The mother of all marathons

Until last night, I’d not run properly for a couple of weeks – a cold, cough and stomach bug interspersed with a weekend of far too much sampling of the fine beers of Munich. But lack of running has given me time to finish reading, for the umpteenth time, a book which I still find mind-boggling. In fact after nearly 18 months of ‘serious’ running (i.e. actually finding excuses to run rather than finding excuses not to) the book in question is more mind-boggling than ever.

I guess until you’ve tried anything properly you never quite realise how difficult it can be. Modern media plays its part in tempting us into being armchair experts in one thing or another, whether it’s cookery, dancing, singing, general knowledge or, of course, sport. They’re all easy on TV. We all ‘know’ that we ‘could do that’ with a bit of time, investment, and maybe age, on our side. If, however, we get the opportunity to try to dance a foxtrot, sing a hit song, hit a golf ball, or run a flat-out 400 metres for the first time we realise that perhaps the pros we see on our screens are actually pretty damn good.

So anyway, back to the book. I’ve read Closing the Distance several times. Not for the writing which varies from the excellent to the much less so. I’ve read it for the story, and most recently for the story and its inspirational properties.

Closing the Distance is the story of a 17 month run from Stoke-on-Trent to Sydney, Australia. Kelvin Bowers was no stranger to distance running. He ran his first marathon in 1960 at the age of 14 with lap after lap of a track in his local park, clocking a time of 3 hours 54 minutes. Running to Australia later became a dream for Bowers, and he finally set off on the mother of all marathons in April 1974 . For support he had his wife, his two year old son and two friends, all in a small Bedford van. Remarkably, he had a support team throughout the journey, with the original friends replaced in Turkey by a new driver and a fellow runner, Barry Bowler (who went on to complete 7,600 miles and the remainder of the journey with Bowers).

The sense of inspiration and astonishment one gets from the book is two-fold. First, the fact that four adults and one child could live in such confined quarters for so long and with so little money is amazing. The fact that they did this in the mid-1970s, crossing not only former Eastern Bloc countries but also Iran, Afghanistan (and passing through the Khyber Pass), Pakistan, and India is astounding. And then there is the fact that Bowers ran it.

Early starts, 10 miles or so before breakfast, sometimes 40 miles plus per day and often 200 miles plus per week, with limited food rations, limited water supplies and sometimes days without access to washing facilities.

The book does not particularly dwell on the low points but there are plenty of references to the tedium of mile-after-mile on longer straight roads, and less inspiring featureless landscapes, than most of us could even imagine. But Bowers , in places, then paints breathtaking images of mountain passes, the buzz of busy city streets, and the fear felt in brushes with local police. Then there are the extremes of weather from intense heat to sub-zero winter running. Throughout the journey there were intermittent threats, whether it was the crowds of children trying to beg or steal from their van whenever they stopped in the poorer countries, the many instances of locals throwing stones at Bowers and Bowler, or the bandits and wild dogs they encountered. There was even a curse from an Indian holy man to contend with.

Then of course are the humerous moments, my personal favourite being when, as the support van suddenly accelerated to place itself between the runners and three large mastiffs, the van doors swung open and a bottle of washing-up liquid fell to the road. A nomad immediately grabbed the bottle and swigged the lot!

The most striking thing though is the strength of the human spirit to, against the odds, cover such vast distances – week after relentless week, 210, 130, 269, 213, 230, 184, 220 miles, and on and on. And of course, being young people on the road-trip of a life time, they were occasionally tempted by alcohol from the more hospitable people they met. However, even after these well-deserved bouts of imbibing until the early hours, they still managed to cover good distances, albeit at a slower pace, the next day.

You would imagine that when the ship they had boarded in Madras, arrived in Perth there could have been some sense of almost reaching the final goal. Yet even then there were nearly 3,000 miles left to cover, much of which would be through hostile Australian desert.

On first reading Closing the Distance nearly 30 years ago, and then on other occasions since, I was always wowed but more-or-less just considered it a bit of an adventure which would suit anyone with itchy feet, who could run a bit and had plenty of time on their hands. I’m under no such illusion now. I know how demanding it can be to run 30-40 miles in a week, never mind day-after-day for weeks and months on end. An incredible achievement and a fantastic read. It’s out of print now but here’s the ISBN number if anyone wants to try to get hold of a copy – ISBN 0 90507403 3

Of course, next time I’ve just had an easy 5 mile run, I’ll be convinced that I have what it takes to run to Australia myself (and back again)! Then I’ll have a really bad three miler the next day and realise that what Kelvin Bowers and Barry Bowler achieved was nothing short of an incredible sporting feat.

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The Unwritten Laws of Running

As a sub-category of the Law of the Sod, or at least as a relative of it, here are some until now unwritten, and certainly not complete, ‘laws’ which apply to runners (or at least mere mortal joggers like me):

The Law of Delusion – Five or six miles into a long Sunday morning run. Everything’s going well. Heart barely ticking over, legs don’t even realise they’re running, pace is brisk yet easy. Clearly today’s 15 miles will be no problem and you already consider extending it to 20 miles, maybe even the magical 26.2 of a marathon. The mind wanders further into the future… Ultramarathon running is clearly where you’re heading. It won’t be many months until you’re doing your first 100 miler. Then you get to 12 miles, just about manage to hobble through the last three which are absolute hell on earth, and vow to stick to shorter runs for the foreseeable future.

The Law of the Ignoramus (third person) – A beautiful day. You’re running well, bowling along at a steady pace, taking in the wonder of it all. The problems of the world simply don’t exist in the Utopian bubble of this magical run. You approach a figure walking towards you. As the gap closes to 15 metres you fix your gaze on this stranger. By 10 metres you can contain your enthusiasm no longer. “Good morning!” you blurt as a combined greeting and exclamation, and then you qualify it with, “Beautiful day!” before you’ve even passed. Five metres past the fellow human being you still await a response. By 10 metres past you would even have settled for a grunt of acknowledgement. But nothing. The complete ignoramus.

The Law of the Two Passing Cars – Quite simply, you are running along a country lane just wide enough for two cars to pass each other. One car approaches from behind, another from the opposing direction. There is only one place where they will meet and that is the exact spot at which they will both meet you. And next to the road at this spot is a drainage ditch, brambles or nettles (but most likely all three).

The Law of the Ignoramus (first person) – It’s beautiful day but you’re not running well. In fact today you’ve never got into your stride at all. The world maybe a wonderful place but today you wish to be somewhere else, somewhere like in front of the TV where your legs don’t hurt and your lungs are fully functioning. You barely notice the approaching figure walking towards you. As the gap closes to 15 metres you are aware of their presence and that this stranger is watching your awkward approach. By 10 metres you hear the enthusiastic greeting, “Good morning! Beautiful day!” It’s clearly neither good nor beautiful from your perspective. Five metres past this oh-so-happy-and-cheerful person, you are totally perplexed at how anyone could think such a thing as you plod along in discomfort. You manage a grunt in reply but it is indistinguishable from your  uneven and heavy breathing, and certainly not in a tongue recognised to anyone in our corner of the universe. You complete ignoramus.

The Law of the Guilty Thought – The ignoramus (third person) has just been passed. You are full of self-righteous indignation at how anybody could be so rude as to not return your cheerful bonhomie. Then you start to think. Maybe this person was deaf. Maybe they’d just suffered an unimaginable loss. And there was you, cursing their ignorance. Alternatively you have being the ignoramus (first person). Some 50 metres further on you start to consider that the person who greeted you was making a super-human effort to do so. Despite their own suffering (a terminal disease, a personal tragedy, redundancy – or even all three) this person was still able to be polite and see the wonder in the world. You on the other hand, just hammered another nail into the coffin of their self-esteem. The guilt remains with you for at least another 100 metres or so.

The Law of the Timid Looking Dog – It looks harmless because a) it’s not too big, b) it’s not too small, c)the owners look pleasantly middle class, d) it’s called ‘Jennifer’ or ‘Miffy’ or something else totally innocuous, e) it’s wearing a pink tartan coat, and, f) it’s on one of those extending leads rather than a heavy chain and three inch wide collar). The ‘cute’ little thing doesn’t even seem to glance at you as you approach. Of course, when you draw level, it launches itself at you, yapping, snarling, salivating, with the owner unable to restrain this deadly beast on the end of little more than a piece of string. You are put off your stride, maybe even stumble a little, but nothing is worst than the embarassment you feel to have been frightened by, as the owners put it, the ‘silly little billy’. You don’t stop to witness them give their pooch a cuddle but you make sure your comments about irresonsibility are loud enough to be heard as you continue on your way. (Note – The Law of the Guilty Thought should never be triggered by The Law of the Timid Looking Dog. Unless you intentionally kick the said beast.)

The Law of the Inconsiderate Traffic – You’re on for a PB on one of your regular routes. Just a couple of roads to cross and you’re home. Then you see the line of traffic. You are forced to stop for at least thirty seconds. Record attempt over. Conversely, you are desperately in need of a rest. You approach a major road junction and fully expect to have to take a traffic-enforced welcome break. Unfortunately, just at the precise moment you arrive, this particular road junction has never been as quiet since before the dawn of the automobile and you are forced to struggle on.

The above is, of course, not an exhaustive list of The Unwritten Laws of Running. Please feel free to comment and further develop this incomplete collection!

Technically Improving (or ‘Gadget Guilt’)

A little over 12 months ago, I decided I was turning into a proper runner. You see, I reckoned that as I’d stuck at consistently running at least a few times a week for at least a few weeks, I’d more-or-less cracked it and was over the hell and torment of ‘getting started’. Over the previous couple of decades or so I’d never really got beyond this stage so it was quite an achievement, especially as I was managing to lug around a couple and a half stone of excess weight.

So I rewarded myself. I brought a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS, heart rate monitor etc etc etc (I still don’t know what all the functions are). Deep down (in fact not even as deep as the hole it left in my wallet) I knew that I didn’t need this gadget to be a runner but I convinced myself I had to have one – somehow my life was not going to be complete until I’d purchased this space age microchip-filled lump of plastic with a face the size of an oil platform heli-pad.

I know why I did it. Throwing money at my running was a good way to convince me that I was definitely serious about it, and that same money was a sure way of convincing me that I’d better keep at it, or my wife would be asking far too many questions about the unused wrist-worn luxury I’d purchased while the kids were walking round in rags.* Nothing like a bit of guilt to make one turn-out for a jog on a dismal Autumn evening.

I should perhaps write a review of my adventures with my Garmin at some  point, but for now there’s something else I’d like to share. It’s true that I don’t know how to do everything of which it is capable but in the early days I managed to figure out the basics. I even managed to upload some of my ‘runs’ from the device to my computer. I then forgot the password to the software and gave up on that. Fortunately I remembered how to stop and start the thing, and how to charge it.

Today I was having a play with the 305 when I stumbled on the data from when it first accompanied me on my runs. And this was the fasciniating, and to me quite exciting thing. As I’d only ever kept comparisons of times/routes in my head, never successfully keeping a running diary, I’d never really had accurate data to be able to see how I was doing over time. However, staring me in the face today were some hard facts about my running.

Last year on 27th October (a Wednesday I think) I ran 10 miles. I remember the route because I’ve run it on several occassions since. It was a fair morning, I dropped the kids off at the in-laws, then set-off shortly afterwards (and no – the Garmin does not hold this type of information). According to the data it does hold, I completed the run in 1 hr 51 mins 31 secs. My average heart rate was 150bpm. I remember that the run felt like hard work and afterwards I was absolutely knackered.

I did exactly the same route in very wet weather on 8th October this year. So I compared the two runs in the ‘History’ file on the watch. My time was 1 hr 39 mins 30 secs and my average heart rate was 150bpm. More impressively from my perspective was that it felt like a very, very easy run.

Considering I’d managed to miss lots of training last winter beacuse of snow, ice and too much merriment over the festive season, and that my weight and training suffered terribly over the last month or so of last football season (too many beer and bratwurst-fuelled trips** to watch 1.FC Nuremberg play in the German Bundesliga), I am more than happy with the improvement I’ve clearly made.

The £100 plus seemed completely justified in just a few moments. Now I wonder what technology I could use to force me to run for the next 12 months?

* The bit about the ‘kids in rags’ is not strictly true. The rest is. 

** This is a sort of lie too. I do not actually consider*** it possible to have too many beer and bratwurst-fuelled trips to watch my beloved Nuremberg play. Although any self-respecting liver would probably disagree. And it turns running into torture.

*** Or maybe I’ve just not managed to reach a limit when even I have to say ‘that’s enough for now’.

Dark and dangerous

“Get them knees up!” (That’s an old one.)

“Run Forest, run!” (Many years older than the person shouting it.)

“Keeping going sexy!” (The sarcastic swines.)

“Oi, fatty!” (Too close to the bone.)

Just a few of the comments shouted in my direction from street corners and hidden alleys as the darker autumn evenings have meant a return to running round the local streets. Groups of youths seem to emerge into the dim light in the vain hope that nobody will see them enjoying their cigarettes and cheap alcohol. The long nights provide them with more time to get bored hanging around, not really looking for any trouble but unable to avoid a little taunting of a slow middle-aged runner.

Summer running seems a distant memory, not that we got much of a summer in the UK. Arriving home from work as the light is rapidly fading, it would be easy to shut the door and not venture outside again until morning. However, committment means turning out  and facing several adversaries.

Of course, autumn and winter running can be fun. The turning leaves and crisp, frosty mornings. The pleasure of virgin snow, and the eerie but wondrous stillness of a foggy night.

On the other hand, there are plenty of ‘hazards’ to really make running a very different challenge over the ‘dark’ months. The beauty of the reds, yellows and golden browns of the trees ultimately provides an almost deadly slippery surface as wet leaves blanket the floor. Then comes the frost and the ice and the snow often making running almost impossible on untreated surfaces.  Truck pass by, spreading grit and salt on the road and onto the legs, body and face of the foolhardy runner. And the wind, the rain, the cold and the aforementioned verbal abuse from groups of nocturnal youths.

But I wonder if any of these are as ‘dangerous’ as fast food take-aways or pubs. Running around my town inevitably requires one to run past several of each, even when covering shorter distances. The smell of curry, or Chinese, or kebabs. The whiff of garlic and pizzas. They all seem to make me crave food as soon as I return from the run.

It has to be noted however, that sometimes I’m lucky to make it back at all. Each pub (and many houses too) always seem be showing the live football which I’ve almost reluctantly left behind at home. Running past each of these premises gives fleeting glimpses of the match in progress, yet never it seems, glimpses which enable me to quite catch the score on the (slightly) blurred screen, through the pub or house window. And this is where the danger occurs. As each potential glimpse of a TV approaches I start to try to prepare my eyes in order that they may catch that all important information. For those few seconds, I’m at the mercy of every kerbstone, loose paving slab, litter bin or cat which fate may have placed before me. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions I’ve almost fallen. And the day I do crash to the floor outside a public house, clad in my running gear and hopelessly out of breath, I just know that the heckling and laughter will be absolutely hilarious.

For everyone but me!

Regimentation

The freedom of being off work and not having to engage in the generally hectic daily grind of the world of education and family life should be a time for fantastic running opportunities and mile after mile of pleasurable training. Unfortunately, the necessary motivation and commitment is sometimes hard to find. I’ve just had six weeks off work but the running has not been what it should be. Illness played its part in this but even over the last three weeks it’s not always been easy to commit to a run. 

You see, there’s always later (or even tomorrow). There’s always something else to do, some other distraction.  Futhermore, although I’m not a completely bone-idle couch potato, I am good at finding excuses: broken sleep – too tired, not had enough water – too dehydrated, cough or a sneeze – surely a rare strain of tropical flu is about to strike me down. In some respects I’ve had too much time on my hands. What I need is regimentation. 

As a teacher I live my life in terms – Autumn Term, Spring Term, Summer Term – with good breaks between each. During term time most of my life is pretty much full of work and family commitments. Most days provide only a small slot of time in which to go for a run. Miss the slot and it’s gone. It somehow makes me more disciplined – I know I have to do it then or it won’t get done. Conversely, when I have more time I think I can put it off for a while but too often, ‘later’ or ‘tomorrow’ means I don’t do the training.  

I’ve not followed a training plan for several weeks now, deciding that I’d just enjoy running without one for a while. Of course, I have enjoyed the running but my casual approach to it has meant I’ve not done as much as I’d have liked.

So a new plan has been put into place. The ‘Autumn Term’ will see the nights start drawing-in and I’ll be squeezing in runs in my pre-determined slots. A regimented approach will no doubt help me to move my running to the next level. I will just have to make sure that I stick to the plan and not change it on a daily basis! And even I’ll have to admit that the chances of catching rare strains of tropical flu are very small in the north west of England!

Mad dogs and Englishmen

For most of the year I seem to be wrapping-up against the elements, never really quite sure what will be best to wear. I normally err on the side of caution, particularly when it’s cold – I wear what I’d need if I was several miles from home and found myself having to walk back.

So a second week in the sun of Tenerife made for a pleasant change. After week one was little more than a struggle to run after five weeks without any exercise, it was nice to be able to jog around for three or four miles each day, albeit it very slowly, enjoying the heat. Just once I ran when the temperature was below 30C but I don’t mind the heat, especially at nine and half minute mile pace.I only really felt it once – after running for two miles up hill from the coast, the temperature even that short distance inland was even hotter. I’d taken water with me and thought I’d given the carrier a good enough rinse since it had last been used three or four months previously. I hadn’t and after the briefest of tastes of what amounted to half a litre of stagnant pond I had strapped to me, I gagged and obviously could not hydrate properly. The real effects of this were in the evening  when I was far more dehydrated than usual, something not helped by then consuming too much sangria shortly after running.

Interestingly, choosing to run during the hotter part of the day means that few people are around. I did not see any other runners in the midday sun, or any mad dogs for that matter. Just the odd cat lazily raising its head for a disinterested look from the shade of a tree, or people in and around hotel swimming pools, more curious about the Englishman running past, if only in a way that made them shake their head. I like to think it was with an element of disbelief that this fine figure of a man was braving the heat. Really though I guess I was deluded by mild sunstroke – they were asking ‘Why bother?’ in deference to my leisurely pace or, more likely, saying in their native language, ‘Bloody nutter’.

Not what I had in mind

I followed the female runner at a distance.  Her style was not what you might call elegant or smooth but it was effective at propelling her in a forward direction and required me to move beyond walking pace. At what point she appeared in front of me I have no recollection but I was sure I would soon be alongside and then passing her, what with her slightly awkward gait and the obviously slow pace she was setting. The distance between us however remained constant for several hundred metres until she crossed the road and made her way back along the other side. As we passed I was horrified to see that the female in question was at least 20, maybe thirty or more, years my senior. Not that I have anything against ‘old’ people running. What concerned me was that I had been unable to catch-up with the lady in question.

In my defence it was only my second run after five weeks, three courses of antibiotics and a hospital visit with a chest infection. Those five weeks were not supposed to be like that. As a school teacher I’m lucky enough to have the last part of July and all of August to do what the hell I like (wife and kids permitting of course). During this summer’s ‘big’ holiday I was going to be pushing my running to a new level – ensuring that I could consistently train at nine minute mile pace for distances of up to at least 10 miles. I’d even looked forward to running 10 miles at 6,000 feet plus while spending a couple of weeks in Tenerife.

However, this has not been the case. Five consecutive days of ‘running’ in the Canarian sun this week have seen me progress from a sort of shuffle (not, as I discovered, conducive to catching pensionable ladies) to, finally today, a sub-10 minute mile average for a three mile run.  Even today’s outing though saw me in pursuit of what I judged from a distance was a sleek athlete jogging along carrying what I assumed was his shirt in the morning heat. Fortunately, to save me the indignity of celebrating (silently of course) as I passed him, he turned-off just before I drew level. It was only at this point that I realised he was also many years my senior and was, in fact, carrying a bag of shopping! While I’m regaining my fitness, it seems that my eyesight is deteriorating. I’ll blame the bright sun for now.

Eight Minute Mile?

The eight minute mile. Half as fast, twice as slow, as the legendary four minute mile. You know – Roger Bannister and all that – the realm of class athletes but for most a mythical place. But the eight minute mile? Millions of runners aspire to run a mile, or many miles, at a pace which they think they should be capable of achieving with a certain level of training. For me, eight minute mile pace seems a suitably challenging target. I’d like to be able to run a number of eight minute miles one after the other and enjoy it. And that’s the key word – enjoy. I’ve struggled around the local streets too many times over the years as an an occasional jogger.  This blog covers the trials and tribulations of a very amateur ‘athlete’ on a journey of self-satsifaction, and maybe self-discovery and self-harm!

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