Monday, 30 October 2017

The Running Sky - of birds, books & runners in rotation

In Nottingham's Wollaton Park after this year's English National Cross Country Championships, there was a moment as the sun was going down when a large number of crows (yes I know the collective noun is 'A Murder') began circling above the hill where shortly before thousands of runners had circled on the last lap of their races. It felt like they were echoing the cross country race itself, though presumably they do it all year round, the park being home to 'a large corvid roost made up of rook, jackdaw, and carrion crow' (wikipedia)

It reminded me of a passage I'd read earlier that  day in Tim Dee's The Running Sky: A Birdwatching Life, describing not crows but a similar flight of seabirds:

'To see vast numbers of birds in silent movement is beautifully strange. In this crowd of so many moving things, the eye leaps constantly from individuals to the whole event. These are not flocks but countless single birds caught in a storm of life. Individuals fly fast but the ensemble seems to be moving at dream speed. The rush of the single bird somehow slows in the crowd. I cannot focus for long on a puffin with its hurrying wings in the wheeling cloud; instead I see a tumbleweed of birds rolling out from their grassed lawns and terraces over a gulf of air, a slow motion collective rotation'.

I’d been reading this book on the journey up to Nottingham – with a title like the Running Sky it got some curious looks on a train full of runners. But of course it is not a running book but a reflection on the author's lifetime fascination with birds.



While I have never been a fully fledged adult birdwatcher, I was and am interested in them as I have mentioned before. At primary school an enthusiastic teacher enrolled me in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Young Ornithologists Club, something I recalled recently when I went to a bird themed art exhibition at the old library building on Walworth Road, near the Elephant and Castle (the building, which housed the Newington library and Cuming Museum has been closed following a fire, hopefully it will fully reopen permanently in the not too distant future).

From 'Natural Selection', Andy Holden and Peter Holden

Natural Selection combines the scientific perspective of Peter Holden, sometime national organiser of the Young Ornithologists Club, and the work of his artist son Andy Holden who is as interested in the aesthetic properties of birds, their nests and indeed the illicitly curated hordes assembled by illegal egg collectors.  Without undue anthropomorphism he wonders whether in some circumstances individual birds make choices about their use and display of materials in a way that can be regarded as akin to artistic activity. 



The display includes a case of birds nests arranged on piles of books - the importance of which cannot be overestimated. A recent thread on Twitter started by nature writer Robert Macfarlane asked people to share which bird, animal and plant books they had learnt from as children. It reminded me of how much those of us with childhoods before the Internet or even widespread colour TV relied upon books like the Observer's Book of Birds and the various Ladybird bird books among others. In fact it was in some ways the colourful plenitude of these lavishly illustrated volumes that made bird life seem so appealing, even if most of us would only get to see a handful of the species in the feather and flesh. I was particularly taken by a series of early 1970s 'Hamlyn All Colour Paperbacks' illustrated by Ken Lilly, I still have my copies of Seabirds and Birds of Prey, though along the way have lost my Tropical Birds.



In the wild, birds are rarely to be viewed in fine detail up close and still, but as we catch glimpses we fill in the gaps in our visual perception with the mental images we have stored from drawings and photographs. But no bird book can really capture the social phenomenon of flocks of birds in 'slow motion collective rotation', like runners racing around a field. And what does the birds eye make of the crowd of humans down below as they jostle for position, each dwelling in their individual exertions and largely oblivious to the pattern they create as they weave in and out of each other, moving together and separately at the same time. 

(The Running Sky takes its title from a Philip Larkin poem, which rather gloomily asserts the pointlessness of dreaming of flying or running as loss and loneliness are all that await...

'If hands could free you, heart,
Where would you fly?
Far, beyond every part
Of earth this running sky
Makes desolate? Would you cross
City and hill and sea,
If hands could set you free?

I would not lift the latch;
For I could run
Through fields, pit-valleys, catch
All beauty under the sun—
Still end in loss:
I should find no bent arm, no bed
To rest my head'.

Natural Selection continues until 26 November 2017, I strongly recommend going to see it (visitor details here) 

On a similar theme to ‘Natural Selection’ here's the wonderful Band of Holy Joy with the Observer's Book of Birds Eggs:
'it was the first book I ever owned, the Observer's book of birds eggs, fully illustrated and described in natural colours, and yay it was mine. I devoured every page from the hooded crow to the ptarmigan' (incidentally lead singer Johny Brown ran the Royal Parks Half last month after doing the Great North Run last year).




Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Nature is your guide - pathfinding without GPS


'Nature is your guide: how to find your way on land and sea by observing nature' by Harold Gatty (1903-1957) was first published in 1958, and was later republished as 'Finding your way without map or compass'.  

Tasmania-born Gatty was an experienced navigator himself, flying around the world with Wiley Post in a record-breaking eight days in 1931 and in the Second World War writing the US military's 'Raft Book' with survival tips for those adrift at sea in life rafts.



 'Nature is your guide' expanded on the Raft Book to provide a fascinating compendium of ways in which people can find their way not just by observation of the sun, moon and stars but by paying attention to other natural phenomena such as birds, weather, trees and the patterns of snow fields and sand dunes. Among the many other 'Methods of pathfinding' he mentions include 'the study of reflections in the sky,… The direction of the prevailing wind, the observation of wind polished rocks and of the movements of high clouds, the directions of sun and shadows'.

Did you know that termite mounds in the desert areas of Australia are almost always oriented north-south? Probably more useful in the UK, many trees 'develop more foliage on the side which receives most sunlight', so in the northern hemisphere 'oak and beech trees in exposed positions are more heavily branched and have greater foliage on the south side'.

Sailors, nomads and other travellers have used these methods for thousands of years, but these skills have largely died out because with modern navigational aids they have become obsolete. I have a compass now on my phone, not to mention GPS mapping - but what would we do if  left to our own devices? (or rather left without our devices).

There is some archaic language in this book about 'primitive' people, but the author's point is that their skills in pathfinding were not due to biological differences such as possession of a mysterious 'sixth sense' of direction but to their acute observations of the natural world and their development of 'mental maps'.

For runners much of this pathfinding lore would probably only be useful on long unmarked trails in remote areas, though being able to know what direction you are heading in without GPS or compass could be a lifesaver in some situations.

In non-threatening circumstances I was pleased recenlty to be able to find my way lost in the woods by observing the direction of a stream, other than that the only use I have made of this knowledge is to run the shortest distance between two points.

As Gatty notes, moving in a straight line is not as easy as it seems and people who are lost often end up walking in circles - 'in walking almost every person tends to veer in one direction or another in a consistent way... this error is due in most cases to the difference in length of any individual's two legs'. In trail blazing,  'The traveller must pick out distant landmarks and work to them or by them. It is elementary practice to find two landmarks ahead and line them up, and to do the same thing looking back. Back marks are just as important as, if not more important than, fore marks' for finding your way home.

I have got into the mental habit now when I am racing of looking ahead to the most distant point on the course in a straight line ahead and then finding another nearer point which lines up with it - such as a divot or a bush  - and then heading towards that. Of course I only use points that are actually on the course - no sneaky short cuts for me!




Friday, 13 October 2017

Get set for Cross Country - with Future Islands and Sampha

Seems like only yesterday we were sweating around the track on summer evenings, and now the cross country season is upon us again. Not feeling particularly fit myself, but looking forward to the start of the Surrey League at Reigate Priory tomorrow. Here's some musical inspiration for all the cross country crew, wherever you are.

'Ran' by  Future Islands came out earlier this year, the video featuring the permanently agitated singer Samuel T. Herring running across fields and through the woods around their native Baltimore- though can't help feeling if he'd been wearing a vest and shorts he could have kept running a bit longer, as he seems to have run out of steam by the end.





'On these roads
Out of love, so it goes
How it feels when we fall, when we fold
How we lose control, on these roads
How it sings as it goes
Flight of field, driving snow
Knows the cold
Ran round the wailing world'
(Future Islands, Ran, 2017)






Sampha

Meanwhile Blood on Me by 2017 Mercury Prize winner Sampha has the soulful South Londoner (he's from Merton) running on both a greyhound track and through a barley field before he collapses.




A bit more suitably attired for athletics than Sam Herring, he nevertheless also has too many layers on for sustained endurance!




'I got lost astray
In this forest runnin' away'
(Sampha, Blood on Me, 2016)






See previously:

Musicians in Motion -



Monday, 9 October 2017

The Art of Athletics (10): Hank Willis Thomas and Julian Opie at Frieze

The Frieze Art fair, held in a temporary marquee in London’s Regents Park every October, is like a contemporary art version of a Marathon expo. You start off like a kid in a toy shop– so many stalls, so much to see, all this stuff you really like under one roof. Then, after about an hour of wandering around, you feel hot, dehydrated, overstimulated and in desperate need of some fresh air. In between you can have a good time! There are some differences– for instance, at the Marathon expo there is no Deutsche bank wealth management lounge. Running is relatively cheap unless you get on the World Majors Marathon circuit, and it's not quite up there with the art market as an opportunity to recycle dubiously acquired cash.

Hank Willis Thomas

 Anyway there was plenty, in fact more than plenty of work of interest at this years Frieze. On the sporting front there was Hank Willis Thomas's Faith - a basketball balanced on praying hands.



The American artist has previously made some challenging work drawing comparisons between the treatment of black athletes and slavery, including 'Strange Fruit' which shows a basketball player hanging as if lynched, and the self-explanatory 'basketball and chain' (2003).


There's also his marvellously titled 'An Unidentified Jamaican Boy Used the Puma H Street Running Shoe to Run for his Freedom'


Julian Opie

Julian Opie is probably best known outside of the art world for his images of Blur for the sleeve of the ''Best of' compilation album (2000). On display/sale at Frieze 2017 was his 'Soldier', a continuous digital animation of a woman running.



This is only one of a series of athletics-inspired work he has made. In fact this image featured in a whole running themed exhibition in Oslo in 2015. The titles 'Soldier', 'Doctor', 'Taxi Driver' presumably refer to the day jobs of the runners. All of which makes me think Opie may be a runner himself, though he's not on Power of 10!

Julian Opie, Joggers.1. (2015)




Cory Arcangel's Three Stripes made a good photo background for anyone sporting Adidas, which as usual included me.  A critical reflection on brands or just more branded content? You decide!







Thursday, 31 August 2017

Come to the Ladywell 10,000m

This Sunday 3rd September I will be running in the Ladywell 10000m, my first time running this distance on the track on what should be a great day out at Lewisham's Ladywell Arena.

This is the biggest event of the year for my club, Kent AC, who are based at the track. There will be six races, the first starting at 3 pm and the last at 7:30 pm, with some top club runners at the faster end chasing down times of around 30 minutes.


Highgate Harriers' Night of 10000m PBs has shown that it is possible to make watching long distance running a great day out. Seeing people giving it their all as the races unfold gradually over 25 laps, while hanging out having a drink, is a great way to spend a day. Ladywell might not be on quite the same scale as Highgate, but a lot of effort has gone in to making this a memorable event. There will be food and drink from the West Norwood based London Beer Company, and as at Highgate people will be encouraged to get close to the action to cheer on the runners.


The Ladywell 10000m represents another step forward in the revival of grass roots running in London and beyond. Following a period when some of the events organised by national bodies had become lacklustre and routine, events like Night of 10000m PBs (initiated by Highgate's Ben Pochee), Orion Harriers' Fast Friday, the Soar mile at Battersea, Hercules Wimbledon 5k night, not to mention British Milers Club events, are putting some energy and excitement back into track racing. Arguably this is a perfect time for this revival, with a new wave of people coming into club running via parkrun and looking to take the next steps on to faster times and competitive racing.


The track is behind Lewisham Hospital, come along and check it out, it's free admission. If you are a runner in SE London and looking to improve further, you might want to see the local club in action and see if it's for you- we cater for everyone from parkrun improvers to Olympians.

Check out this great short film of the Ladywell Arena, posted on twitter by Olympic 400m runner Conrad Williams, who belongs to the club:

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Running in Lisbon

Lisbon is a great city for a holiday - good food, drink, largely unspoilt old buildings and streets in the centre, great art galleries and museums, and beaches within easy reach by cheap public transport. But what's it like to run in?

Well like all hot places in the summer, it's best to run early in the morning. I found that by 7:30 am in August it was already getting uncomfortably hot to run,  but in any case in a busy tourist destination you need to be out early to avoid the crowds and traffic. As in most cities, early on the only people on the streets are runners and clubbers from the night before.

The other factor is that, like Rome, Lisbon is a city built on seven hills. As I will explain, there are some flatter runs possible, but not too many.
'Build sofas not walls' - sand sculpture

Lisbon sits on the River Tagus where it runs into the Atlantic so the most straightforward flat route is to run along the river. I started out on my first day at the riverfront in front of Praça do Comércio (a main square in the centre) and just turned right and headed west. You can stay on the riverbank for large parts of the run, in places there are docks and other fenced off places that push you away from the river, but it's easy enough to follow paths parallel to the river until you can rejoin it. If you're worried about getting lost, just wait until another runner comes along and follow them - there's a steady stream in the morning.

I ran for about three miles to the Ponte 25 de Abril (25 April bridge), a Golden Gate style suspension bridge which crosses the river  - it takes its current name from the revolt of 25 April 1974 that ended more than 40 years of fascist-style dictatorship. And no you can't run across it, it's strictly for vehicles except during the annual Lisbon Half Marathon where it forms part of the course.

Other runners take the train from Cais do Sodre train station to Belem a bit further along the river (where many of the museums/galleries are) from where you can run out beyond the city and along the coast out to the beaches to the west.




Not so flat, but not too much of an incline is the Avenida da Liberdade (Liberty Avenue), a tree lined and therefore relatively shady boulevard heading north west from Rossio square. This is a good run of over 1 km before you reach a park, Parque Eduardo VII. As with many of Lisbon's streets you are running on tiles or cobbles which are not always as even as they appear - so lift those knees up!

Avenida da Liberdade




In the park on the east side (the right side if you are coming up from city centre) is the Carlos Lopes pavillion, a  1920s building renamed in honour of the Portuguese winner of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Marathon in 2:09:21. Apparently there is a small permanent exhibition inside including his running shoes from 1984, but unfortunately  the building was closed when I visited. 




Carlos Lopes Pavillion


Parque Eduardo VII

Getting to the highest point in Lisbon up by the castle does mean some serious step climbing - once again best earlier not just because of the heat but because heading up through the old town Alfama district means negotiating narrow streets which can get quite crowded, not to mention dodging trams. Easy to get lost but if you come up from the river front as long as you are going uphill you are going in approximately the right direction. Don't stress about losing your GPS signal amidst the alleyways, that's goes with the territory.

Above and below - climbing up through Alfama district








The Baixa district consists of a grid of parallel streets that is similar to London's West End, with lots of globally familiar high street shops. These are a godsend to runners before they get busy, fairly flat, some pedestrianised and with the buildings casting some shade. One morning I just ran up and down the grid.






The arch at the bottom of Rua Augusta in Baixa district
As I mentioned before you can get the train - for a mere 5 Euros or so return - out the to the various beaches to the west of Lisbon. In most cases the train stops right next to the beach. We went to Estoril a couple of times, where I had a run along the front followed by swim in the sea.


Estoril

Another great thing about Lisbon is that having burnt off some calories running you can treat yourself to some of the finest pastries. Of course you can get a Pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart) in many British cafes now. But can you buy them from places where you can choose just how burnt you want the top?!


Conclusion - go to Lisbon, and pack your running shoes.



Some of my Lisbon runs on Strava -





Thursday, 17 August 2017

The road is a strange country - Rebecca Solnit

'In motion it seems that time is not slipping away from us but we are pursuing it, measuring its passage in the rhythm of the road... Perhaps if we didn’t imagine life as a journey rather than some other metamorphosis—the growth of a tree, for example—roads would not seem like destiny itself, but we do and they do. To move along the road is to encounter all the loose elements, the dangers and possibilities, to slip out of a settled destiny in pursuit of stranger fates. The road is a promise as simple as what lies ahead, never failed and never delivered, and the road is a strange country itself, longer than all the continents and narrow as a house, with its own citizens, its own rules, a place where the solid and settled become fluid'.

 'Roads are a no-man’s-land, a leveling ground, the place where one is no longer one thing and not yet another'

'Being in motion wakes the body up. In repose one is nothing but a surface face of potential sensation, only the surface, the skin, is awake. Exertion and pain make the rest tangible— otherwise bones and muscles and organs would be little but articles of faith beneath the visible and sensible surface of skin, and so one’s own interior anatomy may be among the things explored in the course of a journey’s exertions'



(Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations, 1997 -  reflections on her travels across Ireland, including some timely thoughts on dubious notions of blood, soil and identity, and on the joys and otherwise of journeying. No running in the book, but lots of walking, and I thought her notion of the road as another country is something felt by runners, as is the experience  of getting to know our anatomy through motion and pain)