Thursday, 26 July 2012

Essex runner killed on training run

DREADFUL news this week about the Essex runner killed in a freak accident while running through a wheat field with a group of his clubmates.

Tuesday evening’s tragedy has shocked the running community, particularly those of us who have spent many hours in recent weeks running through similar fields in similar circumstances, either in trail races or out on training spins.

Forty-one-year old James Kew was leading a group from Saffron Striders on a training session in Tuesday’s late evening sunshine. They were following a quiet cross-country route close to Saffron Walden and the neighbouring village of Newport. An enjoyable run ended in tragedy when James suffered catastrophic burns after apparently coming into contact with a live electrical cable that was damaged and hanging low over a wheat field.  
Not only was he killed, but a fire started in the surrounding crop in front of his shocked running partners as they tried to go to his aid.  The accident happened around 8.45pm and paramedics were quickly summoned and arrived at the scene a mere seven minutes later.
Two of the other runners needed treatment for electric shocks or burns, but nothing could be done for James who was pronounced dead at the scene. It is thought his coming into contact with the cable had completed a circuit with the ground which involved 11,000 volts. Arrangements to cut off the power were made and crews would remain at the scene well into the early hours of the next day.
The news will horrify all local runners, but it was particularly stunning for me because I used to run across the very same fields during the four years I lived in Saffron Walden. I know the area well and remember it as a scenic and tranquil setting, superb for off-road running where muntjac deer were often the only other form of life you would see for miles.

Investigations are said to be underway into how the cables came to be in their dangerous position. It was reported that a large group of walkers had noticed the danger about two hours earlier that same evening and had expressed concerns.

James had been two days short of his 42nd birthday and was one of the best runners from that part of Essex. He recently came second in the Eight Bells Trail Race, finished high in the field at the Hatfield Broad Oak 10k, and on his marathon debut clocked a remarkable 3hrs 05mins at the Virgin London Marathon as well as raising a four-figure sum for charity. 

He had a high-powered job as a biologist in the research department at GlaxoSmithKline, having joined the Centre of Excellence for External Drug Discovery (CEEDD) in 2010 as a Director of Biology. He signed up with Saffron Striders around the same time and was also a hockey player.

Saffron Striders chairman Nigel Coates described James as a quiet, unassuming and very popular member of the Striders. He would be deeply missed and everyone at the club was devastated by Tuesday’s tragedy, said Nigel.

On Wednesday morning an area of the field, about half-a-mile from the nearest road, was cordoned off and police still stood guard. Pieces of cable were still visible laying in the field and only two of the usual three power cables hung overhead. There were signs of a small fire in the crop. Police have launched a joint investigation with the Fire and Rescue Service and the Health and Safety Executive has been informed.

This horrendous episode is a salutary reminder to all of us that danger can lurk in the most unexpected of places. We gallivant across the fields in the knowledge that, for the most part, off-road running is a far safer option than its equivalent on busy roads. And apart from the odd twisted ankle, mosquito bite or navigational issue, we usually return to our starting point in one piece, tired but invigorated.  

I suspect it will be quite some time before the members of Saffron Striders can fully enjoy the simple pleasures of trail running again, however. Sincere commiserations to all friends, relatives and clubmates of James Kew.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books about running at:

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Ups and the Downs

Now that's what I call a proper hill!

WHAT goes up must come down. And vice versa.

We runners like to have a good old moan about hills, but, bizarrely, are attracted to them like moths around a flame.

Northern folk would probably regard Essex as a flat county, but the red-clad hordes of my club Tiptree Road Runners would beg to differ after Tuesday's excursion into the humid night air.

We assembled noisily near the mysteriously-named Windmill Hill (deserted apart from a swarm of mosquitoes), and proceeded to race ourselves silly. One mile downhill, at the bottom careering 180-degrees around a human bollard in the road, and then back up to the start-point. It was a game of two halves, as they say.   

Now although running downwards for an extended period is said to be bad for knees and quads, it’s certainly rather good news for the ego and for the training log. There’s an entry in my own records of the one-mile I ran in 1991 when the big official clock recorded me home in 4 minutes and 46 seconds.  Yes, it did have a lengthy downhill section, but one mile of asphalt still had to be covered and those stats don’t lie!

That race was in Milton Keynes and called itself the Mercedes Benz Silver Mile. When the results sheet came through later I quickly had it framed and hung on the wall, because there I was in 10th place, not far behind Joseph Cheshire, William Magut and John Ngugi, all superstars from Kenya. The document doesn’t mention the bit about going downhill, so it looks damned impressive up there on my wall!

This week (22 years and thousands of miles later) my ageing legs couldn’t quite match that 1991 effort. I think I hit the one-mile mark (which was Pete and his bike) in six minutes something.  Perhaps I’d have done better if there’d been a few Kenyans up front to chase?

Downhill miling is apparently a popular pursuit in the USA, but I don’t know of any such event in the UK now that the famous ‘Meltham Maniac Mile’ is defunct.

For those of you too young to have heard of it, no human has ever run a mile quicker than the record-holder for the Meltham Maniac Mile.  In 1993 a 16-year-old schoolboy called Craig Wheeler won in 3 minutes 24 seconds, which was 19.61 seconds faster than the official world mile record Nourredine Morceli of Algeria set two months later in Italy!

Young Craig’s effort is not in any record books, of course, because the race was on a Pennine descent six miles outside Huddersfield. The one-mile stretch of the B6108 road started from a cattle grid on the moors above Meltham and dropped 400 feet.  It was not for the faint-hearted, and as one survivor put it: "I was going that fast I might have killed myself if I'd fallen."

Back in 1991, while I was congratulating myself on my 4:46 at Milton Keynes, a 60-year-old geezer from Yorkshire ran Meltham in 3:57.  Then, five years later, he recorded 4:02, narrowly failing to become the first pensioner to break the four-minute barrier!

But even Meltham seems like child’s play to the extremists who take downhill running really seriously. In the USA, a certain Jonathan Vigh explains: “Running downhill is not so much running as fall management. For some reason, my runner friends occasionally trip and fall when running downhill - this is not very healthy and should be avoided as much as possible. The way to avoid falling is to fall all the way down the mountain, in a controlled manner - I call it fall management.”

“Basically, you have to adapt your running style for the terrain. Steeper downhills require shortening the stride, just like you would shift into a lower gear if you were driving down a steep hill. This provides more control and reduces the risk of overstride which can be damaging to the joints. But your legs are moving faster, so foot placement becomes key.”

Runners are inventive people, and, inevitably, if you have downhill mile races, you will get the uphill versions too.  Older readers may have heard of the ‘Mow Cop Killer Mile’, another event born in Northern England during the running boom of the 1980s.  John Britton, a keen road and fell runner, came up with the idea and spent an evening in the drizzle with a surveyor's wheel locating a course of exactly one mile where there wasn’t a single level step, and a total climb of over 550ft. The idea of the toughest conceivable one-mile road race was born.

This brief-but-brutal race on the Cheshire/Staffs border broke into several different sections - a gentle first 400 metres away from a level crossing, then a 1-in-5 section, a steady climb up through fields in full view of the horrors to come, and at the end a killer section of 1-in-4 gradient past the most popular spectator spot. The Mow Cop Killer Mile soon became highly popular and crowds came out to watch the agonised faces and pumping knees. Never before have people ‘sprinted’ so slowly!

The first event – exactly 30 years ago – pulled in 95 runners and was won in 6:50. By the end of the 1980s there were over 1,000 entries (including fancy-dress runners, backwards runners and all sorts of other nutters) and it had to be split into 10 different races.  Runners from flat old East Anglia were among those taking part and it was even covered on TV. The record was set by Bashir Hussain (Stockport) with 6:12.  The event continues to this day and a few months ago the 2012 version attracted 500 entrants.

I doubt if you’ll see the Clapped-Out Runner heading for Mow Cop at any point. Races where you can apply the words ‘flat’ and ‘pancake’ seem more appropriate these days . . . . 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

How to become a 'proper' runner!

Only a 'proper' runner (or nutcase) runs on his wedding day!

WHAT do you have to do to become a ‘real’ runner?

It was a question posed this week by John M, a clubmate of mine. He’s a relative newcomer to the sport who is in his forties.  He gasped the words out while in the throes of recovery from an incredibly tough six-mile off-road jaunt on Tuesday evening.  

According to John:  “Despite the heavy rain that soaked me to the bones, the deep and numerous puddles that made my socks swell to three times their normal size, the crops that repeatedly battered my middle area as I made my way across fields, the low branches that either hit me across the face or added to the amount of water discharged onto me and the nettles that ripped at my shins, I absolutely enjoyed that run.  Can I now class myself as a runner, or do I need to get myself admitted to a mental asylum?”

Now that’s a very good question.  But before suggesting any answers, your very own Clapped-Out Runner must sheepishly confess that he wasn’t among the intrepid off-roaders on Tuesday night and didn’t witness the above horrors at first hand.  Reason being I made a late decision to join a small breakaway group, for a nice smooth six-miler on the roads instead.

I promise you this was not a case of settling for the softer option, but more a question of grabbing the chance to test out a pair of brand new Brooks road shoes, recently snapped up for half-price in a sale.  They looked so bright and sparkly in the boot of my car that I simply had to give them an outing on Tuesday – and at the same time give a day off to the decrepit four-year-old trail shoes which were sitting alongside them.

Of course I have nothing but admiration for John and the 25 other drowned rats who returned bedraggled to Tiptree Sports Centre beyond 9pm under Tuesday evening’s stormy skies. They survived one hell of a battering from Mother Nature and emerged in remarkably good spirits.

Details are slowly emerging about their adventure and the various injuries that resulted. Lynne B, for example, has just released a statement about her soggy socks creating what she describes as a “mahoosive” blood blister.  And I hear that even the prolific Andy G decided to take the following morning off for recovery, opting not to run into work as normal.  

Some training runs can feel mundane and uneventful.  This was clearly not one of them.  The fact that John emerged from the experience smiling means he is indeed well on the way to joining the ranks of the ‘real’ runners.  The true mental cases, that is. And if he forgets the pain and misery of Tuesday night and comes back for more of the same, he will have passed the test properly. Becoming a ‘proper’ runner is not about speed or winning titles, it’s about commitment.  

There are many ways for newcomers or casual joggers to find out if they have graduated to becoming a fully-fledged running nutjob.  Below is the Clapped-Out Runner’s guide to some of the tell-tale signs. See how many are applicable to you:

(1) You know what it’s like to suffer bloodied nipples, chafed groins and black toenails (and will talk openly about them).

(2) You have become an expert at going to the loo out of doors (even in built-up areas).

(3) You have started a meticulous running log, with comments on weather, how you felt, and other dull details included.

(4) During a normal working day, you find yourself leaning against walls and furniture to stretch calfs and hamstrings (and you don’t stop even if you get funny looks).

(5) You regularly scour magazines and shops for running shoe bargains, even though you already own at least two pairs you never wear.

(6) When planning important occasions like Christmas Day, a wedding, or a day trip, your first thought is always how you can fit in a run.

(7) You’ve been known to accidentally record a televised marathon over an important family video (such as your own wedding).

(8) Your family’s eating routine always includes compulsory pasta on certain days.

(9) You get bored, restless and bad-tempered on a weekend when there are no races (and also when you are injured).

 (10) You can list your PBs quicker and easier than family birthdays.    

If at least three of the above applies to you, then you have already become a proper runner. If all ten apply to you, then my wife knows exactly what your partner puts up with!

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on legendary runners of yesteryear at:

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Mystery of the Vanished Runner

John Lawton and wife at the start-line. Where is he now?

AS FAR as your running is concerned, what would be a ‘nightmare scenario’ for you? 

Sprinting for a finish-line only to fall flat on your face in front of hundreds of people?  Urgently needing a roadside toilet stop but finding everywhere constantly crowded?  Arriving in Hadleigh (Suffolk) to discover your race was actually in Hadleigh (Essex)?  Noticing your physio suddenly turn pale as he examines your latest injury?

Most of us would cringe at the mere thought of the above calamities, but there’s no doubt they all pale into utter insignificance compared to the horror that recently befell a runner called John Lawton and his family.

Earlier this year, John, an experienced 62-year-old trail runner, was in Greece for an Easter holiday which included a crack at the popular Taygetos 35k Challenge race. It promised to be a great day.

The sun shone brightly as he kissed wife Lynda and set off cheerfully from the start-line, waving to her from the middle of the pack as he went.  John was all smiles, doing what he loved and life felt good. He knew the upcoming 35km course was tough and might take more than six hours to cover, but the weather was perfect and he was fit and brimming with confidence.  

Applause rang out as John disappeared down the road in his bright yellow T-shirt and black lycra leggings, along with 150 other runners.

Poor Lynda hasn’t seen him since.

John, a member of Cheshire club Sandbach Striders, was logged in by marshals at the first four checkpoints, but the people at No.5 onwards have no trace of him. Extensive searches have yielded absolutely nothing, apart from a discarded energy-gel wrapper which DNA testing has apparently confirmed was used by him.

Local Greek search parties and experts from the UK have combed the route of the race, but with no luck. They are baffled how John could disappear without trace, even in such a hazardous area. The weeks are going by but Lynda is not giving up hope. But yesterday (July 2nd), some 85 days after he was last seen, the BBC reported that various bureaucratic and political issues are now hampering her wish for the search to be continued for her husband.

Speaking soon after the day of the race, Lynda told newspaper reporters: “My plan was to wait at the finish. It was probably about five o’clock before I really started to panic and started talking to the race organisers who said he hadn’t reached checkpoint number five and they were now starting to look for him. I don’t how much longer he could be out there and possibly still be alive with just a T-shirt on in the cold nights. He's got to be somewhere in the mountains, he's got to have fallen or become injured."

Locally-based teams, including police with a helicopter, fire crews, tourists and sniffer dogs launched searches in the days immediately after the Easter Sunday race. The Foreign Office provided consular assistance and liaised with the Greek authorities. John's brother, family friends and fellow runners flew out to join the search.

His son Steve, also a runner, went out too and attempted to retrace his father’s footsteps. He found the terrain "incredibly mountainous" with deep gorges and sheer drops, but added that his father "knew what he was doing."

Last month (June), John’s birthday came and went with no news. Lynda released a heart-rending statement that day: “Happy 63rd birthday to the love of my life, my husband and my best friend. Today, I just want to tell the world that I love you and miss you so much. I just pray that by some miracle you are still alive and we can share the life we planned together.”

Last week Lynda said she hoped another appearance on BBC radio would gain more public support as she was worried the campaign to find John was losing momentum as the weeks went by: “It's now 12 weeks since that fateful race and every day is getting harder for me. We really must use every resource and find him soon."

The quest to solve the mystery has found strong support on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other media, but there was a serious blow last week when a special search-and-rescue team assembled in Cheshire returned wearily from Greece having had no joy.

The matter has been raised in the UK Parliament, but now we hear that political sensitivities are hampering further progress. A highly-skilled Turkish search-and-rescue team has offered to look for John, but the Greek authorities don't seem keen to approve this. The Lawtons’ MP, Fiona Bruce, said the Foreign Office in the UK were doing all they could, but the attitude of the Greeks wasn’t helping.

To find out more, or to register your support, visit

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books on running legends of yesteryear, at