Friday, 14 June 2013

My Uncle Jim - barefoot Marathon-champion.

No. 9 - Jim Hogan.

I was skinning in Lewisham today.  And, as I crept along some of the fiercest of surfaces for barefooters (tarmac with protruding gravel), I wondered how my uncle ever coped with this.  My uncle is Jim Cregan, though he ran under the name of Hogan.
My uncle was born in rural Limerick in 1933 and when he was a boy he discovered both a passion and a talent for running.  So naturally, his mama took him off to the local Niketown, bought some massive spongy trainers for him to run in, he slipped them on, and the rest is sporting history.  No, there wasn’t a whole host cash sloshing about in Southern Ireland before the war.  He had no shoes, so he learned to run barefoot. 
I’ve recently been reading some of the debates about barefoot running that I try to avoid, and the reason that I try to avoid them is that I don’t really think that there is much to debate with people who think that ‘better’ running is ‘faster’ running, because I think that better running is the running that makes you feel good; the running that doesn’t hurt or injure you, and if that means running barefoot, then that’s what you should do. 
In one of these debates, about a ridiculous experiment to decide whether forefoot or rearfoot running was best (why does this matter?) one of the trollers said something along the lines of ‘If you can just show me the marathon runner that won barefoot, maybe I’d be prepared to listen.’  And I remembered Uncle Jim.
Jim Hogan was not a barefoot exponent.  He mostly ran barefoot, but his trainers did manage to wrestle him into trainers.  But, he just did not like the fact that he couldn’t feel the track anymore when he ran in them.
My uncle, managed to win marathons barefoot. He competed in two Olympics. He held the world record for the 40K.  In 1966, he won the European Championships, running it barefoot, in just 2.20.
He is not so well now, but is celebrating his eightieth birthday.  He gave up running only a couple of years ago.  
What a hero!
God bless you, Jim - and Happy Birthday.

You can buy his book here.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Knot! (I thought I had a running injury, but it was an admin one).

At first it was a dull pain in my calf.  As the run continued, the pain became sharper. After another half mile I began to alter my gait to ease the pain. Then I realise, I am injured.

When I get home I find that my soleus (the smaller calf muscle that emerges from the achilles tendon)  has gone into spasm and has a lateral anterior knot.  I attack the bulge with my thumbs but it won’t soften.  The knot is tangled and tied tight. It's painful and it is a very unusual place to get one.

The acid-bitter frustration of injury is familiar territory to every runner. It is exacerbated by the fact that this time I was being careful and taking it easy.  It is unfair, somehow.  I have been drowning in exam papers.  I have been trapped inside marking 107 scripts (214 essays) and keeping up with emails and the kind of report writing that is the mainstay of so many peoples’ jobs.  I need this time out.  I need to be able to escape from this snowy mogul of paperwork.  I need air. Desperately. 

The next day, I continue kneading at the knot.  It's stubborn, so I decide to skip my run and rest, instead - more work.  Two more days go by (of more work), and even though it still hurts, it is softer.  I head out for another run; slowly, carefully.  The muscle is not happy but I manage the run OK. 

On the following day, a Sunday, frustrated with my coralled existence (of having to perform a pointless administrative task of uploading a reading list, item by item, to a website - that, if it were a friend it would be one of those 'difficult' ones that wants precisely 2/3 of a spoon of sugar in their tea) I decided to walk, not run, up to Blackheath.  It is only a couple of miles.  The sun is shining and I imagine that this low-level activity is good for the knot that is still quite painful.  Halfway there, I have a sudden, sharp, stabbing pain in the upper part of my calf.  My other calf muscles (the gastrocs) have now gone into spasm, too. 

I grab my leg; the knot is the size of a squash ball.  How can my fitness level have dropped so severely that I can’t even walk a mile?  It wasn’t the discomfort that bothered me, but the fact that with every pulse of pain I was being reminded of the fact that I would have to spend even more time inside, at my computer, on the couch, marking.

The following morning I manage to get into my local physio.  I found this amazing fellow when I was training for the marathon.  Since then I have clung to him, limpet-like. I start telling him what has happened and as I’m doing this he begins to smile.

“Why are you smiling?”
“Is your back stiff?”
“Yes, a little, but nothing like my calves.”
“I think it’s your back.”

He was right, too.  I didn’t have a running injury, but a marking one.

As I sat for hours, marking, inputting data, screen-adminning, my lower back stiffened, hardened, swelled, slowly disrupting neural pathways from foot, to leg, to trunk, to spine. As the signals travelled up and down they became garbled and interpreted threat where there was none, so my lower leg (the end of the communication line) went into panic to protect itself from the perceived hazardous activity of walking a mile to Blackheath.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Touch of Sweet Liberty (Skinning in Paris)

Montparnasse - Paris
The banks of the Seine are overflowing.  As the tourist boats amble by the Louvre and the D’Orsay, wavelets lap onto the cobblestones, combing the emerald hair of the seaweed forth and back. The day has been long. A friend’s birthday, a short night’s sleep, and an early dash for the Eurostar. Paris! 
Always keen to walk, I made it from Gare du Nord to the hotel and then calculated why I felt so exhausted - I had covered over five miles with luggage. I say to myself, ‘I don’t want to run’. ‘I can’t run’. ‘I shall run’. Then I do run.
Here on research business, I have hitched a ride with the University of Kent’s Summer School party that are journeying to spend two weeks in Paris.  First, I meet Olly - a smartly turned-out (if a little bleary-eyed) film graduate, who - he tells me - hasn’t slept at all.  The Summer School consists of Kent’s bright young things and they seem an impressive bunch: enthusiastic, friendly, alert, interested, knowledgable, and they cut quite the dash. Once we reach Paris, we part company - they are off for a lecture at the Pompidou Centre this afternoon, and who knows what other treats in the next fortnight. I wave goodbye and wish them well. I begin my walk across the city.
When I finally arrive, the last thing I feel like doing is running.  And no matter how many times I go through this thought process, I never quite fully remember that this is exactly the point at which I SHOULD go running.  If you don’t want, if you don’t feel like, if you can’t be arsed, then you need a run.  I would do well to remember Rousseau’s mantra - from his Reveries of a Solitary Walker  'These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself’.  Written mid 1770s, the book was incomplete at his death and has had a slow-burn effect since then on anglo/french philosophy and culture.  It is now counted as an influence by psychogeographers, situationists and new nature-writers.  For Rousseau, walking was a means of demarcating for himself, a kind of pleasure bought through self-knowledge, that society with others completely denied him. It was an escape from ‘the torrent of this world’.
I’m in Montparnasse.  I slip on my rubber soles and head out onto the streets.  I would go barefoot but I don’t know the territory.  As I turn the corner, I see that the ground is smooth, so I shuffle off my shoes, crumple them up in my hands and start running - two lads laugh as they see me do this.
The sun has been hot all day, but under foot the concrete is quite cool.  The instant I start running, feeling the solid ground beneath my feet, I begin to feel less tired.  I establish a comfortable pace, listen for the right kind of silence from my worn out feet, and settle into what is going to be a meditative pleasure.
I dodge into Luxembourg Gardens - mistake!  The pathways are wide and consist of sharp grit. Few would keep a straight face watching me jiggle in pain on it.  I head back for the streets, dancing between couples and kissing gates, and slip my shoes off again.
On the street, the crowd is thick with amblers and as I dodge between them (all the time trying to eye the unfamiliar  ground for dogshit and broken glass), I find myself making snap decisions about which route take, entirely down to which lights are on green or red.  The optimistic-me thinks he’s improvising, he's a gay flâneur, the pessimistic, is not so sure, and the image of a rat in a maze, following signals flashes into my head.
On my right, uphill, is the huge-domed Panthéon.  It houses, amongst other things, the world's longest Foucault's Pendulum.  Throughout the day it rotates so a clock face can be placed beneath it and it can be used to tell the time. But,   Foucault discovered that it wasn't the pendulum that was changing direction; it swung along two dimensions only.  It was the earth beneath it that was spinning in space.  The entire world moves beneath us, but the pendulum's fulcrum remains static.
I had no idea that so many tourists (of which I am one) would be drawn to this area.  I start taking a long arc of pavement, finding a pathway through the crowd by running between them and a public exhibition of cycling photography.  I am uneasy doing this, it feels like photobombing someone's serene contemplation in a gallery.  There’s space again, so I step from the tunnel. And in this city of millions and millions, there is Olly, right in front of me. I feel suddenly present - no longer the observer. Coincidence destroys the gossamer veil of anonymity.
For the rest of the run I’m in a sort of haze.  The only punctuation to this is when I joust by another runner who exchanges a warm smile with me (they don’t do this in London). Her day is getting better, too, it seems.  Our smiles are the acknowledgement that in this bustle, this clamour, we have both sought out Rousseau’s ‘pleasing disquiet’, and have felt the desire to touch again a sweet liberty we once knew.