Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Point of No Return: This Is My 2013 Moment

Ladies and Gentlemen o’t’Internet: Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Hear Ye!!!
…this, you’ll be delighted to know, will be my last pre-Greater Manchester Marathon post!!! By extension, hopefully, my last post as a marathon virgin… as a non-maratoneta…

I hope to return from Lancashire with a happy post but I wouldn’t bank on it:
1) firstly, post-marathon blues is a recognised condition: you work towards a major goal, you have your target to get you out of bed on those dark, cold and windy mornings… and suddenly it’s gone. It’s the same as with major projects in any other field of life. From a running perspective, suddenly you’ve nothing to work for or towards. I may be naïve, but I’m not overly concerned about this – not least because two weeks on Sunday I’ll be back Up North, running the Sheffield Half
2) secondly, I have no idea as to how Sunday will go. In my mind I have three times (more on those later): here’s hoping I make one of them…
3) last but never least, I’m a mardy bum. By nature. It’s my default setting.

Right – as a starter, let me try and offer a brief answer to the question I’ve been asked many a time this week:
“How are you feeling?”

My answer has been fairly consistent:
“Nervous as an adult, excited as a kid”

Bizarrely, the concept of what we know as kids and forget by growing up is examined in great philosophical detail in the book I’m currently reading, Mark Rowland’s
“Running With The Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality”. It’s a great read, although a challenging one – just about right to set me up for a 26.2mi slog, I guess. But I’d come up with my answer before I began reading it. Because I am nervous: I’m nervous about the logistics, about the practicalities leading up to the race going smoothly, about sleeping well the night before… that’s why I’m packing a mixture of muesli and granola cereal in an old Nesquik tub and taking it Up North with me, together with some bread, bananas and a jar of peanut butter, just in case they run out at what is set to be a runner-filled, carb-hungry Premier Inn Old Trafford. Someone from the hotel rang me today, incidentally, to advise me that the Manchester Marathon’s taking place on Sunday and it will entail road closures… excellent service, just not that relevant to me. And not because I don’t drive.

So yes, I’m nervous. The adult in me knows how much I’ve invested in getting this right, how much can go wrong before and during the race, and is inevitably aware of, but not daunted by, those possibilities. The adult in me has drawn up a 30-row spreadsheet with all the key timings for the weekend – and I don’t mean pace or race times, rather wake-up times, bus times, train times, meal times and… pub times! As for the kid in me…

Hey, he just wants to get out there and run!

On the whole, I know once I cross that line I’ll be fine. Which is not to say all will be perfect, or will have been up to that point. It just means that, once the curtains are opened, once you walk on stage, you just need to do the best you can. There’s no point in worrying at that stage. Beforehand, yes: to reduce the risk of things not going according to plan. Afterwards, yes: to learn lessons for the future. But during? During you just need to give it your best shot.

As for those three times to which I hinted earlier…

…let’s first take a quick glance at p. 42 of Phil Hewitt’s “Keep On Running: The Highs And Lows of a Marathon Addict”, one of the early sections of his book in which he quotes advice from Pamela, a surname-less runner from Macmillan’s Cancer Charity Team (for whom Phil ran his first marathon) who guided him through that and set him on his way to become an expert in his own right/write:
“[…] Pamela was wonderfully wise. She was at great pains to point out to me the dangers of fixating on a particular time. Her theory was that you need to have three times in mind: one you would be overjoyed with, one you would be happy with and one that you would consider adequate. In reality, an experienced marathon runner will probably take a more zonal approach, with the range of emotions -over the moon at one end and severely hacked off at the other- shading one into the next over a spectrum”.
Well, I’m no experienced marathon runner, so we can do without the zonal approach and take a more time-marking one (scusa Arrigo).

From the moment I signed up for Manchester, I made it quite clear that I’d be delighted with a sub-4hr finish. And let me make it most and unequivocally clear that I would still be delighted with a sub-4hr finish!!! But…

…yes, there is a ‘but’. I signed up for Manchester 205 days ago. Since then, I’ve run 1,541 miles, clocked a 1h35’54” half, run 16.2mi in 2h05’ and embarked on seven 20mi+ training runs between February 12 and April 7. So, much as I’d still be delighted to join The Sub-4hr Marathon Club at my first attempt, that has become my ‘adequate’ time. Which means that:

my ‘adequate’ time is 3h59’59”

my ‘happy’ time is 3h44’59”;

my ‘overjoyed’ time is 3h29’59”

Let me just sit back and take that in. Whilst they are numbers I’ve had in my mind for some time, this is the first time I’ve actually stared at them on a screen..! Eeh bah gum…

OK: let me put some disclaimers in place before going any further.

I am under no illusion as to how tough it is to clock 3h30’. OK, so three weeks before Manchester I ran a 3h13’ 23.2-miler at 8’20”, setting off at 5:52am with no crowd for company. Does it follow that the crowd, the adrenaline and a more awake body will help me shave off 20 seconds/mile and add three more miles to my run?

No, it blinkin’ well doesn’t!

What does follow is that I feel entitled to give it a go. I feel entitled to join a 3h30’ Brooks Pace Team in the hope that I will find it easier to hit 8’/mi mile after mile after mile, the way I did for 16 miles last week when I averaged 7’46”/mi without ever going into 8’/mi territory. The company will help, might even reduce the impact of “race traffic”. Mind you, even that’s a cause for concern in so much that I thought I’d updated my Pace Team preference from 3h45’ to 3h30’ yet that’s not reflected in what I’ve been sent, so now I’m concerned about being able to reach a 3h30’ team from my starting zone B…
...anyway, just as I feel entitled to give 3h30’ a shot, I feel unquestionably entitled to drop off that pace if… if…

…well, if I blinking well want to! No excuses / explanations required!!!

I am aware that my goal is extremely ambitious. It’s ambitious for most runners, let alone a marathon virgin like me. But, as I’ve said before, I’d rather drop off that pace than reach the finishing line knowing I had more to give. If I slow down, so be it: better that than find I can accelerate but not sufficiently or over a sufficient length of time. Better to aim for a higher star and fall onto a lower one if I miss it than aim too low and find myself falling all the way back to earth if I don’t reach it. And, Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s an expression that came to mind when I was out running earlier in the week: it is my gift to you and I hope you like it.

Besides… OK, so I ran 16mi in 2h05’ last week. Whoopi-do for me!!! Ra ra ra!!! G-O-S, G-O-S, G-O-S!!!
Bullocks. Means nothing unless I can repeat that come Sunday. So let’s try to reach mile 16 in 2h08’, given that the pace team will run at 8’/mi but go by mile markers rather than Garmins, meaning it’s how much of the route, rather than how much I’ve run by dodging other runners, that will matter. And then?

Then, my friends, we’ll see. I’ll be 10.2mi from the finish line. If I can cover that distance in 1h22’, I’ll be absolutely ecstatic. But you know what? It could take me 1h37’ (9’30”/mi) and I’d still clock a highly satisfying 3h45’. For that matter, it could take me 1h52’ (11’/mi) and I would still hit my initial goal and join The Sub-4hr Club. But let me make another thing categorically clear:

I am not taking those first sixteen miles for granted! Nooo Sirrreee!!!

What’s in the past is there forever: dirt under the soles of my shoes that’s long gone. I might have picked it up in France, in Italy, in the USA, in Sweden, in Germany, back here in the UK – but it’s gone. Looks good on Strava but that’s about it. There is a lot that can go wrong on Sunday, from overnight rest to breakfast, from race traffic to injuries, from epileptic seizures (hey, let’s not discard that little possibility) to…

To just not being in the zone. I have proven to myself that I can run at 7’46”/mi over a decent distance in the past, just as I ran a Half Marathon at
7’15”/mi pace: but that counts fer nowt nah. It’s all about Sunday. It has been for 205 days, but never as much as now. And, for all those long runs, I’ve never run 26.2mi. Neither my body nor my mind know what’s going to hit them in those final three miles. I feel I’ve prepared well, but no rehearsal can prepare you for the real live performance.

Whatever the challenge, there are always balances to be struck. Cometh Sunday, here’s one that will be critical to my performance:
a) On the one hand, I need to be realistic. I need to respect the marathon the way I respect ‘even’ a 10k. Yes, folk will tell you that, if you train adequately, ‘anyone’ can run a marathon. But folk say lots of stuff: some even reckon man set foot on the moon. Personally, I believe I can get round the 26.2mi but I know I mustn’t get too cocky when it comes to pace. Lest we forget: the first fella to ever run a marathon, good old Pheidippides, died virtually upon arrival!
b) On the other hand, I need to push myself. I need to believe the likes of Martin Bown (ever the flatterer, as per my last post) when he tweets me:’re a great runner, with the potential to be exceptional.

It’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness. It’s a fine line between having faith in your own ability and taking success for granted. Swagger can be good; arrogance rarely is. It’s a balance every performer has to find when they set out on stage, carrying with them their nerves and fears whilst conscious that there are people waiting for them who have parted with time and money to be there. And we’re all performers at the end of the day, whether our stage is Wembley Stadium, guitar or goalkeeping gloves in hand, whether it’s the local school or whether it’s the dirty streets of Manchester, filled up or lined up by enthusiastic locals. When I step over that line on Sunday morning, around 9am, I will be putting on a performance: for the locals but also for those who’ve sponsored me, all the well-wishers, all the relatives whom I want to make proud…
…for those whom I’ll be carrying in my heart: those who, no doubt, will carry me through the hardest moments, just as they’ve done ever since I first laced up the Asics…
…and, last but by no means least, for myself. I’m not that generous that I’m only doing all this for other folk. This matters to me.

To surmise these thoughts and emotions, let me turn once again to the words of Bruce Springsteen:

“You've got to be able to hold a lot of contradictory ideas in your mind without going nuts. I feel like to do my job right, when I walk out onstage I've got to feel like it's the most important thing in the world. I've also got to feel like, well, it's only rock and roll. Somehow you've got to believe both of those things”.

And that’s exactly what I need to do on Sunday when I cross that starting line shortly after 9am. For the following four, five, whatever hours, the 2013 Greater Manchester Marathon will be the most important thing in the world – in my world. But, ultimately, hey, it’s just a run. Just another run. One for which fortunately I am in the shape of my life, the form of my life. ‘Fortunately’, but also because I’ve put in the effort, the miles, and I know that. I’m ready, Manchester… yes I had bacon with my egg-fried rice tonight, yes there’ll be bacon in tomorrow’s carbonara sauce (unless I cast mine aside), yes I feel guilty about that but, nonetheless, I’m ready

…quite helpfully, the legs feel ready. I’ve been tapering over the past few days and it’s been really good to feel in control, to run around or just under 8’/mi without it feeling as if any major effort was being expended. Certainly nowhere near as much effort as that milestone 5k I ran last May – you know, the one that took me 34’..!
It’s also been interesting to run in a bit of sunshine, around lunchtime. It still doesn’t bring back memories of my best-of-five set singles matches against Mauro between noon and 2pm in Italy in July 1992 but hey, that’s no bad thing. Manchester’s not set to be scorching on Sunday: forecast at time of writing is for a dry day with a maximum temperature of 8C: I’ll take that! But hey, if that changes so be it. There are thirteen water stations, after all.

Legs ready, mind ready: focused, confident yet not stressed (give or take a few moments) or cocky. So thanks, one and all, for keeping me company along this ride from buying a pair of running shoes to heading towards my first marathon. It’s hard to put into words just how much it’s exceeded my initial expectations, when I first crossed The Point Of No Return and felt that it was My Moment. That was a year ago, when I bought those Asics and took them out for a 20’ run/walk. On Sunday, April 28, 2013, when I cross that starting line and my chip beeps, I will pass a second “point of no return”; on Sunday, when I cross that finishing line and my chip beeps again, I can but hope it will be “my moment”. Just a different point and a different moment to April 2012.

At some point on Sunday, I will cross that finishing line, too. And that will be the moment when, regardless of the time, I will become a maratoneta. Lovely word, ‘maratoneta’: a single word, ten letters to say “marathon runner”. To say: You put in the effort, you mix that with whatever talent you’ve been given, and you crossed that line. To say: You pulled off what was written on the back of the Brighton Marathon 2012 shirt, as per Martin Bown’s photo:

One final quote from Mr Bown: here’s hoping he got this one right, an’all:

Thanks again for your support over this year. Thanks for every tweet, every text, every comment, every answer, every pound donated… it’s been onehelluvaride. Now pack your bag: we’re going to Manchester!

Oh yes, you’re coming too! In my heart. It doesn’t mean you can claim to have run a marathon if I pull it off, but it does mean I’ll be thinking about you when I cross that finish line, #handsoverhearts. But now, so-called ‘Greater’ Manchester, this fat lad from Sheffield’s coming to getcha. I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hack'd. Give me my armour, my polyester short-sleeve shirt. And my White Rose. I’m on my way...
…running, stumbling On My Way.

We made a promise we swore we’d always remember… no retreat, baby, NO SURRENDER!

For my Brothers, always

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Stepping Out Over The Line

Right then – four days to go!

So – what shall I write about today? The tapering? The nerves? The excitement? Bruce Springsteen?

Oh go on then – yes, let’s talk about Bruce…
…not least because I figure I haven’t done enough of that over the past year or so!

This blog has been reassuringly free of ‘Born To Run’ references. The one instance on which I wrote about my relationship with Springsteen and his music came back in June last year, when it was one of the 7S I credited/blamed with me being the person I am. So for all that thoughtful, introspective stuff, go read that. Today I want to spend a little time listing his songs that have accompanied me across these 1,503 miles over the past 372 days. Trust me, I won’t waffle.

Pre-Scriptum: Remember, I don’t run with an MP3 player. As someone who often runs in the dark along roads with no pavement, I feel I can only expect drivers to look out for (and avoid) me if I am fully focused on the road ahead. That and the fact that I like running time to be my quiet time.

Not your typical thumping running song. But it does often come to mind when I’m tired or running uphill. Usually the verse that springs to mind is either “Running into the darkness” or “Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be” neither surprising! And, ‘Backstreets’ being a song about human bonds, nor is it that surprising that it’s come to mind when I’ve been struggling and needing all the friends I could muster. Because, believe you me, I’m blessed to have many special friends who’ve carried me through many a tough run. Even though they have no idea. Thanks, Guys. And sure, we can gloss over the fact that in the song that bond turns sour.

On his 1980 double-album “The River”, Springsteen blurred the line between rock and pop. ‘Cadillac Ranch’ is no exception. Its jangly riff normally comes to mind as I’m approaching home and running well. I couldn’t quite fathom why until I sprinted towards our front door singing, in my head: “Open up your engines let’em roar/ Tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur”

A perfect thumping beat for running! And it’s actually the beat, more than any of its epic lyrics, that comes to mind. In particular, it’s the version from the “Live In New York City” double-live album that comes to mind, and the section when drummer Max Weinberg accompanies the crowd in its chant before Springsteen returns with the final verses (see 3’01”-3’58” into this video). I was there for those shows in N.Y.C., arm held upright in a gesture of defiant belief. “Defiant belief” comes in handy when you’re running.

Maybe it’s the “When I’m out in the street / I walk the way I wanna walk” line. More likely it’s the simple “Oh-oh, oh-oh… oh-oh, yey yey yeah” line added to the live version (see 4’10” into this video). Again, can be found on “Live In New York City”: no doubt the fact that I was there plays a part in my mind’s selection process! Oh, and it really frustrates Karen when I sing those lines at home, totally out of any context..!

Those are the songs that have got me here – not least during the 1,527 miles I’ve run since signing up for the Greater Manchester Marathon 202 days ago… But which songs will come to mind on the day and get me… well, ‘there’?
An iconic shot by rock photographer Neal Preston:
Springsteen during a soundcheck in Kyoto in 1985, checking the
sight and sound from across the floor. It’s all about the preparation…
The four listed above and plenty more, no doubt. I’ve not actually listened to Springsteen non-stop in recent weeks, as you may suspect: there’s been plenty of Gaslight Anthem, Richard Hawley and Ligabue, amongst others. On Saturday mornings, when Big’Un (5) goes for his swimming lessons, I have been running a Music History Course for Littl’Un (3): so far I’ve opened his ears to Dylan, Hendrix, Aerosmith (the earlier, good stuff)… But sure, come Sunday I expect Bruce to me my main musical companion on the road, not least since from this point onwards his music will enjoy a monopoly of my CD player, if not necessarily of my iPod on the trains to Sheffield and later Manchester on Saturday.

Right now I’m listening to a recording of his Paris concert from July 5, 2012… an amazing night. You really had to be there – and I was! ‘No Surrender’, ‘Racing In The Street’, ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’, ‘Glory Days’… yeah, I can see a connection with the blood, sweat and tears that await me on Sunday, can’t you? Besides, the performance was mind-blowing - but the company I was in, the ties that bind that got me there, were equally if not more special. And that’s the kind of feeling I need to take with me through the streets of Manchester.
Even by Springsteen standards,
Paris 05/07/2012 was special
photo by (the special) Martin Nisbet
All those are ‘maybes’, though – I cannot predict which way my brain will go, a sentence that is true now as it was before they took a bit of it out in November 2011. But I think I can safely make two additions – and only one is Bruce-related…

Yes, ‘Born To Run’ will find its way to the front of my psyche. Not because I was born to run, because I still don’t believe I was. But, as Springsteen would say in the beautiful introduction to the even more beautiful acoustic version performed on the 1988 “Tunnel Of Love Express Tour”:

“I guess when I wrote this song I wanted to write about a guy and a girl that wanted to run and keep on running… never come back…
that was a nice, romantic idea…
but I realised that after I’d put all those people in all those cars I was gonna have to figure out someplace for them to go… […]
so this is a song about two people trying to find their way home”

Believe you me, Manchester is no home for a Tyke! But heading back to Sheffield after the run, spending some time with my family Up Theyre… that always feels like a homecoming. I’ve got my own family Darn’Ere nah, and sure, these four walls are home, the soundtrack a mixture, often comprising Big’Un talking about Lego, Littl’Un talking about “Thomas the Tank Engine” and Karen telling me about Guides and Brownies. But it’s no coincidence that I embraced Simon’s recommendation and chose Manchester to make my mark: I want to conquer Red Rose country and I want to hop back over the Pennines to my beloved White Rose to celebrate. I want to face this challenge with the fresh Northern air in my lungs and the embracing Northern love in my heart. Here’s hoping that’s how it will play out.

Right, back on track – I said there were two songs…

The second choice isn’t quite as obvious. Yet it’s likely to be the last song in my mind before I cross the starting line and the first one to echo after I cross the finishing line. In both instances it will most probably make me cry because of what it means to me, because of the connection I make with it. I’m not going to spell it out, because that alone gets me a little teary: but, if you want to know what song it is, it’s
this one. Or, if you know your music, the name Mike Batt will tell you all that you need to know.

Two classic songs, so different in rhythm and sound yet so alike in the fundamental questions they raise. Is love real? Yes, it is. But how could the light that burnt so brightly suddenly burn so pale? Well, God only knows. In my ignorance, I can but hold my flame up to them like a true Olympian and run, run and run. Why?

Because I gotta know how it feels…

…I know how it feels to be in awe of the Jersey Devil when he puts on a 3h30
’ - 4h00’ performance of blood, sweat and tears. It’s a privilege I’ve enjoyed some thirty-five times. And, whether you step out on stage or over the line, you’re putting on a performance. Now it’s my turn.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Crunch time

Less than a week to go now… this could be the last time you hear from me before Manchester! Although, realistically, I’ll probably have one final message as a non-maratoneta (hopefully) before this week’s out.

Regular readers of this blog (an oxymoron, I know) will be accustomed to expressions along the lines of “I never thought I’d do that”. In the beginning, it applied to running – pure and simple. Since then, its use got more specific (“running before dawn”, “running on Christmas Day”, “running at 00:35 on New Year’s Day”, “running when on business abroad”, “running in the snow”, “running in the snow whilst on business abroad”,…) and eventually started to cover things not accompanied by the word ‘running’, such as “not eating chocolate”, “not drinking alcohol”, “reading up on runners’ nutrition”… truly wacky stuff.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that there’s a 2-week schedule in our kitchen detailing what will be our main meal. In itself, that’s actually the norm round here: Karen likes to plan. And why not? It makes things easier, ensures we eat well… However, it’s not Karen who’s done the planning for this week and the next…

… oh no – I’ve done that! Balanced out the food I should be eating ahead of Manchester, trying to avoid the evil stuff… Hey, why else do you think I read a book entitled “Performance Nutrition For Runners”? Why, to draw up this:

What we're eating. And how far I'm running. And when. Fail to prepare...

Yes, Friday 19 we (Karen and I) had Fish&Chips. Awesome for carboloading (apparently)! And on the previous occasion we’d had it, the following day I went out and set my 5k PR: 20:56, so far my only venture sub-21’. So there!

Look, I’ve not applied rocket science and there would be scope to get far more sophisticated. I could eat porridge every morning instead of my usual combo of Weetabix / Bitesize Shredded Wheat / Fruit&Fibre / Cheerios (or Corn Flakes, if I’m feeling really committed…). But life’s complex enough around here. I just focused on the principles: what’s good for recovery after a long run, what’s supposedly good for pre-race carbloading… my main focus being on the final three days, not least on the eve of the marathon which is a source of concern for me. You’re meant to take it easy, relax and, obviously, eat pasta. But no, not me…

…I’ll be travelling up to Sheffield and taking in Sheffield United-Preston, a game that could determine our season. Watching t’Blades isn’t relaxing at the best of times, but this could be the most stressful afternoon since… since… well, since
I last saw them, at Wembley*. After the match I’ll be heading out to eat with Mick Rooker and David Pye, with whom I spent many happy hours working at Beautiful Downton Bramall Lane and, indeed, travelling down to Italy by coach for an Anglo-Italian Cup match – the sort of dinner that would usually be further embellished by alcohol and not necessarily focus unduly on nutritional considerations! But I’ve made it clear that we have to head for an Italian! And I very rarely suggest heading out to an Italian in this country… no disrespect, but when you are brought up on homemade Italian cuisine as I was with my Nonna (my Dad’s Mum, as opposed to Nonna’s – although that could be an option!), 99% of Italian restaurants are going to be a disappointment! Anyway – here’s hoping I get the meal I need on the eve of the marathon and that it has no adverse effects on my here bladder… I’ll be travelling up with bread, bananas, apples, cereal bars, peanut butter, butter, just in case…

…until then, there will be plenty of other meals to enjoy. Which brings me onto this post’s topic…

…I had a running-centric e-mail exchange with a colleague recently. Jacqui became a colleague when the Servigistics, whom I joined seven years ago, was acquired by larger (around 10x) software company
PTC. Whilst contractual details took longer to finalise than hoped, we can say that the takeover started having effect last October. Takeovers entail meeting new people, finding one’s new role within a different, typically larger context. I’m not vain but I was certainly pleased that, by the time news of the takeover broke and we started meeting new colleagues, I had lost those infamous four stone. I felt good in and about myself, it made it easier for me to smile when I shook new hands. It meant people who didn’t know how I’d ended up ballooning the way I had (epilepsy surgery + young family the condensed answer) wouldn’t be passing judgement, more or less intentionally: c’mon, let’s not be naïve, we all do it, even when we try not to. Was I lazy? Did I drink too much? Did I simply have bad eating habits? I had ensured those questions wouldn’t come to mind…

When I first met Jacqui a couple of months back, I told her I’d be running a marathon. Since then, over a combination of calls and e-mails we’ve had the usual conversation about how long I’d been running, whether I’d run any marathons in the past and how crazy I was… and I sent her my usual reality/comedy shot:

This prompted the highly logical follow-up question:

“So you lost all that weight just from running or did you also cut down? […] Did you start off running for short bursts? Or, were you really a runner in disguise?”

“A runner in disguise”… I like that!

Now if I was in disguise, it was a good one! In
my previous post I recounted (again) where I was a year ago and how I got to where I am now: I won’t bore you again.

Was I a runner in disguise? Did I harbour some hidden natural talent which has seen the light in the past year?

Fellow Twitter nutter Martin Bown had made a similar comment back in February, when he told me:

talented people often don't realise they're talented. It means others ( like me) have to tell them ;-)

Very flattering guy, is Martin. When he makes up stuff like that, you’d think he worked in creative PR rather than being a factual accountant. Flattering as that is, I honestly don’t think there is anything special about my legs. Or my lungs. Or my heart. That said, I will acknowledge that I can be a stubborn Northern git…

…and that, in pursuit of a personal goal, I will do stupid things like go running every day and run 50mi/week!

Is that talent? Is that indicative of being “a runner in disguise”? Possibly. Mental strength is a key attribute for runners and I’m not going to be a hypocrite and deny I believe I have displayed that over the course of the last twelve months. But is mental strength nature or nurture? Does it really set me apart, set me alongside other runners – or could anyone do it?

The nature/nurture debate is beyond the realms of this blog. Suffice to say that, when I was growing up, there were plenty of determined, bloody-minded people around me. In my family, you got on with it – whatever ‘it’ was. Don’t get me wrong, I come from a middle-class background and, whilst I’ve never holidayed at Disneyland, I never wanted for owt. But I always saw that one reason I never wanted for owt was that the branches above me in the family tree had put in the effort to end their lives more comfortably than they’d entered them. I like to think I’m doing the same: but, right here right now, I care more about taking that positive mental attitude to the starting line in Manchester. And, with a bit of luck (as well as blood, sweat and tears), about taking it across the finishing line, too.

I’ll finish off with a comment about changes in my nutrition habits… for yes, there have been some…

Some are temporary, in the build-up to Manchester: there is no way I’m staying off biscuits, chocolate and beer forever! Why should I – I am in the best position of my life to run’em off. I’ve just avoided them for a couple of months because, when I cross that finishing line, I want to be able to say to myself “You gave it your best shot, Squints” – whatever that shot turns out to be.

However, there have been changes which I hope to sustain. Eating more salad, eating even more fruit than I normally would… it’s not going to be a revolution because, on the whole, I never did eat badly. I’ve always eaten fruit, for example.

The diet helps the running, but the running helps the diet just as much – if not more. And I don
t mean diet in a weight-loss sense, by the way! Coming in from a run, I’m aware of the good it’s done me: it’s generally dripping down my face in the form of sweat. For the rest of the day, I try to balance treating myself and refuelling my body with ruining the good work done. So sure, I’ll eat: but these days I might eat nuts and kiwis instead of Digestive biscuits or, heaven forbid, chocolate! When not training for a race I will happily switch that balance more towards treats: I don’t run to make myself miserable, in spite of what you might have read on here at times.

– for the best part of two months I’ve not touched Digeos, I’ve only had a single pint in the past ten weeks, I’ve not had any chocolate bars (although even I’m not going to turn down Mrs S’ chocolate cakes – good recovery food, dontchaknow)… this week just gone and the next I’ve cut down big time on caffeine and replaced it with orange juice, in the hope that when I have a cup of coffee or two on race day the stimulant will have a greater impact on a weaned body… just how much difference is all this going to make on Sunday?

Truth is, I don’t know. Of course I don’t. I’m guessing that no individual pint or biscuit would have a major impact but that the collated denial will hopefully deliver some benefits. A second? A minute? Half an hour?

Sorry, I haven’t got a clue. All I do know is that when I do cross that finishing line I want to know I gave it my very best shot. That I took training seriously and made some sensible but helpful sacrifices. I know people who’ve taken on comparable if not greater challenges and failed: they gave it a good shot but fell short. Would it have made a difference had they given up the fags and/or the booze? That’s got to be at least a possibility: something to ponder and wonder over. And cometh the hour on Sunday, I don’t want to have any such doubts. Whatever time I clock, I know it’ll be the best of which I was capable, given the limitations quite fairly imposed upon me by my body and my family/work commitments. And that’s all this was ever about: giving it my best shot. Giving it the best shot a working father of two of unremarkable physical abilities could give it. For me and for my brothers.

Furthermore, there is something invigorating about displaying to myself the mental strength to give up a few things, to make a handful of sacrifices. Trust me, giving up cuppateas for me isn
’t easy! But maybe, just maybe, when I’m five, ten, fifteen or however many miles in on Sunday, that mental commitment will inspire the legs to keep their side of the bargain. I’ve read many a time that long-distance running is about the mind as much as it is about the legs. Quite frankly, I needn’t have read it a single time. It’s a lesson Ive learnt in all other sports in which I’ve taken part, none more so than the individual ones and tennis in particular. So, regardless of whether giving up alcohol, biscuits and caffeine (and I’ve only now spotted the ABC bit!) will have impacted my body, it has impacted my mind. And that’s alright with me! (boom-boom-boom... spot the musical link there?)

Life itself is a marathon and not a sprint, of course. Hopefully I
’ll be able to sustain some of these changes for the… er, long run. Because let me tell you, if live permits me the luxury of reaching my late sixtires, I’d love to do so in the shape in which my parents have. My Dad (who’s always been a sportsman) still goes off on 30-40mi bike rides; my Mum (who’s always been sensible) still wanders off on 6mi walks along the Mediterranean coast. They do so because they’re in good health, they’re in good health because they do so. Living a thousand miles away, I am most grateful for the lack of concern they give me from Down There: I probably still give them more reasons to worry, what with my epilepsy, ensuing brain surgery and all that stuff. Oh, and that’s without mentioning Nonna, 97 and still working (although, as she always reminds me when we speak, “Things are a bit slow”). Long may their health continue to inspire me and to give me a long-term vision as to what I can achieve with a little exercise and care.
And one day, may my love for sport, which I have inherited from my Dad (as well as my Uncles), be passed on to and embraced by Big’Un and Littl
’Un! I say this not out of a judymurrayian desire to see them top the world in any given field, simply out of a fatherly desire to see them embrace the values of sport, live them on and off the field, and enjoy the physical and mental benefits that an active sporting life brings, both at the time and in the future.

s an aside, I didn
’t cry too many tears when Maggie died last week. I’m from South Yorkshire: much as my background is middle class, it’s still not allowed. One thing I’ve learnt in recent years is that things we took for granted from the State are now best taken as bonuses. I’d love to take health services for granted, but it’s safer not to. And I definitely don’t take a State pension for granted. Working for American companies as I have done for most of my working life I’ve always enjoyed a private pension scheme: it means right now I don’t, I can’t take my wife out for a meal as often as I’d like (she’s currently given up her teaching career to take care of our own, young kids), but hopefully it means I’ll be in a more secure position when I eventually pack it in (which is going to be quite some time!) and the mortgage is paid off (134 instalments to go). To some extent, running is my way of paying into my body’s own pension, of doing what I can so that, cometh my latter years, I’ll be in decent shape. I appreciate there are risks for my joints, but, as Simon duly pointed out on Twitter, they’re more easily fixed than our cardio-vascular system.
apologies if this sounded all a tad political, that wasn’t my intention. It’s more of a pragmatic viewpoint on my part. I’ve said oftentimes that I dont run because I enjoy it but because I get a sense of achievement out of it: I should add that I feel its my duty to look after my body, in the now and in the future, and I feel running (and following a healthy diet, without getting too hung up on it) is a good and simple way of going about that. And still I struggle with lifelong smokers who complain about insufficient resources dedicated to their lung cancer during times of limited financial and medical capabilities…

…anyroad, enough of all that
– we’re all friends on here, right? Right!

So bring it on, Manchester – this Yorkie’s heading back Up North! And he’s ready…

…hang on, don’t hold me to that last comment. Let me get back to you later in the week.

* yes, I do feel bad that I’ve not seen t’Blades all season. It truly hurts, not least because of all the glorious #twitterblades I’ve met on Twitter… whose loyalty and dedication put me to shame. I don’t feel worthy to call them followers. Mind, plenty of them don’t, so no need to worry… But I am a Blade guys, honest – just one who can’t drive and lives 176mi from Sheffield with a young family…

…oh and being in Sheffield for TenTenTen on the weekend they came to Yeovil didn’t help, nor did the Swindon fixture being on a Tuesday night…

…ah well – Bristol City are coming down from the Championship next season and I can get to Ashton Gate in 45’ on a local bus! Mind you, you know what that means…

…THE BLADES ARE GOING UP! Heaven forbid I get to see them by hopping on a local bus… either that or the fixture list will pit us at Ashton Gate on October 12 – the eve of the TenTenTen, when I’ll be in Sheffield! So sure, we lost 3-0 at relegated Portsmouth on Saturday, a defeat which condemns us to the Play-Offs where we only ever fail. But what weight that communal history compared to my individual situation, eh?