Year End

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The end of the year draws nigh and with it, the slightly worrying realisation that when Big Ben strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve, it will be 18 weeks since the games in Athens finished. According to my original plan, I should have completed 18 Olympic events by then – which gives me exactly ten days to do 12 events.

The truth is that I’ve fallen behind schedule somewhat. When I sit down and take stock of my athletic year, I will have the grand total of six Olympic events to remember fondly – and five of those, if we’re being honest, didn’t exactly take too much out of me. I’ve always preferred to spend this time of the year looking ahead at what is to come next year than looking back, misty-eyed at what was (or what might have been) in the last 12 months. That won’t be a habit I’ll be breaking just yet.

I’m looking forward to Christmas. It has been a busy year at work and at play, so it will be nice to cap it all off by sitting back, eating too much, drinking too much and bickering with my relatives.

I’m hoping also that the holiday period will afford me the opportunity to lay some concrete plans for 2005 – no doubt they may “gang agley” all over the place, but, as Robert Burns famously never said, it’s better to have a plan gang agley than to not have a plan in the first instance.

Thus, 2005 will see a new me. Having sated my appetites on turkey and selection boxes (though seldom at the same time), I will reform my eating habits to bring them more into line with what I’m trying to achieve. Having satisfied my need to lie on the sofa and watch old movies I’ve seen before and didn’t like much the first time, I will begin my fitness training in earnest and join a gym. And, having spent most of this year since Athens blithely passing off how hard this “Olympic thing” is going to be, I will get real and get scared.

Jelly Legs

Thursday, December 16, 2004

When I was 23, I played in a golf tournament at Mount Edgecombe Golf Club, near Durban. The format dictated that the field play four rounds against the card (to decide the Strokeplay Champion) before being cut to just 32 players to play head-to-head (to decide the Matchplay Champion). The eventual winner that week (John Hugo) had to play 9 rounds of golf in 6 days. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem, especially with a caddy and plenty at stake, but it can get a bit muggy in Durban in March.

With three holes left of the third day (and of my fourth round of the tournament - my second since breakfast), I was lying well up the field and feeling almost certain that I would qualify for the top 32. I had come with another mission though.

In 1974, my dad played in the same tournament. In that year, it was hosted in Port Elizabeth. He reckoned he had finished 13th in the strokeplay stage, before going on to beat the subsequently famous Mark McNulty in the matchplay event on his way to the quarter-finals. 13th was my target. I had to finish no worse than 12th.

As I walked off the 15th green (a nasty par three that had cost me four shots and destroyed my score in the first round) with a par under my belt, I felt that the danger was behind me. I was level par for the day, four over par for the tournament, and (by my own reckoning) lying in the top ten. The temperature was 106 degrees in what little shade there was to be had, and the humidity was 100%.

I stood on the 16th tee waiting for the group in front to get out of range and thinking about how humidity can be 100% anywhere other than underwater. I bent down to tee my ball up. Everything went dark. When the lights came back on, the group in front were nowhere to be seen and my fellow players (and a couple of spectators) seemed to be taking it in turns to throw water over me as though I had somehow caught fire.

I had passed out. I played the final three holes in a daze (and in four over par). My caddy, Derek, had to tee my ball up for me and retrieve it from the hole to avoid me falling down again. I slipped back from a share of 7th place to a share of (brace yourself) 13th.

I was exhausted. I was more tired than I’d ever been before and than I’ve ever been since. I was excited to have made it into the matchplay tournament, but for the life of me I didn’t know how I was going to recover enough in the 16 hours I had until it started. I got myself home and sat in the pool drinking specially formulated (but utterly disgusting) salty drinks to try and replace everything my body had given up during the day.

The next morning, I felt great – high as a kite and eager for the off! I bounded onto the first tee after a very comfortable warm-up on the range. I shook hands with my opponent and then hammered my first tee shot almost onto the green of the par four first hole. I thanked the starter and headed off down the fairway.

Then it hit me, like debilitating wave. I turned to Derek and he read the expression of panic on my face.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ve forgotten something.”

“What have you forgotten?”

“My legs. There’s nothing there where my legs should be.”

I was walking on jelly all of a sudden. It was as though my legs had realised what I was about to ask of them (“Another round of this brutal course? In this heat? Are you nuts? We liked it in the pool.”) and they’d just decided to shut up shop. I cranked my usual stride down to a shuffle. I managed no better pace for the 13 holes it took my opponent to thrash me.

On Tuesday night of this week, two days after John and I walked 20km, the traffic on the way home was at a standstill. The bus was full of coughing, sneezing, gabbling people, and it was heating up fast. I decided to walk home; it was only another 5km or so. I hopped off the bus, thanked the bus driver and strode off up the Iffley Road.

I managed to get about ten yards and suddenly I was back in Mount Edgecombe in 1998 - my legs just weren’t there. I hadn’t felt overly tired on Monday or Tuesday during the day, but here I was feeling that jellied emptiness that I’d not felt for well over six years. I made it home – eventually – but by the time I did, I was fit for nothing more than collapsing in a heap on the sofa.

On the one hand, I felt tired and mildly ashamed of my poor level of overall fitness; but on the other, I felt like I’d finally done something a bit more worthy of the cause I’ve undertaken than running after a shuttlecock, or batting a table tennis ball around a leisure centre.

- - -

As a post script to the long and rambling South African Amateur story:

In hunting around for links, I came across this one, which I found rather interesting. It is interesting because it shows me that two of the field in the 1974 South African Amateur that my dad played against, were also in the field that I played against in the 1999 South African Masters at the Oppenheimer Park Golf Club in Welkom (Mark McNulty and Jeff Hawkes). It is also interesting because it gets my dad’s nationality wrong (he’s about as South African as the Giant’s Causeway). Oh yes, and it’s also interesting because it turns out he finished 20th in the strokeplay that year, not 13th.

I suppose it’s better to find these things out after they’ve eaten you up for six years than to never find them out at all. I might sleep a little better tonight.

Walk & Woll

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The first seven laps ran clockwise from the North Lodge on the red route (2,600 m), then the eighth and final lap branched off to the blue route at the High Bridge (1,800 m).

We walked to the park from the car, did a quick parody of stretching, and then, using a rubbish bin as our start/finish point, we started walking for real. Two hundred metres in, I was ready to call it off.

The first thing I noticed was the wind. It bit at my face and my ears as I rued the decision not to bring my hat. Then it nibbled at my hands as I rued the decision not to bring my gloves. John had a hat, and he was walking with his hands in his pockets. My legs felt heavy; the three fitful hours of sleep I managed to salvage from last night didn’t seem like enough; I wanted to stop and come back another time. If I’d been on my own, I probably would have done.

I decided to give it one lap (2,600m). Our lap times needed to be under 20 minutes each in order to collect the extra pledge from my best man. Two hundred metres from the start line I decided that if we were slower than that for the first lap I was going to stop and come back another time – I hoped we would be.

Through that opening lap, things improved. The blood ran down into my hands as my arms swung back and forth. The edge was getting taken off the cold wind as my body began to heat up from the exercise. Before I knew it, we were back at the bin, and more than two minutes ahead of schedule.

For all the physical challenge involved (and it is considerably harder than I‘d hoped it would be - 16,207 steps for me) it was the mental challenge to stay focused on what we were doing that was more absorbing. Our second and third laps were both sub-eighteen minutes too, but our fourth was nearly twenty seconds slower than our first. As a reaction, our fifth was the fastest of the walk, but after that, we cruised a little.

The slump in the fourth lap was almost entirely down to a loss of concentration. It was in that lap that John picked up the one and only warning of the walk for an illegal walking action – a reprimand he picked up (from me) because he lifted both feet off the ground in an attempt to show me how Will had been break-dancing with a belly dancer at the Lebanese restaurant on Friday night.

It was in the fourth lap too that we took more account of the wildlife all around us – the squirrels, the ducks, the birds, the dogs, the joggers, the walkers, the prams. If I’d had any worries about the accuracy of my measurements when deciding our course, they were quickly dismissed - any potential shortfall would have been comfortably made up by the number of diversionary manoeuvres we were forced to take to avoid the other park users.

In the end, we cruised home in a little over two hours and twenty minutes, comfortably beating the target for the extra pledge by almost a quarter of an hour. The walking itself was difficult, and I imagine I’ll feel the pain in my legs and feet more tomorrow than I do at the moment, but by far the biggest challenge of this event was keeping concentration. I can only imagine how much harder that’s going to be in the 50km version, which is unlikely to take less than six hours.

Huge thanks once again to John Adams whose idea it was to get this one done before Christmas, and without whom I would have returned to the car after 200 metres this morning.

Result of Athletics – 20km Walk:
Lap 1 (2,600m) – 17’49.8”
Lap 2 (2,600m) – 17’51.9”
Lap 3 (2,600m) – 17’55.8”
Lap 4 (2,600m) – 18’08.6”
Lap 5 (2,600m) – 17’42.4”
Lap 6 (2,600m) – 18’24.9”
Lap 7 (2,600m) – 18’31.9”
Lap 8 (1,800m) – 13’50.6”
Total (20,000m) – 2 hrs 20’16.4”

20km Walk Preview

Saturday, December 11, 2004

“What’s up with the racewalkers? I mean, I respect them as athletes, but come on – a contest to see who can walk the fastest is like having a contest to see who can whisper the loudest.”

… so said Bob Costas during NBC’s Olympic broadcast in 2000. He might have put it a little more diplomatically, but he had a point.There are only two rules to be observed in this sport: you can’t lose contact with the ground – ever – and you can’t walk like John Cleese in the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch.

The first rule is the golden one of the sport, contravention of which is referred to as “lifting”. In the 2000 games in Sydney, Bernard Segura from Mexico crossed the line first in the 20km walk. He was allowed to savour his victory for a full 15 minutes before the judges announced that he had been disqualified for lifting on at least three separate occasions during the race.

It occurred to me that if you had one exceptionally long arm, and could keep it in contact with the ground at all times while you ran, you could clean up in the walks. Then I read the second rule.

The second rule (amazingly) isn’t stated in the rule book quite as I have described it above. To be exact, it states that: “The advancing leg must be straightened (i.e., not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until in the vertical upright position.”

Feel free to get up from your computer and give that a try. Essentially it’s just walking but, when you’re thinking about the action, it suddenly becomes difficult to perform. Keeping the front leg straight is the cause of the racewalker’s curious waddle that I suspect is more at the root of Bob Costas’s mockery.

Racewalking has been an Olympic sport since 1906. It was remarkably popular in Victorian times, when running was considered something one did only if one had stolen something, or was in pursuit of someone else who had. As competitive running became more popular however, competitive walking fell out of fashion. These days, it is regarded somewhat condescendingly by many who should probably know better.

Tomorrow, John Adams and I will take on the 20km walk by completing 8 laps of the University Parks. To prepare, I’ve been walking to (and occasionally from) work for the last couple of weeks, and spent most of today either asleep or eating complex carbohydrates.

The world record time of 1 hour 17.21 minutes was set in 2003 by Jefferson Pérez from Ecuador. My best man has pledged £10 to Sobell House if we can complete the course in less than twice that – 2 hours 34.42 minutes. I suspect that will be tight. If you’re in the area and fancy a laugh, we aim to start from the North Lodge at about ten o’clock.

Live Wrong

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

For some time now, I’ve been wearing my yellow Lance Armstrong Foundation Live Strong armband. It struck me that perhaps the Ultimate Olympian should be offering a similar product in its pursuit to raise money for the Sobell House Hospice Charity.

A design team of thousands has been working day and night for weeks now and finally are very proud to present the Ultimate Olympian Live Wrong armband.

Inspired by Lance’s admirable notion that we ought to all be “living every minute of our lives with every ounce of our beings”, this armband is a way to show your support even if you prefer to waste whole hours of your life adding whole pounds to your being by sitting on the sofa watching TV and eating sticky buns.

The Live Wrong armband is made from a genuine rubber band (acquired by our purchasing department from the exclusive merchants WH Smith) and features a hand-rendered inscription in black biro - it is guaranteed to fall apart within days and will most likely snap the first time you snag it on something. Furthermore, the biro has a tendency to rub off fairly soon after you put the armband on your wrist.

To get hold of your very own Live Wrong armband, send your name and postal address to and promise me that you will follow this link and pledge some money to the Sobell House Hospice charity (and then e-mail me again and tell me how much you gave you them so I can keep track).

As an added incentive, the first three orders will win a signed copy of the Oxford Mail article from yesterday!

Making Headlines

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Next time, I must remember to give the interviewer the address of this site, and also to tell everyone they can call me John (instead of “Mr McClure” or “Economist”). For those of you not lucky enough to live within the Oxford Mail’s circulation area, I present (in all its original glory) a transcript of the biggest story on page eight of today’s newspaper:

By Jo Duckles

AN ECONOMIST is set to try every Olympic sport to raise funds for Oxford’s Sobell House hospice.

John McClure, was watching this year’s Olympics when his wife Katie pointed out that she could be the world’s greatest pole vaulter but not know, because she had never tried.

He said: “I laughed at how ridiculous it was and it got me to thinking about how you go about having a go at these sports to find out if you are any good.”

Mr McClure, 29, of Long Lane, Littlemore, wants to try all 136 Olympic evebts he would be eligible for to raise funds for Oxford’s Sobell House Hospice.

He also wants to try them all before the 2008 Olympics open in Beijing.

He said: “I am looking forward to pole vaulting and am hoping to find someone who can teach me how to do it.”

Since the end of this year’s Olympics in Athens, Mr McClure, a former professional golfer, has tried badminton and table tennis as Olympic events.

He said: “I am looking forward to pole vaulting and finding out how that works. I’m thinking mainly of the events I’ll be afraid of.

“I have a fear of heights and of deep water, so I’m not looking forward to the 10m platform dive.

“I’m finding it a challenge to run a mile and I have to train to run a 26-mile marathon.”

Mr McClure also does not have the riding experience necessary for the equestrian events.

“I’m looking for someone who can lend me a horse and the equipment and teach me how to clear jumps,” he said.

Mr McClure also needs sailing equipment and gym membership. He chose Sobell House as the charity which would benefit from his endeavour because his father-in-law, who died of brain cancer, spent the last two months of his life there.

Holly Goodall, of Sobell House, said: “What Mr McClure is doing is great. I’ve been looking at the list of events wondering how he is going to do them, but he seemed to be really well organised.”

If you want to sponsor Mr McClure, or offer him equipment or coaching, call Sobell House on 01865 857007.

A word to my sponsors...

I had blisters on my feet from walking into work two days in a row before I’d properly broken in my running shoes; John went to the shops and got me some plasters so I could walk again without wincing.

I couldn’t tell how far I was walking; John gave me a pedometer.

I had trouble with this site because I’m a bit thick sometimes; Sozz talked me through it and showed me how to make it better.

I didn’t know anyone at the local newspaper that I could call and tell my story; Leon got me hooked up.

I went to the hand surgeon to see if he could fix my dodgy finger – he couldn’t – but he offered to put up some flyers in the hospital asking people to visit the website and sponsor me.

I’ve needed opponents and partners; John, Gareth, Katie, Jo, Rob and Huw have all mucked in.

Thanks to you all, and everyone else not named above, for your help and support so far.

And you're doing this because...?

Thursday, December 02, 2004

I have promised several times already (in my own vague way) to write some more about why I’m doing this and, more importantly, why I’m doing it for the Sobell House Hospice Charity.

I once heard Midge Ure talking about Live Aid. He was being lauded by the interviewer for having had such a wonderful idea and for having gained so much power to change the world. Midge was shaking his head - “The power is in the idea, not in me, and the idea could have been anyone’s.”

Live Aid is perhaps rather grand company to be holding the Ultimate Olympian up to just yet, but there is certainly power in the idea – people are interested in what I’m doing, and not all of them just because they hope to see some footage of me hurting myself at some point.

The idea popped into my head in a very weak way when my wife and I were watching the Olympic final of the women’s pole vault on TV. Such questions as “How would you find out you were good at that?” and “How on earth would you go about learning to do it?” were left hanging, answerless in the air. Then my wife said, “I could be the best pole vaulter in the world, and I just don’t know it because I’ve never tried it!”

That week, I found a list of all the events and the idea became more concrete – as did the notion that it could be used to raise some money.

Sir Michael Sobell House provides care for people in Oxfordshire with life-limiting illnesses. It also provides support for their families. At any one time, they are helping hundreds of patients to live as constructively and creatively as possible in the time that they have left to live. The service is completely free to those in the community who may need it, regardless of their beliefs, race or age.

My wife’s father, Terry Beardall (above), spent the last three weeks of his life there in August 2002. The care he received before he died and the support given to his family (and recently arrived boyfriends) at what is always rather weakly described as “a difficult time” was wonderful to witness and to receive.

I think Terry would have enjoyed the notion of someone using sport to raise money in his memory. I got to spend far too little time with him, but the time I did get showed me a man who liked to shout at the TV when his national team did something stupid and to organise his day around what time the golf coverage started – two factors involved in being “a man, my son” that I think Kipling gravely overlooked.

His death, which came less than two months after his fiftieth birthday, was a travesty of anyone’s notion of fairness. Nothing could have made it alright, but Sobell House at least made it less horrific for all concerned. He was a fine man, and it is a fine place, and I am proud to be doing what I’m doing in his memory and for Sobell House.

Quick Update

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

I haven’t done my run at all this week yet. This morning, as penance, I walked to work. It’s around 5km from my house to my office. I covered it in exactly 45 minutes. I think I’ll do it again tomorrow.

John Adams and I have scheduled the 20km walk for Sunday 12th December. The route will take us from my house into the middle of Oxford. Once there, we will do four laps of the University Parks and then walk back to my house. The current world record is 1 hour 17 minutes and 21 seconds. Based on this morning’s performance, I’ll be very impressed if we manage to do it in less than three hours.

I spoke to a reporter from the Oxford Mail today. I’m going to meet a photographer tomorrow and hopefully get this adventure featured in the local paper some time soon. I will, of course, keep you posted.

Athens Anthems

Monday, November 29, 2004

Tonight, I popped round to see a couple of friends, one of whom (Rich - the man on the left) had been to Athens in the summer. He showed me his pictures from the games. This one was my favourite. It features Rich and another friend of mine, Mik, singing the national anthem for Kelly Holmes after she received her gold medal for the 800 metres.

The picture was taken by one of three Canadians that Rich and Mik had befriended through the course of the evening. They had flown to Greece from Canada; they were staying in Athens for 36 hours; and then they were flying back home - a long weekend on the other side of the world. They hadn’t come for any event in particular, or to see any Canadian especially – they just wanted to be at the Olympics, no matter how little time they could spend there.

The picture sums up several things that I love about the Olympic Games. In general, I hate flag-waving and anthem bellowing, but, when it is done to salute the magical culmination of a lifetime of hard work, it can make my spine tingle. I ought to send the picture to the organisers of the London 2012 bid – I think it depicts exactly the support that could be expected if we got the Games.

I also enjoyed hearing about Mik and Rich meeting the Canadians. My wife and I went to watch London Wasps win the final of the Zurich Premiership (rugby) at Twickenham two years ago. Wasps scored an early try at the other end of the pitch and, predictably, the crowd rose to its feet. The man (for want of a better word) behind my wife put his hands on her shoulders and shoved her back down into her seat whilst shouting “If you stay sitting down, we can all see!”

Needless to say, we weren’t entirely delighted. I politely explained that until he had managed to spread his mysterious gospel of sedentary rugby watching to the other 74,999 people in the ground, he’d be as well to just stand up when everyone else did. I might have called him a name too. There’s an outside chance I may have sworn. One thing I definitely did do was spend the rest of the first half standing up at every opportunity and getting ready to lay him out if he said anything about it. I can’t remember any of the rugby.

So it’s nice to know that at the Olympics the people you meet in the crowd are nice folk who’ll spend a medal ceremony looking at you through the lens of your camera instead of at the action if you ask them to.

It’s also nice to know that they’ll travel halfway around the world to spend a few hours basking in the glow of the Games. The more I hear from all of my friends who were there; the more I wish I had gone too, and the more I resolve to go and set up that savings account for my trip to Beijing.

New Shoes

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Almost everything was against me this morning.

Despite my route being more or less a loop, the wind seemed to be in my face throughout the run. It rained a little last night, so the grass in the park was heavy and the ground underneath it was soft.

My parents are over visiting this weekend, so last night I ate far too much and drank a bit more red wine than I meant to – I spent most of my run trying not to jiggle my stomach around too much.

After dinner last night, we went to the cinema and saw The Incredibles, which was disappointingly average and far too long. At the end of it, when I tried to walk to the car, something in my right knee had seized up and I could hardly bend my leg. Once I’d loosened it out, it was fine, and it didn’t hurt this morning.

But I’ve seen the footage of Ruud Van Nistleroy moving from a state of having a cruciate ligament to not having a cruciate ligament – it happened very fast and completely out of the blue – I spent most of my run wondering if it was about to happen to me and trying to think of Olympic events I could do lying down.

On top of all that, the Leftfield track I was listening to wasn’t quite fast enough and was making me run (I felt) too slowly.

The only thing in my favour was the new pair of shoes my folks very kindly contributed to the cause yesterday. They are made by Nike. They are Air Terra Sebecs. I might have to have them tested to make sure they’re legal; I knocked a couple of seconds off my best time and ran 07:13.2.

My Dark Nemesis

Friday, November 26, 2004

For Seb Coe, it was Steve Ovett. For Carl Lewis, it was Mike Powell. For Michael Phelps, it was Ian Thorpe. All great athletes have their nemesis – their one great foe that repeatedly thwarts their chances of achieving the greatness they seek. I have mine. Her name is Boo.

This morning, I ran my mile in seven and three-quarter minutes, but at least 20 seconds of that time were spent first trying to prevent Boo coming with me when I left, and then trying to stop her escaping when I returned. I time myself using my phone, which I leave just inside the front door. She sits and waits by it, knowing her moment will come.

She is allowed outside, but she’s still young and stupidly bold, so we try to restrict her outdoor pursuits to the back of the house, away from the road. But cats (kittens especially) don’t speak English, so, when I leave for my run and when I come back, I have to resort to wrestling her back from the door. This is about as easy as juggling spaghetti.

In terms of a progress report, this may look more like excuses again, but I do think I’m running faster than my recent times have reflected – I’m just not getting any better at outwitting the kitten.

Walk This Way

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Following the success of rocksercise with the Kings of Leon on Monday night, I’ve started taking my mini disc player out on my morning run. I find the running pretty boring (even though it lasts less than 8 minutes), so having some music along really helps – plus you get to feel like you’re part of a BBC Sport montage.

As for the progress of the overall challenge - plans are afoot to get the 20km walk out of the way before Christmas. A colleague from work told me he had heard speed walking described at the Sydney Olympics as being like “a contest to see who could whisper the loudest”, which seems about right to me. A great debate is raging at the moment about just how much actual speed walking needs to be done in the course of the 20km walk – I’m all for trying it out, but the truth is that it hurts like hell.

Several nights ago, on my way home from work, I found myself walking down a badly lit side street and decided my chance had come; I tried to break into a speed walk. Firstly, it’s an incredibly unnatural action, and it took some powerful concentration to get my body to do it at all. Secondly, once I did convince my brain that no one was looking and that it really was OK to just speed walk, I made it about 20 yards before my body itself registered a complaint.

My shins began screaming at me – presumably trying to remind me that I have some comparatively enormous muscles in my thighs that are much better suited to propulsion. They really didn’t like it one little bit. I had to stop.

I walked on (at my normal pace) and realised there was a third issue; I was moving faster when walking normally than I had been when speed walking.

I’ve checked the rules, and all they say is that some part of your body must remain in contact with the ground at all times. Your leading foot must hit the ground before your trailing foot lifts off. In the words of countless schoolteachers down the ages therefore, “Walk! Don’t Run!”

I know there’s an issue here of entering into the spirit of things, and I do intend to give speed walking as much of a go as my startlingly ill-adapted calf muscles will allow, but I’m not going to feel too guilty if I have to crank it down to a brisk stroll in order to complete the distance. In accordance with the rules, I will walk – but there’s nothing in there to say that I have to look like a panicked duck in the process.

Miles More Fun Than Miles

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I missed my run this morning, but I didn’t feel too guilty – I got a pretty good workout last night, courtesy of the mighty Kings of Leon. For the first time since I was about 17 and staring wide-eyed at Nirvana in the King’s Hall in Belfast, I let myself get hauled into the thick of the moshing.

The experience provides a fairly focused workout for the calf muscles as you pogo up and down, but threatens rib injury at all times as you push your elbows out to avoid getting crushed to death by a hundred sweaty bodies pressing in on you from all angles simultaneously.

I didn’t do my mile this morning because I was feeling a trifle delicate - beers and rock and roll on a school night – whatever next?

The Mile

Saturday, November 20, 2004

"So, I'm quick, but tell me honestly, does my breath smell?"

Today, I ran my fastest mile yet – 07:15.6.

I was delighted.

Well, no… I was gasping for breath, a bit light-headed and felt almost certain I was going to be sick. As it turned out, I regained my composure reasonably quickly, but I’ve just been playing with some numbers (no one can say I don’t know how to have fun at the weekend) and now I feel sick again.

I appreciate several cold, hard facts. I appreciate the fact that I’m not a world-class athlete – in fact, I’m not an athlete at all. I appreciate the fact that in my entire life I’ve probably done less physical training than most decent distance runners would do in an average week of moderate training. I appreciate the fact that many aspects of this Olympic challenge aren’t going to be easy.

However, although my mind sees those words, still it thinks: “I’m tall, I’m skinny, I’ve watched it on TV – I should be good at middle-distance running.”

So, although I know that comparing the time it takes me to run a mile around the park at the end of my road to the time it has taken legendary runners in the past to run a mile round a track wearing all the proper gear is a fairly pointless exercise, I did it anyway.

Bannister ran 3:59.4 in 1954, so the first big barrier for me was the eight minute mile - any longer than that, and I could imagine Sir Roger running past to lap me for a second time (in black and white no less) as I neared the start/finish line after a mere 800 metres of my mile. Any time sub-eight minutes (or 7:58.8 if you’re being picky) would ensure that he only passed me once during the course of the race.

The next barrier I set myself was to achieve the same heady status (“He only lapped me once!”) in an imagined race with Hicham El Guerrouj, the current world record holder, who ran 3:43.13 in 1998. The time I needed to achieve for that to happen, assuming (entirely erroneously of course) that we both ran at a perfectly uniform pace throughout the mile, was 7:26.24. Today I beat that for the first time.

Amazingly, there were no salt tears cried – even at the height of my euphoria, I was aware somewhere in the back of my mind that there remain one or two worlds yet to be conquered.

In order to avoid getting lapped at all by Bannister, I need to run the mile in 5:19.19. In order to avoid the same fate at the hands of the gifted Moroccan, I need to run it in 4:57.49. Thankfully, I am only foolish enough to be attempting this whole challenge at all, and not foolish enough to be attempting to do any of it to any high standard.

Perhaps more worrying than anything I’ve mentioned so far is the fact that when Paula Radcliffe broke the world record in the marathon, she ran most of her 26 miles around two minutes faster than it takes me to run just one at the moment. And she’s a girl.

I’ve been told by people who should probably know that I will notice a vast improvement in my times very quickly if I stick at it. I can just about conceive of breaking the seven minute barrier – it was a bit wet under foot today, and I had to swerve violently twice; once to avoid a dog, and once to avoid what it had just been doing – but sub-six minutes seems like something from a dream, and sub-five seems frankly impossible.

I’ve also been told that I will find a pace at which I’ll feel like I could run indefinitely. At the moment, I’m achieving that pace somewhere between my bed and the shower in the morning.

Still - it's not all doom and gloom - the mile (1,600 metres, give or take) isn't even an Olympic event. The nearest equivalent race is the 1,500 metres, and, let's face it, it's usually only the last 100 metres of the mile I struggle with anyway!

London 2012

Friday, November 19, 2004

Today, Lord Coe & Co. released more details about London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic games. Some of the facilities look wonderful.

The first report I read suggested that tickets prices for the various events would begin at around £10, and that nothing would cost more than £30. The report I’ve just read says that they would begin at £15 and nothing will cost more than £50. If this rate of price inflation continues, it’s going to work out cheaper for us all to decamp to Beijing in 2008 instead.

It’s hard to tell how London’s chances of success are looking compared to the other candidates. Madrid didn't do itself any favours on Wednesday night when a large number of its inhabitants made monkey noises at the black players on the England team during their friendly with Spain.

Paris seems to be a front-runner in that, instead of having wonderfully impressive plans for new stadia, it just has wonderfully impressive new stadia.

I don’t imagine Condoleeza Rice is going to do much by way of softening US foreign policy, which (despite the claims of NYC2012) can’t be doing much to help New York’s bid.

And as for Moscow… well, Moscow’s just cold.

I’m all for it – I’d love the Olympics to be in London in 2012. I know that some people resent how much it will cost and they worry about London being left with a load of useless big buildings to find a use for when it's all over, but look at it this way – at least one useless big building would finally get to serve some worthwhile purpose - the Dome would be turned into the venue for the gymnastics.

The more observant amongst you will have noticed the subtle little link button on the right that will redirect you to the London 2012 website. Once there, you will be begged and beseeched by all manner of sports person and celebrity (and even the occasional celebrity sports person) to back the bid. Go there and do what they tell you - especially if you actually live anywhere near London.

Stitched Up

Thursday, November 18, 2004

It’s supposed to get easier. I’m supposed to go quicker. I’m not supposed to get two stitches and take longer than I did before. What is a stitch anyway? In my case, I think it might be some sort of allergic reaction to see-saws – yesterday and today I was struck at exactly the same point in my run; just as I passed the see-saw. Or maybe it’s an anxiety disorder, brought on by a fear of running past the swings…

(In fact: "Pumping your legs increases the pressure on your abdominal muscles, which press up against the diaphragm. At the same time, rapid breathing expands your lungs, which press down on the diaphragm. The dual pinching from above and below shuts off the flow of blood and oxygen to the diaphragm." And, as Johnny Ball would say, that's how a stitch works. For more insight, including a handy list of remedies, click here)

The Running Man

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

This is how much I enjoyed getting up to go running at dawn this morning...

But I feel good about it now; even though it took me about a minute longer than it did the last time I ran a mile, and I got a stitch for the first time since I was 12.

Sportswoman of the Year 2004

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Sunday Times is running a text vote to determine the sportswoman of the year. The result is a bit of a foregone conclusion. The hot favourite won two golds in Athens this summer; she delighted everyone who watched her, and she should win this award by a country mile.

I’ve read the odd piece suggesting that Kelly Holmes might be in with a shout of winning this award too (having also won a pair of gold medals in Athens), but the sportswoman I’m talking about won five medals in all, claiming two silvers and a bronze as well as her two golds. Oh yeah, and she did all that despite having cerebral palsy. She is Paralympic swimmer, Nyree Lewis.

If you want to jump on the bandwagon and vote for the winner, call 0901 890 3405, or text the word “NYREE” to 84070.

Behind every great man, there's a great woman (with her finger in his ear).

Excuses, Excuses...

I had hoped to spare you the excuse-ridden drivel of yet another piece about why I've not done much toward becoming the Ultimate Olympian in the last few weeks, but it seems you're out of luck.

My wife was made redundant two weeks ago, and has now set about the exciting process of setting up her own business and finding a stop-gap job at the same time; needless to say, I've dipped the occasional oar of support into that effort. In my own job, the workload has increased just as the amount of time I have free to tackle it has declined thanks to a much-dreaded office move.

Added to that have been several niggles in knees, wrists, hands and back which, coupled with a hint of this half-cold that seems to circulate every year when the clocks go back, have left me somewhat less than eager to do anything other than sleep a lot.

Furthermore, it's cold, it's dark, it's usually raining, and, for all my pretension, I'm not an athlete. I keep using the giving-up-smoking analogy, but again it's helpful here - if you waited for a convenient time to do it, you never would. Training is much the same.

I'd like to say that I've been spending the time I've not been running or swimming doing other things to further the cause, but I haven't. I have watched the first two series of the West Wing; sadly though, last I checked, that isn't on the Olympic programme.

But enough of confessions and weak excuses - today we got a parcel in the post from the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Now I'm wearing my yellow 'Livestrong' wristband and thinking about two things - I'm thinking again about why I started doing all this in the first place, and I'm thinking about the athletic achievements of a man who had a lot more going against him than the mild dose of laziness I've succumbed to so easily.

Tomorrow is a new day.

Cake or Swimming?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I wouldn’t say that things have ground to a halt exactly, but Olympic developments have been few and far between in recent days. I have a wide range of excuses and have suffered all manner of distractions, but the truth lies closer to laziness and indulgence than unavoidable diversions.

To an extent, I am suffering a little from rabbit-in-the-headlights syndrome – the headlights being firmly fixed to the front of the task that lies ahead. If this challenge consisted solely of turning up to have a go at more than one hundred different Olympic disciplines in four years, it would still be tough, but it would clearly be achievable. The reality is that the organisation of most of these events is going to take a lot more time and effort than I had intially reckoned on, and, in many cases, a lot more time and effort than it will take to complete the event itself.

The 10m platform dive will be over in less than 3 seconds, but it will take a lot longer than that to persuade someone to teach me (and then to learn) how to do it without breaking my neck.

A fear of serious injury is my new neurosis. There seems to be a lot of it about at the moment. I have been looking forward to the Olympic football match I will have to play at some stage, and pretty much resting assured that I am fairly unlikely to get injured doing that one. Then I saw some pictures of Djibril Cissé and thought I might have underestimated the potential for disaster there [don’t click on that link if you’ve just eaten].

I also thought of the swimming as being fairly safe - I can take it as easily as I need to. No one ever gets seriously damaged in swimming, do they? Then I read that Grant Hackett, the Australian swimmer, successfully defended his 1,500m title in Athens despite having a collapsed lung. Frankly, I wonder sometimes if I’m hard enough for all this. I tend to view the collapse of any part of an internal organ as an indication that I need to be sitting on the sofa eating cake more and swimming 30 lengths of an Olympic pool less.

I suppose it’s one more lesson along the way though – these people put in the hours, not just in training, but also running around organising their schedules and trying to get sponsors to back their efforts. It’s like running your own business and being your own end product and the same time. The level of commitment goes beyond what most of us will ever see from the outside looking in, and in some cases probably borders on what would be considered psychological dysfunction for a non-athlete.

The BBC are running a competition on their Academy website to give readers the chance to train with the Great Britain gymnastics team. There are three age categories, with two winners to be selected from each category. I’m in the over 16 category. You are asked to write twenty words to tell them why you want to do it. I wrote:

"Doing 136 individual Olympic events between now and Beijing 2008 for charity. Need help or may die from my injuries!"

I don’t fancy my chances much to be honest, but if I win, perhaps they can teach me how to become the Pavlova of the Parallels without dislocating anything.


Monday, October 25, 2004

Remaining focused is a difficult thing. After my booster of inspiration at the parade in London last Monday, I ran on Tuesday and Wednesday morning; only a mile, but still, both days I ran at 6:30 in the morning in the dark and the cold and the rain. On Wednesday, I timed myself – a little over eight minutes – not too bad.

On Thursday morning I woke up after a restless night and spent the ten minutes I could have spent running around the park locked in the same old argument. This time, the part of me that reckons it probably isn’t ideal to run every single day in case I get injured prevailed. Missing Thursday made it so much easier not to run on Friday either.

Inspired by guilt, I did another timed run on Saturday morning. The whole way round I felt heavy and slow. On Wednesday, I had finished strongly and was thinking about how I ought to up my distance the next time – on Saturday, I had regressed to the "try not to be sick" stage. However, despite my heavy legs, I did it in less than seven and a half minutes on Saturday – El Guerrouj could have lapped me, possibly more than once, but I’m getting quicker.

My body is still a strange hybrid of several different kinds of athlete. I have the splayed feet and skinny, bandy legs of a distance walker. My belly is doing its best to balloon out like a top division weightlifter. My pectoral muscles are a long way from the chiselled perfection of a swimmer’s, and more closely resemble the concave chest of a marathon runner.

My arms should be good for swimming, at least in terms of length if not in terms of build. I read somewhere that Michael Phelps was an ideal build for a swimmer as he was 6'5" tall and 6'6" wide from fingertip to fingertip; I’m 6'4" tall (almost) and 6'7" wide. With a few light weights to build up my arms, and with my belly providing a degree of ballast Phelps so patently lacks, I should be up to his standard in no time.

Aside from my physical failings though, I need to build up again my ability to focus. When I used to play golf to a higher standard than I do now, I would practice pretty much every day. Some days the weather was dreadful - practicing in that can do your swing more harm than good as you compensate for wind and rain – but it was important to practice anyway; having done so, I was free to stand on the first tee at the weekend and feel like I’d worked harder than everyone else. That can give you confidence.

Similarly, I don’t imagine it will make a great deal of physical difference to a marathon I will try to run at some point in the next four years if I run one mile in the dark tomorrow morning or not, but maybe, as I arrive at the wall of pain that I am assured awaits me on that fateful day, I’ll remember how hard I worked, and I’ll remember getting up early in the morning to do something I don’t really like doing, and I’ll carry on running when I might otherwise have stopped.

Great Olympians don’t get to the pinnacle of their careers because they ran a mile in the dark one morning – they get there because they did it every morning while the rest of us stayed in bed.

Heroes On Parade

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Today is a typical October day in the UK - it’s wet, it’s dark and it’s cold. Yesterday’s weather bucked the October trend with a sense of timing that any of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes parading through London would have died for - the sun was out, the temperature crept up and the wind stayed away.

Around three-quarters of a million people turned up to shout things about swinging chariots at the English rugby team when they paraded the World Cup through London last year; the police reckon about a third of that number turned up yesterday to cheer on the ‘Parade of Heroes’ – although, whether or not that number included the people hanging out of their office windows along the route isn’t clear.

I watched the whole thing from inside the ropes in Trafalgar Square, courtesy of Timo and his magic yellow wristbands. I pretty much just stood there for a couple of hours with my mouth open in glee and awe as Olympian after Paralympian was herded out onto the stage to exchange a bit of lively banter with Steve Rider and Sue Barker*, and then to sit down to one side and sign endlessly thrust autograph books and t-shirts. It was a privilege to be there so close to the action.

A greater privilege was to come though when the live broadcast had finished and we met up with Sascha and Nyree backstage and headed to the local Sports Café for a bite to eat. It took us the guts of half an hour to get 500 yards. It’s amazing how a few medals hanging around your neck will make complete strangers approach and ask you questions. It is also amazing just how patient two tired, hungry Paralympians can be with their public.

“Can I touch your medals?” - of course

“Will you sign this for me?” - of course

“Any chance of a photo?” of course

Nothing was too much trouble, nothing too intrusive. Every request was granted, and granted with a smile and with thanks for coming to the parade and for watching the Paralympics on TV.

And so, while Pinsent, Law, Holmes and Co. (and possibly Coe) headed to the Palace to meet Her Majesty, we hung out in the Sports Café with nothing to adorn our humble table but four golds, two silvers, a pair of bronzes and some nachos. The waitress’ eyes nearly popped out of her head. “Can I touch them? Will you sign this? Can I take a photo?” Of course, of course, of course.

There is something more in touch with the Olympic ideal about the Paralympians – perhaps a disability in one area makes you appreciate more your abilities in another – the spirit of fair play and the importance of taking part rather than winning seems uppermost. I liked the fact that the culmination of the parade took place in Trafalgar Square, with a large crowd swarming around an enormous monument erected to one of the world’s more famous amputees.

Outside the restaurant, Sascha had to phone Greater Manchester Radio to give them the interview they’d asked for. Traffic ripped up and down the street, and he was having trouble hearing what his interviewer was saying. Nyree provided a simple solution that had us all in stitches and produced the photo of the day. When we parted company at Charing Cross, they both thanked me for coming to the parade. The pleasure was entirely mine.

There’s a story on the BBC website today about how success in Athens for the British teams has inspired more than a quarter of the population to want to play more sport. In the end, I didn’t need to ask Sascha about how to get out of bed in the morning to go to training. I watched him swim in Athens and then yesterday I held his medals. As I said before, the weather today is wet and cold, but at 6:30 this morning, I wasn’t in bed having my usual argument with myself about lying in for ten more minutes, I was running round the park in the dark.

If you want to see more of the pictures from yesterday, some of the better ones are here.

*It was also interesting to note that Sue mumbles her lines to herself nervously as they count her down before they go live. Later, there was a strange sight (indicative of our society’s skewed value system) when I spotted one of the Olympic heroes getting an autograph from Steve Rider.

The Drugs Don't Work

Friday, October 15, 2004

Further to a comment from the Ultimate Olympian’s biggest fan, I had a rummage around the Internet in search of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances [.pdf].

I hadn’t intended to sail all that close to the wind in terms of what I consume in the coming years, but, despite Beckham’s most fervent protests or apologies, intentions don’t count for much if you get caught doing it wrong. Like any good athlete should, I’ve had a quick read through the list just to make sure that eating my favourite flavour of crisps isn’t going to constitute a contravention of any rules.

It’s interesting that WADA feels the need to be explicit about the fact that diamorphine isn’t allowed – I can’t think of any sport in which heroin would be considered performance enhancing. It’s also quite funny to note that two Olympic sports (Archery and the shooting stages of the Modern Pentathlon) set a limit on the in-competition use of alcohol – does that mean it’s fine to turn up drunk as a lord for any of the other events? Suddenly, I’m feeling less worried about that 10m platform dive.

Just ten more minutes...

If Google is anything to go by (and of course, in this instance, it patently isn’t), I am already the ultimate Olympian. Google those two words and this site comes up at the top of the list – comfortably ahead of a couple of stories about some guy called Redgrave. I looked into Redgrave’s record – he competed five times at three different disciplines over the course of 16 years. No wonder he’s only second. I’ve done 5 different disciplines in the last six weeks!

Before Sir Steve won his fifth gold medal in Sydney in 2000, there was an interesting documentary about him on the TV based on a video diary he had kept in the run up to the games. From that, I have an image in my head of him gasping for breath and then vomiting having pushed his body to its absolute limit at the end of one of his training sessions. It would be safe to say that thus far my own training hasn’t been quite so vigorous.

Each morning, when the alarm goes off at 06:40, I lie awake for at least ten minutes before I actually get out of bed. In this time, I argue with myself about whether or not it’s worth the effort to go to work, and wouldn’t it be nicer to just stay in bed? My well-laid plan was to supplant this ten-minute internal monologue with a brisk one mile run round the local park. I’m doing it in stages though – now I lie awake and argue with myself about whether or not I’m going to go running. So far, bed has beaten the park every time.

I had also resolved to go swimming at least once this week. That hasn’t quite gone according to plan either – I still haven’t even seen the inside of any of Oxford’s public swimming pools.

In my defence, the nights are drawing in and the weather is rotten. At twenty to seven in the morning it’s still as dark as it was at midnight. Such factors tend to make me keener to lie around on the sofa than to go out running or venture to the swimming pool – although, to be fair, I tend to do a lot of lying around in the summer too.

I suppose I’m trying to confess to having had a bad week, but I’m making a bad job even of the confession. Katie and I did play badminton on Wednesday night, and I have done my usual 30 minutes or so of walking everyday from the car to the office, but I’m a long way from throwing up because I pushed myself too hard.

During the week, I met with Holly Goodall from the Sobell House Hospice Charity to talk about my plans and how best to go about certain aspects of sponsorship, event organisation and the like. It was nice to meet her and to know that she’s excited about what I’m doing.

Timo has very kindly invited me to join him in London on Monday for the Great Britain Olympic and Paralympic teams’ parade through the capital. I’m excited about getting the chance to see all the famous faces, but I’m probably looking forward more to meeting Timo’s brother and talking to him about how to get past the “I’d rather stay in bed” stage of my training.

Guardian Angels

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Those nice people at The Guardian have sampled the wholesome goodness of this site and put it on the linklog!

Between this and the number of times they used one of my devastatingly ascerbic comments on their over-by-over coverage of the summer test matches and their shot-by-shot coverage of the Ryder Cup, I practically work there now.

Badminton Review

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Badminton has been around for a very long time in one form or another. Historians offer examples of it being played in Greece, China and India as long ago as 100 BC. In its original state, the game involved a piece of cork with a few feathers stuck into it being kept aloft by a group of players working together. My first contact with the game very much reflected this humble beginning.

I have a vivid childhood memory of looking at my granny through a badminton net that had been carefully strung up in her back garden. The net was maroon in colour and had a thick white ribbon along the top. You got hopelessly tangled up in it if you got too close. The rackets were silver with strings that looked like very thin black and white candy canes. The grips were fake black leather with gold coloured markings that flaked off after a few games on a hot afternoon. Underneath the fake leather, the handle of the racket was wooden, but you weren’t supposed to know that because you weren’t supposed to pick at the grip when it started to come loose.

The shuttlecock had a red rubber cap on a white plastic base that was good to chew if you could get away with taking a bite before a grown up saw you with it in your mouth. Many years later, I discovered that you could buy the whole lot for a few quid from Woolworth’s, but at the time I was sure my granny had magically conjured the game and all its trappings out of thin air, as grannies were wont to do.

The game I played with my granny resembled the original form because the aim of it was to keep the rally going for as long as possible, rather than to beat the person on the other side of the net. We would count out loud as we hit it back and forth.

In the 1860s, some British soldiers stationed in India took this idiotic, airy-fairy pastime and turned it into a proper sport by adding a net, a clearly defined playing area and some stiff rules to be obeyed without question. They called it, rather unimaginatively, poona, after the town in India where they first played their version of the game. In 1873, the same imaginative process was at work when the Duke of Beaufort gathered his friends to his country estate (Badminton) for a garden party and to introduce them to a new game from the mysterious East.

I imagine the guests at that first garden party would have a hard time recognising the game the top players play today. For one thing, they’d be at least 125 years old and therefore unlikely to recognise their own faces in the mirror let alone anything else, but the game, now considered to be the fastest racket sport in the world, has made some advances too.

I love badminton and have played it off and on many times since those early days in my granny’s back garden. I have huge admiration for the top players, especially in the singles, which is a much more technically difficult and physically arduous game than they ever make it look.

Like table tennis, badminton can produce moments of magic that make all the participants smile, regardless of who won the point. In a sense, those moments are reflections of the game returning to its original form in which everyone worked together to stop the shuttlecock hitting the ground. I know I ended the badminton leg of this Olympic challenge by thrashing the net with my racket in frustration at having lost, so maybe I’m not the best person to say it, but those moments are the ones that live up to the Olympic ideal my mother used to preach at me in French – those are the moments when it’s better to be taking part than to be winning.

How Smashing!

Monday, October 11, 2004

Robertson & Emms? Silver medal? Yeah, but did they look this stylish?

Saturday’s badminton mixed doubles produced a match every bit as thrilling (if not quite as technically impressive) as the recent Olympic final – and, as with the result in Athens, the better team came off second best.

When we arrived, a problem that Gareth and I have encountered at the Peers Sports Centre before was in evidence once again – in the morning, the sun tends to flood the main hall with a bright, hard light that makes playing badminton particularly tricky for whichever team has the misfortune to end up playing facing the windows.

Katie and I lost the toss. I waited for Gareth to hand us the serve and scamper to the non-sun-facing end, but he threw me a curve ball by choosing to keep the serve, leaving Katie and I free to scamper where we liked. And scamper we did. I have to confess, I felt rather smug as we started – although in the end each game of the three game thriller was won by the team facing the sun.

Gareth and Jo face the sun, but win anyway.

The first game had all the ingredients of a classic encounter – rapid rallies, stunning smashes, deftly deceptive drop shots and me hitting my wife in the face with the shuttlecock. Luckily for her (and me) I was hitting a backhand and I was only trying to hit it back to Jo after a point had finished. I broke my own apologising rule. It was the beginning of the end. Gareth and Jo took the game, 15-11.

Despite her superior talent, Katie (modest as ever) lets me try a smash.

In the second game, as Katie got into her stride and took a controlling hold of things, we fared much better. There were some exciting rallies, which Emms and Robertson themselves would have been proud of, as the game rushed to a nail biting conclusion. Hutton and Forber made a last minute comeback, but in the end, we held on to win 15-13 and take the match into a final set.

We carried our momentum on as we rushed to an early lead in the final game. Again, I slipped into smugness. We were several points up and had the light at our backs. Jo’s serve had turned into smashing practice, and Gareth seemed to be lacking my killer instinct (i.e. wasn’t being as much of an idiot as I was). My smugness rapidly began to evaporate as the opposition mounted a comeback.

At 12-12 in the final game a long period ensued during which the serve changed hands at least a dozen times without any actual points getting racked up. The focus shifted from winning to not losing. It was tense. Well no, I was tense. The others seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Gareth resorts to his favourite drop shot as Katie and Jo admire his form.

The end, when it finally came, was embarrassing – not so much because I put an easy smash into the net to give Gareth and Jo the match, but more because I then thrashed the net with my racket, exhibiting perhaps a tad more vehemence than was called for. More work required on the “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part” philosophy I think.

Big thanks to my partner (in life and mixed doubles) for playing so well and putting up with my tantrums when I don’t win (in both arenas). Thanks also to Gareth and Jo for teaching us a lesson, and especially to Timo for filming the whole thing so adeptly.

Having now finished the badminton and the table tennis, there is really only the tennis left that I can play without some specialist help. While I set about contacting sports associations and governing bodies seeking that help and advice about having a go at their sports, I intend to do something I believe athletes refer to as “training”. It’s a new concept for me – running when there isn’t a race or a threat seems very odd – but we’ll see how it goes.

Result of Badminton – Mixed Doubles
Gareth Forber (GBR) & Jo Hutton (GBR)
John McClure (GBR) and Katie McClure (GBR)
15-11, 13-15, 15-13

Badminton - Mixed Doubles Preview

Friday, October 08, 2004

Britain, in the shape of Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson, won a silver medal in the mixed doubles in Athens. It was a thrilling final, watched by a very noisy British contingent (of which, our very own John Adams was one – he’s the one on the far end of the group (six from the left) – the guy in the cowboy hat is Soz, also known as the ubiquitous Ultimate Olympian comment-poster, Swiss Toni). Culturally, it was a giant leap forward for Britain as a whole.

Although it may not feel like it when you’re driving around this green and pleasant land, we are a nation of polite and deferential gentlefolk who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, so to come so close to winning a gold medal in a sport that requires one to be frankly rude in not apologising to one’s partner is quite an achievement. I have mentioned before the importance of not apologising when playing doubles – this was almost (but not quite) possible to do when I had Gareth next to me, but I suspect I may find it much harder tomorrow morning when I line up alongside my wife.

History is littered with examples of mighty husband & wife teams – Paul and Debbie McGee, Richard and Judy, the Krankies – so it is in illustrious footsteps we will gingerly tread as we carry the weight of history with us to the Peers Sports Centre at 10:00AM tomorrow. Gareth Forber and Jo Hutton provide the opposition, but they’re not married, so we should be fine.

I’ve played some mixed doubles before, but never with Katie. I can only assume from the state of her racket (retrieved from the attic at her mother’s house during the week) that she is either a ferocious player with incredible and terrifying power, or that she got really bored the last time she played and ended up eating the grip off her racket.

I’ve never seen Jo play either, although I’ve heard on the grapevine that she has a PhD in badminton studies, so I’m expecting great things. If she can offer the sort of feisty, controlled aggression on the badminton court that she displays when talking about her sister’s taste in men, we could be in trouble.

Timo Kindred (Sascha’s twin brother) is coming to stay this weekend and was pencilled in to partner Jo, until he remembered that he has only recently had surgery on his knee. He very sensibly relegated himself to official cameraman, and Gareth has come to the rescue to make up the numbers.

My main priority is not to injure anyone. When I played with a club last winter, a week would seldom pass without someone (although, strangely, never me) accidentally sending a shuttle or racket careering into one of the female players. In general, this doesn’t hurt that much, so it shouldn’t be anything to feel overly guilty about, but when you’re not allowed to apologise…

Table Tennis Review

Smoking is a really disgusting habit. Even smokers will concede that for the most part they don’t enjoy smoking, but they keep doing it, because, every so often, it’s just glorious. It’s that every-so-often that still haunts ex-smokers like me years after they’ve stopped; that moment after a warm day on the golf course when the first mouthful of cold beer hits the back of your throat and you briefly think that life would be perfect if you could only set fire to some dried leaves and inhale the smoke.

Eastenders is also a really disgusting habit, although much less likely to give you cancer. Night after night you keep watching it even though you know in your heart of hearts that it’s rubbish. Partly you watch because familiarity in this case breeds not contempt but a sense of belonging, and partly you watch because it reminds you that no matter how hard your day has been, its very unlikely to have been as miserable as Pauline Fowler’s. But you also watch because the odd time (increasingly odd these days by all accounts) they get it exactly right. From somewhere they produce a decent script and you realise at the end of half an hour that, for most of it, you managed to suspend your disbelief and you actually cared what was going to happen next.

Table tennis isn’t quite as habit forming as smoking or Eastenders, but it has its own little way of sucking you in. Like many sports, the participants spend most of their time failing and only a very small proportion of it pulling off the kind of shots that float like dreams through their imaginations. For every ludicrously difficult smash from ten feet behind the table that somehow gets just enough topspin to stop it missing the table, but not enough to make it dive into the net, there have been any number of failed attempts and containing shots.

The game’s timing tends to be impeccable. It’s when you’re at your lowest ebb and beginning to get frustrated with how incapable you both are of stringing together a decent rally that one arrives and makes you both smile and laugh with each other (no matter who won the point) like a couple of little children watching and believing a magic show. The ball does things you hadn’t expected it capable of, and your body reacts faster than you’d known it could.

It’s a game that requires both patience and talent in greater measure than I posses to be truly exciting. John Adams has a penchant these days for referring to things he likes as being such-and-such “of the gods” – during all our table tennis exploits, we produced just one rally that made him look into the video camera and proclaim it to be “table tennis of the gods!” And they must have had a hand in it, because I’m fairly sure that neither of us is half as good as we’d need to be to produce again the kind of form we found in that one lonely moment.

I will play again I’m sure – I own a bat and it’s not exactly an expensive habit – and I will watch with refreshed appreciation the efforts of the pros on the TV. It’s a good game, and I’ve enjoyed this leg of the challenge a lot, but I won’t be falling asleep tonight longing to be the next Jan Ove Waldner.

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Last week, we played a table tennis match (best of five) and it didn’t count. This week, John Adams and I rattled through another match (best of seven) in about 15 minutes as our doubles opponents looked on, busting at the seams to get in on the action. Last week, John beat me in a five game thriller, but the result failed to stand on a technicality. This week, I beat him in a six game sprint, and the result will stand regardless of the malignant chatter from the audience about the legality of my service action and the quality of the ball being used.

With the singles out of the way, the path was clear for the main event of the evening - the men’s doubles. This epic nearly didn’t happen. Through the course of the day I struggled to find a fourth player. In the Olympic spirit, I strove well, but failed to conquer. In the end, we were spared another wasted trip to the table by a virtual stranger – or a virtual friend to be more exact.

Huw Morris saved the day. Until he strode up to me and introduced himself last night, I had known him only through his postings to as the mildly disgruntled West Bromich Albion fan (is there any other kind?) using the screen name Salmacis. Having seen this website, he realised he lived just round the corner from the venue and volunteered as official photographer for the evening. Fortunately, he got my last minute e-mail before he left the house and brought his trainers as well as his camera.

After some confusion over who was left-handed and who wasn’t, it was decided by mutual consent that John and I would face Rob and Huw.

If playing doubles in badminton requires a degree of mutual understanding and consideration, then playing doubles in table tennis requires a degree in mathematics just to work out who should be standing where and who’s next to serve. Unlike badminton or tennis, where one half of the partnership could theoretically hit nothing but his own serves for the entire match, the workload is more evenly distributed in table tennis. If you hit two of your side’s shots in a row, the point is lost.

Getting out of the way is a hard skill to master – especially when you’ve just spent a quarter of an hour playing singles. On numerous occasions through the course of the match, I prevented John playing some exquisite shots simply by not realising until it was too late that I was standing between him and the ball. John on the other hand (polite, deferential Englishman that he is) didn’t once get in my way.

Having discovered the necessity to possess this difficult skill, I am amazed that the Asian nations are so good at table tennis doubles. I can only conclude that those who are good at staying out of the way also stay at home to practice their table tennis, while those who aren’t, come to Oxford to wander around looking at old buildings in front of me when I’m on my lunch break.

For a man who didn’t know he was playing until he arrived at the table, Huw played very nicely. He figured out my serve quickly enough that I had to try and change it halfway through the game, with messy consequences. Rob’s form was as I’d expected it would be. A word of warning to anyone playing anyone at anything – if the phrase “I used to play all the time, but I haven’t for over a decade” is used, beware.

Children play sport with a sense of discovery and careless abandon that can be very hard to beat. Adults playing a game (that they used to enjoy) for the first time in a long time exhibit a similar sense of rediscovery and excitement in their play as they journey out to their limits. In time, once they reach their limits and realise that they have contracted somewhat over time, they can become tentative and cagey – they stop playing and start working on their game. But on the way out, it’s all flourish and exhibition.

So it was with Rob. You could see his experience in the way he played, even if it was thinly concealed behind years of sitting at a desk and a particularly hopeless hired paddle. More than the rest of us, he looked like he knew what he was doing. He was trying to hit good shots, while the rest of us were just trying not to miss.

In the end though, all his talent couldn’t outshine the surface of the rubber on his bat, and John and I managed to eek out a victory. With the end of the game came the end of the table tennis leg of the journey; many thanks to John, Rob and (especially) Huw for playing with and against me. I’ll be playing badminton mixed doubles on Saturday morning, and then it’s on to tennis of the table-less variety next week. Four down, one hundred and twenty-four to go.

Rob and Huw celebrate avoiding the whitewash having just closed the gap from 3-0 to just one game.

Result of Table Tennis – Men’s Singles:
John McClure (GBR) beat John Adams (GBR)
11-5, 13-11, 11-13, 8-11, 11-9, 13-11

Result of Table Tennis – Men’s Doubles:
John McClure & John Adams (GBR) beat Robert Simmons & Huw Morris (GBR)
11-5, 11-7, 11-9, 9-11, 9-11, 11-8

Table Tennis - Men's Doubles Preview

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Tonight we return to the Peers Sports Centre to play the table tennis doubles, and to replay the singles match John and I didn’t quite manage to pull off last week. The line-up of participants has not yet been finalised, but one player who will certainly be making his debut in the Olympic challenge is Robert Simmons. He’s a director of the company I work for, and pretty much everything I produce for work passes under his nose before it goes out the door. I suppose I’d have to call him my boss.

I’m not reluctant to call him that because it isn’t the case (he is my boss), or because he adopts the ridiculous “Call me Rob!” position of the wannabe down-with-the-kids teacher everyone has had to suffer at least one of in their school years. We do call him Rob, but only because that’s his name, and not because he asked to borrow the latest Nirvana album as he had heard it really “spoke to people of our generation.”

I am reluctant to call him my boss here because I hate to cede anything to anyone in a sporting context, and I don’t want him to read this before we play and get the idea that he’s going to be able to boss me around on the table tennis table.

Before I played badminton with Gareth against John and Will last week (to aid my fitness rather than to tick anything off the Olympic list), there was some discussion about whether or not we should retain the same partnerships as we had established the week before. During that discussion, as Will pondered our relative strengths and weaknesses aloud, I told him that he should bear in mind that whatever was going on, I’d always want to beat him more than he’d want to beat me.

I didn’t say that because I dislike Will; on the contrary, I find it hard to imagine anyone taking exception to someone so affable. I said it because I’m too competitive about certain things. Like everything.

I grew up playing golf. I don’t know how many matches I have played in my life, nor can I remember their results, but I’d guess that I’ve probably won about as often as I’ve lost. I have beaten people whose talent was (and remains) far beyond my own, and people I should have been able to dispatch left-handed have beaten me. But I can count on the remaining functioning fingers of my right hand the number of times I’ve been beaten by someone because they wanted to beat me more than I wanted to beat them.

My friends joke about it quite often when we line up to play a bit of table football or go to the bowling alley. I play along, laugh at myself and pretend that really I’m just playing up to the characteristic they have attributed to me. But, if the truth be known, on the inside I’m as gutted as I was when Michael Thomas scored for Arsenal to deprive Liverpool of the league title in 1988/89 when their little plastic man on a stick kicks the little rubber ball past my little plastic man on a stick to win the game.

I don’t care about table football – it’s an irritating game that favours players with talents I don’t desire to acquire – but I really don’t like getting beaten. At anything.

In my calm moments, away from any arena that could be construed as competitive, I am well aware of all that this character trait says about me as a person. I am mildly concerned that if and when we have children, I will turn into the oft-lamented ‘competitive dad’ – a stereotype I despise almost as much as the aforementioned down-with-the-kids teacher. I know that very little in this world is truly worth getting competitive about and that no one will die because I couldn’t knock down more pins than you. But, when the game begins, that won’t matter anymore and I’ll still want to beat you more than you’ll want to beat me – even if you are my boss.

My mother, in her fervent desire to have her children share her love of all things French, would often wander around the house reaming off a passage of that beautiful language that she had been taught at school:

”Le plus important aux jeux Olympiques n’est pas d’y vaincre mais d’y prendre part, car l’essentiel dans la vie n’est pas tant de conquérir mais de bien lutter.” *

Which, roughly translated, means:

“The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, because the main thing in life is not so much to conquer but to strive well.”

It would seem I have a lot to learn.

* This quote was obtained from the woman herself, with the spelling subsequently confirmed by SMS, so it should be pretty much on the money. That said, she does often refer to herself in that medium as my “nun” and has been signing off from text messages “wowo” instead of “xoxo” for a year and a half now.

False Start

Thursday, September 30, 2004

I'm sure I'd be better at this game if they raised the table by about 18 inches.

Table Tennis – Men’s Singles – Peers Sports Centre, 29th September 2004, 8:30PM

The table is much smaller than I remembered, especially when it is set up (as it was) in the middle of a badminton court. It’s not nearly big enough to play tennis on. We warmed up for five minutes. I wonder if maybe the top players prefer to warm up with someone other than their opponent. I found myself beginning to spot patterns in John’s play after only a few rallies. Jan-Ove Waldner described the game in a recent interview as being like chess, but faster. I could see what he meant.

In the end, fast doesn’t even begin to describe it. We started playing at 8:36PM. By 8:50PM, John was dancing his victory dance for the camera having won a five set thriller. Less than fifteen minutes. I wonder how that compares to the average match time for the experts. If anything, they should be a bit quicker as I’m sure they don’t have to go running across two adjacent badminton courts to retrieve the ball, apologising to the badminton players all the while, every time they miss the table completely.

Even under the old scoring format, table tennis was a game of momentum; a few points lost or won in a row could form a vicious or virtuous circle leading to defeat or victory. Now, with each game being played to 11 (rather than 21), there is even less time to mount a recovery if momentum starts to swing away from you.

In theory, this shouldn’t really be the case – not at our level of play anyway. Serving in our game is no real advantage – even if we were good enough to disguise what kind of spin we were putting on the ball, there would be no need to do so as neither of us are good enough to have read the undisguised spin in the first place. As such, each and every point is pretty much up for grabs. Being 10-0 to the good or 0-10 behind shouldn’t make a bit of difference to the point or how you play it, but it does.

The mind plays a massive role in what’s going on. When you’re on a roll and winning points hand over fist, you almost chant out the score like a mantra as it ticks along in your favour. When your opponent is on a roll, you want to do all you can to disrupt the rhythm of what he’s doing. When you gain the cushion of a few points you feel free to play more committed shots, but when you are trailing by a few points, you get tentative. Tentative doesn’t work in table tennis.

This is how stupid you look when you get tentative.

However, as it turns out, our five set thriller (which John won 5-11, 11-6, 11-9, 11-13, 13-11) counts as nothing more than a warm up. At the insistence of my boss (thanks Rob) I checked my facts this morning to discover that the BBC’s guide for beginners got it wrong. Olympic table tennis matches are the best of seven sets, not five. I blame whoever wrote the guide on the BBC website, but I also blame my opponent. Less than an hour before we played last night, he was showing me photographs of himself sitting in Athens a month ago watching the Olympic table tennis semi-finals. You’d think he might have noticed that the matches were decided over seven sets.

Of course, I’m joking and the blame lies squarely at my own feet – as the organiser of this ridiculous escapade, the buck stops with me. I’m just glad I made this mistake about an event that will only take 20 minutes to replay and not one that took all day to complete and months of training beforehand. Imagine that, the day after running the marathon, “What do you mean they’ve changed it to 28 miles?”

Result of Table Tennis – Men’s Singles

Null and void. To be replayed next week (probably on the same night as the doubles).

Injury Time

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Last night, I played badminton again (doubles, with the same personnel as last week), not to fulfil anything from the Olympic list, just for fun and to increase my overall level of fitness. At one point I lunged to pick up a drop shot and my left kneecap hit the floor slightly harder than I would consider ideal. It hurt a bit at the time, but quickly wore off as I played on. This morning, it’s a bit stiff and a bit bruised.

Last week, my right wrist, elbow and bicep ached a bit for a few days after we’d played. This morning, they’re all sore again. The bicep is sore in a good way – sore in a way that suggests that my arm is building muscle mass – but the elbow and the wrist are sore in a niggling “I’ll snap if you push me too hard” way that is slightly unnerving.

I had to see my doctor a couple of weeks ago about something else entirely, but I told him of my Olympic plans while I was there. He visibly winced. I was surprised by his reaction, which I interpreted at first as an indication that he didn’t think I was up to it physically. I'm no Lance Armstrong, granted, but I'm not exactly hugely out of shape.

It turned out that his concern was based more on my propensity to get injured than on my propensity to eat too much junk and not exercise. He cautioned me, quite gravely, that I ought to warm up very thoroughly before every event. He reminded me that even the best athletes in each of the sports get injured regularly and that, as a novice in most of them, I’d be even more at risk.

It struck me then that my timeframe for getting this done is probably tighter than I tend to imagine. I think of myself as being on schedule at the moment. This is day 32. After tonight, I will have completed 3 events – just inside my required rate of one every 11¼ days. But that rate makes no allowance for time I may have to spend recovering from any injuries I suffer – and, given my track record, it’s probably safe to assume that I’ll do something to myself at least once a year between now and 2008.

So I’ve revised my schedule a bit. My new goal is to complete one event per week. This is week 5 of 206. Once I’ve thrashed John at table tennis tonight, I will have 201 weeks left in which to complete 125 events. If I manage one a week, that would give me 76 weeks (or just over a year and a half) of injury time – almost as long as Manchester United get to score an equaliser at the end of a home game.

Table Tennis - Men's Singles Preview

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Week 5 (of 206) and I’m switching sports to table tennis in the third leg of what I’m now thinking of as my leisure centre section. Tomorrow night I will face the mighty John Adams in the palatial surroundings of the Peers Sports Centre. As with badminton, I have played a bit of table tennis over the last couple of winters, although I have yet to try out the new scoring/serving system.

Under the old rules, each set was played on a first to 21 points basis, with the serve changing ends after every five points. The new rules feature a shorter set format (first to 11) and the serve now changes ends after every two points. Matches are decided over five sets. If you want more details of the technicalities, check out the BBC’s beginner’s guide to table tennis.

Table tennis was never a demonstration sport in the Olympics. It made its debut as a full medal sport in Seoul in 1988. As I was with badminton, I’m surprised at how relatively recently it was included in the Olympic programme. The current men’s singles Olympic champion is Seung Min Ryu of Korea. He became only the third non-Chinese player to win a medal in the men’s (singles or doubles) events in the game’s Olympic history.

One of the others, Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden, the men’s singles champion in 1992, beaten finalist in 2000 and a semi-finalist in Athens, is a legend of the game. He can wander the streets in Sweden without causing much of a commotion, but he can’t leave his hotel without getting mobbed when he goes to play in China. He is expected to retire after the world championships in Shanghai next year.

Table tennis is one of those games for which a lot of people I know have volunteered their services as an opponent. It seems to inspire a similar wistful look in everyone; a look that suggests memories of playing on holiday, and maybe even winning the campsite competition. Lots of people fancy themselves as being “handy enough” at table tennis, but the truth is that a professional could very quickly make even a decent part-timer look like a total fool.

The general perception is that a high level of fitness isn’t required to play this game. While that may be true, the men and women who play it well are among the fittest athletes on the planet. Neither John nor I quite sneak into that elite class at the moment, but we are fairly evenly matched so we should have a good game.

In other Olympic news – I’d like to offer enormous congratulations to Sascha Kindred, who has been adding to his medal haul in the pool in the Paralympics. He won gold in both the 200m individual medley SM6 and the 100m breaststroke SB7 (setting a new Paralympic record in the latter). He is the world record holder in both events and was defending the titles he won in Sydney four years ago. He also put in a stunning final leg to help Great Britain grab a bronze in the 4 x 50m freestyle (20 points) relay.

I’ve never met him, but his twin brother (Timo) is a good friend and a keen sportsman who will no doubt be featuring in many of the events I have to complete over the next four years.

Double Trouble

Friday, September 24, 2004

Gareth looks on as I take John and Will to task, virtually single handedly.

Badminton – Men’s Doubles – Blackbird Leys Leisure Centre, 23rd September 2004, 7:00PM

I’ve always thought that I prefer individual sports to team events. I was born and raised as a golfer – a sport where being on your own tends to be the rule rather than the biennial exception. I played team sports at school (hockey, rugby, cricket) and I enjoyed them, but I could never understand the people who trained really hard to try and get good at them. What was the point? You could bring yourself to a state of near-perfection to then have all your efforts rendered meaningless when the weakest player dropped the ball in the last minute to cost you the match.

Ask people to name the greatest sports people of all time and they give you boxers, athletes, tennis players, cyclists, swimmers – inevitably Pelé and Best get a mention, but only because they were known as exceptional individuals, rather than good team players. The message I always garnered from that was that to be great, you had to be on your own.

Doubles represents a special kind of team challenge. Blame for failure cannot be easily swallowed up by an entire team – if it wasn’t your partner’s fault, it was yours. There is an unwritten law in doubles of any description that most people adhere to: don’t apologise. The assumption is that you’re trying as hard as you can, and that you’re sorry for any mistakes you make, so no need to spend the whole match saying so.

Last night, Gareth and I took on John and Will in the second event of my Olympic challenge, the badminton men’s doubles. For the first time in many years, I enjoyed playing as part of team. Perhaps it was because I know Gareth well enough to know that he wanted to beat our opposition probably about as much as I did (not through any ill feeling, just because we both hate to lose).

BB King once said in an interview that a big part of living a happy life was not only to help other people, but also to let other people help you. Doubles is a bit like that sometimes – it feels good to play well, but it can also feel good when your partner steps in and supports you when you make a monkey of it all. It also feels good that in the end the result belongs to both of you, no matter who played well and who didn’t.

Doubles in badminton is also fun because you don’t end up feeling like you might die by the end of each game like you do in singles, even though the sports hall was somewhat hotter than would be considered ideal last night.

In the end, perhaps sport is more about sharing than it is about being alone. Perhaps the magic lies in two or more people suddenly working together as though controlled by a single mind. I wouldn’t say that Gareth and I are quite at that level just yet, but we had our moments, and we did manage to sneak a win.

Result of Badminton – Men’s Doubles
Gareth Forber (GBR) & John McClure (GBR)
Will Clapton (GBR) & John Adams (GBR)
15-9, 12-15, 15-2