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!]

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