Monday, 29 October 2012

Woods or fields? Dark or light? Morning or evening?

Running through woods feels faster than open fields. Honestly.

WHY does it feel faster to run through woods than across an open field? And why can running after dark feel quicker than in the day time? 

These are questions forming in many a UK runner’s exhausted brain now the clocks have gone back and it’s time to train after dark, and race in cross-country settings.

Here in Essex there’s a triathlete called David Parry who reckons he has the answers to these questions. It’s all to do with something known as ‘optic flow’, apparently. Parry has been heading research on this at University of Essex’s Human Performance Unit and his findings have been widely published this autumn.

“Running in an environment where most visual reference points you can see are close by, you experience a greater sensation of speed than in an environment where your reference points are far away,” he says. “Running, therefore, on an open trail with expansive views across the landscape, and relatively few objects close by, is likely to lead to lower sensations of speed than running in a forest with many trees nearby.”

Okay. So for me and colleagues in the 53-12 N.Essex Cross-Country League I think this means our annual Halstead race - much of it through woods - is going to feel a whole lot quicker than the one next weekend across open fields at Harwich – even if we trudge through the mud at exactly the same pace at both.   

Another finding to emerge from Essex Uni was that running or cycling at night feels very different to performing the same levels of speed and effort during daylight:

“In the dark, objects further away aren’t visible and you only have close-by objects to use as reference, so you get a greater sense of speed compared to running during the day,” says David Parry.

Personally, I’m not sure if all this is good news or bad. In the past I’ve felt quite pleased with myself for skimming through woodlands at what felt like high speed. Careering through the trees, springy pine needles underfoot, and all that jazz . . . but now I fear it was only the ‘optic flow’ making me think I was going faster all along.

And as for the running at night theory? Well I always thought I was going faster after dark because I’m naturally an ‘owl’ rather than a ‘lark’. Which is to say I run better in the evenings than early mornings as the adrenaline is flowing, I’m fully awake, and my circadian rhythms are in a better place. But maybe it was just that optic flow business playing its tricks again?

Certainly my ability, or otherwise, to run early in the day was given a stern test last weekend.  After a late Friday night in London, I decided it was high time I sampled one of the many Parkrun 5ks staged at breakfast time the following morning.  Since becoming a Clapped-Out Runner, early morning racing was one of several habits I’d managed to quit. But, what the hell . . .

Strangely, it went well. And if you are all sitty comfty-bold two-square on your botty (as Stanley Unwin used to say), I’ll tell you about it:

Here at the Birthplace of Radio, it was the crack of dawn when my weary carcass dragged itself clear of the bedroom zone. Luckily a modicum of pre-race adrenaline had surprisingly mustered itself, because I awoke before my wristwatch alarm sounded (alarm clocks have been banned by Mrs H, who claims they tick too loudly through the night).  So it was a miracle I was even up and awake, let alone ready to do a Parkrun.

Parkrun is a worldwide project that has somehow pulled off the clever trick of persuading millions across the globe to go running early every Saturday instead of grumpily pulling the duvet over their heads. Events now take place weekly at 149 different UK locations, with a total of 12,500 stagings so far.

People like me who live in the Birthplace of Radio have only recently enjoyed the privilege of having a Parkrun reasonably nearby, with Ipswich and Southend-on-Sea now added to the list. Yes, the roistering resort of ‘Sarfend’, the one that gave the world the Kursaal Ballroom, TOTS nightclub, the world’s longest pleasure pier and Dame Helen Mirren. Among other things.    

The temperature was just above freezing as I made for the race venue at the eastern end of the sprawling Southend conurbation, tucked between Thorpe Bay and Shoeburyness. Here in Gunners Park you can look over the sea wall and see where the Luftwaffe once deposited one of their nasty magnetic bombs. Shoeburyness is also mentioned in H.G.Wells' scary War of the Worlds, but these things should not put you off.  This is a fine setting to stretch the legs on a Saturday.

There was one hell of a ‘wind chill factor’ to take into account, but the bright sun compensated and the simplicity of the event was welcome. There are no entry fees, no numbers, you just assemble for the start at 9 where a friendly chap thanks you for being a “first-timer” and warns you of puddles and other hazards before setting the shivering pack on its way.  Three-and-a-tiny-bit laps later you dip over the finish line, present your personal barcode to a man with a zapper, then head to the nearby Harvester where bacon sarnies and coffee await. Within an hour or two your result, position, age-graded ranking and much more can be scrutinized via whatever personal communications device you currently carry.

Issues of optic flow, circadian rhythms and bone-chilling wind notwithstanding, I’ll be back for more soon. Not every single Saturday morning, you understand, but very soon.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s 16 titles published by Desert Island Books at

Friday, 19 October 2012

Race in moderation? Which county's that in then?

* Excuse me, could you direct me to the A12? 
I've got another race in a minute.......

FUNNY how we change with age. If a fellow runner tells me today that he or she did two hard races in one weekend, I tend to smile sympathetically and quietly wonder if they’ve gone slightly round the bend.

Yet a few years ago I would often do exactly the same thing. Indeed on more than one occasion I recall actually completing two tough races in a single morning.  What the hell was I thinking?

This week I was reminded of those crazy days. It came about because I was filling a few spare moments by dredging out old race results - for the purpose of passing them on to former club colleague Clive Sparkes, who is bringing the Ipswich JAFFA website stats archive up to date. I had six good years running with JAFFA (1985-1991) during which all my lifetime PBs were achieved. And it seems to me like a good thing all that sweat, toil and mileage of yesteryear should go on the public record somewhere! 

The trouble is, when you head towards being a Clapped-Out Runner, leafing through your past achievements tends to be a traumatic experience. The rate and degree to which you have slowed down since passing your peak can be frightening. If you are the sensitive type, who is easily demoralised, I wouldn’t recommend this pastime. To say I looked at those cuttings and felt a little wistful would be an understatement. I was overflowing with wist, in fact.

Among the dust and cobwebs in my cuttings box was one local paper story which reminded me of a certain Saturday morning in the summer of 1987. Despite having spent the previous two nights on the razzle in London, added to long subbing shifts at the local paper, I rose from my bed at the crack of dawn to head for Chantry Park in Ipswich. A six-mile race organised by the Sri Chinmoy AC involved six identical laps, mainly over parkland. 

After coming in third and clocking a time of 35 mins 46 seconds (it takes me longer to do five miles nowadays, let alone six!) it was then a case of jumping straight into the car to speed down the A12 for a second race. Here I managed to win the Capel St.Mary fun run (4.4 of your British miles), again averaging less than six-minute miling.

Did I really have that much energy back then? There wasn’t even the excuse that in either race I was there to make up the numbers in a club team. No, it seems I entered those two races in one morning purely because they were there. You might think that my spouse would have had a quiet word and told me not to be so daft?  A bit of advice about putting quality above quantity, or something of that sort?

Well, no, actually. In fact, the first Mrs.H did exactly the same thing and ran in both events herself.  And - spooky coincidence - she also came third and first, in the women’s races.  If we had been getting appearance money, you could have understood it, but there were no brown envelopes, just little medals on a red ribbon.

Of course, I wasn’t the worst offender back then by any means. The 1980s was the decade in which a major ‘citizen running boom’ swept across the UK from America, and the sport suddenly became the chosen pursuit of nutters everywhere.

Take Mervyn Kesselring of Bungay Black Dog RC, for example. That same summer 25 years ago he managed to complete four races in a period of 36 hours.  And each was on a different surface!  Merv the Swerve raced on grass in Ipswich, on a cinder track in Norwich, on roads in Wroxham and on a tartan track back in Ipswich. With barely time for a meal in between. What a guy.      

Colchester runner Paul Newell (official club nickname ‘Nutty’ by the way), also spent inordinately large chunks of 1987 running along various roadsides. Perhaps years of supporting Colchester United had affected his judgement, but Paul embarked on what was described as  “a record-breaking mission” to Athens, talking about completing five full marathons in six weeks. He had warmed up for this little jaunt by running the South Downs Way, a little matter of 80 miles.

Maybe it was something in the air back in 1987, but even the region’s best runners seemed to get caught up in the mileage-mania. Paul Turner of Ipswich JAFFA, for reasons best known to himself, put his legs on the line by entering three races in two days - just a week after setting a superb personal best of 2:41 at the London Marathon. 

But Paul was a shrewd runner, well known for his sensible judgement (as well as for his loud and lengthy conversation in the showers), and his gala weekend of racing certainly seemed to do him no lasting harm. In fact, he chalked up a second, a first and a sixth place in that busy weekend. Nowadays he’s the club's head coach, and presumably doesn’t recommend such behaviour to his young proteges?!

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


Friday, 12 October 2012

You Don't Need to be Quick to Catch a Cold!

HALLELUJAH! At last I’ve discovered some good news about getting older.  Apparently as we progress through our 50s and beyond we tend to catch fewer colds!

There’s nothing worse for a Clapped-Out Runner than having to miss a race or a key training session for something as piffling as a little head cold. Of course we know to be circumspect when it comes to plantar fasciitis or myositis ossificans. But a pesky upper respiratory tract infection? Get out of here.

The winter running season officially arrived this week as far as I am concerned (cross-country in Chelmsford’s Hylands Park), and one of my main targets is to get through the next six months without catching a cold or any other winter virus.

My Old Grey Training Log was consulted this week and revealed that over the last 10 winters I’ve caught a total of 11 colds, nine of which were head colds and two a bit worse (man-flu?). Statistics from one website reckoned this tally was normal for an adult from the western world, while another reckoned it was below the average.

Rarely does a winter go by without at least one cold, so it was encouraging to read that generally we catch fewer the older we get.    After the age of 50, the average person suffers 1-2 per year, whereas 20-somethings have 2-3 and small children many more. There are around 200 known cold viruses, and by the time you’ve hit middle age it seems you’ve had most of them and therefore built up resistance.

Picking my way through the tosh and piffle you tend to find on the internet, I found it was commonly believed you can only catch any of the 200 cold viruses once. Also, by the time you’re 50 you’ve probably had well over half of them. That’s all right then.

But the main reason for catching fewer colds is that older people tend to spend less of their lives in contact with cute little kiddies, who are actually contagious little rug-rats (bless!) and undoubtedly the main reservoir of cold viruses. Additionally, the old and decrepit spend less time shaking hands and kissing everyone they meet, not to mention sharing office coffee cups and biscuit barrels.

Other ways that the old ‘uns avoid viruses are by wearing gloves on public transport, and by avoiding gyms and health clubs. Gyms are sweaty, warm places and the ideal breeding ground for bacteria and viruses, I am told. Many venues make a feeble effort at combatting this by urging you to bring a towel to wipe down the machines before and after use. Right. Just don’t touch anybody else’s towel is probably better advice.

Being fit, healthy and outdoorsy should mean us runners succumb to viruses less often than Mr and Mrs Average - but don’t forget that if you over-train and get constantly exhausted, your immune system could become knackered. There’s a fine line to be trod.

Every rule has its exceptions, though, and a certain Simon Coombes on the Runners World forum reckons he always “trains like an idiot”, but hasn’t had a cold for more than five years. He credits this to the copious amounts of fizzy Vitamin C he consumes.

The idea that we runners can catch a cold because we are often under-dressed, or wearing wet clothes, in cold weather, is of course a myth. You have to have a virus to catch cold - getting damp and chilly alone won’t do it. It follows that you're far more likely to be vulnerable by staying indoors with the central heating turned up. That’s what we fresh-air freaks always say, anyway.

OK, so stay outside and stop touching each other. What else should we do?

Many reckon nasal sprays are good news. Vick’s First Defence and others are jelly-like substances which coat the virus so it can’t attach itself to the lining of the nose. Being slightly acidic (which cold viruses dislike) stimulates are secreted to wash the virus away. This all sounds like good sense and research has apparently proved the sprays can halve the likelihood of getting a cold.

Another good way to avoid colds is to banish stress. Easier said than done, that one. A research project in the USA saw 276 healthy volunteers asked about the stresses in their lives, before cold viruses were deliberately plonked inside their nostrils. Nice work if you can get it.

Those who had reported chronic stress - especially troubles with partners, family or friends - were found to be more than twice as likely to get a cold after their noses had been fiddled around with. Chronic stress affects the immune system was the conculsion. Chill out to avoid a chill, folks.

If you’re willing to pay heed to the clever dicks who post on the Runners World forum, you might be interested in the claims of NeonBlueMidnight. He or she recently announced: “ I'm one of those people who never gets flu and colds, the last time I can remember being sick was chicken pox at around 6 or 7. The secret is being easy on your body so your immune system has enough energy to deal with invasions. Eating a minimal amount of toxic food is key.

“Cut out processed foods and make the majority of your diet from fresh fruit and vegetables, eating a minimum of anything cooked.” Do as I do, postulated NeonBlueMidnight, and you’ll never get a virus, “Even if you lick the pole on the subway!”

One last point: If we do catch a cold (and chances are we will), should we stick to the famous old adage ‘Feed a cold, starve a fever.’? Oh dear. It’s another old wives’ tale, apparently. There’s no real evidence to back it up, the only agreed advice being to drink plenty of fluids in either case.

Which backs up my own theory: The best thing for man-flu is simply to get another round of Guinness in.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books on the history of running:

Friday, 5 October 2012

Shrubb's Fame Flowers Again

ABOVE: "Tell me about your dad!" Alf Shrubb's daughter
Norah gets the third degree.

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WHEN it comes to gimmicks, you can forget Mo Farah’s mobot and Usain Bolt’s lightning bolt. When Alf Shrubb won a race (which was often), he’d simply stroll to the changing rooms, fetch his camera and take a picture of the man coming in second. Now that’s what I call class.

Shrubb was so damn good that race promoters couldn’t find a single human being to give him a decent race. Eventually they had to resort to horses.

And when he beat the horses, someone had the idea of racing him single-handedly against entire relay teams. That was easy - he barely broke sweat.

Alfred Shrubb was THE sporting superstar of the Edwardian era, a man whose running achievements, looked at today, simply beggar belief.

This weekend I’ll be joining dozens of other runners to pay homage to the man once known as ‘The Little Wonder,’ an athlete virtually unbeatable for ten years at all distances between 2 and 20 miles. On Sunday morning (October 7th) the Alf Shrubb 5-mile Memorial XC race winds its way across the same West Sussex fields and paths the great man used to cover himself.

It’s nearly half-a-century since Shrubb shuffled off this mortal coil and began circling that great running track in the sky. By the time this multi-world-record holder died in 1964, his incredible achievements as a distance runner had been largely forgotten. As the years rolled by, people would often hark back to the days of history-makers like Roger Bannister and Harold Abrahams, but the name of Shrubb somehow dropped off the radar completely.

Now, I’m glad to report, all that has changed. My 320-page biography of Shrubb was published a while back and helped set in motion a chain of events that have given his fame a new lease of life. A yearly 8k road-race in his name has become well established in Canada, he’s been inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame, the annual Shrubb memorial cross-country was introduced at his birthplace, an entertaining Shrubb website has been launched – and now he even has a dedicated page on Facebook.

Shrubb’s talent was first spotted when he chased and beat a fire-wagon to a haystack blaze while wearing working boots! The local athletics club signed him up and before long he was winning everything - and along came the big guns of South London Harriers to woo him away.

He smashed records galore, won national and international titles with ease, and was recognised as the finest distance runner on the planet long before deciding to emigrate to Canada between the wars. He settled just outside Toronto, where in 2012 they are as proud of him as we are over here.

Allen Storie, the Canadian club runner who launched the road-race in Shrubb’s name, coined the phrase ‘Shrubbmania’ to describe the renaissance of interest in recent years of this forgotten hero.

21st century Shrubbmania kicked off thanks to a bizarre coincidence. One day in early 2003, beginning my research for the book on Shrubb, I made contact with a museum in the little Ontario town of Bowmanville, where reportedly some Shrubb memorabilia was on display. It seemed a good place to start.

For years this museum had experienced little interest in their former local resident Shrubb, so were astonished to receive my transatlantic enquiry within hours of Allen Storie turning up at the door to ask the same questions!

Storie had stumbled upon the Shrubb legend while out running with a member of a long-established local family. Thousands of miles away, I had picked up on it while on holiday at a sports resort in the Canary Islands. Some quick ‘googling’ got me some tantalizing snippets of his life-story, including how he was controversially banned for accepting expenses, thus preventing certain gold at more than one Olympics. Shrubb’s reaction was to stick two fingers up at the English authorities, jump on a ship to North America and make a fortune as a professional.

As more aspects of his remarkable life came to light, it became clear that here was a book demanding to be written. Thus it came to pass I was rubbing shoulders at the training camp with a few well-known modern-day athletes, but was more interested in a runner better than any of them – and of whom they’d never heard!

Ideas born over a few beers in a bar sometimes fizzle out in the cold light of day - but this was different. My thought processes were lubricated by the half-price ice-cold lager on offer during happy hour, and by the time I next spoke with my publisher back in Essex, the idea was well formed.

Meanwhile in Canada, my new acquaintance Allen Storie (known locally as ‘Running Pal Al’) was forging ahead with his Alfie Shrubb road race idea. Our projects got off the launch-pad simultaneously and this two-way enthusiasm fed and nourished progress. Researching Shrubb’s exploits was a joy: I unearthed dusty treasure troves of material and a visit to his 89-year-old daughter near the banks of Lake Ontario was the icing on the cake.

The book was written over four months beside Sydney’s glorious Northern Beaches in Australia (that’s another story), where national hero and track legend Ron Clarke revealed himself to be a big Shrubb fan, and agreed to write the foreword to the book.

The finished product was well received, I’m glad to say, and even got honourable mentions at the William Hill Sports Book of the Year bash. Shrubb’s daughter Norah must have also been impressed, for after seeing the book she promptly handed over an ancient suitcase packed tight with personal papers and other memorabilia handed down by her famous dad. It was no easy matter carting this back to the UK, but more Shrubb treasures couldn’t possibly be turned down, could they? Enough for a second book maybe?

This weekend I expect to be running alongside at least two distant relatives of the great man in the 3rd Shrubb Memorial Cross-country in Slinfold, his picturesque birthplace just outside Horsham. This race comes hot on the heels of 500 Canadians assembling in Bowmanville at the 8k road-race in his name. Six-year-old Zoe (Shrubb’s great-great-great-granddaughter) started a junior race that morning, representing a fourth generation of Shrubbs to attend that event.

Shrubb himself was a modest chap by all accounts, but I suspect if he were looking down on events all these years after he quietly passed away, he would be proud and astonished at how his fame lives on.

* “The Little Wonder – The Untold Story of World Champion Runner Alf Shrubb” by Rob Hadgraft (Desert Island Books, ISNBN 1-874287-81-3) is available as hardback, softback or e-book for Kindle. More details at

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