Sunday, 27 May 2012

Flying the Flag and Avoiding the Eggs

Hydrating for England . . . . 

ON the same evening Englebert was preparing to go into battle for the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, I too was flying the flag against assorted Europeans, but on a sun-scorched running track many miles to the west.

In terms of topping the charts, both Englebert and me have seen better days, but we both gave our all on Saturday night for Queen and country. Neither of us ultimately came anywhere near a famous victory, being heavily trounced by Scandinavians, but could both put forward our age as a pretty good excuse.

While ‘Hump’ exercised his golden tonsils in Azerbaijan, my task was to tackle a tough 5k race in the heat of the Canary Islands, a setting given its own Eurovision flavour thanks to the driving Europop emanating from a huge PA system at a ‘BodyCombat’ class at the sports resort/training camp where your Clapped-Out runner is currently holidaying.

I should point out at this juncture that slobbing out at poolside is perfectly acceptable here at Club la Santa Sport on the lava-blackened isle of Lanzarote, but with such an array of sporting facilities to hand, that would surely be a criminal way to pass the time. Hence I found myself lining up on the blue athletics track with other mad dogs and Englishmen, the Atlantic Ocean to one side and menacing volcanic hills on the other.

The intense heat was hazardous enough on its own, but Mother Nature also lobbed in some very strong winds and several long hilly bits to add to our discomfort. PBs were clearly not on the agenda today by any stretch of the imagination.

Looking around at the field of about 30 starters, I could find no sporting superstars, or for that matter anyone who looked remotely well known. With it being May, the track and field season well underway in the northern hemisphere, I suspect the usual sprinkling of famous names who come here to train are absent, even though you would think this is an ideal pre-Olympic getaway.

On previous visits here (this is my 17th trip – I’m expecting a loyalty award soon!) it’s been possible to share the track with the likes of Linford Christie, Steve Backley, Heike Dreschler to name but three, share the roads outside with Liz McColgan and Eamonn Martin, and rub shoulders in the bar with England rugby stars.

But not this time. If the likes of Jessica Ennis and Co are honing their London 2012 preparations here at the moment, they must be keeping themselves very much to themselves.

When big Linford used to come here, he was happy to remain highly visible throughout the days and evenings, even though I recall him continually snubbing my then-clubmate from Ipswich JAFFA (step forward Stevie B), who persistently sought his autograph. Linford even came down to the beach one day to take part in the bizarre organised games that went on, including a session of egg-throwing. My own participation in this ended with a spectacular egg shampoo as I held a 50-yard catch, but failed to prevent the egg ejaculating its contents. As I exited for a shower to great cheers from the crowd, Linford quietly scolded me for soiling the smart Puma T-shirt I was wearing.

These days I’m far too old and jaded to go in for things like egg-throwing, so I am channelling energies towards running, pilates (for beginners), and trundling up and down the 50-metre Olympic pool in an aqua-jogger belt (when your swimming ability is as limited as mine, this belt becomes a necessity, not merely an optional extra!).

Getting back to the 5k run, I can report that it was mega-hot, mega-hilly and mega-windy, which at least gave me three very good excuses for my exceptionally modest finish-time of 23 minutes-something. But might I suggest that conditions were so tough that this clocking could be worth the equivalent of a sub-20 at the fast flat Harwich 5k back home in Essex?  (Dream on!).

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

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

'This Land is Our Land!'

Home ground for Tiptree Road Runners!

NOTHING gets in the way of Tiptree Road Runners. Developers can lay tarmac, build new homes, they can even pave paradise and put up a parking lot. We will not be stopped.

Our ‘Summer Race Series’ started this week (Summer? Now there’s a misnomer if ever I heard one). The first contest started and finished in a certain spot that used to be the top end of a footpath/bridleway heading out of the village into the wilds of Essex beyond. However, in the years since we first used this area for training and racing, a big chunk of it  has disappeared under a cul-de-sac full of new homes. 

The developers named it Park Drive and created a sort of mews community for young professionals who drive Nissan Qashqais and can afford £400,000 homes.

But were we runners frightened away by these wheels of progress?   Not likely.  After all, we were here first!

Runners are nothing if not creatures of habit, and we showed up again in Park Drive this week in our dozens, full of the joys of spring, chattering animatedly and wearing our brightest and most eye-catching training outfits. This year we even brought with us a tall plastic bollard to use as a finishing post.

Our arrival seemed to signal an instant curfew.  Residents disappeared inside their homes, blinds were closed and curtains drawn. TVs were no doubt turned up a notch to drown out the voices of the rabble outside. Some may have wondered why we would choose their little corner of Essex as our ‘race HQ’ for the evening?  A fair question, but, as I said earlier, we were here first!

Who knows, perhaps some of the residents were fascinated enough to listen in to the demented chatter that echoed around the mews ?  Topics included Graeme’s salt tablet intake and his chip-timing dispute at his most recent marathon, Malcolm expressing horror at the mistaken impression Colchester United had sold a star defender, Simon and myself discussing the merits of Ronnie O’Sullivan as  a runner, and Marcos’ horrendous story of colliding with a deer on a nearby main road.  Not forgetting, of course, the gory details of Anthony’s latest hardcore ‘challenge race’ (last week it involved barbed wire, walking the plank and underwater tunneling, all pretty routine these days for intrepid Mrs and Mrs Knight - apart from the fact that Vicky ended this particular adventure in the care of a local hospital!)

A couple of new members accompanied us this week and seemed surprised at the level of chat that goes on during a typical training spin. Of course, the talking tended to die out during the actual 2.3-mile race itself, but that lull was only temporary. Race over, there was still bowling nights and Wendy’s pub runs to discuss, and new injuries and ailments to be compared and analysed.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was the participation of so many who have only recently been competing in marathons.  Several of our number have run more than one 26.2-mile in recent weeks, and managed PBs into the bargain, yet still they come to training for more punishment.

When you’re a Clapped-Out Runner like me, you often treat Tuesday training with caution as it seems dangerously close to the previous Sunday’s race.  60 hours between them, to be precise. Is that enough time to recover between hard runs?  We must listen to our body in these matters, according to our chairman.  

Over the years, after a hard Sunday run, I have often felt stiffer and wearier on a Tuesday than I did on the intervening Monday. I asked former London Marathon winner Mike Gratton about this phenomenon and he confirmed it was quite common and remembers  always feeling more sore on the Tuesday after his own Sunday marathons than on the Monday. He had a name for it – DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).

Said Mike: “It's a strange thing - but you know it is only going to get better from then onwards. I used to have to roll out of bed onto my knees on a Tuesday morning and then slowly stand up and walk backwards down the stairs.”

It’s comforting to know that even the elite runners suffer such comical scenarios.  But one local runner who clearly has little trouble recovering between races is the Colchester Harrier Allen Smalls.

Allen won the Halstead Marathon last weekend by a massive 12-minute margin, this stunning result coming just a week after he won the very rugged and waterlogged Heritage Coast half-marathon in Suffolk by another hefty margin. And a mere seven days before that he smashed the unofficial world veteran’s record at a six-hour track run at Crawley. This involved running 217 continuous laps (54 miles!) on a wet and windy 400 metres track. He did each lap in roughly 78 seconds over the six-hour period.  Good grief!

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

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Tiptoe through the tulips, blunder through the bluebells . . .

Pod's Wood: The calm before the Tiptree Road Runners storm!

TINY TIM tiptoed through the tulips back in the 1960s and it helped him reach the top of the pop charts. Tiptree Road Runners blundered through the bluebells this week, and all we got was a series of dirty looks from dog walkers.

Actually not a single bluebell was harmed in the making of our training run. We made sure we kept strictly to the straight and narrow path (which is probably more than Tiny Tim ever did).

Yes, if you went down to the woods today you would have had a big surprise, for instead of a teddy bear’s picnic there were hordes of runners, many cursing loudly the fact they were wearing the wrong type of shoes for this jolly training jaunt.

Our newly-formed team of coaches at TRR likes to spring surprises on us (it’s their way of keep us fresh and interested I suspect). Hence this week Phill decided an evening among the bluebells was called for. He didn’t seem at all concerned by the waterlogged ground and flooded pathways, in fact I suspect these features held more appeal for him than the bluebells themselves.

My sturdy trail shoes are normally kept in the back of the car for such occasions as this, but having been pounded and drenched to within an inch of their life two days earlier,  they were still hanging out to dry at home and unavailable for combat. Hence my lovely white Asics road shoes were pressed into action and soon proved conclusively they were simply not  built for one of Phill’s carefully-planned mudfests in Pod’s Wood and surrounding area.

Pod’s Wood – now there’s an unusual name, I hear you cry.  Who was this Pod? And how come he had his own wood?  It’s hard to pin down exactly who Pod was, but his wood sits between the villages of Tiptree and Messing, around 8.5 miles to the SW of Britain’s oldest record town, Colchester. The area of forest known as ‘The Rampart’ is said to have been the site of a famous bloody battle between the occupying Romans and feisty local girl Boadicea (why does everyone called her Bouddica these days, by the way?).

Boadicea and her fierce Iceni blokes had done a pretty good job of attacking the Roman stronghold of Colchester, but when the enemy called reinforcements in, she is said to have croaked in a nasty way here in Mr Pod’s territory.  There’s nothing left in the area to prove this theory - no wrecked chariots littering the wood, for example, although I think I did spot the remnants of an old pushchair in a ditch.

It was a large TRR training group which stampeded through these trees this week, and the sound of our advance might have shaken up a few ancient ghosts on the battlefield. In fact it was probably the biggest single invasion at this spot since those Romans. This time, however, proceedings were mostly very friendly and good natured.  Mind you, a few unkind words were directed at our leader Phill when he repeatedly forced us to negotiate major puddles and water-jumps. He did later confess the route had actually been carefully researched and those water hazards were no accident. Suspected as much.

Essex is said to be the driest county in the UK and we are simply not used to getting wet feet in the month of May. However, this training run proved very nearly as wet and mud-spattered as the trail races of 48 hours earlier, staged a few miles further south in Hockley Woods.

Although I can report that Hockley was an enjoyable event, it was once again marred by my getting temporarily lost midway through. This time, at least, I do have someone at whom to point the finger of blame. In fact, there was a group of them.

Yes, you women of Springfield Striders, you stand accused of causing a major distraction, leading to a navigational malfunction on the part of one of your competitors, namely me.

When fellow runners compliment you on your socks, you have to do the decent thing and be polite and respond. Especially when these are female compliments.  And thus there was a short but detailed discourse during which I explained why I was wearing long red football socks in a running event. 

While all this was happening my concentration on the route instructions wavered and I missed a turning altogether. Only about half-a-mile later did I realise these chatty Striders were doing a different route option to me, and I should not be running alongside them at this point. It took many minutes of head scratching, U-turns and hard running to recover the situation.

The organisers of the event had offered three different routes and wittily called their extravaganza ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’.  Going for quality rather than quantity, I had opted for the super-sprint shortest route, not expecting it would get controversially extended.

Hockley Woods is a surprisingly attractive and tranquil area considering how close it is to what a writer or film-maker (I can’t remember which) labelled the ‘Essex Badlands’.  For those into Bruce Springsteen, this region is a sort of UK equivalent to his gritty New Jersey homeland. Instead of Asbury Park, we have Westcliff-on-Sea; instead of Thunder Road we have Thundersley Road; instead of the Jersey Turnpike we have the A13 trunk road. You get the picture.

Historical footnote No.1:  Tiny Tim was an eccentric ukulele player with a falsetto voice, who was big in the late 1960s. Nobody who heard him sing could quite explain why. He attempted a comeback by performing with Camper Van Beethoven, an American band with possibly the best name in rock history.

Historical footnote No.2: The village of Messing (population 250) is not just famous as a training ground for Tiptree Road Runners. It also has important connections to the White House in Washington DC, and if you pop into All Saints Church you can buy a coffee mug bearing the motto: ‘Messing: birthplace of Reynold Bush, ancestor of George Bush, President of the USA.'  Yes, honestly!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

My Ten Worst Running Mistakes

Not my finest hour as a runner!
RUNNING is supposed to be a good way to stave off the effects of middle and old age. However, something's not quite working properly, for I had a serious 'senior moment' at a recent race.

Eager to set off and complete the Felsted Flyer trail race, I somehow managed to leave my car with its doors wide open, a situation not rectified until the race ended about 60 minutes later! The car contained all manner of valuable items, but fortunately the genteel Essex village of Felsted is not a crime hot-spot, and nothing went missing. Perhaps any passing potential thieves steered well clear, thinking the open doors must be some sort of cunning police trap?

Compared to some runners I know, I'm normally fairly organised when it comes to preparations for racing and training, but clearly my increasing state of 'Clapped Out-edness' is taking its toll.  This incident got me thinking about other running cock-ups that have occurred down the years. Rather sadly, I was quickly able to come up with a Top Ten.  And here they are (in no particular order):

(1)   After a staging of the Fenland Relays at a school in Cambridgeshire, I headed through some double doors which I thought would lead to all the changing rooms and showers. In fact, it was the entrance to just the women's showers, nowhere else. Just a couple of feet inside the door, facing me and frozen with shock, were two female runners, wearing not a stitch. To compound the error, these were not two strangers, but two clubmates that I knew well. And now I knew them very well. Better than ever before, in fact!  To prove it was a genuine error, I immediately averted my eyes (well fairly quickly, anyway) and beat a hasty retreat.

(2) At the Sudbury Fun Run a few years ago, some workmates noticed there was a prize for fancy dress runners and a handful of us agreed to run together in silly costumes. Wearing a strange black-and-white  body-stocking affair, I completed the run as a very spooky-looking skeleton. Not only did it prove hot and uncomfortable, many of the small children watching the race became genuinely scared as I approached. For an hour or so, I was Sudbury's Public Enemy No.1.

(3) During an organised running week at a sports resort in Lanzarote, we were being supervised by none other than Eamonn Martin, Basildon superstar, London Marathon winner and former 10,000 metres UK record holder. On the very first day he set off across some rugged terrain for what he called a "steady" run. It proved to be very hot and very fast. I had no choice but to keep pace in order not to get lost. I thus collected the largest blister in the history of running - on Day One of a seven-day running holiday!

(4) While living and working in sunny Portugal many years ago, I casually set out one day to run to the next town down the coast, but without checking the map properly. I took a diversion and ended up doing far more miles than was good for me. I was a dehydrated wreck on arrival in Portimao and needed fluid pronto. Despite having no money on me, I flopped down at a harbourside cafe, ordered a large cold beer and an orange juice and noisily necked them. I then waited for the waiter to look the other way and legged it before he could react. Only later did I reflect that my own newspaper could so easily have been running a story the following week on the lines of "British editor jailed for drinks theft."

(5) During a trip to Brazil, I was pleased to locate a road run taking place in the Bahian city of Salvador. I assumed it would finish in the same place as it started - i.e. fairly close to my hotel. Wrong. It was a point-to-point race, and ended 10k outside the city, in the middle of nowhere. After the hottest 10k I've ever done, I sucked on some exotic fruit at the finish line and then headed all the way back again (through some dangerous-looking shanty towns, I might add!).

(6) Having been a Sunday morning footballer for a  few years, I thought running would prove to be a 'non-contact sport' in comparison. Wrong again. During a 10k in Peterborough an aggressive little fellow (as old as the hills and twice as craggy) started a bizarre jostling match with me  involving much use of the elbow. We  'entertained' the city-centre crowds for several hundred yards. Well it was him wot started it!

(7) Having written a book about old-time champion Alf Shrubb, I was invited to be a guest runner in the Shrubb 8k road race in the Ontario countryside during a visit to Canada a few years ago. Nobody told me they'd changed the race venue since my first visit a couple of years earlier. Despite breaking all speed limits in a  hired car, I only located the race after the large field had departed down the road. Had he been alive, Shrubb would not have been impressed.

(8) On honeymoon in California, wife Katie and I visited Los Angeles and - true to form - I soon found a race I could enter!  It was a 5k based at the city's Olympic stadium, being staged in memory of the singer Minnie Ripperton. Non-runner Katie rather rashly agreed to make a very rare appearance herself and set off well behind me. On finishing I made the huge mistake of not positioning myself at the finish-line to witness and applaud her brave efforts. She came home without any familiar faces to greet her. It may have been our honeymoon, but I was not spared a major ear-bashing.

(9) With the help of the office staff at Luton Town FC one year, I agreed to run the London Marathon dressed as the Luton club mascot 'Kenilworth the Cat'. On collecting my costume from the ground I found it was heavier, smellier and more claustrophobic that I had ever thought possible. After a surreal and very short test-run down a country lane near my house, I quietly returned the costume to LTFC with tail between legs (literally).

(10) During last summer's Trail Relay near Stebbing, I got completely lost and made the mistake of entering a secluded farmyard to try and get directions. Instead of a farmer, I was confronted by a lorry being loaded with boxes by a group of blokes who looked distinctly unlike Essex farming people.  Something not entirely legal appeared to be underway, and I was not a welcome visitor. Luckily no sawn-off shotguns were produced as I jogged swiftly back from whence I came. I remained hopelessly lost, but at least still alive.

Click here to check out Rob Hadgraft's books on running, at