Afterthoughts

August 27, 2015

Well, it’s done. All of my photos from the World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon, France in August 2015 are now on my web site, and can be viewed here.

It’s a long, tiring but nevertheless pretty mindless process editing everything up for publication. It gave me plenty of time to think about my time in Lyon and the role of a photographer there. I’ve already blogged about what it was like for me as an athlete in the Championships. You can read that here. This follow-up piece contains some of my musings on life behind the camera.

Lyon was my seventh World Masters Championships event. I’ve covered a whole load of European and national events too, of course, as you can see from my website. However, a palmares like that cut no ice with the Lyon organizing committee, who turned me down for accreditation as a photographer there! It was only following the intervention of World Masters Athletics Vice President, Margit Jungmann, that I and Doug “Shaggy” Smith, my long-time Canadian trackside partner behind the camera at World events, obtained clearance to work as photographers at the event. Thank you so much, Margit.

And work we most certainly did. These Championships were spread over four stadiums and it was simply impossible to cover everything. The multiplicity of venues created timetable nightmares and impossible clashes for many athletes, and also for we snappers. We’ve not yet mastered the art of being in two places at the same time, either. On top of this, Doug and I were in a group of two or three photographers who also took part in the Championships as athletes in our chosen events. I think I was busiest, and raced on five days in Lyon. My reward was also to be the only photographer to come away as a World Champion, as my recent blog reports! Some time back, a Masters web site called me “the fastest cameraman in the world”. I like to think I’ve upheld that title by my exploits in Lyon.

These days, I’m much better than I was at giving first priority to my running, and at knowing when to put the camera away, or not even to take it with me to the track. It is so easy to get drawn into the atmosphere of these big events, and suddenly to find that you’ve spent an extra five hours or so on your feet, when you should have been resting up for your next race.

Five hours? Hah, that would be good. I made a couple of short days as photographer in Lyon, after narrowly failing to make the final of the 100m and 200m, and there was one day when the published programme of events was kind, too. However, at other times, a ten hour day was common. Bear in mind too, that on several days the Lyon temperature reached 40 degrees C in the shade, and considerably hotter down on the track, where we were shooting the action. At least it didn’t rain on any of the days I worked on the track.

Not me, but a colleague catches some rest in Lyon!

Not me, but a colleague catches some rest in Lyon!

I had driven to Lyon, and was staying in a motel quite some way out of the city centre. This had its disadvantages – mainly that my social life was pretty limited every evening for two weeks – but it had the advantage that I didn’t need to carry heavy camera gear across the city on the crowded buses, trams and metro trains. Gear? I took two Nikons, three lenses, plus the usual bundle of accessories. A problem with the mechanism of my long lens meant I had to use it the whole time with a 2x converter attached. I was ultimately glad of this, because I could catch a lot of the action from further away than usual, and had less running about to do. However, it was hopeless for things like group photos, so I was glad of the second camera and a wide lens.

Being properly dressed for the conditions, remembering the suncream, and above all, eating and staying properly hydrated are all things you learn from bitter past experience at events like this. We were not really grateful to the Lyon organisers for expecting the accredited photographers to wear bright green nylon bibs, produced in a “one size fits none” shape. However, on the positive side, we had few problems in Lyon that we’ve experienced at past events, of unauthorised photographers getting under our feet. It was also great working alongside a team of track officials who were generally courteous and good-humoured, and, most of the time, respected us as having a job to do and knowing how to do it. We’re not always that fortunate! There were nevertheless the occasional “moments”, as there always are, when action, art and officialdom come together!

When it came to deciding which tracks to shoot at, I set a few simple principles. I wasn’t prepared to drive from stadium to stadium all around Lyon to catch action at several different venues on a single day. Time spent navigating Lyon’s roads was time not spent catching the action, of course. I also gave priority to venues that would have a good number of British athletes there, and to venues where finals were taking place. Even so, at one venue I visited for a day, there was so much going on, spread around a large and shade-less site, that I eventually found I was missing more potentially good shots than I was getting. At least the multiple venue approach by the organisers meant these championships were able to finish the schedule every day by early evening. None of the usual late nights, although there were several early starts.

As a freelancer, I am fortunate, in one sense at least, not to go to these events burdened with the expectation that I will submit a body of work, reports etc, every afternoon or evening. I pitied those slaving away in the media centre who had to do this, keep web sites up to date, and so on. Apart from catching the best of the action, I needed to ensure that Athletics Weekly magazine got a dozen or so shots from me by the end of each of the two Sundays I was in Lyon. I also made sure I posted a representative selection of photos regularly to Twitter. My iPad served me well as portable technology. The main stadium and the media centre were also supplied with very capable wi-fi, unlike my hotel, where it was slow and sporadic.

That same description could be used of the online results service in Lyon. It could be, but to use it would be irresponsibly kind. To be frank, for most of the duration of the Lyon championships, the results service was an utter disaster and a significant black mark against the achievements of the Lyon organisers. Not only was the capacity of the web site used for the results service grossly under-estimated, but it took far too long for the situation to be improved. Far too little information was given out about what was happening to get better results out to the athletes and the world at large, too. One has to hope that the organisers of future events will recognise the web-oriented world in which we live now, and ensure that they prioritise a world championships-class web service.

I’m as yet undecided whether I will be going to the 2016 Worlds in Perth, Australia. It’s a long way off, though, and things might change.

(Oh, and in keeping with tradition, I even managed to keep this blog title related to music in my collection. “Afterthoughts” is a track from long ago by Irish folk supergroup Sweeney’s Men!)

Sadly, I don't know who took this shot. Shaggy Smith on the right. Me third from right in the white hat, holding my camera.

Sadly, I don’t know who took this shot. Shaggy Smith on the right. Me third from right in the white hat, holding my camera.

(I’m) Sitting On Top Of The World

August 17, 2015

One of the big problems I find with major competitions is that while you might get to meet the best at actually doing their event, you also encounter the best at talking about it. Sometimes it is the only conversation you get out of them. Conversation? It’s usually one-way stuff! There are many variations to the breed, and I often hear stories from others that make me glad I spend a lot of my time down on the track, photographing the action. I’m a poor spectator, and usually need to be doing something, rather than watching others do something.

I can’t always get away from them, even down on the track. The ones that irk me most are those who obsess about consequences. You know. Their story’s usually a variation on: “If I do A and B, C will happen, providing D and E don’t”. They’ve usually managed to filter out the possibility that F, G and H are out of the frame. They’re also invariably wrong, particularly when it’s other people they’re applying their theories to, rather than themselves!, Some can carry this stuff on as part of the post-mortem to a failure. Some have even learned to use the techniques to analyse their successes!

No, keep me away from them, please. There are aspects of my own branch of the sport that I find sufficiently mindless that it really doesn’t do me any good to think too much about them. OK, that might be a point I’ve only reached after many years, but it’s nevertheless the case for me. I am regarded as a good starter from the blocks, for example. These days, it is such ingrained technique that in the mili-seconds that follow the gun (they seldom precede it with me; I have a good record for not false-starting), there is just not enough time to lay out a plan and carry out corresponding actions consciously. However good it might be and look, it’s still a mad thrash. I’m well into distraction therapy on race day, so that I don’t have to think too much about it.

This was how it was on the day of the sprint relay finals at the World Masters in Lyon (yesterday, as I write this). I did an hour or so’s photography of the adherents to full-immersion baptism, aka “steeplechasers”. This included a trackside incident that reinforces my view it is useful to have us photographers around. A Greek guy had a nasty fall at the water-jump. He spoke only Greek. The paramedic spoke only French. My photo buddy Alex is fortunately fluent in both, and saved the day.

I’m sometimes not as good at putting my camera away and getting off to the warm up area as I should be, but I was yesterday. Increasingly, I find a long, slow warm up works best for me (age?) and I gradually built up the effort while avoiding too much conversation, especially with the obsessives. We were a relay foursome who have seldom worked together in the past, and baton change practice was cursory, a) because there was no room in the pathetic warm up space we were given in Lyon’s Duchère stadium, and b) because we had no baton to practice with. We basically just trusted each other’s skill and experience, and reminded ourselves to keep the changes “safe” at all costs.

The area in which we were penned up, waiting to race wasn’t unpleasant in the warm sunshine. Had it rained, it would have been hell. There were also virtually no toilet facilities, so I was glad I’d “been before I got there”. Then it was “race on”. Me running the first leg.

I ran last leg in a relay a few weeks ago. I could get to like the “glory leg” aspect of winning, but getting overtaken from the lead and throwing away the efforts of three team-mates would never suit me. These days, my fast start serves to help establish us in the race. I had lane 5 on the track. Perfect for me. The bend is gentle, and I can really put the power down.

There was a false start from the German guy in lane 2. I’ve learned to go with the gun and only respond to the false-start recall gun, of course, but I saw him getting a yellow warning card, as I walked back to my blocks. That false start was an immense help. I realised I’d got my starting blocks set up perfectly, and if I went off next time as well as I’d just done…. I’m teasing you, of course. There was no such analysis until later. At the time, it’s just focus, focus, focus.

Bang! Go. Drive the legs. Pump the arms, Fly! Actually, other than responding the the bang, none of that happened consciously, of course. But a few seconds later, this time I realised I’d got it right big-time. I was almost on the shoulder of the Spaniard in Lane 6, and the French guy in Lane 7 was coming back to me. A few seconds more and I could see Ian, crouched confidently in the acceleration zone before the takeover box. We’d agreed he’d not put his hand back until he was in the box, to avoid a premature changeover. We’d agree he’d go off harder than in practice, and we’d agreed he’d keep to the right of the lane, to allow me to maintain speed and not run into the back of him. So, all I had to do was watch for his hand, and put the baton there. It really was that simple.

Ian shot off, Alastair took over from him, and Steve, although worryingly in pain from an achilles injury, did his usually star turn on the glory leg. We won. We were World Champions. It really was that simple. (Hah, hah!).

I knew I’d run well. Others kept telling me. Other people can be kind, of course, but so many told me this time, that there was a real chance they (and I) were right. It was only several hours later that someone told me about the online report by Athletics Weekly magazine, which referred to my “spectacular ” lead-off leg.

I can live with that. Job done.

(Not long after I first posted this blog, I found video of the race on YouTube. Watch me fly on that first leg! http://youtu.be/5A5H99Nd3L8 )

Both Ends Burning

August 13, 2015

I’ve been out at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon, France, for ten days now. My apologies I’ve not blogged. My time is so taken up at events like this either racing, preparing to race, recovering from racing, travelling between hotel and track, photographing, or editing the photographs (and so on, and on….) that it’s hard enough to fit in meal times, let alone writing!

However, today is a rest day, while the World Masters Athletics Council big-wigs meet to decide how many angels would fit on the head of a pin, and where the 2018 World Championships will be held. I’ve done my one and only proper piece of touristing in Lyon this morning (too full of athletes I’ve been seeing all week), I’ve restocked for lunches for the last three days of the Championships, Now, tea and French doughnut (beignet) in hand, I’m reflecting.

I had a delightful few days driving out to Lyon, but I arrived at the same time as the start of a heatwave. Normal local temperatures at this time of year (early August) are around 26-28C. We began getting 35-38C. On the third day of the Championships, I had my heats of the 100 metres. Fortunately these were early in the day, but already in quite intense heat. Warm up facilities for athletes were, as so often, inadequate and overcrowded, but I ran well, very nearly won my qualifying heat, and advanced to the semi-finals next day. By “ran well” I mean season’s best, superb start and pick up, and general feeling of wellbeing.

That next day was a bit of a case of “eat, sleep, repeat” and I was again on track at 10.30am. Making it to this semi-final had been one of my targets for the year, but I was in with a sniff of the final now, if I excelled. I didn’t quite. I missed making the cut for the final overall by just two places, putting me tenth fastest overall. Well, I’ll take top ten at the Worlds, thank you very much, and I picked up my cameras to get stuck in to shooting the rest of the day’s events.

It hit a recorded 40C in the early afternoon, and almost certainly got hotter later. I drank, and drank, and drank. About 12 litres of water, a flask of tea, and a cold beer. By close of play around 6.30pm I was done for, but at least I had the first of the Championships rest days to regather my composure during Saturday, next day, before reporting to run in the 200 metres heats on Sunday.

I attempted a little token touristing next day, but as my hotel is an hour from the local transport systems, it was a long walk to start with, on already tired feet. After not all that long, I headed back, just as the heavens opened, and temperatures plummeted. I’d say I was soaked to the very bones when I reached the hotel again. And worse, by mid-evening, I was sure I had caught something, or that the volume of liquid I’d had to consume the previous day had severely compromised my system.

I’ll spare you the details, but when the 5.30am alarm sounded on Sunday, I was a wreck. Breakfast was tea and Immodium, and the 200 metres heats were at 10am in very humid conditions after the heat and the rain, which had continued all night. By some miracle, I got second place in my qualifying heat again, and gained a place in Monday morning’s semi-final. And, with that, the second of my two targets for the year was also in the bag. I headed back to the hotel, a drive of about twenty minutes. I got there before, shall we say, a full system collapse. The expression “both ends burning” might convey it enough. I died several deaths in my bed, and gave in to this ill-timed sickness. I ate no food, and could manage only occasional sips of water.

I don’t recall a lot more. Eventually, I slept dreamless sleep. Good job I had left the 5.30am alarm in place. When it woke me on Monday morning, I felt drained and dreadful, but duty demanded that I at least report for the 200 metres semis a few hours later. All the subsequent preparation, travel, and warming up stuff at the track used auto-pilot.

Although I’ve probably had a better year at 100 metres this year, I still love running 200 metres races. I’d done a long, slow warm-up and when we were walked half of the way around the track to the start, in what was very “British” weather, I may have felt physically empty, but mentally, I was relaxed and prepared. Don’t ask me how.

I flew from the gun. The bend was possibly my best ever. As I hit the straight, I distinctly heard the stadium announcer say “And it’s Tom Phillips of Great Britain and Northern Ireland with a good lead as the athletes come off the bend.” I relaxed slightly at this point, without allowing my speed to drop, as one needs to do in a 200m race, and with about 60 metres remaining, I groped for top gear. But it was gone. Three others came past me as the race ended, and my fourth place was just short of what I needed for a slot in the final. I wasn’t really surprised. Just to be there after the trauma of the previous 24 hours was remarkable enough. And it had ended, too. I suddenly felt ravenously hungry. A supermarket quite near the stadium met my needs fully.

I’d run a 2015 season’s best outdoors, too. The body is a truly strange thing. Well, mine is, at least.

Photo by Alex Rotas

Photo by Alex Rotas

Oh, and I achieved another ambition in the 100 metres in Lyon. Photos of me racing are rare. Photos of me running well are rarer still. However, my friend and fellow photographer Alex Rotas got several shots of me from trackside that are, to me, just perfect! I’ve added one to this blog. Thank you so much, Alex.

More from Lyon before I go home.

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher

July 30, 2015

Unless you’re a (Sir) Van Morrison fan, you probably won’t know the song referenced in the title of this blog. It’s great, but the words actually bear little or no relevance to the subject here. The title was just a good vehicle for a few thoughts.

I have only ever had one coach, and that was very many years ago. So much of my working life, when I was competing and had a proper job, involved such irregular hours that I found it impossible to do other than train on my own, and gather advice from wherever it seemed available.

The six weeks since my last blog here has been fascinating. I’ve actively sought out as much competition at time-graded open meetings etc as I could reasonably handle. In order not to overload myself, one of those people whose counsel I admire suggested I drop one training session a week. The logic was that a) I’d benefit from more rest time if competing more often, and b) as I’d be getting all my speed work at 100% effort, against the clock, the risk of injury was increased if I tried to compete more and train “normally”. That’s a bit chicken and egg, but the recipe worked for me, and results came quickly. It’s one of the few times in recent years when I’ve definitely been able to link cause and effect in my training. The oher times were a bit more speculative.

I lowered my Club’s age category record over 100 metres four times, and over 200 metres outdoors twice. I was still faster over that distance back in Poland indoors, which surprises me. I also had several races where I acquitted myself well amongst Masters athletes twenty and more years my junior, and I really got my competitive mojo back. The Masters Inter-Area match got me a 100 metres second place, and a third place at 200 metres, plus the very rare opportunity to anchor a sprint relay team home for a win. That’s rare for me, by the way, as I usually run the first leg in relays, not the last! Those three races were all within the space of about three hours. It was a great chance to test my resilience.

Then, six mostly restful days later, came the British Masters Championships in Birmingham. I’ve had a very occasional 100 metres bronze medal there, though not for a while. I was only placed sixth in 2014, too. This time it was second. My first British Championships silver medal! And another Club record. I was third in the 200 metres next day, too. I was, of course, quite pleased, and had great feedback from many fellow athletes who watched those races.

As I write this, it’s nearly a week later still, and I am on the road. I’m making a leisurely four day journey through some very familiar pieces of France, heading for the World Masters Athletics Championships, in Lyon. I’ll blog a bit on this journey, and while in Lyon.

So, minus “guru” and “teacher”, my “method” this summer seems to have worked on at least two levels: I’ve had modest success and I’m currently a very happy athlete. The two have not coincided for a few years!

Stay tuned!

“Blow Ye Winds”

June 10, 2015

There’s been so much going on that I’ve regularly forgotten my resolve to post another chapter to this blog. Apologies, if you’ve been waiting on my every word!

There used to be a saying that “Life is a bitch, and then you die”. Well, some of my last six weeks have been evidence of the “bitch” part. Back in May, I got the news that I may be losing my sight. Not quickly, it seems, though no one can tell me how “slowly”. I’ve had estimates that range from between two and twenty years. I’m taking up the twenty year option, of course. I wrote a bit more about this on my other blog here, so I’ll not repeat myself. Suffice it to say that, for the moment, I’m fine.

Very fine, running-wise, in fact. I had the luxury of quite a late start to the outdoor track season. It squeezes my build-up to the World Masters in Lyon, France, into a slightly shorter space than my original plan, but I’ve overcome this by changing my training/racing routine. I’ve had the chance to enter several small open meetings locally, and put in a bundle of 100 metres races – at least one meeting a week, and sometimes two races at each meeting. I’ve dropped one training session each week as a result, though my overall activity level is well up, because I’m heavily involved in a long term photographic project which requires me to walk ten to fifteen kilometres through some delightful local countryside, twice or three times a week.

The new recipe seems to suit my body well. I’m aware that I’ve been arriving at the track for races feeling much lighter on my feet than usual. I’ve also, at last, settled on quite a long, slow warm-up process, based on something I first tried at the European Indoors back in March. It certainly worked well for me then, and seems to be doing so again. My weight is more than three kilos down on this time last year. I put most of that down to the benefits of doing the local Parkrun for a while last winter, though the loss currently seems to be self-sustaining, with little conscious effort on my part. I guess many people will be envious?

What has been bad has been the great British weather. Very nearly every – yes every – race this year has been affected by winds. Not always headwinds, but when you’re trying to get a proper idea how well you’re racing, running with 0.9 metre per second tailwind can be as frustrating. Well, to be truthful, maybe not as frustrating, but a source of irritation nonetheless. I got an inkling that things were going well when, in mid May, I ran just a tenth of a second slower than my 2014 best while running into a 1.7 m/s headwind. An hour later, this time with a 0.9 m/s tailwind (well within legal limits for record purposes etc, of course), I came within one hundredth of a second of my 2014 best.

This form is holding, for now at least. I won gold over both 100 and 200 metres at the Southern Counties Masters Championships at the end of May – my first golds there for quite a few years. Just over a week later, on an evening mostly of very gusty, variable winds that gave me one quite frustrating 100 m race, I ended the evening knocking four hundredths of a second off my best 2014 time. It was a performance currently good enough to see me into second place on the 2015 UK age group rankings. It’s also my fastest 100 metres performance since 2012, so there’s life in the old dog yet. The irony was that the electronic wind gauge reading for that race was 0.0. Flat calm.

More in a while.

You’ve Gotta Listen To Your Heart

May 8, 2015

The buzz from the EuroMasters in Poland has subsided a bit. I’m really grateful to the kind people who sent me photos and video clips of me running in Torun. As I’ve said before, pictures of me on the other side of the camera are rare! Sadly, no one had video of my 200 metres semi-final. I would really love to see that. The 60 metres final made its way to YouTube, though. That’s me nearest the camera! I am really grateful to team-mate Bob Douglas for that video.

I was emailed ten days or so after returning from Poland and pointed at the Masters World Rankings. I’d never thought to look at these, but hey, I was WORLD ranked 15th at 60 metres and 7th (yes, seventh!) at 200 metres indoors for 2014/15. Chuffed? I’ll say.

The downside of most big championships for me is that with racing and my media commitments, I literally run myself right into the ground. My immune system crashes, and I usually get grabbed by whatever cold, flu or chest infection gets to the head of the queue. I suffered badly with bronchitis after the World Indoors in Budapest in 2014, and this year, Poland’s parting gift was a very irritating virus that led to four weeks of chest congestion, an annoying cough, and bouts of real lethargy. I wasn’t alone in having this. Several team-mates suffered much the same as me in the weeks after returning to the UK.

Of course, it was hard coming to terms with this. I had two weeks’ complete break. That was planned, and boring, but on the plus side, it gave me good time to market my photos from Torun, which have been very well received. I thought I’d have good residual fitness when I began training again in April. My plans were therefore to keep the work-rate high when I resumed training. Mistake.

What I did wrong was to look too hard at what I was seeing on the watch and heart rate monitor etc (much of which was good), and not pay enough attention to my perceived levels of fatigue. I wasn’t actually recovering between sessions, and a downward spiral began. I’m glad to say I spotted this in time, but I was shocked at just how fatigued I’d become so quickly. A longer training break was the only remedy. I’m never able to become a complete couch potato, so I channelled what energy I could muster into a walk in the countryside pretty much every day. I’m writing this at the start of May, and I’m just feeling that I’m seeing the last of this chest thing now. Unfortunately, all the walking seems to have irritated my left achilles tendon a little. The optimism and upbeat mood evidenced in my last blog is being sorely tested!

I’m due to race on 11 May. I’ve persuaded myself that there isn’t anything I can really do in training between now and then that will boost my performance by then, but lots I could to to damage my prospects. I’d rather turn up rested and under-tested than tired and lethargic. This is planned to be an exceptionally long season.

(This time’s title comes from a Tom Petty song, by the way. Or nearly.)

The Circle Game

March 31, 2015

I had my best track season ever (so far!) in 2009. I was 5th in the World Masters 100 metres and 4th in the 200 metres final in Lahti, Finland, missing the bronze medal in the latter by just two hundredths of a second, as the athlete next to me tripped and fell forward faster than he was running! A lot of work had gone into getting to those races. My blogs eventually came to admit that it was not all good work, because the expectations I’d placed on myself were huge, and I’d been beating myself up physically, and (particularly) mentally. Later, when the work got harder and the results refused to come in the winter of 2010, my slide into clinical depression was as rapid as it was unexpected.

The world has come to know that depression is an issue in sport, just as it is elsewhere in real life. I don’t recall us acknowledging that quite so much, even as recently as 2009.

Well, I’ve just had my most successful major indoor athletics season since March 2009. Back then, the European Masters Indoors in Ancona, Italy, were a vital part of my build up to the Worlds in Finland that summer. I’m newly back from the 2015 European Masters Indoors in Torun, in Poland. I ran my fastest 60 metres for several years in the heats, made the final, and got 5th place in it, in an even faster time. In the 200 metres heats it all just clicked perfectly into place. I ran my socks off and made the semi-final as second fastest qualifier of 18 top class Masters athletes. My heats time was half a second faster than I’d been running even a few weeks before, despite having had a worrying back problem just before leaving for Poland. Things went even better for me in the semi-final the following morning. Although it was my fourth race in four days, the chiropractic and massage experts of our British Masters Medical Services squad had kept me in great shape.

My semi-final time saw me third fastest qualifier for the final in a time I’d never have dreamed of achieving this winter. It was about 2009/10 that I last raced that fast. (Are you spotting a pattern here?) In Finland in the 2009 Worlds, there were several, myself included, I guess, who had just about placed a bronze medal around my neck before the 200 metres final had even begun. This time? Well, maybe once or twice, but I’d arrived at this point more surprised than anything (and anyone) else. I was just wide-eyed with amazement at what I was doing, and loving every hundredth of a second of it.

The 200 metres final happened in the evening of the same day as the semi-final. I’d had a massage, a meal, a sleep, and largely stayed away from my obligations as a photographer down on the track during the day. I was ready. I had a good lane draw, and the faster guys outside me. From the gun, the chase was on. I felt great until 150 metres of the race, when someone or something covered my thighs in lead. As the finish line loomed, I was in 4th place. On the line, I was pipped by a team-mate by four hundredths of a second. The qualifying rounds had taken their toll, and the times we both ran were well down. There is video of my race at https://t.co/gWYorQgQLi

Fifth place in two European Masters finals a few days apart? I’ll take that. I had no idea at all it was remotely in the offing when I travelled out to Poland. In 2009 there had been pleasure tinged with big, yet suppressed, annoyance, and lots more opportunity to turn on myself for having “failed” to get a medal. That was even despite our gold medal in the sprint relay a couple of days afterwards. This time around, for the me of 2015, there was joy. Apologies to those to whom I spoke in the hours after that race in Torun. I was on the verge of tears of pure pleasure each time. My face hurt from the smiles as much as my legs hurt from the races, by the time I got back to my hotel.

No beating myself up, no raking over the past training schedules for evidence of inadequacies. I’d rediscovered what makes a 61 year old man who has basically been a sprinter all his life carry on doing it. Fun. Pure, unalloyed FUN. I was not ” a better person” for success (such as it was) in Torun, just as I came to learn that “failure” (such as it seemed back then) in Lahti didn’t label me “a bad person”, except in a mind that had made itself literally ill with the unrealistic expectations it had stacked up. The me of July 2009 didn’t understand that. Depression is not about being “a bit sad” etc. It’s an illness that will eat you whole until you confront it and ask for help.

I did, when the alternatives became unthinkable. To those who helped, my delight at what I achieved in Poland last week is for you to share. Some of you will be reading this. You know who you are. Thank you.

Oh, and on the day after that 200 metres final, I led off a 4 x 200 metres relay squad that won a gold medal by a big margin. A number of friends commented that I seemed a bit happy on the presentation rostrum when we got that medal. Perhaps this blog goes some way to explaining.

IMG_4842

IMG_8206

Hat tip to Joni Michell for the title of this blog. The reason I used it might be obvious, but in addition, you need to know that 200 metres indoors is raced as one lap of the track. As I write, Joni is, sadly, very ill in a Los Angeles hospital.

The Heat Is On

March 11, 2015

I’ve avoided blogging here for the few weeks that have represented my domestic indoor athletics season this year. I really didn’t want to tempt fate. My plan only included six (eventually seven) races spread across three meetings. I couldn’t afford to screw up, or my plans to race in Poland at the end of March at the European Masters Championships might have been derailed. By leaving out the open-graded sprint meets I occasionally do, I was basing my season around three championship events – three in just four weekends.

So?

Well, first a bit of a recap. My damaged wrist screwed any chance of the strength-based autumn I’d planned. My emphasis therefore had to change to favouring aerobic fitness (which is where the Maidstone Parkrun fitted in), over which I hoped to layer some slightly more sprint-related work in the second half of the winter. I miscalculated a bit. That “second half” was quite short, because my scheduled indoor races began in February.

First discovery was that my sprint starting and pick-up phase was good. Certainly better than I’d expected. My regular focus in the gym on building fast leg-speed clearly played a part here. Several times, I’ve been leading a 60 metres race up to 40 metres, only being overhauled at the close, when this winter’s missing ingredient – strength work to help me maintain full speed – began to take its toll. Nevertheless, I’ve come within a mere 5/100ths of a second of the target 60 metres time I’d set myself for this winter. That target was the same as my fastest race last winter. I figured that a year on, a year older, etc, matching it would actually represent a bit of a stretch target, given how my winter’s training had actually panned out.

Racing 200 metres events has been a bit of a different story. Sure, I’m getting up to full speed quickly, and relaxing into top gear quite well. But better aerobic fitness notwithstanding, it begins to go a bit downhill from the point at which there is a fine balance between sprinting hard to the finish and simply preventing lactic acid from slowing you down. Put simply, in these races too, I’m being passed by guys able to hold high speed for longer than me. My conclusion is that much of the aerobic work I did in the winter (Parkrun included) just wasn’t at a sufficient speed to address this. That’s to say, despite the suffering involved, steady 5k runs should have given way to 250 and 300 metre repetitions at a high percentage of race pace rather earlier on.

The watch agrees. I’ve been disappointed with my 200 metres times – even though I have just won a bronze medal at the British Masters Championships.

So?

Now the focus is on Poland. At time of writing, I have two weeks to find some speed endurance. Probably not enough time, because speed endurance work hurts and is tiring, and I don’t want to arrive at the European Championships tired out from training for them. Therefore, I think I’m locked into sharpening up even more on the things that are going well, in the hope that they can provide an even better cushion and camouflage for the weak spots.

I’ll blog again after Poland and let you know. Wish me luck!

Ballad of a Thin Man

January 24, 2015

It’s a Bob Dylan track. You’ll see why I chose that title for this blog. Just read on.

I was reminded of an old cartoon-strip joke about the Victorian explorers who meet a new tribe. “Who are you?” they ask them. “We’re the Fkawi!” Says one explorer to the other “Damn, these people are lost as well.”

Well, it’s almost the end of January, and, as it were, where the …. are we?

In a pretty good place, really. When last we met, I was anticipating running a couple more local Parkruns before getting back into some deep winter, sprint-specific training. The “best laid plans of mice and men”, eh? On my second from last Parkrun I pulled a calf muscle at about 3k and almost failed to walk the rest of the way to the finish. Not an experience that endeared me any more closely to running 5k events. I was told I run like a sprinter, so how do I expect bits to last distances ten times longer than I ever race in anger? The calf recovered well by just before New Year, but although I’ve ventured out since as photographer for my local Parkrun, I’m no longer using it as an element of my training.

Nevertheless, the aerobic fitness boost it gave had been helping me me greatly to get into a good routine for other training. I’ve not sustained four sessions of quality training each week like I am doing at present for a good few years. The emphasis has recently been on agility, strength and the beginnings of speed endurance. I’ve had to keep a careful eye on my calf, which niggles now and again, but otherwise, I feel good, and it feels good to feel good!

I don’t know whether the gym I use is going through hard times, in terms of membership, but this year I saw no appreciable increase in usage after New Year. OK, it may be happening in the evenings, and not the late afternoon when I’m mostly there, but usually there’s a burst of enthusiastic “New Year resolution” people. Most of them have faded away by about Easter, if not much sooner. Nevertheless, today, the local Parkrun broke its record for the number of people taking part, and the jogging/road-racing thing seems very back in vogue. Both of these things mean I’ve had some great sessions where I have had acres of gym space to myself. This has been brilliant for plyometric work, drills and stuff. At this time of year, I hate outdoor training for things like that. Being lean, I suffer from the cold. I hate spending a load of time warming up in layer after layer of gear, only to lose all that heat between reps and end up freezing again.

Lean? I don’t struggle with my weight, though time was that I had a stubbornly high body fat percentage that seemed determined to resist whatever so-called “fat burning” element of my training I tried on it. I mentioned in the last blog that while a volunteer for tests at Manchester Met University back in November, I saw an MRI scan “slice” of my thigh, revealing very low intra-muscular and subcutaneous fat. My measured body fat percentage is also very much lower now that I can ever remember it being. Partly age, partly effort. Pity it’s been so cold though!

I’ve got just on three weeks to go before I begin racing indoors. I could have chosen to do some open graded meetings already, but I’ve made a very conscious decision to restrict myself. I’m doing two competitions leading up to the British Masters Indoors in early March, and that’s pretty much going to be it (fingers crossed against injury) before the European Masters in Poland at the end of March.

The late and limited start is because I’ve realised that I could still be racing well into October this year! The World Masters Championships are in Lyon in France at the start of August, and I’ll also be going to the European Masters Games, in Nice, starting on 1 October. There’s plenty of local competition too and I really want to avoid setting myself up for some painful wear and tear. The calendar I’ve got actually makes it hard to spot a good opportunity to back off for a few weeks without the risk of losing form.

So, that’s it for blogs until the gun goes.

Time Is On My Side (?)

December 8, 2014

So, winter drawers on, as the old pun goes. We’ve just had our first sharp frost, the shortest day is here in a fortnight, and spring will be here soon, I’m sure. And what is this older athlete doing at this time of year?

I confessed to you in my last blog that I’d started running in my local weekly Parkrun. Well, several weeks on, and I’m still doing it. I still hate it, every step of the way. Well, except maybe the last, uphill hundred metres, into which I can pour the remainder of whatever energy I have left. A couple of times, that’s been pathetically little. It counts, though. Last time, I gave the hill everything, and broke my Parkrun 5k personal best by three tiny seconds. There are some fast guys in our local run. I was probably more chuffed to come third in my age group. Age groups are important in Masters athletics. They give you a relative benchmark to go with the absolute one supplied by the stopwatch.

Mind you, my Parkrun days are definitely numbered. Once the build up properly begins to the indoor track season, I’ll have no real need of a highly aerobic, but essentially slow, running session like that once a week. I have some faith in what’s called specificity in my training. The Parkrun has been useful as a bit of a shortcut to good aerobic fitness, if I’m honest, but as training for the mad thrash of 60 metres indoors, pretty useless, of course. It may have helped a bit with my sometimes faltering speed endurance – a vital component of every 200 metres race – but specificity in training now demands my attention shifts to speed and power, or power and speed.

My wrist injury (healing steadily now, thanks for asking) occasioned me turning my winter around, and do the aerobic/ endurance stuff before the power work this time, while bone healed. A bit of me can now see an advantage in that, which wasn’t obvious when expediency was the driving factor behind the change. My more usual regime would have allowed only around a month, between Christmas and the indoor track season, to attend to my aerobic fitness. This year, I’ve had the best part of three months, and towards the end of this, been able to taper in some speed and power work, without suffering the panic of knowing my first races are just around the corner. Racing this winter begins for me in February, so time, for a change, feels like it’s on my side. (Hence my choice of music-related blog title. This time from the Rolling Stones)

The plan is one more Saturday Parkrun, followed by a week on holiday, and possibly, just possibly the Christmas Day Parkrun. The latter is for a little mental boost next summer – when I remind myself that few of my rivals will have trained on that particular day in the calendar! If any of them read this, of course, they’ll now all go out and train on 25 December, though, I suppose.

There are, I’m sure, some other benefits. Parkruns are really quite sociable events, even when you suffer in them, like the sounds I make convince me that I do. Most of my other training is pretty solitary. I admit a part of that is by choice – I like the space of a relatively empty gym, and not having to queue for weights, etc. Plus, I have always hated group training sessions on the track. Having the luxury of being free these days to train at off-peak times (and prices) means there is little temptation to restrict my activities to the times of day others find suit them best.

Another benefit has been weight loss. Normally by now, I’d be at or around my top winter weight, worrying about Christmas weight gain, and needing to be sure to do enough to shed some before competition. This time, the reverse applies. My weight is the lowest it’s been for years, and I need to put some on, which will come with my power training, I hope. But I’m not just lighter, I think I am a heck of a lot leaner. A couple of weeks back, I did some tests at Manchester Metropolitan University, who are looking long term at some things that might mark Masters out as physically different from “normal”. One aspect of the tests included a full MRI scan of my thigh. Looking at segments of this, the tester pointed out how very lean the meat of my thigh musculature was.

So, by choice, would I reverse my winter regime like this again? A little early to say, as I need to see how the next couple of months go, but I’d give it a cautious maybe. But specifically as a means to an end, you understand. I will never, ever, come to enjoy a 5k run!


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