Thursday, 29 March 2012

Into Oblivion and Back Again!

EVERY runner lives in fear of the day a man in a white coat studies your x-rays, scratches his head and tells you to quit. Now. Not next year or in two years, but right now.

It’s not happened to me yet, although I was told six years ago I should stick to grass and soft surfaces, and seriously consider cycling or swimming as alternative pursuits. The fellow who delivered that advice was, I verified via Google, a world authority on knees, so presumably knew what he was talking about.

Since then I’ve reduced my mileage, stayed off-road whenever possible, and rarely run more than 10 miles in one session. But the cycling, swimming, yoga, pilates and all the rest are still sitting patiently on the subs’ bench.

No, I haven’t exactly ignored medical advice, but merely added it into the mix to come up with my own formula in order to keep running.

Having said that, it’s strangely uplifting to hear about two of my running buddies who blatantly ignored the medics and have gone on to make unexpected comebacks since the beginning of 2012.

Both of them had major surgery to replace joints worn down by running and had to face up to a new life without running. Both had been bashing out the miles for decades, so this was a big ask. Both were told emphatically they must not submit their reconditioned bionic bodies to running again.

But, once a runner always a runner (as the old cliché goes), and both patients would eventually start slipping out quietly to try and put a few more miles on the clock, no doubt feeling much the better for it (psychologically at least). To their credit, neither have rushed things, proving  their decision to defy the doc was not done without careful consideration and forethought.

The two heroes of which I speak live on opposite sides of the globe. Both, rather heart-warmingly, sported big cheesy grins when they told me of their running renaissances, performed against the odds.

One is my Tiptree Road Runners clubmate Baz, who had hip replacement surgery, but has recently made a welcome reappearance at Tuesday night trainings sessions and even managed to complete the ‘Cub run’ at the annual Grizzly event in Devon earlier this month.  The other 'returnee' is a writer friend, Roger Robinson, who carries with him a brand new knee on his globe-trotting travels between homes in New Zealand and the USA.

I hope their hospital consultants aren’t reading this blog, although in Roger’s case his ‘secret’ is already out, via the pages of Running Times magazine. Anyway, such was his delight at being able to run again, Roger has granted me permission to tell his tale here on the ‘Clapped-Out Runner’ blogsite. Mr Robinson is not quite clapped-out, then. Not literally, anyway.

Roger has a long and celebrated history as an international runner, smashing a number of records in over-40 age groups. In 2006, the same year I was operated on and told to stick to grass, he had to face a much worse situation: the realisation that his worn knee cartilage had become so serious he would never run another step.

This is how he recalls that awful time: “I thought it was for ever. For 10 years I'd hobbled in more and more pain, tilting grotesquely along like Richard the Third on a bad day, not daring to see my shadow in the sun. Mostly I ran only up hills, where the impact was less, walking grumpily back down.” 

Eventually in January 2011, Roger had partial (unicompartmental) knee replacement surgery which he wrote about in his entertaining RT column (  His surgeon, although a strong advocate for exercise, ordered him not to run on the new knee - ever again.  Roger reluctantly accepted the verdict and settled for a life of occasional biking and walking. He is married to well-known marathoner Kathrine Switzer, so watching her leave the house for training must have been a tad dispiriting, to say the least.

Runners won't need telling how much you miss the sport when deprived of it. Says Roger: “No book or novel has ever adequately described that intense frustration and resentment, the sheer sense of lack. You feel your body has betrayed you. You long for that simple rhythmic movement. When I biked past favourite sports fields or trails from running days, it was like visiting a friend's grave. I pined for the textures of the earth beneath my feet. At big races that I was covering as a journalist, I felt like the old war horse who hears the bugle and whinnies to go for one last arthritic gallop.”

 Roger appreciated what a brilliant job his surgeon did with the new knee and obediently did what he was told regarding rehabilitation, etc.  But then, as the weeks of 2011 slowly passed, the instruction never to run again “was kind of forgotten.”

“As the wound healed, I carefully walked, with a cane at first, building up from laps of the deck at home to an hour on trails and open hill country,” he says. “Equally carefully I resumed biking. By the end of March 2011 I was up to full steam on the bike. In April, I was walking an hour or so in Mohonk Preserve near our Hudson Valley home. One day, on impulse, I tried jogging for 10 paces. Nothing broke. Nothing hurt.”

In Boston to watch the historic annual marathon, Roger quietly tried a mini-session of 5 x 50 paces, only to be caught in the act by the great Bill Rodgers, a famous marathon running friend who happened to be passing. The pair laughed as Roger insisted ‘Boston Billy’ must not tell anyone what he’d seen – especially wife Kathrine!  But their conspiratorial smiles disappeared when Bill passed on the grim news that marathon legend Grete Waitz had just died.

Who knows, perhaps this sad news became a factor in his thinking, for after that day in Boston Roger slowly built up his running, not recklessly, but with the zeal of a man determined to put more mileage on the clock before he reaches his own finish line.

Visiting Berlin to see that city’s marathon six months ago, he ran 30 continuous minutes for the first time since surgery.  Running every fourth day, he began to add one minute to each run. By the end of 2011 he’d passed the 50-minute barrier. At one point a hamstring began playing up, something that annoyed him greatly as it felt unfair to pick up an injury while running so slowly.

Meanwhile, his mental fitness was boosted when a sports medicine expert from Canada reassured him that any advice not to run on a knee implant was really based on caution rather than known fact. Run carefully on soft surfaces and avoid downhills, said the specialist, who, significantly, was a runner himself.

It was welcome advice, but perhaps the best soundbite of all came from Roger’s son, who told him: “Lifestyle is all that matters, dad. Do what you love.”  Meanwhile, wife Kathrine had been worried at her husband’s possible recklessness, but was won over when noticing the cute little smile adorning his face when returning from his little runs.

Roger’s programme of one jog every four days, adding a minute to the total each time, meant he was due to run the complete hour in January 2012. It came exactly a year after his surgery and represented a very big day. It was to take place quietly near his home in the New Zealand city of Wellington. It would be slow, nobody would pay much attention, but it would be his longest and most significant run in at least 10 years.  I can report that, complete with false knee and genuine smile, the man did it.

He told me afterwards: “I suspect I should now cut my runs down a bit from the hour, as there is some soreness. But it was a great target, to do that on the anniversary of the surgery. But now I'm in Wellington again, I'm terrified the surgeon will see me out running! I haven't felt like this since playing hookey from school in Wimbledon, when I would sneak out to watch the tennis!” 

FURTHER READING: Check out Rob Hadgraft's books, at


Friday, 23 March 2012

Ipswich to London via Kenya

* A scheduled stop for a banana during the London Marathon suited me well, 
but is unlikely to be part of the planning for local superstar Helen Davies next month!

LESS than ten years ago she was just another local fun runner. Next month she could clinch a place on the GB team for the 2012 London Olympics.

That’s a mind-boggling thought, but 32-year-old Helen Davies (nee Decker) still definitely has her swift feet firmly on the ground. By way of example, last Sunday she could be seen jogging along the roadside at the Great Bentley half-marathon, cheering on hordes of less-celebrated clubmates and friends, among them her husband Gavin.  For Helen this was an ‘easy’ day – just a steady 15 miles to complete!

But if Helen’s face betrayed a smidgin of anxiety that morning, it would hardly be surprising.  Her calf had felt inflamed earlier on, so taking on the job of Ipswich JAFFA cheerleader at Great Bentley enabled her to carry out a gentle fitness test on the offending muscle. To her relief everything felt fine afterwards. This, of all times, is most definitely not the point to get injured.  

Many of us has-beens build up for events like the London Marathon with the sole aim of having a fun day out, enjoying the atmosphere and getting round in one piece. No such luxury for Helen - her job will be to run London in 2 hrs 31 mins, at worst!  Achieve that and her dream of becoming an Olympian could come true.

An impossible task for the former fun runner?  Not at all. Earlier this month she smashed records at the Tunbridge Wells and City of Bath half marathons, proving she is in brilliant form (1:12:35 and 1:12:40) and is quite capable of improving a marathon PB which currently stands at 2:35:43.

Next week she returns to Kenya for more high altitude training, feeling fit and confident. Her recent training has included weeks of well over 100 miles each and her confidence has been boosted by working alongside her role model Paula Radcliffe – not to mention the added kudos of obliterating Liz Yelling’s course record at Tunbridge Wells.

Radcliffe and Mara Yamauchi have already been named in the three-woman GB marathon team for the Olympics, which means Helen is fighting for the one remaining place.  Current favourite to get this is Jo Pavey, who ran 2:28.42 at last November’s New York Marathon. Pavey is unlikely to run next month’s London race now she has the ‘A’ standard qualifying time under her belt.

But Pavey’s preparations have not been trouble-free, for only last week she withdrew from a half-marathon in the USA, apparently suffering from flu.  Intense marathon training brings with it a high risk of injury and illness, so the destiny of that third spot on the GB team is certainly no foregone conclusion.

Helen is coached by Clive Sparkes, an Ipswich JAFFA stalwart for almost 30 years, who laughs off all the jibes about his new high-flying lifestyle as an elite runner’s coach. He claims, for example, the trip to Africa next week with Helen involves staying in “spartan rooms in mud hut territory”.  Those of us who know Clive find it hard to sympathise with his plight!

Ipswich JAFFA were my first club when I began running back in the 1980s and Clive was club chairman throughout my six years there. Having been formed in 1977, JAFFA was one of the very first ‘new wave’ running clubs to emerge in Eastern England and during the running boom of the 1980s went from strength to strength.

That was back in the days before Clive and I joined the ranks of middle-aged ‘Clapped-Out Runners’, when we trained and raced together at a similar sort of level. I don’t recall beating him too often, although my lifetime PBs are slightly quicker than his up to 10 miles, but inferior to his at distances above that.

Helen Davies is just one of scores of ‘beginners’ who have blossomed within JAFFA’s ranks,  and it is good to see she hasn’t been tempted away to join a bigger club outside the region or seek a more famous name as coach.

Interestingly, she isn’t the first Suffolk fun-runner to burst into prominence and make an impact on the international scene. I well recall the rise of Paul Evans, who worked in a shoe factory in Lowestoft and casually decided one summer to have a bash at his local Carnival 10k race.

Up to that point, Paul had been a Sunday morning footballer, whose only claim to fame was his ability to run around hard for 90 minutes non-stop. He thought he’d test his stamina on the local roads and, almost overnight, a star was born!  A short while later he came down to Ipswich, entered the Suffolk County 10-mile champs, and roared to a sensational victory and never looked back. In those days he was coached by local character Ted Mynott, but such was his meteoric rise that he eventually turned professional and joined Belgrave Harriers, going on to achieve the dream of becoming an Olympian.

Without wishing ill-health or injury on the splendid Jo Pavey, let’s hope things go in favour of Helen Davies over the next month and Suffolk is able to claim another Olympian among its home-grown runners . . .

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Grizzly - a Dickens of a Race

QUITE a fuss was made the other day about the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth. As Dickens scholars know, the old wordsmith was a bit of a mileage freak. In fact, there’s reason to believe that if he were alive and kicking today, Charlie boy would have loved a crack at the annual Grizzly run which took place on Sunday down in Devon.

Between writing chunks of his famous novels, Dickens loved nothing better than to slam down his inky quill, abandon his little desk and race across the fields and pathways of the great outdoors. He loved the wind in his hair, the sweat on his back and the mud on his feet, and regularly covered surprisingly long distances across southern England. Brisk walking was his real forte, but the evidence suggests he could be loosely described as one of the first ultra-runners.

Very few citizens chose to go out running back in Dickens’ day, so most people regarded him as a barmy old eccentric. And, as such, he would have been perfectly at home competing at the weekend’s Grizzly - along with all the other eccentrics!

For a man born in 1812, many of our modern ways would shock and repel a thoughtful fellow like Charlie, but he would definitely have loved the challenge of the Grizzly.  It’s an event that proves weird and wonderful things do happen deep in the English countryside on a Sunday morning.

The organisers of the race describe it thus: “Twenty muddy, hilly, boggy, beachy miles of the multiest-terrain running experience you will find this side of the end of time.”  People behind the scenes at the Grizzly go by names like ‘Dave the Dung-Beetle’ and ‘Lean Mean Runner-Bean’. You will have gathered by now that this is no ordinary event.    

My own club, the intrepid Tiptree Road Runners, enjoys a long-standing love affair with the Grizzly that dates back quite a few years.  A large section of our club always heads south-westwards out of Essex for this annual dirty weekend in Devon (by ‘dirty', I mean ‘muddy’, of course). Our chairman, for example, a veteran of hundreds of races down the years, calls it his favourite event of all.

The timing of the event means it represents a celebration of the end of the winter season, a sort of grand farewell to the mud and gore of cross-country running, before we all turn attention to road-racing and the established trails now becoming firmer in the spring sunshine.  

The Grizzly is a uniquely English experience, and there’s something rather Victorian about its eccentricity as well as the fading seaside resort of Seaton, the town where it starts and finishes. Long-distance pedestrian events were, of course, invented during Victorian times and big crowds would be attracted back then by bizarre races lasting anything from 24 hours to six days.

Here in the 21st century, the Grizzly is, by comparison, a bit of a sprint. It tends to take most competitors between two and six hours, and Tiptree were represented by 21 hardy competitors on Sunday. How they coped with the 20 miles of hills, bogs, mud, beaches and climbing will only really emerge on Tuesday night when they assemble back at the club. Will they be empty, exhausted shells, battered into submission by one of toughest events on the calendar? Or, as past experience suggests, will they be bright-eyed and bushy tailed, inspired by the triumph of having survived and by those strange, philosophical messages that are traditionally posted strategically around the course to lift spirits and raise a smile? 

Yes, Dickens would have loved all this. I reckon he would have nipped inside four hours at the Grizzly. He was always a pedestrian inspired by his surroundings – a man who even once described the relatively flat fields and woods of Chigwell Row here in Essex as “the greatest place in the world.” 

Mind you - in the interests of balance - perhaps I should also point out that Dickens was not really a big fan of Essex as a whole.  In a letter dated 1835, for example, he had a very hurtful dig at our county town: “If one were to ask me what in my opinion is the dullest and most stupid spot of the face of the Earth, I should decidedly say Chelmsford”. 

Don’t sit on the fence, Charlie boy.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Flapping at Floor-Level

WHAT’S the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a ‘serious’ runner?

Apart from the obvious things linked to bodily functions, it could be when your shoelaces come undone during an important race.

It happened to me once, near the end of an event when I was in contention to finish in second or third place. As the flapping lace was nearly tripping me up, I had no alternative but to stop and fanny around on the floor to deal with the problem. I resumed with red face and foul mouth. 

That episode occurred in 1992 – fully 20 years ago – but it is only today I can say I’m finally over the embarrassment and anger the shoelace malfunction caused.

Why today?  Well, a former London Marathon winner and international star confessed this morning that the same thing happened to him only this week. Now I don’t feel so bad. If it can happen to the elite, then we ordinary peeps can surely be forgiven.

You’d think a fundamental error like failing to tie a lace properly was something only a part-time jogger or inexperienced runner would do, but former GB international Mike Gratton (London Marathon winner in 1983) says it occurred to him in a Parkrun 5k on Saturday and brought about an enforced stop during the heat of battle.

Mike tells me the problem was exacerbated by the fact the race announcer had introduced him earlier over the PA system, meaning everybody else knew a former London Marathon winner was in their midst, thus increasing the pressure on Mike to put in a fast and polished performance. Seeing this ‘legend’ bending over to tie laces mid-race was not what they expected to see!  

The problem lost Mike around six places, and he finished 27th in a respectable 20mins.30 secs, even though he also tweaked a hamstring, and has only recently begun training regularly again in his mid-to-late fifties.

“I hope that 26 people went home happy they beat a London Marathon winner,” he said today, with a chuckle. “Someone did say at the finish they were surprised to see me stop to do up a shoelace, considering all my experience. Actually my last running shoes were Salomons which had a pull-up toggle, so I must have forgotten how to tie laces properly.” 

As for me, just the one serious lace malfunction in 881 races is perhaps not too bad after all?  Since my 1992 experience I have always done a fiercely-tied double knot, which does the job well, although can make shoes difficult to remove later on!

Mind you, there was a Mid-Essex cross-country race at Stebbing a while ago in which even a quadruple-knot wasn’t good enough.  That particular event is famous for its deep water and heavy mud, and a number of us emerged from the worst sections minus shoes altogether, despite all our careful knotting endeavours of earlier…. (The horror that is Stebbing - see picture above!).