Review: The Way of the Runner

If there’s a man who likes an adventure it’s Adharanand Finn. Curious to find out how one small region of Kenya produces so many quality runners he somehow convinced his wife to pack up the kids and move to Africa so he could learn their secrets and train alongside them. The resulting story, Running With the Kenyans, is a great read and one of the best-selling running books of recent years. Six months in Iten however clearly didn’t settle Finn’s curiosity.

The Way of the Runner opens with a younger, jet-lagged and hungover Finn trying to make sense of the ekiden race his brother was taking part in. Unsure of quite what was going on, he stood by and watched the long-distance relay race unfold on the wet streets of western Honshu, Japan. He might not have known it then, but it was a part of Japanese culture that he would become very familiar with in years to come.

Whilst many people are aware of the long-distance running pedigree of a number of African countries, the quality of competitive runners in Japan is largely unknown outside the small island.

It’s a country where companies employ teams of runners and where university students regularly run half marathon times most professional athletes would be over the moon with. In 2013 alone fifty-two Japanese men ran a marathon in under 2 hours 15 minutes, while not one single British runner managed it.

Why is this? What are the secrets behind the Japanese style of training? What exactly is ekiden and what does the Japanese obsession with it do to its runners? These are just some of the questions Finn wanted answers to.

So using powers of persuasion that appear to dwarf even those of Derren Brown he pulled a familiar card, moving his family overseas for a six month adventure in language and culture while he dug around in the somewhat closed world of Japanese running.

Easy to read and detailed at the same time, The Way of the Runner feels like a new chapter of an old friend’s diary – full of promise and endeavour yet tempered in a comforting and familiar voice.

His quest to understand quite how and why ekiden is so important to the Japanese and how it shapes the future (sometimes for the worse) of so many talented runners takes him on a fascinating journey through a running culture so dissimilar to that which western society is familiar with it can at times seem a different sport.

As with his previous book, the juxtaposition of family life in a place so wildly at odds with Devon is weaved throughout the story and conveys nicely just how disparate the two countries are, both culturally and sportingly. Moreover it clearly highlights the difficulties associated with moving a young family to a foreign land where even communication is troublesome.

It’s a great read, giving a rare insight into a sporting world rich in heritage, but also one that is in flux. For as much as Japanese running has been shaped by ekiden for generations, outside influences are slowly starting to break down long standing traditions. But is it for the better?

I heard NASA are planning on starting a running group with their next mission to Mars. For the sake of his poor wife and kids nobody tell Adharanand.

Footloose Syndrome

Sat trepidatiously in Agaete awaiting the start of TransGrancanaria 2015

As I jogged casually in work shoes across the main road in a vain attempt to not still be in the line of traffic as the lights switched slowly back to green, I glanced sideways up the street towards the clock tower checking the time – ensuring I wasn’t too late for the bus.

Being winter still it’s a fairly cold morning and I’m glad to get on board when it eventually pulls up to the stop. As the doors open and I step inside a strong smell of cider wafts into my nostrils and I hope it isn’t coming from the driver.

Welcome to Kingswood. This is the small working-class town in which I live and have done for more years than I care to remember. It’s far from the nicest place in the world, it’s not even the nicest part around Bristol.

I grew up here as a child, my parents still live here, and now so do I again. On a map, and to the Post Office, it may appear simply to be an annex or suburb of Bristol, but it is in fact a town in its own right, falling under the jurisdiction of South Gloucestershire Council in the South West of England.

The Clock Tower circa 1920

The clock tower, like that famously of Hill Valley, California, has been a stalwart of the town for more years than even I’ve lived here and appears in practically every old photo of the town you see. It’s a constant reminder of where I am, of my roots, in the same way as the WHSmith in Kings Chase Precinct in which I used to buy comics as a child and now take my own children there to buy theirs is.

It’s not that I haven’t ever moved away from Kingswood, I have, yet somehow I find myself having moved back.

Sometimes that simple fact bothers me. It feels like I’m a small town kid who just can’t break free from the grip of the place that has seen so many of my years, in the same way that the kids banned from dancing in Bomont lived their lives in a restrictive nowheresville. I call it Footloose Syndrome.

I’m not sure why it bothers me so much. Maybe it’s the fact that with the world being such a big place, why do I still find myself here? Obviously family, familiarity and comfort play a sizable part, but I’ve travelled the world, I’ve been to great places and seen incredible things. I know there’s more out there, but at the heart of it we do all love a bit of comfort.

The kids of Bomont were of course rockingly awoken with the rebellion of Ren McCormack from Chicago (in the shape of Kevin Bacon – ignore the shit 2011 remake) after he arrives in town and kicks dance booty. He rocked the comfort zone of the town.

We all have a comfort zone and it’s easy to live within it. Whether that is the location in which we live, the way we carry out our lives, or even the things we do on a day to day basis. Being comfy is nice. It’s safe. It is by the very definition of the word, comfortable.

But I think to live a purposeful life we all need a metaphorical Ren McCormack to kick us out of that comfort zone every now and then. For me, Ren is running. The one thing that makes me step outside of that safe bubble; that asks me to push myself; that takes me away from the familiarity of the clock tower.

Excited before the start

Excited before the start

This is how I found myself in Gran Canaria at the start of March with the prospect of running the 78 mile TransGrancanaria Ultramarathon from one end of the island to the other (with a lot of twists and turns along the way).

As a challenge it would certainly be classified as a McCormack. It was further than I had ever run before, with more elevation to climb and in a hotter climate to boot. As far as comfort zones go this race used mine to mop the floor of the toilet.

The thing is as I always say, I am an optimist in life. Delusionally so, but as I’ve started to run longer and tougher races I am realistic to what I can achieve. I may be deluded but I’m not a complete idiot.

I entered this race on the premise that I knew it would be tough. I’d run up to 53 miles before in the Highland Fling – this was “only” a marathon more than that. There’s the natural step up. The fling wasn’t flat either, with a total elevation of something like 7500ft of climbing.

TransGrancanaria took things to a whole new level though with a total elevation gain of 28,000ft over the whole race. That’s the equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.

Anyone with any sense would be able to tell you there is a big difference between 7500ft and 28,000ft and by looking at the race profile you can see that the climbs aren’t gradual either. My problem however is that numbers tend to jump about on the page or screen like dyscalculia and I find it difficult to relate them to anything.

In my head I knew that 28,000ft would be a tough amount of climbing, but I didn’t really appreciate just how tough. I’ve seen videos of the race and looked at loads of great photos of the trail running masters in the office and they make it look easy. I learnt just how much it really isn’t.

My race number and elevation profile

My race number and elevation profile

I wasn’t going into this blind though. I’d done my training over the winter months and by and large it had gone very well. I’d run lots of long miles; I’d climbed lots of hills; and generally thought I was in as fit a state as I have been for quite some time. There hadn’t been any mountains in my training though, they’re kind of in short supply around Kingswood, but I made do with what I had to work with.

The race started at 23:00 in the north of the island and after catching the bus from Maspalomas we all sat around in Agaete watching the clock until the start. You could see nerves touching the people who were thinking too much about the upcoming challenge, you could see it in their eyes as they sheltered from the wind. The very idea of running for up to 30 hours through the night, up mountains, and through the heat of the Canarian day was enough to make any sane person question themselves.

The race is ready to start in Agaete

I spoke to some guys who were taking on this as their first ultra event. Whether they fully knew what they were letting themselves in for I didn’t know, but they certainly seemed trepedatious.

Once all the runners had arrived the small town in the north west of the island took on something of a party atmosphere. Crowds of cheering supporters and a loud drumming band made certain of the fact that nobody was asleep in bed. As the clock struck 23:00 the horde of runners chasing their own Ren McCormack set off into the night. I was one of them, both excited and nervous at the same time.

Once the first short section of road had been covered, we began our first climb. In the dark of the night the train of both red and white lights formed a chain of slow moving effort up and down the mountain. Whilst we might not have been able to see the tops of climbs through the night sky it was just possible to make out the trail of lights fade up into the distance for almost as far up as you could see. Suddenly the elevation wasn’t just a number on a computer screen, it was in front of us and it was brutal.

Up and down mountains and rocky technical terrain, we slowly followed the incredibly well marked out route, trying to run as much downhill as we could (there wasn’t really any flat). The downhill sections themselves were tricky. As well as the switchback nature of the trails the gravel and scree underfoot made it cautious going so as to not fall off the trail and down into the dark void.

As the time and miles slowly passed, the field became more thinly spread out. Every now and then I would come across a runner sat, looking broken, on a rock in the middle of the woods. Mentally as well as physically people around me were taking a beating. As I passed the 100km to go sign I myself began to question how far into that I could get.

608 runners stood toe-to-toe on the start line that night, and before the cut-off had passed just 349 had finished. I was one of the ones who didn’t.

Along with 259 others I became a DNF statistic – my second ever in around 15 years of running. After a touch over 8 hours in the mountains I had only covered just over 20 miles. As I arrived into the third checkpoint at Artenara as the sun and temperature began to rise, I was only within 15 minutes of the checkpoint closing. At that point I knew that the likelihood of reaching Maspalomas before the 05:00 cut-off was extremely slim, so along with my running buddy Paul we took the tough but reasoned decision to drop out.

We had completed two out of the three toughest climbs and no doubt we could have carried on a bit further, likely even making it as far as halfway, but we were pretty far back already and moving slow enough to realise that we were going to get timed out at some point. Better to drop now and live to fight another day. Sometimes it’s a case of knowing which battles to pick.

I’ve done lots of trail running over the years, and I’m certainly not afraid of some rough terrain and a bit of climbing, but for me the experience of running on single track trails up a mountain through the night wasn’t quite as I expected it to be. I had envisaged the terrain to be more runnable than it was. Sure, the big boys and girls at the front ran one hell of a lot more than I did, but even for them many of the ascents were hikes at best. Poles were essential equipment.

You could argue that it was naïve of me to expect to be able to run as well as I had hoped on that kind of terrain which I don’t have much experience of. Maybe that is the case, but I’m a firm believer that you’ll never find out where your limits are if you don’t go out there and push yourself to find them.

Was this race a push too far perhaps? Was it too far outside of my comfort zone? I don’t think so. It just wasn’t quite as I expected it to be. I don’t see it as a failure, sure we didn’t finish, but from the start at Agaete to where we dropped out at Artenara we were on our feet for 8 hours, covered a total of 20.75 miles in distance and climbed 11,204ft.

The live tracking progress

I have nothing by the utmost respect for anyone who completed the event, and for anyone who even tried. I learnt a lot from the event and it will certainly help shape the race choices I make in the future. Full credit to Arista for putting on an incredible event. The organisation was certainly pretty slick.

After a couple of days basking in the sun following the race, I returned home to Kingswood and its clock tower. I may have returned once more to Bomont, and in some senses my comfort zone, but Ren is already planning his next trip to the South Downs Way 100 in June.

There were no medals, but the prize for DNF was welcome

There were no medals, but the prize for DNF was welcome

Sparking Ideas

Ira Rainey talking about superheroes - again.

It’s that time of year isn’t it? The time when people are planning their running adventures, entering races and for many thinking about fundraising too. Lots of runners secure themselves places in large popular races by taking up bond places for charities then work their way through lists of contacts asking for sponsorship money.

It’s a tried and tested approach and can certainly raise plenty of money, but with the popularity of big city races on the rise, in particular marathons, the chase for cold hard cash can become more and more difficult as an increasing amount of people take on the challenge.

It wasn’t too long ago that marathon running used to be the remit of the serious athlete. In fact it wasn’t until Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 that many race officials even considered women capable of running such distances. Tell that to Paula Radcliffe.

The point is that thousands of people run marathons every year. The London Marathon alone has around 35,000 entrants annually. That doesn’t make it any easier, but it does change the perception in the eyes of non-runners that it’s not as big a deal as it used to be.

This of course is wrong. Running a marathon is tough. It takes months of dedication and hard training. For most, running 26.2 miles will be the hardest thing they will ever do and nobody should ever try to downplay that achievement for anybody.

The trouble is if public perception of running the distance is skewed by the amount of people who complete it, then it makes it much harder to raise money for good causes by doing so. Many people who take up bond places for big races find themselves struggling to raise the large amounts asked for by the charities.

But has the system become a bit distorted? Because of the popularity of such events charities ask for higher commitments for bond places. Is this because they know they will be able to fill the spaces, hence set the fundraising targets higher? Is it merely a case of supply and demand?

Couple that in with the fact that some people view fundraising for bond places as merely paying for a race entry for somebody who really wants to do it but couldn’t get a regular entry and you end up in a position where raising money is getting more and more difficult.

I personally believe that charity is a very important part of a civilised society and it is, in some small part, a responsibility of all of us to help those less fortunate than ourselves, no matter how little we have ourselves. Compassion is a strong human emotion that should never be ignored or pushed aside.

So the big question really needs to be, how do you raise money for good causes, through running, when the social environment is such that people aren’t climbing over themselves to give you their money and when more people are asking? Gone are the times when a small article in the local paper, complete with smiling runner in full charity gear, really garners any financial interest.

It’s a good question and one without a particularly easy answer. But what strikes me is that no idea is too stupid. It really isn’t. Don’t just trawl your address book and ask people for their money. Think outside the box people commonly say, but how about forgetting there even was a box?

If you come up with an idea that you think is worthwhile then the chances are so will somebody else. No matter how small or how out there, any spark of an idea you have to raise money can work.

Of course, nobody really likes giving away money for nothing. Sure, people know that charity is a good cause, but in reality it takes something close to home to make one good cause more worthy than another. That is a sad fact of reality.

So why not work around that by giving somebody something for their money? Don’t just ask them for cash for nothing but their altruism, rather offer them something tangible in return.

Some of the most successful fundraising I’ve seen in recent times has been from raffles, cake sales (who doesn’t love a cake?) or events. These all offer people something for their money yet at the same time still make a profit for good.

Back at the tail end of 2014 I had an idea. It was a thought that had been buzzing around in the back of my head and I wasn’t able to shift it. One morning, over breakfast I conceded that it was an idea that I needed to do something about. That idea was for an event called RunSpark.

The idea had come along following some talks I’d just done at The Running and Endurance Sport Show at Sandown Park. It struck me talking to people that so much of running, particularly ultra distances, is a confidence trick. People enjoyed hearing the story and feeling inspired by what I myself – a very average runner – had achieved with that confidence.

So the first remit in my head behind RunSpark was to spread that message to as many runners as I could. To instil in them that they can be more and that they can do more. I decided that a good way to do this was to hold an event where a few different speakers would talk and impress upon the audience how the things that they had done really were achievable by all of us.

The second purpose for the evening was to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. My own journey to ultra running was taken following a friend’s diagnosis with terminal cancer and Macmillan have played a part in that journey with me and continue to do so.

What started out as a spark of an idea to help motivate other runners and raise a few pounds for a great cause soon became an all-encompassing entity which filled my time. This isn’t because such an event needs such full-time attention, but rather more of a reflection of my anal attention to detail.

The idea grew. Within a week or so I had managed to persuade Shona Thomson and James Adams to come to Bristol to talk and I had managed to persuade enough companies to give me some of their hard earned cash to pay the bills for the night. What I think is often forgotten is that you do need to spend money to make money. The generosity of Ellis-Brigham, Tangent Books, London & Country Mortgages and Deka combined meant that I could put on a first class event and feel confident in charging good money for tickets.

To further bolster the fundraising I continued to ask companies and individuals if they could provide us with products or services which could be raffled off. I spoke to dozens and dozens of companies, many of whom were not interested or unable to support RunSpark. That’s fine. You have to accept that everybody has their own reasons for becoming part of something or not. Keep a positive attitude and keep working forward.

As the event began to come together, tickets started selling quickly and raffle ticket sales started to rise, it became apparent that the event was going to raise a healthy chunk of money for Macmillan.

In the back of my head I had hoped, at best, to maybe raise £2000. That would be incredible and well worth all the effort, but as the tickets continued to sell and more and more people started to get involved offering products and services to raffle off, it became clear that I had created a giant.

I’m not going to go into the event in fine detail, but I will say that come the night we had a packed room full of keen listeners, three speakers, goody bags for everyone and over £3500 worth of stuff to raffle off.

The evening went off without a hitch and everyone who I spoke to and who contacted me after the event had only positive things to say. It had truly been worth all the effort, late nights and hard work.

Once I sat down and totted up all the totals we had actually raised a staggering £3621.65. All that from just one evening. I was astounded and proud of what had become of that spark of an idea.

The following week I had the great honour of being the guest speaker at the Macmillan Regional Fundraisers Conference in Manchester and was able to break the good news of the fundraising to the room of 200 or so people who’s job it is to help raise money for the charity. Their responses said it all and made it all worthwhile.

I guess the point to this long and rambling post is that never dismiss any fundraising idea, however daft you think it might be. No matter how small or how wild, that spark of an idea you have could turn into something magical and grow to affect many people. Unless you try it you just don’t know.

I would like to say thanks to so many people for helping me make RunSpark a great event. From Steve, Jon and Rudi who helped on the night, to Shona and James who gave up their time to come and speak, right through to all the fantastic sponsors – all of whom can be viewed on the RunSpark website.

But more than any of them, the people who bought into my spark of an idea and actually paid good hard cash to come and spend the night in a room in Bristol listen to three people talk about their running exploits. Without them we would have nothing. Thanks to everyone.

RunSpark 2016? Who knows.

A full set of images from RunSpark can be found on the Fat Man to Green Man Facebook page.

Belief vs Ability?

How much of what we are able to achieve is down to our physical ability and how much our self-belief? Is there actually a cross-over between the two?

Positive mental attitude is a very powerful tool in life generally, but especially in running. Having the confidence that you are able to pull of your goal when you lace up is surely a large part of getting you there. Without it you would fold at the first sign of adversity.

Two years ago, as part of the training for my first ultra, my good buddy Bear devised a simple sticker chart which detailed twelve of Bath’s hills on it. At lunchtimes we would tackle one hill at a time, often struggling up it before collecting our sticker like a small child who’s finished their broccoli.

At the time running the hills was new. We were building up to them, but with many of them being around a mile in length they were never an easy run. However, slowly and surely as our fitness improved and our confidence grew we ticked off each of the hills. Partly because we were fitter, but also because we believed we could. We’d done one, we could do the next one.

When you stand on the start line of a race, be it a 5K or a marathon, if you have run that distance before then you already have the knowledge and confidence that you can complete it. It then all comes down to how your training has gone and how hard you want to push yourself to run the time you want.

It is a meld of belief and ability that will get you to the finish line. But how much of each is important? Can a positive “can do” attitude get you to the finish even if your training hasn’t been up to scratch and you haven’t done the miles? I think so. As long as you’re not completely deluded.

Last year I spoke to Carl Zalek, who after reading about the hills on our sticker sheet in my book, said he was interested in running them – only he wanted to run them all at once. Bonkers I thought – how can that be possible? But sure enough he went out and ran all twelve in one run, racking up some 28 miles while doing so. It was amazing running, but it was also proof that it could be done.

So as part of my training for my next ultra, which has *ahem* a few hills, it seemed like a good idea to go out and take on the big twelve myself. I’ve been doing more miles as part of my training, but not a ridiculous amount of hill climbing.

To match the challenge of how we did each single hill, the route had to always return to the same starting point, close to my office, where we would set out on our lunchtime runs. This meant that as well as the 4400ft of hills we also had to factor in the distance, some 26.something miles.

The interesting thing is that while my current fitness is pretty good, I don’t feel it is much more than it was this time a couple of years ago when one or two hills were a big ask. So going into this challenge it was belief; confidence; mental strength even that would get me through as much as my fitness.

To cap it off, the past two weekends I had already spent running long distances. The previous week I had run the 42 miles of Country to Capital, and the week before that 33 miles through the night leading into my local parkrun. Whilst my physical fitness may have been reasonable, I certainly had plenty of miles in my legs. Belief today was indeed key.

I ran the dozen peaks today and whilst it wasn’t exactly the Bob Graham Round or a tour of the Brecons, it was definitely a morning of climbing to remember. It was a tough run at times, but there was never a time when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to finish, despite my previous lack of climbing. I started with a positive mental attitude and that belief that I could complete all twelve kept me going all the way up to the top of the last climb. Something fitness alone I don’t think would have got me through. Positive thinking kids.

How much do you think belief and ability go hand in hand?