Thursday 28 November 2013

Halfway to a String Quartet

Well that came around fast! Tomorrow morning I embark once again to try and find the length of a Piece of String. The brain child of Messrs. Adams and Elson, the Piece of String Fun Run - The Most Pointless Race in the World (TM) - is an odd little race. There are 5 potential routes of differing length - anywhere from 1000 meters to 1000 miles. Nobody but the race organisers (and I guess some of the volunteers) know the exact route, and runners basically run until they either die, or are told they have finished.

The idea is to make it kind of a mind-fuck; if you don't know how far you've got to go, how do you pace it? How do you cope mentally when you can't say, "Only 50 miles left"? Depending on how you look at it, it may be the most fiendishly demonic race ever created (mwa ha ha etc), or the most pure form of racing imaginable.

Just run.

No pacing charts, no nutrition plans, no worrying about other competitors - just run.

Last year, I was one of only two people who successfully completed the inaugural event. The second person was Wouter Hamelinck, who I think everybody would agree was the winner - mainly due to his amazing navigational skills (mine; not so great!). Some people claimed it was clear proof of the benefit of ultra beards over ultra sideburns, but I will just point out that I believe our tally is currently 3-1 wins in my favour. Not that I'm counting of course...

Nobody is quite sure how far we ran last year. Not even the RDs. With heavy rain in the weeks preceding the event, the River Thames burst it's banks and much of the Thames Path became impassable. Well, if you're particularly precious about getting your feet wet. And knees. And thighs. And bollocks. It's health and safety gone mad I tell ya! But I was running for about 36 hours or so. Estimates of 120ish miles are probably not far off, although don't take into account all of the dicking about going the wrong way.

So having survived once, why in the name of Satan's gonads would I come back again?! Glutton for punishment?!

Honestly no. I thoroughly enjoyed the race last year. I have genuinely fond memories of the event, and I'm really looking forward to hopefully seeing some of the same trails again. It was just so simple. I stuck my headphones on, looked at the map, and was off. The psychology of it wasn't too bad because I was doing what I call "running stupid"; not thinking about goals, and not worrying about what was going on. Just enjoying a good audiobook (Game of Thrones) and seeing some new areas if the UK.

Okay, there were a couple of things that I didn't enjoy.

First of all I was absolutely shattered. I hadn't slept well the night before, and the race didn't start until midnight. I was knackered before we started. By the time I got towards my third sunrise in a row, I was a bit of a zombie. Luckily, a quick nap in a car on the middle of the Ridgeway at Paul Rowlinson and Luke Carmichael's checkpoint saw me to the end (which annoyingly was only about 10 miles later). This year though, the race starts at a nice leisurely 9:45am. With a baby that doesn't sleep and having not sleep more than a couple of hours at a time for the last 9 months, I plan on sleeping like a baby tonight!

Well, not my baby, but you get the idea.

The second thing that I didn't enjoy was the conditions. It rained a lot! I actually don't mind rain at all. Running in the rain is one of my favourite pastimes. What I don't love is when the mud is so thick and sloppy that you literally can't run. Trudging through the rain in November after 30 hours of running is far less fun than running through it at a snails pace, just getting colder and wetter. That was the closest I came to dropping last year, as my map had turned into papier mâché (I had one suggestion for James this year - buy a laminator!) and I couldn't move fast enough to get my core temperature up. But James gave me a good talking to and I stuck it out - and actually really enjoyed the next section.

This year, however, the weather appears to be far more conducive to running. I'm not sure what deal with the Devil James Elson has done to cause this new trend in perfect conditions at his races, but it should be a very different beast this year. Frankly I think this year's batch has it easy!

And then there's the distance. How far will it be? We won't know until later this weekend. I've either come woefully underprepared for a 300 miler, or this is going to be the most well-stocked 5K of my life! It may even be a completely different format to last year. I wouldn't be surprised to be bundled in the back of a van and driven out to the wilderness!

I'm just not thinking about it. I'm going to turn up, run and have fun. Of course this year hasn't been the best, training-wise, what with my gorgeous daughter being born, and various injuries along the way, so it will likely be a very different run to last year. So if you see me crying in a ditch somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, you have my permission to tell me "I told you so"!

So how long is a piece of string? I dunno - let's find out!

Saturday 23 November 2013

Too much running will kill you, just as sure as none at all (or so the Telegraph says anyway...)

Once again, we see another worrying study indicating that "running is bad for you". In this case, it is a story in the Telegraph with the title "Too much exercise as bad as too little". Ignoring for a moment the syntactic tautological verisimilitude of this statement, is there anything to this claim? Or is it a case of the media leaping on a piece of research and blowing it out of all proportions for a good byline?

The paper in question is this study in the journal Archive of Disease in Children, titled "Weekly sport practice and adolescent well-being". The study took a cohort of 1,245 adolescents (aged 16-20) and asked them to fill in an online survey asking them various questions about their exercise habits, socio-economic background, height, weight, and questions on their "well-being" (more on exactly what this means in a second). They split the individuals up into a number of groups based on whether they took part in:
  • A low amount of weekly sport (0-3.5 hours)

  • An average amount of weekly sport - the recommended 7 hours (3.6 - 10.5 hours)

  • A high amount of weekly sport - around double the recommended (10.6 - 17.5 hours)

  • A very high amount of weekly sport (> 17.5 hours)
They then show that, when compared against the recommended amount, doing a higher level of sport resulted in individuals being "healthier", whilst doing less resulted in individuals being "unhealthier" (as you might expect). However, when they did the same for those individuals who did a very high amount of weekly sport, they found that they were in fact "unhealthier". So not only are there diminishing returns to your health by increasing the amount of exercise that you do, but doing too much can actually result in a negative effect on your health. Hence the tag line of "too much exercise as bad as too little".

Saturday 2 November 2013

"Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!" (to quote every ska band ever...)

I really enjoyed my run at the Stort30 this past weekend. It is a beautiful route, and it was really nice to see so many people out enjoying the fine weather. The fishermen on the river were probably wondering what in the hell we were doing, spending our morning running along a muddy river bank. But frankly I think the same thing about their hobby. So, y'know, horses for courses and all that.

But one thing that disappointed me was the number if discarded gel wrappers I found on my return journey. Littering is one of my bugbears, and I like to try and do my part to help when I can. I once really annoyed my wife by picking up and carrying a bin bag full of beer cans that some bugger had dumped in a bush. Sure I looked like a massive alcoholic (the dishevelled beard didn't help matters), but for the sake of a few minutes searching for a bin I was happy to act the bum.

But it seriously annoys me when people just dump their rubbish while they run. Sure, sometimes it is an accident; things can fall out of your bag. It may also not be due to other runners at all, as other people use the route as well, including cyclists. However the packets weren't there on the way out, and mysteriously appeared on the return journey.

I wasn't too worried about my time, so I picked up all of the ones that I saw. One in particular was half full, which was lovely to deal with. But I just dumped then in a pocket and got on with it.

If you've got room to carry a gel, you've got room to carry the wrapper. It doesn't take any extra time really to shove a rolled up wrapper in a pocket on your pack. If you're worried about the mess, just carry a little sandwich bag or something with you. At UTMB, they gave everybody a little pouch which could be clipped on to your bag somewhere convenient. The same effect can be achieved with a little plastic bag. Hell, the checkpoints were so close together in this race (about 5 miles), it really wouldn't be difficult to just hold onto it until the end. There really is no excuse.

Some people have suggested that the problem comes from road runners who are used to races where rubbish is cleaned up afterwards. But come on people. We're all grown ups. It must surely occur to these people that it's not nice for others (particularly people just out for a Sunday stroll) to see this kind of mess. It gives us all a bad name.

And it can potentially be very bad for the future of running events, never mind the environment and local flora and fauna. Permission has to be obtained to hold races on these trails, so if people are complaining about the mess being made by the runners then they may simply not allow it to go ahead the next year. All for the sake of shaving 5 seconds off of your 100 km time.

I put a post (or more aptly a "rant") up on Facebook about this, and it was great to see that generally people were also saddened by it. Some people thought instant disqualification was even the way to go. Too harsh?Maybe not. I'm certainly not the first person to talk about this problem, and there are various initiatives to help promote conscientious trail use, such as the RunTidy initiative in Wales. Please take the time to show your support and help keep our trails beautiful. There was even an article in the Guardian where Jeremy Paxman asked why more people don't challenge litter bugs.

Many problems in this world could be solved by people just not being dicks, and thinking about others. Litter is also one of those things that builds - if one person litters then others will be more likely to do the same. So I'm going to try and make it my business to keep the trails clean and tidy, and try to pick up any rubbish that I see while out and about. I hope that you'll join me. Let's start small and build up to world peace, eh?!