Seeking inspiration

As a child I used to read voraciously. During the summer holidays it wasn’t unusual for me to make 2 visits to Alloa library in the one day, taking my limit of 3 books each time.

I would read anything and everything. When I started at secondary school and discovered the joys of rugby I think I read every rugby book they had, everything from a history of Kelso rugby club to Carwyn James Back Row paper which revolutionised the role of the flank forward. I read the biographies of famous players, coaching manuals galore, I learned about the Pontypool front row and knew that all of Max Boyce’s tales were true because as he said “I was there….”

And then after buying hundreds and hundreds of books for some reason I stopped reading. It wasn’t a sudden thing and I am not sure there was even a reason for it. From wandering the word strewn lanes of my imagination maybe I was just too taken up with the here and now to allow the time to read.

I have recently started reading again. I got myself an iPad and eventually got hold of the kindle app and despite my reservations dowloaded some books. Suddenly I found it easy to read again. I rattled through The Hunger Games Trilogy, and while it isn’t exactly great literature it is sufficiently different to be quite readable.

And so to the running books. The ease of access to books through the kindle is great and I quickly started getting my hands on some running books.

BorntorunThere has been a lot of hype about Born To Run. It was good, but for me it wasn’t the epiphany that sone people claim. Having missed the bandwagon associated with this book, I hadn’t even heard of Micah True until I started reading up on him when he died a short time ago. Don’t get me wrong, I think this book should be read by everyone who runs. A lot of the background is fascinating especially some of the history and politics of the running shoe industry. The characters are painted colourfully. The book got me interested in finding out a bit more about Scott Jurek. I knew of hs name, but didn’t really know of his pedigree. It didn’t make me want to go barefoot, but it did reinforce my interest in running long distances in the hills. It also left me feeling a wee bit sad at the exploitation that happens to indigenous peoples, and I think that in some ways the author was both celebrating and exploiting the Tarahumara himself.

eatandrunNext up was Scott Jurek’s book. This was a book which I really enjoyed. I knew Scott Jurek’s name from being associated with Brooks running shoes which I wear but nothing really about him. After reading this, I have no doubt that Scott Jurek is the real deal, unlike ultra celebrities like Dean Karnazes who are exploiting the lack of knowledge the general public has about ultra running to build a cult following by having white teeth and some good sound bites. Much as I liked this book it isnt going to turn me into a vegan, though at least his logic for his dietary choices is well thought out and arrived at for sensible reasons. I will confess to having skimmed the recipes. I was however inspired to start taking Spirulina, which is allegedly the supplement of choice of Aztec warriors. It hasn’t turned me into an Aztec warrior, but in a very unscientific sample of one I do seem to have more energy and am less likely to fall asleep in my comfy chair in the evening when I take it. He also comes across as a nice bloke.

charliespeddingCharlie Spedding won a bronze medal in the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics. When you consider that now, 25 years later, the top British men aren’t getting anywhere near the times he and Steve Jones and a host of others were running then, it says something about the state of British distance running. Again this is a good book. He just talks so much sense. His approach to training and how he managed to become an Olympic medallist despite years of injuries and relative mediocrity (at least compared to his illustrious peers) are fascinating. His views on why we don’t produce great distance runners  any more are forthright and probably spot on. We simply don’t exercise enough and we don’t aim high enough. He argues that part of the problem is that for many modern athletes consciously or sub-consciously limit themselves – their goal is get lottery funding and maintain full time athlete status rather than having a goal of being the very best.  He is also a strong advocate of competition in school sport stating the obvious that everyone can’t be a winner and that by removing the distinction between the winner and the loser, you also remove the need to try to be better.  He also has interesting views on how to prepare yourself for racing as opposed to preparing yourself for training.

feetincloudsThe final runing book I have read recently is Feet In The Clouds. This book is about Fell Running or Hill Running as we call it in Scotland and about the author’s quest to complete the Bob Graham Round. The book itself dragged on a bit, but what it was really interesting for, was its description of some of the old timers such as Kenny Stuart who, by all accounts were phenomenal athletes, many of whom fell foul of the old amateur/professional nonsense where the amateurs earned more than the pro’s but the pro’s were banned from competing at the major events because of their so called professional status. It was also really interesting to read about the significance of the Alva Hill race in the folklore of the sport, especially as I live only 3 or 4 miles from Alva and to my shame havent yet ever run the Alva Hill despite running in the local hills a fair bit.  So, worth a read for the history and the philosophies of the old timers which are captured respectfully and enthusiastically, even though the descriptions of the hills in the Bob Graham do drag on a bit.

Is there inspiration to be gained from these books? Actually there is. The lesson that comes through loud and clear from all of these books is that to be a good endurance runner (whatever good means)  requires running to be a lifestyle. Technology and training all help, but fundamentally you need to have an active lifestyle that builds your endurance through your day to day activities, whether that means running through the mountains of Mexico because you have no transport, working on a sheep farm and walking up and down hills all day or just plain old knocking out 120 mile weeks.  Or as some of us remember, running about the streets playing 20 a side games of football which lasted from first thing in the morning until the last player was shouted in by their mum when it got dark. The other common factor is that the running lifestyle includes a very simple diet. No modern processed foods, and no modern portion sizes.  Add to the lifestyle a willingness to work really hard,  a resillience to and acceptance of suffering as part of life, the imagination to dream up big goals and a refusal to give up and you have something approaching a formula for running long distances.

The question for me is that having identified a formula, can I apply that formula to myself and come up with the right answer?

Vesti la Giubba

Not sure whether I am more scared or excited, but for better or worse I have got myself a place in the West Highland Way Race which starts in Milngavie at 1am on June 22nd 2013. There was a fantastic night on Facebook, Friday past when it became known that the ballot places were being announced and people started getting the confirmation emails. I was lucky that I didn’t have to wait too long until mine came through. I would have been awful to have to wait till the end when everyone else was posting about being “in”.

For those who don’t know about it, the race takes place along the West Highland Way which links Milngavie just outside Glasgow to Fort William 95 miles away.

Highland Fling finish 2012

Running this sort of distance is most definitely Outside my Comfort Zone.  I have never run this far.  In fact I have never run anywhere near this far.     So far I have completed the Clyde Stride, Devil of the Highlands and the Highland Fling.  In terms of experience this is next to nothing.  My times have been decidedly middle of the pack.  I don’t consider myself  an ultra runner. In fact, not only am I not an ultra runner,  I am not sure I am really a “real” runner,  I am too old, too slow and too big to compete with the racing snakes. But that doesn’t stop me doing it lots. and lots. and lots.

I do however try hard, my mother would describe me as thrawn, and once I set foot on the start line then you know it might not be pretty but the job usually gets done.

The furthest I have run so far is the 53 miles of the Highland Fling race which covers the southern half of the Way. When I finished the Fling I was in much better shape than I had expected to be and so the idea was born – could I go further?

I used to stumble on the web sites for races like the Devil and Fling and wonder about what sort of super athletes could take part in these long races over difficult terrain when I would struggle to do even a half decent marathon.  However the more I found about about the people who do these races the more I came to the conclusion that actually these are mostly just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And while there are the “superstars” of the sport who run ridiculous distances in stupidly quick times, even they seem likeable ordinary people.  The more I read of the exploits of the folks who do these races the more I am inspired by the refusal to accept any limitations on what we can achieve if you put your mind to it.

So I am in. I expect it will hurt and in a strange way I am looking forward to the sleep deprivation, the cramps and the hallucinations coming my way next June. To my support crew, including and especially my long suffering wife Helen, I shall get my apologies in now.

and the title of this post? Operatic tenors are not what you would normally associate with long distance running but this is one of my favourite arias and while it has absolutely nothing to do with running, the translation could fit quite well….

Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio,         Act! While in delirium,
non so più quel che dico,                           I no longer know what I say,
e quel che faccio!                                           or what I do!
Eppur è d’uopo, sforzati!                            And yet it’s necessary… make an effort!
Bah! Sei tu forse un uom?                           Bah! Are you not a man?
Tu se’ Pagliaccio!                                            You are a clown!