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Thursday, 28 October 2010


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 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 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.
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.
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.

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.]    
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 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.