Would anyone like to write a running book for me?

It’s almost a year since I arrived at Aurum Press to look after the sports’ list, and last week I acquired my seventh and eighth book. One on the secret swimming spots in London and the other about the crazy years between 1971-75 when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman fought each other five times for the World Heavyweight Championship belt. Both, for very different reasons, are going to be blistering books.

So far, though, no running books have come my way. As a sub-genre books about running tend to fall into one or more of three categories. There is the straight-memoir/inspirational book à la Scott Jurek, which Bloomsbury have recently published. Then there is the historical/biographical story, usually involving two Victorian gentlemen, a wager and some bonkers distance that they have to cover wearing only pyjamas and surviving on beer and gruel. Mark Whitaker’s Running for Their Lives is an excellent example. Then there is the ‘what can they teach me about running’ category involving a writer embedding themselves into an unfamiliar culture to find out the secret to running like Mo Farah. Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, and more recently (and a far better book) is Adharanand Finn’s Running with the Kenyans.

What these two last books have that the others don’t, is the pearl of any great story. By placing themselves, and by extension us, at the heart (but not the centre) of the narrative the authors allow us to dream that if we too had been born there, or had the time to up sticks and spend six months running in the Rift Valley then we too would be on the verge of breaking two hours for the marathon. But they also give us a warts and all picture of the pain that is endured by those whose story we are following. All without us having to leave our living room. We can then close the book with a sigh thinking ‘ah, that could have been me’, before we get up to boil the kettle.

Now that the story of how the Kenyan’s hold the secret to breaking the two-hour marathon has been told, and a fad of bare-foot running has been launched on the back of the story of an obscure, forgotten tribe in Mexico, the question is where to turn to next – where in the world will a story of the holy grail of distance running come from. (This is key because it endurance running rather than the sprint). There are the monks of Mount Hiei in Japan, whose distance running takes place over many years and is the route to enlightenment.

There is also the story of Budhia Singh, the marathon boy in India, but these are stories we are familiar with already. So, this is the question – where else in the world can a story like Running with the Kenyans be found, and who would like to write it for me. Answers on a postcard if you’re interested.

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Speed of Light

You can’t really come to Edinburgh and not bring your trainers. Well, that’s not quite true. The first time I visited, in 1997, I ended up, for the first and last time, in a strip club. ‘Titillating and demeaning at the same time’ was how one friend described it. And that was before the curry. That was not the reason I was up there earlier this week. Rather, I had been invited to join a panel discussing ideals in athletic endeavour. My specialist subject was failure, about which I am something of an expert.

I arrived early enough in the evening to get a run in before dinner and bounced out of my hotel for what I thought would be a gentle hour of stretching the legs. Before I had even hit my stride the outline of Arthur’s Seat emerge from behind a supermarket. I had seen it before, of course, it is impossible to miss. But I had never thought about running up it.

Arthur’s Seat by daylight

90 minutes later, and two cruel (remember, I am a Londoner) ascents done my thighs were humming with cramp. For the first time in years I ran as cold a bath as possible and stayed in it as long as I could bear.

The view though was spectacular. Train lines etched out of the city, the Firth of Forth was placid – it even looked warm. After a curry (no strip club) and a decent night’s sleep I wobbled out of the hotel in wet running gear and ran and down it twice more. 24 hours later I can only just walk in a straight line. And to think that I’ll be doing that for 50 miles through the dark in 2 months time.

At Arthur’s Seat for sundown

I am not the only one to have been taken by the view – it plays a key part in David Nicholls’ million-copy selling One Day. More recently Angus Farquhar of the NVA has create a work of art from 4,000 fell runner and walkers across Arthur’s Seat called the Speed of Light. It is an astonishing spectacle of light in motion and a miracle of choreography since it involves runners of all capabilities maintaining the same distance of 10 metres between themselves in ascent and descent, for nearly two hours before changing light suits in a seamless transition unnoticeable to the naked eye. If you are in Edinburgh for the festival you must track it down as anyone can take part. It runs from Thursday 9 Aug – Sat 1 Sep 2012, more info at the festival website.

Speed of Light

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John O’Groats to Lands End World Record Attempt

Like most of the best ideas, this was dreamt up in the pub. I’ve known Hugh Williams-Preece since the end of last year when he called me out of the blue and suggested a pint in the Red Lion pub in Piccadilly. In 2010 Hugh had run 50 marathons in 50 days from Lisbon to London and a mutual acquaintance, who organises the epic cycle race across Britain, suggested that we meet.

Hugh was looking for a new challenge. Something that really did prove that you could start from zero and become an ultra-distance runner. One drink became several dinners over the winter as we plotted running across the world (7 marathons, 7 days, 7 continents) as Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud had done. That idea was parked – a logistically headache, but one that we will return to. By February we had mapped out a plan closer to home about getting kids running, of which more anon. And then, about a month ago, it dawned on Hugh that the idea, the big idea, had been staring at him in the face all along. 840 miles. John O’Groats to Lands End. A World Record Attempt.

The Jogle, as the course is referred to as though it’s little more than an extension of a run around the park, is one that is familiar to many who have cycled the length of the country. So appetizing a challenge is it that I know some who have gone back year after year to break their record. Andrew Murray (not that one) even ran it as the first leg of his Scotland to Sahara race last year, starting in 40 mph headwinds and driving snow, which made life tricky for the BBC crew who had come to film him, let alone Andrew, running in ankle-deep snow. As you might expect, Rory Coleman has also organised, for the last couple of years, the Jogle challenge run over 16 days. Sleeping in a bus on the side of the road, runners clock up 60 miles a day. 2010’s winner was Neil Bryant, who has since set up what I think is the fastest growing ultra-running community website in the UK. He’s about to set off to run across Europe.

840 Miles. 9 Days.

Hugh’s idea was slightly different. He wanted to raise the bar and, understandably, if he was going to take time off work to train three times a day for a year, he wanted to have a crack at something special. He wanted to take on a world record. To do that he was going to have to beat 9 days, 2 hours and 26 minutes, set in 2002 by Andi Rivett. To read it like this with a map of the UK in front of you, a finger running the shortest distance over the length of the country, is slightly mesmeric. Day one finishes in Inverness. Day nine starts in Okehampton. It already feels familiar – these are places on the map that we have a connection with, and because of that, when your eyes scan across names like Shrewsbury, Monmouth and Bridgewater there is a lack of intimidation. (It’s hardly got the ring of the Atacama Desert, or the Arctic circle.) That is until the course gets broken down into the everyday language of training. 97 miles. Every day. Even running at a pacy average 6 mph, that’s over 16 hours on the hoof. Run any slower than that though and the number of hours left in the day to eat and sleep diminishes rapidly. And anyone who has done a multi-stage race will know that the key to survival is having as much recovery time as possible.

None of this has put Hugh off. Quite the opposite. He’s signed up for the Winter 100-mile race in December and we’re doing the Thames Path 100 together in March. (If ever there was a sign that ultra-running is hitting the main stream, this race is it – registration went live at 10am Friday 6th July. By the end of the day 165 of the 250 places had been taken up). Hugh has given himself a year to prepare for the challenge and, as with his 50-marathons challenge, has enlisted the help of ex-Olympian Greg Whyte, who trains James Cracknell and David Walliams to draw up a training plan.

Ultimately, as far as I can tell, the key is what every ultra-runner I have spoken to has told me. Get out and run every 100/200 mile race in the calendar. To get even a glimpse of what running 97 miles on day two with 16 hours of miles already in your legs, let alone what it will feel like on days 7, 8 and 9, requires knowing what it feels like to run on exhausted legs. The last person to attempt the record stopped after day 3 with a stress fracture.

What then has this got to do with me? I have been appointed chief goader, my role being to help with the logistics in the build up and then spend as many days as Mrs H will allow next June handing out gel bars, keeping Hugh up to date with the cricket, and generally helping make his life as easy as possible. My legs are already itching to have a crack at one of the stages, but it’s no small comfort to know that if I want to stay in my slippers on the bus on day 2, then I can. In the meantime we’re focusing on the sponsors, drawing up budgets and plotting the route.  We’ll have to meet again soon, but it’s not clear at what stage Hugh (who likes a drink) is going to sack off the booze. But, as I say, that’s his problem not mine, and for that alone I am rather glad.

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Bin Bags at Dawn

Weight lifting

Weight lifting

Ideally, I would have commandeered my son. At just shy of two year’s old he has hit 11kg and is tall enough to sit comfortably on my shoulders. But the problem is that he wriggles so much that it’s hard enough to keep him there for five minutes, let alone for the duration of a 10-mile run.

What I really need are hills, because I have started trailing in earnest for the next big race. In October I’ll be heading for the Peak District and a 50-miler through the night, appropriately called Dusk ’til Dawn, which has a total elevation of 9,200 feet, with the worst to come from 36 miles to the finish. As British Cycling found earlier this year, when they filed their course for the Olympic Road Race, there isn’t an elevation within a hundred miles of London that is worthy of being called a hill. The course they submitted included one lap of Box Hill. It was rejected. So too the route with three laps. Fair enough, since it would barely feature as more than an abrasion on the flattest stage of the Tour de France. Nine laps, however, now that would be a challenge.

This is the reason why Mark Cavendish has spent the spring trimming another 9lbs off his already wired body frame. He’ll never win the Tour because he struggles over the mountains, but for the Olympics he has given himself the kind of chance he needs to get over, round and down Box Hill and have enough time to regroup ahead of the sprint finish. It also helps that he’s been living up a volcano for the last few months with Bradley Wiggins and the Sky Team.

Not exactly Mont Ventoux

The closest thing to a vertical climb I have is a 100 metre ascent to the Lavender Hill Police Station – not exactly Mont Ventoux, you might say. I’d have to run up it close to a hundred times to get anything like the benefit of being up in the Peak District, and since there is a rather good pub at the bottom of the slope it’s unlikely that I’d make it much beyond the second length. I had also heard that there was a team on the Coastal Trail ultra who were running with a brick in the packs, just for a laugh. I haven’t got to the bottom of it, but I have a feeling that you know who has got something to do with it.

All of which has meant that I’ve had to return to the tried and tested method of donning a bin liner under several layers of clothes to sweat it out. It’s heavily reliant on the English summer coming good, although so long as it’s humid that’s always good for getting the sweat boiling up. Last night, as the storm clouds brewed over Wimbledon soap suds were frothing out of my top, which is a good indicator of hard labour.

As for the boy, I might have to resort to using him for bicep curls for the time being.

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Lost in Transition: Or Why I’ll Never Be a Triathlete

It took me until Sunday morning to realise that I never knew how to ride a bike. Throughout most of my life – from the age of seven, when I cycled to school, and would spend my summer evenings pretending to be Stephen Roche, and now to commuting across London on a single-speed two-wheeler – I have cycled almost everyday. And yet, as I was overtaken going up hill in the last five kilometres of the Bradford-upon-Avon triathlon by someone twice my age and half my size, it dawn on me that riding a bike properly is actually quite an art.

It had all started so well. I had signed up for the triathlon just before Easter on the repeated promise that the weather last year had been stunning. And the appeal of a 1.5km  swim in the river followed by 40km on the bike and then a 10km run was only heightened by the fact that it would be a weekend in the countryside and the boy could crash around by the river with Mrs H while I somewhere over the hill.

By the time that Alex and I were standing on the river bank the water temperature had fallen to 12.8 degrees. The swim had been reduced to 1km because of the current after 5 weeks of rain, and while he was still muttering about how warm it had been last year, I was busy worrying whether two swimming caps was really enough.

As it turned out the swim was the least of my worries. After 25 minutes in the river we were dragged onto the bank unceremoniously like line caught tuna being hauled on deck, and on our way to the transition area to change out of our swimming gear to get on the bike. It took me nearly six whole minutes to complete this task. Granted I forgot I had to get the wetsuit over the timing chip on my ankle and ended up rolling on the grass like a dog trying to scratch his back. But six minutes! I’ve had board meetings that have been shorter than that.

And then it was onto the bike. The real surprise was that I was actually ahead of Alex when we got out of the water, but that time was lost in transition and by the time we were out of the gate he was well ahead of me. I later found out that he thought I was still ahead which is why he bolted, but try as I might I couldn’t catch him. I could give you the excuse that my head was all over the place from the swim or that my stomach seemed to have taken leave of its senses, but really it was that there wasn’t enough in the legs.

Kilometre 30 and in search of a cup of tea

The real selling point of the race was that it went past Alex’s parents’ house at kilometre 30. By this time I was way off the back but loving every minute. I was expecting to see the boy standing on the wall waving, but the garden was empty and when I got off the bike and knocked on the door, hopeful of a cup of tea, there was no answer. Instead they were waiting at the bottom of the hill and by the time Louis had sat on the bike and changed the gears I was 12 minutes down on Alex. And there was still an almighty hill to climb back up.

T2, the second transition, was a breeze. Off the bike, and a change of shoes while chewing half a banana that I think was mine, I bounced into the 10km run. If there was one thing I knew how to do it was run. Except it didn’t quite work like that. My legs were all over the place. More intend on going from side to side and with a foreshortened step – a result of an hour on the bike – my son had a better technique than this, and it took 2km for my legs to wake up.

By the time I crossed the finish line in 2 hours 40 minutes – a full 50 minutes behind the winner who had passed through the transition area in 2 minutes flat – I had climbed to 96th out of 120 overall. And that’s the point. Even when I was running my first marathons it was never really about racing, more about surviving. This was all about competition, about finding the fastest line around the buoys or the perfect position to descend the hills in. (There were guys there wearing aerodynamic helmets, as if every millisecond did actually count).

None of this is to say I won’t be back, and it has piqued my interest in the Dart 10km swim and an idea that goes back to when I was 18 to cycle the length of France as fast as possible. In the meantime it’s back to what I know best and I’ve just signed up to the Dusk ’til Dawn 50-miler in the Peak District in October. I expect it to be spicy, what with all the hills, but guaranteed that there won’t be wetsuit in sight, and plenty of tea.

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Chris Brasher, The London Marathon and the quest to break two hours

I started writing this post at 2am on the morning of the 2012 London Marathon. As I finished my carb-packed breakfast, I thought it a fitting homage to Chris Brasher, the Marathon’s founder, who called up the current organiser, David Bedford, around about this time in the morning, in 1981, and said something like, ‘we’ve got this little race going on, would you join us?’ Bedford had just returned from an end of evening curry. But, tired and emotional as he no doubt was, he dragged out his running shoes and headed for Greenwich. The rest, as they say, is history.

This will be the third time that I have run the course of the London Marathon in reverse: starting beneath Big Ben at 4am and heading for Greenwich. And while the number of those running this year has ballooned from 2 in 2009 to 6 in 2011 to 14 in 2012, amongst the chatter there will be plenty of time to reflect on the life of Brasher, without whom none of us would be here, and who is the subject of an excellent biography by John Bryant.

Brasher was, to put it mildly, a singular fellow, but this is not the problem that faces the biographer. Consider for a moment that one person links the 4-minute mile, where he paced Roger Bannister, the 1956 Olympics, where he won gold in the 3000m steeple chase, the invention of modern orienteering and the patenting of the Brasher walking boot. There is more than a little of the Forrest Gump in Brasher. He was not so much a witness through his goggled lenses (he was never much of a looker) to some of the momentous occasions in modern athletic history as making it.

Although for most readers of Bryant’s book all road lead to the creation of the London Marathon, the trouble is to know where to start the story. Bryant tackles the chronology and the multi-layered history of Brasher’s life with great lightness. (Here I must declare an interest since I work for the publisher of his book). And Bryant admirably confronts head-on the fact that if Brasher took exception to you, as he was more than likely to, he could be more than direct. There is a story that when news of his death reached the night desk at one national paper the editor couldn’t find anyone to write his obituary who had a good word to say about him. But when did nice blokes make for interesting biographies?

To properly book-end the London Marathon (it is now Monday afternoon) it’s to the Kenyans that we must turn. In Running with the Kenyans Adharanand Finn did what all good journalists do when researching a story, and upped sticks with his family to live and train in Kenya with some of the best distance runners in the world. No slacker – he has recorded 1:18 for the Edinburgh Half Marathon – the regime, the natural talent and the sheer ergonomic beauty of these runners made even the top Europeans, who decamp there to learn their secrets, look like part-timers. As if to prove his point Kenyans took first place in both the men and women’s race yesterday.

Of the 12 of us who set off from Big Ben 2 called it a day at Tower Bridge – one was tapering for the Bob Graham in a couple of weeks – and a handful ended up in a hospital and took an age to find their way out. All of which meant that Alex and I crossed the start line together, for the third time, at 8am and made our way for a fry up and a pint in the local pub. As we watched the final runners arrive for the start – Wombles, Peppa Pigs etc – we glanced up at the TV to see the elite setting off. Already the Kenyans were putting clear water between themselves and the rest.

If you want to know what it is like, really like, to run like this and, more importantly, what it will take to break the 2-hour record I offer you two possibilities. Either, the next time you go to the gym turn the running machine up to its maximum pace – 18 kph in my case – and see how long you can last. I managed 27 seconds. And even that would not have got me 2:04:44, Wilson Kipsang’s time yesterday. Or, you could pour a cup of tea and read Finn’s truly excellent book. Raising a pint of Sagres to the screen, I knew exactly what the rest of Sunday held for me.

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The boss has gone away for Easter and the sun has turned to snow. It can mean only one thing – the final countdown to the London Marathon has begun.

Last year I put word out that a few of us were going to be running the course of the marathon backwards. Starting at 4am by Big Ben, the closest you can get to the finish line what with all the TV equipment, we would head to Greenwich for 8am. I would then turn around and do it all again. Seven of us made it that morning, a good number I thought given the time of day, but I sensed disappointment in some un-named quarters that there weren’t more.

This year that should all be different since I’m not in charge. Before he took off for the Barkley 100 in the US, James Adams put out the word that on the 4th chime of Big Ben we’d be off. I’ve seen a list of 20 names so far, but since there are no ballots for this one, we’ll be taking entry applications up until about 3.59am. So, if you would like to come and join us, you know where we’ll be.

This will be third outing on this route, but I’m more excited about it that I have been any race in a while. I suspect that it has as much to do with the cafe in Greenwich where we’re likely to end up as we did back in 2009. At 9am, while runners streamed past clutching isotonic drinks as they made their way to the Greenwich start line, Alex and I gorged on bacon and eggs. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts more than one person had that ‘what-on-earth-are-they-doing?’ look on their face. Because every training manual puts the fry-up in the bottom drawer. We raised a cup of tea and wished them well.

With 19 days left to go it’s probably a bit late to get in any more serious miles, especially since Easter eggs are just around the corner. Instead I’ll go straight into tapering which includes the tried and tested routine of sipping lots of beer – for the carbohydrates, of course. So, if you’re passing through Camden in the next couple of weeks, give me a buzz. There are plenty of good pubs round here, and who knows – I might even stand you a pint.

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