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.