Hampshire Runner

He Pants in Hants

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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.

1994: an ultra-memorable year

“What lap are you on?” he asked.

“Same one as you, mate,” I replied.

50 miles into the National 100km championships of 1994 in Greenwich Park, I had drawn level with Rob Littlewood, and simultaneously we had realised, with so many pre-race favourites dropping out in the hot conditions, there was a bronze medal up for grabs.

Rob, George Stoakes and I had but yards between us with about 10 miles to go, when George went off for a massage, just as I felt that Rob had started to have a bad patch.  George’s action made no sense to me at all, with a medal on the line – all I can assume is that the pressure of a three-way fight for that bronze was too great and his mind convinced him that he needed that rub-down.

I made a big effort and pulled away from Rob – 100 yards, 150, 200.  Each mile+ lap of the course included 400 metres on the track and, a bit later, when I exited the arena as Rob was entering it with about 4 miles to go, I felt I must have that medal won.

Then the hamstring cramps struck.

I had to ease back a touch, but constantly monitored the gap to Rob, which actually grew slightly.  I finished some 40 minutes behind second place but overjoyed to have taken half an hour off my PB and secured a national medal.

The icing on the cake was the award of a drugs test!  I had run 62 miles on a hot day, so the man from the anti-doping agency, with the large bottle of water and the test tube, had to follow me around for quite a while before I could ‘perform’.

I drove back to Basingstoke round the M25, stopping at South Mimms for a toilet break – over-rehydration by this point! – and took several minutes to shuffle to the facilities.

I was delighted not only because of the unexpected medal, but also because, when the chips were down and a medal was at stake, I managed to summon the determination and focus to grasp the opportunity.

A couple of months later, I ran the Humberside 24 hours, intending to post a performance that would get me noticed by the GB selectors.  I had run 134 miles in 1987 and needed something like that again to catch their eye.  Paul Bream was prerace favourite and led for over 100 miles.

Then he encountered problems of some kind and retired to a sleeping bag in his tent.  Lying second by now, I was hoping he would not reappear and so, to convince him of the pointlessness of such an action, I made sure that I ran, not walked, past his tent over the next several laps.

I don’t know whether those dirty, underhand tactics worked, but he did not re-emerge, and soon I was in the lead.

Now, towards the end of a 24-hour race, as you can imagine, it gets pretty hard.

With 25 minutes to go, I was 18 miles in the lead, walking round the track very slowly, and about to miss my PB by a mile or so.

“Come on, Steve – you can do this.”

It was my wife.  Yes, she was right – I could.  If I could just pour everything I had left into the last 25 minutes, then a PB, as well as a win, would be mine.  From somewhere, I started running 8-minute miles, maniacally circling the track as the minutes ticked by.

I beat my PB by about a mile.

And it was these two performances, more than any others, that laid the foundations for my joining the GB Ultra Squad in 1995, and eventually winning that coveted national vest in 1996.

And it all seems like a very, very long time ago!!

John Walker: blond mane, black vest, gold medal

In January 1992, my wife and I almost changed our round-the-world itinerary to divert from the South Island of New Zealand to the North.  The reason?  In Auckland, John Walker was going to try to become the first vet (over 40) to run a sub-four minute mile.

In the end, we didn’t – and neither did he, succumbing to injury before the attempt could be made.

He was already the first man under 3:50, and the first to run 100 sub-4s, in addition, of course, to his Olympic gold at 1,500 in Montreal 1976.  (For such a small country, New Zealand has an amazing history in the Olympic 1,500 with Jack Lovelock in 1936 and Peter Snell in 1964 winning gold in addition to Walker, with other medals for the likes of John Davies, Rod Dixon and Nick Willis.)

Walker was something of a popstar runner in the mid-70s, his long blond hair (which Mrs Wardale no doubt remembers!) contrasting with his all-black NZ racing uniform.  He and the other flying kiwis – Rod Dixon, Dick Quax – toured Europe in those years, seemingly winning races and breaking hearts at will.  I remember an article entitled, “Why Walker runs better on a lager,” which somehow encapsulated the group’s work hard, play hard approach.

Walker had burst onto the scene in the Christchurch Commonwealth Games of 1974, winning 800 bronze and then breaking Jim Ryun’s world record of 3:33.1 in the 1,500 with 3:32.5 – the only trouble was, Filbert Bayi of Tanzania had got there three-tenths sooner, leaving Walker with the silver.

He continued to impress and to dominate the longer event, running that 3:49.4 mile in Gothenburg in 1975.  In Montreal, he was favourite but still had to deliver.  He had got food poisoning before the 800 and did not advance from the heats.  In the 1,500, he kicked from 300 out and just held on as van Damme, Wellman and Coghlan came at him.

1977 saw the end of his dominance as Steve Ovett destroyed him in the World Cup.  Walker actually dropped out with 100 to go, and still cannot explain why.  The rise of Ovett and Coe saw him move up to 5,000, with limited success, and the 80s saw him turn his attention to accumulating a century of sub-4s – and winning one last medal – a silver behind Cram in the 1982 Commonwealths.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1996, but still seems to lead an active life, being a city councillor in Auckland and running an equestrian shop with his wife, Helen.

John Walker’s time at the very top of the miling tree was fairly short, but the memories of him from the 1970s – his frequent racing and usual winning, his refreshing attitude and his liking for a beer – will live forever.

My alternative greatest moments in running

There’s a lot of talk about the greatest moments in running, and they usually centre around Olympic gold medals or world records.  But some of the finest, in my opinion, are more obscure than that…………….

  1. Paula pushes Paul: Paul Evans, a 2:08 marathoner, tells of a session in the French Alps when he struggled to keep up with Paula Radcliffe. “I can’t let this girl beat me,” he kept muttering to himself until they reached the top of the climb (and Paula allegedly collapsed.) Paula also deserves a place in this list for her world record for conducting the fastest interview after setting a world record (Chicago 2002.)
  2. Eamonn high: Eamonn Coghlan had been fourth at successive Olympics (at 1500 in 1976, and at 5000 in 1980.) When he finally knew he was going to win a global gold – in the 5,000 metres at the first World Championships in Helsinki 1983 – he didn’t wait until the finish to celebrate. At the start of the home straight, before he had even passed the Russian leader, he clenched his fists and looked skyward, giving heavenly thanks for his ultimate victory.
  3. Bedford’s double: on 7th February 1970, Dave Bedford, while still a junior, won the Southern Senior and Junior Cross-Country Championships in the same afternoon. He had a rest of about 20 minutes between the races, and won the senior by 55 seconds and the junior by 61 seconds.
  4. Ronoburger: Henry Rono, breaker of four world records in 1978, once misjudged the timing of his indoor two-mile race. The starter called the runners to their marks while Henry was still finishing his burger and cola. He put down his lunch, won the race, but missed the world record by two seconds!
  5. Not half bad: Steve Jones ran 1:01 for the first half of the 1985 Chicago marathon. He 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.  Jones would also do things like winning two local 10km races in the same day.
  6. Bullet Bob: Bob Hayes probably reached the fastest ever speed achieved by a human in his last leg of the 1964 4×100 metres relay. Michael Johnson may have run a flying 9.20 for 100; Bob ran well under 9. When an American colleague of Hayes’s talked up their chances before the race, his interlocutor said, “But all you have is Hayes.”  “Man, that’s all we need,” came the reply.
  7. Flying Kiwi: Derek Turnbull, a 65-year-old sheep farmer from Invercargill, New Zealand ran 2:41:27 at the 1992 London Marathon. He didn’t train for weeks on end during lambing season, never stretched, never paid any attention to his diet (“just lots of dairy”) nor wore a watch during training.
  8. Zatopek’s curiosity: the training session that is most famous in running circles is when Emil Zatopek ran more circles than anyone else. His 60×400 for successive days is the stuff of legend. Only a fictional character (in ‘Once a Runner’ by John L. Parker) has ever dared copy him!  Zatopek allegedly pushed this up to 100×400 eventually.
  9. The longest kick: records are made to be broken; but they are usually only broken by degrees. When Haile Gebrselassie ran 5000 metres at Zurich in 1995, the pace was good up to 3,000 metres (7:44). But then Haile kicked and ran the last five laps in five minutes to reduce the world record by eleven seconds.  The previous record holder, Moses Kiptanui, who that night had just become the first man to run under 8 minutes for the 3,000 metres steeplechase, when asked what he thought of Geb’s feat, said: “Oh, he’s pretty fit at the moment.”
  10. The man who could do anything: on July 26th 1974, Steve 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. He was UK Junior Cross-Country champion at the time! In later years, Ovett 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.

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