Running with cameras

There are just some things that people should never hold while running: infants, swag bags, scissors and cameras. Yes, I did say cameras. Running through city streets while holding a camera will make you look, to the casual observer, like an energetic pervert.

I know this because one day when I was out running I caught a fleeting glimpse of a panting deviant clutching a camera. I recoiled in horror initially, before realising that I had, in fact, just seen myself reflected in a windowpane.

Answer me this honestly: how would you feel if you saw a sweaty man – his mouth a gaping dark O, rivulets of sweat slaloming down his forehead, his face the colour of a smacked arse – trundling towards you with a camera in his hand? You’d be thinking less Mr Motivator, more Mr Masturbator.

And yet I still run with my camera. Why? Well I’ve always believed that in order to reap life’s rewards you have to be willing to persevere, and in some cases look like a tit. You see, when I’m out running I never fail to see something that makes me wish I’d brought my camera. And when I do bring my camera and I get a good picture of a sign offering a reward for a missing ferret or of a profane bit of graffiti I realise that, despite the accusatory stares and increased chances of being pepper sprayed, it’s all worth it in the end.

This is a photo (and video) essay about one of my runs through Aberdeen. This run.

I’m not long out of the door when I get to this: the University of Aberdeen library. Not that you’d think it was a library, it looks more like a flat-pack zebra.

From there it’s a straight shot down to the beach. But not before I’ve crossed the golf course. I’m always absolutely terrified that I’m going to be hit by a stray (or well aimed) golf ball.

I always run through this tunnel. It’s such a nice feeling when you pop out at the other end to a blast of sea-air and the kind of wind that can give you a temporary facelift if you pout in the right direction.

Then it’s along the boulevard. If I’m lucky I’ll have this stretch to myself. If I’m unlucky I’ll end up racing my pride and whoever the middle aged woman is I’m trying to keep pace with.

The man who is fishing here is not a friend of mine. I lurked around him for a few minutes to take these photos. Then I scuttled off.

Stopping to crawl through the grass to take this one. Not a good look when you are in your shorts and sweat stained t-shirt.

From here I loop back round and home to a hot shower. But that’s something that nobody needs to see a picture of.


There’s something about Steve

Every morning this is the first thing I see.

Steve Prefontaine: what a man, what a moustache

It’s not by design that I wake up to this portrait of Steve Prefontaine. It’s purely by accident.

A few months ago I took my current job working as a supply teacher in Aberdeen. I needed a place to stay short-term so I rented a room from an old university friend. This old friend, unbeknownst to me before I moved in, has a curious obsession with Steve Prefontaine. He has a t-shirt, he has a DVD and, hanging on the wall in my room, he has that portrait (no doubt he has placemats and mugs and bumper stickers somewhere too).

But, and this is the thing that you need to understand, my friend isn’t a freak. He’s not alone in this. There are a lot of people who have Prefontaine on their walls; it’s just that most of them live in America. Go into any house in America (preferably with permission) and there is a reasonable chance that Prefontaine’s moustachioed face is going to be there, on a t-shirt or in a book, or hanging framed next to a bookcase or above a mantelpiece or in the toilet. He could be anywhere.

Why though? It’s reasonable to expect that you haven’t heard of Steve Prefontaine before. Maybe from the portrait and the subject of this blog you can guess that he’s a runner. You’d probably guess that he was a successful one too, a world record holder or an Olympic medallist at the very least.

You might be surprised to hear that while Prefontaine was a runner he never did break a world record or win an Olympic medal. That’s not the allure with Prefontaine, there were other things that made him special.


Prefontaine was rebel, a man who defied convention. For a start he didn’t look anything like a distance runner: with his tousled golden locks, moustache and intense eyes – eyes that look like they’ve seen stuff, you know, heavy stuff – he looked more like a Vietnam veteran than an athlete. There was the way that he ran too, always hard from the gun. Prefontaine preferred to pummel his opponents into submission by setting a fast, unrelenting pace rather than rely on a quick finish in the end.

Prefontaine, to use the American vernacular, had balls. Before the Olympic 5000 metre final at the 1972 Munich games (a race he would finish 4th in) he said: “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.” As far as Prefontaine was concerned running wasn’t about who could move their legs more quickly, it was about who had a bigger heart and, ultimately, who could suffer more pain.

There are other reasons why the Americans have such a love affair with the legend of Steve Prefontaine. Like all good heroes he came from lowly immigrant stock but managed to strike gold in the land of opportunity. Prefontaine is, in a way, running’s Rocky facsimile: an emblem of the American dream and proof that no matter how poor or how foreign you are, anything is possible.

Like all good icons he's used to flog trainers

And like other heroes Prefontaine had a real distaste for authority. He was a man who didn’t think twice about sticking it to ‘the man’. For many years he fought doggedly against the Amateur Athletic Union, a body that decreed American athletes must not be paid to perform if they were to compete in the Olympics. Frustrated by the hypocrisy of race organisers profiting from athletes who were, at the time, paid nothing, Prefontaine set about changing the system.  Like a modern-day Spartacus, Prefontaine crusaded for American athletes to be freed from the oppressive body that enslaved them so that they might profit from their exploits.

But there’s one more reason why the mystique surrounding Prefontaine hangs so thick: he died young. One of the darker facets of human nature is that we like our heroes dead – it’s safer to eulogise them that way. I suppose people prefer to think about what men could have done than what they didn’t do. Those who die before their time will forever be connected to those two big towering words: what if. When he died in a car accident aged 24, we would never the chance to find out if Steve Prefontaine could avenge his defeat in Munich at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. We would never know if he was capable of breaking a world record. And we would never see how far and fast he could really go.

It sounds mawkish to say that someone has inspired you under almost any circumstances (an Oscar acceptance speech being a notable exception). But at the risk of sound like a Mariah Carey lyric I have to say that Steve’s spirit inspires me when I run. And that’s not because I want to emulate the man in the portrait gliding down the beach in the vest, his mouth mantelpieced by a moustache. It’s the sentiment that I buy into – running isn’t about floating or gliding anywhere, it’s about feeling like your chest has been napalmed and still carrying on, it’s about having a stitch and not stopping, it’s about getting to the crest of the hill. It’s about heart and character and it’s about guts.

As Steve says: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

Help! I have duck feet!

Duck feet, knobbly knees and purple socks. An ugly leg if ever I saw one.

Shoes on. Laces tied. Hamstrings stretched. iPod on.

I set off with classic era Oasis pounding on my eardrums. As usual I take the first part of my route like I’m chasing Road Runner – it’s mostly downhill and I usually don’t feel like I’m going into cardiac arrest until I’ve been running for at least ten minutes. It’s after that first long downhill stretch of  woodland path plateaus and starts to subtly creep uphill that things start to go wrong. At that point that my knees, calves and thighs seem to form a trade union, threatening to go on strike unless I stop. Breathe. Say a silent prayer.

And this always happens. I’ve run this route three times so far and every single time without fail I manage a mile or so before my legs silently scream “stop you bastard! Stop!”

Today was different though. It was like my legs had an epiphany. They didn’t need to stop, they weren’t calling me a bastard and I actually felt good, comfortable even. For a while there I was coasting along and feeling serene.

But that couldn’t last for long. I made a horrific discovery today – I have duck feet. By that I don’t mean that I have web toes, I mean that my feet point outwards when I walk. When I run this motion is even more accentuated – I don’t propel myself forward like proper biomechanically correct people do. I have an awkward, rolling gait and I waddle, just like duck does.

My feet

I researched this phenomenon online and discovered that it has a really complicated sounding medical name – “Duck-foot”. The reputable sounding Academy of Functional Exercise Medicine website says that there is a cure for this condition though, and it’s farcically simple – just don’t run with your feet pointed out the way dummy!

“Turning out when you walk wears on the knees, just like tires that are crooked,” the Academy of Functional Exercise Medicine says. “To fix tire wear, you don’t stop driving or change the tires, and you don’t just keep driving that way. You check why they are crooked and fix that. Alignment work is the same for bad knee and foot posture –learn how to hold them straight by using your muscles, not just letting them sway and slump.”

A ducks feet

Right, got that. So I just run with my feet straight then – I’d never really thought of that before …

I hate looking online for a diagnosis. Before you know it that runny nose and slight temperature are the symptoms of something ghastly and terminal and you’re going to die! Get to the hospital quick you fool! Your head’s about to drop off! You see, before I started researching this I didn’t think that there was a wrong or right way to run, I thought it was like your style of handwriting – everyone does it differently, but it’s still all the same somehow. Apparently not – you can run wrong. This BBC site (it’s BBC so it has to be true!) says that there is a special running technique that you need to use and if you don’t use this special technique then you’re being a biomechanical litter bug, dropping your heels in all of the wrong places.

Running for dummies

In fact you shouldn’t even be landing on your heels, your feet should strike the ground with the ball of the foot first before thrusting forward from the toes. This running business is harder than it looks.

So will I try to change my running style? Probably not. I’m not running because I need to get anywhere quickly, I’m running to get fit, to feel that buzz you get from exercising, to be out there on the open road with the sun on my back and the wind blowing through my, um, scalp. So I run like a duck, who cares?

Never run in purple socks

Take note of purple socks

Today I went running in purple socks. This was by accident rather than design – I’m staying with my mother during the Easter holidays and I forgot to pack white socks. That small oversight on my part would have massive repercussions today though. I felt like a total tit for my entire run (that’s around 45 minutes of feeling like a total tit).

Dave Bedford - take the piss and he'll sue

Strangely enough garish coloured socks figure in the heritage of British distance running. Former 10000 metre world record holder Dave Bedford used to take to the track wearing his trademark red socks. That’s not to say that Dave Bedford is some kind of role model for me, to the contrary Dave Bedford was an uncompromising maniac whose draconian training methods forced him into early retirement. Trawling the murky swamps of my early memories I can recall reading a book about Bedford in school and marvelling at his self-flagellating training schedule and rakish moustache. In retrospect both seem slightly foolish – Bedford’s never achieved what he was capable of and his iconic style has been swallowed up and shat out by the 118 adverts (who, as an interesting postscript, he tried to sue for using his image without permission).

Enough Bedford, back to my run. As usual I started out by cantering through the first mile or so, glorious images of me keeping stride Steve Prefontaine projected on the inside of my skull. After ten minutes such romantic notions were swiftly superseded by the feeling that I was going to vomit. It’s the same every time. I gallop off at the start thinking I’m the reincarnation of Seabiscuit or something before, after a few minutes of moderate exercise, I’m knock-kneed, bent double and dry heaving by the side of the road.

After realising that my macaroni and cheese wasn’t going to climb back up the oesophagus and splash out onto the pavement I set off again at a slower pace. Running at an achingly slow pace is not only good for warding off regurgitation, it also allows me to drink in some of the breathtaking scenery that Aberdeenshire has to offer. For those of you who haven’t made it this far north, the Shire is a lot like its Tolkeinesque counterpart, but with an abundance of hoofed animals as opposed to hobbits (no sign of an albino Orlando Bloom either).

Along the way I saw this sign. I would have giggled had I been less frightened that doing so would bring on a stitch.

At least we know he's friendly, for a minute I was worried he might be an anti-social ferret

When I finally made it home I realised that I had completed my route with less stops than last time – an improvement! I also felt far less likely to faint, vomit or have a stroke – another improvement! A change of socks and the day would have been a complete success …

Another crotch related dilemma

Before my run, looking unlikely to puke at this point

Second run 8/4/11 woods near Methlick, Aberdeenshire

Starting out – An azure sky above, untrammelled land below, I’m going off-road, running through the kind of land that Cormac McCarthy writes about! Rugged, unkempt country, mottled paths and snowmelt streams. Not a Burger King in sight and no phone signal. I am Grizzly Man!
200 metres in – Did I drink enough water today? Am I dehydrated?
1 mile in – I’m dizzy. What if I faint here? I’m in the countryside, nobody would know! I could be dead for days before a dog walker finds me!
1.5 miles in – I’d like to be found by a Labrador or a Boxer, not a little yappy dog that would sniff my crotch and scamper off.
2 miles – I’m knelt down, drinking from stream like a weird goat or something. The water feels amazing, crisp, cool, not from a tap. I splash it over my face and I’m ready to go again, confident that I won’t faint, die and be happened upon by a Corgi.

Linford Christie - what a cock (double entendre intended)

3 miles – Getting into the village, sense of trepidation – what if someone stares at my crotch again? I want to avoid that, but how can you avoid it without somehow drawing attention to the area in the first place? Now I know how Linford Christie felt. Maybe next time I’ll go out in a lycra skeleton costume.
3.2 miles – Home and feeling blissed out, but also thirsty and, weirdly, craving chocolate.

After my run and looking like I've just fled from a crime scene or something

Should I put a root vegetable down my shorts in future?

A diary of my first run after over ten years of blissful inactivity …

First run 6/4/11 Aberdeen
100 metres in – Hey, this feels great! I’m flying! I’m Linford Christie, I’m Roger Black, I’m Paula Radcliffe! Why did I ever give this up?
200 metres in – Is that a stitch coming on?
300 metres in – It’s definitely a stitch.
400 metres in – Is this what ‘hitting the wall’ feels like?
500 metres in – Is this what dying feels like? I think my lung just collapsed.
1 mile in – Have I reached the point where I lose bowel control yet?
2 miles in – Wondering how far you have to run before you do poop.
2.5 miles in – Does everyone who runs for a prolonged period of time soil themselves? There is just no way Gebreselassie ever crapped himself. Maybe I’m one of the fortunate few who can control their sphincters during intense exercise.
3.2 miles in – A woman I just passed on the street stared lingeringly and deliberately at my crotch. Note to self: wear longer shorts or conceal some kind of root vegetable inside current pair.
3.6 miles in and I’m home – feeling ethereal, if sweaty.

Route map of my first run