Archive for the ‘My occasional Blog’ Category

Keep On Running…again

April 24, 2017

This year, there were about twenty people I know who were entered for the London Marathon. Sorry, I could only afford to sponsor one of you. My social media timelines were full of the excited chatter of people getting ready for the event. For several, it was their first full marathon. For others, it was their first London for a while. For a few, it was their second marathon within a very short space of time. And was I jealous? No, not a bit.

It’s amazing how, nowadays, if you tell people that you run for sport, their immediate reaction seems to be that you must be a marathon runner, or an aspirant marathon runner. I’ve noticed that this is becoming more and more the case. There will be two reasons for this: 1) the resurgence once more of interest in distance running, and 2) the automatic assumption that anyone as old as I must look simply won’t be capable of racing short distances on a track.

Just occasionally, it leaves me feeling like a second-class citizen in some of the environments I mix within. This is sometimes amplified by people, who, having established, for example, that I’ve been to a track meeting and raced in a full-on 100 metres and a 200 metres race, then say to me something like “What, you mean you were there all that time, and didn’t even race the equivalent of one lap of the track?”

However, as this blog has been describing in the last couple of months, I’ve not even been running that far lately!

My damaged shoulder is responding very nicely to the rehab regime prescribed for it. I’d say I was well into Stage 3 of the process, and the start of Stage 4 looms. I have the intended “full, pain-free range of movement under modest load” after weeks of specific (and largely isometric) exercises. An interesting discovery, however, was that there was an important word completely missing from my rehab description.

That word was “stability”. I found several times in the last month or so that, just as I was tempted to give myself a metaphorical pat on the back for progress made, I was let down by realising or discovering that although I had pain-free movement and some restored strength in the joint, the shoulder remained unstable, and would easily fail me under load. Therefore, a certain amount of the progress was actually a bit illusory.

The answer was simple. By prolonging the duration of some of the routines I’ve been doing – by doing them more slowly – I found I was getting an almost exponential gain in stability from them. The name of the game at this point really isn’t to establish any kind of fast or explosive movement, after all. Strength is one thing, but in a joint as complex as a shoulder, if that strength is only capable of sustaining movement in one or two planes, the job is far from complete. A key factor of my mobilisation work was to establish 360 degree movement. Moving on from that to (as near as damnit) 360 degree stability alongside that movement is actually proving reasonably easy to achieve, but boy am I glad I’m being self-analytical about all of this stuff, because it nearly got overlooked!

A tougher nut to crack has been the insertion-point achilles tendinopathy which my enthusiasm to get some aerobic training under my belt laid me wide open to, about six weeks ago. For starters, the whole of my left heel at the achilles insertion point remained acutely sensitive to touch, and to pressure from normal running shoes. There was, however, no inflammation visible, and ice and anti-inflammatories had no effect whatsoever.

I mentioned “stress tolerance” in my previous blog. This was a concept to which I was introduced by my chiro once we were sure we’d got the right diagnosis, and a broadly helpful remedial regime lined up. In some quarters, so I’ve read, “stress tolerance” is seen as just a fancy name for a “grin and bear it” approach to recovery. For some injuries, that is, of course, the very last thing you should be doing. However, bells began to ring from my distant past (well, ok, 30 years ago) when I was recovering from pretty serious back damage. My osteopath at that time was of the school who believed that “backs need to be put to work”. So, it seems, do achilles tendons trying to recover from insertion point damage.

Softly, softly is the name of the game, of course. For a couple of my gym sessions a week, I reverted to wearing my Vibram Five Fingers shoes, in an effort to mobilise the whole of my foot. Had I got stronger or less sensitive, feet, I’d possibly have gone barefoot, although the gym discourages that. Initially my limit without aggravation was about one kilometre walking on a dead flat treadmill. At the point at which repeating that for a few sessions simply became tedious, I began a few jogging strides, working up to about four or five hundred metres in total. The art was to know to stop before any pain began, which was a bit like Russian Roulette.

And so it was for every session for a couple of weeks. And gradually normality is beginning to return. Today, I managed 30 minutes pain free, slow jogging on the treadmill, reaching the heady heights of around 4 kilometres. At this rate, I’ll be back tackling Parkrun again soon!

But all in good time.

Let the healing begin

March 18, 2017

That title (a Joe Cocker song) is a pun, by the way.

I’m writing this exactly a month since the last episode. Back then, things were going quite well with “Project Rehab”, as I’m beginning to call the long term process to mend my shoulder and start racing again. How things change. Well, partly so. Work on rehabbing my left shoulder is still going well. I’ll come back to that later. However, I have other fish to fry.

I made a passing, and possibly prophetic, reference to my achilles tendons in my last blog. I was concerned about doing more running over longer distances, given that, being a sprinter all these years, my legs are simply not those of a distance runner. They work differently, to achieve different results. Thus, building in a weekly 5km Parkrun to my regime, to try to help compensate for some of the other aerobic training my damaged shoulder won’t let me do, was always going to be a little bit of a risk.

My left achilles lasted just three parkruns. I was just getting used to losing myself in the crowd every Saturday morning, when a niggle in my heel walking back to the car alerted me to trouble I’d not really anticipated even five minutes earlier when I’d had my barcode scanned. Home, twenty minutes later, and I was in pain! I’ve had achilles tendon problems occasionally in the past. This time it was strange. The main body of the achilles tendon leading up to my calf seemed fine. No inflammation or pain in it. However, on and around my heelbone there were areas I could hardly bear to touch. The worst was on the outside edge of the heelbone. My self-diagnosis was of some kind of calcaneal bursitis. Dr Google appeared to agree, and recommended elevation and ice.

By the late afternoon, it was becoming apparent that the ice wasn’t doing very much. I’d been trying to avoid frostbite, of course, and conceded I needed to give it more time. Walking was agony. Almost any exploration and movement to try to define the precise area of damage was futile. The whole heel area hurt, though it wasn’t even that much inflamed.

Now, one important aspect of “Project Rehab” is patience. I’m not rushing my shoulder to mend, so why rush my achilles? A few days of reading about the causes of achilles tendinitis – or, as we’re told we should call it now, achilles tendinopathy – taught me a lot about its causes. I learned enough to know that, with my recent history, I was a sure-fire target. What I didn’t really mug up on that much were the different types of achilles problem. A bad omission. I’d never heard of “insertion-point” tendinopathy/tendinitis, and it was three weeks before I discovered it. It had, of course, discovered me three weeks earlier.

As you can read in that rather good article, it’s damage to the point of attachment of the achilles tendon to the heelbone, leading to persistent pain, but notoriously little inflammation. Like most of the achilles, the blood supply is poor, and the micro-tears of the damage don’t show bruising. Despite tending to my heel in the time-honoured text book ways of dealing with achilles problems (lots of calf stretching, eccentric heel drop exercises etc), I’d not made any headway. The only activities I could reliably do without pain during or after were spinning sessions on a static bike at the gym. This had become my sole aerobic activity. That it was pain free was a mystery to me. I was reaching the point where I thought I might have picked up a stress fracture of the heelbone itself. I held on for another week, until my next scheduled appointment with my chiro to check on my shoulder, and threw the achilles issue into the overall fitness equation.

Yes, it was an insertion point problem. Rehab based on longitudinal stretching of the calf or the heel was not recommended at all. The name of the game was to build stress tolerance slowly, mostly by a variety of different isometric challenges. I did some recommended reading, and found that for three whole weeks, I’d been treating my achilles all wrong! What was needed was a complete absence of dorsiflection-type stretching (as in toes up, heel down), including traditional calf stretches. The achilles needed compressing, not stretching. Heel lowers were fine provided they were onto a flat surface, not over a drop. Spinning had worked precisely because my foot position while pedalling compressed the tendon, rather than stretching it. I wasn’t surprised to learn that cyclists also have notoriously tight calf muscles!

I’m chastened, but back on the case!

My shoulder now has pretty much complete pain-free movement in all directions, including under the moderate tension of an elastic dynaband. Maintaining that while aiming to add stability is a next target. I picked up a few tips for some additional exercises from shot-putter friends recently. They suffer badly with shoulder problems, as you’d expect. However, I soon found that to do the exercises described to me needed a bigger physique and a far stronger shoulder structure than mine. They’ll make for some good challenges later on in Project Rehab, when my targets turn to rebuilding strength.

So, I’m behind schedule in one sense, but glad I’ve chosen to give this thing the luxury of time. And time, as, as we’re always being told, the great healer.

(and even.. )Further On Down The Road

February 17, 2017

Following on from my blog a few weeks ago, in which I set out my planned long-term rehab strategy for my damaged left shoulder, I thought I’d offer an update on progress, for anyone who’s following this.

I won’t repeat great chunks of that last blog. You can read it here. In terms of a marker, in the sense of linear progress, I am basically through what I described as “Stage 2” of five stages. It’s taken over six weeks, but I now seem to have a fully pain-free range of movement in my left shoulder, through every direction, albeit without any loading. I can at last raise my arm fully above my head without pain, for example. Raising my extended arm quickly out to my side gives a small twinge of shoulder pain, which isn’t there when the same movement is done more slowly. I only discovered this by accident this week, when I slipped while walking on muddy ground, and instinctively raised my arm to balance myself. So, if I’m honest, I’m nearly there, but not quite.

However, before that slip, I was confident enough to move on to Stage 3. The goal of this phase is to establish full, pain-free range of movement under a modest and consistent load. My chiropractor has given me five exercises around which to base this. One is an isometric routine, done twice a day, to gently challenge the stability of the shoulder joint, with extended arm and with my left hand in various rotated positions. The loading in this exercise comes because it’s done leaning against a wall. The other four exercises are all done with an elastic “Dynaband”.

A Dynaband is a broad and very stretchy piece of rubber. They come in various grades of resistance. I have a grey one, which is the stiffest, but in use these things are so versatile that it’s an easy job to establish the right loading and range of movement. The loose ends just wrap around your hands when you use them. These things are great. They give a nice progressive loading and release, so that there is tension in both concentric and eccentric movement. I’m coming to regard the Dynaband as a vital accessory; inexpensive and weighing just a few grammes.

When I began my Stage 3, I kept the tension on the band low for a few exploratory sessions. A couple of weeks in, and I’ve tightened it up somewhat. I’ve been fortunate to get the tension right, without overdoing it, and I have had no pain in any plane of movement. I shall very slowly crank up the tension in the weeks to come. This is a critical phase, because to get best value from the work, I’m trying to work precisely below a level that might cause pain. Pain will mean failure and setback. And that doesn’t only mean I need to get the tension right, but also the number of repetitions of each exercise right too. It’s the exercise equivalent of sticking my head in the lion’s mouth.

My undamaged right shoulder is my “control group” in this. Everything I do with the left I also do with the right, and at the same tension/repetitions. The right can do it all so very much more easily at the moment, of course. The basic aim for the moment to get the left to “level up” to an equal level of ability under these modest loads. It’s working too. Testing and levelling up at fuller loads is still some way in the future.

However, it’s not all been static work like this. I wanted a regular bench-marking exercise for my aerobic fitness while the shoulder rehab work was going on. I can’t sprint and move the shoulder quickly at present, but I can jog quite well. It was a bit of a no-brainer to start running in my local Parkrun every Saturday morning. For the last two years, I’ve been their regular photographer, and had amassed a collection of more than 21,000 photos. Everyone at Parkrun has been so welcoming of my change to become a runner instead. I’m not at all fast. My reputation as a good sprinter counts for nothing over 5 kilometres, of course!

I ran Parkrun a few times in 2014, when I was recovering from scaphoid problems and unable to do more conventional training. I blogged it back then. I cannot, in all honesty, say that I enjoy running 5k, but it gives me a pretty good test of fitness. It also has the downside of showing up deficiencies in my make-up which emphasise some of the physiological differences between sprinters and longer distance runners.

For example, when sprinting, I race on my forefoot the whole time. It’s why the track sprint shoes have spikes at the front and none in the heel or mid-foot. Running 5k means heel-striking every stride. There is no way I could run 5k on my toes! This altered motion is a big deal for my calf muscles and achilles tendons, which get worked in a very different way, and over a far longer period of exertion, albeit at a generally sub-maximal level of effort. Nevertheless, I’m very much aware of calf muscle niggles, and a need to build up my 5k running “prowess” (ha-ha!) steadily each week.

Needless to say, I’ve built some longer runs into my training during the week. It’s already clear that this isn’t only going to help keep me aerobically fit, but is also going to keep my weight in check. For my current training, I need to fuel and hydrate in a very different way. I’ve already got it badly wrong once. Say no more. Insulin spikes are very unpleasant, as I’ve now been reminded!

And that’s where I’ve reached so far. Thank you to those who have taken an interest in what I’m doing, either by reading this or by giving me your encouragement at the gym and at Parkrun. I’ll keep you all posted.

Did You Get Healed?

January 28, 2017

So sang (Sir) Van Morrison. Well, not yet is the answer. But I’m working on it.

We’ve reached that part of winter where I’d normally be well into speed training, working from a platform of strength and stamina training put in during the months up to Christmas. Only not this year. I won’t bore you by repeating the background. It’s in the last episode of this blog.

I am very comfortable at present with my decision to set competition aside for now, and to concentrate of the various aspects of rehabilitation I need to see my way through. The idea of doing this without the spectre of competition haunting me might seem commonplace to some athletes, but truly and honestly, it’s a new thing for me. In the past, whatever the injury (and I include clinical depression in this), there has always been a point, either in my head or in my diary, by which I expected to be back racing again. I strongly suspect (with the luxury of that lovely thing known as hindsight), that this has meant skimped rehab of some injuries, and it probably underpins the years of leg, back, foot, knee niggles etc that seem to form the background music to my progress.

When, following a fall, my left shoulder pretty much refused to function without considerable pain, it was one of those “oh fuck” moments. You know – an injury that immediately brings with it a sense of foreboding, often accompanied by a minute or two of cold sweats.

A couple of months down the road, with expert advice and several sessions of acupuncture on board, I have a rehab plan. In case the simple logic of it is useful to others, it goes like this:

Stage 1. Diagnosis. I am a firm believer in the principle of “know thine enemy”. I’m (basically) past this stage, and as I write this, I’m hoping I’m coming towards the end of:

Stage 2. Work to achieve full, pain-free range of movement without load This has been vital to me, in terms of introducing a sense of normality. That’s to say, if I can successfully and convincingly achieve this stage, it’s much easier to believe the next stages are also realistic. There may well be occasions when Stage 2 loops back to Stage 1 and progress slows down. This happened, for example, when I thought I’d recovered full, pain-free movement, but then extended my arm behind me to put on a fairly close-fitting jacket, only to find a part of my normal range of movement that had somehow escaped attention! Once I’m sure Stage 2 is in the bag, it’s then time for:

Stage 3: Exercise to establish full, pain-free range of movement under modest load This is the crux, and the stage I’ll be giving most time for. Too much load too soon might trigger a setback; too little for too long might give a misleading impression of progress. This is also the stage where expert monitoring will be vital, to help ensure the range of movement is indeed full, and the loading is not excessive. I think there will come a point where the abilities in my right shoulder (the good one) become my benchmark. At present, it is a bit shocking to discover how much more mobile and strong it is, compared to its damaged opposite number. Through Stages 2 and 3, I’ll be aiming to maintain a good standard of general fitness, but not at the level I’d aspire to as an active athlete. That would be a bit risky, I think. Then, as day follows night, we’ll have:

Stage 4: Gradually reinstating mobility and strength in the left shoulder to a point that pretty much matches that of the right one I say “pretty much” because it has never really been equally capable. Something to do with me being so right-handed perhaps. This will be a stage that needs to mesh in well with more specific fitness training. That’s because a key element of equality between the two shoulders for me will be the ability of both to function together under rapid movement. The left shoulder might have regained a semblance of strength by this point, but will it be able to cope with the rapid movement I need to sprint, and the sudden transition to fast arm movement upon coming out of starting blocks, for example? All being well, with stability, strength and normality thus regained, we reach:

Stage 5: Resumption of proper training I actually hope to reach this point when there is little or nothing of a competitive kind to tempt me back on the track. I need to leave headroom to loop back to an earlier stage if necessary – though hopefully not Stage 1, of course.

I don’t have a timescale for any of this. It’s probably not even helpful to know that Stage 2 has occupied almost a month at this point. Well, how long is a piece of string? It’s almost certain to be the key stage, and failure to achieve it as a foundation within what seems to be a “reasonable” length of time might be the first trigger for a rethink. Staying rehab-focussed and not allowing things simply to drift will be vital.

Onwards and upwards.

The Straight Line and the Curve

January 1, 2017

My title comes from a fairly recent song about an Elizabethan mystic. The “straight line and the curve” are rather neat euphemisms for a sprinter to adopt!

I’ve not written a new chapter for this blog for a while. There are many reasons for that. I’m writing this one on New Year’s Day, which is probably a day better than many for “resolutions”, but believe me, it hasn’t been easy to reach this point.

My summer track season in 2016 fizzled out in a very unsatisfactory manner, as described in one of my last blogs here. During the early autumn, training, such as it was without (m)any definable targets, was ok, but not very enjoyable. I was working at a level that, a year before, I’d probably have been pleased with, even if it didn’t seem all that hard. Then the injuries began.

First was a persistent pain in the ball of my right foot. Then, gradually, it was matched by one in the left foot too. I’d had something similar in my left foot back in 2012/13. It had responded to treatment for a malfunctioning medial arch, and has been kept in check since then by decent, high arch insoles in whatever shoes I wear. This time, renewing these had little or no effect, and I needed to give myself permission to ease right off on any running or high impact activity. After all, I thought, at that point there was a long way to go to next year’s track season. I’m currently trying recommended toe flexibility exercises, which give short term relief, but I’m still not doing any running.

Next, following a bit of a fall when I put out my left hand to break my descent, I began to get excruciating pain in my left shoulder whenever I extended my arm, raised it above my head, pulled or pushed on it, etc. I’ve had a clunky left shoulder since I was about 18, a legacy of a pedal bike crash, but this pain was new, and wasn’t near the old damage. Reading up Doctor Google’s diagnosis strongly suggests I’ve developed a fairly classic kind of rotator cuff problem. If that’s so, it seems it might well be something that rest and physical therapies won’t necessarily influence, thus leading to an operation as a remedy. Rest and regular doses of anti-inflammatories are the initial actions. Even the limited training I was able to do before has been very compromised. In relation to where I “ought” to be with only about six weeks to the start of the indoor track season, I’m nowhere.

I’ve been pretty fortunate to avoid them in the last few years, but then I caught a rather bad cold. It went on to my chest, and such was the associated hacking cough that my back muscles went into spasm. Now, I’m well familiar with anything my perennially bad back can throw at me. There is a pattern. Countering it involves a perhaps paradoxical mix of sessions of laying on the floor, propped up slightly on my elbows, coupled with a regime of going for very gentle walks as often as possible. After a week of this, as I write, I’m sleeping more comfortably, and feeling that each day is bringing small gains. However, the sound I keep hearing isn’t my cough, but the noise of further nails being banged into the coffin of my preparations for racing on the track in 2017.

Clinical depression is one of the scariest and nastiest things that has ever happened to me. I’m about four years out of that pit now, but one of the fastest ways back into it that I can imagine is to fall back to a point where training for my sport merely becomes a persistent form of physical and mental self-harm. I’ve written before about the horrors of simply “beating myself up” in training. I’m never going there again, and have become pretty acutely alive to the symptoms.

So, as New Year 2017 approached, the athlete in me needed to make plans. I sat down with the calendar, but quickly found that I lacked the courage to make those leaps of faith involved in committing to specific races on specific days, booking accommodation and travel to big events, and so on.

I’m 62, coming up 63. In the last ten years, and the last two in particular, I’ve been racing at levels of success I’ve not sustained since the days of my youth. And I’m in no way ready yet to “hang up my spikes”. Things would be so much easier if I was! However, everything that has happened to me in the last three months is leading me towards the decision to give racing a miss in 2017.

I’m making my decisions one bite at a time. Missing out of an indoor track season, and staying away from championship-level events in the summer, worked pretty well for me during 2013, while I sorted my foot problems. Initially that might be my chosen route for 2017: sort the injuries slowly and properly, stay well, mentally and physically, and gradually, gradually get myself to a situation where winter training 2017/18 becomes a reality.

There are acts of faith in all that, of course. Will I still want to carry on? Will I still be able to carry on? I can only respond to those questions with a old joke I once heard on the radio: “I can most definitely say, without fear of contradiction: “Perhaps”. One step at a time.

“Between the world of the straight line and the curve,
The sun and the moon will rule regardless”
(Jim Moray)

There are still other things to be worked through, but they’re for another time.

The View From Behind The Lens

October 10, 2016

This is a little different to my usual pieces here, but as I’d already written the words for the web page for Maidstone Parkrun, whose doings I photograph just about every Saturday morning, I thought I’d share them here too. They fit better here than on my landscape photography blog, I think.

I’ve been photographing Maidstone Parkrun now for about two years. It’s by no means the only running that I shoot, as you’ll know if you’ve ever visited my web site, but it’s amongst my highest volume work. Maidstone Parkrun regularly attracts something like 300 runners, and I’ve added more than 17,000 (yes, seventeen thousand!) photos to the Parkrun’s Group on Flickr . I have always got feedback from runners about my work – most, but not all of it complimentary – and I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a piece from my side of the lens.

The most common remark I get a variation on “Why wasn’t there a photo of me in your stuff from last week?” This is far more common (thankfully) than “I didn’t like the photo you took of me last week!”. Well, there are lots of reasons why you might not be in my photos. Here’s a small selection of them:

1. I might simply have missed you. Easily done, especially if you were in or behind a group.
2. My photo of you might not have come out well. Autofocus on the camera can be very fickle, especially in the kind of poor light we get along the river path in Maidstone Parkrun.
3. You might have looked a plonker in the photo. I might just have caught you badly, in a pose or making a face you’d not have thanked me for. However, you might just have been playing to the camera.
4. In a photographic or artistic sense, I might just not have liked the photo I took. My prerogative!

It’s never been my intention each week to try to photograph everyone. Nor, for reasons touched on above, is that ever completely possible. I take something like 500 photos at Parkrun each week. I am most definitely not one of those who then download the whole lot, unsorted and “warts and all” on to Flickr. Therefore, one of my major tasks each week is to thin the batch down to something closer to the 300 or so I do post for your enjoyment. Because I often take two shots at a time, thinning-out can be time consuming but fairly easy. There’s usually one that’s the better one. If not, I usually keep both.

If you’re a Maidstone Parkrun regular, you’ll know that you hardly ever see me at the same spot on the 5k course on consecutive Saturdays. I like a bit of variety in where and what I photograph. I think I’ve covered most of the good places several times over by now. I have my favourite spots, of course. There are also others that have great potential in theory, but because of the light or shadows there, they are not places that give satisfying pictures. Believe me, I’ve tried! It’s also why I often miss photographing the presentations before the start of a run. I can’t be in two places at the same time!

My love of variety extends to poses, too. There’s probably only so much I can do to add variety to a picture of someone running towards or past me, but I think I do ok. My dislike of runners waving at me as they approach is both well-known and misunderstood. Try these points:

1. After dozens of runners have waved at me or saluted as I’ve photographed them, it just become, frankly, awfully boring for me as photographer!
2. I love a nice photo of a runner running well, and many of you have great style – even down the back of the field. Flinging your arms up in the air ruins that. Armpit hair’s not my thing, either!
3. When people wave in a group, their arms often obscure the face of the runner next to or behind them. Neither is it aerodynamic. It’ll slow you down!
4. See point 3 in my first list, earlier in this article!

My favourite story is of a lady runner who loudly complained to me before the start of one Saturday’s run, saying: “I really hate your photos. Every single time you photograph me, I’m waving at the camera.” Yes, well….

So, my tips:

1. Keep running.
2. Smile. It’s well known it relaxes many important muscles!

It Never Rains…

September 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not what I intended at all.

All Our Trades Are Gone

August 9, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

July 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got your Number

June 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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