Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Tiptree Runners in UFO Scare

ESSEX police this morning issued a statement to reassure residents in the north of the county that unusual sightings after dark in the Tiptree area on Tuesday evening were nothing to be concerned about.

Several villagers living to the north of Tiptree, mainly in the Messing area, reported unusual phenomena moving slowly up and down the lanes surrounding the area at around 8pm. One anxious resident described it as a cluster of small yellow lights, which sometimes broke into smaller clusters, constantly on the move and sticking rigidly to the roads, although generally making rather laboured progress.  Speculation that this was a very low flying UFO were dismissed when one local swore he heard human voices from the midst of the lights.

The mystery may now have been solved by the news that local organisation Tiptree Road Runners has admitted to having sent out a club record tally of 43 runners onto the darkened Essex lanes for a training session on Tuesday, many of them wearing strange head torches and other ‘hi-vis’ material.  

The flurry of worried phone calls on Tuesday saw police subsequently send a crack team of officers out to investigate, but they drew a blank, their only unusual finding coming on the hill leading to Newbridge Road. Here they discovered patches of blood on the road, consistent with a runner or pedestrian having come a cropper while labouring along the uneven right-hand side of the road.

A spokesman for Tiptree Road Runners confirmed that one of its female committee members did indeed experience a spectacular fall at the spot in question, but he expressed amazement that local people could have mistaken the club’s training groups for visiting aliens.

He said: “‘We are normal people from all walks of local life, and there is nothing unusual about going out in the dead of night to run seven miles. Messing is not a no-go area as far as we know, and there is no drug or gun-culture problems in that area after dark. We should be left alone to get on with our training.  We do wear strange lights and gadgets on our clothing, but it is ridiculous to mistake us for aliens. I admit a couple of our members do sometimes resemble ET after they’ve got a bit dehydrated, and others do puff and grunt as they run, but locals should not be frightened of this.”

Despite the apparent eccentric behaviour of its members, Tiptree Road Runners is regarded as one of the village’s most successful organisations, its membership recently reaching an all-time high of over 60. Although far from being one of the Essex’s largest running clubs, it was recently the only outfit to field four full teams at the county’s cross-country relay championships. 

Tiptree runners regularly turn out in force at all manner of races locally and nationally. They can be identified by a bright red singlet, which bears the motif of a road-runner bird. They are generally friendly people and can be approached in perfect safety.  They have never been known to bite a member of the public, and indeed the club operates a strict policy of using a muzzle and lead to control any potentially dangerous members among its ranks.   

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Results Don't Tell The Full Story

EVEN the very best runners know what it’s like to have a bad day, when a race performance falls well below normal standards.

On days like this we cringe at the sight of the official results, aghast and embarrassed, hoping not too many of our friends and foes will notice. Of course, it wouldn’t be quite so bad if those results sheets could also include the excuses we come up with for our bad runs (some can be perfectly valid, others laughable). 

Imagine the content of the column where your performance is explained:  “Too much red wine last night” maybe, or perhaps: "Left the road three times for toilet purposes”. Or how about: “Wrong turn due to marshal asleep”.  The list is, of course, endless. Shoe-laces can come undone, kerbstones can rear up at you, and dogs can interfere with leg cadence. Out in the country lanes, your path can be blocked by horses and herds of cows. Happens all the time.     

Yes, those sub-standard times are hard to stomach, but what is even worse is when you have a very good race, only to find there’s been a results cock-up. This is when your name and wonderful time gets recorded wrongly, or maybe doesn’t appear on the results sheet at all.  All that effort, and the rest of the world will never know!

I remember actually winning a race (yes, I still feel the need to mention this from time to time), only to have my moment of glory spoiled by the fact nobody else was paying any attention. Maybe it was my speed, or more likely a lack of organisation, but the finish-line officials at this particular race (it was in a Suffolk village) were not even in place as I swept around the corner with a big lead. As I powered down the final stretch to a cold and indifferent silence, it quickly dawned that my victory was about to go unrecognised, and that nobody was even looking in my direction, let alone recording my time and position.

As a result, nothing was announced by the man with the microphone, the compiling of results was left in complete disarray, and not a sausage appeared in the local paper (even though I worked there at the time!).  Not that I craved acclaim, you understand, but a tiny smattering of applause would have been nice.

If you’ve ever suffered from cock-ups on a finish line in any shape or form, you will have sympathy for the teenage female runner whose story reached me a few days ago courtesy of a friend of mine in Melbourne, Australia.   This Aussie runner suffered her fate on the biggest stage of all - the Olympic Games - back in 1960 in Rome.  In such surroundings you’d think there’s no way results could be fouled up. Think again.

Her name was Dixie Willis and she was widely reported to have failed to finish a dramatic 800 metres track final. But now, more than 50 years later, justice has finally been done, and it’s been clarified that the poor girl actually did finish and was not the humiliating ‘DNF’ we all thought.

Dixie was an inexperienced 18-year-old from Western Australia who had run the fastest time in the previous day’s heats in Rome and looked a real medal contender.  For the first 700 metres of the final, she was either in the lead or contesting it with eventual winner Lyudmila Shevtsova.

But from that point on, it’s unclear exactly what happened. Ancient film footage doesn’t provide a complete picture, but after conceding the lead at 700 metres she is seen to lose her balance, throw her arms in the air, and step onto the infield. She then slumps on hands and knees as the winner streaks home.  

There was no unanimity in the reporting and recording of Dixie’s fate. Among the annotations were: “Fell 90 metres from the finish”, “Threw hands in the air and staggered off the track,” “Scratched” and “Tripped over the track border”.  The IAAF World Record Progression book says: “Fell over and did not finish” and Athletics Australia’s website says “Did not finish (fell).”

As for Dixie herself, she just assumed she would be disqualified for leaving the track and although hugely disappointed, took the matter no further in the 52 years subsequent.

There the matter seemed destined to rest, until my Aussie mate Trevor Vincent uncovered some YouTube footage of the race recently and sent it to an Athletics Australia official. The official was astonished to see Dixie Willis clearly jogging slowly across the Rome finish-line some 20 seconds after the medallists. She had finished after all!

Len Johnson and his Runner's Tribe website took up the story and Len says the only possible conclusion is that Dixie Willis did finish the 1960 Olympic 800 metres after all, and was not disqualified either.  She did in fact come 9th, which sounds an awful lot better than ‘DNF.’  

The episode didn’t harm Dixie’s career for she went on to set world records two years later. But it’s amazing an Olympic result should take 52 years to clarify. If they get things wrong on the biggest stage of all, no wonder we have the occasional problem here on the village greens of Essex!

Monday, 20 February 2012

'Why is That Man Running So Slow?'

A STEADY four miles through Writtle Agricultural College grounds, one brief stop for stretching, another to take a closer look at a strange quadruped in a field. 

Nothing special or overly-strenuous about that, you might think. But in the Clapped-Out Runner’s household this modest excursion was cause for celebration at the weekend.

It was the first time in SIX weeks I’ve successfully tackled a run of this duration, so hopefully the signs are emerging that this ridiculous mystery virus of mine is on the way out.  I’ve referred to it on this blogsite as ‘man flu’, but I’m sure you understand that was really just for comic effect. It’s a fully-qualified and proper virus, actually. Honest!

Anyway, as I managed the four miles without undue distress and am now sat here sinking a can of Stella, there does seem to be genuine light at the end of the long winter virus tunnel.

So that is the good news. Now for the bad. About two-thirds of the way through the run towards Cow Watering Lane (yes, it really is called that!), I passed somebody carrying a small child on his shoulders.  The tiny tot taking the ride stared intently as I swept by, announcing to his dad just as I drew level: “Dad, why is that man running so slow?”

Thanks a lot. The dad muttered an embarrassed reply to the youngster, who, in my opinion, should have received a damn good ticking off instead. It seems to me he needs to learn it’s very bad form to question the speed of a runner just coming back from illness or injury. We’re hyper-sensitive during this recovery period, and being called ‘slow’ could set  rehab back by weeks, not to mention the emotional distress it might cause. If he’d been 15 years older, I’d have considered legal action.

Before running into this little scamp and his careless tongue, I’d been thinking to myself how well this ‘comeback run’ was going. At the time I was even feeling tempted to phone our club chairman Malcolm to volunteer for the weekend’s cross-country relays at Chingford.  Then I remembered the race clashed with the mighty Luton Town’s latest home game, so common sense prevailed (or not, as the case may be).

My slow return to ‘normal’ running was accompanied at the weekend by an unexpected discovery on the internet. It was on the website of Run Britain, an organisation who know more about us than we think!  All club runners are centrally registered these days and many of our race results are apparently fed into the system, where boffins evidently analyse them and come up with all sorts of calculations and rankings as a result.  I have now been informed I have an official Run Britain ‘handicap’ of 14.6. Quite what this means, and what I should do about it, is still rather unclear, but it’s quite nice to know somebody, somewhere, cares about my running performances!

In golf, I suspect a handicap of 14.6 wouldn’t rank me very highly, so I am guessing there is room for improvement when I finally work out what it all means.

A bit of digging uncovered Run Britain’s explanation for their handicap system.  The handicaps go from 30 down to zero, and are worked out from a combination of recent performances in races that have a UKA License (i.e. most road races). Importantly, the figures are adjusted in relation to ‘course difficulty’ and ‘weather conditions’. This is good news, of course, because results and rankings don’t normally reflect the toughness of a course, or the weather on that particular day. But it’s bad news for runners who only enter races that are fast and flat, or those who only venture out when the weather is good!

If you are a club runner and want to find out your own official handicap, go to and simply enter your name and club. I keyed a few Tiptree Road Runners colleagues into the site, and we’re all there!  Have a go, and you might be pleasantly surprised . . . .    

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Cost of Going Barefoot

THE makers of running shoes have a hell of a cheek. They want to charge us big bucks to run barefoot!
Following the recent fuss about the (alleged) benefits of barefoot running, the big shoe companies were quick to respond with new flashy ranges of what they call ‘stripped back’ and ‘minimalist’ shoes. This footwear is light as a feather and free of the usual gizmos we were previously told were so essential!
When they say ‘barefoot shoe’, by the way, manufacturers generally mean lightweight and thin-soled. If we REALLY started running barefoot, they’d all go out of business of course.
As someone who generally prefers lighter shoes, the new developments were cautiously welcomed here at the home of the Clapped-Out Runner. The more choice in the marketplace the better, I say.
ASICS have just launched their first range of minimalist shoes, and their marketing blurb urged fans across the northern hemisphere to quickly buy a pair and get in on the barefoot action in time for spring and summer 2012. As a long-time ASICS-wearer myself, my attention was grabbed. Then I saw the price-list.
Now, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume a ‘stripped back’ shoe would be somewhat easier and cheaper to produce than the bulky and complicated conventional shoe?  And, therefore, could be sold at a much lower price? Think again, suckers.
ASICS’ new minimalist shoes – minus all the extra stability technology, the cushioning gel and whatever else – don’t come cheap, I’m afraid. The new Gel-Hyper 33s shoes are £99.99 a pair (that’s £100 to you and me) and the Gel-Excel 33s are £120 (RRP). Jim Peters, the plimsoll-wearing marathon champ of the 1950s, would be turning in his grave.
We’re fast reaching a point where most races cost £10 or more to enter, and the vast majority of shoes cost close to £100 or more.  
As a cynical old fart who’s been doing this sport for nigh on 30 years, one of my Rules of Running has always been never to spend £100 on a pair of shoes. I’d love to know how much I have spent in total over the years, and how many pairs of shoes I’ve got through, but sadly the Old Grey Training Log doesn’t include such data (detailed though it is). At a rough guess I must have bought in excess of 60 pairs since 1982 I would think. I'm confident none cost more than £80, the vast majority below £70. 
There are six pairs currently sitting in our hallway, by the way, cleverly positioned to frighten off cold-callers and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Very effective.
I’ve always thought the best policy is to wait a year or so for a particular range of shoe to slip out of fashion. Then they will start appearing at bargain-basement prices in deep dark corners of the internet.  Top discounts are usually only available via mail order, of course, so you can’t try ’em on, and therefore won’t be 100% sure what you will be getting.
It’s a risky way to shop for shoes, but at least it sets up that exciting moment when the post-person bangs on the door and shoves a nice parcel your way! They look good, they smell good, but will they fit….?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Walking in a Witham Winter Wonderland

THE MERCURY was at minus-one celsius. The cafe in the park was heaving with humanity, its windows streaming with condensation from the hot breath of the hundreds reluctant to return outdoors.
As the clock ticked past 10.30 a.m. the long-awaited thaw seemed no nearer so there was no longer any point huddling with the startled dog-walkers inside. It was time to get out on the snow and get this thing over with. Time to consign another season of the 53-12 North Essex Cross-country League into the history books which tell of races run and conditions conquered.
Yours truly is not here to take part, you understand, for my long bout of 'man flu' has still not disappeared, and I am sticking with my intention of not rushing back prematurely, which would give the pesky symptoms the chance to hang around even longer. That's my story anyway. 
I am wearing around seven layers of clothing and still don't feel particularly warm, which is either a sign of my old age or an indication of just how parky it really is on the southern outskirts of Braintree.
Tiptree Road Runners had hoped this would be a promotion season, but, rather like Chelsea FC, we have fallen off the pace somewhat lately, and it would need a miracle today to beat host club Witham and finish top of what is known as 'Pool B.'  Our only hope would be if the host club picked their best runners to go on marshalling or car-park duty today. And that's about as likely as Suarez giving Evra a big kiss.
Given the awful, brass-monkey conditions, the Tiptree turnout today is remarkably good and there's plenty of red kit in evidence as the cafe spills its contents just minutes before the scheduled start. Choice of clothing is interesting: Some are combatting the cold with tracksters and thermal undershirts, others sport pink woolly hats and gloves, and one or two casually stroll to the line in just vest and shorts. Brigid of Witham is even wearing a 'snood' with the Witham logo on it. Mark B is one of our vest-only brigade, and reveals that his 'vest threshold' is normally 0-degrees Centigrade, so he is slightly horrified when I tell him my car registered minus-1 just before arrival.  Too late to change now.
The large field chugs off slowly at the signal, and we soon discover that the Witham officials have devised a new and fiendishly complicated route around Notley Park, specifically to cope with the unusual conditions. It still involves spending a fair amount of time climbing the notorious hill, however, albeit from different angles than usual.
Surprisingly few runners tumble on the ice, which either means choice of footwear has been good, or maybe extra caution is being applied. I've seen far more spills in 'normal' conditions in these races. Who can forget the race at Hadleigh where a JAFFA runner managed to fall off a hillside and break his leg? At least there will be no complaints today about the depth of the mud.
Somebody (probably an American) once said that cross-country was the only true sport these days, for it has no half-time, no time-outs, and no substitutions. Nothing artificial and no messing about - you just get out there and you do it. Whatever difficulties Mother Nature can come up with, whatever the hazards, you just get on with it.         
With that in mind, it's slightly sad to contemplate that another season has now come to an end (unless of course, you are running the National on Hampstead Heath).  
Our club chairman Malcolm has experienced similar lingering injuries and chestiness to me this winter, and has concluded cross-country racing is probably to blame. He is therefore considering retiring from this side of the sport he says, but I don't really believe him. Like me, I suspect he'll be back next October, attempting to run all six of the 53-12 league races. 'Man flu' permitting, I'll be there too.