Monday, 30 March 2015

Record Sleeve Athletics (12): BBC Sporting Sound Effects

BBC Records' series of sound effects albums included 'Sporting Sound Effects' (1978). The cover features a couple of runners alongside jockeys, football players, a tennis player, a racing driver etc. The record features a similar range of noise from the sporting life, including from athletics 'starting gun, race and applause' and 'junior sports day: on your marks, pistol and cheers for race'. A 21st century listener might question why pheasant shooting and fox hunting are included as sports alongside swimming, basketball and cricket, but hey.

Previously in this series:

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Art of Athletics (7): David Hockney on jogging and smoking

David Hockney's most celebrated works feature Californian swimming pools, most notably his A Bigger Splash (1967) which I saw recently at Tate Britain. 

 Runners feature in his 'The Seven Stone Weakling', one of  his Rake's Progress series of prints documenting the artist's first time in  New York in the early 1960s.  

It is the artist himself who watches blankly as two men run past, and Hockney's slightly bemused attitude to fitness continues to this day. In an article in the FT last year in defence of  smoking in the open air he wrote:

'I remember the time I used to walk up through Holland Park to Lucian Freud’s studio. Seeing the black rabbits playing on the grass I sat down to watch them, and lit a cigarette. Then some magpies joined them and I was enjoying it. Then along came three girls jogging, who on seeing me smoking gave me a no-no salute. I pondered them and noticed they had not seen the magpies or the rabbits. They thought they were very healthy, but I thought I was healthier. They were obsessed with their own bodies. When people are jogging they are thinking of body management; when you walk the mind can range over far and wide. Walking is better than running, which wears out your knees and leaves you with excruciating shin pain'.

Of course I don't agree with him about running - the mind can range far and wide while running even if both runners and walkers can be so wrapped up in their own thoughts that they fail to notice their surroundings. But I am sympathetic to his opposition to banning smoking in parks - something that has already happened in New York and has been proposed for London. We don't have to like everything that people do in 'The parks, the great unroofed outdoors, places where people are not crowded together like on the street' (Hockney), but I think for the most part people should be free to do what they like as long as it doesn't genuinely harm other people. Some people would ban smokers, others would ban drinking, dogs, groups of young people, music or sports. No doubt some people find hundreds of runners charging round their local park on a Saturday morning an inconvenience, but parks would be dead spaces if every activity that mildly irritated somebody else was banned.  I don't particularly like getting the occasional mouthful of smoke if I run past somebody smoking, they might not like their peaceful morning stroll being disturbed by me, but we have to get along - as they say at every parkrun briefing, remember you are not the only park users.

See also in the Art of Athletics series:

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Running on Screen (6): The Casual Vacancy

The three episodes of BBC's recent adaption of J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy all started with a lone runner making his way round the fictional village of Pagford (actually filmed in various Gloucestershire locations).

I guess for film and TV directors tracking the runner provides a convenient way of setting the scene, providing a moving human on which to hang a visual tour of locations.

Later in the series we find out the identity of the runner (played by Star Wars actor Silas Carson) and he does play a significant role in the final episode when he finds someone when he is running - I can't say more without posting a spoiler alert.

Previously in this series:

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Remembering my dad & running for stomach cancer research

I am lucky to have got a ballot place at next month's London Marathon, all I need to do is turn up and run, I don't have a fundraising target in return for a charity place. However when I do tell people I'm running they invariably ask what charity I am running for, so I have decided to create a low-key 'Just Giving' account so that friends and family can make donations if they wish. I have chosen to raise funds for Core: Fighting Gut and Liver Disease, a charity that funds research and provides information in relation to digestive disorders. My dad, Dugald Orr (1935-1997), died from stomach cancer and this is one of the diseases that Core focuses on.  

Me and my dad
Of course there's lots I could say about my dad and his life, which started on the Isle of Islay and ended in Luton & Dunstable Hospital 62 years later. But as this is a running blog I will focus on sport, which some of my best memories of my dad are tied up with, football especially. We jumped for joy when we watched Luton Town beat Arsenal at Wembley in 1988, and didn't sing quite so loudly when we saw Scotland lose 5-1 to England at the same venue in 1975 (I was so small I had to stand on a stool on the terraces).  With his father, my grandad Neil Orr, we saw Luton beat Chelsea 4-0 (1976 - those days will come again!). and went to see Rangers play at Ibrox in 1977. The following year my dad took me to see Partick Thistle, the team he supported when he lived in Glasgow while doing his shipwright apprenticeship at Alexander Stephens shipyard on the Clyde. 

I remember watching him play football with his work colleagues at Vauxhall Sports Ground in Luton, but his main involvement with football was as a coach in youth soccer. A qualified FA coach, he coached St Joseph's youth football team for six years in the 1970s, and then helped out with Meads United before going on to the committee of the Chiltern Youth League, the Bedfordshire under-18s league. When he died the Luton News described him as 'one of the most popular local soccer coaches in Luton' and 'one of the best loved characters in the local game' ('Sad loss of a coach who lived for youth soccer', February 19 1997),

Of course I'm sad that my dad isn't around to know that I'm running the marathon, and since I've got more involved in the world of club running I've come to appreciate more the  work he put into youth football. The athletics clubhouses with their trophies and changing rooms remind me of the very similar football places I went to with him. Running and football, like most sports, are sustained by the efforts of countless volunteers like my dad who share their time, knowledge and skills without financial reward, just because they love it.

St Josephs football club, Luton, 1970 - my dad at back in tracksuit, me as mascot to right of the ball. Other adults in this picture are Tony Coyne on the left - whose son Laurence Coyne (crouching  behind me) went on to play professional soccer in the US - and Bud Aherne (right), who played for Luton Town and Ireland.

Tom 'Bud' Aherne (1919-99)

My dad (back row right) in early 1960s - my mum thinks this was Totternhoe FC who he played for

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

English National Cross Country Championships

It was tough running, but I loved taking part in the Saucony English National Cross Country Championships a couple of weeks ago (21 February), held at Parliament Hill Fields on London's Hamsptead Heath. I haven't got a great deal to add to what has already been written about it elsewhere, including Jolyon Attwooll's excellent participant's account in the Telegraph, 'The greatest running race you have never heard of' (I realized the other day that Jolyon is the guy pushing a running stroller who regularly overtakes me at Hilly Fields parkrun, though if it's exceptionally muddy I can sometimes hope to overtake him as he pushes uphill!).

Attwooll compares Parliament Hill to 'a scene from a medieval battlefield. Beside the course, hundreds of tents were pitched over a churned hillside, banners unfurled, bearing the colours and crests of running clubs from across the country'. It reminded me too of Glastonbury, with tents surrounded by mud, an endorphin-fuelled festival atmosphere, and some of the better prepared runners changing from spikes into wellies when not running.

The charge up the hill at the start of is one of the most iconic moments in English running, and I watched some of the nine races of younger runners and senior women heading up it before doing so myself in the Senior Men's. Of course on the inside you don't spend any time looking back at the fine views over London, you are just aware of the ascent, the mud, and the crush of people around you until the race spreads out.

There were many kinds of mud to be savoured over the 12 km race, including a stretch where the sun dazzled the runners as it reflected off the wet, soft earth. As men's race winner Charlie Hulson told Marathon Talk last week, on the second lap it felt like a different course as the mud had been churned by 2000 pairs of feet in addition to the 3000 who had taken part in the earlier races. If it was bad for him, spare a thought for those of us further back who had to follow (in my case) 1700 more pairs of feet - in some places it felt like wading through porridge. I fantasised about a sprint finish on the down hill final stretch, but the mud continued up to the line so even here it was hard to build up pace.

With a record 5283 runners taking part in the championships, both the Nationals and club running more generally seem to be in good health. My team, Kent AC, came 8th out of 145 clubs in the 6 to Count (no thanks to me, I didn't score), with Notts AC winning the team competition. Lily Partridge (Aldershot Farnham & District) won the senior women's race.

Top pictures by me, bottom two - i.e. the decent ones- © Gary Mitchell from the excellent gallery of photos at the English Cross Country Association site: . Runners can also find photos of themselves in various states of desperation by entering their race number here). There's lots of film on youtube too, my favourite is headcam footage of the entire race from Cambridge University Hare and Hounds.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Record Sleeve Athletics (11): Carl Lewis

In our ongoing series of record sleeves featuring athletics, these really stand out - a series of records that not only feature one of the greatest ever runners on their covers, but were actually recorded by him.

Carl Lewis won 9 Olympic gold medals for USA in sprinting and long jump between 1984 and 1996. In the mid-1980s he also released two albums, 'Idaten' as Carl Lewis & Electric Storm (1985) and 'Modern Man' (1987), as well as a series of singles including 'Goin' for the Gold' (1984) and 'Break it up' (1987) - see full discography.

Musically, it seems to be mainly an electro-funk/hi-NRG/euro-disco sound - producers included the Belgian Fred Bekky.

Goin' for the Gold is the only track that explicitly references athletics, presumably released in the lead up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when he did indeed get golds in the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay and long jump.

Previously in this series:

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Ultramaraton Caballo Blanco cancelled amidst Narco-Gangster Violence

Sorry to hear that the famous Ultramaraton Caballo Blanco (also known as the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon) in Chihuahua, Mexico has been cancelled this year. The 50 mile race was started by the late Micah True in 2003, as a celebration of the long distance runner culture of the Tarahumara or Rarámuri people who live in that part of the country. It was featured in 'Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen' (2009) by Christopher McDougall, and has attracted some of the best ultra-runners from around the world - including of course Scott Jurek.

Runners were already gathering for this year's race when it was announced last night that it would not be taking place. Reports on facebook and in the Mexican press state that it was linked to armed conflict involving criminal gangs in the Sierra Tarahumara area - two people were killed close to the course last week, and a local police commander was kidnapped.

Sadly Mexico has become increasingly dominated by the violence of drug cartels, often linked to corrupt police and state officials - a fact highlighted by the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students in the southern city of Iguala last September. The students seemed to have been arrested by the police and handed over to the gunmen from the Guerreros Unidos cartel. 'Drug gangs' and 'corruption' hardly covers the activities of transnational 'narco-capitalist' enterprises with factories, global distribution and deep connections in the state, and the consequences for ordinary people are devastating.

Running is such a simple, natural act that we often take for granted the underlying social and political conditions that have to be in place for a race to take place. One of these is the  basic peace, safety and security that allows a group of people to run without fear of somebody involved being shot. The cancellation of this year's Caballo Blanco is hopefully only a temporary set-back - the race will be back.  Even if the direct risk to runners may not have been great, the organisers could hardly take chances. But the right to live without fear of armed violence is one that is denied to many people in Mexico, and elsewhere.

In a statement the run organisers say: 'We encourage everyone to run this week in support of peace, in the Copper Canyons and all over the world'. They also note that: 'Because of the race cancelation we were unable to distribute the corn to Raramuri finishers as was traditional. However, we are working together with Norawas de Raramuri [charity] to arrange fair distribution of this corn to the Raramuri villages that have participated in the event before'.