Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Things beginning to get a bit hairy around here . . .

Andy Girling (384) used to race in Ipswich Chantry's Park with a beard that even scared little white dogs.....

THERE are several reasons you don’t see many bearded runners these days. Mostly, I suspect, due to issues such as sweat, aerodynamics and fashion.

But, thanks to a rash pledge I made a few weeks ago, I am now sampling life as a bearded runner for the first time in 30 years of pounding pavements, parks and pathways.

It all started on January 5 when a bearded Welshman called Alex Lawless volleyed a fine goal to knock Wolves out of the FA Cup. Hirsute Alex’s fabulous and unexpected winner sparked great celebrations among long-suffering Luton Town supporters like myself.

Some of us, unused to such dizzy excitement, marked the occasion with massive intakes of alcohol. Others did even stranger things. In my case, I inexplicably promised to grow an Alex Lawless beard in tribute to the goalscorer, which I wouldn’t shave off until the day Luton went out of the FA Cup.

As Luton currently languish in football’s fifth tier (it’s a long and bitter story), their survival in the FA Cup was expected by all to be short and sweet.  How could I have known we would pull off the greatest FA Cup giant-killing in 27 years last weekend and progress to the last 16 of the competition?  A couple of days of non-shaving has  now turned into many weeks of sprouting facial hair.

And this will have to continue into the second half of February at the very least. Some reckon Luton’s forthcoming fifth round tie with Millwall is eminently winnable, so it might go well into March and beyond!

This begs the question: Will the beard interfere with my running?

The answer to almost everything can be found on the internet, so it was there I headed. I stumbled upon Aaron of Coolrunning Australia who tells me: “I've noticed lately that growing a gnarly beard has improved my running tenfold. After a little plateau last year I needed to change things up a bit - I could have added mileage or done more intervals or whatever, but instead took note of the awesome phenomenon gripping the running world ... a sweet beard. Runners back in the 1970s were putting out faster marathon times and why was that? Genetics? Harder training? No people, it was beards!”

This was encouraging news, so I then consulted Runners World. One of their correspondents observed: “I'm faster now than before I grew my beard. Seriously, though, it is fast. It always seems to finish before I do.”

Another punter piped up: “A beard is like Samson's hair. And it helps that it sticks out that extra couple of inches. Almost like a carrot in front of a horse. It's taunting me to keep up. Apparently the older ladies like it too - so that's not such a bad thing.”  

On Facebook there’s a community page called The Running Beard Movement. Around 500 people have hit their ‘Like’ buttons to support this. The page claims it was inspired by Forrest Gump, and others like him, to create a place for all bearded runners to celebrate and promote the greatness of all forms of running beards!

Some runners seem to get quite evangelical about the power of the beard. According to the See Anis Run website, beards are a source of true power for runners. Beards look “bad ass” and, of course, shaving merely takes up valuable time that could be better used for training, sleeping or drinking beer.

Talking of beer, the website Draftmag reckons there are many traits shared by keen runners and beer geeks – i.e. happiness, creativity and beards. They point out that a beardie called Tim Olson recently crushed a long-standing 100-mile record in the USA by finishing in less than 15 hours. His long, flowing locks and Jesus-like beard didn’t hamper him at all.

Looking back over the years, there have been a number of notable beardie runners. Here’s my Top Ten . . . .

The turbanned-tornado from Ilford is a 101-year-old Sikh and the world's oldest marathon runner. He’s completed eight marathons with a PB of 5:40. He plans to quit after one final run at next month's Hong Kong Marathon, a few weeks before turning 102.  

Not only did he start a successful shrimping company and become a college football star, Gump also ran across the nation solving people’s problems along the way. His epic beard was a guiding light for many Americans. 

When the Flying Finn showed up bearded, rivals knew he was in great shape because it meant he’d not had time to shave. Won double Olympic gold in 1972 and successfully defended both in 1976. He later admitted to blood doping (not illegal in the 1970s).

Born in Romania, he was so small he was almost hidden by his bold black beard. He ran 69 marathons and became famous for creating the New York Marathon which sparked the subsequent running boom.

Essex marathon and 10-mile champion in 1979 (a sub-50 minute ten-miler), later joining my club Tiptree Road Runners where he is still record holder at five distances. All were achieved with voluminous beard around 20 years ago, before a car accident interrupted his career.

Tall man of Kent whose beard swept him to many a victory in Suffolk during his days based in Ipswich. Won the Florence Marathon, clocked 2:15 at London and was picked for GB in the 1980s.

Did England proud by becoming the only bearded winner of the London Marathon (2.09.43 in 1983), and now strokes that chin on many a foreign shore during his work as a sports travel agent.

His fulsome beard stormed to a 2:09 victory in the 1983 Boston Marathon. He’s now 57 and still runs daily, but has shaved his head and reduced the beard to a goatee.

Danny and his beard represented a number of Essex clubs, latterly Tiptree, as they chalked up highly respectable PBs. Competed across the globe and gave back to the sport in various admin capacities.

Bushy-bearded Ipswich JAFFA runner back in the 1980s who was stockier version of Fred Lebow, plus glasses. Lived Stowmarket way and was a sculptor, I seem to recall.

Have I missed any others worthy of a mention?

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus 11 others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:   www.robhadgraft.com

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Good old Benfleet bucks the trend!

"Keep going, only another 14 miles to go!"
LAST Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn, a runner I know crept out of bed to set off early for the Benfleet 15-mile race, a popular but tough annual off-road event in Essex beside the Thames estuary. There was snow and ice everywhere, but my friend had been assured this race always goes ahead no matter what. And besides, he’d paid his £15 entry fee and didn’t want to lose face by failing to show just because of dodgy weather.

Feeling anxious, but still up for the challenge, he carefully gathered up his cold-weather running gear, gulped down porridge and coffee, and crept out the front door. Within seconds he’d slipped over and bruised a knee, cracked an elbow and landed unceremoniously on his backside. Looking up, he noticed the car windscreen was frozen solid, the road past his house was a sheet of ice, and the sky was looking menacing.

All his resolve of earlier was gone in an instant. He picked himself up and, with tail between legs, crept back indoors. A picture of misery, he quietly undressed, returned to the bedroom and slipped back under the duvet next to his long-suffering wife.

"It’s shocking out there, honey," he whispered.

"Yes," she replied, "but my idiot husband still went running!"

OK, it’s an old and well-worn joke, but given current prevailing weather conditions, something similar must have happened somewhere on Planet Running last weekend?

Actually, the fact the Benfleet 15 bravely went ahead at all on Sunday was great news for runners in general, particularly the clapped-out old traditionalists like me. However, just 24 hours later, there was bad news when the Southern Cross-Country Championships on Parliament Hill Fields was called off due to the snow – SIX DAYS in advance!

Shocking that such a major historic event – at the spiritual home of cross-country running - should be cancelled at all, let alone almost a week ahead. Was this ‘health and safety’ gone mad? It was reported that the decision came from the people who manage the site (the City of London Corporation) rather than the race officials – and the reasons given were two-fold: The course is “badly rutted” and there are  “snow-related travel problems” involved.

When I started running (many aeons ago), the weather gods could throw whatever they liked at us, but cross-country races would always go ahead regardless.

Roads could become impassable, train services non-existent, all other sporting pursuits brought to their knees. But a British cross-country race always went ahead – there was nothing bad enough to cause a cancellation. NOTHING. Not even the arrival of the end of the world. And even if the world had ended, somebody would have pulled a few strings to get the race staged in a parallel universe.

It was such a badge of honour to defy the weather that an Athletics Weekly reporter, a Scotsman called Colin Shields, even published a book about the sport in 1990 which he called ‘Runs Will take Place Whatever the Weather.’

It was acknowledged back then that the whole point of this sport was for participants to tackle with gusto everything Mother Nature could throw. Difficult terrain, difficult weather and, of course, difficult opponents, were all part of the game. The harder the better. In most runners’ minds, there was no such thing as a cross-country course that was TOO difficult to run (not even the one at Stebbing!) When old Walter Rye introduced the sport to the general populus back in 1868 he never intended it would be a leisurely pursuit.

I suspect things started to change in the 1980s when TV coverage of major races came along. It wouldn’t have made good telly for the runners to head off into the distance, disappearing into woods and valleys away from the cameras. So courses had to be created that went round and round in red-and-white taped circles, with little artificial slopes built in to break the monotony, the field never venturing far from where they started.

Zola Budd came over from South Africa and ran some of our courses barefoot, but that wasn’t enough to deter the ‘health and safety’ brigade, who before long were quoting all manner of peripheral reasons for curbing or cancelling cross-country events.

Although Benfleet was a multi-terrain race and not, strictly speaking, a ‘cross-country’ event, it was good to see it buck this trend and stick two fingers up to the weather. But the Southern XC debacle comes hot on the heels of cancellation of the South of England Indoor (!) Championships at Lee Valley, proving that even with a roof over their heads, other factors are now paramount when staging athletics.

Elsewhere last week, officials did get the McCain Cardiff Cross Challenge moving, even though a high number of county schools championships and road races never happened. Even the ‘Brass Monkey Half Marathon’ near York was called off, which by its very title is surely supposed to go ahead regardless of the cold?

And here’s an amusing footnote to all this: Over in Minnesota, USA, a race was cancelled last week for the second year in a row, because there was NOT ENOUGH snow!  Mind you, dogs and sleds were apparently involved, so perhaps their caution can be forgiven . . .  

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus 11 others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:   www.robhadgraft.com

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

No skullduggery in this neck of the woods!

Southend .v. Colchester last weekend - no quarter given!

AS I write this, many miles away Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey are cosying up on a sofa in the disgraced cyclist’s expensive home in Austin, Texas. TV cameras are recording their conversation for broadcast later this week. The world outside is holding its breath, excited to find out what was said in the 150-minute interview.

Did Lance apologise for being a cheat, a liar, and a bounder of the first order?  Has he finally confessed to systematic doping over a period of years? Did he tearfully beg forgiveness? Did he get a sympathetic hug from his friend Oprah or did she attack him in fierce Paxman-style?

It is widely believed that Armstrong is coming clean after years of denial because at the age of 41 he now wants to pave the way for a return to competitive sport. Not in cycling, but in marathons and triathlons.  

Not quite sure how that will work out, but he’ll need to have put up one hell of a performance on Oprah’s show if he wants the distance-running world to welcome him with open arms.  We runners have long memories.

Of course, here in the humble world of the Clapped-Out Runner, cheating is a rare and abhorrent thing. As far as I know, anyway.

Many people would say the stuff I take before a race is more likely to hinder than help. For example, the only stimulants that passed my lips last weekend were a pre-race cocktail of instant coffee, Trebor Extra Strong mints and a banana. All three were ingested (separately) in the 60 minutes before Sunday morning’s 53-12 Cross-Country League meeting on Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich. I quite fancied a Jaffa Cake or a Fig Roll too, but sadly those delicacies were not available due to a shopping malfunction earlier in the week.  

A week or so earlier I was reduced to necking a couple of sachets of Lemsip and the odd Strepsil, but I’m fairly sure those are not on the IAAF’s banned list, so I think I was running clean at Martlesham. There was a peculiar smell pervading the race, but this was probably something to do with the heaps of manure near the finish-line rather than any illegal substances being bandied about.

Down here at sport’s grass roots level the only cheating that goes on is usually accidental. Like runners who cut corners very slightly by going the wrong side of the red-and-white plastic tape. Or the bloke who barged clumsily into a runner from the home club, Ipswich JAFFA, and spiked him in very painful fashion.

Now, I ask you, is that any way to treat your hosts? Apparently the spiking incident tore the guy’s shoe open and caused a foot injury bad enough to put him out of the race.  We assume it was all accidental, but who knows? Perhaps the perpetrator was unhappy with the 5.37-mile course that JAFFA had devised and was expressing his discontent with violence? Or perhaps the fumes from the manure heaps were affecting his balance and powers of navigation?

Whatever the reasons, the victim was certainly very angry and felt there was no need for what had happened, reacting with some very fruity language.  I know exactly how he felt:  I recall a 10k road race in Peterborough a while back during which a small but well-built fellow came barrelling past me with such force and disregard for personal space that I nearly ended up in the River Nene. 

This was not one of those commonplace brushes from a stray elbow, but more like being run over from behind by a small tank. It led to one of those confrontations which in football they call ‘handbags at 10 paces’.  Most collisions in running are probably caused by somebody’s clumsiness or carelessness, but to the victim it doesn’t always feel like that. An apology is usually enough to smooth things over, but strangely that is not always forthcoming in the heat of the action. Road-racing is hard enough as it is, without it becoming a contact sport!

But we runners are nothing if not resilient and positive people, and the bruised Ipswich man from Sunday was soon treating his misfortune as a blessing in disguise. Less than 24 hours later he was announcing how he was looking forward with glee to going shopping for a lovely brand new pair of shoes to replace the damaged ones! Any excuse.

My own club also emerged from Sunday’s race wreathed in smiles. For Tiptree Road Runners, small but perfectly formed, have very nearly clinched top place in Pool ‘B’ of the 53-12 Cross-Country League. OK, it’s not a development that will sweep Lance Armstrong off the sports pages, but it’s big news in jam-making country.

We can now begin to look forward to next season and the chance to compete with the big boys and girls in Pool ‘A’!  It will be rather like Swansea City’s arrival in football’s Premier League last year: Everyone will expect instant relegation for such small fry, but Tiptree will attempt to emulate Swansea by using our limited budget sensibly and producing some attractive displays out on the grass. The only problem might be finding a new signing like Michu to win us the necessary points to stay up.

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus 11 others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:   www.robhadgraft.com


Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Night time is the right time!

NOS GALAN: A great atmosphere - despite the lardy cakes!

IT would be nice to start the new year full of beans, setting some new running targets for the 12 months ahead.

But large swathes of recent weeks have been rendered zero-mileage zones. My progress into 2013 has been littered with support bandages, tubes of Ibuprofen gel, packs of Strepsils and sachets of Lemsip.   

It was exactly the same a year ago – and the one before that. A pattern seems to be developing. Perhaps it’s nature’s way of telling me to take a short break from running. Maybe it’s a hiaitus that wouldn’t happen at all if the authorities could change the calendar a little and stage the festive period once every four years in future. This works well for the Olympics and the World Cup, after all.  

For me, the running year nowadays runs out of steam in mid-December and only splutters back into life around mid-February. This means my annual ambition to run a full set of league cross-country fixtures is left in tatters every winter.  

The only saving grace in 2012-13 has been the arrival of the Parkrun project on my manor. These low-key weekly 5k races in town parks are ideal when coming back from injury, illness, or periods of low mileage. 
Until recently there were none within an hour of your Clapped-Out Runner’s residence, but now I suddenly have three to choose from every Saturday. You spoil us, Mr Parkrun Ambassador!

New Year arrived in the UK with folk repeating that grumpy mantra about it being an overrated occasion. As far as I can tell, most people over 30 stayed home and watched Jools’ Hootenanny on TV, accompanied by friends or family or a fridge full of booze. Maybe all three. Nobody holds parties any more, and town centre pubs are only accessible by ticket or entry fee!

Seems to me there’s an urgent need for more New Year’s Eve midnight races. There’s a famous one in South Wales (Nos Galan) and they are popular in Brazil, Portugal (Sao Silvestre races), Spain and Italy.  The idea involves a road race commencing a few minutes before midnight, so you run into the new year amid a sparkling, floodlit atmosphere, watching crowds cheering on friends and family while throwing drink and hot food down their necks in the cool night air. You can’t beat it.

In my 30 years as a runner, I’ve spent four New Year’s Eves in sweat-soaked running kit – Nos Galan races in 1988 and 1994, Lisbon in Portugal in 1990 and the Peak District in 2000. Four very different races, all rather surreal, but a great way to see in the new year.

The Nos Galan event in Mountain Ash, South Wales, was founded in 1958 and soon attracted big fields and famous names, and at its height was covered live on BBC TV. But in 1973 the police got shirty about traffic congestion and it was cancelled. In 1984 it returned and is still going today, although the wretched health and safety aspect means it’s no longer staged at midnight which was the whole point in the first place.

It all starts with a wreath being laid on the grave of local hero Guto Nyth Bran. A flaming torch is then carried into Mountain Ash by a mystery celebrity runner, who reveals themselves to the awaiting crowds before the main race in the hilly narrow streets of the town. Past mystery runners have included Olympians Mary Rand, Dave Bedford, Lynn Davies and – most recently – Dai Greene.

By all accounts old Guto Nyth Bran deserves the homage this event pays him. Apparently he was such a fast runner he could catch a bird in flight, and once ran to Pontypridd and back before the kettle boiled. When he was 37, he won a 12-mile challenge against ‘The Prince of Bedwas’ but all the congratulatory slaps on the back proved too much for him and he died in the arms of girlfriend Sian.  There’s no film footage to prove any of this I’m afraid, because it happened in the year 1737.

I recall my first Nos Galan appearance in 1988 rather well because it was probably my best race performance ever. Despite steep hills I managed 19:35 for 6k  (5:16 per mile) although still only came 110th of 600, such was the quality of this and other fields back then. Four of us travelled to Wales for the event and this week I contacted the other three for their 24-year-old memories:

According to Mark: “I remember the extraordinary race well, with all its torchlight and tradition and celebrity, and enjoyed the Guinness afterwards and the race T shirt. I also recall an aggressive goat called Henry Cooper where we stayed, as well as some fairly unpalatable lardy cakes eaten pre-race in the grounds of Cardiff Castle."

Julie confirms the “nasty lardy cakes” but was convinced ‘Henry Cooper’ was a sheep and not a goat. Bev, who had to go shopping for new sheets, such was the inferior standard of our accommodation, recalls: “We stayed in the world's worst B&B. Really uncomfortable beds and a grumpy landlady. And as I’m definitely a lark and not an owl, I was so tired by midnight I could hardly be bothered to jog let alone race!”

There were certainly more creature comforts on offer at the Sao Silvestre midnight race which followed in 1990 in Portugal. For starters there was free hotel accommodation because the manager apparently mistook me for someone famous (perfectly understandable!). No flaming torch or lardy cakes, but warmer temperatures, Champagne on the beach, and fireworks. “A pretty fab way to see in the new year,” recalls Bev.  

In cautious, safety-conscious UK it’s hard to imagine the authorities encouraging midnight races in our boozed-up 21st century city centres. Mind you, back in 1980 nobody could have predicted London allowing a major marathon on its streets every year. 
Come back Chris Brasher, we need you . . . .

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:   www.robhadgraft.com

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Come Hell or High Water!

It may look picturesque, but this Norfolk road caused my achilles strain!

ODD things can happen on a New Year’s eve. Like your Clapped-Out Runner going for a run three times in one day, for example!

There is a logical explanation for this unprecedented and frankly rather odd behaviour, however. I may be getting old (57 of your human years at the last count), but I haven’t mislaid all my marbles yet.

What happened is that New Year’s Eve arrived and I found myself just 4.5 miles short of completing 600 miles during the calendar year of 2012. One of my main targets for the year had been to ensure I didn’t fall below 600, which is after all only a modest total for a committed club runner. There was no way I was going to write 595.5 miles in the Old Grey Training Log.  Those final few miles simply HAD to be done, come hell or high water (and, yes, there was plenty of high water to contend with).

The main problem, however, was a pesky achilles tendon strain picked up a week earlier, which meant completing those 4.5 miles would be a tad tricky. The only solution was to break the distance into three separate sessions, and then shuffle along the road with a tiny economical stride to protect the injury. Sad and strange, but it had to be done!

This injury had caused a rather forlorn ‘DNF’ at the Witham Boxing Day 5-miler a few days earlier.  If any of you saw a man in shorts limping along Spa Road on December 26, cursing and wincing, it was not a homeless hobo looking for his super-strength lager, it was just me and my inflamed heel.

I was barely a mile from the end when the pain began to get serious, but there was no point in carrying on. That dastardly upward hill near the finish-line meant I would only be risking further damage. As if the prospect of a rare ‘DNF’ wasn’t bad enough, falling just short of 600 miles for the year was looking likely too. I was injured and marooned in the 590s - rather like a batsman chasing a century in cricket while stuck in the nervous 90s.  

By the way, for the uninitiated, the acronym ‘DNF’ doesn’t stand for Deliberately Not Functioning, Down ‘n Floundering, nor even Danbury National Front. It actually means Did Not Finish.

The little Essex town of Witham may not be the best place to suffer a ‘DNF’ and consequently become stranded on foot. For Witham reportedly has more potholes per street than any other place in Essex and there is also a famous ‘smell’ that lingers over part of the town. In addition, some of the locals are odd characters given to wild bursts of fantasy and exaggeration: For example, one bloke was photographed driving through town last week with a personalised car registration number which claimed:  12” NOB! (For further information contact Laura via Facebook).

Nevertheless, the local running club (Witham RC), rise above all this nonsense and are a lively and friendly lot, despite those yellow shirts of theirs.  They are very PC, and a have an unusually high proportion of female members. One of these is Brigid, who powers round cross-country races employing an impressive Sharapova-style shriek. The best thing is to let her pass. Another unique aspect of this club is the infamous Witham Greasy Breakfast, which some of their number wolf down at Morrison’s cafĂ© every Sunday.

Doesn’t sound very runner-nutritious to me, but if it might help clear up an achilles tendon strain, I’d be willing to give it a go.  Other suggested remedies, less fattening perhaps, would be welcome.

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:   www.robhadgraft.com