Saturday, 20 January 2018

One Man's Race. Part 2: The Phoenix

The final two sentences of the last post, plus the corny title of this one, leave little doubt where this offering is headed...

My running career ended in late 1992. That really was it. Over. And, though I never had it professionally looked at, I was convinced that I'd done irreparable damage to my knee. In later years I occasionally ventured onto a five-a-side pitch and once or twice a gym treadmill (very gingerly) but didn't really test it. Regular readers may recall a foolish dabble with road running on Scilly a couple of years ago. Although I pulled a calf muscle I was pleasantly surprised to get no niggles at all from the dicky knee. So, when we joined a gym last summer I made a point of getting on the treadmill quite regularly, and slowly built up to around 30 minutes or so. Hmm, promising...

The gym is history now, but those pain-free forays onto the treadmill led to an inevitable next step. The road. On August 30th I waited until darkness had fallen and sallied forth. Wa-a-a-ay too fast, I might add. Anyway, I ran 1.4 undulating miles in 12 minutes. And it did hurt. But...the knee was fine, and I suddenly realised that a 25-year curse might possibly be broken. In September I focused on the bike, but got in another five runs, up to 3.6 miles. There were some calf twinges, but still not a peep from the knee. October ended with 11 runs in the bank, up to 6.3 miles. I could hardly believe it.

Bringing things up to date, in the 11 full weeks from the beginning of November until now I have managed 3 runs a week in all except one. This afternoon I covered 10.4 miles (my second run of 10+ miles) in a bit over an hour and a half. I am delighted. The body's ability to heal itself, and to adapt to an incrementally increased training load, is really quite amazing. In less than five short months I've gone from knackered used-to-be-a-runner to actual runner again.

Mind you, I am no longer in my early 30s! The days of 6:33 pace half-marathons are long gone I think. That said, if I keep at it there's a slim chance I may be mildly competitive for my age-group in 16 months time when I'm 60! And there's been another significant change in the last 25 years.

Data.

In 1987 I bought a very early Timex Ironman sports watch. Basically a stopwatch with lap-timing facility. To keep a record of times and distances you needed to measure your routes on a map, or drive them, and write down the magic figures displayed on the Ironman's tiny screen. It all went into a 'Running Log'. Analysis was done with a biro and slide-rule. Or did we have calculators by then...? Anyway...

In 2017 I bought a Garmin Forerunner 35. Well. What it doesn't tell you is not worth knowing. Where you've been and at what speed. Exactly how rapidly your poor heart was pumping on that hill and the precise gradient of the slope responsible. Even your cadence (steps per minute). It links to Strava and to your smartphone. Here is one of the several million screens of data...

As you can see, since beginning this enterprise I have run a cool 220.6 miles, and I could add that it's taken me 52 outings to amass that tally

So, where is this all going to lead? I don't know really, and am happy to just ride the wave for now. However, it's always nice to have a target, so I've entered a pukka race. It's the Egdon Easy 10k, a flat, 10km route around Lodmoor and Radipole over at Weymouth. I have until Saturday 26th May to prepare myself. I never enjoyed 10k races - always a bit too quick for comfort - but I have to say I am looking forward to this one. I have even put together a loose (and infinitely adjustable) training plan to get me there. I am genuinely curious to see just what my (by then) 59-year old body will be capable of.

In the meantime I shall plod around the local streets and footpaths and endeavour to clock up some useful miles. It's not a hardship...

Dropping into West Bay...definitely not the most picturesque seaside spot in the southwest, but the coast is the coast. Fantastic!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

One Man's Race. Part I: The Rise and Fall of an Average Athlete.

I'm happy to say that I pointed my bins at a bird today. I was just up the road when a Twitter message alerted me to the presence of a White-fronted Goose on the Axe Estuary. Although it was too distant for me to worry about a sub-specific label, I could see it was an adult. Nice. And thanks for the gen, Martin/Stevie.

While I was at it I had a scan through the gulls for anything big and obvious (white-wingers, Cranes, etc) but drew a blank. So I'm delighted to hear that Steve has just had a brief 1st-winter Caspian Gull at Coronation Corner this afternoon, and he kindly sent a lust-worthy BOC* shot for me to squint at. Very nice. Even though I'm phasing.

So anyway, on to what I intended this post to be about. I have a feeling that I've written about some of this before, but I can't find it in this incarnation of NQS. So...

Right, let's get this out of the way: I am 58 years old, and will be 59 in May. I mention this for the sake of context, as you will see.

At school I enjoyed athletics. I was quite a sporty kid I suppose, but not particularly gifted at anything. In athletics though, I discovered I was slightly better than average in umpteen disciplines, both track and field. Running, jumping, throwing, the lot. The exception was distance running, which I detested. Mainly because it hurt. So anything over 400m was out. I looked forward to summer term sports with relish, and have pleasant memories of balmy afternoons at Harrow School's running track, to which my school had privileged access.

This is the Harrow School track today. It really looks the business! In the early/mid-70s it was a cinder track, but still an excellent facility. Acquiring this screenshot reminded me: in the summer before university I would cycle the 4 or 5 miles from my home to the track, and then walk up to that lake at the bottom left. There I would sit gazing at the quiet water with my back against a tree, smoking a contemplative roll-up, and wonder exactly where my life was heading. Makes me smile now. Such a callow youth...

Post-school there was very little sport for years, and by the early '80s I was pretty unfit. The jogging boom was in full swing, and at work one night the conversation turned to this very topic. Lamenting the dire state of our flabby carcasses, my colleagues and I resolved to do something about it. I got home that morning, donned shorts, t-shirt and trainers, and headed out the door. We lived on a busy road at the time, so I hared along to the nearest side turning, aiming for quieter, less public streets. Within a few short minutes I was utterly spent. Gasping and retching I ducked down a little alley and doubled over, wheezing pitifully. My chest was on fire. And my legs. Everything.

I slunk home as unobtrusively as possible. Never again.

A couple of years later I spotted a gaggle of runners jogging past our house, chatting and laughing. I recognised one of them, a friend I hadn't seen in a while, and got in touch. And so, slowly and gently, I was introduced to jogging/running, via the Serpentine Running Club. And yes, when you first start it is hard, but eventually, with patience, you find one day that you too can run along and chat. And laugh.

I'm guessing this was about 1984 or '85, and over the next few years running and I had the sort of on/off relationship which I now recognise as characteristic of all my recreational activities. I swapped the Serpentine RC for one based more locally, the Metros, and over time gradually ran a bit further, got a bit faster. I entered several races, from 10k to half-marathon, and took pleasure in my mediocre placings...

It was very cold that day, and yet look, just shorts and vest! It looks like we're shifting a bit, so I reckon this photo must have been taken in the home straight. I would have been 30, which is younger than either of my sons. This is always sobering.

The absolute peak of my athletic prowess was marked in October 1992 by a stellar run in the Oxford Half Marathon. I had been preparing for my first full marathon, which was coming up in a month's time, and this was a final tester after a good, steady period of training over several months. I was quicker than I had ever been, and aiming for a sub-90min time. I set off conservatively, and spent the first couple of miles being overtaken by everyone, it seemed. Gradually this stopped, and I remember a long, uphill slog on some ugly, bypass-type road where I began to overhaul a few runners. The tide was turning, and from then on I steadily gained places. At about 11 miles I overtook the leading female runner - a first for me - and finished in just under an hour and 26 minutes. 13.1 miles at a pace of around 6'33" per mile was the pinnacle of my achievements as a mediocre athlete. I took it as a very good omen for my upcoming marathon debut.

Error.

In November I got a bit of a sniffle, and toed the Harrow Marathon start line feeling very under par. Caught up in the excitement I started too fast, and at half way began to fade a tiny bit. At 16 miles a steadily increasing pain in my right knee made me slow to a jog. I should have read the signs and stopped completely, but I didn't. My target of 3 hours was slipping away fast, but I pressed on. The pain in my knee moved relentlessy through 'bad' to 'horrible' and then 'agony'. For the first time I was forced to walk. Basically I limped/jogged the final 8 or 9 miles of the 26.2 mile course and finished in something like 3 hours and forty-odd minutes. I was gutted. And in serious pain. Disaster.

Over the next few months I tried several times to start running again and on each occasion I would manage a mile or two before the knee pain became unbearable. Eventually I got the message and stopped trying and came to the conclusion that my running days were over.

And for 25 years they were...


*Back Of Camera

Monday, 8 January 2018

Not Quite About Running

Birding-wise I am doing nothing right now. In just the last week or so I've driven up the Axe Estuary a couple of times and noted with approval that it was crawling with gulls, yet not been the slightest bit inclined to stop and have a little scan. Such is phasing...

Doesn't mean I haven't been keeping my ear to the ground though. For example, I know about the Colyford Common Water Pipits. It's nice to know they're on the up again. On this very day 13 years ago I counted 20 in the damp field of maize stubble next to the Colyton Water Treatment Works, and while this was an exceptional gathering, for several years 10+ was not an unusual count. Recently though, for some reason they've been much scarcer on the Axe, and hearing that they seem to be back in numbers is very good news.

Of course, I haven't been to visit them. That's the nature of phasing. You just can't be bothered.

It's similar with Hawfinches. Yes, I know they're available at Shute churchyard. And yes, I know that Shute churchyard is something like half a mile from Kilmington, another place I work most weeks. Er, yes, I do even drive past it occasionally. And yet...

Still, I did go for a nice walk on Cogden Beach in Sunday's sunshine, and was delighted to be able to stake a claim* for Steve Gale's 'First Wheatear Photo of the Year' award...

And, my word, isn't that thrift out early too!

When I got home from work today I rushed indoors and changed into a Helly Hansen top, a pair of Ron Hill Tracksters, Adidas trainers, day-glo yellow gilet and red, red hat, and then charged straight out again for a run. I'd like to say a lot more, but this is a birding/cycling/fishing blog...

Ah, speaking of red hats. I just put together a little collage of the recent hefty pike I've jammed from the Exeter Canal, together with my previous biggest, which I caught by soaking a dead fish in a Colne Valley gravel pit for many hours in about 1999 or 2000 I think. I am pleased to note that once you have good taste, you don't tend to lose it...

L to R: 23lb 8oz, Nov 2017; 24lb 14oz, Dec 2016; 16lb 8oz, yonks ago


*Please see previous post, final piece of 'advice'

Saturday, 6 January 2018

So You Want To Be a Blogger?

This morning I was delighted to learn that I have just won a Rambler, that coveted prize also known as the birding Oscar. Each year Neil Randon awards a Rambler to the 'Birding Blogger of the Year' and the 'Birding Blog Post of the Year'. I am especially honoured that a piece of NQS has won the latter category, because so little of it these days has much to do with birding. Jono Lethbridge of Wanstead Birder fame is a worthy winner of the overall award. Jono writes an actual birding blog...

According to some statistics that I didn't actually make up, since 2004 the blogosphere has doubled in size every 5-7 months, and right now almost 2 new blogs are created per second. So, despite what you might think, the blogging boom is far from over. There are currently more than 53 million blogs out there. So if you are wrestling with a strong urge to start a blog, please don't be concerned. Just give in to it and join us. There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Birding blogs are legion. In the last decade or more I guess many thousands of birders have sat at their computers, two index fingers poised uncertainly, wondering quite how to start their new blog. So, in my capacity as an award-winning blogger, allow me to offer some advice...

Post regularly
You want a definition of 'regularly'? Much more often than me.

Include photos
Good photos transform a post. If the photos are good enough it basically doesn't matter whether you can string three words together. The photos will do it on their own. If you can't write, get a camera. A really good one.

Don't post late at night after lots of alcohol
It's always annoying to have to delete stuff.

Always include amusing stories of monumental dips, accidental injury to your person, etc.
Schadenfreude rules. Blog readers absolutely love it. Don't ask me why. I have no idea. Personally my little heart almost bursts with sympathy whenever I read stuff like that...

Stick to your theme
If it's a birding blog, stick to birding. If it's a cycling blog, stick to cycling. If it's a fishing blog, stick to fishing. Nobody minds the occasional digression, but don't try your tiny readership's patience by jumping about all over the place. And no, don't even think about bringing running into it too. No, really. They won't stand for it.

Be old
Yes, being old is a fine goal to have. The older, the better really. Having decades of reminiscence on tap is brilliant for when nothing much is happening.

Make stuff up
This is a last resort, but of course perfectly in order when you haven't got any real stuff. But be careful. I remember one blogger publishing a thrilling tale of a rare bird tracked down and photographed. Unfortunately he published 'his' photos too. One was mine and the other was the wrong plumage. Unless you want to have to delete your blog and start a whole new one under another name don't do this.

Blogging is a curious enterprise. What exactly motivates a person to make those first, hesitant keystrokes is likely something even the individual would find hard to pin down, but there is undoubtedly something dreadfully compelling about it...

Monday, 1 January 2018

Here We Go Then...

I was up at 05:00 this morning and on the road not long after. The dawn pike raid is on. Right now it's almost 9 o'clock and I'm sheltered under a brolly in the pouring rain. No pike yet, which is par for the course lately. Here's the view...


On the drive down I had Radio 4 on. Farming Today featured the 92-year-old Lord Henry Plumb of Coleshill, who spent some time lamenting what he saw as the folly of Brexit. Having been at the heart of agricultural politics for the last half-century he was heavily involved in the several years of tortuous negotiations which saw the country enter the EEC in the early 70s. And now, of course, there lies ahead a similar process, except in reverse. I sensed deep frustration!

Brexit.

Aside from as an observer I've never had any real interest in politics, and Brexit neatly illustrates one reason why not. Apparently 'Leave' got 51.89% of the votes and 'Remain' 48.11%. If you were to take two clean sheets of paper, draw 5,189 dots on one and 4,811 dots on the other, then show them to some random passerby and ask which sheet represented 'the will of the people', I wonder what answer you'd get. Plus, of course, you'd need to just mention that more than a quarter of the registered electorate didn't vote...

I am not surprised that political discussions get so heated, so quickly. As I say, I am not a political animal, but those who are must feel like they're the subject of some infernal, never-ending wind-up.

Anyway, it's now almost 10 o'clock and I am still biteless. Time for a coffee, a sarnie and some quiet chilling...

Sunday, 31 December 2017

On the Threshold of Another Year...

Forty years ago this evening my mate Pete and I attended the New Year's Eve revelries in Trafalgar Square. The famous fountain was switched off, but at midnight I nevertheless waded in the pool and may or may not have kissed a policewoman, depending on whether I fully trust my memory. Some time in the early hours we sat in a Fleet Street canteen where my stepfather, a printer, treated us to a hearty fry-up while we dripped Trafalgar Square fountain water onto the floor. And thus began 1978.

If I'd been blogging back then I could have done a review of 1977...
  • Built my first bike from scratch
  • Hair longest it's ever been. Cool!
  • Mucked up the A-levels a bit
  • Started university, but knew within a fortnight I was going to hate the course
  • Hawkwind at the Roundhouse!
  • There's this 'punk rock' thing...don't like it much
  • Etc...
If I were to review 2017 there would certainly be some highlights. Finding a Hoopoe and jamming a spring flock of 12 Poms on minimal birding, for example. And catching a 23lb pike. And discovering that I can still run after a quarter-century layoff. That last one was a very nice surprise, and thinking about it, I'm pretty sure I haven't yet written a post on the topic. Now there's something to look forward to...

I'm amused to realise that my 2017 list would similarly include building a bike from scratch. I can honestly say it has absolutely nothing else in common with the 1977 version though. Apart from a keen interest in the appearance of my hair of course.

I was a very enthusiastic angler in 1977 and would definitely have predicted that I'd still be at it forty years later. That I actually am is a pleasant surprise to me today. What I would not have predicted was having so many years off in the interim and flogging all my tackle at least twice! Mind you, at the age of 18 I had yet to learn about my horrendous fickle streak, and had no idea what 'phasing' was...

Two years after Trafalgar Square I spent the final day of 1979 on the Hampshire Avon's Royalty Fishery at Christchurch, in company with my old fishing buddy Ric. If you'd told me at the time that my much older self would be planning a dawn pike raid on January 1st, 2018, well, I think I would have been rather pleased...

Ric, waiting for a bite...
...and after getting one. A 1970s barbel.

Anyway, I shall sign off at this point, and wish you all the best for whatever plans you have sketched out for the coming twelve months.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

A Seasonal Post. Kind of...

Well, it's approaching that time of year when conscientious bloggers traditionally review highlights of the previous year. And if I was one of them I'd probably do likewise. But I'm not. I am instead one of the sporadic kind. Bad. Worse still, I couldn't even stick to a consistent theme for twelve months. Once upon a time NQS was a birding blog. Who knows what it is now...

Anyway, tomorrow is a Bank Holiday. Excellent! For many it is a joyous time of family get-togethers, of eating and drinking and cheesy old movies, of tinsel and snowmen and crackling log fires. If that's you, great. My own view of the so-called festive season is far less rosy, but that doesn't mean I cannot enjoy some aspects of it. Like, for example, the fact that not many anglers will be granted licence to be out tomorrow, so the riverbanks will be nice and quiet. Yep, Rob and I are going fishing. Mrs NQS will curl up with a good book and a glass of fizz, while the Haig men don their wellies and waterproofs.

And it will be a proper riverbank too. Not a canal. A local club has winter access to the River Frome, a Dorset chalk-stream famous for its grayling fishing. Grayling are not a big fish - a two-pounder is a specimen - but they are very pretty. They are also relatively scarce. In many years fishing I've caught just a handful, from the rivers Kennet and Hampshire Avon, and only tiddlers of a few ounces. On the Frome though, they are quite numerous, and the 4lb 4oz British record came from the river in 2009. A two-pounder is very possible, and even a massive three-pounder not unrealistic.

Rob, though, has never caught a grayling at all...

So, moved by paternal generosity, I have visited a couple of times already to suss out some good swims for him!

This is a grayling...

A 1lb 4oz bar of slippery solid silver

So far I've caught a dozen, and they've been like peas in a pod, between a pound and a pound and a quarter. These are decent-sized fish. It's fair to think of grayling in terms of roach, where a two-pounder is likewise a specimen. I'd be delighted with a dozen pound-plus roach! The photo above doesn't do the fish justice though. In its element it is transformed...

Look at the size of that dorsal fin! And the exquisite markings on it and the pelvic fins.

To be frank, I am smitten. I've been a bit spoiled by the pike, where although the fishing has been slow numbers-wise I have nevertheless jammed a couple of real whoppers. This grayling fishing is something else. For a start, it's like the fishing I remember and loved as a boy. A winding waterway of rippling shallows and smooth deeps, curling eddies and wafting beds of streamer weed. The techniques are simple too: a straightforward blockend feeder, or trotting with a chunky, orange-tipped float. Simple, yes, but there is plenty of room for skill too. Watercraft is vital. And trotting a float is something I haven't done in anger for many years. What a joy to catch fish this way! Finally, I thankfully haven't fluked an early biggie. So in this new venture there is a satisfying sense of gentle progress along the learning curve being rewarded appropriately.

That said, if I catch a massively undeserved three-pounder tomorrow I will not be disappointed!

In between grayling there are other fishy distractions...

A pristine little trout.
And this, believe it or not, is a salmon! These beautifully marked youngsters are called salmon parr.

So, whatever you're up to tomorrow, take a moment to think of me and Rob, out there on the riverbank, probably getting a bit wet if the forecast is accurate, but also very definitely getting away from it all...

Cheers, all.