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.


Monday, 16 March 2009

Ely to Cambridge but not back again

I used to be so meticulous in my preparation. I would plan my nutrition and hydration strategies days before a race. I would stop drinking alcohol a couple of days before, a week or more for a marathon. On the night before I would pin my race number (pre-crumpled for aerodynamic purposes) to my shirt. I would eat breakfast 3 hours before the gun. I would schedule my movements.

On Sunday I woke after a very few hours sleep with no porridge oats in the house, to discover I had no gels left. I cleared the empty bottles from the kitchen. For breakfast I tried something new (never do that before a race, but never): Oatibix. They are not pleasant, but the faint nausea at least staved off the hunger. I drank some coffee, thought about it, woke Nicky and persuaded her to drive me the 20 miles to Ely. I spent 15 minutes calculating logistics, which centred on whether I should wear shorts with pockets, in which I could keep a key and my phone, or my nice lycra knee-length tights. I went with lycra, the visually pleasing effects of which were cancelled out by the poky running vest.

The Turing Trail Relay is named after Alan Turing, the Cambridge computer wiz, who used to run along the river bank -- the Great Ouse and the Cam -- between Ely and Cambridge. The race extends from Ely Cathedral to Jesus Green in Cambridge, along the west bank, and then back again along the east bank. It's about 36 miles and is divided into 6 stages. I was scheduled to run Stage 2, from Dimmock's Cote to Waterbeach, with a Cambridge and Coleridge team (the slow men's team); but I also needed to get a long run in, as part of my training for London next month.

The perfect solution. Nicky dropped me off in Ely. I said hello to the runners from my club, all waiting for the starting gun, and then started to run stage 1, with a fifteen minute head start. I ran past the cathedral, to the river, and along the bank. It was a beautiful morning, cool at first, but bright and clear.

The race logisitics were excellent. Even I didn't get lost. It's hard to lose a river, though.

There were clear arrows, and the race marshalls were in place as I made my way, jogging eight-minute miles on the firm footing. A few weeks ago it would have been hell. I stopped to take some photos with my phone. Six miles later, I arrived at the stage 1 / 2 handover with just a few minutes to spare. The marshalls stood ont he bridge by Dimmock's Cote staring at me, wondering how I could amble at that speed and get such a large lead on the field. I disabused them, stripped off my gilet and handed it with my water bottle to Adam, the team co-ordinator. In my vest I was ready to run. A minute or so later, Tom handed over, and I was running legitimately in a race. After about 30 seconds, I was passed by a very tall heavy footed runner in a bright shirt. This was depressing, especially as I was running a sub-six-minute mile. Over the next six miles I passed three others. I said good morning to one, but he didn't respond. We passed a couple of walkers, but nothing much else happened. I was left alone with my thoughts. It was all quite pleasant in a Sunday-morning-ish sort of way.

Sometimes the fens are perfectly bearable: when it's sunny, when there's a clear difference between river and soil, when there are no people around, no Alsatians to savage you (I can't believe I forgot to blog that), just you and the clay air of east anglia.

Approaching Waterbeach things were more familiar. I ran this way a few times last year. I think the last time was when I made it through a field of very jumpy cows, unnerving me a little, only to find, on the gate at the far side of the field, a sign saying "Beware of the bull". I had no choice, really, as the other way home was an extra thirty miles, and I only had one bottle of water.

As we approached the end of the stage I thought I stood a chance of catching Mr Yellow Jersey. He'd stopped gaining on me and had been an even 200m for a couple of miles. In the last mile I pulled this back to about 30m. He was now my mortal enemy. But the finish came too soon, after a little wrinkling around Waterbeach, and he kept his 30m.

I handed over to my team-mate Peter (who appears in a photo below), and he disappeared along the towpath that reaches from Waterbeach to Cambridge. I chatted to some people from the club, and then started running again. I ran, this time, to the end of stage three, at Jesus Green, where I often walk Mercury and run the odd interval. Strangely only a couple of people passed me, one of them when I was speaking to an acquaintance who was marshalling the event. The towpath was an obstacle course, owing to some pointless rowing event.
the finish at Jesus Green

I paused to take a photograph, and spoke to Peter and his wife. Here we are at the end, in matching outfits.

Then I lifted my heels and ran around Jesus Green a couple of times, just to make sure that I had done at least 20 miles. You could call that last couple junk miles, but they may well be the only thing that keeps me going 22 miles into London. Or there I may learn that haphazard preparation is no barrier against that lonely pain that wells up after mile 22.

I have seldom enjoyed a long run quite so much, which perfectly legitimises the insanity of running three consecutive stages of a six stage relay, and racing the one in the middle. I commend it as a useful part of anyone's training plan. Then I went home and ate bacon and poached duck eggs with Nicky, and drank a fine bottle of 2005 La Bolida (costieres de nimes). Some aspects of preparation I have down to an art.


Monday, 2 March 2009

A very long run

The Cambridge Boundary Run is an astonishingly good idea. Legend has it that in 1924 three men and a dog founded a university ... apologies, I mean they ran around the boundary of the borough of Cambridge in one go. Hearing about this twenty-five years later, James Hasler and Derek Shorrocks decided to do the same. It was harder in those days without Garmins and google earth. They laid a careful plan, and about fifteen of them ran around the boundary in February 1949. That was thirty years ago now, and it's been an irregular event over the decades. It was revived a few years ago, and the borough had stretched a little, until in 2007, when I first ran it, the route was 25.6 miles. Last year, and this year, the organisers agreed to extend it with an otherwise pointless wiggle or two around a field so it extended to a full marathon, 26.2 miles.

So there I was, with Sean, last Sunday morning. We'd both been drinking the night before, because it was, of course, only a training run. And here I am with Sean. Since I -- or, rather, this blog -- got famous, one commentator has complained about last week's photograph of an anonymous spot in Fenland, pointing out that the Times had commended the photographs herein. Well, there are some good photographs herein -- check out Istanbul, for example -- but I can't say much for this posting, except that it presents the boundary of Cambridge naked, as it is. What my writing lacks in brevity it makes up for in honesty. After a glorious 20-mile run through Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire a couple of weekends ago, this was as visually uneventful and lacking the sublime as a tin of herring.

It was 10:30 am, a late start, and the cold had cleared during our long discussion of what we should wear. As you can see, this had more to do with thermal protection than sartorial impact. With us here is Giulio, of Milan fame, and proprietor of the finest men's clothing shop in Cambridge. And the yellow sleeve belongs to Alessandro, who is not young and is frighteningly, frighteningly fast.

There is limited signing on the boundary run, so you carry a map. Either you study it carefully beforehand, or you compromise your speed and accept that you'll either have to follow someone, or hope that the signs are adequate. Sean and I agreed that we would compromise our speed. In any case, this was a training run. Eight minute miles and no faster. Our eyes are on London, 26 April.

Off we went, marathoners and half-marathoners together. The BBC filmed the start. People whizzed by and we stuck doggedly to our plan.

Surreal moment no. 1: we pass a pub in Cherry Hinton, and there's a full forensic team standing in the front yard, wearing white gloves and face masks. They're all stationary and facing us, with their hands upwards in the air, like it's a piece of performance art. I wonder if they're demonstrating in favour of a cause (a unit being closed? Gaza?). Later I realise. They think we're the spectacle. I'm looking at them thinking, what on earth's that all about; and they're all looking at me thinking, what's all that about? Inside, we're all cannibals.

(It's true, by the way ...)

Then we're at loose around the roads of Cambridge. I see Fulbourne hospital from a distance. It's a nice victorian mental hospital. I stayed there for a while as an inpatient, but that's another story. I see it from another angle. And then another angle. The boundary of Cambridge isn't entirely flat, but it is quite flat. Sean and I pass a late middle aged woman trudging up a slight hill. Surreal moment no. 2: "All men runners should be made to wear lycra" she says to the man next to her. You don't hear that too often within the boundaries of Cambridge. I let Sean loose with my camera. This is the outcome:

I think he's captured my left foot nicely.

At the start we bumped into Johann, a friend from C&C Athletics Club, and a fellow marathoner. He'd signed up for the half marathon, but said he thought he might stick with us for the full. Some runners are like that. It's a nice morning, so even though they haven't done a long run recently, they decide they'll run for 26 miles as long as they feel ok. They forget the qualification at some point, so even though they feel like hell they'll stick with it.

Here are Sean and Johann circumnavigating Addenbrook's hospital:

They seem to be swaying. I don't know why that is. Weak core muscles, perhaps.

Most of the people who signed up for the race did so with a half measure in mind, a mere 13.1 miles. It's annoying running with people who are running only half the distance, because they run faster than you, and you want to say to them: hey, I'm not bailing out half way. After about 10 miles everyone thinks that, however far they're running. It's a way of negating the niggle of inferiority. But at 13.1 miles you get to grab a mars bar (I have never done that in a race before) and then to stretch past them, as they puff and look for the bus, and you think to yourself: you missed the best bit! The bit where you enter the unknown, where anything can happen, where your muscles can seize up with only a few seconds notice, the point where your glycogen stores drain and you have to drag yourself to the finish with your fingernails ...

Something else happens after the halfway point in Coton nature reserve ... the terrain changes. While most of the first half of the race is on roads and pavements, the second half has plenty of clay soil and ploughed fields, And some sharp uphills. It is not a race for a negative split. Within 100 metres of the half way point my shoes weigh 10kg each because of the soil. And there's a hill. And then a field, with a narrow path and a tree blocking it. And then endless styles and kissing gates. This doesn't happen in London.

Now I said the Boundary Run was an interesting idea, and this is why. You run around Cambridge in a clockwise direction. This means that Cambridge is always on your right. Now, Cambridge is in many ways a fine place: great medieval architecture, lots of books and some very smart and interesting people. On the other hand, it also has a disproportionate share of people who are entirely enamoured of their own intellects, colon-gazers of the worst kind. And it has a grand share of nepotism, corruption, complacency and greed. So as you run you feel on your right the smog of iniquity, and on your left the pull of the outside world. And your job is to navigate the path down the middle. They knew a little about symbolism, those three men and their dog (I would love to know what kind of dog).

The other interesting dimension is the fact that the run revives the medieval custom of "beating the bounds". Once a year the community, or at least its children (or at least the boys in almshouses; customs varied from place to place), would walk around the boundaries of their parish with a big stick, with which they would, presumably, beat the ground, marking out the place to which they belonged. It instilled in them a sense of the limits of their community (if they wandered too far beyond them, without means of support, they might risk becoming vagrants), but it also reminded them of where they belonged, reminded them in the most physical sense. It may be older than medieval in origin, but I wouldn't know about that. The Boundary Run is more or less the same thing, in modern fabrics.

Also in the second half of the race the signage becomes sparser. This is important later on. The signs are mostly chalk arrows on the floor, with the odd little Cambridge University Hare and Hounds poster on a lampost to let you know you're on the right track. You can get a little anxious, especially as the runners are now much more spread out, and as you pass them you realise your on your own and you actually have to pay attention.

"We'll stick with 8-minute miles, and maybe empty the tank for the last three," I say to Sean.
"That's hubris that is," he replies.
But I'm feeling good. Nothing hurts, at least not much, and I'm not very tired, as we tread lightly over the broken footing of the path around the gypsy camp. We say hello to Kim Masson, a very, very talented runner from the club, who's also looking strong.

And then, for a moment, we are in familiar territory. We arrive in Milton, a village abutting Cambridge to the north east, and then reach Baits Bite Lock, over which I've run a hundred times or more. And I'm feeling strong, like the finish is pulling me with an elastic line. This is a good feeling. A little tired maybe, but I'm running well within myself. Nothing hubristic about it.

Over the fields from Baits Bite Lock to Fen Ditton. I usually run them the other direction, so I like this bit. I'm feeling ridiculously cheerful now, which is very, very wrong, because this is a marathon disguised as a training run, and I'm at 22 miles. Sean's looking a bit worse for wear. The turning point for him had clearly been when he tried to pee near the railway crossing by Milton. He'd tied a knot in his lycra leggings. I held his gloves for him, and jogged along as he cursed, "bloody beginner's error," repeatedly. Eventually he loosened the knot and relieved himself against a tree as I jogged on, but he didn't look the same after that, as if it had broken him. It made me think, just for a second, of a similar experience in New York in 2006, when I had an altogether more urgent calling, in less pastoral circumstances, and everything went horribly wrong, allowing Lance Armstrong to catch up with me ...

I hold the various gates open for Sean, he holds them for Kim, she holds them for Johann. It's all very friendly. And then, to my shame, the elastic pulls a little harder, and a little harder, and, what with Sean saying, "it's ok, you can go on ahead if you feel like it," I succumb to the temptation, and, a bit shy of 23 miles, I pick up the pace, and pass a few more runners. I find myself lost for a little ... there's no arrow, so I run to the wrong corner of a paddock. And then a guy in orange shoes catches up with me, so I drop in behind him. "Oh well," I said, "I was feeling strong." And he proceeds to tell me that he's been running 7-minute miles or 7'30" miles, and something about that digs ... So I keep up with him. And a quarter mile later he takes a wrong turn and we're lost. We're under a bridge, with no arrows. I dig the map out of the bum bag Sean made me wear, spoiling the line of my lycra. I read it carefully. I have no idea where we are. We go up on to the bridge and look around. There are no discernible landmarks. I can't tell which way is north. I can't see the airport, or the park-and-ride, which is our next destination. We g back under the bridge and decide to take another direction altogether. We run for a while. Then double back. After about five minutes Mr Orange Shoes sees someone, "a runner!" He calls to me. We run along a fence, get through a gap, and set off across a ploughed field. Then all of a sudden we step on a pile of chalk, and we're back on course. I've lost 8-10 minutes and gained a kilometre (which makes this, technically speaking, an ultramarathon for me). In front of me are a bunch of runners I passed 20 minutes and more ago. That does it. I put my foot down.

Mr Orange Shoes is soon a receding blip in the background. I run around the airport. I pass men walking to the finish. I've now had enough of this 8-minute business, and run the last three miles at about 6'40". The last 250 metres I run in about 50 seconds. I feel strong. And very, very stupid.

Sean is sitting on a wall at the end, holding two bottles of water. "I did call out for you when you disappeared," he said. Kim and Johann were inside. Probably showering. Or getting a massage. Outside I stood clutching a hot cross bun and a water bottle.

"Hubris, I told you", said Sean.

Now, this is what I will think of when I remember Cambridge: a sloping field, with mud caked on my shoes, with some runners disappearing into the distance, speckles on a bow of mist, and more behind, and lands like the surface of a stock pan you've left in the garden overnight, crabbed with fat and bone and flesh with all the goodness sucked out. It's a lovely run, and you should think about coming next year.