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.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jammybilly/5816490119/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jammybilly/5816925030/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jammybilly/5816812642/in/set-72157626801122475/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jammybilly/5816804484/in/set-72157626801122475/

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

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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.

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.”

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 …