31 March 2009

The Book I Read

I used to watch the BBC TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small, which ran from 1978 to 1990, though I don't recall when I stopped watching it: no doubt there would have been a hiatus from 1980, when I moved to London and was free of television for some time. Anyway, if anyone had told me back in the late seventies that in 2009 I would be chasing the leading actress round an Oxford college, I would have been rather surprised.

I've been to the Oxford Literary Festival today, doing minding duties (looking after speakers) and the second of the three events I covered was ex-actress, now olive farmer, Carol Drinkwater. I preceded that by "minding" James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, whose book Energise! is a searing polemic (James's words, I think) about energy and climate change - challenging what has become conventional thinking thanks to Bono and Al Gore. This seems to involve disparaging hippies: on p42 there's a photo of what look to me like a bunch of ordinary guys installing a solar panel, but the caption insists, unnecessarily, that they are "hippies". In fact, I learn, they are the publisher and a couple of his mates. A very interesting session which I must blog some more later (not tonight!).

One thing that came out of that session is the unsurprising news that the amount of water we have on earth is constant: the ojnly problem with it is that it's not always where ideally it should be. That chimed with the fact that Carol's new book deals, along with everything else you could reasonably want to know about olive trees, with "diminishing water reserves", giving me a great hook on which to hang the brief introduction I had to give to her talk, which (along with the other two I did) I failed to make the most of. I was conscious of the fact that the audience had paid to hear the speaker, not me, but that didn't excuse me making a mess of it.

After I had seen Joe on the way to the station, and found a cash machine so I could buy a copy of their book which James then signed for me (and he had uttered the immortal, and quite irrelevant, parting words: "Don't forget intellectual property is intellectual, and most importantly it's property" or something like that, and I had retorted that it was a bad thing, with which he agreed) I found myself chasing Carol, eventually catching her in the venue for her talk with only a couple of minutes to spare. Her talk was charming and interesting, and I couldn't resist getting a copy of her book too (also, of course, signed): and I particularly enjoyed chatting about running with a journalist who had interviewed the speaker several times and was meeting her for the firs time. How, in a room containing nearly a hundred people (I guess) can I find the runner (or she find me)?

I escorted Carol and her agent to where a taxi was waiting for them. The college proctor or porter or whatever he's called on the gate seemed as keen to wish me a safe journey as the two ladies: I explained that I wasn't leaving, that I had more duties to perform, and we chatted briefly about All Creatures Greaat and Small as the taxi drove off.

Finally, I was to introduce Gillian Slovo, but there was no sign of her in the Green Room. The lady in charge offered me a glass of wine, but I was anxious to find my speaker and we thought she might have gone straight to the venue, Blackwells - a decent walk from Christ Church (running, of course, being out of the question in St Aldates for me). We decided that if she didn't appear in the Green Room by the time I had finished the glass, she would surely be at Blackwells - and so she was. Meantime, I made the acquaintances of several more interesting people - of which, perhaps, more anon.

Gilian was delightful, and her talk a revealing insight into her creative process as well as the subject matter of her newest novel, Black Orchids. She benefitted from the presence in the audicence of a book group which had read it, and their obvious enthusiasm for it meant that for the third time today I dound myself lining up to get a copy of a book signed.

Walking back to the car park, outside Christ Church I passed my interlocutor from earlier in the afternoon, now wearing a cap in place of his official bowler hat. I only realised it was him when he greeted me: not bad going to recognise me, after so short an acquaintance, although I suppose my best striped shirt and bright red tie might have helped.

24 March 2009

[Harwell Fun] Run

The last time I give blood they told me not to do anything strenuous after. At the time, I had run five miles from Paddington and had another mile or so to go to the office. I joked with them that running wasn't strenuous, but was given to believe that I was wrong. I now know just how wrong I was.

I hadn't allowed even 24 hours to elapse since giving blood yesterday (and spilling a whole lot more), but I wasn't going to miss the chance to take part in the weekly Harwell Fun Run. I set off to jog gently to the start, the distance of about 1 1/4 miles, and arrived with only about a minute to spare before my handicap dictated the I had to set off again. My legs already felt like lead, and it was clear that I wasn't going to be able to do much more than carry on at the speed and that I had adopted to get to the start in the first place.

The runner before me set off about 25 seconds earlier, and was soon out of sight. Fortunately it was a small field, so as well as a couple in front of me there were only about four behind me and they did not start coming past until about two and a half miles. Two caught me on the way into Chilton, one more by the Church and the last one just before the footbridge. I struggled in a distant last, but with the prospect of an excellent handicap next week.

Here's the detail ... and here are the results, which I am not boasting about! But actually, under 8 minutes/mile isn't so bad. The blood donor session was no doubt the biggest problem, but nearly 16 miles the day before at the end of ten days' enforced rest (and that injury!) makes it about the worst bit of preparation I have ever had.

23 March 2009

Raining blood

I went to give blood today, and to get a free slice of cake. It's not that good a trade: giving blood is not entirely painless, and the food on offer (along with the cup of tea afterwards that is almost a statutory requirement) wasn't very exciting.

I took Anna Karenina, in case I had a long wait, but after going through the preliminaries I was hooked up so quickly I hadn't even time to put my reading glasses on. "You're bleeding well", the nurse told me: "thanks for the compliment", I said. (Mental note: next time, the line should be "you say the nicest things", perhaps depending on how young and attractive she is. And that she is a she.) I read a bit of a chapter, then the nurse came back and said "you're done": I couldn't believe it, but evidently the flow had been really good. Out came the needle and another nurse pressed a pad of absorbent material against the site. After a while she invited me to press on it and sit up, then replaced it with a plaster. I stood up and made my way to the table where the free food and cups of tea were on offer.

No sooner had another nurse asked me what I'd like to drink than I felt a warm sensation on my arm, and looking down was horrified to see blood pouring from under the plaster. Having given nearly an armful, the rest of the armful was going on the floor. A new absorbent pad was quickly pressed on my arm, and the nurse in charge of the refreshments found herself instead having to wipe the floor (and the right knee of my trousers) clean. We joked about the mess I had made, whether they would invite me back, and how clean that part of the floor would be. "We had a forensic scientist came to give blood once," the nurse said. "I told her that if she had to go to a scene of crime in a village hall and it was spattered with blood, it would probably be because we'd been there."

It's so good to have a random encounter with someone whom I will probably never meet again, and immediately to be able to exchange banter with them. When I finally got my tea, a young man was tucking into the spread with great relish. He had missed lunch, and was impressed by the free food. "You've got to earn it", I told him - it's not entirely free. "I came to keep my friend company," he explained, "but I thought, well, I've got blood ..."

My cup of tea lasted me long enough to finish the chapter, one of the longer ones, describing a wedding: and in case you haven't read it but will in the future (as I strongly recommend), I won't let on whose wedding it was.

11 March 2009

Hole in the Road

Even if it had not been a lovely spring day, the Teddy Hall Relays, starting and finishing at the Iffley Road track where the first sub-4 minute mile was run, in the presence of the soon-to-be octagenarian Sir Roger Bannister, followed by a birthday tea in his honour, was not to be missed. The small detail that this was a working day did not prevent a field of about 700 assembling at lunchtime, though many were students as this is essentially a race for them.

I ran this race years ago, in a scratch Kellogg College team so it was difficult even to remember who to take over from - a bearded Pole in my case. With three clubmates it would be easier. I ran the second leg - as did Dave for Bristol University, but not exactly in competition with each other. It all started promisingly enough, and although such a large field racing through the streets of a mediaeval university city is pretty fraught, some of the extra matters you have to contend with contribute to the charm of the event, such as the car reversing against the flow of runners in Rose Lane. Running through Christ Church meadow is a delight, and it is good to get away from the Oxford traffic: but at about 1.1 miles (2.5 still to go), leaving Christ Church and executing a sharp left turn onto St Aldates (and thence past the police station known to viewers of Inspector Morse) my right ankle twisted and I ended up in the roadworks, in considerable pain. (I am not going to go into detail of why this happened, other than to say that the pavement is extremely uneven at this point: the matter might be sub judice soon.)

I sat on a convenient bench for a while, massaging the painful region: the marshal at that turn said she could call for first aid or to report my retirement, but not just to say I would be later than anticipated. The next marshal was at Folly Bridge, she said, so I set off at a hobble intending to reconsider when I got there. In fact running was more comfortable than remaining stationary, so I carried on down the towpath to Donington Bridge where (by dint of climbing up the very steep ascent from the riverside to the bridge without slowing down) I caught and passed one competitor. Then the race followed, roughly, the course of the river back towards the running track, climbing to Iffley Road about half-a-mile out and giving me a chance to pass more runners for whom a hill at that stage was more daunting than it was to me. Then back to the track, taking care to keep well over to the left through the narrow entrance through which third-leg runners were simultaneously emerging, two-thirds of a lap and there was Julian ready to take off as I crossed the line.

Once i stopped running, the pain came and I could walk only with difficulty. I found an official at the start and remonstrated with him; he referred me to the organisers' office, so I hobbled round there and remonstrated with them too, although the main organiser was absent. One of the guys who was there said he would call her: I was concerned lest another runner have a similar experience, and disappointed that no-one had even marked it with bright paint.

I spent twenty minutes or so at the first-aid post, first with an ice-pack on my ankle and then strapped up to enable me to walk. I struggled to the tea party, which turned out to be the college dining hall at St Edmund Hall packed with runners (and, I suspect, random passers-by in search of refreshment) with students churning out sandwiches using Tesco sliced loaves as fast as possible while others set out biscuits and cakes that had a distinctly Tesco Value air about them, yet others made tea and coffee and yet others poured hundreds of glasses of champagne - Heidsieck , which is as it happens available from Tesco though their website reverses the second pair of vowels. Or perhaps it's another product altogether, a supermarket look-alike?

After an interminable delay, during which we ate Marmite sandwiches (very British) and pretty much anything else that was on the tables, the results were announced and prizes given by Sir Roger, a process which took up the rest of the afternoon on account in part of the difficulty faced by winners of the many prizes fighting a way to the front of the room through the assembled runners (et al) and the heavy and unwieldy wooden chairs and tables.

Eventually the proceedings were concluded with a toast to the great man, and I limped off to catch a bus home. A fun event, but nevertheless one that I might now tick off and not bother with again. And I'm certainly not going to waste time with the tea - not until Sir Roger's 90th, anyway.

08 March 2009

See you later

I quite enjoyed the Banbury 15 last year, even though I contrived to run a decent half-marathon distance and left a tricky two-mile deficit to deal with. I had already put in an entry for this year even before I had an email from the organiser attaching an entry form. I hope that didn't indicate that they were short of entries, because this is a nicely-run, friendly event over an attractive, if undulating, course.

That's how I came to be lining up in the Spice Ball park this morning, only a few hours after finally getting to bed after my daughter's 21st party. One of the party guests, a university friend of my daughter, had risen to the challenge and entered too, and I was glad of the company though I insisted he must run his own race (I don't think he ever intended to do otherwise) and left him at the front of the start while I searched out a place near the back more appropriate to my eccentric preparation. Savouring the smell of roasting coffee from the General foods plant which pervades the local atmosphere, I greeted a clubmate who was wrapped up in several layers, hat and gloves - the hat, she told me, borrowed from another clubmate - while I was optimistically wearing vest and shorts. It was cool on the line, not the sunny spring day that it had seemed to be on the drive north, but I thought I'd warm up enough and that she (and the many others similarly attired) would find the going hot.

The course climbs out of the town on Southam Road, across the M40, before turning right at Little Bourton and wending its way, via the outskirts of Great Bourton, to Cropredy. It's uphill most of the way to Great Brourton, then downhill to the railway, underneath that, and through the village. I caught Andy and ran along with him for a while, testing his pace but finding it not fast enough to suit even my modest ambitions, so I left him behind. On the descent to Cropredy the wind was at my back, though the feeling of flying was mitigated by the many others who were clearly flying even better than me, but through the village I caught and passed a few of them again until I stopped at the first drinks station for a cup of water.

Apart from the wind, the conditions were as near perfect as one could wish, and the wind was at our backs anyway. Would it do that strange thing that winds so often do, and change direction when we reach the turn (but today do it in a benevolent way)? Only time would tell.

I passed the same BMW sports car, with the same guy standing by it ready to shout encouragement to someone not far from my position in the race. You're an inspiration" I called to him. He replied that I was a good man. A little later I passed a runner heading disconsolately back towards Banbury, not obviously injured but for some reason his race run: I wondered whether he might hitch a lift in a BMW.

Past about 5.5 miles, and i was quite warm enough, wondering how Sam in her borrowed hat would be somewhere behind. The wind carried a smell, but whether it was pig manure or pungent roasting coffee was hard to determine - surely the General Foods aroma doesn't reach six miles?

Past the six mile mark and the road climbs, not steeply and not for too long but quite enough at this stage, from a turning to a farmhouse: but as I reached the visible top of the climb I could see that it continued after a right-angled bend. Still not steep, but definitely long. A black Renault Megane sped past taking no prisoners: runners in front of me waved to slow the driver, with little effect. I passed a White horse harrier who, earphones in place, didn't even hear me coming ...

200 yards ahead there was a yellow vest. Should I chase it down and perhaps improve my standing in the club championship? It might, on the other hand, turn out to belong to a Headington Roadrunner or (less likely) a member of Bedford AC. As it happened, I didn't need to wonder - a mile or so later on, after a particularly flowing section of the race, I caught Trish and, for the time being (but not for the last time this morning) passed her after another brief pacemaking experiment.

I glanced at my Forerunner and found to my alarm that I was running at 7:30 pace, but it felt good. We were half-way now, and the wind was still behind us but the sky looked ominous and the temperature was definitely favouring the hat-wearers. we passed a huddle of mobile homes - for whom? What a desolate place to live - unless they were for agricultural or stable-yard workers, and even then it's still desolate. Perhaps it's less so in the summer: tit was becoming more like winter with every step. A steep hill interrupted the flow, and I exchanged comments on it with a passing runner, then shortened my stride, got up on my toes and treated it like a staircase (one stair at a time). At the top, a water station: "We climb that", I challenged them, pointing back over my shoulder, "and you offer us water?" I think - I hoped - that a bit of jocularity will go down well with the people manning the facility, and it did.

Having past Trish, I ran through Cropredy with Kate, who knows another of my clubmates well, but she showed me a clean pair of heels on the climb out of the village which had been such a pleasant descent a hour earlier. The same group of spectators banging cans and blowing horns was still there, despite the now-rotten weather.

"Remind me why we do this", Kate requested, and I replied that it was not for fun - that fun and run should never be allowed to co-exist in a sentence. It is a good question, and one with at least 400 answers among the competitors today. The rain was horizontal now, and the wind pushed the runners off-course when it came from the side: when it came from in front, it made us struggle up the hills. Then hail briefly replaced the rain: not a welcome development. The Cropredy railway bridge had become a wind tunnel, and we were the half-scale cars trying to force our way through the air. This was not north Oxfordshire at its best.

I was alone as I made the descent, back the way we had come earlier, to the Southam Road and the M40 bridge. It's a long steady slope that would carry you down most satisfyingly, if you didn't have 12 or 13 miles' running in your legs already. My pace had disappeared, and several people came past - Trish among them. Then a Headington guy, and a female clubmate of his to whom he was giving verbal encouragement that helped all of us who could hear it: he carried me back past Trish, then up the slope that I recalled so well from last year prior to diving under a road and emerging into the woodland by the park where the finish (as well as the start) was located.

A runner passed me on the final right-angled bend, but I didn't much care. The Headington girl was beyond reach. I sprinted, though spectators might have missed it, but the distance to the line didn't permit any catching of others - even if my speed had been sufficient. I compared times with Trish, and we wandered off to the sports centre, me looking for Dave, our party guest. i found him sitting, looking rather forlorn, on a chair in the sports hall. "So, how did you get on?" I asked, one of those almost-meaningless questions runners ask each other and often a cue for a series of excuses. I expected him to give me a time, probably in the one-thirties (against my 2:03:48), so his answer left me momentarily baffled: "Second", he said.

01 March 2009

Go down easy

The difference between the end of February and the beginning of March is infinitesimal - but it can also be huge. I didn't run until shortly after noon today, but as I headed off into the countryside I felt the sun warm on my skin and, although there was a cool breeze and the sun didn't oblige for the whole of my excursion, I was plenty warm enough in vest and shorts. Spring has arrived.

I have come to the conclusion that I might have to give in to the inevitable and listen to my MP3 player while running. There is so much music I haven't yet discovered, and so much that I have already discovered but haven't listened to for years. I can't believe I was unaware of Hallelujah until a couple of months ago; I still don't know anything by Nick Drake; I've downloaded several recordings by Vladimir Visotskii but not yet listened to them; and I mistakenly, foolishly, rejected John Martyn on the strength of something I heard, probably, on Sounds of the Seventies (when the seventies were new) and more recently an execrable performance by him at Cropredy. Plus, the Podcasts just keep piling up, though that's partly my fault for subscribing to so many of them.

But today I didn't take the MP3 player, and was glad I didn't, because it was a perfect day for reminding myself about the joys of running in the English countryside. If I listened to music, I wouldn't hear the birdsong, and today there were plenty of birds singing - mostly, I think, skylarks. I checked the sound on the RSPB website and it sounds right.

I took the long route, via Saltbox, out to the old university research station, back along the Ridgeway and up the long, long climb by the gallops. Along the concrete road past Saltbox and the racing yard I experimented with breathing rhythms, as suggested in RW this month: first, two paces breathing in, two paces breathing out (and I think I'm normally breathing in for one pace, out for three, so this makes some difference), then once that was working I tried three and three, which to my surprise turned out to be quite easy too. For added value, I counted in sixes, in German, because I can never deal with German numbers instinctively - "vier" always eludes me, for some reason. Along the straight to the research station I alternated sprinting and jogging between the telegraph posts, so was ready for a gentle mile or two when I got back onto grass.

Further on, reaching the top of the climb from the A34 tunnel, I stopped and took off my shoes and socks. I will never forget an advertising campaign by the British Museum a few years ago (excoriated here, and quite rightly I suppose). Seeking to promote its antiquities collection, it focused on ancient athletic training techniques, and included the arresting suggestion, "Get naked!". They weren't encouraging athletes to start streaking, but limited the advice to feet, and of course there is plenty more advice about the benefits of barefoot running - this article in the FT, for example, and the Natural Running website. I had to control my imagination, though, especially given that at that time I found myself most often running with attractive young ladies from work. As it happens, even when baring nothing but my feet I have done it only when running alone.

Today I ran a good mile along the Ridgeway, which is in excellent condition since all motorised vehicles were banned from it. I avoided my painful error from the last time I tried the barefoot thing, which was to carry on heel-striking until (after about 5 seconds) I landed on a flint. The whole purpose of the exercise is to get you up on the balls of your feet, which induces in me a strange mincing gait, which I rather hope I'll get out of with practice.

Sitting in the sun replacing my footwear and listening to the (presumed) skylarks - they were singing in flight, which is a dead giveaway, isn't it? - was as blissful as the running, so I paused my watch and sat for a minute or two, taking in everything the Berkshire Downs in spring had to offer. Then I headed downhill towards home, checking for interest roughly how long I took for the measured kilometre over which I ran a pathetic one-and-a-half reps yesterday at 4.15 pace: without much effort, I covered it in about 4.20 today, although that was a downhill K.

Next Sunday it's the Banbury 15, and my first assignment for RW. The course description says, with a fine display of irony perhaps: "You will find the course fairly fast but there are sizeable hills about 1 1/2, 2 1/4, 6 and 11 miles". I remember them from last year ... North Oxfordshire is far from mountainous, but it isn't like a billiard table either. And those are only the up-hills: from what I remember, it uses many of the same roads on the way out and the way back. At least for every climb there will be an equal and opposite descent.