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Saturday, 28 August 2010


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 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.
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.  
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 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.

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.