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Running, 2022: Beyond form

It’s hard to define precisely what makes good running form. Like neat handwriting, you just know it when you see it. At its best, running form is balanced, free-flowing and controlled, like cursive. The posture is upright, steadied by core-strength. Most diagnostically, there is an aura of calm. Fact is: some of us run picturesque. And fact is: I am not one of them.

I attend to my running form as much as someone escaping a house fire. The general style suggests panic, exhaustion and rage. My race-face is a grimace, fixed somewhere between a Munch painting and the expression I made on coming home to find that my girlfriend Margaux had ‘reorganised’ my computer desktop. The way my arms tense and swing side to side must be a wasteful exertion. There are pigeons in Leicester Square less flappy. As a race progresses, so my head sags, neck crooks, shoulders roll forward. I begin to huff aggressively, like a stalker on the phone. At the finish lines I look into the crowd, to find them looking back at me, not in congratulation, but in relief, as if defibrillating some sweaty middle aged dude wasn’t how they’d hoped their weekend would pan out.

I’m not alone, it relieves me to say. Form, for runners, is a fingerprint, as idiosyncratic as physique. I can pick out other runners I know at a distance, and in the dark. Even the elites like Emil Zatopek and Paula Radcliffe had visibly agonised running styles, especially in the dregs of a race (‘It isn’t gymnastics or ice-skating, you know’ Zatopek replied when asked about his tortured facial expressions).

To mark the Christo-pagan shindig of Christmas and the approaching New Year, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on all that transpired in 2022 whilst I was neglecting my running form: the start lines, the finish lines, the achy in-between. Rather than laser focus on an ‘A race’, I opted to mix it up on trails, running tracks, roads, precipitous crags and dozy parks, whilst inadvertently undertaking a detailed research project into the most effective method of triggering calf cramp. Also, I had a great deal of fun, and I don’t mean ‘type 2 fun’, that narrow ambition of home-county ex-army-type blokes called Clive.

How to launch into the racing year? Well, that’s a no brainer: It’s obviously Vomfest ‘22. It’s not actually called Vomfest ‘22, or The Reflux 10,000, for obvious reasons, but these would have been more honest designations of a race composed mostly of stumbling, bleary, hungover half-humans, run-puking around Hyde Park on January 1st. Serpentine’s New Years Day 10k, as it is more commonly known, is an easy-to-resist running start to the year that you can feel smug about once you’ve wiped the regurgitated bagel from your chin, like the guy who finished shortly behind me, who then grinned and said ‘starting as I mean to go on’. I mean, bravo.

February feels a bit premature for a British trail race, but my brother, over from Spain, was game, so we joined a start line in west Sussex that yelped with canicross runners. These are regular runners with dogs attached to them, by way of harnesses. Dogs know shit about start line etiquette, and tightly packed, it was a great opportunity to socialise with the other dogs, attached to other people. This invited a special chaos to the initial charge, with much whirling of leads, and an unexpected opportunity to practice the limbo.

By midway, I was in a front pack of four runners, one of whom was playing sappy cheese-pop from a backpack, all major chords and mushy lyrics, the kind of shit made for a tiktok, which would have been unforgivable in a road race, but on a trail race was the auditory equivalent of throwing hot poo in our faces, the glorious Sussex countryside ruined by ‘baby you’re my, my, my elaaaaastic love’.

This was however a strong impetus to cut him loose and my pace improved almost effortlessly as I took poll position, all of which made me wonder if Nike had missed a trick and maybe should have sent someone charging just behind Kipchoge, at 2:01 pace, playing The Venga Bus is Coming.

In the last mile, still in first place, something nightmarish was happening to my hamstring, something I decided, in a rash burst of final-mile determination, should be immediately run through and could heal over the succeeding six months. So it was a limp across the line, literally, but battle-scarred and haunted by reverb, I like to think I deserved it.

Age verses youth. The hill won.

By April, I’d healed enough to travel to the Sierra Nevada, again with my bro, to tackle what I imagined to be a few hills. Unfairly, this was marketed as a trail race and not a base jump. The trails here twitch about treacherous cliff tops, toppling runners over them, and in the Sierra Nevada, they know a mysterious method of landing alive.

I’d positioned myself over-optimistically in the field at the get go, and began by scurrying along the top of an actual wall before the trail tilted into oblivion. I watched as, one by one, the local trail runners surrendered avidly to gravity. It was like that cheese rolling race without the cheese, and as bodies tumbled calmly beside me, I inched my way forward, like a learner driver on the M1. Received wisdom says that you lean into trail descents, which is perverse, and even when I’m not psychologically opposed to doing so, my legs take evasive action.

The race’s elevation profile was the jagged trace of an electrocardiogram, but my brother and I survived beyond the snowline, before flat-lining at a ski resort to the cheers of supporters and clatter of cattle bells in a delightful tour-de-France-vibe finale.

In April, I ventured into Wales for the Pembrokeshire Marathon, run by Endurance Life (‘ Never Give Up’ blusters the race t-shirt, yawn). Luckily the race was less conventional, introduced with some rolling single track and a dashing of wildflowers. The sea view was undeniably cool, and as ever on trails, I was running to effort, eyes off the watch, all well with the world until the moment the route switched back on itself and I came abruptly upon a long string of people, unpassable on the same slim, single track. Yep, it was the half marathon. Having adjusted the route for the first time, there had evidently been a maths-fail and the marathon had collided with the half at the worst possible juncture in the race – like the head hitting the tail in that ancient computer game Snake. Rather than risk ruining someone else’s race with a poorly judged overtake, I slowed up and jogged it in, which was perhaps for the better, as it deferred an outbreak of cramp until the finish line. Here, I somehow cramped my hand whilst trying to massage my cramping calf, and this set off a cramp in three muscles in my other leg, which invited over several concerned spectators, who hovered over me, spectating.

Each year in May, a bunch of Victoria Park Harrier friends, led by local Fabien, almost miss the Eurostar on our way to Auvergne in southern France. This annual mountain marathon is sponsored by plastic manufacturing corporate giant Volvic, as it starts and ends in the village of the same name, and is introduced by way of a greenwashing expo, but that said, I really love this race. The trimmings too: the cheese and the merlot, the cool lake swims, the actual chateaux we rent for a few days where I basically have my own turret. But mostly I love the exact moment every year when I charge into a clearing in the trees on some deserted, verdant French volcano to find a man peacefully sitting on a mossy rock, playing an accordion, in a sunbeam. I like to think he lives there, emerging into the glade annually to serenade us, then climbing back into a hobbit hole afterwards. It’s also possible that he never existed, a figment of an overtired mind, like when I conjured an international snooker player dressed as marshal in the midst of a North London cross-country race.

Cramp puts a dampener on any race, but 17 miles into a mountain marathon, it feels roughly cataclysmic. Everything was as it should be though: me cramping, Joe and Fabien winning, Dermot throwing up, and that little French mountain town charming everyone.

June delivered the iconic Man verses horse, my second go at the 22 mile trail race in deepest Wales, where humans are pitted against nearly 100 horses, and which delivers an overwhelming urge to use horse-puns for a long time after the mane event. It’s an unnerving sensation, racing downhill with a horse at your back, praying not to fall and go all suffragette. I reined it in at the end, averting crampageddon, and then woke up the following day with cuts all over my legs. Sadly, these were not a memento of the race, I recalled, but rather of falling over guy lines after a night foaling around – playing Jenga pissed with a bunch of ultra-runners from the lakes.

VP harriers buddy Sam Humphreys came home in 2nd, and only an elite fell runner outpaced the lead horse, one whom it is impossible to mention without also mentioning the aptness of his name. Ricky Lightfoot is a lean Cumbrian firefighter who definitely lives in a Cumbrian village near to butcher Bill Thunderchop and nightclub bouncer Dom Thugduster.

A week later: The Orion Fell Race. London’s only grade A fell race is a piss poor boast as it clearly only qualifies on a technicality – like saying the Outer Hebrides’ only town, or Luton’s only listed attraction. But for a bunch of soft southerners, it’s an especially gruelling challenge to charge up and down neighbouring hills in Epping Forest, which is the home turf of Orion, a friendly rival of a running club.

Whoa! I thought, minutes into the race, delighted. It’s going to be a glorious 1-2-3 for Victoria Park! Up the first hill I tucked in behind clubmates Joe Dale and Fabien Lassonde who I had temporarily forgot belong to a different class of trail runner, the class that can go downhill too. We crested, they dived, and I got swiftly schooled by what felt like the entirety of Orion, including one who was yet to sit his GCSEs.

Obviously, this race was far too soon after the trail marathon in France, and The North Downs Run, a week later, was far too soon after both a trail marathon and London’s only grade A fell race. Still, I didn’t want to miss this, it’s a wholesome time in the hills, and my race here in 2019 went astonishingly well, culminating in an actual trophy which I added to 30% of a bookshelf I’m allowed in my flat for their display, and which my girlfriend objects to because it’s cringe (this is a point we agree on, though one I feel is negated by the fact that I desperately crave acclaim).

I sneaked into top 10 this time, though to be fair the top 5 all raced in bouncy cheat shoes Alpha Flys – a good way to win a trail race and a good way to wreck a 250 quid pair of creps, meaning that the podium was mostly financiers and hedge fund managers, though Fabien did very well too, and he’d rather go bog snorkelling than wear Nike.

In July I went back to Maverick, this time to the Chilterns. These races have their pros and cons. On the one hand: routes jink through handsome countryside, all are reachable from London on an early train, and there’s generally a distance for everyone. On the other hand: bit pricey, route signs are blue (one of the best colours if your objective is to camouflage them) and it’s all very gen Z: the finish line music is deeply troubling, and you get handed an alcohol-free beer, a shot of some orange gloop with turmeric in it and some weird vegan faux-chocolate snack at the end. My body just ran a hilly half marathon, for fucks sake. Where’s the saturated fats and IPA at?

Around three quarters of the way in, the series of signs all but disappeared. On closer inspection, several had been wrenched from their positions, torn to shreds, others swivelled backwards. The Chilterns had a saboteur. This had to be either a bunch of kids for whom rural Buckinghamshire had run out of fun, a sad, morally corrupt runner, desperate to ‘win’ a diminutive trail race – hopefully less likely – or (and this gets my vote) a cantankerous local who hates trail runners, Londoners, and / or ethnic minorities.

After catching the lead runner, who’d stalled in confusion beside a signless gate, 3rd place caught up to us sporting a more expensive GPS watch. So together we worked out the route, and by way of an unspoken, gentleman’s agreement, all passed the finish line in the order that we got lost.

A couple of weeks later I went back to Maverick, this time the East Sussex version, on the premise that better a long run on trails than Groundhog Day in Victoria Park. Unless a shard of flint, roughly the size of a Neolithic axe head, penetrates your trail shoe, sock and foot, creating a small lake of blood and agonising pain on every heel strike for the last 2 miles. Why didn’t you stop and remove it? My girlfriend asked later. I was 2nd, I said, hoping this would put an end to the discussion, before noting the look in her eyes, and understanding that it definitely wouldn’t.

In September I went to Ireland for a jolly and managed to wedge in the Dingle Marathon between Guinness and Guinness. It’s a road marathon, gently rolling amid sheep and hills, with welcome bursts of Irish humour along the way. At 16 miles, a sign appeared: ‘man playing shite music, 50 metres’ Sure enough, a guy with an accordion, sat in the back of a Volvo, as billed.

A bit later I passed the guy in 3rd position as he stopped to take a leak, silently gloating about my superior bladder capacity, not realising that he was a member of Ireland’s trail running squad. He caught up to me easily on Dingle’s version of heartbreak hill, which is significantly more cardiotoxic than Boston’s. Not quite the ones behind him though, a pair of overly happy Dutch twins in identikit bright orange, as if The Shining had been sponsored by New Balance. Yes the weather was Irish. Yes the hill was sadistically sited, at the apogee of agony in any marathon, and yes, five pints of Guinness is in no way equivalent to a full body recovery massage, but the whole dingle peninsula is glorious, rain or not, and swimming in the Atlantic was worth every goosebump.

There are many way to take a big wrecking ball to your life. You could have an affair with a  work colleague, take up crack, or white collar crime. For me, marathon training would have to do.

It’s like some manic wind, roiling in, clattering through your life. My diary becomes less a plan of things to come than an oath to some mean and insatiable God. Each date in the calendar has a number of miles attached, a not-to-be-messed with chunk out of each day, time sworn to loop after loop, in groups or alone. All hail the masterplan.

I’m supposed to get injured six weeks before London. This is how it is, how it will be, how it has always been. My training continued unabated though and soon I spotted a giant foam beer bottle running in loops around the park too, a dress rehearsal, and evidence that the London marathon was upon us. Still it was a particularly weird sensation to be lined up in the championship pen for the very first time, hoping I’d pluck out a target time before the gun went off. I’d had a few strong races, but my heyday was 2021, clearly, I’d run fewer miles in total this year, and my midriff suggested more pub time and Deliveroos than England Athletics generally recommends.

The marathon itself unfolded in seven stages which seemed, on reflection, to mirror the seven seasons of life. Mile 1: Fresh as a baby. Mile 5: joyful, dreamy, wide-eyed. Mile 8: stronger now, but also smelly and a bit anxious. Mile 14: hunched, cranky. Mile 17: suddenly surrounded by financial institutions. Mile 21: drooling, haunted by distant dreams. Mile 24: cramping, delirious, outraged at the pace of things. I ran 2:38, all told, a couple of minutes shy of my PB. Perhaps I’ll live it all again, though April feels too soon to repeat that kind of upheaval.

The crowds were fiercely loud. The cheers explosive. I had hoped for a little faster though. Chasing times can seem wrongheaded. It seems to undermine all the wholesome joys of exercise, or feels boring, or insignificant. There are so many hearty reasons to run, from finding a community to mental freshness to the great outdoors, why obsess over piddly digits? But to dismiss number-hunting entirely is to miss the point. It’s not the numbers, per say, we’re chasing, more what they represent. The self-doubt overcome. The strategy validated. The opportunity snatched. It’s never just a number.

In The Met League though you pursue a position, not a time. A series of cross-country dust-ups punctuating the drab British winter, fearsomely fast at the sharp end, knee-knockingly nippy. There’s something medieval about the start lines: shivering bodies, huddled and afraid, breathes misting the air. A charge through Somme-level mud, all suffered with seriousness and tribalism. Victoria Park, my club, do well, managing 2nd in many fixtures in both the men’s and the women’s races, and even occasionally nabbing one from dullards Highgate who boringly win everything, all of the time, and will soon be ruthlessly crushed. COME ON THE PARK.

Some people say that Kent is objectively an abysmal place. A complete horror show of a county, they say, full of ugly housing, abusive and toothless people, who reek of stale Stella and misanthropy; where happiness is confined to the fat seagulls who steal your chips. I don’t condone these views, only point them out, though it does perhaps explain why the British masters decided to choose this particular necropolis of Brexiteers to host their 10 mile championships: cheer it up a bit. This was another lovingly put together race, and an inspiring show, full of wiry men and women, running frankly ridiculous splits relative to their years. A peek at a possible future for me, in a parallel world, in which I actually do some stretching.

I ran a bit in other places this year too, in the Greek island of Serifos, where you can admire a hilltop village in pristine white as a snake attaches to your ankle. In Jamaica, which marked the first and only time I’ve been offered weed on a hill sprint, and in Italy which resulted in the very worst chafing of my adult life (saltwater, for anyone considering a post run sea swim a sort of panacea, makes life unbearably worse). There were a smattering of parkruns to polish off the year. And that’s a wrap.

I’m in awe of the volunteers, marshals, route setters, timekeepers and coaches, the lifeblood of the running community. Without all these people, my running year would have been much duller. So thank you! But please direct anyone who plays tunes on a trail race off the nearest cliff.

The club 3.5 mile. At least Zach’s up for it

adventure, humour, running

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