Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Nudists, Emus, Elephants and Other Runners in the News!

RUNNING is a more newsworthy activity than you might think.

This week I dug out my little reporter’s notebook, brushed up on my Pitman shorthand, and sniffed out some true stories involving runners, all of which hit the news in this one average week of December. 

So, in time-honoured ITV style, here's today’s ‘Running News at Ten’:

Nude runner wins appeal as judge rejects claims of ‘penile terrorism’!
Emu volunteers to be a runner’s new training partner!
Running in towns makes you stupid, says bonkers Daily Mail story!
Policeman runner makes an arrest during training session!
Marathon girl Morag gives lung cancer a run for its money!
Drunken elephants go for a quick run in Siberia!
Meet the man who’s a cross between Bear Grylls and Forrest Gump!
Essex girl’s hamstrings are refusing to talk to her!

Good evening everyone……………

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND: The right to go running in the nude has been upheld by a New Zealand court. Andrew Pointon was wearing only shoes on an early morning run in a forest when spotted by a woman walking her dog. She called police and Pointon was convicted of offensive behavior. He lodged an appeal, claiming: “If it was offensive, God wouldn't have given us genitals.” He said women were allowed to ride naked in a busy town during the recent ‘Boobs on Bikes’ event, but he’d been nabbed while naked in a remote area. The High Court judge sympathised and quashed his conviction. 

VIRGINIA, USA: A runner got more than he bargained for when setting off last week for a leisurely few miles in a quiet neighbourhood of Virginia Beach.  After a couple of miles he was suddenly joined by an emu, which ran happily alongside. The worried runner kept quiet and kept going, but passers-by became alarmed and called police. Animal control officers were called in and revealed that the emu was the pet of a local person and had drifted away from its home.

LONDON, UK:  Running in towns can make you go senile, according to university research highlighted in the Daily Mail. Studies showed people who exercise in urban areas have higher levels of mental decline and inflammation in their brains. Traffic pollution could significantly age the brains of over-50s. We must therefore conclude that running in towns can make you stupid - especially if you’re a Daily Mail reader!

GEORGIA, USA: The City of Dalton's Chief of Police Jason Parker set off for an enjoyable steady run recently, but it turned into an unplanned speed session when he found himself chasing a suspect. Chief Parker saw a man acting suspiciously and carrying items away from a residential premises. As he approached, the suspect began running, and when Parker shouted that he was a police officer, the man picked up the pace. It turned into quite a race, but eventually the officer’s fitness from regular running won the day. Fair cop, guv.

EAST SUSSEX, UK:  Last Christmas, Morag Murray was told she had lung cancer and 40% of her right lung had to be removed. A year later she is raising a glass with clubmates at Hastings Runners Club to toast many miles run and charity pounds raised since her major surgery. The 54-year-old was back up and running within months, completing the Hastings Half-Marathon. a 50-mile bike ride in Liverpool, traversing the three highest peaks in Yorkshire and the Great North Run. She puts her recovery down to the basic fitness achieved from her years of marathon running.

SIBERIA, RUSSIA:  Glugging down vast quantities of vodka and then going for a jog is not recommended procedure for serious runners, but it seems to have saved the lives of two Indian circus elephants. The truck in which they were being transported caught fire and was left stranded on a highway in the middle of freezing Siberia. Their handlers did the only thing they could think of, which was to give them two cases of vodka mixed with water and get them to run around a bit. Eventually help arrived and all have now arrived safely at their Omsk destination.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA:  These days your Clapped-Out Runner rarely runs for longer than 60 minutes – but Aussie Richard Bowles this week got back from a run lasting 60 days! Bowles became the first person to run the 3,054-kilometre Te Araroa Trail, which spans the entire length of New Zealand. It was no flash in the pan either, for earlier this year he was first to run the world’s longest marked trail, the rugged National Trail of Australia. The equivalent of 127 marathons, it took him 23 weeks.

And finally…………

ESSEX, UK: “My hamstrings are not speaking to me,” was the verdict of Harwich Runners’ star Becky McCorquodale at the end of the Waveney Valley Turkey Trot 10-miler in Beccles last weekend. Becky is on the comeback trail after a year out with a foot injury - and although her hamstrings are in a strop, she’s pleased to be “best buddies with the foot” this week!  Becky is sometimes known by the nickname ‘TomTom’, which was given to her after she got lost during one of the most straightforward cross-country routes known to mankind (“Someone mentioned cake”, was her only excuse!). 

Rob Hadgraft’s five books on running 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  www.robhadgraft.com

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

My Top Ten 'Celebrity' Runners

Rocket Ronnie leads the way . . . 

EVER bumped into somebody famous when out on a run? 

Celebs often look completely different when exhausted and drenched in sweat, and therefore can pass largely unnoticed by spectators and fellow runners. For some of them, that's exactly how they like it. 

Below is my own Top Ten list of running celebrities, some of whom I’ve spotted in action, a couple I’ve even managed to overtake, and some who have probably passed me too!

1. Ronnie O’Sullivan 

The man hailed the most naturally-gifted snooker player in history admits he enjoys running more than his main sport - even though he’s been world champ five times. But Rocket Ronnie from Chigwell is no fun-runner. His victories include a five-miler in Epping and last year’s Lactic Rush adventure race. He’s also chalked up several high finishes in cross-country, including the murderous Essex championship race in Basildon, and boasts a road PB at 10k of 34:54. He gets his stamina from his Italian-born mum, who last year walked 192 miles for charity.

2. Nell McAndrew 

I’m not entirely sure why Nell (real name Tracey) is actually a celebrity. This former Leeds bank clerk looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe, so that could be something to do with it. But there’s no doubting her running ability. She’s proved her mettle over a number of years and in 2012 improved to a sensational 1:21.53 at the Bath Half-Marathon, followed by 2.54.39 at the Virgin London Marathon. There’s more to Nell than just good looks.

3. Paolo di Canio 

The mad ex-footballer doesn’t do anything by halves. After a colourful career that included knocking referees over, Paolo last year ran the Swindon Half-Marathon by mistake! The volatile Italian went along as official starter of the race and after firing the pistol headed off to join the two-mile fun-run for kids and beginners. However, after taking a wrong turn, he ended up running the entire 13.1 miles, wearing the heavy kit of Swindon Town FC, whom he now manages. Despite the cock-up, he managed an impressive 1:49 without stopping once. Two other footballers deserve recognition: Former Exeter City man Barry McConnell embarked on a charity run from John O'Groats to Lands End last year, with a fine marathon PB of 2:58 already under his belt. Sadly severe knee pain forced him to quit after 126 miles, near Inverness. Meanwhile, former Real Madrid and Barcelona star Luis Enrique – who beat the 3-hour mark at the Florence Marathon - had a successful crack at the vicious Marathon des Sables (151 miles across the desert) and is now said to be training for a 400 mile mountain bike epic.

4. Graham Gooch 

Cricket legend Goochie wins his place in my top ten – not for his batting ability or a successful hair transplant, but due to the fact that he is a ‘real’ runner. Over the years, he has quietly and without fuss entered all manner of races and fun-runs around Essex, enjoying some very respectable middle-of-the-pack performances. He’s a big bloke and perhaps not a natural distance-runner, but his attitude and work ethic couldn’t fail to impress. In his playing days he would often be seen training in Chelmsford’s Central Park, sometimes with reluctant teammates trailing behind.

5. Chris Boardman 

The best running displays by any cyclist are probably those of the disgraced Lance Armstrong (e.g. 2:46 at the New York Marathon), but in the light of recent events we can’t be sure exactly how they were achieved. Therefore, Chris Boardman MBE sails past Lance thanks largely to his splendid 3:19.27 at the 2009 London Marathon, achieved only months after he was diagnosed with osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis. It forced him out of cycling and is a condition normally afflicting middle-aged woman, but Chris tackled the problem full-on, saying: “Cycling is good for strengthening muscles, but does very little for bones. I need high-impact activity to strengthen my skeleton, so I run about 30 miles a week instead.”

6. Dr. Alan Turing 
The brainbox mathematician, celebrated as the founder of computer science and for his wartime heroics breaking the Enigma code, was also a brilliant runner. It was his escape from the stresses of work and of being gay in an era when such a thing was simply not accepted or tolerated. Turing would storm down country lanes like a rampant buffalo, eventually being enticed to join local club Walton AC soon after the war. He was ranked in Britain’s top ten and fell not far short of Olympic selection. At the 1947 AAA marathon at Loughborough he ran 2:46 to finish fifth and regularly ran six miles under 34 minutes.

7. Alastair Campbell 

The spin doctor and Burnley supporter is included to represent those politicians who take their running seriously. Although he couldn’t quite match the marathon time of 3:44.52 achieved by George Dubya Bush (Houston, 1993), Campbell gets the vote for overcoming the handicap of a body clearly not designed for distance work. He finished the 2003 London Marathon in 3:53.45 which, among other things, beats the 3:59.36 by US politician Sarah Palin at the amusingly-named Humpy’s Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska.

8. Joe Strummer 

Punk icon and main man in The Clash, Strummer could well be the unlikeliest marathon hero of our times. Back in 1982 he disappeared to Paris where he grew a beard and lived anonymously. Later, Strummer would claim he’d competed in the Paris Marathon with his girlfriend during this time (Your Clapped-Out Runner has raced in Paris and can confirm a degree of chaos and cheating is usually involved in mass participation events in this city!). Strummer said he didn’t do any training, apart from downing ten pints the night before the race and not running a single step in the four-week build-up. He urged fans not to try this method, as it would only work for him and the writer Hunter Thompson. His girlfriend came last in Paris, while Joe’s time and position remain unknown, although he would later be credited with a highly respectable 3:20 at the London Marathon of 1983 (allegedly). 

9. Hugh Laurie 

The talented and mega-rich actor wins a place in my top ten thanks mostly to the fact that I bumped into him (almost literally) when we were both on training runs in a chilly Regent’s Park a while ago. Hugh is an extremely big fellow and his progress was not quick by any stretch of the imagination. As we passed, our eyes met and he gave a weary flick of the eyebrows as if to say “Hard work isn’t it?” I thought about answering in the manner of Stephen Fry, but thankfully didn’t. Hugh has inherited stamina from a father who was a champion rower, but a speed merchant he is not. But he gets out and runs often, and told one interviewer: “I run six-to-eight miles a day, plus weights and aerobics in the lunch hour. I also lie a lot, which keeps me thin.”

10. Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba 

Some celebs exaggerate their running exploits, some tell blatant porkies. But when Bjorn from Abba (the one with the chubby, non-bearded face) claims he did a marathon in 3:23.54 he’s not fibbing. There’s documentary and photographic evidence to prove it. Wearing headband and short dark socks, Bjorn cruised the 1980 Stockholm Marathon. Apparently he was persuaded to take part by insistent race sponsors Nike. Super Trouper indeed.

Rob Hadgraft’s five books on running are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Marathoners and triathletes urged to go steady!

Triathlons too wet for me, so I did the Mildenhall Duathlon instead!
IN the same week that East Anglia’s fittest woman Chrissie Wellington quit full-time sport, there was another scare story in the media about people who overdo exercise.

The two things were not related of course.  Chrissie was quitting purely to take up fresh challenges in her life, and not because she’s clapped-out from thousands of miles running and cycling. 

She announced on Monday she was retiring as a professional triathlete at the age of 35, bringing to an end an incredible career devoted entirely to the ‘Ironman’ discipline. She won Ironman world titles four times, remaining unbeaten at the distance and clocking the four fastest female times on record.  Not bad for an ordinary working-class girl who grew up in the sticks (that’s ‘boondocks’ for any American readers, and ‘Back o’Bourke’ for any Aussies).

She went to school in the unremarkable little town of Downham Market, and lived in the even less remarkable village of Feltwell.  In recent years the only time I’ve had occasion to visit those two places was in the wee small hours, towards the end of the annual Round Norfolk Relay. Being weary and irritable from lack of sleep, I barely noticed them at all, let alone looked upon them as places where an elite endurance athlete was made.

Being a bit of a ’townie’ myself, it’s tempting to suggest that growing up in a quiet place like Feltwell would be enough to prompt anyone to run/cycle as far away and as quickly as possible. But that would be out of order. I’m sure Feltwell is a very interesting place. For example, here’s an interesting fact about Feltwell:  It’s village school headmaster for 20 years was called Mr. Don Feltwell. Yes, really!

If you don’t believe me, ask Chrissie Wellington, because he used to teach her!  And Mr Feltwell had other star pupils too, including TV weatherman Jim Bacon and two members of Katrina and the Waves.  I told you Feltwell was quite interesting, didn’t I?

And there’s more. Mr Feltwell of Feltwell was a wireless operator during the Suez crisis who played football for the likes of Downham Town FC into his late 40s. And when his school opened its new swimming pool he showed he was no ordinary headmaster by leaping in fully clothed to entertain the assembled crowd.  Dull in Norfolk? You must be kidding.

But I digress.  The main topic of this week’s blog was supposed to be those scare stories mentioned earlier about the effects of intense exercise - i.e. the sort of thing Chrissie Wellington did every day until last Monday.

According to the report published by a group of cardiologists, fitness fanatics should restrict themselves to only the odd one or two marathons or full-distance triathlons in their life-time, because over-exerting the heart for years can lead to long-term damage.

They reckoned repeatedly asking the heart to pump massive volumes of blood can lead to an array of problems - overstretching the organ’s chambers, thickening of its walls and changes to electrical signalling. These could trigger dangerous rhythm problems.

Their warnings were directed at those of us who exercise hard for long periods, often repeating their training programmes over many years. They cited the example of ultra-runner Micah True, the hero of the 2009 book Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall. Micah died earlier this year in the USA aged 58, collapsing during a 12-mile run on a remote trail, his body undiscovered for several days. Micah routinely ran a marathon a day, sometimes more. An autopsy revealed heart problems, although it was not immediately clear whether this was genetic, or whether his extreme training did the damage.

The cardiologists insisted that most people should limit vigorous exercise to 30 to 50 minutes per day, only tackle the odd marathon or two, and then proceed to “safer and healthier exercise patterns.”

Many news outlets ran the story, and, predictably, it was not universally well received. Ultra-runner John Storkamp, one of my 'Facebook friends’, responded angrily:

“And what oppressive tax shall be levied on our spirit should we become stagnant and quit running out of fear? Running is one of the most natural acts most people will ever do. My dad gave me this article and said it was very interesting.  No, it’s bullshit!  Even if it were true, it’s bullshit and a waste of paper and ink. Don't they have anything better to do with their time? When the time comes, I’ll be happy to run into the woods, have a heart attack, die doing something I love and will be honored when the ravens, turkey-vultures, hawks and eagles pick my bones clean so I am reincarnated in all of nature. The other alternative is to quit running, get old and sick in a nursing home and die a long, drawn-out, painful death. ”

Basically the cardiologists want mileage freaks to become more moderate and circumspect.  But I’m sure I’m not the only ordinary club runner who has many friends and colleagues unable to stick to ‘moderate’ levels of competition and exercise. These people need new challenges and new adventures so they can stretch themselves to the limit.  Ageing and injury are just occupational hazards.

In the case of your Clapped-Out Runner, my marathon days seem to be long gone thanks to knee trouble.  Runs of around one hour – and not too many of them – are my maximum these days.

And my pitiful efforts over the years in the swimming pool have always ensured I’d never be able to complete a full triathlon. Way back in 1989 I did manage a desperate 25 metres at a pool in Stowmarket. The sheer bizarre spectacle of it stopped everyone else in their tracks and led to huge cheers when I finally smashed into the far wall. I wasn’t able to join the celebrations due to my innards being full of chlorinated water instead of oxygen. I had simply been too low in the water to breathe for the entire 25-metre journey!

My claims about having ‘heavy bones’ and ‘dense muscles’ and therefore a seriously-compromised buoyancy have always raised a laugh. But I’m sure there must be others out there who have the same genuine excuse? Aren’t there?

* Rob Hadgraft’s five books on running now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.  Go to:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Pre-race beer: Good for the girls, bad for the boys?

Drinks station: A runner makes use of a pub in the first London Marathon in 1981.

JUST when we thought we’d heard it all before, there was remarkable news this week about alcohol and its effect on your running.

Apparently a few beers the night before a big run has been scientifically demonstrated to be beneficial.  But only if you’re a woman!  

Yes, men are generally bigger and bulkier and can therefore absorb the hard stuff in bigger quantities and more efficiently than the fairer sex. We all understand that. But now we’re being told that women who down three or four pints will apparently run better the next morning! And men who do the same thing definitely won’t!

When this startling new research appeared in the press last week, your Clapped-Out Runner was quick to scoff. After all, these days many of us regard the good old Daily Mail as little more than a reactionary tabloid rag masquerading as a serious middle-class newspaper. However, on closer scrutiny, I discovered the findings actually emerged from an experiment staged by Runners’ World magazine - and the ‘guinea pigs’ were proper, experienced runners.

The results were described as ‘astonishing’ – and, for once, the Daily Mail’s hyperbole seemed justified.

The splendidly-named Dr.Gig Leadbetter, from Colorado Mesa University's Human Research Lab, led the research. She tested five male and five female runners with the aim of discovering the effects of moderate drinking on the next day's running performance. The subjects, all aged between 29 and 43 and all of whom regularly ran  around 35 miles a week, were described as moderate drinkers who knocked back a bit less than the official recommended weekly allowance.

The main experiment was split into two parts - The Beer Run and The Exhaustion Run.  

The Beer Run saw them go for a 45-minute evening run at 'reasonably high intensity'. Immediately afterwards out came the beers. They were each closely monitored and had to stop drinking once they reached a level of 70mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. For some of those tested, this apparently required necking four pints of the golden nectar.

The Exhaustion Run then followed the next morning. They were asked to run at about 80% effort for as long as they could tolerate.  

All of this happened twice, once with a genuinely strong beer being used, and once, unbeknown to the runners, with a placebo brew involved.

Amazingly, ALL the women registered considerably better times after a night on the beer, running on average 22 per cent longer than when they had the placebo. The men, however, lagged behind after drinking the hard stuff, becoming 21 per cent worse runners the morning after!

Dr.Leadbetter, a runner herself, admitted it would be wrong to jump to firm conclusions based on such a small sample, but said if similar results were to come from further studies then the  findings would be very important.

As many of us know only too well, there’s nothing better than an ice-cold beer after a long run, and over the years many good distance runners have openly admitted they indulge fairly heavily. Some coaches have even been known to encourage athletes to drink the night before a race, believing it helped with stamina and energy.

One top runner famously fond of his beer was the brilliant 1970s superstar Dave Bedford. The story goes that in March 1981 Bedford was enjoying himself in the Luton nightclub which he owned, when a drunken bet was struck, challenging him to run the very first London Marathon being staged the following morning.  Bedford phoned organiser Chris Brasher in the middle of the night and insisted on being given a place in the race.  The exhausted Brasher, in urgent need of his sleep, told Bedford he could do what the hell he liked and to get off the phone!  

Bedford was unfit, full of lager and pina coladas, but got himself to the rain-soaked start-line in Greenwich Park. An hour or two later the cameras captured him being violently sick during the race, but after finishing in a respectable time, Bedford reckoned his throwing-up had been due to the curry he’d eaten at 3a.m. rather than the alcohol!

Excessive drinking is clearly not a good thing, but there have been plenty of media messages about the health benefits of a daily glass of red wine. Portuguese runner Antonio Pinto, a vineyard owner himself, was said to have enjoyed more than just a glass a day, and he won the London Marathon three times!

On the other hand, there are runners for whom drinking even a tiny amount of alcohol on the eve of a race or a hard run would be a recipe for disaster. We should also beware the mindset that we can always ‘run it off’ and get away with more because we’re fitter than the average drinker. According to the American College of Sports Medicine: “Alcohol abuse is as prevalent in the athletic community as it is in the general population.”

Perhaps the runners who should take most care are those in Ipswich. I hear that some of the alcohol on sale in Suffolk’s county town is pretty toxic stuff: It was reported last week that you could buy a single bottle of cider for £3.99, which contains 22.5 units of alcohol – more than the recommended WEEKLY upper limit!

A reporter from my old workplace, the Evening Star, found three-litre bottles of Frosty Jack’s cider (7.5% proof) on sale in the town for under £4.  Let’s hope that particular establishment won’t be supplying the catering for any Ipswich JAFFA or Ipswich Harriers social events!

Most runners like a drink, but know what their body can cope with.  I’ll leave the last word to a Daily Mail reader who responded to the recent publicity with details of his own training regime:  “I am now 53,” he wrote. “I drink four or five pints a night. I get up at 4a.m., eat a banana and a handful of raisins, leave the house at 5a.m. and run 18k before doing a day’s work, five days a week. Not bad for an old fart?”

Not bad indeed.

* Champion runners of yesteryear Alf Shrubb and Walter George liked a beer or two, while ultra-running pioneer Arthur Newton was a big fan of cigars. Check out their amazing life stories, written by Rob Hadgraft and published by Desert Island Books, at www.robhadgraft.com

Monday, 19 November 2012

Big Bird is Watching You!

Rose and Dawn flee from the gaze of the Notley Park kestrel.  

“IF you’re going to take up cross-country running, it helps if you start with a small country.”

I was reminded of that old joke during a gruelling race on Sunday. And it struck me that Monaco would be a good one – for there’s a country that’s barely the size of New York's Central Park and at one point is only 382 yards wide!

Yes, cross-country is a sport that inspires gallows humour. And no wonder. My weekend race – a league fixture at Notley Country Park in Essex - may have been staged in near-perfect weather, but the organisers cruelly threw in hills that would have made Sir Ranulph Fiennes go pale.

The event was only five miles long, but no fewer than THREE times were we forced to trudge upwards to the famous ‘Kestrel of the South’ statue which is perched atop the highest bit of land for miles around. Yes, it’s a kestrel not a mockingbird, even though it did appear to be mocking the weary athletes that circled it from below.

The big bird recently celebrated its fourth birthday, having arrived to replace the one nicked in mysterious circumstances one night back in 2007.

Made of concrete, aluminium and steel, awkward in shape, and weighing three-quarters of a tonne, it is still a complete mystery how the thieves managed to carry the statue away from such a prominent spot without being seen. If you are going to steal something in these parts, you could hardly pick a more conspicuous spot in the entire county of Essex than here, high above the busy A120 trunk road.

The theft occurred not long after a cross-country race in the park below, and I have a theory that maybe a couple of runners organised the theft, coming back under cover of darkness to take revenge on a creature that had taunted them as they suffered below earlier. Whoever did the dirty deed must have been pretty fit to shift something that big, and must also have had a bloody big space waiting on their mantelpiece too.

The biggest mystery of all is exactly how the bird was manoeuvred out of the park.  A member of Braintree’s finest Old Bill said it had been pulled off its base and dragged along the tracks below. But they could offer no explanation over how or where it was taken from the point the tracks ended.  

Perhaps the thieves buried it?  Or maybe it suddenly morphed into a real bird and flew to freedom?

Whatever the explanation, an exact replica was installed (with stronger fixings) one year later, courtesy of Braintree council. They acted quickly because they knew how much we runners would miss it!

After trudging upwards up to greet the kestrel for a third time on Sunday, I suspect many of our field of 261 runners would have felt more like flicking a ‘v’ than  admiring the craftsmanship on show. If they could have summoned the energy that is.

Speaking of energy, I think I wasted some on Sunday, even before the race got underway. For there was a moment of panic in the corner of the changing rooms occupied by Tiptree Road Runners. It was caused by what is sometimes referred to as a ‘wardrobe malfunction’.

No, nothing as thrilling as Janet Jackson and a stray nipple. This was in fact a disintegrating shoelace on my left Reebok shoe.  They’re good-looking laces; big, bold, brash and bright orange, but they’re no bloody good when they break are they?  Especially five minutes before kick-off.

History recalls that Usain Bolt cracked the Olympic record with a flapping shoelace, and in the New York Marathon one year a Kenyan had the laces on his Nikes come untied three times. Twice he stopped to re-tie, but on the third occasion just kept running and left it to flap dangerously. He consequently missed a course record and huge cash bonus by 11 seconds.

Aussie marathon legend Rob de Castella recalls an important cross-country when a badly-tied shoe became stuck in the gloop and disappeared. His reaction was sheer anger:  “I really got aggressive with myself and then found myself starting to pass a lot of runners. As it turned out, I improved something like 20 places. But I never did get the shoe back."

Prior to Sunday’s, I can’t recall another footwear crisis of my own since a village fun-run in Constable Country way back 20 years ago. I remember stopping mid-race to re-tie and very nearly losing a hard-earned leading position as a result. As if being in the lead wasn’t pressure enough, having to decide whether or not to stop for a lace really tests your composure, that’s for sure.

Of course, these days I don’t get a sniff of a leading position any more – and with it not mattering quite so much, the pesky laces behave themselves perfectly. Apart from on Sunday.

Nowadays I tend to go for double and triple-knotting and have done ever since that fun-run crisis of 1992. The obvious down side of this is that removing shoes after a race becomes a project in itself. Especially if mud and cold fingers are involved.

It’s been calculated by an Australian mathematician that if a running shoe has two rows of six eyelets, there are 43,200 different ways to tie it up. Well that’s as maybe, but I reckon it’s high time somebody introduced cross-country shoes with Velcro fastenings . . . .

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books (published by Desert Island Books) at www.robhadgraft.com

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Hobble, The Boggle and an Elf or Two

At the Hylands Hobble all you get is pain and a pint!
Craig Dawson (4th) is planning to use his big red blister as
a rear tail-light when training at night.

THE running scene around these parts is definitely getting weirder.

This morning I received an e-mail which urged me to grab my off-road shoes and get myself down to a remote spot in Essex called Chigborough Farm next month.  

Apparently they want me there because of the following: “Naughty elves have hidden some of Santa’s sacks and only you can help to find the missing presents and return them to Santa in time for the big day.”

I’m not sure why, but it struck me fairly quickly that this event was probably not one of those deadly serious, stringently-regulated fixtures in the Run Britain Grand Prix series.

Your Clapped-Out Runner would be delighted to experience something new after 30 years in the sport, but I must admit I never expected that ‘naughty elves’ would be playing a part in my running career.

It turns out the hunt for the stolen goods is actually being cunningly disguised as a six-mile trail race open to all. Presumably government cuts have hit Essex Police hard and they’ve come up with this novel way of recruiting voluntary help as they go about their business in the Maldon area. As everyone knows, runners can be relied upon to trudge for hours across the countryside, whatever the weather, for long distances. Police officers don’t generally like doing that sort of thing, so they’ve called in us runners. A clever plan.

Apparently we’ll be given written instructions and sent out on Sunday morning, December 23, across an area that includes Chigborough Lakes, a 46-acre nature reserve north of the Blackwater Estuary.  A number of large but shallow lakes could pose tricky navigational issues here, especially if we get distracted by the otters or smew that sometimes visit (smew is a splendid word, don’t you agree?).

The organiser-in-chief of the whole affair, Dave Game of Mid-Essex Casuals, is naturally not revealing the exact route we will be taking. Like one or two other local race directors, he loves to spring surprises and the details are no doubt stashed away in the vaults of a bank in Witham, under armed guard.

So without the full facts available, we can only speculate where we might have to run in pursuit of those allegedly criminal elves. Maybe we’ll be guided across the causeway to nearby Northey Island?  Springfield Striders' race organiser Kevin Wright has recently condemned us to many and varied ‘water hazards’ - but those will seem like child’s play if we’re expected to reach Northey Island when the tide is in.

History tells us that 1,000 years ago a band of Viking raiders seized control of Northey. When the local hero Earl Byrhtnoth came along and told them to bugger off, even he was delayed by the tide. He was soon wiped out by a poisoned spear, so maybe he shouldn’t have hung around like he did.  His fate should serve as a lesson to those of us who will be running in this area next month. Just remember to keep moving.

The area has a fascinating history, and the arrival of colourfully-clad runners next month is merely the latest of many unexpected developments in this quiet part of secret Essex.  For example, a famous bloke by the name of Norman Angell turned up in the 1920s, flashed his cash and was able to buy Northey Island, lock, stock and barrel!

He soon designed and built a towered house and its surrounding turreted walls that survives to this day. You can even stay there on holiday if you can afford to. Politician and author Norman doesn’t seem to have encountered too many planning problems with the council back in the 1920s, but when you are on the verge of a knighthood and the Nobel Peace prize, you can probably take a few liberties if you need to. Norman was only five foot tall, incidentally, so maybe this business about elves is something to do with him?

I suspect the trail race will be well attended by members of my club Tiptree Road Runners, particularly as it’s been chosen to launch our brand new internal trail competition. This is being masterminded by our newly-crowned ‘Club Person of the Year’ Wendy Smalley.

In highly optimistic fashion, Wendy is demanding that we carefully tailor our personal fixture lists so that we compete in at least 10 out of a series of 12 carefully-selected events over the next nine months or so. If we bow to her pressure and comply, she has promised to implement a cunning system of point-scoring that will eventually see one of us emerge as a trophy winner.

It is rumoured that even getting spectacularly lost will not harm our chances, for there could be extra points for episodes of high comedy that may accidentally occur. Wendy has yet to confirm whether the champion will be dubbed Trailer of the Year, Champion Navigator of the Year, or maybe even Elf Chaser of the Year?

Glancing through the weekend’s results and at the 2013 fixtures, I must come back to my assertion that running is getting a bit weird these days.  

Yesterday (Sunday), the good citizens of the Birthplace of Radio were scared to death by dozens of passing mudded, bloodied figures taking part in the ‘Hylands Hobble’. The race was so tough that even the winner took an hour-and-a-half, while the tailenders are probably still out on the edge of Chelmsford right now.

Despite these scenes of carnage,  I understand that a few of my clubmates are now planning to have a crack at what is known as the ‘Braintree Boggle’ in February – another eccentric off-road race, but this one more than twice as long as the ‘Hylands Hobble’!  Good grief.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s running books (published by Desert Island Books) at www.robhadgraft.com

This, folks, is a smew. But, of course, you knew that already.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Squelching on a Sunday

It can get a bit windy in Harwich . . . .  

THE havoc wreaked 3,500 miles away by Hurricane Sandy led to Sunday’s New York Marathon being cancelled - but here in East Anglia a spot of nasty weather failed to stop our Sunday morning fun-on-the-run.

Emerging from my front door at some unearthly hour, I observed violent skies that looked unrelenting – and barely 200 metres from my doorstep our local park was flooded again. With the fate of the NYC Marathon having been all over the TV news, I began to wonder if the ‘health and safety’ option might kick in over here.  But thankfully the Harwich Runners club is made of stern stuff.  It takes more than driving rain, bitterly cold winds and ankle-deep mud to prevent their 53-12 N.Essex Cross-Country League fixture taking place.   

Fast forward two hours and - huddled together on bleak, exposed farmland just outside the port of Harwich - more than 200 hardy locals pulled on studded cross-country shoes, cast their eyes upwards and laughed defiantly in the face of the weather gods.

However inhospitable the venue, the course and the weather, the hardest part of cross-country can sometimes be getting yourself to the start-line, not the actual completion of the race. With this in mind, I tip my (metaphorical) hat to those who were making their cross-country debuts at Harwich on Sunday.  If you come back for more after that lot, you’ve definitely passed initiation with flying colours and can consider yourself promoted to the ranks of ‘real runners’!

It was the first time the weather turned against organisers of this annual event, so credit to them for not being cowed into submission. They’d already warned us beforehand that waterlogged fields would severely restrict parking and create a mighty long walk to the start, and that changing and pre-race preparation would be in a draughty barn definitely not designed to accommodate 200-plus jostling runners.  It was a miracle anyone turned up at all really!

Your Clapped-Out Runner arrived relatively early to avoid the booby-prize parking spots, and was rewarded with a farmyard position amid rusty, redundant machinery which lurked menacingly as far as the eye could see. The rain slanted down incessantly as, on the far grey horizon, little knots of hunched runners and their sportsbags trekked across exposed fields towards the start. Welcome to the sharp end of GB athletics. No hospitality marquee and plush VIP start-area here.

Friend and foe alike, representing the 13 competing clubs, gathered inside the barn HQ, tripping over each other as they fretted and experimented with clothing combinations aimed at defying the cold and rain. Gloves, hats, base-layer tops, long socks, neckerchiefs and more flew through the air as people kept busy, perhaps to postpone that awful moment when they finally had to return outdoors.

The run itself was set off with a minimum of ceremony, but a maximum of splashing and squealing noises. But the eight squelchy kilometres proved the ‘easy’ bit. When it comes to bad conditions it’s the waiting around for the start, and the recovery period afterwards that kills you, not the activity itself.

Harwich organiser-in-chief Peter G admitted he’d always feared that one day it would rain on their parade and highlight the exposed location and shortage of shelter.  But a creditable tally of 146 men, 73 women, plus juniors, toughed it out, and equally impressive were the marshals who manned their posts with great dedication.

The inquests after a run like this can be amusing. People mull over in meticulous detail how they’d worn too much, too little or the wrong type of clothing; had taken the wrong route past the giant puddles; had eaten the wrong things pre-race; had been tripped, cut-up and elbowed. This moaning and groaning is evidently all a front, for deep down many are glowing with self-congratulation at not only surviving the ordeal, but doing better than expected.

My Tiptree teammate Craig had a blinder - 31st on his cross-country debut - as did Tina, whose 32nd place in the women’s race was offset by the loss of feeling she reported in all ten of her toes. Wendy told us her controversial decision to run in waterproof jacket and woolly hat was vindicated by being the only finisher not to suffer exposure. Chairman Malcolm, not fully fit, watched the carnage from the sidelines, but instead of being pleased to avoid the misery, he announced a plan to return next week at Colchester’s Hilly Fields (another Shangri-La where the sun always shines and it’s never cold or wet!). 

The race may have looked like hell-on-legs, but running’s a strange game and most survivors seemed somewhat exhilarated by the end. Recovering in the melee next to my lot were Ipswich JAFFA runners, including Kelly, who glugged down “The best cup of tea I've ever, ever had in my whole life”.  Nearby, the experienced Gavin confirmed it had been one of the muddiest and wettest races he’d ever done. The appropriately-named Marina was quick to agree.

And there was Andrew, who reckoned the reason he’d forgotten to bring a towel was because he hadn’t run cross-country since 1973. Marcus was so traumatised by it all he managed to lose his car keys, while clubmate Esther left her shoes behind. Debutant Hannah announced she was so cold her hands had stopped working, while JAFFA old-stager Clive reckoned in his day cross-country had always been like this (presumably meaning the conditions rather than malfunctioning hands).

Typifying the spirit of the day was Colchester Harriers’ Debbie Cattermole, who slipped and took a spectacularly heavy fall but bravely carried on, eventually finishing just outside her team’s scorers in seventh spot.   

Poor old organiser Peter G perhaps had it worst of all, though. His scoresheets got so soaked it delayed publication of the full results. But that would prove the least of his troubles.  As people trekked homewards, he told his fellow-helpers to depart and get dry as he would do the last bit of clearing up himself. Unfortunately this meant nobody was around to assist when his car got firmly stuck in the mud. Having to then call colleagues back from their firesides was, he said sarcastically, “The perfect end to the perfect day!”

At precisely 2054 hours on Sunday (nearly ten hours after the race finished) Peter solemnly declared he was about to form a close alliance with a bottle of wine. He’s not been seen since.

Since Sunday I’ve heard rumours about a handful of local runners who thought they could avoid the misery at Harwich by taking the ‘safer’ option of a road race elsewhere in the region. I have to report that their cunning plan misfired. Two of them selected the Billericay 10k, but while sheltering in their car from the driving rain, managed to miss the start completely. Once they finally gave chase to the rest of the pack, they were confronted by oceans of ankle-deep floodwater.  

Meanwhile Ipswichian runner Mon headed up to the Bungay 20k. For his troubles he developed a strange condition he described thus: “My arms began flinching of their own accord”. As far as running ailments go, that's definitely a new one on me . . . .  

* Check out Rob Hadgraft's 16 sports history books (five on running), published by Desert Island Books, at:  www.robhadgraft.com


Monday, 29 October 2012

Woods or fields? Dark or light? Morning or evening?

Running through woods feels faster than open fields. Honestly.

WHY does it feel faster to run through woods than across an open field? And why can running after dark feel quicker than in the day time? 

These are questions forming in many a UK runner’s exhausted brain now the clocks have gone back and it’s time to train after dark, and race in cross-country settings.

Here in Essex there’s a triathlete called David Parry who reckons he has the answers to these questions. It’s all to do with something known as ‘optic flow’, apparently. Parry has been heading research on this at University of Essex’s Human Performance Unit and his findings have been widely published this autumn.

“Running in an environment where most visual reference points you can see are close by, you experience a greater sensation of speed than in an environment where your reference points are far away,” he says. “Running, therefore, on an open trail with expansive views across the landscape, and relatively few objects close by, is likely to lead to lower sensations of speed than running in a forest with many trees nearby.”

Okay. So for me and colleagues in the 53-12 N.Essex Cross-Country League I think this means our annual Halstead race - much of it through woods - is going to feel a whole lot quicker than the one next weekend across open fields at Harwich – even if we trudge through the mud at exactly the same pace at both.   

Another finding to emerge from Essex Uni was that running or cycling at night feels very different to performing the same levels of speed and effort during daylight:

“In the dark, objects further away aren’t visible and you only have close-by objects to use as reference, so you get a greater sense of speed compared to running during the day,” says David Parry.

Personally, I’m not sure if all this is good news or bad. In the past I’ve felt quite pleased with myself for skimming through woodlands at what felt like high speed. Careering through the trees, springy pine needles underfoot, and all that jazz . . . but now I fear it was only the ‘optic flow’ making me think I was going faster all along.

And as for the running at night theory? Well I always thought I was going faster after dark because I’m naturally an ‘owl’ rather than a ‘lark’. Which is to say I run better in the evenings than early mornings as the adrenaline is flowing, I’m fully awake, and my circadian rhythms are in a better place. But maybe it was just that optic flow business playing its tricks again?

Certainly my ability, or otherwise, to run early in the day was given a stern test last weekend.  After a late Friday night in London, I decided it was high time I sampled one of the many Parkrun 5ks staged at breakfast time the following morning.  Since becoming a Clapped-Out Runner, early morning racing was one of several habits I’d managed to quit. But, what the hell . . .

Strangely, it went well. And if you are all sitty comfty-bold two-square on your botty (as Stanley Unwin used to say), I’ll tell you about it:

Here at the Birthplace of Radio, it was the crack of dawn when my weary carcass dragged itself clear of the bedroom zone. Luckily a modicum of pre-race adrenaline had surprisingly mustered itself, because I awoke before my wristwatch alarm sounded (alarm clocks have been banned by Mrs H, who claims they tick too loudly through the night).  So it was a miracle I was even up and awake, let alone ready to do a Parkrun.

Parkrun is a worldwide project that has somehow pulled off the clever trick of persuading millions across the globe to go running early every Saturday instead of grumpily pulling the duvet over their heads. Events now take place weekly at 149 different UK locations, with a total of 12,500 stagings so far.

People like me who live in the Birthplace of Radio have only recently enjoyed the privilege of having a Parkrun reasonably nearby, with Ipswich and Southend-on-Sea now added to the list. Yes, the roistering resort of ‘Sarfend’, the one that gave the world the Kursaal Ballroom, TOTS nightclub, the world’s longest pleasure pier and Dame Helen Mirren. Among other things.    

The temperature was just above freezing as I made for the race venue at the eastern end of the sprawling Southend conurbation, tucked between Thorpe Bay and Shoeburyness. Here in Gunners Park you can look over the sea wall and see where the Luftwaffe once deposited one of their nasty magnetic bombs. Shoeburyness is also mentioned in H.G.Wells' scary War of the Worlds, but these things should not put you off.  This is a fine setting to stretch the legs on a Saturday.

There was one hell of a ‘wind chill factor’ to take into account, but the bright sun compensated and the simplicity of the event was welcome. There are no entry fees, no numbers, you just assemble for the start at 9 where a friendly chap thanks you for being a “first-timer” and warns you of puddles and other hazards before setting the shivering pack on its way.  Three-and-a-tiny-bit laps later you dip over the finish line, present your personal barcode to a man with a zapper, then head to the nearby Harvester where bacon sarnies and coffee await. Within an hour or two your result, position, age-graded ranking and much more can be scrutinized via whatever personal communications device you currently carry.

Issues of optic flow, circadian rhythms and bone-chilling wind notwithstanding, I’ll be back for more soon. Not every single Saturday morning, you understand, but very soon.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s 16 titles published by Desert Island Books at www.robhadgraft.com

Friday, 19 October 2012

Race in moderation? Which county's that in then?

* Excuse me, could you direct me to the A12? 
I've got another race in a minute.......

FUNNY how we change with age. If a fellow runner tells me today that he or she did two hard races in one weekend, I tend to smile sympathetically and quietly wonder if they’ve gone slightly round the bend.

Yet a few years ago I would often do exactly the same thing. Indeed on more than one occasion I recall actually completing two tough races in a single morning.  What the hell was I thinking?

This week I was reminded of those crazy days. It came about because I was filling a few spare moments by dredging out old race results - for the purpose of passing them on to former club colleague Clive Sparkes, who is bringing the Ipswich JAFFA website stats archive up to date. I had six good years running with JAFFA (1985-1991) during which all my lifetime PBs were achieved. And it seems to me like a good thing all that sweat, toil and mileage of yesteryear should go on the public record somewhere! 

The trouble is, when you head towards being a Clapped-Out Runner, leafing through your past achievements tends to be a traumatic experience. The rate and degree to which you have slowed down since passing your peak can be frightening. If you are the sensitive type, who is easily demoralised, I wouldn’t recommend this pastime. To say I looked at those cuttings and felt a little wistful would be an understatement. I was overflowing with wist, in fact.

Among the dust and cobwebs in my cuttings box was one local paper story which reminded me of a certain Saturday morning in the summer of 1987. Despite having spent the previous two nights on the razzle in London, added to long subbing shifts at the local paper, I rose from my bed at the crack of dawn to head for Chantry Park in Ipswich. A six-mile race organised by the Sri Chinmoy AC involved six identical laps, mainly over parkland. 

After coming in third and clocking a time of 35 mins 46 seconds (it takes me longer to do five miles nowadays, let alone six!) it was then a case of jumping straight into the car to speed down the A12 for a second race. Here I managed to win the Capel St.Mary fun run (4.4 of your British miles), again averaging less than six-minute miling.

Did I really have that much energy back then? There wasn’t even the excuse that in either race I was there to make up the numbers in a club team. No, it seems I entered those two races in one morning purely because they were there. You might think that my spouse would have had a quiet word and told me not to be so daft?  A bit of advice about putting quality above quantity, or something of that sort?

Well, no, actually. In fact, the first Mrs.H did exactly the same thing and ran in both events herself.  And - spooky coincidence - she also came third and first, in the women’s races.  If we had been getting appearance money, you could have understood it, but there were no brown envelopes, just little medals on a red ribbon.

Of course, I wasn’t the worst offender back then by any means. The 1980s was the decade in which a major ‘citizen running boom’ swept across the UK from America, and the sport suddenly became the chosen pursuit of nutters everywhere.

Take Mervyn Kesselring of Bungay Black Dog RC, for example. That same summer 25 years ago he managed to complete four races in a period of 36 hours.  And each was on a different surface!  Merv the Swerve raced on grass in Ipswich, on a cinder track in Norwich, on roads in Wroxham and on a tartan track back in Ipswich. With barely time for a meal in between. What a guy.      

Colchester runner Paul Newell (official club nickname ‘Nutty’ by the way), also spent inordinately large chunks of 1987 running along various roadsides. Perhaps years of supporting Colchester United had affected his judgement, but Paul embarked on what was described as  “a record-breaking mission” to Athens, talking about completing five full marathons in six weeks. He had warmed up for this little jaunt by running the South Downs Way, a little matter of 80 miles.

Maybe it was something in the air back in 1987, but even the region’s best runners seemed to get caught up in the mileage-mania. Paul Turner of Ipswich JAFFA, for reasons best known to himself, put his legs on the line by entering three races in two days - just a week after setting a superb personal best of 2:41 at the London Marathon. 

But Paul was a shrewd runner, well known for his sensible judgement (as well as for his loud and lengthy conversation in the showers), and his gala weekend of racing certainly seemed to do him no lasting harm. In fact, he chalked up a second, a first and a sixth place in that busy weekend. Nowadays he’s the club's head coach, and presumably doesn’t recommend such behaviour to his young proteges?!

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running history, at www.robhadgraft.com