31 October 2007

Great train journeys of the world part II

As if the mystery tour to Swindon wasn't enough, the trip to work the following morning (yesterday) was no better, just different.  The 0707 was promised at 0715 - not late enough to make it worth jumping on the slow 0706 - but only after everyone had boarded it did the announcement come that the train would have to wait at the station for the attention of a mechanic (is this a slightly fancier name for a fitter?).  The  next announcement suggested that the train from Swansea, just drawing up at an adjacent platform, might be worth trying.  No, I thought, it will be full already, having picked up passengers all the way through south Wales: I elected to await the mechanic.
The third announcement made clear that any train was a better bet than this one, so reluctantly we detrained and joined the throng around the Swansea train, which was indeed "full and standing", in the evocative phrase used by the train managers.  Letting it go, I ended up on the 0730, which proceeded to take an hour to reach Paddington, where I found that the "good service" advertised on the boards at the entrance to the District and Circle Line tube station actually meant 10 minutes before the next service appeared, with enough people to fill it already waiting.  I observed to the only member of staff in evidence - an attractive young eastern European blonde, as it happens - that an amendment to the notices might be in order, and she apologised profusely and, it seemed, comprehensively, for the myriad and general shortcomings of the London Underground.  The apology seems to have replaced the get-you-to-work-on-time service which is what we all need from public transport.
I went in search of a bus, but there was no sign of the right ones: I'd even have taken one of Mayor Livingstone's appalling and utterly inappropriate bendy buses had there been one.  So I walked, reaching the office hot and sweaty and having to add the time it took to shower to my already extended travelling time, and strangely attracted by the idea of working in Oxford.

29 October 2007

Great train journeys of the world

Ah, the joys of commuting. I elected not to cram myself on the 1915 to
Swansea, always packed and today in reverse formation (the wrong way
round, in ordinary English) so Coach A not safely distant from the up
end of the platforms. Instead waited for the 1948, which was rather
more than three minutes later but comfortably empty. Still, it too was
in reverse so I ended up, fortuitously, in a mobile-phone users' coach.

A short distance out of Reading (where we could readily have detrained,
had anyone thought about it in time) the train manager announced that
there was a security alert at Didcot and we would not be stopping
there. It's the sort of casual announcement that comes as second nature
to the train company - it utterly fails to acknowledge that Swindon is
not a useful alternative. But that is where we have to go. Happily,
it's only a few minutes before an up train collects us again, though
Didcot reopened (according to the train manager) the minute we had
passed through.

Opposite me on the outward journey sat a sour-faced woman with a
BlackBerry, at which she tapped away without rest. I suppose I tapped
away at my laptop, so can't criticise her on that score, although my
face is not sour (is it?). Like the rest of the Didcot passengers, she
phoned when the "inconvenience" was anounced to let someone know about
it, rambling on about punched noses at Swindon and something about the
fare, which I think she probably intended to claim back. At Swindon, a
man engaged a railway employee in an optimistic conversation about
taxis, which she insisted (to no surprise, at least as far as I was
concerned) that she could not authorise.

Not even time to visit the outlet mall, one of Swindon's few
attractions. And the wifi didn't work on the station. But after all it
was only a few minutes ...

27 October 2007

October last Friday

On top of insufficient training since the previous race in the series, I
developed a cold early this week and by Thursday there was nothing for
it but to take a day off work to get it out of my syste.

It's amazing how beneficial a day without a train ride into London in
the rush hour, plus a day in the increasingly depressing office and a
trip home again, can be. On Friday I felt quite ready for the
commuting, office and race. A can of Red Bull and the energy bar that
had been included in my goodie bag at Henley set me up, and the four of
us doing the race headed for the changing rooms at 12.00. I left my
socks in my office and had to go back for them, and Tom was keen to get
to the start in good time (being in the A race: the rest of us, in the B
race, had another couple of minutes in hand) so he set off. I left Tim
changing, after he'd appeared late, and met up with Hannah, taking part
for the first time, with plenty of time for a gentle jog to Hyde Park.

I directed us across St James's Park, only to find that the Mall was
closed off with crowd control barriers preventing us from crossing.
There was no traffic, but the sides of the road were lined with
guardsmen in bearskins and grey coats, with rifles and fixed bayonets.
At the pedestrian crossing by the Palace, a police officer told us we
couldn't cross, so we made out way round the Victoria Memorial to where
we could cross, and up Lower Grosvenor Place and Grosvenor Place to Hyde
Park Corner - the result being that we had run (rather than jogged) at
least a kilometre further than planned, and we arrived to see the A race
rounding the first bend. We reached the start line just in time to
reverse direction and join in the race, the worst possible preparation -
Hannah will, quite rightly, never trust my organisational skills again.

I felt good from the start and settled into a comfortable pace, but I'd
been unable to find my watch before leaving the office so I was running
with no idea of my time. Still, today was going to be about finishing,
not about a spectacular time, and at the 2K mark someone said their
watch showed 8:34 or so, which didn't seem unreasonable to me.

Apart from a woman wearing earphones - later instructed in no uncertain
terms by a marshal to remove them - edging me onto the grass as I went
to pass her, the race was uneventful though harder work than the last
couple of months. But I didn't feel as completely finished at the end
as I sometimes do, so perhaps I did still have some reserves - better to
save something, though, especially as I was still recovering from the
cold, and my breathing was not as good as it might have been. But I had
no problems with my knee, which is encouraging.

Tom was already at the finish when I arrived, and Hannah joined us a
little later, having arrived at the start already tired from the run
from the office. Tim had made it just in time to tag on to the end of
the race, and came in near the back. Rachael, my new blogging
acquaintance (and fellow-commuter before then) was at the finish, so I
had a chat with her and arranged in principle to run together at
lunchtimes in the future - it will, I think, be uncomfortably fast.

We jogged back to the office along empty roads, still closed to traffic,
which was a treat - though it didn't make up for the hassle of getting
to the race. It dawned on me that the Saudi Arabian flags adorning
alternate flagpoles on the streets around the Palace (the Union flag
hanging from the others) gave a clue about the reason for the
interruption to normal service - the downside, I suppose, of having the
Royal Parks on our doorstep in which to run.

21 October 2007

Henley Half Marathon

I've had a week to get over this now, and over the loss of my blog on the subject (the office computer system refused to handle it when I pressed the "post" button), so it's time now to get back to it.

The instructions for the event contained a plea to gentlemen taking part to make "full use" of the urinals. Yuk. Fortunately I was unable to tell how full the use was that had been made of them, as it was dark in the toilets - no doubt making matters even worse ...

The race passes through some delightful countryside, along the riverbank that I have come to know well from Mel's rowing there and from attending the Royal Regatta, though without all the temproary buildings erected along the river for that event it all looks rather empty. I foolishly set off at slightly more than seven minutes per mile pace, which if the mile markers are to be believed I upped substantially for mile four: but I can't sustain that sort of speed, which only eighteen months ago would have seemed pretty relaxed. After a loop on the Berkshire side, the route came back through the town and passed the start before heading off through Fawley Court, where the signs were in English and Polish (accounted for by the fact that it belongs to a Polish religious order) where I stopped at a water station for a long drink, never having mastered the technique (if there is one) of doing that on the move. Then we crossed the road and set off up Fawley Hill.

I'd read about this mile-and-a-half long ascent, going up from about 40 metres above sea level to the peak of 145 metres and then down again pretty steeply at first, becoming more gradual towards the finish. It would have been a tough climb if I'd been fresh, but it started at mile 8 and I'd done the first four miles at a mad pace, so I struggled up.

Coming down was another matter - I put into practice what a fell-runner had told me on the Compton 40 last year, and let myself go. I reasoned that it would be hard on my knee to slow myself down anyway, and passed dozens of people in my headlong descent until at mile 10 cramp stopped me for a few minutes and they all passed me again, probably remarking to themselves that it served me right.

I covered the final three miles or so with a guy from Didcot Runners and someone else he was running with (thanks for the encouragement!) and a lady who, it turns out, is also running Marlow in November - I'll see if I can beat her then ...

19 October 2007

Last Friday of the Month: A Progress Report

The discovery of a comment posted on this blog has galvanised me, and I realise I haven't been keeping it up to date. Actually, you don't feel quite the same enthusiasm for keeping it up to date if there's no evidence of anyone reading it (except Grace!), but now I know there's a possibility that Rach_E is reading too I should get on with it.

I did in fact blog the Henley Half Marathon, but the firewall on my office computer didn't like it so when I pressed the "publish" button all I got was a screen telling me access was forbidden and away went my carefully-crafted account of the race. It would have been a classic, too, let me assure you. I hope there's a server in the sky somewhere where lost masterpieces like that go, and one day they will be retrievable.

I'll get back to Henley later. First - and I can do this for my own satisfaction, to remind me of recent achievements - there are a couple of Last Fridays to report. In August, following my 22:26 the previous month (when I was feeling, as I noted, out of sorts - an expression that I am turning to as the most apt one to describe my state of mind most days at the moment) I was particularly keen to see what effect the new lime green racing shoes might have. Between them and a can of Red Bull, and my eager anticipation, I found a minute and 26 seconds, tantalisingly failing to break 21 minutes - but I needed something for next month, didn't I? And in September, awaited more eagerly yet, I shaved another 7 seconds off that. Still 13 seconds off my first LFOTM time, but that was 2006 and as my left knee tells me I am getting no younger.

Best of all, after September - my sixth in this year's series - I have a proper place in the series results, which are based on the best six age-adjusted times for the year: better still, I am 17 th, and have three more months in which to better some of the more feeble times from the early part of the year.

An oxymoron

In coach A this morning. 18 October, one unfortunate passenger sits with his foot, in a large plaster cast, up on the table in front of him. Were I in his position, I think I might feel inclined to find an alternative to commuting, even temporarily.

In fact, I nearly did so this morning, having returned home at 10.30pm following a dinner with colleagues the purpose of which I simply didn't get. As one of them said to me when the date was first set, "If I wanted to socialise with colleagues, I would" - when an evening like this is organised for you, it's too contrived even to stand a chance of working.  I've been pretty tired all week anyway, no doubt because of that ill-paced half marathon on Sunday (by Wednesday, my legs had just started working again), and missing out on running for various reasons has pushed me further along the downward path. I could very easily have stayed at home today, but (note, everyone!) I haven't. But it doesn't bode for a highly-motivated day at work, something that I haven't achieved in a long time.

Smoking solutions

(Posted some time after the event ...)
To the Intellectual Property Institute's talk on DNA Patents, given by Sandy Thomas. The venue is the auditorium in BAT's office, where not only are there ashtrays on every table but half-consumed packets of cigarettes too (and the ashtrays are half full - are they maintained that way?) The chairman, Jacob LJ, jokes that he might take an ashtray as a souvenir as they will have no purpose in an office building after 1 July.

(Months later, in October 2007, I find myself back in the BAT building, and again in the company - distant, I have to admit - of Sir Robin. No opportunity presents itself to ask whether he has an ashtray, but I do notice that the examples previously standing on tables have been replaced with stacks of "personal" ashtrays and a general invitation to take on - I should have done, just to see what they looked like. And at strategic points in the building, such as by the lifts, there are plans of that floor of the building with "your personal smoking solutions" (exits onto balconies) marked.)