Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Ups and the Downs


Now that's what I call a proper hill!


WHAT goes up must come down. And vice versa.

We runners like to have a good old moan about hills, but, bizarrely, are attracted to them like moths around a flame.

Northern folk would probably regard Essex as a flat county, but the red-clad hordes of my club Tiptree Road Runners would beg to differ after Tuesday's excursion into the humid night air.

We assembled noisily near the mysteriously-named Windmill Hill (deserted apart from a swarm of mosquitoes), and proceeded to race ourselves silly. One mile downhill, at the bottom careering 180-degrees around a human bollard in the road, and then back up to the start-point. It was a game of two halves, as they say.   

Now although running downwards for an extended period is said to be bad for knees and quads, it’s certainly rather good news for the ego and for the training log. There’s an entry in my own records of the one-mile I ran in 1991 when the big official clock recorded me home in 4 minutes and 46 seconds.  Yes, it did have a lengthy downhill section, but one mile of asphalt still had to be covered and those stats don’t lie!

That race was in Milton Keynes and called itself the Mercedes Benz Silver Mile. When the results sheet came through later I quickly had it framed and hung on the wall, because there I was in 10th place, not far behind Joseph Cheshire, William Magut and John Ngugi, all superstars from Kenya. The document doesn’t mention the bit about going downhill, so it looks damned impressive up there on my wall!

This week (22 years and thousands of miles later) my ageing legs couldn’t quite match that 1991 effort. I think I hit the one-mile mark (which was Pete and his bike) in six minutes something.  Perhaps I’d have done better if there’d been a few Kenyans up front to chase?

Downhill miling is apparently a popular pursuit in the USA, but I don’t know of any such event in the UK now that the famous ‘Meltham Maniac Mile’ is defunct.

For those of you too young to have heard of it, no human has ever run a mile quicker than the record-holder for the Meltham Maniac Mile.  In 1993 a 16-year-old schoolboy called Craig Wheeler won in 3 minutes 24 seconds, which was 19.61 seconds faster than the official world mile record Nourredine Morceli of Algeria set two months later in Italy!

Young Craig’s effort is not in any record books, of course, because the race was on a Pennine descent six miles outside Huddersfield. The one-mile stretch of the B6108 road started from a cattle grid on the moors above Meltham and dropped 400 feet.  It was not for the faint-hearted, and as one survivor put it: "I was going that fast I might have killed myself if I'd fallen."

Back in 1991, while I was congratulating myself on my 4:46 at Milton Keynes, a 60-year-old geezer from Yorkshire ran Meltham in 3:57.  Then, five years later, he recorded 4:02, narrowly failing to become the first pensioner to break the four-minute barrier!

But even Meltham seems like child’s play to the extremists who take downhill running really seriously. In the USA, a certain Jonathan Vigh explains: “Running downhill is not so much running as fall management. For some reason, my runner friends occasionally trip and fall when running downhill - this is not very healthy and should be avoided as much as possible. The way to avoid falling is to fall all the way down the mountain, in a controlled manner - I call it fall management.”

“Basically, you have to adapt your running style for the terrain. Steeper downhills require shortening the stride, just like you would shift into a lower gear if you were driving down a steep hill. This provides more control and reduces the risk of overstride which can be damaging to the joints. But your legs are moving faster, so foot placement becomes key.”

Runners are inventive people, and, inevitably, if you have downhill mile races, you will get the uphill versions too.  Older readers may have heard of the ‘Mow Cop Killer Mile’, another event born in Northern England during the running boom of the 1980s.  John Britton, a keen road and fell runner, came up with the idea and spent an evening in the drizzle with a surveyor's wheel locating a course of exactly one mile where there wasn’t a single level step, and a total climb of over 550ft. The idea of the toughest conceivable one-mile road race was born.

This brief-but-brutal race on the Cheshire/Staffs border broke into several different sections - a gentle first 400 metres away from a level crossing, then a 1-in-5 section, a steady climb up through fields in full view of the horrors to come, and at the end a killer section of 1-in-4 gradient past the most popular spectator spot. The Mow Cop Killer Mile soon became highly popular and crowds came out to watch the agonised faces and pumping knees. Never before have people ‘sprinted’ so slowly!

The first event – exactly 30 years ago – pulled in 95 runners and was won in 6:50. By the end of the 1980s there were over 1,000 entries (including fancy-dress runners, backwards runners and all sorts of other nutters) and it had to be split into 10 different races.  Runners from flat old East Anglia were among those taking part and it was even covered on TV. The record was set by Bashir Hussain (Stockport) with 6:12.  The event continues to this day and a few months ago the 2012 version attracted 500 entrants.

I doubt if you’ll see the Clapped-Out Runner heading for Mow Cop at any point. Races where you can apply the words ‘flat’ and ‘pancake’ seem more appropriate these days . . . . 

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