Monday, 28 April 2014

Married for the Marathon

This time last week I stayed up late to get my name down in the ballot for a London Marathon place next year. I'm glad I did because by the next morning all ballot places were full - that doesn't mean I've got a place of course, only that I've now got a chance of getting one. I helped out in Greenwich Park as a marshal at the start of this year's Marathon, part of crack team of parkrunners loading runners bags on to lorries and dancing to the Village People on a Sunday morning. Having experienced the atmosphere up close I would love to take part as a runner. I know people will go to almost any lengths to run, or even just to get involved in a major Marathon, but how far would you go? Would you get married in order to run in a Marathon, or even just to watch one?

London Marathon Marshal's Medal 2014

Johnny Hayes famously won the Marathon at the 1908 London Olympics. I say famously, though actually it was Dorando Pietri who arguably became most famous. The latter finished first, but was disqualified because he had been helped after collapsing several times near the end of the race from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium. Hayes crossed the line 30 seconds later but was awarded the gold medal. I've always thought history has been unkind to Hayes, Pietri being presented as an unfairly treated underdog when it was Hayes who actually did the business and finished the distance properly.

Anyway the following year Hayes told the following (possibly apocryphal!) story to an audience in New York:

'MARRIED FOR SPORT. John J Hayes, the Marathon champion, was describing in New York the enthusiasm that the Marathon race caused among Americans in London. "That race," said he, "was the chief motive that took us Americans abroad last summer. Indeed, coming back on the boat I heard an almost, incredible story about the race's attraction. "There was a very nice girl aboard who seemed unhappy. Her unhappiness was due to her husband. She was married to a rich but very old man; he might have been her grandfather. "She was a very frank sort of girl., and she confided her marital troubles to one of the women at her table. From her confidence it was plain that the aged husband was a brute. 'But, my dear child,' said the woman, 'whatever induced you to marry such a, man ?" 'Well, you see,' said the girl, 'I was so anxious to see that Marathon race' (Llandudno Advertiser, 10 April 1909).

Johnny Hayes in his Irish American Athletics Club kit,
shortly after winning in London

Friday, 25 April 2014

Adidas/Nike workers on strike in China

As I get my Adidas running shoes ready for tomorrow's run, I thought I should show my appreciation for the people who may have made them, currently on strike in China. According to CNN (25 April 2014):

'Workers have walked off the job at one of the world's largest shoe factories, leading apparel maker Adidas to temporarily shift its production. As many as 50,000 employees are on strike at Yue Yuen Industrial, a major Adidas and Nike supplier in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan. Activists say it's one of China's largest worker strikes ever.

"This is a result of the long-term exploitation of this big enterprise," said Suki Chung, the executive director of Hong Kong nonprofit Labor Action China. "Workers' demands are very clear." Strikers say that they are not being paid the full amount of social insurance and housing benefits owed to them. Additionally, they say their work contracts are fraudulent, preventing them from enrolling their children in local schools...

an organizer with the International Union League for Brand Responsibility, slammed Adidas for moving some of its orders. "This is the typical behavior of Adidas," she said. "Adidas systematically withdraws its orders and moves them to factories with more exploitative conditions, essentially punishing workers who dare to stand up to sweatshop abuse."To support strikers at Yue Yuen, Cheng's group has organized protests at Adidas and Nike stores in Tapei, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Los Angeles, New York City, and Melbourne'.

Strike supporters picket an Adidas office in Hong Kong
Its ironic that despite the sports footwear brand wars between Adidas and Nike, shoes for both companies are made by the same workers in the same factories in China.

Update: did my 5k parkrun this morning, found myself thinking on the way round 'those guys don't work long hours on low pay making these shoes so that you can jog half-heartedly round the park and be overtaken by someone pushing a buggy' (not that they probably care too much). So I ran a bit faster - still lost to the buggy pusher though, he is very fast believe me!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Veteran wins Boston Marathon... in 1938

With 38 year old Meb Keflezighi winning today's Boston Marathon, here's some footage from British Pathe news of the 1938 Boston Marathon, won by Lesley Pawson: '33 years old, and referred to as a has been, comes through to win in 2 hours 35 minutes'. Les Pawson, from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, also won the Boston Marathon in 1933 and 1941. He died in 1992.

Pawson at the end of 1938 Boston Marathon

Meb Keflezighi in Boston today - his time was 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds

'Wellesley College girls cheer the leaders as they pass the campus' (1938)

The Wellesley College 'Scream Tunnel' today - still making noise at the Marathon halfway point
(photo fr0m Sporting News)

Swimming Studies

Despite the fact that I currently have a case of what is sometimes known as 'Swimmer's Shoulder' (Impingement Syndrome), I rarely swim. Nevertheless I really enjoyed reading 'Swimming Studies' by Leanne Shapton, a book where the author reflects on her experiences as a competitive not-quite Olympic standard teenage swimmer in Canada and on the later meaning of swimming to her in her life as an artist (seemingly spending a lot of time in nice hotels with swimming pools around the world). The book is illustrated with her impressionistic sketches of pools and swimmers, as well as pictures of her apparently extensive collection of swimwear, vintage and modern.

Mostly I liked it because it so well written; beat this for an opening paragraph: 'Water is elemental, it’s what we’re made of, what we can’t live within or without. Trying to define what swimming means to me is like looking at a shell sitting in a few feet of clear, still water. There it is, in sharp focus, but once I reach for it, breaking the surface, the ripples refract the shell. It becomes five shells, twenty-five shells, some smaller, some larger, and I blindly feel for what I saw perfectly before trying to grasp it' (p.1).

There are also some obvious parallels between swimming and running, not least the focus on time: 'Because of time standards - provincial, national, and international - swimmers' goals are temporal and their efforts interior rather than adversarial or gladiatorial. The sport is judged by the indifferent clock. When I swam, I always saw familiar faces in my heats, but I knew them by their times - in descending tenths and hundredths of seconds - as much as by their names' (p.27).

Shapton also caused me to reflect on the transition from the pressure of youth athletics with the dream of Olympic medals to swimming or running in later life. A lot of people, like myself, seem to have taken up running in their 30s, 40s or older, having not run seriously since their school days. I sometimes hear people who were good teenage runners say that they wish they'd stuck with it when they were younger, but reading Shapton reminded me why that often doesn't happen. For the serious young athlete, training can involve putting in hours every day, and missing out on some of the more carefree pursuits of their peers. Of course it can be very rewarding, but also exhausting, monotonous and painful:

'as good athletes, we defined ourselves as special, then submitted to a routine in which we did exactly as we were told. I think of the limitations that "specialness" requires: doing a series of very unspecialised things, very well, over and over, a million times over, so that one special thing might happen, maybe, much later...  I remember the blunt fact that when I was training I was in constant pain. Not just the sharp pain in my knees, which was taken seriously, but a dull, steady pain in my arms, back, shoulders. Pain when I sat down, pain when I got up, pain when I leaned back in a chair, pain when I reached for the salt or sharpened a pencil... It was as though pain on land was there to remind me to get back in the water, where, after a certain threshold, the pain went away. For an athlete pain is not a deterrent, because the only place the pain will be eclipsed is in practice or in competition' p.223-4).

The paradox is that achieving sporting excellence seems to require young people to dedicate themselves to a narrow path precisely at the time when the whole world is opening up in front of them - and that what leads to some realizing their dreams can also destroy the pleasure of running, or swimming, for many years to come.

My own pleasure in swimming never really recovered from when I was learning as a child and the instructor pushed me into the pool when I hesitated before jumping. He then had to dive in to rescue me, and then face my angry dad! But maybe it's not too late to learn some decent technique, a work colleague of mine recently learnt to swim from scratch just so she could take part in a triathlon so I know it can be done. Mind you she was Australian so probably had absorbed some swimmingness just from being down the beach so often!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Friday photos (11): Running tracks from space

People have speculated for many years about the 'Nazca lines', a series of prehistoric geometrical figures in the Peruvian desert. Images of them taken from airplanes have been used to support various theories, most famously the claim by Eric von Daniken that they were messages meant for alien spaceships! I much prefer the explanation arrived at by one G.A.von Breunig that they were actually running tracks (there's apparently a 1980 article of his entitled 'Nazca: a pre-Columbian Olympic site' though I haven't been able to track it down).

Nazca lines
But what would space travellers or future archaeologists make of modern day running tracks? Thanks to Google Earth we can spend hours looking at satellite images of these mysterious ovals, overlaid with the strange markings of track and field. Here's a few examples I'm familiar with.

Icknield High School, Luton - I went to this school and remember running the 1500m around it. In fact I can still remember coming second with a time of 5:52 (quickly calculating that equates to about a 19:30 5k, about a minute faster than the taller, older me manages over that longer distance all these years later). The track is painted lines on grass, wonder how many times over the decades somebody has retraced the lines, and wonder too how many kids have run around it.  On this photograph you can make out the tiny dots of the runners, seemingly running a relay. Seems the picture was taken on the afternoon of Tuesday 30 June 2009, so if you had PE on that day it could be you! The overlapping oval of the cricket pitch can be seen too, with the wicket inside the running track.The marshy area at the top of the image was part of our cross country route:

Haberdashers Aske's playing fields, off St Asaphs Road,London SE4. My children had their primary school sports days there. Another grass track, with lots of other markings presumably related to javelin and shot put:

Ladywell Arena in Lewisham, home to Kent Athletics Club:

Southwark Park running track. The geometric design is some kind of temporary cover, the facility being currently  in poor condition and hardly used. Good news is that Southwark Council agreed last month to spend £2.6m to refurbish it:

Previously in the Friday Photos series:

Anita Neil - Britain's first female Black Olympian?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Running London (8): Croydon Half Marathon

Last weekend around 30,000 people took part in the Berlin Half Marathon, while another 25,000 ran in the World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen. But never mind that, on Sunday I headed down to Croydon for the rather more modest Streets Ahead Croydon Half Marathon, completed by 436 runners. Size isn't everything you know... it was a lovely Spring day, and a friendly event with the starter inviting us to enjoy Croydon's 'sunny magnificence'

Organised for the 4th year by local running club Striders of Croydon, the run raised funds for local homeless charity Nightwatch. Kevin Quinn came in first with a time of 1:13:44, while Lisa Harris of Croydon Harriers was first finisher amongst the women runners in 1:26:49.

The race finished at the event centre at Sandilands Sports and Social Club, home of Striders of Croydon. Easy to take these places for granted, but I've come to appreciate these little green oases where people have held on to sporting facilities rather than sell them off to developers to build on.

The route headed through the flowery suburbs in the area of Sandilands station, with their mock tudor houses and magnolia trees, and then round the perimeter of Lloyd Park (home of Lloyd parkrun) and the edge of the woods on Addington Hillls. Quite challenging in parts, but with a very welcome long downhill stretch on Shirley Road.

Just like in Berlin, the course negotiates tram lines. Unlike in Berlin, there are also farm buildings. Certainly within the boundaries of Greater London and the London Borough of Croydon - but were we really in London? In So... F*ckin Croydon, a nice essay celebrating Croydon's counter-cultural history, Les Back writes:

'Traditionally a Londoner - a true cockney - was someone born within the sound of Bow Bells.  Perhaps, the cockneys of the informational age - the age of urban light - are those born in sight of Canary Wharf.  The glow of the Capital's cityscape is clearly discernible from the Surrey hills, yet Croydon is situated at a junction point within the magnetic field of London's geography... The boundaries of metropolitan inclusion and expulsion oscillate around Croydon's identity. Artistically this ambivalence is productive.From one alignment of forces Croydon is expelled by the inner London authentics and cod cockneys who - like Lydon and Bowie - want to confine it to a satellite colony, a kind of urban Alcatraz for the stylistically flawed.  This is countered by the desire in others that Croydon be drawn whole-heartedly into the Capital and South London proper.  Then, there are those suburbanites who look the other way into the green heart of the North Downs. They want to cultivate success and embrace the appearance of affluence through “the illusion of country living”'.

So that's yes and no... Must admit in my tired state when I first got there I caught sight of these fine beasts in the corner of my eye and thought they were ponies!

The route of Croydon Half Marathon
Previously in the Running London series: