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'.

All quotes 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!

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Running on Screen- The A Word and Atypical

The A Word

I mentioned here before that in the BBC's autism-themed drama The A Word, Christopher Eccleston plays  a keen fell runner. In Series Two, first broadcast in November 2017, the producers created a fictional 'High Tarn Fell Race' as the scene for a personal crisis. The 'race' was staged at Thirlmere in the Lake District, and features members of Keswick AC and other local running clubs as extras.

Eccleston enjoys running in the hills in real life and it shows. He has also run marathons - including London Marathon 2012 in 4:17:43 - and the 2005 Great North Run half in a creditable 1:27:19

Previous three photos - The 'High Tarn Fell Race' in the A-Word Series 2, Epsode 4
(including last two location shots from Times and Star)

Christopher Eccleston in London Marathon
(not sure what year)


Coincidentally running is also a significant thread in the equally excellent  2017 Netflix series Atypical, which like the A-word explores the impact of autism on a family, this time in a US setting. Brigette Lundy-Paine plays Casey, a keen track and field competitor, whose brother has autism. She is offered an elite school place after setting a 400m track record, but her relationship with her father and sometime coach is put under strain when he misses her performance while distracted by her brother.

Previously in the Running on Screen series:

Monday, 18 December 2017

#metoo shakes Swedish Athletics

The #metoo movement of women disclosing and challenging sexual harassment and abuse is currently shaking the world of Swedish athletics.

Moa Hjelmer - who won 400m gold at the 2012 European Championships - revealed last month that in 2011 she was raped by an older athlete at the Finnkampfen - the annual athletics competition between Sweden and Finland.

Moa Hjelmer's announcement on instagram

Since then several other women have come forward and made similar disclosures, and there is a growing tide of support from women across Swedish sports.  Among those expressing their solidarity with Hjelmer has been sprint hurdler Susanna Kallur (world indoor record holder for 60m hurdles) who posted this picture on Instagram with the message 'the patriarchy falls within your lifetime'.

Susanna Kallur's message on instagram

(first heard about this via B9ace on twitter)

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Crystal Palace sports facilties still under threat

The future of sports facilities in  Crystal Palace park remain uncertain, with the Mayor of London/Greater London Authority still considering plans that would demolish the current athletics stadium and indoor running track and reduce other indoor and outdoor sporting facilities at the National Sports Centre, which also include a 50m pool, diving and training pools.

The Crystal Palace Sports Partnership (CPSP) is co-ordinating the campaign to keep facilities at a similar level. Nearly 6000 people have already signed their petition to 'Save athletics - and  sports - at Crystal Palace'. Everyone accepts that there will be change of some kind, but the CPSP is arguing 'for a mixed-use sports and leisure centre at Crystal Palace - a sustainable facility that is shared by the local community, schools, clubs and aspiring athletes at all levels. It should be a resource that caters for the needs of recreational users as much as it provides for and supports the development of the next generation of Olympic athletes'.

The latest development is that the GLA has appointed Neil Allen Associates consultants to evaluate the demands and needs for sports facilities at Crystal Palace NSC. They are due to report back before the end of February 2018.

Start of senior women's race in South of England Road Relays at Crystal Palace, September 2017

I had the pleasure of running at Crystal Palace in the Southern 6/4/3 Stage Road Relays back in September. The course started in the stadium before heading round the park and back into the stadium for a final stretch on the track to the handover. While there were some issues with the organisation of the event, and some facilities definitely need investment (starting with the toilets), it's a great venue for athletics and of course as a runner it was a privilege to be able to run on the iconic track graced by everyone from Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Paula Radcliffe to Usain Bolt and Mo Farah.

See previously

Save Crystal Palace for Athletics... and Popular Culture
Save Athletics at Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace Dinosaur Dash
Gentlemen vs Amateurs at Crystal Palace, 1872

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Phyllis Green: 1920s Peckham athlete (plus some Peckham Rye running history)

I did Peckham Rye parkrun again at the weekend, with about  around 250 people doing a 5k in an area that  can claim to be one of the birth places of modern English athletics. Some of the runners were from established local running clubs like Kent AC or Dulwich Runners, some from informal local groups like Runhead AC (who run every Tuesday from the Beer Shop in Nunhead), many just enjoying being part of the parkrun crew. But it is two of the oldest established London clubs, no longer based in the area,  who trace their origins back to Peckham Rye:

'South London Harriers was formed on 27th December, 1871 at a meeting in the Vivian Hotel, at 34 Philip Road (now known as Philip Walk), Peckham Rye, SE15. There was a similar Club close by in Peckham Rye, which was founded at "The King's Arms", as Peckham Hare & Hounds in October 1869, before soon changing its name to Peckham Amateur Athletic Club (PAAC). It later moved to "The Rye House", and in July 1878 moved from the Peckham Rye area to become the Blackheath Harriers' (SLH: A Brief History)
Both clubs moved away from Peckham as it became more urbanised, but are still going strong elsewhere. SLH  has its  clubhouse in Coulsdon, while Blackheath & Bromley Harriers AC is  based at the Norman Road track in Bromley (and with a clubhouse in Hayes).

A notable Peckham athlete was a pioneer women's jumper and the first to clear five feet in the high jump. Phyllis Green (1908-99) was born at 12 Rye Lane where her father Henry Green managed the undertakers. He was a member of Peckham Harriers so no doubt encouraged his daughter who as a 17 year old at Peckham High School for Girls 'set her first world best of 1.51 metres at London's Stamford Bridge in June 1925, and equalled that mark in Brussels a month later. She raised it by half an inch when winning the WAAA title at Stamford Bridge on 11 July 1925, becoming the first woman to clear 5 feet (1.52 metres).  At another London venue, Chiswick, she improved her world best to 1.55 metres (5 ft 1 in) in 1926 and her highest ever jump was 1.58 metres (5 ft 2¼ in) at the 1927 WAAA championships off a grass take-off at Reading’ – the end of a short but successful competitive career . She also held the British long jump record for a while and her personal best of 5.52 metres in 1927 was only 5 cm short of the then world record.  She told a reporter in 1925 that ‘I have always jumped from the time I learned to walk…'I never went round an obstacle—I always jumped over it.' (source:  Mel Watman, Women athletes between the world wars, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2012)
These were the early days of women’s athletics - the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association was only founded in 1922, and Phyllis Green belonged to the London Olympiades Athletics Club, the first women’s club, set up in 1921 in a period when many running clubs only admitted male members.
The only picture I have found of Phyllis Green is an etching by Percy Smith (1882-1948), held in the collection of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

(see Running Past for details of the first WAAA championships, held at Downham in 1923)