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.