The Uselessness of the Long Distance Runner (with apologies to Alan Sillitoe)

The date is Friday August 13th 2021 and it’s 7.12am. A ridiculous hour of the day, really. Our protagonist (me) is out running and over the course of the next 46 minutes he will run for 5.36 miles before feeling tired, getting confused and heading home. His confusion will haunt him moments after he drinks a chilled bottle of water in his kitchen. Why did he not run the extra 0.85 of a mile which would have led him to a distance of 6.21 miles, otherwise known as 10km? What an absolute knobhead! Never mind, in a few days he’ll go back out and run the full 10km.

Fast forward 22 days. It is Saturday 4th September and our protagonist hasn’t been on a run since the aforementioned Friday 13th August. He’s feeling frustrated. He’s feeling quite angry. He’s not enjoying this period of inactivity. He’s still a knobhead. And he feels useless.

On Friday 13th August, by about 7.15am I was regretting going out on my run. I had a sore shoulder brought on by a ridiculous combination of decorating my kitchen and a brainwave while coaching my Under 13 football team that told me, ‘Yes, Graham, go in goal for the shooting practice! Throw yourself around like a man possessed! Ignore your age and show these young whippersnappers how it’s done!’ Now, with every step taken, pain shudders right up my arm and through my sore shoulder. By the time I’ve registered a couple of miles I have pins and needles in my hand and my index finger has gone very cold. Ignoring the signs that this could be a stroke or the beginnings of a heart attack, I run on. I really am a knobh…well, you know the rest.

For anyone feeling worried, don’t. I didn’t have a stroke or a heart attack. But I did end my run in a lot of pain. But don’t worry, twenty days later I got some help. Between that time and the end of my run I googled the problem and settled on the fact that I’d managed to damage a nerve somewhere between my shoulder and my chest. Despite the intense pain, a bit of self diagnosis told me that it would heal itself and that in the meantime I should just take Ibuprofen. I also decided that continuing to decorate would help.

I realise now that I am still a good 8 years short of qualifying to be a doctor and that as a healer I make a good knobhead.

It has hurt me to have to avoid running and my reluctance to seek medical help – coupled with the amount of time it takes to actually get medical help post Covid and using our surgery’s new phone system – will subsequently cost me more time. I will lose fitness and my burgeoning belly will continue to burge. Or grow.

By the time I got medical help – two days ago at the time of writing – it turned out my diagnosis was right, but that I can’t get a physio appointment for another four days. And that will also be over the phone, so the physio’s healing hands will have to be very special indeed. In the meantime, I feel horrible.

I think I’ve made myself worse with comfort eating too. We went away to Scarborough for a few days and then Newcastle after that meaning five whole days of eating out and I didn’t even attempt to hold back and think healthily. ‘Are you having a pudding?’ quickly became not only a rhetorical question, but a stupid one too.

At home, what with it being the summer holidays, I’ve succumbed to a policy of ‘a beer a night’, which although that’s not heavy drinking, is a lot more than my usual. I’ve also relapsed in my dangerous crisps and chocolate addiction, making any trip to Home Bargains or B&Ms into an actual expedition. While I haven’t exactly piled the weight on – no surprise if you know me – this has still left me out of shape.

Having sought medical help and got my hands on some prescription pain killers and a telephone conversation with a physio, this morning brought another setback. Look away now if you’re young, fit and healthy. The ease with which this type of thing can happen in middle age might be a bit of a shock.

I was out in the supermarket, doing our weekly shop and had crouched down to scrutinise the very bottom row of school shirts. You’d be surprised at the rarity of sized 12-13 short sleeved white shirts in the George at Asda uniform section. Thus, I really had to peer deep and low to find what I wanted. But just before I located it I had an almighty spasm of pain through my lower back. I couldn’t move, was worried I might cry in front of some mums and toddlers – again – and it took my about 10 seconds to realise that I was holding my breath. When I straightened up to a standing position, the pain increased.

This will undoubtedly cost me more time away from running as I’ve struggled with my back for years. It once went completely as I arrived at work and put the handbrake on in the car! However, since getting fitter and stronger with the amount of exercise I got through in lockdown after lockdown after lockdown, it hadn’t been much of a problem at all.

Running has been an excellent help to my somewhat surprisingly fragile mental health over the last year or so. I’ve found this last year tough for a number of reasons, but whenever I’ve been able to go out running I’ve felt focused and free of any number of problems. I’ve also felt fitter and stronger and the distances run and the times achieved have been a real boost, mentally. Like I say, it has hurt not being able to run.

While I’m running I am almost forced to think things through. At my age, this is a good thing as it also allows me to take focus away from how much my body hurts! But it’s also an opportunity that I’m really pleased to be able to take. Other than traffic or people on pavements, I have little else to occupy my mind and I know that I can make decisions during this hour or so; I can solve problems.

Going out for a run means that I can think. I have time to think ‘things’ through, whatever they might be, and often by the time I’m back home I just feel a great deal lighter, so to speak. I head out, fresh faced and often feeling a bit weighed down by what life happens to be throwing at me and by the time I return I’m red-faced and sweaty, but visibly happier, even if I look like I might just be about to collapse.

Three weeks into my enforced rest, and only just back at work for a new academic year, and I’m really feeling tired and more than a little bit troubled by it all. Not being able to run is just horrible. Sometimes, I might allow myself to think that a rest might be nice, but 99% of the time I’ll force myself to get out and go for a run, setting a minimum target and then pushing really hard to eclipse it. I always feel better afterwards. Being injured like this has taken that away and it’s really not pleasant.

I’m hoping that within a fortnight at most I’ll be able to get back out again and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to run far enough and for long enough to have a good old think! In the meantime, I’m looking forward to my telephone physio appointment, which promises to be a whole new experience and hopefully the thing that starts putting stuff right!

The uselessness of the long distance runner is not a feeling I’m enjoying.

Book Review: ‘Why Running Matters’ by Ian Mortimer.

For many of us running really matters. It’s been a lifelong interest for me and something I’ve done with varied levels of success, interest and effort since I was very young indeed. As it stands, I think I’m going through what some might call a slightly evangelical phase with my own running and probably boring most of the people I know in singing its praises. So a book on why we run was a very exciting prospect!

Ian Mortimer isn’t a runner, in that it’s not his profession. In fact, where running’s concerned he’s not unlike myself; middle aged, enthusiastic competitive and probably a bit more injury prone that we’d both like. However, while I’m a humble English teacher Mortimer is a historian and the writer of the best selling Time Traveller’s Guides series.

On approaching his 50th birthday, Mortimer made a series of vows or challenges to himself. In amongst them were taking part in 45 Parkruns and 5 half marathons across the year, producing an album of his own music, seeing a Shakespeare play and organising three concerts by world renowned musicians. In amongst it all, he’d write this book. Phew!

So the book itself is one hell of an achievement. Finding time to write it in amongst all that running and other activity is quite something. By coincidence, I am too approaching my 50th birthday and while Mortimer’s challenges prompted similar thoughts of a series of challenges or ambitions, I was glad I’d picked it up in August when it was far too late to attempt as much as Mortimer did!

The book chronicles Mortimer and his running companions’ performances at the Park Runs and the half marathons, while also attempting to contemplate exactly why it is we run. Because clearly, like the title tells us, running matters, but it’s what it actually means to people that is explored here.

A source of irritation throughout the book was that Mortimer is a really decent runner! Mean spirited I know, but reading about his times and placings in various Park Runs left me feeling quite jealous and more than a little bit irked! But I suppose this is part of what the book is about; we run to be competitive. And the book delves into this in great detail because Mortimer seems incredibly competitive and so while his times were irritating – and accompanied with a smile from this reader too – it left me feeling quite a warmth towards the man himself. His determination was inspirational while remaining quite comforting. Every time he went out to run he was looking to improve on times and performance, which is very much my approach. Sadly, I’m not always successful here!

Reading of Mortimer’s running adventures all over the south west of England was really interesting. HIs descriptions of the various courses, weather conditions etc felt comfortingly familiar, even though I haven’t taken part in any of the races. But his thoughts and theories all held weight with me. And the atmosphere of all those Parkruns did too! Mortimer also wrote a lot about running with his sons and while occasionally the dose of schmaltz involved was a bit much, as someone who occasionally runs with his own son, I could empathise his his pride and enjoyment in doing so.

‘Why Running Matters’ is a really interesting and well-informed book. Mortimer knows his stuff. He’s an experienced runner who has thrown himself into races and challenges of varying levels over many a year. It was this that had me nodding along enthusiastically throughout my time reading. And although it would seem to have a bit of a niche target audience, I would argue that there’s something here for a lot more than just those of us who run. Mortimer’s year is undoubtedly inspiring and the discussions on the competitiveness, camaraderie and the at times almost meditative side of running would hold the interest of many a reader, whether they run or not.

If you’re a runner who wants to read about running, then – obviously – this is the book for you and you’ll certainly get a lot out of reading it. However, even as a non runner, if you’re someone looking for inspiration or even just a gentle push towards the door and searching out something to do with your time, you’ll enjoy ‘Why Running Matters’. And if you’re one of those people who watches runners from the comfort of your car as they pass and just wonders why, then the book will at least help explain what on Earth it is we’re thinking when we leave the house to pound the pavements squeezed into all that lycra!

I give ‘Why Running Matters’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Running Tips for Beginners and enthusiastic old people alike!

Let me start by pointing out that in no way am I any kind of expert on running. So I’m not claiming that what I write about in this blog is any kind of guarantee of success. There is no way on Earth that reading this blog is going to make you some kind of Olympian! However, as someone who’s ran on and off – more on than off, but a little stop start now and again – for most of his 49 years, I can certainly say that I speak from experience.

Running is something I’ve always loved. It was something that I started at school and success at junior school sports days whetted my appetite. I discovered very early on that I was in possession of a good turn of pace and despite my size, was capable of beating more or less anyone I raced. For a while at least. A heart problem put pay to that and once I recovered I found that I wasn’t the ‘athlete’* I’d once been.

*The term athlete is being used with quite an amount of creative license here by the way. I was a quick kid but that was about the size of it!

With my childhood heart problem taken care of I started running again, albeit not as well as before. But I really wanted to raise money for the heart unit where I’d had my operation and so, to cut a long story short, I started running more regularly and more seriously. I started to do sponsored fun runs and from there graduated to doing the Great North Run, a half marathon, raising money as I went. After that, I just kept on running either for fun or more competitively for clubs. In my time I’ve completed a number of half marathons, but mostly just ran for fun. That said, that’s a lot of running! And in the last few years, following more heart problems, I’ve started running much more regularly. It’s amazing what a health scare can do for you! So you never know, there might just be a bit of common sense in the tips that I can offer! So here we go…

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation! I can’t lie; there are far too many times that I go out having not prepared properly. If it’s an evening run I tend to make the excuse that I’ve been on my feet all day at work, so I’ll be fully warmed up anyway. But it’s never true and the proof is never more evident in those first couple of miles when I can’t get into my running or afterwards when everything seizes up! So, it’s a little bit of a case of doing what I say and not necessarily what I do here. Take time to warm up. Stretch thoroughly and perhaps even go as far as some running on the spot beforehand. Your body will thank you for it later! Stretching isn’t the only thing you can do though. I always make sure that I’ve had a blast on my inhaler – I’m asthmatic – as I don’t want to be too out of breath too soon. I’ve also started eating a handful of pine nuts and cashews before I head out, just in the hope of a bit of an energy burst. Pine nuts are good in terms of being heart healthy and contain things like iron and magnesium, which can boost energy. Don’t eat so many that you end up running with indigestion, but I always find they help me along the way. Cashew nuts contain healthy fats and again are heart healthy. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things dietary, but even if it’s as a placebo, I find that handfuls of things like this help me out.

The final thing that I make sure I do is to have a few jelly sweets in a pocket, ready for a quick sugar rush when I feel I might be flagging just a little bit too much. My personal choice are Mike and Ike’s, a nicely sugary coated import from America, available in B&Ms brilliant and strange American Confectionary section. Other jelly based confectionary, American or otherwise, is available. All over the place.

2. Clothing. Unless you’re into naked running, clothing is a vital part of your armour as a runner. Some would say it’s essential. From a personal point of view, having never tried naked running, I’d always go with clothing; no one repeat no one, needs to see me and my middle aged body charging down the road, in the nip as they say.

Silliness aside, good quality running gear is important. But there are levels here. I’m not someone who feels the need to splash ridiculous amounts of cash on what I’m sweating into, but I do want to feel comfortable and at least look the part without it being a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’.

The most important thing – in my humble opinion – is to get a good quality pair of trainers that you’re comfortable in. I used to run in Nike flats, but found that their very thin nature meant that they wore out relatively quickly. So eventually I went for a reasonably priced pair of New Balance 680 v6, which feature a nicely cushioned sole. Game changer! Suddenly I was running faster, going further and more importantly at my age, not suffering with aches and pains for days after. You could say that I’m a convert to cushioning. I’ve since bought a new pair of New Balance, but my 680s are hanging on in there and I’m out running in them regularly. I’ve found that some good quality running socks feel a lot better too.

In terms if what else I wear, I prefer 2in1 shorts, with an inner cycling short lining. I’m all for keeping those hamstrings warm! What I would also advise with running shorts is that you buy something with some kind of pocket. That way, anything light that you need to take can be stored away. My pockets always have a few jelly sweets and I find my door key handy for getting back into the house!

I’d also advise buying specialist running tops. I’m a t-shirt man myself. My build just doesn’t lend itself to vests and no one needs the sight of any more of my body! What I would say is that you should have something bright or even high viz, just for your own safety. It’s surprising how people many just don’t see you coming, so be as visible as possible, especially on more murky days or evenings. With this in mind, I was pleased when my wife bought me a couple of light up bands that I can wear around my upper arms in winter. If it gets too late and the light is cutting in, I just flick a switch and they light up, leaving me to focus on my running rather than whether or not I might get knocked over! They’re lightweight and comfortable too, which is ideal for people like me who hate running with anything annoying attached to me. You can see the kind of thing I mean below, although there are lots of variants on this particular accessory.

3. No excuses. Until the last 18 months or so I’ve always been brilliant at coming up with excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out for a run. And excuses as to why I should come in early from a run. Drizzle, too windy (weather, not me), a niggling and sometimes not real injury, not enough time, too close to lunch, not enough sleep, not in the right frame of mind, too windy (me this time), too sunny…I’ve gone through phases where anything I could tell myself would be enough to stay where I was and not head out for a run.

Don’t do it. Those endorphins won’t release themselves. However tired you think you feel, however bad your day at work was, get out for that run. Keep up the momentum. You’ll feel better for it. You’ll be pleased with yourself. You’ll have improved your fitness, just a little bit. But if you let that excuse keep you in then you’ll find another one the next time and even when you get back out again, you’ll excuse yourself some more, another time.

Once I stopped making excuses and just getting out there, I got fitter, stronger and faster. It’s taken me a long, long time, but nowadays the weather and the niggles don’t get in the way and I’m absolutely loving my running.

4. Plan a route (kind of). Personally, I don’t like to plan a very detailed route, but I like an idea of where I’m going, vaguely which set of streets I’ll be running along and more to the point, where I turn for home. I keep it vague for one reason: if I want to add a chunk of running in, I can and that means that I can feel good about myself once I get home. If I know that where I’m headed will take me say for 5km but I’m feeling good, then I might add a few extra streets in and before I know it I’ve covered an extra kilometre or two. And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Maybe it’s just a me thing, but I’d definitely recommend it. I suppose in a way it means I get to explore little bits of town, rather than just running another circuit of somewhere and I find my way a bit more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to keep my mind distracted from how my legs are doing and heading down a couple of new streets does just that!

5. Recovery. Over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that once I get back in after a run, my next hour or so is really important. I always used to make sure that I had a drink of water, but it was never anywhere near enough. And I’d never stretch.

Nowadays everything has changed. When I remember, I put a bottle of water into the freezer before I head out for my run. I’ll neck that as soon as I get in and then refill and drink slowly for a while. I might even refill again after that. I also make sure I eat a banana as soon as I get in. I might even have more cashews or pine nuts. If I have any pain I have a massage roller ball that I put in the freezer and then massage with when I get home and it works wonders! And I make sure I stretch again. This is usually done while lying or sitting down, touching my toes or painfully pulling my feet back behind my back. Before, I might well have just flopped down in a chair and watched television, then wondered why my muscles just stiffened up half an hour later. I’d wake up next morning and find it difficult to walk, such was the stiffness in my legs and back. And then lockdown happened.

During lockdown I read a lot of things about running and exercise. I also did online workouts and learnt the value of warming down and recovery from this. I can’t recommend it enough. The stretching helps to loosen and lengthen the muscles again and the fruit and snacking helps throw vitamins back into the body, which can only help. The water replaces fluid that you’ve lost while also refreshing you, obviously. It seems obvious now and why I totally ignored recovery for so many years is beyond me, but I would absolutely recommend that you take far better care of yourself after you’ve ran. You’ll feel so much better for it.

I hope these tips – some more obvious than others – will come in handy for you. Like I said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve found that these things have helped my running immeasurably. I’m faster and stronger, but more to the point, I enjoy my running much more than ever.

As usual, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Oh, and happy running!