Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Pre-race beer: Good for the girls, bad for the boys?

Drinks station: A runner makes use of a pub in the first London Marathon in 1981.

JUST when we thought we’d heard it all before, there was remarkable news this week about alcohol and its effect on your running.

Apparently a few beers the night before a big run has been scientifically demonstrated to be beneficial.  But only if you’re a woman!  

Yes, men are generally bigger and bulkier and can therefore absorb the hard stuff in bigger quantities and more efficiently than the fairer sex. We all understand that. But now we’re being told that women who down three or four pints will apparently run better the next morning! And men who do the same thing definitely won’t!

When this startling new research appeared in the press last week, your Clapped-Out Runner was quick to scoff. After all, these days many of us regard the good old Daily Mail as little more than a reactionary tabloid rag masquerading as a serious middle-class newspaper. However, on closer scrutiny, I discovered the findings actually emerged from an experiment staged by Runners’ World magazine - and the ‘guinea pigs’ were proper, experienced runners.

The results were described as ‘astonishing’ – and, for once, the Daily Mail’s hyperbole seemed justified.

The splendidly-named Dr.Gig Leadbetter, from Colorado Mesa University's Human Research Lab, led the research. She tested five male and five female runners with the aim of discovering the effects of moderate drinking on the next day's running performance. The subjects, all aged between 29 and 43 and all of whom regularly ran  around 35 miles a week, were described as moderate drinkers who knocked back a bit less than the official recommended weekly allowance.

The main experiment was split into two parts - The Beer Run and The Exhaustion Run.  

The Beer Run saw them go for a 45-minute evening run at 'reasonably high intensity'. Immediately afterwards out came the beers. They were each closely monitored and had to stop drinking once they reached a level of 70mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. For some of those tested, this apparently required necking four pints of the golden nectar.

The Exhaustion Run then followed the next morning. They were asked to run at about 80% effort for as long as they could tolerate.  

All of this happened twice, once with a genuinely strong beer being used, and once, unbeknown to the runners, with a placebo brew involved.

Amazingly, ALL the women registered considerably better times after a night on the beer, running on average 22 per cent longer than when they had the placebo. The men, however, lagged behind after drinking the hard stuff, becoming 21 per cent worse runners the morning after!

Dr.Leadbetter, a runner herself, admitted it would be wrong to jump to firm conclusions based on such a small sample, but said if similar results were to come from further studies then the  findings would be very important.

As many of us know only too well, there’s nothing better than an ice-cold beer after a long run, and over the years many good distance runners have openly admitted they indulge fairly heavily. Some coaches have even been known to encourage athletes to drink the night before a race, believing it helped with stamina and energy.

One top runner famously fond of his beer was the brilliant 1970s superstar Dave Bedford. The story goes that in March 1981 Bedford was enjoying himself in the Luton nightclub which he owned, when a drunken bet was struck, challenging him to run the very first London Marathon being staged the following morning.  Bedford phoned organiser Chris Brasher in the middle of the night and insisted on being given a place in the race.  The exhausted Brasher, in urgent need of his sleep, told Bedford he could do what the hell he liked and to get off the phone!  

Bedford was unfit, full of lager and pina coladas, but got himself to the rain-soaked start-line in Greenwich Park. An hour or two later the cameras captured him being violently sick during the race, but after finishing in a respectable time, Bedford reckoned his throwing-up had been due to the curry he’d eaten at 3a.m. rather than the alcohol!

Excessive drinking is clearly not a good thing, but there have been plenty of media messages about the health benefits of a daily glass of red wine. Portuguese runner Antonio Pinto, a vineyard owner himself, was said to have enjoyed more than just a glass a day, and he won the London Marathon three times!

On the other hand, there are runners for whom drinking even a tiny amount of alcohol on the eve of a race or a hard run would be a recipe for disaster. We should also beware the mindset that we can always ‘run it off’ and get away with more because we’re fitter than the average drinker. According to the American College of Sports Medicine: “Alcohol abuse is as prevalent in the athletic community as it is in the general population.”

Perhaps the runners who should take most care are those in Ipswich. I hear that some of the alcohol on sale in Suffolk’s county town is pretty toxic stuff: It was reported last week that you could buy a single bottle of cider for £3.99, which contains 22.5 units of alcohol – more than the recommended WEEKLY upper limit!

A reporter from my old workplace, the Evening Star, found three-litre bottles of Frosty Jack’s cider (7.5% proof) on sale in the town for under £4.  Let’s hope that particular establishment won’t be supplying the catering for any Ipswich JAFFA or Ipswich Harriers social events!

Most runners like a drink, but know what their body can cope with.  I’ll leave the last word to a Daily Mail reader who responded to the recent publicity with details of his own training regime:  “I am now 53,” he wrote. “I drink four or five pints a night. I get up at 4a.m., eat a banana and a handful of raisins, leave the house at 5a.m. and run 18k before doing a day’s work, five days a week. Not bad for an old fart?”

Not bad indeed.

* Champion runners of yesteryear Alf Shrubb and Walter George liked a beer or two, while ultra-running pioneer Arthur Newton was a big fan of cigars. Check out their amazing life stories, written by Rob Hadgraft and published by Desert Island Books, at www.robhadgraft.com

Monday, 19 November 2012

Big Bird is Watching You!

Rose and Dawn flee from the gaze of the Notley Park kestrel.  

“IF you’re going to take up cross-country running, it helps if you start with a small country.”

I was reminded of that old joke during a gruelling race on Sunday. And it struck me that Monaco would be a good one – for there’s a country that’s barely the size of New York's Central Park and at one point is only 382 yards wide!

Yes, cross-country is a sport that inspires gallows humour. And no wonder. My weekend race – a league fixture at Notley Country Park in Essex - may have been staged in near-perfect weather, but the organisers cruelly threw in hills that would have made Sir Ranulph Fiennes go pale.

The event was only five miles long, but no fewer than THREE times were we forced to trudge upwards to the famous ‘Kestrel of the South’ statue which is perched atop the highest bit of land for miles around. Yes, it’s a kestrel not a mockingbird, even though it did appear to be mocking the weary athletes that circled it from below.

The big bird recently celebrated its fourth birthday, having arrived to replace the one nicked in mysterious circumstances one night back in 2007.

Made of concrete, aluminium and steel, awkward in shape, and weighing three-quarters of a tonne, it is still a complete mystery how the thieves managed to carry the statue away from such a prominent spot without being seen. If you are going to steal something in these parts, you could hardly pick a more conspicuous spot in the entire county of Essex than here, high above the busy A120 trunk road.

The theft occurred not long after a cross-country race in the park below, and I have a theory that maybe a couple of runners organised the theft, coming back under cover of darkness to take revenge on a creature that had taunted them as they suffered below earlier. Whoever did the dirty deed must have been pretty fit to shift something that big, and must also have had a bloody big space waiting on their mantelpiece too.

The biggest mystery of all is exactly how the bird was manoeuvred out of the park.  A member of Braintree’s finest Old Bill said it had been pulled off its base and dragged along the tracks below. But they could offer no explanation over how or where it was taken from the point the tracks ended.  

Perhaps the thieves buried it?  Or maybe it suddenly morphed into a real bird and flew to freedom?

Whatever the explanation, an exact replica was installed (with stronger fixings) one year later, courtesy of Braintree council. They acted quickly because they knew how much we runners would miss it!

After trudging upwards up to greet the kestrel for a third time on Sunday, I suspect many of our field of 261 runners would have felt more like flicking a ‘v’ than  admiring the craftsmanship on show. If they could have summoned the energy that is.

Speaking of energy, I think I wasted some on Sunday, even before the race got underway. For there was a moment of panic in the corner of the changing rooms occupied by Tiptree Road Runners. It was caused by what is sometimes referred to as a ‘wardrobe malfunction’.

No, nothing as thrilling as Janet Jackson and a stray nipple. This was in fact a disintegrating shoelace on my left Reebok shoe.  They’re good-looking laces; big, bold, brash and bright orange, but they’re no bloody good when they break are they?  Especially five minutes before kick-off.

History recalls that Usain Bolt cracked the Olympic record with a flapping shoelace, and in the New York Marathon one year a Kenyan had the laces on his Nikes come untied three times. Twice he stopped to re-tie, but on the third occasion just kept running and left it to flap dangerously. He consequently missed a course record and huge cash bonus by 11 seconds.

Aussie marathon legend Rob de Castella recalls an important cross-country when a badly-tied shoe became stuck in the gloop and disappeared. His reaction was sheer anger:  “I really got aggressive with myself and then found myself starting to pass a lot of runners. As it turned out, I improved something like 20 places. But I never did get the shoe back."

Prior to Sunday’s, I can’t recall another footwear crisis of my own since a village fun-run in Constable Country way back 20 years ago. I remember stopping mid-race to re-tie and very nearly losing a hard-earned leading position as a result. As if being in the lead wasn’t pressure enough, having to decide whether or not to stop for a lace really tests your composure, that’s for sure.

Of course, these days I don’t get a sniff of a leading position any more – and with it not mattering quite so much, the pesky laces behave themselves perfectly. Apart from on Sunday.

Nowadays I tend to go for double and triple-knotting and have done ever since that fun-run crisis of 1992. The obvious down side of this is that removing shoes after a race becomes a project in itself. Especially if mud and cold fingers are involved.

It’s been calculated by an Australian mathematician that if a running shoe has two rows of six eyelets, there are 43,200 different ways to tie it up. Well that’s as maybe, but I reckon it’s high time somebody introduced cross-country shoes with Velcro fastenings . . . .

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books (published by Desert Island Books) at www.robhadgraft.com

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Hobble, The Boggle and an Elf or Two

At the Hylands Hobble all you get is pain and a pint!
Craig Dawson (4th) is planning to use his big red blister as
a rear tail-light when training at night.

THE running scene around these parts is definitely getting weirder.

This morning I received an e-mail which urged me to grab my off-road shoes and get myself down to a remote spot in Essex called Chigborough Farm next month.  

Apparently they want me there because of the following: “Naughty elves have hidden some of Santa’s sacks and only you can help to find the missing presents and return them to Santa in time for the big day.”

I’m not sure why, but it struck me fairly quickly that this event was probably not one of those deadly serious, stringently-regulated fixtures in the Run Britain Grand Prix series.

Your Clapped-Out Runner would be delighted to experience something new after 30 years in the sport, but I must admit I never expected that ‘naughty elves’ would be playing a part in my running career.

It turns out the hunt for the stolen goods is actually being cunningly disguised as a six-mile trail race open to all. Presumably government cuts have hit Essex Police hard and they’ve come up with this novel way of recruiting voluntary help as they go about their business in the Maldon area. As everyone knows, runners can be relied upon to trudge for hours across the countryside, whatever the weather, for long distances. Police officers don’t generally like doing that sort of thing, so they’ve called in us runners. A clever plan.

Apparently we’ll be given written instructions and sent out on Sunday morning, December 23, across an area that includes Chigborough Lakes, a 46-acre nature reserve north of the Blackwater Estuary.  A number of large but shallow lakes could pose tricky navigational issues here, especially if we get distracted by the otters or smew that sometimes visit (smew is a splendid word, don’t you agree?).

The organiser-in-chief of the whole affair, Dave Game of Mid-Essex Casuals, is naturally not revealing the exact route we will be taking. Like one or two other local race directors, he loves to spring surprises and the details are no doubt stashed away in the vaults of a bank in Witham, under armed guard.

So without the full facts available, we can only speculate where we might have to run in pursuit of those allegedly criminal elves. Maybe we’ll be guided across the causeway to nearby Northey Island?  Springfield Striders' race organiser Kevin Wright has recently condemned us to many and varied ‘water hazards’ - but those will seem like child’s play if we’re expected to reach Northey Island when the tide is in.

History tells us that 1,000 years ago a band of Viking raiders seized control of Northey. When the local hero Earl Byrhtnoth came along and told them to bugger off, even he was delayed by the tide. He was soon wiped out by a poisoned spear, so maybe he shouldn’t have hung around like he did.  His fate should serve as a lesson to those of us who will be running in this area next month. Just remember to keep moving.

The area has a fascinating history, and the arrival of colourfully-clad runners next month is merely the latest of many unexpected developments in this quiet part of secret Essex.  For example, a famous bloke by the name of Norman Angell turned up in the 1920s, flashed his cash and was able to buy Northey Island, lock, stock and barrel!

He soon designed and built a towered house and its surrounding turreted walls that survives to this day. You can even stay there on holiday if you can afford to. Politician and author Norman doesn’t seem to have encountered too many planning problems with the council back in the 1920s, but when you are on the verge of a knighthood and the Nobel Peace prize, you can probably take a few liberties if you need to. Norman was only five foot tall, incidentally, so maybe this business about elves is something to do with him?

I suspect the trail race will be well attended by members of my club Tiptree Road Runners, particularly as it’s been chosen to launch our brand new internal trail competition. This is being masterminded by our newly-crowned ‘Club Person of the Year’ Wendy Smalley.

In highly optimistic fashion, Wendy is demanding that we carefully tailor our personal fixture lists so that we compete in at least 10 out of a series of 12 carefully-selected events over the next nine months or so. If we bow to her pressure and comply, she has promised to implement a cunning system of point-scoring that will eventually see one of us emerge as a trophy winner.

It is rumoured that even getting spectacularly lost will not harm our chances, for there could be extra points for episodes of high comedy that may accidentally occur. Wendy has yet to confirm whether the champion will be dubbed Trailer of the Year, Champion Navigator of the Year, or maybe even Elf Chaser of the Year?

Glancing through the weekend’s results and at the 2013 fixtures, I must come back to my assertion that running is getting a bit weird these days.  

Yesterday (Sunday), the good citizens of the Birthplace of Radio were scared to death by dozens of passing mudded, bloodied figures taking part in the ‘Hylands Hobble’. The race was so tough that even the winner took an hour-and-a-half, while the tailenders are probably still out on the edge of Chelmsford right now.

Despite these scenes of carnage,  I understand that a few of my clubmates are now planning to have a crack at what is known as the ‘Braintree Boggle’ in February – another eccentric off-road race, but this one more than twice as long as the ‘Hylands Hobble’!  Good grief.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s running books (published by Desert Island Books) at www.robhadgraft.com

This, folks, is a smew. But, of course, you knew that already.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Squelching on a Sunday

It can get a bit windy in Harwich . . . .  

THE havoc wreaked 3,500 miles away by Hurricane Sandy led to Sunday’s New York Marathon being cancelled - but here in East Anglia a spot of nasty weather failed to stop our Sunday morning fun-on-the-run.

Emerging from my front door at some unearthly hour, I observed violent skies that looked unrelenting – and barely 200 metres from my doorstep our local park was flooded again. With the fate of the NYC Marathon having been all over the TV news, I began to wonder if the ‘health and safety’ option might kick in over here.  But thankfully the Harwich Runners club is made of stern stuff.  It takes more than driving rain, bitterly cold winds and ankle-deep mud to prevent their 53-12 N.Essex Cross-Country League fixture taking place.   

Fast forward two hours and - huddled together on bleak, exposed farmland just outside the port of Harwich - more than 200 hardy locals pulled on studded cross-country shoes, cast their eyes upwards and laughed defiantly in the face of the weather gods.

However inhospitable the venue, the course and the weather, the hardest part of cross-country can sometimes be getting yourself to the start-line, not the actual completion of the race. With this in mind, I tip my (metaphorical) hat to those who were making their cross-country debuts at Harwich on Sunday.  If you come back for more after that lot, you’ve definitely passed initiation with flying colours and can consider yourself promoted to the ranks of ‘real runners’!

It was the first time the weather turned against organisers of this annual event, so credit to them for not being cowed into submission. They’d already warned us beforehand that waterlogged fields would severely restrict parking and create a mighty long walk to the start, and that changing and pre-race preparation would be in a draughty barn definitely not designed to accommodate 200-plus jostling runners.  It was a miracle anyone turned up at all really!

Your Clapped-Out Runner arrived relatively early to avoid the booby-prize parking spots, and was rewarded with a farmyard position amid rusty, redundant machinery which lurked menacingly as far as the eye could see. The rain slanted down incessantly as, on the far grey horizon, little knots of hunched runners and their sportsbags trekked across exposed fields towards the start. Welcome to the sharp end of GB athletics. No hospitality marquee and plush VIP start-area here.

Friend and foe alike, representing the 13 competing clubs, gathered inside the barn HQ, tripping over each other as they fretted and experimented with clothing combinations aimed at defying the cold and rain. Gloves, hats, base-layer tops, long socks, neckerchiefs and more flew through the air as people kept busy, perhaps to postpone that awful moment when they finally had to return outdoors.

The run itself was set off with a minimum of ceremony, but a maximum of splashing and squealing noises. But the eight squelchy kilometres proved the ‘easy’ bit. When it comes to bad conditions it’s the waiting around for the start, and the recovery period afterwards that kills you, not the activity itself.

Harwich organiser-in-chief Peter G admitted he’d always feared that one day it would rain on their parade and highlight the exposed location and shortage of shelter.  But a creditable tally of 146 men, 73 women, plus juniors, toughed it out, and equally impressive were the marshals who manned their posts with great dedication.

The inquests after a run like this can be amusing. People mull over in meticulous detail how they’d worn too much, too little or the wrong type of clothing; had taken the wrong route past the giant puddles; had eaten the wrong things pre-race; had been tripped, cut-up and elbowed. This moaning and groaning is evidently all a front, for deep down many are glowing with self-congratulation at not only surviving the ordeal, but doing better than expected.

My Tiptree teammate Craig had a blinder - 31st on his cross-country debut - as did Tina, whose 32nd place in the women’s race was offset by the loss of feeling she reported in all ten of her toes. Wendy told us her controversial decision to run in waterproof jacket and woolly hat was vindicated by being the only finisher not to suffer exposure. Chairman Malcolm, not fully fit, watched the carnage from the sidelines, but instead of being pleased to avoid the misery, he announced a plan to return next week at Colchester’s Hilly Fields (another Shangri-La where the sun always shines and it’s never cold or wet!). 

The race may have looked like hell-on-legs, but running’s a strange game and most survivors seemed somewhat exhilarated by the end. Recovering in the melee next to my lot were Ipswich JAFFA runners, including Kelly, who glugged down “The best cup of tea I've ever, ever had in my whole life”.  Nearby, the experienced Gavin confirmed it had been one of the muddiest and wettest races he’d ever done. The appropriately-named Marina was quick to agree.

And there was Andrew, who reckoned the reason he’d forgotten to bring a towel was because he hadn’t run cross-country since 1973. Marcus was so traumatised by it all he managed to lose his car keys, while clubmate Esther left her shoes behind. Debutant Hannah announced she was so cold her hands had stopped working, while JAFFA old-stager Clive reckoned in his day cross-country had always been like this (presumably meaning the conditions rather than malfunctioning hands).

Typifying the spirit of the day was Colchester Harriers’ Debbie Cattermole, who slipped and took a spectacularly heavy fall but bravely carried on, eventually finishing just outside her team’s scorers in seventh spot.   

Poor old organiser Peter G perhaps had it worst of all, though. His scoresheets got so soaked it delayed publication of the full results. But that would prove the least of his troubles.  As people trekked homewards, he told his fellow-helpers to depart and get dry as he would do the last bit of clearing up himself. Unfortunately this meant nobody was around to assist when his car got firmly stuck in the mud. Having to then call colleagues back from their firesides was, he said sarcastically, “The perfect end to the perfect day!”

At precisely 2054 hours on Sunday (nearly ten hours after the race finished) Peter solemnly declared he was about to form a close alliance with a bottle of wine. He’s not been seen since.

Since Sunday I’ve heard rumours about a handful of local runners who thought they could avoid the misery at Harwich by taking the ‘safer’ option of a road race elsewhere in the region. I have to report that their cunning plan misfired. Two of them selected the Billericay 10k, but while sheltering in their car from the driving rain, managed to miss the start completely. Once they finally gave chase to the rest of the pack, they were confronted by oceans of ankle-deep floodwater.  

Meanwhile Ipswichian runner Mon headed up to the Bungay 20k. For his troubles he developed a strange condition he described thus: “My arms began flinching of their own accord”. As far as running ailments go, that's definitely a new one on me . . . .  

* Check out Rob Hadgraft's 16 sports history books (five on running), published by Desert Island Books, at:  www.robhadgraft.com