Back There Again

April 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspectives

March 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anniversary

February 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One in a Million

January 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Can’t Lose What you Ain’t Never Had

January 5, 2016

So sings the great blues legend Muddy Waters on one of the best live concert albums in my music collection. Relevant to this blog this time is that what I “ain’t never had” is core strength or flexible hamstrings. Both of these weaknesses have been very much under the spotlight in the weeks since I last blogged here.

When last we met, I had just added a session of “one to one” personal training to my weekly schedule. The rationale etc for this is in the previous blog, so I’ll not repeat myself here. We’re now coming up to session eight of a planned unit of ten sessions -three to go- and it’s a good time to reflect.

Guy, my trainer, was determined to give me good value for money, right from our first exploratory sessions. These are on top of my other training, so they were always going to be tough for me. I’ve had to adopt an “eight day week” properly to accommodate everything. It was the only solution if I was to have any hope of resting properly between sessions. It quickly showed that I had very weak core muscles in certain respects, and rubbish hamstrings. As I’ve already alluded, this wasn’t a surprise. I have a 30 year history of chronic back problems after serious damage in my early 30’s. Two particular victims of many years spent trying to protect a weak spine are my abdominal core muscles and short tendons in the backs of my thighs.

Guy and I had the benefit, almost from the outset, of the results of a Selective Functional Movement Assessment I’d undertaken with my chiropractor back in September. These reinforced focus on the weak areas, and Jesper had very usefully converted some of the findings into corresponding remedial exercises.

I think I’ve also mentioned here before that I am a perpetual victim of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) when I shine the training spotlight on seldom trained areas, or I work particularly hard in training. DOMS is well catalogued. Mine is the classic variety: no symptoms for most of the day after a session, but agony from about 36 hours after one, occasionally then lasting for a full day. There are many theories about cause, but very few about dealing with the resultant decrepitude. Massage and stretching are widely acknowledged to have no effect. Of course, my weekly training pattern of pretty much one day “on” followed by one day “off” means that DOMSdays were falling on the day of my next training session. By moving my training focus around a bit, I’ve usually managed to work around the worst – eg when DOMS from legs-specific work strikes, it gets followed by upper body work two days later, etc. I’ve had to stay imaginative and prepared to shuffle my sessions about a bit at short notice when DOMS has struck particularly badly.

Where even this flexible approach falls down for me is that significant DOMS in my core muscles puts the mockers on almost anything I try to do when it strikes! A bit of trial and error has shown ways to keep fully functioning, I’m glad to say, but at the risk of over-use injury. Variety really is the spice of life! And believe me, I have suffered every agony of DOMS in my abdominal and core muscles.

The next big step is to begin to convert the (mainly) strength work I’ve added to this winter’s routine into something particularly sprint-specific. That might sound strange, but the routines of a 61 year-old sprinter are not the same as those of a younger athlete, of course. I call this my “getting lighter on my feet” time of year. The only fly in the ointment at present is that just before my short Christmas break, I picked up a small hip flexor tear on my right side. Excessive weights and repetitions on over-tired, DOMS-afflicted muscles were the cause, I think. Some bruising is coming out, but I think my ten day lay-off over Christmas came just at the right time for recovery purposes. With the start of indoor competition only just over a month away now, the motto is definitely going to be “carefully does it” for the next few weeks.

Time To Ring Some Changes

November 8, 2015

Take your eye off the ball, and suddenly three months passes, eh? Sorry, I ought to have updated this blog since August.

Sometimes, I think it’s easy to forget a job like that if you’ve nothing burning inside you to say. That was rather how it was for me in September. With the (successful) 2015 season over and now just a collection or mostly pleasant memories, I knuckled down to winter training, pretty much along the lines I’d hoped for when I sat down and sketched it out. I think I may even have drafted a blog at that point, though I’m damned if I can remember for sure, and certainly can’t find it anywhere. Age, I guess.

I didn’t have any competition scheduled after the World Masters in Lyon. I could have scuttled around chasing up a few low-grade open meetings and stuff in early September, but after a bit of thought (not much, to be honest!) I opted for a couple of weeks of good rest, and an early start to winter training. I don’t recall the rest phase being especially good, but I fitted quickly back into my routines when it ended. As usual, I think I’d finished the track season “fast but maybe not all that fit” (by my own expectations). That’s usual, and is mirrored by my typical season starting with me feeling “fit but not fast”.

What I did achieve was about three weeks of quite high quality basic training. I has a couple of weeks of holiday coming up at the start of October, so I pushed it quite hard, knowing I’d get a break quite soon. As is so often the case, the main focus was learning the lessons from 2015’s track season, and looking ahead to the needs of next year. A year older, but a year wiser, maybe?

One thing I did resolve to do was to bring in an outside view on what I was doing, and how well, or otherwise, I was doing it. Coincidentally, my superb chiropractor, Jesper, offered me an SFMA – a Selective Functional Movement Assessment. We were both surprised we’d not been through this before. At time of blogging this, I’m awaiting the results and recommendations. It was certainly thorough. I also spoke to one of the longer-serving Personal Trainers at the gym I use; someone I’ve observed working with a wide range of clients over the years, and whose reputation was extremely good.

Guy and I discussed where I was at, and what I thought would suit me best via ten personal training sessions mixed in with my winter training, roughly at the frequency of one a week. Basically, I was looking for someone who was going to:

* assess where I was, (eg was I kidding myself?)
* assess what would work well and push me, (easy otherwise just to do the comfortable & familiar)
* observe me closely in those tailored workouts (to see the things I can’t, etc)
* help me set some expectations and then meet them, (easy to “drift” without expectations)
* assess where I needed to go on to next.

Well, we’ve begun. The first session was a week ago, and I think I’ve nearly recovered from it! Guy certainly has high expectations of and for me. I think I worked at 101% in order to meet them. 24 hours later, I realised that some of the initial strength tests we did to help benchmark performance may have set off problems in my ever-dodgy left shoulder. Several days later, that sadly seems to be the case. Fortunately, those tests are not part of every session.

Focus at this point is core strength and developing a basis for better explosive power. I have fast reactions, that get me out of the starting blocks well, for example, but do I have the power to exploit that lead? Some experiences from 2015 would suggest not. We hope to go on to looking at the kind of exercises that will help me improve my plyometric strength. I have good leg “turnover” for example, but can I improve stride length, rebound, etc?

It’s already clear I’ll be fitting the rest of my training around this once a week blitz on my body. My plan had originally been for it to be the other way around, but it’s equally clear, for example, that the session that follows two days after “the big one” will need to include a recuperative element – I suffer from DOMS, don’t forget. Similarly, I don’t want to burn out core musceles etc a couple of days before a session with Guy either. However, that won’t be rocket science, just a case of finding the right order of sessions for the eight-day cycle I’m following, and ensure I still put in sessions that are overall fitness-specific, speed specific and that attend to the mental and technical aspects of what I do.

Interesting times. eh?

(Should you be interested, this blog’s title is from my favourites The Albion Band.)

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!


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