Tuesday, 26 March 2013

‘A cold wind smote our thinly-clad bodies like a whip...’

Only mad dogs and English runners go out in the midday snow . . .
WHEN the weather is this damned chilly, nobody likes too much hanging around at the start of a race. Hence the astonishing ‘false start’ that was witnessed at last weekend’s snowbound World Cross-Country champs in Poland!

You expect transgressions in track sprints, when every fraction of a second is vital, but to get a false start in a 12-kilometre cross-country was a real collector’s item.

BBC commentator Steve Cram had a good old chortle about it, and pondered whether it had ever happened before. His co-commentator Paula Radcliffe had the answer - yes it has. She recalled a race where the runners had covered at least 200 yards of grass before officials managed to call a halt.

Calling them back is the hard part. Poland must have some brave athletics officials.  You’d never attempt a recall at the English championships. The huge annual assembly at what we Anglos fondly call ‘The National’ traditionally fans out wide at the start, and the stampede always resembles a Zulu uprising. It would need more than a handful of hi-vis vests to send that lot back where they came from.

Seeing what happened on Sunday’s start-line at Bydgoszcz (I can spell it, but I can’t pronounce it) got me thinking about how cross-country always throws up funny stories and good anecdotes in a way that road or track-racing rarely does.  Here’s a few that spring to mind . . . .
                *A Tiptree Road Runners clubmate of mine turned up one Sunday keen and hungry at one of the longest and muddiest of Essex events. All was fine until he discovered he’d forgotten his running footwear. Unwilling to let the side down over such a ‘minor’ issue, our hero pinned on his number, proceeded to the start-line and ran the whole thing in ordinary leather day shoes!

                *Early in his running career, GB international Peter Elliott ended one cross-country race in the back seat of a police car. He’d been misdirected by a well-meaning marshal and was picked up by traffic cops who spotted him running determinedly along the hard shoulder of the M1!

                *In his younger days, the great Dave Bedford was so confident and talented (some would say arrogant!) he was able to win both junior and senior titles at the Southern XC Champs on the same day. But instead of widespread acclaim for this feat, all he got was an angry letter from a fellow runner’s mum, haranguing him for being a bloody show-off!

                *The very first organised cross-country championship – staged here in Essex of course – took place in Epping Forest in 1876, but ended in fiasco.  No tape or yellow arrows in those days, just a bloke scattering a paper trail. On this occasion he managed to run out of paper long before the end. Fearful of the consequences, he promptly scarpered from the scene with his empty bag. The entire pack of following runners were left stranded and freezing in the forest for hours with no idea where to go. Officials eventually located them and administered brandy (some was rubbed on muscles, some was poured down throats). 
                *After forgetting to bring his shorts, Harrow runner Chris Finill once had to race in exceptionally muddy conditions in totally unsuitable tracksuit bottoms. It led to a poor performance and Chris lost his temper at the finish-line when a youngster shouted “Go grandad” in his direction. He was just about to give the boy a clip round the ear when an elderly runner slipped ahead of him and gave the boy a hug. It was the boy’s grandfather.

                *Frank Tickner (Wells City) may have won the re-scheduled Southern champs on Parliament Hill Fields last month, but he didn’t get much acclaim. Spectators seemed far more interested in the small stray dog which joined the runners for a complete lap of this historic and incredibly muddy course, returning bedraggled but triumphant to loud cheers, only to be collared and whisked away by the Old Bill.  Onlookers wondered if the pacy pooch was a member of the Barking club - or maybe Thames Hare and Hounds?

                *When researching my book about old-time running hero Alf Shrubb, I came across many a cross-country calamity back in Edwardian days. Didn’t seem to do little Alf any harm though. In fact he got quite nostalgic and poetic when recalling those days: “A cold wind smote our thinly-clad bodies like a whip,” he said of one race. Not the sort of thing you hear from the mouth of your average club runner these days, I'd suggest? Alf remembered one 7-mile cross-country from South Croydon on a wintry weekend when thick fog descended mid-race, leading to some runners being lost out on the heath until 9pm, many hours after darkness fell!   

                * Hannah McQuarrie, a runner with the wonderfully-named Mornington Chasers club, is a relative newcomer to our sport. Her descriptions of the obscure charms of cross-country are among the best I’ve heard in ages. She reckons it’s a sport that gives us all the chance to give adulthood the middle finger and run through muddy fields with childish glee! She also suggests road-running is the Ken doll of the running world (smooth, flawlessly turned out, well organised, commercial), while cross-country is the drunken uncle (rough round the edges, scruffy, takes you by surprise, and prone to stumbles and falls).

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

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Not just the March hares who are completely mad!

Look out Doris - orange coming your way!

A FEW years ago, the month of March always marked the beginning of the road-racing season. Nowadays - in my neck of the woods anyway - it feels more like the start of the trail-running season.

Never mind chocolate eggs this Easter, trail-lovers will be feasting on a quartet of trail runs being staged between Good Friday and Easter Monday in mid-Essex. Chigborough, Little Baddow, Purleigh and A.N.Other are the sleepy villages selected for invasion by scores of runners over the holiday period. Most of us will choose to have a crack at one or maybe two events – but a fair number of gluttons will run all four!

Is it slightly odd to spend four consecutive days meandering the Essex countryside on foot with a sheet of instructions in your hand? Quite possibly, but compared to some Easter traditions of yesteryear, that’s not weird behaviour at all.

Indeed, if you thought runners were eccentric, consider the old Good Friday tradition of ‘Orange Rolling’ for example.

I was born and spent much of my childhood in the splendid and vastly-underrated county of Bedfordshire. During this time thousands of locals devoted every Good Friday to the strange and unique Orange Rolling ritual high up on Dunstable Downs. 

Over the years folks turned up in droves in every type of weather to fling oranges about, or simply watch others do it. In its early days everyone called it ‘Orange Pelting’ and participants could choose to be a pelter or be pelted. No Health and Safety worries back then.

This was the one day of the year in the Luton area when rowdy behaviour was positively encouraged. The Old Bill knew better than to try and interfere. But Lutonians are very gentlemanly types, and women and children were never deliberately targeted by the pelters (in theory). At first it had been called ‘Orange Pelting’ but when they changed it to ‘Orange Trundling’ and later to  ‘Orange Rolling’ it was clear someone was trying to calm things down a little.

As well as oranges flying up and down the steep hills, the day’s entertainment included brass bands, a Punch & Judy Show and stalls selling Bedfordshire Clangers (a sort of dumpling with savoury stuff at one end and sweet at the other). But it was the fruit flinging that always grabbed most of the attention.

The good folk of Luton and Dunstable would buy oranges by the bagful, which they promptly hurled gleefully at the characters lower down the hill. Some of the ‘victims’ deliberately made themselves targets by wearing inside-out coats and huge hats, so that they could grab the fruit, rush back up the hill and re-sell it to the happy pelters at the top. Some would deftly bag the oranges, hand them to a young assistant and later on hawk them round the neighbourhood.

As well as oranges, there was also a time when you could buy ‘Lady Teasers’ to use in the general mayhem.  According to Rita Swift (local historical society person), these were rubber items, filled with water, which were employed as a sort of water pistol. Presumably the blokes squirted it at any girls they fancied, to get their attention. Whether the ‘ladies’ liked being ‘teased’ in this way is not clear.

One year the local paper highlighted an incident in which a tiny girl was struck by an orange with such force she was knocked clean over and the orange sped away down the hill. A young boy, not much older himself, raced to retrieve it and presented it to the sobbing child.  The paper called him a hero and reported that he was rewarded for his actions with pocketfuls of oranges to take home for himself.

In the swinging sixties, a warm Easter would encourage the girls to come out in skimpy outfits. But before that, a mere glimpse of a petticoat would be a big deal up there on the Downs. One report stated: “Many of the crowd belonged to the fair sex, and, as the wearing of bloomers has by no means yet become general, the wind played havoc with their skirts . . . the wind played mad pranks with these ladies . . .  a wonderfully pretty display of multi-coloured petticoats was seen.”

As the years went by, inevitably things slowly got rowdier and on one occasion The Dunstable Excelsior Band had to beat a hasty retreat when they came under fire from the oranges. Eventually the annual fun was stopped altogether in 1968, partly because local businesses were losing interest in supporting the event.

I was still young back then and – like the other local kids – probably thought that hurling oranges down a hill to celebrate Easter was perfectly normal behaviour. Before long my visits to Dunstable Downs ended anyway as my family moved house to Essex.

We settled in the village of Tiptree, where it was clear the locals treated fruit with much more respect – making world-famous jam out of it instead of flinging it around a windy hillside! 

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, 5 March 2013

Was Damon Albarn right? Is modern life rubbish?

Sorry you had to see this readers. It’s not merely my favourite mega-blister,
but rather “A random episode that repaired itself and made me stronger”!

THERE’S been much TV news footage recently showing the hospital in which the Queen had her dicky tummy attended to. It all looked very familiar, and for several days I was under the rather pleasing impression that old Liz was being treated at the very same place where they operated on my knee a few years ago.

But now, having consulted The Old Grey Training Log, I realise I didn’t go under the knife at the King Edward VII hospital after all – it was a couple of blocks away in the nearby Princess Grace.  Liz’s BUPA cover was probably higher grade than mine.

Never mind! The distinguished consultant who foraged expertly inside my leg back in 1997 was one of Harley Street’s finest (so I was told), even though he wasn’t a young sporty type, but very ‘old school’ like the surgeons in the ‘Harry and Paul’ comedy show.

I’ve run 10,000 miles since that op, but all the evidence points to that day 15 years ago being the start of the decline of my glittering running career. In terms of speed and mileage anyway. Before that operation my 10k times were routinely well under 40 minutes, and the 5-milers well under 30, but since then . . .  well, let’s not go there.

The procedure involved keyhole surgery to clean up damaged cartilage. I was running again – albeit gently – only 11 days later and trying to obey advice to train mainly on grass. Nine years later (2006), the knee required a similar procedure again. And again I was slightly disappointed to get a surgeon with seemingly no real knowledge of running or sport.

After this second op the wagging finger on the other side of the desk told me to stick to gentle running on grass, or alternatively take up swimming. Anyone who has seen my pathetic efforts in water will know which option I chose.

I’ve always treated those two bouts of knee trouble as negative events which heralded the impending arrival of Clapped-Out Runner status.  But this week I heard about a school of thought which regards injuries or physical setbacks as normal ‘random’ events. They have a positive effect by teaching your body how to recover and be stronger in the future.

That’s not to say injuries are GOOD – that would be barmy – but there is an interesting new perspective to consider here.

All this stuff is posted on the Facebook page of an organisation called Champions Everywhere.   This group provides ‘old school’ coaching for runners, which aims to  ensure natural and injury-free running via the methods of legendary coaches of the past, such as Arthur Lydiard. 

When we get ill, the theory goes, we usually heal back more resistant to that disease. And if we lift 300kg of weights today, our body builds back capacity to lift 315kg tomorrow ("just in case it needs to"). Humans and other animals are not as fragile as machines, which break down and are not able to recover on their own and become stronger.  

Unlike the machines and technology we invent, we humans thrive on randomness. Stress and discomfort (especially in running) makes us stronger, whereas it merely makes bridges, cars and other machines weaker.

Those Britpop superstars Blur named an album ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, and it seems Damon Albarn had a point.  Everything nowadays is designed to remove randomness. Antibiotics for bacteria, pain-killers for pain, anti-inflammatories for inflammation, hi-tech cushioning for road shoes, non-weight bearing activity for running injuries. The list goes on and on.

Although our systems cope well with acute stress and then grow back stronger, we can become fragile and vulnerable if subjected to chronic stress (e.g. daily commutes, constant abuse of the body, heavy mileage in cushioned  shoes, etc). This is even more likely when we get too comfortable and too protected, thus making us likely to be soft, weak, sick and maladapted!

Chronic injuries result from all this, and when we runners visit the experts in white coats they charge us a fortune and then put us on bikes (weaker bones, poorer movement), or put  orthotics or more cushioning in our shoes (even weaker body, bones, poorer movements). It’s an endless degenerative cycle.

The Champions Everywhere people reckon the only way to break this cycle is to accept you are NOT fragile - that your running body loves randomness, chaos, discomfort and stress. Next you must learn to move naturally again, apply the correct natural stress that will make your body thrive and adapt, get stronger again and move better.

And, they add, we should turn a deaf ear to the doubters - those who want to label us ‘injury-prone’ or give fancy Latin terms to our injuries - who perpetuate more fear, more disuse and more weakness.

So has all this advice come along a bit too late to help your Clapped Out Runner?

Should I start thinking of my dodgy knee as the result of past random episodes which have actually made me stronger?  Should I stop using the knee as an excuse to restrict my weekly training to 15 miles (mostly steady and off-road)?

Should I chuck out my cushioned and supportive Puma and Asics shoes and stick to the lightweight Brooks ones (which I prefer anyway) which have so far only been used with great caution? And why not go the whole hog and get some of those minimalist shoes that claim to replicate barefoot running?

Anyway, next time I feel a twinge in the calf, or inflammation of the knee, I’ll carry out a little experiment. Instead of describing it as an injury, I’ll announce it as a random episode that will make heart, nerve and sinew stronger.

I’ll sound like a complete nutter, but, you never know, it might help . . . .

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