All By Yourself

March 26, 2020

This is a blog I didn’t want to have to write.

That’s mainly because I was determined to do at least some racing this summer, as my knees are, very slowly, coming back together again. However, even before the coronavirus “lockdown” was announced, most of the events I might have considered taking part in had been called off, or postponed with little realistic hope of being reconvened this summer. Even if the organisers haven’t said that themselves, that’s my take on it.

Tracks, gyms, sports clubs etc are shut, and outdoor exercise is limited by law to one session day, with your only permitted companions being family members. The lockdown has put many athletes in the position of working out how they can “make the best of a bad job”. I have a slightly different take on things. The Masters athlete take is often unconventional, so I offer no apology.

I’ve trained on my own for more years than I can remember. Therefore, being pretty much “forced” to do so is less of a blow for me than it will be to those who habitually form part of a training group, or have regular non-family training partners. The world is divided between those who swear by solo training, and those who swear at the very thought of it. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

To kick off, I want to question why, in the current circumstances, you can’t give yourself a couple of weeks rest at least, some of which you can use to plan the kind of training you’re going to do while the lockdown continues? The lockdown is aimed at avoiding person to person transfer of the virus, of course. And it will take a bit of getting used to. It’s late March as I write this, and winter is allegedly coming to an end. Typically, you’ll have been busy racing on the road, off the road, or indoors. So why not take a couple of weeks as rest?

It surprises me that a lot of athletes would never consider taking a rest, unless forced by injury to do so. However, the science of resting is well established. I won’t single any one reference out, but try googling “why athletes need to rest” and see what you get. There are a load of myths around rest. You won’t suddenly lose all your fitness. Two weeks of rest won’t even necessarily take you two weeks to come back from. What you’ll get is a period of adaptation, often accompanied by a real sense of wellness as you temporarily stop stressing your system. By coincidence, the first few weeks after the end of the indoor track season, and before the outdoor track season begins to dawn, is one of my customary rest periods every year. So, no prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing (or not doing) again.

As a follow on from resting (or if you really can’t bring yourself to take a full rest), you might want to spend a bit of time studying your technique, and doing things that will help improve it. This needs an open mind. Some will say “I am what I am”, and feel too old to change. However, I’m not talking about doing things that will necessarily create a whole new you.

Try looking at photos of yourself competing, for example, and see if you can spot bad habits that, with a bit of attention to technique, you might succeed in “dialling out”. This is a case of “I would say that, wouldn’t I?”, of course. I’ve been photographing track and field events for more than 20 years, and there’s 14 years of my Masters athletics photography on my web site I hear often from athletes how seeing a photo of them in action has revealed something about their technique they didn’t know, or that they only suspected. Give it a try.

Or, why not get some great general online advice from an expert? Recently, my friend John Shepherd posted some great stuff on YouTube aimed at reinforcing good sprint technique, via some nice simple things that are absolutely ideal for a housebound athlete. Try this, and this. They’re great.

There will come a point when, assuming present lockdown rules remain, you’ll want to venture outside. By and large, you are only going to have the roads and countryside near to home to you to work on. You may have no choice in this, of course, but why not try something new when you go out?

Hugely experienced distance runner and coach, Steve Smythe, who is part of the Athletics Weekly editorial team, recently wrote this.

Steve’s intended audience might well be other distance runners, but have a read and a think around some of the sessions described in what he’s written. If you’ve read any of my more recent blogs, you’ll know I’ve been having great fun, and getting great benefit, from breaking my local 5k parkrun down into 200 metres walk/200 metres run intervals. More recently, I’ve been extending this to 250 metres run/150 metres walk sessions. It’s something I can do solo while parkrun has been temporarily stood down, too. Steve has described a number of sessions that can be adapted into the out and back format I’ll be doing when I take advantage of some of my daily releases from lockdown.

I’ll leave it there for now.

Please stay safe and be sensible about the whole coronavirus thing. We athletes may think we have stronger immune systems than some people, but this is a new virus, and we just can’t take anything for granted.

Stay safe.

Giving it time….

February 19, 2020

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this blog picks up where the last one left off. The intervening five weeks or so have been the customary mix of good and less good.

I have said it before, but I always feel that I am tempting fate when my blog sets out my plans, or even dares to look forward to something in my near future. However, it would be more boring than usual if I just looked back. I know too many athletes whose career is basically now a matter of the past tense. Mine’s had some downs, followed by some more downs in the last six months, but I’m still focussed on my future career as a Masters sprinter. True, that focus has, for a little while, been a bit blurred, but I’m not giving up yet. A part of the eight year old kid who could “run quite fast” at primary school sports days still lives in me. For most of my life, competition has been an itch that has needed scratching, a hunger that needs regular feeding. So it remains.

But 2020 looks very like it will be (another) “transitional” year. Even in my last blog here, I was looking forward to running in a few indoor races in the customary February/March mini-season. That was despite having had to admit I wasn’t going to be race fit enough for the European Masters in Portugal in mid-March, and probably not for the World Masters in Canada in July.

I’m living quite comfortably with my decisions not to go to either of these. I am still not remotely race-ready at the moment. The domestic indoor events have become the latest victims of the much slower-than-expected programme of rehabilitating my knees, which basically failed on me big-time last July.

Things had, I thought, been going quite well. I’d begun doing Parkrun as a runner again, for a variety of reasons (because, heaven knows, running 5k is most definitely not something that comes naturally to me), all of which you can also read about in my last few blogs. I was getting in two or three decent training sessions a week at the gym, too.

But progressing the condition of my knees to a point that would allow me to sprint again was stubbornly eluding me. It was, and remains, clearly a rather longer term project than I’d initially thought. At the outset, I reasoned that as the 2020 indoor track season was more than six months away, patience, and the ministrations of a good supporting cast of experts, would see me on the starting lines.

My problems are a complex, chronic tendinopathy, affecting both knees. To begin with, it was principally the right knee, but the left soon deteriorated as it attempted to over-compensate for its neighbour’s inabilities. To be frank, but paradoxical, that has made things easier. Before, I was at constant risk of making the right knee worse, as a result of an activity the left could cope with more easily. Or I was under-exercising the left, out of consideration for the right. At least now there’s a degree of symmetry in my progress.

Nevertheless, the act of removing competitions from my diary doesn’t come easily to me, least of all with events I have done well in on past occasions. However, the steady advance of the calendar wasn’t accommodating the erratic progress of my sixty-five year old knees. When you need every training session to show progress towards a goal, there’s little time for consolidation. That creates risks of the kind of progress that (invariably with hindsight)is more apparent than real. The demands of concentrating on the needs of injured tissue and dysfunctional bio-mechanics also risk exposing weakness, or creating damage, in an overworking or over-compensating area elsewhere.

Thus it was that, while everything actually seemed to be going well in mid-January, I picked up a painful and persistent strain on the inboard side of my left calf. Over the years, I’ve hurt most key parts of my machinery, but never here. The upshot was no running, or limited running, plus specific remedial work, chiropractic care, and sports massage, for three weeks. There was no possibility whatsoever that I could get back on track for February competition with a three-week dent in my training from mid-January. The decision was so easy to take that it hardly required thought. Removing the domestic indoor events from my plans also came with the benefit that I was also buying time to prepare for at least some outdoor racing later this year.

The biggest test I am currently giving myself comes every Saturday morning. Courtesy of Maidstone Parkrun, I am getting the equivalent of something like 12 x 200 metres fast striding, with a 200 metre walk recovery between each repetition. It’s an unconventional way to do a 5k; there are upwards of 400 other runners doing the distance more conventionally each time, on a relatively crowded riverside out and back route, just for starters. But it works. I can cope with 5k broken down into bite-sized 200m chunks like this, and I’m spared the monotony and probable solitude of doing something so on a conventional running track.

It has also ramped up my total of completed parkruns. I’ve been associated with Maidstone Parkrun for something like five years, but I was their photographer on 150 occasions, until “retiring” last September, and my running record wasn’t great! But by last weekend, I had upped my total to 50 completed parkruns. I was comprehensively upstaged by my wife, however, who has been diligently ticking of the parkruns every weekend. My 50th arrived at the weekend of her 200th.

So, I currently have a pair of functioning, but fragile knees, that continue to need support and cosseting, but I have a good level of cardio fitness back. What I don’t yet have is my former knee and thigh strength or the stability needed to cope with explosive movement up to full speed from starting blocks.

Therein lies the road ahead.

2020 Vision?

January 14, 2020

Well, new year, new decade, same old ageing body.

I finished my blog chapter about six weeks ago on as optimistic a note as I’ve achieved for a while, and just getting stuck into the latest chapter of my relationship with parkrun. A reminder, if you’ve not been paying attention, that I stood down as Maidstone Parkrun’s regular photographer back in the autumn, having shot it on 150 occasions since early in 2015. I felt it was time someone else had a go.

However, I also needed to try to get some (by my standards) serious running in at Parkrun to try and reinstate my aerobic fitness, without interfering with the slow but steady recovery my knees seem to be making from the injuries which wrecked my 2019 track season. You can read about my plans for this in my last blog. In addition, there was going to come a point, not long after New Year, when I’d need to be making a few decisions about my track racing in 2020. Coward that I am, I wanted to put that decision point off for as long as possible.

Well, the news is that the parkrun part of the equation has been going well. Despite being involved with parkrun for five years now, most of that was as a photographer, and my personal tally of actual 5k runs stood at just 36. I calculated that, even allowing for missing three runs over the Christmas week, because of a holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District, I would just have enough weeks to raise my score to 50, and earn my red t-shirt, before the indoor track season began. And, at the time of writing this blog, I’m still on course for that target.

As to racing, well, more is less certain, so to speak. I have begun work to get some strength back into my legs, and to exercise the leg speed I seem to have been born with. This is, to be frank, bloody painful on occasions, although I am prepared to accept some of it as “good pain”, because it isn’t interfering, except perhaps to curb any thoughts of over-exuberance in my training. I’m walking a narrow line – still trying to embed proper function in my legs, while at the same time trying to prepare to race.

For a variety of reasons, not all of them linked to my knees, I decided several months ago that the European Masters Indoor Championships in Braga, Portugal, would not be on my 2020 calendar. However, the World Masters, in Toronto in July, had been pencilled in. This would require a big leap of faith – to stump up the cost of expensive flights and accommodation for more than a fortnight, while still not knowing whether I’d be able to compete. I’d already ruled out going to Toronto just as a trackside photographer. I ended up doing that in 2018 after injury robbed me at the very last minute of the chance to race at the World Masters in Malaga. I couldn’t bring myself to do that again.

Well, the time for decisions arrived a little sooner than originally anticipated, and circumstances have led me to decide I will not be going to Toronto. I could not cope with not being in top form be July, and thus unable to do justice to participating in a World Championships. I believe the reality is that 2020 for me is going to be a year of transition back to full fitness, and I’m going to save my money and my ambitions for later.

Meanwhile, the closing dates for a couple of indoor competitions in February somewhat nearer to home are fast approaching. You can read about my decision on these in my next instalment here.

Keep On Running – the next chapter.

December 1, 2019

Well, last time I managed to end this blog on a vaguely optimistic note. I’ve been wary of doing that over the last few months, because it’s seemed rather like tempting fate. However, so far, so good, with a bit of weirdness thrown in.

“Weirdness”, eh? Well, I really don’t know what else to call it. And my support team are pretty much baffled, too. It was like this:

By early October, the problem with my right knee was reaching the point where depression was really setting in with me. While the knee was more mobile than it had been even a few weeks previously, it was still not able to support me properly. The biggest bind of all was that I could not put my weight on it while walking up stairs. It failed me, painfully, every time. This was also tending to put more pressure than usual on my left knee, which was beginning to show symptoms of picking up similar bad habits. Training was basically twenty minutes walking on a treadmill, followed by about an hour of what I call “floor work” – stretching, massaging, testing, and so on, with most focus on my quads and the hip to toe chain of action. I was really struggling to maintain any semblance of fitness. I’d promised I’d start running regularly at Maidstone Parkrun again, but couldn’t see that happening. I’d hobbled round very near the back on one occasion, supported by a walking stick, and didn’t plan to do that too often, despite the encouragement and the good company.

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So, one Tuesday, there I was at the gym, kneeling on an exercise mat and rummaging in my bag for something. All of a sudden, I felt a ripping sensation on the left side of my right knee. Like someone tearing paper, or old fabric. I don’t think I heard anything, and the feeling wasn’t painful. My first reaction was that, while kneeling, I’d managed to tear the elasticated knee support I was wearing. I rolled up my tracksuit leg to inspect. No, the knee support was intact, and the elastic hadn’t given way. The side of my knee maybe felt a little more tender than usual, as did the front of the kneecap. Discretion dictated that I abandon training for that day. I walked out of the gym and started down the stairs to the changing rooms. Very much all of a sudden, I realised that this felt much easier than it had for a while. I stopped at the first landing, turned, and then “just to see”, began walking back up the stairs… almost completely painlessly!

I could hardly believe it. I ended the experiment quickly. Showered and changed, I walked the twenty minutes home, trying to avoid testing my knee. Although a good bit of it is uphill, I was beginning to think that the “something” that had happened was possibly “something” positive. I warmed the knee joint when home, and pressed and probed. Flexing the knee made the area around the kneecap creak and grate like an old barn door as it moved, but I recognised this as (hopefully) fairly superficial crepitus. Nothing had swollen up, and I could definitely still walk up stairs without any pain in the knee. I nevertheless began a few days of regular, precautionary icing, and restricted my exercise to a bit of local walking.

Not long after, I had a pre-arranged chiropractor appointment. Jesper was doing the induction for a new chiropractor at the clinic that day, so I had the advantage of two expert minds to think about what I might have done at the gym the previous week. By now, my knee was feeling even better still. The crepitus was still there, and definitely audible, but I felt ready to give the knee a few proper tests. Jesper was baffled as to what exactly I’d done – and remains so – but was content that somehow the knee had improved considerably. We planned a few things I could/should be attempting.

Fast forward several weeks, and two more chiro sessions, and I was managing thirty minute, mixed-pace treadmill sessions in the gym. I’ve never been a fan of training on the road. I really didn’t want my knee to fail while out in the cold or wet, several miles from home. The mixed pace work was part of a plot to make good use of attending Maidstone Parkrun as a runner. I’d just retired from photographing the event 150 times over about five years and my tally of participation in parkrun stood at a lowly 36. Read on…

Regulars to this blog might have realised by now that I’m a sprinter. Running five kilometres off road, with three hundred other people, doesn’t really form part of my training DNA. However, I wanted to see what it would be like to treat the distance as a big interval training session. Walk some, run some, walk some, and so on, until the finish line. This isn’t because I can’t run 5k without a break, but because interval training is extremely well established as beneficial to sprinters, and I intended to work pretty hard on the fast bits. My sports watch has GPS, which would measure the intervals for me accurately. All I had to do was string it together. My chosen “interval” was 200 metres. It’s a distance that features regularly in my racing and training. I could visualise and anticipate what a track session of, say 4 x 200m with a walk recovery felt like.

However, to cover 5k, I’d basically be doing 12 x 200m, with a 200 metre walk between each exertion. This would be preceded by a walk/jog, as the 300+ other parkrunners began to spread out on the quite narrow patch that starts the route. Compared to running at a steady pace for the 5k, it would inevitably be a bit slower than what I could do a couple of years back, and a lot slower overall than many other parkrunners. However, if I got relatively clear ground for the fast 200m stints, I’d not worry about the alternate 200m walk recoveries being a bit slow. Maidstone Parkrun is basically a flat, riverside course, but with a few hundred metres of up and downhill at halfway, and a lovely progressive rise uphill for the final 300 metres or so.

And, dear reader, it has so far (5 runs) been a great success. I’m running well, recovering well between the intervals, keeping each kilometre consistent with its neighbour, and giving the final 300 metres a characteristic blast. I’m also getting faster for the overall 5k each week, although that is a bit of a lottery, as the density of the crowds on the first 400 to 600 metres of the route is what tends to have the biggest overall impact on my finishing time.

I’m starting off well down the field, because I’m actually walking the first 400 metres. As a walker at the start, I’d simply be getting in the way of runners if I started anywhere much nearer the front. There are a lot of “swings and roundabouts” involved, not least that the faster my “fast” sections are, the slower my walk recovery tends to be, though there are only seconds in it.

I’ll be taking stock of what I’m achieving, in a few weeks from mow. Expect a blog.

Take Me Back

November 4, 2019

I’m a Van Morrison fan, and have been for a long time. Recently, I started listening again to some of his material from the 1990s, simply because I hadn’t blown the dust off those particular albums for a while. I’ve rekindled my love of The Man’s 1991 classic double album “Hymns to the Silence”, which includes the monumental, nine minute plus “Take Me Back”. It’s an evocation on the lines of “how things have changed”:

“Take me back, take me way back, take me way, way back,
Help me understand.
Do you remember the time
When everything made more sense in the world?”

…and so on.

It is currently resonating with me for a whole load of reasons, mostly to do with a theme that has been common in this blog for a while: coming to terms with getting older.

My age-related trigger points have been more than usually stimulated over the last couple of months. I’ve just begun to receive my State Pension, entitling me to regard myself officially as an “OAP”. Not that I concede this too willingly. I long ago termed my state of mind when it comes to things related to ageing as “Peter Pan Syndrome”.

I also had my first free NHS ‘flu jab today. Mind you, flatteringly (in retrospect) the pharmacist who administered it really put me through it when it came to proving that I was really who I said I was, and that I really was over 65. Fortunately, I had my passport on me for another reason, and we solved that one easily. “But oh”, she said, “You just don’t look like a 65 year-old!”

I’m off shortly to my running club’s 150th anniversary dinner. It’s going to be a “black tie” do, being held in, of all places, the Members Dining Room at the House of Commons. Don’t ask me why there. I joined what was then still called “Blackheath Harriers” in late 1968, and I was just 14 years old. 1968/9 was the Club’s Centenary year. That wasn’t particularly why I joined, but it makes my time as a member of what is now known as Blackheath & Bromley Harriers Athletics Club that much easier to calculate. So, the quick amongst my readers will have worked out that somewhere in the last 12 months or so, I’d hit 50 years’ membership. Actually, I blogged about this, in passing, back in the summer, here. The anniversary, and the fact that, we’ve calculated, I am one of only two Club members to have reached 50 years membership still regularly competing on the track. This earned me a “top table” seat at this October’s Vice-Presidents’ Supper. An honour.

In mid July this year, just as my knee problems were at their height, the Club held its 150th Anniversary Track Meet. As a young sprinter, I’d run in a 100 metres event at the Centenary Track Meet. That was an altogether grander event, held at Crystal Palace when the track there was in its heyday. It was also the first occasion I got to photograph an athletics event (using a decrepit, really cheap “Soviet” Leica-copy I’d bought for buttons in a second-hand shop), thus setting in train two of the underlying themes in “the story of my life” running, and photographing running.

I was unable to run at the 150th Anniversary event. I could hardly walk that evening, in fact. In the 1969 100 year-event I’d photographed steeplechaser Chris Woodcock in action. Chris made the journey up from Devon, where he now lives, and he took part in the mile race at the 150th. And it was a delight to photograph him again, “still at it”. He was the only race-fit survivor of 1969 present, although I’d have raced too, were it not for my wretched knee.

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On the theme of looking back, however, it was a BBC athletics commentator at this year’s IAAF World Championships, who made mention that the Mexico City Olympic Games were now more than 50 years ago. He remarked that perhaps that didn’t sound all that much, but that if you’d gone back 50 years from those Olympics, you’d have found yourself in the final days of the First World War. The 1968 ‘Games were one of the direct triggers to me joining my Club. In those days, the First World War already seemed so long, long ago. However, it was no more distant then than the start of my athletics career is from where I am today. A very sobering thought, for some reason.

And where am I exactly at present? Well, as I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere, severe knee trouble forced me to cut yet another race season short this year. I stopped in July, and had to abandon any hope of competing in this year’s European Masters Championships, in Venice in September. Progress recovering from the tendinopathy that has plagued my right knee in particular has been slow and frustrating. However, there is progress, and if I can maintain it to the point where my knee is stable by Christmas, I will consider racing again indoors in February and March. I’ve become too old to make promises, however.

More next time…

Mike

October 2, 2019

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It’s never easy waiting for bad news, is it? Especially when you’re hoping it won’t be as bad as you fear.

I was walking in one of my favourite places in the world – the Italian Dolomites – when I got a text to tell me that Mike May had lost his battle with stomach cancer, and had died a few hours previously. If I’m honest, it was what I had expected to hear, not having heard any news at all about Mike from friends for several weeks. However, Mike’s cancer had receded twice before, and I had hopes. My mood soon became as grey as the dreadful weather my favourite place had stored up for this visit. There is a terrible emptiness about hearing of the death of a friend.

In the grand scheme of things, I’d not actually known Mike for that long. Twelve or thirteen years at most. I can’t even remember when we were first introduced. Mike wasn’t one of the fastest, but he was certainly one of the most dedicated Masters athletes I’ve ever met. He epitomised the belief that it doesn’t matter how good you are, the key thing is that you get out there and do it to the best of your ability, as often as you can. While I was writing this, the memory came to me of Mike racing in the 60 metres at the World Masters Indoors in Linz in 2006. For me, this was my first major international championship. Mike had an outside lane, and tripped as he approached the crash mat, breaking his collarbone on the metal supports behind it. If that had been me, I’d have been devastated. Mike reappeared from his return from hospital, very professionally lashed up by the Austrian health service, already beginning to enthuse about his upcoming trip to see the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

I can pinpoint one early shared experience. Helsinki, European Masters Indoor Championships, March 2007. Five or six of us had gone for a Saturday evening out. I recall someone saying we could go and see Europe’s longest escalator. Yes, seriously. Evenings out with athletes are not always the moments of great excitement you might think they are! Having ridden down said escalator into the bowels of the Helsinki Metro, and returned via the same to city level, we decided to eat near our hotel, on the other side of the city. Problem was, the Finnish bus timetables at the bus station only showed where the lines terminated. We had no idea which one of them we’d caught on the way in. Helsinki city centre on a Saturday evening is an acquired taste. Most people seemed to have a couple of things in common: they were young, and they were drunk. Our salvation came via a group of beer bottle wielding teenage girls who Mike had asked for directions. He can’t have known they spoke perfect English and were experts on every bus stop in the city centre, but that’s just what they were.

Mike was a great tryer. I think that’s what he’ll always be remembered for, and rightly so. I used to get regular tweets from him about his latest races. He competed a lot, and managed to carry on racing through the chemotherapy he had for his run-ins with his stomach cancer. Quite amazing.

Mike’s name was always on the list of those available for the often fiercely fought-for sprint relay squad at major championships, and almost never selected. I say “almost”, because once it did happen, and Mike was quite simply the proudest athlete of the GB team when it did. Lahti, Finland, 2009 World Masters. I’d raced in my own age group only a few minutes earlier, but somehow managed to get back to my camera in time to shoot Mike’s 4x100m lead-off leg. Mike loved that photo.

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I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when Mike announced he’d been given the all-clear after his first bout of cancer, and I find it incredible that, even though this turned out to be premature, he bore a further phase of chemo with great stoicism. Sadly, his all-clear from that also turned out to be premature.

My walk in the mountains that September day eventually helped ease the emptiness of realising I’d lost a friend. On 6 October, there’s to be a gathering of Mike’s buddies from the athletics world, to remember him. I fully expect it to be very well-attended.

Time To Ring Some Changes

September 26, 2019

On 28 September 2019, it will have been the occasion of my 150th appearance as photographer for Maidstone Parkrun. It’s also the occasion I have chosen to mark my “retirement” from the role.

I began shooting parkrun photos right at the end of 2014, and although other things meant 2017 was perhaps a lean year, I’ve continued without any big gaps right through. Nearly five years. I’m stepping down for a whole mixture of reasons.

Many of you will know that I am a fairly successful sprinter in Masters Athletics. That’s right – a sprinter. I race at 60 metres, 100 metres and 200 metres. For my age group, I have been in the top four or five on the UK rankings for several years now. I started parkrunning in 2014 when a wrist injury was preventing me from training properly, and I needed to keep things ticking over while it healed. There’s a bit about it in a blog at the time, here:

I enjoyed the atmosphere and the whole set up of Maidstone’s brilliantly-organised parkrun so much that when the opportunity came to resume what I normally do for training for my track events, I did what comes naturally to me. I remained involved, as the event’s volunteer photographer.

For several years now, I have been a freelance photographer, specialising in the perhaps mutually exclusive areas of sport and landscape photography, but doing much else besides. I began sprinting as a young teenager, and it has always been a regret that, when I began, hardly anyone used to photograph track athletics. The result is that I have only a tiny photographic record of my running in my teens and twenties. I blogged a bit about this here:

One long-term outcome from that is that I hate the thought of others having similar regrets that nobody photographed them running – be that running on the track, or as parkrunners. I understand the pleasure – and motivation – that can come from seeing good photos of yourself “in action”, and I’ve tried to ensure Maidstone parkrunners get their fair share.

Well, by a recent count, I make that “fair share” worth over 50,000 photographs. That’s as in fifty thousand. And those are only the ones I’ve retained on my archives! Add to them all the shots I didn’t like, plus the inevitable small (honest, guv’) percentage of technical failures and the true figure is a bit larger.

To some of you, I’ve become known as a bit particular about what I will shoot, or keep. When you’ve been shooting parkrun for a while, the waving and saluting to the camera, frankly, becomes more than a bit of a bore. I’ve always preferred to see people looking their best while actually running, and my job has been to try to capture that with the camera. The very varied lighting conditions through the year at different points on the Maidstone course also mean that black outfits (sorry 100 Club members!) are quite hard to photograph well, so there came a point where I almost gave up trying to shoot them. So, if you are a habitual waver who also wears black, my belated apologies. You probably think I was picking on you particularly.

What next? Well, I’m not going anywhere. At the moment, my tally of parkruns completed is a paltry 36. I’m not ashamed of that, given that 5km every Saturday morning doesn’t normally fit into my training plans. However, 2019 has been a tough year for me on the track, and I had to abandon all sprint racing in early July, with chronic pain in my right knee. I’ve recently been cleared to begin exercise again, however, and for a while, I’m going to be a slow parkrunner – target time not faster than 35 minutes. That’ll probably be a mixture of running and walking too. Who knows? I might make it to my red 50 t-shirt.

Beyond that, I don’t have plans right now. The life of a 65 year old sprinter tends to thwart plans anyway. I’ll still be picking up the camera on a Saturday morning to shoot special events, etc, but nothing regular. It’s the turn of someone else to discover the rewards of doing that.

Good luck to them, whoever they might be, and thank you to all of you who have been my subjects for the last five years.

And Still It Goes On

July 17, 2019

This blog is really a continuation from the previous episode.

Spurred on by the fact that my latest back problem didn’t seem to have affected my racing too badly, I stuck with my plans to race at a local League match two weeks later. I’ve been a big fan of Kent Masters League for nearly twenty years now. Although my own squad are only a Division 2 team now, and constantly struggle to get a team together, I try to support it as often as I can. The quality of racing can be high.

I’d not expected the “ambush” I experienced on this occasion, at Tonbridge. It was a windy evening. No electronic timing, so no wind gauge, but take it from me, it made a difference. I had a great 100 metres, despite the wind. It would have been an even higher-ranking time in my national age group without the wind. I won by quite a distance, too.

As I turned to go back and collect my gear from the start, I was aware that the announcer was saying something about me, other than that I’d just won. I was suddenly surrounded by friends and team management (the two are the same) while the announcer shared with everyone there that I’d now been a member of Blackheath and Bromley for 50 years. Actually, that milestone had passed last December and it’s something I am very proud of – even more so because I am one of a very small number of athletes indeed in the Club who have reached their 50th anniversary of membership while still competing on the track. That was particularly why the Kent League match had been chosen as the opportunity to present me with the glass trophy that all members reaching 50 years continuous membership receive.

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Photos were taken, and the match continued. I finished the evening running a very fast first leg of the sprint relay, which we won on this occasion. My back hadn’t troubled me excessively once I was warmed up, but I was looking forward to a few weeks off to get it properly rested and sorted.

That was a Friday evening. I don’t quite know what possessed me to make a last minute decision to enter my Club’s open graded meeting the following Monday evening. It was one of those it was possible to enter on the night, which I quite like doing, as it saves gambling entry fees on how I might be feeling a few weeks in advance. I also love the open graded meeting format. You declare a target time for your event, and get seeded into a race with others declaring a similar ambition, be they men, women, boys or girls. It makes for amazingly close races most of the time.

Warming up, I felt fine. My back was a bit stiff initially, and my knees had developed an occasional twinge, but hey, 65 year old athlete, and all that! I got a very good start too, and was running hard when, at about 40 metres, I suddenly felt a very unfamiliar pain on the inside of my left thigh. Two strides further and I knew this was something bad. I stopped as fast as the pain would allow. I realized what it was, pretty much immediately – an adductor tear, most commonly known as “groin strain”.

I was given some ice and spent a miserable 45 minutes in the changing room, as the realization hit me that I had yet another injury to contend with, and one I had never experienced before. Why? How?

A bit of reading when I got home clarified for me the probability that my sore back had led to more general mechanical malfunction all around my left hip. The muscle that had been put under greatest stress from this was my adductor.

I gave it a week, as recommended, before seeking sports massage, to sound out how extensive the problem was. Mike got right in there, and said he didn’t feel the tear was too bad. He said to continue regular icing, and take it easy. Right in the middle of the season leading up to British Masters championships in August, followed not long after by the European Masters, “taking it easy” had not been on the agenda. I’m usually a good patient and did as I was told. The bruising in my adductor began to come out a few days later. I always like that stage of an injury – it gives you visual evidence that you weren’t imagining it!

However (and these days, there always seems to be a “however”), while resting that left thigh, I began to realize that the pain in my knees (right knee in particular) was becoming more of a problem; particularly walking up and down stairs or after sitting still for a while. I’d had some more minor knee pains and instability earlier in the year, after repairing my garage roof, and shinning up and down a step-ladder while doing front room decoration, but they had seemed to go away fairly quickly. Fortunately I had a chiropractor appointment in the diary.

Guess what? I have patella-femoral pain syndrome, caused mostly by an inflamed patella-femoral tendon, and probably triggered by over-training, and poor mechanics in the knee joint. It’s commonly given the rather dismissive name “runners knee”, but that covers a multitude of sins (or is that “shins”?) and almost implies that not running will sort it out. What I was finding, by jogging on a treadmill at the gym as part of warm up for a stretching session, was that I could actually run fairly comfortably, and without knee pain. This was good, because it was helping rehabilitate my back and my adductor. The knee pain came back later, and was getting steadily worse, unfortunately.

I also think I found the reason for the sudden onset of the knee problem on this occasion. Worried that I was losing out on aerobic fitness etc, I had done a number of spinning bike sessions at the gym, because they didn’t hurt my back and were relatively low-impact (I thought). I like these sessions, because I can switch off my mind, and just work. Now, I’m somewhat splay-footed. I have been all my life. It got me given grief at school. The toe-clips and straps on the spinning bike were holding my feet straight forward, and my knee joints were the points around which my legs were “adjusting” things, leading to my knees not “tracking” correctly. I’ve done a lot of hard training on a WattBike (see earlier blogs) and not suffered this. That’s because my good old cycling shoes have cleats that fit the WattBike pedals, and they have a degree of what is called lateral “float” in the movement as I pedal. The pedals on the spinning bikes at the gym don’t allow me to use those shoes, and hold my feet more rigidly. I specifically wanted to work part of my cycling sessions standing out of the saddle, and the WattBike doesn’t accommodate this. “Catch 22” for my knees.

Cue several more chiropractic sessions to diagnose what was going to suit the knees best for recovery. The answer was a significant amount of stretching exercise, aimed at triggering the muscles in the thigh to hold the kneecap in proper alignment, and to tone up the leg generally. As I write, this is in full swing, occupying about an hour and a half of every day. Fitting this into and around other routines and responsibilities is hard. A simple “runners knee” strap is helping make warm-up, etc relatively pain-free, although I am trying not to become dependent upon it. Kinesio-taping seems less useful at the moment.

I’ve had to face two other realities: the further loss of training is not going to help me be competitive at the British Masters Championships in a few weeks from now. Nor are my knee problems going to be helped by working on the track for two days as a photographer if I don’t run. So, when It came to time to book my accommodation for them in Birmingham, and pay an entry fee as an athlete, I simply didn’t.

The other reality is that this is not the build-up I need for nearly two weeks of racing at the European Masters Championships in September. So, I’m not going. Simple as that.

It might be a while before I blog here again. Hopefully. That will mean things are proceeding “uneventfully”. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know what I mean.

Back to bad old ways

June 1, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, I did an extended spell of gardening. Nothing creative or energetic – just basically tidying up fallen leaves and stuff. I sat down for a well-earned cup of tea afterwards, and when I stood up again, I felt an unfortunately rather familiar pain across my lower back. It was something I’ve not experienced for a few years now, to the point that I was almost feeling the bad old days of chronic back pain were behind me. Wrong.

“Just a bit of a twinge” I told myself, and went off to the gym to see if some stretching and gentle running, followed by a long shower, would help. So far, so good, but that evening, the transition from sitting to standing was still very uncomfortable, and the left half of my back was becoming stiff and lop-sided. Sleep was ok, but Monday was a problem: I was due to race a 200 metres and a sprint relay leg in the local Masters League, which would involve a 25 mile drive there and back. Tuesday wouldn’t be much better: I was committed to a 100 mile round trip to photograph some gardens. Which, if any, of these was going to help a sore back, and which would make it worse?

The League match went surprisingly well. I put on a comfortable back support, and lowered my expectations. The outcome was that my 200 metres time was good enough for top spot on the UK rankings for this year so far, for my age group. I also ran a storming leg in the relay. More to the point, I then got home in one piece, and slept well. Tuesday was a different matter, however. I was desperately sore, and only able to stand awkwardly. However, the garden photography that afternoon allowed me to walk around for several hours, and this helped. The long journey there and back definitely didn’t. Wednesday and Thursday were painful. I was fortunate to get a sports massage appointment on the Thursday afternoon. Mike eased the pain greatly, and gave me good advice, as always.

Friday and Saturday were something else. Drive in “Friday before Bank Holiday” M25/M40 traffic, spend the night in a hotel bed, and then race a Championships 100 and 200 metres on Saturday afternoon, before immediately driving home again. I arrived at the stadium, and made no secret of my ailing back. I had a couple of hours to try and talk myself out of racing. No one else would. The problem was, with a firm back support in place, jogging about, pre-warm up, on a hot, sunny afternoon, I didn’t feel too bad. Try as I could, I failed to convince myself not to race. Dangerous behaviour, because I’ve been there several times in the past, and it had always ended in tears.

My back problem goes back about 35 years. I suffered a bad accident, in which three lumbar vertebrae got moved. This caused disc damage, and came within literally millimetres of damaging my spinal cord. It summarily ended my hockey playing and my athletics career at that point, required regular hours in hospital traction, to ease the pressure on the discs, and hours of ultrasound treatment on the sacroiliac joint, on the rear of my left hip. There was much soft tissue damage to heal, too.

Fast forward three years. I was overweight, still learning to manage my damaged back, and seriously unfit. It was also the height of the second wave of the “jogging boom”. Reluctantly, and chaperoned by a good friend who also happened to be a medical man, I began pounding the streets, with an eye to running some 10k and half marathon events. I’m glad I did it (and those events), because it gave me back my fitness, my confidence, and most of my health. I joined my local gym (still a member), began walking in the mountains again, and was happy. Racing on the track was, I believed, well behind me. And so it was for the next ten years, interspersed with breakdowns of my back and hip, each time requiring a slow and organised process of recovery. Some of those incidents are worth a blog in their own right.

Then, out of the blue, I met an old track running friend, as I was walking to work. Pure chance: he lived miles and miles away, and I’d not seen him for almost fifteen years. We talked over coffee and he suggested it was time I got back on the track. Masters athletics was busy trying to get its act together, and my Club needed a sprinter.

I’ll resume that tale one day in another blog. Suffice it for now to say that right back then, I also wanted to talk myself out of something that could easily have been physically and emotionally catastrophic if it went wrong. And just as last weekend, I didn’t manage to talk myself out of it. And I’m glad.

Back to the present. By some miracle, I came away from the championships with two gold medals and a very respectable 100 metres time, albeit assisted by a following wind a bit over the allowable limit. I didn’t damage anything further, either. What I was doing went against everything my self-talk tells me, and the advice I’d give anyone in my situation.

But don’t mention the journey home…..

An even older athlete writes….

May 16, 2019

I’ve been putting off writing this blog. Intentionally. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

My blog here has always been about what it’s like to be an older athlete. Well, as of today, I’ve earned the adjective “old”. I got my letter from the government inviting me to apply for my State Pension. Quite soon, I will officially be an “OAP”.

I’m glad to have made it. The last few months have been a bit rough at times, but on the whole, the good has outshone the bad. I left you at the end of my last blog just a few weeks before the start of my indoor track “season”. I acknowledged that it was going to be cut short, because I’d decided to miss the World Masters Indoor Championships in Poland, towards the end of March.

I regretted that decision a couple of times. I won two golds at the Southern Counties Masters in February. It was my first competitive event since last August Bank Holiday weekend’s disaster. I’ve included a photo from the 60 metres race. Even I was impressed when I saw it! I’m the one in black. Then, at the British Masters Championships in March, I won a bronze medal at 60 metres, after I’d qualified for the final as fastest athlete. I also got fourth place in the British Champs at 200 metres. I thought that was pretty good going, considering I was less than a fortnight off my 65th birthday and elevation to a new age category. My times were pleasing, too. Maybe, if I’d have decided to go to Poland, I’d have done ok after all?

SCVAC 2019 60m

Image courtesy of Craig Beecham

While I wondered on that, the answer came a couple of days later. I’m a martyr to DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness – and always have been. I quickly realised that, however fast I was running, this time I didn’t have the necessary ability to recover quickly, nor the reserves of strength and stamina needed to do something like seven races in eight days. Those are the requirement when racing in two events and a relay final at an event like the Worlds. I could perhaps claim my 60 metres clockings would have been good enough to make the World final, but the eight guys who actually lined up for that had also run a heat and a semi-final. Come the relays at the end of the Championships, most of them would have run several 200 metres races too, and probably only have had one “rest day” in their week in Poland. Some would also have travelled from the other side of the world to be there.

So, I comforted myself that I’d made the right decision. Championship racing is tough. Instead, I went off with my cameras to Venice, as planned. Unfortunately, while there, I picked up a very unpleasant and lingering gut bug – probably from something I ate or drank. It came with fever-like symptoms for 24 hours and completely wiped me out. Totally. I also lost two kilos in weight.

April was therefore spent feeling extremely fragile, while trying to do something that looked and felt like training. My debut race outdoors was right at the end of the month. I was still on medication when it arrived, and I nearly cried off.

The cold, occasionally blustery evening was no different to many others this cold and blustery spring. I was only going to race one 100 metres event, and in the grand scheme of things, nothing really mattered, whether I ran well or badly. That’s how I like my season openers to be. They are a necessity, but only enjoyed in retrospect. I ran well. I set a new age group record for my Club, in my new age group, and I didn’t injure anything. My mind immediately turned to the first Masters League event in the calendar, a fortnight later. Now I had some idea how I was running, I had the basis for some consolidation in training.

The fortnight went too quickly, and a crowded schedule of non-running things meant I missed one training session, and skimped two others. I arrived for the League meeting feeling under-prepared. I was also due to race three age groups below my own – in an M50 200 metres. I’d be conceding up to 15 years to some of the others in the line-up. Ah well, I could only be expected to give it my best shot. It was cold, too. Quite where second place, and another Club age group record, in a time fast enough to put me at the top of this year’s UK rankings for my new age group came from, I do not know! It didn’t feel especially fast, and it didn’t hurt, either, despite the precautionary taping I’d applied to my right hamstring and knee. I ended the evening buoyed-up enough to run a lead-off leg in the sprint relay that was good by any standards. This was very satisfying, even if, while well in front, our fourth leg runner somehow managed to knock the baton out of his own hand and get us disqualified. I nevertheless went home happy.

So, what should I take for this. Some would say I’m a crap judge of my own form. I’m not actually too worried, even if that’s the case. It’s better than being complacent or over-ambitious. My immediate target is to turn out more of the same next time I race, and to train at a level low enough to avoid injuries. Read the start of my previous blog to see why I’m averse to predictions!