Archive for March, 2010

Homage to the humble haiku

(Inspired by JC’s blog post)

To Japan, thanks.
You gave us not only haiku,
but Ekiden too.

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Ashby 20

Sunday 21 March 2010

 Over the longer stuff, and by longer I mean upwards from half marathons, I have not had much success with executing pre-race strategies. In fact up until yesterday I had had NO success at all.

It was my first race as 35 year old (was I older and wiser? Who am I kidding). Sadly though, this race only had veteran categories for 40 and up. It was also potentially my last race in the old Rowheath colours as we are switching to new kit aligned with our new club as from 1 April. More on that merger in another post maybe…

So the coach (my wife) had come up with a foolproof race strategy. Easy first couple of miles, then slot into 6:45 (target marathon) pace and run as big a chunk of the race as possible AT THIS PACE. No giving in to temptation and pushing harder, no matter how good I feel. Assuming I still had the legs, the final part of the plan was to cut loose from the 17 mile mark. So that was the strategy. Simple.

Armed with one other piece of wisdom, from a running friend, PQ, who is the guru when it comes to judging pace in a long race. She has a rule that the first 2km must be equal to or slower than target pace. So I decided that my first two miles would be 7 minutes or slower each. The gun went and we were off. First mile…6:18. I cursed out loud and announced to the runners around me that the first mile was definitely short. No-one said anything. I didn’t panic though and pulled it right back for the second, which was just shy of 7 minutes. After that I spent the rest of the first lap (it was a two lapper) concentrating hard on not messing up the pace by going too fast but also not overcompensating and taking it too easy and ending up running 7:30s or something.

The first ten went by in 67:37 which is pretty darn close to the 6:45 pace I was after. Bec and the girls handed me a lucozade at halfway. On the second lap I was tempted to push on but restrained myself, repeating in my head what Bec had told me the day before. “You need to know what 6:45 feels like. Run as much of the race as you can at 6:45.” At the 16 mile mark I subconsciously started to speed up in anticipation of the 17 mile mark where I knew I was allowed to kick for home.

And that’s pretty much how it went, with the final four miles being my quickest of the race.

I ended with a 2:13:16 (or a 2:12:35 if 32km is your preference. The organisers had marked the 32km point – very handy for the metric-heads).

Job done. I finished 35th overall which was fitting I thought, as a 35-year old…

My training partner, Nice-guy-Eddie (formerly racing-snake-Eddie), had a storming effort, coming home in 2:01, finishing 6th overall, picking up prize money on top of winning a lucky draw prize, and generally making a mockery of my carefully executed 2:13…

He and his fiancé did bake some lovely cupcakes for us all to enjoy on the way there, so we’ll let him off.

Joking aside, an outstanding performance from Ed. If he keeps improving at this rate, well who knows where he may end up…

Some splits from my race:

Splits:   Pace/mi
1st 10mi 01:07:37 00:06:46
2nd 10mi 01:05:39 00:06:34
1st 5mi 00:33:37 00:06:43
2nd 5mi 00:34:00 00:06:48
3rd 5mi 00:33:55 00:06:47
4th 5mi 00:31:44 00:06:21


The full monty, if you just cant get enough:

Mile Split Cumulative
1 00:06:18 00:06:18
2 00:06:47 00:13:05
3 00:06:57 00:20:02
4 00:06:53 00:26:55
5 00:06:42 00:33:37
6 00:07:01 00:40:38
7 00:06:48 00:47:26
8 00:06:51 00:54:17
9 00:06:32 01:00:49
10 00:06:48 01:07:37
11 00:06:39 01:14:16
12 00:06:58 01:21:14
13 00:06:46 01:28:00
14 00:07:00 01:35:00
15 00:06:32 01:41:32
16 00:06:47 01:48:19
17 00:06:21 01:54:40
18 00:06:22 02:01:02
19 00:06:16 02:07:18
20 00:05:58 02:13:16

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The absolute legend that is Kenenisa Bekele.

Something I’ve been thinking about with mild melancholy for some time: Are we in the throes of a changing of the guard within the very top echelon of distance running? Will we look back on this time as the phase when he became beatable again?

It seems to me he may be vulnerable at the moment. Not in any sense other than that he may not be the absolute belter he was three, four or five years ago. Look, let’s keep some perspective, he could show up at just about any race the world over and win. But things have changed there’s no denying it.

His record at the world cross country champs will never be beaten. I can make that unequivocal statement because the short race has now been removed from the program, and for someone to match his 11 individual gold medals would require too much longevity at the top, a minimum of 11 years in fact. So I’ll throw that out there (it’s not a bold statement at all when you consider it). But since his DNF at the 2007 world champs where Zersenay Tadese stomped all over him in the blistering Nairobi heat, he hasn’t had the same dominating success. Caveat: He did win it the following year in Edinburgh, in amazing fashion after his shoe came off and he stopped to retie it and still came back to win! But last year he didn’t run and Gebremariam stepped in to ensure the individual title stayed in Ethiopia. This year it’s looking unlikely that he will run. He is refusing to commit one way or the other at this stage, and why should he? But if he does compete I’m not sure he will come away victorious.

2010 has not been kind to KB as yet. It began as it has for the past few years, with him competing in Edinburgh at the World Cross Challenge meeting held around the foothills of Arthur’s seat, Holyrood Park. A nasty place to run, hilly and twisty, but with good memories for the king, having won his most recent World XC title there. But this year it was different. A cold snowy January had resulted in a lot of snow still sitting on the course. “White mud” as Hayley Yelling called it. KB was beaten, and well-beaten at that, by a trio of Kenyans. The enormity of their achievement, whilst not lost on the runners themselves, was largely underplayed by the commentary and the resulting media. In fact, it was huge. When had KB ever been beaten as a senior in a cross country race?? Aside from his DNF at Worlds 2007… um…never. And this wasn’t losing out in a mad-sprint finish either, this was a relentless pounding that broke him with almost half of the race remaining. He seemed untroubled in the interview immediately afterwards but I get the feeling that as more time passed, it sunk in a bit and it shook him up, being beaten like that; and as a result he has lost some confidence and the aura of invincibility (even if only in his head).

The 2008 World Champs in Berlin seems a long time ago all of a sudden. He was pushed in the 5k by Bernard Lagat and came up trumps in a cracking final few laps and final sprint; and again knocked over his 10k rival Zersenay Tadese in the 10k. So no chinks in the armour then…

I had been eagerly anticipating his indoor performances this year, especially his hyped world record attempt over 3k in our own NIA in Birmingham. He pulled out of the event the night before, citing a calf injury. Disappointing but oh well. He had to have been pretty close to competing otherwise he wouldn’t have left the announcement so late, would he?

A couple of weeks later and another much publicised attack on the 3k mark, this time in Liévin. Again he withdrew at the last minute, citing the same injury. Surely if this injury had troubled him enough to pull out of Birmingham and troubled him enough to pull out of Lievre two weeks later on the day before the event again, he’d have known in between that he couldn’t make the Liévin meet? I read all about the “only in spikes” reasoning etc, but I’m just saying.

Conspiracy theory: Whilst I think he does have some sort of calf niggle, it’s not that that is stopping him from competing. I suspect he is trying to get himself into shape and hit the splits in particular workouts he has that will tell him he is in the right form to have a crack at the world record. After the years of dominance you can be sure he has a pretty concrete package of workouts he can run through and that he knows will get him into world-smashing shape. Am I talking shit? Probably.

Still, it’s nothing more than the musings of a fan, and he could disprove everything by delivering a world crushing performance in Poland. That would set him up for a great European summer on the track and make all this speculation look even more foolish than it already does.

If, however, he does continue to struggle with his calf injury and is unable to race World XC, or set any more records on the track, it will be the drawing to a close of the most magnificent distance-event track athlete we have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. And the dusk on his track career may well prove to be the dawn of his road running career, and by road running career I mean one thing, the Marathon. Another chapter in his running life and may it be just as successful as his track career has been, even with the bar set in the cirrus, as it is.

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top ten running books

Good idea JC, here you go:

But first, a caveat: This list is not the “best of” list for running books by any stretch. It is simply a list of ten running books that have had the biggest impact on me and my running, for whatever reason.

 Also, it’s a continual work-in-progress and I’m always looking for new entrants… Richard M, looking forward to reading your masterpiece.

So, let’s get cracking:

  1. Once a Runner. Head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to providing an insight into “how it is” to be a committed competitive distance runner. If you’ve ever suffered through a painful set of 400m reps, you’ll know why this book hits the spot. It is simply full of sections worth reading again and again. And more quotes than you can shake a stick at. The accounts of the workouts, sessions and races capture the essence of training and racing hard more than any other book.
  2. Ultramarathon Man (Sorry, but it made more of an impression on me than Born to run. Possibly only because I read it first, but there you go. Read the chapter on Badwater). An average-joe story about a guy who has a bit of running talent and a lot (understatement) of personal drive. Also good to see someone trying to fit a full running program into an almost normal life, work, family etc.
  3. Born to Run. The first half of this book is unbelievable. And was poised to topple Once a Runner. But it flatters to deceive and unfortunately sets a standard I felt it didn’t maintain. I was a bit disappointed a lot of the second half. The final race was exciting. Unnecessary cheap shots by the author also detracted from its quality.
  4. Training Distance Runners. Not much of a storybook but a fascinating insight into the training regime of one Sebastian Coe. Take the ingredients of proper quality, a career-plan and attention to detail and mix that in with sufficient natural talent and mental discipline and you have the best middle distance runner in the world. A lesson in the benefits of periodisation and identifying your goals. Plus some of his sessions would flat out make you cry like a baby.
  5. Lore of Running. The bible, obviously.
  6. Paula: My Story So Far. Written mostly when she was on top of the marathon world by a comfortable margin. An outstanding story of long-term commitment and not being swayed by disappointments en route. I read it on a flight back to South Africa for the Two Oceans Ultramarathon and it set me up for a great weekend’s running.
  7. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. A writer who runs, writing about his running. A novel angle. Can be a little self-indulgent in parts but has enough gems and musings to sneak it into this list.
  8. Everyone’s Guide to Distance Running. May not be a classic but I read it very early in my running career (1993-ish), and like it or not, it probably shaped a lot of my early thinking on this sport of ours.
  9. The Testament of Gideon Mack. It may not strictly speaking be a running book, but the main character is a marathon runner, and a decent one at that – a number of sub-three’s to his name – his slightly cynical outlook on life is something that has to be read to be appreciated.
  10. It’s Not About The Bike. Shit I know it’s not a running book, but it felt wrong to not have it in here. In a “sports book list” it would be my number 1. But I’m sticking to one list for the time being. Lest the wife realises I’m actually even geekier than she has come to accept.

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I’ve read a few books on running. I’m no guru don’t get me wrong. But I like to think I have an idea of what’s out there in the way of running folklore.

After last week’s Saturday morning long run, I popped into a friend’s place for a cup of coffee before heading home. He showed me a book called Running: A Global History. I opened it on a random page (as you do when handed a book to browse through). I’ve no idea what most of the book is about, but the first page I read was one of the most amazing running stories I’ve ever come across.

Nevermind the Olympic champions and the mileage they get through in training, nevermind the incredibly tough ultramarathons out there (Badwater for example), never even mind the magnificent Mexican running tribe, the Tarahumara and the hundred mile races they regularly participate in; what I read in that book has instantaneously become the new standard bearer in the “that is un-fucking-believable” category.

They’re called the running monks and they have something called the 1000-day challenge. It takes 7 years to complete. Briefly, it goes like this. In years one, two and three they must run 40km a day for one hundred consecutive days each year. In years four and five they must run 40km per day for two hundred consecutive days each year. Then they face the doiri. A seven day period where they have no food, no water, no sleep and must sit and meditate. They are observed by two monks who will tap them on the shoulder if they start falling asleep. After completing the doiri they are into year six, wherein they have to run 84km per day for two sets of one hundred consecutive days, i.e. 84km per day for two hundred days. Year seven reverts back pretty much to year one, one hundred consecutive days of 40km. If at any point in these seven years you don’t feel you can make it, you are expected to take your own life with the rope and knife that you have to carry with you every step of the way.

That description doesn’t come close to doing it justice, so rather than stumble on, I’ve pasted in a far better explanation below.

(Reference: Tendai Marathon Monks – The Run of A Lifetime, by James Davis – The London Observer)

There is a group of men who could claim – though they never do – to be the greatest, toughest, most committed athletes in the world. They run for no other reward than spiritual enlightenment, hoping to help themselves along the path of Buddha towards a personal awakening. They are the so-called ‘marathon monks’ of Mount Hiei, Japan.


The monks, known as Kaihigyo, are spiritual athletes from the Tendai Sect of Buddhism, based at Mount Hiei, which overlooks the ancient capital city of Kyoto.


The ultimate achievement is the completion of the 1,000-day challenge, which must surely be the most demanding physical and mental challenge in the world. Forget ultra-marathons and iron-man events, this endurance challenge surpasses all others.


Only 46 men have completed the 1,000-day challenge since 1885. It takes seven years to complete, as the monks must undergo other Buddhist training in meditation and calligraphy, and perform general duties within the temple.


The first 300 days are basic training, during which the monks run 40km per day for 100 consecutive days. In the fourth and fifth years they run 40km each day for 200 consecutive days.


The final two years of the 1000-day challenge are even more daunting. In the sixth year they run 60km each day for 100 consecutive days and in the seventh year they run 84km each day for 100 consecutive days.


Author John Stevens, in his book, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei describes the running style which dates back over a thousand years. ‘Eyes focused about 100 feet ahead while moving in a steady rhythm, keeping the head level, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and the nose aligned with the navel.’


What makes all these distances even more amazing is the manner and the conditions in which the monks run. These runs are usually begun at night and are over mountain paths that are uneven and poorly marked. During the winter months the low temperatures and snow are a great hindrance to the runners. These monks do not wear the latest in footwear and clothing, but run in straw sandals, an all-white outfit and a straw hat. They also run on a diet of vegetables, tofu and miso soup, which modern athletes and nutritionists would deem to be unsuitable for endurance events.


Not only do they wear clothes and shoes unsuited to running, but they have to carry books with directions and mantras to chant, food to offer along the way, candles for illumination, as well as a sheathed knife and a rope, known as the ‘cord of death’. These remind the monk of his duty to take his life if he fails, by hanging or self-disembowelment. The course is littered with unmarked graves, marking the spot where monks have taken their own lives. However, there have been no cases of monks’ suicides since the nineteenth century.


During theses long runs the monks must make stops at temples of worship that can number up to 260. This means that the 86km run can take up to 20 hours to complete leaving the monk with very little time for recovery or rest, but there is an old saying that goes: ‘Ten minutes’ sleep for a marathon monk is worth five hours of ordinary rest.’ They also learn to rest sections of their body while running, such as their arms or shoulders.


And then there is the doiri, where the monk faces seven days without food, water or sleep or rest. During this time the monk will spend his entire day reciting Buddhist chants and mantras – perhaps up to 100,000 each day. The only time the monk will leave the temple is at 2am to walk the 200m to a well and return with water to make an offering. He is not allowed to drink any himself and the 200m walk can take up to two hours in the final days of the fast. During his time spent meditating there are two monks who are in constant attention to ensure that he does not fall asleep.


For several weeks before doiri, the monk will reduce his food intake so his body can cope with the fast. The first day is no problem, but there is some nausea on the second and third days. By the fourth and fifth days the hunger pangs have disappeared, but the monk has become so dehydrated that there is no saliva in his mouth and he will begin to taste blood.


The purpose of doiri is to bring the monk face-to-face with death. During this fast, the monks develop extraordinary powers of sense. They talk of being able to hear the ashes of incense sticks fall to the ground and, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the ability to smell food being prepared miles away.


Physiologists, who have examined the monks after conclusion of the rite, find many of the symptoms of a ‘dead person’. Monks talk of experiencing a feeling of transparency where everything good, bad and neutral leaves their body and existence in itself is revealed in crystal clarity.


When the Japanese Emperor maintained his court in Kyoto, the monks were afforded a special thanksgiving service in the Imperial Palace after completing their 1,000-day term and the ‘marathon monks’ were the only people who were allowed to wear footwear in the presence of the Emperor.


Even today thousands will turn out to watch a monk nearing completion of a 1,000-day term, as he runs the old course that now passes through Kyoto’s shopping streets and the entertainment district, complete with its bars, restaurants and strip joints. Many turn up hoping to be blessed by these special monks whom they believe have powers to heal.


Japan has the largest number of marathon runners per capita in the world. From the Arctic northern island of Hokkaido to the balmy tropical islands of Okinawa in the Pacific, each and every town will organise a number of long-distance runs and each school will have a strong running club.

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