Peter Pan?

October 9, 2021

If you’re a regular reader of this increasingly irregular blog, then firstly, thank you. Thank you very much. 

I started it quite a long time ago now, as an outlet to allow me to share some of the things I was doing as an older, competitive athlete. That aim still holds good, but there have been quite a few disruptions along the way. Sometimes, the words “older, competitive athlete” have been little more than a euphemism for “injured person”. I’ve had my fair share of hurt muscles, tendons and bones in the 20+ years I’ve regarded myself as that athlete, as well as enduring problems that were rather less in the arms and legs etc than between the ears.

However, I’ve often owned up to the fact that writing this blog is a kind of therapeutic outlet, and sometimes allows me to work out some kind of rationale for what might be happening to me at a given time. That will have been obvious to those regular readers.

I am now six months past my 67th birthday. If I’m talking with other people about what I do (and sometimes those “other people” can be active athletes themselves), and the issue of age and/or injuries arises, it’s reasonably common for me to be on the receiving end of an opinion that I’m “maybe just getting a bit too old” for what I do. People in general (including many athletes) seem to have a level of acceptance/tolerance for, say, older distance runners, that simply doesn’t seem to extend to older sprinters. There’s a lack of comprehension about what we do, or why we do it “at our age”. Well, for their information, and yours, no matter your distance, it’s still all about getting from start to finish in the fastest possible time. The difference in the case of sprinters is that we have rather less time to look at and enjoy the scenery.

Some years back, a good friend of mine (and older than me, as it happened – he’s sadly dead now) coined the expression “Peter Pan Syndrome” for what he thought must be driving me. He meant it as a friendly dig at how, unlike many other people, I have never seen age, per se, as a reason why I should be doing one thing, or stopping doing another. Unsurprisingly, the psychologists have already grabbed their own definition and description of a “Peter Pan Syndrome” (and for the ladies, a matching “Wendy Syndrome” too) as a form of psychopathology, but I don’t want you to go and look it up, because it’s far more depressing than the “Syndrome” I still enjoy. Mine is fundamentally down to doing a few things that most people, it seems, would think someone of my age would, by now, have stopped doing. But, as people say in other contexts, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”.

The point of that rambling introductory part of this blog is this: I confess I may be losing my battle to remain in denial about the age versus activity-level thing. Some might accuse me of (finally) “feeling my age”. I can’t agree with them, however, because I have no idea what 67 and six months is supposed to feel like, and, of course, nobody has yet determined the age at which a person stops being “an older, competitive athlete”.

The prevailing headwind I’m battling against at the moment is the continuing fall-out from my “seizure” back in July. You can read all about it in my previous two blog chapters. The last episode ended with me still waiting to hear from NHS neurology services with a date for some tests that will, I hope, finally determine what actually happened to me on 5 July. Well, the news is…..I am still waiting. 

I was unable to make any headway contacting them on the telephone, and eventually spoke to my GP. He didn’t know anything about it. I was more than a bit of a shocked to find that he had not, at that point, (a good six weeks after the event,) been sent any information at all from the local hospital A&E people, who had seen me in July and had made the original neurology referral. However, once he’d obtained what he needed from A&E, he then told me that he didn’t have any magic wand to expedite a date for my brain scan. In these tough times for the NHS, I was just one of many people in a queue.

But there was more….

When I was sent home after my day in A&E, the duty doctor there explained to me why she was going to make a referral to the neurology services. I was given no paperwork, and didn’t therefore know that her report from that day’s investigations also included a recommendation that I be referred to a cardiologist. This was presumably to assess whether anything heart-related had played a part in my “seizure”. I suspect it’s a routine referral for people “of my age” in such circumstances, but it’s not something I know much about. Once he read the A&E papers, my GP spotted the omission, and actioned that referral. Result: I’m now waiting in two NHS queues, not just the one.

My recollection had been that the paramedics who had initially assessed me within an hour of the “seizure” were happy that I’d not had some kind of a heart attack. I tended to agree, having had the advantage of the heart-rate trace from my Garmin sports watch to look at, as some kind of guide. Throughout the incident, my heart activity on the watch appeared to be completely normal and regular for a fit person, sitting having his breakfast on the patio on a warm and sunny Monday morning. 

My figures meshed in very well with the ECG examination the paramedics had made with the boxes of tricks they bought with them. Given that a lot of my training is guided by heart-rate, and heart-rate based training zones, I feel reasonably confident that a hospital cardiology assessment won’t bring me any surprises. However, I can’t take that as read, so it remains another bridge I need to cross before I have any chance of life getting back to normal. Remember “normal”? With this all coming on the heels of more than 18 months of Covid disruptions, I’m not sure I do.

And that’s about it. On the plus side, it’s now three months since my “seizure” and I’ve had no kind of recurrence. I’m also doing some training twice a week, in keeping with the instruction that I should take things relatively easy, and avoid running if possible. I bought a “Wattbike” cycle trainer – a modern version of the one I used to use at the gym, and that’s all going well providing I don’t stress my knees too much.

The wear and tear on my mental health is one hell of a grind, though….. 

“Still clueless after all these weeks”

August 23, 2021

(To misquote Paul Simon)

I was, literally, clueless at the end of the last episode of this blog.

Briefly, out of the blue, I’d suffered a collapse at home one morning early in July. After a day in A&E including a CT scan, I was none the wiser what might have caused this incident. I’d heard the paramedics and the A&E doctor use the word “seizure” to describe it. However, it wasn’t until I was being packed off home, basically, by that point, not feeling much worse after the day’s events, that any suggestion was made to me that I might have experienced some form of epileptic attack. I was, I was told, going to be referred to a consultant, who would give that some expert consideration.

Well, that consultation happened today, seven weeks later. It was a very “hands off” affair, with me being asked to go over what had happened, followed by a lengthy sequence of questions for me to answer. Any attempts I made to put the whole situation into what I felt was an appropriate and wider context (very fit bloke, no prior or post incident problems, etc) were all firmly brushed aside. This was to be diagnosis by some kind of predetermined framework, which apparently did not, or could not, allow for a 67 year-old to be as fit, free of extenuating circumstances, etc, as I apparently seemed to the consultant to consider myself to be.

It worried me just how concerned the neurologist was that nobody had instructed me not to drive, and to surrender my driving licence immediately after the incident. I recall being asked how I was getting home on the day of my trip to A&E, but when I said I was being picked up from the hospital, that seemed to be well-received, and nothing further was said or asked of me. Had I not considered the possibility, or the possible consequences, of me having another incident (forgive me for struggling with the word “seizure”), and of it happening while I was driving? 

Well, frankly, no: call me unimaginative if you must, but the thought had never once entered my mind. Whatever you want to call it, I was regarding it as a very “one-off” event. Although at A&E I’d been told to take things easy until I’d had my neurological consultation, I had felt pretty much able to resume normal life the next day. The intervening seven weeks probably were a bit lower key than usual, but consuming many hours of tv coverage of the Tokyo Olympics was the main reason! 

The neurologist grilled me about if, when and where I had had anything remotely similar happen. This was difficult: I remembered feeling very wobbly with heat and dehydration a couple of times while racing or training, but both times were at least ten years ago. 

I’d done my homework on epilepsy, though. “Late onset” epilepsy seems to account for about one in four new diagnoses. “Late” in this respect meaning over 60. The diverse nature of epileptic and non-epileptic seizures being what they are, tends to lead to some quite general descriptions in on-line literature, and what the pollsters call “confirmation bias” being what it is, I’d felt it easy to dissociate myself from a possibly pejorative description like “epileptic”.

“Have you noticed any deterioration in your memory?”, I was asked. What 67-year man old can honestly answer no to that? Did I ever have occasional moments where I felt a little “spaced out”? Ditto. 

It wasn’t, I’m sure, that the consultant felt I was wanting to make light of the situation. I never do that where my health is concerned. Long-term readers of this blog will be able to attest to that! No, the difficulty was that it was being made very clear to me that there could be serious consequences for me, and potentially for others, if I did not acknowledge the possibility/probability (depending on whose viewpoint you took), that I had indeed had an epileptic incident, and that it might prove to be only the first one. Being brought fairly abruptly face to face with a potentially life-changing situation is not something I’ve had to deal with often, I’m grateful to be able to say. It has come as a huge shock, believe me.

So, be that as it may, this fit, 67-year old athlete has now been referred for a series of neurological tests of my brain function and responses, to support a second, or further opinion from a neurologist at a different hospital. The hope is that these will be done quickly, but unfortunately that won’t be quickly enough to rescue my plan for an 8 day motorcycling holiday in three weeks from now.

I’ll keep you posted, and I’ll be grateful to hear from anyone who has first-hand experience of a situation similar to mine. Thank you.

Another fine mess….

July 8, 2021

I admitted that my previous blog episode was written partly to try to convince myself of a way out of the “vicious cycle” that life has got my training regime into over the last few months. It nearly worked too.

It struck me that repeatedly basing everything I did on 5 kilometre outings, no matter how I broke them down into more bite-able sized chunks, was, at the very least unimaginative, and was boring me. I needed perhaps to inject into my routines something I’d find less boring, and which might re-focus me on the real goal. That real goal being a return to the track as a sprinter, in due course.

It feels at present as if I’ve done very little by way of fast running for a very long time. Nothing at all that I’d call “sprinting”. I was doing a fast run up a steep hill near home, as part of warm-down after a 5k run for a little while. This pleased me, because it showed that I could still move like a sprinter, and for the distance involved, and the steep gradient, the stopwatch results pleased me. But then I hurt my back, and couldn’t do it properly, so it’s faded from what I laughingly call “my programme”.

I get great pleasure, and always have, from the sheer action of running fast. I clearly recall the first time I realised this. It was way back in the days when I played club hockey every Saturday afternoon. Being fast, I was marked out from the outset to be a wing forward. We developed a tactic that mostly involved me madly chasing a long ball hit hard and fast down the pitch in the vague direction of the right hand corner, before setting a move up for my colleagues to score a goal from. I was doing this one Saturday – I can even recall who we were playing – and remember feeling such a surge of enjoyment at being able to move that fast. At the time (we’re talking late 1970’s here) I was also running sub 11 seconds for 100 metres, so I was being put to good use by the team.

More recently, I realised, I’d lost that sense of pleasure in my running. I used to be able to snatch a glimpse of it on “Howard’s Hill”, the last 150 metres of our local parkrun course, which is steady uphill slope, and could give it my best shot, seemingly regardless of how tired I was from the previous 4,850 metres I’d just run. Maybe running a bit faster more often would work for me now?

Those thoughts and recollections led to me deciding to make one of my sessions each week a 3 kilometre run, broken down into 100 metres walk, 100 metres slowly increased pace jog, and 200 metres run quite hard (probably about 80% effort), repeated about 8 times. Although done on the paved surface of our local river path, it allowed me to visualise doing it as successive 400 metre laps in one of my favourite mid-winter training sessions, back in the day when I had access to a track I could use.

And do you know, in terms of pleasure, it worked? It certainly tickled lots of muscle memory, and the session got mentally booked into my week’s activities. 

But then came last Monday.

I love sitting for breakfast under the “conservatory” structure I’ve built outside the back door to our house. I frequently refer to it as “Mission Control”. The spot gets a wifi signal, and I frequently sit at the table there to plan the upcoming day. If you follow me on Twitter, you may know the photographs of “today’s view from Mission Control” I post there.

Well, Monday was going to be one such day. I had a busy week to plan, too. It was cool and sunny, and I had croissants and a huge mug of tea beside me. My wife was about to come and join me. However, from nowhere, I began suddenly to feel a bit clammy and nauseous. Within seconds, I seemed to be sweating profusely and felt dizzy. I sat forward in the chair, elbows on knees, and then…nothing.

My next recollection is of my wife settling me into my chair and telling me to sit quietly while she rang for an ambulance. She returned to say the paramedics were on their way. I was lucid enough to ask her what had happened to me. She’d been in the kitchen, and heard a crash and some groans. That was my chair – a heavy, wooden garden seat – going over sideways, ejecting me as it went. I was more confused than groggy, but I realised I’d hurt my forehead and my mouth, both of which were bleeding. I had no particular pain, but it seemed that when the chair had somehow tipped over, I’d banged my forehead on (probably) a heavy concrete planter on the patio, and also hit my mouth, or bitten my tongue in the process. I’d apparently lost consciousness for a short period of time: maybe ten to fifteen seconds, and was just coming round when my wife reached me, righted the chair and set me back down in it. Apparently, I asked her whether I’d fallen out of bed. The call to the emergency services was exactly what I’d have made in her position. Had I had a heart attack, a stroke, something else that required urgent attention, or what?

Quickly, I found I found that, apart from what I’ve described above, and the consequences of a short lapse of bladder control, I felt quite basically ok. I used to hold a qualification as a “first responder” to climbing and mountain accidents, and my head was racing to remember the most common heart attack and stroke symptoms. I was conscious, lucid, had no pain in my chest or arms, and was breathing normally. Not even any pins and needles feelings in my hands. I even managed to stand up unaided and walk upstairs to change what I was wearing before the paramedics arrived.

They came with blue lights flashing, too! They sat me back down at the “Mission Control” table, and the three brilliant and humorous ambulance crew wired me up for blood pressure and ECG testing, took my temperature, and checked my visible injuries. The full kit to do this nowadays fits into a couple of very compact back-packs. The cut to my head was shallow and wouldn’t need sutures. It had, however deprived me of some more of my already significantly dwindling hair. 

As to my mouth, there was no external damage, no lost or broken teeth, either. What I had done was bitten my tongue quite hard. The tip was a mess, as was one side, looking like a piece of raw liver from the butchers. I would have understood if the paramedics feared I’d maybe had a stroke, however, because I found speaking properly with a badly cut and swollen tongue was quite a bit of an effort. 

We looked at the print-outs of my vital signs, and were even able to compare the heart rate trace with figures for the previous four hours off my sports watch, which I wear 24/7. All seemed pretty normal. Soon, after giving me the very good advice to bring a water bottle, a good book and a ‘phone charger, I was getting my first ever ride to A&E in an ambulance.

That’s where the exciting stuff ends. Coming in by ambulance, I avoided the A&E waiting room, but I was still in A&E for six hours. I was triaged, had a CT scan of my head, had blood taken, and my blood pressure tested every two hours. For the rest of the time, I was really glad for that good book.

Sorry to disappoint, but the NHS and I are still not clear what actually happened. The A&E doctor did however reassure me before I was allowed home, that the CT scan had found no brain abnormalities – so, no brain tumour, for example. Neither had the blood tests shown any evidence of a heart attack. I’ve been referred for further neurological tests, and been told to take it easy for a while, and not get stressed.

Several days later, I’m enjoying the chance to watch the Tour de France on tv uninterrupted, and really liking the daily glass of pale ale that will apparently help keep my tongue clean, and reduce swelling. I’ll keep you posted on what happens next, but right now, I don’t have a clue!

Vicious Cycling

June 23, 2021

I’ve not blogged here for a while, because there seems to be a limit to how many excuses the internet can take about why we athletes aren’t yet out there all doing our thing. However, I tweeted something recently about “how it is” for me right now, and it triggered several people to reply along the lines of “me too”, so I decided that penning a blog chapter on the subject might at least help me think it through. It’s worked for me before.

So, what is that “it” I’m referring to? Recently I referred to it as a kind of “vicious cycle”. Nothing to do with bikes, though. At least, not in my case.

If you’re new here, I’ll start with some context: I am a successful sprinter in Masters Athletics (track and field for the over 35’s) and, although it pains me to admit it, I’m now in my later 60’s. The app that goes with my Garmin sports watch recently, and without any hint of irony, told me that my “fitness age is that of an excellent 20 year-old”. I’ve long forgotten what it was like to be any kind of 20 year-old. Covid blew competitive athletics out of the water back in March 2020, but cumulative damage to my knee tendons had side-lined me about six months before that. Given that racing for Masters like me is only just now trickling back into the sporting calendar, and that I’m probably not going to be ready for it, it won’t be long before I’ll have been little more than a spectator for two full years.

Why so? Well, it’s that “vicious cycle”. 

When lockdown arrived in March 2020, I was still restricted to remedial training, aimed at keeping a basic level of fitness, but not stressing my delicate knees. I’d been living on a diet of gym work, including treadmill running, and a once a week outing over 5 kilometres with my local parkrun. Pretty quickly, lockdown took them both away from me (and everyone else, of course), and anything that involved meeting other people and racing against them was also on the banned list. I don’t live near any, but such local tracks that there are in my athletics wilderness were, of course, also closed.

I could go out and run a 5km session on my own, of course, despite believing it to be of limited real use to me as a sprinter. I had proverbial cupboards full of stuff I could use to replicate some of the things I’d been doing at the gym. So, I knew I could maintain the status quo, and little by little, get my knees back in shape. But, in the circumstances that pretty much prevailed from March to September 2020, I didn’t see any way I could move forward, as it were.

I’ve been a sprinter for a very long time now, and it’s racing as fast as I can that really motivates me. Others credit the distance they cover s motivation, some the number of times a week they train, etc. For me, it’s competition. All that had gone, of course, and as we freewheeled from Lockdown 1 and headed towards the second wave of coronavirus in the UK, I assessed my options, such as they seemed to me at the time.

And I did what I could. My wife and I had begun doing some long walks every week, and I had been hitting my sports watch daily steps target for the best part of six months, so some good basics were well-embedded. I began to increase the amount of local running that I was doing, too. I’ve described in earlier chapters of this blog that I’d seemed to be getting benefit from doing the parkrun 5km as a big version of what track runners call a “repetitions session”, or “reps”. My favourite was to break the distance into 250 metre segments, and run them alternately hard and more slowly. So, my 5km amounted in total to 10 x 250 metres run comfortably quickly and 10 x 250 metres at a jog or fast walk. The psychological advantages to be were that it fed me the distance in “bite-sized chunks” and for a distance I could easily visualise, in terms of how far it was on an athletics track.

What I’d not accounted for was extent to which doing a session like I’ve just described, about three times a week, would have on my mid 60’s body. For my aerobic, and to a lesser extent, my anaerobic fitness, it was great. Tough work, but nevertheless great. My aerobic fitness, as recorded by physiologists according to what is called my “VO2 max uptake” rose by mid autumn 2020 to a level which put me into the top 5% globally for my age and gender. Being an elite Masters athlete meant I was starting from a high base level, I guess, but I liked the sound and feel of being part of this particular elite percentage group, which suddenly didn’t seem like the exclusive domain of distance runners any more.

My knees were, shall we say, fragile but coping well. However, from there down, it was a different story. I’ve suffered from runner’s shin soreness before (and suffered the hands-on treatment for it too!), and survived numerous bouts of the kind of achilles tendon trouble endemic to us short sprinters on the track. These both came back at me with a vengeance, and at a time when the chiropractic and sports massage care on which I increasingly depend was out of bounds due to Covid restrictions. I self-diagnosed that decreased running frequency and more rest would help.

It was easy to convince myself (or is that “kid myself”?) that with no competition on the horizon for the next six moths, a diet of less running and more rest wouldn’t hurt. However, I have a low boredom threshold, and I seriously under-estimated how much rest those leg injuries needed. When I did run, I was still able to give it 100% effort, and was hitting new ‘personal bests’ for my 5k reps sessions, but the price I was paying was even more frequent and severe lower leg pain. The only remedy seemed to be to decrease the effort going into that training, and couple this with more rest phases. Both were anathema to a near-lifelong athlete, but what choice did I really have? It was mid-winter, and gyms and swimming pools remained closed. We were well into the third upsurge of Covid. If rest was to mean real rest, there was no point in just trying to take up the slack in my training week with alternative forms of exercise.

The weather seemed to have hit a long cold and wet phase, and on many occasions, I wasn’t sorry that I didn’t need to go out training. I was still beating my daily steps target, which was definitely helping strengthen my knees. However, I was hardly running at all, and there was a price to that. Pretty soon, my once a week (or less) run felt harder and became slower. My VO2 Max figure began to slide down. I was now only in the “top 15% of runners of my age and gender”. I was despondent, and felt that all I’d achieved were short-term gains, at the expense of long term progress. My goals were to be ready to make a come-back as a sprinter as soon as possible after competitions resumed, whenever that was going to be. And I just couldn’t see that happening.

The vicious cycle had turned from where I seemed to be over-training to the point where I was, without doubt, under-doing it. Looking on the bright side, it was good to be able to see “cause and effect” over a relatively short period. What was easily lost could be easily regained, surely?

And that brings me nearly up to date. I’d managed a few low-key runs in April/May without recurrent pain to my lower legs (new shoes probably helped) and I was flattered that my average and maximum heart rates on those runs were lower than I’d expected. The split times for my reps were also much more even. I can’t claim to have learned pace judgement, but at least I wasn’t rushing off too fast at the start.

I’m in a “maintenance phase” right now, I think. I have a competition pencilled in the diary for late August, and I’ll be attending a few big events as photographer in the meantime. This will, I hope, give me an opportunity to mix with other athletes, and to share stories about the last 18 months or so. There are downsides on the horizon too. The worst is the probability we’re climbing into a third peak of Covid infections in the UK, despite the effect of vaccinations on a big percentage of the population. when, and under what kinds of restriction, who knows at present?

Conclusions from all of this? There’s no going back, of course. What’s lost is gone for ever. Will there be racing for me in 2022, and will I be properly ready for it? I was going to say “I hope so”, but that’s a bit meaningless. What I am telling myself is that I can only carry on preparing for that eventuality.

The Risk

February 17, 2021

I can’t even remember whether we were in full lockdown when I wrote my last blog here, about six weeks back. Whatever, we are now, and if common-sense prevails, we will be for quite a few weeks longer. It won’t, of course (prevail, that is) under the political regime in power in the UK at present. Currently, it almost seems like they think the virus should be sympathetic to their desire to balance the national economy and the health of the nation. It isn’t, and I no longer believe we are being told the full truth of the regime’s plans for that health of the nation.

[Gets off soapbox….]

Much to my surprise, last week, I had a call from the receptionist at my GP surgery, to invite me for my Covid vaccine jab last weekend. I say surprised because, at 66, I thought I would still be a good month away from getting the jab, and even then that was me at my most optimistic. Nevertheless, date, time and venue were all pretty much ideal for me, so I replied “How can I refuse?”

I was shocked when the receptionist replied “Oh, you’d be surprised how many are refusing.” And the more I think about, even a week after the call, the more shocked I feel.

I used to share an office with an “anti-vaxer” who firmly believed the MMR vaccine would “give her daughter autism”. I believe that theory has been debunked the world over many times, but as with others of its kind, such as the myth that Covid is carried by the 5G telephone signal, those inclined towards believing that’s true just give you that “Can you afford to take the risk?” sort of answer.

Covid first came into the UK via very few people. A much higher number than that, the media suggest, will be vaccine refusers. To me, as a lay person, but with a good understanding of statistics, these will be the people who will ultimately slow down the departure of the pandemic.

In the athletics world, I have met people with all kinds of weird beliefs when it comes to their health and/or sporting life. Those beliefs might relate to exercise, diet, lifestyle, etc, though I think those relating to medication can be the strangest. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that there are quite a vocal lobbies already claiming that the coronavirus vaccines might be either performance-enhancing or damaging to performance. And for all I know, given how strange these believers can be, there may be some who think the vaccines could be both. And they too will say, when challenged on their opinion: “Can you afford to take the risk?”

Already, WADA and UKAD have had to issue reassurances along the lines that “there was ‘no reason to believe’ the vaccines would contravene [their] rules.” I can already hear the anti-vaxers and their like getting the “Can you afford to take the risk?” script ready.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to reassure myself that the annoyingly persistent calf problem I’ve had since the end of November has responded to treatment and gone away, for now at least. However, finding a happy medium between not testing it too hard and not testing it at all has been difficult. To begin with, I tended away from running at all, but upped the mileage I was doing each day walking. That was followed by a spell of mixing walking with very slow jogging. Then came a few weeks of really cold weather, for which I preferred to dress up warmly and revert to walking again. Then came snow, which delayed a return to running again, just the day after I’d given my calf a proper test run. Now the snow has gone, and I’m planning on running again very soon.

I’m remarkably relaxed about this, compared to how I feel at this point in a “normal” competitive year, because, unsurprisingly, there is little or now real prospect of competition on my horizon at the moment. Due to the requirements of lockdown, the entire UK masters athletics indoor calendar has been wiped clean, and big question marks hang over the summer calendar too, if you ask me. Vaccines have got to make a big difference right across the country before UK domestic competition can begin properly again. And how can anyone judge when the time will be right to begin international competitions again, given the variety of different Covid situations even in just Europe?

I’ve recently been re-reading a book by Theodor Christomannos (1854-1911). He was an Austrian entrepreneur and philosopher who was a leading light behind the building of the Great Dolomite Road across the Dolomites, my favourite mountains. That road is the subject of a web site I put together several years ago, and there’s a short piece about Christomannos here.

I don’t think Christomannos originated the phrase, but his strong view on the way to attract tourism into an area was “if you build it, they will come”. “It”, in this context meant hotels, roads etc. Well, he was certainly right about the Dolomites.

That got me thinking that perhaps the optimism of the organisers of international masters athletics competition might be on the same lines – press on with preparing for the event, open bookings, and just see who decides to come. After all, it goes without saying, there will be no entrants if there are no competitions in the calendar.

And yet, whether thinking about how these events get financed (or not), or thinking about whether attending is safe, I and many others will probably respond at this moment in time with a question: “Can you afford to take the risk?”

New Year, New Blog

January 1, 2021

I’d promised myself that I wasn’t going to do one of “those” New Year’s blogs. Actually, I didn’t have any real intention of writing a New Year’s blog at all, but, having fallen a little behind with writing them during the last year (and longer than that, if I’m honest), it was time I did write one, and it just happened to be at the turn of the year.

Now, this is, and always has been, my blog about what it’s like to be an older sprinter, who is still, just about, what you could call “active”. That means that I won’t regale you with my views on the UK government, or on the whole Brexit thing, a) because we’d both be here all night, and b) we’d neither of us enjoy the experience. I wish I could also make the blog “covid-free”, but that isn’t quite going to happen, because, of course, the pandemic is what has underscored the best part of the last year, in any and every athlete’s life.

So, what’s changed since last we were together, at the end of October? Surprisingly little, I think I ought to be grateful to say. I’ve parted company with the gym to which I’d been a member for the best part of the last 20 years. Am I missing it? To be honest, no, hardly at all. Mind you, that’s probably got something to do with feeling that there isn’t much I need to be doing to prepare for the 2021 track season, because I don’t think there will be much of one, vaccines or not.

I was really getting into doing at least one 5km timed run a week as a big interval session, mixing running and walking or jogging for recovery. I’d also begun one session a week on my local steep hill (described in my previous blog episode) of  five or six ascents, each with a walk down recovery before a blast back up. This was hard work, but felt as if it was keeping all of my key components working, and providing a basis from which I could, eventually, progress.

Now, the quick amongst you reading this will have noticed that I’ve described that in the past tense. If you have been reading this for any length of time, you’ll also recall how I was very taken by the (probably apocryphal) little Jewish joke, which goes:

“Q. How do you make God laugh? A. Tell him your plans.”

My 5km runs were steadily getting faster. I was getting more adventurous with both the running and the recovery distances I was doing. I’d been worried about the high percentage of the run that I seemed be doing with my heart rate well in my “red zone”, so I was experimenting with faster runs and longer recovery sections, or on turning the running pace down a bit, but keeping the recovery short. Neither really seemed to make much difference to my overall run time, though. What’s more, my Garmin watch and high tech heart rate monitor strap were showing that key measurements, such as my VO2 max, and my blood lactate threshold (look these terms up online, if you’re interested) were improving nicely. My VO2 max was showing that it was in the top 10% for my age and gender, so who was I to argue with the science? By the middle of November, I really was feeling better, in “wellness” terms, and fitter, than at any point in the last two years.

Now you’re waiting for the “but…”, aren’t you? Here it comes.

I never seem to have managed to maintain a happy balance between being “fit enough” and being “fast enough”. I’ve often complained about coming into each year’s track season fit but not fast, and about ending the season fast but not fit. The latter is largely down to the fairly high frequency at which I’ve tended to race, and the toll that recovery from racing takes on me being able to maintain fitness through training. If it’s any consolation, Usain Bolt said much the same about his time on the track and field World Tours he took part in.

The “sprinter” thing really is a factor. If the price for regulating my running heart rate was to run slower times, this goes against my every instinct as a lifelong sprinter. A simple solution may have been to leave my watch and heart rate strap at home, and just go with how things felt. However, that doesn’t work for me. I honestly have no instinctive “feel” for the pace at which I’m running at any longer distance than about 200 metres, and needed the help of the gps signal on my wrist to regulate my speed. That, plus I’ve been, and remain, fascinated by all of the other metrics my watch gives me: measurement of my cadence, stride length, “vertical oscillation” (how well my knees are lifting), my left/right stride balance, and so on. And as the 5km point drew nearer on my watch, I always seemed to be able to dig deep and blast the final 200 metres or so of the run, no matter how near death’s door I might have felt a couple of kilometres back up the route!

And it was this that ultimately fated me to fail. It has, on several occasions in the past too, sadly. The sprint sessions on the hill had slightly irritated my lower back, and I was determined to hold a good running posture on my 5km runs. My average left/right foot strike balance, as measured, was typically about 50.4% left, 49.6% right. I’m told this is excellent, but there was clearly something about the way that my left foot struck the ground that was again accumulating problems again in my upper achilles tendon/lower calf area. And one Saturday morning, this just refused to take it any more. Good job I live only five minutes limp away.

Yes, my fitness had exposed the latest in a long line of “weakest links in the chain”. The only viable remedy was to back right off, limit my exercise to some careful walking in very flexible shoes, and give the running a miss for several weeks. No bad thing, maybe, in December, but it’s a a right bugger when it has struck me in the past in, say, April or August!

Happy to relate, right now, I’m coming to the stage in my rehab where the light is beginning to shine from the far end of the tunnel. I’m walking pain-free. Some bruising has come out to skin level in the worst affected areas around my lower calf, courtesy largely of some good sessions with my ice pack. I always like this aspect of recovery, because it proves to me I wasn’t really just imagining the injury. The nearest thing to a New Year’s resolution this year is that I’m going to be good to myself, and allow longer than I usually would have done in the past to cement this recovery in place. Usually, about now, I’d be fretting about being ready in time to race again in February and March, on the hard surfaces of the indoor track, and about needing to retain such fitness as the winter had allowed me to accrue. 

Not this time. With the best will in the world, I don’t believe there is going to be a UK Masters indoor track season this year, so I have the opportunity to roll slowly and steadily back to full form. I think it’s perhaps a bit of a case, metaphorically speaking, of “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

So, I won’t be posting new 5km personal best times on the parkrun web site for just a little while longer.

Stepping Out

October 28, 2020

It’s a wet, late October day. I’ve finished all the chores on the “to do” list, and it’s dawned on me that I’ve not updated this blog for a while. So, to make amends…

I made a big decision recently. It’s one I’d put off for a couple of months, if I’m honest. I cancelled my gym subscription.

I joined the gym when it first opened, 21 years ago. How’s that for loyalty? Several of the staff there have become good friends, and I’m on nodding acquaintance terms with many of the regulars who use the gym at the times I do. Or did. So, how and why?

Well, late in February, when we could see what was possibly coming with coronavirus, I had a conversation with the gym manager, because I didn’t like how little of any real consequence the gym was doing that would help stop spread air or droplet-borne infections. Basically, their advice was to wash your hands after using the gym equipment, and er, that was it. 

I said to the manager that I thought there was more they could do, like increasing the frequency of cleaning, making more cleaning sprays available for conscientious users to clean up after them, etc. Sadly, the manager replied “Well, we are doing everything that the government has advised for places like this.” And, of course, we know where that kind of advice has subsequently led us.

As a result, I reduced my gym visits to one a week. However, it quickly dawned on me that it only needed one exposure to the virus… So I stopped going at all. Three weeks later, the government announced lockdown, and establishments like gyms were, correctly, closed for the duration.

To their credit, the gym was quick to stop taking the direct debits for monthly memberships. They also seemed to be looking after their staff well during lockdown. However, during July, when the misguided clamour from certain quarters for life to “return to normal” was at its height, the government conceded to the pressure. Gyms and much else were allowed to reopen.

The gym was just as quick to start taking the membership money again, but I was (and remain) underwhelmed by the “new safety measures” they had put in place. I took a decision to continue to stay away until local and national infection rates were back to levels as low as, or possibly lower than when I first stopped attending. 

And three months down the line, with the second wave of infections rolling in the world over, and government advice being, at the very least, unimpressive, I realised that my criteria for returning were not going to be met for some time yet. My gym membership represented a significant monthly outgoing, especially as my earnings from photographic work have dwindled almost to zero in the last six months. As a result, it was ridiculous to carry on paying and not using, and I went through the resignation process. It’s still going to cost me three more months of fees for no returns.

At the moment, I’m pretty sure that I will renew as a member if life ever does return to a semblance of “normality” or “safety”, but, day by day, that seems to be a date receding further and further into the future.

And that’s it? Well, no, not at all. 

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know something of what I’ve been through in the last two years, with injuries. I began to ask myself a few questions. Key amongst these was whether going to the gym three or so times a week in the last year had made a significant additional difference to my recovery from those injuries, compared to the remedial work I was doing at home, and the excellent support I was getting (as always) from my chiropractor and sports masseur?

Well, there’s no simple answer to that. Regular gym attendance was keeping me in a good routine for someone in their mid sixties, but I had other evidence to draw on that suggested it wasn’t being cost-effective as a remedial regime. That evidence was based on what I’d been doing since lockdown, and on the immense difference it has made to my well-being. I wrote a little bit about this in my last blog (from mid-July). What’s happened since then is that I’ve kept at it, got better at it, learned to enjoy it, and every day feel better for it.

Key has been keeping up a good stretch-target for the number of steps I do each day, as measured on my Garmin watch. Jesper, my chiropractor, has often said that a good idea is “to take the dog for a walk every day, even if you don’t have one”. Well, I am now coming up to 160 consecutive days of achieving my daily steps goal. Ok, to begin with, it was easy, as the target was lower than it is now, and the weather was pretty good, even by “pretty good” English summer standards. 

My wife and I are also doing at least one “long walk” a week (20 to 30 kilometres), which has become a delightful series of opportunities to visit places we’ve not been to for a long time, and to discover places we always meant to go to, but never found the time or motivation.  Mostly, these walks have started from somewhere within an hour’s drive of home. We plan to revisit many of them over the winter months, because there are so many I now want to photograph when the trees are bare of leaves. There will be more about this on my other blog, here.

I’ve also kept up the weekly 5k “giant interval session” mentioned in my last blog here. Taken together, it seems that the walking and the run have got me feeling considerably fitter than I have been for quite a few years. I realise now that I was racing, and doing well, when I probably wasn’t as well or as fit as I feel right now. For sure, not much of it is “sprint-specific” at the moment – but read on.  I’ve been pondering the extent to which what I was doing previously that was arguably “sprint-specific” was a significant contributor to the succession of injuries I was experiencing? Just occasionally on my interval session runs, I would let myself run for a short spell of something that felt quite fast. Bear in mind, though, that was usually towards the end of the session, much of which gets done at or near maximum heart rate, so that I could suffer in relative privacy afterwards!

More recently “The Hill” has featured. This is a short, steep piece of a very quiet road, between home and where I do my 5k run. It’s probably about 120 metres long, and has a gradient of maybe 10 or 12 percent. The middle might be steeper than that. A few weeks ago, with no real prior warning to myself, I ran, rather than walked, up it on the way home. As fast as I could, given that ten minutes earlier, I’d run and walked 5k. The fact it had come on to rain was doubtless contributory. It didn’t kill me, it felt pretty good, even for my knees, and I decided the next week I’d put a stopwatch on it. 

The first time taken was just a benchmark, but for the last five weeks, I’ve been improving on it and have not yet reached what seems to be my optimum. That’ll come when my stopwatch time stops going down.

I think I’m finding you can take the boy out of the sprinter, but can never take the sprinter out of the (old) boy.

Stay well all, and thanks for reading this stuff.

The “new normal”?

July 16, 2020

This is my first blog here since just after “lockdown” began, back in March. While things developed in that respect, or until there was some significant news from this end, there didn’t seem much point in adding to the reams of blogs being published by other similarly twiddling their thumbs.

So, did you have a good “lockdown”? I must confess that, aside from a couple of things, it didn’t make have quite as much of an impact on me as I thought it might, back when it began. I was already working from home most of the time, as I have been for several years, so that itself was no big deal. Essential shopping was no problem, as we have the blessing of a great local “corner shop”, and pretty easy access to supermarkets who quickly did what they could to control the spate of panic-buying there was back then. Most areas of life where I’d come into close contact with others (eg gym, chiropractor, and, of course, photographic work) simply and wisely closed up for the time being. Some have not yet reopened at time of writing. No government financial support for we freelancers, of course.

The worst that befell me, at about the time that lockdown began, was a really dreadful head cold, which soon worked its way to my chest. Being positive about it, I thought it was similar to the symptoms of severe bronchitis, something I had a few years ago. At least, we had to assume it was bronchitis. It proved completely impossible to get tested to eliminate the possibility that it was anything to do with Covid19, unless you could prove that you had one or more of the widely publicised symptoms believed, at that time, to be conclusive proof of infection. With hindsight, I’m less sure, but not being a “key worker” etc, there’s no chance of me getting an antibodies test either, as things stand. Being aged 66, and therefore in a relatively high risk age-category makes no difference. I self-isolated quite conscientiously for a several of weeks, until early May, and slowly got better.

As soon as I felt up to it, I needed little persuading to get out and use the permission to “exercise locally” to the full. I was able to combine getting my heart and lungs back working relatively normally again, via a brisk daily walk, with a couple of projects I’d been working on with the camera. What restricted me most was the ban on non-essential travel. That’s not a complaint, you understand, just a statement of fact. Getting out for pleasure and to pursue a couple of other projects was simply off the table for a while. It was a shame not to be able to do more, further afield, of course, because the weather for a lot of the lockdown period was near-perfect. Ah well, and there was always the garden to tend to.

I made a promise to myself to keep up with my daily steps target, as measured by my sports watch. Getting out mid morning or early evening, when it seemed to be quietest, allowed me to do that, and to stretch the target too. 100,000 steps a week equates to around 80 kilometres or 50 miles. That’s now become part of my “new normal”.

My wife works part time, and when lockdown eased to the extent that it was permissible to go somewhere else to exercise, we began once or twice a week, ticking off a number of places within an hour or so’s drive from home that we had previously identified as spots we’d like to visit/revisit if time allowed. Well, it “allowed” now, with fewer than usual distractions or excuses. Currently, we are in the process of tackling chunks of Kent’s Saxon Shore Way and the Royal Military Canal path, down on the edge of Romney Marsh. This area evokes fond memories for me from when I was a kid, as it’s close to the coast where family used to go for weekends and holidays, and, when aged about twelve, I used to nip off on my bicycle to places like the Canal. The proximity of the two routes has meant we’ve been able to do circular walks including sections of both most weeks.

This stuff is no substitute, however, for my plan to motorcycle an extended version of the french “Route Des Grandes Alps” this summer. But those mountains aren’t going anywhere either.

And what about my knees? As I write this, it is just over a year since my last two races on the track. My long-term remedial training had seen its share of ups and downs during last winter. I wasn’t anywhere near race-fit by the UK indoor track season in February and early March, but I felt I was getting there. Then came lockdown etc, of course.

Well, my knees have responded very positively to a largely walking-based regime. Around the middle of May I started throwing in an occasional and tentative 5 kilometre run, as well. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall the benefit my fitness was getting by doing my 5k’s at things like parkrun as if they were big track sessions – that’s to say: alternating 200 metres brisk walking with 200 metres faster running. I’d also experimented with moving up to 150m/250m splits. Well, much the same, on much the same kind of route, has now become an important weekly benchmark session. My times are progressing very nicely, thank you. At the moment, I can’t decide whether further good progress will come from, say, alternate 100m/300m splits, or something more “sprinterly”, like alternate 100m/200m. Some trial and error is called for. It’s really hammering me, with long spells at close to my maximum heart rate, but my recovery rate is definitely becoming pretty good.

Needless to say, with track and field events closed down pretty much the world over, I have no temptations about whether to return to competition just yet. I’ve not really been keeping in touch with too many other Masters athletes to know how others are doing. I’m sure many others have much the same tale to tell.

More anon….

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.