27 April 2009

The Long and Winding Road

I started the Compton 40 over three years ago, and finally finished it
yesterday morning. I have had a long rest in between.

As I recorded at the time, I completed the first 20-mile loop of the
figure-of-eight course in fairly good shape, and set off on the second
loop well aware that in five miles I would be at home, it would be
lunchtime, and I would be longing for a bath. Unsurprisingly, the idea
of running another 15 miles had little to commend it, and I dropped out
at that stage. Even running another half-mile down the road and back to
make up a Marathon distance was anathema. Strange how a few extra miles
can take you from feeling you can run forever to scarcely being able to

Yesterday, I set off from home to run that last 15, plus the five back
home from the finish. It was a glorious morning, and as well as the
route description which I had printed out (and which I had never felt
confident about being able to follow, having failed to plot it onto an
OS map successfully) I had the route saved in my Forerunner. I found it
absolutely brilliant - ave for one thing: the battery, which was about
three-quarters charged when I set off, ran out before I reached home.
But it got me round to Compton, which is what mattered. The display
showed an arrow pointing the way I had to go (well, to the nearest of
eight compass points, which was quite enough), and if I strayed it
beeped within a few yards to tell me it had lost the route and to point
me back the right way. I don't think the battery would cope with a fill
40 miler, though (it might be pushed to do a Marathon) unless I could
save enough power by shutting off the HRM, which on a long run like that
isn't doing anything useful anyway.

Just like three years ago, I flagged a couple of miles from home. I
think I had paced myself carefully for the first 15, though as much of
the course is on trails it is hard to judge the pace. I think I had
gone further than I should without something to drink - nothing more
than an energy gel to keep me going. I passed several pubs en route, so
if I try again I'll take some money with me.

21 April 2009

At the Crossroads

The perfect song for anyone who doesn't know whether they are coming or going, or at least it should be. I have loved it since I first heard it, on the famous Island Records sampler "Nice Enough to Eat", released in 1969 - though I think it must have been a year or two later when I first heard it. Suddenly, this morning, I thought I knew what the song was about: and looking at the lyrics, which are pretty banal, it has to be said, I was wrong.

Even had I been correct, it is not as if the imagined sentiment of the piece coincides with my present state of mind. So all in all it was a pretty baffling experience, but it is a fine performance and an attractive song - well, I like it, anyway - but not deep.

Far from being at a crossroads (or, for that matter, at the crossroads) I seem to be on a nice straight, possibly even with a slight downward gradient. In addition to a great deal of work, my performances in the Harwell run at lunchtime and the Oxon road relays on Sunday indicate a return to something near the level of fitness I crave.

There's not so much to say about the Relays, but I'll say what I can because I was just looking back at a post from a couple of years ago where I had a great deal to say about style. If my head is not bursting with ideas for writing, at least my notebook is, so a little practice using the English language is timely.

I've run in the relays before, at least once: I remember a satisfying run in which I caught and passed some other runners, and if I was caught and passed by yet others I have conveniently forgotten about it. I also recall running in an unofficial yellow vest (a Cancer Reseach one, as it happens) because I hadn't at that stage inveseted in a real club vest, which would have got us disqualified except that I was running two legs of the race anyway and we therefore could not figure in the results. I remember volunteering to make up the numbers in that way, arguing that I couldn't run the course fast, but I could run it twice.

It is an interesting course, 3.3 miles (so Rach tells me: I had a complete Garmin failure on Sunday morning) through the village of Hook Norton (yes, past the famous brewery) and then out through the countryside before returning to the sports ground - where the distance is made up by forcing runners to go right round the cricket pitch. Dispiriting, to pass through the entrance with the finish line, attended by a huddle of timekeepers, right in front of you, but having to go round all four sides of a rectangle before approaching the line from the other direction. At least it's on soft, well-tended grass, good for sprinting.

Hook Norton is one of those delightful stone-built Cotswold villages that typify a certain type of English landscape. The race sets off from the sports ground (with a spanking new building since last I was there) and loops through the village first, and as third runner in my team (of six) I didn't find the field strung out too much when it came my turn to run. But I had run into an unexpected problem before the start, having timed my arrival at the sports ground - as requested by my team captain - for half an hour before I would be expected on the line. As I entered the ground, the captain was just departing on his leg of the race, for the club's other vet team, and no-one knew where he had put the numbers. I arrived at the start line wearing a hand-crafted race number - with a primary school teacher on one of the ladies' teams, we were assured of access if needed to a marker pen, and she did a good job of writing on a piece of card pinned to my chest - and though the captain reappeared before I had to take over, the interval was not great enough to permit him to unite me with the official number.

Among the pleasures of running at club level is that you don't just run with clubmates and other friends, you also find that you know some of the marshals. One of my clubmates was at the first junction, though he seemed to be taking photos rather than officiating, and when I returned 20 minutes or so later another clubmate, having run her leg for the team, was on duty. But friends or strangers, marshals are invariably encouraging and friendly, which is why I always invest some of my scarce breath in thanking them.

Downhill to the brewery (I think), then I turned uphill towards the large and imposing Norman church and the spot where I had parked the car, passing those stone cottages and houses that epitomise the area. Beautiful as the Cotswolds are, from the runner's point of view it has to be noted with regret that they are a range of hills, modest admittedly but hills nonetheless, and turning left off the main street I climbed towards the fire station after which we were in open, rolling, countryside.

The weather was comfortably warm, the sun was suitable for one who recently lost his running sunglasses, and there was little wind and no precipitation. Almost a perfect running day. But I had fouled up my personal timekeeping (nowadays, with the Garmin, more like a complicated data collection exercise) because of worrying about my number at the start, so all I had was the timer which I had started a couple of minutes late. These days, I need more information to run - pace, distance, heart rate ... So the rest is a bit of a blur.

And, actually, the scenery isn't really great. It's perfectly nice, but though it isn't flat, like the White Horse half for example (I wonder what the chap I met on that, who said it should have been described as "undulating", would make of Hooky?) the hills are not really worth calling hills at all, just gentle climbs and descents. Outside the village, it's all run on fairly wide country roads, and with the rural section being less than three miles it's over rather quickly. 23:26 for me - gratifyingly faster than a couple of my team mates, though I reckon the one I should be benchmarking myself against was a minute or more faster than me. I reckon that is about 7.06 minutes per mile, which is pretty reasonable - though it has left me with a painful left knee. In fact, it was hurting when I set off, a hangover from the previous Tuesday: running is what makes it feel better, stopping running is what hurts.

Today, I got the Harwell run more nearly right than I have ever managed before. That is, I turned up hydrated with sports drink, wearing the right kit (compression socks, racing shoes), Garmin locked onto a satellite, and by car rather than foot or bicycle. I also had nine minutes before I had to start, compared to seven seconds last week. So when I was set off I quickly caught the runner who'd gone a few seconds earlier.

The course begins, rather like Sunday's relays, on a playing field, this on the edge of what we all call the Site - once RAF Harwell, then the Atomic Energy Authority's place and now a sprawling science city occupied by myriad high-technology companies, some of which clearly employ runners. The most significant feature of the Site is the Wire, which surrounds the really sensitive bit of the Site, and the route of the race follows the wire from the edge of the playing field, then turns ninety degrees to the left to a roundabout which we have to negotiate with the right blend of care and racing commitment - usually meaning that I just dare any drivers to assert their right of way as I cross the road.

Over the road, the route takes to a grassy bank surrounding a reservoir (itself behind more wire) before heading across a field to the war memorial that marks the end of the old runway where the first troops set off (by glider) for D-Day. From there, we run under trees which are now becoming inconveniently leafy: the branches, under the new weight of foliage, droop to the height of a runner's face, and the darkness at ground level makes roots and fallen twigs hard to spot.

A couple of hundred yards on, and the route is forced to divert round the end of a relatively new wire fence next to the village school, doubling back on the road then turning sharp right and descending to the tunnel under the A34. Through the tunnel, which (perhaps being well-frequented) isn't too insalubrious, runners then have to regain the elevation we just lost before negotiating the entrance to a new estate of "executive" houses and scampering down the hill to the village pub. A parked vehicle forced me into the middle of the road down here, and a learner driver came from behind me at exactly the same point, but we made it through the gap side-by-side.

From the Rose and Crown, where I have been about three times in my life (once one Christmas morning, with Bob, and another time with Alex to secure second place in a quiz, despite the other teams being twice as well-staffed as our) the race proceeds up South Row, high banks on each side with houses overlooking the road: up here, I got up on my toes and chased down the next runner, though I didn't catch him for a couple of hundred yards after we'd turned onto a track on the left after the climb, past the deserted shop and the burnt-out house next to it at the top of the climb.

The surface of the tracks that make up the loop through the country and back to Chilton, and which feature on so many of my runs, isn't good, so a lot of switching direction is called for at the best of times. Today there was little standing water, which frequently extends right across the track, and I saw at the half-way point that I was just over seven-minute mile pace. Down Dene Hollow I ran, and up the other side with another runner in front who looked pretty tired: I picked him off before we reached the church, the two of us passing on different sides of the waiting bus parked across the entrance to Limetrees. Up the short but steep rise towards the village hall, another runner appeared having run he short course and I passed her very quickly, then caught the next full-distance man - taking, I thought, the lead, but with little expecttation of retaining it for the next mile.

I attacked the footbridge and suffered for it down the other side, working hard to get my breathing back to something like a regular pattern, then stepped carefully over the council's supposed improvements to the footways and kerbs outside the school before getting onto a tree-shaded track parallel to the one on which we'd run the other way a quarter of a hour earlier. Past the war memorial: over the road: back across the field towards the reservoir again - except that I took the wrong path, and a tall, lean and young competitor took my place easily while I was correcting my error. Well, there was no way I'd have matched his pace anyway, and a little later another guy came past too. I closed up the gap to him sprinting across the field, but he still had a few yards in had as we reached the finish - er - tree.

I'd beaten my handicap by over 50 seconds - at least, I think that's one way to read the results - and, after about ten seconds of feeling so ill as to imagine I was about to die (a familiar sensation at the end of a hard race, so fully expected) a warm glow of satisfaction developed. No knee pain, no trouble from anywhere ni fact: a good run, a good result, and a good feeling about progress, n spite of my erratic training.

[No embedded video today, because it's one of those that YouTube don't allow you to do that with: someone must have their reasons. But you can get to it via the link at the start of this posting - a long, long way back!]

15 April 2009

Ça ira

A little sunshine makes all the difference. That, and a superb running day yesterday. After the Harwell Fun Run at lunchtime, I put in a seven mile plus club run in the evening in just over one hour. It was a multi-terrain route, and I felt particularly good at the top of a long and fairly steep climb on a woodland path up Boars Hill. I attacked it with gusto, sticking with one clubmate and leaving Dave and Jean-Luc behind. I didn't raise my heartrate above 180, as I had done at lunchtime with a very fast finish, but it just felt good to clock up the miles at a reasonable pace. Again I was able to put in a fast finish: I caught Jean-Luc with about 50 yards to go, although I thought I had seen the last of him a couple of miles earlier when he had much more in the tank than I did. I could hear him coming back at me, so I pushed, and when that didn't shake him off I lengthened my stride, upped the cadence and covered the last few yards like a 100m sprinter.
My only concern is that my left knee isn't happy. I strapped it up before heading to work this morning and hope it will soon pass. At least when I reached the station I was able to stand in weak but welcome sunshine and wait for the train.

10 April 2009

Third time around

What better way to mark Good Friday than a race? I'm sure many people will have other ideas, and it's certainly not the most obvious way to celebrate one of the great festivals of the Christian church, but the Maidenhead Easter 10 has been run 56 times now, so it is pretty ancient. Nearly as ancient as me.

The fact that it featured in the club championship persuaded me that I should enter, and helped to ensure that I got to the start in good time. Fortunately, James noticed I didn't have thee timing chip attached to me as we headed for the start, so I went back to the car to remedy that omission, and at the finish a helper stopped me to remove it before I had walked off with it still in place.

I'd entered it in the expectation that it would be a 10K, but 56 years ago I suppose kilometres weren't common currency here: when Rachael announced (on Twitter) that she hoped to break one hour, I immediately thought that was very unambitious, then read the small print.

It was an uneventful day, actually: the route is nothing to write home about, being twice round a business park with a spike taking you down the access road before performing a u-turn, turning off to the left on a cycle path on the second time round toward the west. A loop to the south and back up to the east of the business park, then round the offices again to the finish. (Here's what my Garmin recorded - I don't know what I did after the finish, but it has recorded some movement, perhaps driving out of the car park.) The weather was quite wet, though the rain wasn't heavy and Andy said he preferred oit that way: I worried that it might bring back the cold that I throught I had just about seen the back of. The marshals looked uncomfortable when the weather was at its worst, so I took particular care to thank them - which I didn't hear others doing.

I hardly saw anyone I knew (except Mark and Rachael up front as the leaders came through on the two-way stretch near the start), although I started with Andy, left him behind, and finished behind him, which was a little baffling. I stopped about mile 6 at a drinks station, to wash down an energy gel with water, which might be where he passed me: and it meant that my final time included a minute or two stationary - taking lunch, as I explained to two spectators.

I'd hoped to average 8 minute miles, and in fact got in with over 2 minutes in hand, 534th and comfortably in the first half. I came in just behind a blind runner and his guide who I'd passed and repassed a few times over the course of the race, the guide counting down the paces to the road humps: maybe if I had sprinted harder I might have beaten them, but it seemed unnecessary to take anything away from their achievement (and who knows whether I could have outsprinted them anyway?). The results are near here, but the timing people ask that links be confined to the home page, which seems a bit unnecessary as there isn't any advertising there, which is the usual reason for getting visitors to land there. Perhaps it's so we all see the copyright notice, though I notice that it doesn't identify who is trading as "JAND Results" and is therefore illegal.

My pace was pretty consistent, too, with only one mile over 8 minutes and the first three below 7:30, and it didn't feel too tough. I'm not stiff, not falling asleep, not showing most of the usual signs of having done a long run, so perhaps I'll be OK for the Compton Downland Challenge (but surely not the 40!) tomorrow.

06 April 2009

Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread

I've delayed my departure to the office for long enough this morning ... time to go, pausing to collect some change from the large, and therefore heavy, bottle in which spare coins are kept ...

05 April 2009

White Horse

As I drove past the Williams F1 factory on my way to the start of the White Horse Half Marathon this morning, I idly wondered how they might get on at the Malaysian Grand Prix which started at the same moment as my race. In fact, as we set off round the edge of Grove, Nico Rosberg grabbed the lead away from the startline, and I expect there was great excitement on the other edge of town (I'm sure the factory is far from empty on race days).

Still suffering from the tail-end of my cold (several coughing fits over the next 13 miles bearing witness to that), I intended to run a steady race at a modest pace. Perhaps 8 minute miles, like Jean-Luc who passed me after a couple of miles with a friend who complained that he was exceeding the promised pace. I let him drag me along, as I was feeling good in the spring sun, and I clocked a series of miles in the 7:35 - 7:50 range until half-way came up and the wheels came off. There was little for it other than to stop for a cup of water then continue at a much more suitable pace.

The course is a good, flat one, great for personal bests if you feel up to it (it's where I recorded mine, three years back) - which I certainly didn't today. The railway bridge at about 1.6 miles isn't pleasant (and at 12 miles, on the way back, it's infinitely worse), and on the way out the road drops quite sharply after that Heartbreak Bridge (meaning another climb near the end) before climbing to Denchworth and turning right on a loop through the countryside to the north. The flat countryside is saved from monotony by plenty of trees and hedges lining the roads, and there's a bit of a climb up to about mile 5 (plus another just short of mile 11 up into Denchworth again), but the runner I chatted to as we found ourselves side-by-side who suggested that it should be described as "undulating" must have been from Holland, or the Fens. Larks, and other less easily-identified birds, sang on each side of the road. On the edge of Charney Bassett, two horses watched quizzically over their stable doors as we ran past.

"It's difficult not to take a short-cut" protested a voice behind me as we rounded a 90-right, me on the left as the signs (and rules) instructed: how did he know there was no traffic approaching? Nothing difficult about it at all - if you have the will-power to run a half-Marathon, I'm sure you can find the will-power to go the long way round a corner. Otherwise, this was a disciplined race, and everyone (possibly excluding the presumed Dutchman, although he didn't seem unhappy) was good-natured. My report for Runner's World will be quite easy to compose: it is a really nice event, though I mustn't get too carried away with praise for the organisers (house style). I can say it here, though - great job, as always - this is my fifth White Horse half.

In Malaysia the heavens had opened, but we enjoyed perfect running weather for the whole distance. My second-half pace varied wildly from one mile to the next, not helped by a pitstop, and I passed and was repassed by several others.

Jean-Luc had pased me when I made my pit-stop, but I caught him again before Denchworth: he was having a hard time with leg problems. As we entered the village, a marshal assured us that we were doing well: I told her she was lying, as far as my performance was concerned. A lady runner objected that she was having a good run, and I told her I was very pleased for her. She pulled away from me, and I found myself passing and repassing (and sometimes running with) a Headington Road Runner with his name, Andrew, across his back. He'd speed up, then slow to a walk: I remonstrated, telling him he'd been inspiring me, and he got going again, though I found a little more in the tank after the railway bridge ("I love this bridge!" I called to the marshall as I shortened by stride and passed a few others on the way up it) and caught the girl for whose performance I had expressed delight, and also a couple of Andrew's team mates, one of whom repassed me just before the line. I summoned up enough of a sprint to hold my place after that, which turned out to be fortunate.

I was happy to be able to run at all, and content to get round in just over 1:50 - and to be handed a spot prize voucher (thanks, I realised later, to the lady who passed me at the last minute!), which I redeemed for a bottle of Valpolicella before heading home. My first-ever running prize, apart from what I have brought back from INTA 5ks in the past (not this year, again, sadly).

01 April 2009

A Hard Rain's A'Gonna Fall

We turned the lights out at home last Saturday, for Earth Hour: sheer tokenism, I suppose, and no inconvenience because we were watching TV and it illuminated the room pretty well. But overall the exercise saved a fair amount of carbon emissions, so it had some practical value (just a drop in the ocean). Or did it?

Energise!, the book by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky which I mentioned in my blog yesterday about the Oxford Literary Festival, questions the received wisdom about global warming and energy. To my simple mind, it seems that it looks exclusively at the supply side, while the rock stars and failed politicians (but Al Gore didn't really fail, did he, just fell victim to a few hanging chads? Having lost an election by one vote, I can sympathise with him) look at the demand side. It strikes me that both are important.

By considering energy supply, the authors are able to relieve humankind of the guilt that made Earth Hour work. James, who said he does the populist energy bit (while Joe, the academic scientist, does the hard climate change bit: I remarked in my introduction that they had chosen shirts that reflected this, James in bright stripes, Joe in dour charcoal), referred to dinner parties at which the conversation turns on what guests have done to offset their carbon emissions. "I planted a rainforest in Indonesia to offset my travel to this dinner party ...". And in my own mind I added: "... but illegal loggers chopped it down ...". Perhaps Carol Drinkwater could make a persuasive case for planting olive trees on the advancing margins of the Sahara in Algeria instead - she explained that this is already being done.

James suggests that human beings made the mistake of making too many - somethings - I didn't catch what, because I instantly knew what the problem was: too many human beings! The pressure on scarce resources - even if those resources are not going to run out in the foreseeable future - comes from the size of the human population. I have often thought, when reading or hearing of some species perhaps on the edge of extinction, or perhaps present in what are considered good numbers, how small are the populations of so many other species compared with human beings. It's hard to think of population growth as an unqualified Good Thing (especially concentrated on the south-east corner of England).

Hmmm. It wasn't my job yesterday to argue with the speakers, and I plan to do them the courtesy of reading their book - but I think a lot of it will go against my own thoughts, and perhaps make me very angry. We don't have to feel guilty - unless we have something to feel guilty about. I don't feel particularly guilty about using my car, or even flying sometimes, partly because where appropriate I use a train or bike, or walk or run. My aim is not to be selfishly profligate about it, and I fear this "no guilt" argument, which perhaps (let me read the book) simply rejects opposing points of view, fails to acknowledge that there is a middle way where supply side and demand side can meet.

James finished his presentation with a quote from Steinmetz, perhaps providing a justification for rejecting the opposite viewpoint: “There are no foolish questions and no man becomes a fool until he has stopped asking questions” ((omitting the first six words). How am I to moderate a question and answer session after the audience has just been told that? However, my speakers indicate that they would like to engage in a debate about the "Green New Deal": but the audience doesn't really oblige.

Two other random thoughts, one remarked on by several people in the marquee where the event took place: the lights have been blazing throughout, and there is no visible way to switch them off. At the end, the heating fires up too, though it's warm enough with the sun on the white walls.

And secondly, the idea of burying carbon, extracted from the chimney of power stations, intrigues me. Nothing new about capturing the carbon and burying it: but will we later be digging the stuff up again to burn? Perhaps it should be buried conveniently in worked-out coal mines. The idea of mining for metals in landfill sites also comes to mind as a result of another comment. An entertaining and enlightening (but I don't necessarily think enlightened) hour, and two delightful speakers to look after (which is what I was there for, after all) - but I'll make up my mind when I read the book, I think.