My Left Foot (Part Two)

One of my New Year Resolutions, alongside the trusty favourites of losing a stone; writing a song that people would be interesting in listening to; and generally being harder on Jr Emu#3 (a NYR shared by four other members of the family), was to write 12 blogs that people would actually read during 2016.

So far, so not so good, as the score currently stands at: Year Expectations – 4, Emu – 1.

As ever, I’m keen to blame others for my inadequacies, and in this instance, I’m placing part of the responsibility on the ever fragrant Mrs E, who imposed something of a super-injunction on my last draft. I’d spent a reasonable chunk of February preparing what turned out to be a combination of an open letter to Jeremy Hunt, and a love letter to Mrs E, who, as a nurse, is one of his most long standing and long suffering employees. As it turned out, putting the blog in front of her before pressing the ‘publish’ button was definitely the right thing to do, as it received a response along the lines of:

‘There’s no way on this earth that I’m letting you publish that. I’ll lose my job, you twat’

There are few things I really fear in life, but being married to an unemployed nurse who bears me a major grudge would definitely be one of them. Mrs E is already making noises about a third dog to continue her child replacement therapy, and had this episode gone wrong, I could just see her going down the ‘attack-dog’ route.

Anyhow, that was the blog you didn’t get, which was about as negative a read about the NHS as you could experience, and this, by contrast, is the blog that you do get, which, happily, is about the best experience ever, yesterday, also at the hands of the NHS.

For a bit of context, my left foot has been something of a burden to me in my efforts to be a vaguely adequate marathon runner. The big toe, in particular, was hurting like seven shades of hell when I went to my GP at the end of last year – he had a painful poke about and diagnosed an ingrowing toenail. An ingrowing toenail is one of those conditions that you think is way down on the minor list of ailments, but it’s not until you have one that you realise what all the fuss is about. It’s like having a really sensitive part of your foot constantly tattooed by a degenerate biker, so when the doctor said that I needed to have the toenail removed, and that it was a simple procedure, I could have jumped for joy. Obviously I didn’t as I had a fair idea of what landing would feel like, but you get my drift.

‘Can it be done quickly?’ I asked. ‘It’s just that I’m going into a sixteen week training plan, so I need to fit it in with that’

My GP has what I believe is called a ‘lazy eye’, and it’s often quite difficult to tell if he’s staring at you intently or looking up at the ceiling in a a state of disbelief. I like to think that in this instance he was doing both. Anyway, we agreed that I should save the NHS the bother and get booked in for a quick BUPA procedure in February.

Come the great day, and I pitched up for the appointment, had a fairly large needle shoved into my toe, then watched on in awe as the toe was cut open, part of the nailbed removed, and the whole thing cauterised with what looked suspiciously like the last soldering iron I bought in Maplins. (And which, incidentally, brought back some shuddering memories of my vasectomy. The smell of burning flesh will, I think, always remind me of that sunny afternoon in a surgery ten years ago, with my wife and the doctor merrily gossiping on the other side of a green cloth screen. I had naively expected her to hold my hand at the customer end of the transaction, but she mentioned something about ‘professional interest’ and that was the last I saw of her.)

Anyway, I rested up for a few days, got back to running, got the toe nicely infected by doing a twenty miler in the mud in March, got some antibiotics and took ‘constructive feedback’ from various healthcare professionals (see above), and by the start of April, all was reasonably well. Not the prettiest toe you’d ever seen, but vaguely functional.

Then, about a fortnight ago, it started hurting again. Then really hurting. Then ohmygodthatissof’ingpainful hurting. So I went back to the GP, who did the whole intense stare trick again, and sent me off with some antibiotics.

‘This will clear the infection up by the marathon’ he said, filling me with optimism.

I tried a run on Tuesday this week and pretty much had to hop the first couple of miles. It was really, really painful, and probably not that sustainable an approach for the marathon, so the next day it was back to the GP. He looked at me quizzically (I think).

‘I could drill it’, he said, ‘but I’m not sure that’s what it needs’.

Well, if he wasn’t sure, I wasn’t going to encourage him to experiment. So he decided to ‘phone a friend’. He called the podiatry department at a local hospital, told them what he was worried about, and said that this was ‘important, as the patient has to run a marathon on Sunday’. He genuinely said that, not because he necessarily thought it was properly important, but because he knew that it was to me. This was after 5, and whoever he spoke to said they’d have to see if anyone could help, and they’d call him back. They did:

‘Can you do 10 tomorrow morning?’

Yes, I very much could. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but anything was going to be better that the current situation, and so I pitched up at the hospital on time the next day.

And was seen, on time. By two lovely people, who, if they weren’t in the podiatry business, could probably have eked out a living in light entertainment.

Within 2 minutes of me taking my socks off and giving them a brief rundown, they’d agreed on the problem – the nail bed hadn’t been killed off and the nail had grown back, in spikes, back into my toe.

They’d also agreed on a fix.

‘We’ve got two options; either we do the procedure now without an anaesthetic’

<pauses for patient to take this in>

‘Or we do the procedure now with an anaesthetic.’

I don’t think it was the first time that the joke had been told in that room, but I guess that’s ok as long as it’s new to your audience. Which it was. Anyway, we settled on the second option, which involved the familiar big needle being shoved in.

‘This is going to hurt quite a bit. We encourage you to swear’

Yep, it did and I did. And then various bits of jagged nail were poked about, cut off, dragged out, and waved in front of me like fishing trophies. The whole thing was over in a few minutes and pronounced a big success.

‘That should be fine by Sunday, we’ll watch out for you’

Hurrah, I thought, quickly adjusting my race plan.

‘But you’ll need to have the nail bed cut out again.’

Uh-oh, I thought, expecting a three month wait.

‘We’ll do the paperwork now so you don’t need to come back for a consultation, and we’ll send you an appointment for May’

Time to take that uh-oh back then.

I know that all of this doesn’t say anything about the resources and the queues and the beds and the cuts and the overcrowding, and all the other awful things that are happening to the NHS at this time. And I know, that, in the scheme of things, removing an recalcitrant toenail from an otherwise fit bloke primarily so he can indulge himself in a running race doesn’t really stack up against the need for ECG monitors, or decent treatment for Alzheimer patients, or reasonable salaries, or meaningful community care, or any other of the big issues.

But, on the other hand, some really lovely and caring and professional people went out of their way to help me this week. They understood the person they were helping, they stopped the horrible bit from hurting, they could see exactly the problem and the solution, and even told a few jokes to ease the pain. When we shout (and we should) about losing what is dear to us in the dearest of our institutions, we shouldn’t forget that the little things define it as much as the big things. So let’s shout about those as well, ok?


PS: Had a bit of a setback on Thursday night as I managed to run over my own left foot while taking the bins out. In my profession, we’d call this user error.


A pair of embarrassing running shorts (part 2)

Well, gentle reader, sadly it’s tights weather yet again. For running, you understand. I’ve long since moved away from the old school style of running that insists on wearing shorts at all costs, and, if it gets really cold, just tells you to run a bit faster. I run a bit up in Newcastle, where I believe tights are considered a bit, well southern, and I’m sure some of the people that I bump into running round Town Moor  at -2C in a hailstorm think that wearing a shirt is a bit of an unnecessary luxury as well. But I’m afraid these days, not freezing my nuts off of an evening has become something of a priority.

The other deviation that I’ve made away from old school running has been a sad reliance on needing company on my runs. By company, I mean needing to be plugged in to music or a podcast or a radio, and I justify this based on the fact that I’ve been running pretty much every day now for about twenty years, and so I’ve kind of got bored with the wonders of nature and the beauty of foot mechanics and being alone with my thoughts. Friends of mine who are proper runners are very sniffy about this, and warble on about junk miles not really being worth anything, and that I’ll only ever run slowly if I don’t fully focus on the run itself, but, sometimes I’m past caring, and I just need to hear the latest from Dan Carlin, or No Such Thing As A Fish, or This American Life, and the whole experience turns into a bit more fun. And these days, I have the added joy of an iPhone that I can strap to my arm, which also allows me to, as they say, stay connected.

So, off I go last week, out of the office in Newcastle, and away for a brisk run across Town Moor, with 3x two miles hard to tick off on the training plan, and all is well with the world. And the ‘well with the world’ status lasted well into the changing room, where I realise that I’d left that clever little armstrap for my phone several hundred miles away. As I saw it, I had three options – leave the phone in the changing room and have a good run but with no entertainment; carry the phone in my hand and Not Look Like A Proper Runner; or tuck the phone into my tights. Naturally, and helped by the fact that these were compression tights, which I suspect may have featured in an early draft of 50 Shades of Grey, I squeezed the phone into the waistband and set off.

An easy mile one, and I’m moving at a nice pace, with my eyes on the first 2 mile effort on the moor. History Extra podcast is my choice of entertainment, this one featuring things you didn’t know about Hitler’s cocaine habit (really). Get to the moor, and all is well, except for the fact that I have to knock out a 2 mile effort in the dark. But knock it out I do, get my statutory 2 minutes rest, then go for effort #2. This time, things do not go quite so well. For some reason, my phone starts slipping. At first, it’s just a bit irritating, but after mile one of the two miles it starts working its way, well, downwards. Possibly lubricated by sweat, which is pretty unpleasant, and heading downward at a steady rate, which is even more unpleasant. About a half a mile to go, and I find myself effectively sitting on my phone while running. In order to halt further progress, I naturally alter my running style to what I like to call ‘1950’s PE teacher’ – head back, back straight, high knees, and all the time trying to complete the effort.

Statutory two minute rest while I try to decide what to do. Sadly, it never entered my head to carry the bloody thing, instead, I went for the extra tightness option of tucking my phone into my pants, with added security from the compression tights. You may well be ahead of me here. I got another mile and a half around the final effort before disaster struck. The phone didn’t travel so far south this time, but unfortunately it did adopt a more, ahem, central position. So I’m running along in the dark, trying to keep a 6:30 pace up, with a running style owing a bit too much to John Wayne after a long day in the saddle, just having heard that he had a bad case of rickets, but needing to get to the Last Chance Saloon before closing time. Anyway, just about managed the last half mile and I’m about 50 yards from the end when History Extra (now focussing specifically on the amphetamines in use by the Fuhrer during the siege of Stalingrad), is disrupted by an incoming call. Given that it might be important, or my wife (teehee), I elect to press the little button and gasp ‘hang on’ while I get to the stopping point. It’s my wife.

“I can’t hear you very well” she says “I don’t think the reception’s very good at your end”

If only she knew…

More fun in tights to follow on this Sunday’s long run. But first, a word about fashion. When setting off for a winter run, it’s more than likely you’ll wear tights (black), gloves (black) hat (black), and, if you’re not careful, your favourite long sleeved top (black). Black clothing is of course, very practical and, I understand from too many copies of Grazia, very slimming. But unfortunately you end up looking, at best, like the Milk Tray man. Or, potentially, Andy McNab, and neither of these things count as A Good Look. Unusually, I looked in the mirror before I left the house, and saw a complete idiot looking back, and so went for my second favourite  shirt, a charming, and quite frankly, gleaming, long sleeved white number.

Off I trotted,  thinking that I looked slightly less twit-like, and maybe bordering on the mildly athletic. On reflection, this might have been a bit optimistic, given that I’d carbo-loaded the previous night with two pints of Wherry, one of Amstel, and a double whisky.

A couple of miles into the run, and I found myself a) running off road and b) running very slowly. Got to a stile across a very muddy field, and thought I’d better pick the pace up a bit.  Did I mention it was very muddy? It was very, very muddy indeed, and as I tried to speed up, I was rather held back by my right foot getting completely stuck.

Or not. In fact, it was my right shoe that was stuck, and my right foot was released into thin air, leaving the shoe sinking into the mud. As I had a reasonable amount of momentum built up, I didn’t have a lot of time to think, but I tried to effect a Jonathan Edwards-type hop with my left foot, which, given the circumstances, was reasonably successful. Unfortunately one successful hop was not quite enough for any sort of recovery, and the momentum of the hop quickly turned into a trip, and the trip turned into a full-on face plant. I got up very slowly, and for some reason I don’t really understand, because my right foot was completely coated in mud, I hopped, on my left foot, back to my shoe. And, again, for reasons I can’t really explain, picked up my shoe, walked back to the stile, took off my right sock and, standing one legged tried to knock the mud off by banging it, Basil Fawlty style, against the gate.

Now, muddy foot encased in muddy sock inside a muddy shoe, I tried to prepare myself for the next part of the run. I had no idea what I looked like, but if my previously white shirt was anything to go by, my face would have looked like Brutus in the Green Mile, just after the moon pie episode:

And that’s when the dog walker came into view.

“That was really funny” he said, “I really enjoyed seeing that”.

I spent the next 15 miles trying to think of what I should have said back to him. I’m not sure whether I managed anything better than what I actually replied:




Driving me round the bend

“Well, how was London ?”

Like many other marathon runners, the end of April for me was spent staring at my feet or the middle distance trying to answer this question without being completely boring or self-obsessed.  In any case, the answer for me this year was:

“Bloody awful, thanks for asking”

Given that’s been pretty much the same response for the last 3-4 years, after every marathon I’ve run, I decided to try something radical. That’s right, I read a book about how to be a better runner. There’s lots of these books out, and mugs like me buy them all the time, in the mistaken belief that by tweaking our training, taking a different attitude to races, running with a different posture, eating wholegrain goat yoghurt etc that we’ll remain injury free, enjoy our running, and probably show a clean pair of heels to those pesky Kenyans.

Anyway, this particular mug bought a book called “Run Less, Run Faster”. I was particularly attracted by the first part of the title, as I’ve recently fallen out of love with running, and am keen for us to be reunited as soon as possible. What RL, RF says is this: Stop running so much, do three really good intense sessions a week and spend another 2-3 sessions cross training. Quite how such a message justifies 300 pages of dense text and £8:99 of my cash is anyone’s guess, but I guess that’s just the crazy, mixed up world that we all live in these days.

So, for the last couple of weeks, that’s what my training has been, and, dear reader, I do feel my affection for running generally chumming up a bit. Although I think this is partly due to the significant boredom levels associated  with the cross training options. Because once you’ve put yourself through 45 minutes of stationary cycling or rowing machine efforts, then you really know how boring exercise can be.

And so it was with a spring in my step that I started my effort session last Tuesday night, and I fair skipped along to start my:

<1 mile warm up + 4x 800m efforts @ 2:54 off 1min timed recovery + 2 mile cool down>

Now, if you’re a runner, you probably live in justified fear of the 800m effort. It’s just about short enough to be flat out, and just about long enough to leave you coughing blood in the last 200 metres. But, it’s a really good effort session distance for endurance runners, and there’s even a neat little marathon predictor called Yasso 800’s (named after the exceptionally coolly named running coach, Bart Yasso) that says you should do 6 x 800m efforts with  limited recoveries as an indicator of marathon pace a few weeks ahead of your race – your average in minutes and seconds will be the likely time you’re capable of in hours and minutes for the marathon. Neat, huh?

So off I set, and warmed up by running to a nearby cinder track, a hidden gem about a mile from where I live. It’s at the edge of a park which itself borders on to a bit  of Norwich which, well, hasn’t exactly made its way on to any postcards you’d buy from the tourist board. However, there was sun in the sky, a marked lack of rain, and all was right with the world.

First 800. Had the track to myself, being a firm believer in Yasso 800’s, I took the 2:54 target seriously, got round ok, and absolutely on pace.

As I was walking up to start the second effort, I was joined on the running track by two men in shell-suits carrying golf clubs, a very noisy child, and two even noisier dogs. Stepping on to the infield, they started practising their golf shots*. Fortunately, they weren’t very good at golf, so they weren’t hitting the ball that far, but when they did connect, it was difficult to know if they were going to slice or hook, so running in a circle around them was slightly precarious. In addition, the noisy child decided to exercise the dogs, who in turn decided to exercise themselves in my general direction. All of which gave cause for quite a lot of “Oi, f***ing come back here”  from the two men, who would catch up with the dogs eventually and punish them in the way in which only people who shouldn’t have dogs seem to know how. So, second 800m just shaded under 3:00, on account of ducking imaginary “F***in’ Fore” shouts and general distraction.

Third effort was all well until the second bend, when I noticed two more men and possibly the biggest dog I’ve ever seen, up on the bank next to the track. My eyesight’s a bit dodgy these days, and I genuinely thought it was a small horse to start with. Anyway, it, and its minders came down the bank, attached to each other by a chain that you’d normally use to secure a large motorbike. Across the back straight, and onto the infield. The small child stopped screaming. Both of the casual golfers stopped swearing and studied their trainers. And the two previously very lively dogs sauntered over to the back straight, as if to make it clear that their job descriptions did not include the word ‘protection’. Naturally, this modern day reenactment of a spaghetti western slowed me down, as time stood still around me for a moment. As a result – 2:59.

Ans so to the fourth 800m effort. Just as I walked up to the start point, I was joined on the track by an assortment of different sized adults in more shell suits, two toddlers, and a very small quad bike.

“That looks easier than this”, I said, striking up the sort of easy banter that inevitably marks me out as a complete twit, and by which I meant at riding on a quad bike around  a running track would be easier than running.

“Well, we can’t get it f***ing going on the f***ing grass”, came back the equally cheery response, slightly mis-interpreting me.

They started the quad bike up, and it made a noise like a drag racer. The recalcitrant dogs pricked up their ears, and on the back straight suddenly made themselves heard again (the dog/horse creature by this stage had moved on, possibly into some sort of Ripley’s Believe it or Not travelling fair). I had a bit of a head start on the first circuit, as the first pilot was the wrong side of obese, and had a toddler on his lap, all of which pretty much hid the quad bike underneath. As I passed them, the dogs looked a bit puzzled and not sure what to make of things. Frankly, I couldn’t blame them – they’d just pitched up for a little light golf and owner punishment action, a new type of scary animal scares them half to death, then some idiot in a running vest comes sweating past, followed by Mr Creosote and Jr Creosote, making a noise like their worst nightmare and with no visible means of support.

The Creosote family had developed some momentum by about 300m, and were steadily gaining on me as I passed half way. Time for a quick Le Mans style change of driver, and the race was truly on. For the new driver was the skinniest member of the family and anxious to impress with his driving skills, throwing doughnuts on the first corner, and in turn convincing the dogs that this was A Thing They Must Chase. So they did, and at 600 metres, the positions were 1) me 2) quad bike 3) Alsatian cross 4) Bulldog, all travelling at well over 10mph. I’m pleased to say that these were the finishing positions as well, or at least they would have been if the two dogs hadn’t been chased in turn by their owners, so instead of attacking the final bend, had carried straight on down the hill towards the ring road. Selfishly, that didn’t concern me, as I checked my time for the effort – the thrill and fear of the chase had resulted in a pleasing 2:49.

I suspect you will struggle to see such an exciting last lap at London 2012 in the 800m, or, frankly, in any other event, and more’s the pity, in my opinion. I would love to see the introduction of lively dogs and/or mini quadbikes in lanes 7 and 8 for some of the heats, at least.

My training plan takes me back to the track next Tuesday. If there’s enough interest, I will hold a badly organised and frustrating lottery to deliver to you some tickets at vastly inflated prices, although I couldn’t guarantee that you’ll get to see exactly the event you want to see when you want to see it or indeed be able to sit near any members of your own family.

But you’ll be able to say you were there.


*the men, obviously

Brutal Youth*

When my Sister was 17, my Father, like the kind soul that he was and is, sat her in the car for her first driving lesson.

“Remember”, he said solemnly, “that when you get in a car and drive, you’re basically being put in charge of the most dangerous weapon you will ever control”.

We were keen to remind my sister of these wise words as, over the next couple of years, she emerged relatively unscathed from a number of scrapes and near misses involving cars, boyfriends, trees, whiplash and on one spectacular occasion, two Japanese exchange students. In fact, this last incident caused something of a diplomatic incident where we lived, and it took a good couple of months before the entente cordiale between the North and South ends of the village was re-established. I experience the concept of car as weapon a couple of years later, during my first attempt at hitch-hiking, which resulted in wedging a Mini directly underneath the front of a large lorry in Northumberland.

But all of these stories will have to wait, because this blog is about yesterday morning’s bike ride, and what it tells us about the way the world is turning.

So let me, as Lloyd Cole would say, introduce you to the rest of the crew. Four of us have been training together on Saturday mornings now for a few years. Apart from myself, we have:

1. the mysterious ex-government agent who, for obvious reasons, cannot be named. Let us call him Mr Bean, largely because we do.

2. Chuckle Brother #1, whose athletic ability at the front of the pack is normally limited slightly by a challenging bladder problem

3. Chuckle Brother #2, who combines cycling with gym work and generally lifting heavy objects for a living, which means he’s ideal for the front of the pack, so we can all shelter behind him.

More of CB#2 later, as our interesting tale does rather revolve around him.

So, off we pedal at a bracing speed, heading off towards the coast on the back roads. And worth mentioning at this point, that this was proper idyllic stuff. If you ever want to rattle around country roads in the style of Julian, Dick, George, Ann and Timmy, just get yourself to Norfolk and go off the beaten track. Just don’t go with Bean, CB#1 or CB#2, as they tend to travel a bit faster than the FF. Incidentally, what did they do with Timmy when they were on their bracing bike rides? Anyway, this is yet another meaningless tangent, so back to the bike ride, and about 40 miles in, when we were on the coast road, whizzing along towards Cromer.

This is a brilliant section of road, with views out to the sea, a bit of up and down, and a good surface; the roads can be a little narrow, but they’re open enough. Or so we thought…

On a fairly straight stretch, a couple of cars overtook us; there was nothing coming the other way, so that was fine, and I was surprised to see the second car slow down and drive alongside me. The driver, who was on his own, had the passenger window open, and was pointing and shouting at me. Sadly, years of playing pub-rock, travelling along in the wind, a noisy car and a rather attractive snood that I was wearing that morning rendered me pretty much deaf to what he was saying, but, for reasons best known to himself, he was not at one with the universe and apparently it was our fault. So I gave him what I thought was a special look, which is fairly close to that in the picture at the top of this blog.

CB#2 was rather less controlled in his reaction. Hearing what was going on behind him, he suggested very loudly and very directly that the driver might want to go…off. This provoked an interesting reaction from the driver, who pulled back a bit, made to overtake again, then steered directly towards CB#2. He pulled out of the collision at the last moment, just before CB#2 was forced off the road, and just avoided making contact.

Let’s just play that one again. A car overtakes a cyclist on a clear stretch of road. For some reason or another the driver is unhappy. An altercation occurs between two complete strangers, where neither can actually hear what the other is saying. Then the driver aims a half ton piece of metal, at speed, directly towards a cyclist who is travelling at some pace, held to the road by two narrow tyres and with no protection. Then drives off. It is, frankly, unbelievable. It’s one thing giving a driver possession of a dangerous weapon. It’s quite another when they decide to use a weapon.

Fortunately, CB#2 had managed to retrieve his balance, and somehow stayed on his bike. At which point, rather ambitiously, he chased after the car, shouting in a style that was a lively mix of ‘half-time Delia’ with extreme Tourettes. The car put his brakes on, at which point we rather feared for the worst. There are certain people in my life who I’m very grateful to have as friends rather than enemies, and CB#2 is definitely one of them, and had he caught up with the car I think there’s a reasonable chance that he might have lifted it over the side of the road single-handedly. Pretty quickly, the driver changed his mind and drove off, and I think if I’d seen CB#2 bearing down on me through my rear view mirror like a rabid cage fighter on a bike, I might have done the same.

As regular readers may know, the Emu exists partly to making sweeping generalistic statements about the state of the world from the minutiae of everyday life. And, reflecting on this on the way home, I decided that if we bottled down one thing that is wrong with this country at the moment, it would not be the lack of trust in the establishment, the corrupt politicians, the failing infrastructure or a crumbling economy that seems increasingly based on moving around objects without any intrinsic value. I think it’s that we appear to be breeding generation after generation of irresponsible no-marks who have taken selfishness and a lack of consideration to a whole new level. I really, really, really, hope I’m wrong.

*A very very fine work indeed. And something of a find for the cover photo

Two wheels good, four wheels bad!

I think I might have gone on ad nauseum on this site a while back about the joys of cycling in Holland, and in the likely event that you didn’t catch that message, here it is in summary:

  • Dutch people are, as far as I can make out, all lovely in every way…
  • …and they all ride bicycles. Which means that….
  • being a cyclist in Holland is an absolute pleasure…
  • not least because they’ve covered the country in a fab network of cyclepaths that can get you anywhere, without a sniff of a car. Or car driver…
  • …who, incidentally are all lovely and polite as well, although I believe this is partly due to the rule in Holland that any accident involving bike and car is automatically the car driver’s fault.

Plus, it’s flat, which means that you can rattle away for a few hundred miles on one gear if you want. Which, last year, I did.

This year’s expedition did involve a few more gears on my part, and as a result we went a tad faster and further, but the lessons from last time are just the same…but more so.

Which means that the last few weeks of cycling in the UK have, for me, brought into sharp relief just how far behind we are compared to countries like Holland.

The last couple of bike rides provide no end of good examples:

  • Piling into potholes on major roads. If you’ve thought ‘ouch’ when hitting these in a car, just imagine what it feels like on a bike
  • Following a cycle path that appeared, Wile E Coyote-like, to end at a brick wall
  • Following a hatchback in Norwich in traffic, just missing the lit fag thrown out of the window by the driver, swerving to the left, then just missing the lump of phlegm gobbed out of the window by his passenger. I don’t think either of them knew I was there; it’s just the way that people behave when they’re in a car
  • Getting overtaken while going around a roundabout – impressive driving skills to get through the gap, but it scared the living daylights out of me
  • Cycling in central London and mixing it with the tourist pedestrians, lorries, taxis, and, my personal favourite, the 18 metre ‘bendy bus’

It just all a bit crap, frankly.

And while I know that we all rely hugely on four wheels(or eight, or sixteen) to get about, unfortunately almost all the issues I have as a cyclist in the UK are related to big vehicles that put me or any other cyclist in danger. As a matter of principle I would never drive a journey of less than a couple of miles, but nowadays I have to really think about this, especially if I’m travelling with the kids. Which means one more car on the road, half an hour less exercise, and so on.

So, given all of the above, I’ve decided to get a bit radical on my bike. Whilst I don’t think the urban warrior/cycle courier is really me, I’m going to make sure that people in cars at least see me, and if they tee me off, I’ll try to engage them in conversation about driving with at least one eye on their fellow road user. All of which, of course, means that the next edition of the Emu may well be written from an A&E department*.

Feel free to wish me well in this quest. Whilst I don’t think one more saved journey will make a difference, a hundred might, and imagine how fab the world would be if we all saved, say, 50% of these marginal journeys. Might even persuade that strange people friendly coalition that appears to have been left in charge of the country to put a few cycle paths in place.

*Cue my favourite on-stage joke…’this song features Chris, who when he’s not playing guitar, is studying to be a Doctor. To demonstrate this, he’s going to spend the entire evening tonight in A and E…’

Shoot me the sherbert, Herbert*

So, we’re back in foreign climes again, or as my friend Richard would say, the land of ecouté et repeté.

And, given that this part of my marathon training plan calls for a horribly tough training week, what better time to lace up, and head out the door, much to the surprise of the French residents hereabouts, who tend to regard anyone not wearing overalls and driving a tractor with deep suspicion. And yesterday, out the door I went, with a certain amount of trepidation, to try for a rather hilly 20-miler.

All good up to about mile 15, where I aimed to take on (as we runners call it) a drink and a gel to see me through the last quarter of the run.

I had been slightly influenced in this by a presentation on sports nutrition that I went to a couple of weeks ago. Now this had been sponsored by the lovely people from Lucozade, and reminded me, probably quite unfairly, of the posters that I used to see at school advertising drug use. Well, not advertising drug use in the traditional sense (although if you jotted down some of the numbers in the boys toilets then you’d probably be alright for a lively weekend. However, you needed to be reasonably alert – I knew a boy who swapped his moped one Friday for what turned out to be an Oxo cube.) I mean advertising that drugs use was pretty much A Bad Thing, and that people who dealt in such wares always gave the first few hits free.

And so it turned out with the Lucozade man, as he described how important it was to get nutrition into you during a marathon, and that the London Marathon would be supplying all runners with Lucozade gels and drinks on the course. Anyway, all interesting stuff, and in true Nick O’Teen (remember him?) style, he invited us at the end of the talk to help ourselves to as many free samples as we could justify to ourselves. Which, looking at some of my fellow runners, was quite a generous justification. Standing outside the scrum, I asked a friend if she could pass me a couple of gels, which she duly did, and off I went, happy that I could try the gels out (For Nothing!) before I set off on a race proper.

So, at mile 15, I had stashed a bottle of water and a gel, and picked them up almost without breaking stride. I should mention at this point that the weather at that point featured what I believe weathermen call ‘squally’ winds. I think this just means the wind blows fairly random directions, and I evidenced this earlier in the run when I spat out of the right side of my mouth, only for the spit to complete a 270 degree rotation of my head and land in my left eye. Anyway, let that be a lesson for all sportsmen to keep their saliva in their mouth at all times. Back to mile 15, and I expectantly bit the side of the wrapper off the gel, and squeezed the contents into my mouth. There followed an odd sensation, which was a bit like eating stardust sweets mixed with the inside of a sherbert dip. Not unpleasant, but not quite how I expected a gel to feel. About half way through I realised that I wasn’t eating a gel at all, but a single serving Lucozade powder. At which point, two things happened. Firstly, running along at a reasonable pace, I was briskly followed by all manner of insects, who were for some reason attracted to a runner caked in sweat with a unshiftable layer of raspberry sherbert all over his face. And secondly, I remembered about osmosis. Osmosis, you may recall from school, is where water diffuses across a semi-permeable membrane, such as you might find, oh I don’t know, maybe in your stomach wall. And if you put a concentration of powder that absorbs water into a stomach when you’re nicely dehydrated, you can almost feel the particles of water dragging their way across the stomach. I really don’t know if this is an exact physiological description of what happened, but it certainly felt like it at the time.

The rest of the run wasn’t quite so much fun as the first bit. The flies disappeared after a while, and I dragged myself back to the house.

‘How was your run?’ enquired Mrs E.

‘Finished.’ I said.

*If you get this reference, then good on you. I miss Norwich in the 1980’s.

Slower Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Firstly, apologies for absence from the waves of t’interweb. I have no excuse other than being slightly busy, and a bit blind to new thoughts – what a horrible way to start the year! I do have a plan to fill such gaps in 2010 with a short series of memoirs of my life n Rock n Roll, such as it has been. But more of that another time.

Also, half-hearted apologies about the title…but all will make sense soon. If you’re not familiar with the work of Russ Meyer, here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia of ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill, Kill!”

“Three thrill-seeking go-go dancers encounter a young couple in the desert while drag racing. After killing the boyfriend with her bare hands, Varla drugs, binds, gags and kidnaps his girlfriend, Linda. On a desolate highway, the four stop at a gas station, where they see an old man and his muscular, dimwitted son, known as the Vegetable. The gas station attendant tells the women that the old man and his two sons live on a decrepit ranch with a hidden cache of money. Intrigued, Varla hatches a scheme to rob the lecherous old man, who is confined to a wheelchair.”

Go on, rent it. Better still, have a weekend ‘in the style of’. Actually don’t, but it does sound like the sort of thing that we might have aspired to a few years back.

Several years (and a number of children) ago, Mrs Emu and I, together with Mrs Emu’s younger brother, took a convertible hire car from LA to Vegas ‘in the style of’ Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And a very wonderful time we had as well, at least partly re-enacting the book. For some reason, myself and ME’sYB necked a bottle of tequila and Mr & Mrs T’s Marguerita Mix in the back of the car, accompanying ourselves as Mrs E drove across the desert, with impromptu strains of ‘It’s Marguerita Time’. By Status Quo. At which point our journey & Hunter S Thompson’s started diverging, and the weekend became officially lost.

And nowadays, when I think about taking this sort of trip, my immediate thoughts are:

Can I afford the time off work?

Who will look after the kids?

Will I get arrested?

How can I avoid a hangover?

How will I get enough sleep?

Will I still manage to get a run in every morning?

…all of which feels, let’s face it, a bit middle aged. And I wasn’t planning to get to middle aged, ever. And it gets worse…

I’ve bored readers of this blog before with tales of running and training, and I’m finally realising that I’m really getting on a bit. You will of course, be chorusing ‘Oh no you’re not’ at this point, but sadly, it’s true. I’ve been training up for the joys of the London Marathon in April, and training on the same sort of plan that I’ve been using for about 4-5 years. And, apart from the fact that I struggle a bit more to get out of the door these days, I’ve been doing the same sort of sessions. Irritatingly though, my 1km efforts this evening are about 20 seconds a mile slower than the pace that I ran for a whole marathon in 2004.

It being the London Marathon, my overriding fears are that a) I’ll do an ’embarrassing’ time and b) I’ll be overtaken by someone in fancy dress. Actually, this happened a couple of years ago when I was overtaken in the Mall by the runner going for the Guinness Book of Records entry for ‘Fastest Santa’. Given that his costume consisted of normal running gear with a light red cape over the top, I didn’t think that counted. No, metaphorically looking over my shoulder I can start to see a Rhino approaching.

So the grim reality that I am no longer 26, unable to knock out a training session in the morning, an evening of flaming sambukas and cigarettes in the evening, squeeze in a couple of hours of sleep, then do the same the next day, appears to be hitting home. But it’s not going to stop me from trying….

Of Dykes and Bikes

A long long time ago*, I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats, which I attempted to do using just two Michelin road maps (England and Scotland). Consequently, given the scale of the maps, I remember spending about four days on the A1 as it seemed like the shortest way between two points, and much of that time diving onto the hard shoulder in an effort to avoid being dragged into the undercarriage of passing trucks.

The reason I mention this is because, I fear, that if I wanted to cycle the end to end again today, I reckon I’d possibly still plan to use the A1. Whereas, having just spent two and a half days cycling in Holland, it’s pretty clear that there’s a very different way of doing things. Hard to know where to start, so here’s a list.

1. We went from Hook of Holland to Den Helder on the first day – to save you looking at the map, this is about 100 miles up the west coast of the country. Then from Den Helder, across the Afsluisdijk dam and down to Stavoren, across the ferry to Enkhuizen, and down to Amsterdam. Then on Day 3, across country to the Hook again. In total, we pedalled around 250 miles, in which I reckon we shared the road with cars for about 5 miles.

2. The network of cycle lanes connecting the towns and cities in Holland is simply astonishing. It splits into two: the LF routes, a network of 6,000 km which have been built specifically for cyclists and walkers, and the cycle lanes in every city and town that mean that you can travel between points either parallel to the road network or with interconnecting paths that take a shorter route. Compare that to the UK, where on the one hand the fine efforts of SusTrans have got us to a fairly disconnected system of paths, and where cycling in towns and cities is even more of a joke. When I cycle with my kids into the city, two of them go on the road in front of me, and the other two cycle on the pavement. I can’t imagine that it’s anything but annoying to pedestrians, car drivers and other cyclists, and, frankly it’s not much fun for me or them either. And did I mention that the cycle network in Holland goes through really really pleasant countryside, that if you have to get across a bit of water in the way that you just hop on a (free) ferry, that everyone, from racers to kids on dutch bikes, to families to senior citizen outings uses the network, and that cars are obliged to give way at junctions?

3. And that unfailingly, if you appear lost, a cyclist will stop next to you, and point you in the right direction. In perfect English. On day one, after about 70 miles, a weather-beaten cyclist of around 50 gave us directions to Den Helder. We’d been going about 5 miles when he came past us to tell us we’d taken a wrong turning, turned us round, led us back to the right turning, did about another 5 miles with us to make sure we got on the right route (a perfectly tarmaced road about 5 metres wide) before he turned round and went home. Can you imagine that happening where you live?

4. So, what’s stopping us in the UK going anywhere near this? After all, the man who considers himself our next leader is pushing himself as a keen cyclist, as is the mayor of London. So, we’re in for a pedalling-friendly decade as we put in place a series of cycling networks to encourage us all to pedal rather than float around in cars, aren’t we? Well no, not really. The government and opposition contributions to the debate have been pretty poor, frankly, and have been partly along the lines of ‘infrastructural constraints’. This means that no-one can see a way to satisfy car and bike user…so they don’t. Our obsession with the car means that, while they’re still the main form of transport, they’ll still dominate the debate, and in the meantime the car users who don’t ride bikes (I get the impression there aren’t too many of these in Holland) will continue to run the cyclists off the road.

If you need to see a different way of doing things for yourself, get over to Holland and go for a ride. It’s absolutely phenomenal. Meantime, there are some pressure groups, and might be good places to start to shake up our rather pathetic approach to transport issues.

* (and I can still remember how the music used to make me cry…)

No cortisone, leglift, talk or whine

Tony Cascarino was a journeyman footballer, occasional Irishman and writer of the excellent ‘Full Time’ – one of the few readable footballing biographies around. In Full Time, he describes the process of going to training, towards the end of his career. He struggles to get out of bed, finds his legs completely seized up, hopes against hope that the next cortisone injection will free up his frozen joints, and all the time tries to keep his team-mates and coach in the dark. I remember reading this a few years ago, and thinking how I never wanted this decrepidness to happen to me…

So, I woke up on Sunday to go for the traditional long slow run. Running to my training partner’s house (about 3 miles), then an hour with him, then another 3 home. No problem at all, until I tried to get out of bed. A small pixie with a good supply of drawing pins had installed himself inside my right achilles, and every time I tried to move my foot, in went another pin. Managed to get downstairs to put the kettle on. Despite the early hour, Mrs Emu would be needing tea. Hobbled back up the stairs, and about half way up, my right knee locked, so had to travel the rest of the way on all fours. Finally got out the door, and slowly made my way along the ring road to Glen’s house. After a mile, I figured that it would be more hassle turn back than to carry on, so I carried on, although it felt like a shuffle more than a run, as my legs just didn’t seem to be responding. And so went the rest of the run, which was conducted largely in silence – Glen seemed to be suffering just as much after 2 weeks out with a virus.

So, between the silences, the conversation you’d expect would be a series of whines and complaints, but that’s not what happened. And I put this down to the fact that I read books about Glenn Cunningham, and my training partner reads books about Ranulph Fiennes. Now, most people know about Fiennes – 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days, regularly leaving bits of his body behind on arctic explorations, fretsawing his fingertips off in the garden shed because he was annoyed by the pain of frostbite, that sort of thing. And as a result, Glen never complains about the cold, or the length of time we have to spend dragging our sorry carcasses around the Norfolk countryside.

You may be less familiar with Glenn Cunningham though. You can read more about him on the net, and I really recommend his autobiography, appropriately titled ‘Never Quit’. The summary of his story : Cunningham used to run with his older brother, Floyd, to their one-room schoolhouse in Kansas. Floyd’s responsibilities included getting the kerosene stove started in the morning to heat the school for class. When Glenn was eight years old, a delivery truck inadvertently left petrol rather than kerosene at the building. Consequently, the stove exploded into flames, killed Floyd and left the younger Cunningham in critical condition for six weeks. His injuries were horrendous – he’d lost all the flesh on his lower legs, lost all the toes on his left foot, and his left foot arch was destroyed. Doctors were planning to amputate both legs and, after deciding not to, concluded that he would never be able to walk normally again.

The rest of his story reads like a Hollywood screenplay. In the film, Cunningham would probably be played by an overweight Michael Douglas (ever seen the film ‘Marathon’?). So far as I know, there’s never been such a film, but the key parts of the story are about Cunningham teaching himself to walk, then to run, to run competitively, and, astonishingly, to compete twice in the Olympics, and each time with the support of his parents, who would spend hours massaging his legs just so that he would be pain-free enough to put one foot in front of the other. There’s a lot more to this story than I can do justice to here, but suffice to say, it’s an absolute inspiration.

And my personal lesson out of all of this, is that it’s an excellent story to think about when your legs are getting a bit tired or your knees start misbehaving. We can’t all have the talent, the perseverance and the pain threshold of Glen Cunningham, but maybe we could all use a bit of ‘Never Quit’ now and again.

More blimmin’ training

13 miles on Sunday, not too bad but my legs ached all Sun pm

4 miles Mon am to get moving again

4.5 miles Mon pm as Achilles sore and wanted to know that it would bear a run – reasonably ok after 3 miles but really sore after

5 miles Mon pm – hills x 10 (1min) achilles sore but good to get the smell of London off

So, this is the sort of thing that a blogging runner ought to put into his or her blog is it?

I do find, 10ish years after I started this running lark, that it’s harder and harder to get all the bits working at the same time. I live about 2 miles from work, and get marginally more comfortable as I get to the office in the morning, and just about moving properly as I reach the door – which means that I end up putting a couple of extra miles in to prove to myself that I can still run.

All of which is fine. Really.

However…where I do have a bit of a problem is in hearing some of the things that people say for why they don’t run*

“Terrible problems with my knees”

“Tried running but had to give up after a few days”

“It hurts my legs to run”

This probably sounds a bit too alpha-male, but the whole point of it, is that it does hurt.

That’s why it’s called training. It’s training your body to deal with exertion which either you’ve untrained it to do over the years, or, if you’ve kept yourself clean, is at the extremes of your capability. So of course it’s going to be uncomfortable, especially at first. But then it sort of becomes a (good) habit. Even if your achilles aches all the time.

*or cycle, or swim, or whatever