Thursday, 22 June 2017

Art of Athletics (9): 'Catch Me' by Royalle Niambura

The Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate currently features work from the MASK PRIZE, an annual arts competition for young people under the age of 25 living in Africa and people of African origin living outside the continent, set up by the charity MASK (Mobile Art School in Kenya).

It includes this striking running image, 'Catch Me',  by Royalle Niambura from the Riara Springs Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. This was the winner of the Visual Arts Under 13 prize.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Running on Screen (19): The Handmaid's Tale

Episode 3 of The Handmaid's Tale (the excellent new TV adaption of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel), features a scene with June, played by Elisabeth Moss, out for a run with her friend Moira, played by Samira Wiley. The soundtrack is Peaches' F*ck the Pain Away, expressing the kind of assertive women's subjectivity that is soon to be suppressed. The carefree freedom to run is remembered in flashback from a world where women's public presence is rigidly policed under a religious fundamentalist regime, and where fertile women live as slaves to breed children for their masters.

The point of this episode is to show the transition to the new repressive regime. The uncovered flesh of the runners receives a disapproving stare from a passer-by, and when the runners stop for a coffee afterwards they find that women's bank accounts have been frozen and women banned from the workplace as a menacing militia takes to the streets.

June - rechristened as Offred as she is now 'Of Fred', her commamder -  reflects: 'Now I'm awake to the world. I was asleep before. That's how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn't wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Consitution, we didn't wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it'.

The quote from Atwood's 1985 novel goes:

'Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now. We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. There were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.'

In the new world women must be covered up, and Offred recalls as she walks 'I'm remembering my feet on the sidewalks, in the time before, and what I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for running, with cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric that reflected light in the darkness'.

Previously in the Running on Screen series:

Sunday, 4 June 2017

New Burgess parkrun route

Southwark's Burgess Park hosts one of my favourite parkruns, scene of my PB and recognised as being one of the flatter and faster courses in the London area. I've written about it here before, but recently there has been a change to the course. I went along and ran it yesterday, chasing my second sub-20 5k in three days after a good outing in the Assembly League race in Battersea Park on the preceding Thursday. I didn't make it, but can confirm this is still a good course if you are looking for a fast 5k time.
As before the course starts at the far west of the park near the Camberwell Road entrance, and heads off for a long straight before taking a turn and looping around the Burgess Park lake. The main change is that the old course used to go twice round the lake- nice and picturesque (what with its herons and all), but sometimes resulting in congestion as there would be a lot of lapping around the lake.  The new course only goes round the lake once before heading up to the far east of the park by the Trafalgar Avenue entrance.
runners on the home stretch with the Aylesbury Estate in the background
There is a slowing hairpin turn there,  but once negotiated it's a long straight run (I think about 1.2k) from one end of the park to the other. Mentally it's quite tough, as it does seem quite a stretch, but there is nothing to slow momentum other than going down then up through the underpass that takes the path under the road at Wells Way.
At the very end there is a sharp left turn towards the finish funnel on the grass, other than that it's tarmac all the way. The finishing line is actually within the funnel by the flag, so as the sign says make sure you 'run all the all way to the flag'. Friendly crowd and team as always, they have fresh fruit at the end for a donation.
 Kent AC's Gareth Anderson was first man home yesterday in 16:48,  Amy Cook first woman in 21:04, with a total of 286 finishers.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Running London: Brockley and Nunhead Five Peaks (10k route)

Last summer's 'Lewisham 3 Peaks Challenge' was a successful charity walk linking three South East London hill tops with fine views across the capital - Hilly Fields, Blythe Hill Fields and One Tree Hill in Honor Oak. An excellent map  with lots of interesting historical detail has been produced, designed by Linda Durrant (Full Circle Design), to promote this as an ongoing walking route.

Detail of Brockley Three Peaks Walk, showing Ladywell Arena athletics track

I picked up a copy in the Hilly Fields café after parkrun there and thought I would give it a go as a run, but to mix it up a bit and increase the distance I added in a couple more hills - Telegraph Hill and the hill in Nunhead Cemetery historically known as Nunhead Hill.
It is a good run, just over 10k in total, with plenty of up and down hill stretches of course. Toughest part is the steep stairs to the top of One Tree Hill, but as with all the hills there is the reward of the view from the top. An added advantage is that for several sections of the run it is possible to run on grass.

View from Hilly Fields with Crystal Palace TV transmitter on the horizon
and Blythe Hill Fields also visible above the tree line

View from Blythe Hill Fields with Canary Wharf on the horizon

The Shard and the City of London visible from top of One Tree Hill

View from top of Nunhead Cemetery - St Pauls Cathedral is visible through the gap in the trees (though not very clear in this photo). The artists JMW Turner sketched St Pauls from near this spot

London skyline from Telegraph Hill upper park

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Once a Runner - it's about time

'Once a runner' by John L Parker Jr is a novel first self-published by the author in 1978 and subsequently re-issued with some success in 2009, having established something of a cult reputation as a runners novel about running.

Set in the world of American college athletics - apparently at a fictionalised University of Florida - it inevitably reflects the period that it was written in. The Vietnam war is a reference point and there are battles between the students and the college authorities about the permitted length of hair for men. But much of the book is about the timeless, single-minded pursuit of success on the track at the elite end of athletics.

For me some of the more interesting passages are where the authtor reflects on how the runners' notion of time differs from the everyday world: he describes well the specific temporality of speed and endurance.

There is a cyclical time of seasons, of cross country and track, within a longer four year cycle of the Olympic games. But there is also an obsessive focus on the tiny passages of time that make the difference between winning and losing, between reaching or just missing a PB or record: "The Games were over for this time around. He knew quite well that for him they were over for good. Four years is a very long time in some circles; in actual time – real-world time, as that of shopkeepers, insurance sellers, compounders of interest, and so on – it is perhaps not long at all. But in his own mind Time reposed in peculiar receptacles; to him the passing of one minute took on all manner of rare meaning. A minute was one fourth of a four minute mile, a coffee spoon of his days and ways'.

Elsewhere he characterises the running world as a place where 'the jettisoning of but a single second is announced like a birth in the family'.

In some circumstances running seems to have a 'timewarp' dimension that stretches time: 'In the mind's special processes, a 10 mile run takes far longer than the 60 minutes reported by a grandfather clock. Such time, in fact, hardly exists at all in the real world; it is all out on the trail somewhere, and you only go back to it when you're out there'.

Waiting for the gun at the start of a race, there is 'that one instant there would be a kind of calm in the midst of all that pounding, roaring furor, a moment of serene calm before an unholy storm. There would be a single instant of near disbelief that it would finally be happening in a fraction of a second; finally happening after the months, the miles, the misty mornings'.

The main protaganist, Quenton Cassidy is 'not interested in the perspective of the fringe runners, the philosopher runners, the training rats; those who sat around reading abtruse and meaningless articles in Runners world, coining yet more phrases to describe the indescribable, waxing mystical over the various states of euphoria that the anointed were allegedly privy to... Cassidy sought no euphoric interludes. They came, when they did, quite naturally and he was content to enjoy them privately. He ran not for crypto- religious reasons, but to win races, to cover ground fast. Not only to be better than his fellows, but better than himself. To be faster by a 10th of a second, by an inch, by 2 feet or 2 yards, than he had been the week or year before. He sought to conquer the physical limitations placed upon him by a three-dimensional world (and if Time is the fourth dimension, that too was his province)'.

It is a life measured in episodes of minutes and seconds, as well as metres and miles, and wear and tear. As Cassidy also puts it : 'I have measured out my life in worn out rubber'.

Monday, 24 April 2017

We run to run: running philosophy post-London Marathon

I completed my second London marathon yesterday and was pleased enough to take 17 minutes off my 2015 time/PB (strava run). It was tough though in parts and I slowed down from miles 16 onwards. The big London crowds, seeing your friends and family cheering you on, watching Kenenisa Bekele go cruising by in the opposite direction and knowing that there are 50 other members of your running club out there somewhere all helps with motivation earlier on. As a South Londoner so does running the first half of the course on the home streets of our very own tri-boroughs of Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark. 

But there comes a point when all of this fades away, it is just you willing yourself to continue at as close to your target pace as your legs will allow you. In this long-distance dark night of the sole everybody probably wonders sometimes, 'why am I doing this'?

This is something the philosopher Mark Rowlands explores in his book 'Running with the Pack' (Granta, 2013) where he draws on the insights of philosophers such as Descartes, Hume and Sartre to explore the meaning of running (actually his favourite is Heidegger, sorry I find it hard to get over his anti-semitism and support for the Nazis, even if Rowlands manages to utilise him to make some interesting points).

After running a particularly painful Marathon in Miami, Rowlands muses:

'What was the point of these last few hours, these 26 miles and 385 yards? Was it really worth it? That is the beauty of it – there was no point. It is in the places where points and purposes of life stop that you find things that are 'worth it'. We live in a utilitarian age where we tend to think of the value of everything as a function of its purpose. The defining question of our age is: 'what is it good for?' And to say that something is good for nothing is equivalent to saying that is worthless... If something is worth doing in life it must be for the sake of something else. If running is worth doing – whether it is a marathon or a gentle jog around the block – it must be worth doing because of the health it promotes, the sense of satisfaction or self-worth it engenders, the stress it relieves, the social opportunities it affords. If an activity is valuable at all, it must be useful for something'.

Against this, Rowlands argues that 'running has an entirely different sort of value', an 'intrinsic value... that is valuable for what it is in itself, and not because of anything else it might allow one to get or possess':

'If we want to find value in life, something that might be a candidate for life's meaning or one of its meanings - then we must look to things that have no purpose. Put another way: it is a necessary condition of something being truly important in life that it have no purpose outside itself – that it be useless for anything else. Worthlessness – in this sense - is a necessary condition of real value...  The purpose and value of running is intrinsic to it. The purpose and value of running is simply to run. Running is one of the places in life where the points or purposes stop. As such, running is one of the things that can make life 'worth the trouble''.

For the 2017 London Marathon organisers put out a call for runners to give their reason for running: 'We know every single runner has a unique #ReasonToRun the world’s greatest marathon,” said Hugh Brasher, Event Director. “Whether it’s to set a PB, to raise money for a cause, to remember a loved one, to break a Guinness World Record, to win, to remain an Ever Present, to qualify for Great Britain or just because it’s always been a dream to run the London Marathon – the reasons are endless and we would love to hear them.” This is all good, but maybe at the base of it is the fact that we run in order to run, while we can. 

And once we have started a race we carry on running because no reason can stop us - something that Rowlands elaborates on with reference to Jean-Paul Sartre - 'When I understood that no reason could ever make me stop, what I experienced was joy... To run on in freedom - to run in the freedom of the gap between reasons and actions - is one of the intrinsically valuable ways of being in the world. To run in this freedom is to run in joy'.  Not sure I felt particularly joyful at mile 16 yesterday, but in this sense we exercise our freedom by choosing to keep pushing on and not to listen to all the reasons swimming around our heads to take it easy and settle for less than we can achieve.

Oh and we also run to get the t-shirt and  medal of course!

Proud of my club Kent AC, 51 finishers and I think top three positions in both the men's and women's club competitions within the marathon (based on cumulative times of first three finishers from each club in the race). But beyond that each performance had a story, whether it be PBs, first marathons or just getting round despite injury. For all a back story of hundreds of miles of training since the New Year, a collective effort in groups not only running together but sharing tips on nutrition, tactics and more. Deep in the run it may get to a point where we feel that we are each alone, but we are sustained not only by those immediately around us but all those on the journey to the start line. My number one tip to improve your marathon time would be... join a running club. And if you're in South London, come join our club!

(nice piece here from Kent's Russell Bentley on his London Marathon - a reminder that even 2:22 finishers sometimes have to stop by the side of the road and to 'run the mile you are in')

Friday, 21 April 2017

Greenwich Park Temple of Running

The 37th London Marathon starts this Sunday from Blackheath and the top of the adjoining Greenwich Park, winding its way via Woolwich to run back through Greenwich next to the bottom of the park - all 40,000 of us. 

If you're looking for a bit of inspiration for your run look no further than a site in Greenwich Park itself. Other than a slight mound there's not much to see, but there is helpful sign to tell you what you're looking at: the site of what is now believed to be a Romano-Celtic temple, first discovered in 1902 and re-excavated by archaeologists for Channel 4's Time Team programme in 2000.

So what's all this got to do with running? Well for a start, there's a fragment of a statue found there which is believed to be the arm of the Goddess Diana. It is possible therefore that the temple was dedicated to Diana, the Goddess of the moon, woodlands and the hunt.  Sometimes referred to as 'fleet footed Diana' she was often described as running through the forest with her animals. 

Greenwich Diana fragment

Roman statute of Diana at Versailles
(Roman author Ovid also refers to her as the 'high skirted huntress' on account of her practical running attire)

Like many runners, Diana liked to bathe her feet after a hard day's exertion, a scene featuring in many paintings over the centuries including Titian's 'Diana and Actaeon' (above). In the Roman writer Ovid's version of this legend, this takes place at a pool  where 'the woodland goddess, weary from the hunt, would bathe her virgin limbs' accompanied by her nymphs. Actaeon, also out hunting in the woods, spies the naked Diana and in punishment she turns him into a stag who is chased and killed by his own hounds. Poor Actaeon doesn't realize at first that he has been transformed and he 'took off, marveling at how fast he was running. But when he saw his face and horns in a pool, he tried to say 'Oh no' but no words came' (Stanley Lombardo's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses)

I guess the lesson for runners here is if you find yourself running faster than expected, especially at the start of a marathon, you might regret it!

If  Diana fleet of foot is not enough to get you running, another object found in Greenwich Park  depicts a female figure holding a shield, which the information board states is likely to represent the Roman goddess Victory, probably better known to runners as her Greek equivalent - Nike.

Yes, Greenwich Park is a veritable temple of running and on Sunday thousands of devotees will be celebrating there.