Saturday, 17 March 2018

Hilly Fields snow run

There seemed to be a lot of people walking around by London Bridge yesterday wearing T-shirts and the occasional crop top in the sun. I was finding it hard to believe the forecast for the next day's snow. But true enough when I woke up this morning to get ready for Hilly Fields parkrun the snow was coming down heavily in South East London.

When I got to the park it was clear that the weather didn’t seem to have discouraged anybody. I suspect that many, like me, were relishing the rare opportunity to run in the snow, especially as during the snowfall a couple of weeks ago many races and park runs were cancelled .

So about 250 runners in multiple layers made their weekly three circuits of the park, joined this time by members of local triathlon clubs (including Brixton Windrush, Greenwich Tritons, Westcroft and Crystal Palace tri clubs). staging their own 'mob match' race within the parkun.

At the top of the hill the wind was blowing the snow across more or less horizontally but other than that it wasn’t too bad. I was certainly warmer running than watching others run in the cold, as I did at the Big Half and cross country nationals recently. I have been out of action with injury with last week's Peckham parkrun my first 5K effort since early January. I still can’t go too far or fast but it was great to be out in the elements with this friendly as usual crowd. I know its customary to thank the volunteers and marshals, on this occasion they certainly earned it.

runners footsteps up the big hill in Hilly Fields
ready for snow action

Friday, 23 February 2018

Running on Screen: Big Little Lies

Running along the beach and elsewhere in the Monterey area is a feature of the HBO series 'Big Little Lies' (2017). This includes one episode where the three main female characters - played by Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon - are briefly seen jogging around town together (yes it has a great cast, Laura Dern  and Alexander Skarsgård also feature).

But it is Woodley's Jane character who does the most running. A lot of people use running as a kind of therapy, turning over their problems in their heads. Jane has a particularly turbulent inner life, fantasising about suicide and revenge as she runs along the sand and the cliff tops, and trying to recover memories of previous traumas. To say more would be to spoil it...

Previously in the Running on Screen series:

Saturday, 17 February 2018

'The egotism of a healthy body' & its opposite - injury thoughts

'He ran the course and as he ran he grew.
And smelt his fragrance in the field. Already,
Running he knew the most he ever knew.The egotism of a healthy body'

(Innocence by Thom Gunn)

So there's been a bit of a fuss about Strava's famous heatmap showing people's movements across the globe, including on occasions secret military bases. But for some of us Strava tells another dark story right now -  a black hole of non-activity.

Yes, it's injury time. As I mentioned before, the latter half of 2017 saw me running through a sore achilles and getting progressively slower. So my New Year resolution of seeing a physio (at Back on Track in Catford) has been achieved - with the advice that I should STOP running for at least a few weeks. I've withdrawn from the inaugural London Big Half, despite having a good for age time, and will be missing some of the highlights of the year for me - the closing races of the cross country season including the English National Cross Country Champs at Parliament Hill. 

If running is part of your identity, not running threatens your very sense of self. It's what you do, it's what a lot of your friends do too. Whatever crap is going on in your life, at work or whatever, when you're running something clicks into place - yes, 'The egotism of a healthy body'. So when the body doesn't feel so healthy, the ego takes a bit of a kicking too...

Partly this pain is a case of memento mori - everybody will slow down and eventually stop, in the long run our body, our plans, maybe even our Strava profile will turn to dust or its digital equivalent - so walk (or better, run) in the light while there is light.

But we don't have to beat ourselves up and imagine that each enforced break on our journey is the end. Injury is a sign of our mortality but it does not signify weakness or some kind of failing. Most running related injuries are 'overuse' injuries, the result of pushing our bodies to their limit. The only sure way of avoiding them is to stay on the sofa.

There are very few athletes who haven't had to deal with injuries - it's part of the territory. As Alistair Brownlee explains: 'there is a trade off between the intensity of your training and the odds of you getting injured. Put simply, the harder and more intense your training, the greater the strain you are putting on your body… I could train a bit less, and I’d get less injured, but I wouldn’t be as good. Or I could train as much as I do, take the risk of being injured and be the best I can.… here’s the thing: I’d rather be as good as I can be and maybe have a shorter career through injury, than never know, or cruise. It’s always been about how good I can be. How hard can I push it? How much training can I do, how fast does that make me? I’d prefer to have three or four cracking years of winning stuff than have 10 years of being average' (Swim, Bike, Run: Our Triathlon Story).

Of course  most of us aren't 'winning stuff',  let alone Olympic golds, but we all have our goals and standards and pushing towards them entails running along the edge between optimum training intensity and overdoing it. Unfortunately we generally only know we've crossed over from one to the other when it hurts too much to go on.

I have been greatly inspired by the recovery from injury of some much more talented runners than me in my own club, Kent AC. In the past few weeks Alex Yee, badly injured coming off his bike in triathlon a year ago, won the BUCS cross country champs; John Gilbert won the Southern Cross Country Champs having had a tough year or two; and Alison Thomson was in the top ten parkun times in the UK having been unable to manage a jog this time last year.

Russell Bentley is back running up hills and mountains after slicing his leg open on a rock in a mountain race only last October. He too had his moments of 'experiencing self-doubt. Sense of perspective goes out the window... I can now understand why all those other running bloggers don’t want to blog about it. Your self-worth is questioned, you don’t think anyone will be interested in anything you have to say'. Another Kent AC blogger, Lawerence Avery, was out of action for several months with a stress fracture. As well as obsessively cross training,  'Being injured also made me think about how I might stay part of sport once I’m either too crocked or too old to compete, or what else I could do now alongside competing. I’ve been an obsessive reader about the sport and training methods ever since I started running, so making the leap into coaching was an obvious one'.  Lawrence has taken the England Athletics Coaching Assistant qualification and started coaching others in the club, but he's not done running yet. Good to see him back in action in Surrey League last week, which I went along to watch and cheer rather than run. The course was so narrow in parts that following the action meant running part of the course,at which point I wished I had joined in - but realistically I would have been hobbling by the end of the first lap.

I don't expect to ever be in anything approaching the same form as these guys, even for my age, but it's great to see people getting back to where they were before, or even better, after injury.  I've put on hold any running goals for now, other than gettting my parkrun volunteer t-shirt,  while trying to keep fit in the gym and hoping for recovery in time for the summer.

(yes I am aware that the Thom Gunn poem is actually about a youth who grows up to be a nazi soldier - the egotism of a healthy body can end up in some very dark places!)

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Running on Screen (15): The Girl on the Train

'A teacher once told me I was a mistress of self-reinvention. I wasn't really sure what it meant at the time. But since moving here, I've come to understand it. Ardsley-on-Hudson is boring and routine. It's a fucking baby factory. I wanna start my life over again. So far, I've been a rebellious teenager, lover, waitress, gallery director, nanny, and a whore. Ands not necessarily in that order. I can't just be a wife anymore. That's why I stay awake at night, staring at the ceiling. In fact, the only time I feel like myself is when I'm running'

(Megan Hipwell played by Haley Bennett in 'The Girl on the Train')

Previously in the Running on Screen series:

Friday, 12 January 2018

Louisa May Alcott: 'A Joy to Run'

Over Christmas 2017, the BBC broadcast the latest in a long line of adaptions of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel 'Little Women'.

Alcott was an early feminist who grew up in a milieu that included the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, famous for their romantic celebrations of nature. Still I was surprized to learn that Alcott was a keen runner from childhood, long before women's athletics let alone running clothes!

In one of her memoirs, 'Sketch of Childhood, by herself', Alcott wrote: 'Active exercise was my delight, from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop round the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy. My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild, learning of Nature what no books can teach, and being led, — as those who truly love her seldom fail to be — through Nature up to Nature's God.

I remember running over the hills just at dawn one summer morning, and pausing to rest in the silent woods, saw, through an arch of trees, the sun rise over river, hill, and wide green meadows as I never saw it before. Something born of the lovely hour, a happy mood, and the unfolding aspirations of a child's soul seemed to bring me very near to God; and in the hush of that morning hour I always felt that I "got religion," as the phrase goes. A new and vital sense of His presence, tender and sustaining as a father's arms, came to me then, never to change through forty years of life's vicissitudes, but to grow stronger for the sharp discipline of poverty and pain, sorrow and success' (now that's what I call a runner's high!).

This moment was recorded in her diary at the time, when she was living in the family home at Concord, Massachusetts (where Little Women is set): 'I had an early run in the woods before the dew was off the grass. The moss was like velvet, and as I ran under the arches of yellow and red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful. I stopped at the end of the walk and saw the sunshine out over the wide Virginia meadows. It seemed like going through a dark life or grave into heaven beyond. A very strange and solemn feeling came over me as I stood there, with no sound but the rustle of the pines, no one near me, and the sun so glorious, as for me alone. It seemed as if I felt God as I never did before, and I prayed in my heart that I might keep that happy sense of nearness all my life'.

This spiritual experience was inspired by running in the wild but was also influenced by her family's Transcendentalist beliefs (shared by Emerson and Thoreau)  which saw goodness and the divine in humans and nature, rather than in institutionalised religion.

Louisa May Alcott
Alcott continued to run as an adult, with her running a part of her writing routine. Staying in Walpole, New Hampshire in June 1855 she wrote 'Pleasant journey and a kind welcome. Lovely place, high among the hills. So glad to run and skip in the woods and up the splendid ravine. Up at five, and had a lovely run in the ravine, seeing the woods wake. Planned a little tale which ought to be fresh and true, as it came at that hour and place'. In February 1861 she recorded that 'From the 2nd to the 25th I sat writing, with a run at dusk' while working on her novel 'Moods', published in 1864. Later while writing Little Women she noted 'Finished my thirteenth chapter. I am so full of my work, I can't stop to eat or sleep, or for anything but a daily run'.

Alcott was a committed slavery abolitionist and during the American Civil War she served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C. for a short period in 1862 before becoming seriously ill with typhoid. Even here she seems to have found time for running: 'My work is changed to night watching, or half night and half day — from twelve to twelve. I like it, as it leaves me time for a morning run, which is what I need to keep well; for bad air, food, and water, work and watching, are getting to be too much for me. I trot up and down the streets in all directions, sometimes to the Heights, then half way to Washington, again to the hill, over which the long trains of army wagons are constantly vanishing and ambulances appearing. That way the fighting lies, and I long to follow'.

It's not clear whether Alcott's running was seen as idiosyncratic or whether, at least in her progressive sub culture, it was commonplace for women.

Little Women itself features an episode where Jo runs down hill to the disapproval of her sister Meg:

"Race down this hill with me, and you'll be all right," suggested Laurie.

No one was in sight, the smooth road sloped invitingly before her, and finding the temptation rresistible, Jo darted away, soon leaving hat and comb behind her and scattering hairpins as she ran. Laurie reached the goal first and was quite satisfied with the success of his treatment, for his Atlanta came panting up with flying hair, bright eyes, ruddy cheeks, and no signs of dissatisfaction in her face.

"I wish I was a horse, then I could run for miles in this splendid air, and not lose my breath.  It was capital, but see what a guy it's made me.  Go, pick up my things, like a cherub, as you are," said Jo, dropping down under a maple tree, which was carpeting the bank with crimson leaves. Laurie leisurely departed to recover the lost property, and Jo bundled up her braids, hoping no one would pass by till she was tidy again. But someone did pass, and who should it be but Meg, looking particularly ladylike in her state and festival suit, for she had been making calls.

"What in the world are you doing here?" she asked, regarding her disheveled sister with well-bred surprise.

"Getting leaves," meekly answered Jo, sorting the rosy handful she had just swept up.

"And hairpins," added Laurie, throwing half a dozen into Jo's lap. "They grow on this road, Meg, so do combs and brown straw hats."

"You have been running, Jo.  How could you?  When will you stop such romping ways?" said Meg reprovingly, as she settled her cuffs and smoothed her hair, with which the wind had taken liberties.

"Never till I'm stiff and old and have to use a crutch.  Don't try to make me grow up before my time, Meg.  It's hard enough to have you change all of a sudden.  Let me be a little girl as long as I can."

In the sequel to Little Women, Little Men - where Jo is running a school - one of the characters, the tomboyish Nan, also enjoys running:

'“I can beat you in running, any way,” returned Nan, falling back on her strong point.
“Can she?” asked Nat of Jack.
“She runs very well for a girl,” answered Jack, who looked down upon Nan with condescending approval.
Will you try?” said Nan, longing to display her powers.
“It’s too hot,” and Tommy languished against the wall as if quite exhausted'.

All quotes, other than extracts above from Little Women and Little Women,  from Louisa May Alcott; her life, letters, and journals.

More running related literature:

Jack Kerouac running down a mountain
'These forms who hasten by' - runners on the Pilgrims Way, 1920s
'You just had to run' - Karl Ove Knausgaard
Morrissey - List of the Lost
Burns Night Running Thoughts
Running in the Railway Children
A Midsummer Night's Running
Running to Paradise - W B Yeats
The Sky of a Saturday Morning - John Updike
The Road is a Strange Country - Rebecca Solnit
The Runner - W H Auden
Once a Runner - John L Parker jr

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Swimming art

So 2017 wasn't the year I got into swimming, though I did do a bit, most pleasurably in the tidal pool on Margate sands and briefly in the Atlantic at Estoril in Portugal.

This year I am determined to get some adult lessons so that I can master the breathing and be able to keep going for longer distances. In the mean time, by way of inspiration here's some swimming related art which I saw in the last year

David Hockney's polaroid collage 'Gregory swimming, Los Angeles, 31 March 1982' (detail below) was one of a number of swimming pool pictures included in his retrospective at Tate Britain 

Duncan Grant's 'Bathing' (1911) was orginally painted as a mural for the dining room at the Borough Polytechnic, at the Elephant and Castle, London (now London South Bank University). It was included in the 'Queer British Art' exhibition at Tate Britain.

Donna Huddleston's large scale drawings were some of the strongest work in 'Dreamers Awake', a Summer 2017 exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey of work by women surrealists and contemporary artists working in a similar vein.
Huddleston's The Warriors (2015) places a group of young women by a pool like figures in an ancient Egyptian mythical landscape. The artist apparentingly drew on her memories of her school netball team in Australia, the 'Woolloomooloo Warriors’

 © Donna Huddleston and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin

See previously in 'Art of Athletics'

David Hockney on Jogging and Swimming

Sunday, 31 December 2017

2017 seasons on the run - reviewing my running year

2017 is drawing to a close and once again my personal running calendar has been largely synchronised with the seasons of British athletics club culture. The weekly cycle of Tuesday club session, Saturday race, Sunday long run inserted in the larger annual cycles of Winter cross country, Spring road running/marathon, Summer track and back around to the start of cross country again in the Autumn. This would be largely familiar to the runners of a century ago, probably the only significant change in the last ten years has been the addition of a weekly parkrun into many's Saturday routines, and annual parkrun landmarks over the midwinter holiday period.

So like many others my 2017 started off with a double parkrun on New Year's Day (in my case Peckham Rye followed by Hilly Fields) and has come to an end with a Christmas Day parkrun at Hilly Fields, my home parkrun in Lewisham and recently ranked in a Run Britain analysis as the joint 7th toughest parkrun course out of 300 in the UK.

elf on my shoulder at Hilly Fields parkrun, Christmas Day 2017
In between highlights have included:

- January - Surrey League XC at Mitcham Common;  Southern Cross Country Champs at Parliament Hill (me pictured below at end of 1st lap in Southerns).

- February - English National Cross Country Champs in Nottingham; final race of 2016/17 Surrey League XC at Wimbledon Common.
- April - London Marathon; Paddock Wood Half Marathon; start of Assembly League at Beckenham Place Park.
- May - Assembly League at Victoria Park.
- June - Kent AC 800m and 3000m club champs; Assembly League in Battersea Park.

800m champs

Some of the Kent AC crew at Battersea Park for Assembly League

- July - Assembly League at Victoria Park; Bewl 15, Dulwich Runners Midsummer Relays.
- September - Southern Road Relays at Crystal Palace; Assembly League finale at Beckenham Place Park; Ladywell 10,000m; Kent AC 5000m champs; Marsha Phoenix 10k relays.

Marsha Phoenix 10k relay, Hilly Fields - low key charity fundraiser,
our two teams came 2nd and 3rd and won free fish and chips at Brockley Rock!
- October - Start of cross country season with Surrey League Division One race at Reigate Priory.
- November - Surrey League Cross Country at Mitcham Common.
- December - Kent Vets Cross Country at Dartford.

In terms of my own running it has definitely been a year of two halves. The first half of the year saw some of my hardest ever training rewarded with  PBs in the half marathon (1:34 at Paddock Wood) and in the London Marathon (3:34), as well as in 800m and 3000m in club champs.. For a little while after my good form was sustained, but by the summer it felt like the wheels had fallen off. Maybe the heavy winter/spring mileage eventually took its toll, but I've had a tender achilles/ankle for most of the second half of the year, with various other aches and pains. Not enough to stop me running altogether but certainly enough to slow me down significantly. Low point was Kent AC 10,000m champs where I could feel myself limping and struggling to get round.

Athletics is a mercilessly exact sport in confirming exactly how far we have fallen - I know for instance that my Kent Vets time this month was two minutes and 12 seconds slower over the same 5 mile course than a year earlier. My 5k parkrun time is also about 90 seconds down. It's a bit demoralising but I guess I have been fortunate as a V50 runner to have previously had four years of injury free improvement. It does make you focus on why you run - good for age times and PBs can't be everything and even on some of my poorer days I have really enjoyed running in new places. I loved running down through the woods in Reigate cross country for instance and round Bewl reservoir in the sun. Also enjoyed checking out some different parkruns, including doing a couple in the middle of long Marathon training runs across London. Not to mention exploring Lisbon.

Mile End parkrun, February 2017

Fulham parkrun, March 2017

Of course even when you're not running well yourself you can still enjoy watching others run. As an athletics spectator the highlight for me was a night at the World Championships at the ex-Olympics Stadium on August. It was great to see some of my favourite athletes up close in action, including Laura Muir, Faith Kipyegon, Jenny Simpson, Sifan Hassan (all in womens 1500m final), Allyson Felix (in 200m heats pictured below), Jack Green, Karsten Warholm and Sophie Hitchon. Most enjoyable moment was the men's 110m hurdles final, won by Jamaica's Omar McLeod. I was sitting two seats behind his mum so it was pretty joyful.

Night of 10,000m PBs (view below from beer tent) at Highgate gets better every year, 2017 incorporating the British trials for the World Champs.  Our Kent AC contingent gave some fairly rowdy support as Beth Potter won the fantastic women's race and Andy Vernon the men's.

I was proud too of my club's Ladywell 10,000m champs in September. Even if my personal race wasn't great, the event was a big step forward for the club with beer, music and some very competitive fields. It was great to see Katrina Wooton (pictured) run the fastest UK women's 10,000m this year (31.45) - and become the 11th fastest UK woman of all time - on my home track.

Kent AC continues to grow and get stronger. Although I only occasionally score for the club in vets events I enjoy being part of the big squad we manage to turn out in races. This year the club has won the men's Surrey cross country league, the men's and women's Assembly League, and in the English Marathon championships the women won team gold and the men silver - thanks to more than 50 taking part in the London Marathon, 29 finishing in less than three hours. I've got a bit more involved in the organisational side of the club, taking on the joint role of child welfare officer (taking my work home maybe as I work in children's services) as well as editing the sporadic newsletter.

So after 1400+ miles this year, on to 2018. I don't have any running goals as yet other than seeing a physio and getting back to some kind of form if I can. I do have a place in the first Big Half in March, the new London 13 miler organised by the London Marathon team. Although I have a good for age qualifying time for this race, I don't expect to do much more than jog round with current fitness but still hope to take part in what should be an iconic event.

Happy New Year and good luck with your running in 2018!