29 January 2012

Long may you run

I got thinking yesterday, after a chat with a modern pentathlete friend: if a pentathlete takes part in a pentathlon, in what does an athlete - such as I pretend to be - participate? And having little better to do this weekend than search for a llama and do the FT crossword and multiple Parkruns, I logged onto the Oxford English Dictionary (courtesy of the County Council Library Service) and found the answer.

The group of words derive from the ancient Greek ἆθλον which means a prize (but you don't get five prizes in a pentathlon, do you?), and ἆθλος meaning a contest (but surely a pentathlon, or pentathlos as perhaps it should be, is in fact only one contest?). Hmm. I have won a spot prize once, but I'm not usually in contention, except for age-group prizes at INTA. Parkrun is, as I mentioned yesterday, emphatically not a contest. We run against the clock, some of us against time itself. I have taken part in contests, but as an extra, a distant figure in a crowd scene.

My conclusion must be, disappointingly, that I am not literally an athlete. (I also made time this weekend to read a few pages on The Guardian's website, and am going to continue to consider myself figuratively as an athlete.) Anyone with whom I was at school would, of course, have told you this already.

Turn, turn, turn

A two-Parkrun weekend this weekend, because Newbury had a trial run this afternoon a couple of weeks in advance of the real start. A single loop (one left turn, then several rights) round the notorious (to anyone of my generation with any interest in politics) Greenham Common, including crossing the main runway - most of which seems to have vanished in the period since the USAF was in residence. A cold wind on the outward section, but not too strong, and it was quite balmy when the wind was behind me - must have been blowing at running pace (which, incidentally, was deliberately slow but evidently rather faster than yesterday) - so I had to remove green hat and gloves. I forgot to wear my Garmin when setting off, but never intended to burn up the course out of deference to both Achilles and Hugo. The former seemed reasonably happy with a heel-banging, modest-paced effort in clunky cushioned shoes; the latter set off too fast, causing another runner whom he passed with me trailing several yards behind to remark "the dog's got a big lead!" - and faded badly after the first mile or so, finishing one extending lead's length behind me - except that I stopped before the line to allow him to finish in front of me.

Photos by Chris Duffer Birch
The official time was 25:25, so that's a PB for Hugo. An improvement of 1:23 from yesterday morning! Maybe the extra clothes I wore had something to do with it? I hadn't really expected to get up to operating temperature.

I'm beginning to think that I need to get myself a new pair of conventional cushioned shoes and at least use them for most of my running until Achilles can cope with minimalism - if that ever comes about. And next time I run the Newbury Parkrun (in three weeks, if all goes to plan) remind me to dig out my old "Lemmings Choose Cruise!" badge to wear. See whether anyone understands the reference.

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

Someone remarked once that a particular model of Jaguar - an XJS, I think - must have been built around the oil filter, so inaccessible was it. I now know that Ford Fiestas of a certain vintage were built round the heater valve. My first thought on trying to replace one was that perhaps they used child labour, because who else would have hands small enough to get into the space provided? But I couldn't imagine Ford doing that - and I realised that it's all to do with the fact that cars are designed carefully for ease (and cheapness) of assembly. The heater valve went in long before most of the other stuff under the bonnet, and replacing a part of the car in a different order from that in which the parts were originally assembled is always going to be tricky. So at least I have a logical explanation, to go with my with my dislike of modern cars.

And why use those strange clamp things that have to be squeezed to open them out, to fasten the hoses on? Spring loaded, self tightening hose clamps, as I find they are called, and you can buy special pliers to open them out. What's wrong with good old Jubilee clips? Jubilee, incidentally, is a (UK) registered trade mark of L. Robinson & Co. (Gillingham) Limited, number 648779, a very low number which dates it to 1946. Interesting. I'll be careful to avoid using the word in a generic sense now.

The answer to that question is probably that it might add 50p to the cost of making the car, but if that's the case why on earth use an electrically operated valve instead of a simple mechanical one? My old frogeye didn't even have a control in the cockpit - it had a tap on the engine block, with "winter" and "summer" settings (heater on or off).

I could, of course, have bought a pair of special pliers to release those clips (and refit them), or I could have bought some worm-drive ones to ease the reassembly, but with a five-mile trip to the nearest shop it seemed easier to press on with a pair of grips, especially for a car that's going on eBay. I probably made the job take an hour longer than necessary, so time-wise not much in it. Next time, though, I'll invest in the right tool and save my hands a battering.

At least the job's done, which enables me to share the Bunns' wonderful version of a Dylan classic which I only discovered recently on a CD I'd never troubled to listen to.

28 January 2012

The Road to Venezuela

A friend who keeps her horses at our field had two llamas delivered yesterday. As soon as they were let loose in the enclosure that had been designated for them, one jumped a series of fences and disappeared into the distance. She is still at large, despite several sightings, and today we spent a few hours combing the countryside for her. Unfortunately, the topography of the Berkshire Downs does not afford extensive views and there is an abundance of cover. It could be a long time before she's caught: it might never happen. A llama hunt is, however, a rare experience, although a request for volunteers to assist - just take a long training run in an area of outstanding natural beauty, for goodness' sake! - at the start of this morning's Parkrun fell on deaf ears.

Two for the price of one

Today's Abingdon Parkrun was also the Freeze Your Thorns Off 5K for me. My first virtual race, but I'm afraid I wasn't racing - first, because Parkrun is definitely, emphatically, legally, not a race, second because I didn't want to aggravate Achilles, and third because I did want to run it with Hugo, who incidentally is English Springer Spaniel Welfare's Dog of the Month. In fact, we had a record entry: three dogs - and about 120 people, making it a double record. The other dogs were miles ahead, but Hugo had a good time although he flagged after the first mile and didn't seem to understand that he was supposed to be towing me, not the other way round. The official time was 26:58, which is probably a record for me - I don't believe I have ever taken so long to run 5K, but I've never run it with a dog in tow before ...
Photo by John Harvey
He also looked a little uncomfortable when I put the roof down for the drive home. When it turned very cold and grey and threatened rain, so did I.

This weekend has become dedicated to the Great Berkshire Llama Hunt. More of that later. Got to get searching.

You'll spot the deliberate mistakes with the Garmin ...

25 January 2012

Let it grow

Too long I have been reading other people's running blogs and ruing doing too much, too soon, too quickly, and too barefoot - resulting in  Achilles's present niggles. In fact I haven't run since that Parkrun where I pulled up at mile 2, the day we were adopted by Hugo the rescue springer spaniel. Today it was time to stop reading about running and actually do a little, and to initiate Hugo in the joys of the south Oxfordshire countryside. I think he's going to be a perfect running companion: he stayed close, ran several times as far as I did, obeyed when I called him, and gave me a welcome tow when I attached his lead. A short run, because I didn't know how he'd behave, but every mile counts, doesn't it?

I'm looking forward to feeling OK to try the Parkrun again - with him.

15 January 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

All this resting from running seems to be paying off: yesterday I volunteered at the Abingdon Parkrun, and managed to hand out 74 finishing tags in pretty well the right order, and today we went to the première of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the wonderful Paul Torday book, which was held in Oxford in aid of a refugee charity, and now Achilles is pain-free. It seems unlikely that such a film should have received its première in front of an audience of about 100 people, with no red carpet, no celebrity circus, but it's true - although confusingly there was another première later today with higher ticket prices. I think I have missed something here.

Anyway, it is a super film, quite true to the book though with several changes, some of them seemingly arbitrary but all explained by Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the screenplay, in a question-and-answer session afterwards. I won't spoil it for you - if you liked the book you'll like the film too, and if you haven't read the book, get on and do so, you'll like it, then you can enjoy the film too. We were told not to take recording equipment into the auditorium, and the production company sent the film down to Oxford in the hands of an employee, which is not really a surprising precaution. There are trailers on YouTube but, anxious about their legality, I thought I'd embed what seems to be a passer-by's video of the shooting of one of the London scenes.

13 January 2012


Another day's rest, another half-hour on ice, and surely it can't be long before I can run again. Five miles on the bike, one way only. The regular cycling has been good for me, I'm sure, but 35 miles this week was probably enough - perhaps as the weeks go by I'll be able to do more.

12 January 2012

Thick as a brick

The reference is to the meandering dog-walker with earphones in place to insulate him from his environment who got stroppy when I cycled past him this morning - despite having my shouted out to him as I approached. I should have blown my horn. Or gone to the station earlier - I was much later than planned, and missed event the 0929 by a few seconds.

Another 10 miles on the bike, another day resting Achilles which remains necessary. I hope it's getting there ...

Sat on the train next to a civilised-looking Scandinavian man somewhat older than me. How did I know he was Scandinavian? Well, he had those sharply-chiselled features that seem fairly typical of Scandinavians - but the giveaway was that his phone rang and he committed the heinous crime of engaging the caller in a conversation. Once upon a time (after Gunver's 25th birthday party) I could tell Danish, Swedish and Norwegian apart, because I'd spent a long weekend in the company exclusively of speakers of those languages - but given that Gunver is only a couple of weeks older than me I realise what a long time ago that was, and I have not maintained that particular (and, frankly, not very useful) skill.

I forbore to remonstrate with him, because I had already read the Companies and Markets section of his FT and he'd promised  me the main part when he had finished with it. In the event, and nothing to do with his breach of the quiet carriage rules, I didn't take him up on it.

11 January 2012

Morning Dew

As I expected, Achilles was much better this morning but everything else between my right knee and ankle was screaming. At least I could walk downstairs without a problem, and things settled down during the day. I don't know whether cycling helps, or whether it's just a good way to improve fitness - and strength, given the hill I have to get across. Anyway, another ten miles in total, the return journey into a troublesome headwind, both ways with an underinflated front tyre ... I left the pump on the bike at the station all day, and miraculously it was still there when I needed it this evening.

10 January 2012

Time is tight

Right calf now feeling extremely tender but I know this is only a stage that it has to go through and Sharon's ministrations will mean it feels a whole lot better in the morning. No running today: a cycle ride to the garage to collect the car when the new gearchange cables had been fitted, then a ride home when the car was returned to the garage with a very knackered wheel bearing. 5 miles on the bike in total, plus a short walk with our new four legged friend at lunchtime to let him do what a dog's got to do, and chase the training dummy round the playing fields.

09 January 2012


Took yesterday off and iced my Achilles, pending a visit to Sharon tomorrow afternoon. Today I got my exercise by cycling to the station - 5 miles each way. I came home - the train part of the journey - via Swindon, which if you have a passing acquaintance with the Great Western Railway you'll realise involves some serious overshooting - I took a train that did not stop at Didcot. To make it worse, I have taken the same train once before. Never again. I hope.

I did enjoy the bike rides, even the one in the dark. And I enjoyed Robyn's version of Syd Barrett's classic - hope you do too.

07 January 2012

Oh! Wot a Dream!

It felt fast, and looked good on the Watch - but along the riverbank path for the second time Achilles suddenly told me loud and clear that I should walk back. And, amazingly, I had enough respect for him to do so.
Photo by RichK www.theracephotographer.com
But while it lasted, it looked good too!

This is getting ridiculous!

05 January 2012

I Don't Believe You

Sometimes, you realise today's run was destined not to happen. After a false start, trying to get to the track for a training session, I headed out for a short solo run in the dark: but it wasn't meant to be this short. Achilles, and inhospitable weather, brought it to an early end.

I truly don't believe you ...

04 January 2012

It happened today

Partly because of a timekeeping error, I only recorded 1.82 miles this morning - on the way to work, which was the only opportunity to fit a run in. But that will do - so Achilles told me. I'll post more details later.

03 January 2012


Nowadays people express surprise if they see me wearing running shoes. But I'm still at the stage where my feet sometimes need mollycoddling, and my old friend Achilles will benefit from a few minutes of old-fashioned heel-banging. A spot of decadence.

Ten minimalist miles on Sunday, and a near-Murakami (albeit in the Green Shoes, but still doing what I kid myself amounts to pose running) yesterday, is pushing it. I iced Achilles while we watched Endeavour (aka Young Morse) on the TV yesterday, spotting Colin Dexter in his customary cameo role, and today it was up for another outing: and having given it that outing I have sat and iced it again this evening and it's raring to go again now. Go where tomorrow, is another matter, as I have a full day in the office in London. A lap of Regent's Park beforehand (and perhaps another at the end of the day) will get the job done.

The club run this evening was route 32: I intended to do the long route, 8.8 miles, but discretion intervened and I stuck to the medium route. By dint of crossing Dunmore Road without waiting for the green man I got ahead of a lot of faster runners (most of the club being faster than me in my present state of tune) and then watched them come past again, some kindly pausing for a chat, mostly about my footwear. But somewhere along the third mile I found I'd reeled one group of four in, and run through them: later another group of three who'd done the extension that differentiated the long from the medium came past me again, and as they were doing their own "medium plus" or "long minus" route I followed them most of the way to the finish, bust strangely ran through them at the gates of Tilsley Park. What is going on? I seem to be getting faster. Not fast, in absolute terms, yet, but faster.

Three days, three runs, all over 6 miles if not quite Murakamis.

02 January 2012

Black night

Just  as knowing that there's someone waiting at the corner to run with you is guaranteed to get you out of bed on a grim Sunday morning (thanks, Alex, David, John, Louis and others over the years) so too joining a scheme to run every day in January and blog about it demands that you get out there and run. Other exercise is allowable, and I toyed with the idea of claiming that feeding the horses counted, but in the end it had to be a run. Ideally it should have been a Murakami 10K, my goal for a daily run (a goal which, I must admit, led to plantar fasciitis by about day 4 of my last attempt to maintain such a routine), but I was worried how Achilles would cope after yesterday's ultra-minimalist ten-miler and kept the distance down - to 6.07 rather than 6.25 ...

It was pitch dark by the time I convinced myself that I had to be running, and cold. Fleece top, hat and gloves cold, though I knew I wasn't going to be getting up to normal operating temperature today - not with yesterday's miles in my legs, Achilles grumbling, and a general feeling of lethargy. But I did have the pleasure of trying out my new headlight, an impulse purchase at Scats the other day (on special offer, 20 per cent off) pending the arrival of a pair of Knucklights - which I am looking forward to reviewing here. The headlight - an Energiser product, like this but without the red trim - has a  mere three white LEDs (plus a red one which I don't think I am going to use much), giving 28 lumens (I refrained from buying a much brighter one because it didn't have 20 per cent off), and a strap that goes only round the head not over it too, which reviews I'd read suggested was a must-have in a running headlight. The batteries (three AAA) go in the lamp unit, unlike some other lights which have a separate battery compartment which sits at the back of the user's head, so I was concerned about weight and balance. But it was fine for me, quite bright enough for light-polluted south Oxfordshire, well-balanced and secure although I did put the strap over my hat which I dare say helped. A very good buy.

I turned back at the roundabout instead of continuing to the Harwell junction (which makes a clear 10K), swinging round the lamppost, and climbed the hill that I'd just come down deliberately on my heels to give Achilles a break - then continued for most of the way home in the same way. Garmin told me that I was quite a long way short of a Murakami, so I did three laps of the playing field - a fourth was ruled out by a sudden and pressing need to get home, which I cannot (surely?) still blame on Saturday evening's curry.

A sedate run, but all the more satisfying because it might never have happened. Now for a spot of RICE (and perhaps even a dab of ibuprofen gel) so I might be ready for tomorrow evening's club run - an easy way to deal with day 3.

01 January 2012

Ding dong, ding dong

Have you ever thought that somewhere looked as if it would be a great place to run, but you've never actually found yourself there to run it? I have driven a stretch of road many, many times, often seeing runners (many more cyclists) on it, and felt quite envious of them. I've also assessed the woodlands on each side of another stretch of the same road, full of running promise, and admired a grand house in the bottom of a valley there. To increase my yearning, the Ridgeway passes through this piece of countryside - a very different piece of that ancient road from "my" stretch of it, here passing though woodland and not following the higher contours, but part of the same byway and importantly part of the course of the Ridgeway Challenge ...

So I was very excited to find that this year's New Year's Day run was ten miles around this part of Oxfordshire. It's far enough from home that I would never otherwise have reason to be there in my running kit, but today was my opportunity to run in it. And just to be out running at 10 o'clock on New Year's Day is a treat in itself, when much of the world is nursing a hangover in bed. I was, in fact, nursing an ill-considered Indian dinner, but a ten-miler, even at a gentle pace, would be a great way to deal with that.

Sarah, who had devised the route, asked with some concern about my footwear - but there is only one way to find out how huaraches will perform, and that's to give it a try. Mind you, ten miles is one mile further than I had done in them before, and that was in what passes for summer round here - but since we stopped having different seasons there's little to choose between 1 January and mid-July, except the mud. My main concern was sharp rocks, but after a mental run round the course Sarah assured me that it would be OK except perhaps for one short stretch.

Quite a reasonable group of Amblers turned out - about 20, I guess - and off we went over the fields. Apart from having to take a little care descending slopes, I seemed to be suffering no disadvantage as a result of being the only one in the group not wearing heavy-duty trail shoes. A group pulled away after a mile or so, and I certainly wasn't going to try to hang in with the speed merchants today: but they all seemed to stop at a church, and as I caught them Julian told  me there was a tap there. I asked whether he was suggesting I might wash my feet. Actually a drink might have been a good idea, and later in the morning my eyesight became a little erratic making me wonder whether I was dehydrated. But hell, this was only a ten-miler!

At a couple of points of the course we had to follow signs marked "Chiltern Way", which speaks ominously of hills, and sure enough one presented itself at about 2·5 miles. I'd been running with Andrew for a while by this point, and we caught several others on the climb across a meadow - mainly due to the need to stop to pass through a gate at the top, I think. Entering a wood at this point, I saw a large, concealing tree-trunk which would serve a curry-related purpose that was becoming quite pressing so paused to use this facility and ran on alone until I caught Andrew again. Before that, though, leaving those wonderful beechwoods and joining the road I had driven so often, I encountered a man walking his dog, and having lost sight of any other runners (Andrew assured me he was standing at the next turn, waving, but I had not thought it necessary to wear my glasses) I stopped to check my bearings with him. He was anxious to find out the nature of the mass lunacy he was witnessing, as I must have been at least the tenth member of the group to pass him.

A random runner came past, too, but she was intent on a different route and I took the turn Andrew had tried to indicate and caught him soon afterwards (he had, it must be admitted, stopped at another turn to allow me to rejoin him). My right Achilles was now starting to mutter low-level complaints: it had been stiff and a little painful from the start, after which as usual it had loosened up, but a couple of short stops had not been to its taste - note to self: keep it moving! Of course, the huaraches place more strain on it than conventional shoes, and strengthening this part of my running equipment is a key part of what I am trying to do in this phase of my career.

The contours got closer together again on the route map, descending, and we made the most of it - though we both remarked later that, unless the finish line is at the foot of the descent, running downhill almost inevitably presages some uphill running later - and the finish was still six or more miles away. The going was muddy in places, and where possible I planted my feet on convenient fallen leaves to achieve as much certainty as possible, but a few steps into liquid mud introduced an unhelpful lubricating layer between the sole of my foot and the sole of my footwear. It soon worked its way out again, though - or dried out, or something.

Following Ridgeway signs - posts painted with a stylised acorn, and an arrow - we managed to find our way into an unscheduled farmyard (spur on the Garmin map at 6+ miles). "We'll end up in someone's living room" Andrew suggested - and I didn't think they'd welcome us. We hadn't been dressed for for social visiting when we set out, and adding copious mud to our get-up hadn't made us any more presentable.

Back on track we struggled up a long, long, steep hill, pausing to chat to three hikers who were taking a break near the top. They professed to have seen no other runners, which should have sounded a warning, but no, we pressed on until I objected that heading downhill was a bad idea if we were not certain we were going the right way. Shortly after we turned back (a bigger spur on the map, at about 7 miles) a couple came walking towards us, and I engaged them in a little light map-reading - though they were able to confirm that the other runners had turned off the path up the hill and followed the edge of a field, which we then proceeded to do having climbed twice as far as we needed to.

A couple of miles further on, the route rejoined the road so often driven, but only for a few hundred yards before that ominous Chiltern Way headed off in a substantially vertical direction to a point high above Ewelme, the start and finish. A loop through the village was prescribed, though at one point a short-cut seemed to be on offer - as each of us had a witness, and I had a tell-tale Garmin, we rejected any idea of taking it. We greeted everyone we encountered along the whole ten miles, wishing them good morning and a Happy New Year, but a lady who was sweeping outside her house corrected us - it was already afternoon. "And what year?" I asked.

We passed John Buchan's former house, the King's Pool where Henry VIII reportedly bathed, the almshouses, the oldest school building still in use in the country, and a wall belonging to the school which appeared to have come off second-best in an argument with a vehicle. As the Cow Meadow car park came into view I accelerated, and Achilles screamed at me to resume my sedate pace. Some work needed to make him happy again, but a very satisfying outing for the not-so-new sandals. And my feet now attract more attention than any part of my body ever has before, which seems like a good thing though perhaps the opposite is also true. My clubmates seemed genuinely impressed that I'd managed to complete the course without the sort of things they had on their feet. As was I.

A good way to start the year: and a good reason to come home and sign up for some more races. However,  after lunch I began to feel very sleepy, so lay down to listen to Die Meistersinger (or at least some of it, as I didn't imagine I could devote the whole period from 1445 to 2115 to this pursuit). I remember hearing the first few bars of the overture, then later was aware that the batteries in my radio had expired, but that was all until I awoke an hour or so later. I think that serves to indicate how much fitness I need to regain: a sedate ten miler shouldn't be knocking me out in the way that nothing short of a hard Marathon used to do.

Happy New Year!