Hampshire Runner

He Pants in Hants

Getting the word out

When I started school at 5 years old, I almost immediately developed quite a bad stutter.  Teachers would ask me questions and I wouldn’t be able to get the answers out; I would stutter and stammer, and tears of frustration would follow and flow.  In time, the teachers learnt to wait for me or, worse, stopped asking me questions at all.

(This is not about running, you say.  Give me time, I say, it will be relevant.  I will get the words out eventually!)

No one knew quite why I had developed this problem.  One theory was that the nurse giving me the mandatory school medical had held me down when I squirmed too much during the ear examination.  I went to speech therapists, who were kind but ineffective.

Every new year and every new teacher would present a new challenge as they did not know my situation (why had no one briefed them?), and I would have to take each of them through the whole excruciating induction course to my stutter……..

New teacher: “What’s the Latin for lion, Till?”

Me: stuttering peters out into silence.

Teacher: “You were supposed to learn this for homework, Till.”

John Grenville, the class tough guy: “Scuse me, Sir, Till probably knows the answer, but he sometimes has trouble with his words.”

Teacher: mumbled apology

An only child, I was isolated even more by this difficulty, but I forced myself to challenge it by doing things like entering verse speaking competitions – I even won one or two.  Sometimes, the words would flow out, and sometimes they were dammed.

I became School Captain, but Speech Day was a challenge too far.  At the practice of my speech in front of the headmaster and staff, I stuttered and stumbled my way through the few lines given me to deliver.  They asked me if I would like the Head Girl to make to speech instead.  Significantly, I asked to phone my mother, thinking I would be letting my parents down terribly by dodging this responsibility and this honour.

Even more significantly, I was surprised when she immediately urged me not to do the speech.  My parents so rarely let me off – or, rather, so rarely encouraged me to believe that I could let myself off.

I was sometimes sent to deliver messages, and I can remember struggling particularly badly one day to tell two of my parents’ friends about a change in some social arrangements.  When they next talked on the phone, I heard the phrase, “Poor Stephen,” more than once.

By university, I could converse well enough; it was just introducing myself, saying my name (well, when someone asks your name, there’s no way round saying, “Steve Till,” is there?).  That was the stumbling block, and social occasions were fraught with worry and embarrassment.  In normal conversation, once the introductions were over, I was still prone to stuttering, but I could always find an alternative word if I felt that one later in the sentence would trip me up.

But there was something else going on here too.

The effect of my stutter was multifaceted: at the time, it felt like a curse, but I now see different, positive strands to the way that it influenced my life.  Because I could not speak, I thought more.  Because I could not express myself orally, I wrote: I wrote poetry voraciously from the age of about 11.  And, crucially, because of my stutter, I developed the aforementioned verbal gymnastic skill in dodging difficult words.

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Researchers have said that 10,000 hours of mindful practice is the requirement to reach expert level in any given skill.  Musicians, sportspeople, writers, artists – all seem to fulfil that condition.  Even the ultimate child prodigy, Mozart, who started writing symphonies practically in the womb, conforms to the “rule” that he needed 10,000 hours of focused practice before he began to produce his best work.

Now, I am not claiming to be a Mozart, or indeed an expert, but surely it can be no coincidence that my stutter forced me to practise verbal gymnastics for several hours a day, encouraged me to think deeply, and prompted me to express myself in writing, so that by my mid-teens, I had probably clocked up the requisite 10,000 hours of intense creative preparation………..right about the time when I started to produce award-winning poetry.

****

I left university and started work.  Ironically, I gravitated towards roles involving public-speaking – sales, marketing, training roles.  I could do these, because I could always find different words or alternative phrases.

But I hated the phone.  So many times I had to hang up, when the other party asked my name.  It was my dirty little secret, and I knew with absolute certainty that I was a fraud and if my seniors ever found out about my stutter that I would be fired.  Of course, that’s not true; they would probably have been fine, but in the cut-throat world of US-led software sales in particular, it was dog eat dog, and it seemed to me that any weakness would be ruthlessly exposed and castigated.

I remember calling my manager from my car phone and not being able to say who it was.  I had to hang up.  The next time I saw him, I apologised about the terrible line which kept breaking up!  He said, “No problem…….. for a moment I thought you had a terrible stammer.”

That was like a knife through me.

I was right – it was an awful, shameful secret, which no one must ever know about.

Of course, some of my friends knew.  My wife-to-be knew.  I remember saying to her, “What if I can’t get the words out, when we’re taking our marriage vows.”

“Don’t worry, I will wait forever for you to say those words.”

****

Years have gone by, and the outward signs of my stutter have all but disappeared, but it is still there, and so even today, in every conversation, I mentally dodge words or reframe sentences to make them deliverable.  Only another stutterer would detect the hesitations, the reframing, the ummms and errrrs that ease my voice into difficult words.

But the stutter has had more effect on me than just enhancing my verbal expression.  I think, for obvious reasons, it has made me face challenges – challenges like running round a track for 24 hours – and it has made me feel that if a stutterer can win a verse speaking competition, be the prompter in the school play, be asked to give after-dinner speeches, deliver training courses, run seminars and host networking events, then I can meet other challenges too.

And it has also made me cynical about the loudest mouths, the quick wins, the sound-bite generation and the X Factor wannabees, and made me correspondingly appreciative of the quiet, the strong silent types, if you like, the unsaid, the deep, the background, the underlying patterns, the truth beneath the surface of life – and approving of those for whom long term commitment and unshakeable loyalty are where the real meaning in life resides.

One example: as you know, I love running.  I love watching running videos.  And for some reason I have always loved watching running videos of athletes in training, far more than those of their races.  Why is this?  It had puzzled me for ages.  Surely races are far more exciting and meaningful – they are the outcome, the proof of the pudding, what it’s all about.

But, no, I prefer the training videos…………..because I value most of all the commitment, the work that has gone on behind the scenes, private, hidden from view, that no one is shouting about, but is the reason behind the public race performance – which makes it the more truly meaningful activity.

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This revelation, along with all of the others in this blog, and so many more, have come as a result of my work for the last nine months with Stephanie Walters of The Positive Element, whose wonderful skills and empathy have empowered me to see the truth about myself for the first time in 60 years.

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For years, my stutter was my curse, my bete noir, my weakness, my dirty little secret.  It made me feel bad about myself, ashamed – made me feel that I was flawed, incomplete, disabled, weird even – and that therefore I had to hide it at all costs – or, if found out, to apologise profusely for it.  Only now do I know that it is my gift: stuttering has given me my creativity, my facility with words, my ability to think on my feet, my determination, my courage, my commitment, and even my value system.

But it has given me more even than that.  It has finally come full circle and put me at peace with myself.

Realising the positivity of my stutter has been the key to my realising the positivity of my life.

****

I remember Ronnie O’Sullivan, the snooker player, being interviewed after one of his World Championship wins.  He was asked if he would go on and try and win a record number of those titles.  His reply was along the lines of, “I am really not as mentally strong as guys like Ray Reardon or Steve Davis; I can’t take the pressure year after year, so I will just try and win one or two more.”

Of course, that mercurial mental “weakness” or inconsistency, was also the gift that made him the greatest genius ever to hold a snooker cue, able to record the fastest 147 break, and to play incredible shots – shots that no one else could make or even attempt – when, crucially, he was in the mood.

What honesty, what humility, to admit what he saw as his weakness!  And how great to be so at peace with it, to the extent of cheerfully describing it to millions of viewers!

Because my flaw, like Ronnie’s, is also my gift, the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, as the old metaphor has it.  And only now can I roll back all of the angst, the pain, the frustration, and the desperate secrecy associated with my stutter, and give it its full due.  In many ways, and in terms of whatever I am as a human being, it is because of my stutter.  It has been the making of me.

My curse has become my gift.

My quietude has given me so much to shout about.

My silence has given me my voice.

So…… for how many of us is this true, that what we or others perceive as our weakness is really the source of our strength?

That is the word that I want to get out.

Discovering the truth about the part that my stutter has played in my life has enabled me to move from ashamed to proud, from feeling bad about myself to feeling good, from feeling cursed to feeling blessed.

So…….. no more apologies.  If my stutter has made me quiet, if it has made me hesitant, if it has put me on the margins of social events, then I am OK with that, because only when you are quiet can you think deeply, only when you are hesitant can you make the right decisions, and it is only those who are NOT the life and soul of the party who see what is really going on in life, the underlying patterns, the true meaning.  (How much those extroverts miss!)

And that is me – quiet, hesitant, always in the kitchen at parties, yes……… and strong, thoughtful, creative, quick-witted, determined, courageous, committed too – and, you know what?  For the first time in my life, I am OK with that.

The Trail Runner’s Sonnet

The outcome of this trail’s unknown to me –

How far I’ll go, or where my steps will run –

Enough for me to hear and smell and see.

The path will tell me when my journey’s done.

Relaxing now as cares dissolve like mist,

And letting worries find their own way home,

I listen to the trail as quietly it insists,

Let all else fade, and make this time your own.

Reality is earth and air and sun,

Until a junction forks my chosen way.

No signs, no flags, no footprints lead my run,

No words except the ones the trail can say:

Enjoy the feel of movement over ground,

Remaining just as centuries have found.

The Toughest Race in the World

“Another great lap,” the cry rang out across Brands Hatch.

No, I wasn’t driving; I was cycling. It was the third discipline of what they were calling the Toughest Race in the World – the 1983 Foster’s Quadrathon. We had started in Brighton with a 2-mile sea swim, before race walking 50km up to Tunbridge Wells. We had cycled from there to the famed motor racing venue where the prescribed 100 miles of pedal power would be completed with 50 laps of the club circuit. Then there was just the small matter of the final marathon to Gravesend, of all place names.

The event attracted the usual nutters – long-distance cyclists, extreme triathletes, a few race-walkers, a bloke who held the world record for running a marathon whilst carrying a hundredweight of coal, Boy George’s brother, and Richard and Adrian Crane who had just run the length of the Himalayas in 101 days.

Cycling was the discipline I feared the most, its taking the most time of the four and my having the least pedigree in that sport. Nevertheless, after something like 10 hours, I was still going, suffering up Druids every time, and, it being the middle of the night now, one of my support team had stayed awake to shout me on.

“Another great lap.”

They didn’t feel that great and they weren’t slipping by that quickly, but they were going and I had trained for extreme challenges. A typical day involved running 10-20 miles to work, then a combination of race walking and swimming at lunchtime, with a long cycle home in the evening. The logistics sometimes went wrong, and I would arrive at work to find I had no shirt and only yesterday’s pants to change into.  My co-workers pretended not to notice.

The race had started eventfully at 5pm: during the swim, about a third of the 100-strong field were pulled out of the sea with hypothermia. One rather glamorous ultra-distance-running lady had attracted a lot of media attention in the build-up to the race, but she lasted less than half an hour.

“Serves her right for having 0% body fat,” said a competitor.

The walk was my strongest discipline and that passed smoothly enough, before the dreaded cycle. It was the laps at Brands I was fearing most, but there were also some unlit roadworks on the way there, which I managed to plough into.

Luckily, a doctor arrived on the scene within minutes. Luckily, I was OK. Luckily – and more importantly – so was the bike. The doctor told me later that when he first reached me, my pulse was so fast that he couldn’t actually count it.

Anyway, on to Brands Hatch – “Another great lap!”  Great friends, Mick and Rod, were supporting me, and Mick was supplying food and drink – and vocal encouragement – while Rod slept in the car. We later learned that he had fallen asleep with the radio on, draining the battery and necessitating a bump-start the next morning, when I finally left the circuit to start the marathon!

One of my competitors, John Hills, a bit of a pin-up with the girls, was so traumatised by Brands, that he had to have a cuddle with his girlfriend at the end of each lap.

“Pathetic,” said Rod.

Eventually, the bike leg was over – a compulsory 15-minute medical (“you’ve lost a lot of weight, Steve”) – and then off on the marathon. One competitor told me later that he was jogging down the hill from Brands to start the run when he saw someone cycling up to begin their 50 laps.

“You poor sod,” was all he could say.

The marathon was naturally quite hard and, by that time, we were so spread out that I didn’t see another competitor for the entire 26 miles, so I finished in 17 hours and 23 minutes, still in 6th place.

My friends took me off to a pub to celebrate, and asked me what I wanted to drink. My mind was a bit frazzled by this point, but Foster’s had sponsored the event so I asked for a pint of their amber nectar. It seemed like a good idea until the third sip when I fell sideways off my seat, and my friends picked me up, carried me to the car and drove me home.

The wonder is I came back to do it all again the next year.

Not stepping on butterflies

He ran among the butterflies but didn’t know what they meant. He ran and kept an eye open for deer, but he only saw them when he wasn’t looking.

He would decide on a time and a distance and sometimes a speed. He would sit on the stairs and put on his shoes, then open the door and go out. He would look at his watch, look at the sky and then he would start running. Slowly at first. Then with more of a rhythm. And by the time he reached the fields he would feel good. And the fields would look different every day. The rape would glimmer and glisten with yellow, except for the concave belly of the field that would blush green. And then even that would turn yellow and the whole field would soak him in its colour. And the corn would look gold one day and white the next. And the poppies were like a trail of blood around its edge. And he would run across the fields and sometimes a farmer would be there ploughing or reaping or bagging or something. But usually not. And sometimes someone would be walking their dog. Or there would be kids sitting at the bottom of the field by the cattle trough. But usually he would go unnoticed.

Except for the butterflies. In summer, the red admirals would appear at the edge of the rape fields. He didn’t know why. They would land on the hard, cracked, brown earth path that skirted the field and he would try not to step on them. They seemed to know he was there. Some of them flew alongside him for a while. He tried to avoid them, but sometimes he saw them late and he was never sure if they lifted off in time to avoid his footfall. He didn’t want to kill any of them. He wanted to find harmony with them.

He cut a corridor through the air, retracing the purposeful journeys of silent generations with his purposeless, silent one of today. In towns and villages, he kept to the back alleys and passageways, passing through communities without touching or changing them; the child, the animal inside him, at play; the man on the outside still clamped in seriousness.

He liked to think that he was getting back to nature when he ran, and he was gratified on his first few ventures into the fields when he saw a deer now and again. After that, he always looked for deer, like a talisman of nature to press into the pages of his running diary. But they were never there when he looked for them, only when he didn’t. Places where he’d seen them several times before yielded nothing, and just when he knew that he would not see one today, and he had given up (because he was getting back nearer houses, the sort of places where deer wouldn’t go,) one would dash across his path, or bound away through the long grass.

After a while he realised what was happening and smiled to himself. So then he would run and try not to look. And he would try not to hope to see. But he never saw them – not until he forgot he was trying not to look, and forgot he was trying not to hope to see.

 

All the truly great runners are called Steve

Yes, all the truly great runners are called Steve (or Paula!)

Steve Prefontaine.  Why him?  After all, he wasn’t that successful – some US records and a fourth place in the Olympics (1972 5,000 metres).  But there was something about Pre, something magical, mystical, mythical even, that communicated itself to fans, to the public, even across the Atlantic to a fledgling teenage runner in Croydon.

He would always run from the front and try to burn the others off; any picture of him running shows his eyes narrowed in intense, zen-like concentration and effort; they said that, when he stepped on his home track in Eugene, Oregon, the sun would invariably come out; he lived in a caravan at the foot of a mountain; he rebelled against the archaic amateur rules of the time; he looked like a pop star; he was a pop star to US track fans – they shouted, “Go Pre,” through his every race; and he died young, crashing his car after drinking perhaps too much beer, after winning his last race, defeating Frank Shorter in a near US record 5000.

I only saw him race once – ironically, in the one race he didn’t finish – the Coca Cola 2 miles at Crystal Palace in 1974, where Brendan Foster deployed his trademark mid-race burst to gain a winning lead.  But he was my first running hero and I remember him still.

Steve Ovett.  The man who could do anything.  On 26th July 1974, Ovett then still a junior of 18, turned out for his club and ran four races, the most impressive being a 21.7 200 metres on cinders.  As Athletics Weekly pointed out at the time, he was the reigning UK Junior Cross-Country champion!  In later years, he would do things like winning a half-marathon if his 800 metres race was cancelled.  Oh, and he won Olympic 800, European 1500 and Commonwealth 5000 metre golds, and set 1500, mile and 2-mile world records.  I was there at Crystal Palace in 1978 for the last of those: he passed Henry Rono halfway down the finishing straight, slowed to wave to the crowd, who proceeded to shout at him, so he would speed up and break Foster’s record by two tenths.  I like to think it’s partly my record.

Steve Jones.  The vest outside the shorts.  The crew cut.  The pacesetting – he ran 1:01 for the first half of the 1985 Chicago marathon, slowed down, and eventually missed Carlos Lopes’s world best (2:07:12) by one second.  Jones had set the previous world record the year before at Chicago, and he was the quintessential runner’s runner, doing things like winning two local 10km races in the same day.  Not only was he one of the very few who could accomplish something like that; he was the only one who would think of doing it.

Steve Cram and Steve Scott.  The British prodigy and the American testicular cancer survivor who holds the world record for the greatest number of sub-four minute miles (137) raced each other often.  Brendan Foster once said that if nobody trained at all, Cram would win every race because he simply had the most talent of any runner in history.  When they came first and second in the inaugural World Championship 1500 in 1983, Said Aouita was third and Steve Ovett fourth.  The commentators reckoned that Said was Moroccan for Steve.

Steve Spence.  The American marathoner got the best out of himself in training intelligently and relentlessly – and hanging back from the early pace in steamy Tokyo – to sneak a bronze medal at the 1991 Worlds, but that is not why I like him.  On 11th May 2016, Spence ran a sub-five minute mile for the 41st consecutive year.  His daughter, Neely (born the day that Steve ran Boston in 1990), was first American woman in the 2016 Boston Marathon.

Steve Smythe.  From sub-5 to sub-3.  Putting that feat in the shade perhaps is Steve Smythe, who on 19th February 2017 ran the Seville Marathon in 2:56:16, 40 years and 119 days since his first sub-three marathon – a world record span.

Steve Moneghetti.  The Australian marathoner set a world half marathon record at the Great North Run, and won Commonwealth bronze (1986), silver (1990) and gold (1994, being interviewed, completely composed, about five seconds after finishing).  He also finally got a World Championships medal – a bronze in Athens 1997 – and, most impressively of all, finished 30th in the World Cross Country in 2004 at the age of 41.

Etienne Gailly.  Grainy youtube footage shows the muscular Belgian paratrooper entering the London Olympic stadium first in the marathon of 1948, but he has nothing left, and Cabrera of Argentina and Tom Richards of Great Britain pass him on the track.  He stops and walks.  Officials shout to him and wave their programmes.  He staggers.  The fourth-placed runner can be seen in the distance.  Somehow he makes it to the line to claim the bronze.  He is stretchered off.

Steve Till.  The talent of Ovett or Cram, the commitment of Gailly, Prefontaine or Jones, the longevity of Scott, Spence, Smythe and Moneghetti – Steve Till can boast none of those, but is honoured to recognise, articulate and celebrate the special qualities of these running Steves.

Sally Gunnell: the only way is gold

“Are you Sally Gunnell?”

My son had qualified for the National Schools Cross Country championships in 2009, and I had walked across to a remote corner of the course to cheer him on, when I thought I recognised a lady standing there.

“Yes, I am.”

I took the liberty of thanking her for all the excitement she’d given athletics fans like me over the years, then we chatted about that day’s races and about her and Linford Christie and Colin Jackson – the big three of British athletics in the early 1990s.  She was there supporting her own son who was running the same race as mine, and then she said something that was very revealing.

“You know, I am having absolute kittens standing here watching my son.  I can’t even imagine what my mum and dad went through in Barcelona.”

Sally Gunnell, from Essex, made her name at 100 metres hurdles, indeed she was Commonwealth champion in 1986, but perhaps realising her limitations at world level at the shorter distance, she switched to 400 hurdles in 1987.  She progressed quickly and set British records at both distances in 1988, coming fifth at the longer event in the Seoul Olympics.

She worked hard and sacrificed a lot.  Her birthday is 29th July, often falling in the middle of a major championship.  I remember hearing that she allowed herself just one small glass of wine by way of celebration, when it did.

By the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, she was ready to fly.

How nervous were her parents?  How nervous was she?  Very is the answer, and it’s understandable not just because it’s an Olympic final and you want to perform to your potential.  I think, in addition, that the 400 hurdles is unique in requiring the athlete to perform technically difficult manoeuvres whilst experiencing increasing levels of lactic acid and therefore fatigue.  (This is perhaps why Ed Moses was so revered.)

One can imagine the feelings going through her mind – I have to get every single hurdle perfect – and I know it’s going to blooming well hurt.

She was only ranked third going into the Olympics, but she fought off the challenge of American Sandra Farmer-Patrick and won gold, repeating the victory in the next year’s World Championships in Stuttgart – this time with a world record.  She completed a remarkable set in 1994 by winning Commonwealth and European golds.

Linford got Olympic and world golds, but not the world record.  Colin achieved world golds and the world record, but no Olympic win.  Sally did the lot.

A daughter’s gift: a new running life

On 27th October 2014, my daughter, Gabriella Till, ran a mile round the field at the back of our new house, and changed my life.  She got me wondering.  I should be able to do that, I thought.

Let me give you a bit of context.  I had been a runner since 1971, but, since early 2010, when my left knee went dodgy and my right foot quickly followed suit, I had only really run in parkruns, not training at all during the week.  Inevitably, I had lost fitness, put on weight, got slower, lost more fitness, put on more weight……… – to the point where I could just squeeze out a sub-30 on a very flat parkrun, but my Alice Holt parkrun times were typically 33-35 minutes.  Indeed, my tailrunning times were becoming indistinguishable from my other performances!

So, on that beautiful autumn morning, I went out into the field and slogged my way round – slowly, tentatively, painfully – but at the end, I was smiling and glowing, and I felt like a runner, like an athlete, for the first time in nearly 5 years.

After that – well, you runners know how it is – one thing led to another.  I ran two miles the next day.  Then a bit more.  I started eating a bit more healthily.  And suddenly, I was running 31 at Alice Holt, then 29.  These weekly boosts of confidence inspired me to run more, add speedwork, stretch, do more in the gym – and eat more intelligently too.  My knee and my foot stopped me from running more than 3-4 times a week, but I was doing everything else I could to get faster.

On non-running days, I would race-walk uphill as fast as I could, hoping to boost my metabolic rate without stressing my joints.  I started rowing for half an hour on every gym visit – soul-destroying but body-enhancing, I called it.  I made small dietary changes – Americanos instead of lattes, porridge instead of buttery toast, salad instead of crisps and dips, chicken tikka instead of chicken tikka masala.

And I had discovered, almost by accident, the perfect virtuous weekly circle of running more often, eating more healthily, getting fitter and seeing my times improve, which then gave me the motivation to carry it all on the following week.  (The weekly challenge of parkrun was crucial to keeping that momentum.)

It felt great.  I did improve almost every week.  It was exciting.  I didn’t know how far I’d get, but I thought if I could just set one more Alice Holt parkrun PB (it was 28:21 back then), I would be happy.

Well, having now set 10 more Alice Holt PBs and numorous at other parkruns too, I am at the point where I am doing 23 for a flat parkrun and am down to 24:51 at my beloved Alice Holt.  I have also run longer races, even slogged round a marathon.  I EVEN won a (handicap) race; I EVEN EVEN overtook a certain Harry Till on Dragon Hill once.  My lead was temporary, but no less jubilant for that!

So, I want to thank those concerned for your encouragement and support (your surprise at my acceleration and weight loss has been an extra motivating factor!!) – thank you, my family, my friends, all you great people at Alice Holt parkrun (if you’ve never had the pleasure, it’s the sort of place where total strangers cheer each other on and come up to you and congratulate you on a PB!!) – and in particular I want to thank the only runner I know who has improved more than I have in the past couple of years – and, ironically, the one who kicked it all off in the first place – Gabriella Till!

 

Thursday mornings

I can only see five yards in front of me.  I can only touch the leaves and mud under my feet.  I can only hear my own breathing.  I can only feel my dog’s panting on the backs of my calves.

Life is reduced to the box I am in, just as big as my head-torch can light up.  It’s 10 past 5 on a Thursday morning, I am running round a field, and the world is mine!

I have been attending breakfast networking meetings on Thursdays for 15 years, and, having to exercise my German Shepherd first, I have been getting up early.  Last April, I decided to challenge myself – why not run 2 miles with her, instead of walking 1?

Seemed like a good idea at the time…………..

I get up just before 5, and as soon as my feet hit the bathroom floor, the whining starts from the canine department.  Back in the bedroom, I try not to put on too many layers.  I peer out of the window and try to discern the weather and the temperature.

Then downstairs – shoes on, head-torch, outer layer perhaps – and out into the night.

We make our way across the car park and through the woods to the field.  I click my watch by the tall bramble in the corner and we set off.  There is a distinct trail round the margin of the field that is runnable most seasons.  The field is nearly a mile round, quite hilly, but all of it is high with views south across the A31 to Worldham and Selborne.

I try and go as slowly as possible and let my body wake up.  The first lap seems endless, but then the second passes much faster.

If I’m feeling particularly wild, we might do a third!

It’s a wonderful sensory experience – or rather, lack of sensory experience.  Just the odd car on the bypass, and the odd streetlight, indicates a world beyond mine.

Clicking my watch by the tall bramble again, I walk on a hundred yards or so, turn and jog back to the gap in the woods to get home.

Inside, it’s 50 press-ups and stretch out hamstrings and quads.

I feed Roni, make a cup of tea, and listen to Pause for Thought on Radio 2.

And it’s just a lovely feeling – it’s my time, I’m very chilled, I’m not rushed, I’ve experienced a world that no one else has seen, I’m awake and ready for the rest of the day.  And I like the feeling that I have not got up just to get to work, that there is a little pause for me – and paws for Roni too!

Davos: reaching the mountain top

“Are you as proud of yourself as I am of me?” The lady with ‘ICELAND’ on her vest asked me.

We had simultaneously come to the same realisation – that we could actually finish this race.

The Swiss Alpine Festival, based in Davos, is the largest mountain running festival in the world, and the K78 event is the planet’s premier mountain ultramarathon.  The last Saturday of our week there saw the staging of a range of races from 10 to 78 kilometres, to suit all abilities.

The 209 Events group, of which I was a part, had spent the week acclimatising to the 2,600m altitude, and running and hiking among the beautiful alpine meadows and peaks.

I had spent most of that time worrying about the cut-offs!

An ageing ultrarunner of 50, I was still proud enough to enter only the longest event on offer!  And so I found myself analysing the strict schedule of times at which each part of the course would close.

The first 30km were mostly downhill to Filisur, with a 3:40 cut-off at that point.  I would get a decent chunk up on the schedule during that time, I thought, and have something in hand for the demanding mountain traverses to come!

Little did I know.

We rose before dawn, had breakfast in the hotel and made our way to the stadium.  Most of our group were doing one of the two K42s on offer, with only three of us opting to go longer.

The buzz in the stadium was fantastic – all shapes, all sizes, all nationalities, all nervous – and all too soon we were off, looping through the town to a chorus of “Good luck” from the rest of the group who had come out to cheer us on.

Now, those first 30km were indeed mostly downhill, but there were also some long climbs, some technical wooded sections, and, crucially, some bottlenecks where the early volume of runners meant agonising minutes were lost waiting for my turn over a stile or through a gate.

Filisur approached.  OK, I’ve got a bit of time.  Loop through the town.  Where’s the bloody cut-off point.  Another corner.  Not much time left now.  At last, I reached it in 3:37 – 3 minutes to spare.

From here the course basically climbs for over 10km, meaning a) I had to walk long stretches, and b) I was convinced I would not reach the next cut-off in time.  I had till 4:50 to reach Bergum; I was somewhat surprised to get there in 4:44.

Lordy, I had never spent so long in a race, KNOWING – not thinking, KNOWING – that I would not finish.

Chants had a cut-off of 6:05; again it came slightly earlier than expected in 5:58.  (it was here that an English guy in our group got to the cut-off 40 seconds late and was put on a bus back to Davos.)

And now the real work began!

From Chants, the course rises very steeply to the start of the Panoramaweg at the ski hut at Keschutte.  I mean very steeply – it was agony even walking.

At some point, I turned a corner and I could see the hut far above me – I had till 7:30 to get there.  I was walking with a Belgian in a distinctive orange jacket.  He had finished the K78 for the last 8 years; he wanted to make it 10.  I looked up at the hut again and apologised – I had to leave him and press on – over the river, round the switchbacks, up, up, up.

7:23!!

It was only now that I allowed myself to think that maybe, just maybe, I could do this.

I looked back down the mountain and saw my orange-clad companion – he was not going to make it 9 years in a row.

It’s at Keschutte that the race has a team of doctors who stop each runner as they come through, look into our eyes, and ask us how we feel.  They have absolute power: they pull out those whom they consider to be too spaced out to continue.

Because, apart from anything else, the next section over the Panoramaweg includes several mini glaciers and many exposed ridges.

I was obviously looking less vacant than usual, because they allowed me on, and I was able to walk and run the next two hours or so, along the well-named Panorama Way, taking in the alpine sights (including the K42 runners whom they route along the valley floor far below our vantage point), watching where I was putting my feet and trying to take it one mile at a time.

It was just after Durrboden (cut-off 9:50, time 9:37) with just the “easy” run back down into Davos to come, that my Icelandic friend summed up our achievement.

And so, we jogged through the beautiful alpine meadows, over streams, past farms, to reach the outskirts of Davos, where several of the 209 crowd had gathered to cheer me in.  From there it was a circuitous route around and through the town, finally running along the main drag, high-fiving the beer-quaffing locals who were sitting outside the cafes in the warmth of the evening.

Into the stadium, and a finish in 11:25:32 (cut-off 12 hours).

Medal, t-shirt, drinks (a compatriot drank a beer just after crossing the line and found that it locked up his jaw completely and made him unable to speak for the rest of the night!)

I walked back to our hotel and went into the restaurant where the rest were already eating.  Much to my surprise, they stood up and burst into applause.

I have been lucky enough to have experienced quite a few moments of intense pride, satisfaction and fulfilment in my running career, but this – coming from my fellow competitors – ranks among the very best.

Kip Keino: the African trailblazer

“How can they run so fast after running so far?”  I was 11, watching the 1968 Olympic 5,000 metres with my mother.  Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Kip Keino of Kenya were sprinting down the final straight, Gammoudi eventually prevailing by two tenths of a second.  I was hooked.  What speed!  What endurance!

Abele Bikila of Ethiopia had won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathons, but Keino was the first Kenyan to make an impact on world athletics.  He had placed fifth in the 1964 Olympic 5,000 and won golds at the 1966 Commonwealths, but Mexico City was to be his real breakthrough.

In the thin air of the Mexican capital, he defeated American world record holder, Jim Ryun, by 20 metres in the 1,500.  And, in addition to that and his 5,000 silver, he also bizarrely contested the 10,000.

In Munich in 1972, he cemented his legacy by winning the 3,000 metres steeplechase, at which he was a comparative novice, and taking a silver in the 1,500 behind Pekka Vasala of Finland.

The Africans were a proverbial breath of fresh in the athletics world of the 60s and 70s.  Keino couldn’t really hurdle – he put a foot on each of the steeplechase barriers – but he made up for such rudimentary technique with his speed on the flat.

Journalists visiting Keino and his compatriot Ben Jipcho (who took silver behind Kip in the steeple) at their training base in Nairobi were amazed to find them constructing their own steeplechase barriers – often several inches taller than the regulation height.

They were seen to be great natural athletes, but they also worked hard, running fast at altitude, to leave visiting westerners struggling in their wake.

Kip Keino won two Olympic golds and two silvers (the same as Sebastian Coe), plus three Commonwealth titles, but it is not for his medals that he is most remembered; it is more for his trailblazing on behalf of the continent of Africa, for the silky grace of his running style, for his uninhibited approach to racing, and for his sportsmanship and dignity as a man.

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