Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Running After Schrödinger's Cat

Last week I started training for my next marathon in four and a half months time. The first month will consist of hill training and strength workouts (a lot of stomach and glutes work) and then I'll start my serious running with three months to go.

I find the hill training incredibly hard. I set a 30-minute hill programme on the treadmill in my local gym that I cannot complete and every week I try and do an extra minute or an extra hill before I collapse. The aim is to build up my strength slowly and by the end of six weeks or so I can finish it.

This morning I was able to complete 22 minutes of the 30-minute hill programme, by this afternoon my leg muscles (quads and glutes specifically) were still aching. And that is when I had my small philosophical break through:

Running can explain the theory of Schrödinger’s cat and quantum physics.

First, the confession. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent guy who can get to grips with most theories and philosophical concepts in popular culture. I understand “Ockham’s Razor” and I can even bluff my way through a little discussion on Plato and the "Theory of Forms". But when it comes to Schrödinger’s cat in quantum physics I feel like a five year old trying to drive a car.

For those that don’t know Schrödinger’s cat is a way of illustrating (or disproving, depending on your point of view) the concept in quantum physics that “a particle exists in all states at once until observed”. Physicist Erwin Schrödinger created a thought experiment with a cat in a sealed box with some poison. In theory the cat is both alive and dead at the same time as long as the box remains sealed and is only alive or dead once the box is opened and you can look into the box. (For a more comprehensive explanation of the mind experiment click here).

This never made sense to me - that is until this afternoon and I was feeling my poor aching muscles.

Following hill training my muscles are weaker. For the couple of hours, and possibly even days, after a particularly grueling work out if I tried to do the same hill training I would be slower and be able to do considerably less than the 22 minutes I have been able to do so far. But I am also aware that following a hard work out I will become faster after a while.

This evening as I type this blog post my leg muscles are like Schrödinger’s cat in the box. I do not know if they are weaker or stronger than they were 24 hours ago. I don’t know if I would be able to run less or more than 22 minutes if I stepped on to the treadmill and attempted my hill programme. I feel my legs are both weaker and stronger at the same time. It's as if I’ve finally grasped the famous thought experiment because I’ve taken it out of the classroom and can literally feel it physically.

The next time I go to the gym, I will discover if my legs are weaker or stronger. I will be the scientist lifting the lid on the sealed box and finding out if the cat is alive or dead.

(The picture today is of a cute cat I found on the internet... Aside from a vague link to the blog post it is a blatant attempt to attract more readers).

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Joy of Accidental Yoga

I want to like yoga.

I feel it is the kind of activity that a mature, sophisticated cultured man should embrace.

Modern renaissance men are meant to be well travelled, multi-lingual, be able to cook and at least once a week greet the dawn with a Sun Salutation.

But try as I might I have not been able to get into yoga. As someone who is not naturally flexible I do not find it enjoyable in the slightest. And before someone emails me and tells me that the flexibility will come with practice I have been trying to touch my toes all my life and haven't been able to do so since the age of 19!

I have not been able to enjoy the meditative calm that yoga is meant to provide, the quiet nirvana. Instead yoga has just meant sessions of discomfort and pain that can never be over quick enough.

But a year ago something happened.

I was running in New York in Central Park when all of a sudden I felt a shooting pain in my left knee, the pain eventually went and I was up and running again in a week. When I came back to the UK I went for a sports massage and told the masseur about the incident. She gave me a stretch to do that involved me lying face down on the floor with one leg straight out and the other bent underneath me.

Then a few months later my IT band felt tight and a physiotherapist gave me an exercise involving me lying on my back and then raising my backside to form an arch.

After that I did the Edinburgh marathon and created small but painful muscle tears in my lower stomach and another physio gave me another set of exercises.

By the end of this summer after every run I was doing a series of stretches I'd collected along the way. I was finding it a relaxing way to unwind after strenuous exercise and it was bringing me real calm.

But it wasn't until I was doing these stretches after a run with my wife that the penny dropped:

I was doing yoga and enjoying it.

The first "stretch" I'd learnt after NYC was a variation of the "pigeon pose" according to my wife, then she showed me how my sprinters stretch was a "half warrior", my "arch" stretch was a "bridge". Finally I was practically doing a sun salutation at the start of every session as I reached down to try and touch my toes and my stretch at the end was a "cobra"!

I now wonder why I've always hated yoga but found myself accidentally loving it at the same time.

My best guess is I'd always struggled with yoga because I was trying to get the "poses" right and feeling a failure as I couldn't contort my body into the correct forms. But when I'm stretching after I run I am just letting my body do whatever comes naturally. A stretch can feel good, but a pose for an inflexible person like myself can feel like torture.

And then there's the meditative yoga nirvana. As any buddhist I am sure will tell you, no one ever reached nirvana by trying to reach nirvana. By taking away the pressure to reach an inner and higher bliss I actually started to enjoy myself.

I might not be a yoga master (accidental or otherwise) as the title of this post suggests. But I did accidentally find myself discovering the joys of yoga. Oh and for all the runners reading this post it has made me a better runner as well.

(The picture today is of my wife and I doing a sun salutation before a 10k race)

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Stop Counting The Miles

I often run with my Iphone strapped to my arm. My phone has an app which monitors how fast and far I run as well as recording my route. Today at the end of my run the app flashed 4,000km.

I don’t always run with my phone so the 4,000km is a low figure - but seeing the Nike app register 4,000km felt like a significant landmark.

To be honest since showering and getting changed out of my sweaty sporty clothes I'm slightly surprised at the level of satisfaction it gave me.

But my running app and my satisfaction at clocking 4,000km points to a wider phenomenon. I am beginning to think that for many of us it is no longer a case of “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) or even "curro ergo sum" (the runner’s fun take on the famous philosophical pronouncement - I run therefore I am). No, for many of us we are living a quantified life. I measure therefore I am.

If a phenomenon or event is not measured and recorded it is almost as if it didn’t happen. The very act of measurement seems to give an event meaning. Conversely not measuring an event can cause us to question the very validity of a phenomenon. Let me use the example of my running app again:

My running app records the best times I have run for 5k, 10k, half marathon and a marathon. The problem is often this feature of the running app is temperamental. It will often not actually show the best time I have run a distance in and just randomly pick one of the runs I have done over that distance. When I discovered this it really bothered me, I spent far too much time than I care to admit emailing Nike and even talking to the support team on the phone to try and rectify the problem. Why did I care so much? I know exactly what my best times are for each of those distances - I didn’t need my phone to tell me. But it was almost as if I had not run those times if it was not recorded and showing up on my phone!

I know I have actually run further than 4,000km over the last two years but it wasn’t until I saw it on my phone that I felt I’d actually achieved it.

Not only does the classic "cogito ergo sum" seem insufficient to grasp our modern lives, I feel the famous philosophical question of; “if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it does it make a sound?” is now inadequate. The sound of the tree crashing down no longer exists even if an army of people hear it, if you haven’t measured it's volume on your phone, filmed it and hopefully uploaded it to YouTube.

Running at its best connects me with my inner self and the natural world around me. Running should be pure existential joy where you are experiencing the moment as it happens. Checking my running app after a run and taking satisfaction from its measurement saying “4,000km” couldn’t be further from living in the moment.

The Ancient Romans saw the dangers of trying to measure life as demonstrated by the famous poem by Catullus when he wrote: 

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.
Then, another thousand, and a second hundred.
Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred.
Then, when we have counted up many thousands,
Let us shake the abacus,so that no one may know the number,
And become jealous when they see
How many kisses we have shared.

I believe the poet is telling us true joy only starts when measurement becomes meaningless.

I will continue to run with my Iphone and running app but I will strive to remember that it is the running that matters not the record of my run. 

And like the kisses in Ancient Rome the real joy in running only starts when we “shake the abacus” and measurement ends. 

(The photograph speaks for itself - it is a screen shot of my iphone displaying 4,000km)

Monday, 7 October 2013

Confessions of a Bored Runner

Running can be boring.

OK I've said it. 

I feel I have broken the great taboo in admitting the bleeding obvious. I have some how broken the sacred code between runners that we can't actually say out loud and definitely can't say in front of non-runners!

Running is meant to be euphoric. A long run is meant to give you a runner's high. Running can do everything from relieve stress to cure obesity. I've even read articles posing the question whether running is better than sex, (it isn't by the way).

But I've never read an article that admits the fact we all know: Often running is boring. 

It is impossible to do any activity day after day, and often for hours at a time and not be bored.

But rather than run away from the boring truth I believe it is time we embrace it.

Western society seems to have a phobia when it comes to boredom. Boredom is something to be avoided at all costs and fought through an armoury of mobile phones, films, radio, video games, music, literature, tablets and of course television. We should never be bored and if we are we should remedy the situation immediately!

But more people are increasingly coming out in praise of boredom.

The state of boredom is now praised by some as a prerequisite for great creativity and insight. It is not until you stop bombarding your brain with stimuli that you can have that great "eureka" moment. 

Although I believe this to be true, and find running an incredibly useful time in experiencing creative breakthroughs as my bored mind wanders, I don't think this is really in praise of boredom any more than a racing driver likes to stop because it enables him to refuel his car and then go faster. This is not really praise for boredom, this is more an argument for the utility of boredom to make your life even more interesting in the long run.

As a runner I want us to really appreciate boredom. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without us embracing boredom, whether that is reading turgid law books to one day become a judge or filing your accounts to grow your business into a multi-national corperation. Running teaches us how to embrace boredom, it's impossible to run a PB marathon time without experiencing boredom through some of your training runs. It's a life lesson for anything we want to achieve. Through great boredom comes great achievement.

But there is also a more philosophical aspect, dare I say spiritual side, of our lives that I believe running boredom connects us with. 

Poet and philosopher Joseph Brodsky had much to say on boredom but the one aspect that really strikes a chord with me is when he wrote: 

"boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one's mental equilibrium. It is your window on time's infinity. Once the window opens, don't try and shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open".

We invariably fill our lives with distractions so we can avoid facing the reality of time.

Running is one of the few occasions in our lives when we allow ourselves to be bored. One of the few occasions when we allow ourselves to become fully aware of time. In busy lives when every second is meant to be filled with activity. In an age when "work hard, play hard" has become less of a catch phrase and more of a commandment, running and boredom is the ultimate rebellious act. Through running and giving ourselves permission to be bored we connect with the one constant that modernity cannot control - time.

So next time you are on a long run and start to feel bored in the words of Brodsky throw that window wide open and allow yourself to connect with "time's infinity".

(The picture today is of me running a trail half marathon race just outside Brighton UK smiling as I saw the camera - pretending not to be bored) 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Warsaw Marathon Review

I don't normally write race reviews.

I feel there are other running blogs that do that kind of thing. But I thought I'd make an exception in this case because when I was preparing to run the Warsaw Marathon I couldn't find a single decent review, so here goes:

Last week I ran the Warsaw marathon. It's held on the same weekend as the Berlin marathon and for anyone who has failed to register in time for the prestigious Berlin marathon (as I did) the Warsaw marathon is a great alternative.

The race course is relatively flat and run alone broad roads. Warsaw being Poland the weather in the last weekend of September is suitably chilly and when I ran it the sky was a beautifully perfect "marathon grey" exactly what every marathon runner would ask for.

The drink stations along the race course were not great as they handed out water and sports drink in little cups. I have always found drinking from a cup while running the equivalent of trying to sign my name while riding a bicycle. Luckily I'd read the pre-race literature that came from entering and so I ran with a drinks belt, otherwise I think I would have been seriously dehydrated.

Also despite my previous PB being 3hours 11mins the organisers had put me in the slowest group at the start. Therefore the first half of the marathon I spent most of the time weaving in and out of people as I overtook them. It wasn't until the second half that the numbers were more spread out and I was running more with my pace peers that I found I could really get into my stride.

I'm not really one to judge a race by crowd support because I zone into my own world while racing. But if crowd support is your thing there are plenty of children to high 5 as you run, live bands playing music and loads of people cheering "BRAWO!" as you run (the Polish language isn't one if my strengths but I figured out what that one meant!). Also on my race number they printed my first name so it was nice to hear people shouting my name.

The last kilometre is downhill as you run into the national stadium towards the finish line. After 41 kilometres a downhill finish is very welcome.

So it's not a perfect marathon in the way Amsterdam marathon is, nor does it have the atmosphere of London, but I'd definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a fast marathon.

After all is said and done I got a new PB besting my Amsterdam marathon time by more than three minutes with a new time of 3hours 8minutes. So it cant be all bad!

(The picture today is of the race medal - a really nice weighty piece of metal)

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Runaway Slaves, Marathons and Economics

In my youth I always fancied myself as the firebrand revolutionary. Although considering I never really played truant, didn’t get into much trouble at school, never did drugs nor even smoked cigarettes I think this was more in my mind than in reality.
Being of Jamaican heritage one revolutionary fantasy that persisted into my twenties though is the idea that if I had lived in the 1700’s or 1800’s I would have been a runaway slave. “I wouldn’t have cut sugar cane or picked cotton for anyone!” or so I used to tell myself. It’s a common enough fantasy of young black men brilliantly illustrated by Eddie Murphy in his seminal 1980's stand-up film “Delirious” (it’s worth a watch before you continue reading)
Now I am in my 40’s, having read economics at university, I thought I would combine my love of running with a little economic theory and revisit the subject of runaway slaves. (Don’t worry people I won’t be writing about “quantative easing” or "interest rate defaults")
One branch of economics that has grown in importance in the last twenty years is “Game Theory”. For anyone that has seen the movie “A Beautiful Mind” you will know what I am talking about but for everyone else it’s the idea that we all make choices by trying to figure out what other people might also do. Sounds complicated? Don’t worry it will become obvious with the following example.    
So lets’ think about my fantasy of being a runaway slave. Using simple game theory what would actually be the best strategy for a runaway slave to successfully escape his or her servitude?
OK let’s play a simple chase game:
First of all is it better for the rebel slave to run as fast as possible at the start or to run quite slowly?
Assuming a runaway slave has an hour before someone realises he has escaped he has an hour’s head start. If he runs as fast as possible he will quickly tire and will begin to slow down after just a short distance. If on the other-hand he starts at a moderate speed he will be able to keep up this pace for far longer and get far further from the slave owner and plantation. 
His best strategy will depend on what he thinks the slave-master will do – will the slave master go off in pursuit as fast as possible or will the slave master give chase slow and steady? Anyone who has run a 10k race or longer will be able to testify that getting the right pace is everything. Go off too fast and you hit the wall and the slower runners quickly catch up with you and overtake you leaving you gasping. And so the runaway should only run off as quickly as possible if he thinks the slave owner will give pursuit as quickly as possible also, with both of them tiring quite quickly and the slave being able to escape. Otherwise the slow and steady pursuer would always catch the sprinter down the road.
Alternatively if the runaway heads off at a steady pace he is betting that his pursuer will do the same. If the pursuer heads off at a sprint he will be able to catch the runaway before he has got far enough away from the plantation.
So those are the two alternatives for the potential runaway: Fast and furious vs. slow and steady. So what does game theory tell us he should do? 
I believe the best strategy for the slave is to run-away as quickly as possible because in all likelihood the slave owner will want to catch the slave as quickly as possible and will also give chase as quickly as possible. In these circumstances the runaway slave will get away and freedom will be his! 
However what I have just described is called a “static game” – a one off event. In reality this game will be “dynamic” meaning it will be played out several times over many years. (In the US it is estimated that approximately 1,000 slaves tried to escape per year in the first half of the 19th Century). 
In a “dynamic game” the slave master will realise that heading off quickly means the runaway gets away. So after the 4th or 5th slave has successfully got away he will change his strategy and pursue in a slow and steady manner eventually catching up with the tired sprinting slave.
As time progresses the remaining slaves (potential runaways) will realise that sprinting is no longer yielding results and so they too will head off slow and steady. The first lot will get away until the slave owner realises what is happening. At that point the slave owner will start sprinting at the start when giving chase. In this case the slave owner will then catch the runaways who have not got far enough away.
And so in my simple game theory model of runaway slaves the number of successful and unsuccessful escape attempts will go in waves as the different runaways fluctuate between the two strategies and there is a time lag between the slave masters catching up (literally and metaphorically) to the new approach.
I decided to check my game theory approach with my wife who is a professional economist as opposed to myself who hasn’t touched an economics book since graduating twenty years ago. She listened to my dynamic game theory argument and after much thought finally offered her judgement:
“You’ve been blinded by your love of running. The slaves shouldn’t runaway at all – I think game theory would dictate that they stay where they are and fight instead”. Spoken like a true revolutionary.

The recent World Championship Men’s Marathon was a brilliant piece of game theory in action. With two kilometres to go the Ugandan runner Stephen Kiprotich was in the lead but Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia was right behind him. Now it is easier for the person on the leader’s shoulder to bide his time and then overtake in the last few hundred meters and sprint to victory, so what was Kiprotich to do?
Kiprotich did what any economist would have told him to do, he started to zig-zag. Following someone’s zig-zagging is incredibly tiring (a lot more tiring for the follower than the leader due to the unexpected changes in direction). So if Desisa had followed a straight line and ignored the zig-zagging he would quickly go into the lead then the Ugandan would be on his shoulder and ready to overtake in the last few hundred meters. Follow the zig-zag and Desisa tires himself out. 
It was a masterful piece of game theory by Kiprotich. Whatever option Desisa choice would play to the Ugandan’s advantage. In the end Desisa followed the zig-zagging, became completely tired out and the gold went to the economically minded Stephen Kiprotich. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Incredible Aluminium Runner

In my quest to become a better runner I have to face reality.

I am no “Iron-Man”.

And at 42 I am definitely not a “Man of Steel”.

But I think I might just be an “Aluminium Hero”.

A story about Alcoa Inc., the third largest aluminium producer in the world, might just hold the key as to how we can all become better runners, running longer and faster way into our old age.
Like running, aluminium production is nearly always beset with injuries, many people almost view aluminum work related injuries as a necessary evil. It’s similar to the way runners talk about impact injuries, shin splints and runner’s knee as an unfortunate side effect of training.

In 1987 Paul O’Neill became the CEO of Alcoa. When he took over he didn’t talk about profits and shareholder dividends and the type of things a CEO normally talks about. Instead he talked about safety and how safety was going to be his number one priority.

Of course everyone thought he was insane and the share price of Alcoa immediately dropped.

But it turns out that the best way to create a safer work environment is to make sure workers do the right thing every single time. And of course, if you do it right every single time, if you create the right procedures, then not only is it safer, it's also more efficient. Very quickly after O’Neill took over Alcoa was producing better quality aluminium, for less, with happier injury free workers. Oh and the share price quickly exceeded what it had been when he took over.

All too often as runners we view injury prevention; stretches, ice baths and recovery days etc. the same way many CEO’s view worker safety – an annoying add on that we’d prefer to forget if we could. All too often a runner’s primary focus is on achieving that new Personal Best time (PB) or to run longer than we’ve run before (the CEO’s profits and share price).

But what the story of Alcoa clearly demonstrates is if you put safety at the very centre of what you do you achieve all your goals.

A well stretched, healthier and rested body will be able to run faster than muscles and tendons on the constant brink of injury. Like Paul O’Neill prioritise safety and everything else will fall into place.

As far as I am aware there is no superhero named after aluminum but from now on all readers of this blog should feel free to call me the “Amazing Aluminium-Man” – putting safety first.

(The picture today is pretty self explanatory)

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Do You Run Or Do You Race?

About a year ago I ran my first 10km race – “The Cumbernauld 10k” - just outside Glasgow.
I was running as fast as I could, trying to pace myself and aiming for a sub 40 minute time. About midway through the run I felt someone running quite close behind me.  With two kilometres to go the race entered a park area where the path narrowed to single file running. I could feel myself tiring and the other runner was now right on my shoulder. Thinking I was actually getting in his way I motioned for him to pass me, but he just stayed behind me. 
With one kilometre to go I could literally feel his breath on my neck and I knew I was slowing down. I thought to myself; “I’m stopping this guy from getting the best time he could get” so I turned around and said “you can overtake me” and deliberately ran on one side of the narrow path to make room for him, but he just kept running behind me. 
Then with a few hundred meters to go he shifted his running up a gear, overtook me and seemed to sprint to the finish line. 
I realised later; I was “running” and he was “racing”.
Most of us runners when we enter races - from 5k’s to ultra-marathons - are not actually “racing”, we are “running”. We are running the best we can run, we are running to get a new Personal Best time (PB), we are running to complete a marathon for the first time, we are running to enjoy the personal challenge, we are running to lose weight. In fact there are any number of reasons to run. 
What we are not doing is “racing”.
Ask most people where they came in a race and they don’t have a clue (27th or 127th?). We are running “in parallel” with the people that are running with us, we are not running “against them”. When you are a “runner” you are not trying to beat your fellow runners, for non-runners this might seem a little strange but we are not actually racing them.
The man running behind me for most of the Cumbernauld 10k was “racing” me, he wanted to beat me. As a “runner” and not a “racer” I had completely missed the point. Offering him the opportunity to overtake me was as strange to him as it would have been to Ibrahim Jeilan if Mo Farrah made a similar offer at the recent 10k World Championships (for those who don’t know Mo and Jeilan are arch rivals).
I only realised this difference between “running” and “racing” last week when for the first time I crossed the Rubicon and became a “racer”. Again it was at another 10k race – this time the RunThroughBrixton 10k. I entered the 10k as a runner but after one kilometre I found myself in third place, and at that point I became a “racer”. Where I came in the race mattered to me and as it was quite a hilly course I realised a PB was out of the question. 
The race was on! 
Throughout the race I knew how many people were in front of me and I occasionally looked behind me to see how close the next runner was to me.
In the end I came forth. 
Since I started taking running seriously a few years ago it continues to surprise me and teach me new things about myself. I had not raced since I was 15 and had not taken part in any competitive sport for over twenty years. The experience of competing when I was younger (both winning and losing) taught me valuable life lessons. Now as an adult entering mid-life I wonder what lessons it will hold in store for me.
(The picture today is of Mo Farah "racing" in many ways the opposite of "running"). 

Monday, 12 August 2013

Religion For Runners

Sometimes I run well sometimes I don’t.

Sometimes I push myself really hard and at the end I look at my GPS watch and find out that I’ve gone slower than average.

Sometimes I seem to be able to run with completely ease and clock a new Personal Best time.

Sometimes my running feels great.

Sometimes my running feels terrible.

There often doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason. Frustratingly the good runs seem to appear as randomly as the bad runs. I try and decipher patterns and causality.

What did I eat the night before? - or - What did I eat in the morning?

Have I been getting enough sleep? - or - Have I been getting too much sleep?

Have I been running too much recently and fatigued my legs? - or - Have I not been running enough and I’m losing speed and endurance?

It is enough to drive a runner crazy.

And it's at the point that I just want to give up that I think it is useful for runners to turn to god for help. Or more precisely religion.

There is a beautiful book by the philosopher Alain de Botton called “Religion for Atheists”. The book explores some of the central ideas and institutions that have developed predominantly through Judeo-Christian thinking and how they are useful whether one is a believer, agnostic or “god forbid” an atheist.

One chapter titled “Perspective” is particularly pertinent to the dilemma of runners randomly experiencing good and bad runs. The chapter first outlines the Book of Job in the Old Testament. It is the story of a righteous man - Job - who starts off with a beautiful life and great wealth. In a single day he loses all his riches and his children. As if that’s not enough mysterious sores begin to cover his entire body making any movement painful.

Job’s friends try and figure out a cause for why this has happened to him. The friends suggest that Job must have done something very bad indeed because, as one friend puts it, “God does not reject a righteous man”.

Job knows he hasn’t sinned and admonishes God for afflicting him. Then Job goes even further and question God’s very existence - not the best thing to do in the Bible.

God finally answers Job with a series of questions:

"Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou has understanding...
By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?...
Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost heaven... ? …
Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook... ?" (Job Chapter 38)

God’s answer to Job is meant to illustrate how little humans understand about the world, the limits to our understanding and instil in Job a sense of awe about the world around us.

Alain de Botton takes the story of Job and shows us that for millennia people have been struggling with the idea that bad things happen to good people (and often vice versa). Trying to reduce everything to a causal relationship will not help us and invariably flies in the face of our experiences. This is a lesson that religion teaches its followers but is often lost on us when we put on a pair of running shoes.

For me Job is the runner who has eaten right, who has done all the training, has tapered beautifully just before the marathon and then after months of preparation has run the worse race of their life. We’ve all been there and dare I say it for those of us who continue running it will happen to us again.

It's not just Judeo-Christian theology that has explored this problem. Islam has been able to distil this idea down to a single word: “Inshallah” (roughly translating as “God willing”). We can do the best training and preparation in the world but there will always be an unexplainable element that is out of our control. The believers might term this element "God's will" while atheists might call it "randomness". But for either group learning to accept it is one of life's hardest lessons.

So next time I run a bad race or find things not going my way in training instead of getting depressed I might just reacquaint myself with the Book of Job or at the very least console myself with the one bit of Arabic I know:

"I will run a PB Inshallah"   

(This blog post is for my friend @richardvadon who asked me on twitter “Why on some days do I run well and some days I’m awful?” Oh and the picture today is of me and my sister-in-law Lucy. We’d both just run a 10k race but Lucy ran a PB and my time was a full minute slower than my PB - I have no explanation why)  

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

How To Cheat Your Way To A New Personal Best

Recently the issue of drugs in sport has been making headlines with several of the world’s top sprinters being found guilty of illegal doping. First American Tyson Gay, the joint-second fastest man ever over 100m, was told by the US Anti-Doping Agency that his A sample from an out-of-competition test in May was positive. Then Asafa Powell, the all-time fourth quickest 100m runner, tested positive for a banned stimulant at June's Jamaican Championships. Fellow Jamaican Sherone Simpson failed a drug test at the same event. All of this comes in the wake of Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown testing positive for a diuretic (which are banned because they can be used to “flush out” banned drugs).
All of this has got me thinking whether, as a simple amateur keen runner, what kind of effect these drugs might have on my ambitions to get a new Personal Best time (PB). Now, before you throw your hands up in the air and call me a cheat or think I’m advocating drugs in sport, hear me out… 
When one thinks of drugs in sport people usually think of something similar to the comic book character Asterix the Gaul and the magic potion he takes before fighting the Romans. For any Americans reading this blog unfamiliar with Asterix – think of Popeye eating spinach before beating up Bluto… We might realise that the banned drugs don’t give athletes instant physical strength like the cartoons do, but we often perceive it to be a difference in degree rather than kind.
The reality is, however, quite different. 
Precisely because performance enhancing drugs are banned, there is scant scientific evidence on whether the illegal drugs work and if so to what extent. It is very difficult for academics to get licenses to gather groups of elite sportsmen and women to take banned substances and measure their effects in a numerically significant way.  Not to mention that the sports people will worry about ruining their careers in the process.
But one theory of how some of the drugs might help athletes is increasingly gaining ground. Putting performance enhancing drugs to one side for a moment, a recent study in America of other types of non-banned drugs suggested that perhaps a third of medically approved drugs might be acting as placebos. Patients are actively helped, even “cured”, by taking the drugs, but the medicines are not actually interacting on them in any physiological way.
This finding has caused Fabrizio Benedetti and his colleagues at the University of Turin to wonder if the placebo effect might be important in sport too. The short answer is a resounding “yes”. Benedetti and his team gave a group of athletes pain killers to help increase their endurance (many pain killers are banned in sports precisely because of their effect on endurance). The team of scientists then substituted the real pain killers with a saline (placebo) solution but didn’t tell the participants. The results were striking. Those that thought they were taking pain killers were able to perform better!  

The placebo effect is not just limited to pain killers and endurance events. Studies done in the 1970's and more recently in 2011 found that atheletes who thought they were taking anabolic steroids also improved their performances. 
It goes without saying that when it comes to elite athletes where hundredths of a second can be the difference between a gold medal and no medal at all, the mental aspect of racing is critical. I know personally that how I am feeling emotionally just before a race often has far greater bearing on whether I achieve a PB than how I’m feeling physically.
In a few days I will be running a 10k and I would love to run a PB. Could the best way to achieve it be by taking a placebo even if it really has no effect on my body? Again the short answer is "yes"! According to Dr Mark Berdi it's not just fake drugs that can "trick" us into performing better, it can also be useless sports equipment or even unscientific nutritional supplements. We just need to believe they will give us an unfair advantage. 
But that poses its own philosophical question: 
Am I cheating if I believe I am cheating, even if I’m not?

(The picture today is of the jelly babies I often take on my long runs, now if I could jet convince myself that they were really anabolic steroids) 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Are Running Shops The New Record Shops?

At the back of my top desk drawer at home is a small badge (or a "button" if you're reading this in America). It's black and in small white letters is written "home is where the record player is". I used to be the definition of vinyl junkie and while the badge may have once been true if I were to buy a new badge I think it would now read "home is where my running shoes are".

A few hours ago I was in a running shop and it suddenly hit me:

Running shops are the new record shops.

For me, and I am pretty sure for thousands of men of my generation, running shops have taken the place of record shops in my life.

Here are a few of the parallels:

1.    When I was younger I used to find it hard to pass a record shop without going in. I would already know all the latest jazz, rap and R'n'B releases (that was my thing) but I'd still wander in "just to have a look around". Now I find it hard to pass a running shop without popping in "just to have a look around". I pick up Nike Flyknits, Adidas Adizeros and various other brands, turn them around in my hands feeling their weight and look at the price, even though I already know exactly how they feel and could tell you the price before even entering the shop. In the same way I used to spend hours flicking through record sleeves of records I already owned, pick them up and read the notes on the back - again half time I could recite the notes from heart before even entering the shop.

2.    I find a camaraderie with total strangers if they are in the running shop with me. I can spot a "real runner" and feel we have an unspoken bond. When I used to visit record shops I could see two people buying the same A Tribe Called Quest or Wynton Marsalis album. But instantly I just knew one was a rational person with a healthy relationship with music and the other was a fellow suffering addict! Now I see two people buying the same pair of Asics shoes and can tell if one is on their 5th marathon and the other is about just about to start their addiction (I often have to stop myself embracing the latter and declaring; "Welcome to my world, you will love it!")

3.    Just in my record buying days I now buy things to do with running I completely do not need by any objective or subjective criteria. The result of this is I currently have the following unnecessary running accoutrements:

·         Four sports iPhone armbands (one would suffice)
·         Three Nike running caps (for summer)
·         Three running skull caps (for winter)
·         Six pairs of winter funning tights
·         Too many running tops to count
·         Random running sports and running apps on my phone.
·         Back copies of running magazines I will never read again but still do not throw out.

This is by no means a definitive list but I am just too embarrassed to confess further.

Similarly I am far too embarrassed to list all the records I own but will never play. When did I ever think I was going to play the instrumental album of "Straight Out The Jungle" by The Jungle Brothers? And while some of Grover Washington Jr. earlier albums are great someone should have told me to draw the line at "Strawberry Moon"!

4.    Lastly, despite being relatively successful at my job and in other aspects of my life I find myself being deferential to shop assistants who are half my age and I suspect have run less than half the distances I have raced. But I tacitly seek their approval. The running shop worker - like the record shop worker before them - is like the village vicars of my religion, (the high priests are of course the elite runners and musicians themselves). In a two minute conversation about running socks I want to "prove" I know what I'm talking about and crave their approval. I have just one question for myself; "Why?!"

Normally when I write these blog posts I try and summarise what they really mean to me in the last sentence or two - the moral if you like. In this one I don't think there is any deep lesson or wisdom to impart.

I just felt compelled to write it as I suspect I am not unique and there is a whole generation of running men just like me.

So if you can identify with any of the above dont worry Im there for you.

(The picture today is of the Blackbyrds' album "Action" a rare example where my two addictions of running and Jazz collide).