The end is kneer?

Rik Waller. Why? All will be explained ...

I haven’t been able to run these past few days because my right knee is, to use the technical term, f****d.

A few weeks ago, before this problem started, life was simple. I had finished my last teaching contract, my master’s dissertation had been handed in and I had managed to live through my stag-do.  I found myself with a few weeks where I had no commitments – an ideal time to step up the mileage.

And it started off so well. I was, for a period of about three days, training like an Olympic athlete (because most Olympic athletes wake up at 11am, watch ‘Loose Women’, work out and then spend the rest of the day trawling through Youtube). Things took a sinister turn when I started putting some longer runs in though.

So I’m about 5 miles into it. Running through Aberdeenshire. Up hills, down hills, through country estates, past livestock, that type of thing. Enya is on the iPod and I’m finding my rhythm, getting into that zone when the mind clicks the empty recycle bin icon and all of my major worries –will I have any hair when I’m 30? Is my deodorant really working? Will Scotland qualify for a major football tournament again? Will my visa ever get processed? – melt away. But then I start to feel this pain in my right leg, around the knee. It’s like the joint has become surrounded by gravel. I can’t get up on my toes, can’t achieve the full range of movement and my foot starts slapping down on the asphalt, like a dead fish being dumped onto a chopping board.

This is bad, I thought. And I was right. Soon the b*****d had swollen to roughly the same size as one of J Lo’s bum cheeks. It no longer looked like my knee. It looked like someone else’s knee, Rik Waller’s maybe (and now that earlier picture finally makes sense).

Instead of a picture of my hairy, ugly knee I give you J Lo's stupendous rump.

What’s worse is the fact that I’ve had trouble with my knees in the past. When I was 16 I went on holiday to a resort that had a dry ski slope. The facility was open to all guests and you were free to ski whenever you liked, provided you knew how to. I claimed to be an experienced Alpine skier and was duly handed two fibre glass planks and the opportunity to mangle myself on steep carpet.

At first I gingerly sidled up the slope, stopping after I had reached a distance worth flinging myself down. I would then slowly swivel my hips, pointing the skis down the slope. And that was fine. But I started to get more courageous and keen to test my limits. I started sidestepping higher and higher, further and further towards the top of this coarse, toothbrushbristle mountain.

Those of you who are familiar with the BBC’s popular accident reconstruction programme ‘999’ will know what’s coming next. I came hurtling down the hill in that undignified squat pose that ski boots impose on you. I tried to stop, angling my skis towards one another, but the momentum I had generated was too great, too fierce to be restrained by such a coy manoeuvre. The barrier at the foot of the sloop was approaching, getting bigger, growing from a distant silvery strip to a huge mesh of metal ready to grind my limbs. In a blind panic I angled my skis more aggressively, hoping that this would bring me to a halt. It did, albeit in a crumpled heap after I flipped over my right ski, twisting my knee badly in the process.

My knee was a mess after this, swelling to the size of a watermelon, or an owl, or a bowling bowl, or whatever you prefer to imagine on my leg. The point is that the f*****g thing was huge! I remember getting time out of school to visit the physio and having some kind of low voltage electric current passed through my nobbled knee bring the swelling down. I was meant to have keyhole surgery. Instead I went to Amsterdam with my friends. I had stopped running competitively by then, I was off to university and I didn’t think I’d really need my knee again. In retrospect that was an error of judgement.

Back to the present day. My bad knee is a huge pain in the ass, literally. Because I’ve been hobbling around and, occasionally, trying to put a few jogs in, my entire right leg has been mangled and the pain even encompasses my right buttock.

These, dear reader, are bad times indeed.


Grape expectations

Grapes! Millions of 'em!

When I run my face goes red. That’s pretty standard, it happens to a lot of people. But if I run for long enough my skin goes a shade past red, my cheeks start to bruise and the colour gets darker, deeper, fans out across the rest of my face.

I go purple. I go purple and my head to starts to look like a grape on a man’s shoulders. The situation isn’t improved by the fact that I have very little hair left on top of my head. At least if I had hair I might look like a Munch Bunch character or something. But sadly not, I just look like a f*****g grape.

A grape on a man's shoulders

This phenomenon, the grape-head phenomenon, is no cause for alarm though. It’s actually quite normal, in fact it’s a sign that your body and brain are working in tandem. You see, the brain has a kind of inner thermometer that sends signals out when the body starts to get hot during exercise. “We’re getting too hot here! Carry more blood to the skin’s surface! Quick!” Your brain screams that and all of this warm, oxygenated blood rushes to the surface of the skin, causing us to sweat and cool off. That’s what makes you go red.

So this going purple thing isn’t a bad sign at all. Quite the opposite – I’m healthy, robust, an apple cheeked farmer’s child. My body and my brain are wise and they know when to turn the cheek’s into cauldrons. I’m totally fine. Robert Pattinson on the other hand …

In defence of cross country running


A casualty of war

Cradled by scarp, vale and stubble fields we stand, shivering. A legion of failed footballers, Steve Cram wannabes and skinny boys. Waiting for the gun.  Too cold for fear, too numb for words, too young to produce sufficient amounts of insulating body hair. We huddle together, a dune of bare elbows, knees and shoulders.  

When’s the fucker going to fire that gun? I can’t feel my fingers and I’ll need a hot bath to recover my balls … fire the fucking gun! We’re all thinking this but no one says it, our lips are long since dumb with cold.

Finally it goes off, echoes through the valley, birds flee their branches, the crowd – smug in their coats –clap and cheer. And we storm through the first few hundred metres, plotting our way through mud and puddles and cow shit. It’s important to get to the front of the field so you can navigate your way through the turds, scattered like land mines across the countryside. It’s one thing reaching the finish line looking like a chocolate yeti, another entirely to have to clean shit off your running spikes.

Soon we settle down, find our rhythm, our place in the field. The leaders stretch away, the backs of their heads shrinking into pinpricks on the horizon. Bastards. They’ll be in the shower by the time I finish.

But I keep going. Because cross country running is a metaphor for life. There are winners and losers and there’s shit to avoid and shit that can’t be avoided – the shit that we all end up standing in. You just can’t stop. You have to keep going because at the crest of every hill there might be fairer ground and there has to be less shit up there, right?

And finally the finishing line comes into sight. I can’t run any further – led in the legs, lungs long since turned to ash – but I still manage to sprint the last section. Still manage to beat the boy in front, because it’s much better to be 32nd than 33rd and because, in those fleeting moments, that last push for the finish doesn’t represent mediocrity, it’s sheer heroism.

We can be heroes

I ran off-road today. Through mud and up hills and over walls and past sheep. It made me think about cross country running. I started to remember all of those trips we made across Scotland, Fife Athletic Club’s under-fifteen boys team. We ran through a lot of fields together. For a while I forgot about those days, with their early mornings and frost and Vaseline smeared on your legs so you wouldn’t feel the cold (that’ll be right). But now I remember them with a renewed sense of pride and I find myself wondering … how the fuck did we do it?

Sympathy for the sausage

Sausages: as tempting to me as women are to Tiger Woods

Over the past month I didn’t run much. I was working at a summer camp teaching English and I found that my life was taken up by a crusade to straighten out the garbled, warped English spoken by Russian teenagers. “No Sergiy, it’s not a shit of paper, it’s a sheet … it’s it, not eat Sergiy … I said take a seat, not take a …” It was my mission to right these wrongs and make sure that none of my students would ever be punched in the face again for asking directions to the nearest bitch.

My physical condition has, in general, deteriorated greatly in this period. This is primarily due to adopting a diet more suitable for a professional wrestler than an English teacher. Every day I would shovel vast quantities of pasta, potatoes, chips, sausages and hamburgers down my throat. This period of reckless overeating was caused by two factors:

  1. Eating at a free canteen every day and being offered endless supplies of carbohydrates is like being in some kind of gastronomic version of the Milgram experiment. If a man with a ladle tells you (it’s not an offer when a big f**k-off spoon enters into the equation) to combine chips and pasta on a single plate then who are you to disagree? You must yield, you have no other choice.  
  2. I’m an arsehole. At the end of every lesson I would test my students on the day’s vocabulary. To make things interesting I often instructed them that for every wrong answer they produced I would confiscate a fraction of their evening meal. This, of course, was said in jest. However, the joke seemed to be lost in translation and before I knew it I was being offered percentages of jelly and quarters of fish fingers by stoic looking Russian children.

As a result I’ve put on a bit of weight.

Let me explain what this means for me though. I’m skinny. I’ve always been skinny, straight up and down, a bit of a beanpole. But that’s worse in a way. When I do put on weight it all seems to mob around my stomach, making me look like a stickman trying to shoplift a half deflated beach ball.

Feldging gut starting to become apparent (my t-shirt isn't flapping in the wind)

None of this has been good for my running. If my quest to get fit was a snakes and ladders game I would definitely have slid down a few squares over the past month. I tried to put in a few miles today and after a long stretch up a hill my leg muscles seemed to turn to ash. “No more,” they wailed, “we can’t support your sausage habit any longer!”

It’s going to be a long road back from this.

Why the f**k did they put that hill there? First race observations

This is the end, beautiful friend

On Wednesday I ran my first competitive race for fifteen years. Fifteen years equates to approximately half of my life span. This means that I have, staggeringly, spent half of my life slumped in arm chairs, eating pot noodles, drinking lager and only vicariously participating in sports by simulating them through computer games. Mercifully, this period only left me with a vaguely distinguishable pot belly. But what kind of damage will it have done to my 5k time?

As a junior athlete I could happily nip through 5k in around 19 minutes. And dipping under 20 minutes probably didn’t seem daunting at all – my 800 metre best was somewhere around 2.12, so running 5 straight kilometres at 4 minute pace mustn’t have seemed like much of a stretch.

But so much has changed in the past 15 years. A couple of months ago, when I first started running, I could hardly make it to a mile without fear of going into cardiac arrest. I doubt I could have run 5k in under 40 minutes, let alone 20. I was spectacularly unfit. The kind of unfit that has you wheezing when you walk up stairs, straining to carry shopping bags and struggling to push through non-automatic revolving doors.

Still, I must have some kind of latent aptitude for running. A block of two months of regular running has seen me transform from a wheezy, sweaty plodder to a wheezy, sweaty runner. And that’s the key improvement – I can actually run for sustained periods now, running in the actual dictionary definition sense of the word (I don’t just waddle for a few hundred metres and pretend to stretch to that onlookers don’t realise that I just have a stitch). All of this begs the question, just how quickly can I drag myself through 5 kilometres these days?

I found out at the Jog Scotland 5k challenge at Haddo House.

Trying not to look nervous before the race

This was my first Jog Scotland event and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There was a kind of carnival atmosphere at the race that verged on mass hysteria at some points. Before the start we were led through a mass warm-up by a personal trainer from a local gym who, for some reason, conducted the session dressed in a green morphsuit. Any passer-by who witnessed the spectacle of over a hundred people touching their toes, sidestepping and bouncing in unison could be forgiven for thinking that they were witnessing some kind of keep-fit cult, led by the chanting of a green lycra shaman.

One word spring to mind - why?

The beginning of the race was reminiscent of a mini London marathon – the elite runners jostling for position under the start banner, the normals bunched together in the middle and the people dressed in inflatable sumo wrestler outfits clustered at the back.

As the gun sounded my old racing instincts immediately kicked in. I gave the main pack of runners a wide berth, skirting round them until I found a clear stretch of road. I bolted through the first kilometre just behind the leading pack. I started to set my sights on the vests ahead, tried to slowly reel them in. “I’m Steve Prefontaine”, I said to myself, “I’m Steve F**king Prefontaine!”

It was all going so well until I rounded a corner and was presented with a hill. I hadn’t expected there to be hills. “Why the f**k did they put that hill there?” I asked myself. “How the f**k am I going to get up that?” My interior monologue grew progressively coarse as I realised that I had only just passed the kilometre mark and I was already totally knackered.

I kept going though, and I even passed a few more runners as I clawed my way up the incline. But when I reached the summit something happened to my body. My legs started to surrender. My lungs seemed to be deflating inside my chest, refusing to suck in any more air. And the back of my throat felt like it had been napalmed. “I’m totally f**ked now,” I thought.

The rest of the race was just a battle with my pride really. I refused to stop and walk. I was also determined to limp round in less than 23 minutes. It was a strange sensation, holding on like that. I felt like I was cleansed of all of life’s superficial worries – my job, my bank account, my visa application. All that was left was the purest of concerns – keep breathing, left foot in front of right, right foot in front of left, don’t shit in shorts. That level of exertion was excruciating, but empowering at the same time.

I finished the race 31st from a field of 272, my time 22 minutes and 36 seconds. “Thank f**k for that,” I said to myself as I hunkered down and tried to catch my breath. For a while I did wonder why I would ever subject myself to this torture. A few minutes later those fleeting moments of exhaustion and nausea passed though, and I just felt an enormous sense of pride. Sure I’d set a fairly modest time and failed to emulate the mighty Steve Prefontaine (see various previous posts on this site), but that didn’t really seem to matter. I’d made it round, and that was good enough for me.   

My shiny new medal!

More picture from the event, courtesy of the Jog Scotland Flickr stream, can be viewed below. I look like a complete gimp in all of them. Full results are listed here.

For a whirlwind tour of the course I ran, watch this …

With Limits

Billy Crudup as Steve Prefontaine

This week my training has been seriously curtailed by a near fatal bout of Man Flu. I have been suspended in a state of torpor since last Sunday, stupefied by highly concentrated cough syrup and with sinuses so clogged I’m seriously considering vacuuming my nostrils. In short, the only thing that has been running of late is my nose.

While confined to the sofa I thought that the best thing would be to take my brain for a few laps at least. So I decided to watch the Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits. Surely this would teach me a thing or two about running.

Without Limits charts Prefontaine’s progression from a child who has to run to flee from bullies, to a youth who runs for recreation, to a man who runs for medals. Prefontaine is played by Billy Crudup who portrays him as an impish character who cares little for rules or the impracticalities of running with a moustache (the wind drag must have been a real nuisance). But the real star of the show is Donald Sutherland who puts in a noble turn as legendary coach Bill Bowerman (replete with an astounding toothpaste-white flattop). Only the coldest of hearts wouldn’t shed a tear (or at least feign an eye injury) in the final scene when Bowerman eulogises the recently deceased Prefontaine from the centre of a running track.

When I sat down to watch Without Limits I was hoping for an insight into how the great runners train. And I did get an insight, just into a far broader spectrum of issues that affect elite athletes. Here are 7 things I now know …

  1. Never have sex the night before a race – Prefontaine does, with disastrous results as he injures his foot while attempting to dismount.
  2. Don’t give Adidas shoes to everyone you have sex with – Prefontaine does this and while it doesn’t necessarily diminish his lung capacity or the length of his stride it certainly gives him a headache.
  3. It’s probably just safer not to have sex at all if you are an athlete – a number of the problems in Prefontaine’s turbulent and short life seem to have been caused by his love of women and willingness to distribute free Adidas merchandise to them.
  4. Don’t run with your arse sticking out – Bowerman notes that this slows you down. It also makes you look like a tit.
  5. Not running hard and from the front is “chicken shit”, “bullshit”, “horseshit” or any other kind of animal shit that you care to appropriate – Prefontaine firmly believed that this was the only suitable approach to running a race.
  6. You should run an even race with even splits – Bowerman counters Prefontaine’s assertions with his belief that you can run much faster if you measure your pace more equally.
  7. Moustaches are brilliant – this shouldn’t require justification or explanation.  

So, as soon as this cold clears I’ll take to the track with renewed vigour – a moustachioed, celibate, front-running machine. And I’ll be sure to keep my arse tucked safely underneath my pelvis too.