April, 2015

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End of an era

It says something when you can run a marathon in under 2 hours 37 minutes saying to yourself “I don’t care about the time”. If it helps, that time equates to running every mile (and the 0.2 mile at the end) in under six minutes. Try doing that for just a few miles, and see how you feel. But if you’re Paula Radcliffe, that’s not even that fast. She not only holds the women’s world record marathon time (2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds – we’re talking 5 minutes 15 seconds a mile for that time – don’t try that at home), but the three fastest ever women’s marathon times. And her world record time was set in 2003 – nobody else has got close in the last 12 years. The men continue to set their own new records every few years, sometimes more often, so it really does feel that there is something special about her record (in both senses of the word). The lifetime achievement award she received yesterday in what was her last competitive marathon was very well deserved and a lovely touch.

To achieve that kind of performance requires a dedication and persistence most of us can only dream of. Although running 140+ miles a week is probably the stuff of nightmares rather than dreams. The difference between a 2:15 and 2:37 time is probably close to 90 miles a week, not to mention the massages, ice baths and other regular practices required to allow your body to cope with those kinds of demands. And avoid injury which that kind of punishing schedule can lead to.

Back in the world of the mortals, it’s now five weeks until the Edinburgh marathon and bang in the middle of the really hard part. That’s weeks averaging about 55 miles with individual runs increasing to 24 miles or involving 18 miles with the last 8 at race pace, but without the buzz and lift that comes from running with others and having crowds giving encouragement all along the way. Sometimes, it’s hard just to keep going, never mind worrying about how fast you’re going. But there are always the training runs that remind you of the progress you’re making. Last week involved a strange kind of run, designed to give you an indication of whether you are on track to hit your target marathon time. The concept is simple if unusual. You run 800m (that’s just under half a mile in old speak), somewhere around 8 times, with a break between each 800m. The trick is to try to run the fast 800m sections in the same time in minutes and seconds that you want to run the marathon in hours and minutes. Got that? So for a 3 hour marathon, you would try to run the 800m repeats in 3 minutes, with a 3 minute rest period in between each one.

So I tried that, and after the second 800m I thought, this is not going to be fun. I was right. But it turned out it was doable if more than a little tiring. And then a little perspective kicked in – two years ago, I couldn’t even have sprinted at the pace I was doing these repeats in. And I’m doing my weekly long slow runs at about the pace I ran my last marathon in. So even for us amateurs, significant progress is possible, way beyond what we probably think we are capable of. I was greatly encouraged yesterday with a new half marathon record on a training run where I was only running fast for the last eight miles.

But for all that, I have still got no idea how I am going to run 26.2 miles at my expected pace. I’m just trusting in the training plan, the fast that the final two weeks will be about getting race sharp, and the runners and supporters on the day getting me the extra speed and stamina I need. If you are in Edinburgh on May 31st, I would be particularly happy to see you at about mile 21. I’ll even try to smile for you.

And now it’s sunny, if freezing, outside so I’m going to get my winter running kit on, gloves and all, and go for a run.


My poor sandals are also showing the strain of this year’s training!:

Worn out sandal

Several thousand words (sort of)

If a picture tells a thousand words, this is going to be a long blog today. I thought it was time for an update on the photography project, which I’ve now accepted is something which is currently being fitted into the odd minute and random walk rather than having dedicated time set aside for it. If you remember, the point is to use an old camera (in my case, it’s about 50 years old), one lens and one type of (black and white) film. And I do the developing and scanning myself. Film three was developed this morning. I’ve already learned from experience that you never touch the negatives, they take longer to dry than you think they should, and I’m sticking with my original expectation that I will be happy if two or three photos turn out anywhere close to how I saw the picture in my head. Black and white is a different experience from colour photography. I have a lot to learn.

Apart from taking pictures of the family, it appears there are a few things my eyes seem to be drawn to. One is juxtaposition. So I liked the graffiti next to the tattoo parlour – kind of like a tattoo on the building:

Film 3 028

Edinburgh is a beautiful city. There are an awful lot of photos out there of the stunning parts – the architecture, the history of the city. And yet within a couple of hundred metres of the modern office blocks, the historical buildings, the tourist traps, there are derelict buildings and an entirely different view of Edinburgh. For some reason, that’s what I see when I have camera with me:

Film 3 026

Film 3 017

And finally, I’m trying to see the strong black and white shapes and patterns (even though they show up every speck of dust on the negative or scanner)Film 3 015:

Film 3 013

I came across a wonderful photography book recently after we were out for breakfast on a Saturday, which turned out to be more of a lunch judging by the time we got there. The girls wanted to pop into some of the charity shops, and after Camille prompted me about ten times, I eventually looked at the very large book called “Chromo” which was on the top of the bookshelves, wedged between gardening books. It turned out to be a huge number of photos all on the theme of colour, with sections devoted to one colour, and of course at a price nowhere close to the original one, even though it was in perfect condition. I hadn’t seen photos presented in that way before and since then, as well as looking for black and white shots, I’ve also been seeing concentrated colours more frequently. So here are a few first attempts at simplifying an image to focus on a dominant colour:





History in the making

Sport is so emotional. Just look at the crowds at football matches, and that’s the people who aren’t even participating in the activity. If politics can be tribal, sports seem to take us back to our primitive roots.

This weekend was historical in the world of rowing. It was the first time the women’s crews had been “allowed” to compete on the same day and same course as the men have been competing since as long as I can remember (someone can Google if the current course is the one they’ve always used). I have a patchy record when it comes to watching the race, solely because I usually forget when its on and/or get distracted on the day. But I didn’t want to miss this one.

When I raced the course (no, not in THE boat race) we did it in reverse, ending up in Putney. When we were down in London a few weeks ago I ran beside the Thames and the memories came flooding back – driving down in a minibus all day with a trailer of boats on the back, sleeping on the floor of one of the local boathouses (I suspect we slept well after the trip down there), and then rowing on the Thames for the first time, trying to get the hang of the currents and other boats on the river having trained only on a narrow canal. I still have the photo of us coming under Hammersmith Bridge. We were fast, but we didn’t look very pretty with everyone’s oars doing something slightly different. But hey, if it works.

The two main races were, in the end, not much of a contest and Oxford even ended up winning all four races. And it’s not as if Cambridge weren’t fast or good, they just weren’t good enough on the day. Some of the commentary was about how much better Oxford were looking after a few minutes. That’s what happens when you are that far ahead and can relax. Everything comes together and stays together. If you’re the boat behind them, not only do you have to row in the other crew’s wake, everything else is psychologically much harder and that can be reflected in scrappier strokes, less cohesion as a crew and just generally not having it as “together” as the crew in front.


Nice boat, not much good for racing (for the techies among you, this was originally a 300Mb scanned negative)

I find it’s not a lot different with running. If things are going well, it’s easier to relax, find a good stride, move well and enjoy the experience. Once it starts to go though, it’s a lot harder to get back into it again. And no matter how much training you do, you will have good and bad days. The cliche that sport is [insert random percentage] effort and [insert another random percentage] mental is spot on. You have to believe you can do what you’ve set out to do. Despite the bad days, the setbacks, the injuries. And the weather (yes, I’m still scarred from yesterday’s horrendous weather – why couldn’t it be warm and sunny like today instead of just above zero, raining and snowing the whole time?). It’s all part of the experience. We talk of life being a marathon, not a sprint. Well marathon training is also like that – months or years in the making for a few hours on a certain day at a certain time, and then once it’s over and we’ve decided that the vow at about mile 20 never again to do such a stupid thing was perhaps a little hasty, we start thinking about the next event when we’ll do this or that differently or try to hit a new personal best. Sometimes the bad runs, or even the bad races, are the thing which renews our determination and gives us new motivation.

And now all I need is to go for a recovery run today and I’ll be back into the swing of things again and ready for another week of training. Today is a good day for a run. Pretty much like every day.

Finding time

Last week’s Guardian included an article on the challenge of finding time to read, including examples of professional book readers who seem to be facing this issue. I didn’t know there were jobs where you really were paid to read – ah, it turns out you have to do something else, like edit the books or critique them, so actually my dream job doesn’t exist after all. I can, however, certainly relate to the problem of finding time to read. I’ve mentioned before that one solution is audiobooks, which currently gets me a good hour of reading time a day and has the other advantage of avoiding at least some of the Punch and Judy show that we call the General Election. But it’s not a substitute for sitting down and reading until it’s a few hours after you really should have gone to bed, but you just want to know what happens next, what your favourite character is going to do… and never mind the consequences on the next day’s productivity.

Apparently, reading a book instead of watching television doesn’t work in freeing up time to read. From experience, I can’t see why it doesn’t. It was the first thing to go in my case, following the Groucho Marx adage of

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

(I confess that I got the ‘exact’ wording from the internet, where there appears to be a range of possible combinations of words used, which I hope in fact reflect something he did write or say, but even if he didn’t, I like the sentiment.)

And the other ‘traditional’ solution of always having a book with you appears to have mixed reviews. When I do have a book with me, I find that there are always opportunities to use otherwise unproductive time to read it – walking about town on an errand (watch for lampposts that jump out at you), waiting for someone, even walking to or from your car. But what that doesn’t give us is the immersive experience of being in a different place, a different time, a different person’s head. We can sometimes just dip in and out.

Credit to Penguin books, though. They’ve brought out a series of ‘Little Black Classics’ at the attractive price of 80p (and no, Amazon aren’t cheaper than your local book shop).


Please note the themed Easter tablecloth…

I was more than a little impressed by the selection and quality of the books they included. When the summary of some of the stories includes ‘Kafka’s favourite story’, ‘considered by James Joyce to be the world’s greatest story’, ‘three short stories by the modern master of the form’, ‘transformed the modern world and still shapes millions of lives today’, the chances are they are worth reading. They are also relatively short – perfect for the odd moments when we can snatch some reading time. But you still need hours on end for the full length novels.

I have a little card lying around that I picked up from a local bookshop a few years ago – “Eat. Sleep. Read.” If only.