Monthly Archives: September 2012

On (not) running



I have taken a month off running in the hope that my absence shall allow my weakened right calf to recover. In my inactivity several friends have been telling me unexpectedly just how much they enjoy running: from R who jogs extraordinary distances on treadmills (on the advice of a physio who tells him this is the best way to protect his knees) and has sights on a sub-25 minute 5k; to Fin, racing 4 miles each evening; and another friend F, jogging in anticipation of moving to the US (I visualise her pacing around Central Park).

In four weeks’ absence I have already gained a pound or two. After months of deep sleep, I find myself waking more often. I have begun to suffer occasional nightmares – the word is probably too grand – but frantic dreams full of exotic monsters. They flit through my memory; I recall the anxiety and my raised heartbeat on waking far more vividly than the dreams themselves.

My legs remain in some similarly deep and vague sense wrong; I practice circulating my toes around my calf – as I type – and can feel residual knots in my leg. They are my own private barriers.

Hillsborough; never forget


On 11 April 1989, I attended an FA cup quarter final between Millwall and Liverpool, at the Den. It was a horrible stadium with fans penned right up against the wire, including what seemed to be razor-tipped circular saws, rotating in the wind above our heads. They were the days when football was just another leisure activity: a game you could watch without paying more than £10, something you could just show up to without booking in advance.
I found myself talking to a man in his early 60s, who told me he was a former amateur referee. He was kind and generous; he saw me as a young fan attending a match alone, and took me under his wing.

The following game was Hillsborough. I remember watching the pictures as they unfolded. What I saw, and what I still see in all the pictures, is the countless tiny acts of human solidarity; the fans (as above) who tried to lift strangers out of the crush, the doctors who rushed on to the fields to volunteer. I didn’t see, although I could half-sense, the hostility of many officers to the dying fans, and the complete failure of the official health services, the ambulance service, etc, etc, to do anything useful at all.

I also recall reading in the papers that among those killed was John Anderson, aged 62, described by the papers as … a former amateur referee.

Looking back on the events of 23 years ago I have no way of knowing whether it was John Anderson who I had met just a week before. What I do know is that his death brought home to me just how close I too had been to tragedy.

And I am also certain that every football fan in the 80s, whatever team you supported, was treated like an animal by the clubs, and nobody was more than two or three pieces of intertwined bad luck away from being caught in something like Hillsborough.

I am not surprised to learn that senior police officers altered their colleagues’ statements, on a massive scale, to protect the force. But I am truly shocked by the new evidence that with proper medical care 41 of the 96 would have lived.

Running the Bramhall Parkrun


Inspired by Boff Whalley, I spent my August holiday running with my boys in the hills of the Lake district and west Wales. Actually, “running” makes the activity sound rather more athletic than it was. My calf still sore, I hobbled more than I ran. Meanwhile, my eldest boy, whose running is definitely hampered by the near-total absence of aerobic exercise at his school (things may improve in year 3, where the curriculum includes swimming) decided that what he really enjoyed was running downhill (see above) rather than up. We must have been an odd sight: ascending slate hills, the stone stacked together in layers, we would take as much as half an hour to walk to the top, then just three or four minutes to run back down to where we had begun.

Finding myself in Stockport on a Saturday, I signed up for the local parkrun, two laps of Bramhall house each with an ascent and then a drop of about 80 metres. It was pleasantly different from parkrunning in London.

At both locations, the demographic is chiefly runners in their thirties and thereabouts. (Most parkruns have only been set up in the last 3-4 years; longer-established races have a richer sprinkling of runners in their 50s and up). In Bramhall, there were many more children under 10 running with their parents, and more teenagers. More families walk in the hills, and the parkrun just felt like a natural extension of what people would be doing anyway. Quite a few of the six or seven year olds were running pretty fast too – 5k in 26 or 27 minutes. This image from the Parkrun website, shows the race in winter; but gives you a sense of the route:

The course follows a path track, around a metre wide, and the ground to each side of the path was too damp in places, or too densely-wooded, to allow much overtaking. I ran in laps of about 15 and about 10 minutes, a ridicuously unbalanced split, motivated in part by a desire to protect my injury, and in part by a sheer inability to move forwards in the race until the running group had stretched out a little and there was space for me to overtake.

One or two of the runners displayed the introversion that I associate with the sport; although no-one expressed it more clearly than the man in his 50s, bald and shaven on top, who I watched running closer and closer towards a young mother with her buggy out for a morning stroll. Not looking where he was going, he eventually ran straight – bang – into the pram. He was also, I must add, absolutely mortified and thoroughly apologetic afterwards.

Thanks are owed, as ever, to the organisers.

Paul Ryan superhero, elite Marathon runner, and … ?


The point of the Vice President in the American constitution is that they are never meant to get anywhere near the levers of power. Even a President is powerless through the entirety of their second four year-term, and this powerlessness is multiplied in the case of their deputy who has no job in the system at all. The people chosen for President are often characterless nobodies picked for the purposes of some secondary talent (eg LBJ’s skill for bulldozing legislation through Congress) to redeem them for an essentially meaningless role. Most Presidents do not die in office; I doubt even many politics nerds could name the last four US “veeps”. BUT in those rare cases where the Vice President takes on the top job, their truth quotient becomes a matter of concern to billions of people.

Which brings me neatly to the Republican candidate for Vice President. Last week, Paul Ryan told the journalist Hugh Hewitt that he “was a distance runner”, had run “marathons” (note that tricky plural), and had a “two hour and fifty-something” personal best. This week, Runners World reports that he has in fact run one marathon, over 20 ago, finishing in over 4 hours.

If Ryan had been telling the truth, he would be one of the fastest 25% of runners in his field – in fact, he was almost at the mid-point. It’s the difference between getting an A grade in a GCSE exam and a C.

Dave Zirin has skewered Ryan by comparing him to Rosie Ruiz, I’m more interested in the light the incident shines on what may be a general tendency for runners to estimate their times “down”, the equivalent of a middle-managed man standing by a mirror and sucking his tummy in.

Many of us, when we are asked about how fast we could run a particular distance, will tend to shave off a second or two. I’ve blogged before about the Marathon Talk podcast which invites its guests to estimate how fast they could run a mile with the proper training. Those who have done it well but stopped tend to guess “up” and will often say six or seven minutes; those who’ve never run, ten to guess down – saying “5 minutes”, when they’ve never even run a six or seven minute mile, have a poor sense of their body’s ageing, or its susceptibility to injury after even modest training.

Without much difficulty any runner can pick a race at which the environment will be no more than a residual factor – say a Parkrun through central London, with an ascent or descent of no  more than a few degrees. If you plan to run that sort of race in under 20 minutes, but finish in over 25, or do not finish at all (both of which, I have done), it’s a pretty salutory experience.

Either you learn from it, and learn about yourself – or you’re Paul Ryan, stuck forever in a world of your own imagining.

(Hat-tip: Colin Wilson)

Samia Yusuf Omar: the Other Olympian


Many thanks to Dick Gregory for sending me the story of Samia Yusuf Omar, who ran for Somalia in the 2008 Olympics, and whose death (in April 2012) was only reported by the world’s news media this month.

Omar competed at the 200 metres, finishing her heat about 40 metres behind the other runners.We are all familiar with the cliches of the Olympic athlete overcoming immense obstacles merely in order to compete, but in Omar’s case they had a basis in fact. She lived in Mogadishu, among six siblings in a two bedroom house, her family selling fruit and vegetables to survive. She trained without access to a running track, by jogging on the streets of the city. To avoid being harassed for wearing “men’s clothes”, Omar trained in a head scarf, long sleeve shirt, and sweat pants. She was one of only two Somalia athletes who competed at Beijing.

Omar tried to relocate to Ethiopia, after becoming a target for Islamist militia, but it seems that this move was unsuccessful. And earlier this year she died in an accident, while attempting to cross by boat from Libya to Italy. It is said that she had been hoping to find a coach in Italy and compete at London 2012.

The Somali athlete Abdi Bile, a former World Champion over 1500 metres, recently compared her situation to that of the Somali-born British athlete MoFarah: “We are happy for Mo – he is our pride … but we will not forget Samia.”