I've been planning to pack my hand-coded HTML suitcase for sometime, and move over to WordPress or Drupal. For the not-so-geeky, these are content management systems. Or perhaps just blogging platforms. It depends what you want to do with them.
What do I want to do? I don't fully know yet, but the WordPress site I'm moving to will allow me to introduce some innovations more easily than I could continuing like this. I would also like to catalogue and categorise some of these half million words a bit better.
EDIT: The WordPress site has now been moved over to the main URL at: http://runningcommentary.net/
This archive will remain here at: http://runningcommentary.net/archive
Thank you, and good night. See you over there.
Saturday 6 February 2010 - Almeria Medio Maraton
Almeria 2010 begins with the customary pain of a 4 a.m. alarm. Barely 40 minutes later, it's terminal chaos: part of the submissive throng oozing through Gatwick security. Flying used to be part of the pleasure of an overseas break, but no longer. It's now a penance; a punishment for trying to escape from the prison of daily routine.
We queue. We dismantle our careful packing. We remove our dignity and parade it. Want an eyeful of my life? Here you are. I'll show you mine if you show me yours. I pass muster, and half an hour later it's the more pleasant experience of coffee with the Sussex quartet: Ash (Sweder), Julie (LadyRunner), Tracey, and Simon.
I flew out with much to think about. The day before had seen visits to Phil the sports therapist, and to the Drummond Clinic. A half hour of comfortingly brutal massage at the former, and 90 minutes of gait talk at the latter, to help me understand the source of my calf problems.
The Drummond studio is located unpromisingly above a shop in Queen Street, Maidenhead, which provides a frisson of nostalgia.
I used to work in this street.
Perhaps "work" is too dishonest a word to describe the creaking lack of activity and productivity. I would turn up and drink coffee and talk football, and surf the web while awaiting the next IT project. Spells of sloth are theoretically fine, but in practice they lose their gloss all too quickly. By nature we are creatures of movement, purpose and creativity. Relaxation is good, but intellectual drift and unscheduled stasis soon feels uncomfortable and unnatural. The more the knots tighten, the longer they take to undo.
And so it is with running. Post-race downtime is a marvellous thing, but inertia forged by injury stokes anxiety and frustration, and even the occasional "why bother?"
I was allocated Aaron, a cheerful, enthusiastic young guy who seemed to know his foot onions. If he didn't, his impersonation of a gait expert was convincing. We began with a treadmill test, bounding for a couple of minutes in two of the pairs of shoes I'd brought with me. Then a spell in bare feet. The exercise was filmed -- and what an X-rated movie it turned out to be.
Watching the result together on a computer screen, I felt embarrassed at my ungainly, inefficient form. I exhibit quite pronounced pronation, particularly in my left foot. The slow motion showed my foot slapping the ground with heel and mid-foot, before rolling inwards on some involuntary impulse. As was explained with the help of a superimposed vertical line, this unnatural movement sends a tremor up my skeleton, forcing the lower leg to contort and strain in an admirable rescue effort, as it struggles to retain equilibrium. I could actually see my own left calf twisting.
Even more illuminating was the diagnosis: that this isn't essentially a foot problem. The foot is itself merely an unfortunate conduit, a temporary recipient of the problem. In this painful relay, the calf gets it from the foot, but the foot gets it from my gelatinous arse (or "underpowered glutes", as Aaron more tactfully put it), which in turn is a product of my weak core. Translation? Too fat and puny in the centre of my body. The weak core is writing cheques that my poor feet and poorer calf muscles ultimately struggle to pay.
In the meantime, the pronation is causing me to propel myself in a semi-elliptical movement rather than a strictly forward one. This confirms something I noticed in the video snatches of me in the Boston Marathon, when I was struck by how increasingly inefficient and slovenly I looked as the race progressed, and as I tired. I seemed to be going from side-to-side rather than forward. The great irony of this is that the longer the race goes on, the more tired I get, and so the more inefficiently I run, making the task disproportionately harder, tiring me further. It becomes a circular, self-generating plummet.
Conclusion? If I want to improve my running, and crucially, if I want to resolve the calf issues, I have to work hard on my core, and on improving my flexibility, particularly on the left side. Phil had suggested something very similar some time ago, but typically, I didn't give it the serious attention it apparently deserved. I've paid only lip service to core strength building, doing some sit-ups once a week or so, and occasionally dropping into a Pilates class. Not good enough.
By coincidence, discussing this with Ash over early morning coffee at Gatwick, I learn that he has received a very similar verdict on the state of his long-suffering hamstrings. He called his diagnosis "flabby arse syndrome" which I believe can be considered a parallel condition.
So there we are. Time to get my balls out: medicine and fitness, and devise a regimen of frequent exercises and stretching. If I'm rigorous about it, I could notice results "within four to six weeks", apparently. This is the glorious challenge: sticking with something tough and frequent for more than a month before any evidence of improvement might appear. Can I do it? Do I have a realistic alternative?
To their credit, Aaron and the Drummond Clinic didn't immediately jump in with a recommendation for orthotics, which is a central part of their business. They seemed genuinely to want to solve the problem. They didn't dismiss the idea of different shoes or orthotics, but counselled that I should first try to correct the problem, or at least reduce it, before they reassess the need for other solutions. The thinking is that if they prescribe orthotics now, before I set the controls for the heart of the bum, there's every chance that the prescription, should one be necessary, would be different. "Try this first; let the dust settle; and let's take another look" seemed to be the approach. I liked that. It gave me confidence in them.
Malaga was as warm and welcoming as the clinic. Swooping low over a diamond sea, dusty yellow mountains brightly lit in the distance, lifted my spirits. For a while, my fatigue was over. This is why we like to come here at the end of January: it's a slash of colour on the grey canvas of winter.
Within a half hour we'd collected the scarred minibus, and were heading for Almeria via Granada. The first few minutes of the journey were entertaining, until I eventually remembered how to operate a gear lever. A while later, I recalled that we had to drive on the wrong side of the road too. Excitement over.
These complications are a new development in my Almeria experience. Until 2 years ago, we could hop on at Gatwick, and off again at Almeria. But that service is no longer offered on the day we normally arrive and leave, so now we schlep from Malaga or (last year) Murcia. I wasn't on the trip last year. My mum was seriously ill, and died on the day I was due to fly out. There aren't many things more important than the annual Almeria trip, but my mother's death is one of them.
There's something to be said for a 3 hour drive through Spain in search of your destination. We headed out past the sprawling San Miguel brewery, up towards Loja on the A-92. The undulating terrain provides a constant change of pace and perspective. One minute desert and cactii; the next olive plantations, vineyards, and (according to an insistent Ash) giant broccoli. Eventually, the fabulous snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada come into view. A while later, Granada. We decide to visit the Alhambra, but after parking up, find that we can't see anything without queuing up and paying. Disappointing. From a nearby cafe, where Tracey and Julie admirably shout up a couple of late morning cervezas, we catch a glimpse of a distant Moorish turret. Ha! I have seen the Alhambra after all.
We hungrily scoff the first of many offerings of jamon and queso and tortilla. You will never die of protein deprivation in this country. The girls drink their giggly beers while the sensible men suck up coffee and water and discuss weighty subjects. Like their diets. Then it's off again. This time, Ash drives for the final hour or so it takes to get us past the next range of snowy mountains, and down into Almeria.
It's the Indalo Tryp Hotel once again, this time surrounded by roadworks and mesh fences and no-entry signs. Is this Almeria? Or Baghdad? Like much of coastal Spain, this part of the town has become a dusty building site. It's a decent hotel, but as with the flights, we later wonder whether we might consider a change next year. Somewhere closer to the centre.
The customary trip to the supermercado next door to stock up with bananas and warm bread and oranges and water. This will be my raceday breakfast.
At seven, we meet the celebrated Antonio in reception. He is the same as ever, and will always be the same as ever: permanently anxious on our behalf. When he runs out of his own worries, he becomes a surrogate worrier, agonising over matters that we are too stupid to realise are appalling hazards. He is the kingpin of the weekend: planning, explaining options, making magnanimous speeches, assembling charming countrymen to entertain us, and perhaps to be entertained by us. He sees problems and opportunities invisible to us. This is antoniovision, and where would we be without it? Probably not in Almeria.
The expo, if this isn't too grand a word for the number pick-up, is at the Hotel Vincci this year, about 10 minutes walk away, up the hill. Before they release my number, they want to see my Commentario Corriente membership card. Ooops. I should have stuck with the original English, like my cleverer colleagues. Confusion. But Antonioil is poured on these choppy waters, and all is once again calm and orderly. Or as calm and orderly as they ever can be in Spain.
Another twist in this year's tale is the pre-race meal. This megaleg feast is normally included in the cost of entry, but after last year's aborted start put a dent in the public relations value of the event, the organisers generously offered free entry this year. The resulting drop in income meant a few economies had to be made, among which was the meal. The loss of the free meal wasn't a big deal, but the resulting non-appearance of Carmen and Encarna, and Antonio's other mates who have become so familiar to us over the past few years, was a disappointment. We see these guys briefly, just once a year, but to my sentimental eyes, they've become friends.
Instead, we moved back into the town centre to sample La Tagliatelle. Apart from Simon, who discovered a sizeable chunk of wire brush in his spaghetti, but Britishly opted not to raise the matter with the management, we found the meal to be a positive experience. A huge portion of pasta was the unspoken requirement, and a huge portion of pasta was delivered.
Let's get on with the race.
I'll cut through the precious flannel: the bald fact is that I DNF-ed. But it's OK, really. Despite the earlier bravado, I had started to have serious doubts about even starting the race, never mind getting to the end. Yes, I ran a dotted 13 miles a week earlier, but this was in my own time and on my own terms. A few days later, I tried a modest 4 miler, and broke down. No other exercise through the week. Approaching the weekend, I felt nervous and unprepared.
The morning of the race didn't help. We arrived at el stadio, got out of the van and went for a modest 300 metre warm-up jog. Immediately, I felt the calf pulsing with quite sharp pain. What to do?
What I did was spend 10 to 15 minutes of intensive stretching and rubbing. I found a step and did some long slow calf raises. Against the astoundingly stinky toilet wall, I found space to stretch. Miraculously, this seemed to help. The pain didn't exactly vanish, but it did seem to dethrob. How long would it last?
The weather was glorious. Perhaps too glorious. How luxurious for January, to have genuine warmth and sunshine at 10 in the morning.
As expected, we had a farcical start to the race. For one terrible moment, we thought things might go right for a change, but it was with great relief that just as we were lining up, a great hullabaloo arose, and hundreds of runners up ahead of us turned round and starting feverishly pushing through us, eager to get to somewhere behind us. What was happening? Antonio went into overdrive, as a tidal wave of elites threatened to overwhelm us. No-one, least of all them, could explain where they were going. They were just following the guy in front. We joined the panic-stricken stampede, dropping down into the stadium again, along the corridor beneath the main stand, along to the end and up again, and along the road... to the place we were standing at just a few moments earlier. Panic over. Hurrah for Almeria!
It was a beautiful day not to run a race. The sun was already high in a cloudless sky. Not what we have come to expect here. It's usually a cool grey morning, often showery. Not this time. The race began.
The leg was OK to start with, but another problem arose to take its place. Within a few hundred metres I was desperate for a pee. This wasn't unexpected. I'd glugged a half litre of water before leaving the hotel, and it hadn't yet appeared at the other end, despite an attempted expulsion in the devastatingly malodorous public toilet at the stadium. I gave up trying before asphyxiation claimed me. It left me with a problem. Opportunities for discreet urination do not abound in this race. Just as we were leaving the environs of el stadio, I noticed a runner emerging from behind a shed-like structure. This could mean only one thing. In fact, the building turned out to be a public toilet. But it was locked. Worse, a woman and two small children were wandering towards me, about 50 yards away. Sorry ladies, too bad; a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do... but annoyingly, not instantly.
By the time I'd succeeded and got back to the race, there was no race to be seen. The sweeper bike had gone way past, been around the roundabout at the end of the street, and was now coming back towards me on the other side of the road. The temptation to just skip across the central reservation and rejoin the field was great, but no, fool that I am, I did it the right way.
By the time I'd finally caught up with the motorbike, I was puffing and blowing and glowing like the Darjeeling toy train. It didn't do the leg much good either, and as we reached the Rambla, it was starting its familiar throb. At the start of the long ascent I'd managed to put some distance between me and the very back markers, but by the time I'd struggled to the top of the hill, I could see the sweeper bike just a hundred metres or so behind me. Again, I made up some ground on the downhill half of the Rambla, but I could sense the way this was going. It was now getting very hot by our standards, and my general lack of fitness was adding to the struggle.
Now for the long drag along the seafront. I seemed to get a second wind from somewhere — perhaps the gel had kicked in. But it didn't last. Eventually we reach a roundabout and head off to the left. The leg was causing me real trouble by now, and my only hope was to stop and stretch. This helped, but I knew it was a temporary fix. Within a few hundred metres it was hurting again. Another stop and stretch, then back to the race. This time the sweeper bike had actually gone past me, so again I had to waste energy catching it up. I keep chugging along for about a mile, just ahead of a young couple who'd started right at the back, and seemed determined to finish last. It was here I realised there was something pointless about struggling on. I wasn't doing the calf any good, but more important, I knew I'd have to keep stopping again to stretch it to have any chance of finishing, and I couldn't see how I could do that with the sweeper bike literally a few feet behind me, revving aggressively. Would it stop and wait for me? Or would I keep having to catch up with it?
Instead, I gave the couple behind me a wave and pulled up. This time I had a really thorough stretch, including some more deep calf raises on the kerb. Painful, but made the leg feel much better. Too late to consider haring after the bike for a third time however, especially as I could see myself having to go through this several more times before the finish line. Instead, I crossed the road and slipped between two shops to find the cool, refreshing breeze of the seafront. I sat on a bench for a minute or two, beneath the quivering palm trees, staring out over the blue Mediterranean. It was the first anniversary of my mother's death, and for the first time today, I gave her memory some of the attention it deserved.
Maybe the contemplation gave me some extra resolve (or was it just the grateful knowledge that I was now much closer to the finish line than I had been?), but those final two miles back to the stadium were relatively comfortable. The extended stretch and rest had helped, and I needed only one more brief walk break. Apart from that I was able to jog back without too much discomfort. Once inside the stadium I joined the long queue to pick up my teeshirt, before heading back to the minibus, where I found the other four Brits. Before our reunion, I checked my watch. I'd managed 9.6 miles in all. Part of me wanted to be disappointed by the failure to finish, but another, perhaps more rational part, was making a robust case for the defence. I'd already declared the race to be just a training run. Up until the moment I set off, I wasn't sure I would even start the race, never mind finish. And anyway, if I'd managed a 9.6 mile training run back home while putting up with this left leg pain, would I not have been content? Damn right I would.
Something we discussed and agreed later was that this race has a much faster field than you'd typically get in the UK and US, where stragglers take 3 hours or more to finish. If it had been the case here, with the growling sweeper bike way back behind me, I think I could have pressed on at my own pace, taking breaks when needed, and probably trooping in at somewhere round 2½ hours. But so be it.
All that said, should I have claimed my teeshirt and commemorative punnet of tomatoes without completing the 13 miles?
I can see this being the theme of a future Moral Maze on Radio 4, with the sharpened fangs of Michaels Buerk and Portillo, and Melanie Phillips and Claire Fox, ripping chunks from my pride. As a Philosophy graduate with a taste for Ethics courses, I'm not convinced that I behaved correctly, though the thought of posing for the post-race photos without the teeshirt was too much to bear. So there.
Unlike me, my companions had enjoyed exceptionally good races. Ash had done particularly well, with a 1:40 PB. A truly excellent performance in difficult conditions. Magnanimously, he was keen to credit Julie with his success. She'd pushed him hard on a hot, uncomfortable day for running, and deserves praise, but he still had to do the running. Julie came in at 1:37, with Simon on 1:33. Tracey, who had earlier said she's be happy with 2 hours, managed an excellent 1:50. Like me, Antonio has had better Almerias, but he stuck at the task, finishing in 2:17.
Back at the hotel, showered and shirted, the second major physical undertaking of the day was just beginning. This was one marathon I was confident of winning: 12 hours of post-race eating and drinking.
At 2:30, we met Antonio at the base of the Rambla for another annual ritual: the group photo. This rambling ceremony requires all cameras to get their fill before we can move on. It's usually a grey, blustery occasion but this year it was hot and sunny, so no one minded much. The squintfest over, we made our way up the hill, past the now-renamed Molly Malone's, past the new John Lennon sculpture, and into the warren of quiet lanes off to the left. Past the cathedral with its plangent, Sunday afternoon bell tolling. Mournfully Mediterranean. My legs had stiffened up by now, and the walk had set off the discomfort once again. Stumbling off a kerb no more than an inch or two high gave me a stab of pain that had me squawking like a prepubescent girl. Embarrassing.
This year's restaurant was a hit. We opted for the all-inclusive tariff which brought forth a procession of delicious mini-digestifs before the veal and the platters of chocolate. The 40 euros a head included limitless alcohol, though the anxious-looking proprietor had to improvise a little here, announcing that once we'd taken delivery of the dessert, the toothsome local vino would have to stop flowing. But a good time was had by all I think, including Santi and Manolo, personable teaching colleagues of Antonio. Manolo was a bit quiet at first, but a couple of drinks and a discussion comparing Manchester United with Barcelona soon saw his shyness evaporate.
The rest of the day proceeded in traditional fashion, with a few Guinness-sodden hours in the tarted-up Molly Malone's, and finishing in a bar just down the street from the hotel. The company dwindled as we went on. Only the Brits made it to Molly's, and only Ash, Julie and I 'went on somewhere' to the local bar. Julie threw in her hand at about 2 a.m., leaving only two of us standing. If you can call it standing. We don't know what time we got back, but it was rumoured to be somewhere round 4 a.m.
The evidence may not seem to support it, but talking about this episode next day, I agreed with Ash that glugging Sol lager for hours in a noisy bar just doesn't do it for me these days. I'm not sure it ever floated my boat. But what do we do instead? Visit BurgerKing like Tracey and Simon? Hmm. Maybe I'll stick with the Sol. The trouble is, a January Sunday in Almeria is never going to offer too much. Despite the soul-searching, I daresay that next year we will fall down the same man-trap.
I'd already decided that Monday would be a day of rest, so perhaps I didn't mind so much, but Ash had his usual agenda of lunch at the beach, and the late-afternoon mountain run, and appeared to be paying a heavy price for our late night. By contrast, I slept in until midday, then relaxed in my room, working, for a couple of hours, until it was time to rendezvous with Antonio and the others downstairs. My leg felt fine, but I wasn't going to do the mountain plod. That would do it no good. Instead, I saw them off, and spent several pensive hours in the sunlit lobby, surfing the net and wondering if I would ever be the sort of runner I would like to be. It was a deliciously melancholy spell, and I snapped out of it only after eating a club sandwich and knocking back an equally ham-fisted Bloody Mary. Presentation less than perfect, but the ingredients did the trick.
The others eventually reappeared, glowing with satisfaction at having scaled another running mountain. Half an hour later, we were assembled again, this time for the usual Monday night visit to the Bullfighter's Bar, or the Quinto Toro, for our raciones and vino. Alas, no one else was interested in making a serious dent in the bar's reserves of Rioja, and so Almeria 2010 was to end on a strangely sober note. This was no great loss. We had a horribly early start the next morning, having to leave the hotel at 6 a.m. for the long drive back to Malaga along the coast road. It was uncomfortable enough as it was, without the snarling octopus of a hangover to contend with.
As alluded to earlier,I spent some of the journey discussing with Ash how we might change things for next year. The annual trip has followed a similar pattern for the 6 years we've been coming, but that's no reason to not consider improvements. Just the opposite. Perhaps it's a good reason to think this way. Our hand has been forced by the new flight schedules. The long road journey from Murcia or Malaga is an unnecessary burden, and we'll consider any options that allow us to use the local airport once again. We also think a change of hotel, to somewhere more central, might help fling an extra fistful of seasoning into the cauldron. Ash is even talking of extending his trip to allow him an extra helping of mountain running later in the week. He is a truly hopeless case.
Almeria 2010 was a good one. Just 5 Brits this time, but a nice mixture of personalities. I thank you all for the good-natured company. The abiding memory will be the running achievements of the other 4 (though didn't Almeria used to be a plodder's convention?). Next year, I need to be fitter, and do better. I can't blame myself for the calf problem, but it might have been more tolerable if I'd managed to stick to my weight targets. How many more chances will I get? How many more warnings do I give myself?
The Almeria weekend always starts with a painful wake-up call, and it's probably fitting that it should end with one too.
Tuesday 26 January 2010
Well at least I had the good sense to insert a caveat into this statement in the last entry:
...How does this bode for Almeria? Barring unexpected events this week, I'm confident I can get round in one piece...
Today an "unexpected event" did occur. Just a few days ago it wouldn't have seemed unexpected in the slightest, but intoxicated by the success of last week's 30 miles, I forgot that the unlikely movement away from running misfortune might have been nothing more than the swing of a pendulum. Today it made its return journey.
A casual 3½ mile jog around the block, while there was still some daylight to squeeze from the afternoon. This was the innocent plan. A mile and a half in, the calf started its now customary ache. I chuckled, happy that it was all bark and no bite. For another mile or so I plodded onwards, annoyed by the discomfort, but not unduly worried by it.
And then, with a mile or so left, it just... crumbled into something worse. I guess it's what happened 2 Wednesdays ago, when I had to pull up and limp home. After the massage and several days off, I came out of that thinking it wasn't a serious injury. I now don't know if it is or not, but it is persistent, and has to be sorted out.
Almeria? No idea yet what will happen there. For now, maybe a last minute massage might help, but looking further ahead, I need to spend some of my employer's BUPA tokens and get this looked at.
Sunday 24 January 2010When I talked to Phil last week about my chances of making the Almeria Half, he mentioned one of his metrics. He reckoned that if you can run twice the distance of the race during the penultimate week, you should be fine.
So I set my sights on 26 miles this week.
Not a huge total in times of plenty, but these haven't been times of plenty. I was startled to see that in only one week since I started back on the sticky road to race fitness, last September, have I managed more than 20 miles in a week. And that was in November, when from nowhere I produced two 10 milers. It was the week before Ragdale, my health and fitness adventure in rural Leicestershire. How exasperating that even though those two runs, and the stay at the health spa, left me feeling vibrant, relatively fit, and optimistic, it was barely a week later that some mysterious decline seemed to set in that I've struggled ever since to counteract.
Perhaps the fightback has begun. Even though my weight is no lower than it was after that week in November, at least it's moving in the right direction again, after a spectacular new year spike to pay homage to Christmas, snow, injury, and general apathy. More significantly, this week I've managed to bank 30.54 of your lovely English miles, including a painful 13.2 this afternoon.
The week didn't start too hopefully, with some blister nostalgia to cope with, and the feeling I'd made a mistake in buying the insoles (see last entry). This mild gloom hardened on Thursday, when 3 miles into my trudge along the A4, the calf started playing up again. Fortunately, I was at that point in the planned rote when it was barely shorter for me to turn round and go home than it was to continue, so I decided to hobble onwards. It was a bit like the New Year's Day 10K when, although the discomfort never went away, it didn't tip over into a proper injury as it seemed to threaten to do for so long. I finished that midweek plod with over 8 miles chalked up, but after the 4 and 5 milers earlier in the week, still needed another 10 or so to hit my target of 26 for the week.
Pondering over the Ordnance Survey map yesterday, I decided to tempt fate. Why aim for just 10? I have to run 13 next Sunday, so might as well see if I could manage the full monty. So I drafted out a 13.5 mile route on MapMyRun, with a Plan B for 10 miles should the flesh of the task prove less resilient than the spirit of the man with the map sitting indoors by the radiator.
It helped that it was a beautiful midwinter's afternoon. The sun was unseasonally bright, and the temperature kind enough to make a short-sleeved shirt and skimpy shorts a simple choice. With my iPod loaded up with some old favourites not heard for a while, I set off.
To get me in optimistic mood, Herman's Hermits and I'm Into Something Good. Yes I know, profoundly corny, but the effervescence of the early 60s will always makes me feel slightly better about the world. It's an atavistic, childhood nostalgia thing. Next up, and in a similar vein, but two decades further along the pop timeline, was the Housemartins, and Happy Hour. Final part of my planned mood-making trilogy was another huge slab of musical cheese: the London Marathon theme music. Ron Goodwin's The Trap.
By now I'd reached the canal, and with optimistic grin in place, the music moved onto hardcore Podrunner with an hour of high tempo electronica to drive me along the towpath and off into the hills. I'd not been on these monsters since the early Boston training days of more than a year ago, and I struggled to get up the worst of them without walking. Then a flattish mile before the hills begin again. By now, 6 miles in, I was tiring, and it was time to deploy my secret weapon: a PowerGel with a use by date of 2003. I found it at the back of a cupboard this morning. I've long moved on from this nasty brand of gels, but thought... for old time's sake....? According to the fading lettering, it was once lemon flavoured, but time had diminished much that was recognisable in the citrus department. Instead it had thickened up, and seemed reluctant to emerge from its packaging. Once I'd squeezed it into submission, I found that it had taken on a semi-pleasant toffee character. I wonder if this is a new discovery? Perhaps runners will take to careful cellaring of PowerGels, treating them like fine vintages of red Bordeaux.
But anyway, it seemed to do the job, though without a swig of the water I'd sensibly brought along for the ride, it would probably still be clamping my teeth together, and I would be tapping this out in the waiting room of the local A & E Department.
Newly invigorated, I got a rhythm going again as I left the hills behind and vanished from human view into the network of wet and muddy bridlepaths that criss-cross this patch of West Berkshire. Two or three miles later I rejoined the world of man, finding myself on the long straight farm track that again, I'd not been on since the distant days of marathon training, last spring.
By the time I'd flapped to the end of this wearying stretch, I was 10½ miles closer to success than when I'd set off. The last 2 or 3 miles were the circuit I usually plod as my regular, round-the-block lunchtime quickie. But this time was very different from normal. I was well into a survival shuffle by now, and for the final mile, was reduced to a mix of running and walking. Runners with more integrity than me would have considered this a 12 mile run with a final mile of warm-down, but not me: oooh no. I'd trudged 13 miles, and was going to claim every painful yard, especially as the total for the week now stood at over 30.
And the calf? Good news. Once again, it was painful, but once again, never truly threatened to ping. I seem to be settling into a pattern of just having to run with an ache in the back of my left leg (and right, to a lesser extent). I can live with that. So perhaps the new insoles really are helping after all.
On balance then, a positive week, which also included two vigorous spinning sessions, on Tuesday and Saturday, with a solitary rest day on Friday. How does this bode for Almeria? Barring unexpected events this week, I'm confident I can get round in one piece, but I've abandoned previous musings about gunning for a PB. Instead, Almeria is now officially a training run, and I've give my spreadsheet the news. Four weeks today is the Wokingham Half, and if (big if) I can keep this week's progress going, that might be a better opportunity. A lot can happen between now and then, however. Not just injury, but the Almeria Annual Festival of Binge Drinking and Over-Eating has to be negotiated. The danger is not so much in the weekend itself, but in giving me the excuse to extend the festivities beyond. I need to avoid that man-trap, and so I have a plan.
More next time.
Tuesday 19 January 2010Better news.
Last Wednesday's ailing calf opened the door (....did you know a calf could do that?) to a dissolute weekend. I fear I take rest and recovery all too seriously. An excess of low living followed: beer and saturated fat outside the house, and Chianti, spicy turkey casserole, sausages and blue cheese within.
On Friday, something useful did happen: a visit to Phil the sports therapist for a half hour of painful, but helpful, calf manipulation. As I slid off the massage table, barely conscious, I was expecting to see on the floor beneath me, strips of bloody, wriggling flesh, freshly gouged from my lower limbs. There's always a brief period when I wonder how such a treatment can be beneficial, but within an hour or so, I'm already starting to feel better, and happy with the investment.
As ever, the hangman remained all too cheerful as he plied his vile trade. The incongruously perky dialogue compared running challenges to come. Phil blithely mentioned his main focus for 2010: a 100 mile race up and down the major peaks of the Lake District, involving a net ascent of 23,000 feet. Suddenly my own goals seemed all too modest.
Hyperbole aside, the massage was a good thing to have done, and by someone who knows his business.
There was the pencilled-in possibility of a jog or gym visit on Sunday, but I passed it up, partly because there was a lingering soreness in the calf, but more because there was a lingering soreness in the head. I'd popped over the road to watch some early Saturday evening football in the pub, and it had evolved into an unexpectedly over-hearty occasion.
Instead of exercise, I ended up in Carters of Caversham, to check out some rigid insoles called Superfeet. I'd been tipped off by Phil that these could help my calf problems. Long story short: I looked at them, tried them out, then had a lengthy sales pitch which completely convinced me that these were the answer. Great. Just what I need. Then I bought something else instead.
Just as I was reaching for my credit card to pay for the Superfeet, a casual remark persuaded me to look at some insoles called Conform'able, which are moulded to the exact shape of the sole of your foot while you wait. So these are the same as the other ones, except they are customised to my feet? Yes, they said. I spent the next 5 embarrassing minutes standing on a platform in the shop, my bare feet embedded in a sort of dense pad which made the mould. Then the flat insoles, heated, were laid across the mould, and I had to spend another couple of minutes standing on them, until they'd taken on the shape of my foot. A couple of minutes to cool, and voila, I had two tailored insoles for my running shoes.
The big disappointment was that they weren't as rigid as I'd hoped, and I therefore wondered if they would really stand up to the job. Had I gone for the right option? At £45, this wasn't a cheap decision to get wrong. To his credit, the sales guy was willing to let me revert to the original Superfeet plan, which had a much more positive presence in my shoe. But was this necessarily a good thing? Was the fact that I couldn't really feel the moulded insoles a bad thing? Or was it the entire point of them?
With the shop about to shut, I opted for the moulded soles. Then spent the rest of the day regretting it.
I continued to think I'd made the wrong decision through yesterday, when I took them out for a 4.15 mile plod, for some weird reason deciding for the first time ever to try running without wearing socks. The idea of the me-shaped insole had somehow seduced me into thinking it seemed right. And it nearly was. But socklessness is to an Asics shoe as a red rag is to a bull. For years I was unable to wear Asics much beyond about 5 miles. Their shoes harboured a notorious seam that lacerated generously proportioned feet like mine. Recent models seem to have got round the problem, or so I thought. Removing the proprietary insole, with the built-up side, and then going commando in the foot department, was to give hostage to fortune.
Two miles into the run, the rubbing and pinching started in earnest. It was uncomfortable, but weirdly, I seemed not to care. Limping the last half mile has been standard recently, but to do so for a reason unconnected with the calf was a near-pleasant novelty.
Today I returned to the way of the sock for 5.2 gluey miles around the bird lake, and along the canal towpath. The alarmingly irrepressible Sweder wrote today of his 10 mile run on ground that had been recently snow covered, describing its stickiness in a typically colourful way. Does thawed ice and slush bestow an unusual adhesiveness to mud? Seems like it.
Anyway, even with socks, the scuffed skin wasn't going to hold out indefinitely, and sure enough, about 3 miles in, the embryonic blister gave me a cheery wave, and started its work. Despite all that, the simple fact is that I've managed to bank nearly 9½ miles over these two days, without any convincing sign of calf trouble. Just a bit of residual soreness: nothing new.
Has it just started to drift away again, as it eventually did last year? Or was the massage the key? Maybe the insoles really have helped. Or maybe not. I don't know. But whatever it is, things are better than they were. My main concern now is general fitness. With only 11 days left before the Almeria half, I'm anxious about my stamina. I could feel it draining out of me today after just 4 miles or so, though the sticky mud will have contributed something there. I need to put in a decent long run this weekend. At least 10 miles, though 12 would be better. If I can do that, and keep running on alternate days, and manage a few spinning sessions, I might just be able to claw back enough confidence and fitness to make the Almeria run tolerable. Realistically though, I suspect it will be quite tough. If the leg behaves, and if I don't slip off the path of righteous living, the Wokingham half, 3 weeks after Almeria, should be a better day.
As for the sub-2 hour half marathon target, I'm still keen to achieve it this year, though Reading, on March 21, might just be too soon. We'll see. A lot can be achieved in 8 weeks and 5 days. I certainly hope so: that's pretty much my deadline for having knocked off all my annual objectives at work. Bah! It's that stressful time of the year.
Thank god for running.
Wednesday 13 January 2010
Before Christmas, the snow arrived like some unexpected, enchanting dinner party guest. But as she has lingered, and got ruder and more domineering, the novelty and appeal has faded. Lovely to begin with, now a damn nuisance. Go away.
Another six inches of fluffy ice has descended overnight. This would have spoilt my running plans, if I'd had any. Yesterday, after 4 sofa-bound days, I judged the pavements just about ice-free enough to get out the door again. After 1.5 miles of snow yomping along the sticky road to recovery, I came across a shovel-scraped section and decided, in the immortal words of David Coleman, to open my legs and show my class. Within a hundred metres, I find myself quickly decelerating, then slow-motion loping, then hopping, then stopping, then stooping, then calf-clutching. Another couple of frames and my extinction would have been complete, vanishing beneath the surface of the primordial soup, leaving nothing but a languid, gloopy burble as evidence my running career had ever existed. Not much of an epitaph, but not entirely inappropriate.
What am I to think? One consolation is that it is not as bad as last year. A bigger comfort is that I have no spring marathon planned. Last year's injury was made worse by the anxiety of knowing I was booked in for Boston in April. I do have races entered this year: Almeria, Wokingham, Reading, Connemara, and I have stated time targets, but they are not as worrying as a fund-raising marathon on another continent. Maybe I can recover enough to be able to take part with enough confidence to get round in comfort. The sub-2 half remains my target for this year, even if I have to push back the date.
Last Friday's leg massage fell victim to the snow, and has been rearranged for later this week. I'll see what Phil has to say about it. His emailed PS didn't fill me with too much joy: "Hope your pain threshold is at an all-time high!" On the evidence of yesterday, I'm not sure that it is.
But damn it, it has to be done, and should even help. It will also be useful to run through my options and strategy. Time to collect positive vibes, and point them at the future. I did recover enough last year to get back to trouble-free running, and I'm sure the same will happen again, given a bit of time. In the meantime, the frozen roads give me some sort of excuse not to feel too bad about being off my feet.
Friday 1 January 2010 - New Year's Day 10K, Hyde Park, London
This morning was so cold, there was barely enough blood in my fingers to capture Kumudith Guruge.
Ethereal voice: Who?
Last entry: I'm in a much better position than this time last year. The weight is about the same, but it was on Boxing Day 2008 that I yanked my calf muscle for the first of three times in quick succession. It meant a long break, and a cautious, anxious winter and spring. Touch wood, there's not been a repeat, even though the longer runs, like yesterday's 9 miler do always jangle a few tendons in that area, just to keep me awake to the possibility.Let me tell you now, that touching wood stuff doesn't work.
If we're talking superstition, let is be said: the omens were all over the place. As I picked up my race number from the help desk, I heard:
Ethereal Voice: Ooh, you're number eleven.
Me: Is that good?
Ethereal Voice: It's lucky. Legs eleven.
Me: Legs. Running. OK, but --
Ethereal Voice: And it's the date as well. First of the first.
Me: Crikey. That's better.
Ethereal Voice: Oh yes! And the race starts at eleven!
Me: This is creepy! Anything else?
Voice: It's a win-win, or a one-one!
The plug was pulled on this fluffy autochat to prevent the X-Files music kicking in. Instead, I wondered why it might be assumed these omens were necessarily good.
I was already uneasy. My lucky yellow cap was at home, on the kitchen radiator. How did that happen? This was the first race since late 2002 I wouldn't be wearing it. Bah! I'm not the superstitious type. And anyway, why do I call it a "lucky cap"? My race record over the past 7 or 8 years suggests the bestowal of few celestial benefits.
Still, 11 was my lowest ever race number, and auspiciousness aside, I thought it pretty damn cool. More than cool. Cold. It was freezing out there today. I even considered the rare wearing of gloves. As I jogged back to the car to search for these salvational yellow items that I had also, it would transpire, left at home, I encountered the man I would later come to know as Kumudith Guruge.
Hyde Park is a grand venue for a race, and for a running club. The Serpies, who organise this event, have 2330 members. It's a great place for all sorts of things — but not ball games. In the 80s, in my wine trade years, I lived in Clapham. One of our friends arranged a huge rounders match in Hyde Park. Within 5 minutes or so of the contest getting underway, we were descended upon by half a dozen park police. "Put down your ball, you middle class bastards. Everybody raise your hands and take a step backwards. Into the seventies. Nah. Make it the fifties."
Sorry, I digress. I am wittering today. Let me hope this is not a portent of what is to come.
As long as you have no ball concealed about your person, Hyde Park today is like Calcutta's incredible Maidan, the so-called lungs of the city, or New York's Central Park: the splash of scenery-greenery that reminds denizens of the core that there is some other world beyond.
The park today teemed with pensive walkers, families, and thought-provoking signage. Passing a kiosk selling food and drink, I saw a notice saying "Drink Good, Feel Good."
Just past here, I came across a man trying to take a picture of himself. Being New Year's Day, when determination to self-improve is at its zenith, I offered my services. Alas, as soon as my fingers touched his camera, the battery died, and no amount of taking it out and putting it back in again, which seemed to be the only implement in our troubleshooting toolbox, would restore it. A sudden loss of power. Was this an omen?
It was. But first.
I had an idea. I could take a picture of him with my camera, and email him the result. He gratefully agreed. There followed a period of faffing, as we considered what might make the most photogenic background. (Aside: Have I ever admitted to being the official photographer at my own wedding? Perhaps that's a story for another day.) Once the snaps had been taken, we moved onto the email address stage. It was so cold, he had trouble opening his bag to find pen and paper. So I offered this service instead, but I had the same numb-finger trouble. Had I been wearing boxing gloves, the task might have been executed more quickly. We got there in the end, even though mining for the resources turned out to be simple compared with the task of him actually writing his email address in my notebook. Maybe this is why it's a slightly different spelling from the rendition in the race results (assuming there was only one Kumudith Guruge taking part today. I didn't think to look for a second), but I've opted for his version of his own name as it would seem to be a more authoritative source.
Finally arriving at the car, I realised that unless I set off back towards the start immediately, I was likely to miss it. It didn't seem like it at the time, but the hurrying probably did me good, ensuring a warm-up of sorts. I reached the start just in time to join the back of the field, and to hear that characteristic local-race-specific-strangled-hooter sound. We all hurried away in search of who knows what.
My race strategy was to use the Garmin's 'virtual partner' feature. I hadn't given up hope of getting round in under an hour, even though recent weeks have seen me stray from the consistency that had given me the now-departed confidence.
The first kilometre had me at 30 metres ahead of schedule; the second 20 metres. After the third, I was still 20 metres ahead, and seemed to be coasting. Trying to keep bang on the pace was more relaxing than expected.
I was beginning to think I might actually do this, when bang, it happened: a sharp pain in my left knee, not dissimilar to the one that Dodds the Knee Man was assigned to in September of 2008. I carried on for a while but the pain then seemed to travel down to the left calf which rapidly sort of seized up. That's the best way I can describe it. It wasn't a pull, and didn't immediately feel like a strain. It was as if all the internal workings of the calf had gummed up, and just stopped working. I stopped, not quite sure what to do at first. Then I continued, limping heavily, until I reached a bench, where I tried stretching it. Painful, but it seemed to help. I hobbled on for a bit, then stopped again for some more stretching.
What to do? I felt absolutely crushed by this. During the previous two runs, I did feel pain in my knee and calf, but regarded these as hollow threats. Now it had actually happened. After more hobbling and stretching, I decided the sensible thing would be to throw in the towel, and head back to race HQ, on the north side of the Serpentine. The most direct way of doing this was to carry on along the route of the race.
At least I was able to jog, and did so for the next mile or so, when I reached the fork where I had to decide which way to go. I stopped for a few seconds, not sure what to do. The leg hurt, but not intolerably. It wasn't quite like the calf strains of last winter, when I pulled up, and found myself barely able to walk or put any weight on it. Here I was able to put some pressure on it, but not too much. I couldn't use it to push hard against the ground, but I was able to jog lightly. After deliberating, I realised I just couldn't quite bring myself to DNF. Instead, I might as well jog round and collect my medal or whatever.
And I did. The Garmin stats tell the story. The first two miles were around 9:30, while miles 3,4 and 5 were all well over 11 minutes apiece, not including the times I was stationary. Interestingly, the final mile was back under 10 minutes, as I realised, or believed, that I wasn't going to do much more harm, and tried upping the pace again, despite the discomfort. The stats tell me I actually stopped still for 2 minutes 35 seconds in all. The final official chip time was 1:06:06, which put me 429th out of 458.
If I'm honest, in the circumstances, I was pleasantly surprised with that time. If I take away the time I stopped, I'm left with 63 minutes. Looking at the artificially slow middle miles, I have to conclude that I wouldn't have been far off a PB if the leg had behaved.
Next day update: I've deliberately left 24 hours before saying anything too rash about the prognosis. Now, a day later, the left calf is still painful when I put weight on it, and stairs are proving a challenge. But I'm hopeful that it's not a serious injury, and something that could be helped with some massage and gentle stretching, and plenty of rest, naturally. I can't see myself running in the next week.
Much more intriguing is the question of why this has happened. Comparing this year with last, there is something they have in common. Both times, I'd had a spell of wearing different shoes - off-roaders - just before the calf trouble. These are much less cushioned than my normal road shoes, and on both occasions, they made my left leg ache before the injury, as though something wasn't happy. I can't be conclusive about this, but it could be significant. Also, it probably wasn't a good idea to run the day after the 9 miler earlier in the week, especially as the twinges had appeared.
What now? I'm still fully intending running in Almeria at the end of the month, though my plans for at least three long hard weekend runs before then might have to be modified. It's a wait-and-see job. But even though things could be worse, it's not a great way to start off the year. Jokes aside, let's hope this really isn't an omen. It may mean I have to give more thought to footwear, and perhaps write off the idea of getting more into cross-country.
The leg trouble has dominated my thoughts of the race, but I don't want that to obscure the fact that this is a good event, in a superb setting, and an excellent way of kicking off the year. It tends to curtail an evening of New Year's Eve excess (we went to see the startling spectacle of Avatar3D instead of carousing), but this isn't too big a price to pay.
Same time next year, I hope.
Tuesday 29 December 2009
Things are trying to get back to normal. The old normal. The post-mid-September normal.
The new enemy has been the skies. Most runners like a bit of rough in the weather department. Rain is to running what vinegar is to chips: greater than the sum of the parts. We can even embrace the stage or two beyond mere rain, but there's a limit to this pain-pleasure principle. Snow is usually good, but ice is pushing things just a little. Too much of a good thing.
Here in Berkshire, the festive cascade began the day after the last entry. I'd been out for a dogged, and very cold, 4 miles. Within minutes of reclaiming the warmth, and emerging from the shower, I glanced through the window and was startled by the sight of dense snowfall. Without any wind, it seemed weirdly benign. This wasn't a hostile blizzard, but some sort of performance, or decoration. Easy to think this way when you're behind glass, with the central heating turned up. Much less comfortable for the commuting millions. My county, and Hampshire, were reduced to barely twitching shadows of the modern world, brought low by just 3 or 4 inches of snow. Hardly extreme conditions, but enough to catch us out and cripple us. One of M's bedraggled workmates gave up trying to get home to Bristol, and sought shelter with us for the night. More than 2,000 vehicles were trapped overnight on the Basingstoke ring road. It was taking 6 hours to crawl your way out of Reading town centre. In a car. Sounds like the other sort of crawling might have been quicker. The road through our village was filled with a long stream of stationery vehicles, many eventually abandoned. The pubs throbbed with the spirit of the Blitz, as travellers planned their escape from the wintry siege.
I had the chance to survey the chaos next day, when I managed a sprightly-enough plod around the block for 4 snowy miles. But now, the charming powdery snow of the day before had started to turn into compacted ice in places. The recently-bought off-road Asics Trabucos were put through their paces again, and seemed to pass muster. The frozen paths offered up a couple of involuntary pirouettes, but nothing that an instinctive flurry of flailing arms couldn't deal with. My ego, and arse, remained unbruised. Despite the 4 juddering miles, the warning was clear. This wasn't a time for road running, and with no realistic chance of getting to the gym, I postponed my athletic comeback yet again, retreating instead to the pub to plan my post-Christmas strategy.
M was ill over the holiday. Combined with the parlous state of the roads, we were forced to change our plans. Instead of driving down to Wiltshire on Christmas Eve, to stop over with her brother and family, we collected some local supplies and dug ourselves a cosy snow hole. Mercifully, this meant no turkey this year. Instead, as the icy wind whistled metaphorically through the leafless vines, I toasted my nuts on the open fire, roasted a loin of pork, and sought comfort in the wine rack. The time had come to crack open the first of my stash of Chateau Cissac 2006. Wisely, I've made sure most of the Bordeaux 2005s I bought en primeur are still in storage, leaving me only some cheaper and younger stuff for the occasional hint of the pleasures coming down the track. So it's now one down, 35 to go of the Cissac, which was more forward than I'd feared. It will never be great wine, being just a little under-strength in the fruit division, but it will be a good one, and once it had assimilated itself with an hour or two of convivial festive air, revealed itself as an already very drinkable young claret.
I pigged out on Christmas Day. Like some urban conurbation, where once big towns with their own identities are merged by the sprawl of unplanned suburbs, Christmas Day ceases to be compartmentalised into set-piece meals, attached to different bits of the day. Instead we have some amorphous gloop of fuzzy courses, linked by a conveyor belt of chocolate and crisps and nuts and mince pies.
No surprise then to find myself 7 pounds heavier on Boxing Day than I had been a fortnight earlier. Time to act.
The following day, I made it to the gym for the 10 o'clock spinning class. This was an hour-long, post-gorge 'special'. It was intended to hurt, and it did. Sixteen of us set off on the descent into masochistic hell, but only fifteen reached the destination. One hang-dog guy drooped off after half an hour, defeated.
By now, I'd learnt that the following day's 6-mile cross-country race at Cliveden had been cancelled. The email explained that the estate had suffered "heavy snowfall and extensive ice", and wouldn't allow the race to go ahead. Exasperating, but at least there was enough time to plan an alternative jaunt. We ended up with an unscheduled overnight stop at the out-laws in Sussex, where I had the chance of another plod along the Worth Way, a 7 mile trail between Three Bridges, Crawley, and East Grinstead. One of the rare, unpredicted benefits of the notorious Beeching Axe in 1963, the path alongside the long-abandoned railway line is now largely a secluded, verdant trail, friendly to runners, dog-walkers, and assorted ground-staring thinkers.
It's also a path favoured by the widely-revered Seafront Plodder in his rare bursts of running enthusiasm, and I rather hoped, and feared, I might encounter the great man. My wild imagination could see him clearly enough, his fearsome visage distorted by athletic effort, steam streaming from his nostrils, like some crazed mythological monster, crashing through the undergrowth in search of a decent breakfast. But the affable beast never materialised.
Still in the Sussex groove, I wondered whether Sweder was afoot this morning. His own much-written-about paths are 20 miles south of here, and greatly more dramatic. Those ceaseless adventures on the high trails of the South Downs can sound fearsome, yet it's hard not to be envious. That said, I could have done much worse for myself in West Berks. We don't have much in the way of hills, but there's something about the tranquility of a rural canal towpath, and the network of leafy bridlepaths and farm tracks, and the ancient deer park, that I'd hate to lose. It's all about finding the best in what you have.
Talking of different terrain, on Friday, New Year's Day, I have a 10K race in central London — a very long way from the isolated, high peaks of the South Downs, though arguably, the route, through the stately splendour of Hyde Park, alongside the Serpentine, isn't quite so far removed from the familiar forest footpaths of Berkshire.
After my patchy December, I was looking for a confidence booster on the Worth Way run, but it didn't quite deliver. I managed 9 miles, a good enough distance, but it was fitful and unconvincing. The first 2 or 3 were strong and confident, but after taking a wrong turning, and having to back-track through a housing estate, I seemed to lose the initiative. From that point onwards, I was leaden-legged, as though I'd suddenly remembered my strenuous spinning session of the day before. I was able to keep chugging along without stopping, but it was a slow and uninspiring adventure. I can't blame the weather this time — it was as perfect a winter's day as could be hoped for: cold, but with strong sunshine. And the path, as mentioned, was mostly quaint and peaceful. On my ipod, a peculiar mixture of Kraftwerk, the Choir of King's College, and an audiobook of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, kept me bemused for well over an hour and a half. I will have better runs than this.
A day later, at lunchtime today, and back in West Berks, I was out once more, this time in nasty, stiff, cold rain, for my standard 4 mile-ish jog around the block. The small country lanes I use were flooded and still icy, and I had to watch carefully as each foot was planted. So no auto-pilot mode today, and with ankle-deep puddles to negotiate, and cold wet feet almost the whole way, this wasn't the run I'd hoped for either. The sky was grey and dismal, and the heavy, splashy rain didn't help to lighten the tone.
That sounds far gloomier than I feel at the moment. It's true that I'm struggling to get out of this December dip I created for myself, and have lost a big patch of hard-won ground, but I've been doing this long enough to know that it can, and will, all change again very quickly. I can't pretend to feel confident about doing well in Friday's 10K, but it's a great way to spend the first day of what I strongly believe will be a great running year. I'm in a much better position than this time last year. The weight is about the same, but it was on Boxing Day 2008 that I yanked my calf muscle for the first of three times in quick succession. It meant a long break, and a cautious, anxious winter and spring. Touch wood, there's not been a repeat, even though the longer runs, like yesterday's 9 miler do always jangle a few tendons in that area, just to keep me awake to the possibility.
Saturday 19 December 2009
It had to happen. After 13 exemplary weeks, along comes Christmas. In terms of training and healthy eating, a very bad week to report. Six days of alcohol and fine dining. And not so fine dining: pizza, curry, ice cream, cheese, chocolate... the old enemies have breached the defences. And later today, we're off to a wedding reception, so there is no immediate sign of rescue from all this pleasure.
The mouldy icing on this bad news cake is that I've done no running and no exercise whatever, unless walking to the pub can somehow be counted as a positive.
I could more easily write off this aberration if my race and weight targets were all in March and April, but of course I have my loudly fanfared 10K on New Year's Day which is/was to be a serious PB attempt. There is still time to prepare for that, though clawing back the 6 pounds I've added in the last week wasn't a task I'd scheduled, and I may have dug too big a hole for myself to climb out of, especially as I still have Christmas week to come, which may well see that hole get deeper yet.
Anyway, this brief confessional makes me feel better. My big target remains a sub-2 hour half marathon at Reading in April, but I do need that 10K PB to keep the momentum cranked up. Worst case scenario may be that I have to wait a bit longer for it, though the couple of 10Ks I have earmarked for later in January and February are both hilly, and hardly PB courses. I may have to look for another candidate.
I'll get through this weekend before taking a closer look at the damage. Will have to hope there's something miraculous available in the first aid kit.
Monday 14 December 2009 - Hog's Back 8, Guildford
Hangovers are rare beasts around these parts, but one has come a-prowling today. Not a desperately savage example, but enough to keep me subdued. It's prompted the usual self-interrogation, and taken me through the drinker's faulty arithmetic in which two parts of pleasure somehow have to be shown to equal the three parts of pain that follow. The proposition never quite works out.
It seemed such a good idea at the time. A post-race reward. Liverpool v Arsenal on the TV on the pub, and a few pints of London Pride. Exchanging manly small-talk about the referee. Then home to cook and eat the pork, swilling it down with a glass or two of Aldi's reliable Chianti. And all very enjoyable it was too. I simply don't understand how, at my advanced age, I continue to think I can make this large withdrawal of pleasure without having to pay it back, with interest.
To worsen my mood further, with my resistance down, I've spent today eating delicious rubbish for the first time in 13 weeks. Tomorrow, I fear the scales will pass sentence. It won't make me feel any better.
As for the race, it was a curious affair. Billed as 8 miles, though the Garmin had it as 7.87. I have a feeling that this PB will last for some time, as I'm unlikely to find many more races of 7.87 miles, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to motivate myself to run this one again. The most memorable aspect was the question being loudly asked as I approached the start area: "Is there anyone here whose surname does NOT start with the letter M?"
Quite a few of us, judging by the number who made a beeline for the lady bellowing the question. Fortunately I reached her before most of the others, and was able to get my race number quickly. I took the envelope and hurried back to the car to sit out the half hour before the off. By now, the sky had begun its bombardment of big, cold raindrops. As I sat leaning on the steering wheel, staring at the opaque windscreen, I experienced my expected "Why the hell do we do this?" moment. After a week of early rising to attend a course, I would happily have stayed in bed the entire day. Shame, or the impulse to avoid it, eventually yanked the duvet off me and tipped me into the day.
A cold, grey morning. Better for running than general-purpose living. It was cool enough to persuade me to do something I've done only once before in a race: wear leggings. My legs don't get cold, and I'm normally happy to stick with shorts and flesh. But I'm fearful of a recurrence of the calf injuries of last year, and reckon that a bit of compression, and keeping my tendons warm, will help to keep these problems at bay. Running in leggings wasn't as bad as I'd feared, and had the unexpected bonus of allowing me to admire the elegant svelteness newly installed in my lower limbs.
The rain eased off a little, and as I jogged back to the start, I felt marginally better disposed towards the task at hand. Less cheerful was a nervous looking blonde lady I found myself lining up behind. With an unexpectedly serious tone in her voice, she turned round and said to anyone in earshot: "As long as I survive to see my two year old again, I'll be happy." This in turn made me feel ever so slightly uneasy. Was it that bad?
It is a tricky course, the shape of an inverted V, but not too punishing. The first 3.5 miles are pretty much all uphill (the Hog's Back of the title), with the second half of the race flat or downhill. It was a fairly straightforward plod. I'd decided this would be a training run, and managed to get through it without undue discomfort. Given the contours of the course, and the order in which they arrive, it was no surprise to manage negative splits. In fact, I finished quite strongly, probably helped by walking up some of the steeper stretches at the start. I had decided to run the whole way, but it was one of those curious cases where I noticed that my uphill running was actually no faster than the determined walking of those around me. After a couple of hundred yards of virile plodding, I realised I'd made no progress on the walkers up ahead, and decided to fall in with the crowd.
Organisation wasn't brilliant at this race. The single drinks station ran out of water long before I reached it, and the baggage system, which resulted in our bags being left out in the rain while we ran, wasn't perfect. The memento, a cheap mug, seemed a bit lacking in quality, especially considering that this was the 50th running of the race. But I don't want to moan too much. It was a nice enough event, and the marshals were supportive and pleasant. It's the boss who needs to sharpen up his act a bit.
Oh yes, and just in case anyone was worried, I can report that after I crossed the finish line, I spied the blonde lady again. This time she was grinning broadly, her grateful arms wrapped around the giggling two year old she feared she would never see again.
Saturday 12 December 2009At last, after many weeks of trudging through a dense jungle of commitments, the weary traveller reached a small clearing. He marvelled at the sudden sense of light, and clarity. "I have been unable to see, and thus I have been invisible", he mused.
It's been an eventful few weeks, with so much to write about that I've not had the time to log it. Now, finally, I seem to have arrived at a natural break between one list of overpowering assignments and the next. Best grab the chance to skim off and serve up the more newsworthy bits.
We were off to a health spa last time I passed this way. At Ragdale Hall, I found that relaxation can be surprisingly hard work, should you choose it to be. In this padded prison of pleasure, you're encouraged to take the easy sentence. But contrarians like me opt to make life a bit more challenging. The reward for this recalcitrance is an exhaustion as sweet as any honeymooner's.
A swarm of agreeable flunkies descended to greet us on the Thursday afternoon. One took our bags, another the car keys.
And so the stroking had begun. It never let up. As the car was being parked, we were taken for an introductory coffee by a sparkly-toothed blonde. Then we were led to our accommodation. Strange to have an upstairs bedroom — I don't think I've stayed in a split-level hotel suite before. In fact, I can remember only once being in a suite, which was that astonishingly cheap place in Las Vegas this year.
We chuckled again at our good fortune, and set about demolishing the contents of the fruit bowl. As we did so, we studied our scheduled activities. M was majoring on cosmetic reinvention, while I was hoping to find my miracle cure in the Fitness Complex, as that seemed to describe my condition pretty well.
Alas, the silver bullet I sought must have rolled behind one of the very few bits of equipment I didn't engage with over the next 48 hours.
The campaign started on a very gentle incline indeed, with a class called Relax & Unwind. Here I was the only man among 15 women of assorted shapes and ages. We lay on mats in one of the fitness studios. The lights were extinguished, and as the throaty siren in the black leotard stepped us through our journey, the sonorous New Age music began oozing gently from the speakers, like some lethal miasma. Harps, pan pipes, and a reverb-enhanced piano rang out their stately arpeggios. It was a musical duvet, beneath which we rapidly lost contact with the world of urgent email and traffic wardens and annual objectives.
I have a confession to make: I quite like New Age muzak. I once voluntarily listened to the same CD on a continuous loop for about 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for almost 9 months. One day, I will impart the circumstances. It's an excellent story, and was the unintentional beginning of this very website.
Bur back to Ragdale. It would be easy to ridicule this opening session, but the stretches and progressive muscle relaxation were genuinely therapeutic. It was immediately followed by my 'advanced fitness assessment'. Strenuous enough, but the result was surprisingly positive. It seems my heart and VO2 max are way above average, while pretty much everything else hovers around the unexceptional. Even body fat was described as "just on the higher side of normal" which OK, I concede, does sound a tad euphemistic.
Final exercise of that first day was a gentle meander round the gym for half an hour to fill in the time before the first of my three free treatments. It has to be said, I found these experiences rather... poncey, and not quite all they were made out to be. It's true that there are worse things in life than being massaged by attractive young women in a semi-darkened room, as the pan pipes and harps and reverby piano ring out their stately arpeggios. But not all of my cynicism wafted away along with the shoulder tension and wrinkles and dry skin, or whatever it was I was being relieved of.
There was just time for a drift around the various heat rooms in the spa before dinner, which was excellent, but which dealt my energy a fatal blow. I did manage a post-prandial sprawl in one of the 'quiet lounges', which was indeed totally silent apart from the regular clucking sound of an elderly lady as she frowned over the Daily Telegraph. Ragdale looks like it started life as some sort of stately home, so it's no surprise to find it on the chintzy side of traditional. At times it can seem like a fusty forest of standard lamps, and fathomless old sofas. Not my ambience of choice, but in the circumstances, it seems churlish to complain about this padded cell with the smiley face. Back in the room(s), I could barely keep my eyelids hoisted for Question Time, and was delighted to crawl between the sheets of the gargantuan bed at last.
Next morning at 7:45, the door bell rang. Yes, our rooms have a door bell. Breakfast is delivered to every resident: a system I didn't feel minded to complain about, even if the portions were a bit measly for muesli. Breakfast is the best meal of my day, so I was thrilled to get an introduction to Atholl Brose. According to the recipes I've researched since, this traditional Scottish breakfast, or dessert, should contain a large tot of malt whisky, but unsurprisingly for a health spa, this ingredient was omitted here. It's essentially oats, honey, cream and raspberries. Not certain just how healthy this is, but for a matinal oatophile like me, boy, did it hit the spot. There was also a small plate of cottage cheese, smoked salmon and grapes. It looked striking, and I think was intended to be a healthier version of bacon and eggs. But without the joy of naughtiness, it didn't work for me.
A bigger gap before my first booked class would have been better, but at least the fitness ball (a.k.a. Swiss ball, gym ball) class wasn't too aerobic. Surprisingly tough though. I own a fitness ball but haven't used it much. My feeble excuse is that I haven't known what to do with it. OK, so it did come with a 25-minute instructional DVD, and yes, I concede that tapping "swiss ball" and its alternatives into Google will yield approximately 1,500,000 matches, but I really don't have the time to read 1.5 million web pages in the search for the definitive how-to. Much better to hope to win a trip to a health spa, where one can attend a class.
Again, I was the only man among the dozen or so attendees. As a result, there was some tittering as instructions like "Grab your balls and stand up" were issued by the smirking, but otherwise charming, instructress. If the abdominal pain scale is a telling indicator, the gym ball turns out to be a formidable piece of kit. Forty-five minutes later, I knew I'd been through a workout.
After a 10-minute breather, it was time for the next item on the list: a spinning class. This has been another must-do for too long. I've been casually eyeing the spinners at the gym for a while, thinking it looked like a decent piece of torture. Ragdale was a good opportunity to try it out in a non-intimidating environment. So I did.
Memorably, the first spinning class I ever saw was actually during a marathon. May 2004, beneath the enormous shadow of the FC Copenhagen football stadium, we plodded through a tidy park, past an outdoor class of grinning spinners who hollered at us as we hollered at them. I don't know why we all did this, but it was pretty good-natured.
There are two types of music at Ragdale: I've mentioned the harps, pan pipes, and reverb-enhanced piano ringing out their stately arpeggios. That's one sort. There is also the frantic disco thump, featuring a lady giving birth. At least, that's what I presume she's experiencing. The spinning class was 45 minutes of sweat and endurance to the accompaniment of the giving-birth tape. It wasn't as hard as I'd feared, though I could easily see how much more strenuous it could be in the hands of a yet more demonic instructor. I'm told that spinning can get addictive, but so be it. A spot of aerobic fitness dependency was a risk I was manfully prepared to take. There are worse things to be enslaved by, like heroin, or golf, or X-Factor.
Immediately after this spell of heavy breathing had subsided, I volunteered for some more. This time, a steady spell of intervals on the treadmill. Much better than having to stare at my wobbling frame in a full-length mirror, this time I was faced by a floor-to-ceiling window, and a stunning view of a huge, rolling cornfield. Now and then a tractor would roll past, or someone on foot, purposefully going about his workaday agricultural business. These real people appeared to be oblivious to the bulbous urban types on their exercise machines. We must seem like a bunch of jaded, dispirited rats in a cage. There was something about the juxtaposition of the true, natural world and this fabricated one that I found slightly troubling. But the only human condition I fancied pondering over at this point was my own, bloated one, so I strapped on my ipod and zoned out on U2.
Maybe the treadmill experience was moulding my attitude, but I had a moment of confusing clarity about U2. I don't often listen to them these days, though I was quite a fan back in the eighties. This was their most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, which I'd bought very cheaply online a while ago, but not listened to much. I was struck by how redundant they sound these days. What are they for exactly? Maybe I should stick with their early stuff. They sounded like they meant it back then.
Twenty minutes of intervals, and it was time for lunch. This was a much more generous meal than breakfast and supper. So generous that they were almost the undoing of me. A buffet in a health spa is quite a gamble.
And so it continued. Two more sessions of fragrant pummelling happened, but I'm struggling to recall what they were. Some sort of moisturising rigmarole, during which I was given a stream of recommendations for future facial conduct. Naturally, I earnestly agreed to this new regime, though discovering that this stuff costs about £50 for 100 ml seems to have triggered an attack of amnesia.
Worth mentioning another curious experience: a Hopi ear candling treatment. Hmmm. Is this just a risible waste of time and money? Or does pushing a hollow candle in your ear and lighting it really suck impurities out of you, clear your sinuses, solve your wax issues, and offer a revitalising, spiritually cleansing experience? The answer, of course, is that it is hokey, in the main. "In the main?" I add that caveat because it's undeniably therapeutic to lie on a couch in a semi-darkened room, under the silky hands of a pretty girl, while spacey music plays, and.... and with a lighted candle sticking out of your ear. But I don't think it excessively cynical to believe that the 'treatment' doesn't offer much more than the same benefits that might accrue from lying on a couch in a semi-darkened room, under the silky hands of a pretty girl, while spacey music plays, and.... and without a lighted candle sticking out of your ear. Take my word for it.
Plenty more where that came from, but that's enough detail for now. A good couple of days, and well worth the £0 we paid for it. Mind you, in the interests of balance, I should mention that half an hour after we left Ragdale, we were in Morrisons in Melton Mowbray, buying a large pork pie and some Kettle Chips.
The spinning has continued. Perhaps it really is addictive. In the intervening fortnight I've managed another 4 spin classes, as well as some Pilates, and this morning, something called BodyPump, which was horrible. I'm not a weight-lifting type, and BodyPump is essentially weight-lifting to music. All I got out of it was a sore back and a nasty dose of humiliation as I floundered in an ocean of muscley, smirking ladies.
It's late, and I must to bed. Tomorrow morning I have an 8 mile race in Guildford. The back problem is mildly worrying. I have to hope it's just an ache I can run off, and not a strain that could trigger something worse over a hilly 8 mile course. We'll see. Apart from that, I'm feeling in reasonable condition. The weight continues to dribble off. I'm now 27 pounds lighter than I was in September.
It's harder to judge where I am with my running because I've not done enough of it in the last two weeks. My routine has been disrupted, first by Ragdale, then a few days in Nottingham for work, then this week, a 5-day course. I've had to rely on grabbing short bursts of activity whenever the chance has arisen. Hence the gym trips. I have managed 4 runs too, but none longer than 4 miles, and all at night, in the pitch black. This makes a difference, because all I can hope to achieve in those conditions is a steady plod. With no lights beyond the occasional illumination of a car passing in the distance, bumpy country lanes are too dangerous to take risks with.
So I genuinely have no accurate idea how I will deal with tomorrow's race, which apparently includes a 4-mile hill. My plan is to use it as a bridge from the short runs back into the longer ones, and I've no great inclination to think of it as anything more than a mid-length weekend training run.
With only 20 days before the Hyde Park 10K on New Year's Day, I'm very slightly nervous about how I'll do. Between now and then, I have at least 4 boozy, Christmassy social events on my calendar, with all the usual risks attached. These risks include weight spikes, lethargy, hangovers, poverty, domestic dissonance, and general pessimism about my chances of slugging it out with Usain Bolt in 2012.
Not much of an advert for drinking, is it?
Thursday 26 November 2009Well done M. I usually moan at her for wasting time entering competitions ("It's just a marketing scam"), but occasionally I'm glad she ignores my advice. She's managed to nab a 2-night stay in a suite at Ragdale Hall, a 'health hydro' in Leicestershire. Melton Mowbray in fact, so if the weight of healthy living becomes too burdensome, I can escape to the local town and seek solace in one of their famous pork pies.
We go today. As well as a raft of ominous-sounding treatments, I've booked a range of fitness activities that I hope will re-ignite my flickering commitment to core exercise. As mentioned previously, a floppy, bulbous core is one of my long list of athletic weaknesses, and like a damaged parcel of freshly-caught halibut in the lost property office, it needs addressing quickly.
So, two and a half days of attention await — a disorientating mixture of extreme pampering and severe torture. But I hope I emerge a better fellow for it.
Unusually for me, I won't be taking a computer with me, so there will be no detailed posts from the front. Instead, I have a small mountain of Prince2 manuals to entertain me, and a solitary copy of the Times Literary Supplement, in case I need a sudden jab of culture. If I can summon the energy, I may offer the Twittersphere an occasional bulletin.
Tuesday 24 November 2009Nothing wrong with a spot of mild iconoclasm. From time to time, we need to take our prejudices off the shelf, blow the dust off them, and give them a good examination. Are they still fit for purpose? Or are they just being kept for sentimental reasons? Recently, I've been ambushed by two long-standing prejudices. One delivered an unexpected kiss; the other, a painful bruise.
I've long been an admirer and advocate of Julie Welch. Her book on a bunch of random characters preparing for the London Marathon, "26.2", was one of the first running books I read. In my wide-eyed naivety, its pages provided a deceptively cosy entrance to the possibility of an unfit, middle-aged person running long distances and surviving. More than surviving: being somehow enriched and strengthened by the experience. It was an inspirational gateway to this secret garden, and I've always felt indebted to her.
But I came across this recently: www.justinhorton.blogspot.com/2007/01/aide-memoire.html, and felt suitably disappointed. Anyone who spends a lot of his time writing is bound to incorporate strands of other people's thinking. I know that the more wistful parts of the Welch mindset and temperament have percolated through to help form my own. Humans are humans because they are absorbent and receptive, and able to process the ideas of others, and learn from them. But for a writer, unequivocal plagiarism is taking admiration too far.
Any chance that I might have forgiven her this transgression was eliminated a few days later. I was stoically pedalling the static bike in the gym, squeezing out the last few drops of energy after a tough interval session on the treadmill. As usual, the gratis copy of the Daily Mail was draped across the handlebars, and I was gratefully topping up with vital social data about Katie Price and Cheryl Cole. As I blankly leafed through the sweat-splashed pages, I came across an item by none other than Julie Welch. About running. What a lovely combination.
But wait. The worm had turned.
I read the article with an increasing sense of panic and despair. Here was my running inspiration spitting bad blood over her own reputation. She was talking about Gordon Brown, who has evidently committed the cardinal sin of trying to get fitter. She describes a snap of him running around the Whitehall block at 7 a.m. as "illustrating the pathos and sheer absurdity of the middle-aged male jogger"
Apparently this activity has "now become a modern plague".
There is then a bizarre twist, as if the sub-editor has insisted on a spot of balance. She suddenly adds: "Such exercise is a great de-stresser. It gives valuable me time, away from the demands of work and family. It is fantastically good for weight control and, should you reach a stage of fitness where you can manage it, a 20-mile run is no less than instant liposuction."
But don't worry. She soon abandons that brief lapse into coherence, and continues: "The sad truth for middle-aged men is that whatever the motivation for participating in amateur sport, it never makes you look like a real sportsman. Head lolling, beetroot-faced, gasping for breath - jogging simply makes people look stupid."
So. Farewell Julie Welch. We came a long way together — or so I thought. At some point we must have reached a fork in the path without me realising. Now I look around, and she is gone. Was she ever really there?
It's not her opinion that grates. That's all it is — an opinion, albeit a vacuous Mailish one. OK, so it's not decent for middle-aged blokes doing exercise to be seen in daylight. Yawn. Her sin is not the embarrassing, tittery silliness of the view, even if her indignation seems frighteningly genuine. Her sin is no longer being one of us. It's the realisation that she's nothing more than a jobbing journo after all. The marathon stuff, the documenting of the lives of ordinary middle-aged people as they strove to reach beyond the deepening hole they found themselves in — it was just an expedient writing project. The Daily Mail hatchet job — again, an expedient writing project. Lazy, easy journalism. Just like her apparent decision to copy chunks of someone else's football report when she's asked to contribute a piece to the Observer.
Ever since I was at school, thirty years or more ago, I've thought of Status Quo as a horribly uncool band. They seemed to spend decades pumping out formulaic hits with an over-reliance on 12-bar blues, droney vocals, and lukewarm misogyny. I never hated them, but they were filed away as a sort of West Bromwich Albion of the pop world. Not quite good enough anymore to belong in the top flight, but too buoyant and determined and well-supported to keep down in the lower level.
A few months ago, I saw they were coming to the Anvil in Basingstoke, and thought, what the hell. This could be the final pre-zimmer tour. I bought some tickets, then we forgot all about it. Until last week, when my Outlook calendar reminded me that Saturday was Quoday. We both groaned, and even considered not bothering. But Saturday night came, and we made our usual last-minute dash down the A33 to Basingstoke, 20-odd miles away.
Status Quo were sensational. Uncool? Maybe so, but they can still knock out some of the tightest, loudest, dancingest rock and roll known to man. Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt are still bouncing around like the teenagers they've not been since the sixties. It's hard to believe they played their first gig before JFK met his end. Rossi looks like a High Court judge with his wig off, while more reassuringly, Parfitt has opted to retain the Boris Johnson-like golden mane, and the worn-out rock star demeanour.
And so, as one statue topples, another must rise to take its place. Out goes Welch, in comes Quo. It's a fair swap.
Tuesday 17 November 2009It seems to have been quite a lucky day.
How does this happen? I set off after lunch, intending to zip round the block for 4 miles, but ended up banking 10.25 of the slippery buggers. The day was a beaut; mid-November, but it was actually warm out there this afternoon. Perhaps this persuaded me to eke out another mile. Then another. And another....
The run took me through the goose-coated deer park, past the lake, along my recently discovered secret path, up a mercilessly steep hill, through a forest via a bridleway that had me up to my ankles in liquid mud, down a tarmacked hill, over the level crossing, and along the canal towpath, eventually surfacing at the far end of the village, after which I drooped round the block in front of a smirking line of schoolkids for a final weary mile.
The surprising audio fuel was a selection of movie music I'd downloaded for M, for some event she was organising at work. Western themes appear to be surprisingly inspirational; something to do with their expansiveness (and no, I don't mean they cost too much). By contrast, portentous horror movie soundtracks offer little benefit to the runner, particularly the runner plodding through a lonesome forest track, or on an empty canal path.
You might think I'm being modest to call this run "lucky" but that's how I see it. Sometimes you just feel like it, and sometimes you don't, and there's no predicting it. Just the opposite: I often have bad runs when all the pieces seem to be in place, and the best runs appear when least expected.
The muddy bridlepath reminded me that I'd ordered some Asics Gel Trabucos. I could have done with them on the run, though I'm not sure I'd have appreciated the rich coating of gritty mud on brand new shoes. When I returned home, I had an email from the suppliers, telling me they are out of stock, and asking if I would accept the updated model for no extra charge. Yes I would. The only difference is a change of colour, and 25 of your crispy English pounds. And then, shortly after this, another mail was received, from another online supplier, telling me that the Asics Gel Foundation 8s I'd ordered (my current road shoe of choice) was also out of stock, and asking if I'd accept a pair of Evolution 5s, Asics' up-market fat blokes' shoe, again for no extra charge. Seeing as were about £30 more expensive, I agreed to that as well.
And this evening, the third stroke of luck. After countless fruitless attempts stretching back through the various series, M has finally been lucky in the Strictly Come Dancing ballot. No, she's not dancing, but has managed to secure a couple of tickets for December 5th. She whooped the house down. I suppose I'll actually have to watch it all the way through for once.
That's it. I'm still cream-crackered after my 16 miles in the last 3 days, and the lingering effect of the beer and wine consumed on Sunday afternoon/evening. I shall now drift off to sleep, dreaming of quickstepping along the bridleway for 10 muddy miles in my new Trabucos, as Somewhere Over the Rainbow drifts across the valley.
Roll on tomorrow. National lottery day.
Monday 16 November 2009 - Brighton 10K
Running is hard work. So why make it even harder for myself?
This was my line of questioning as I entered the 3rd kilometre of the Brighton 10K. It was the point where I found myself struggling, or even floundering, at the realisation that I'd started too quickly.
Pre-race saw the usual eye-bulging dash from the in-laws in Crawley to Brighton, followed by the Bullitt-style driving round the town, trying to find a parking place. As usual, I ended up in some sort of boutique parkery where they are pleased to swap your parking stress for financial anxiety.
While M was adjusting her shopping goggles and disappearing into the Lanes, I padded down to the seafront and along to the start area on Madeira Drive, where I bumped into SP and exchanged the usual bravado banter. The much-discussed and expected maelstrom was not materialising. Brighton was its usual blustery self, and the sea looked hostile, but there was no rain, and the temperature was civil. In short, good running conditions.
I usually know a few people at this race, but friends were thin on the ground this time. Apart from SP, I saw no one I knew, though out teeshirts were recognised by someone who introduced himself as the merciless Steepler, Sweder's Sunday running partner.
There wasn't long to wait before the off. SP had spotted a 60 minute pacer, and had decided to stick with him. Perhaps rashly, I said I'd do the same. As we merged into the crowded field, the pacer vanished, never to be seen again. He was starting too far up the field in any case, and this is partly why I found myself going out too fast, even though as usual, it never seems particularly quick while you're doing it, in a race. The first mile was 9.25 and the second about 9.30. Way too rapid for me, given my simple aim of beating last year's time (63:47), or at the very least, getting in below 65 minutes, the target set by Phil the sports therapist.
The race takes us east for almost a mile before returning the same way and sending us up the seafront towards Hove. With no bushes to duck into, this isn't a good race to need a mid-race pee, which happened to me one year. To avoid this, I try not to drink much before the race. The down side is that this is one of those rare 10Ks where I need a drink during the race, and it's one of those small things that annoy me about the Brighton 10K. I couldn't see a water station at the start, but as we came back through the area after the turnaround, I suddenly saw a scattering of plastic cups on the ground. Looking round, I could see the water tables set back from the course, about 50 yards behind me, and made a terrible nuisance of myself trying to get across the course and running back against the tide of runners -- but it had to be done. I was dry, and needed some liquid inside me.
Something similar happened a couple of miles further on, when again, I somehow managed to miss the water station until I saw the cups on the ground, and had to stop and run back. Were drinks available at the end of the race? If so, I didn't see any.
The other small irritation about Brighton is the lack of distance markers. It's not a problem for me, as my GPS watch tells me what I need to know, but twice during the race I was asked by others how far we'd run. It's no big deal to tell them, but I'm just curious why Brighton seems not to do what pretty much every other race does.
These aren't major problems but in a race of this size, unexpected. They're not serious enough to spoil what is always an enjoyable day out. The course is pretty fast, with just one incline and the blustery conditions to combat. You occasionally get unwitting members of the public meandering across the course, and there always seem to be odd lumps of Saturday night vomit to negotiate around. These hazards aside, there's something admirably straightforward about the Brighton course and the objective. Run from here to there, and back again, as fast as you can.
But you need to pace yourself properly, and I didn't do this. After the first two miles, I actually had to take a minute's walk break -- almost unheard of in a 10K. Just as I started up again I heard Roger, from Habakkuk Harriers, greet me as he passed. "Only five of us this year", he panted. "We had twelve last time". So he was experiencing the same as me.
The long stretch up the seafront can be a struggle, and it's always a relief to reach the 6.5 km point at the King Alfred leisure centre, where we turn and head back to the finish. A couple of minutes before the turn I passed the magnificent SP coming back the same way. He didn't notice me, and I deliberately didn't shout out to him, as I wanted to keep him guessing how far behind I was. That said, there was enough of a gap between us -- at least three minutes -- to know that I wasn't going to catch him. Perhaps the sight made me put on a spurt, as again, I had to stop for a thirty second walk break. I tried this again a mile further on, but was chided by another runner: "Don't stop, you're my pacemaker!" I apologised and got back into the groove for the final couple of kilometres. It seemed to get a bit easier as I approached the finish -- perhaps because I was approaching the finish.
The chip mat emitted its congratulatory squeal 62 minutes and 56 seconds after our first encounter, which means both time targets were achieved. I am happy with that. It turns out to be the fastest of my four Brightons, and bodes well for the personal world-record-breaking 10K attempt on new year's day, when I hope to dip below 60 minutes at last. I have 6 weeks to knock 3 minutes off my time. Can I get 5% faster in that time? Yes, I believe I can.
After the race I tracked down SP who had turned in a highly creditable 57:39. We found Tom Roper, whom I was meeting for the first time, and the non-running Sweder, who has expressed his displeasure with flat 10ks in the past, describing them as "pointless". The three of us went off for lunch at Al Fresco, where I was challenged to demolish a major salad. This I achieved, with the help of several beers. Bottled lager isn't my usual thing, but after a prolonged abstinence, they tasted just grand. A most agreeable occasion. Sweder threatened to spill a few Motorhead roadie beans, but regrettably, managed to restrain himself. We'll have to wait for his best-selling blockbuster. Tom turned out to be as affable and erudite as his entertaining blog.
Same time next year, chaps?
Friday 13 November 2009
With the Brighton 10K just 2 days away, the inevitable doubts have been descending along with the grey clouds that are traditional at this event. We are in for an almighty maelstrom if the Met men are to be believed. The radio reports that the plucky population of Haywards Heath are being evacuated by boat at this very moment. One imagines a ruddy-faced Sir Bufton Tufton invoking the spirit of wartime Britain as he notionally directs operations from the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck.
My reservations haven't concerned the weather, but my perceived lack of preparation this week. It feels as if it's been a lazy few days, though my spreadsheet records that I've managed 146 sweaty minutes in two gym sessions this week, as well as a sprightly 4½ miles on Tuesday. So perhaps not so bad after all.
Despite that, I still felt obliged to pop out early this afternoon for 4 damp miles. Not a great run, slower than Tuesday, but in retrospect this might be a hangover from the sports massage I 'treated myself' to yesterday at the sadistic hands of Phil the sports therapist. The trouble is, he's too good at it. It could be a much nicer sensation if he wasn't quite so damn competent, though it wouldn't do me any good either, I suspect.
We had a useful chat about my progress, and how to deal with the 6 weeks between the Brighton race and the Hyde Park 10K on new year's day, where I fully intend to get a PB. I left with a prescription for more of the same, but extra intensity. Treadmill intervals need ramping up, Saturday parkruns to be maintained as tempo runs, and weekly long runs will be progressively stretched out to 13 miles or so by year end.
I'm happy with progress so far. Today I'm 20.4 pounds lighter than I was at the start of my campaign, 9 weeks ago, and as expected, that's feeding into the running. I've no idea how the race on Sunday will go but I'll be disappointed not to beat last year's time of about 63 minutes. I imagine the regal Seafront Plodder will have a bit too much velocity and momentum once he cranks up his impressive girth and points it at the finish line, but barring accident or injury, I'm certain the difference between our times will be greatly reduced compared with the Crawley race.
Tuesday 10 November 2009(Originally posted on the forum)
I'm in another disappointing hotel in Nottingham, without the ability to upload a proper entry, but I wanted to mention today's run.
Just 4.5 miles, but apart from that ever-nasty first half mile, this was an outing that felt good at last. Last week's 8 miler made me happy after I'd got home; this one managed to offer pleasure as it happened. It's a while since I've had that experience.
Perhaps "pleasure" is the wrong word. Satisfaction might be better. I feel vindicated in my belief that weight is a key factor to getting back into the groove. Since dipping below 220 pounds a couple of weeks ago, I've felt more confident and more able. This week the scales have me under 216, and with it, a bit more bounciness and self-belief.
It was a grim day: cold and grey and forlorn. I'd have preferred running in a proper storm to this featureless nothingness. By two o'clock I'd given up hoping that it might brighten, and plunged into it.
As mentioned, the first 5 minutes or so were as horrible as ever. There's something amiss if I don't ask myself whether I should give up and return home in these opening few hundred metres. Experience tells me that persisting into the second half mile will usually offer a reward, and so it was today.
After a mile, I realised I was running at a half decent pace for me, about 10:30, which added a bit more willingness again. I don't suppose I ever regard myself as being fully fit, but relatively speaking, when I'm as fit as I generally get i.e. in the last few weeks leading up to a marathon, I think of 10 minute miles as a good training pace for me. I've been nowhere near that in this campaign up until the last few days. The Saturday parkrun averaged out at 10:17, and today was looking promising so far. It gave me a fillip, and on I bounced.
I started with my normal round-the-block route but halfway through the big baronial estate I pass through, ducked down my newly-liberated illicit path, alluded to during my 8-miler entry. First time I'd been down it in this direction, which made it seem all the more daring.
It gave me a novel experience. I frequently run past the herds of deer, but they are always on the other side of the fence. Today, I was on their side of the barrier, and they didn't like it. I'm not sure that I did either. There were hundreds of them, and living up to their neurotic stereotype, decided to panic. So for about three hundred metres, I found myself passing through a tempest of deer, darting and flitting across my path and back again. It was a swirl of madness. I wanted to laugh, but was also worried that the tumult would catch the attention of one of the gamekeepers, who might feel minded to investigate. I remember a sign on a gate I used to run past in Yate, when I was training for the London Marathon in 2002: Trespassers will be shot.
But I was able to reach, and pass through, the gate at the far end of the path without having my buttocks peppered with lead.
I now had a choice of paths. Should I continue down the farm track and take the long loop around the canal towpath to give me another 8 or so miles? Or take the shorter route back along the lanes, and head for home?
Looking at my watch, and mindful that I had to drive to Nottingham at some point, I opted for the latter. If i can find the time, I'll aim to do the long run on Thursday. So I headed back, still feeling sprightly.
I managed to maintain the pace, finishing with an average of 10:31 over the 4.5 miles. I'm happy with that at my current weight. It's the sort of pace I was expecting to be at once I'd lost another 5 pounds or so. To reach it now is a good sign. It won't produce any records in Brighton on Sunday, but points to the likelihood that this will be a more comfortable 10K jaunt than the one in Crawley last month. Whether it will allow me to pose a serious challenge to the venerable Seafront Plodder remains to be seen. Possibly not; but I'll be disappointed if the gap between us hasn't shortened in the past month.
Saturday 7 November 2009 - Reading parkrun 5KIt's been said before, but bears repeating: that we run only because we so quickly forget how horrible it really is.
Today's parkrun is a case in point. Here I am, peering at my spreadsheet, noting my likely future opportunities to do this weekly 5K, when barely an hour ago, floundering in the mud, panting like a runaway pig, I was resolving never to put myself through this pain and indignity ever again.
I left both start and finish a bit late today. It's always an error of judgement to 'quickly check my emails' in the shadow of a looming deadline. Inevitably, this session in front of the PC screen meanders into a serene browse through the usual news websites and forums, until a glance at the clock creates a wave of panic that sweeps me off my chair and into the greater task ahead.
Now for the frenzy of indecision. It's a bit like Supermarket Sweep, running round the house, feverishly grabbing arbitrary items of running apparel from radiators and airing cupboard, and swooping into drawers for GPS watch and water bottle and contact lenses and calf strap and anything else that might have some tangential relationship with athletic endeavour. Then the hair-raising drive down the M4 and A329M, bringing me to the Thames Valley Park, home of the Reading parkrun. Relieved, I turn into the small car park, noting the crowd of runners limbering up and chatting in the sunshine.
During my brief warm-up, I hear someone say "You must be Andy". I suppose I must be, I think, as I finally get to meet AndyP. We've exchanged emails a few times over the last year or two, since one of us noticed the other mentioning the Kennet & Avon Canal on the RW forum. But despite sharing the same stretch of canal, we've never knowingly passed each other on the towpath.
Preparation for the run wasn't ideal. Yesterday I wasn't well, and I took it for granted that I'd be spending the weekend indoors, nursing a bad cold. I had the usual symptoms. Blocked nose, woolly head, aching limbs, nausea. All I ate after breakfast was an overcooked baked potato for lunch, and 3 rice cakes for supper. Not classic pre-race dining. But I woke this morning feeling unexpectedly fit and alert, though unwisely, I decided against breakfast of any kind. Even a half banana was considered too risky - and it's not often you hear that said. Starvation was a mistake.
Enthusiasm levels were high, and the cool and sunny conditions were ideal, but as soon as we set off, I sensed this would be a struggle. Despite the willing spirit, the flesh was weak. It must have been the lack of fuel. I should have had that banana. Breathing was heavy and laboured, and legs just wouldn't do what I was politely requesting of them. To make matters worse, the heavy overnight rain had left the grass wet and slippery, and the paths through the woods muddy and puddled. Twice I felt an almost irresistible urge simply to stop. Really, how important was it to run this bloody thing?
But I managed to keep going.
The first and third miles were each 10:11, with the middle one slower at 10:38. Not great splits by most standards, but compared with my recent ones, actually pretty good. I finished in 31:53, a 12 second improvement over last week. Given the conditions and my less-than-ideal preparation, I am happy with that. My interim target has to be to get below 30 minutes, and I seem to be inching closer. A hard surface would make the task easier, but so be it — that won't happen. Instead, I can best help myself by investing in some decent off-roaders to stop the slipping and sliding, and by carrying on doing what I'm doing. I'll get there soon enough.
A warning. One other thing to mention was the faintest twinge in my right calf (not the one I had trouble with last winter) during the first mile. It was a sort of memo from my body to me, and one to be heeded. The parkrun is a minefield: an early morning, relatively fast run. Throw in the increasing wintry coldness, and you have all the ingredients of a frightening injury cocktail. It was a timely warning, and if I ignore the loud jangling of these alarm bells, I'm a fool.
Friday 6 November 2009
The plan was for a sinewy, grunting hour in the gym this evening but I've been under the weather all day. I even sloped off to bed for a while at 6pm, nursing my incipient man-flu.
The Grim Reaper has shown me mercy. I will give thanks by having an early night, and hope that I'll still be alive when I wake in the morning. Against all the odds, I may even feel able to get over to the parkrun by 9am.
Thursday 5 November 2009
Into November, and feeling even more optimistic about the running winter ahead.
I was going to post this entry on Tuesday evening, and had started with these paragraphs:
Speed of progress has been frustratingly slow, but I'm staying rational. If advancement was instant and easy, without constant self-doubt, it wouldn't amount to the prize it remains, and I'd still be snuggled up on the sofa.
Since the last entry, and the renewed assault on the lard mountain, a couple more pounds seem to have detached themselves, and the tally now stands at 17½ pounds less than it was 7 weeks ago. This is good enough. It's easy to lose weight at a faster rate than this, but only in stupid ways. You wonder about the sanity of stomach staplers and those who offer themselves up to the mercy of the LighterLife diet, which seems to involve some sort of brain stapling instead.
I read about the LighterLife diet in the Daily Mail, which is available free of charge at the gym. It's an appalling rag, but strangely fascinating as it offers an insight into the mysterious thinking of 'Middle England'. What an intellectual hellhole this turns out to be. Typically, I sit on the static bike for 10-20 minutes at the end of a gym session, leafing through its pages, tutting and wincing. Interestingly, as the exasperation thermostat rises, so apparently does the pedalling cadence. Hmmm. Well done FitnessFirst: perhaps there is method in the Mail madness.
Yesterday I received my first pair of compression socks, from Skins. The name, Powersox, isn't endearing, but they appealed because they loop under your foot, rather than have a full socky footy bit, to use the presumed jargon of the athletic hosiery industry. Last night I ran in them, with limited success. They kept working their way down my calfs, so perhaps they are the wrong size. Or it could be operator error. Anyway, I think I may use them post-run rather than mid-run, so am not too concerned.
The full moon occasionally slid out from behind the clouds, but for most of the time, I ran my 3.5 miles in the near-pitch black. It was liberating, and almost enjoyable. Saturday's double 5K has done me good. I felt a bit stronger and more confident than last week. No danger of a walk break. As often happens on dark runs, when I can't see my watch, I fancied I must be haring along at record speed. But as usual, I arrived home to the realisation that it was only a touch faster than last time out. But I was happy with this. Just getting out there was good enough, but even more cheering was the first evidence of 'the bounce' which I've written about before. Perhaps it's just a me-thing. It's probably what proper runners feel all the time: the sense that they are bounding along with a near-effortless energy. It's a rare sensation for me, but I have occasionally felt it, when my weight has dropped and I'm feeling strong. It wasn't really there last night, but its shadow was. Just the remotest hint: a tantalising glimpse of stocking as it vanished behind the curtains.
Today was a beautiful late autumn day -- sunny but cool. If ever a day was made for running, this was it. Sadly, I had already decided to resist all such temptation. Three runs in four days (and that's counting Saturday's two outings as just one) would have been more than I want to do at present. Last year's calf injuries would be a double waste of time if they hadn't forced me to rethink and change some habits, and come up with better methods. There's no guarantee this will keep me injury-free. In fact, I'm almost assuming that the curse will strike at some point. I hope I'm wrong, but a bit of pessimism could be a good thing if it makes me more cautious than I was last winter.
So instead of a plunge into the sunshine, I locked my own cell door and slipped the key through the barred window. Meagre compensation came this evening, with a congested drive to the shopping precinct in the dark, where the gym awaited. I did my usual porridge: 20 minutes on the cross-trainer, 20 on the treadmill, and 20 on the static bike. It's enough to get the heart pumping and the sweet sweat flowing, and maintains my target of an hour of aerobic activity a day.
Tomorrow brings a new and potentially embarrassing challenge. The marketing boys at FitnessFirst have come up with a clever ruse, if a bit late in the day: Strictly Fit, some sort of monster child from the union of the gym and the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. I will watch dancing if a mouldy tomato is aimed at my forehead, but even a loaded gun wouldn't induce me to actually do it. M is an addict of the show, and loves to dance. She despairs at my dance stance, often opining that I should think of it as a fitness activity if nothing else. The argument has never washed in the past, but I've talked myself into giving this new gym thing a go, in the hope that it really is more about fitness than prancing.
First, I'm happy to report that 'Strictly Fit' has been postponed for a week.
Second, I'm even happier to report on yesterday lunchtime's run. I wasn't sure what to expect, so I set off along the canal with a wait-and-see approach.
It was another beautiful day, sunny and cool. The path was damp and slippery, reminding me that I really should invest in a decent pair of off-road shoes. I'll need something better than road shoes for the Cliveden cross-country on December 28. It's a race I've done before with my Asics Gel Guts, a cheap and cheerful workhorse of a shoe. Trouble is, they have no cushioning, and that's one of those things I've grown wary of. Anyway, it's an excuse to spend more cash on gear, and that makes me grumpily happy.
Apart from a solitary angler, I saw just one sign of human life in the 3 miles of towpath. About two miles in, I had to scrabble round a woman in her 20s, sitting on the damp path, staring at the field alongside the path. Was she OK? What was she peering at? Hard to say. I gave her a wave and a smile, and she smiled back, so I decided not to investigate further. My instincts were to ask if she was alright, but I didn't want to end up in court accused of harrassment, so ploughed on.
Another mile on the mucky path, and it was time to veer off. I could have simply turned tail and claimed a 10K, but some invisible influence drew me up to, and over, the main road, towards the farm track that meanders back towards RC Towers. It's the longer way round, and more interesting than a straight out-and-back.
This is a path I know well. Pre-Boston, I ran the 7.25 mile circuit several times. It was a midweek treat during a stressful work period, and good top-up mileage to test my calf. Part of the route takes me through a farmyard, between old barns and milking sheds, and an aroma reminiscent of decent mature claret. It was only recently, while looking at the local Ordnance Survey map, that I realised this isn't a right of way. Looks like I've been trespassing all this time. One of these days, I fear I may hear the clunk of a shotgun being loaded as I race between these quaint outbuildings. Good for speed work.
Talking of trespassing, I recently had the rare treat of discovering a new path across the deer park that forms a part of my staple 3½ mile round-the-block run. Many times I'd passed the locked gate with its KEEP OUT sign, never thinking to investigate. But a couple of weeks ago, while out for a damp Sunday bike ride, I happened to stop by the gate, and thought it worth checking out. It wasn't locked after all. Like a furtive schoolboy, eager to fill his scrumping pockets with illicit apples, I peered all around, and went through. The combined thrill of discovery and naughtiness never leaves you. Or hasn't left me, anyway. The gate opens onto a cinder track across a part of the park I'd not explored before. I felt my heart beat slightly faster at the thought of an angry "Oy, you!" ringing out across the lake, followed by the rhythmic clump of size eleven Wellies. But the real treat comes half way along the track, when I get a new view of the great stately home on the hill. With the pheasant in the foreground, the deer in the middle, and Englefield in the distance, it's about as English a sight as can be imagined.
So yesterday, instead of aiming myself towards home by the normal short route once I'd left the farm, I took a detour and once again, snuck in through the gate and across the park. My Blackberry couldn't do the scene justice, so I have to fall back on Constable's grandiose painting instead. The great artist must have been standing in an almost identical spot to me now when he painted the house. A strangely enthralling thought. With the rain now falling steadily, the experience lifted my spirits, and swept me home the final mile.
This was the run I'd been waiting 7 weeks for. 8.03 miles, no walk breaks, and an overall average pace ahead of my recent outings. It's premature to shout that I'm finally out of that waiting room, but I'm standing in the doorway, sniffing the world beyond. Smells sweet.
Saturday 31 October 2009
Reading ParkRun - 5KTypical. You wait ages for a 5K race, then two come along at once.
For much of this week, I've allowed myself to slip into a negative frame of mind. Despite another week of austere dining, I seem to be bumping along the weight plateau once more. Average weekly loss so far in this campaign is around 2 pounds, but this week that's slipped to a paltry half pound. A feeling of deep gloom sounds like an over-reaction, but when you're a voluntary food martyr, you need to be able to see the promised land inching closer. It's tempting to wonder why you're bothering, if a week of no beer, steady exercise and healthy menus offers a prize of just 14 ounces (400 grams).
But then yesterday, I shook myself by the shoulders and issued a silent pep-talk. Thinking about the previous evening, when (admittedly uncharacteristically), I'd devoured a bag of chocolate eclairs while watching the excellent Portico Quartet at the Basingstoke Anvil, I forced myself to confront the possibility that my diet wasn't flawless after all.
It's time to call on the heavy analytical tools. In my pauperised thirties, when I toiled as a civil servant in Huddersfield, in exchange for a cruel scattering of groats, I found that logging in a notebook every penny I spent miraculously transformed my finances, even though I was unaware of any obvious change in my pattern of expenditure. Similarly, I've found that recording everything that enters my mouth (settle down please) always helps me lose weight. I've not employed this technique for a couple of years. but I'll try it again now. Pen and paper would do the job, but given the choice, I generally prefer the more complex path.
Step forward weightlossresources.co.uk. There are plenty of web tools for this sort of calorie-counting but I've always opted for these chaps because they've been good to me in the past, and because they provide what I need. I set a goal, and they tell me how many calories I can get away with, adjusting the figures to take account of exercise along the way. To hit the weight target, and taking into account my sedentary lifestyle, I should apparently be restricted to 1611 calories a day (and this figure will shrink along with my own). Alarmingly, I learn that my favourite meal, breakfast, typically accounts for between 600 and 700 of this total. More positive is the news that running 3 miles earns me an extra 430 to spend in the food bank. Or the fridge, as I prefer to call it.
How do I know this? Because I've just run 3.1 miles, and entered it. The distance in question belonged to the first 5K race I have ever run, and it happened this morning. It was the Reading version of the ParkRun, a weekly festival of eye-bulging taking place in many venues across the nation at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. Always 5K, always free of charge, and supported by volunteers. A thoroughly laudable grass-roots initiative.
At 8.30, it was a cool, subdued morning, grey and drizzly. Perfect for running. We assembled at Thames Valley Park in East Reading, a pleasant stretch of open parkland separating the majesty of the river from the majesty of the UK headquarters of Microsoft and Oracle Corporation. The small car park gradually filled, and eventually cones and arrow signs started casually appearing on the grass. A race was being born before my very eyes.
There were 91 runners this week, comfortably exceeding the average of 77. I chatted to one of the volunteers. As usual, I felt the need to apologise for my presence and for the performance to come. It's not done this formally of course, but I've realised that this is what my self-deprecating spiel amounts to. And it's one of the reasons I want to show an improvement this season: to see what the view is like from the second floor of the athletic skyscraper, and how it might offer a new perspective on my own potential.
I went for a half-hearted warm-up plod, and was still desperately panting as I arrived back at the start, just in time for the off. The first mile of a race is invariably spent thinking: why am I here? On this occasion, the entire 3.1 mile distance was spent asking this question. I suppose because the distance is shorter than normal, I didn't feel I could afford the luxury of relaxation, and so it felt like an urgent struggle the whole way: a desperate wrestling match with my continuing lack of aerobic fitness. I panted like an excitable hound from start to finish, listening to that persistent voice in my ear: This is doing me good... honest... this really is doing me good....
We headed along the river for half a mile before turning sharp right into the woods. It gave me the chance to glance sideways, and was reassured to see a dozen or so runners strung out behind me. Grass plodding is wearing on the legs, and it was good to get onto the firmer trail beneath the trees. Or so I thought. Heavy rain in the night had deposited a series of large puddles along the muddy path, forcing us to meander onto the waterlogged grass at regular intervals. I heard the mile alarm on my watch, and glanced at it, hoping this might have been for the end of mile 2. No such luck, but I did note that the first split was 9:57 which is pretty good for me in my current state.
But I couldn't keep that up. As we set off on the second circuit of the woods, I felt a stitch growing in my upper abdomen, and had to slow down for a minute or two. Sure enough, someone finally passed me. I felt better 200 metres further on however, when I was able to slip past a flappy middle-aged couple who looked like they'd gone out too fast.
At last the second circuit was complete, and we were heading back across the riverside grass. For almost the entire race, I could hear the heavy breathing of a sturdy young woman behind me. I was convinced she was going to casually accelerate past me as we approached the finish, but she resisted the temptation. I later thanked her for not doing so, and she gave me a strange look, as if to ask: "What makes you think I had the option?"
I crossed the finish in 78th place according to my token, and stood in line, knackered, struggling to gulp enough compensatory oxygen into my lungs. I looked back to see the last few stragglers lumbering over the finish. At least I wasn't last.
My watch said 32:06, and I decided to be content with this. My aim is to get to a sub-60 10K by the end of the year, so I need to make progress. But with 2 months to go, and (I hope) plenty more blubber to dissipate, I need to remain confident. It goes without saying that a sub-60 10K will need a sub-30 5K. My plan is to do the parkrun as often as I can make it. The principal enemy of this plan will be the need to get out of bed early on increasingly cold Saturday mornings. But if I do, I can look forward to a sensation of profound holiness as I get back home, showered and dressed and breakfasted, while M is still unconscious.
As I sat in front of the TV this afternoon, half-watching the late football match, still glowing with post-run pleasure, I casually wondered how long I would have to wait until my next opportunity to run a 5K race. I glanced at my watch. The answer? About... about two hours.....
Halloween 5K Nite Run, ReadingSometimes an idea is best left on the drawing board, where it can contribute more to civilisation than it can as a reality. One thinks of Marxism. And Spudulike. And any invasion of Afghanistan throughout history. There's the Sinclair C5, of course. And Eldorado, the ill-fated BBC soap opera.
Throughout much of this evening, I wondered if the Halloween 5K Nite Run should be added to that inglorious list. Like Paul Merton, hesitating over pulling the lever on Room 101, I tried to balance my selfish instincts against the greater good. In the end, it was saved, on the grounds that other people seemed to be having a good time. And more important, its existence gave me the chance to do something thoroughly strange: run two races on the same day, twelve hours apart. Not only the same distance, but pretty much the same course. Quick-thinking readers may regard this very plan as belonging in the same idea bin mentioned above. I wouldn't consider it for longer distances, but I could get away with a pair of 5Ks.
For me, running a race is normally a solitary event. I go, run, and leave on my own — and particularly for local events, that's how I want it. Same with a football match. It's me-time; an introspective experience; an escape from the world. And yes, I know there's irony in seeking solitude amongst large crowds, but you'll find a purer form of isolation within a multitude of strangers than you will on a remote mountainside.
Tonight was as much a social gathering as a race. It's churlish to complain about this. We are now obliged to observe Halloween with more enthusiasm than previously, and many Brits like the chance to dress up and make up. I don't know why this is. Some sort of suppressed atavistic thespianism appears to be at work. I'm no anthropologist, or social psychologist. Grrrr-umpy old man, that's me. Organised fun? Bah!
Seriously, I'm not that... serious. But I just wanted to run the race and go home. If I wasn't being so strict on my eating and drinking regime, and had a post-race party or pub session to get to, it would have been different, I'm sure.
Around 350 souls appeared at the appointed hour. We were each handed a black, long-sleeved skeleton teeshirt, and a head torch. An hour later, after much PA hilarity, we were let loose into the night.
Head torch or not, I don't recommend running a 5K race across damp grass and through the woods. Most of the time was spent staring at the dim pool of light at my feet, avoiding invisible bumps and dips in the field, and tree roots and puddles on the paths. I succeeded in spotting the roots (helpfully painted white) but was less lucky with the puddles. These mini-lagoons loomed out of the shadows with no warning beyond the squeal-splash of the runner directly ahead of me, by which time it was usually too late to divert my weighty trajectory.
I didn't mind the damp feet or the mild peril of plodding in the moonlight, but it was a shame that the constant feet-watching prevented me from getting a near instant, same-day PB over the distance. I felt much stronger and better prepared this evening than I did this morning, and over a safer course would probably have done better. Instead, I came in about 90 seconds slower than earlier.
It doesn't matter. It's been a good day of new experiences: two races in one day, a ParkRun, the 5K distance, and a night race. Maybe the week did start in a negative light, but it ended in the moonlight, and with a renewed appetite for the challenges ahead.
Sunday 25 October 2009A forgettable weekend, which is just as well, as I don't remember a lot about it in the first place.
Late Friday afternoon I stepped out for a short run but barely got beyond the garden gate. The gouty toe was back in its box but the two stubbed toes on the left foot, now a rather gorgeous yellow and purple, were having none of it. In frustration, I mailed a mate and demanded an evening of beer and bullshit. I didn't explicitly specify the latter, but knew it would inevitably follow, particularly after such an arid spell.
This wasn't my first taste of alcohol in the 44 days of the current campaign: I had a couple of pints last Sunday evening to mark the Crawley race, and two glasses of wine a few days before that. But this was the first major alcoholic event. A few beers in the pub, then home to tackle most of a bottle of decent South African Pinotage to wash down the cauliflower cheese and baked sweet potato and parsnip I'd prepared before going out. With a bottle of wine open, the cheeseboard inevitably followed and these became my beautiful companions as I settle down to watch the recorded final of Masterchef, followed by the irresistible appearance, at 3 a.m., of The Shawshank Redemption on some obscure TV channel. A couple of weepy hours later, at around 5 a.m., I get to bed.
Saturday lunchtime, I woke in a fog of shame, regret, and cranial discomfort. Staggeringly (a good choice of word), I was able to execute a run of sorts in late afternoon. Four and a bit miles.
Today, feeling much better, I managed the same distance again, this time sandwiched between a total of 12½ cycled miles. That may sound like a good workout but it was pretty poor fare when examined in a bit more detail. I'd hoped to chalk up 6 or 7 miles along the canal, but I ran out of puff after only a couple, and turned back, struggling to get back to my bike without walking. The post-run cycling took me along a previously unknown bridleway through woods in full mid-autumn splendour. Beautiful. And fun, for me at least, dodging the hundreds of squawking, traumatised pheasants on the path. Spiritually and aesthetically refreshed perhaps, but I'm still not convinced about the cardiovascular merit of cycling at this level. I can see the benefit of sweat-gushing, lusty road cycling, but I'm not at all sure about pottering through the woods, grinning benignly, feeling like a sensitive adolescent on the brink of verse.
So anyway, flaming autumnal trees apart, the weekend has been a moderate write-off. I'm not overly concerned. Surely a man can be forgiven a lapse every 44 days? The worst thing, I know from experience, is that a solitary night of excess will retard my deblubbering campaign by a few days; and at a time when I'm already feeling impatient about the slow progress. As I often do on a Sunday, I had a look at my stats today. With anorak tightly fastened, I set about comparing this year's figures with the same period last year. The lard is melting at about the same reluctant rate, but the change in plodding pace is lagging. I'm getting faster slowly, but not as quickly as last time.
Should I be anxious? Probably not, but I am — a bit. The question I'm trying not to ask is: am I getting too old for this? You're never too old to get healthier, but I suppose a point must be reached when the rate of expected progress declines sharply. Are we nearly there yet, Granddad? Maybe.
The annoying thing is this: I'm still in that waiting room I complained about a few weeks ago. This time last year, I was out of the traps, and away. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself. After a good start, most of the last two weeks were lost to toe problems, so perhaps a plateau in progress shouldn't be a surprise.
Bah! I'll keep chipping away, and stay out of the pub. I reckon just a couple more pounds off, and I'll start to feel liberated and back in the groove. So far, it's been hard work without the reward, but I'm as determined as ever to stay the distance, and hit my targets. We know it's all about persistence.
So let me forget the weekend, but remember that simple thing.
Thursday 22 October 2009This is a toecentric period alright.
The right-hand toe, as it were, has moved through last week's shiny gouty inflammation to a sort of buried pain that's starting to reach backwards along the sole of my foot when I walk. It's not cripplingly painful. In fact it's much better than the last couple of weeks, but while it lingers, and for as long as it issues a small crackle of pain each time I bend the toe, it makes me nervous. I wrote off all of last week, and don't want to waste more time. I managed 5 miles on Tuesday, so it's clearly not keeping me indoors any longer, but I worry a little that by running on it, I may be setting back full recovery.
So today, instead of the intended 4-miler, I stayed at home and squirmed on the floor for half an hour. History will show this recorded in my spreadsheet as a 'core workout', and the fog of time will rapidly conceal the truth.
But wait, that's not the end of the Toe News.
This evening, while rushing from my bathroom to Basingstoke, I misjudged the optimum path, and crashed my left foot against the protuberant corner of the shower. Minutes later I was still floundering on the landing, boiling with pain, desiccating the corner of a towel between my gnashing teeth, and beating the back of my head with a fist. This hastily arranged programme of co-ordinated analgesic activities seemed to help, and I was eventually able to continue my journey, albeit with a theatrical double limp. I haven't walked like that since that night the Falcon had a lock-in.
Waiting for us in Basingstoke was Eduardo Niebla, a superb flamenco guitarist. I'd not heard of him before, but M, a glutton for obscure late-night arts programmes on TV, had insisted we sign up, and as usual, I felt it wise to accept her recommendations.
Eduardo has a nice line in bathos. He introduced some of his dazzling pieces by referring in faltering English to the inspiration he draws from his rustic home, where he is surrounded by spectacular hills and ancient history, and the company of decent, simple folk. Where was his home, I wondered? Galicia? Navarra? Catalonia? The Basque country? No. North Yorkshire.
And again, he introduced a piece as inspired by the memory of an encounter with a beautiful girl called Helena. After a dreamy pause, he added: "We met in Tunbridge Wells".
You can gauge the intimacy of a gig thus: when he took to the stage and uttered "Good evening", the entire audience of a couple of hundred replied politely: "Good evening", as though we were issuing an "Amen" in church.
But a great evening of memorable guitar wizardry, even if the hobble up two flights of steps to the car park took nearly as long as the 20 mile drive home.
Back in time for the opening credits of the much trailed, much-debated Question Time starring the egregious Nick Griffin of the British National Party. Should the BBC have invited him? Should he have been treated differently during the programme? The media has been ablaze with opinions, bloody opinions for 24 solid hours, so the addition of another seems quite superfluous. Despite the publicity, I quickly grew deeply bored with the spectacle, and switched to the superb BBC iPlayer to catch up with the penultimate episode of MasterChef. Along with marathon viewing sessions of old Come Dine With Mes, to which I have developed an unnatural nocturnal addiction, I am overflowing with reminders of my inadequacies in the kitchen.
Tomorrow, I hope I may be fit to run, before turning out an unforgettable cauliflower cheese.
Tuesday 20 October 2009Today I had my first taste of winter. Not that it was particularly cold out there, but there was something bleak and ominous about running the canal towpath in steady drizzle, in the hour before sunset.
It was a repeat of the bike-run-bike format. This aerobic sandwich works well, with the bike rides forming a decent warm-up and warm-down around the run. A total of 47 minutes on the bike and 56 minutes of running sounds admirably strenuous, but I must quickly confess that I took it very gently today. The cycling was a pleasant loosener, with the run being a deliberately steady and stately plod of just under 5 miles. And I mean deliberate. All I wanted to do was to keep moving and engage with the world beyond my window.
Good though it was to get away from my desk for a while, an outing earlier in the day, when it was brighter and drier, would have been more cheerful. The rain arrived in mid-afternoon, and is apparently here for the next couple of days. Heavy and blustery at first, it later softened to an apathetic sprinkle, and gave me the chance to get out. Not that I needed the rain to weaken. There's much to be said for stripping off and immersing oneself in a high-density deluge. I suppose it was a combination of guilt about leaving my desk too early, and just not quite fancying a major dunk that restrained me. Perhaps it's still a little too early in the season. I need to toughen up a bit. I used to harden conkers by dipping them in vinegar and storing them in a dark drawer for a while. Food for thought.
I'm not very good at riding a bike. I feel, and doubtless look, like a wobbly fat old man who hasn't had his arse on a saddle for some decades. Why would that be? When I look behind me, even for a second, the front wheel veers off towards the middle of the road, and I have to totter back to the gutter, where I belong. Gears are a bit of a mystery. I seem to have 18 of them, though I use probably only 4. I can't understand why anyone would need more than that. I live in fear of getting a puncture. I need to tool up.
But I've enjoyed being a cyclist again, after such a long time. I've managed 12½ hours in the saddle over the last month or so, and can sense that I'm less incompetent than I was at the start. I'll try to maintain a bit of biking through the winter, especially to and from the gym, and as a running aperitif/digestif. Good cross-training, and commendably green.
Sunday 18 October 2009 - Crawley 10KTheirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Have I ever felt truly ready to run a race? Probably not.
Did I feel ready to run the Crawley 10K today? Definitely not. Did I tell everyone, myself included, that I was ready? Yes.
In the first few innocent strides through Lidgate Forest, I recalled my first ever Philosophy tutorial, in which my venerable tutor, Harry Lesser, asked us: "What is a table?"
It's a harder question than you think. We argued over it for an hour before he gave us his answer. "A table is something that has tableness."
Similarly, I ask you; "What is a race?"
Skinny people with bulging eyeballs will give you one answer, and a different one from me. I'm at the hobbyist end of the spectrum. And not even a very noble hobbyist i.e. the type who aches to exceed his previous best. Well, there may occasionally be a whiff of that in me somewhere, particularly in times of relative fitness and enthusiasm. But for the most part, I'm just a collector-hobbyist. Runner as trainspotter, keen to tick another box and add another small rippling clink to the line of medals in my office.
I turn up, lumber round the circuit, get my memento and drive home again, wondering: "Now then, was that number 53 or 54....?"
In fact, the Crawley 10K was number 57, and it was the worst race I've ever run. No hang on, not the worst race I've ever run, but the worst race I've ever run. The event itself was organised well, and the route took us round a scenic area that I enjoyed seeing.
With hindsight I probably shouldn't have done it. Like a recalcitrant soufflé, my fitness just didn't rise in time for the party, even though I told everyone that all was well. I was still broadcasting that cheery message as late as a few seconds before the off, to Andy (Seafront Plodder) and his partner, Claire.
My aim was more than modest -- to finish within 70 minutes -- but I missed this target by a full 5 minutes.
In my defence, let me point to a couple of things. While it was a beautiful course, taking the 600 entrants through a sunlit forest in the middle of a Sussex autumn, it was, it must be said, unexpectedly undulating. My Garmin reports reaching a peak of 450 feet before we were led back down the rocky, rooty, slippery, muddy trail to the K2 leisure centre and, rather surreally, a final lap of the running track to the finish line.
Another point worthy of mention is the weird delay that happened shortly after we set off, when the field had to squeeze through a narrow opening into the forest. Anyone thinking they were doing the right thing by starting at the back had his common sense repaid with a delay (again, according to my watch) of 2:20 minutes.
And finally, my poor old toe. I was so worried that people would think I was making excuses that I've spent the last 48 hours announcing that it was absolutely fine, and wouldn't be any handicap whatever. It wasn't the main reason for my bad run, but I can't dismiss it as having no impact. The truth is that I couldn't bend it without pain, and this might not have been too big a problem if the course had been flat. But on this hilly, bumpy terrain, it did hurt, and I had to rapidly design a limpy gait to get by. It clearly didn't stop me getting round, but it did cost me a couple of minutes -- at least.
That's the mitigation over with, folks. Mitigation is the posh word for excuses. While all these things are true, and did make a difference, the bigger truth is that today made me aware of just how much work I have to do to get back to a decent level of fitness. For that reason, this race was a great experience, and hugely worthwhile, despite the disappointment of the cold-light-of-day result.
I was still almost 16 stone this morning (221 pounds), and this is too heavy for racing. Looking back over my race stats (which I tend to do with one eye shut, in the hope that this will improve them), it's the heaviest I've ever been for any race. I keep thinking about the salutary medicine ball moment, at Phil's, a few weeks ago. If I could offload another couple of those...
If we focus on aesthetics rather than vulgar competition, this was, as mentioned, a lovely run. Once uncorked from the bottleneck, we were free to enjoy the simple, yet profound, pleasure of running, or jogging, or plodding, or just being, in a forest, in October, in England. The entire course, apart from the opening and closing lap of the all-weather running track, was bumpy and slithery underfoot. If it hadn't been a race, it would have been far more enjoyable in a schoolboy exploration sort of a way. If I lived round here, I would look forward to including these trails in my weekly long runs.
The first mile or so is relatively flat, before we start heading uphill. I kept looking behind me, wondering where the Great Plodder was lurking. He was nowhere to be seen. This added to my confidence, and helped me relax. Perhaps he had done the gentlemanly thing, and stayed with his partner? Or perhaps - and this is what I really thought - his pre-race confidence was just bluster. He had tried to psyche me out, and had nearly succeeded. Ha! I was making him eat his words.
It was while still enjoying this smug thought that something utterly appalling happened. As I embarked on one of the steepest uphill stretches of the course, a section where the faster runners had double-backed, and were streaming past in the other direction, who should I happen to see, coming towards me, with a grin the size of a generous slice of Halloween pumpkin, but... the Infamous Plodder Himself.
My God! How had this happened? He was supposed to be half a mile behind me, and instead... instead he had popped up half a mile ahead!
He generously extended a supportive, congratulatory hand as we passed. My instinct was to extend a foot in return, and to cry out: "You cheating bastard!", but I'm glad I didn't.
For one thing, it would have invited further pain onto my gouty right foot. But also, as he was in rapid descent, I feared the consequences of the resulting earthward crash. At best, it might initiate an avalanche of tumbling runners which would have put an unbearable strain on the local A & E Department. At worst, the impact of an SP going to ground would give the Richter Scale something to think about. In this climate of public sector cost-cutting, could the nation's emergency services cope with an earthquake in Crawley? Frankly, I wasn't prepared to put additional pressure on the Exchequer in these troubled times.
Instead, with enormous reluctance, I nodded benignly in his direction as he passed, and even managed to produce an exceedingly watery smile.
But jokes aside, I have to tip my hat to the great man. I didn't expect him to do as well as he did, and he deserves to be congratulated. He finished a couple of minutes above the hour, and on a flatter, more standard course, would have been well below. Well done, SP. I shouldn't make jokes about his weight either, as he was 11 pounds lighter than me today. Come Brighton, I hope that gap will have narrowed, along with the finishing times.
The race just wasn't the same after that. I finally reached the end of the hilly loop and was able to start back on the descent. But my inner brass was no longer gleaming. The marshal who remarked: "Don't worry, you're not doing too badly" wasn't being quite as helpful as he probably thought. I started taking walk breaks. The game was up.
Just two problems with the foot. Once, after the 7 km sign, sort of galloping along a downward, left-to-right bank, I heard a marshal shout behind me. Thinking I might have taken the wrong turning, I swivelled round, leaving my right foot facing forward. It meant the toes of my gouty foot being unexpectedly splayed and stretched, and it let me know it wasn't happy. To make it more annoying, the marshal was talking loudly into a walkie-talkie, and not to me at all. And then a bit further on, around 8.5 km, I trod on a concealed tree root, bending the toe joint upwards. This also hurt. I must have started limping, because the next marshal I passed called out: "Don't make it any worse - why not walk for a bit?"
So. The verdict. One one level, a disappointment -- but I need to remind myself that it doesn't matter that much. Deploying a bit of hindsight, it was silly to inflate this unexpectedly tricky run into anything more than a lovely autumnal plod through some delightful woodland. That said, the structure of the race gave it an edge that a casual run would never have had. If I'd run this distance on this terrain in this time as a standard non-race run, I'd have been happy.
Which brings me back to that question: what is a race?
Thursday 15 October 2009Where am I?
Hard to say.
I'm not where I was, and I'm not where I thought I would be now. But wherever I am, I've been here before, and I know that I'll survive and flourish.
The foot is better. It's past the acute discomfort, throbbing stage and back into the mere ache phase. In terms of comparative pain, it's no longer a 'broken bone' and back to being merely 'badly bruised'. I have two full days left till the Crawley race, and at the moment I have no idea whether I'll be able to take part, or in what shape I'll be.
My fear this week is that people will think I might've invented this complaint to get out of the race. Believe me, this isn't so. Previously, I've had no qualms in announcing that I couldn't be bothered to do a race, and I would admit the same thing again were it so. I'm only glad that I had already pretty much conceded this one to the great Seafront Plodder. It might have looked dodgy if I'd been full of bluster before being struck by this sudden arthritic ailment.
Instead of fretting over the timetable, I've decided to make this week official downtime. More than that, I'm enjoying my second glass of wine in 35 days. It's a Wyndham's Bin 555 Shiraz. 2005. Normally a reliable but pretty modest supermarket wine at the lower end of the price range. But right now, after such a gap, it's drinking like a Chateau Lafite 1961: silky, rich, liquoricey and deeply unctuous: thoroughly lovely.
Tuesday 13 October 2009 - Say it aint so, Toe
Throb, throb, throb.
It had to happen: the first obstacle of the campaign is here, if a bit earlier than hoped.
For about 12 years now I've had a gouty right toe. I can, and do, forget about it for 95% of the year, but every now and then it appears and waves a big red flag in my face. Ah yes, it's you again.
I felt a twinge on Saturday after my canal run, but thought no more of it until the next day when I was flexing the top half of my feet on the leg press at the gym (excellent exercise for the calf muscles), and felt the familiar stab of pain in the big toe joint. I've never broken a toe, but I think it must feel like this, when you can't bend it or put any weight on it. Even then, the pain drifted away pretty quickly, and I didn't give it much attention. I did my intervals and cycled home without feeling anything more.
Yesterday, Monday, at lunchtime, it started the long drawn-out familiar ache. It came and went. Fortunately it was a rest day in any case. I was feeling so hopeful, or blasé, that last night, I even laid out my kit for an early morning round-the-block plod. But when I woke this morning, I knew this would be another rest day.
Today it's been quite bad and right now, at 9pm on Tuesday evening, it's possibly at its painful peak. It's in the throbbing phase, where every pulse delivers a sharp jab to the joint. It's like a rhythmical, gentle blow from a small hammer. The sort that you imagine geologist Nigel keeps in a concealed inner pocket, waiting to flourish at an unsuspecting rock. Sitting still, the pain is perfectly tolerable. It's not something that can be wiped from my consciousness, but nothing like a bad toothache or food poisoning. Just a steady throb, throb, throb.
This is when working from home is a real boon. I remember once having this problem when in California on business. Nasty. I had to spend most of two days travelling: limping round airports and climbing in and out of taxis and wandering painfully around the streets, looking for eating places. What made it far worse was having to wear sensible business shoes.
Is there a positive spin on this? As long as it doesn't go on too long, there could be. Until yesterday, I'd amassed 11 straight exercise days without a rest, and have had only 4 days off since the health drive began, more than a month ago. It will do me no harm at all to be forced to have two or three days of sloth. I don't want more than that. Usually, these achey foot periods last anywhere from 2 to 7 days. At the moment I'm very hopeful that Crawley won't be affected on Sunday. It wouldn't normally last that long.
Tomorrow I won't risk a run, but with luck I should be able to do some cycling, or at the very least, some indoor prancing.
Throb, throb, throb.
Saturday 10 October 2009
Ah, that's better.
Another 10 kilometres up the canal, but markedly more comfortable than last Saturday, when I was reduced to a run-walk for the second half. Today I crumbled in the final mile, but the first 5 were walkless and steady.
So, why should today be different from a week ago?
Three pounds lighter for one thing; and another 6½ hours of cardiovascular chalked up. On their own, unremarkable facts: just a couple more bites in the elephant-eating task. But they've taken me closer to the tipping point that must surely come: the moment when I'll be released from that waiting room, into the real contest. I sense it's not far off now. I'm hoping that next weekend's 10K race will mark the starting point for the tougher stuff ahead.
Another difference today was my warm-up. I confess: I rarely have any warm-up at all. Sometimes a casual, half-hearted stroll for a minute or two before breaking into a jog that barely lifts my velocity beyond the initial walk.
Using the J-word reminds me that there is yet another pointless thread on the Runner's World forum at present, discussing the difference between jogging and running. I don't understand why some runners get so het up about these words. Few things in the universe seem more inconsequential than this. Just at the moment, I can't think of any, but I'm sure one will come to me, if I stop trying to force one from my inner Encyclopaedia of Unimportant Things***.
But back to that warm-up. Today I cycled 3 miles round the back lanes before arriving at a leafy car-park by the canal, where I leapt from the saddle and onto the tow-path for the start of my 3-miles-up-and-3-miles-back run. (Or jog. Go one, you choose. See if I care.)
Did the bike make a difference? I think it did. It wasn't exactly an eyeballs-out Mark Cavendish-type rodeo ride. More of a pleasant bucolic excursion, and interrupted, like last week, by negotiations around the acquisition of a large quantity of wood chippings. But it was just sufficiently lusty to get the blood pumping faster than normal, and to produce a pleasing patina of perspiration on my left temple.
Apart from the bio-mechanical and respiratory benefits, the ride allowed me to start the run on the canal, instead of having the usual tedious trudge for a mile through the village from my house. Beginning the run a couple of miles up from the usual starting point meant seeing a stretch of the towpath not glimpsed for a while. This reinvigorated my appetite for the landscape. I sometimes moan, or used to, about the canal run, but actually, it's rather nice. Traffic-free of course, a range of surfaces underfoot, and a constantly-changing kaleidoscope of incident and images to entertain and amuse.
Most towpath-users are cordial and alive to the outdoor life. The exception, as previously noted, is the anglers. Something unnerves me about these guys (and yes, they are always male - why is that?). I recently mentioned their expressionless tendency to gaze into the depths, but today I realised that this propensity is even darker than previously feared. As I approach them, they glance up at me, unsmiling, catch my eye, then immediately turn back to the deep, black waters of the Kennet. I realised today what they are up to. The meeting of the eyes allows them to absorb the fragment of me they need: the flake of spiritual DNA. Once in their possession, they turn back to the canal and dunk it. And now, peering into these dread waters, they can gorge on my darkest, wildest, deadliest, and most terrible thoughts. It must be from these moments of emotional butchery that they derive the strength to endure their own hushed lives on the canal bank. Featureless and futureless. All is now. Everything in their universe is still and silent, except the occasional rustle as they rummage for another bag of crisps. Beware the angler.
There was much excitement further up, where I came across a caravan of Lord's Taverners minibuses, going about their admirable business. They had half a dozen strange double-canoe-like structures on the canal, filled with squealing, giggling teenagers. Laughter and joy was everywhere. Well done to the LTs: the rarest of animals. Those who put their money where their mouth is. Those who walk the walk, and give up their time for others.
Past the visitors' centre at Aldermaston Wharf, populated as usual by people who don't quite know what they are doing there. It's like the world HQ of the disorientated. They stand outside, looking around, and gazing upwards at nothing very much. Puzzled children tug at their parents' shirt-tails. Ask me no more: I know no more than you.
A half mile further on and BANG! I was sprawled across the towpath, my foot having failed to clear some egregious tree root. This was, I reckon, the 5th time I've fallen while running. January 2002, in training for the London Marathon, I fell over a sleeping policeman on an unlit road; once when running on the banks of the Thames, when training with my then running club; in Bracknell Forest with Nigel one summer evening; and another occasion on this very towpath, when I managed to embed a chunk of sharp stone in my knee cap. It should have happened more than 5 times. Perhaps it has, and I've succeeded in erasing the embarrassing memory.
This time wasn't too bad. Received the standard knee graze and mini-explosion of temporary trauma. But I was back on my feet straight away, and doing the essential first thing: looking around to see if anyone had spotted my shame. Phew. No one had. I cursed the last angler I'd passed for the evil eye he must have given me, and moved on.
Or rather, moved back, as the fall coincided with the 3 mile point, and it was time to spin around and plod back. The Lord's Taverners party was in full swing. The songs were starting, and the beaming man on the barbecue hollered out a pleasant greeting as I passed. Nice people.
On five miles, I suddenly flagged, and stopped for a minute's walk. A few hundred yards further, and I had to stop again. And so it went. That last mile was ragged, and I was as relieved as I've ever been to get back to base. Today, this meant the bike. Instead of going straight home, I cycled up the canal to the next turn, and returned home the long way round, via the farm track. It's a 7-mile circuit I used to run leading up to Boston.
Boston and the training seem like a very long time ago now. They belong to a different version of me. I'm stuck with this new one. I wasn't happy when I first unwrapped it but, well, OK, I'm sort of getting used to it now I suppose.
Yep, we'll be OK.
6.11 miles and a 7 mile bike ride to be added to the spreadsheet. That'll do me.
*** And sorry, I couldn't come up with anything more unimportant than the distinction between running and jogging.
Thursday 08 October 2009 - Core!Eagle-eyed followers of my desultory tweeting (www.twitter.com/runningcomm) will be aware that on Tuesday I was visited by an urge to get hold of a medicine ball. So on my way to the gym that evening, I called into Argos, emerging with a formidable 6 kg rubber specimen. Yep, with handles, and everything. I went for the handled one because it was described as being "easier to use". Later, I wondered if that was much of a selling point for an item that is bought specifically to offer a difficult workout.
The rain was ceaseless yesterday. Normally, this is no disincentive. In fact it almost adds to the appeal, as it emphasises this saintly sense of self-sacrifice. But yesterday? Nah. I even got togged up and ventured beyond the back door. But the rain looked strangely rainy, and I didn't fancy it.
So instead, I reached for the medicine ball, thinking this would be a gentle, cheaty way of grabbing a few minutes of exercise.
Christ. This is some bad boy.
I had a go at a routine found on the web. Too adventurous as a starting point, and I quickly realised I had to reduce the repetitions. After 10 minutes I was sweating profusely, and 20 minutes later, well, I felt I'd been beaten up and thrown in a ditch awash with my own bodily fluids.
It was an inauspicious start to our relationship, but I have a good feeling about this one.
What's it all about? Well, it stems from a video I have of me running the Boston Marathon. Bits of it. For some enterprising people, this is a step beyond the normal marathon photos. You can buy a DVD of the race highlights -- the real race -- intercut with footage of you at the start, then as you go through 10K, 20K, 30K, and crossing the finish line. I have something similar from the Hamburg Marathon in 2005. And I see the same thing in the Boston video as I noticed in the Hamburg one. That as the race goes on, I start to sway from side to side. It's getting so bad at 30K, that I seem to be expending more energy going sideways than I am going forward.
I mentioned this to Phil the sports therapist, and he told me exactly what my problem was. A weak core, he said. When fatigue struck, there was no central strength to hold my movement together, and I sort of spilled out in different directions. He didn't use quite those words, but that's how I interpreted it. The solution? A stronger core, naturally. And the way to a stronger core? Painful exercise. Cheapskates can get the pain for free with squats and sit-ups. If, like me, you like to spend money to get a proper ration of true pain, you buy a medicine ball, and/or a gym ball, and/or go to Pilates. I've tried Pilates before, but found it a bit girly. Give me a manly, monster medicine ball every day. Or every other day, apparently.
My midriff was still aching at lunchtime today, when I headed out for a run in glorious autumn sunshine. It was a salutary experience. I hinted a week or so back that I'd left the 'waiting room' and was back in the running groove. This turns out to be premature. Today I struggled from the off. Within minutes I was floundering, and quickly decided that this would have to be a run-walk. The distance was decent enough: 5.28 miles, and even the pace wasn't as bad as it could have been. But it was an hour of run:walk at a ratio of 5:1.
It was one of those days. I felt up for it as I left the house, but I just couldn't get going. The thick layer of high-visibility lard that cakes my midriff felt even heavier than usual, as though I'd gone out too soon after lunch -- even though I hadn't. The weight figure on my spreadsheet is steadily decrementing, though not quickly enough for my liking. You always feel you deserve more. It's like sand trickling from a snagged sack. Eventually, the difference will be obvious, but in the short term, you don't notice it.
On my lurch around the neighbourhood this afternoon, I decided two things: one was that I had to tighten the screws a bit further to burn off some more of this fat; and second, I realised that the Crawley 10K in 9 days time isn't going to be much fun. There's no danger of me pulling out, but I may as well hand Seafront Plodder the prestigious Crawley Crown right now, and continue to plot my revenge at the Brighton 10K. Even Brighton, 5 weeks from now, is little more than an early staging post on this much longer journey. My big goals are the New Year's Day 10K, when I have to get a PB, and the big one, on March 21, the Reading Half, when I aim to dip below 2 hours for the first time.
No, this isn't kidology. The facts are dancing in front of my face, blowing raspberries at me. I'll continue to chip away at the excess weight, and will see quite a drop over the next few months, but I'm not going to lose enough in the next 9 days to be able to run much better than I managed today. Simple fact. But Crawley will be a good training run, and as long as I can get round and feel reasonably in control, I'll be happy. And SP's triumphalism will make revenge all the sweeter.
Oh yes, and I had a weird idea for a long distance 'virtual' run, or even race, that we can all take part in. More later. Am just mentioning it here to remind me.
Tuesday 06 October 2009Me, I'm to blame. It's all my fault. I'm a middle class, white male, and I'm a 'boomer'.
Over the last few days, I've separately read, or heard, that all of these things make me a thoroughly wicked person, responsible for the ills of the world. It's one of the reasons I need sometimes to take off my clothes and go running through the neighbourhood. It's a sackcloth and ashes thing. "Here I am! It's all my fault! Come and get me...!"
I almost added: "If you can catch me", but I am all too catchable at the moment. I'm on one of those irritating weight plateaux where, despite an exemplary diet and exercise regime, I hover around the same reading on the scales. The last 3 days have shown exactly the same figure, down to a fifth of a pound. It's tempting to be dispirited, but I've hung around this bus stop many times before, and know that I shouldn't give up just yet. Pass me that celery stick.
Here is the news:
I've entered the two Christmas-holiday races I wasn't able to do last time around. The Cliveden 6 mile cross country, and the Hyde Park New Year's Day 10K. I've done both twice before, but not since 2005. Despite the time gap, I still number both among my favourite events of the year. I must have entered and no-showed these races more times than I've actually run them. Things crop up. Last year, my plans were scuppered by that Boxing Day calf strain. Previous years, it's been the untimely arrival of a holiday hangover, or a vicious attack of man-flu.
Cliveden, as the erudite Tom Roper reminded me the other day, played a significant part in the recent political history of this nation. Cliveden House, in whose grounds along the Thames the race takes place, was the venue, in 1961**, of the fateful meeting between John Profumo and Christine Keeler, a liaison which led directly to the fall of the Tory administration.
By tradition, the race takes place on the coldest day of the year. The entire estate becomes an icebox, detached from the world beyond. Freezing ears and numbed feet. You know your feet are still there by the crunching of the frosty gravel. But they do thaw out in time for the outrageous staircase up the hillside (ascended twice), the treacherously slippery woodland slopes, and the muddy riverside towpath.
So what's the attraction? It's something to do with the knowledge that you are doing this while other people are slumped in armchairs, peering through one glassy eye at a rerun of Morecambe and Wise circa 1974 on the TV, while the kids are entering their 72nd consecutive hour of squealing/bawling/puking.
Much the same holds true of the Hyde Park 10K on New Year's Day. A quite different course: flat and open. But I love this regal, historic open space, and to be here on the first day of the year, a bank holiday, while the world is still abed after the revelry of the night before, is to experience something so rarely found in central London -- a sense of solitude. And yes, I mean that, even though there are several hundred other people in the race (see pic at the top of this page). To drive through empty streets, and to be able to park up near Kensington Palace without having your car blown up or towed away, and to wander up to the bandstand past the Albert Memorial and the Serpentine, without the sound of traffic and the presence of worried-looking, hurrying men in suits, is a true pleasure. This time around, it will finally be the occasion when I get my 10K PB, so am doubly looking forward to it.
A quick reprise of recent activity:
Sunday was 2:20 hours of cycling and gym, including treadmill intervals; Monday was 10.55 miles on the bike in 66 minutes; and this evening I managed another hour in the gym, including some more treadmill intervals.
I usually end up warming down on the static bike, reading (pause) the Daily Mail. Eh? My excuse M'Lud, is that it is provided free of charge. And anyway, it is sort of fun to read, in a masochistic kind of a way. Especially during the Tory Party conference. Among the articles lionising each pipsqueak speaker (it's not only policemen who get younger as one ages), and comment columns cooing over the 'bravery' of Chancellor-in-waiting, George Osborne, I found a book extract that I started to read. It's by some failed writer in Herefordshire who has identified the cause of his inability to make headway in the literary world. No, it's not his manifest inability to write properly. Oh no, it's all the fault of those living in London and the south east. We are some sort of conspiratorial cabal. Oh dear.
Me, I'm to blame. It's all my fault. I'm a middle class, white male, a 'boomer', and I live in the south-east.
Any more for any more...? Come and get me....
Sunday 04 October 2009It's the end of the 3rd week of my reinvention.
I like to keep records. The Americans have a name for it. I am a number slut.
In my three weeks, I've managed 24.7 hours of cardiovascular exercise. This is broken down into 12.2 hours in the gym over 12 visits; 7.7 hours of cycling; and 3.55 hours of running.
Rest days? Four.
Lost 8.8 pounds.
I could list a lot more detail around heart rates and gradients, but I will refrain. I could discuss at length how my first three weeks compare with the first three weeks of last year's post-Lewes Hamburger moment. I won't do that, but here are the key facts: I'm about 1 pound behind in my rate of weight loss, despite being able to boast one extra gym visit this year, and having run 16.87 miles as compared with a mere 13.45 over the same period last time.
The plan, or the hope, of losing 1 kilo per week is holding up so far.
Saturday 03 October 2009The distance, 6.17 miles, looks good, but it hides the truth. This was an uncomfortable jaunt along the canal towpath.
Here's a tip for newbie runners: have everything ready for your run in one place. All your kit, plus any of those optional extras you might use: watch, HRM strap, charged-up iPod, headphones, cap, hi-viz vest, calf/knee strap, arm wallet, phone, gels, water bottle... and so on. It means that when you decide to run, you can go to one place, get changed and be out the door within minutes. I devised this excellent advice in the winter of 2001/02, when I started running regularly.
Tragically, I've never been able to persuade myself to adopt it.
Today was a classic example. It must have been about 2:30pm when I decided I should get out the door. And so began this extended circumnavigation of the house, collecting items here and there, usually after searching various other nooks first. After completing the first pass, I realised my iPod and GPS watch needed charging, so that added another half an hour. While charging the iPod I started musing over what music to play, producing a train of thought that didn't stop moving until it had pulled up alongside the Platform MP3 at Amazon Station. And now the musing over what to buy started....
At about 5pm, I finally escaped the house, stepping into a cheerless, grey and sunless, blustery late afternoon. It was like a trailer for the coming months. If there's a splash of sunshine about, late autumn can be an exhilarating season for the runner, but equally, it will contain more of these unadorned, combative days than any other time of year.
It all started well. I headed for the canal, stopping off briefly at a farm gate to talk to a man in a hat about buying some of his wood chippings. The towpath was almost empty. I passed two seated, motionless anglers, each staring balefully into the black waters of the Kennet and Avon. Then there was one awkward-looking middle-aged cyclist, balancing on his bike like an inverted, slowly pirouetting pyramid, and further on, a jack russell with no obvious owner. These were the only creatures I shared the opening 3 miles with.
I'd set off with no plan. As I plodded through the opening two miles, feeling surprisingly robust, I started to develop outlandish ideas, like going for the 7.5 mile loop around the farm tracks that I used for my pre-Boston tempo runs. Outrageously, I even briefly considered pushing for 10 miles, after receiving an email from the great Nigel, offering up his place on the 10 mile Great South Run in 3 weeks time.
But into the third mile, I was beginning to wonder where the next lungful of oxygen was coming from, and had to downsize rapidly my ambition. I stopped to walk for a minute, then ploughed, eventually reaching the gate, at 3 miles, where a decision was needed. It wasn't hard. I turned round and started the fitful plod home. It was becoming harder. Despite recent efforts, which have started to bring noticeable improvements, I'm still vividly conscious that I'm deeply unfit, and carrying a serious excess of midriff lard.
In mile 4, I ran through a field whose path was now filled with stroppy looking cows. Mindful of recent press stories about stampeding cattle macerating ramblers, I gave them a wide berth. This meant lumbering through some very long grass on bumpy ground, which seemed suddenly to drain me of my meagre energy juice. After this, it became a weedy run-walk trudge most of the way home. Or until the last half mile at least. For some reason, the very end of a run can always produce a spark from somewhere.
It was good to remind myself how long 10K was. I have a couple of races coming up, and need to step up the preparation. The distance didn't seem very long, but at the moment, my ability to run it comfortably is under question. I'm not too worried. The first 10K, Crawley, is still two weeks away, so I have time to drop a couple of kilos and get some more strength into my legs. But Crawley isn't important: it's just a fitness run, and all I'm aiming for is to complete the race in one piece.
More significant is the Brighton 10K, four weeks further on. Between now and then I reckon I can shed between 10 and 15 pounds. Along with six more weeks of this fairly intensive exercise, I reckon Brighton will be a watershed moment in my running revival, and will give me the confidence I need to plough on towards my sub-2 hour spring half marathon target.
Thursday 01 October 2009For the bawling baby athlete within, it's been a disorderly, ill-fitting sort of week. With Tuesday to Thursday blocked out with day trips to London and Luton, I had high aerobic hopes for Monday -- but as previously noted, Sunday's prolonged activity prodded my ticker into mild panic. Unusually for me, I took the sensible option, the well-worn advice of coaches everywhere, professional and amateur, and I listened to my body. What I heard was the agitated flapping of the white flag. So I booked an unexpected rest day. And yesterday, my day in london was too long and too annoying to consider going out again in the late evening, so it was another green R on the spreadsheet.
Eyes are open at 5.30 this morning. I lie here for a while, too aware that all I've managed this week so far is a leisurely bike ride on Tuesday evening. Isn't enough. With a day out of the house again today, I have to make a quick decision. I choose the only one, and slide out of my warm bed, into some strangely empty feeling running kit. Well, it's been semi-retired for a few months. Through the back door, into the chill of a pre-sunrise October morning.
What a shock to learn that at 06:15, the world is now as cold and as black as the grave. When did this go and happen? Yesterday it was the warm cuddle of late summer; today it's winter, and payback time for all those long bright days I wasted in the pub, or in my bed, or hunched in front of the PC.
Two minutes of brisk walking in one direction is the half-hearted warm-up, then I swivel and plod.
The music is perfect. The choir of King's College Cambridge singing a medieval mass: the ideal soundtrack to this abandoned world.
Plod, plod, plod. It's hardly a fast run, and I remain many weeks away from my version of a fast run. What I don't do is walk at any point, which is heartening. Those first couple of runs at the start of any comeback, when I have to take walk breaks every few minutes, are just waiting room experiences. Eventually I'll be through the door into the real thing, but I have to hang around for a while first. Today, even plodding eleven-minute-something miles feels luxurious to me as there is no walking involved. It means I'm back on the rails and heading the right way. I just need to coax fewer seconds into my miles. It will come.
The choir of King's done magnificent, but 20 minutes in, as the eastern skies start to brighten, I need a change of mood, and switch to the shuffle. First up is the excellent version of Waterloo Sunset performed by a very competent folk duo whose CD the great Seafront Plodder sent me recently. It's a greater song than I ever realised. Interesting how it sometimes takes a fresh interpretation, a variant, like this, to reveal the song's true identity.
Next up is Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and a couple of songs from the great Rattlesnakes album. For me, it's another one of these prominent musical landmarks. With Lloyd Cole comes a tumult of lunatic mid-80s flashbacks: late-night London, the wine trade and its parties, perilous love affairs and immense friendships -- the sort you have in your twenties -- largely now extinguished or outgrown or just spilled and lost forever beyond the brambles of adult responsibility. I shouldn't torture myself with this stuff, but it's like drinking just one more glass of vintage port. Some pleasures are so sublime that you calculate them to be worth the dreadful repercussions. Are they ever?
I could have listened to more, but the mood needed changing again. Something more upbeat to bring me home. So I fished out two great running songs from Springsteen: Born in the USA, and Born to Run. As mentioned ad nauseam in this place, the latter also transports me back a few years, but to a quite different sort of moment: the start of the Chicago Marathon in Grant Park in 2002. Born to Run was belting out as we charged through the start line. Like most rock anthems, it makes you believe you are gatecrashing some stupendous, unpredictable adventure, and if a marathon is nothing else, it is a stupendous, unpredictable adventure. In Chicago, it set the tone of the day, and somehow I can't believe that the race, the whole Chicago experience, would have been quite the same without it.
The slowly brightening farm tracks of this insignificant Berkshire village are a long way from Chicago, though just for a minute or two, Springsteen brings us an unlikely moment of fusion. I arrive home relieved, and pleased, and excited, and sad, and tired. Only 3.6 miles, but it's 50 seconds a mile faster than I managed over the same route at the weekend.
Tuesday 29 September 2009The heart crept back into its box today, though I still didn't fancy a run this evening. Instead, an hour of towpath cycling. At the end of it, my legs let it be known they'd had a decent workout, though I hadn't produced quite enough of the salty wet stuff for my liking.
The first of two days in London today. On the train in, the plump blonde lady next to me answered her phone and tutted impatiently, before answering the question she'd been posed: "Up in the bedroom in the pink handbag. Otherwise, there are some in the big pot in the cupboard with the cereals...." I was keen to know what sort of item would be at home in both a handbag and a cereal cupboard, but unless I find myself sitting next to her again tomorrow, it must remain a mystery forever.
To the office, for my half-year review with my immediate boss and 'bigger' boss. I survived the two hour grilling better than I'd feared I might. In fact, it was alarmingly jolly. I live to fight another day.
The news slipped out that our team is likely to be extending its presence to the Asia-Pacific region over the next year or so. I immediately staked my claim. The chances of it happening are probably slight, but I'd leap at the chance of a secondment out east for a couple of years. Watch this space.
Pleasant surprise when I got home: three sturdy wooden cases of claret have been delivered. Chateau Cissac 2006. It's one of the nice things about buying wine en primeur: because you pay two years before it's bottled and available, you tend to forget that you bought it. Then one day it just turns up, and you think, ah yes.
No idea when these treats will be consumed. I rather like the idea of glugging my way through them in my dotage -- in between zimmerthon training campaigns, of course.
Monday 28 September 2009Not a good day.
I woke this morning with both heart rate and blood pressure about 20 percent above the norm, and feeling lethargic. It looks like a simple case of overdoing it. So no exertion today, and an early night.
Sunday 27 September 2009Phew! It's good to sit down for a breather. I'm pleasantly knackered. Not felt like this since... probably since the marathon, 23 weeks ago.
Does gardening count as cardiovascular exercise? If so, I've racked up 4½ hours today, including the 2:25 of biking and gymwork this morning. Even without the two hours of mowing and chopping, I've attained nine hours of cardio this week, which I have to be pleased with. In lard-melting mode, an hour's exercise a day is a good target, and anything above that, a bonus. Including the garden toil (and it certainly feels like a workout), I'm running at about 1½ hours a day this week. The dividend on this investment has already arrived. According to the scales this morning, I've off-loaded 8 pounds in the last two weeks.
How boring dare I be in these entries? Do people really want to hear about the guts of my training? Or is there as much apathy towards my details as I (frankly) feel towards others? I love to read good race reports, and descriptions of runs, but listing activities and times is astonishingly tedious. Ironically, I store a mass of data, and can spend hours of my valuable free time just gazing at graphs and spreadsheets -- as long as they are mine and not yours. It's the way it is. This year, I've dived deeper. Navel-gazing has never been more riveting. It's no longer enough to log what I did this week; now it has to be compared with what I did this week last year.
This was all relatively simple when running was the only thing I did. But now, there's cycling and gym. And things can't be lumped together as merely "gym". Each activity must be logged and analysed and compared. A further twist appeared this weekend. Following Phil's suggestion that I should get back into the heart rate monitor groove, I've fiddled with my chest strap enough to get it going again, and these figures (average HR, max HR) must now be recorded too. Fortunately, much of this data is automatically captured by my Garmin 305, and beautifully presented in the miraculously free and easy Sportstracks.
It's taken a long time to realise that cross-training could be useful, and to admit that it can be enjoyable. I did try the gym a few times over recent years, but it never lasted beyond the initial blast of enthusiasm. That seems to have changed: I've notched up ten visits in the last 14 days. It was last year, while laying the groundwork for the marathon campaign, that I finally cracked the gym habit. To say I've learnt to love the treadmill would be a stretch, but I've grown to accept that it has its uses -- particularly intervals.
Phil gave me a short introductory intervals routine for the treadmill. For anyone who wants to try it:
5 minute warm-up at slow pace.
Increase treadmill speed to a moderate running rate (depending on current fitness -- I'm only on 8.5km per hour this week). Then:
Run for 1 minute with incline at 0
Run for 1 minute with incline at 2
Run for 1 minute with incline at 0
Run for 1 minute with incline at 3
Run for 1 minute with incline at 0
Run for 1 minute with incline at 4
Run for 1 minute with incline at 0
Run for 1 minute with incline at 5
Run for 1 minute with incline at 0
Run for 1 minute with incline at 6
5 minute warm-down at slow pace.
It's easy to see how you can extend this as fitness improves, by increasing the speed of the treadmill, and/or the length of each interval, and/or the incline (e.g. start at 4 rather than 2, and so on).
Anyway, let me apologise for this most boring of entries. Something exciting will happen soon, I'm sure.
Friday 25 September 2009Some men, it is said, pay prostitutes just to have a conversation with them. I have a similar relationship with Phil Chalmers, the sports therapist who tortured my calf into obedience in the lead-up to the Boston Marathon.
Like, I suspect, a tart's recreation room, Phil's studio is lined with equipment, offering varying degrees of cardiovascular menace: rowing machine, bike, medicine balls, fitballs, weights, and other instruments I don't dare enquire about in case he invites me to get off my arse and do something with them. An appalling thought. Mercifully, I'm never required to do anything active. We just sit and talk, then I give him some money and leave, feeling suitably relieved. When he writes his memoirs, he may say: "I've had some very odd clients in my time. I remember one delusional fat guy who didn't want any action, but would pay me just to sit and talk about training plans. Oh yes, I've come across some right weirdos in this game."
It's money well spent. I come away laden with good advice, encouragement, and newly cleaned lenses in these old running goggles.
Pre-arrival, the goal of a sub-2 hour half marathon still seemed to belong in someone else's universe, but now I'm almost persuaded it's not a wholly unrealistic target. It seems I have one huge thing in my favour -- my stomach. Yes, the source of my pessimism turns out to be the item that offers me hope. I forget that I have more much lard to burn off then I seem to think. Whether I can shed enough of the stuff is one of the known unknowns, but if I can push on past my usual limit of 200-205 pounds, the unexplored territory beyond could yield truly surprising possibilities.
We talked about my two major goals -- a sub-60 minutes 10K and a sub-2 half. These are broken down into milestones and intermediate targets. All I'm asked to do for the next three weeks is work on losing weight and getting a bit of strength back in my legs. There won't be much running in that period; just enough to get round the Crawley 10K in 3 weeks. Getting through that in 70 minutes is the first, seemingly modest, aim. After that, the harder work starts which should see me through the Brighton 10K in less than 65 minutes, before the Hyde Park new year 10K offers a great opportunity of that sub-60 PB.
Beyond that, we have the aim of a 2:10 Almeria Half at the end of January, with Reading on March 21 as the best opportunity of the big prize: the sub-2. Here's the timeline with proportionate spacing:
Oh how neatly it all pans out on paper. And how nice to plot things in Excel, and pronounce the venture a great success. There is just the little matter of turning a plan into reality. Someone emailed me a while ago, asking (in a sympathetic way) why I insisted on talking about plans and aspirations in such detail. Wasn't I just setting myself up for disappointment or even derision? The simple answer was yes, making these things public is indeed setting myself up for disappointment and derision -- which is precisely why I do it. It was the whole raison d'etre of this website, back in 2001. If I made my London Marathon training public, I was surely less likely to backtrack? Today, I'm still deploying that ruse. It means I've made a number of ludicrously over-ambitious claims over the years, and have paid the red-faced, dry-mouthed, awkward price many times. But it's also forced me into reaching places I would never otherwise have got to. We can meet back here in March next year to assess which it's to be -- humiliation or some form of glory.
Phil and I discussed a plan in some detail. The main points, for anyone interested, are these (in no particular order):
- Greater use of the heart-rate monitor
- 3 quality runs a week, introduced gradually. The weekly Reading Park Run 5K can be used as a tempo run post-Crawley, and up to the end of 2009
- Work on core fitness to improve running form and conserve energy
- Treadmill intervals, later replaced by hill reps
- Lose a lot of weight
- Cross-training, particularly biking, rower, and selected resistance machines
- Must minimise risk of injury - stretching, warm-ups etc.
- Regular revision of targets
Key to all of this is weight. And with those weary words, the annual healthy living campaign begins. It's been in full, organic swing for a week or two now. It's odd how easily desire switches from naughty diet to good. Through my 22 weeks of beer and burgers and late-night cheese-and-ice-cream sprees, the very idea of raw, unprocessed food seemed deeply unappealing. Now it's all stir-fries and salads and high-fibre breakfasts and lemon tea, and I'm already fantasising about the yellow pepper and beetroot I'll be chopping into tomorrow's lunchtime salad. Like running itself, it's all momentum. Negative or positive, forwards or backwards: it's hard to jump on that treadmill of new habit, but once we're on, it's usually easier to keep going than to jump off again.
Losing weight is important for many reasons, but three in particular:
- Lower weight = faster pace
- Lower weight = fewer injuries
- Lower weight = higher self-esteem, more positive approach to the goals
Gulp. Going by average estimates of healthy weight for someone my height, the answer is roughly 5½, or 27 kilos. 5½ of those medicine balls!! Trying to run with just one of them would be a strain. I can't see how I could do it. But 5½? By coincidence, I have not only 27 kilos to lose, but there are 27 weeks to the Reading Half. How very neat -- 1 kg per week. If past experience is a guide, there is no chance of losing that much in that period. I'll start off well, but will plateau at around the 205 pound mark, around 15 kilos short of the 27.
So there we have it. Will I make all the usual errors and find myself, a year from now, looking back over my standard 2:20 Reading, and writing yet another of these time-for-action, this-time-will-be-different entries? Oh, probably, yes. But a man can daydream, and from one of those reveries a tangible reality must one day form. I'll try to make it this one.
Thursday 24 September 2009 - The accidental goalSomething very odd has happened. A run.
It's been 5 months since the Boston Marathon, since when I've plodded a total of 9 miles. Two miles a month isn't ideal preparation for the coming campaign. Including the 5 minute walk to warm down, the 3.64 miles this evening took me 48 minutes. That's not very good.
The positive spin is that it's not quite as bad as it might have been. After 22 weeks out of action, I was fearing being forced into some pitiful, alternating 2 minutes run - 2 minutes walk routine. There were three brief walk breaks, but a total of about 40 plodding minutes. I can't bring myself to call it "running" but even mild jogging felt like a triumph after the lay-off.
I mentioned "the coming campaign" earlier, though I'm struggling to define just what this campaign is. The original impetus was to aim for a spring marathon, but this may not be wise. Instead, without realising it, I seem to have talked myself into aiming for a sub-2 hour half marathon. It's a sort of accidental target.
At the moment, the thought of running sub-2 is absurd. The more I mention it, the harder I will fall, and the more it will hurt. And yet... and yet I like the idea of having a time goal rather than a race goal. I've become slightly disillusioned with an objective that is simply to complete a particular race. Taking part in Boston may have been a dream realised, but hitting the wall at about 17 miles, and lapsing into a painful run-walk slog for nearly 10 miles sucked some of the satisfaction from it. Let's face it, just getting round a race route isn't much of an aspiration. But a time target is.
I've always regarded 10 minute miles as my natural pace once moderately fit, and this seems to be reflected in my PBs for half marathon and shorter distances. A sub-2 half would mean dropping down to 9:09 a mile. Or let's make that 9 minutes a mile -- it's not a good idea to aim to finish a race in 1:59:59. It's not hard to run a 9 minute mile, or an 8 minute mile. When I look at my race splits, I'm always surprised at some of the speedier patches. The challenge is not to 'run fast', relatively speaking. The challenge is to run fast and keep running fast for 13 miles.
And perhaps a trickier hurdle than that is to remain free of injury. During this evening's elephantine plod, two or three times I was aware of a remote twinge in my left calf. It never actually threatened to become a pull or a strain, but it was just reminding me that it was there. I can do plenty of things to help keep the monster at bay, and this will be top of the agenda for tomorrow morning's chat with Phil the sports therapist.
Wednesday 23 September 2009Another 65 minutes or so of very sweaty cardiovascular exertion in the gym this evening, bouncing around on the treadmill, fuelled by an unsettling cocktail of upliftingly earnest Sussex folk music (courtesy of SP), and the throb of high velocity, wild electronic dance. I liked the folky stuff, but I may have to concede that its congruity with the gym is limited.
I came away with aching legs and a deep sense of smugness.
Adjacent to the gym is an Asda supermarket. I spend half an hour here, filling a trolley with fresh fruit and vegetables, muesli, low-fat dairy items and dried fruit. I should have saved the folk music for this section of the evening.
Sunday 20 September 2009It's official.
After a nervous few days, when I couldn't be certain of not flunking this revival, I'm happy that the latest in a long chain of personal re-inventions is well underway. I've not ventured into the big wide running world yet, but I can report 8 days of exercise out of the last 9, including 7 gym trips, and that's good prep for the real thing.
The results of this effort seem to be dribbling down to my midriff. Well, I can't claim to have made a visible difference to my torso, but the scales are registering a dip of about 5 pounds over this opening week and a half. More important than this is the change in outlook. It takes sustained effort to turn the optimism tanker around, but once it starts gliding in the right direction it does drag a lot of other stuff along with it. I'm feeling excited and enthusiastic again, and am eating properly. No alcohol, no uncertainty. The world's a different, and better, place.
The first day of this new life was also M's birthday. We celebrated by travelling into London for lunch at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant at Claridge's. A bit posh by our normal standards, and all the more enjoyable for it. A blow-out at a top London restaurant might seem a strange way to launch a new age of asceticism, but it did the job surprisingly well, especially with no alcohol. As for the food, well, the dishes may be complex, but they manage to be generally healthy. And not too large, of course. When the magnificently well-trained waiting staff deposit the plates in front of us, I confess my chavvy instincts are to wonder if a trip to Burger King later on might be in order to fill my stomach properly. But after the grub is despatched, along with all the right noises and discussion, the amount feels just right. This tells me a lot about my normal eating habits. I don't like the phrase "portion control", which has a dictatorial tinge to it, but it's probably the way to rein in the lard.
I've officially entered the 'Connemarathon' Half now, and Reading. Almeria looks set for January 31st. Three half marathons -- 29, 26, and 19 weeks away respectively. Long enough to do well, if I'm able to stay injury-free, and keep away from the sauce bottle. Every year I say I'll train to go under two hours for a half, but it never happens. This year, now in fact, I'll say it again. I can feel my cheeks reddening as the words wobble on my lips, before appearing, one by one: Next... year... I... will run... a half marathon... in... ... in... under... t-two... hours.
Reading is my best chance. Still 6 months away, and flat as a fritter i.e. just one or two small lumpy bits.
To help me get there, a new plan is called for. I've asked Phil the sports therapist to suggest a way of getting from here to there. Asking for help goes against the grain, as I am, of course, a supreme expert in the field of training plan design. This is borne out by my record... But seriously, even though the Boston performance was pedestrian, in both senses, it was largely down to his advice and encouragement that I got there at all, so it's worth a go. I'm seeing him on Friday to discuss it.
No plan will bear fruit soon enough to make the Crawley 10K in 26 days time anything more than a mild training run, despite the jovial jousting with the esteemed Seafront Plodder, newly crowned as half of the Sussex tennis doubles champion. The Brighton 10K, 4 weeks further down the line, might offer an opportunity to exert myself, though I should err on the side of quivering paranoia when it comes to pulled calf muscles this winter. If I want to have a go at bettering my entirely modest 10K PB, the Hyde Park race on new year's day could be a candidate. I've done the race twice, and was due to take part this year, before the calf pushed me off track. I wonder how my spring, and my Boston, might have differed without those miserable, static weeks?
Monday 14 September 2009
Would they ever do it? They did. In 1995, Blackburn Rovers finally won the Premier League, after several seasons of just missing out on the top prize. But that was their only modern moment of glory. The following season they dropped to 7th, and the year after that, to 13th. They never regained the title, and seem unlikely to over the next several years. It was as if the focus and effort required to reach their goal finished them off. What else was there after that?
This is the Blackburn Rovers syndrome.
It's very similar to what runners call the marathon blues -- the sense of anti-climax that follows the event they've trained so long for. After a gruelling journey lasting months, suddenly they find themselves splattered against the buffers, with nowhere obvious to go. A catastrophic loss of motivation follows, featuring startling quantities of beer and uncontrollable internet chatter.
There is no short term fix in my case. The only way out is gluttony, leading to self-loathing followed, eventually, by a renewed sense of purpose. This renewal produces a flurry of race entries. Today I signed up for the Reading Half, giving me three of the blighters to wave a stick at from afar. The other two are Almeria and the Connemarathon Half. It should be enough fuel to get this misfiring engine comfortably idling once again.
Another 50 minutes in the gym this evening: cross-trainer, bike, and 25 minutes on the treadmill. No easier than yesterday's session.
Sunday 13 September 2009
Ten weeks ago, I boldly instructed my spreadsheet that this was it. "Starting over".
A week later, I tried again, and this time actually put in a good week of easing-back activity: just one leisurely 3½ mile run-walk, but supplemented with a couple of good bike rides, a trip to the gym, and 1½ hours of gardening. A total of five and a half fairly sweaty hours. Good start.
But that was it. The following week, I resuccumbed to the usual summer disease — beer and cricket and sunny idleness — and I've pretty much stayed there ever since.
The trouble is, this indolent lifestyle is not quite so pleasant as it seems. Or at least, it's subject to the law of diminishing returns. What starts off as a luxurious penthouse, with gratifying views over past effort, eventually becomes a piss-drenched mattress in a basement squat. The fatter and more breathless I've become, the less fun it all seems.
Last year, I had something I called the "Lewes hamburger moment", when I was suddenly forced to confront my chronic lack of fitness. Just this week, I've had a similar revelation. It doesn't seem to deserve a name, but it came when I had trouble finding a pair of trousers that I could fasten round my bloated midriff without the help of a team of engineers.
The scales verified the grim fact -- I'd invited about 25 pounds on-board since the Boston Marathon, and it's time to show them the door again. My resolve was stiffened by an email from Phil Chalmers, the sports therapist who helped me stay injury-free in the weeks leading up to Boston. He wrote:
Have been peeking into your log on & off but not noticed any updates. Hope it's because the training's been going so well you've not had the time to update it.
I completed my longest race to date over the weekend. It was the 85 mile Ridgeway Challenge (doubling as the UK Trail Running Championships) - I came home 22nd out of 70+ starters in a time of 20 hours 48 min.
[gritted_teeth] Thanks Phil, and well done. [/gritted_teeth]
A couple of vigorous bike rides followed, and a trip to the gym this morning. The 20 minute cross-trainer session was tough, but it was the 25 minutes on the treadmill that revealed just how far I'd sunk. My plan was to follow a plan glimpsed in the Furman FIRST schedule: 12 x 400m, separated by 90 seconds recovery. Perhaps the pace I set for the running spells were way too ambitious for my current state (11 km per hour, 08:45 minutes a mile). I reckoned that at 400 metre bursts this should have been doable, but I miscalculated. By the halfway point, I'd had enough, punching the off button, and heading home, surfing along the road on a tidal wave of my own sweat. It hurt, but it had to. I've had enough revivals to know that I need to fight through a jungle of pain before catching sight of the distant, sunlit peaks of my running goals.
And what are my running goals? Phil's email had me hesitantly fishing for what I'd announced a few weeks ago. Hmm. Well, an autumn half marathon isn't going to happen at this rate, though there is a splatter of shorter races on the slate. I've accepted the invitation thrown at me by Seafront Plodder to take part in the Crawley 10K on October 18th. I'm also, as ever, signed up for the Brighton 10K in November.
I've noted the two immediately post-Christmas races I like to do (injury prevented me last year): the 6-mile, hilly Cliveden cross-country, and the New Year's Day Hyde Park 10K.
In between, there's still a chance of a half, though one I had my eye on, Barns Green, is now only 7 weeks away, which is probably 3 or 4 weeks too soon. I could possibly have made it if I'd kept my weight right down, but as usual, I have two tasks to deal with: shedding blubber, and getting race fit. They are related of course, and chipping away at one automatically assists the other, but I still have to plan for them as separate challenges. Looking at last year's health drive, which started around the same time of year as this one, I managed to lose 15 or 16 pounds in the first seven weeks. I'd be delighted to match that. On the running side, after seven weeks I was up to about 8 miles as a comfortable weekend run, so a long way short of the half marathon distance. It looks highly likely that Barns Green won't happen for me.
The big challenges, as always, come next spring, with a batch of halfs to knock down. Almeria is 20 weeks away today -- more than enough time to get down to fighting weight, and put in a decent time. Ten weeks after that is the half in Connemara. In between is the Reading, which I'm always embarrassed to admit is one of my favourite races. Plus all those other candidate events that flood the calendar around then.
And what of the athletic elephant in the room? What become of the marathon?
I had a chance conversation with someone recently. The fabled "bloke in the pub". I explained my weird running patterns. He had a word for it. Three words, in fact: the "Blackburn Rovers syndrome".
He was dead right.
Wednesday 5 August 2009It's said that a man's shoes will tell you all you need to know about their occupier. I believe that a solitary breakfast sausage is likewise a motif for an entire hotel and its position in the accommodation universe. Even retreating from such grandiose extrapolation, let's agree that a sausage is the yardstick by which you judge a breakfast, or "the breakfast", as they say here in Ireland. Must say, I like the inclusion of the definite article. The "the" hints at the sacramental status this morning ritual merits.
In the Shannon Court Hotel, the sausages were mean looking. Thin and greasy and, like other items on this plate, looking like they'd arrived from the 'credit-crunch-buster' economy range at the local supermarket. I wasn't surprised. The hotel was cheap by Irish standards, but good enough for my needs, which were for a quick and convenient stopover point not far from Shannon airport.
I'd arrived on the Swine Flu Express from Bristol at about 10:30 the previous night. Why are RuinAir planes custard yellow inside? Someone is having a laugh, and it isn't the passengers. On Irish soil, glad to feel real air again, cool against the sweat stuck to my forehead. There is one taxi left on duty, so I share it with a silent couple going on to Limerick. Checked into the hotel. Are there any Polish women left in Poland? They are all here, in hotels, shops, tourist offices, cafés and Subways. being grimly pleasant to the undeserving.
Time for a couple of Guinnesses and a stab at the easiest pub quiz I've ever confronted. ("British ska band, at their peak in the early 80s. Cryptic clue: Insanity". Cryptic?)
Not much else about the place was Irish traditional. The restaurant was Chinese, and it was in the Chinese restaurant, surrounded by lanterns and distant, seductive oriental music, that the unsatisfying breakfast was delivered the following morning.
Afterwards, a recuperative hour of "The Wire", David Simon's polished drama about the ruthless villains of Baltimore -- and that's just the politicians. The hard-pressed "narcos" of the police department aren't much better. It's often among the street-level characters that most of the humanity on offer is to be found, though there's not an abundance of it there either.
At midday, my father and two sisters arrived in two cars, and left in one. The one I took over was an elderly VW Polo with 123,459 miles on the clock (I wonder if my sister was aware of the 123456 moment a few minutes earlier?), no radio, and rear doors held shut with twine. Do I sound ungrateful? I don't mean to be. A hire car would have set me back £250, so here was a gift horse into whose mouth I was reluctant to peer too closely.
The rain was full on, but I needed to get going. The sat-nav was set to Galway-avoiding-main-roads, and I spent 90 minutes travelling the 40 miles along serpentine back lanes and rutted farm tracks, surfacing occasionally to swish through some blue, pink, or yellow-washed village with the mandatory Guinness dispensary, frontage lugubrious and forbidding. Probably rockin' and rollin' an' hollerin' inside.
I've gone off Galway City, though I was never much on it in the first place. I was there just once before, in September 2004. I had trouble getting accommodation then too, but this time was worse. It's not just a holiday weekend, but Galway races are on, which seems to be some sort of Irish Ascot. These people are nuts about racing, and had I appreciated just how big a deal Galway races weekend is, I would have given it a wide berth.
Abandoning the traffic jams in the city centre, I headed off towards Salthill, the suburb by the sea where I had stayed previously. It's rammed with B & Bs. I headed to the tourist office to exploit their expertise. A smiling, pretty girl was manning the shop, ready to seduce me with all things Galway. "Can I help you?", she asked, in a rich eastern European accent. I told her I needed a bed for the night, but she explained that the man who could help me with accommodation was out for half an hour. So could she give me some advice on where to stay? She looked a little embarrassed. "I don't know Galway very well", explained the lady running the Galway tourism office...
Not a good start, though she was able to point me towards some streets that had "many signs", and I opted to do the legwork myself. Mistake. I should have waited for the return of the accommodation supremo. He would have done one of two things: 1) Tapped his temple with a chewed biro while gazing into space, before saying: "Ah, yes, of course, Mrs McGillicuddy over on the cul de sac behind Whitestrands Avenue... let me give her a call...", or 2) Issued a high-pitched, semi-hysterical titter, reminded me that this is Galway race weekend AND a public holiday weekend, and that the only available room was at Lord Lucan’s house, and as soon as I tracked him down, all my troubles would be over.
Instead, I learnt the bitter truth the hard way. I wonder how many seedy front doors I knocked on that afternoon? 30? 40? I lost count. Door after door, the story was the same. Very few places had no accommodation available. In fact, I only bothered trying the places without the "No Vacancies" sign. They simply wouldn't let a room to a solo traveller like me -- presumably because they preferred to hope that a couple, worth twice the price, would happen along the way after me. (These places charge by the person rather than the room.)
By 5.30, I'd had my fill with Galway City, and skirted round the centre, heading into the west. And I should have stayed heading west. Instead, within 5 minutes, I had succumbed to the lure of the River Inn, and its "vacancies" sign. One last throw of the dice.
The River Inn is a busy pub, and especially on the weekend of the Galway races. The bar was filled with Guinness-toting madmen, baying at the three TVs. They were drunk on excitement and hope as much as anything they were drinking. It was a happy enough scene, and I could just about imagine myself stuck to a bar stool for much of the evening if they could rustle up a bed for me.
I seemed to be in luck. Or was I? The flushed proprietress assured me: "Of course we can help you.... but you should have been here thirty seconds ago. I've just sold the last room in the pub. Don't worry, I have a place for you just around the corner."
Glowing with relief, and smugly congratulating myself on my instincts, I bought a pint of Guinness and chomped gratefully on the greasy bar snacks.
The lady vanished for 15 minutes and returned just as I was starting to feel nervous, wondering if I'd imagined the conversation, mirage-like. We trotted up the road in the rain for 100 yards (my first run in a week), stopping outside a run-down semi. This didn't look promising. She fumbled with a fistful of keys, eventually finding one that fitted. Dank, smelly hallway, stained stair carpet. She indicated a door on the landing. "Bathroom and toilet to share with the other residents."
There was something about the word residents that did not appeal to me.
The room was nasty. Cracked window, faded orange duvet. I asked weakly: "How much is the room?"
"Can you make it thirty?"
"I can not make it thirty". Glare. "Forty euro. It's up to you. Someone else will have it if you don't."
In her mind, she was doing me a favour, and I was being ungrateful. I'm sure my sigh was more audible than intended. "OK, I'll take it."
She gave me a single key. "What about the key for the front door?"
"That is the front door key. You won't be needing one for the room"
"Oh really...? So how does that work then?" I felt stupid, but had to ask the question. I'm glad I did.
"Y'don't need a key for this door because there's no lock on it."
"I can't lock the room door?"
"Sure you won't have anything valuable, will ye?"
I felt strangely insulted by that. We looked at each other in silence for a moment. I was weary and fed up. Maybe I should risk it. But then I glanced at the orange duvet again, and out through the cracked pane at the noisy main road. The rain was still sluicing down. A sudden gust of wind jiggled the window catch. All this for forty euros.
It's up to you. Your decision." She sounded accusing.
I felt deeply annoyed with myself, and with her, and with Galway City as a whole. It's probably unfair to rope in an entire city, but somehow I felt that this treatment was a reflection on everyone. Money-grubbing misanthropes who would rather see a room go empty than to sell it to someone on their own who clearly needed a roof over his head on a day when the rain and the wind were giving this city the sort of holiday weather it so richly deserved. I got back in the car and fired up the engine. This time I was leaving the city and not stopping till I was well outside.
A half hour or so later I came to a small town that I decided would do the job very nicely -- if only they would have me. To my dismay, they very nearly didn't. I tried four B & Bs, getting the same answer that I did in Galway. "Race weekend. I can't let the double room to one person." No matter that the chances of finding a couple or family as disorganised as me, stopping to enquire for a bed at this time of the evening, were as likely as... as me not sleeping in the car that night.
The fourth rejection did at least offer to call the next B & B along the road. Amazingly, she returned to say that they had a room for me. It was around the corner and across the bridge over the trout river. Eventually I came to what the previous lady called "a funny grey sort of house", and rang the bell. The establishment, all seventies chic and reeking of overcooked cabbage, was a dreadful place to lay my head -- but what choice did I have? To add insult to injury, the vacant looking teenaged beanpole demanded 45 euros for this sickly red, non-en suite room. But by now I was beyond caring. I agreed to take it, and went off to collect my car from the high street, ten disconsolate minutes walk away.
Just before I got to the car, I found myself walking past a smart-looking, modern hotel with a huge glass window, beyond which was a capacious bar and busy restaurant. I was like the little match girl, peering in through the shop window at the lucky few. If the River Inn in Galway was the last throw of the dice, what was this? Was it even real? Or just some sort of delirium-generated delusion?
The pressure of hope was almost unbearable as I stood at the reception, watching the manager flicking through the reservation list. The news was good. There was a room available. It was a touch more than I'd intended paying -- 69 euros -- but I didn't care. This was a real hotel, not some 1970s, cabbage-stinking, red-bedded, broken-windowed, stair-creaking, lockless, grungy back room that some chancer was using to lever fifty euro notes out of desperate travellers.
The Connemara Lake is a new hotel, open just a couple of months, and still struggling to become known. So fitting me in was actually less of a problem than I'd feared. Perhaps it was a comment on my dishevelled appearance, but they offered me their "Opium" room. Each room is themed, and my curiosity about the Opium room had me speeding, Pacman-like, around the angular maze of corridors. What would I find within? Some psychotropic variation on the usual chocolate lying on the pillow? The answer was disappointingly tenuous: an elephant picture above the bed. That was it. The room wasn't huge, but compared with the other-people's-nightmare of the accommodation glimpsed earlier that day, I was emphaticaly not complaining. It was like opting for the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel than a backstreet doss house.
The shower was hot and lusty, and along with the change of clothes, transformed my mood. The emotional makeover was bolstered by three pints of Guinness, each in a different pub around the hotel, and a final one in the hotel bar itself. It was here that an idea took firm root. Just before I sloped off to bed, I was able to collar Ivan the proprietor, and ask him about reserving some rooms for me for next April, when a bunch of us should be over for the Connemarathon: the festival of running covering half, full and ultra marathons. Had the hotel already been discovered and booked up? He would have to check, but didn't think so.
Oughterard is a near-perfect town for the Connemarathon guest. Big enough to have a choice of drinking establishments and restaurants, and a bank, supermarket and petrol station, yet small enough to feel tipico -- or the Gaelic equivalent. It's a fishing town, with a lake and river close by, perhaps 20 miles from Leeneane, the start of the half marathon. It's one of the towns that runs buses to the start. In short, pretty much exactly what I've been seeking. Ivan's restaurant looks perfect for a post-race banquet, and the Guinness was as good as any I've come across. He has finally sent me confirmation that he'll put several rooms aside for us, but I'm still nervous that something can go wrong. It's no reflection on him. He seems a decent man who won't let us down, but the exasperating experience trying to find a room in Galway City and Oughterard before I stumbled across the Connemara Lake has left its mark.
I drove through Leenane, the half marathon starting point, the next day, on my way to Newport. This stretch of undulating, winding road between Leenane and Maam Cross forms the route of the race, and the second half of the marathon. It will feel different again in the spring, sprinkled with flailing marathoners, but now, on a drizzly, misty August 1st, it had a beautifully desolate, last-man-on-earth quality. This race will be more than a race. I can see it now, and can understand why someone wanted to create this event. The marathon and ultra must be particularly intense experiences here. A marathon sends you nuts at the best of times. Here, in these craters of other-worldliness, I don't dare imagine which corners of your consciousness you might travel to.
I pressed on towards Westport, where next April, the day after the race, we may be headed, to climb Croagh Patrick, Ireland's highest mountain, and legendary site of Saint Patrick's snake-repelling heroics. I add a cautious "may" there because it depends partly on the weather and our physical condition. The latter refers not to the aftermath of a gruelling race, but to the aftermath of 14 celebratory pints of Guinness and the pursuing Jameson's. But from a safe distance of 8 months away, I can blithely state that an ascent of The Reek seems like a great way to blast a few holes in a hangover, and loosen knotted tendons. The drive took about 80 minutes.
Westport is a thriving market town, always packed with shoppers. I was pleasantly surprised to find a parking spot outside the tourist office, and even more pleasantly surprised to find people in there who knew about the town. I asked my question and was directed me to McGreevy's, a toyshop that looks like it would have been there when my mother was a local child, 70 years ago, though their parents wouldn't have been able to afford it. When I was a kid, my mother liked to remind us what she and her six siblings would get for Christmas: an orange, an apple, and a solitary penny.
Times have changed, and my 14 year-old nephew's birthday expectations are somewhat higher. Eschewing the opportunity to add to his Celtic DVD collection, I decided instead to buy him something of more lasting value: a chess set. He'll eventually thank me for it.
Just over the road is an interesting bookshop called Interesting Books. A scholarly looking American called John Hurst runs the show. When I took my copy of Kerouac's Lonesome Traveller to the cashdesk, he squealed at me: "Oh, let me show you this..." He fished around in a cupboard and pulled out a biography of the great man by someone whose name I don't recall. He carefully opened the front cover to reveal a beautiful pencil drawing, by the author, of Kerouac sitting at his famous old typewriter. Over the page, he'd scrawled a poetic tribute to the angelheaded hipster. A nice item for a collector, but I didn't ask if it was for sale.
The road into Newport takes me past Kilbride cemetery where, six months ago to the day, I helped lower my mother's coffin. I called in. A deferential gang of workmen were tarring the car park. It was nice of them to stop what they were doing for the few minutes it took me to park, walk up to the grave, contemplate the mound, and listen to the invisible blackbird. And then I left again, offering a brief smile to acknowledge the tarring crew.
Jake seemed pretty pleased with the chess set, and especially when I told him I'd give him 5 euros each time he beat me. To borrow his word, I "annihilated" him for the first three games, though I was conscious that he was improving rapidly under my far-from-expert tutelage. Games 4 and 5 he actually won. Admittedly, they took place after I'd returned from the pub, but this is no excuse. He out-battled me, and deserved his 10 euros. I managed to reassert myself for the next 4 games, but I suspect there will be more combat to come over the years, and I was careful not to make the 5-euros-per-victory an open-ended commitment, or I could see this becoming an expensive contest over time.
I stayed four days, finally saying goodbye to my father, two sisters and nephew in a café in Westport, where we had consumed tea, and some of the finest cakes known to humanity. I felt unusually sad when it came to the parting. I hope I'm wrong, but I felt that this might be the last time the five of us would be together in Ireland, despite it being a near-annual get-together.
With the fearsome black cone of Croagh Patrick over to my right, I drove through the southern tip of Mayo, into Galway once again. Twenty or so miles, and I was at Leenane again, the start of the Connemara Half. The road alongside the large lake is, I think, where the race kicks off. I traced its 13 mile path down through the mountains to Maam Cross. A gorgeous road, brighter than the reverse journey four days earlier. This time I was travelling in the race direction, and tried taking note of the undulations. They are thrown at you, one after another, with one extended upward stretch close to the end. This will be a killer.
The long gap between this trip and my posting (more than a month), is down to the nervousness I felt about not securing the Oughterard hotel. Until I had the written confirmation from Ivan, I didn't want to tempt fate by making any assumptions. And OK, I didn't want to tip off the rest of the world about it! I've told him we'll put enough Guinness and food currency through his till to make it well worthwhile. With the array of beer monsters planning to join the party, he will be well rewarded.
Oh, and the clincher for the hotel I've chosen is that they offer some of the finest, meatiest breakfast sausages a hungry, beer-swilling athlete could wish for.
|Start of the half marathon:|
|Croagh Patrick - A mountain to climb:|
Wednesday 15 July 2009Last week's scheduled relaunch nearly went to plan. I'd put all the posters up, invited the spectators, got the creaking fuselage in place, drew my map of the stars, lit the blue touchpaper... and phut!. Nothing happened. I didn't get off the ground.
Too many beer invitations, a BBQ, a dinner out, and the new village takeaway pizza place to put through its paces. The health moonshot was doomed from the start.
This week has a couple of sizeable lumps of space debris to dodge, or at least to buffet without diverting my course too much. The first is Thursday's invitation to the pub, to watch the final bit of the first day of the Lords' Ashes test. From this mild temptation I can easily wriggle free. An hour of squirming in front of England's faltering batsmen may seem like good exercise on the face of it, but the mandatory anaesthetic — Fuller's London Pride — will undo any questionable health benefits. An arrangement I won't struggle to avoid is a trip to Bristol on Saturday to check out the Banksy exhibition. (Pics.) Along with M, I'm going with my old pal Russ and wife Carrie, who are both esteemed CAMRA luminaries, so there are likely to be few opportunities missed to visit noteworthy Bristolian watering holes. Ah well. We all need an occasional day off.
I'm feeling upbeat and confident about this second attempt. It started only on Monday, but even two or three day of healthy eating, and a spot of exercise, has reminded me how much better this path feels -- despite the sweet music of the other way.
To ease myself back into raised heartbeat territory, I managed a couple of strenuous hours in the garden on monday evening. Then yesterday, miracle of miracles, I leapt from my Herman Miller seating solution, and went for a run of sorts.
I call it that because it ended up as a run-walk: 2 minutes on-off. Shocking to see how quickly the fitness I felt 3 months ago in Boston can drain away. Or is it? No, not really. As I lumbered round the countryside like Frankenstein's monster, frightening children and domestic animals, I wryly reflected on the number of times I'd been this way before, which is why I'm feeling quite upbeat at the moment. It's the way I do things. Work up to something, get through it somehow, then decline, before setting off again. As mentioned a few times before in these pages, it's the Sisyphus syndrome. He was the chap from Greek mythology, condemned to roll a huge rock up the mountain, only to see it tumble down again as he reached the top. And so he would start again...
Some people may find such a regime disheartening or infuriating, but I've grown to... well, accept it rather than to love it. It's my modus operandi, and at least it means I don't have to consign myself to the hell of never eating a pork pie again. Pork pie with Branston pickle is ambrosia, without which life would be meaningless. So I can have my cake and eat it, during the summer months at least. And OK, on regular winter, spring and autumn evenings too, but less frequently. The downside of this pendulum lifestyle is the sheer grind of having to get going again. Last night was a case in point. Less than three months ago I was running the Boston Marathon (albeit slowly), and last night I was plodding round the block, unable to manage more than two minutes without walking.
The handicap is partly due to a natural drop in cardiovascular fitness but is made considerably worse by the weight I've piled on since the marathon. This festival of comfort eating and beer has added at least a stone. The consolation is that I seem able to shift weight almost as easily as I collect it. It made the plod uncomfortable, but you learn from experience that this sort of preliminary jolting jaunt is a necessary precursor to the smoother rides ahead. Just 3½ miles, and slow, but the psychological benefits outweighed all else.
Talking of Boston, I finally had some photos through yesterday, and was struck by how happy and healthy I looked. Needless to say, plenty have me looking abject and exhausted, but I prefer to be reminded of the more positive moments. The first is just before the start, the second about 12 miles in, looking daisy-fresh (the hills had not yet arrived), and the third has me on Boylston Street gazing up at that magical word: FINISH. It's the Sisyphus-at-the-top-of-the-mountain moment, just moments before the boulder starts its downward plummet once again. I look as though I am gazing on some god, at the very point of revelation. Which of course I was.
It's a feeling I would like to have again.