31 May 2008

Lucky man

As I ran through the Hyde Park Corner subway yesterday morning on my way to the office, I passed a busker acompanying himself on an accoustic guitar. Although I only heard a snatch of the song, he seemed to be singing Greg Lake's "Lucky Man" from the first Emerson, Lake and Palmer album. A highly developed sense of irony, as well as a rather arcane repertoire.

20 May 2008

Straßenlauf duch Frohnau

Shortly after eight o'clock on Sunday morning, I arrived at Potsdamer Platz - which is not the pleasant city square that the name brings to mind, but little more than a junction of several roads – where six of us were due to meet up to go to Frohnau for the eagerly-awaited Straßenlauf. I took the U-bahn from the Zoologishersgarten, the nearest station to my hotel, and as I emerged onto the street I was hailed by Viktor, so we walked together to the spot where I had told everyone to gather, under some scaffolding that afforded shelter from rain (of which there was none at the time, fortunately).

After a while, Marek joined us, and finally Cristobal sent an SMS from the S-bahn platform announcing that he was waiting for the train to Frohnau, but there was no sign of the other two. We waited until there was insufficient time to get to the start before registrations on the day closed – the point of no return for one of the missing two – and having received no reply to our messages the four of us set off. The train headed north through depressing, graffiti-covered developments of blocks of flats, running alongside a railway line so overgrown that it could not have been used for decades – trees, not just bushes, grew through the sleepers – and passing rusty, disused, iron bridges. Someone observed that railway tracks rarely give the best view of a city, but this was far worse than anything in London, and just then a disused building, perhaps a station, came into view with every available surface sprayed with graffiti. I explained to my companions that at least in England the tracks were taken up (and, I might have added, the stations sold for development) and that I had run a substantial part of the Shakespeare Marathon along just such a disused railway.

At Frohnau, the end of the line, reached after about half an hour, things looked better. A spruce station with some shops opposite, tidy houses and gardens and well-maintained roads: but where was the race? None of us had printed out a map of the area. As we wondered where to go, an elderly couple approached us and asked (in German) the way to the start – it was pretty obvious from our attire where we were headed. It turned out that our interlocutors were Israeli, the lady spoke good English but her husband had only German – and it was rapidly becoming clear that among the four of us, I knew much the most German – and he was running in the race. Marek interrogated a bystander, who referred us for some arcane reason to the bakery across the road, where someone in the queue of shoppers pointed us all down the road in front of the station. Our new Israeli friends took off with the four of us in pursuit. I ran to catch them up, and saw we were approaching a taxi rank, so (not wishing to involve them in unwanted expense) I asked whether they were up for a taxi ride. They were, so four of us approached the first taxi and the Israelis went for the second.

I asked the taxi driver whether he knew the Poloplatz, not that Berlin contains so many polo lawns that it was likely to have escaped his attention: Google had revealed to me that the German capital has precisely one such facility. He told me it was between three and ten minutes’ walk (or so I understood: I am happy to admit that my comprehension might have been defective) up a street the name of which he eventually spelt out one syllable at a time: Will-tig-er Straße. He showed no inclination to put down his book and invite us to sit in his taxi: he clearly thought we could walk it. Meanwhile the second cab drove away, two elderly Israelis up.

We dound Wiltiger Straße, and followed it rather further than we thought necessary to a tee-junction with another road. The name of the other road was not the name showing on Chris’s Blackberry, so while the non-German speakers hesitated I approached a woman standing in the front drive of one of the detached houses lining the tree-shaded road. “Entschuldigung”, I began, but it was downhill all the way from there. She retreated into the house to get her husband (I think this was on account of his superior knowledge of English rather than his ability to deter unwanted nuisances), which left me with her three small children in front of the house, all of whom seemed to know precisely where the Poloplatz was, and all of whom proceeded to tell me, at once.

Happily, the other three spotted a man wearing a running number heading down a track through the trees across the road, and managed to communicated with him sufficiently that he gestured to them to follow him. Seeing them disappearing into the woods, I gave chase and by the time I caught them we had almost reached another road on which numerous athletes were warming up.

We climbed a gate to get onto the Poloplatz itself, and someone learnt that the source of the running numbers which everyone else seemed to be wearing was a building on the other side of the field. The numbers were arranged in alphebital order, by surname, and we quickly collected our own, changed (leaving our bags in the pavilion), and met Patrick (another signed-up participant in the Not the INTA Race) and another Chris, an American, worryingly wearing a Boston Marathon shirt, whom we had not expected but who was nevertheless very welcome.

We followed the runners onto the road by the Poloplatz and milled about stretching until suddenly a gun went off and we were running. I found myself at the back when the race started, so chased Patrick down with some difficulty and settled into a comfortable pace with him. American Chris had disappeared, and Chilean Chris passed us shortly. I sped up and kept his white cap in sight for a long way, but finally dropped back to keep pace with Patrick again until he faded at about 8K and I ran my own race to the finish. A lap, increasing the tempo all the way, of the field and I was across the line in about 47 minutes, finding a certificate (104th place) and a long-stemmed rose thrust into my hand.

I took a seat on a bench to cheer first Marek and then Viktor down the final stretch, but failed to spot my Israeli friend. As we headed for the pavilion again we met the couple, and Chris and I found ourselves in deep conversation with them. He was a pensioner, so running was his career; he ran every day, though his wife appeared to be rather frustrated by this; he had spotted someone else 500 metres in front of him approaching the end of the race and, fearing that this was another runner in his age group (M70) had chased him down and passed him; and he produced a booklet listing races in Germany, pointing out two more within the next seven days which he pressed me to run with him. Sadly, I had to tell him I would be back in England by then.

The return journey to Frohnau station took us past the house where I had received so many directions from the children, outside which stood a 4K sign (with the number 4 and an arrow showing the direction of the race sprayed on the footpath), indicating that we had recently been this way a second time.

We found the station easily, since we had now run to it in the course of the race and were getting familiar with the layout of this charming leafy suburb, and immediately boarded a train to town. On the way, Marek observed to Viktor that when he got to Viktor’s firm’s reception every year the caviare had already run out. “Put some in a bowl, under the table”, Marek (from Warsaw) requested of Viktor (from St Petersburg), “like we did in the old days”, perfectly encapsulating the history of eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

18 May 2008


It wasn't a very auspisious start to INTA when I was assailed by a wall of alcohol fumes as I boarded the 0834 from Didcot, to get the Railair link from Reading to Heathrow.  The train was nearly full of Cardiff City fans on their way to the cup final - where their team was beaten by Portsmouth.
At Reading it was hard to attract the attention of the ticket-seller in the Railair Lounge, but eventually I did and he relieved me of £14 for a 40-minute bus journey.  The driver spoke such heavily-accented English that, when he asked me which terminal I was going to in order to place my luggage in the correct slot I thought he was asking whether I was staying or going, which seemed an odd thing to ask of a passenger who has handed over a suitcase to be carried in the coach.
I met up with Neil and Parmjit at Heathrow, bought a Bluetooth keyboard then found that I could not readily use it with my Blackberry so returned it to the shop, bumped into a trade mark attorney friend to whom I gave an invitation to our INTA reception (thus maintaining a tradition of issuing invitations at Heathrow that I started at least a year ago) then had an uneventful flight to Berlin.  After having my passport checked by much the most attractive border policewomen I have ever encountered, I saw Louise and Guy at the baggage reclaim, further evidence that this was unfolding like a typical INTA (though last year I bumped into Guy out running: this year he pleaded that he had too many early morning engagements for that).
We took a taxi to our hotel, and then I set off to register at the conference centre - which turned out to be in a fairly grotty part of town, approached through a dingy subway of gigantic proportions which resembled an underground car park but without cars - only a solitary skateboarder.  The U-bahn journey out there failed to meet my expectations, too: although the trains seemed frequent by London Underground standards, they were no cleaner or newer, and there was that constant sense of menace one gets on public transport when confronted with groups of unfamiliar-looking young men - although one who might have passed for a neo-Nazi kindly opened the door for me ...
It was after registering that I realised I had fallen into the time difference trap, and was actually an hour later than I thought, so I took a cab from the conference centre to try to get to my first reception as unlate as possible (if you see what I mean).  Unfortunately, this was (a) a piano recital and (b) half-way to Poland, and the taxi driver having quickly learnt that I spoke very little German and didn't know where I was going seemed to take the most cicuitous possible route - although with the benefit of hindsight I think I might have been unfair in this assessment.  I arrived to hear the second half of the recital, in a huge industrial building by the river far beyond where the wall once ran, now an arts centre.  There is a noticeable change in the cityscape as you go east, although development is taking place: vacant spaces, boarded-up buildings, soulless blocks of flats ...  but the west is also pretty soulless, and everywhere there are patches or strips of untended grass (some growing through pavements).  The suburbs we passed through on the way from the airport were leafy, and there were waterways everywhere: perhaps the trip out to Frohnau, which I am just about to undertake (for the 10K race), will prove more attractive.

12 May 2008

Hanging on the telephone

After a weekend of digging, mowing and lecturing - a five hour revision seminar - I have great difficulty getting out of bed this morning, and accept a lift to the station rather than struggle with my bike. It means I catch the 0700, running a few minutes late, but it's pretty full at Didcot and completely full after Reading - including the man in the seat next to me, who breathes noisily though his nose the whole way, and another man opposite who looks around seemingly angry when a phone rings, but on the second occasion apologises, reaches up to the rack for his bag and silences it. Perhaps he was merely trying to divert blame the first time. The benefit of a distinctive ring tone is that there will never be any doubt if it is my phone causing the disturbance, but if I have it set to "outdoor" the disturbance will be considerable.

09 May 2008

My only friend the rain

I had one of those dreams last night in which I was taking part in a Marathon. They come to me every few months, perhaps once a year or so. I always get side-tracked, going off to do some shopping or heping someone with an irrelevant task. Last night I thought I had completed the race, but became anxious about not having been given a goody bag, which made me think perhaps I had missed the finish. It all seemed to be taking place in an industrial landscape - perhaps a reference to the sort of place you run through on the Reading Half.

I woke up at about 5.40 this morning, and dozed until my alarm went off ten minutes later. My mind always seems to be racing at this stage in the morning, but I also have difficulty regaining full consciousness. It was darker this morning than it has been for a few days, but the dawn chorus was at full volume and the window was open. Outside the ground was spotted with rain, and it rained lightly but steadily on me all the way to the station - although as I struggled to the crest of Hagbourne Hill I was delighted to see the sky was bright over towards High Wycombe. It didn't spread to Didcot before I reached the station, though. The Met Office predicts this will be the hottest May we have ever had: even in the rain, and before seven in the morning, it's warm, and later in the day will probably turn running into mobile sunbathing.

07 May 2008

Seven deadly virtues

A glorious early summer day, warm even at 0645 as I left home. I made it to the station without colliding with any other cyclists this morning, and all the regulars were there on the platform.
I talked myself into running from Paddington to the office, and along the Mall I passed a guy in running gear who was walking, but he joined in with me and explained that he was part-way through a seven-mile run (from Gloucester Road to Elephant & Castle), having run seven miles yesterday evening too. I was impressed, especially when he said he'd drunk seven pints of beer yesterday evening too. When he also mentioned that he's had breakfast with a friend on the way this morning, I was tempted to ask whether he'd had seven sausages, seven fried eggs etc.
Planning to run back to Paddington in the evening, I had no intention of running at lunchtime until an email arrived from Liz. She's coming back from an injury that made her miss the London Marathon, and I think it dates from her run in the Bury 20 when she met Rachael. Her physio had, she told me, suggested a little gentle running so she proposed 4 or 5 miles, not very fast: but her not very fast is (as I should have remembered) enough to have me gasping for breath pretty quickly. We met at Queen Anne's Gate and headed up past Buck House, across Hyde Park Corner and out to the bridge over the Serpentine, then back down the north side of the lake - a pretty standard route, but not one that I had planned for, and the temperature was not conducive to exercise, let alone unplanned exercise.

No secrets

The man in the seat behind me is dealing with a motor insurance claim over his mobile phone, answering his insurer's questions - "three speeding points", he tells the whole carriage.

06 May 2008

Last week I cycled to the station every day except the Monday, which was the day after the Shakespeare Marathon. The exercise helped my legs recover quickly, but the rain - rarely heavy but falling during most of my rides - made it a less than brilliant experience. Today though, returning to work after a bank holiday weekend, the sun is up and warming the earth, and I feel able to wear running shorts and tee shirt and leave my running "longs" at home (which is as well, because they are still drying after being washed at the weekend).
however, I managed to lose about 20 minutes between my alarm clock sounding and leaving home. The alarm needs to be a few mintes earlier, I need to rise as soon as it tells me to, and I should make sandwiches the previous evening. As it is, the railway operator kindly holds the 0720 for me, and a hundred or so others - they say it's a power failure to the signals, but of course they can't admit to their act of generosity.
In my hurry to get to the station, I took the turn into the unsurfaced track that leads to the cycle route (sometime railway line) at Upton rather wide, and for the only time I can recall there was a cyclist coming the other way. In fact, being 20 minutes later meant that I was into rush hour, whereas normally I see no other cyclists, just a few dog-walkers (and one morning Rob, working from home for the day, out jogging with his dog). I took what evasive action I could, but front wheels gently came into contact, and we each apologised to the other. Then the young lady whose journey to work I had interrupted observed that I was a runner, appending the word "too", so we had a brief chat about the Thame 10K (the tee shirt I was wearing, dated 1996), the Abingdon Marathon, which she has entered this year, and the Shakespeare. Then with further apologies all round we went on our respective ways.