Sunday, 28 July 2013

How Swimming Can Make You A Better Runner

Although I have been running all my life I only started running seriously, entering races, in the last year and a half since I turned 40. So there is an element to my running which I think is a reaction to a looming mid-life crisis (a subject that I have blogged about before). Possibly in a similar mid-life crisis vein I have recently started taking swimming lessons.

I can swim but unless I am doing something like breast stroke I quickly get out of breath after one or two lengths and so I thought it would be good to improve my front crawl and be able to swim “properly”. First of all I am loving the swimming lessons. Learning a new skill at any age is great and gives me a real sense of achievement. If this is a symptom of a mid-life crisis I wish I’d had one ten years earlier.

What I had not anticipated from the swimming is how it is improving my running.

Learning how to improve my front-crawl stroke serves to highlight every aspect that is wrong with my running style and helps me improve it. When I run I am able to “hide” the weak points in my running technique by compensating with my strengths. As I am new to swimming I’m not able to do this and so I am forced to address my weaknesses. Let me give you two simple examples:

1. When running I tense up my shoulders too much. I’ve been told this before but when I relax them I find them slowing rising up again and tensing after another five minutes of running. Similarly on my first swimming lesson the teacher quickly pointed out how my arms were far too tense in the “recovery phase” of the stroke - this is the phase when your arm is above the water and so by definition cannot give you any forward movement. He told me to relax more and just “swing through with my elbow”. It was the instruction to “swing through with my elbow” that made all the difference, simply being told “to relax” wouldn’t have worked.

I suspected that this might hold the key to not tensing my shoulders when running. Instead of just trying to relax I decided to try and swing my elbows when running (thinking of them as pendulums). All of a sudden in swinging my arms more I found my shoulders naturally relaxed.

2. The next correction my swimming instructor made to my stroke is how I kick. I seem to kick from the knee when instead I should be kicking with my whole leg. "Kicking has very little to do with the legs” my teacher told me rather counterintuitively “you should kick from your stomach and glutes”.  

Again this immediately resonated with me in regards to my running. I knew already that I don’t engage my glutes enough when I run, relying far too much on my calf muscles. In other words like my kicking when I swim I compensate for my weak glutes by running “from my knees”. Practicing the right kicking technique in the water has already started to pay dividend when running on dry land.

The whole point of this running blog is not to make you a better runner, (I even state this explicitly in the blog’s description at the top) but to share my thoughts and insights that running gives me about life. And so I was originally reluctant to write about swimming and improving my running technique, but another change in my life changed my mind.

Recently at work I have started a short secondment doing a different job in a different department. I think I am good at my original job but like my running I have weaknesses, however like my running I have learnt how to cover up these weaknesses by playing to my strengths - I think we all do this in our work and different aspects of our lives. My new job - just like my swimming - forces me to confront my weaknesses.

And that is my running thought today:

If we want to improve any aspect of our lives often the only way is to do something completely different from the very thing we want to get better.

(The picture today is of an indoor swimmingpool - the last place I thought would improve my running)

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Will We Run Marathons In Heaven?

Do you believe in god?

I know this is a running blog, but when I run my mind wanders and I seem to have very little control of where my thinking will flow. Most of the time my thoughts are incredibly random along the lines of: “There’s a dog. There’s a tree. Don’t bite me dog. Have I run out of cereal? Here comes the hill.” While other times I can get relatively philosophical. Which is what happened today. Hence my question: Do you believe in god?

As a runner when it comes to god I’m what you might call a 24 mile believer. Most of the time I am relatively agnostic or verging on atheism. But when running a marathon I become a believer at around mile 24 and start praying.

And so it was this morning when I was running my usual 10k that I began to wonder - if there is an afterlife would there be any marathons up there in heaven?

If heaven is meant to be an eternal paradise would I get to do all the things I enjoy while I am down here on earth? And as I enjoy running marathons surely there would be room and time up there to run a few 26.2 miles.  

Well first of all I think that for there to be marathons in heaven you would need a physical body, and so I would have to rule out ideas of “dualism”. Dualism is the idea of a mind-body-split (or soul-body-split) where the soul leaves the physical body after death and ascends to heaven. Now - even though I haven’t really given it much thought before - I have always been an instinctive dualist. Possibly the most famous dualist was French philosopher Rene Descartes of “cogito ergo sum” fame (“I think therefore I am”). But I just don’t see how you could run a marathon purely by thinking... So I am more of a “curro ergo sum” kind of guy (I run therefore I am). 

Luckily for me then Judaism, Christianity and Islam all seem to share the belief that we will have physical bodies in the afterlife and be able to enjoy physical pleasures. In the New Testament First Corinthians 15:52 says “the dead will be raised incorruptible”. And in the Old Testament Job spoke about “In my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25). Islam similarly believes in a physical afterlife, a resurrection of all the dead will take place on the Last Day and is physical, it is explained by suggesting that god will re-create the decayed body "Could they not see that God who created the heavens and the earth is able to create the like of them"?(17:100).

Therefore assuming there is an afterlife, assuming we will have physical bodies and assuming someone will be organising these marathons in eternal paradise this leads to the next big question: 

What kind of marathons will I run in the afterlife?

The first problem I come up against is that if heaven is meant to be eternal bliss there is no doubt that there are parts of a marathon that are far from blissful. I said at the start that I am a 24 mile believer - but what I forgot to say is that mile 25 is when I actually believe in the physical manifestation of the devil and his desire to punish me! A marathon is not a marathon without feeling pain and the bliss often comes from conquering that pain and pushing on through.

And so now I have the perverse notion that I will feel pain (temporary of course) in heaven.

Then I ask myself what time will I run the marathon in heaven?

Surely if I am in heaven I will run the best marathons I have ever run. Does that mean every marathon up there will be a Personal Best time (PB)? And if that is the case assuming I am up there forever I will be able to run an infinite number of marathons. If each one is a PB even if each PB is only one second better than my previous race eventually I will be running them faster than Usain Bolt! (Keep in mind “eventually” could be a few millennia when you are talking about eternity).

And finally talking of “races” where will I come? Will I be running these marathons alone or will I be running them with the greatest marathon runners of all time from Phidippides onwards. Surely we can’t all come first. So will some people have “more perfect” marathons than others?

I tried to have this conversation with my wife who is more of a “starting line believer” as opposed to my “24 mile belief”. But she just rolled her eyes at me, and mumbled something under her breath. I didn’t catch all of it but I think the gist was: 

“You will be running marathons in the afterlife - but if you keep talking so much nonsense you don’t need to worry about how they will be organised in heaven...”.

(The picture today is of "heaven" and "hell" at the finishing line of the Amsterdam Marathon)

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Confessions of an Accidental Running Bandit.

First of all a dictionary definition: ‘Running Bandit’ noun (plural running bandits or banditti /banˈdiːti/) One who runs a race without paying an entry fee or wearing a number.” – Runners World 1998
Now the story:
Before I started running seriously or entering races I still used to run regularly. One of my favourite running routes was in North West London around the Hampstead Heath Extension.
One Sunday morning a couple of years ago I laced up my running shoes and set off on my usual two circuits. About 2 minutes into the run a group of about 8 men sprinted past me, I thought nothing of it and kept going. Then a few seconds later another group of runners passed me, again the penny didn’t quite drop. It wasn’t until I got to the corner (the bottom of a hill climb) and saw a sign posted to a lamp post with “10k race” on it with an arrow that I finally realised what was going on. I had inadvertently stumbled into a race.
At this point I don’t think I was a “running bandit”. If anything I felt indignant that these runners had somehow “muscled in” on my run and so I decided to just keep on going how I would normally.
Then I got to the top of the hill and everything changed.
At the top of the hill was a group of people handing out water along with friends and relatives of the competitors cheering everyone on. To this day I don’t know what possessed me - maybe it was the fact I was tired after running up the hill, maybe it was because it was a warm summer’s day, maybe I subconsciously wanted to be in the race – but I reached out and took one of the cups of water being offered to me. With that cup I was in the race.
The cup of water was a turning point. Psychologically I had stopped being a Sunday runner and had become a racer. The handful of friends and relatives (none of them my friends or relatives I should remind you) were cheering for me. I became a bandit!
I kept running, following the other runners and occasionally being overtaken. I accepted the water being handed out and even high fived some of the kids standing by watching. I was in the zone and loving it.
Reality came crashing in as the finishing line suddenly loomed into view and people with clip boards were taking down numbers. At that point the problems of being a “bandit” came into sharp focus. I slowed down and had to pretend I had never been part of the race and jogged past the finish line. There were no friends or relatives greeting me at the end and none of the cheers were for me.
I’ve never turned “bandit” since that fateful day but occasionally when I am in a race I see runners without numbers pinned to their chest and I wonder; have their race numbers just fallen off or are they secrets bandits just like me?
(The picture today is of runners on Hampstead Heath -the scene of the crime - which I still love to run)

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

How To Get More Black People To Run

Last week The Guardian Online re-published one of my posts from this blog: “Where Are All The Black Runners?” asking why more “ordinary” black people don’t run marathons and other distance races.
Following the blog post appearing in The Guardian I have had a lot of really interesting conversations with friends and family about the issues it raised.
As always it was my friend Henry Bonsu who got to the heart of the matter. Henry is a first rate journalist having worked for almost every major broadcaster from the BBC to Al Jazeera, he now presents the Breakfast show for Colourful Radio. He invited me on his show and after a conversation about all the reasons black people don’t run he caught me off guard with the killer question:
“What are YOU going to do about it?”
Forget all the observations, forget all the related issues. If I am truly concerned about the fact that black British people don’t run what am I going to do to make a change?
I can’t remember exactly how I responded to Henry but now I’ve had some time to think about it here is what I think I should do (rather than just blogging about it).
Over the last 30 years female participation has increased massively with the majority of half marathon runners and 10k runners now being women. This has been achieved with a backdrop of extreme sexism where women were not even allowed to run the 10k at the Olympics until 1988!
So how has the increase in women running been achieved and what can black people learn from it?
Firstly there are a number of running clubs that specifically target women. From the FitBitch Running Club in Brighton to Frenchay Women’s Club in Bristol, these are all running clubs that explicitly say to women “we want you”. Can we organise clubs that specifically appeal to black people. Run Dem Crew is a running club that does this brilliantly. Organised by a black man it is open to people of all ethnicities – it is by no means exclusively black but it definitely has more black runners than average. There’s an old joke that could apply to a lot of running clubs which demonstrates the culture of the membership, the punch line is: “We are less of a running club with a drinking problem. And more of a drinking club with a running problem”. To extend the old joke one might call Run Dem Crew “A Hip Hop club with a running after party”.
We need more clubs like Run Dem Crew that culturally appeal to multi-cultural Britons.
The second lesson we can learn from the increase of female runners is that there are races organised targeting their concerns. There are 5km’s in aid of Breast Cancer and fun runs highlighting the problems of sexual violence. Most of these races don’t exclude men but they create a female friendly space.
Could black people do the same? Could we organise races which everyone could join in but had at their core an issue that particularly touched black people?
The nature of my work doesn’t lend itself to me starting a running club. At this stage of my career I don’t know if I will always be in the same place every week (let alone twice a week) to organise the club runs.
But to answer Henry’s question I think I will start investigating the second point.
I want to help organise a race that champions a cause that particularly appeals to black people.
Any suggestions?

(The picture today is of the Rough and Ready basketball tournament I used to help organise in Brixton - I will have to draw on all my experience of running that tournament if I'm going to organise a 10km run)

Friday, 5 July 2013

Mandela, Running and Me

Tonight I heard that Nelson Mandela had died. I think it was less; "breaking news" for me. And more; news I've been expecting and resigned to hearing for a few months now. 

I do most of my best thinking when I am out running.
I think it is the act of just concentrating on your breathing and running that allows your mind to open up. Running allows your thoughts to wander down intellectual avenues and alleyways they might not have otherwise gone down.
And so over the last few months I have sometimes thought about Nelson Mandela’s health when it's been in the news, and tomorrow morning when I lace up my running shoes I am sure my head will be swirling with thoughts of the African iconic giant. It was on one specific run last summer I realised I could sum up my thoughts on Mandela and his struggle for a peaceful post-apartheid South Africa by three running experiences.
Running Experience Number 1
I first went to South Africa in 1992, it was two years after Nelson Mandela had been released from Robben Island but would be another two years before the first free multi-racial elections. I had a 4 year-old godson growing up in Soweto and so I stayed in a part of the famous township called Mapetla with his family. I had previously heard all the stories about townships and what a “scary” places they were. And so after my first night there I tentatively asked if it was safe to go for a morning run.
The friends I was with all laughed at me. “Of course you can go for a run. You don’t believe all that newspaper stuff you read do you? You’re in Soweto not the Bronx or Brixton!” Obviously as far as they were concerned South London and parts of New York were far more dangerous than the most infamous township in the world. Surprisingly this was despite news coverage of clashes between ANC supporters and the Zulu Inkatha Party – this was obviously not something that impacted on their everyday lives and sense of community.
I still remember the run. People starred at me as it was clearly a novelty to see someone jogging through the streets. When I returned home to my godson’s family the neighbours all teased me saying that I am a “real Englishman” and must think I am white because “only white people run when there’s nothing to run from”.
When I think of all the runs I have done in my life this was one of my favourites. And when I think of all the subsequent times I’ve been to South Africa this was the visit I enjoyed the most.
Running Experience Number 2
By 1998 Nelson Mandela was President and my godson’s family had moved out of Soweto into a suburb of Johannesburg. I stayed with them for a few weeks and frequently went for morning runs around the neighbourhood.
On the runs I saw very few white people but I was no longer the “strange Englishman” runner who thought he was white - black people were running in the same park I was running in. My runs were testimony to the “white flight” from Jo’berg  I had heard so much about. I never saw a single white runner in the neighbourhood, but there still seemed to be an air of hope. My fellow black runners seemed to have taken many of the values, aspirations and even activities of the white people ‘whose homes’ they were now living in. The fact they were running - an activity previously preserved for white people - was just a physical manifestation of this.
Mandela as President had taken over a role that just ten years previously no one had thought he would ever have and my black South African runners were living lives and doing activities they had never even dreamed of previously. 
Running Experience Number 3
Three weeks before work sent me out to interview Nelson Mandela (I am a journalist) I happened to be visiting my same set of friends - the year was 2004. I hadn’t been to South Africa for a few years but it felt familiar. On my second day I decided to go for a run, I knew exactly where I was going to go; right out the door, right at the end of the road, run down the hill, take a left into the park, run around the park and come back home.
The mother of my godson saw my lacing up my running shoes to head out; “Where do you think you’re  going? Things have changed in South Africa you know, you can’t just go for a run.”
She told me how the park I had enjoyed running around so much back in 1998 had become a dumping ground by gangsters for their murder victims. I went running but not around the park, I stuck to the main roads.
A few days later I visited other friends in Soweto. I was told to make sure I kept my car doors locked and windows wound up as carjacking was now common place. This was no longer the kind of place people would laugh at you if you asked if it was safe to go running.
Mandela was no longer President and it felt as if people were now living with the realities of a post-apartheid country and not the dreams. I could still run to the park if I wanted to but it might just be safer if I took a different route.

My Next Running Experience

I am overdue a visit to South Africa and I am sure it will have changed again since I last ran there. What I am sure of though is that my next running experience will give me another insight into this amazing country, the type of insight that usually comes when my mind is open and I am running.
(The picture today is of a poster for the  “Mandela Day Marathon” a relatively small marathon held every year in Manye Hall, South Africa in honour of the great man. With his passing I will try and make this my next African marathon)

This is an update of a blog that I originally wrote 5th July 2013

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Joining A Kenyan Running Club

I remember the first time I saw my wife to be – I had never seen anyone make a pair of beat up Shell Toe Adidas look so good.
I remember our first kiss as the time I discovered that Einstein was right and time really is relative and sometimes can stop completely.
I remember when I proposed to her (4th July 2006) I thought I was the coolest guy in the world as I’d got the prettiest girl in the world to say “yes”.
I remember our wedding day and still smile.
Last Sunday I think may well become another one of those “I remember” days.  Last Sunday will become the “I remember the day I realised I had married a Kenyan”.
Don’t get me wrong I have always known my wife is Kenyan. After she agreed to marry me we travelled to Kenya to get her family’s blessing and they slaughtered a goat in my honour, and at our wedding we had readings in both English and Kiswahili. 
But that was all before I started running. Before I had run 26.2 miles in one go. Those were in the days of ignorance when I thought for a marathon runner to shave over 3 minutes off the world marathon record and run under 2 hours can’t be that difficult.  
On Sunday I realised I had married into possibly the greatest nation of distance runners the world has ever known. I have definitely married a Kenyan.
My father-in-law returned from a trip to Kenya yesterday and at a family dinner made an announcement. An announcement firmly rooted in his Kenyan culture:
“I am starting a running club back home - The Mount Kenya Running Club”.
Running is in Kenyans’ blood the way that Rugby has a special place in a Welshman’s heart or Cricket does in the West Indies.
My Father-in-law recently retired as a Church of England vicar in south east London but his community spirit and desire to “give back” has not diminished with him handing over his churchly duties. For my father-in-law, drawing heavily on his Kenyan heritage, one of the most obvious ways to help young people back in Africa is to start a running club.
If I’d married an American woman I would be writing now how my father-in-law was setting up softball club for the kids. If my wife had been Indian I suspect Sunday’s meal would have been about the launch of a cricket team.
But I married a Kenyan. The country that dominates distance running. A country that exports running talent to every major marathon across the world the way Poland exports plumbers. A country that literally went into a state of spiritual and psychological turmoil when it didn’t win as many gold medals in distance running at the 2012 Olympics as it had predicted.
And so on Sunday the Mount Kenya Running Club was born. My wife’s family are from a place called Naro Moru which is where my ex-vicar father-in-law will be setting up the running club. Naro Moru is a beautiful part of the world nestled at the foot of Mount Kenya – hence the new running club’s name and already he has kids eager to join.
And if I am a good son-in-law and look after his daughter I might (and it is just a “might”) be the first person of Jamaican heritage to be allowed to join a Kenyan running club (I get the feeling my father-in-law dismissively thinks I come from “just” a nation of sprinters). Living in Britain I will only be a “honorary” member but honorary is better than nothing. I even told my father-in-law of my plans to enter the Nairobi marathon and now the Mount Kenya Running Club may enter a team too. And if that happens I’ll be allowed to wear a team vest – the only condition is I get all the vests printed and donate them all to the club. (I did say he wanted to give back!)
Mount Kenya Running Club here I come.
(The picture today is of my father-in-law completing the Pisa Marathon last year)