Non, je ne regrette rein

kaem_a3-poster-uk-version-3-003-724x1024This post was inspire by a Somali nurse featured on Desert Island Discs selecting the Edith Piaf song ‘Non, je regrette rein’ as one of her choices. The thoughts and ideas had been swirling around inside my head for some considerable time. Hearing that song coalesced them into something coherent. Perhaps because it provided a title to hang those ideas from.

For the last ten years in October I have travelled to South Africa to take part in the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon. This year I stayed at home. As the time of the event approached friends asked me if I was going to miss being there and during the week of the race it reached a crescendo, with many people asking if I had withdrawal symptoms. I didn’t miss being there, I didn’t have withdrawal symptom; I had no regrets. There is a reason for that; it was planned and I have a very good reason for not going.

Last year, before I went out to South Africa, I decide that, if I finished and thereby completed my tenth race, I would not be back the following year.  During the race in 2016 I took the time to re-examine that decision and decided it was the right decision. At the awards ceremony, when I was presented with my permanent number for completing ten events (the only person to have ever done that), I gave a short, emotional speech and announced to my fellow runners, the support crew and the race organisers, my very good friends, that I would not be back in 2017.

Why did I decide that? The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon has provided me with the most amazing experiences, I have met many wonderful people and made some very deep and enduring friendships. Those things are like bold, colourful brush strokes on a canvas. In 2017 the picture was complete, to add any more would have at best obscured some of what had gone before and may have even ruined that wonderful picture. That canvas now hangs on my memory wall in a very special place. Non, je ne regrette rein.

The break has also opened up a new opportunity. I now have a blank canvas on which more colourful brush strokes can be applied to record the next ten years of taking part in the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon. I am going back in 2018 to start that whole process again; it will be a different picture, but I am confident that it will be just as beautiful as the first.



DNF also means Did Not Fail

RunnerI have noticed a growing trend on Facebook. People are posting about the races they did not complete starting with the words “Sorry, I failed”.

Now there could be a number of reasons for this: people are not finishing races more often, people are talking about not finishing more often and people are being more harsh on themselves than they used to be or maybe they enjoy public self-flagellation. You may be able to think of more. I find it disturbing that the think they have failed. Perhaps they are bringing a 10k and half-marathon mentality to the wonderful world of ultra running. When you line up for a 10k or half-marathon it is almost certain that you are going to finish, the only doubt is what your time will be, whether it is a pb and where you are placed. When you have run a few marathons the same applies, finishing is never in doubt. However, every time I stood on the start line of the 56-mile Comrades ultramarathon there was always a significant doubt in my mind as to whether I would finish. Ultramarathons are a different breed of events; ultrarunners are a different breed from more normal runners.

Not to finish an ultra is not a failure, it is a sign that you are moving outside your comfort zone and attempting something difficult. It is a learning experience, a chance to change and come back stronger or, perhaps, to realise that this is not one of your strengths. To those people saying “Sorry I failed” I encourage you to change how you look at the world. For example, you might say “My knee failed me” when an existing problem stopped you from finishing an event. Think about saying “I failed my knee”: you entered the event knowing it wasn’t 100% sound.

If you have trained properly are in good health and did not finish an event, you did not fail. You were brave enough to get to the start line and test yourself. That time you were weighed in the scales and the balance was not in your favour, but, because of that experience, the next time the result will be different. You may still post a DNF, but you will be one more step closer to your goal.

Multi-day races – why?

Peopleimage often ask me why I love multi-day races as a competitor and a volunteer. That is a hard question to answer because there are so many reasons and many of them are hard to put into words in a way that those that don’t know can understand. One of the reasons is that I meet real people. That probably needs some explaining.

When you run with someone for a long time on a difficult stage, or you are a sweep and spend time with someone who is grinding it out until they get to the finish, the talk often revolves around what the race does to you. Most people talk about it stripping them down to the basics, removing the layers that we allow other people to see and that hide the true us. They talk about being deconstructed, of looking into very dark places to find answers: Do I have what it takes? Can I go on? Do I want this enough? It is then that you see the real person: the barriers, the defences, the glossy exterior is stripped away. These are very special moments; moments when you really know each other and a bond develops that is deep and profound.

Sometimes you can help, but most of the time the individual has to find their own answers and if they share that with you it is a very humbling experience. I have had many such moments and will share just one with you. I was talking with someone towards the end of a tough desert race, the long day was over and the end was in sight, it was then that she shared with me what had got her through when it got very, very tough and she wanted to quit. She had been in a relationship where her partner belittled and beat her. She told herself that she had survived that and that what she was going through in the race was not as bad as that; she could keep going. It angers me that someone so gentle and so strong should have been so badly treated. Unfortunately, I have heard similar accounts from several people, however, there is a very good ending. Yes multi-day events strip you down, but they also reconstruct you into a much better person, more able to cope with whatever life throws at you. They build you up, put you in control. You see yourself in a different light and want to go through that rebuilding process again to continually improve, to live life, to know yourself and to be with beautiful people.

Why the photo of trees. I love trees and I love multi-day races; it is much easier to find a photo to represent trees than it is to find just one to represent mult- day races.

Footloose and fancy-free – hell no – foot supported and injury free

SOLEI had to walk a marathon through the streets of London to get these SOLE footbeds, but it was well worth it. Action PR’s client, Everyone Active, was a sponsor of the recent Shine Walk in London which was a fund-raiser for Cancer Research UK. The PR agency decide to get a team together to take part and invited some National Running Show ambassadors to join them. Another of their clients is SOLE, hence the free footbeds. I was really chuffed to get them, because I have been using SOLE footbeds for years and my existing pair were getting to the end of their long, tough life. That included a 3-month back-packing hike in Scotland; wet feet every day and long distances on varied terrain. I had no foot problems.

Honesty announcement: I used to be the Ed part of Ed & Phil Active, who were agents and distributors selling sports and outdoor goods to independent retailers, before I left to set up Trailrunningman. SOLE footbeds were one of those products, however we only sold products we believed in and used ourselves. The business is now run exclusively by my ex business partner, friend and serial marathon runner Phillip Howells. If you want to buy some footbeds get them from an independent retailer or Ed & Phil via the online shop.

Now to why I love SOLE insoles. I do not have any particular foot or lower limb issues, but do run and hike very long distances, so I am on my feet for a long time. The SOLE footbeds help in two ways. One, because of the heat-moulded fit, the load on your foot is spread over the entire surface, not just the ball and heel of your foot, which helps reduce hotpots and hence blisters. It will also help with power transfer (something triathletes get very excited about) when you are a cycling. Apparently, it will also improve the distance you can hit a golf ball, but I’ve never seen the point of golf so I cannot get excited about that.

Two, they provide arch support which means for me that my feet do not get tired, even when standing up for hours on a concrete floor at a trade show or expo, or when running ultramarathons. Note the all-important word, support! It does this by a one-piece construction of EVA with variable density. Other brands have different sections which control the foot, which can cause more issues than it resolves.

If you suffer from any lower limb problems, e.g. Plantar Fasciitis, then SOLE footbeds should be your first port of call. A lot cheaper than a podiatrist. However, if the problem is serious then consult a professional. Many podiatrists, use SOLE footbeds as the base on which they fit custom made orthotics You can trim part of the footbed to fit your shoe if necessary. If you are a bit too enthusiastic with the scissors or overcook the footbeds when softening, don’t worry, SOLE operate a 90-day no-quibble return policy.

If you want more, have a look at the SOLE website, you will also find research results on there, including the golf study.


The Sound of Running

Today I was sitting at my computer, working away, when the sound of seagulls distracted me and I remembered some of the  wonderful runs I had enjoyed where that was the sound track. I thought that I must have blogged about it in the past so had a little rummage in the archives and here it is:

Running to me is not abDSC_0035out exercise, muscle and sinews; it is a sensuous thing involving all the senses. My auditory senses were the main beneficiary on Sunday. I ran from home and had to pass through a small housing estate, along a footpath to the local primary school and then out into the fields and woods. As I passed through the estate there was the sound of children playing outside, how wonderful to hear children enjoying the open air and being sociable. Along the footpath I caught up with a woman pushing a child in a buggy. She was chatting away to the child, pointing out all the things to look at; primroses, a starling, a dog. There can be no more heart-warming sound than a mother talking lovingly to her child.

As I neared the fields I could hear sheep making quite a din and as I got closer the noise got more frenetic. Then I saw why, the farmer had just arrived with a sack of feed. I stopped and chatted with her for a while then ran on. As I got further away the noise die down and for a moment all I could hear was my breathing and the sound off my feet of the tarmac drive. That soften as I turned on to the muddy track, however my breathing got louder as it was uphill.

Then came the sound of the church bells from the nearby village, which got louder as I approached. I love churches and I love the sound of bells. I’m not religious at all, but I think churches are a great link with the community and the past; a constant thread stretching back hundreds of years. The bells fell silent and I stayed a while enjoying the peace and looking out over the cemetery. It is well maintained and many of the graves have fresh flowers on them. I don’t see it as a place of death, but a remembrance of lives once lived.

My route took me towards the sea and the evocative cries of seagulls. For me that sound conjures up memories of holidays on the coast; sunshine, paddling in the sea, sand between your toes, ice-cream and drifting off to sleep tired and contented. Then I turned inland across a stream and into the woods. I find the sound of running water relaxing, unless it’s a raging torrent, then I find it invigorating. In the woods small birds were calling out, either to mark their territory or to attract a mate. All too soon I was out of the woods and back into the fields where the only sound was my breathing. When I passed them again the sheep were silent, presumably their hunger was satisfied.

It was then back through the estate where my contemplative mood was rudely interrupted by the strident beeping of a lorry reversing. My magic running world was gone, but I’ll be back there again soon.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Myth

After 20 years of being a long-distance runner I have Lonliness of the long distamce runnereventually got around to reading “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Sillitoe. I was surprised to find that it was a short story not a novel, was about cross-country rather than distance running (the race is only 5 miles) and is not about loneliness. I didn’t think much of it, but that may be because I don’t think enough. There seems to be more written about the story than there are words in the story itself. Here is a short extract from Wikipedia.

‘Sillitoe uses running in his story as a means of isolation. Running is a solitary action and therefore allows Smith to begin to understand and become aware of the class divisions in Britain. Smith, the narrator of the story, is also a writer and he is an allegoric version of Sillitoe and the isolation that all authors suffer from. Smith is a solitary runner who gets political clarity through running and isolation, just as an author writes alone and thinks alone. The long distance runner and the writer are both individualistic and isolated so that they are able to produce their commodities. The metaphor used to compare both the author and the runner is similar to the author losing his purity when he publishes a work just as Smith loses his purity when he enters the race.
During the time period that Sillitoe wrote “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” the idea of the runner was changing dramatically. The purity of running was taken away when Smith entered the race because the race dehumanised him. The race made Smith a commodity for nationalisation that he was uncomfortable with. When the sport of running became professional it lost its sense of purity and became a commodity. Sillitoe rejects the commoditisation of running in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. This is why Smith chooses to forfeit the race. Helen Small states, “…the weight of literary attention seems to be focused on a ‘pre-professional era’—either written at that time or looking back at it for inspiration”. The professional runner becomes commercialised and loses the clarity of thought that comes with running for pure passion and pleasure. Sillitoe was an author who believed in the unadulterated sport of running.’

Wow I’m glad I’m not a professional runner who has been dehumanised and commoditised, although I do think there are some worrying developments in our sport driven by clever marketing people. I certainly experience the pure passion and pleasure that comes from running. Perhaps that is because I don’t own any running technology and until recently thought Strava was a Greek pastry.

I think a lot of runners get a great deal of clarity from long distance running, but I would not describe it as a lonely sport. Yes, there are long runs alone, but there is also the camaraderie of races, clubs, training groups etc. In the UK the long Sunday run is often done in isolation, but in South Africa, where many runners are preparing for Comrades, the Sunday run is a social, early morning affair followed by brunch at a cafe (they start very early). And nowadays there is all the friendly banter on social media. It is only a lonely sport if you want it to be.