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.

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