25 September 2011

Run run run

A mile or so into my run this morning, I was mentally planning a language course. Although I am a poor linguist, I am rather addicted to language courses. My problem is always that the subject-matter isn't sufficiently interesting. How about teaching languages using running vocabulary? Courir, correr, laufen ... je suis blessé - mes genoux, mes pieds, mon (ma?) plantar fascia.

Thoroughly distracted from the matter in hand, I suddenly realised that I was heading down a slight hill, heel-striking with my arms flapping loosely by my sides. Better leave the language courses to those better qualified to create them, and keep my mind on running. Or find a language course and use it as a model, adopting running vocabulary - and running situations: you can still do all those directions, food, relationships, etc., stuff in a running context, can't you?

I was pleased with myself to be running for the second successive day, following yesterday's Parkrun in Abingdon. Not a great time: 11 seconds slower than the last one I did, partly because of congestion along the single-file riverside path, partly because I was there merely to get round without worrying about my time. Not worrying about my time? What rubbish. What runner has ever done a timed event without worrying about how long it would take? Still, after my chaotic year of running and injury it was pretty satisfying.  I was even predicting to friends that this time next year I'd be in sight of 20 minutes. I had my tongue in my cheek - but who knows?

Then yesterday evening Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run, my second favourite running book (no-one can come close to Murakami, I'm afraid) posted You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because… .  I'd heard (recently: therefore too late) of John J Kelley, but never heard of the Dipsea Demon, Jack Kirk - who ran the Dipsea Race 67 consecutive times, from 1930 to 2002 (the missing years accounted for by war and depression - economic, not mental). A man to admire, I think: one should avoid having heroes (which for some reason that I have never understood is the first noun the Penguin Russian Course throws at you: but I digress, although it might be useful to remember for the Runner's Russian course), and anyway they often prove disappointing - pace Bob Dylan, who seems to take a cavalier attitude to others' images when producing his own paintings (but that's a  matter for another blog). I'm trying to come up with a similar handle for myself to the Dipsea Demon, which will have to be Ridgeway R... Any suggestions? Or too presumptuous? Yeah, probably.

So, inspired by a 96-year-old trail runner, and the NYT story linked from CMcD's blog (Marathoners in their late 30's - mere striplings), I dragged myself out for a trot round my regular loop this morning. Just as well I got it done, because this evening the news is that Radcliffe and Gebrselassie, about whom the NYT was talking, both missed out on winning in Berlin. But I know I am not in their league - hardly even on the same planet. I am just so happy to find that I can still run. I wore my NYC Marathon 1998 vest for the Parkrun yesterday, to remind myself that I could once run, then proved it this morning, even if Mr Garmin ran out of juice at about 3 miles so there is no record of most of the run. Let me tell you (not that you're interested, really, are you?) that I kept up a good clip along the Ridgeway and burnt up the road down to the village school, then blasted across the A34 footbridge which is the second steepest (but shortest) hill on the route. No idea about pace or total time, though.

And returned home very satisfied, with more left in the tank, and feeling like a runner again. Oh, and the pains in my left heel and my right Achilles tendon are responding very well to running therapy: they have almost gone. For now.

No Parkrun next week, unless there's one in Moscow.

23 September 2011


Lazy Girl Running asks what the collective noun for three PBs in six weeks should be, and answers her own question: an awesome. She's trying to do one, and good luck to her. I'd thought about suggesting calling it a PB cubed, which is hard to put in a blog owing to the lack of superscript, and while I was thinking about that my mind went back to the days when I did PBs: and a look through this blog confirmed that I had done three, in about a month, aided by achieving two in one race (5K and 10K). Crazy. Perhaps also aided by some erratic record keeping. And anyway my triptych was an easy one: 5K, 10K and half, whereas she's a stage ahead of that having started with a Marathon PB. So mine's a minor awesome, perhaps, and hers will definitely be a major one.

21 September 2011

White Horse

It's a rare thing, I suppose, to have a book written about you without having any input into it. But essentially Born To Run is about Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco, although there's a lot more to it than just him. He is, in a small way, a legend: indeed, to many of the locals in that part of Chihuahua that he has made his home he was thought of as a ghost, if I remember the book correctly.

On Monday he certainly wasn't a ghost: he was in London, speaking to a hundred or enthusiasts, most of whom - surprise, surprise - had read the book. It was his opportunity to tell his story himself - though he admitted he's writing a book too - not that he seemed to have much argument with Chris McDougall's work, which he described as a "really nice book".

The audience was distinctive, recognisable by their running backpacks, drinks bottles (those whose backpacks didn't pipe their refreshments to their mouths), serious oversize GPS watches, heavy-duty trainers (one pair of Five-Fingers and one of Huaraches: mine were in my backpack, and I didn't think they'd look good with pinstripes), Gore-Tex outer layers, and ultra-runner stubble. The national tendancy to obesity had clearly passed this group by, and my marmalade flapjack habit (but it is classic runner's food) probably meant that I had more excess weight than the rest of the audience put together. My concessions to the dress code were my Livestrong band (after a couple of breakages this one has been on for five years) and a Jerry Garcia tie, although geography aside the overlap between Deadhead and ultra culture is probably vanishingly small.
Three of those present were wearing suits, but I never found out what excuses the other two had. The sound check found one of them: "In the suit, at the back - can you hear?" "Yeah - what language is that?" Nice.

Kes, who had put the whole thing together, asked for our indugence to enable a few missing souls to find their way to the venue: "If you can find your way around the Barbican, the Copper Canyon will be a breeze." Micah introduced himself as "the lone wanderer of the London wilderness", not for the time being of the Sierra Madre. He turned out to be an engaging and fluent but not polished speaker - much as you'd expect. I learnt years ago not to drink water close to a microphone (thanks, Ray Snow, in that recording studio on Abbey Road - no, a different one) and I can tell you that from a plastic bottle with one of those spout things on the top it is even worse: maybe it's part of Micah's charm - and I can understand that he is keen to stay hydrated. Just not like that while using a public address system.

He started by telling us about the tarahumara, so called because the Spanish invaders heard that instead of "raramuri" (which means running people): being a non-confrontational people, they said (according to Micah) "whatever - just don't call us late for dinner." We saw a short film about them, and he told us that in the 2006 Coppoer Canyon Ultramarathon - the one featured in the book, but actually the fifth, not the first as widely thought - the first four places were taken by raramuri and him. Later he explained how he had come to the area and become a race promoter - not, I think, that he'd give himself such a title.

The race is sponsored, he said, not by a big corporation but by "korima" - the raramuri concept of sharing. Great idea, but it doesn't pay the bills, does it? In Urique the bills are small to start with, so sharing gets you a long way - and the communal (perhaps even communist) ethos certainly has its appeal. Caballo also gave us another raramuri expression, Norawas de Raramuri, "friends of the running people" - he told us, gratifyingly, that by turning up and paying our tenners for the evening, we'd all become friends of the running people. Surely all runners are friends already: I certainly like to think of other runners as friends, although that puts me in mind of the difficulty I've remarked on before of making eye-contact with other runners in central London.

As I have been slow to post, the Lazy Girl Running blog beat me to it and with much more style - there's not much point in repeating what she has to say. But I will note a few points that Caballo set me thinking about ...

  • He spoke of "the romantic notion of practising self-propulsion." Fantastic. The lady on the coach yesterday evening with the Brompton liked it too.
  • He mentioned the point at which "I started taking myself too seriously." I did that too. About 40 years ago, and I haven't stopped yet.
  • The raramuri greeting "Kuira ba" which literally means "we are one". More hippy nonsense. I love it.
  • He described the Raramuri language as "a mixture of Chinese, Martian and a flock of birds." Memorable. I'll probably recycle that one day (with a footnote to attribute it).
  • He described us as "human two-legged confused ones" who appreciate what no longer exists. I suppose you can say that sort of thing if you're a horse. Food for thought. Does that include listening to the Grateful Dead?

Asked by an audience member whether anyone could run an ultra, he said yes, anyone who wants to do it badly enough (I paraphrase because I didn't note it down). I've said that about marathons before now, and I believe it's nearly true - there are some people who just couldn't even with a superhuman effort of will-power, though they might be able to practise some other method of self-propulsion. An ultra is just somewhat longer, so it needs more willpower, perhaps. One day I'll find out. Thanks, Caballo, for the inspiration.

12 September 2011

Not in our Time

In common with many people people to whom I have spoken recently, I find it hard to believe that the destruction of the World Trade Center was ten years ago. It is an event of such magnitude that it will probably always appear a recent memory. Yesterday, the actual anniversary of course, was marked by many ceremonies and events, including the première of an oratorio entitled Not in our Time by Richard Blackford.
I was introduced to Richard by a mutual friend earlier this year – earlier in the summer, which today has confirmed the joke that I heard a few weeks ago: Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm before it hit New York, has now been further downgraded to English Summer. We might reasonably have hoped for an Indian Summer, but we seem to be deprived of that consolation.
That said, yesterday was pleasant, although I spent much of it indoors. Richard’s work received its première in a bolted-on extra concert which nominally formed part of the Cheltenham Music Festival, which had in truth finished in July. The first half of the programme was an entirely predictable, even hackneyed, selection of American works: Fanfare for the Common Man, followed by another of Copland's top five, the Lincoln Portrait, and finished off with Barber's inevitable Adagio. But in fact, the programme was extremely well-balanced, and therefore well-thought-out: a workout for the brass and percussion to start and a showcase for the strings to finish, and although we hear those works (as I said to Gerald) too often, so we take them rather for granted, they are great pieces. The Fanfare, which I have never heard live before, took on a new, mind-blowing, dimension, and the Adagio was performed with such a light touch as to seem weightless. Both seemed impossibly fresh for works that we hear so often.
As for the Lincoln Portrait, which everybody and anybody in American public life (and Margaret Thatcher) seems to have narrated at one time or another, we had the privilege of hearing the Shakespearean tones of Simon Callow. Does it need an American accent? I think the work takes on a lot of the personality of the narrator, and as an English tribute to an event which was primarily (though by no means exclusively) an American one, it seemed entirely in order.
I guess it benefits from the fact that we don't hear it so often, not as much as the works that bookended it. I'd have rather liked to hear the choral version of the Adagio, which seemed perhaps a missed opportunity with all those singers sitting through the first half with nothing to do (I wonder why they came on at all? Did they sing a little in the Lincoln Portrait, unnoticed by me?) which would have given the programme a little more novelty: but I have no complaints. If it the programme was a bit of a cliché it was nevertheless a brilliantly executed one, and very moving.
I was able to attach myself to the representatives of Richard's record company, a meeting with whom was another purpose of my trip to Cheltenham: we lunched in Raymond Blanc's Brasserie, then made our way to the Town Hall where the chorus were leaving the stage having completed the rehearsal of the new work. That wasn't quite as we had planned it – especially as I was keen to reprise my long-lost career as a performing arts photographer. But if I were unable to get any shots of the rehearsal of Not in our Time, I was fortunate to be able to photograph perhaps the country’s greatest practising actor venturing into what I imagine might well have been new territory for him – I should have asked: when he joined a group which included me at the interval, he told us that his preparation had included listening to Katherine Hepburn's recording, which he estimated from the sound of her voice might have been made minutes before she died. His research had not included the Thatcher version – which I suspect is worth hearing, though this is a piece for occasions, not for daily listening.
The first half, even Mr Callow, were little more than a warm-up for the main event. After the interval (in which we were instructed to present ourselves at the patrons' bar, where we enjoyed a glass and a chat with the Narrator as well as meeting some other new people – to whom I was, to my embarrassment, introduced by the country's most highly-regarded composer of art songs as a leading authority on intellectual property) I had the pleasure of listening to one of the most intelligent, humane pieces of work I have ever come across. Richard had taken part in an interesting panel discussion earlier in the day, which helped to set his work in context. The discussion took us back to the Crusades, perhaps in greater depth than we really wanted given the time available but certainly it was very interesting: and it is the Crusades which inform Richard's work, starting with President Bush's extraordinarily insensitive, ill-informed, destructive reference to the war on terror as a modern version. Did no-one pause for a moment to consider where that word comes from? One of the panellists recalled how Rageh Omah, the BBC's man in the middle east at the time, had reported the gasps when people heard the word. It must be something like threatening the Jewish people with a new holocaust, imagining that it is a neutral expression. I too remember thinking it was an ill-chosen word, though I don't think I realised quite how significant it was at the time. (The panel discussion also produced the interesting insight that Barbara Bush, asked whether her son was dumb, had said: Yes, dumb like a fox. I beg to differ, at least on the basis of this evidence - and notwithstanding my sense of association with President Bush whose personal best for the Marathon was the same as mine for many years - until I took a few minutes off it six years ago.)
So, the music was atmospheric and tonal, the choral parts were excellent, and the concept was inspired. Some of the texts set were, however, a bit weak - they were the rights texts to use, but they weren't up to the job, in my opinion. President Obama's speech at Cairo University was not composed with a view to being set to music. The Falling Man, great in parts, has the same shortcoming in this context, and frankly I found it inappropriately dispassionate. I think I can see what the journalist was trying to do, and in places he succeeds magnificently, but some of the description of a victim's final seconds is simply too clinical. And, like the Obama speech, it lacks the rhythm needed to work as a libretto. To my mind at least.
Ian kindly explained to me a little about "recit", and mentioned how Balshazzar's Feast succeeds with this sort of vocal writing - A Child of Our Time too - so I must go and listen to them. I would much prefer to have listened to Mr Cowell declaiming those passages rather than singers battling with the conflict between the rhythms of speech and those of the music - but that's my taste, and I'm afraid that always grates on my ear. But as the piece ended - ended in what struck me as a highly original way - I was  in no doubt that I had witnessed a significant musical event - and not just musical, I hope. Not enough to get me to my feet, as most of the audience did, and that wasn't entirely because I had spent so much time on them earlier in the day, as I am allowed reservations - but I congratulated Richard when I saw him afterwards, and, musical ignoramus though I might be, all the accolades were richly deserved.

08 September 2011

Time is on my Side

Reassuring information about the benefits of running from Jim's always interesting "Meditation on the Run" blog here, and I should properly give you a link to the original article by Henrietta van Praag in the Australian newspaper site The Age which I suspect doesn't feature in your regular reading.

Thanks, Jim. That will help get me out of the door to break my current running drought (or would "fast" be a better word? Probably not) - so long as my feet will withstand it.