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 …

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.

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.

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.

Pre

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.”