Thursday, 17 August 2017

The road is a strange country - Rebecca Solnit

'In motion it seems that time is not slipping away from us but we are pursuing it, measuring its passage in the rhythm of the road... Perhaps if we didn’t imagine life as a journey rather than some other metamorphosis—the growth of a tree, for example—roads would not seem like destiny itself, but we do and they do. To move along the road is to encounter all the loose elements, the dangers and possibilities, to slip out of a settled destiny in pursuit of stranger fates. The road is a promise as simple as what lies ahead, never failed and never delivered, and the road is a strange country itself, longer than all the continents and narrow as a house, with its own citizens, its own rules, a place where the solid and settled become fluid'.

 'Roads are a no-man’s-land, a leveling ground, the place where one is no longer one thing and not yet another'

'Being in motion wakes the body up. In repose one is nothing but a surface face of potential sensation, only the surface, the skin, is awake. Exertion and pain make the rest tangible— otherwise bones and muscles and organs would be little but articles of faith beneath the visible and sensible surface of skin, and so one’s own interior anatomy may be among the things explored in the course of a journey’s exertions'

(Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations, 1997 -  reflections on her travels across Ireland, including some timely thoughts on dubious notions of blood, soil and identity, and on the joys and otherwise of journeying. No running in the book, but lots of walking, and I thought her notion of the road as another country is something felt by runners, as is the experience  of getting to know our anatomy through motion and pain)

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do it

I've done a couple of yoga sessions this year, prompted by the fact that while I have a kind of elevated running mono-fitness I can sometimes barely move my body through any other range of motions. But the allure of flexibility has not been enough to keep me engaged and I feel very much like Geoff Dyer in his witty travelogue  'Yoga for People who Can't be Bothered to Do it' (2003). 

Recalling a stay at a sanctuary resort in Thailand, Dyer writes:

'I didn't even do yoga. I was practically the only person who didn't. A lot of people did yoga even when they weren't actually doing it. They were always stretching or bending or just sitting in quite demanding positions. Everyone had perfect posture and walked as though gravity were an option rather than a law. I wished I 'd been doing yoga for years - but I was incapable of starting...

'Kate had heard 'I was some kind of writer' and wondered what kind of things I wrote.

'I have an idea for a self help book' I said. 'Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do it'

'But you can't be bothered to write it, right?'

'You stole my punch line,' I said.

(I have seen this filed in a bookshop under heath and fitness, but it is definitely not any kind of manual!)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Jodie Whittaker - from London Marathon to Dr Who

There's been a fair amount of nonsense over the last few weeks since it was announced that the next incarnation of Dr Who will be a woman, played by Jodie Whittaker. Not sure what the fuss is about,  if there can be a female Doctor of Medicine or Philosophy why on earth shouldn't there be a female Doctor of Time Travel in a somewhat rickety old children's science fiction series  in need of a new lick of paint - after 12 men have had a go. More to the point Jodie Whittaker does actually have a real superpower - she can run.

The power has been briefly glimpsed in Broadchurch, where she played the character of Beth over three series. In the most recent series her ex-husband tried to interrupt her seafront session with a deep conversation but she wasn't having it...

In real life, as Running is Funny reported a few years ago, Jodie ran 'the Robin Hood Half Marathon in 2004 and 2005, completing it in 2:23 and 2:13, respectively, then moved up in distance. She completed the 2007 New York City Marathon in 4:38', and ran the London Marathon in 2012 for Mencap, a British learning disability charity, finishing in 4:45:41.

Jodie Whittaker in 2012 London Marathon - running with Team Harry written on her arms. Jodie's nephew, Harry Whittaker, who had Downs Syndrome, died in 2014. He was an actor too, and appeared in Emmerdale.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Less Survivable Cancers

When I ran the London Marathon in 2015 I asked friends and family to donate to  Core – the Digestive Disorders Foundation, a cancer research charity that focuses on cancers of the digestive system including stomach cancer which my dad, Dugald Orr, died from. Thanks to everyone who donated we raised over £900 (see previous post about  my dad and my reasons for this choice).

 I was pleased to hear from the charity again recently - they told me that they sometimes use a picture of me and my dad in their presentations which was touching. Last week they invited me to the London launch of a new campaign called the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce  which they have started with a group of other charities concerned with lung, liver, oesophageal, brain, pancreatic and stomach cancer, which make up half of cancer deaths in the UK. A cancer diagnosis is devastating for anybody, but for those with these cancers the prognosis is particularly poor. They have just a 14% chance of surviving for more than 5 years, compared with 64% for more survivable cancers.

My dad's death in 1997 at the age of 61 came at the end of a period of more than six months of lost opportunities to diagnose his stomach cancer. When he started losing weight and having eating problems he was already in the system for arthritis and his symptoms were initially viewed through the lens of the rheumatology specialists he was seeing at the hospital. He then had an operation for a benign tumour on his thyroid and it wasn't until after this that he was finally given an endoscopy and diagnosed. Within a few weeks he had died -  too weak to cope well with surgery, he never fully recovered consciousness after an operation.

Nobody lives forever, and with the present stage of medical knowledge a magic bullet cure for all cancers might not be on the immediate horizon. But with timely diagnosis and treatment I'm sure my dad could have lasted a few more years, time at least to have met all his grandchildren for instance.

As I head  towards that age myself I find it depressing that in respect of these less survivable cancers there seems to have been relatively little progress in the 20 years since. Hence the need for the Taskforce with its five objectives:

1. Raise awareness of symptoms
2. Speed up paths to treatments
3. Remove barriers to treatment trials
4. Set government backed survival targets for each cancer
5. Increase investments in research

The Taskforce launch was held at Westminster's Portcullis House on Wednesday and featured contributions from people affected by these cancers whether as survivors or as relatives of those who didn't survive. The campaign seems to have some political support, such as through the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer, and with clear and achievable aims there is no reason why it shouldn't make an impact.

But improvements for people with cancer cannot be achieved in isolation from the state of health services more generally. If early diagnosis and treatment is a key factor in survival rates, then getting into the system quickly is essential. At present many people seem to be struggling to get to the first hurdle - getting a GP appointment - let alone getting referred on to appropriate specialists.

Here's a few comments from a facebook discussion last week about trying to get an appointment at my local GP practice in South London:

'I've tried every day this week and been variously: cut off after ten minutes on hold (twice); left on hold for an hour; unable to get through at all; getting a "the surgery is now closed" message for a whole day'.

 'I needed an appointment the next one is 26th august I was told Monday' [17 July]

'Few months back I couldn't get an appointment and the receptionist was asking all kinds of intrusive questions. I was in a bad situation and paid to see private at work and I needed to go to hospital for a scan... Even though I answered and told the receptionist I had lumps in my breasts she still wouldn't book me in!' 

'have just spent 38 minutes on hold again. Got through eventually and was told they are only taking emergency appointments. They could offer me a telephone appointment in 3 weeks (when I'm on holiday)...  Almost cried with frustration'.

I wish this was just a local problem at my doctors, but talking to other people this doesn't sound untypical - overwhelmed admin. staff rationing limited appointments. Knowing how hard it can be for many people to acknowledge their symptoms and seek help, anything that deters them from seeing a doctor can only reduce their chances of survival if they are unfortunate enough to be suffering from one of the less survivable cancers.

Primary care needs resources so that people can see their GP - not just money, but a supply of suitably trained and rewarded staff at all levels from receptionists to doctors. Around one in eight GP posts are vacant, and there is a national recruitment crisis: 'Almost one in five practices has had to abandon searching for a new GP as vacancy rates have hit their highest ever' (Pulse, 12 May 2017)

But I would also like to see more self-referral to cancer screening services, with more active surveillance for people at risk. One of the speakers at last week's event put his survival down to the fact that he was on a programme where he was having an endoscopy every six months, so his condition was picked up early. I fear that many, just like my dad 20 years ago, never get near such a procedure until their symptoms are too severe to treat.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Dulwich Midsummer Relays 2017

52 teams of three took part in the Dulwich Runners Midsummer Relays on July 12th 2017, held for the second year in Dulwich Park. In previous years the club organised a midsummer 5k - I ran it in 2015 (see report here) - but with the park hosting a 5k parkrun every Saturday it makes sense to try something a bit different.

The start of the first leg
 This year I ran with people from work who I sometimes join for a Wednesday lunchtime run around the Tower Bridge area. We fielded two teams as 'Tooley Street Runners', each of us taking our turn at one lap of the park - just over a mile.

Tooley Street Runners
Finsbury Flyers were the winning men's trio in 14:52, and a team from London City Athletic Club won the women's competiion in 17:43. The mixed team prize was won by three Peckham parkrunners in 16:34. Full results here.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Outrun - Amy Liptrot

Amy Liptrot's The Outrun (2015) is partly another fine example of the new nature writing - urban dweller rediscovers connection with the wild between nicely illustrated covers, in this case through returning to her native Orkney where, among other things, she helps her farmer father in the lambing season and gets a job tracking corncrakes. The Outrun of the title 'is a stretch of coastland at the top of the farm where the grass is always short, pummelled by wind and sea spray year-round... where the ewes and the lambs graze in summer'. That aspect has a not entirely unromantic appeal to me, with my fond memories of my shepherd grandfather in the Hebrides.

But the book is also a memoir of addiction, to alcohol in particular, and the author's struggle to recover after some very messy years in London. Her relationship with the landscape is part of this process. Struggling to believe in 'a power greater than ourselves' as envisaged in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step programme, she thinks 'about the forces that I have experienced living on the islands: The wind and the sea. I think of erosion and corrosion… I think of the power of animal instinct, guiding the corncrakes to Africa and me to my lover's house, dead drunk, late at night… I decide that I can accept the existence of some "powers greater than myself" – not God, just the things I've always known, the forces I've grown up with, strong enough to smash up ships and carve islands'.

She walks all over Papay, one of the smaller islands where she lives for a while, including circumnavigating St Tredwell's Loch where once pilgrims seeking relief for eye troubles came to visit the chapel dedicated to a saint who legend claims gouged her own eyes out.

She joins the Orkney Polar Bears who go swimming every Saturday morning in the sea and manages to find through this the beginnings of new compulsions: 'Once after being out all night at a party in a squatted East London warehouse, Gloria and I decided, high and wide eyed, that what we needed was a dawn swim in Hampstead Heath ladies pond. We had grimy rave skin and sleep deprivation and thought the cold water would provide refreshment and even salvation... In the past when I was under stress, my first impulse was to drink… Now, sometimes, I'm not just fighting against these urges but have developed new ones. Even back in the summer, set free after a frustrating day in the RSPB office, my first thought was sometimes not a pint but "get in the sea". Swimming shakes out my tension and provides refreshment and change... The motivation is the same but my methods of dealing with the way I feel are changing. I used to confuse my neurotransmitters on a Friday night in a hot nightclub. Now I shock my senses on a Saturday morning in the biting sea, plunging warm skin into cold water, forcing a rush of sensation, cleansed'.

Interesting how culturally embedded this idea of water as medium of baptism and rebirth is, to swim in the sea or even the Hampstead ponds is to literally plunge into the landscape (or waterscape) and perhaps to emerge with a sense of being somehow cleansed or transformed.

The Outrun is certainly not another rehab through fitness memoir, but the author recognises that part of her recovery is also about a new relationship to her body in movement, including through walking, swimming and scuba diving: 'When I am in motion I am at ease, able to move forward mentally as well as physically. I use walking and swimming to calm my churning thoughts. My sea swims are increasingly important in relieving the non-specific low-level anxiety I often feel. The cold water shocks out any mental stress – my body suddenly has something more immediate to deal with'.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Bewl15 2017: 15 very hot miles

Last weekend - Sunday 2 July 2017 - I  took part in a 15 mile race on the Kent/Sussex borders. My clubmates who had run it before told me that the Bewl15 was a great race, and they weren't wrong....

Everybody said it was well organised, and Wadhurst Runners did a great job, seemingly supported by signficant parts of the local community. Plenty of car parking and good facilities at the Uplands Sports Centre, sufficient toilets, water stations throughout and lucozade at two points on the course.

Everybody said it was a friendly and fun event - and yes, there was a piper to lead people to the start, free beer and cake at the end - not to mention a brass band  and a technical t-shirt and medal. The race was started by Olympic legend Dame Kelly Holmes too. She let everybody start and then joined in, swiftly moving through the field - she passed me at about mile three.
Kelly Holmes and piper

Everybody said it was an amazing course -  and yes we warmed up in a field with sheep bahing across the way, always good for us townies. After a start downhill along a country lane the course made its way around Bewl Water, the largest inland water in the South East of England (its actually a reservoir created by the flooding of a valley in the 1970s). The course, at least for the first ten miles, alternated between sections of shaded woodland and trails  on the shores of the reservoir, where boats sailed in the sunshine. There were horses.

Photo by Mark Reese of Hastings Runners - @the_real_reesey

All very good but I must admit by the end I was reminded of that 1980s anti-drugs advert -  'when they told me how good Bewl15 would make me feel they didn't tell me how bad it would make me feel'.

Entirely my own fault of course.  I headed off close to the front at a cracking pace that I knew I couldn't sustain, but I wanted to avoid a bottleneck in the first mile where the field has to file through a narrow gate - and where last year people further back had had to stop and walk. The heat was tough - I didn't put sun protection on and really should have, as I ended up with sunburnt neck and shoulders. I found myself slowing and then, at about ten miles in, the hills reared up. There are three significant ascents in the last 5 miles, including running back up the hill you run down at the start, all the way up to the finish line.

In the last couple of miles I got full on cramps in my quads, and while I was determined not to walk, I did have to stop a couple of times as first one leg then the other stopped working.  I finished in  2:25:34 behind 458 others - many of whom streamed past me in the last third of the race. There were 835 finishers in total.

The finish line

Bottom line is I failed to respect the distance, not for the first time. I only entered a few days before and had to google whether it was 15k or 15 miles - believe me it's the latter. I figured I still had the fitness from my London Marathon training but that was two months ago and though I'd run plenty since I hadn't done any long runs at any kind of pace.

Congratulations to Danny Kendall (Cambridge Harriers) who won the men's competition in 1:27:37, and to Tina Oldershaw (Paddock Wood AC), first woman in 1:44:46. Tina is a W50, so can't really blame my woeful run on my age category! Some great runs from my Kent AC clubmates, including medals for Che Compton (5th place overall and first male vet) and Zuzana Nemeckova (2nd female vet).

So yes, I strongly  recommend Bewl15 but do some training - and wear sunscreen!

Hard earned medal and t-shirt

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.

Monday, 17 April 2017

parkrun and free public parks consultation

The government 'is consulting on proposals to legislate to put it beyond doubt that local authorities, including parish councils, cannot charge parkrun or junior parkrun for the use of public parks'. This would apply to all Councils in England.

Parkrun has grown to be massively popular in the past few years, with free, volunteer-organised 5K runs taking place in parks all over the country and now internationally. Most local Councils have seen the benefit of this in terms of encouraging use of parks,  promoting healthy exercise and building communities (not to mention generating income for the Council indirectly through runners spending on car parks and cafes).

However there was controversy last year when Stoke Gifford Parish Council (in the Bristol area) insisted on charging parkrun for the use of Little Stoke Park which it had previously allowed to be used free of charge.  Parkrun cancelled this event, anxious not to set a precedent which could lead to cash-strapped councils round the country levying charges and therefore potentially undermining the model of free events for runners.

It is precisely to prevent this eventuality that the government is now proposing to explicitly prohibit councils from charging for Parkrun. The paper 'Running Free' argues that charging for such activities undermines the  'the long tradition of the free use of public parks. Our public parks and green spaces are, at once, places where individuals and groups can to go to for exercise, to relax, to enjoy being part of a community, or to find peace and solitude'.

This is very welcome. It does however raise some quite complex questions. Firstly other sports routinely pay for the use of parks, such as hiring football pitches, and there is no proposal to change this. The consultation paper draws a distinction here on the basis that with parkrun there 'is no exclusive use of the park. Parkrunners share the park with other members of the public during the parkrun. This is quite different to the use of a facility in a park that is subject to exclusive use such as a tennis court, or even a facility such as a football pitch that is exclusively used by groups of players at certain times of the week'.

But what about other runs in parks? Most other events do charge an entry fee and/or generate income for the organiser. On this basis the Government argues that they are distinct from parkrun and whether to charge for them would be left for local Councils to decide.

The Government leaves open as a consultation question whether there 'Is there any specific activity, in addition to parkrun or junior parkrun, that takes place in a public park, that does not require exclusive use of the park or a part of the park, that should be considered for inclusion in provisions to prevent local authorities charging for that activity?'.

It would seem unusual to give legal exemption to one organisation in this way, in this case limiting exemption to events organised by parkrun UK. At the moment and for the foreseeable future parkrun is the main organiser of these kind of events, but that may not always be the case. In principle if a group of people wanted to organise something similar - i.e. a weekly free run in the park- but did not do so under the parkrun umbrella, should they be financially penalised? It would be far better to establish the principle at this stage of free use of parks for runners where there is no exclusive use, no charge and no profit. Activities of a similar kind should be treated in the same way, regardless of who is organising them. For instance I take part in Assembly League races held in a number of London parks. These are free to enter, do not have exclusive use of the parks and are low impact - once or twice a year in each park and all pretty much over in half an hour. I believe we have never been charged for this, but this summer for the first time Wandsworth are charging us for the use of Battersea Park. I think this should be treated in the same way as parkrun.

I have seen criticism elsewhere  of the principle of making what is in effect a private company – Parkrun Limited – such a special case. Having looked into the company structure of parkrun – which anybody can do with the records online at Companies House – I think the company status is a bit of a red herring. Parkrun is a company limited by guarantee which means that any profits get ploughed back into it work. No dividends are paid out to shareholders – it is in effect a not-for-profit company, though parkrun's website could perhaps be a bit clearer about this. Some people assume it is a charity while others think that it is a profit making vehicle on the backs of which some are enriching themselves. Neither is true.

Another interesting point is whether Councils have the power to prevent parkruns happening. Looking around London it is obvious that some Local Authorities have actively encouraged the development of parkrun, including providing start up funding.  Southwark Council for instance hosts four parkruns in its parks (Burgess, Southwark, Dulwich, Peckham Rye). Wandsworth Council only hosts one, in Tooting, and this was only agreed after a long local campaign. The sticking point in Wandsworth was that the Council wanted to charge parkrun and agreed to Tooting only as a special case. If the government proceeds with banning charges does that mean that parkrun could start up in other Wandsworth parks or could the Council put other obstacles in its way?

As well as parkrun, the consultation asks for views on the thorny question of whether activities that involve a financial charge to a client or clients by a professional or business, but do not involve exclusive use of a public park or part of the park... should be considered for inclusion in provisions to prevent local authorities charging for that activity'. This would include for instance fitness groups or paid dog walkers. Some of these are small local businesses, but others (such as British Military Fitness) are big national concerns that make a lot of money from charging users - it doesn't seem unreasonable for them to make a contribution to the upkeep of the parks they use. 

It is easy enough for the Government to insist Councils should not charge, but at the same time Councils are struggling to keep parks and other community facilities going because of funding cuts. A recent report found that 'between 2014/15 and 2015/16 local authorities across England closed 214 children’s playgrounds, and when asked about future plans they admitted their aim to close a further 234'. Continuing to deliver free access requires funding as well as law changes.

Nevertheless it is great news that the future of free parkruns looks to be secure and the principle has been restated 'that the use of public parks by the public for everyday use is, and should remain, free'.

The public have until July 7th 2017 to respond to Running Free: Consultation on preserving the free use of public parks.

(a coincidence that they used the same name for this paper as for Seb Coe's autobiography?!)