Monday, 25 April 2011
The Dice Man is a novel, first published in 1971, and written by Luke Rhinehart. It tells the story of a psychiatrist, Luke Rhinehart, who begins making life decisions based on the casting of dice. Due to its subversive nature and chapters concerning controversial issues, such as rape, murder and sexual experimentation, it was banned in several countries. Upon its initial publication, the cover bore the subheader, 'Few novels can change your life. This one will.' It quickly became a cult classic.
Many people who read The Dice Man were inspired to use dice in their day-to-day choices to add excitement and unpredictability to their lives. My aim, however, was different. I would use the dice as a coach. Starting cautiously, I would allow the dice to shape my weekly running. This could lead to success or failure, but either result was worthwhile, especially as injury had curtailed my early-season running and forced me to consider 2011 a 'low-key' year in anticipation of the mammoth effort required for 2012's Big Idea.
I'd been studying approaches to ultra-training for ages. Whilst there were well-established pathways to success in shorter distance races - 10k to marathon, for example - involving proven sessions of speedwork, tempo-running, threshold running and the like, a definitive approach to success in ultra-running was harder to come by.
My Bible, a tatty 148-page Road Runners Club publication entitled 'Training For Ultras' reconfirmed this. In the booklet, various legends of the ultra-running scene - Cavin Woodward, Erik Seedhouse, Don Ritchie, Mike Cudahy, Mike Hartley and Eleanor Robinson, amongst others - outlined their training regimes. Whilst the performances of these athletes is uniformly outstanding, the training programmes undergone to achieve similar results vary widely. Whilst some athletes employ limited mileage and weekly racing to achieve great results, others run long, slow mega-mileage with minimal racing. Whilst some athletes train twice or more each day, others never run more than one session. Whilst some athletes include regular hill running and strength training, some bother with neither. Consistency, it seems, is the one common factor - to perform well you have to train most days with sufficient, but minimal, periods of rest - but everything else is all over the place.
With this thought upper-most, I considered, 'What if the dice tell me how to train?' Would 'fate' do as good a job as a coach? If the results were good and 'chance' did a better job than a training programme prescribed by a coach, where did that leave traditional thinking and the highly-regarded relationship between an athlete and coach?
I guess I was to find out.
I began to plan - tentatively, initially - a training programme written by the dice.
Dice Training: The Nuts and Bolts
With a blank sheet of A4 in front of me, I list the days across the top - Monday to Sunday. I'm reluctant to hand everything over to the dice at first. I need to dip my toes rather than dive in straight away. Dice-Lifers recommend you start with small tweaks rather than an anarchic sea-change. With this in mind, I list any sessions during the week that I run in company. Although I tend to train predominantly by myself, I look forward to Club sessions or regular, established runs with friends.
Accordingly, I pencil in a Club session for Monday pm, a steady run with a friend on Tuesday pm, an off-road Club run on Thursday pm, and an easy run with my liitle man, a friend and his daughter on Saturday am. These are the bones I'll work my dice-schedule around.
Now, I'll flesh out the schedule by a series of rounds of casting the dice.
This first cast of the dice determines my daily means of transport to work and back. The options are: cycle or drive. Whilst not strictly part of my training, this variable has a significant effect on my weekly schedule. I'm sure cycling is beneficial - it's enjoyable and it adds fitness - but the super-early starts it requires leaves me exhausted by the end of the week. Maintaining a routine of cycling to work and back everyday, on top of a tough running schedule, would be difficult, and could possibly lead to over-tiredness, an injury breakdown or onset of staleness due to 'over-doing it.' If, however, I let the dice decide, I should, in theory, have to cycle 50% of the time and drive 50% of the time. The dice will add the unpredictability of when I do what.
This first cast of the dice takes place, just like all my dice-decisions regarding the forthcoming week's training, on a Saturday morning. In that way, I've got the weekend to prepare for the schedule it's helped me conceive. In this particular round of casting, one throw determines the entire week's means of transport. If I roll an odd, the answer to my question, 'Will I cycle to work this week?' will be 'no.' ( In my dice-decisions, odd is always 'no'.) If I roll an even, the answer will be 'yes'.
The second round of casting determines morning runs and differs from Round One in that the throw of the dice only determines the outcome for a particular day, rather than the entire week.
With careful management, I have a window at work between 6am and 8am, Monday to Thursday, when I can squeeze in a morning run. This is in addition to the afternoon session. Again, I find twice-daily training beneficial, but in the past, I've had a tendency to over-do it. By listening to the dice, I hope this tendency will be tempered somewhat.
In this round of casting, I list three options. Roll 1 or 2 - rest. Roll 3 or 4 - a 3 mile barefoot jog around the local playing field ( a 'form' session, concentrating on good technique). Roll 5 or 6 - a 7 mile easy, undulating run over a mixture of fields, farm tracks and road. I then roll the dice for each particular day, Monday to Thursday, to determine my morning run on each of these days.
The third round of casting determines my Wednesday pm session. I run this session alone and, being in the middle of the week, it is generally fairly tough, being run at a sustained pace, a touch faster than steady. Here, the dice determines the distance (and, hence, the route I choose for the run.) Roll 1 or 2 - 10 miles. Roll 3 or 4 - 12 miles. Roll 5 or 6 - 15 miles.
This round determines my Friday session. With all of the factory's staff on a 6am start and a 2.30 finish on a Friday, there is never an opportunity for a morning run on this day. However, the early finish means I've plenty of time, after leaving work early, to get in a long run. In the past, I've experimented with 'back-to-back' long days, usually on a Saturday and Sunday, but have discovered, over time, that I respond better to a 'long-distance sandwich' - that is, a long run on a Friday, filled by a very easy day on the Saturday and followed by another long run on the Sunday. This method also gives me the benefits of a lie-in on a Saturday morning and a full day to spend with my family.
The cast of the dice determines the length of the Friday run. As my fitness improves, the length of the options listed will increase. If a race is approaching and I'm starting to taper, the length of the options will decrease. At the moment, I'll go with this : Roll 1 or 2 - 13 miles. Roll 3 or 4 - 15 miles. Roll 5 or 6 - 18 miles.
The dice play no part in Saturday, my weekly 'rest' day.
Sunday again entails a long run. Most of the year, I may be recceing sections of long-distance routes. At the moment, the Club relay of the Lindsey Loop is Sunday's enjoyment. There's no room for the dice in any of this. However, should I have a 'free' Sunday, I'll use the dice to help me randomly choose a local route, usually between 15 and 30 miles.
And that's that.
There's a tendency sometimes to skip the odd session when you're self-coached. Or sometimes to add extra sessions if you're feeling particularly good one week. In the long-run, both of these scenarios are detrimental. By having the dice prescribe your training, you're putting yourself in its hands, and all of its decisions must be met.
Occasionally, the dice might throw up a week that's particularly exhausting. Sometimes they might dictate a week where you feel you could do more. But that fits with good practice - overload and recovery is a building block of all long-distance running.
Dice Training : An Example
Whilst still not recovered from a recent operation, I'm hoping that a gradual build-up during May will leave me in a position to commence dice training properly at the start of June. For the next four weeks, I'll continue to play around with chance.
An example of a dice training week may be beneficial.
Once I've noted my club and social runs on my blank sheet, I start the first round of casting:
'Will I cycle to work and back this week?'
I throw a 2 (evens). The answer is 'yes'.
ROUND TWO (Morning Sessions)
Monday - I throw a 6 - 7 mile morning run
Tuesday - I throw a 4 - 3 mile barefoot run
Wednesday - I throw a 2 - rest.
Thursday - I throw a 3 - 3 mile barefoot run.
ROUND THREE (Wednesday Session)
I throw a 6 - Wednesday's run will be over 15 miles.
ROUND FOUR ( Friday Session)
I throw a 2 - Friday's run will be over 13 miles.
Combining each of these decisions into the programme, the dice-prescribed training week looks like this:
15 miles cycle to work
am - 7 miles easy
15 miles cycle home
pm - Club run (6 miles)
15 miles cycle to work
am - 3 miles barefoot
pm - 6 miles (with friend)
15 miles cycle home
15 miles cycle to work *
am - rest
pm - 15 miles steady from work
15 miles cycle to work *
am- 3 miles barefoot
pm - Club off-road run (6 miles)
15 miles cycle to work *
pm - 13 miles from work
(* on days where I run from work, my wife brings the bike back when she drives home.)
am - 4/5 easy (with kids)
Long run / recce - 15-30 miles
At a first glance, this looks ok - definitely a tough week once the cycling is pencilled in, but nothing that I can't cope with (hopefully). The week after might be harder. It could be easier. Let the dice decide.
Will it work? No idea. I look forward to finding out.
Sunday, 17 April 2011
As a father, a husband and a runner, the work issue is always a thorny one. Whatever I do, I like to do it well. Muhammad Ali once said that he was the best boxer in the world, but if he was a bin man, he'd be the best bin man in the world. I can emphasise with that. And it's that which drives me to work long hours. I'm not interested in becoming rich - I don't clamour for material possessions - this isn't what drives me. My motivating factor is proving I can make a go of it. Succeeding with a business model and an ideology that was once widespread, but has been squeezed out by a combination of government, the banking sector and supermarket monsters. Succeeding with a family business that is independent of bank lending, that manufactures its product in the UK, that employs local people and supplies only independent wholesalers and shops. It's an old-fashioned idea - the way things used to be done - and it's hard work. We could outsource to China, import the goods at a fraction of the costs we incrue, and sell directly into the big chains. But, to me, that's not right. It's not what I believe in. So we continue as we are, a successful anachronism, the business equivalent of Guy Martin's lovely old narrow boat.
As I'm driving home, I contemplate the sacrifices that this entails. In my limited spare time, I love to run. I love to run long miles. Again, this ultimately selfish pursuit has consequences for my wife and children in terms of time spent with them. I've always been like this, always done this, but now and again I'm overtaken by guilt. In the 'off-season' I try to spend as much time as possible with the kids, but I'm always aware that it isn't, to be truthful, nearly enough. Tammy placates me at times like this - 'if you didn't do these things, Chris, you wouldn't be you' - but I know I'm walking a tightrope and if I neglect the balance for too long, I'm likely to fall.
I arrive home under a black cloud. The run-in to Easter is a busy time of the year for us. I'm under pressure to get orders out, cash-flow is tight and I feel stressed. I always look forward to getting home, but tonight I'm in a foul mood.
Tam's in the kitchen. She looks at me and she knows straight away. Sometimes she just listens while I rant and moan for twenty minutes. Tonight she just smiles at me.
What she says is, 'You better get out for your run - tea'll be ready soon.'
What she means is, 'Do us a favour and get your grumpy arse out of the door. You'll feel much better when you get back.' I give her a kiss and do as I'm told.
Ten minutes later, I'm sat on the front step. It's early days since I handed my running over to the dice, but so far, so good. Last night the dice lay down the distance and the effort - an easy five miles, and as I slip on my shoes I'm thankful of a relaxing run - a long, enjoyable jaunt across the Wolds on Sunday has left the area of my recent operation a bit sore, and my calves are a little tight. I check I've remembered to take my watch off, and jog into Rose Lane. It's a beautiful evening.
I love living in Saleby. When I saw the estate agent's photograph of the house in the local newspaper all those years ago, I knew straight away that it would be where we would live. It was written. It didn't bother me that the village consisted of a handful of houses and a church, that the nearest shop or pub was two miles away, that it was in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it was those things that further endeared me. And now, as a runner, I can state with certainty that Saleby is not in the middle of nowhere, it's right in the middle of everywhere.
Saleby is an ideal place for a runner to live. The immediate area is criss-crossed with sleepy lanes, farm tracks and quiet footpaths. If I want to run flat, I'll head out the back, explore the coastal plains as far as the North Sea. If I want hills, I'll head out the front. Within a half-hour's jog, I'll be running through the chalky undulations of the Lincolnshire Wolds. It's true that the area has none of the majestic, awe-inspiring beauty of, say, the Lake District, but in its isolated, understated way, the panorama of the Lincolnshire Wolds is hard to beat.
I start gently. I'm lazy when it comes to stretching - can't be bothered most of the time - so I use the first part of every run to 'warm-up.' Today, it's more of a 'get-going.' As my age increases, so do my running ambitions. My body, however, isn't so keen. Constantly plagued by niggles and aches, it succeeds in taking me to ever-expanding horizons, but, just like a car with too many miles on the clock, it struggles to deliver what it did easily twenty, or even ten, years ago.
By the end of the lane, I'm into a comfortable rhythm. I jog up The Tunnel - the slight hill overhung by an arch of foilage - and over the road to the fields opposite. Work has already slipped away. I'm concentrating now on form, good posture, a quick cadence and a mid-foot strike. The minimalist/barefoot debate has won me over, and I know it's important to teach myself to run again before I can progress further along the path from 'cushioned foot coffins' to 'zero drop.'
As I make my way along the rough ground by the rape fields, a sudden movement re-awakens me to my surroundings. A pheasant appears from the crop, scuttles onto the ground in front of me and looks over with a blend of curiosity and fear. I stop, walk slowly, tread lightly and it allows me a certain distance before it turns and scoots into the hedgerow.
Coming over the brow of the hill, the world opens out in front of me - a vista of yellow rape and flat green fields with the rise of the Wolds as a backdrop. I open up on the dip on the other side and run easily towards the Wold Grift Drain, thoughts of other runs along this stretch passing across my mind: the headtorcher before Christmas when the snow was mid-calf; a sluggish loop the day before a track 12 hour race a couple of years ago; a tentative jog round the 3 mile option on the morning of my Bob Graham. I hold each picture in my head for a moment, then throw it into my memory's shoebox, like an old, cherished photograph, before replacing it with another scene from another run, a part of me from another time.
I turn left at the drain by the footbridge and follow the wide track towards Alford. At the way-post, I'm faced with a choice (the fork in the path). Most of the year I'll stick to the headland on the right - the ground's rough but usually better going than the muddy slog through the field to the next bridge. Today, however, the ground is dry. The path has been freshly cleared and the run across the field, through the growing crops, is an invite I can't decline. I skip over the bridge and down the track, skimming the top of the rape with the palm of my hand and thinking, bizarrely, of the scarecrow on The Yellow Brick Road.
The next section of the path has seen extensive 'improvement' over the winter months. A couple of old footbridges have been taken away and a wide path installed. Whatever the reasons for this - most probably good reasons - it winds me up. I don't want wide, easy paths, I want hardly-distinguishable trods, rickety stiles, muddy farm tracks. I want character. I don't want 'improved access' and the dumbing-down of the countryside that seems to be happening all over our nation. The countryside is supposed to be rugged, wild and, to a point, inaccessible except for those who make the effort to explore. I think back to the section of the Lindsey Loop we ran on Sunday which was once a rough track but had now been tarmaced. Man is making his mark on the countryside at an ever-increasing pace, and it's not good news.
The Windmill's in the distance. I'd noticed the sails were off a couple of days ago - repairs, I guess. I cross the next bridge and I'm running strongly across the field to the stile near Post Office Lane. Then I'm through the wood and across the road by the football ground.
The running's good and I'm lost in myself. My thoughts are with the preparations for our Club's forthcoming long-distance relay. I remember the reservations I held this time last year - leaving a club I'd been with for years and joining a local one instead. It's turned out to be one of the best things I've done. The friendliness and ambition of the Club, together with the wonderful diversity of the members I've got to know have really inspired me. Although it's been an up-and-down year for my running, never before have I been so motivated, so full of ideas.
And I think of The Big Idea, the crazy plan I've dreamed for next year. Part of me says that I'll look into it a little more before I commit, that it's such a huge undertaking that I don't know that I'm up to it, not capable physically or mentally. Part of me knows that deep down, I've committed already.
Before long, I'm on the track 'out the back'. I look across to the windfarm at Mablethorpe, and turn left when I get to the road. Past the church and right at the sign - 'Village Only' - my own private kingdom.
The light's fading as I get home. I sit on the step. Everything seems easier. Through the front door I can hear the kids playing. My superheroes. Lightning has restrained Whirlwind on the sofa with a ninja headlock. Whirlwind's super-powers seem to have deserted her at a crucial moment. I hear her crying and shouting for Mum.
I take my shoes off and lean back against the door. The day's still warm. The birds are singing. Soon I'll go inside and back to real life. But I love my space on the step. And I stay a little longer. Real life will have to wait.
Sunday, 3 April 2011
'First out. Chris Rainbow.'
Everyone turns and looks at me - jealous looks, lots of muttering, some 'well done's. I glance over at my twin brother on the other side of the group. He's not smiling. He knows what I'm thinking. I haven't told anyone.
'It's ok,' I say, 'I don't really want to do it. You can give someone else a chance.'
The man in the tracksuit goes, 'Eh?'
I say the same thing again, every word, clockwork, confused, terrified.
'Oh,' he says. 'Ok. Right. I'll try again.'
I shrink into the crowd, shame making me small. In a brief moment, in a few words, I had seen my future. Over thirty years later, I remember this incident with absolute clarity. At the time, I didn't fully realise how important it would become, and how, after a lifetime of forgotten regrets, this one would still linger.
* * *
As I've got older, the idea of the fork in the path has grown stronger and stronger. The theme of which fork to take - left or right - is one that re-surfaces often, not only in my writing, but during each day in real life. The fork symbolises a decision. Go one way and a particular course of events will follow. Go the other way and your life could take a totally different direction. We agonise over the 'big decisions' - weighing options carefully to determine the correct path to take. We take the decision and things work out or they don't. But the moment you make your choice, you turn your back on the other path's options forever. By going one way, and not the other, you embrace certain possibilities and exclude the rest. And what the rest entails, you'll never know.
There's a fear in decision making. Nowadays, my fear is of denying myself the possibilities a certain decision can open up - what if I make the 'wrong' choice and miss out? In many ways, it's a positive process. I want to do more, experience more, feel alive. In my younger days, however, the fear worked in other ways. And it started all those years ago when I was 10. When I stood amongst a group of boys on the Leeds United training ground and made my worst decision.
* * *
I've always been a Liverpool supporter. I shouldn't have even been at the Leeds United Soccer School. But our kid was a Leeds fan, Liverpool didn't have a soccer school during the long summer holidays, and so that was that.
And for the first few days it was great. We trained at the Carnegie College, met Terry Connor and enjoyed being away from home for the first time in our lives. Then came the Elland Road tour, followed by the 'special announcement' that was to cast a shadow over the rest of my week. We'd finished the tour and congregated in a section of the stand when Paul Madeley appeared and everyone went silent. We'd seen the ground now, he told us, but at the end of the week, we'd be coming back. The Leeds United first team would be playing an exhibition game against the reserves. However, five lucky members of the soccer school would have the chance to feature in this match. Five young lads, playing on the Elland Road pitch with one of the world's most famous teams. Truely, the opportunity of a lifetime. The names of the lads chosen would be pulled from a hat.
The talk on the coach on the way back was all about this one great chance. But I didn't say anything.
The fear had got me. The fear that I wasn't good enough, that I would show myself up, embarrass myself. And it was this fear that made me, standing under that tree, say 'no.'
And with that 'no' came a premonition of my entire teenage years. Always an outsider - one of the strange kids obsessed with Bowie, The Associates, Julian Cope, The Smiths. One of the strange kids who hardly said anything except to a couple of close friends, who never took part in school productions, never went to parties, never read aloud in school assemblies. A strange kid for whom 'no' was the only choice.
Years later, I've met folks from school who refer to my 'aloofness', as if I thought I was too good to do any of those things. In fact, it was exactly the opposite that was true. The truth was that I believed I wasn't good enough. I couldn't do these things. I took solace in the two things I could do - work hard and run. But even here, the fear curtailed me.
After receiving a school prize for best 'A' level results, I reasoned with myself that this was 'just exams' - exams didn't matter - didn't make me as good as the other kids.
And before the Linconshire Schools Sports Championships one year, I stood at the top of the stairs and thought if I can fall down these and break my arm, I'd be spared from running in the next day's 800 metres race. I was a good runner, one of the best in Lincolnshire, but ...I wasn't good enough.
* * *
I'm happy with where I am now. I sometimes look back on those younger days and smile as I recall the 'teenage angst' - perhaps it's a phase that all of us go through in some shape or other. But I also wonder what would have happened if I'd made different choices - if I'd said 'yes' instead of 'no'. Maybe I'd be infinitely worse off than where I am now. Maybe I'd have got to this place but the journey here would have been easier. Who knows?
But with every fork in the path, the first thing I think of is that day under the tree. And by thinking of this, I hope I'm inspired to make the best decision.
I lay on an unmade bed twelve years ago and weighed up the pro's and con's of making a call to a girl I'd just met on a market stall. I'd had a few adventures by then, but part of me knew that this one would be the most important of my life. I said 'yes', asked her on a first date, and here I am now, happier than I've ever been. Where would I be if I'd convinced myself out of making that call?
So, choosing which fork to take is important. I know that, and I know that for every poor decision I've taken, there's a good one that's been taken sometime else.
And then I get to thinking of how the decision should be made. Head or heart. I tend to go with the feeling - let my heart rule - but this doesn't always work. However you make the decision, the odds are that, in hindsight, half the time it's going to be a good one and half the time a bad one. If that really is the case then a new possibility opens up concerning the fork in the path and the choice of which to take. A possibility that is, at once, exciting and scary but absolves you - the decision-maker - from any responsibility of later success or failure at all.
This revelation I owe to The X Factor. Each year, as the end of summer arrives, I struggle with a decision - start watching the shows and resign myself to 3 months of Saturday nights stuck in front of the tele, or don't bother and do something else with all that time.
The X Factor stands for everything I detest.
Firstly, let's ridicule a group of slightly mentally retarded, vulnerable people in the auditions and wheel out the worst at the end of the series for 13 million people to laugh at.
Secondly, let's focus on someone for whom this is the 'last chance'. Someone who's grafted in clubs for donkey's years, stuck to their guns and never quite made it (maybe because they're simply not good enough). Let's pick them and as the weeks' shows progress watch them sell their souls, lose their uniqueness, hand themselves over to stylists to make them fit the picture, and prostitute themselves by singing cover versions picked for them by mentors who know lots about selling product, creating brands but fuck-all about music.
And thirdly, get some youngsters in who can sing but are more attracted by the carrot of 'being famous'. Let's mould them, use them, make money from them, abandon them, ruin their lives. Young lives destroyed by the men who put stars in their eyes.
I hate all this, but, inevitably, I make the wrong decision. I get drawn in, slag off each show but end up watching the next, all the way to the Grand Final.
It's a waste of my time. I know that. But some good came from last year's dire series. I realised that the judges always seem to make the wrong decision. Alexandra Burke, the winner, releases some so-so singles, but JLS, the runners-up, become superstars. Joe McEldrey, the winner, fades into obscurity after an anaemic album, but Olly Muirs, the runner-up, becomes a house-hold name. Maybe the judges would do a better job if they abandoned the constraints of traditional decision making and just left it to chance. Flip a coin, or roll a dice.
Roll a dice.
The obsession with the fork in the path.
Good and bad decisions.
Which way to go?
Standing under a tree at 10 years old.
What if these decisions were made for me? What if I simply handed myself over to Fate?
The roll of the dice.
I went into the back room and pulled out a battered copy of a novel I'd read years ago on my travels. The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. I flicked quickly through and made one last decision quickly. For good or for bad, I was about to start singing The Song Of Chance.