than the psychology pulling it? Even running in company there's space for that calm, that loneliness, that seductive blankness that makes me want to run slowly around Cambridge.

It's slow, but we're all also teetering on the edge of breakdown. On Thursday night's training session I was running 1.35 mile loops with a number of men including Andrew. When I came back from my months off (see earlier postings) Andrew was a transformed runner. He was faster, much faster, and ran with his super high cadence (he's not the tallest man) very comfortably. He was doing long runs as early as January. He was targeting London and clearly had a chance to run a good time. Then he disappeared with a calf injury. He came back a couple of weeks ago. He came back slower, inevitably, but not much slower, and till determined. Then on Thursday, on the third of our five repeats, he uttered an animal grunt and pulled up in evident pain. He could barely walk and the coach had to drive him home. He had evidently returned from injury too soon. He may well be unable to run London, now only four weeks away, after months of training.

We are all on the brink of injury at this time of year. That's the narrow area, between comfort and breakdown, where you can significantly improve. But almost every morning you climb out of bed with stiff legs, and wonder if the pain in your knee or calf or ankle or groin means something. Everyone should send good thoughts out to Andrew and the hundreds who found themselves in similar positions this week. Even if we should know better than to put ourselves in harm's way.

After 23 wet miles, taking over three hours, I arrived home, late to take my son to his tennis lesson. Later the rain began to clear, and I was hungry all weekend.


Sunday, 22 March 2009

Fen violets

It's the time of the year that those training for the London Marathon have to do long runs of around 20 miles every weekend, the apogee in the training cycle when both mileage and speedwork count. Sometimes it's hard to fit in the training, and -- however many excellent training schedules Runners' World gives you -- you have to work around parental and work responsibilities, and the powerful urge to inertia.

So this weekend I decided that I would run to see a friend in the fen-edge village of Burwell. After a few additional loops, including dropping one of my boys off at tennis (he would be collected by Medea), that would add up to 20 miles. And a glorious 20 miles it was. Uneven underfoot, but sunny and mild. Birds everywhere, including a big yellow one I couldn't identify (I grew up in the city, and it's not my metier ... though I knew it wasn't a parrot. It looked a bit like a woodpecker, but it was bright yellow.)

To get to Burwell from Cambridge you follow the south-east bank of the Cam: I was taking the opposite course to last week's race. Taking the path through to Waterbeach, crossing the river and passing through deserted countryside until Upware, I then turned right and followed the Burwell Lode. The water forks, the right-hand course becoming the Reach Lode, and on the left, following the bank, to Burwell. Two paths ahead, and I could have (with a short swim) chosen either. I paused to take a photograph. Though I knew which path I would take.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet, knowing how way leads onto way
I doubted if I should ever come back

I picked up the pace heading into Burwell. Though I had to stop again, when my younger boy called me, and I saw a perfect curve of bullrushes. I had to photograph them.

I ran hard into Burwell, and added a loop around the village to ensure that I was closer to 20 miles than 18 ... and then I turned into my friend's house. For some reason she makes me think of violets, and I remembered the patch I had seen on the banks of the Lode. This was my recovery drink, a bottle of Espelt, a Spanish wine with a nicely-drawn label.

The following morning I made porridge and headed back home, this time avoiding any additional miles. At first my legs were stiff and heavy, especially with the ferocious headwind; soon they loosened, and Between Upware and Waterbeach a German tourist stopped to ask me whether this was a good way to Ely. Later I saw Giulio, Giacomo and a tall Italian that I think was Ben, all storming in the opposite direction, out for their twenty-miler, preparing for London. Nearer Cambridge everyone was out running, taking in the glorious sun.

But back in the fens, there's a privacy, and an intimacy with the perverse emptiness of nature. Looking over the banks of the Cam I saw this straight line of evenly spaced trees. Sometimes I think that the fens are an expression of a creator's malign indifference; sometimes I think that s/he just got bored and left it half-made. Perhaps God was tired after making Derbyshire.

I arrived home, a little shy of fourteen miles, and made an egg sandwich.