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Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Inca Trail - Peru

I am still reflecting on a recent trip to Peru to walk the Inca Trail.  I wondered what the effect of altitude would be and had a sharp introduction when I carried a rucksack up a flight of stairs in Cusco (alt. 3400m).  The shortness of breath was profound.  I had taken a pair of running shoes and shorts because I like to run in each location I visit but, for once, wisdom prevailed and I opted to spend the day there in gentle acclimatization.  Even if the altitude hadn’t affected my breathing the narrow, busy street filled with dust and fumes made the thought of deep breathing unattractive.

Inca stonework ~ extraordinary

The acclimatization continued with a day touring the sites of The Sacred Valley and then we began the trek proper from the checkpoint at Km 82.  We (Gina and myself along with our friend, Sue)  were in a group of 16 with 3 Kiwi lads, an Aussie girl and her teaching friend who came from England, two girls from Sweden, two more girls from Denmark, another girl from the US and yet another from Scotland.  Finally, there were a mother (Angela) and daughter from Canada.
The group were mainly younger people with everyone except Gina, Sue and Angela at about half my age or less.
The altitude (we reached  maximum height of 4219m) had different effects on different people.  I was short of breath if I made an effort but otherwise was unaffected; others had significant and debilitating responses.  We were hugely assisted by our team of extraordinary local porters and our guides had great mountaincraft, they also had oxygen to assist extreme cases combined with the use of local remedies.
Gina, me and Sue with our indefatigable guide,
Roger, giving the llama sign
We all completed the trek...GI problems affected some of the group and Gina had a tough last day but the sight of Machu Picchu, so much more enthralling when it opens out in front of you than in all the photographs, made the trip so worthwhile; let alone the myriad other experiences during our week in Peru.
I was intrigued as to whether the effects of being at altitude would enhance my running on return to the UK but any benefits were lost, I fear, to a 31 hour journey home.  That said, I feel strong at the moment.
The trek is over a distance similar to the marathon and so it was no surprise that a local porter had, reportedly, covered the distance in less than 4 hours...no surprise but very considerable admiration.  The elevations and descents are substantial and the footing very uneven at times but it is, of course, the effects of altitude that make this feat seem so improbable to those visiting the Inca Trail. 
Assistant Guide, Roddy, preparing coca leaves
for our ceremony to the mountains
I had one  moment when I had to ask myself a question about my skepticism.  Our main guide, Roger, was very knowledgeable about Inca and pre-Inca history.  He also had a great love and respect for the mountains and nature that were supported by his Inca beliefs.  Early on the first day of the trek he asked us all to take part in a very simple ceremony where we blew over three coca leaves, held in a fan shape to represent the mountain peaks, four times, facing four sets of mountains.  We then had to place the three leaves under a small rock and silently ask the mountains to take care of us.  Although I have no belief that the mountains can have any direct influence over my life I do have a great delight in wild and open spaces.  To argue against Roger’s request would, I felt, have seemed disrespectful and difficult to explain given some language limitations.  I was also entirely happy to take a moment in silence to just remember what a privilege it was for me to be in someone else’s land and under their guidance so I participated in the ceremony willingly.  I guess I’m not a very militant skeptic.   

Thursday, 28 October 2010

1984

A year that will always create a shiver for those who read Orwell’s classic vision of the future...but I guess you had to read it before 1984 for the effect to be truly gripping.  For me, however, it’s a year that marks two pinnacle moments on my life.
The greatest moment, as any loving parent will acknowledge, was the birth of my first child: Bryony Grace.  The labour was a long ordeal for Olwen (which rather puts long distance running into perspective) but at the moment of Bryony’s birth the pain seemed to be forgotten and the sense of euphoria was palpable. We had been in the Maternity Unit for about 23 hours and it was early dawn but I was certainly on an emotional high and my run that day just seemed to flow...indeed the records for the rest of the month show good mileages and comfortable striding.
This was all building up to my second 100 miler...the ‘Dartmoor 100’.  Dartmoor is a bleak place of windswept moor, high tors, treacherous bogs and majestic vistas.  It is often associated with the brooding image of the Victorian prison there but it is also a place of great beauty and one of the few remaining wilderness areas in Southern England.  I had lived close to Dartmoor and run on it many times while living near Plymouth in the previous 3 years. This would prove to be an enormous benefit as one of the great psychological struggles in ultra running is the fear of losing the route...this becomes acute in the dark and, when tiredness threatens to overwhelm you, even a half mile deviation becomes a monstrous fear.

Typical Dartmoor Trail

The event was based at Crelake Barracks in Tavistock.  Being reasonably local I volunteered to assist the kit checking and registration of the first wave of starters (those talking up to 48 hours to walk the route). So I was away from home by 0630. I then registered myself at 1345 and started at 1500.  My diary records: 

“Rain, wind, sun, hail. Went out rather fast, joined Jim Guy and Keith Arnold at about 6 miles. Worked well until Aish Tor (about 45 miles) where I broke away. Alone for remaining 55 miles.  Crelake Barracks 1120, a ripple of applause, a taste of glory. Hard work, I must remember how much this hurt and think hard on the memory before entering a similar event.  Feet blistered, knees stiff, right shin very sore, neck tender, mouth sensitive, otherwise fine.” 
The Small But Significant Aish Tor

This diary entry tells some of the story but let me recall a little more.  The route was often on track with occasional bits of road. There were also expanses of open, energy sapping moor.  There were checkpoints about every 6 miles where tea and food were supplied...often the food was cake and sandwiches.  I carried a plastic 1 pint mug so that I could drink the tea whilst walking out of the checkpoint.
The ‘break away’ from Jim and Keith was hardly a tactical manoeuvre as even I would recognize that ‘kicking’ with 55 miles to go is a little early, it’s simply about what your natural and comfortable pace is and I felt I wanted to go just a little quicker.
The breakfast stop was at about 60 miles...and this was a full on breakfast: cereal, tea, full fry up of egg, bacon, sausage, tomato and beans, tea, and then toast and marmalade...and tea.  The first half mile after breakfast was not a run...it was barely a walk...but my much punished body somehow crept back into its rhythmic motion.
After the breakfast stop, however, my ability to eat almost disappeared. From then on I could only manage cold rice pudding and a couple of apples.
My weariness eased as the sun rose but I was certainly drawing on the bottom of the fuel tank.  I knew that I was the leading entrant from wave two and that, if I maintained my pace I would be the fastest finisher but I began to be obsessed by the fear of strong finishers sweeping past me.
The route demanded an overall ascent of greater than 10,000 feet and I wearily dragged myself on to the moors above Tavistock. With about three miles to go I met one of my college lecturers (himself a very fine cross country runner) taking his Sunday morning run.  I remember my frantic questioning of him, “Bob, is there anyone behind me?”...I was having trouble turning my neck and was oddly fearful of stopping to look behind.  Bob reassured me I was on my own.
And so I dropped into Tavistock and back to Crelake Barracks.  The first, and only, event I’ve been first home in.  I choose my words carefully here, the event didn’t recognize a first place but I had the very great satisfaction of knowing that I was first home.


I spent several weeks recovering my running form after that extraordinary day.
And what was the highlight of 1984?  Without any doubt, seeing my daughter Bryony enter the world.  In December of this year I will walk Bryony down the aisle to her future husband...at least I won’t have to ask Bob if there’s anyone behind me.    

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Moving On and Consuming




First thoughts today are around completing the World Wide Festival of Races run yesterday, the 9th of October.  This great event is about participants entering all over the world and running their distances in their local area (or gathering within their running community in their country).  I love this concept because, with social networking, it feels very much like we’re actively developing the Run Net Community.  
I ran the Half Marathon distance on my own around my home in Yeovil.  I felt I wanted to do this run alone (but whilst listening to the Phedippidations podcast dedicated to the event with shout outs from around the world); I haven’t run this far since 2003 and I wasn’t sure how it was going to go but I was pleased to complete the run in 1:48:04.  The conditions were excellent for running and I smiled as I thought of the runners around the world taking part.
Perhaps it is naive to believe, as Steve Runner often hopes, that we can make a difference to our issues of global conflict and hatred simply by running and yet if we don’t all make some small effort then we surely are doomed.  And, in the end, I really do believe that there are many more caring and loving people in this world than those who seek to oppress and damage their fellow beings.  I think of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “If one person breathes more easily because you have lived then you have succeeded”.
Many thanks to all those who helped put the WWFOR together....and to all those who participated, I hope your run was a good one.
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Running History
So the late summer of 1982 saw me entering a couple of local hill races at summer shows. The Cornwood Show Race on the 21st of August saw another second place finish for my diary...but there were only 6 entrants.  It was busier a couple of weeks later for the Ivybridge Beacon Race and I didn’t trouble to record my place.  These two runs remain in my mind as early excursions into the unique world of fell racing, not that they were especially tough versions of this particularly gruelling form of competing.  For a full and delightful investigation into this activity I thoroughly recommend a book I have just read, Feet In The Clouds by Richard Askwith...a great book that will inspire, inform and move you.
Other running in the latter part of 1982 saw continued cross country races and completing the 2nd Honiton Marathon on the 17th of October in a  new pb of 2 hrs 49 mins (15th place).
In 1983 I completed the Seven Sisters Marathon for the second time (no easier) and on Sunday 27th February I ran the Mayflower 10 in Plymouth in a time of 60:00:47...oh so close to the sub-1 hour ten miles.
The remainder of 1983 saw sporadic running.  Despite my earlier recollections I now discover that I suffered with bleeding in a tendon sleeve in my right leg, which curtailed some running.  It was the 3rd year of my degree and there were finals to be sat.  Furthermore, I actually did some time at sea.  One highlight was improving my Rock Race time in Gibraltar to 24 mins 33 secs.
All this was, however, part of the build up to 1984 and, perhaps, my finest running moment.
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What about minimizing our footprint and reducing our consumption?  Many of us in the developed world have a great deal off stuff in our lives.  We seem to spend most of our working lives trying to accumulate yet more stuff.  Some of this stuff gives us great pleasure (I love using my iPod) but we can, I feel, make the notion of accumulation an end in itself.  
Perhaps it’s a function of my age but I’m increasingly wanting to simplify my life.  I was greatly affected by reading the book by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the company Patagonia.  His book, Let My People Go Surfing, has altered the way that Gina and I view consumption and stuff.  This isn’t about a hairshirt approach for us and we feel that, for good or ill, we live in a country and culture that bases its economic structure on consumption so we have to continue to buy some things.  The change for us, though, is that if we buy something new (standfast consumables like food and wine) that is adding to our stock of stuff then we must either give a similar item away to someone who can make use of it or, at least, recycle it.  For example, I bought a new pair of trekking trousers so I am going to give away an older pair of trousers.
This is a simple step but quite a profound shift in thinking for us and, we believe, it will mean that we give greater consideration to the purchases we make in the future.
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Friday, 1 October 2010

Going the Distance



April 1982 saw me in Austria skiing again. Three years ago I returned to this sport and I have enjoyed a week of skiing in the French and Swiss Alps with Gina each year since then.  
Skiing Now


It’s not racing any more but there is great delight in being in the mountains and we love spending the days moving between the very fine restaurants and cafes on the slopes .  Back in 1982 I was not only racing down the slopes but my diary records morning training runs of about 5 miles before skiing as well. 
Skiing Then

Where was all this leading?  I had become intrigued by the limitations of human endurance.  The more I investigated it seemed that no matter how far, how extreme the challenge someone had always done something more extraordinary.  I don’t put myself in any category of ‘extraordinariness’ but I was intrigued by the thought of how much could I do as one of the ‘also rans’?
The world of ultra-running in 1982 was even more of a niche than it is today but for someone based in Southern England I saw an opportunity in participating in the LDWA (Long Distance Walking Association) annual 100-mile event held over 48 hours over the late May Bank Holiday weekend...that year the event was in the South-East.  The basic idea was to cover 100 miles on foot navigating on a route that was mainly footpaths; an ascent of around 10,000 feet was also aimed for.  The bulk of participants were walkers (imagine, if you will, walking for 48 hours...hardy souls) and there were always those who would try to run the route in less than 24 hours.
I realized that this was a major step up from covering a marathon distance so I set myself a training run along the Ridgeway footpath from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury...a distance of 85 miles.  I had walked this path with Olwen the previous year so I knew the route reasonably well.  I was joined on the run by my college friend Chris Windley and, over several stretches, by his girlfriend (now wife) Pam.  We aimed to cover the route in two days...and succeeded. 
The Plymouth Marathon 1982 - Chris Windley in number 086
On 23rd May 1982 I did the Plymouth Marathon (noted in my diary as ‘a training run’) in 3 hrs 5 mins 3 secs...coming in 43rd place.  
All was set for the Pilgrims 100 ~ from Guildford to Canterbury on the 29th and 30th of May 1982.  It is all about the mindset.  I ‘jogged‘ the first 25 miles in about 4 hours feeling entirely within myself.  By 75 miles, having gone through the night and drawn deeply on my reserves, I still felt that I could get to the finish line but the challenge had really started to bite.  I got home in a time of 23 hrs 28 mins, at this distance it is largely a blur in my memory.  My diary records ‘One and only (?), oh, so difficult’.  
[Researching the records revealed that I was joint second home in the 100 mile event.  This achievement was a little overshadowed by the fact that some participants had actually done a ‘100 Plus‘ distance of 142 miles and achieved a better time than me at 100 miles but the more pleasing thought was that I was joint second; this made me remember sharing the last 20 miles or so with a fellow runner.  Ultra distance events, perhaps more than most, are often shared experiences where the truly gritty moments are battled against  in company.]    
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So what do I gather from this recollection?  My first thought is that the capacity for human endurance is much, much greater than many of us would think at the outset.  Not many years before this run I could only fantasize about the feeling of completing a marathon, believing it to be far beyond my capability.  Training and self-belief proved otherwise.  
I hear many successful people in the running world and in other spheres who state that “If we really believe that we can do something then we can” or similar.  I think that we have to run a caveat over this thought.  There are physical limitations.  I can’t run a 9 second 100m or a sub-2 hour marathon.  I am sure that no matter how certain my thinking was my physical limitations meant that I could never have achieved them...indeed they’re beyond human achievement at the moment.  However, if I make my goals within the realms of my achievement then they are there to pursue.  When I sought to achieve a goal that was, to my mind, extraordinary but achievable then I found the wherewithal to run a distance of 100 miles...in travelling to that achievement I ran a hilly marathon one week before my 100 mile run and saw it simply as a training exercise.
We can all do extraordinary things within the bounds of our own lives if we believe and commit to them.  You have to work at your physical training but the make or break point will be in your head.  
Now, within the limits of this short blog and my own capacity of language, I need to be careful not to suggest that you should ignore warnings of injury when trying to achieve endurance events but it is within the mind that the greater component of success or failure will reside. 

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Off & Running

So why am I writing this blog; there might be 5 people reading it.  I guess that one cannot ignore the simple self-indulgence of writing down ones thoughts and memories; it is a pleasurable way to record part of the biography of a life.  Maybe one or two people will draw some sort inspiration from it.  It enables me to develop my style in writing.  Perhaps the most important aspect for me is that I now feel I am more of a contributor to the Run Net Community.
I don’t know where the ‘new media‘ path will lead in terms of our communication but I sincerely hope that it will contribute to the breaking down of barriers between humans that still seem to be prevalent across our world.
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It was exactly four weeks after the Pony Marathon that I toed the line...as best one can at a mass participation marathon...again.  This was the 1981 Interplas Marathon in Birmingham.  I completed the course in 3hrs 15mins, with a diary comment of ‘Much better”.  
After the Interplas
Four weeks later again, and amidst quite a busy cross country season, I took part in the Honiton Marathon in Devon; the time came down again to 3hrs 10mins 30secs.  
My training was still quite un-informed.  I’d read Jim Fixx’s book and The Runner’s Handbook  by  Bob Glover and Jack Shepherd but I was still tending to just run at every opportunity, which mainly consisted of running to and from college (5 miles by the shortest route).  These were halcyon days of fitness.  A diary entry records, for example, “Ran to college, played 5-a-side football, ran home: 10 miles”).  
My training carried on well though the Christmas break and it was in February 1982 that I took part in the Seven Sisters Marathon, a cross country event that starts and ends at Eastborne on the south coast of England. More specifically it started up a very steep, grassy slope and finished over a series of cliff edge hills, the eponymous Seven Sisters, one of which is Beachy Head, sadly well known as a site for suicide jumps (so much so that volunteers are often there to talk with, and hopefully dissuade, potential jumpers). 

The Uphill Start
I remember this being a tough event but with some notable features.  Firstly, the runners set off some time after the walking entrants and I can still picture the rows of boots outside the pub door as the walkers took on their liquids...seems to me that that’s not a bad approach.  Secondly, we were all given a large chunk of fruit cake at the base of one of the later climbs (22.5 miles); the sensation of that chewy lump of cake becoming concrete-like in my dry mouth still remain a startlingly vivid memory.  I recorded a time of 3hrs 31mins and finished 11th out of 150 entrants.         
Closing stages of Wolverhampton
It was on Sunday the 28th of March 1982 that my marathon time fell below 3 hours for the first time. The Wolverhampton Marathon, which I ran with my friend Chris Windley.  I found my flow and my recorded time was 2 hrs 52 mins 25 secs.
My diary recalls a rather more significant event around this time though.  I returned to my family home in Exning, a small village near Newmarket, and there I ran with both my mother and my father.  Dad had been a long time smoker but he was stick-thin and had been a useful 400 yds runner in his school days.  It was a joy to run with him but Mum’s achievement was, perhaps, the greater.  She was hard working and stoic in her character, she would never have thought herself a runner but with gentle encouragement, starting out with very small increments, she was now joining me on a 5 mile run.
The next chronological event was my move into ultra distance running but I’ll leave that for my next posting.  I just want to skip forward here to Sunday the 18th of July 1982.  The Cambridge Half-Marathon.  I was a little disappointed by my time of 84 minutes but I was elated to be able to record that Mum, at 49 years of age and within months of starting to run, finished the same event in a time of 1hr 58 Mins. She grew to love running and was hugely disappointed when unremitting knee pain forced her to stop before she could tackle a full marathon although she went on to play tennis until, sadly, she was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1997. I still miss her. 
Mum and Me, very happy after the Cambridge Half
   

Friday, 3 September 2010

GO

Diaries and Log Books


It is quite evident that I was running before 1981 but that is the year that my running records begin.  Since I started those records I have maintained a hand-written log that estimates every mile covered.  I could never claim that it is accurate as I’ve only ever kept the record to the nearest 0.5 miles and my timing estimates must have been a bit off on several occasions.  Now, with the advent of Google maps combined with the buckeyeoutdoors.com training site [great site] or the iPhone sat-nav app that I use, I feel that my recorded accuracy is rather better.  It is, interestingly, quite close to my time based  estimates and there seems to be a reasonably even compensation between the over and under estimate values. This, of course, accepts that I believe in the accuracy of the technological aids
I’ve used buckeyeoutdoors  to record all my runs this year but I don’t want to let go of my paper records, so I still keep a hand-written log.  I feel that this log is an important part of my running, it helps to stimulate and maintain my interest.  Even those of us that can sit in the circle, give our names and admit to being addicted to running still need stimulants (I mean emotional stimuli here, not drugs, of course) to encourage us past the flat spots.
Let me return to the running story.  In May and June 1981 I was recording 40 - 60 miles per week.  I entered my first real road race on Sunday the 14th of June 1981: ‘The Fisherman’s 6’ at Brixham in Devon.  This is a coastal fishing town and I recall that it had some surprisingly steep hills.  My diary records that it was a very hot day and that I had a good run but my memory tells me that it was a sharp introduction into how competitive such events can be.  The following weekend I did the ‘Dartmoor North ~ South Run’; this was a cross-country event and Dartmoor has some difficult and energy sapping terrain.  My diary records that it was a 25 mile event but it took me 4 hours 30 minutes; I added the note “Stick to roads”, an interesting comment given that just 3 years later Dartmoor saw my most triumphant moment of running.
The events continued through the summer.  I took part in a 10,000 metre track event on the 16th of July...it was a huge field of 58 runners.  My recorded time was 39 mins 38 secs.  So there was some evidence of my speed improving.  I was never going to threaten the leaders at such events but I felt that I was learning more about the sport of running.
I had my first marathon in my sights.  Just a few years after the days when I considered such distances impossible for the average (and in my case, with running, rather below average) human I was going to take part in the 1981 Pony Marathon in Bolton in the North West of England.  
I have been very thankful over the years that my body has not sustained any significant or long-term running injuries but my diary reminds me that I did have some pain in my right knee in the month before my marathon debut.  I was determined to run that event, however, and drove up to Bolton for the weekend.  I broke the first cardinal rule by purchasing a new pair of running shorts for the race at the registration expo...but I seemed to get away with that on the day.   
I lined up on the morning of Sunday the 23rd of August 1981 with 8753 other entrants.  The results show that I finished 964th in a time of 3hrs 25mins 51secs (as well as my diaries I also have several scrapbooks and folders so there’s a lot of stuff for me to refer to).  I remember very well that I, like so many of us, set out far too quickly.  By 12 miles I was struggling and already into the run/walk rhythm that has got many middle-packers home over the years.  I found the energy to keep driving myself on and, again like so many, I remember the flood of emotion that hit me when I crossed the finish line.  Perhaps less common amongst runners, I can also recall lighting up a cigarette quite soon after I’d completed the run too.  It would be a couple of years before I had the determination to beat that particular demon.  My diary note for day was: “I done it!! (sic) - can do better - hard run”.  So I had thrown down the gauntlet to myself.
The Start of the 1981 Pony Marathon
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As I write this blog entry the sporting headlines in England are dominated by the allegations of cricketers fixing play in the recent England v Pakistan Test Series.  To many cricket is an arcane sport that moves at a beguilingly slow pace.  To others it is a wholly engaging spectacle as deeply considered tactics move the game through its phases.  I have, for many years, delighted in the sportsmanship that was at the core of the game.  There are umpires and they have to decide on many aspects of a match but the code, the spirit of the game meant that the players would often make those decisions ahead of the umpire having to intervene; if the batsman knew he’d nicked the ball when the keeper claimed a catch then he would walk from the crease, giving himself out.  If a fielder dived for a catch and claimed that he had caught it cleanly then his word would be accepted, no requirement for scrutiny by television replay from 4 angles.  Now, I fear, those gestures are less commonplace and the game is the worse for it, in my opinion, although it seems that confrontation and argument makes for better viewing in the judgement of many who control our media.  
The betting scandal...and it’s not the first in cricket...is another sorry reflection on the corrosive effects of short-term monetary gain.  I feel that the  money involved in most sport at the professional level has had a largely negative effect on the pastimes that so many of us enjoyed watching and participating in. This is one of the reasons that I still draw pleasure from running...and here I have, with regret, to differentiate between running and athletics, there have been too many drugs cheats in athletics for me to be able to watch that beautiful sport without a disturbing uncertainty.  Running, ordinary folk just getting out alone or together, with all but the very few having any prospect of winning the prizes seems to me to be truer to the ideal of exercise forming part of a complete and sustaining lifestyle than being disappointed again by seeing those with wonderful sporting gifts and abilities squander so much for what, in the end, will give them so little satisfaction.    
Two footnotes:  Firstly, I have used the male gender when writing about cricket here but I acknowledge that there have, for very many years, been excellent female cricketers too.  Secondly, my son plays a lot of cricket for a village side here in Somerset, England.  It is a continuing pleasure in the game played at this level that the batting team will often furnish both umpires for their own innings and yet decisions of those umpires are accepted by the fielding side as the final ruling.  

Saturday, 28 August 2010

SET

Early Struggles

Much of the early part of my running life is linked to my time in the Royal Navy, I guess that that would be inevitable when the greater part of your professional career has been given over to military service.
So to my first attempt to gain a commission.  The Admiralty Interview Board felt that I didn’t have the academic wherewithal to study to degree level and so I signed up for a 1 year course for a HNC in mechanical engineering at Yeovil College.
My physical preparation for the leadership course that I spoke about previously had triggered a desire in me to improve and maintain my fitness.  Having struggled to run at all before this time I now found that getting out on the road was something I looked forward to, albeit my running was on an ad hoc basis.   
I presented myself to  Admiralty Interview Board again in 1977 and this time they took a chance on me but I was advised that I would have to join the Upper Yardman unit at HMS Caledonia in Fife, Scotland.  The posting would be for 18 months during which time I would be required to study A-levels to better prepare me for my degree studies.
Always Active in the Upper Yardman Unit
This was a hugely significant time for me.  The Upper Yardman Unit was a very small set up with 4 Instructor Officers charged with teaching between 12 and 20 or so young men like myself seeking to improve their academic ability ahead of officer training.  The reason for the significance of the unit was that I found myself immersed in a culture of making things happen.  Everyone there was highly motivated and full of enthusiasm.  This energy inevitably expressed itself in sport and alongside my newly found keenness for running I became involved in squash, volleyball, badminton, soccer and even rugby and skateboarding.  I learned to sail in both dinghies and beautiful 55‘ Nicholson yachts.  And I discovered my passion for skiing...particularly racing Giant Slalom.
My running was the  slender backbone from which the other sports grew.  My training was still quite haphazard, with no structure or plan.  I simply ran as far as time allowed, usually around 3 miles.  There was no great variation, no intervals, no stretching just out, run, stop, shower. There was, however, a weekly run at HMS Caledonia known as the “YOT race”.  It took place a lunchtime on Mondays, as I recall, and covered 3 miles with a handicapped start time based on previous runs that aimed to get all participants to the finnish at much the same time.  
I gained the A-level qualifications I need and then, in 1979, undertook my initial officer training at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.  More physical training, which included running around the very hilly locality.  
Just before moving on to the Royal Naval Engineering College (RNEC) at Manadon in Plymouth I served in HMS Bulwark, an aging aircraft carrier.  The significance of this three month trip was that it saw me enter my first recorded race...the Rock Race in Gibraltar.  This is a recognized challenge for the ship’s company of any visiting naval vessel.  It’s a gruelling climb from the dockyard to the summit of the Rock, although it’s only about 3 miles the ascent is around 1300 feet and the certificate I have shows a time of  32 minutes and 33 seconds.
During a weekend with my parents in Newmarket I went to Millets, a venerable sports shop in Cambridge and purchased my first pair of running shoes...they were made by Karhu, a Finnish brand (I was delighted to see on the web that the company still sells running shoes with the trademark M logo).  I knew nothing about running gear in those early days but I was drawn to a company from that part of the world which has always had a somewhat mystical sense about it (yes, I think a skeptic can have a sense of the mystical...at the very least the ‘not known’).  Putting on those running shoes was a delight and I quickly found myself running up to 6 miles and then beyond.
It was in September 1980 that I joined RNEC and began reading my first degree. It was also at this time that my running became a a more structured component of my life.

I don’t have an accurate record of my running until 1981 when my running diaries commenced but I did record that I ran 765 miles in my Karhu shoes.  I then bought a pair of Nike and a pair of Reebok running shoes but I wasn’t recording the models at that time.  My next shoes were, however, legends in my running history...the magnificent New Balance (420s I think).  I still didn’t know anything about running kit but I was attracted by the name ‘New Balance’ and, even then, I liked that I could buy a pair of shoes that were made in, or close to, the country I was running in. Why were those shoes so special...because they sustained my running  through 2500 miles.  They were extraordinary and I’ve never found anything that has got close to matching them.
My daily running diaries commenced on Friday the 1st of May 1981 although I had recorded some weekly totals before then.  My mileages were climbing; my road races and cross country events were about to start in ernest.
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So what is my take on skeptic (I like this spelling) thinking?  I try not just to take a contrary view point.  I like to have evidence that I can understand and where that evidence is beyond my intellectual grasp I like to listen to counter arguments and determine my thinking as well as I am able.  I find cynicism rather too easy to slip into but it makes me uncomfortable because it doesn’t feel like a laudable or helpful trait; I try to take a balanced view. I am familiar with many of the techniques that seek to persuade me to certain action and I have an absolute distrust of any hint of a ‘free lunch’.  My experiences in life lead me to have much greater faith in the ‘cock-up’ than the ‘conspiracy’ theory. 
I tend towards an atheist view but rather prefer the militant agnostic stance of I don’t know and neither do you.  My approach to this life is that it is the one life that we know we have and I seek to live it as well as I can.  Those who know me will testify, I’m sure, that I have failed in that stated aim on numerous occasions but I continue to try.  
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Running this week has gone pretty well, these were the highlights: a run of almost 10 miles on Tuesday and a very enjoyable run with Ed (my son) and Ade (almost my son-in-law) over 5 miles on Wednesday.  
I record my full training log as ‘Blackbike’ on www.buckeyeoutdoors.com which is a great site and highly commended.  I’m closing in on my challenge of 1000 miles in 2010. 

Saturday, 21 August 2010

TAKE YOUR MARK ~ 19th August 2010

The young apprentice joins the Royal Navy


So it seems that I am coming to blogging in much the same way I came to running...a little later than many.  I have felt a desire to be part of the Run Net Community for some time though and, whilst I’m not sure that I have the time to create a podcast of good enough quality, I do feel that I could recall my running life by way of this autobiographical blog.
The first key date would be the 4th of September 1970, the day I joined the Royal Navy.  I was 16 years old.  I had enjoyed ‘kick and run’ sport as a kid but never played to any standard and following the onset of rather asthmatic hay-fever from the age of 12, I tended to avoid the sports pitch. I abhorred cross-country running, which invariably took us across the grounds of Newmarket heath.  I struggled to finish and was always in the last half dozen.
The Royal Navy expected some physical effort but not too much.  There were various assault course activities and sports afternoons to take part in as well as the physical training element of my initial training but nothing that was too taxing.
And so I trundled through the first few years of my Service career, qualified as an aircraft artificer and was drafted to the Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset.  It was here that I married Olwen in 1975 and we set up our first home at the caravan park just off the air station.  On the horizon was the POLC (Petty Officers’ Leadership Course), which was a six week course held at Corsham near Bath.  I knew that the course had a 1, 3 and 5 mile run in it as well as other physical challenges, including the assault course, the Cliff & Chasm Run and a 36 hour hike over The Brecons in Wales. Chill reality struck me.  I hadn’t done any serious exercise...ever; I smoked and I was inclined to carry too much weight.  I had to make some sort of effort to prepare myself for the course.
The course on the POLC.  I am 5th from
the left in the centre row
From the caravan park I knew there was a short road loop of about two miles that  I felt I could tackle.  I had a pair of old soccer trainers and some rudimentary sports kit so I set out...wheezing and blowing.  I don’t remember much about those early few runs although I can recall thinking about marathon runners; I would imagine the feeling of running into the stadium for that last lap of the track after 26 miles.  I couldn’t really countenance the thought of running for 26 miles, it seemed like an impossibility for mere mortals, and yet I could fantasize about that roaring crowd...the cool of the tunnel between the road and the track.  It was a vivid image but utterly dream-like in my belief that I would ever run that ridiculous distance.
I have no idea of my time or pace and I simply recall doing that run a few times in preparation for the leadership course, which I attended during the summer of 1976 - a particularly memorable year as it was a very hot, long summer.
Looking back at the report from that course I’m pleased to see that it noted  “He was already quite fit when he arrived and he has played a full part in all physical activities and achieved a good standard”. I certainly remember my immense pride in completing all of the measured runs (well ahead of the last half dozen), as well as being part of a team that set a top ten time for the Cliff & Chasm Run.  
The course, and my albeit meagre preparations, were a springboard.  I had enjoyed the physical challenges, participated in all the team sports that formed part of the course and exceeded my expectations.
My next challenge was to sit the Admiralty Interview Board as I sought to gain a commission.   

There is an addendum to this first part of the story, which tells a little more about my journey through life.  It was whilst I was on the leadership course that I became convinced that religion held no thrall for me; I could not sustain a belief in a supernatural power.  My rather watery Church of England upbringing had never convinced me and I was suddenly struck by the stark realization that, for me, this was it, this was the one life I was going to have.  It was a lonely moment, I have since characterized it as being like the cartoon image of Tom running over the edge of a cliff, he looks down and sees nothing below him and scrambles to recover his grip on the cliff.  Once I had calmed down, however, I decided that there was no need to try to regain my place on the cliff, it was ok, this is a wonderful life and it’s much better to live it well in all possible senses. My belief has remained consistent since that day.

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Today’s run was 8.12 miles on the roads of Somerset.  Very pleasant if a bit overcast.  I was listening to a podcast by Steve Chopper.