Sunday, 19 April 2015

Listen To The Birds

'You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on.'

It's probably my favourite rock 'n' roll moment ever.

By the time the 'Ziggy Stardust' tour reached London's Hammersmith Odeon on July 3rd 1973, David Bowie had been on the road for over a year with practically no breaks. During that time, he'd gone from being the curly-haired folky guy who sang 'Space Oddity' to an extra-terrestrial sex alien and an international superstar. His Ziggy Stardust character had become a glam rock icon, and teenagers - both boys and girls - all across the world had his poster on their walls. Bowie's manager, Tony DeFries, saw no reason to stop. He had plans to take Ziggy all over the globe in 1974. But Bowie had other plans.

As that July 3rd show drew to its conclusion, Bowie stepped forward to speak to the frenzied crowd of 3,500 space cadets.

'This show will stay the longest in our memories,' he told his fans. 'Not just because it is the end of the tour, but because it is the last show we'll ever do.'

Amidst the hysterical screams, Bowie then turned his back on the audience and walked towards the back of the stage. The Spiders From Mars launched into one final song, 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide'.

Folklore has it that audience members, so upset by news of Ziggy's retirement, sated themselves by indulging in a mass orgy in the seats.

The NME front cover - 'BOWIE QUITS'- became one of the most iconic of all time.

Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars never played together again.

Just a matter of months later, Bowie - bleached quiff, smooth suit - started recording an album of 'blue-eyed soul' in Philidelphia, Pennsylvania.

In September 2007, Anton Krupicka wrote his first blog post. Entitled 'Now', it began with a single question: 'Why does one blog?' Why share a life on the internet when one could simply write a private journal?

His conclusion was interesting:

'There is no reason to post one's life on the internet, other than to feel as if you have some sort of agency as a human being. That is, that your actions - and posts - are meaningful to someone other than oneself and that they affect other humans in some way: to inflame, inspire, degrade, invoke joy, etc.,etc. That is the only - yet incredibly crucial - difference between maintaining a meticulous Word document on one's hard drive and posting to a public blog of one's own creation. The internet allows others to see you - provides an audience - and this helps tremendously to validate one's own existence.'

I came across Krupicka's blog in 2010. I'd just joined Facebook. I bought into Krupicka's philosophy. My life needed validating. Not long afterwards, I started my own blog.

My blog was never an on-line training diary or a self-aggrandising list of achievements. I worked hard to make it more than that. In retrospect, it's a body of work I'll always be proud of.

And what started out as a means to validate my existence - to make me a star in a movie about myself - became so much more. Through the words of this blog I was able to talk of things I'd shared with almost no-one: childhood abuse, self-harm, directionless self-pity, an over-dependence on stuff that's no good for you - all the bullshit, basically, that most of us encounter and eventually have to find a way of confronting and laying to rest. Our methods vary. Writing was mine.

As a young man, I was an avid diarist. For hours each week for the best part of ten years, I'd record a life that wasn't really being lived. I get those blue hard-backed books out now and again and scan through them, marveling (and cringing) at the person I once was.

Then, during a night in an Ingoldmells club during a particularly shaky spell of my life some years back, my oldest friend took me aside for a few drunken words of advice. 'You need to stop writing in those books of yours,' he said. 'Stop thinking so much. Start living a bit more.'

It was a turning point. I've never kept a journal since.

When one lives one's life according to the dictate of 'Self-experimentation is the key', there'll always be turning points and crossroads. For months now, I've been approaching another.

Although it's been a long journey of trial and error, the path I've chosen - the one that just feels right - seems to offer promise in terms of giving my existence the validity it needs now.

The bricks this path is made of are numerous, inter-connected and important. Detachment. Simplicity. An immersion in the outdoors. A fuller appreciation of the love of family and friends.

I've almost found what I'm looking for.

There's a few things, however, that need to fall by the wayside: competition, gossip, back-stabbing, false friendship, social media, more possessions than I need, more money than I need - all of the bollocks, in fact, by which one defines 'Modern Life'.

Blur got it right.

Blogging, too, is on that list.

It was always something that really bugged me: a favourite blog gradually fading into non-existence by means of less and less frequent posts, and finally no more at all. I always thought I'd do it differently. Do it properly.

That's why I'm bringing my blog to an end with this post.

The same old friend that took me aside in that nightclub all those years ago, sent me an e-mail recently. It was a link to an article about the marathon monks of Mount Hiei. In my reply, I talked to him about the idea of 'secular pilgrimages'. I told him of my weekly Friday 12-hour walks. I mentioned listening to podcasts on these walks.

In his response, he ended his message with a simple instruction: 'Listen to the birds on Friday'.

It's a phrase I've thought of almost constantly since. Not only good advice for a long walk, but an ideal for living.

And so, I go.

To the anonymous amigos who have clocked up those 40,000 page hits since the start of this blog, I thank you and leave you with a corruption of Micah True's guide to happiness:

Jog Free, my friends xx

Me? Well I'm off to listen to the birds. 

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Drum Boy John

A guest blog by Dennis Rainbow.

The first time I met Drum Boy John was on the school bus. I'd got on and, as usual, most of the seats were taken. I walked down the aisle and ended up standing next to a lad I'd not seen before. He was sitting on a double seat with a snare drum next to him. He looked up at me, and, although I wasn't bothered if I stood or sat for the short journey, he moved the drum and I sat down. We didn't say a word, but I watched him after we got off. He put on his headphones, pressed 'Play' on his Walkman, picked up his drum with a strap attached that he slung round his neck, took some sticks from his waist band and walked off, beating out a rhythm as if he was playing in a marching band.

The next morning I got on the bus and walked towards him. As I did so, he again moved his drum and I sat down. He'd been the talk of the school the previous day. The weird new boy with the drum. He'd walked down town at dinner break playing abstract beats and done the same again at home time.

'What music you into?' he'd said that morning.
'Bowie, the Postcard stuff - Aztec Camera, Josef K, Orange Juice,' I'd replied. 'What about you?'
'The Skids,' he'd said.

After a couple of weeks, I asked him.
'Why do you walk around with that drum?'
He gave me a sidewards glance, shrugged his shoulders.
'No reason.'

I started hanging around with him at breaks, after school and at weekends. Most people still thought he was a freak but, gradually, we both got a bit of attention. A couple of the cool girls - the girls who wore dark eyeliner and listened to Bauhaus and the Cocteaus - started to knock around with us. I made one a mix tape with stuff like 'Walk Out To Winter' and 'Fantastic Voyage' on it. John generally ignored them both.

That summer was brilliant. Jobless, we spent most days together. I saved my birthday money and bought a drum. We both got jackets from Oxfam like the ones on Sgt. Pepper's, and John copied me a cassette for my Walkman. In perfect synchronicity we'd march up and down the beach, past bewildered holiday makers, drumming and laughing.

The first day back, I took my drum on the bus and sat next to John. We were in a new class that year - 4U- and, as we walked down the corridor, we heard a familiar sound. Darren Johnson was stood in front of the class, laughing and drumming. He was one of the popular lads. The sort that had proper girlfriends, wore skinny ties, white socks, Adidas Sambas. Listened to U2. He wasn't taking the piss. It was as if drumming was cool.

The next morning, I sat next to John.
'Why you not brought your drum?' I asked.
He gave me a sidewards glance, shrugged his shoulders.
'No reason.'

The next morning, he wasn't on the bus at all.
Our form teacher told us that John and his family had moved away.
I don't know if he took his drum with him.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

This Is What I Do

 Sunday afternoon

I'm trying to put into words the feeling that's held me all day.

We're driving back from an open cross-country meeting at Barton-Upon-Humber. Tam's behind the wheel, and I'm talking.

'I just think that I need to find a new hobby. I was looking at some of those folks today and they seem to get such a buzz from running. I used to be like that, but not any more. Not for ages. It's all become a bit of a chore. Most of the time I get out, not because I really want to, but because it's a habit. You know what I mean? It's like, 'I'll go for a run because this is what I do.' '

Tam looks over, nods her head in all the right places, sighs like Twig the Wonderkid, but doesn't say anything.

'I'm sure there's something I could do that would really fire me up. Climbing, maybe? Mountain-biking? Something that I've never done before. Where everything would be new and exciting. And fun. Not just the same old, same old.'

I guess I'm in one of those moods. After a bit, I get the hint and shut up.

I cast my mind over the events of Friday night. The HPM. A DNF. Whilst no-one's particularly to blame, and I'd come out afterwards with such lazy platitudes as, 'It's only a race - it doesn't matter in the scheme of things', not having achieved what I'd set out to do, along with missing a full night's sleep, had left me feeling pissed off all day.

Maybe a run would sort me out? I'd asked Tam earlier to drop me off 10 miles from home on the way back, but I couldn't say I was particularly looking forward to it. As if things couldn't possibly get more downbeat, at that moment the clouds burst and heavy raindrops smeer the windscreen. I'm sure the forecast had said cold and windy, but dry. With no waterproof, the possible salvation I'll find in a run home looks far-fetched. 10 miles in the rain. No jacket. Freezing-bastard-cold and blowing a gale. Fan. Fucking. Tastic.

Stepping into the house sometime later, I admit that I do feel a bit better. The rain had stopped, the wind had blown away a few murky mental cobwebs,and my legs had felt a little stiff but surprisingly good.

The phone's ringing.

Before I even have chance to take off my shoes, I hear Tam saying, 'Yeah - he's just walked in.' She wanders into the hallway and hands me the house phone. A friend's on the line. I spread myself out on the computer chair in the front room and chat for 20 minutes. We get onto the subject of the team's retirement from Friday night's race, and I start again with all the same crap I was saying to Tam earlier.

'You know what your next challenge should be?' my mate tells me once I've finished my depressing monologue. 'Don't run a single step for a month. It'll be hard, I know, but it'll do you the world of good. Kind of get things into perspective.'

When I put down the phone, he's convinced me. My next challenge will be to not run at all for a month. At least. A new plan; I should feel excited, but I don't. What if, without running, things just stop making sense?

I shuffle into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Think for a while, resolve dissolving. Ok - my next challenge will be to not run at all for a month. Maybe. But I won't start just yet. Later this year, perhaps? Or not at all.

Monday afternoon

Work's dragged. Fed-up all day. The prospect of the run home, to be honest, hasn't really helped things either. Recently, I've found the jog home from the factory a right drag. My circadian rhythms must hit rock-bottom at around 3pm. Even a slow plod seems like hard work.

I get home at about half-four.

'Good run?' Tam says, hopeful, as I flop out against the kitchen wall.

'Not bad,' I reply, trying not to sound too negative. 'A bit of a slog.'

I sup a mug of sweet tea and contemplate getting ready to coach the kids at running club later on. Don't really feel like that either, I admit, but I guess it'll do me good.

There's definitely something about being in the company of enthusiastic youngsters and good friends that does wonders for the soul. When I arrive back from the club a couple of hours later, the dark clouds of the previous two days have all but evaporated.

Getting out the car, I'm surprised by the brightness of the moon. I'd not noticed it earlier. Not full, but not far off. I take a few steps to the end of the drive and look across the fields opposite. Eventually, my eyes are drawn to the distant red lights of the Belmont transmitter. On my last Lindsey Loop adventure, I began to picture the transmitter as a light-bulb in the middle of a huge room and myself as a moth, blindly making my way around it, pulled by a force too powerful to resist. I stare for a while at that far-away column of red light, and realise my predicament. Realise what running is to me. I'm pulled by a force too powerful to resist. And, as I stand in the darkness, I realise what a comforting thought that is.

I go to bed early. There's excitement in my belly again. I spread out an OS map on top of the duvet and check out an idea that's appeared from nowhere. How far would it be to run the course of the River Lymm from its source on Belchford Hill to the sea at Gib Point? Which parts of its banks have open access? Which sections are negotiable with trespass, or not at all? When would be the best time to try it? Would it be a point-to-point trip, or could I incorporate it into a long round?

I lay awake for a while later. A moth around a lightbulb. My thoughts flick through a catalogue of the things I've been drawn to for this year: a 2 day walk around the Tennyson Trail with an overnight bivvy; a 280 mile, 7 day run on the Cross Britain Way; a solo, unsupported 90 mile race against the daylight from Skegness to Hunstanton on the Summer Soltice; multi-day, super-light fastpacking trips over the length of the Nene Way and Hereward Way; a 140 mile FKT attempt on running the length of Lincolnshire, utilising the Viking Way and the Danelaw Way; a whole pile of undiscovered footpaths and as-yet-unattempted Pointless Challenges.

Round and round the lightbulb, until sleep turns off the power.

Tuesday morning

I leave the house at 5.15. It's cold outside, frost on the car windscreen and a stillness in the air. Turning on my head-torch and pulling the fleece beany over my ears, I start to jog down the lane and then over the crossroads in the direction of the Wold Grift. Sometimes you know immediately. Today, I know. This run's going to be a good one.

As I make my way slowly and easily along the field edges to Alford, the moths of last night have flickered away and my thoughts are consumed by a different anology. What if running were a marriage? A long-lasting relationship? A commitment until death-do-us-part?

Perhaps the look of joy I'd seen on the faces of those runners at Barton - those Absolute Beginners - a couple of days ago was due to the heady ecstasy of lust and infatuation? The running equivalent of falling hopelessly in love with someone new and then shagging each other senseless for six months straight. Many years ago, my running started like that too. Each day, a joy, a new discovery, a dizzying rush of natural chemicals. All-consuming. Exciting. Thrilling.

But over time, it's changed. Just like a marriage, the dynamics have altered. Whilst the passion is undoubtedly still there, it's been blended beautifully with a love and respect that runs much deeper. A love and respect that binds your relationship, ties you together closely, buoys you through the times when things don't seem quite right and enables you to appreciate all the moments when things are perfect.

Dawn's breaking. I pass the church at Well, and it's a beautiful day. I'm in love again. Every footstep is a kiss.

I jog on through the woods and remember words I recently read. In answer to the question, 'How has running shaped your life?' Buzz Burrell, 63 year-old US mountain-running guru replied:

'When I was in high school, nothing was being presented to me that was real. This was when the Vietnam War was just getting started and various values in society at the time were questionable. And I had zero answers. I had no idea what was true or what was false, but I knew when I moved and breathed and perspired, that was real. And so running became the first thing in my life. It was reality and in that reality there was intrinsic meaning. And not a lot has changed.'  

I can't help feeling that if asked the same question, my sentiments would be much the same.

Before the track makes a steady descent to Claxby Psalter, a fallen tree has blocked the way. Recently, I've gotten into a habit of standing on that tree, looking over to the ridge-line and the Bluestone Heath road, savouring the silence of the morning. For a moment, just being.

This morning's no different. But today, my mind isn't empty. It's full of snapshots of the paths we've taken since we came together- running and myself - nearly forty years ago: Primary school sports day sprints; teenage daydreams of track stardom; gruelling sessions on a University cinder track; mid-20's road-running heydays; the natural progression to the trails and the hills and the lure of longer distance. Right up until this very morning - a man perhaps past his best, but moving forward with a philosophy of outdoors movement that just feels right - no longer 'a runner', not quite 'a long distance walker', just something somewhere in between.

Standing on that fallen tree, I savour the precious memories, the joy we've had together, and look ahead to the things we've yet to share, the places we've yet to discover.

I'm smiling. That feeling inside me.

And, as I start to run, a phrase I used in despair a couple of days ago returns, and I'm filled with pride.

This Is What I Do.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Conquistador Of The Useless

 I often think that when I get older, it won't be the things I've done in my life that I'll most fondly remember, but, rather, the people who I did those things with.

Over the years, I've been blessed that running has led me to a group of people who's friendship I cherish. A loose collective, we have differing views on most things, but a shared vision of where the elemental essence of 'running' really lies. On mountain tops, field paths, bridleways, moors, dales and fells, I spend time with these people and I always come home a better person for it.

Over the weekend of the Winter Soltice, I set off to run 90 miles from Hunstanton to Skegness - the length of The Wash - in the company of two of these treasured friends. When you're travelling on foot for 24 hours, there's plenty of time for talking. Sometime during our trip, Leon, Dave and myself got onto the subject of blogging. 'It would be a good idea to have some guest posts on The SJC site,' someone said. We all agreed that it would.

Two months later, I'd all but forgotten that conversation. What a pleasant surprise then last night, when amongst all the crap in my e-mail inbox was this little gem, sent to me by Leon.

In December 2013, Leon became the first person to complete the Lindsey Loop, Lincolnshire's best long distance route, in one continuous run during winter.

It was a remarkable day.

This is the story of that day.


                                        CONQUISTADOR OF THE USELESS 

                                                           Leon Hockham

Plodding on, I thought the monotony would never end. The golden orb ebbed over the horizon and still, enthusiasm and joy seemed like something only other people feel. Those feelings were not returning. I hoped that I was journeying towards them. The chatter from my friends was comforting, both Dave and Chris had done their job. Their endless prattle had mutated into simple sound - white sound. A friendly, reassuring sound. Like the muffled whisperings you hear on waking, when you can't make out the words but you know you are in a safe place in the company of people who care.

It had been a long day and here I was, 2 sunrises and 1 sunset later. Measuring time by celestial events. A man approached, or was it? I had been seeing things for a while, in that place where you are not absolutely sure whether what you see is real or a figment of an exhausted and confused imagination. Thoughts whirled around and I paced, 'One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.' He was wearing a discoloured fluorescent jacket. I didn't recognise him! It could be a farmer appearing over a rise in the barren field. 'One foot in front of the other', look up - he's gone. Must have been my addled mind, slaughtered by the relentless, monotonous, muddy fields that separated me from the start of my journey.

Time had ceased to matter, since I had no idea how to measure it. Clocks ticked slower. Distances that I had covered on simple runs over familiar ground seemed to go on forever. Distances that would have been over within a flash. Time travel. Was I moving? Or was I the observer? Either way, I was on my time; slow time.

The day had started with the usual nerves, following a restless night. Who needs sleep? Sleep is for wimps! My sister's arrival with her husband from Sussex had kept me up later than I would have liked. It was worth it. Rory was my road support. Reliable, dependable; Rory, the 'white van man'. I needed that van and Rory in it. It focuses me and reassures me. Waiting for that coffee and cigarette, ready rolled. Waiting for the banter and encouragement. Stepping stones on my Transit.

With everyone present, I was ready to start. Treana and Tam on the 1st leg. We set off plodding up the road. Treana and Tam seemed to be going off too fast, because they were. I had forgotten the map. I knew they would take the piss, but I needed that map. I knew the route but it would comfort me. As predicted, they took the piss. I was off again and I would try to catch the girls. Where were they? Too fast for me. I caught up with them on the outskirts to Alford and we were off. I was doing it. I had dreamed about this run. A loop starting and finishing on my doorstep. Adventure begins when you step out of your door. Saleby Jogging Centre had done it a couple of years ago, but he is a class runner, a hard runner, the 'real deal'. I'm an emulator, a pretender. It was hard to curb his enthusiasm for this route; he had been going on about it for ages, and had guarded that guide book, that coveted out-of-print text. It seemed so far - 97 miles, with nearly 2500m of ascent. Way out of my league. Chris and I had reccied it to death. On top of that, we had run it as a club relay, which was an awesome experience.

I don't know why but I got the idea to have a go myself. I have a bit more experience of big miles since my attempted BGR a couple of years ago. Now that was ambitious. My first ultra - one of the hardest in the UK. Whatever made me think I could do that? Like the first race I ever ran - a marathon?? Way too ambitious. I suppose I am vain. I suppose that I like to test myself and, after all, there is no point in attempting something that you know you can do. Or more to the point, you know how to do. After a couple of successful ultras, and a couple that weren't, I had more confidence. A winter Loop. I would give it a go. My previous limited experience had taught me that most of the running is in your head. 'One foot in front of the other'. Believe it, feel it and live it. One step at a time

It had been a busy year and the only time that I could fit it in was the winter. The first continuous winter Loop, as Chris had pointed out. (No pressure then!) I feel that the key to big runs is not to over-analyse and definitely do not stress. After a hard year, training had gone out the window. Virtually no running in the months leading up to the Loop. Would it matter?

The 1st leg, starting in the dark, flew by with only a couple of errors, like when I lost the girls - nothing serious. Missed Maz, one of my support runners on Leg 2. I could have waited, but didn't. I knew Chris would take him to the next village en route, and I was right.

Horncastle- the start of Leg 3. Lost Trena just before the CP and Maz urged me to run on while he went back for her. She wasn't far behind, just enough for me not to want to wait. On arrival at the CP, Maz and Treana were already there because they had taken a short cut to catch me up. Treana had done an outstanding job pacing me on the first 2 legs, a distance PB for her. I'm very proud of her and she will make a great ultra-runner. She's a Hockham and doesn't know when to quit!

Overwhelmed, I looked around me - the crossroads CP seemed massed with people. People I cared about and loved. This Is Your Life! Close friends and loved ones. I love seeing my family on these runs. They are fuel to me - they give me the strength and will to carry on. Dennis, with his inane banter. My Dad, with the not-so-wise words. Christopher Rainbow, who I am always happy to see. My inspiration and my safety belt. Dave and Deb travelling over from Lancashire. Christ - these people must actually like me! I am always humbled by the lengths friends and family will go to help me fulfill my dreams. Neil: a guy who's skill is easily outstripped by his confidence. A person I don't know really well, but hope to in the future. Real understanding. The kind that is forged and galvanised by being lost on a bleak hillside in torrential rain with only your mates to rely on. A trust and friendship that counts in the hills and is transported to the lowlands where our lives are played out. My Mum: supporting me as always, reluctant to smile in case she lets on how she really feels, always there, humbling me with her loyalty and forgiveness. Tammy: like me in so many ways, ocassionally too quick to say what's on her mind. Her blinding care and supprt, obvious, hard as nails - she can't fool me! The gentle and caring side that I can see in her eyes as she fusses around making sure everyone has what they need. My girls: the reason I get up in the morning, always there.

Confusion, the good kind. Where you don't need to understand. The kind that is brought about by pointless, empty, useless miles. The pain has gone, replaced with a feeling rather than understanding; an understanding of sorts, but not in the literal sense; understanding one's place in the universe, a sense of belonging to the animate and inanimate; the beauty, cruelty and, above all, the indifference of the universe. Indifference could inspire panic, it could make you seek a higher power. This is my church, I am the preacher; my supporters are my congregation, believers. There is no reason to believe, yet they do.

Sleeping on my feet; unbelievable until you have the experience. Somnambulism or noctambulism, a sleep disorder. In a state of low consciousness, sufferers perform activities that are usually performed in a state of full consciousness. Although their eyes are open, their expression is dim and glazed over. A sleep disorder.? No, running close to 100 miles in the winter is a disorder and somnambulism is merely a symptom.

The sound comes and goes. That haunting sound. I can't make up my mind whether I like it or not. It sounds familiar. My mind's playing games. South Thoresby - last leg, about 10 miles to go. Home may as well be on the far side of the moon. I don't like the sound, it seems out of place. Rory should be here somewhere...I'm impatient. I need to get to that van. That sound again - 'WATERLOO... WATERLOO...' Where is that rusty Transit? Turning the corner, Chris and Dave laughing. Then, the penny drops - Rory having an impromtu rave, music blaring from speakers. The Best Of Abba?? What else would you be doing at 4am on a lonely Lincolnshire road? I did not understand. No coffee stop this time. Dave looks disappointed; I an perturbed. I need to get home. Feeling like a child who is late for tea. My 24 hour, highly optimistic, unrealistic and masochistic schedule is out of the window. I don't care anymore. Got to get home. I'm waiting for a delivery.

The man in the coat, the bright coat, has gone to be replaced with three figures approaching. On towards Rigsby - village on a ridge, harking back to when the North Sea lapped against the white cliffs of Alford. To when Alford was an aquatic town. I will be able to see the windmill soon - the finishing line, something to aim for.

Getting closer. Still can't make them out. Focus has gone.The glazed expression; a symptom of my ultra-running disease.Who are they? There you are! My existential soul and my two reasons for getting up in the morning. My girls. The man in the van, wearing his sunshine jacket ,the uniform of the Transit man, he made his last delivery of the day. It is addressed to me. They are for me. A gift from the gods - to lead me home.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Slow Ultra-Training: A Paradigm Shift

'The Slow Movement is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail's pace. It's about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible.'
Carl Honore, 'Slow'

It's 1986 and Carlos Petrini isn't happy. Fast food giant, McDonalds, are proposing to open a new store near the Spanish Steps in Rome, and it pisses him right off. So what does he do? He establishes a direct alternative to fast food - Slow Food - with an aim to promote local foods and centuries-old traditions of gastronomy, and to oppose the modern-day clamour for convenience food, along with industrial production and globalisation.

Starting out as a bit of 'a game', Petrini's Slow Food organisation touches a nerve and becomes more popular than he could ever have imagined. In 1989, the founding manifesto of the International Slow Food Movement was signed in Paris by delegates from 15 countries. Since then, it has expanded to include over 100,000 members with branches in over 150 countries.

Over time, the philosophy behind Slow Food has developed into a widespread movement that advocates a cultural shift towards slowing down life's pace. An internet search will provide details of how the ideas behind Slow have expanded to many facets of everyday living. Wikipedia gives details of sixteen Slow subcultures, ranging from Slow Cities, Slow Travel and Slow Design to Slow Parenting, Slow Education and Slow Science. What Wiki doesn't list, however, is Slow Ultra-Training.

That, dear reader, is where I come in.



Six months ago, a dog came into our lives. Elsie, a border terrier, quickly became a much-loved member of our family. In spite of many people reminding me of what a chore it was to walk a dog, I quickly came to the realisation that dog-walking, an activity I'd never really done before, ranked as one of the most enjoyable things I'd ever experienced. Equally, if not more enjoyable than running. (That's saying something.)

Whilst there's a definite joy to moving quickly over ground, the contemplative joys of life at 3 miles per hour are astounding. In no time at all, the dog-walk was the highlight of my day. (I lead a simple life.)

Over the Christmas holidays, I began to yearn for being out longer. My weekly plans for the next year, I decided, would include lots of running, but would be supplemented by a good deal of walking. Initially, this idea was inspired by pure enjoyment and the thrill of the detachment from the busyness of life that walking provides. Gradually, however, as I tramped through fields, lost in thought, Elsie by my side, I started to contemplate if a Slow method of training could be utilised to facilitate a 'fast' time in an ultra race. The outlines of Slow Ultra-Training began to take shape.

Common (Mis)Conceptions

In recent months, a lot of people I know have thrown their hats into the training ring with the 'science' camp. They're taking lactate threshold treadmill tests, following precisely engineered running schedules and running to heart-rate. Although I hold a degree in Sports Science and accept that this approach works in training for shorter long-distance races (marathon, 50k, 100k), I began to question if such an approach could ever work for super-long ultra performances (races such as TP184, GUCR, C2C Ultra). My conclusion was, most probably not.

Looking back on personal experience, when training for a super-long ultra, I've always stuck to the commonly-held conception of running a ton of miles at a moderate pace, with a couple of faster runs during each week, and a long run (5-6 hours) at the weekend. Off this sort of background, I've always done ok in races, but never come away feeling like I've particularly achieved what I set out to do. There comes a point when the sheer amount of time on your feet gets you. Muscles start cramping up, feet start swelling and aching, hips get tight, and you slow from a jog to a plod, done for.

My race experiences suggest then, at least for me, that the widely-accepted way to do things just doesn't work.

This nagging doubt is, perhaps, confirmed by the following information:

- In a typical marathon training schedule, scientific studies have shown that the quickest athletes do around 80% of their training at a pace under their race pace (steady or easy running), and 20% at a faster pace. Some marathon runners might stretch this ratio to 65% / 35%, but evidence seems to suggest that an increased amount of fast running doesn't necessarily correlate to faster race times.

- Compare this to a super-long ultra. If average pace per mile in a race is 10-12 minutes per mile (or slower), there's a good chance that by training in the conventional way, all of your training is done at  quicker than race pace.

Does this make sense?

I'd say 'No'.

An Alternative Approach

I'm proposing that the key to super-long ultra-training is not miles per se, but the amount of time spent on your feet and moving forward. Of this time, a good proportion (more than half) should be done at a pace slower than race pace, ie. walking.

Of course, this alternative approach has one serious drawback in regards to modern-day lifestyles, and that is the time needed to do it justice. To perform well on race day, you're going to be spending a vast amount of time outdoors. Most people don't have, or are unwilling to devote, the time that's needed to achieve a decent race performance. It's my theory that the reason runners train for super-long ultras in the traditional way is, almost entirely, because it takes less time than this alternative Slow approach.

So, What Is Slow Ultra-Training?

The Slow approach is best not viewed as a 'training regime' but more in terms of a 'total lifestyle overhaul'. Accordingly, it might not be for everyone.

Fundamental requirements include:

a) Lots of available time
                                     Slow Ultra-Training can't fit into the socially-accepted regime of work / leisure. In order to follow the approach properly, and still have time for the things more important than running (spending time with family and friends, for example), you might have to cut down on the amount of weekly time you spend at work. Drop down to a 4-day week or less. By working one less day, you might sacrifice 20% of your income, but you'll gain 50% more free time. Since this is a day you've gotten used to wasting at work, don't pencil in jobs or errands that you've never done on this day (because you're usually at work), use it to get outside.

b) A dog
              Slow Ultra-Training involves a great deal of walking. Whilst it might be unreasonable to take a dog along on a weekly 40 mile+ walk, shorter outings of 1 1/2 - 2 hours are always better with a canine companion.
   Bear in mind that the essence of Slow Ultra-Training lies in enjoyment of the present moment. The typical 'reluctant marathon runner's mindset' of 'I don't really fancy a training run tonight, but if I drag myself out the door now and get my head down for an hour it won't seem long before I'm back home in the warm' is a way of thinking that is totally alien to the Slow approach. A walk with a dog, I'm sure you'll find, is always a pleasure.

Once you've arranged to work less and bought a dog, you'll be ideally placed to embark on Slow Ultra-Training.

Getting Down To Nuts And Bolts

Let's assume you've decided to target a 150 mile race and aim for a time of 35 hours.

I'd suggest an average of 35 hours of training a week, starting from a base of 20 hours per week, and increasing incrementally over 6 months.

At least half of this time will be spent at training at slower than race pace, a fair portion of this being done with a dog in tow.

A sample mid-block week might look like this:

SUN  - AM: 3-4 hours hilly off-road run (steady)
            PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking

MON - PM: 2 hour run-commute from work (easy)

TUES - AM: 2 hour run-commute to work (easy)
             PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking

WED  - PM: 2 hour run-commute from work (easy)

THURS- AM: 2 hour run-commute to work (easy)
               PM: 1 1/2 -2 hours dog-walking

FRI - 12 hours steady walking (3.5 mph)

SAT - AM: 1 hour jog
          PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking                                   TOTAL- approx. 32 HOURS

This assumes a work week of Monday-Thursday. As can be seen above, much of my own running during the week involves commuting to or from work. Not only is this a tremendous way to start or finish your work day, it also saves you money on fuel and reduces your carbon footprint. If such a routine is impractical for you, I would suggest that you strive to run at different times of the day during the week. By getting your body and mind used to running both in the early morning and in the evening, you'll cope better in an actual race when you'll be running right through a night and day.

A Personal Perspective

I adopted the Slow Ultra-Training approach at the start of the year, and, already, I'm beginning to see benefits. On a typical Friday 12 hour walk, I'm finding my legs and feet are in much better shape at the end (and the day after) than they were just a month ago. Of course, if I ran a shorter race now, I'm sure my times would be well short of what I'm used to. This approach doesn't have the faster running required for a decent marathon / 10k etc. But, then again, focus is required. The aim of the approach is to complete a super-long ultra in as quick a time as possible, not to run a marathon PB.

I intend to dedicate this year to Slow Ultra-Training. At the start of next year, I have my eye on a race where I'll put my theories into practice. As of now, I'm confident of the outcome.

A Plug

Once I've personally proved the merits of Slow Ultra-Training next year, I shall be available for on-line coaching consultations at extortionate prices. Get your money ready.

Details to follow in due course.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Walker

I think about him often. Even now, after all this time.

We'd ran together a few times on a club night, and, after I'd heard the bad news, I really should have called round. But, to be honest, I didn't know him that well back then, so I didn't.

It was a chance encounter in the street months later that led to him becoming my best friend.

'Hey. Ok?' I'd said.
He'd nodded, kind of uncertain.

'What you up to nowadays?' I'd said.
'Whatever it is you do when you've lost everything,' he'd replied, matter-of-factly.

'Still running?' I'd asked. Dumb question.
'Not a lot,' he'd answered. 'Busy with something else.'

We'd made uncomfortable small talk for a few minutes more, and he'd invited round to his place. On a Wednesday night two weeks after, I'd found myself standing in the rain, knocking on his front door.

The table in the kitchen was large. Spread upon it was a map. Ordnance Survey, Landranger 122.

'Those dotted red lines,' he'd said, running a finger over the shiny paper, then looking up at me. 'They're footpaths.'

I'd nodded, mug of hot tea in hand, wondered where this was going.

'I'm going to walk them all,' he'd continued.

Why? I'd thought, but his face read Why not?

Every Wednesday for the next three years I'd sat at that table. I'd stared at the map blu-tacked to the kitchen wall, studied the spider-lines of fluorescent yellow marker - the paths he'd walked - and listened as he spoke of weekend adventures.

One time, he'd mentioned his wife. 'It must be hard, I know,' I'd told him, 'But you can't walk away from what happened. It just won't work.'

He'd just shrugged and smiled.

'When I walk, I'm walking with her. She's with me, and it's real,' he'd said. 'The rest...' - he'd gestured around him - '...the rest of it all - it's just dreaming.'

Weeks passed. Months passed. One step at a time. He grew thin, his face more weathered. But his eyes sparkled.

The map on the wall became a sea of fluorescent yellow.

And then, he was done.

That night, over a couple of hours and a few beers, he'd told me everything. And now what he'd been doing made some sort of sense.

Before I'd left, he'd got up from the table, carefully unpicked the map from the wall, folded it neatly and handed it to me.

'I won't be needing this now,' he'd said. 'And, you never know, it might come in useful some time.'

As I'd stood on the step by the front door, he'd extended his right hand. 'Thankyou,' he'd said as I shook it.

It was the last time I saw him.

No-one knows what happened. The next morning, it appears, he put on his boots, picked up his sack, closed the door behind him and never came back.

I think about him often.

And I hope.

Maybe, somewhere, he's still walking.  

Tuesday, 27 January 2015


I've never been a big fan of the telephone. Not even in the days when it lived at home, with a dial and a bell. Certainly not in its modern incarnation - a device into which you install your life in return for which it will rule that life for you.

Growing up, our house phone was a novelty one. A frog sat on a lily pad. When someone called, the frog would croak. You'd pick the frog up off its lily pad, hold it to your ear and speak into its belly.

Maybe that's what put me off phones at an early age. That, or the fact that I don't really like talking to people. Especially people I don't know very well, or not at all. I heard Josie Long - the comedian - talking the other day about a project she once embarked on, where, for one hundred consecutive days, she attempted to strike up a conversation with a total stranger. I honestly cannot think of anything worse.

In the days when I lived by myself in a flat I'd bought by a river, a mate lent me a phone because he was fed up of never being able to get hold of me. He didn't need it, he told me, since he still lived at home with his mum and dad and they already had a phone. I kept it for four years until I gave up my job, sold my flat, moved away and lost touch with him.

That phone was the coolest I've ever had. It was long and sleek and had buttons instead of a dial. It was made out of pink plastic and was see-through, like a jellyfish Swatch. Although I didn't like to use it very much, I did like to look at it.

The front room of my flat was sparsely furnished. There was a bookcase, one of those wicker chairs you can buy in garden centres, a large desk and a stool. My record player sat on the carpet in one corner of the room, accompanied by plastic boxes full of records and tapes. There were a few of those trendy scatter cushions in the alcove by the window. On the desk was an old colour TV and the telephone.

During my time at this flat, I had a brief fling with a schizophrenic, narcoleptic girl from Stoke. When you looked into her eyes, you could tell that she was mad. I found this hugely attractive. I, myself, was going slowly insane at this time, so, for a while, we were a good match for one another.

She liked to ring me in the middle of the night. This presented a problem as my bedroom was separated from the front room by a kitchen and a bathroom. If someone rang and I was asleep in bed, the chances were that I'd not even hear the phone ring.

For three months, I took to sleeping on the floor of the front room just in case the phone rang after bed-time. Some nights it rang. Some nights it didn't. One night it rang and she was at a nightclub. I'm thinking she was drunk. She said, 'I shouldn't tell you this, but I think I've fallen in love with you.' A bit drastic, I thought. Three or four weeks later, she dumped me while we were enduring a few days away in Amsterdam. I ended up spending the last day moping round the canal sides by myself playing The Beautiful South's 'I'll Sail This Ship Alone' on repeat on my Walkman. When I got home, I gave up sleeping on the front room floor straight away and took to my bed again.

One time that phone rang early one morning. It was a Friday, I think - early December. When I answered it, my mum told me that her husband had suffered a massive heart attack during the night. He'd died as she'd held him. They'd been married for five weeks.

Once, I was at the cutting edge of mobile phone technology. During the time that the Nokia 3110 was almost space-age, the market stall I ran with Our Kid creamed a good profit from the sale of fake leather cases for the new breed of handset. For a short spell, I was fluent in phone lingo. I could identify any mobile put before me - Nokia, Philips, Alcatel, you-name-it - and recommend a handy case that would not only protect it from damage but would also look mighty fine clipped onto a jeans' belt loop and dangling at your hip.

When our market business burned to the ground and we decided to become the UK's largest manufacturer of flock-lined colouring boards for children, I was talked into taking out my first-ever contract. The phone that came with it was almost as good as that pink, plastic, see-through thing I'd had years back. A Motorola Razr, it had a lid that flipped up and a ring tone that sounded like a police siren. Finding myself at the helm of a business turning over a few hundred grand a year, I'd no choice but to use it more than I would have liked. Indeed, everyday I seemed to spend all my time on the phone. It was terrible. I made sure the situation didn't last too long.

Eventually, Tammy came on board and I was able to slip into my present role as someone who runs a fairly successful company without ever having to speak to anyone on the phone. It's great.

I stopped using a mobile about 8 years ago. It was one of the most liberating decisions I've ever taken. I still have a phone. If I'm out all day in the hills (fairly good chance of getting lost, arriving late at a pre-arranged rendezvous point, breaking a leg, falling off a cliff face etc.) or taking my VW bus for a spin (very good chance of breaking down), I'll take it with me. I'll make sure, though, that it's always turned off if I'm not actually speaking into it. (Nothing worse than a long run or a short drive being disturbed by a ringing phone.) I do send texts, however. Last year I sent 20. These were:

- 'Hi mate, fancy a little run in the morning? easy 5,6,7?? Den could come too. Cheers, chris'

- 'Ha! Text as much as you like - only have the phone on about 10 minutes a week! Ten 8 sounds good. 9ish in the morning?'

- 'Cool!'

- 'Hi dave, on hols now, can't get onto my hotmail, is it still 9am at cutthroat bridge? Cheers, chris'

- 'Thanks dave, see you tomorrow'

- ' Fucking hell dave, you sure you're all there?! Not seen your map, mine stayed in my pack all day! Hope you find it. Good run out today. Let us know if a night recce is on when you've spoken to mr. A. Cheers mate.'

- 'Lovely!'

- 'Ok'

- 'Ok? Off fb?'

- 'Just done. Long day! Ring tomorrow. Love you xx'

- 'Hi! Did you remember to buy debbie some flowers or something? X'

- 'Yeah, be glad to see you all. Legs sore today after feeling ok all week. Missed you. How was show?'

- 'Hi dave. Don'y worry, you'll be right. Give us a ring anytime. Take it easy. Chris'

- 'Any chance of picking me up an a4 page per day diary, or similar? Love chris x'

- 'O found it now'

- 'Ok - parked and ready at this end! Thanks.'

- 'Cheers'

- 'Great camping spot. Nice and cosy. Don't forget my running gear in morning. Good night and god bless. Love youxx ps, the tree we're camped under in this little wood has a pentangle carved in its bark, blair witchstyle!'

- 'Just opened the tent door. Dennis has disappeared. On the mat he was sleeping on is a small corn dolly, attached to which with a hat pin is a handwritten note stating, 'you're next.' do you think i should call the police?'

- 'Fos bridge xx'

Next time you call our land-line number and the phone keeps on ringing and eventually you hang up thinking there's obviously no-one at home, you may be right, but you'll probably be wrong. It's perfectly possible that I'll be the only one in, that I'll be laid on the settee reading a book, half-listening to the phone ringing and thinking to myself, 'There's no way I'm answering that.' Please don't take it personally.

Now and again I hear folks saying that you should face your fears, do the things that make you uncomfortable more often - that doing just this will make you a better person. Sometimes I think talking on the phone more, or at least answering it now and again, will make me a better person. But then I think that life's too short, that you're free to make your own choices, and why do something that you don't like doing when you have the choice not to do it at all. So, I'm happy to demote anything to do with the phone to the pile that contains all the things I never do if I can help it - speedwork, reading The Daily Mail, watching any version of NCIS, mingling with people who drive Range Rovers with personalised plates etc.

                    *                              *                              *                              *

When I picked up this biro an hour ago, I'd got no intention of writing about telephones. It just happened. What I originally wanted to go on about was 'resolutions'.

So here goes.

I'm a bit late for New Year's Resolutions, but as I've been rambling through fields over the last three weeks, I've felt a bit guilty about not making one for 2015.

I've mulled a few over, but ultimately dismissed them for one reason or another:

1. Run every day - already do that;

2. Cook more often - not really into food enough to get excited about that;

3. Work less hours - been on that for a year now. Any fewer hours and we'll be living on benefits (not necessarily a bad thing);

4. Pioneer a new method of super-long ultra (100 miles +) training based mainly on dog-walking - more a project than a resolution.

Then, a couple of days ago, I found it.

Helen Zaltzman's new weekly podcast is called The Allusionist. It's brand new - three weeks old. Over 15 minutes she takes an interesting and irreverent look at words. In her first show, I learned something truly monumental.

Apparently, our everyday greeting, 'Hello' (it's not my everyday greeting - I tend to prefer 'ey-up mate', 'howdy' or 'alreight cocker') only became really popular after the advent of the telephone. It was Thomas Edison - the bloke that invented the lightbulb who suggested that the standard greeting when answering the telephone be 'Hello'. It quickly caught on, and, as the say on the TV, the rest is history.

But what about the chap who actually invented the telephone - Alexander Graham Bell? You would have thought he'd have had first dabs at calling the shots for the standard telephone greeting. Obviously not. And it's a real shame, because his suggestion was 'Ahoy!'

Hearing this immediately put me in a very good mood.

There's an old chap I've known for many years who goes by the name of Roy. I first met him almost 20 years ago. Me and Our Kid were on the market selling cheap shit for children. He was on the market selling not-quite-as-cheap shit for adults. Nowadays, he does a bit of business with us during the summer months. From Easter till October, he'll appear at the factory unit at least once a week. You always know when Roy visits. As soon as he pulls open the shutter doors, he's always greeted warmly by the lads on the shop floor. 'Ahoy Roy!' they'll all yell in unison. If I'm sat in the office, pretending to do some work, and I hear this salute, I can't help but grin.

You get a lot of righteous New Year's Resolutions - things to do that you think will make you a more worthy person or improve your health. I always find these a bit tiresome. What can be better, I say, than making a resolution that makes the world a happier place? Imagine how great it would be if everyone answered the phone with an 'Ahoy!'

Now, as I've mentioned earlier, I hardly ever answer the phone. (In fact, it was this 'Ahoy!' thing that got me thinking about telephones in the first place.) But I'll not let that get in the way of a brilliant idea.

My New Year's Resolution, then, for 2015 is simple:

- At least once a day, greet someone with a hearty 'Ahoy!'

It won't change the world. But it's sure to put a smile on my face. And if you're on the receiving end of an 'Ahoy!'ing, maybe it'll put a smile on your face too?

That's got to be a good thing, hasn't it?