Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Breakfast is for wimps!

Who needs a 'full English' on a Saturday when you could be doing this?

EVERY Saturday morning across the UK, when most ordinary folk are still making a bleary-eyed choice between Coco Pops and Shredded Wheat, thousands of runners can be found out in the fresh air in their local parks, tackling free-to-enter 5k races.

Apart from a few dog walkers, the public at large has barely noticed Parkrun events, even though nearly 150 of them now take place every Saturday breakfast time, in towns and cities up and down the country.   
The Parkrun project was launched in 2004, and after eight years there is finally to be a local event staged weekly for the runners of Suffolk and Essex. On Saturday September 8, Chantry Park in Ipswich joins the Parkrun craze, thanks to some noble volunteer organizers from the local Ipswich JAFFA club.

JAFFA are ready to welcome all and sundry – be you clubbed-up or unattached, fast or slow, male or female, teenager or pensioner - for the inaugural event, bright and early at 9 a.m.    

Until now, two of my Top Ten Running Complaints have been the spiralling cost of race entry fees, and the fact there were no Parkrun events within a reasonable distance of home.  Now, all that is history. They are here and they are free.  

They are accurately timed on measured courses and, being weekly, provide a great opportunity to monitor training progress over a period, set goals and compare performances. But you don’t have to take them too seriously if you don’t want to – they can be merely a good way of getting exercise early in the weekend thus leaving time for other stuff.

Having been a member of Ipswich JAFFA back in the 20th century, your Clapped-Out Runner can vouch for the club’s powers of organisation and resourcefulness. This, after all, is the club that used to transport its members to races via its own double-decker bus.  It didn’t get them up and down the A12 particularly quickly, but it was more comfortable than car-sharing!

And naturally most of the JAFFA boys and girls know Chantry Park like the back of their hand.  Back in my Ipswich days there were regular events there, including Sri Chinmoy races over a one-mile loop, also usually held early on a Saturday.

Your Clapped-Out Runner was young and foolish back then, and I recall more than once running a Sri Chinmoy race in Chantry Park before leaping into the car to head off elsewhere for a cross-country league event or road race. I’ve already promised my ageing legs that in 2012 there will be no such repeat involving Parkrun.

Once upon a time I even WON a race in Chantry Park one misty Saturday morning! OK, so some of Ipswich’s top runners failed to show that day, but you can only beat those who turn up, can you not? 

I also recall several outings at that venue, clutching my trusty reporter’s notebook (computers hadn’t arrived back then, let alone Twitter!), when I had to compile race reports as the likes of Dave Moorcroft and Tim Hutchings hurtled to victory in championship cross-country events. And I should also mention the day when my ‘ex’ Beverley gave Zola Budd a good chasing around the park. Bev was attempting to obtain an exclusive story for the Ipswich Evening Star, and not merely trying to outrun Zola, I hasten to add. Bev was fast in those days, but Zola proved a slippery customer even though she was only doing a warm-up jog at the time.  When finally cornered, the shy Miss Budd had little to say for herself as I recall!

There was also a rather bizarre occasion in Chantry Park when myself and colleagues from the East Anglian Daily Times took part in a charity football match against a so-called ‘All-Star XI’ featuring ex-Ipswich Town players such as Roger Osborne, Mick Lambert and Colin Harper.  A large crowd turned up (enough to fill both touchlines anyway) and we all looked very smart in the sunshine in our borrowed Ipswich Town kit. There was only one problem:  Nobody had thought to bring a ball.

Luckily I was able to come to the rescue and a bit of rummaging in the back of the car yielded a battered leather spherical object. OK, so it was soft, flat and possibly not even regulation size 5, but it would have to do. Fortunately the car boot also housed a bicycle pump, and so followed the truly surreal sight of former First Division full-back Colin Harper trying to inflate my ancient football with a malfunctioning pump. It took him a while but he managed it, and finally it was "Game on!"   Yes, things usually turn out fine in Chantry Park.

Getting back to Parkrun . . . if you were wondering how come the races will be free to enter, the answer is in the generous sponsorship from Adidas, Lucozade, Virgin London Marathon and Sweatshop.  Their investment follows the successful growth of the project since its  beginnings in West London when a runner called Paul Sinton-Hewitt and 12 of his mates got things underway in 2004. Eight years later there have been more than 11,000 runs staged, featuring a total of 200,000 runners.  

All you have to do is register beforehand on the Parkrun website, and print off your special barcode. Then you can do as few or as many of the 5ks as you choose.  As a spokesman said: “Parkruns take place all over the world, open to everyone, free, and safe and easy to take part in. They are in pleasant parkland surroundings and for people of every ability to take part - from those taking their first steps in running to Olympians, from juniors to those with experience.”

Now and again the great and the good take part alongside the humblebums like you and me. Swimmer Mark Spitz and Olympic hurdler Ed Moses once pitched up at a Parkrun, and on the eve of his 101st birthday, marathon man Fauja Singh was even seen doing his Saturday morning duty.   

If racing at 9 a.m. is not too early in the day for a 101-year-old, then I’m sure I can manage an outing or two in the coming months . . . .

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running at www.robhadgraft.com

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Hills are Alive With the Sound of MP3s

WHEN your Clapped-Out Runner was a tiny lad, there was a thing called the ‘Hit Parade’ and every week we would all be glued to Top of the Pops on TV to find out who'd got into it.

In those days groups needed to sell hundreds of thousands of little vinyl discs to even make the Top 30, let alone the No.1 spot.  How times change.  These days a TV soap star only has to break wind remotely tunefully to find themselves soaring to the top of the charts.

Therefore it’s not surprising to hear that performers, young and old, who took part in the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics are quickly reaping the rewards of their high profile appearances. It’s been reported that no fewer than 65 musicians associated with London 2012 now feature in this week’s Top-200 singles chart.

The musical directors of London 2012 had the tricky task of choosing music to appeal to all ages and backgrounds, and for the most part they did a pretty good job. And this week’s sales figures prove that many of the tunes they gave us are being added to personal playlists in high numbers. Schoolkids are apparently lapping up the likes of Ray Davies and The Who. Who would have thought it?

Some of the songs that hit the night air above the Stratford stadium will have been identified as ’inspirational’ or ‘motivational’ and downloaded to the MP3 players of many runners.  

Running to music is big these days, I am told. Your Clapped-Out Runner only ever indulges when a treadmill is involved, but elsewhere there is a growing subculture of runners who wouldn't dream of taking a single step without their motivating playlists. I haven’t noticed this phenomenon at my own club, Tiptree Road Runners, but perhaps that’s because we’re a bit old fashioned and like chatting too much.

A while ago the governing bodies of the sport introduced rules and regulations to discourage the use of personal headphones in races. Their reasoning was that a runner cannot be safe on the roads if unable to properly hear traffic or marshal instructions and suchlike. But this idea has not gone down well in all quarters, of course.

Elite or ‘traditionalist’ runners don't seem to need external stimuli to overcome what some must perceive as the drudgery of running. In the case of your Clapped-Out Runner, I must have unusually shaped ears or something, for those little earpieces fall out after a few seconds anyway - even if I’m standing perfectly still. Therefore, having never used a Walkman or MP3 player for running, I’ve consequently never missed being without one. I like to carry as little baggage as possible when on the move – and certainly don’t fancy little wires dangling around the neck area.

Having said that, I do see the appeal of having a set of speakers positioned near your treadmill, or the idea of listening to upbeat music on your way to a race.  One of these days I might even get round to making a CD of favourite running tracks for that very purpose. In the mean time, I’ve tried to come up with a Top 30 anyway, and for your delight and delectation I present it here.

There’s some decidedly ‘uncool’ names on the list, but now that the Olympics has turned the youth of today on to acts dating back as far as the 1960s, I need have no shame in revealing a list with a decidedly ‘old school’ bias. No hip-hop here, I’m afraid.

The Clapped-Out Runner’s Top 30 Running Tracks:

1. Life of Riley- Lightning Seeds  
2. Run Run Run – Jo Jo Gunne
3. The Runner – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
4. Gotta See Jane – Golden Earring
5. Rendezvous 4 – Jean-Michel Jarre
6. Echo Beach – Martha and the Muffins
7. The Trap (London Marathon theme tune)
8. Running Man – Jimmy Nail
9. The Passenger – Iggy Pop
10. He’s Gonna Step on You Again – John Kongos
11. The River – King Trigger
12. Streets Have No Name (medley) – Pet Shop Boys
13. The Heat Is On – Glenn Frey
14. History of Modern - Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
15. Marathon Man – Ian Brown
16. Run for Home – Lindisfarne
17. I Ran (So Far Away) – Flock of Seagulls
18. Start Me Up – Rolling Stones
19. Ride Like The Wind – Saxon
20. Roadrunner – Chris Spedding
21. Running Down a Dream – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
22. Blue Hotel – Lene Lovich
23. Here Comes a City – The Go-Betweens
24. Keep On Running – Spencer Davis Group
25. Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
26. Bohemian Like You – Dandy Warhols
27. The Summer Place – Fountains of Wayne
28. (When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing - Sparks
29. Norfolk Coast - Stranglers
30. Fall of Rome – James Reyne

(Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books at www.robhadgraft.com)

Saturday, 11 August 2012

It's Their Party, They'll Cry if They Want to . . .

The Olympic Park this week: Perhaps hay fever is causing some of the tears?

PERHAPS Paula Radcliffe and her gammy foot are to blame?

Or, to be more precise, Paula and her tear ducts?  When she withdrew from the Olympics a few days before the marathon took place, she told the nation she’d been “crying more tears than ever”.  She’d lost the battle against osteoarthritis in her left foot, a long-term problem that cruelly flared up just a few weeks before the Olympics.

She would have no glorious farewell on the streets of London and no first medal in her fifth appearance at an Olympics. The nation’s most popular athlete was sobbing miserably again – and this time it really did open the floodgates everywhere.

Since then a veritable tsunami of tears and emotions has washed round every Olympic venue and seeped into all corners of the UK.  People have cried over success, cried over failure and cried for just about everything between.

TV and radio have lapped it all up, commentators and pundits happy to spend hours chattering  about emotion, atmosphere, goose bumps, lumps in throats, hairs on their necks, and tears on their cheeks. Now and again they even reverted to analysing the sporting action itself.

There’s no denying that many moments during London 2012 have brought a lump to all our throats and shivers to even the stiffest of spines. But it’s fascinating how this particular Olympics has become ‘The Crying Games’, the one when stiff upper lips and holding-it-together went right out of the window. 

It started with Paula and has spread like a virus. Young competitors who exceeded expectations and put in superb performances have queued up to tell the BBC how gutted they are to have “let people down” by not winning gold. Until now I can’t recall ever hearing a sportsperson go on live TV and almost beg forgiveness for letting people down. Apart from Paula after the Athens Olympics, that is. (I told you this was all her fault!).

Radio 5 Live have been particularly guilty of majoring on ‘emotion’ rather than the sport itself. Many of their presenters are not sports specialists, suggesting the general brief was to go out and get ‘colour’ rather than just the dry facts. The classic example has been the shrieking Victoria Derbyshire, who to her credit was at least prepared to read out texts and e-mails  complaining about her “toe-curlingly embarrassing” performances!

These days, of course, it has become crystal clear the TV cameras are desperate for close-ups of any person undergoing triumph or disaster (all that rubbish reality TV depends on it, of course).  And at these Crying Games, the heroes, heroines and even the also-rans have latched on to a uniform method of coping with Kipling’s twin imposters: even before they are being interviewed they have often dissolved into tears.

Earlier this week I was at the Olympic Park and witnessed a remarkable Norway comeback to beat Brazil in the women’s handball quarter-finals. Six goals behind in the second-half, they rallied in the late stages to pip the South Americans in dramatic fashion. I’m mighty glad the Norge cowbells in the row behind me weren’t being rung by Jeremy Hunt. The end of the match signalled – you guessed it – agonised sobbing from the Brazilians, and joyful tears from the Scandinavians.

One observer reckoned this week we are now in the age of the new emotionalism, where it’s not only acceptable but almost compulsory to let it all hang out and give free rein to innermost feelings.  It was reported that every single member of the British women’s hockey team was in tears following defeat by Argentina (‘Don’t cry for us, Argentina – we can do it for ourselves!’) Once upon a time you’d get the odd solo cry - as per Gazza in 1990 - but now they’re doing it mob-handed.

Nevertheless, the likes of TV's Clare Balding, Michael Johnson and Gary Lineker have largely kept their feelings under control but without becoming boring. But some of the less professional interviewers have crumbled – even to the extent of creating strange silences while they try and pull themselves together.  Sometimes it has been highly amusing, as when equestrian expert Pippa Funnell regularly ignored questions from her co-commentator because she was so intensely focussed on the action, choking back tears and seemingly having lost the power of speech.

It’s been an Olympics of extremes that has provoked extreme reactions - sometimes from unlikely sources.  Even laddish footballers have been swept up by it all and lost their cool. For example, Don Hutchinson, former Liverpool international, said of one athletics session: “Without a doubt the best sporting event I've ever been to in my life. Forget football, this was electric.”

On the final evening of festivities this Sunday we’ll all have a lump in our throats as we realise how proud we are of London for staging the best-ever Games. But come Monday there’s a danger we’ll be all cried out and slumped under a grey cloud of anti-climax.  It will probably hit home when we turn on the TV that evening and find Syria and the economy are the lead stories on the news again.    

For the very last day of the Games I’ve managed to get tickets for the mountain biking, which is being staged here in good old Essex. However impressive the action turns out to be, I promise not to cry. Mind you, if there’s traffic congestion outside, or they sell out of Magnums, I may stamp my foot a little . . .

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running and football at www.robhadgraft.com 

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Friday, 3 August 2012

Winning Olympic gold - thanks to strychnine and brandy!

A London Marathon banana - the clean athlete's stimulant of choice!

PEOPLE will do all sorts of things to win an Olympic medal in 2012. Some deliberately hit shuttlecocks into a net, some fall off their racing bike on purpose, others grow ridiculous sideburns.  Some tricks work, others don’t.

Nothing changes really.  A hundred years ago athletes also went to bizarre lengths to gain an advantage. Back then marathon runners took sips of strychnine, Champagne or white wine, glugged meaty Oxo drinks, and carefully clutched little corks in their hands to maintain concentration.

And who are we to laugh?  After all, it worked for Tommy Hicks!

Born in England, Hicks emigrated to the USA where he became a brass worker with a penchant for distance running. Aged 29 he won a remarkable marathon at the 1904 Olympics at St.Louis.  Conditions were awful, the course a rough dirt track enveloped by huge clouds of dust from support vehicles.

Hicks wasn’t even first to cross the finish-line, trailing behind a suspiciously fresh-looking Fred Lorz.  It would transpire that mischievous Fred had abandoned the race after only nine miles, at which point he hitched a lift in a car to the 20-mile point. When race officials told him his little ruse had been spotted and threw him out, he pleaded that it had only been a joke. Perhaps not the strongest of mitigating circumstances.

So Hicks was given the gold medal, but in view of what emerged later, perhaps he too should have been disqualified. To keep him plodding towards the finish, Hicks’ trusty assistants regularly supplied the type of thing Dennis Thatcher would later describe as a ‘livener.’  In Hicks case it involved a one-milligram grain of strychnine and some brandy. The first dose of strychnine seemed to give him a temporary boost, but after he started flagging again, he was given more of the same. It did the trick, but led to his collapse after crossing the finish line. It was good job nobody thought of giving him a third dose, said one doctor, for that might well have killed him.

The 1908 Marathon at the first London Olympics was staged in stifling heat and high humidity, which meant the runners were even more desperate than usual for any artificial aids their helpers could supply.

Fifty-five men from 16 nations lined up for the start outside the royal nursery at Windsor Castle Wing by special request of Princess Mary, who wanted her little boys to have the best view. Temperatures hovered around 26 degrees and runners soon began dropping like flies. Even the powerful Onondagan Indian known as Longboat wilted at the roadside. All manner of goodies were passed to the runners to help keep them upright, some of which worked and some evidently didn’t.

The likes of Gatorade and other sports drinks were still many decades away, of course, and simply drinking water was not regarded as a useful pursuit. The little Italian pastry chef Dorando Pietri was plied with his favourite Chianti wine, the supply continuing even after he started to wobble around the road. 

English-born runner Charlie Hefferon (S.Africa),  meanwhile, slaked his thirst with what he called “a draught of champagne” but admitted later it brought on severe stomach cramps and ruined his chance of victory after having led for most of the second half of the race.  American Johnny Hayes knew the hazards of fizzy drinks, and sipped happily on some brandy instead. He was given water but used it to wipe his face and didn’t drink a drop.

Little Pietri was first into the stadium, but four agonised and dramatic collapses on the cinder track, and the assistance he consequently received to cross the finish line, saw him disqualified. This was much to the dismay of the sympathetic British crowd and a horrified Queen Alexandra up in the royal box. It would make Pietri the most famous and courageous loser in Olympic history, but he was too exhausted and too drunk to notice as he was carted off on a stretcher. His consolation came later when Irving Berlin wrote a song about him and he was feted more than the actual winner.

It was reported that Pietri had been given a hypodermic of digitalis or strychnine just before he entered the stadium by a concerned physician who thought he was being helpful. No wonder he looked wobbly!

Boosted by his discreet brandy-sipping, Johnny Hayes cruised into the stadium 30 seconds later. He was subsequently and rather grudgingly given the gold medal by the British officials who’d spent almost the entire games in bad-tempered dispute with the American delegation.

All these years later we assume no performance-enhancing (or even performance-damaging) substances will be passed to the marathon runners at London 2012.  However, it is a fact that such behaviour is as old as the  Olympic Games themselves. From 776 BC athletes routinely boosted performance with hallucinogenic mushrooms, plants and mixtures of wine and herbs. Right through to 1928, when doping was officially outlawed, all sorts of potions were in use, with each nation trying to cook up their own secret formula.

More recently, of course, the cheats use the latest biotechnology. The drugs of choice have ranged from anabolic steroids to human growth hormones and from blood-boosting erythropoietin (EPO) to stimulants.  

Down here at the sharp end, your Clapped-Out Runner continues to use nothing more sinister than coffee, bananas and the occasional Jaffa cake on race day. They make me feel a bit livelier and get me to the finish line, although I have to report that they don’t prevent me occasionally getting lost in trail races.

A wrong turn in the Mid-Essex Casuals event from Hatfield Peverel last weekend saw me lose 15 minutes and become totally lost in a wood. It was a good effort, but not quite as impressive as that of my club colleague James H-J, whose recent run at the Fairlands Valley Spartans 50k Challenge was accidentally extended by a massive FIVE MILES due to a navigational mishap.

As a result of episodes like this, our club (Tiptree Road Runners) is seriously considering a new annual award for 'Wrong Turn of the Year’.  I regard this as a worrying development, because I suspect some people actually enjoy the drama of getting lost - and the incentive of winning a trophy for going wrong might see a sharp increase in our runners going missing mid-race. 

Surely if there’s going to be any cheating, it might be better to copy our forefathers and stick to the old roadside alcohol trick.  Champagne anyone?     

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running, at www.robhadgraft.com