Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Night time is the right time!

NOS GALAN: A great atmosphere - despite the lardy cakes!

IT would be nice to start the new year full of beans, setting some new running targets for the 12 months ahead.

But large swathes of recent weeks have been rendered zero-mileage zones. My progress into 2013 has been littered with support bandages, tubes of Ibuprofen gel, packs of Strepsils and sachets of Lemsip.   

It was exactly the same a year ago – and the one before that. A pattern seems to be developing. Perhaps it’s nature’s way of telling me to take a short break from running. Maybe it’s a hiaitus that wouldn’t happen at all if the authorities could change the calendar a little and stage the festive period once every four years in future. This works well for the Olympics and the World Cup, after all.  

For me, the running year nowadays runs out of steam in mid-December and only splutters back into life around mid-February. This means my annual ambition to run a full set of league cross-country fixtures is left in tatters every winter.  

The only saving grace in 2012-13 has been the arrival of the Parkrun project on my manor. These low-key weekly 5k races in town parks are ideal when coming back from injury, illness, or periods of low mileage. 
Until recently there were none within an hour of your Clapped-Out Runner’s residence, but now I suddenly have three to choose from every Saturday. You spoil us, Mr Parkrun Ambassador!

New Year arrived in the UK with folk repeating that grumpy mantra about it being an overrated occasion. As far as I can tell, most people over 30 stayed home and watched Jools’ Hootenanny on TV, accompanied by friends or family or a fridge full of booze. Maybe all three. Nobody holds parties any more, and town centre pubs are only accessible by ticket or entry fee!

Seems to me there’s an urgent need for more New Year’s Eve midnight races. There’s a famous one in South Wales (Nos Galan) and they are popular in Brazil, Portugal (Sao Silvestre races), Spain and Italy.  The idea involves a road race commencing a few minutes before midnight, so you run into the new year amid a sparkling, floodlit atmosphere, watching crowds cheering on friends and family while throwing drink and hot food down their necks in the cool night air. You can’t beat it.

In my 30 years as a runner, I’ve spent four New Year’s Eves in sweat-soaked running kit – Nos Galan races in 1988 and 1994, Lisbon in Portugal in 1990 and the Peak District in 2000. Four very different races, all rather surreal, but a great way to see in the new year.

The Nos Galan event in Mountain Ash, South Wales, was founded in 1958 and soon attracted big fields and famous names, and at its height was covered live on BBC TV. But in 1973 the police got shirty about traffic congestion and it was cancelled. In 1984 it returned and is still going today, although the wretched health and safety aspect means it’s no longer staged at midnight which was the whole point in the first place.

It all starts with a wreath being laid on the grave of local hero Guto Nyth Bran. A flaming torch is then carried into Mountain Ash by a mystery celebrity runner, who reveals themselves to the awaiting crowds before the main race in the hilly narrow streets of the town. Past mystery runners have included Olympians Mary Rand, Dave Bedford, Lynn Davies and – most recently – Dai Greene.

By all accounts old Guto Nyth Bran deserves the homage this event pays him. Apparently he was such a fast runner he could catch a bird in flight, and once ran to Pontypridd and back before the kettle boiled. When he was 37, he won a 12-mile challenge against ‘The Prince of Bedwas’ but all the congratulatory slaps on the back proved too much for him and he died in the arms of girlfriend Sian.  There’s no film footage to prove any of this I’m afraid, because it happened in the year 1737.

I recall my first Nos Galan appearance in 1988 rather well because it was probably my best race performance ever. Despite steep hills I managed 19:35 for 6k  (5:16 per mile) although still only came 110th of 600, such was the quality of this and other fields back then. Four of us travelled to Wales for the event and this week I contacted the other three for their 24-year-old memories:

According to Mark: “I remember the extraordinary race well, with all its torchlight and tradition and celebrity, and enjoyed the Guinness afterwards and the race T shirt. I also recall an aggressive goat called Henry Cooper where we stayed, as well as some fairly unpalatable lardy cakes eaten pre-race in the grounds of Cardiff Castle."

Julie confirms the “nasty lardy cakes” but was convinced ‘Henry Cooper’ was a sheep and not a goat. Bev, who had to go shopping for new sheets, such was the inferior standard of our accommodation, recalls: “We stayed in the world's worst B&B. Really uncomfortable beds and a grumpy landlady. And as I’m definitely a lark and not an owl, I was so tired by midnight I could hardly be bothered to jog let alone race!”

There were certainly more creature comforts on offer at the Sao Silvestre midnight race which followed in 1990 in Portugal. For starters there was free hotel accommodation because the manager apparently mistook me for someone famous (perfectly understandable!). No flaming torch or lardy cakes, but warmer temperatures, Champagne on the beach, and fireworks. “A pretty fab way to see in the new year,” recalls Bev.  

In cautious, safety-conscious UK it’s hard to imagine the authorities encouraging midnight races in our boozed-up 21st century city centres. Mind you, back in 1980 nobody could have predicted London allowing a major marathon on its streets every year. 
Come back Chris Brasher, we need you . . . .

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:   www.robhadgraft.com

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