Monday, 18 November 2019

The strange effect of running 'naked' (i.e. minus technology!)

FLASHBACK to exactly 30 years ago. November 1989 was unusually sunny, mild and dry. It was a month when history was made: the Berlin Wall came down, TV cameras were allowed into the House of Commons, Thatcher’s Tory leadership was challenged for the first time, and revolutions kicked off in Bucharest and Prague.

And . . . attracting far fewer headlines . . . was the fact my trusty runner’s wristwatch suddenly packed up. But, bizarrely, this malfunction would prove a blessing in disguise.

It unexpectedly helped bring about probably the best month of racing I ever did. In four events, including a tough 10-miler, every single mile was completed in well under six minutes (these days I can barely manage a kilometre in six minutes, let alone a mile!). And all because I raced without the aid of a watch.

Nowadays running without a watch (or any other technology) is known as 'running naked'. Back then it didn't have a name.

Knowing zilch about my pace and mile-splits initially felt like a problem. In those days it was all about chasing PBs; and how could you chase a PB if you couldn’t monitor your pace? But, rather magically, there was some sort of chemical reaction and my anxiety transformed into adrenaline. I ended up faster than usual!

First up was the popular Pitsea 5-mile road race, a fast and mostly flat affair near Basildon, in near-perfect conditions. Habitual glancing at my naked left wrist gave zero clues as to how things were going, but it felt fast. I became hopeful I’d get close to my existing PB of 27:55.  

Runners finishing nearby reckoned we’d gone under 28 and later it was confirmed I was clocked at 27:20. It was a big chunk off the PB, and really pleasing to have averaged quicker than 5:30 per mile.

A week later came the Clacton five-miler and I continued the ‘no watch’ experiment. Things went even better. In blissful ignorance of time and tide I came home in exactly 27 minutes, nabbing a place in the top ten.

I was left pondering how legs and lungs seemed to perform better when there was no brain telling them about time. Mind you, I did wonder if a watch would have helped me cut off an extra second . . .  26:59 would have been so much better than 27:00!

All this seemed to cause an excess of foolish confidence the following Saturday, when I entered two different races on the same morning! Despite having to gather in Ipswich’s Humber Doucy Lane at the ungodly hour of 0745, I managed second place in the Sri Chinmoy 4, in a time of 22:30.

Exit stage left and a quick costume change . . . and off I dashed with minutes to spare to the University of Essex, and the Today’s Runner cross-country league race. This also went swimmingly, although XC never requires watches anyway!

With birthday and Christmas coming up I was in no hurry to buy a new watch by this point, and went ‘naked’ again the following week for the toughest task of all - the undulating 10-miler put on annually by Hadleigh Hares. It’s not one to be messed with, and definitely not a PB course. 

Nevertheless, the ‘no watch’ trick had one more surprise in store for me. It got me home in 58:30, a 10-mile time that in 2019 remains my second-best of all time.

Hadleigh concluded a great month but I didn’t want to push my luck  . . . so returned to wearing a fully-functioning timepiece at all subsequent races. And in the 30 years since, I’ve never managed to kick the habit.

Tempus fugit!

* The annual Hadleigh (Suffolk) 10-miler - November 2019 style (Pic by Katrina Rigby)

Friday, 8 November 2019

Doing a Parkrun with the aid of six legs!

RUNNING with a dog is strictly forbidden in races affiliated to UK Athletics or the Trail Running Association – but hounds can get a slice of the action at most of the UK’s 600 Parkruns these days.

My first race in six months is likely to be a gentle outing at a Parkrun sometime soon. Being unfit and out of practice, I reckon the best way to keep moving and get some legal assistance to the finish will be to attach myself to a four-legged friend and get him to drag me along.

Carrying out this job will be Arthur, an energetic terrier who has recently been put through his paces in local parks to test his suitability. Last weekend he even got to sample a ‘big race atmosphere’ for the first time when I took him along to watch and mingle with runners at the NESS Cross-Country League event on Hilly Fields, Colchester. 

Arthur, whose fourth birthday is this weekend, wasn’t at all fazed by the noise and congestion created by 330 runners and other assorted onlookers. He seems good and ready for his Parkrun debut. He’s not used to crowds, but was happy to meet my 20 Tiptree club colleagues who were running at Hilly Fields. At one point he even rolled on to his back in order to get a tummy rub from Morven (lucky boy!).

Runner’s World magazine have endorsed Arthur’s participation in running – his breed was named at No.6 of the best 20 types of dog as running partners. They said Staffies like Arthur are “Low to the ground and really excel at shorter distances. They are one of the rare breeds that look like they are working as hard as you when running.”

I quite like the idea of making my latest comeback while tied to an energetic quadruped. Not only can he haul me along when the going gets tough, but if my finish-time is embarrassingly slow, I can always shift the blame to him! 

At least he won’t need carrying. Heard a tale recently about runner Khemjira Klongsanun hitting the seven-mile point of a marathon in Thailand, when she suddenly noticed other runners dodging a stray puppy.  With no houses nearby, Khemjira was sure it must have been abandoned. She scooped it up and carried it the remaining 19-miles to the finish! She ended up adopting it, named it Chombueng after the location of the race, and now they’re both living happily ever after. 

My other shaggy dog story this week concerns the recent Marathon des Sables (self-styled ‘Toughest Footrace on Earth’). Run over seven days through the Sahara desert, this year’s participants found they had an unexpected companion - a dog happily racing alongside them!  They named it Cactus, welcomed it into camp at night, gave it food and water and health checks from the runner who was also a vet.

It seems having four legs is an advantage on sand, for Cactus was ranked 52nd overall in the race’s third stage and was listed as a finisher in the bulletins from Race HQ. What a very good boy.

Friday, 1 November 2019

The Tiptree man who ran home from Liverpool Street!

Tom Payn makes his debut as a runner, alongside dad in the Tiptree Road Runners 
fun-run of nearly 30 years ago.  This year he became one of the world's fastest
100-mile runners,  shortly before his 40th birthday.

 ULTRA-runners rarely seem to make the headlines. So it’s a fair guess that even my running clubmates from Tiptree are probably unaware a 39-year-old man from our village recently produced one of the quickest 100-mile runs in history.

The feat took place on a track in Kent just a few weeks ago, and was described by one astonished race official as “One of the truly great all-time performances”.

Tom Payn covered the 100 miles in 12hrs 25mins 30secs – lapping the Ashford track all day long for a place in the record books as the second-fastest Briton of the last 35 years, and the 8th fastest of all time!

Tom grew up in Keeble Close, Tiptree, where mum Jane still lives, and (like your Clapped-Out Runner) went to St.Luke’s Primary School in Church Road. His first steps as a runner were as a tiny nipper in the 1980s, bombing up and down the cul-de-sac where he lived while mum stood at the front door timing him. Nowadays his running tends to be scrutinised by highly-qualified officials with sophisticated equipment!

Tom’s running achievements since those salad days are many and varied, but my favourite tale about him concerns the day he decided to test his legs for the first time over a really long distance.

Stepping out the front door of his flat at London’s Barbican - not far from Liverpool Street station - he made a big decision: Why not make that morning’s training session a run all the way to his home village of Tiptree?

It was a frightening commitment for an ultra ‘virgin’ - but running nearly 60 miles to Tiptree at least enabled him to avoid the troubles of the Greater Anglia train-line!

Tom told me this week: “I’m trying to remember when that run from the Barbican to Tiptree was. It must have been early 2012 as I did my first ultra in September of that year. If I remember correctly I jumped on the canal path over to Stratford, then shadowed the A12 through Romford and went past Gallows Corner, crossing underneath the M25 before running up to Brentwood.

“There were plenty of wrong turns along the route and this added quite a bit of distance, but I always thought I was heading roughly in the right direction. From Brentwood I again began shadowing the A12 all the way to Chelmsford, where unfortunately once again I got a bit lost.

“Once I’d finally found my way through Chelmsford I was able to get up to Hatfield Peverel. From there I took the country roads through Wickham Bishops and Great Braxted before finally arriving in Tiptree! I think my Garmin recorded it at 50-something-miles in 7-something-hours.”

Tom’s story reminds me of my early days as a novice runner, training for the inaugural Ipswich Marathon in 1983. I recall leaving Ipswich town centre and heading for West Bergholt, a mere 18 miles away. My route involved shadowing the A12 just like Tom, and getting lost just like him. But I suspect the similarities probably end there.

These days Tom is a full-time runner and has conjured up superb times at a ridiculous range of distances, from 800 metres up to 100 miles. He’s run a 2:17 marathon, has gone sub-30 for 10k and won the Tiptree 10-miler in 2011. He gets hired to pace top stars in big marathons, and is a buddy of writer Adharanand Finn, who mentions Tom in his acclaimed books ‘Running with the Kenyans’ and ‘The Rise of the Ultra-Runners’.

He’s come a long way since those hectic sprints up and down Keeble Close!