Thursday, 11 December 2014

Out for a run - no matter what!

Ron Hill . . . 50 years of daily runs, no matter what.
I remember a few years ago going out running for 50 consecutive days, an effort I was quite pleased with at the time. But next week a man with the same initials as me - although considerably more famous - is due to complete 50 YEARS of running every single day!

Ron Hill, once Europe’s top marathoner and now aged 75, started his ‘streak’ on December 20th, 1964. He has run at least a mile every day since, come hell or high water.  The nearest he came to missing a day was when he broke his sternum in a car crash in 1993. On another occasion he was treated for a stomach problem by serial killer Dr Harold Shipman, but overcame that too and still went running!
Ron doesn’t hit the headlines as often as he once did in his prime, but 2014 has still been an interesting year to say the least. He’s had a road named after him in his home town of Accrington, had a health scare when some cancerous tissues were found in his nether regions, and over in America a ‘streaker’ has emerged who, being much younger, is being tipped to overhaul Ron’s incredible record in the not-too-distant future.

Sixty-three year old Jon Sutherland exceeded 45 years  of running every day a short while ago, which puts him at No.2 on the all-time list behind our Ron, overtaking his fellow American Mark Covert who quit his streak on exactly 45 years. During celebrations for Sutherland’s feat, there was some discussion over whether Ron Hill’s streak was actually valid – for after bunion surgery in 1993 Ron only kept it alive by covering a mile on a track, using crutches. Some reckon that going along with the help of crutches doesn’t count as running at all. Sutherland himself is not arguing though, and said he considers himself number 2 behind Ron.
As many of us have found, your speed tends to decrease rather sharply once you pass the age of 50 or so, and Hill these days is a very steady traveller compared to his golden era. But the streak has become so important to him that he often puts it ahead of his own health and well-being on occasion.

The car smash that left him with a broken sternum luckily  happened after he’d run that day, but to complete the next day’s outing he had to discharge himself from hospital, and then sneak out of the house when his wife went shopping, hobbling a very painful and dangerous single mile to keep the record intact. More recently he suffered a couple of very nasty falls in the snow because of potholes, but again limped slowly home to complete the run in question.
Hill's Ipswich victory.
Personally I’ve bumped into the 9-stone pocket rocket on a number of occasions. He came to Ipswich several times in the 1980s, staging a seminar for the town’s first marathon in 1983 and running a couple of local marathons himself in subsequent years. He won the 1985 Ipswich Marathon in 2hrs 35mins as a 46-year-old and I recall one race in which many of us local runners, myself included, went to considerable trouble to overtake the great man – simply so we could say we’d led him for at least a short distance!  

I’m a long-time Hill admirer. How can you not be impressed by the man who single-handedly invented Tracksters? I also recall the time I went down with food poisoning in Portugal and for at least 24 hours was sustained only by sipping bottled water and reading Ron’s incredibly detailed autobiography, the self-published ‘Long Hard Road’. The book is so detailed it comes in two volumes and runs to 828 pages!
Many, including certain people close to me, have been rather uncomplimentary about this quirky tome, but I found it compelling and got through every word - a task that required almost as much stamina as Ron’s streak itself.

Long may he run.   

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

He chucked his running 'bling' into a skip!

AWAY WITH YOU! 200-plus running trophies are condemned to a skip....
WHEN a landmark birthday looms – usually the 40th, 50th or 60th – us runners tend to take a long hard look at training and lifestyle. Our little brows furrow and we fret over whether big changes are in order. 

One of the best-known figures on the Ipswich/Colchester running scene did just that when his half-century loomed . . . and decided to chuck more than 200 running trophies, medals and other mementoes into a skip and start afresh!

Once the dust had settled, this guy found himself a new sporting challenge, opting for a serious crack at duathlons (running/cycling). It’s all worked out rather well: Not only did he find himself with oodles more shelf-space at home, he got selected for Team GB at the grand old age of 50.

Nigel Powley ran in the colours of Ipswich Harriers, Ipswich JAFFA, Felixstowe Road Runners, Colchester Harriers and Belgrave Harriers between 1983 and 1997, winning races galore and chalking up sensational PBs. He won the Bury St Edmunds 20-miler in 1:44, the Norwich half-marathon in 67 minutes, the Hemel Hempstead 10-miler in 49 minutes and was in the top 25 (out of 32,000) at the Great North Run. He was even sponsored by sportswear giant Mizuno.

A chef in his day job, Powley’s running won him considerable local fame in these parts. I know, I typed out his name often enough when working for local papers. There was one occasion when he climbed into a taxi, surprised to find the cabbie was a well-known former Ipswich Town footballer; instead of “Where to, guv?” the driver did a double-take and asked: “Are you Nigel Powley?” Now that is what I call fame . . .

Powley quit running in 1997 because comebacks from injury had become increasingly tough: “I remember actually limping from start to finish during races,” he says. “I would warm up and be limping. Mizuno were going to offer me another contract as they were loyal to their athletes – but I knew I couldn’t do them or myself justice.”

Seventeen years later he’s back – and some. He told me this week: “I got divorced in 2010 and decided a new start was needed. The running trophies represented an old life and were just dust collectors, so in the skip they went! I am now happily married and my competitiveness is back thanks to the motivation wife Joanne gives me. You only live once. Have no regrets, new challenges come along all the time. Just getting older gives more opportunities. Suddenly I’m a good 50-year-old athlete compared to other 50-year-olds it seems. When I am 55 - if I can still walk - the challenges and targets will keep on coming hopefully. I'm aiming to take current achievements to another level next year having qualified to represent GB three times in two years. I believe I am the most competitive person I know. Here’s to a winter of very hard training. Hopefully I can keep injury free!”

Nigel Powley, training near Tunstall Forest
When Powley took up running aged 19 in 1983, the modern running boom was just taking off in Ipswich and he soon became one its first star names. The Ipswich JAFFA club was just beginning to flourish and as my local club of the time, I joined them. I was pleased to achieve 10k times of sub-35 minutes, but couldn’t live with the likes of Powley and Co up at the very sharp end! 

It is fascinating that, despite all his victories, Powley says he was never a ‘natural athlete’ and often did the opposite of what so-called experts told him. He ignored people who told him he was too young to tackle marathons, for example – and 31 years later is hoping to prove people wrong again: “I won races around the country and have some very good PBs . . . I’ll never run those times again, but now there are different challenges.” 

At the Duathlon European Championships in Austria this summer he was second GB athlete in his age group and 12th in Europe. He loves the cycling aspect of duathlons and admits: “If I was a teenager now, I’d be striving to become a professional cyclist. Cycling, if not already, will become the number one sport in this country.”

Interviewed recently by the ex-Felixstowe runner Rob Sears (boss man at Focus4Fitness), Powley told a horrendous story that will resonate with those of us familiar with the annual Woodbridge 10k. It’s a race that always seems to be staged in hot conditions - and 1995 was no exception, the temperature soaring to around 90 degrees F.

It’s another scorching hot Woodbridge 10k! 
 Yours Truly is making an ultimately unsuccessful bid to
 stay with the leaders, but at least I didn’t need
 the infamous Felixstowe Road Runners ambulance!
He recalled: “The heat was only exaggerated by the narrow streets and many dragging hills. I managed to win in 32 minutes but after finishing remember sitting in a doorway level with the finish line literally unable to move. I couldn’t lift my chin off my chest. I tried to beckon help but nobody took any notice. Next thing I knew, the second-placed runner from Felixstowe, my occasional training partner Dean Robinson, was being stretchered past with a white sheet over his head and body. I honestly thought he was dead!

“He was put into an empty garage nearby, still with a white shroud covering him.  Next to come past on a stretcher was the third-placed runner. To cut a long story short, Dean was not dead, but we all ended up in an ambulance with blue lights and sirens zooming to Ipswich Hospital, three very dehydrated runners inside. The other two got the beds in the ambulance and I got the floor! I remember looking out and seeing the road flash past, thinking the winner should have at least got a bed!”
(*Rob Hadgraft's books on running and football history now available via Amazon in paperback and as e-books for Kindle. Further info:


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Saltmarsh 2014: Panic on the streets of Tiptree!

One man and a dog - It's a busy day on the Saltmarsh route!
THERE was momentary panic on the streets of Tiptree last night in the build-up to the big Saltmarsh ultra-race at the weekend. The anchor-leg runner in the village running club's relay team encountered a horrifying incident which involved a washing  machine, her race number, and a bottle of Lenor (the one with 'Spring Meadows' fragrance).

Returning home from a club training run on Tuesday evening, Valerie (for it was she) hurled her running kit into the washing machine, setting the programme for a robust 1hr 40 mins at 60 degrees centigrade. The churning was well underway by the time the awful truth dawned: Inside the pocket of her running trousers was her precious Saltmarsh race number. It had been folded and labelled neatly inside a brown envelope by diligent relay-team organiser Wendy. Now it was turning to mush!

Quelle horreur! Valerie's shrieks could be heard for miles across the flatlands of the nearby Dengie Peninsula. "It won't stand a chance!" cried the distraught Normandy-born athlete. After a quick glass of Shiraz to help calm herself down, she did what all modern runners would do - she posted the awful news on Facebook.

Messages of sympathy flooded in as Valerie contemplated the brand new problem she'd created in addition to the nerves, stress and logistical issues that would accompany this weekend's big race along the Essex coast. 

But wait! Early this morning, unexpectedly good news began to emerge. The cherished race number apparently went through its soapy ordeal without major damage! Tiptree's carefully-assembled relay team could breathe again. When she brings the team home on the final stage, Valerie will be properly dressed after all!

She emerged this morning to issue the following statement: "Well, as it turns out it's all absolutely fine! I got the brown envelope out and the number is still intact - just a little bit cleaner and smelling of spring meadows, courtesy of Lenor!"

What this little domestic crisis does illustrate is that the numbers being used by the two-day Saltmarsh event are tough and built to last. This could be crucial, because the weather forecast for the Maldon area this weekend involves rain on the first day (70 per cent likely apparently). Light rain is expected throughout the middle part of Saturday, when runners will be making their way along the infamous third stage between Burnham-on-Crouch and the remote Othona Community site near Bradwell-on-Sea. The race organisers, rather ominously, refer to this section of over 13-miles as "the big one" and the award-winning book Britain's Wild Places identifies it as "the darkest, loneliest place in Essex". Trail Running magazine recently gushed about its dramatic and bleak beauty, calling it "wild, remote and isolated."

Runners from local clubs and much further afield have signed up to tackle the entire 75-miles plus over the two days, with those of a more cautious nature buddying up as relay teams. Your correspondent fell into the latter category and, what is more, wasn't brave enough to volunteer for the fearsome Stage 3 described above either. Maybe next year?

Instead, I find myself again manning the opening stage of Day 2. This leg, from Steeple to Maylandsea, is relatively short, but there was still time for a small bunch of us to go wrong at last year's inaugural event. We added some difficult and unnecessary terrain to our journey in 2013 and must have annoyed the hell out of our relay partners waiting up ahead for the imaginary baton to arrive! The reason for our navigational cock-up remains a mystery, but I can promise we definitely didn't go off course because we were distracted by looking for the wreck of Darwin’s Beagle, or trying to identify wading birds or the fascinating remains of artillery and aircraft paraphernalia to be seen at low tide.

The hardy souls doing the full distance all alone will no doubt be a bit more careful when it comes to navigational issues, especially as their task is rumoured to be nearer a hefty 79 miles than the 75 in the race's name. Here at the Tiptree club we are well represented this weekend in the 'solo' race. Our line-up includes last year's top female performer Tracy, and our up-and-coming ultra star Mark L, who has swapped the adrenaline of motorbike racing for legging it across vast swathes of countryside. His namesake Mark S is settling for two legs of the relay, a chance no doubt to loosen up in advance of his band Mouthful of Ashtrays appearing at Colchester's Bullstock music festival in a week's time (blatant plug alert). And, of course, going solo will be experienced campaigner James, whose relationship with mud in the Maldon area is legendary - a love affair that has even seen him feature on broadcast media in the Far East, believe it or not.

The coastal route between the start in South Woodham Ferrers and the finish at Salcott-cum-Virley is one of Britain's least populated areas, but if you do happen to be passing, give that wind-battered runner an encouraging cheer or two. They will need it!

* Rob Hadgraft's books now all available as e-books for Kindle, via:
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Monday, 21 July 2014

'Women wept and strong men lost their lunch' . . . . it might be less dramatic this weekend!

The sad sight of Jim Peters repeatedly collapsing at the Commonwealth Games of 1954.
THE forecasters reckon it could be pretty darn hot in Glasgow at the weekend for the Commonwealth Games marathons. Humid and 25 degrees at the men’s race Sunday – just two degrees below the city’s all-time record for that particular day!

Runners with a sense of history will wince at this news, for the Commonwealth ('Empire') Games marathon of exactly 60 years ago was played out in similar conditions and truly horrific scenes resulted. The race favourite, Jim Peters of Essex Beagles, was so badly affected by the heat that day he suffered multiple collapses near the finish line and very nearly died.
Peters was a runner who suffered with a sensitive stomach, which meant he didn’t take on water during races, however hot and dehydrated he got. He was also a worrier, always scared to moderate his pace in case he was caught, even when holding huge leads. These two handicaps nearly caused him to pay the ultimate penalty at the Vancouver games of 1954. To compound things further on this occasion, he’d even tried to accelerate in the closing stages “in order to get the race over with”. The resulting meltdown was a sickening sight for the thousands who witnessed it, a big crowd that included dignitaries such as the Duke of Edinburgh.

Vehicles carrying helpers were banned from the race to avoid a build-up of exhaust fumes, which meant Peters and the others raced without assistance or information. Around halfway Peters was at least 300 yards ahead, but instead of relaxing became desperate to increase that lead and sped up, even though he was already finding the heat “overwhelming.”
He craved a wet sponge to cool his burning head and neck, but such luxuries weren’t on hand. By the 20-mile point, unbeknown to him, he’d forged a remarkable lead of at least one mile and rivals behind were dropping like flies. Had he known this, he could have dropped into a nearby house for a leisurely shower and a cold beer, and still emerged with a healthy lead!

But Peters was running like a frightened rabbit, seemingly oblivious to the damage the heat was doing him. He reached the packed stadium which housed the finish line in around 2 hours and 20 minutes. In the circumstances it was a phenomenal time, and anyone but Peters would surely have eased up and jogged in. But, desperate to end the agony, he pushed hard on the uphill section towards the stadium entrance only to suddenly find his legs wobbling like crazy. He careered down to the running track to great roars from the 33,000 crowd and suddenly collapsed with less than 400 yards to go.
“I just couldn’t understand what had happened,” he said later. “For a moment I was completely bewildered. Then I made my mind up I was going to finish. I didn’t want to disgrace my wife and kids. I thought of them at that moment and said to myself I’m going on, there’s a tape you’ve got to break, you don’t stop till you hit that tape.”

Here began the awful sequence seen so often on newsreel clips for years afterwards. He repeatedly collapsed, dragging himself up, falling again, momentarily motionless, then writhing on the floor, rising and falling again. In total there were 12 falls. His soiled clothing showed he’d lost control of bodily functions and he was also evidently slipping in and out of consciousness. It was a truly sickening and distressing sight. But nobody came forward to help, worried this brave but pathetic figure would be disqualified if assisted and his gold medal would be lost.
When researching my 2011 book on Peters (details below!), his gut-wrenching slow-motion journey to the finish line was described to me by an eye-witness, the Australian runner Geoff Warren: “It was actually more like a walk, his arms grasping in the air in front, his legs also reaching forward like a puppet and his head mostly tilted back. And, every few steps he would fall over backwards, turn over, climb to his feet again and continue his awful progress. There had been a roar from the crowd at the first sight of Jim arriving on the track, but it was now replaced by a horrified silence.”

England teammate Chris Brasher said: “Jim was suffering from dehydration, salt deficiency and overheating and his balance was gone. It was a hell of a scene and one of the most horrific in athletic history. They took his temperature [later] and it was about 107 or 108 degrees. It is something absolutely unbelievable in medical circles. He was on the verge of cooking his brain.”
News reporters told how people in the crowd couldn’t bear to watch, some even fainting and others being physically sick: “Women wept and strong men lost their lunch” was one headline. New Zealand runner Murray Halberg recalled: “There was a stark, shocked silence in the crowd and I felt like being sick. I wished someone would stop this agony. It was beyond everything that is sport to see that stricken man, all alone before thousands of horrified spectators, lurching in virtual collapse.”

The crowd began to shout for Peters to be helped, but the only response was a stadium announcer calling for order and "respect for sportsmanship". The grotesque torment lasted around 11 awful minutes before Peters tottered across a white line into the arms of England trainer/masseur Mick Mays and official Ernest Clynes. Initially it was thought he had made the finish line, but it soon became clear he was still half-a-lap short and officials had no alternative but to disqualify him, announcing this sad fact just as he was laid on a stretcher!
There were loud jeers from the stands, but those gathered around Peters were by now more concerned about whether he would live, rather than whether he’d won. He was whisked to hospital, put in an oxygen tent and given a saline drip. Nearly 15 minutes after Peters stumbled into the stadium, Scotland’s Joe McGhee, who’d run a more sensible and measured race, progressed smoothly and untroubled to the gold medal in 2:39.36. 

Early next day a rumour spread that Peters had died during the night in hospital, but thankfully this proved false and several days later a shaky figure emerged, miler Roger Bannister at his side, for the flight back to England. Shaken and damaged beyond repair, Peters quit his beloved sport at the age of 35. He accepted his approach to running had made him a danger to himself, and there was no point carrying on for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics which would also be held in hot conditions.
Peters’ exploits and world records of earlier meant his place in history was already secured. He returned to his family and his work as an optician in Essex and slowly regained full health - but never ran another competitive step. His life would end nearly 44 years later at the Fairhavens Hospice in Westcliff-on-Sea in 1999.

However hot it gets in Glasgow this weekend, thankfully nobody is likely to suffer like Peters did, thanks to vastly improved knowledge about preparation and rehydration, better race organisation and medical support. It’s also true that we probably won’t see an Englishman leading the race either; the last Commonwealth men’s marathon gold going to Ian Thompson of Luton, way back in 1974.   




Friday, 20 June 2014

I drink, therefore I run . . .

Buster Martin, the 'film star' who was a  great
advert for running and drinking beer!
AS we runners know, an interval session is a tough but beneficial form of training. Well, usually.

This weekend in Essex I know of an 'interval session' that will involve running for approximately four kilometres, repeated five times, and your recovery in between is the consumption of a glass of foaming ale. There’s a time bonus for downing a half, and an even bigger time bonus for downing a pint!

The Ridley Round 13-mile trail race (10.30am Saturday from The Compasses, Littley Green) is the brainchild of runner and radio presenter Howard Jardine. He has designed a largely off-road route that has checkpoints at five different pubs. One of them closed down recently, I understand, but Howard wasn’t fazed and will be transporting beer to the site anyway!
If you thought this sort of eccentric behaviour was the preserve of only the English, think again. Your Clapped-Out Runner came across something equally odd in Brazil a few years ago. This was a trip when my running activities showed the Brazilians how we English sportsmen are good at performing like heroic failures – a trait emphasised in the past few days by the England World Cup team.

While in Porto Seguro, I heard about a marathon taking place the following day in which runners were expected to stop at every bar along a 26-mile route, swallow a drink and then move on. And this was in an area absolutely full of bars. Instead of paying an entry fee for the race you were asked to donate a quantity of food to a local orphanage. It was all in a good cause, but being a sensible English runner, I naturally backed off and opted for a completely different road race that I thought would be far safer and more appropriate. However, things didn’t quite pan out that way.

My race of choice was in the city of Salvador da Bahia and involved rising at an ungodly hour around dawn to catch a bus to a shopping cente. Here I assembled with 500 others for the inaugural 'Corrida Rustica da Justica 10k'. I was in a tiny minority of foreign participants and alongside my precious and now defunct Nike Air Sock racers, I couldn’t help but notice a vast amount of bare feet on show. It was hard to tell if these people were too poor to afford shoes, or whether they simply preferred the Zola Budd approach.

The course proved hot, humid and hilly so I didn’t push too hard, aiming to nip inside the 40-minute mark at worst. When we reached the latter stages and were still going uphill out of town, it began to dawn that this must be a point-to-point race and at the end I’d be a long way out of town without transport back.

We duly finished at a council administrative centre in Salvador’s remote hinterlands, and lapped up the water melons and oranges that were handed out instead of the usual medals or T-shirts. Several of my fellow runners keeled over in the intense heat, one needing oxygen and a saline drip in the back of an ambulance. If the locals were going down, what were my chances of surviving this ordeal unscathed?
Stuffed in the pocket of my shorts was a tatty little street map which I showed to a policeman in the hope of some directions home. I attempted some Portuguese at him, but in my exhausted state it probably translated to ‘What is the weather like?’ or ‘A glass of caiparinha please.’ Whatever, he looked at the map, scratched his head, thought long and hard and then simply shrugged.  

I attempted to walk and jog back the way we’d come but the course was not marked and every street looked the same. It was searingly hot and I had no fluids, no sunscreen, no mobile phone, nada. Now and again a direction sign saying ‘Centro’ provided encouragement and I soon found myself strolling down a dual carriageway. I passed through some rough districts, but my skimpy running gear clearly concealed very little worth mugging me for (ooh-er, matron!). It took an hour or so, but eventually I got back, convinced no other 40-minute 10k in history had ever involved quite that much blood, sweat and effort.
Tiredness made me forget to take the daily malaria tablet that night. I swallowed it the following morning, but having missed the hotel breakfast, my empty stomach decided enough was enough and began to rebel violently. I kept calling for 'Hughie and Ruth', but was persuaded out by my spouse to go for a suco and fruit salad to try and settle things down. However, my Portuguese failed again and the waiter instead brought a greasy ham and cheese sandwich.  

Still feeling very unwell, my recovery programme rather bizarrely continued at a live-music bar, but not the type where you can just chill out. This choice of sanctuary meant we attracted attention simply by sitting still. Well-meaning Ronalt and Gracy nearby were overflowing with Brazilian friendliness and insisted we sat with them and piled beers our way. We were evidently the first English couple they’d met and my enforced immobility and lack of fluency fascinated them. I’m afraid I may have reinforced the stereotype of the reserved Englishman abroad, for via translation I was told Gracy had me down as: “Robert, the man who doesn’t drink, dance or speak.”  I think she liked me really, though.
She and Ronalt later transported us and our bags to a local terminus for a 12-hour bus trip to Porto Seguro. It was here I was told in great detail about the forthcoming marathon/drinking race mentioned above. The bringer of this news was a well-travelled woman who said she’d been born in Portugal, had German parents and a French husband, was raised in England and had lived in Holland, Spain and Italy.

I wonder who she’s supporting in this summer’s World Cup?

Friday, 13 June 2014

Reporting direct from the streets of Brazil (retrospectively that is!)

* Brazilian coco verde water . . . just the job!

LISTEN up Steven Gerrard and the chaps!

After the World Cup opener with Italy this weekend your best way to re-hydrate is to slurp some Brazilian coco verde water, straight from the shell. You’ll be able to find it on most street corners out there.
Listen to your Clapped-Out Runner, for I am one who knows. It revived me instantly after a run in sticky Recife one time, quite possibly the hottest and most uncomfy five-miler I've ever completed. That day I sweated buckets, cobs and whatever else the English language allows pores to expel.

Although Rihanna, Courtney Cox and Madonna have all sung the praises of coco verde water in recent years, your Clapped-Out Runner was one of the first to proclaim its fine re-hydration and electrolyte-replacement qualities. This happened way back in 1991, a year in which I had the opportunity to do a bit of running in various parts of Brazil, golden running days when PBs were still a possibility and not merely a distant memory. Back when I hadn’t quite entered the arena of the (nearly) clapped-out.

Whether you are a runner, a footballer, or just a tourist, Brazil is certainly not a destination for the faint-hearted. As bossa nova star Tom Jobim famously said, “My country is not for beginners.”
Brazil never fails to produce the unexpected, and my five-mile run along Recife sea-front was a good example. For there in the road, meticulously and clearly displayed, were metric marker points, purely for the benefit of runners. It meant I knew that my exhausted carcass had completed exactly 8,450 metres when I came to a halt, and that one mile of that was done in 5:51. As Garmins hadn‘t been invented back then, it was satisfying to have such precise figures to put in the Old Grey Training Log.

But, true to form, Brazil will give with one hand and take with the other. For instance, just a few yards from that runner-friendly road was a cinema whose entrance proved simply impossible to locate. And there were restaurants and nightlife clustered nearby, but we couldn’t find a safe way to get there. There was even a late-night record store, but it was full of Euro-pop and nothing by Brazilian jazz legend Flora Purim. One consolation that night in Recife was the Bom Preco supermarket, shelves heaving with splendidly huge bags of peanuts for around 50p!
As well as brilliantly marked out sea-front roads, what every cash-strapped runner visiting Brazil can benefit from is a rich American tourist. Keeping fit in choking humidity builds a big thirst and in Rio de Janiero ours was slaked one night by the deep pockets of Heathcote, a pharmaceutical consultant from North Carolina.

In search of a bar with air-conditioning and live music we found ourselves slipping into the elevator up to the Skylab Bar atop the 5-star Hotel Othon Palace beside Copacabana beach. Behind the sliding doors was slumped Heathcote. He was very well lubricated, couldn’t remember which sights he’d seen so far in Rio, didn’t know a word of Portuguese, and would soon be off to Buenos Aires anyway. We forgave him these sins because he’d recently lost his wife and was travelling alone.
He thought two Brits taking a career break to travel was “a terrific thing” and paid for all our expensive drinks before tottering back into the elevator. As the Skylab proved to be an almost deserted piano bar straight out of Lost in Translation, we soon followed him.

Going for a run in Brazil’s smaller towns is not so easy as on the sea-front promenades of the tourist traps. Roads are pot-holed, animals are on the loose, and you gain unwanted attention. In Porto Seguro one evening I could only find one decent stretch of tarmac and ended up going up and down this five times. I kept passing a single abandoned New Balance running shoe in the middle of the road – and by the fifth shuttle had become convinced it was all that was left of a previous running tourist who foolishly came this way.
For post-run refuelling that night, we found a no-frills establishment called ‘The Hall of Hunger’. A large nourishing portion of proper Brazilian fare was around £1.50. “What made you come here?” enquired the owner rather disconcertingly, adding that very few English folk passed through Porto Seguro. He had thought we were Argentines.

Then followed intense questioning about my Luton Town shirt. He took considerable convincing my team were then a top-flight club in England (yes, this was a while ago), for he couldn’t recall seeing them on Brazilian TV’s Os Golos Fantasticos, which showed the best goals from around the globe every week. But, for all his fierce patriotism, he conceded that England’s Gazza had been the best player in the most recent World Cup.
For that remark I let him off those faux pas about Argentina and Luton!

* Rob Hadgraft's books on running and football can be browsed and purchased via the following links:
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Monday, 24 February 2014

Doing the soft-shoe shuffle

THE cross-country season is over for another winter. My battered and soggy shoes, twice their normal weight due to clinging mud, are awaiting a final appointment with an unforgiving wire-brush.

Normally said shoes could now expect an eight-month holiday before being called upon again - and the chance to dry out properly at last. 

But the sad news this February is that I have to tell them I’m letting them go. They’ve run their last gloopy field-edge. Splashed though their final ditch. Climbed their final rain-lashed hillock.

The only journey left is the one to that celestial cross-country course in the sky. They’ve served me well over several years, but the right sole is now parting company with its upper, and that gaping hole will only get bigger. 

Trouble is, they are still very comfortable to wear and their laces remain bright and bushy-tailed (a lovely shade of orange, in fact). But it’s not enough to save them. Replacements have already been purchased, and now wait patiently in the boot of the car for season 2014-15 to start.

At least the departing shoes are being retired on a high note. For the first time in 25 years of running cross-country league meetings, I’ve managed to complete a full set in a single season. All six of the 53-12 League races (staged in a region south of Ipswich and north of Chelmsford) have been done, every one a toughie in this winter of record-breaking wetness.

A quarter of a century has certainly whizzed by, for I remember clearly sampling the delights of this regional league for the first time back in 1989. In those days I ran for Ipswich JAFFA and we took part in races at Halstead and Tiptree as ‘guests’ before signing up properly the following season. 

In those days the competition was known as the Today’s Runner League, having been initiated by the magazine of that name, and kept this identity until 2000. Then along came sports retailers Harper’s Intersport to lend their name, and things continued to thrive despite a fire ripping through the Tudor building which housed the local Harper’s shop in Colchester, meaning it had to be demolished. For a while it became the Sweatshop League, and then current incumbents 53-12, led by director and runner Ed Page, took over as sponsors in 2005.

This week I asked a few old stagers if they had any idea how many races there had been since it all started in the 1980s. I've been reliably informed the very first one was at Colchester (Abbey Fields) in November 1986. Eight years later the same venue played host to the league's 50th race. By this time I'd moved house several times and was now running in the colours of Tiptree Road Runners. As there has been around six races per season ever since, I assume we are currently hovering around the 170 mark.  
My 'Old Grey Training Log' tells me I’ve managed to run 84 of them, but I suspect there's a good number of people who can claim to have gone beyond the 100 mark. Take Brian Rogers, for example. Now here's a man who once gave the great Peter Elliott a run for his money (I saw it with my own eyes on a track in Lanzarote!). Ipswich stalwart Brian has clocked up 116 league races (not counting a couple of DNFs) and his range of finishing positions goes from 2nd to 100th. There must be similar stories from the other clubs too.

The races are always sociable, enjoyable affairs, with a higher proportion of female participation than in the traditional Saturday league events, and beginners are welcomed.

Similar 8k courses have been used throughout the past 25-years-plus, and a similar number of us turn out year after year, so that means progress and fitness is easy to monitor. I think I must have peaked early, because it’s been downhill nearly all the way for me. I finished in the top 30 in my first half-dozen appearances, but these days am lucky to get into the first 130!

There have been calls recently for cross-country to be included in future Winter Olympics to give the sport a much-needed boost. But judging by recent race turnouts it’s doing pretty well anyway:  the National Champs were held at the weekend in Nottingham and attracted a total of 10,000 athletes and spectators into Wollaton Park.

In the spirit of this blog, instead of naming the winners I’d like to congratulate the two heroes who filled the LAST positions in the  men’s and women’s races - both of whom trailed home at least four minutes after the rest of the huge fields. I hope the marshals on the finish line did them the courtesy of not clearing up and vanishing before they came in!

Take a bow Andrew Morgan of Dartford (1657th of 1657 senior men) and Ruby Ooi of Stourbridge (708th out of 708 senior women). Andrew and Ruby are both in their sixties and race regularly, undaunted by usually finishing at the wrong end of the results list.
They are the type who don’t ask or expect much, so the least they deserve is a cheer from other runners kind enough to stay behind. Long may that sense of comradeship continue. 

(Twitter:  @RobHadgraft)

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Over the Orwell Bridge in 1982 - and under it in 2014!

1982's Orwell Bridge half-marathon
A BRAND new 8k cross-country course was unveiled in glorious winter sunshine on Sunday in the shadow of that spectacular edifice on Ipswich’s southern outskirts, the Orwell Bridge.

And as the long line of brightly-coloured runners snaked underneath Europe’s biggest stretch of pre-stressed concrete, I found myself experiencing a sudden dose of déjà vu.

For as I settled into my usual mid-pack position, it suddenly dawned on me this was the first time I’d run in this neck of the woods in more than 31 years!  Back in November 1982 - along with 1,054 others – I’d run over the Orwell Bridge in a half-marathon staged specifically to mark the bridge’s completion.

At that point it hadn’t yet opened to traffic and there was great excitement over this truly amazing feat of engineering that had taken the previous three years to build.  Measuring the course prior to the half-marathon was apparently quite an adventure - David Smith of JAFFA had to climb on scaffolding as the bridge was unfinished then and didn’t quite meet in the middle!

But all was ready on race-day and the pounding of 2,100 running feet certainly gave it a good testing. It was a very cold and very hilly task for all of us, but thankfully the wind was fairly light and nobody was blown into the river below as far as I can recall.

Your correspondent
crosses the bridge in '82
 My employers back then, the Ipswich Evening Star newspaper, sponsored the race and I was still very much a beginner to the sport – still raw enough to be making serious clothing errors (as the picture here proves!).  It was my very first ‘proper’ road race and a group of us from the office were really only taking part for a laugh.   

But it must have been a positive experience, for here I am 31 years later, complete with strapped-up arthritic knee and 27,000 miles on the clock, still chalking up two or three races per month and unable to kick the habit.

Over 1,000 participants at a half-marathon wasn’t particularly unusual in the 1980s, and Suffolk Police reckoned an even higher figure lined the hard shoulder to watch the race. There was traffic chaos in the area and race-starter the Mayor of Ipswich was among those trapped, which delayed proceedings considerably.

The exuberance of youth helped me gallop over the 13.1 miles of virgin dual carriageway in 90 minutes exactly. We went from the Nacton interchange, over the 1,200 metre bridge, to the A12 link and back again. I recall being quite pleased with my time, especially given the fact I was only running once a week at the time, mainly to keep fit for football.  Up ahead we all gazed in wonder at lanky Andy Girling who cruised to victory in 66 minutes.

Nine-hundred-and-fifty races and three decades later, I was back this weekend and wondering how many other Orwell Bridge Half-Marathon Veterans were running in the cross-country contest alongside me. I reckon there must have been one or two, and possibly a few more among the Ipswich JAFFA officials organising the event.

JAFFA have certainly come up trumps with this new course for the annual 53-12 League fixture they always stage. The response to their choice of venue was a record-sized field, I am told. 

And max respect to the Suffolk Food Hall for welcoming hordes of muddy runners onto their premises for the important pre- and post-race activities. 

Back in 1982, the concept of a food hall – a sort of delicatessen sited in the countryside – would have been quite alien to us all. The delicacies on sale this Sunday were rarely, if ever, seen in Suffolk in 1982, I can tell you.  It was bread and dripping back then, plus the odd turnip from a nearby field if we were lucky (Apologies - I think I may have imagined that last bit. Blame post-run tiredness – I am 58 you know).

Runners gather near the bridge again . . . January 2014

* Rob Hadgraft's books on runners of yesteryear now available as e-books for Kindle at £4.99 each. (Via Amazon or