It Never Rains…

September 24, 2016

To my disappointment, the last few weeks of my race season were not easy this year, and they eventually came to a very abrupt and unplanned end.

Around mid-August, I’d started to realise that I’d probably over-raced this year. In my previous instalment of this blog, I’d mentioned I’d been regularly attending several local open meetings offering time-graded seeding. To begin with, all was well. I was in a pretty constant state of race-readiness, because I was getting a competitive 100 and 200 metres race nearly every week. I’d eased back on speed training in order (I thought) to compensate. I think I was wrong. You can have too much quality. At least, at my age you can.

I’d become so race-ready that I no longer had any pre-race tension. Warm up was a fairly boring routine, and in the end, it became hard to tell whether I was actually ready to race, or just a bit de-sensitised to the whole thing. It may seem a bit of a paradox, but I found that doing all of my speed work in race conditions (ie at 100% effort) actually meant I lost a proper feeling for what 100% effort ought to feel like. I really couldn’t tell when I’d had a good race or a bad one. My times were all in a pretty narrow range, which I initially regarded as consistency. Later, I came to regard it as a rut I was in.

By early August, I had just two competitions left in my diary. As people going to the World Masters in Australia in late October were now beginning to come out of the woodwork (I’m not going, by the way) I expected these last two events would be hotly contested. I raced and won two gold medals at the Southern Counties Masters Championships at the end of August. My times were in the same ball-park area. The margin of my wins was a bit flattering as the opposition wasn’t top notch, if I’m honest. What was nasty was the feeling right throughout that day, that I just didn’t want to be there. Don’t get me wrong. It was a perfectly well-organised event. I’d relieved myself of the added burden of photographing it, and I enjoyed the extra time this gave me to chat to some other athletes I don’t get to spend that kind of quality time with usually. But all the time, I felt flat and disengaged.

With just the British Masters national championships in my diary, a few days after I was due back, I set off on a fairly impromptu ten day trip to France to drive some nice alpine roads. The weather looked set perfect, and I thought this would be just the boost my flagging spirits needed. I’d not counted on the car breaking down on a high alpine road on the first day out from our base in Annecy, nor on the absolutely awful customer care we received from my insurers and their European recovery agents. Sadly, after a week of failed promises and a near-total lack of information, my nerves were shot and I’d stressed myself into a state I could only compare with how I was when suffering from depression a few years back. I was good for nothing.

To cut a long and (for me) really quite painful story short, we got home. A bit later than intended, but home nevertheless. I was told my still broken car would be home at the weekend, on the back of a truck, and that it was imperative I was there to sign for delivery. So, bang went my weekend’s racing at the British Masters Championships, my non-refundable hotel booking, and any income I might have gathered from photographs taken there when not racing. Almost needless to say, the car never did turn up, and still hasn’t.

I was too fraught to care, really. As I write this, a week later, I’m “coming round”. I’d planned to take a few weeks rest from physical activity, but I’ve got one of those bodies that gets bored if not given exercise to chew on, So, I’ll be doing a few local walks with the camera in hand, and some very lightweight, mindless gym sessions, just to keep the blood pumping, before I roll into winter training mid to late October.

It’s not what I intended at all.

All Our Trades Are Gone

August 9, 2016

This title comes from a poem by Mick Fitzgerald. Read the blog, then listen to the June Tabor version of it, as a song. It’s on YouTube and the link is at the end of this piece.

It can be a strange and random collection of events and thoughts which trigger these blogs. Sometimes it’s the song title for the blog’s title, or the song’s words, that come first. Sometimes a title only arrives after the thing is written. This one and its title arrived at about the same time.

Currently it is high summer. I’m fit and racing reasonably well. I’m also racing reasonably often, which possibly marks me out from most other 62 year-old sprinters (and the majority of other plain 62 year olds, come to that!). My commitments to the local Masters League are over for the season; I’ve no big international event looming, and the British Masters Championships are still six weeks distant. As a result, I’ve been doing what, I realise, I’ve resorted to for a very great deal of my athletic career: I’m seeking out good Open Meetings.

Nowadays, I’m almost spoiled for choice, even within an hour’s drive from home. It wasn’t always so. The first Open Meetings I attended regularly were in the mid 1970s. The best were at Crystal Palace (entries by post, with a stamped addressed envelope to a posh address in London), and the toughest were at Wimbledon track. The ones I had most success at, and also much pleasure, were, however, on a bone-hard “redgra” track on the University of Kent campus, just outside Canterbury. My records of what and who I raced, and my race times etc, were all lost in a flood that hit the flat I lived in until 1981. I know I ran my lifetime best 400 metres there in 1977. Records of those kinds of events have never made it to the internet. Same with my three fastest ever 200 metres races, all at Crystal Palace. The events hardly ever even got picked up by Athletics Weekly, and a national rankings system like “Power of 10” were not even then a fantasy pipe-dream. Even my long-established running club’s magazine tended to ignore performances run at open events, even if raced in a club vest.

The simple basis of most Open Meetings is “turn up, pay your entry fee, get a race”. I recall they used to be pretty strictly in age bands, and never mixed gender. It’s my great delight that, these days, it’s your declared target time upon entering that determines who you race. That opens up the reality of fiercely competitive, very well-matched, mixed, all age racing. Thus it is that I’m often (far and away) the oldest in mixed races with an age range from about 15 to 60+.

I used to love riding the big Honda motorbike I then owned, to those old Canterbury open meetings. They tended to be in May, June and July. Most seemed to coincide with long, warm summer evenings. I guess that if it was going to be wet, I just stayed at home, of course. Pre-motorways and pre 21st century traffic, Kent’s countryside was a very different place. Fruit growing was still a staple of local agriculture, and “pick your own” strawberries had become big business, in particular. Often, driving down the A20 and on the roads over to Chilham and Canterbury, you’d enter a stretch of road where the air was deeply infused with their scent.

But not all were picked by families on an afternoon out. These were still the days of many, many gypsy encampments by the roadside. The gypsies would earn an income from fruit picking, and later, from picking hops, potatoes, peas, etc. They’d move on as the seasons ripened elsewhere, and all was safely gathered in. During the evenings, that share of the picked fruit that never found its way to the landowner’s stores often used to be sold by gypsy families from roadside tables. There were a couple of these I often used to stop at, to buy a huge, cheap punnet of strawberries, raspberries, and occasionally cherries too. The sellers were genuine gypsy people, as opposed to the kind of “new age” travellers usually seen today. They were amusing, charming folk, always keen to engage in conversation and share local news and information. Surnames like Lee, Brazil and Scamp abounded. Those who stopped to buy were always addressed as “Mush“.

Injury ended my days as an itinerant athlete back then. Social and agricultural change ended the ways of the real Kent gypsies. In the last ten years or so, I’ve come back to a semblance of my travelling days on a summer’s evening, now to Bromley, Dartford, Tonbridge etc. The old Canterbury track is long gone. But the fruit and the gypsies are gone too.

Do listen to this. The connection will be obvious: “All Our Trades Are Gone” – June Tabor and Friends, recorded from BBC4

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

July 20, 2016

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I’ll openly admit that, occasionally, writing a chapter of this blog has been valuable in helping me come to terms with something. This episode is one of those. My blog posts all have titles with connections to my music collection. This time Sandy Denny has given me words where, to be honest, I just have sorrow. Two days ago as I write this, we buried the great Alasdair Ross. He died two weeks ago.

The title is appropriate to this blog of reminiscences, because I’ve know Alasdair since 1975 which is, it pains me to accept, more than forty years ago. To many of us who knew him, I think it’s no exaggeration to say that he was “the athlete’s athlete”. He’d have simply smiled and changed the subject if anyone had ever said that to him, of course.

I used to race Alasdair fairly frequently during the mid 1970s. We’d usually be in the same sprints at Southern League fixtures. His dominance was well-established. I was two years his junior and yet another of the young upstarts snapping at his heels. In my attic, I still have a few copies of Athletics Weekly from those days, which list us together in the results. I remember the collective pleasure the sprinter boys shared back then, when Alasdair won a Scotland vest. I fully expected he’d be selected for Commonwealth Games or something. It didn’t happen, though.

Around the time that bad damage to my back ended my athletics career (or so I thought!), Alasdair also quit the track. He spent several years concentrating on growing his business interests and bringing up his family. At both he was once more a huge success. We also lost touch.

Fast forward sixteen or so years and I was falteringly making a return as a sprinter in Masters athletics. I knew almost no one. My erstwhile contemporaries had moved on to other things and/or long ago given up the track. I turned up to race at the Southern Counties Masters Championships in my first year back, and caught a glimpse of a face I thought I knew. Good grief, it was Alasdair!

He’d been racing again, as a Master, for some six or so years by this time. I didn’t know it then, but soon found out, that he was already greatly respected as a champion over 100, 200 and 400 metres, with a string of individual and relay medals to his name.

That meeting was now nearly seventeen years ago. In the intervening time, we enjoyed much trackside camaraderie, and raced each other often in local, national and international events. I’m proud to say we won relay gold together in the European Masters Indoors in Torun, Poland in 2015 and again later that year at the World Masters Championships in Lyon. And it didn’t take long for me to confirm from my own archives that when we raced each other in individual events, I never once beat him. Ever.

One of my favourite photos (below) shows me with the other relay guys on the Lyon podium with our medals. I’m letting my delight show just a bit (ok, just a lot), and Alasdair is standing there on my left, with a quiet look of satisfaction at a job well done. Little did any of us know this was the last occasion any of us would race with him.

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I cherish the memory of sitting with Alasdair and reminiscing, at a small evening gathering in London, just before Christmas 2015. He told me that he was still training, but had recently moved to a gluten-free diet on account of some digestive problems. Nothing unusual about that amongst very health-conscious older athletes, of course. Looking back, I assume that was actually around the start of what, by a couple of months later, had been diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. I don’t think he had any inkling it was something so serious, at the time of that event.

I was warming up for the 60 metres final at the British Masters Indoor Championships in early March this year when Simon Barrett told me Alastair had spoken to him a few days earlier, and shared the news he had a serious and aggressive form of cancer. However emotionally resilient people might believe we athletes can be, I had to go and find somewhere quiet to compose myself after hearing that. Love and respect for the absent Alasdair abounded at those Championships. I won that 60 metres final and e-mailed him to stress that I had, of course, only “borrowed” the title. That was how I saw it, despite what people had told me about cancers of the pancreas.

It was also Simon who broke the news to me on 4 July, that Alasdair had died earlier that morning. I, like many others I’ve spoken to, thought we’d got ourselves prepared for the probably inevitable bad news. We’d been hearing hearing snippets about Alasdair’s steady decline, and the tender care he was receiving from the Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice in Farnham. Nothing prepares you, though, and I was choked by the news.

As I write this, today’s Wednesday. Alasdair’s funeral was on Monday. It was a very special occasion, which blended family and sporting and other friends perfectly. His coffin was brought into the church to the accompaniment of the theme from Chariots of Fire played as a slow air on the oboe. The tears welled up. That was genius. And it must have been so hard for Alasdair’s father to have been there at his son’s funeral.

Many of Alasdair's Masters Athletics contemporaries, gathered at his funeral

Many of Alasdair’s Masters Athletics contemporaries, gathered at his funeral

Alasdair has been buried in the charming churchyard of St Lawrence Church, Seale, Surrey. It’s somewhere I’m, sure I shall be visiting again in future, to share a few thoughts with him.

Go well, my friend. After all, you always did!

If you’re reading this and you knew Alasdair too, one of his wishes was that donations be made to the Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice or to the family charity Victoria’s Promise

Got your Number

June 14, 2016

Apologies. My last full blog here anticipated the start of my summer track season and was, as much as anything, a piece of therapy to help me get my head in gear. I’d just pulled out from my scheduled first race of the year owing to a niggling injury, and I had no idea where things would head next.

Well, I’m glad to say they quickly got back on track, as it were. My back is sorted for now, and the vertigo hasn’t returned. Since then, I’ve raced five times. Well, four really. One was last leg of a sprint relay. We were so far behind when I got the baton that it was just a fast solo run for the match points.

Earlier that evening I’d run a reasonably satisfactory 100 metres. Such are my Club’s team problems at the moment that I had to race in a lower age group, for fourth place. I’d have won my own age group’s race by a street, but our athlete in that race would not have done so well against the youngsters, so we applied some team tactics.

My race time was very similar to my first outing over 100 metres a year ago, and it posted me at equal second place on my UK age group rankings. A reasonable place to start. A couple of weeks later, I raced two 100 metres events in an evening. Both were faster, and I’ve ended up a clear second place on the rankings. I’ve also run, and won, a 200 metres race, the time from which puts me third on the UK age rankings for outdoor competition this year.

At this time of year, I find it useful to process my race times through an age-graded score calculator. Age grading, (sometimes called age-weighting) is something I’d never heard of before entering the ranks of Masters athletics. It’s basically a way to compare any result in an event at a given age, against a result in the same event by someone of a different age. Some age-graded calculators also have the facility to compare men’s and women’s results on a statistically even footing. There are quite a few variations on the calculation tables around, and they get updated every few years. There are also a set of tables dealing with road running events etc. Age graded percentages are a regular feature of the weekly results from Parkruns, for example.

I’m not going to link to any particular calculator from this blog, but a quick web search for something like “Age graded calculator for runners” will show several. Some have some pretty sophisticated maths behind them.

I’ve been using age-graded calculations for several years. A calculator that allows you to enter your precise age, as opposed to, say, just your five year Masters age group, is a really useful tool to help chart annual progress. It goes like this: “If I ran xx.yy aged 60 for 100 metres, is my time of xx.yy aged 61 a better time or worse?” It may be a slower time on the clock, but as I’m a year older, some decline might be expected. Have I a) declined, in age-graded terms, b) stayed about the same, or c) got faster, in age-graded terms?

Overall, I’ve been one of those athletes who, as my Masters career has progressed, has improved his year-on year age-graded score every year. Age-grading has revealed that my best event (that is, consistently my highest age-graded score) is 60 metres indoors. Aged 52 in 2006, by best race gave me a score of 95.11%. My best time in the 2016 indoor season, ten years older, gives me a result of 97.08%.

That is to say, the calculations enable me to compare results 10 years apart, even though the more recent result is 0.37 of a second slower than the 2006 figure. I’ve got slower against the clock, but the tables tell me that statistically, I’ve improved. And what’s more, I’ve improved from an already high score. Very generally speaking, an age-graded score of above 94% is likely to indicate something close to a world class performance. I’m quite chuffed to be up above 97% for my best event!

Age-grading allows all kinds of calculations to be made. Traditionally in the UK, age group rankings in any event are based just on the time the athletes run. Thus, there is no age-weighting in favour of an athlete who might be in the same Masters five-year age category as the person with the fastest time in that category for the event concerned, but is maybe several years older. This might not matter too much between two athletes ages, say, 35 and 39, but between an athlete aged 75 and one aged 79, the issue is far more significant, for example.

Such are the games age-grading allows you to play, that I can calculate what my 100 metres or 200 metres time would need to be to give a 97.08% age-graded score. An intersting way to set targets and measure potential.

In some countries, age-graded percentages are taken sufficiently seriously that medals in national championships are based on them. Thus, an athlete who didn’t actually win a race in his/her age category, might win gold based on having a faster age-graded time than the younger, actual winner! Unsurprisingly, there are mixed views about age-graded scores being used in this way.

Nevertheless, as a training monitoring tool, they are really useful.

See me….

June 14, 2016

I write two blogs. This one you’re reading now is mostly about what it’s like to be an older athlete. The other is an occasional essay about my photographic work. Their subject matter doesn’t often overlap, but it occurred to me that this posting, which I wrote several weeks ago, ought also to be linked here, so that readers of both blogs can see it.

Now done. Enjoy.

“And When They Were Down, They Were Down…”

May 12, 2016

I think I ended my last blog here a month or so back on an optimistic note, looking forward to a few weeks of steady training before the summer track season began. As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men.… Or, more prosaically, in an old jewish joke: “Q. How do you make God laugh? A. Tell him your plans.”

It’s all gone a bit pear-shaped since then. I put in a few hard training sessions after I got back from the European Masters in Ancona, and felt pretty satisfied at what I was achieving. Then, on a Monday morning after one of those hard outings the afternoon before, I bent to pick up some keys off the stairs and: bingo! My back clicked, I felt the once-familiar shooting pain from my left SI joint and within less than a minute, my back and upper parts were going into muscular spasm. What hurt as much was that this was all totally unexpected. I’d had no warning signs or anything.

The acknowledged “first aid” in cases like mine is to walk. I walked for twenty minutes and things began to loosen up. I walked for twenty minutes more and much had returned to “normal”, save for a sharp pain directly around my left SI joint, radiating into my lower back and buttock. I’m not much of one for pain-killers these days. I spent far too long on the serious ones twenty five to thirty years ago when I originally wrecked my back. However, I allowed a regular daily dose to numb me for a few days until a (thankfully) pre-arranged chiropractic appointment arrived.

The symptoms were diagnosed as muscular, not skeletal, which was a relief. There’s a lot of self-care one can do with muscle that doesn’t apply to bone and underlying structure. Cue lots of gentle stretching and mobilisation, and a regular regime of walks and attention to good posture.

“Proper” training was severely compromised, however, but the day of my first outdoor races of the summer drew inexorably closer. Thus it was, on a damp but humid evening that I was to be found jogging slowly around the track at Canterbury, trying to feel like I was getting ready to race. Nothing seemed to be firing properly. I put my spikes on to see what a few faster strides would feel like, and simply could not lift my knees into anything like a sprint. No way could I race. I made my apologies to my team manager and, for the first time ever in my track career, I packed up and simply walked away.

I felt black and bleak driving home, to be honest. Next morning, I felt stiff and awkward, but more frustrated than anything. And then, somewhat out of the blue, that afternoon I was hit by a major vertigo attack. I’ve had these on and off for quite a few years. The cause is benign. Spending too long with my eyes tracking around a large computer screen is often a trigger. I’d been doing a lot of file editing etc on the computer, and this had presumably set things off. Two hours lying down in a completely dark room is quite therapeutic, not just for my vertigo, either.

I’m writing this two days later. I’ve concluded that I may, or may not, have some semblance of a track season this summer. I’m currently fairly indifferent either way at the moment. There’s nothing for me to fix on as a target this year. I’d never planned on going to the World Masters Championships in Perth, Australia, in the late autumn, and I had already resolved to miss the correspondingly quite late British Masters Championships in September this year, because they clash with my holiday plans. It begins to look like any outdoor season I may have will cover June and July. There’s never much on in August anyway.

So what, he says thinking aloud, is the point of hurrying, putting my back to the test before it might be ready etc, all for a few events over a period of two months? I don’t know the answer yet. This blog is part of my therapy.

Back There Again

April 10, 2016

This blog is overdue, but I wanted to hold off writing it until I had some idea of “the way ahead” for me over the next few weeks and months. Tough. I’m still working that out, but the dust will have grown thick on the latest news, and memory will have failed me even more, if I don’t post it now.

As I write, I’m a week back from the European Masters Indoor Championships in Ancona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. I raced there back in March 2009, when they hosted an earlier European Championships, and I had good memories of the place and the stadium. I made it to my first ever European final back then (at 200m), and we won a silver medal in the 4x200m relay, losing out to the German squad.

My build-up for Ancona this time had been about as good as I could have asked for. Four championship races at 60 metres in the UK, resulting in four wins, including my first British title. I’d run five 200m races, with just one win, but I thought things were coming together nicely.

Championships like the European Masters are tough events. A few years back, to reduce costs, they lopped a day off the overall programme of events, and crammed everything into six days. This year, I raced on four of those six days, racing six times in all. On top of that, I was part of the media crew, working on the track with my camera for Athletics Weekly and others. That was an option, of course. I could have said no, and on the day that the 800m finals were timetables (and lasted) until 11pm, I began to wish I had, especially as it was a day on which I’d raced twice at 200 m earlier on.

I’d been pleased with my 60 metres race times leading up to Ancona. In the British Masters, I’d raced what I’d already mentally set as my benchmark time for the Ancona heats – that’s to say, the time I thought I could run, and that I thought would get me a semifinal place. So, colour me rather pleased when I ran more than a tenth of a second faster, winning my heat, and recording the fastest 60 metres I’ve run since March 2010. Back then, the time won me the Belgian Masters championship. I wasn’t a well person then, either. I was diagnosed with clinical depression a few days afterwards. It was bittersweet in Ancona, realising where I have been in the intervening years, and wondering at matching the Belgian time all of six years later.

I had better draw a veil over the Ancona 60 metres semifinal. I clearly fell asleep on the blocks. I have only hazy recollection of my preparation, and didn’t run my own race. I scraped in to the final as the second of two fastest losers. I’d expected to run faster than in my heat, but I was nearly two tenths of a second slower. Happy to say, however, the final was altogether different. We knew the race would be close for 2nd to 8th place. And it was. The photo below, by the official stadium photographers, shows most of us looking at each other, not really knowing who had finished where. A single one hundredth of a second covered 4th, 5th and 6th places. I got 6th, but I’m happy with it, knowing how close it all was. My time was identical to what had got me 5th place in the 60 metres final in Torun a year previously. This time, I’ll take 6th in Europe. As I write, my heat time also gives me tenth ranking in the world for my age category. Yeah.

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At this time of year, I usually find I’m juggling satisfaction at being fast but perhaps not all that fit, which suits 60 metres, with a need to be fit at the expense of perhaps a little speed, needed in order to survive the rounds of 200m races at a championships. I was surprised to run a slow 200m heat in Ancona, and had a battle royal to grab second place in order to qualify safely for the semifinal. The semi, later that same day, was my fifth race in three days, and it showed. I stumbled coming off the final bend, for reasons still unclear, and failed to trouble the final.

I like relay racing. Our squad was depleted a little this year while our German opponents were at very full strength. A silver medal was always the height of our ambitions really, barring accidents, and silver it indeed was.

Upon arriving home, I was, frankly, completely knackered. I’ve come home from some championships in the past carrying a bad cold or flu. I didn’t catch anything this time – my wife did, however, and I felt my turn would be next (happily not, as I write!) It was good to hear Jesper, my chiropractor, declare me in “pretty good shape” when I saw him three days after getting home, though I can’t say it felt like it!

The sketch plan for the weeks after Ancona had included a return to some fairly intensive basic strength training. My one training session to date found me listless and rather negative. Work commitments have conspired to mean that, apart from that session, I have my first week home free of activity. I think that may be a blessing in disguise.

My title, as ever, comes from my huge music collection. It’s the title of an obscure track from and obscure album by Dave Lambert, of the Strawbs, working solo. It fits the subject-matter, though!

Perspectives

March 14, 2016

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know (and the rest of you can read a few earlier ones and find out) that I write this stuff as I see it, from the heart. This one is going to be a hard one for me to write. Let me tell you the tale of the British Masters Indoor Championships 2016 and you will see why, I hope.

I was cautious in my last blog here, but inwardly optimistic, because I knew I was going really well on the track, particularly at the 60 metres event. A little less so at 200 metres, but that always takes me most of the indoor track season to get into my best form. Possibly why I usually surprise myself (and others!) at season-ending European or World Indoor Championships. Well, I arrived at the British Masters Indoors this year unbeaten over 60 metres, with the top three times in my age group rankings for 2016, and already running times close to those I was putting in at last year’s European Masters Championships. My attention to core strength training in the winter seemed to be paying off. OK, it might have been showing that my hip flexor tendons were/are going to be the next “weak link in the chain”, but I was at least keeping real problems and pain at bay.

A few of my main rivals were not racing. John and Steve were hurt, and Al, I assumed, was having the winter off before coming back strong in the summer. I recalled he’d done things like that before. I’m frequently on record as saying that you can, when all is said and done, only race those who turn up on the line at the start.

We were timetabled to have qualifying heats just after 10.30 and a final about two hours later. I warmed up carefully, but, believing I’d be running again after the first race, held a bit back, because I’d be warming up a second time, later on. So I thought. Then, when we reported for the race, we found that a couple of entrants were not going to race after all. We were still too numerous for one race, given the sprint track only has seven lanes at Lee Valley. We had to hang about while we were re-seeded into a “B” Final and an “A” Final. Hanging about like that is never good. You cool down from warm-up very quickly.

So, before long, I was behind my blocks and ready to race in the “A” Race, for the fastest athletes on recent performances. Total, tunnel-like focus; rituals and routines all accomplished. The gun went. I went. I flew. I won.

This was my first ever individual British Masters Championships win, on my eleventh time of trying. I’d had a silver medal before, and several bronzes, but this was the big one. Gold, and British Champion. I was, of course, pleased, but there was a shadow that I know affected all of us who ran, and herein lies my difficulty.

While I was warming up, an hour or so before, a friend had told me that my long time running friend and rival, Al, had the previous week been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. So that was where he was – not taking the winter off by choice, but beginning chemotherapy. I admit that, on hearing this, I had to break off from warm-up, and go and sit in a corner and recompose myself for a bit.

I have few records of my very early track racing career at home, because much got ruined in a flood where I once lived. However, I do have some copies of Athletics Weekly magazine from 1975 and 1976 that show Al and I raced each other back then in Britain’s Southern League. He beat me each time, and has beaten me on every outing as a Master since my return to serious racing eleven years ago.

Given that, there’s an obvious question relating to last Saturday’s race. I’m not going to ask it, because Al needs now to turn his sporting excellence to beating his illness. In that, I wish him every possible success.

“Perspectives” is a song by Leon Rosselson. It asks some tough questions.

Anniversary

February 29, 2016

The title is a little known song by Al Stewart, but the title serves as a simple introduction to a significant 10th birthday. Almost exactly ten years ago, I raced in my first British Masters Indoor Championships. It was in Cardiff, and I won a 60 metres bronze medal. Those days just precede my earliest blogs, which began a year later.

I’d been racing in a few local indoor sprint events around London prior to that event, but to the close-knit Masters athletics family I was a complete unknown. It was, it seems, unusual for a 51 year old athlete to appear out of the woodwork and win a medal. Sound of a few noses being put out of joint! I’d also entered for the World Masters Indoor Championships, in Linz, Austria a few weeks later. There, I made it into two semi-finals and into the 4x200m relay squad that won a silver medal. I didn’t think that was a bad record for a new boy.

What seems strange is that it is “only” ten years ago. It really does seem like so much longer. Since that good start, my life has been inextricably linked with Masters athletics. I’ve had the joys of great friendships, European and World gold medals – usually in the company of some of my firmest friends. I’ve had the agony of clinical depression, for which the pressures and expectations from training and racing bear a fair slice of blame. I’ve had the fun and immense hard work of being photographer at local, national, european and world track and field events. And above all, I’ve met, raced and worked with some of the best people around.

And I am still doing so, in case you felt this blog was beginning to sound like a resignation speech!

My 2016 indoor track season is three weeks old this year, as I write. That’s three consecutive weekends of final preparation and racing. I now have a weekend off coming up, then the British Masters Championships. One more weekend off, and then I’m away to Ancona in Italy, for the European Masters Championships. I’m looking forward to that in particular. Ancona hosted the European Masters Indoors in 2009, and I have fond memories of that event.

Reflecting on the last three weeks, and the seven races I’ve run over that time, my “score” is five wins, one second, and one third. OK, one of the wins was in a relay, but it was still a good run. I’ve absolutely no reason at this stage to have the slightest regrets about the tough winter of training I put myself through, either. My three favourite wins recently have been in 60 metres sprints. I’m running fast, feeling strong and stable. I want to be faster still for the British Masters and faster than that for the Europeans. I need a few days off to recover from the three races I took part in yesterday, which left me feeling very sore. Massage today has helped, I think, as will a chiropractor visit scheduled for later this week.

So, regard this as an interim blog, reporting on “work in progress”. More to come.

One in a Million

January 21, 2016

I love coincidences. Some people tell me there’s no such thing and that it’s all “fate” or something like that. I’m agnostic enough these days to dismiss that. I just revel in the sheer wonderment of unexpected things happening to me.

There was a time I wasn’t a sprinter. I’d been a good one, then I had quite a bad accident and had trouble even walking properly for a while. I had several spells in traction to help alleviate damage to my spine, and resigned myself, at age 29, to a life without sport. A few years of intensive osteopathy care got me stable, but more than that, my osteos did their damnedest to encourage me to get back into some kind of gym-based fitness regime. I’d progressed as far as some easy mountain walking and scrambling, and even a bit of real rock-climbing with only occasional setbacks, but running seemed a pipe-dream still.

That changed when a good friend, a work colleague of my wife, invited me to go jogging with him. He was a busy hospital consultant, fully fifteen years or more my senior. As I later found, had he had a competitive streak, Alan could have been very successful indeed at 10k and above. He’d started a little jogging group that met up initially in a church hall, before setting out for about an hour around the local streets. I’d jog to Alan’s house, we’d jog to the hall, take our group (beginners, aged 20-50) on a run, then Alan and I would run home again. Regularly, once a week.

To begin with, it was hell for me. Physiologically, I am in no way a distance runner, and I went through agonies on our return home runs, which included the road up quite a steep hill. This became the point that Alan would challenge me. “Come on sprinter boy, see if you can beat the old man!” Distance runner maybe not, but my misfortunes had in no way dimmed the competitive spark in me.

Fast forward some months, and I was amazed to be training nearly every day, covering five or six miles near home each time, and longer at the weekend. All weathers, and Christmas Day too. Alan entered us for numerous 10k and half marathon events, and we ran together as training partners as often as our work commitments would allow. He always beat me hollow. Our next target was the 1994 London Marathon.

I’d always had a hankering to do a full marathon in my 40th year, and we began to get in some good training. I began to suffer with my back, however, and then one day, Alan told me that he’d developed anaemia. Him a medical man, too. He’d got it badly. Running was banned. I ran alone for a while, but lost interest as opportunities to spend decent chunks of time in the mountains came my way. Alan and I remained friends, but saw each other increasingly seldom. Then hardly at all.

This blog is one of two I write. The other is here, and tells a few stories about “my life through the lens” – stuff connected to my photography etc. If you’ve read any of these blogs, you’ll know that for some while I’ve been working on a project connected with the Medway Valley, near to where I now live. I guess I am a pretty successful Masters sprinter these days, and I train hard. In March it will be ten years since the first time I entered national and international standard Masters competition. However, apart from now being my chosen profession, getting out and about with a camera on non-training days is a great relaxation, and gives me tremendous head-space.

Today (as I write, on a fiercely frosty January day) was a day I could not miss out on. The air was completely still, the River Medway flat calm, and the air temperature well below freezing. I was out early, and the sun had not long risen.

I reached a wide, flat part of the area I walk through, where there is really not much to photograph. It’s popular with dog walkers and the occasional runner. The jogger shuffling along the river path towards me immediately seemed a familiar figure. You’re ahead of me, Reader, by now, I’m sure. It was Alan.

I’m not sure who was the more surprised of the two of us. My estimate is that he’s in his mid to late 70s now, but, to me, unmistakable. Of course, given his exertions, and the desperate air temperature, we had all of about two minutes to chat.

Then he was gone. The man who probably did more than anyone else to pull me through recovery and help me stay an athlete, at least in mind some of the time, if not also in body. It was like meeting a ghost from my past. My head is still spinning from the coincidence.

This blog’s title comes from a Chris Wood song of the same name . Do listen. It breaks me up every time.