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

14 comments:

  1. Something is telling me there is more to come and that it might not relate to birds...

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    1. Ah, good, I was aiming for 'cliffhanger' :)

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  2. Somebody needs to ask it.... what was the best bird you saw whilst you were out running Gav? Material for a whole post one would have thought...

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    1. Best was probably a Peregrine in the River Chess Valley - a proper Herts rarity at the time. It was just outside the London recording area, and I never ticked Peregrine within the LNHS boundary in all my years birding there!

      I also found a Slav Grebe while running beside a Colne Valley gravel pit, and had a fly-over Bewick's or Whooper Swan at Maple Cross (unfortunately I didn't know the call well enough to nail it).

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  3. Well Gav, I've just returned from a run around Ruislip Woods where less than one hour ago, I flushed a Hawfinch.

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    1. Ha ha! Well Ric, I wouldn't mind bagging a Hawfinch in that fashion! It might happen down here, but I doubt it...

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  4. Yes Gav, I've picked up a couple of other decent birds while on foot.
    On the Hawfinch front, I went back to Ruislip Woods and picked up a small flock.
    I was also in a position to be able to put another birder, who had never seen a Hawfinch before, on to the birds. Happy with that. No need to run about this time.

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    1. Nice. Am I right in thinking you had a Golden O while out for a run in Ruislip Woods Ric??

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  5. Interestingly (well, no, not really) the last time I ran was for Hawfinch - up Shi*te Lane Hill in wellies too! Got about halfway up and then had to stop and wheeze/gasp/walk the rest of the way. Best avoided really! I should have taken the bike!

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    1. Ha ha! Of course, it's all about the pacing...

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  6. Interesting read Gav. So I'm actually older than you - JUST! Ahh the 1959er boys a very good vintage!! I was a good cross-county runner at school being as high as 2nd (at some big event), but that's where it stopped. Knees are now knackered from past working practices - a slow ride on a push bike just keeps them ticking over!

    Mark (looking forward to 60 next year, not really, are you?)

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    1. Ah, '59 was a classic vintage Mark! 😊

      School x-country always felt like some sort of Dickensian punishment to me. In my memory it is associated with cold, grey, wet winter afternoons and mud. I can remember tying football boot laces around my plimsolls (remember them?) to prevent the quagmire sucking them from my feet! I do recall coming 18th in an inter-school race once and being pleased with my effort but basically hating the whole endeavour. Yet in my late twenties/early thirties I loved x-country. Late developer. Mind you, I was still not very fast!

      60 seems such a big number doesn't it! At least prescriptions will be free...

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  7. Sorry Gav for missing your question. Yes, I did indeed have a Golden Oriole while on the hoof.
    I heard it first making Oriole noises, stopped, then heard what I thought was a Jay, assumed it was a Jay after all, started running again, then had the call which stopped me completely.
    A brief excursion into the spot where the call was coming from revealed a sub adult male hopping about in the branches of an Oak tree.
    It was still there 30 minutes later after I'd completed my loop, but by the time I returned with bins, it had moved on.
    That's the second London Golden Oriole I've found. Both occasions when I was doing something else.

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