May 26, 2017

Last time we were here, I took a very therapeutically necessary trip down into some dark places I don’t often go these days. It felt good to be able to describe a little of what severe depression was like as an athlete, and then to be able to pack those things back into their box and leave them behind. Taken a while to be able to do that.

I was, however, unprepared for the catalogue of disasters about to befall me. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know the bare bones of “Project Rehab”, which is the label I’ve given to my steady and quite long term plan to recover full function in my left shoulder.

Well, I’d tackled the discipline of regaining full and pain free movement, followed by stability. I had then begun, a few weeks back, to move forward to a tentative process of starting to build some muscular strength. Not just in the shoulder muscles themselves, but in the whole left chain of action, which had suffered from the failure of a main component, as it were.

And bingo! Welcome back “photographers arm”. If I call it “tennis elbow” instead, you’ll get the basic idea. Except that tennis elbow more commonly strikes the underside of the elbow. Or so I believe. I don’t know because I’ve never played. Quite a lot of my time as a jobbing photographer usually shooting action events, is spent lifting a heavy camera and heavy lens up and down and trying to hold them still. There are clearly muscles and bits deep in my upper forearm that have decided over time that they don’t like this when it’s coupled with a regular dose of shoulder rehab work in the gym. I guess some would call it repetitive strain injury, though I find little of any insight in that description. The painful area is no more than two inches long, and readily accessible to massage and acupuncture, which have helped a little, but not enough. The traditional remedial tools such as a tennis elbow strap or neoprene elbow sleeve aren’t doing it for me either. It’s a work in progress at present. Or at least, a lot of work and not much progress, so far.

I’d also been enthusiastic to get a bit of decent aerobic training in, as soon as my shoulder was comfortable with it. I’ve recorded here that three 5k runs at my local Parkrun were enough to beat up my left achilles tendon. I’m not over that problem yet, eight weeks later, but at least the one very tentative Parkrun I did recently didn’t aggravate it. Annoyingly, my commitment to Parkrun tends to be hindered at this time of year by an increase in my photographic commitments at the weekend, and this squeezes my opportunity for aerobic work that is also, and importantly, in a sociable setting. Read that previous blog of mine again if you want to be reminded of the importance of that aspect.

So why title this piece “Help!”? Well, it could as easily have been “Streuth!” or “OMG!” but “Help!” is at least in keeping with my habit of titling these things after a song from my music collection. However, it’s not a rhetorical title. At this particular moment, I seem to lack an answer. I’ve realised that my sporting life has gone off the boil, and I don’t like it!

My local gym is key to the work I do to stay fit and healthy. It is excellent and staffed by good people. It’s part of a chain, and over the last few weeks it’s been undergoing a complete refurbishment of the gym equipment and gym layout. To its overall credit, the gym hasn’t closed for a single day during this time. A great deal of the work (new flooring, for example) has been done overnight. However, at least one of the three sections of the gym area have been closed off at any one time recently. New equipment has also been arriving and being set up for use. So what, you ask? Well, this has all made the gym heavily overcrowded with equipment, at the expense of the floor space I find essential for exercise. This will all pass, I am sure, as the project finishes any day now, but it’s had an effect on my training nevertheless.

Injury has made me very cautious of trying anything new at present, and, while I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, the aforementioned theft of floor-space has restricted the opportunities for quite a lot of what I’ve been doing in the gym over the last few months. So, to be frank, I’ve skipped a few gym sessions lately, until it all settles down. The injuries haven’t helped my enthusiasm to train, despite that I’ve actually grown fond of the learning experiences that accompany properly managed recovery. So, I can’t altogether blame injury for where I’ve reached.

I told myself I could afford at least a week of this lessened activity, because I was due a break. Even while I’m basically “just” doing a glorified version of injury recovery routines, I’ve remained aware of the need to give my body time to rest and adapt. However, inactivity sings a siren song sometimes. I’ve had periods of inactivity in the past, of course, but nearly always there has been a background ingredient in the mix that just isn’t there at the moment: motivation!

One thing I learned some time ago that works well for me is to try to turn the nervousness of anticipating competition on the track into a motivating force. But competition is out of my equation at present, and without a shadow of doubt, I’m severely lacking motivation in my training. Note, that’s motivation, not direction. My rehab plan gives me direction, but I seem to have found that if there is a motivating force from knowing where you should be heading, it falters after a while. Progress isn’t, it seems, always its own reward.

I can carry on doing what I’ve been doing, but one of life’s best guiding quotations (a former boss of mine used to use it, but it’ll no doubt be older) is “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”. In other words, I need a step-change in what I’m doing, which will be 1) physically and mentally absorbing, 2) as free from the risk of new injuries as I can reasonably hope for, and 3) motivating!

I’ll end this here. There’s therapy to be had in thinking out aloud like this.


Trouble in Shangri-La

May 8, 2017

I’m writing this in Mental Health Awareness Week, 2017. Many stories have emerged in the press etc recently of sports people suffering from depression and other mental health issues. Go back on this blog a few years and you’ll find that I was part of that gang too. It’s an area of my life I don’t revisit here very much now, but it’s part of me that never goes away, and probably never will. Depression was such a huge shock to me that I was, frankly, in denial for quite a long time.

In the twelve months or so period during which severe depression steadily established its grip on me, by some standards I had “no excuses”. Life was sweet in many ways. I was in my early fifties, and my training as a sprinter in Masters athletics was paying off. I was a regular finalist in World and European Masters competitions; I had very narrowly missed out on a medal in the last World Masters sprint final I’d raced in; and I was holder of three world gold medals from relay events. I was also in the world top ten for my age category, free from illness, and the back injuries that had plagued my life for the previous 15 years were apparently under control.

I had (and still have) a happy home life. I had a satisfying job, albeit with lots of anti-social hours. I had hobbies, and a sense of humour. And depression knocked me sideways nevertheless.

In my sporting life, I can’t say I felt unhappy in the accepted sense, but in a number of respects, I was unsatisfied. I was training hard and regularly, but one consequence of those frequent anti-social work hours was that I found it impossible to commit to training with a group of other athletes, or a coach. I just couldn’t guarantee to be there for any given session. I needed to grab opportunities to train when I could, and that usually meant solo.

I think I’ve always been a pretty self-critical person. Often that’s been with good reason. I don’t like just to think or imagine that I can do better; I like to set myself on a trajectory I think will lead me to “better”. And over time, I’ve come to realise that being your own control-group, only hearing your own voice as encouragement or criticism, only seeing yourself in the gym mirror, etc, can all be part of quite a dangerous cocktail. With no one to tell me what my sessions looked like and being largely dependent on how they felt to me, for feedback, there was usually only one answer to sessions that didn’t feel hard enough: try harder next time.

I wasn’t short of encouragement, from work colleagues, from my sports masseur and chiropractor particularly. My GP was (and still is) very supportive of this older athlete’s activities. Yet, there came a point when, with hindsight, I can see that diminishing returns set in. The harder I trained, the worse I seemed to perform. What I was doing and experiencing seemed to be lacking any “cause and effect” (as in “do A, and B should eventually happen”). And it seemed to me my options were limited to a single way forward: train harder still.

The nature of situations involving diminishing returns is that they quickly, and often stealthily, develop into downward spirals. I freely admit I missed all the indicators. No matter how untypical I knew I was for my age, my (then) 55 year-old body wasn’t made of Kryptonite, of course. It began to creak at the seams. Niggling injuries wouldn’t go away. Efforts to work around them simply meant less specificity in training, and eventually meant niggles just spread to previously healthy parts of me.

The expression I think I used most often, in my self-talk, was that training was beginning to feel less like something I did for sport and more like “beating myself up”. There is something relentless and deeply disturbing about self-harm. You eventually reach a point of paradox, where the activity that causes the harm actually begins to look like the way out. I lost several things going into and through severe depression. One was my sense of proportion – my sport was exactly that – sport. Not life or death. Yet I acted much of the time as if it was. I lost my coping strategies. I couldn’t cope with conflict or disappointment in particular. My mother died during this time. I simply couldn’t engage with that on any level.

An answer would have been to take a complete break from sport. However, to me then, that would just have smacked of squandering the effort I’d been putting in, and brought with it the certainly I’d just end up needing to do more, and harder, to “get back in”. So, the cycle of abuse continued. Until, that was, sitting in my hotel room one evening, while away on a trip to race in Europe, I was inwardly berating my day’s performance (despite having won two races and come second in the other!), and it finally dawned that I had completely lost the plot.

A few days later, I said this to my GP. After some standard diagnostic tests, he said to me “These suggest you are suffering severely from depression”. Depression? Me? Antidepressant tablets? Me? I went into further denial for a while, but did lots of reading about what depression is and how it works on you. Eventually, I had to concede that my GP was right, and I started taking the pills that had meanwhile been sitting untouched on the beside table.

There’s more to it, of course, than I can or choose to include in a single retrospective blog. Learning that depression was an illness, not a failing of character, was crucial. Being open about it to others was also quite important. Surprisingly so, given how dishonest I’d hitherto been with myself. The pills worked for me, and despite a few adventures in the process of coming off them, there came a day when I didn’t need them. In the intervening period to date, I’ve fallen back into depression’s clutches a couple of times, largely because old (bad) habits die hard, and depression is a stubborn bastard.

I still have lots of questions and not as many answers, but if this blog has touched a nerve with you, I’d say: be self-aware, ensure you have “significant others” who are able to give you feedback, and be open, both with those around you and with yourself. Good, honest internal dialogue is key! It’s not about kidding yourself everything is ok really, it’s about telling yourself how you feel and making that all-important deal to do something about it that breaks the cycle that got you to here in the first place.


My title comes from a great song by Stevie Nicks (ex Fleetwood Mac)

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