On Not Becoming a Sports Writer

When I was about six or seven, I became obsessed with finding out what my father did when he ‘went to work’. My memory is fixed in a windowless corridor of him walking out the front door in his charcoal grey overcoat and galoshes. Beyond that how he spent his day was a mystery.

This is not my dad, but could be any office in the 1980s.

This is not my dad, but could be any office in the 1980s.

The very few times that my brother and I went to his office – a flat-packed network of corridors made of soundless carpet, telephones that silently flashed red and miles and miles of filing cabinets that opened and shut with the clang of a prison door – I always left wondering what he actually did there.

At the beginning of this year, Louis started at a pre-school in an attempt to instil some rigour into his day ahead of starting school properly in September. At 8.05 every morning we leave the house – he on his scooter, me pushing my bike, carrying his lunchbox. When we part company there is always a sense of excitement, on my part at least, of finding out at the end of the day what he has done.

First half term school work.

First half term school work.

Except that when asked – and you can ask him 10 or 20 times and the answer is the same – ‘I dunno’. And it was only when he came back for half term with a bag full of collages, photographs, masks – a circus tent full of parapharnelia – that it became clear what he spends his days doing.

This was a blinding, if unrequested, reminder of the clear banality of my own office day, and of the inescapable cliche of becoming our parents. It’s different paper, and there are no filing cabinets, nor carpet, but the action of pushing paper around is a technique that has been well passed down the family. It is not for nothing that I’ve never brought either of the boys into work – what exactly would there be to show them?

One of the few truly great sports books.

One of the few truly great sports books.

All of which set loose the kind of mid-life crisis (I am writing this on my birthday) about what I wished I could tell them I do. That day-dreaming was fed in part by reading This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own by Jonathan Rendall, who died last year. Rendall wanted to be a boxer, but he wasn’t much good at it. When he quit he decided to become a boxing manager instead. This is his story, which he wrote in a basement flat on the Queenstown Road that I cycle past every day, thereby giving me a tangible if phantom connection – if that is logically possible – to both him and the book. It opens with possibly the greatest sentence of any sports book I have ever read:

‘It was a few hours after Frank Bruno attacked me at Betty Boop’s Bar in the lobby of the MGM Grand that I decided to get out of boxing.’

Forget Richard Ford or even the whirling dervish Mailer – That’s the kind of day that would make the kids sit up.

John McPhee's Levels of the Game - to be published for the first time in the UK in June 2014.

John McPhee’s Levels of the Game – to be published for the first time in the UK in June 2014.

The genesis of This Bloody Mary can be traced, in part, back to John McPhee‘s seminal account of a single tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in 1969. In the course of its slender 40,000 words Levels of the Game plots lines and shifts of momentums in both the match, the country and histories of the protagonists (Ashe representing the Democratic ideals of America at that time, Graebner – Herr Graebner, as he was sometimes called – that of the Grand Old Party) .

As William Fiennes writes in the introduction of the first edition to be published in the UK, McPhee was as interested in the structure of the game and how to  write about as the game itself. It was an interest instilled in him by his English teacher Olive McKee, ‘who required her students to submit three compositions every week. This could be a poem or story, but each piece had to be accompanied by a diagram that showed the structure – “anything,” McPhee writes, “from Roman numerals I, II III to a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures. The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs.” Olive McKee’s emphasis on the shape of the thing never left him.’

He sets the game up accordingly:

Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air. The toss is high and forward. If the ball were allowed to drop, it would, in Ashe’s words, ‘make a parabola and drop to the grass three feet in front of the baseline.’ He has practised tossing a tennis ball just so thousands of times. But he is going to hit this one. His feet draw together. His body straightens and tilts forward far beyond the point of balance. He is falling. The force of gravity and a muscular momentum from legs to arm compound as he whips his racquet up and over the ball. He weighs a hundred and fifty-five pounds; he is six feet tall, and right-handed. His build is barely full enough not to be describable as frail, but his coördination is so extraordinary that the ball comes off his racquet at furious speed. With a step forward that stops his fall, he moves to follow.’

Perhaps this kind of artistry can never be borne out of an office life. And it would take another blog entry or more to lament the passing of the sports writer, but when I read these rare books it makes me pine for a life that I could never had led, but wish I had. At the very least it would allow me to come home, in my trench coat and galoshes and hold up a piece of paper and say: ‘Today, boys, I made this’.

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Bury My Heart on a Norfolk Beach

I had imagined plenty of endings to the Norfolk Ultra a couple of weeks ago, but standing on a roadside puking my guts out in front of a guy who had rowed across both the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean was not one of them.

The original idea had been simple – idyllic, really. Hire a cottage on the Norfolk coast, take the boys out and do a bit of twitching and then pull on the shorts and run along the beach for 100km. It was all part of a roadmap back to Athens next year. Mrs H had reluctantly given me the nod to have another go at the Spartathlon, almost every step of which I had followed this year on twitter since both boys had been up during the night.

NU3

Not quite the weekend away I had imagined

I could give you all the excuses: six months of running lost this year because of bruised cartilage under the kneecap; only five weeks of 50+ miles of training prior to the race; arriving at the campsite at 11.30pm to put up a tent in a howling gale with the raining pouring in. (I had not put up a tent – even in daylight – since 2001). It did not help either that, once the race had started, we clocked up an extra two miles because someone had moved the signs – and that was before we reached the pebble beach.

Two miles of pebble beach to run over. And then two miles back

Two miles of pebble beach to run over. And then two miles back

I had spent the best part of the week before preparing myself for all these eventualities – the organisers, who had left no stone unturned in trying to get us through this, had taken the time to put together a power point presentation that took you through every turn and incline. I had watched it so many times that I managed to convince myself that legs don’t forget, that all I had to keep my head straight.

The first four hours gave me exactly what I came here for. This is Sebald country – flat, melancholy, profoundly silent – there were moments when I was running on my own across the salt marshes that I thought if I lay down no one would ever find me. On another day this would have been dispiriting, but four months to the day since Émile was born we’ve barely had a four hours straight to sleep through, let alone to empty the head.

In the end it was the stomach that did for me. I would like to think that if I had stopped at the fish and chip shop and filled a gap, rather than slow to a jog to savour the waft of salt and vinegar – the kind of smell that either makes you salivate or recoil in horror and reach for your pulses – then I would have been able to bludgeon on, even when 10.5 hours ceased to be realistic. In truth, though, I was all over the shop, and where my stomach went my head followed too quickly – a sure sign that I didn’t have enough miles in me to do the race justice, and that was before we got off the second beach. There’s a certain inevitability to standing by a roadside with your hands on your knees that all runners nod their head to. Usually it comes around the 20-hour mark, though, not six hours.

So, best-laid plans have gone to waste, and alongside another DNF – the second of the year – comes the almost (inevitable?) certainty that I won’t be going back to the Spartathlon in 2014. Never have I wanted something more than to have been taking part in that race.

NU2I woke on the Sunday morning to more rain, and, in the dark, lumbered downstairs to read Robert Ferguson’s book on Soren Kierkegaard before the boys woke up. The central lesson that Kierkegaard teaches is that we need to ‘wake up’, to step out of our daily routine which leaves closed off the real reason why we should get up in the morning – to live more vitally. This is what Norfolk was supposed to have been – a stepping towards Sparta, a peeling away of the daily sludge that would take me back to the hills south of Corinth where something inside me broke and I felt, for the first time, what it was like to really be alive. The irony, though, is not lost on me that Norfolk really did serve as a wake up. As Kierkegaard says in Repetitions – there is no point going back to look for something by trying to recreate the past. I think, for the first time, I have started to accept that the person who tried and failed at the Spartathlon is dead. While I may be the last person to have noticed it, I have become someone else – perhaps I’ve even grown up. It is time to bury that other self for good.

Still, on the upside, I did manage to keep one promise – having lost 5kg in 5 weeks, mostly by running in a black bin liner everyday – I am under 80kg for the first time since I hit puberty.

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In the Blood

At the end of one March afternoon in 1994, when I was 16 years old, our history teacher arrived later to the last lesson of the day, closed the door behind him and announced: ‘Harvie, you have a message from Death’.

The, now faded, piece of paper to which he was referring was a fax from a family friend offering a tip on a French horse called The Fellow who was running in that year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup. What followed was an illicit two-year correspondence featuring increasingly encrypted horse racing tips (the threat of interception and odds being slashed were of greater risk than expulsion) that resulted in three Cheltenham Gold Cup winning tickets. It also earned me a, well, completely unearned reputation as the most successful tipster at school, having never even stepped into a paddock. Nearly 20 years later I still carry in my wallet the race report for Shawiya’s victory at the Triumph Hurdle, my last win before I was busted.

Shawiya 2

John Jeremiah Sullivan was at least born into horse country when he went back to start researching his memoir Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son. His father, Mike Sullivan, a sports writer who had covered three decades in the trade, was living his final months and Sullivan-fils asked what his most cherished memory from the press box was. ‘I was at Secretariat’s Derby, in ’73. That was…just beauty, you know?’

Sullivan had grown up listening to his dad thumping at the typewriter in the basement, watched him dose himself in not just beer, but pitchers of the stuff, but each time he tried to get himself on a level with his dad – to impress him that he had been paying attention – his dad would laugh and change the subject. The veneer of adulthood would remain impenetrable until the very end. It would take until Sullivan start on Blood Horses, long after his dad had died, before he would get to know either what that ‘beauty’ was, or indeed what ran through his father’s vein’s other than beer and Kools cigarettes.

The hardest part of writing about Blood Horses is resisting the temptation to quote sections of it at length. Sullivan could have written a book about Secretariat, although there would have been little to add to William Nack’s masterpiece on the horse. Or he could have written a memoir about his father that would have sat nicely on the shelf at home, if nowhere else. Instead, what he has written is a something that transcends the sport, horses, sport-writing itself. It is a masterclass is elegy to his late father, and quite simply the best book, of any description, I have read in the last two years.

But even that does not do it justice. And it was only when I was rifling through the boxes of letters, where I had found the fax, that I have kept from those school days – the reason for keeping I have long since forgotten – that I realized what Blood Horses really is about. For Sullivan the Secretariat Kentucky Derby of 1973 is his equivalent of Charles Kane’s Rosebud in Citizen Kane. It is a story of a relationship between father and son that was never fulfilled while he was growing up, the kind that can only be fully realized in remembrance. It is a book about coming to terms with the passing of an adored father, and a way of reaching back, one last time, to hear him clunking at his craft in the basement. It should be required reading for anyone scratching their heads at the confusion that is adulthood, wondering what it means to be a father or a son.

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Lizzy Hawker, Mrs H and a good start to the year

bradley-wiggins_2273304cWay back in August, when Sir Bradley Wiggins was plain old ‘Wiggo’, I put a post out about looking for someone to write a running book for me. There was a flurry of interest – mostly along the lines ‘what would you like me to write for you?’, which sort of missed the point. And then silence. Not the silence of keyboards being thwacked, heads being scratched. More the ‘oh, look it’s series 4 of Spiral, I’ll write a proposal in the morning kind of silence’. Writing’s a tricky business – it takes a lot of time. On your own. It’s not at all like running. Well, maybe a bit.

More months passed. Then we found out that Mrs H was pregnant, I went to New York, Richie McCaw came over and signed my book (before we beat them – who could forget that). In other words – there were distractions. 

Spartathlon-2012-Lizzy-Hawker-record-womanAround the same time an athlete, whose name is not yet up there with Mo Farah, happened to turn in an astonishing performance at the Spartathlon to put her on the podium – the first time any female runner has achieved this. And when she got home, she started writing a book. ‘Well, I never’, as the Fat Control might have said.

It is difficult to put Lizzy Hawker on the spectrum of British athletes. There is no such title as ‘world number one female ultra-runner’, and to say that she is the best ultra-distance runner this country has ever produced neither puts in perspective the trail-blazing quality of what she has done, nor how limited in public awareness and sponsorship this sport is at the moment. That said, running through New York with a friend of mine I mentioned the book, ‘what the Lizzy Hawker?’ Enough said.

And now, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the sound of her story being written down. Perched up in the Alps, between training sessions, she is writing the story that took her from someone who had run a marathon or two, onto 100-kilometre races and multiple winner of the UTMB. Not bad for someone who started life in Upminster, has never had a coach and did most of her early running while finishing her PhD. It promises to be sensational and inspirational in equal measure.

Runnin Like a GirlSo, the year began on a good note, and now comes the hard work. The running book market has become increasingly crowded in recent years – a sign, for sure, that there is an appetite to be sated. But where Lizzy’s story is unique is not only in the journey, and that she is telling it from the inside, but – mostly importantly – as a female writer. Alex Hemmingsley’s Running Like a Girl, out next month, is the only book that I can think of that appeals directly to a female audience, and Alex would be the first to admit she’s not cut from the same cloth as Lizzy.

So, all of you out there who got in touch – and you know who you are – the bar has been set, the gauntlet thrown down – but my door is open and you know where I am.

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January pains

Ah, pain. I missed you.

It’s a subject close to the heart of every ultra-distance running. Like the Eskimos and their 180 different words for snow, runners categorise pain in multiple ways, and are familiar with all of them.

C2CLast Saturday marked the first ultra of the 2013 calendar. 250 runners lined up at the Shoulder of Mutton pub in Wendover for a 45-mile canter to Little Venice in London. There were many familiar faces, and most talked of grand ambitions for the year – a first hundred-miler here, a double Spartathlon there. This was not idle bragging, but a carefully orchestrated testing of the water: get through the mud, sleet, wind and the pain and the year’s off to the right start.

I did not, though, expect to see someone line up with their arm in plaster.  It was not clear whether it was a broken arm, or just the wrist. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. I did hear him fend off one questioning spectator by saying ‘well, I’m not going to run on it, am I?’, Nor did I expect to read later of a runner, who had covered this course more times than I’ve done sit-ups, say that she had been hit by piriformis pains at mile 13 and still finished. (Even without looking it up, it sounds horrific). As I said, pain comes in many guises. And it always gets through. Like water, it finds the weakest spot and whether it takes one hour or ten, it eventually succeeds. And once it has you, it doesn’t leave.

Mud: No way round it.

Mud: No way round it.

It was in the mud by the aerodrome at 18 miles that it got me last time, and I nearly quit at the 26 mile check-point. I had certainly been undercooked, and this year was determined not to become completely unstuck. Although I hadn’t trained nearly as much as I should have done, having disappeared into something of a black hole over Christmas, this time I kept the mantra ‘go slow, keep moving’ in my head. I also threw every trick I had at the pain when it came calling at about 2pm. Don’t let them fool you – the drugs do work. But, and this is the other reason why pain is so close to the hearts of runners, 6, 7, 8 hours on the hoof is a long time to be doing anything let alone the same thing.

 

Arthur Schopenhauer, who knew a bit about suffering

Arthur Schopenhauer, who knew a bit about suffering

And this is where it gets you. It got to Schopenhauer and it got to Nietzsche – neither of whom knew much about lycra, but who spent a great deal of time alone en plein air contemplating their lot, and what role suffering has to play in it. (If you would like to read my MA thesis on the subject I have spare copies…) By the time of the final turn – 13 miles to go, I was starting to crack up. Shards of pain splintered through my shoulders, abdomen, knees and ankles. I knew it would pass, as it always did, but not before the inevitable thought: ‘bollocks to this, I want to go home’.

In the end, I snuck in under 8 hours, 7:54 to be precise, which was something of a miracle. And then all I wanted was a big mac, which I have not eaten since 2007 in Tel Aviv airport. I can’t say that it made me feel like a morally better person, as the pain was supposed to, but it did stop me falling off my bike and puking up on the way home.

ikea-kitchen-1A new kind of pain emerged as soon as I got up from the kitchen floor, where I seem to spend most of my time at the moment, having put the finishing touch to the boy’s Ikea kitchen set. Forget his growing pains, setting first in my quads, the seizure held onto me through most of the weekend, not even abating through the night when, according to Mrs H, I kept ‘turning over like a kebab’. Nothing, though, compares to the jarring, crunching, thundering pain of banging your head against a door frame a full tilt – carrying, of all things, Mrs H’s handbag. Three days later it’s still reverberating down my spine. Or perhaps that the indignity of walking around with an unexplained lump on my head. As someone in the office said: ‘Did you do that when running?’ ‘Er, I didn’t run on my head, did I?’

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Not the New York Marathon

When, at the start of autumn, your boss tells you to go to New York on a shopping trip to acquire some new books, it’s inevitable that you pack a pair of trainers. The New York Marathon is one of the oldest in the calendar, and it was covering this race a generation ago, for the Observer, that Chris Brasher returned to London with the famous challenge – can London do the same?

The Bronx is Burning

When I landed at JFK, Hurricane Sandy had been and gone, leaving a multi-billion dollar bill, and snow was piled up against the airport terminal wall. From the coast to the Hudson River there were scenes reminiscent of the hellacious squalor of New York in the late 70s when the city was about to implode under piles of uncollected rubbish, ruined building and a broken economy, so brilliantly described in The Bronx is Burning.

Brooklyn Bridge

As for Manhattan, at least, a few broken branches and some out-of-place sandbags aside – it was difficult to tell what all the fuss was about. But the marathon, which would have started out on Staten Island and provided a neat tourist guide to the devastation spots, had been cancelled. ‘There would have been riots’, I was told by one editor who had helped with the clear up.

From my apartment in the East Village, most of my running took me south along the East River, under the colossal bridges to Brooklyn, and downtown to Wall Street. This was East of D Street, as in ‘You’re Dead Street’, so-called by my cousin who lived here a while ago, because it was so dangerous. Clearly things have moved on, as the only sign of subversion was a bag of skunk someone had left on a park bench.

Skunk, New York style

The best run of the week was saved until last. I met Aram at 7.30am in Astor Place to head over Brooklyn Bridge, and past the impressive Barclay Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. Then it was up Atlantic Avenue to Prospect Park. Mrs H reckoned that there were deer and sheep here, as there had once been in Central Park. I couldn’t see any, but it was still early and the temperature a bit frisky.

Twice a year publishers gather – in London and Frankfurt – to chew the fat over the Next Big Thing. Nothing beats this way of doing business though. I would never have found out about Nick Clark in an aircraft hangar in Frankfurt, or about an unbelievable collection of American Boxing writing, or a book that I hope will be the new Will Fiennes. There is nothing like seeing New Yorkers in their native environment.

A week after arrival there was still water on the subway floor, and like post-1977 it’s going to a long while to get the city back to normal. But I will definitely be back – next year I hope, and just in time for the New York Marathon, storm warnings permitting.

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Abandon All Hope: Think More Clearly

Everyone needs a race like this once in a while.

I had signed up to the Dusk ’til Dawn 50-miler months ago, getting the last spot in the list of 100 places, and knew fully what to expect. 50 miles, 9000ft of ascent (and descent, obviously), mud (lots of) and a race filled with darkness.

Changing trains at Sheffield on Saturday afternoon, to a rickety service that connected to Manchester through the Peak District, other runners swiftly appeared out of the weekender masses. Rucksacks were packed high and tight, water bottles clasped, strange coloured liquids sloshing around. And the shoes – mud-caked trail shoes that looked like they had seen the wars. I had gone so far as preparing a meal out of the boy’s Thomas the Tank Engine pasta and had a couple of pork pies in reserve.

Abandon all Hope

The train belted out of the tunnel into the Hope Valley and into some of the most beautiful English countryside I have ever seen. The cold wind from the north had cleared the skies, but the leaves clung on, golden and rich. It was perfect running weather. Or so I thought until we got to the briefing at T-40 minutes. It was going to be wet. The ground had turned to river in some parts, others had been churned up by caterpillar tracks. There was also snow on its way.

The race started with a steep ascent and descent – designed for those who wanted a taste

The start line

The start line

of what was to come and could abandon before heading too far out of Castleton. The first to retire did so here when he realised that neither his torch or spare torch worked. He made his way to the pub, had a pint and called the organisers. So efficient were they, in this and everything else in the race, that they got to him before he could order a second.

The first ascent at Lose Hill

As with all trail races groups emerged swiftly and gaps were opening up at the first check marker at 3 miles. (The eventual winner, Charlie Sharpe had over an hour on the next runner at the finish). And then night sunk on us, dropping like a stone into the valley. Where there had been a golden arc of winter sun there was just black silence. With that the temperature dropped, our breath turning to fog in front of us, caught in the haze of the head torches. I had been dreaming about this race for months to experience this kind of non-violent attrition against the elements. At that moment I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.

Friday Night Lights

On the train up I had been reading the brilliant account of a small-town Texan college American Football Team called Friday Night Lights. Written in 1988 (remember Michael Dukakis?) it’s THE American story as seen through the Permian Panthers, whose games every Friday night fill the stadium to its 20,000 capacity. It it is hard to impress in one paragraph how good this book is, not least at showing how much the rest of this town, in a Texan dust bowl lives and breathes on these games. Failure is not an option.

The corrosion set in around the 19-mile mark. The group of five I was in were making good progress, set to reach the 20-mile check-point in exactly 4 hours. The trouble began with Ringo Starr, or more exactly the sound track to Thomas the Tank Engine, which has been on repeat at home since the summer, and I could just not get it out of my head. This, I knew, was all part of the exfoliation process that these distances are about. You scrape off the layers inside your head until you’re left with silence.

By the time I had left check-point two, I was shaking violently. I have been here before, but it had been a while and I was not used to the cramps that took hold of my stomach, nor the incessant desire to vomit. I was falling further and further back from the group, and when they turned their head torches off, to save batteries, I knew that the end, for me at least, was in sight.

I hung onto them for another 90 minutes, until we reached a main road and I was bundled into a marshall’s car and wrapped my stomach in the space blanket I had taken with me on every long run but never used. Now I know what they are for. 26 miles in five and a half hours is not much to write home about, although I was 16th overall, but it was a lesson re-learnt – you can’t blag your way around these races.

The Grim Sweeper

To be avoided at all costs.

I can not thank the volunteers who looked after me enough. We sat in the warmth for a couple of hours waiting for the grim sweeper to come through and then they shuttled me back to the start where I had the best cup of tea of my life, although I did manage to spill half of it over my hands as they were shaking so much. Then it was a shower and bed. Meanwhile out on the course, visibility had been reduced to 20 metres, the thermometer had dipped below -2 degrees and that didn’t take into account the wind.

The speed of the first runners home meant that from 2am until 8.30am, when I got a lift to the station to leave Hope, there was a team of volunteers standing in the cold and the rain to cheer them across the finish line and into the kitchen for the fry-up of their lives. I’ve taken part in some well organised races before but nothing like this. Chapeau, chaps. I’ll definitely be signing up for next year, better prepared though.

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