Monday, 23 April 2012

Why 26.2 Miles Takes Six Hours in an Armchair

1996: The 7th and final London Marathon for No.43030, the (nearly) Clapped-Out Runner!

THE LONDON MARATHON: The world’s greatest mass participation road run. You can race it seriously, jog round it for fun, watch it from the roadside, or follow it live on TV.

For the past 16 stagings, your Clapped-Out Runner has done the latter, happy to allow the old knees a rare Sunday morning off on the sofa.

My seventh and last run in ‘The London’ was in the heat of 1996 when I managed a steady four hours wearing the heavy blue-and-white kit of Colchester United FC. At the time I was editor of their matchday magazine and was representing the club in the marathon’s ‘Football Challenge’ section. It was a scorcher of a day and remains the only occasion in all my 886 races to date I’ve needed a lie-down immediately after crossing the finish-line. Luckily there was a small, shady patch of grass close by, despite the enormous crowds on the Mall.

Since 1996, I’ve come to my senses and stuck to shorter races and have become an armchair connoisseur of the marathon, glued to the BBC TV coverage once a year. It’s become a spring ritual. Every April I struggle to make head or tail of Brendan Foster’s Geordie banter, and wince at those awkward live interviews that take place with ‘ordinary’ runners at the roadside.

There was nearly six hours of coverage on BBC1 this year and, as I saw most of it, I think I can claim a new PB. However, our Sky-Plus ‘live pause’ and ‘fast forward’ buttons did get a hammering, which means I didn’t need the full six hours to reach the finish, and just nipped inside the three-hour barrier! 

So here then, in ascending order, are my TOP TEN ARMCHAIR HIGHLIGHTS & LOWLIGHTS of the 2012 Virgin London Marathon:

10. The good old Beeb has thankfully retained the same theme music for at least 25 of the event’s 32 years (it’s called ‘The Trap’ if you want to buy it on I-Tunes). But they get a black mark for no longer kicking off with that dramatic ‘heartbeat’ sound effect, just before the opening chords of The Trap come crashing in. Instead of the heartbeat we got Sue Barker chattering away in her funny little jacket as she wandered aimlessly across a deserted Mall.

9. Craggy James Cracknell made light-hearted jests on camera about Steve Redgrave lighting the Olympic torch in July. The identity of the final torchbearer is supposed to be a closely-guarded secret, so did Cracknell (who ran 2:59) drop a clanger and let the cat out of the bag?  Or was he merely just speculating that Redgrave might get the job?  We must wait and see. At least the authorities won’t give it to someone based on their looks and class background, as was the case in the London Olympics of 1948. On that occasion the people’s choice – a little bespectacled runner called Sydney Wooderson – was passed over for being too weedy and ordinary-looking. The job instead went to the more glamorous figure of Cambridge student John Mark. Disgraceful.

8. Prince Harry reduced interviewer Sue Barker to a fit of quivering giggles as he mockingly announced that his brother and sister-in-law would be running next year’s race. Normally when ‘challenged’ in this way, the victim is forced to go out and run the wretched thing, merely to prove he/she is not a wimp. In this case, however, we can be fairly sure Mr and Mrs Cambridge will be able to steer clear without losing face.

7. The main race was started by Dorothy Tyler, Olympic high jump medallist in 1936 and 1948, who did what we authors always do, and unashamedly plugged her new book as soon as a microphone came near. Feisty old Dorothy wasn’t going to stand for any nonsense and proudly revealed how she once confronted the legendary Dick Fosbury and told him his invention, the Fosbury Flop, wasn’t up to much in her view.  Dorothy competed in an era where high jumpers were banned from leaping head-first over the bar, proving the obsession for ‘health and safety’ in sport is not just a recent phenomenon.

6. When BBC reporter Phil Jones spotted a small, white-haired runner trundling towards him, you could sense him thinking: “Ah, here comes an eccentric with a good tale to tell.”  Turns out the bloke was an ordinary club runner, not quite as old as he looked (he was a mere 64) and when asked who he was raising money for, replied frankly: “Nobody.”  Through  gritted-teeth, Jones sent him on his way. Jones fared little better soon afterwards, selecting a burly bloke in fancy dress who suddenly blurted out: “You smell nice . . .”

5. Despite the race coinciding (nearly) with St George’s Day, there was little for the top English runners to celebrate. Lee Merrion (from Guernsey actually), was our leading performer in a PB of 2:13.41 but ended his race with a disappointed face on. He ran out of steam and fell short by 101 seconds of the standard the GB Olympic selectors are demanding.  Claire Hallissey was the only elite Brit with real cause to celebrate, achieving a sub-2:28 that will surely clinch a place on the GB team. Here in East Anglia, we were rooting for Ipswich JAFFA’s Helen Davies (nee Decker), whose 2:34 was a superb effort, but not fast enough for the Olympic inclusion she dreamed about.  

4. James Argent, star of the world’s oddest TV series (The Only Way Is Essex) struggled home in just over six hours, which meant he could fire off some abuse in the general direction of footballer Joey Barton, self-appointed king of the tweeters. Apparently the formerly 18-stone Argent prepared for this race by having new veneers on his teeth and having his eyebrows shaped. This ‘training programme’ had led to Barton’s jibe on Twitter: “Leave it u stonehenge teeth. Cheeky man giving it bigguns, leave it large undies. Right fatty now ur fair game. Can't believe ur giving it with them teeth like a burnt down fence."   Not sure what lot actually means, but of course QPR footballers have never been known for their erudition.   

3. Despite going goggle-eyed staring at all the faces, I failed once again to spot a single clubmate from Tiptree Road Runners. Mind you, seven TRRs out of 35,970 starters is not a promising ratio, I'd grant you.  I do know that our Vicky Knight achieved a rare thing – a ‘negative split’ – by running the second half of the race quicker than the first. Her proud hubby Anthony was left trailing in her wake and told me ruefully today: "I spent most of the second half desperately trying to fend off a bloke dressed as a bloody poppy. Couldn't get shot of him. And I hate it when people chat to you on the run. There's me trying to focus on not passing out and the bloke to my left wants my life story!"

2. Former glamour model Nell McAndrew sashayed across the finish line in floods of tears in an astonishing 2:54, nearly half-an-hour quicker than the lifetime best of your Clapped-Out Runner!  Often the sight of a celebrity crying in front of the cameras is the signal to switch channels, but this time it was a sincere reaction to having achieved her ambition to beat the three-hour barrier. The London Marathon is packed with ‘C’ list celebrities doing their thing for publicity and charity, but Nell is no part-time runner – she’s a natural athlete. Her consistency in recent times (e.g. 1:21 at the Bath half-marathon this year) means she’s now almost as famous for her running as for her semi-naked appearances on TV and in lad mags.    

1. But the best sound-bite of all came from BBC commentator Steve Cram. His carefully considered expert advice for aspiring marathon runners was short, simple and concise: “Just stick a couple of jelly beans down your shorts!”

(* Check out ROB HADGRAFT’s published books on running on the Clapped-Out Runner’s website:

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Why is there no Olympic mile? Blame the French!

* Ovett, Cram and Coe . .  not a Frenchman in sight!

STUMBLING merrily across some fields next to the A120 trunk road at the weekend, a puzzling thought suddenly planted itself in my brain.

Why on earth do we have a 1500 metres event at the Olympic Games – and not a Mile race? It’s a complete anomaly, as there are races at 100, 200, 400 and 800 metres – but then the sequence goes pear-shaped. So why 1500 and not the more logical Mile (1609 metres)?  

There was no time to ponder this question at that particular moment, and no opportunity to discuss it with the Tiptree runner alongside. Our full concentration was needed on where to plant our feet during a lively off-road event around the Felsted area of mid-Essex.

A trail race is certainly not the time or place to ponder difficult questions. You have to keep a close eye on your narrative instructions, which is no easy task while simultaneously negotiating ploughed fields and dense woods full of protruding tree roots.  And, on top of all that, Sunday’s event involved finding a path through some very big brown cows, a series of tricky metal gates, and not forgetting a sudden hailstorm in the closing stages.

The huge Garmin device strapped to my left wrist kept me informed how many metres had been covered, but as the race organisers used imperial measurements, this required constant conversion. Luckily I’d consumed enough brain food beforehand to cope.

All runners will know about the constant conflict between metric and imperial distances. Our race calendars feature 10-mile races, 10-kilometre races, five milers and 5ks. I’ve heard several tales of inexperienced runners entering a ‘10’ and only finding out it was miles, not kilometres, at a very late stage in proceedings. Care is also needed when your training group gallops off for ‘an easy eight’ on a wintry Tuesday night. Eight miles feels a lot longer than eight kilometres, that’s for sure.

Getting back to my original question, why on earth is the 1500 metres race so firmly established in athletics championships like the Olympics?  All tracks these days are 400 metres, so 1500 is an awkward 3.75 laps, for goodness’ sake. A Mile of four simple laps would be so much easier for spectators and runners alike, and the Mile is an iconic ‘blue riband’ distance, dripping with history and tradition. Even the Scandinavians (with their annual Dream Mile) love and celebrate it.

I have consulted the experts over this, and there’s an interesting consensus. Apparently It’s those dastardly French who are to blame!  And it’s all because they dislike the English.   

Alex Wilson, an athletics friend of mine based in Germany, who knows everything worth knowing about the history of our sport, came up with this verdict:  “Why do we have races at 1500 metres? I say blame the French!  I believe the French began competing over 1500 in the early 1890s. This might have something to do with the fact that, being Continentals, they used metric distances, and to that end laid 500-metre tracks, such as the one at Neuilly for the 1900 Olympics. Even though the mile was the prevalent distance worldwide in the 1890s, it was the French who called the shots when they revived the Modern Olympics in 1896.”

Another expert, Keith Davis, agrees that the French are the guilty parties, but says there’s more to it than merely the convenience of the old 500 metre tracks.  Had it just been a question of the track size, surely a 500-metre single-lap race would have flourished, as might 1000 and 2000-metre races. 

No, Keith says it has more to do with anti-English feeling in France : “I would suggest that the authority of the Mile had to be challenged in order to give the metric measures their own identity or integrity. 1500 metres is close enough to the mile to be a meaningful athletic distance, but different enough to NOT be English!  And that, I suspect, was actually the key point. As much political and cultural as strictly mathematical.”

The revival of the modern Olympics by Baron de Coubertin was very much a continental (French) affair, and our feisty neighbours from over the Channel clearly found it necessary to emphasise this by overriding or ignoring the much longer history of track and field competition in the English-speaking countries. 

And thus, it seems, the Baron and his merry men decided there would be a 1500 metres race on the Olympic programme. The Mile was far too British for them. Like it or lump it. C’est la vie, rosbifs!    

It took us nearly 100 years, but we did eventually get our own back for that odd decision. In the golden era of the 1980s Great Britain reigned supreme at the 1500-metre distance, completely dominating the event via the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott . . . .    

(* Check out Rob Hadgraft's published books on running, at

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Those First Few Tentative Steps….

* THE ROAD TO RUIN . . . Ipswich journalists Steve Everest, David Green,
Rob Hadgraft and Max Stocker recover at the roadside 30 years ago.

ON A SUITABLE day later this month I will raise a glass of fizz (preferably something a little stronger than Gatorade) to celebrate exactly 30 years as a runner.
A few minutes’ research in Ye Olde Clapped-Out Runner’s archives this week has confirmed that the spring of 1982 was when it all began. April of that year was when running began to get ‘serious’ for me. I was in my mid-twenties, about to get married, and starting to lose enthusiasm for Sunday morning football.   
Yes, April 1982 must have been when I metamorphosed from a relatively normal human being into a committed runner, because it was then I started recording times and distances in a training log. This alarming new habit provoked considerable mickey-taking from my nearest and dearest of that era (‘anal’ and ‘retentive’ were two words I recall being used), but I weathered the storm and still scribble away in the same log book 30 years later.
In my defence, back then I was training and working as a sub-editor, so being meticulous and accurate was a professional requirement!  And, anyway, had I not committed all the facts and figures to paper over the years, how would I be able to write about it now? OK, don’t answer that.
That spring of ’82, while Mrs Thatch was busy sinking the Belgrano, also heralded an important development for any beginner, the day when I swapped thin-soled football trainers for proper running shoes (cheap Hi-Tecs to start with!). It must have also been when I unconsciously took the dangerous path of disrupting the life of my fiancée by regularly disappearing for a run when maybe I should have been sitting down for meals, or putting up new shelves, or whatever else non-runners get up to.
So what exactly turns a young man’s head and steers him towards a lifetime of running? Hard to pinpoint exactly, but I do recall, a few months earlier, basking in the triumph of winning a drunken race across a sportsfield with half a dozen fellow journalists from the Ipswich Evening Star.
We were young and foolish with energy to burn after a hard day’s work at the subs’ table - but quite how alcohol became involved I cannot be certain. Vague memories of a talented cartoonist called Allan Drummond glugging red wine to combat pre-race nerves come to mind however. Anyway, I was declared to have won the said race “by a nose” and that sweet taste of victory may well have sown the relevant seeds. It mattered not that the occasion was tainted by the presence of artificial stimulants (although none in my system, I hasten to add). 
Entry into the huge and colourful Sunday Times Fun Run event in Hyde Park soon followed. The running and fitness boom in Britain was only just beginning which meant sensible training advice was not easy to come by. Hence I spent the build-up sprinting uphill towards Ipswich’s Christchurch Park, gasping to a stop after exactly a mile and then hammering back down again. As a training programme it lacked a certain finesse, but it got me round Hyde Park in a decent time and also led to the next challenge, which again involved fellow local journos . . . this time a midwinter 10-mile run across the Suffolk countryside.
It was a cold Sunday morning and few among us had ever run more than a mile or two in one go, yet somehow we reached our destination and even raised a few quid for the SOS Suffolk Scanner Appeal into the bargain. Our ring-leader, a certain Max Stocker, lived in the Raydon area, and the success of this ‘rag, tag and bobtail’ run set tongues wagging in his local pub. Flushed with a sense of achievement, not to mention Abbott ale, it was here Max decided 10 miles was nowhere near enough, and came up with the idea of us tackling the full marathon distance. The plan was to raise more money, this time for the widow of a pub regular who’d recently been killed in an accident at work. I’d never set foot in that pub before, but somehow I was roped in again.
Still relatively clueless about marathon training and protocol, we had around 10 weeks to prepare. I wince now as I read how I embarked upon this challenge by running an average of once a week over that period, none of the excursions longer than eight miles. The carefree optimism of youth!
My memories of travelling by train to Felixstowe for the early morning start soon after dawn are misty. Literally. There was fog and frost in the air, it was deadly quiet and the world and his wife were still in bed. Ours was not a properly organised event, simply a case of meeting the other 20 lunatics and getting on with it. No starting pistol, no St.John Ambulance, no drinks stations, no route markers, nothing.
Accompanied only by a small bottle of orange drink, I hopped off the train but found the vicinity of the station deserted. There was no choice but to set off on this 26-mile ordeal all alone along the slippery, icy roads. I had only a rough idea of which direction to go, and my only concession to the strong possibility of becoming stranded, injured or lost was a couple of 10p pieces for use in (unvandalised) phone kiosks that might be along the route.
Instinctively aware of the need not to run too quickly too early, I somehow reached Ipswich with body and mind intact. Here it was ‘half-time’ and so a couple of slices of orange were swallowed at a brief pit-stop involving assistance from parents and fiancée, and then the second-half kicked off.  The so-called ‘finish-line’ was the front door of the pub in Raydon, a village that is, predictably, not clearly signposted from the centre of Ipswich. (“Just head towards Hadleigh, you’ll find it…”).
It’s all a blur now, but posterity records I did the entire journey in four hours and there were apparently no ill-effects. I must have been exhausted, however, for I do recall turning down an evening in the cosy Chequers bar, instead requesting a lift home in order to soak in a hot bath. There was no ‘Eureka’ moment that day, but with hindsight it must have been the occasion when I decided distance running was for me. Thirty years on, I’ve totted up nearly 30,000 miles and 900 races, so that somewhat loosely-organised marathon couldn’t have hurt too much.
As a postscript, it came to my attention much later that among the motley crew of 21 who traversed Suffolk that cold day was a quiet, unassuming middle-aged fellow who had years earlier been one of the top runners in Europe. Roy Beckett, by then aged 54, quietly ran his 26 miles in 2 hours and 50 minutes that day, just a couple of years after major heart surgery.
Modest Roy didn’t crave acclaim for what he achieved, and few of us were even aware of this once-famous athlete in our presence. Shortly after the war Roy had run with distinction for Great Britain and on one celebrated occasion sent a record White City crowd wild by winning the national three-miles crown in 14:02 by the width of a vest in a sensational duel with Chris Chataway. A year later, Roy was expected to represent GB at the Helsinki Olympics but shocked the sporting world by quitting serious competition, stating that the level of commitment and pressure simply didn’t appeal to him. As well as his heart operation, Roy would later have knee replacement surgery before his death in 2003 of lung cancer at the age of 75.
Following all these strange adventures in the wintry Suffolk lanes, my commitment to running gathered pace in the late spring of 1982. I launched the afore-mentioned training log, purchased proper kit, and even ran the Colchester Half-marathon on the morning of my wedding that summer (It seemed a good idea at the time, a way of keeping occupied on the morning of a nerve-wracking event!).
Little did I know that all this was not temporary madness, but the start of something far more permanent . . .

*** Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running at

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

English Rose Bitten on Bum!

(Above) Jamie takes gold at the Olympic stadium (in his own mind).

IT’S hard to decide which is the more excruciating: Watching Andy Murray fail gloriously at Wimbledon, England fail miserably at a major football tournament, or Paula Radcliffe fail physically in an Olympic marathon.

We could well experience all three of those familiar calamities this summer.  But at least the last of the trio only occurs once every four years.

Witnessing Paula fall short in her quest for Olympic gold - not through lack of talent or application, but due to the unlucky timing of some medical complaint or other - is truly agonising. In the case of Murray, and of England, at least failure is through not being good enough, whereas with Paula a major sense of injustice always seems to be involved.

So what’s it to be as Paula makes her fifth and final attempt at gold at London 2012? Looking at it unemotionally, you might expect she will run around 2hrs 19mins and be beaten fairly and squarely by somebody who is simply quicker on the day. But on past history, that just doesn’t seem likely. It’s far easier to anticipate that something of a medical nature will intervene instead. The tricky bit is predicting which particular ailment it might be.

They say being in your late thirties and having had children makes marathon women stronger, so being world record holder and performing on home territory surely means everything is nicely lined up in her favour?  Not quite. The news from RadcliffeWorld is rather worrying:  “I’ve got this massive Nairobi fly burn on my bum,” she told an inquisitive reporter recently at her African training camp.

Before anybody had a chance to say ‘That’s too much information Paula,’ she continued:  “I got it when I was stretching on the grass. We found out it’s the little black and orange ones that are the problem. When you squash them this fluid comes out and it causes like a chemical burn. Everyone else gets a little mark, but I’ve got one about this size [indicated about three inches with fingers]”

Apparently this botty damage was not a cause for great concern, and was expected to disappear fairly quickly. But there was more news. A few days earlier there’d been a full-blown panic. She woke up with a feeling that the back of her leg was being tightly grabbed . . . and after ruling out burglars, her husband and another hungry Nairobi fly, she decided it must be a hamstring tear.  A quick 30-minute drive to hospital and a scan led to more advice that there was nothing to worry about. “Because it’s Olympic year you just freak about things,” she said ruefully, her red face matching her buttock.

After returning from the hospital, plucky Paula went back out on the dusty Kenyan trails, 120 miles a week of them, more locals recognising her characteristic bobbing blonde head and crying out “Hello, Radcliffe!” 

As I write this, there are 114 days before the Olympics start and the bookies have Paula at between 8-1 and 12-1 to win the marathon. They seem reasonably generous odds and are probably based on the fact she’s not raced while 100 per cent fit for FOUR years.  

One thing for sure is that Paula has yet to experience running into the new Olympic stadium in front of a big crowd – something which nearly 5,000 ‘ordinary’ runners sampled last weekend, including my clubmate Jamie Fairfull (pictured doing so above).

Picked at random by ballot from almost 43,000 entrants (I was one of those unsuccessful) all the Joe and Josephine Bloggs from around the country did a five-mile run around the Olympic Park, passing the Velodrome and Aquatics Centre, before finishing inside the iconic stadium on the sacred track itself.

As the laid-back secretary of Tiptree Road Runners, Jamie is not normally given to hyperbole or artificial enthusiasm. But he admitted the atmosphere and significance of the occasion was ‘almost overwhelming’ last weekend, and sparked a surge of hitherto unprecedented adrenaline that took him around the track like a man possessed. Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice was in the race too, but Jamie had long since stormed past her, the thought of bowing or curtseying no doubt far from his mind.

The royal mini-Fergie told reporters it had been “an extraordinary moment” crossing the finish line, but our Jamie was unavailable for comment, the speed of his closing lap having propelled him off towards the general direction of Canary Wharf.

While such antics were underway in East London, more than 300 of us prepared for another five-miler, this in the more prosaic surroundings of Braintree, Essex, where royalty was notable by its absence, and the nearest we got to a smooth, springy track was the Flitch Way path. Nevertheless, this was a well-organised little event, with chip timing and a T-shirt, all for the very reasonable entry fee of £8. A welcome change from some of the extortionate prices I’ve seen elsewhere lately.

In these tough economic times, many of us Essex-based runners are having to nail our flags to the mast of trail running, where all you get is a set of written instructions, the promise of a beer afterwards, and they tell you to bugger off at your own speed, as and when you are ready. There’s still competition to be had if you want it, but often only involves opposition that is hopelessly lost in a field up ahead.

It’s sport, Captain, but not as we know it.

* Information about Rob Hadgraft's books on running, and more, can be found at the website