Monday, 23 February 2009

Between Runs

I finished my book on Friday. I don't know exactly how long I've been working on it. Longer than I've been running. It's been hard to juggle finishing it, single-parenting, and running recently. Not to speak of the fact that I have a job. But somehow the book got finished, and, even though for the last few weeks I looked like a drug-crazed zombie, that's a good thing.

So on Saturday afternoon I went out for a run. I did about fourteen miles along the Cam in the bright and unexpected sunshine. And then on Sunday afternoon I went out for another run. I went along the Cam, through Fen Ditton, Stow-cum-Quy, Anglesey Abbey and Lode, then behind Commercial End, past some farmhouses, and then along an interminable stretch of the Swaffham Bulbeck Lode, with Prior Fen out to the right, until I hit the Cam again and headed West back home. For the middle ten or twelve miles I barely saw a soul. You can see here the snowdrop woods somewhere north of Quy, lining a public footpath the reason for the existence of which I can scarcely conjecture. When I got home I showered and went to a tango class, despite the blister. And today I look a lot less like a zombie.

Now, 34-35 miles over a weekend isn't too digraceful, and these are the first steps on the road to regained righteousness (Righteousness Regained ... has a ring, doesn't it?). But as you run by the snowdrop woods, you do wonder just how many miles you have ahead of you, and remember to remind yourself that some of those miles will be very good, and that others won't be. And speaking of bad miles, the Cambridge boundary run takes place next Sunday. Who could resist a full marathon following the man-made boundaries of the city of Cambridge, mostly off-road, without many markers, guided by a map? Look here for more information.

Finally I have received a number of emails about the Sunday Times list of the 100 best blogs. And all is true. You, gentle, regular readers, all 20 of you, have shown great discrimination.


Monday, 9 February 2009

A Ham Sandwich Saved My Life

The following entry is written by my friend Sean, much mentioned in the pages of this blog, who found himself on 7 February running a 50-mile race that I'd withdrawn from (on account of undertraining, injury and accedia). This is his account of the experience ...

"Yes, a ham sandwich saved my life. No pickle. No mustard. Not a hint of cajun. Just a sliver of ham between two slices of white sliced bread, I think with a bit of butter on. As I contemplated, from an immodium and diaralite haze, the awful possibility of retiring at check point 2 of the Thames Path Ultra, a bare 18 miles in, the Squirrel drew the illustrious item from his bag of tricks and broke, well tore, a half of a half bit for me. I ate, and I was transformed. Never mind Gagnaire, the Fat Duck, Sat Bains, this was as important a mouthful as I've ever eaten. Much of the subsequent 30 miles was taken between building up to, and then coming down off, further ham sandwich highs, and bearing in mind that we only had two sandwiches, which we eked out over 3 further checkpoints, and also bearing in mind that this was one of the most improbably, beautiful, challenging runs I'll ever undertake (until next year, when Mr Joad is going to do it with us, because he has to), that's no small indication of the significance of a savoury snack on a day such as this. It's surprising how central a ham sandwich can become to one's being. So, my thanks to Karen for The Sandwich, and to the Squirrel for sharing it.

The run was stunning. Joad's initiative and instinct in signing up for it was correct: it's one of those runs one should do. And although the conditions underfoot were dire (crusted frozen snow, mud, little in the way of stuff you could run on until about 35 miles in when we ran through Reading), it was such a beautful, fresh, cold winter sunny day that you couldn't have wished for better, really. Dont let anyone kid you the Thames Path is (a) a path (it isn't); (b) along the Thames (it often isn't, the most notable diversion being through a housing estate in Reading); (c) flat (a reasonable expectation, but so very wrong, as the ramble through some mountainous range at around 30 miles demonstrated).

Thanks also to BGit, who prepared a Garmin with pre-loaded route, and the laminated maps. We seemed to be the only people with either. After the second time we'd followed some people completely the wrong way, we decided that BGit was a better guide than other people in Lycra. The term 'schadenfreude', the delight in the misery of others (a german term, of course) was, I think, dreamt up by a German on this very run, as s/he tottered down the south bank of the Thames at 25 mile or so, and saw a very pacey group of 'leaders' barreling along the north bank -- going back some 5 miles to the bridge they'd failed to cross. BGit -- we are eternally in your debt (though we need to talk about that railway bridge you wanted us to go over outside Moulsford).

I feel like Gwynneth Paltrow.

Thanks also to the Hornet, he of Boots, for a sack of snacks and treats. Flapjacks and gels that we were unable to keep down after about 4 hours, but which we knew had done us good, and which we knew might keep us alive if anything catastrophic supervened. And at about 6 hours, a handful of Sport Beans was almost as good as a ham sandwich.

Looking back, the 10 minutes we spent in the dark outside Henley trying to find our head torch, when we were a bare mile from the finishing tent, could have been better used -- but we'll know for next time, and Joad will benefit from our experience.

I have been asked, a lot, since the finish, what it feels like. Well, the hitting the wall bit is just like a marathon, except in a marathon you have between 6 and 8 miles to go, and you're expecting it. I didn't think I'd hit the wall at that point - we'd barely broken sweat although it was tough terrain - and I didn't expect that each of the 32 miles that followed would feel like the penultimate one of a marathon -- the one before you get the adrenalin rush that carries you to the finish. But there was an adrenalin rush at the finish, which was at the bandstand at the Green at Henley-upon-Thames. A cup of tea, a handful of crisps, a medal the size of a dustbin lid, then into the car and away, into the night -- it was just gone 6pm, it was dark, and it was over. Meike picked us up, relieved that we'd survived, astonished that we'd done it, drove us to Oxford where we were feted and fed by lovely friends.

Often after a race one can feel an odd sense of loss, of regret. All that preparation, and now the only thing in mind is the next race. This feels different, for now, as if it's an achievement that will always be there.

It was a glorious day, and I am still delirious. Thanks above all to the Squirrel, who not only shared his sandwich, and carried my coat for me, and pointed out both buzzards and the woodpecker, but was also the perfect companion for a first ultra. It's a good job Joad has put that vegetarian nonsense behind him -- this time next year he'll understand how a ham sandwich might also save his life."

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Two Little Boys

It's not often that you think of Rolf Harris twice in one week. It happened in December. I'd signed up for a fifty-mile race next weekend (7 Feb). And my friend Sean told me that, as an act of self-sacrificial companionship, he was going to join me. The email quoted the song ...
do you think I would leave you dying,
when there's room on my horse for two ...
And so on. You can probably hum it, though I would advise against it, in case you can't stop. Then I heard on the Today programme on Radio 4 (the only constant in my life, apart from managing the kids and clearing up dog turds) that Rolf was re-recording the song, in hope of a christmas hit. I wondered how he thought he could improve on the original. But that probably wasn't the point: in our celebrity-obsessed, consumerist world, even Rolf singing sentimental tripe off-key might be marketable under favourable conditions. I'm not sure what happened to Rolf, but I understand the Christmas hit was someone murdering Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' (a song I can murder as good as the next man or woman, but I prefer to do it away from the microphone).

So there I was, thinking of Rolf Harris in December. And, of course, not training. Instead I was hoping to finish the damned book. And I had a recurrence of the diarrhea. And a bad cold. And I put my shoulder out. So of all of the many things I was doing, murdering Leonard Cohen songs among them, running figured less than it should have.

And here I am now. I'm running well (when there's no snow), but without sufficient miles under my belt to justify attempting a fifty miler. And there's Sean, looking at the weather forecast. He's made himself righteous again, with some eighty-mile weeks, and I'm guessing, though I haven't seen him in far too long, that he's shed some of those tyres. Sean has found another sacrifial lamb, Glen, who has agreed to run with him. And the Thames Towpath, where the race is due to be run on Saturday morning, is deep in snow. The roads to the start (near Reading) are likely to be unpassable. If he makes it to the start, he will through run fifty miles of snow at near-freezing point (on the positive side, there's unlikely to be any wind).

I want everyone to say a prayer for him on Saturday morning, and pray that, if he makes it to the start, he will make it to the end. Failing that I will be starting a collection for his widow and daughter next week.


happier days ... Sean and I do the gay couple routine in Milan in 04 and 07.