24 October 2015

Together forever

I stashed away a link to a live performance of this song some time ago - then messed up trying to complete a posting, lost the original link, and found another. But this one is better: it has Rabbie Noakes in it, and it was before Alan Hull's untimely death: and I feel moved to refer to a Lindisfarne song for two reasons. I also feel an attachment to this song, and its sentiments.

It's inevitable that as I get older (and much as I want to deny it, and contrary to a certain amount of evidence, that is happening) people who have been important in my life will die. Lindisfarne were an important part of my life, and now Si Cowe has passed away too I realise that the band, despite the fact that bands  have a sort of corporate identity separate from the individual members, had died too. Perhaps it died with Alan Hull, although his son in law was a brilliant substitute.

After Lindisfarne originally split, and three of them became Jack The Lad, I met them at a gig at university which I covered as the photographer for the Warwick Boar. At first, I wrote that I'd never met Si, but how then to account for the autographs on the last JTL album? But I did nearly meet Si another time ... and it seems I haven't told the story on this blog before.

Before travelling to INTA in Toronto, in - when? 2005? - and acting on a faint recollection that he'd moved there to brew beer, I somehow located a bar which had some claim to be his local. The landlord emailed me to assure me that he usually called in on Saturday afternoons. For reasons that I'm not sure I could have explained at the time, and which are certainly lost now, I resolved to go and see if I could meet him. I have learnt not to ask myself "why?". Just that the opportunity was there.

It was a long walk, and although I could have taken a tram, budgetary constraints meant I walked whenever possible. Still do. I spent an enjoyable hour or two in the bar, drank some nice beer, and chatted to a number of people, but no former members of Lindisfarne. Eventually the lady behind the bar phoned him. He could have been excused for worrying that he was being stalked by a dangerous lunatic, but he was happy to talk and I had a pleasant conversation with him. He declined the invitation to my firm's forthcoming party, and that was it. And as stories go, it isn't really very interesting either.

The other day I finally met the final member of last year's class from the Academy, or State University as I should learn to call it. (I can handle the original name in Russian, and substituting "university" for "academy" is no problem, but государственный is a word I just can't fix in my mind.) I hadn't met Marianna on my trips to Moscow because she was living in England. We went for lunch in Oxford, boarding a bus at the Park and Ride and (here's the connection with the song) at my insistence sitting in the front seats at the top, which I always do in a double-decker precisely because of Rab Noakes (who incidentally I have met). Over lunch - here's another connection - talking about regional accents, she asked if I could speak Geordie. "Way aye!" I replied, but refrained from adding "ye bugger". She might not have realised that it's a term of endearment.

Which brings me to my Saturday morning run - not just mine, but the Saturday morning run of thousands of people all over the world. Uneventful, over a minute slower than last time, Jean-Luc thought he'd beaten me when he passed me at about 2.2 miles but he was wrong as it turned out, and the Polish ultramarathon lady didn't pass me this time: I spotted her tee-shirt in the distance ahead of me, so no photos on Facebook this week of me looking unreasonably shocked to see her come past.

Having had some rather unflattering photos taken at recent events, giving the impression that I'm shuffling rather than running and my arms are flopping uselessly, I tried to pay particular attention to my form today - now waiting to see if anyone got any photographic evidence.


03 October 2015


Last weekend was one of those times which one remembers for ever. Beautiful sunny and extremely warm weather in Moscow - to think, I was planning to take an overcoat, and even a suit jacket proved to be too much. Time spent catching up with good friends, and getting to know a new group of students. A brief meeting with Victor, who gave me a copy of Реки и Мости, Машина Времени's greatest album (two vinyl discs). The discovery that they are playing in London in December. Asking directions of a stranger in the street, and impressing people by saying поехали. A delightful evening out with a former student, finishing by standing outside Куэнецкий Мост Metro station discussing Машина Времени. And the weekly timed 5K run, the name of which I won't write because of their inane directive (указ) which insists that it be spelt with a lowercase initial letter.
My plans to run my 50th such event that weekend, in Gorky Park, after a summer of intensive training (with the goal of setting an all-time personal best, which would have to be sub-20 minutes) foundered: too much to do, too little time for training. Life, as they say, got in the way. For "life" read "work", or at least the exigency of earning money, which resulted in my taking on a major piece of work for the University of Law and presenting a programme for LNTV, both of which took more time than originally anticipated. As for the books I should have written or at least updated, they are also waiting, like the intensive training.
In fact, as the PB plan was in tatters, I ran number 50 the week before the Moscow trip, to show myself that I could do it. When last I ran Gorky Park I was exploring my fitness to run a half Marathon the following weekend: I didn't want to injure myself, and I went very slowly. So I knew I would improve this time, and indeed I took several minutes off the previous time. I knew how to get from the Metro station to the start, and I knew where to turn round on the out-and-back course (and this time I could still see the runner in front, which was not the case last year!). I even bettered my time from the previous week's outing in Didcot by six seconds, and that had been only 2 seconds off a season's best. Taking into account that there are two climbs on the Gorky Park route - the same one in two directions, just enough to make it not pancake-flat like Didcot - and the heat of a Russian September, and a poor night's sleep, that seemed pretty good.
Today, Didcot was cool (I think it is fair to say that the Miles Davis sense of the word never applies to Didcot: I refer to the temperature). I joked with a marshal that at least I would be getting warmer. Jean-Luc told me he hoped to beat me, which I told him was highly likely. His biggest concern seems to be that his son will soon be faster than he is. My biggest concern was to count the laps of the field before setting off for the last mile on the paths: Jean-Luc suggested that, in order to achieve his goal, he would not alert me if I went wrong (as he did once before). Is it really so hard to count to three? Perhaps it is a symptom of my advancing age.
From the start, I found myself in close proximity to one of those irritating runners who not only sticks their elbows out but also keeps wanting to occupy the same piece of track as me. That could, of course, be put the other way round - I could be trying to take his track - but his frequent and unheralded changes of direction, without a look over his shoulder or even sideways, suggest that the first formulation is correct. After the first lap of the field he pulled ahead and didn't trouble me again.
Having run through that phase during which my legs try to tell me that this is not the right time for such exercise, I settled into a reasonable rhythm - maintaining my three steps breathing in, two out, regime most of the time (it breaks down when I am really pushing myself, or when I forget to count). That certainly seems to get significantly more oxygen into my system, as well as balancing the load.
Just before the final turn I was aware of another runner doing their best to pass me. I stayed ahead until we reached the final stretch, then she breezed past and although I mustered a reasonably fast finish it wasn't enough to take back the place. Glancing at my watch, I thought I might be on for a faster time than the week before: when I stopped it, showing an improvement of 50 seconds, I could hardly believe it. An improvement of 15 seconds per mile, and my age-graded percentage up to nearly the level my PB in this series of events, 22.22 about three years ago, achieved (68.09 per cent: I reckon I need to be nearly at 80 per cent to achieve my sub-20 time, but it's not impossible, as my IP lawyer/runner friend Rachel Buker encouragingly told me during the week).
The world seems a different, brighter place today compared with a couple of weeks ago. There's a tangible sense of things happening, not just marking time until another client pays a bill.

15 July 2015

Comme un Pétard Théorique

It would be unconscionable to hold a friend up to ridicule for writing about hoisting someone on her own petard. Especially as the friend is a best-selling author. Not the same author that I was pictured with at the ALCS do last week, on Facebook, though he is not a renowned grammarian.

It would not only be unconscionable: it would surely be only a matter of time before I commit a greater faux pas, and I don't want him or anyone else thumbing their noses at me.

Used that way, it sounds as if a petard is a flagpole or similar device. In fact it is a bomb, and the word comes from from the Middle French péter, to break wind, according to Wikipedia. Nowadays it is what we might call a banger or firecracker, but it seems to have meant something more lethal when the expression "hoist by with own petar"* was used (or even coined) by Shakespeare (who else?), in Hamlet, Act III scene iv line 207. (Line 179 gave us the expression "cruel to be kind" - so it wasn't Nick Lowe!) I'm now intrigued to see what it's like in Russian, but I can't find a translation - it would be nice to locate a copy of Boris Pasternak's. Nice also to find a clip of Visotsky performing it, but that will also have to wait until I have more time. Maybe I can search using Yandex (slogan найдётся всё, or "find everything"). Here we are, and it wasted only a few minutes: Взорвать его же миной. Google Translate, unaccustomed to Shakespearean English, says "blow up his own mine".

Actually, Pasternak, now that I have found his translation (another few minutes), seems to be much more idiomatic: Забавно будет, если сам подрывник/ Взлетит на воздух ("it would be amusing to blow up the demolition man" - I think something has been lost in double translation there. I know that если means "if" and сам means "self", as in the first syllable of "samizdat", self-published, and both those concepts seem to have been overlooked by the translation machine. Подрывник is one of those useful words formed by adding ник or just ик to the end of a word to denote a person associated with the meaning of the word - so, here, a blower-up or underminer). Of course, it occurs to me, Shakespeare was expressing the idea that more recently has been called, mirthlessly, an "own goal". So Pasternak's version could be rendered in English as "wouldn't it be funny if the demolition man blew himself up?" And the answer would invariably be "no".

Anyway, back to the point of the story, if story be the right word. "Hoist" is the past tense of the archaic verb "to hoise" (from which perhaps comes the verb "to hoy", which in my childhood was used more often than the conventional "to throw"), although it is also used these days to denote the state of having been raised to somewhere. Google Translate seems to be taking "hoist" as present tense. The meaning has obviously shifted a bit - you wouldn't talk of someone being hoist or hoisted by a bomb nowadays. But you certainly shouldn't talk of someone being hoist on their own petard.

*The Bard appears to have dropped the last letter, and in some versions an apostrophe appears in its place, to emphasise the pun on breaking wind - although this is far from being a light-hearted episode in the tragedy of Hamlet!

23 June 2015

Tread lightly

I try not to be boring about barefoot (or minimalist) running: fortunately, enough people are sufficiently interested to ask me questions, so if ever I am boring on the subject it is actually someone else's fault. I am a great enthusiast for the feeling of freedom (especially wearing my huaraches), speed and lightness I get from the technique. The idea of leaving no mark on the landscape appeals to the environmentalist in me. My feet feel strong and healthy and my knees love the fact that they are not called upon to absorb all the shock every time I put my foot down.
The science behind this is (to me) very interesting. Foot Strike Patterns in Tarahumara Runners Wearing Huarache Sandals vs. Conventional Shoes is a posting by Peter Larson on runblogger.com, his blog on all things running-technical. It picks up from the so-titled article by Daniel Lieberman in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2014, Pages 86–94. Lieberman, of course (and yes, you should know this, if you've any interest in running) is the academic and runner who features in Born to Run and who has provided a lot of scientific support for anecdotal and instinctive discussions about the benefits of barefoot or minimalist running. He convinced me, of course, but that doesn't take much doing.
Lieberman's research (as interpreted by Larson, who is better-qualified than me to do so) shows, ultimately, that running is a highly individual thing. Although running in minimalist footwear is associated with more midfoot or forefoot striking (MFS or FFS) while marshmallow shoes (not the scientists' choice of word but mine) are associated with heel-banging (again, my expression not theirs) there are lots of other variables: as I have noticed ... going uphill tends to move your strike forward, perhaps for no better reason than that your forefoot meets the ground earlier, and going faster tends to get you up on your toes, perhaps largely because you're leaning forward a bit. Softer surfaces can also encourage you to land on your heels: try running on a nice soft beach (Grand Anse is perfect for this, though unfortunately it's not very convenient). Then get closer to the waterline where the sand is packed.
The fact that we are all different means that, running being a democratic activity, there is no right or wrong footstrike. But there are techniques which can prove more efficient or which can help reduce the risk of injury. Over-striding (a result of, inter alia I suppose, heel-banging) is inefficient. Mid- or forefoot striking recruits the myriad tendons and things in one's feet to absorb the shock of landing, a job done by the marshmallow in 'conventional' shoes, and strengthens the arch resulting in feet that will withstand more - in theory at any rate, although it certainly feels that way to me. That said, a couple of years ago I sustained what I must assume was a stress fracture in one of my feet, and of course (as a doctor told me at the time) your feet have lots of little bones in them (he suggested ibuprofen gel, which sort of worked, a little: rest was the only real treatment).
MFS or FFS is also lighter and quieter, which makes sense. If you're not banging down on your heel you will make less noise. The runner you're catching in a race won't know they are about to be passed until it's too late.
So I know what works for me, and also that it won't necessarily work for the next person. But what also works for me was illustrated at Didcot Parkrun a few weeks ago, when a couple of ladies to whom I was talking remarked on my huaraches. I observed that they got me noticed, which nothing else was likely to do.
They also have the advantage that, if the dog chews the toe off them, you can fix them with Superglue and still run a Marathon on them. Try doing that with £100 marshmallows.

19 June 2015

The Lark Ascending

One reason among many why I love running in the local countryside is hearing the sounds of nature, of which the singing of the larks alongside the Ridgeway is a summer highlight. (The sounds of heavy vehicles on the A34 is less attractive, but cannot in any case be attributed to nature.) They were in great voice this morning as my new training regime (which is basically "get out and run") continued - 17 miles so far this week and no ill-effects: on the contrary, a feeling of well-being and satisfaction and a greater capacity for work, which also seems to have become more interesting and compelling. Of course I knew all this would come from upping the running effort, but it is good to be proved right.

Today was almost a rest-day run, at a very sedate pace for most of the distance, concentrating on the new breathing technique and trying to make sure my diaphragm did the work. After a brisk trot down the metalled road from Upper Farm to the school, I planned to keep going without pause over the footbridge which always provides a satisfying moment as I get up on my toes and attack the climb: but as we approached it, a lady with a pushchair was just entering the path that leads to the bridge and I knew there would not be room for Lucy and me to squeeze past, so we waited until I saw her crest the summit before setting off over it. In fact it was the people several yards in front of her at that point who I caught first, near the end of the descent on the other side: she's already overtaken them.

Warm, sunny weather, no wind that I noticed, dry, in fact ideal running conditions. I hope I am on track for my 5K target - I haven't checked how my weight is doing recently.

18 June 2015

Moon in June

5K or 3.1 miles round the playing fields - 9 laps and a little extra. The first mile seemed to get faster and faster, so once I heard the bleep to tell me I'd reached that distance I slackened off and inserted some faster intervals into the laps. Three-two breathing is getting more instinctive and I feel less fatigue than I would expect. I hope this indicates that my Parkrun goal might be achievable, though I have a long way to go!
There are a few pauses in the session to pick up litter or wait for the guy who was mowing the grass: I didn't want Lucy to get too close to his mower.

No more heroes

[Originally started on 16 May]
Few books have had such an influence on me than Christopher McDougall's Born to Run. Not, as I explained to the guy I was sitting next to at the launch event for the writer's most recent book, Natural Born Heroes, an influence on my life, but on my running (though at times the two have been indistinguishable).
Presented with an opportunity to hear McDougall speak, to mingle with some like-minded people, to get my hands on an autographed copy of the new book, and to enjoy a free beer courtesy of the sponsors Vivobarefoot provided I turned up wearing their shoes (in the end no-one seemed to check), I could hardly resist: and, beer and book apart, I could hardly have been more disappointed. Hoping to get the author's autograph on (or should that be "in"?) my copy of BTR, and conscious that I would not be able to stay late, I approached him as he wandered up and down the stage: and he told me that he was busy just then and there would be a time for autographs later. Well, not for me, unfortunately.
Whatever he was busy with, the show took an hour after the doors opened to get under way, which now reminds me of some of those gigs I went to decades ago - Lindisfarne at the Locarno in Sunderland, for example - where you waited yonks for what you'd actually come for.
I foolishly took a seat, having drawn a blank with my attempt to interact with the speaker, and in doing so forewent the opportunity to meet anyone except those seated immediately around me (of whom only one seemed interested in talking to me anyway). But of course I expected the show to start ... When it did, I realised that my schedule really didn't permit me to hang around any longer so I left after about a quarter of an hour. It was billed as a seven o'clock start, and while that doesn't mean I'd expect it to start at that time I think it's reasonable to expect it to get under way about half an hour after the doors open. Had it been billed as an eight o'clock start (doors open at seven) I'd have known where I stood, and perhaps made arrangements to be later returning home. If I didn't like the books, or the shoes, I definitely wouldn't be better-disposed towards them now: but fortunately for them I do.
Not without reservation, though. I'm disappointed that my shoes quite quickly developed holes in the uppers, although they still work fine. (And my Achilles sandals were extremely uncomfortable for my big toes, then the heel strap broke on one of the few occasions I tried to use them.) As for the book, I couldn't put it down: McDougall has a gift for weaving together seemingly unrelated subject-matter into a compelling read. I started to read it for the Crete story, which is superb and well-told (and I am encouraged after talking to a friend about it to seek out the Leigh Fermor original), but fully expected the other stuff to be fascinating - and it was, even all the stuff about parcour which frankly I had previously dismissed as an unnecessary fad (why not just go for a run?).
I did not expect the book to have been translated from the original American English, and of course I'm accustomed to reading books by American authors who use their own vernacular. (I do however hate books by British authors which have been translated for the benefit of American readers - one Iain Rankin novel I read some time ago particularly grated.) But even making allowances, I groaned several times in the course of reading it. Disappear, for one thing, is an intransitive verb: you don't "disappear" something, although you might make it disappear. (Postscript: As my great friend Bob reminded me after I'd posted this, Joseph Heller got away with it in Catch 22, but Christopher McDougall is not in the same league, and not using the language for the same effect.) But more seriously, a complete failure to respect local usages (a common example of US arrogance, unfortunately): The Travellers' Club, being in London, uses the English spelling of its name, and no English schoolchild ever obtained a degree from their school. Mr McDougall was not writing for the benefit of other writers, of course, and I am a self-confessed pedant: nor was he addressing a British audience. Even so, I think that any author (and publisher) should show respect for those about whom, and for whom, they write. It's simple courtesy. Not that I am going to hold it against him (against the publisher, now that's another matter): I am however amused by the irony in finding that someone so closely associated with running should have feet of clay ...
Which brings me to another topic, and the one that I intended to concentrate on in this post. McDougall spends some time in the book exploring the etymology of the word 'hero', one of those words which I think has fallen victim to a form of hyper-inflation in recent years, or perhaps decades is the right interval. Increasingly I find I have to measure time in decades when formerly I would have done so in years. I realised - and I don't know why - some years, even decades, ago that heroes are dangerous things to have. One can admire other people, and even seek to emulate their achievements, adopting them as role models, but if your heroes are human (and of course not everyone's are) they are flawed. They all have feet of clay. A student whom I was coaching recently finished the essay through which I had guided him (I carefully avoid any suggestion that I helped with it), and he told me that I was his hero: I assured him that this was a terrible idea. I know my flaws, or some of them, and he doesn't, but adopting someone as a hero risks embracing the flaws and elevating them to a status that they should not have. 'Hero' is too unqualified, too uncritical.
Of course, stories have heroes, but that's a special usage and a rather different meaning. I'm currently reading Gogol's Dead Souls, in which the hero Chichikov is a most unheroic figure. Can a hero be unheroic? I think so - just as an artistic work in copyright law need not have artistic quality. It's a matter of defining your terms and using them to mean what you intend.
McDougall's heroes - those referred to in the title of his book, or at least the ones in Crete - behave heroically, and on one level deserve to be known as heroes, but they remain human beings and they therefore have their flaws. Would they wish to be regarded as heroes? I doubt it - one common aspect of heroes is that they tend to be rather self-effacing. I have never heard a soldier decorated for bravery claim that it was only what he deserved. Perhaps the act of doing something truly heroic makes people better appreciate their deficiencies. Doing something as un-heroic as coaching a law student certainly drew my attention to some of mine.

16 June 2015


Long-distance running ability may be signal of desirable male genes, said Runner's World recently, which is of historical interest only to me - perhaps, in a small way, I demonstrate that the thesis is correct: at least I don't disprove it. The same source (reading it is a great substitute for running!) explained to me that one's breathing pattern can have a significant influence on running injuries, a matter of much more than historical interest to me. In fact I am sure I have read this before, tried with little success to apply it once in a Parkrun and then forgotten about it again. The technique, which also involves the use of the diaphragm for breathing in a manner rather alien to most runners, who rely (too much) on chest muscles, requires one to breathe in for three steps and out for two, so that the breathing cycle does not coincide every time with putting one's weight on the same foot. It spreads the load, which seems to me to make sense: the points in the cycle of breathing when one changes from in to out or the other way round places a significant load on the body especially when you're running (and therefore breathing) hard.

Three in and two out also means you're taking in a lot more oxygen than you would if you were less organised and did two in and two out, which I think is my default setting. I've already found that I felt stronger and less tired when using the new technique. So today I set out deliberately and carefully to train myself to breathe out of sequence. I've done it for a few laps of the playing field, although I found my concentration was fairly easily broken (nothing new there), but I thought it would be real progress if I could do it for my regular nearly seven mile loop.

In fact, for anyone looking for technical tips (as if this is the place for that, or I'm the person to ask!) I find it much easier to count one-two, one-two-three than the other way round, for some reason. So I start by breathing out. I also try counting in foreign languages, and then it's more useful to count in fives especially because it's around 4 that my counting in German or Russian always goes awry - but trying to fit in the three syllables of четыре when I get to "four" makes it all fall apart. Try to do no more than one daft thing at a time.

Moreover, it was a lovely day. When we set out (about 0815) it was still cool: by the time we were halfway round it was heating up and I was regretting not having sunglasses. I didn't want to push the pace, because there is nothing worse than picking up after a hiatus and finding it impossible to descend stairs afterwards, but the pace will come with time. Runner's World also recently offered some useful advice on lessons from running for one's working life: there were five, and I think I can remember a couple - one being the importance of learning endurance, which is what I was doing today, and another being about setting goals, which is something else I think I have done today. In addition, that is, to the hopelessly unrealistic goal of a sub-20 5K later this year, which despite the hopeless unrealism I am going to try my best to achieve.

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