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.