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Why running?

Richmond Park, London
Running has dominated my life, as readers of this blog and people who know me, will attest.  It is a passion, and maybe an obsession and addiction.  I believe people need to have a passion or passions to get the most out of life, but those passions vary widely.  It's hard to know how much is determined by nature versus nurture, or maybe just accident.  I think nature and nurture both play a role in the kind people we are and the things that appeal to and captivate us, but that much of our lives is determined by accidents or coincidences.  We encounter people, opportunities and things, often unexpectedly, that change our lives.

Schoolboys Cross-Country Race in Richmond Park (1967)
I have pondered what set me on the road to being a passionate (some might say obsessed) runner.  If I had to pick one thing, I would say 'size' - absolute and relative.  As a child, I enjoyed team sports, and was reasonably good at them, but I was a late developer and by my mid-teens didn't have the physical mass to hold my own in rugby, nor the height to be a good fast bowler in cricket.  Though still in the school teams for each, it was becoming apparent to me that I wasn't going to keep my place in senior teams.  Relative size was also important, because about this time my (20-month) younger brother caught me in height and not only started beating me at tennis, but was also an excellent rugby and cricket player.  I was losing the battle in the sibling rivalry stakes, and as many siblings do, I looked for something else where I might distinguish myself.

Tiffin Boys Grammar School
I was attending Tiffin Boys Grammar School in the London suburb of Kingston-on-Thames at the time (my father had been posted to London for three years with his job) and cross-country running was a school sport.  It was mostly inhabited by those not interested in team sports, and it was noticeable that when the annual school cross-country race came around, it was always someone from one of the rugby teams who won, not a member of the cross-country team.  It was a 'poor relation' sport, but that made it easier to excel and I had a number of friends on the team.  I even won a race once against another school's team, but was certainly not outstanding.  Many of our school races were in the nearby Richmond Park, a seemingly vast expanse of grassland, hills, small woods and many trails, and I came to love the place.

Running on the Tiffin Boys
Grammar School playing
field in 1967
As an incentive to train, there was a club within the school called the All Weather Running Club, looked after by my Chemistry teacher.  The goal of club members was to run from the school to the gates of Richmond Park and back, every Tuesday and Thursday night after school during the autumn and winter terms, regardless of the weather.  It was only a two-mile roundtrip, but for fifteen and sixteen year olds to do it voluntarily through frequently foul weather and in winter darkness, without missing a scheduled night, was significant and a source of pride.  I began to think of myself as a tough and accomplished runner, despite a lack of competitive success.

Around this time, at my initiative, a friend from the team and I rode our bikes up to the gates of Richmond Park one Saturday and then ran non-stop right around the perimeter paths of the Park, about 12 kilometres.  This seemed an incredible distance to us, our families and our friends, and gave me the kind of recognition and self-esteem I craved as an under-sized teenager.  Soon afterwards, I returned to Australia and continued my running career at Melbourne High School and Monash University where more encounters and coincidences further grew my passion for running.

My right knee was very sore overnight, and the right Achilles was stiff and sore this morning, but I expected that after yesterday's long run on fire-trails.  I haven't had a day off for a while so was happy just to walk gently for 5km this morning around the local streets.  The Achilles hurt a little while walking, but not enough for me to think running tomorrow will be a problem.  I feel a sense of optimism after yesterday's run that I'm on my way back.  It's hard to explain what has changed, and I have to be careful not to get too enthused.  My doctor has told me in the past that I have borderline low white and red blood cell counts, and it almost feels like the oxygen carrying capacity of my blood has suddenly improved in the past week.  No drugs are involved, so I have to assume that I've been ailing with something that has now passed.  Of course, this diagnosis is not based on anything other than a gut feeling, and may be wildly off the mark.  The next few weeks will tell.

Ferny Creek 21

A very wintry Ferny Creek
Another Sunday, and another Sunday long run.  While tackling The Orchard 32km Run this morning (see previous Post), my thoughts went back to the premier Sunday long run of my running career, the Ferny Creek 21 (Mile), which I ran for many years in my 20s and 30s.

Apparently the Ferny Creek runs started in the early 1960s with Ron Clarke, Trevor Vincent and other notable runners meeting at a café at Ferny Creek on a Sunday morning for their weekly long run.  The Dandenong Ranges, where Ferny Creek is situated, lie about 30 kilometres east of Melbourne, and consist of a mix of mountains, towering mountain ash forests, lush fern gullies, quiet back roads and walking tracks.

By the time I joined the group in the late 1960s, there were often 30 runners or more, and I soon graduated from the short 14 Mile, to the longer, 21 Mile, as my marathoning career began.  The Ferny Creek 21 had a lot going for it in my mind.  It was through ideal running country, the standard was very high, and it was an opportunity to rub shoulders with, and test yourself against, the best runners of the day.  There were sections of road and trail, sometimes in parallel (offering a choice), and there were famous (amongst the running fraternity) hills.

The top of Aeroplane Hill
The first was Two Mile Hill, reached after four miles, where the social chatter abruptly stopped.  The hill wasn't that steep, but climbed 400 feet in two miles, and could be run at speed.  In all the years I ran the Two Mile Hill, I don't think I ever reached the top first, even at my fittest.  It seemed that some runners considered it their main race of the week, while others, such as Rob De Castella, Chris Wardlaw and Gerard Barrett, were just too good.  At the top there was a ritual urination stop while waiting for the stragglers before the run continued in a more competitive mode.

The second famous hill, Aeroplane Hill, came after fourteen miles.  It wasn't so long, but was very steep.  It was preceded by a few foothills that were significant in themselves, and I can remember introducing a club-mate to Aeroplane Hill by telling him that the "foothills" were actually Aeroplane Hill.  He was feeling very pleased with himself until he came round a bend to be confronted by the real Aeroplane Hill and his eyes nearly bugged out.

There were still more hills, including through the beautiful Sherbrooke Forest, before the final mile and a half of gradual downhill running back to the café.  The café produced excellent milkshakes and most runners adjourned there after the run to discuss the morning's times and the previous day's races.

Sherbrooke Forest
Sadly, in the early 1980s, restrictions were placed on runners in Sherbrooke Forest for (unproven) ecological reasons, and the 21 Mile course had to be modified a little. Runners still meet at Ferny Creek to run on Sundays, and whenever I'm in Melbourne, and fit, I try to get up there to run the course for old times sake.  These days, if I break 3 hours, I'm doing well.  My best time, from memory, was 2:07 run with Gerard Barrett and Rob De Castella one Sunday in the early 1980s.  Those were the days.

This morning's run went much better than I had anticipated.  My legs weren't too tired from yesterday's 10km race, and seemed to cope with the early hills comfortably.  Having a couple of mates to run and chat with helped the kilometres to pass, though there was little talking on the return trip.  My knee and Achilles were sore, but manageable, and a fall at one point yielded some minor cuts and abrasions.  I kept waiting for the wheels to come off in the last 12km, but managed to maintain a good pace and finished in 2:54, very tired, but not shattered.  That's more than 15 minutes faster than a month ago so is reason for cautious optimism that I'm returning to some form.

Who's up and who's down

Down - walking dejectedly away from the
finish of the 1982 Montreal Marathon
(46th, 2:29, "possibly my worst
performance ever") where I struggled
with an Achilles problem and the effects
of anti-inflammatories
I didn't get time to warm up much this morning for the Terrigal Trotters Flat (mis-named) 10km Time Trial, so started slowly and nursed my sore Achilles and knee through the early kilometres.  Consistent with the feeling I've had this week that I have somehow "bottomed out" in my running, I felt I was moving better and running more strongly than for the past month or so.  Nevertheless, I lack race fitness and stamina, flagged on the hills and found the last half hard.  My time of 44:52 was about what I had expected, though I had feared it might be worse as I slowed during the second half.
The monthly Time Trial is always a good bench-marking event, though you can't get too excited about who you beat and who beats you.  This is because nobody is at their peak or nadir all of the time.  There were runners in front of me this morning who I might have hoped to beat if fit.  At other times, when I was running well, they would have had the same thoughts about me.  Running and fitness is cyclical, maybe because of illness or injury, or maybe because of work or family commitments.  For some runners, staleness becomes an issue, training and racing become chores, and they seem to lose their "mojo" for a period of time.

Down - dealing with a serious lower
back injury in the early 1980s that
 cost a lot of running time
At a race like today's it is possible to identify people at all stages of the cycle.  You feel pleased for those on the upswing or at their peak, and sad for those whose performances are sub-par for some reason.  Within Trotters, it's great to see some people running very well at the moment who have struggled for the past year or longer.  They are loving that sense of capability and potential that comes with race fitness and are relishing the opportunity to compete in events denied to them in the last couple of years.  I feel very happy for them, but also want to tell them not to overdo it and to savour this period when everything is going well.

Up - running well and centre picture in the first
Melbourne Marathon in 1978 (2nd, 2:23)
Then there are others struggling to keep running with injuries or illness, or maybe just resigned to walking until they feel better.  At this stage it's easy for them to feel depressed and dispirited.  Every runner knows (and most non-runners don't) the frustration that accompanies the inability to run regularly for whatever reason.  Continuing to associate, socially, with those who are running regularly can make the pain even more exquisite, though those same people are also best equipped to empathise.  I feel sad for those who are struggling, but also want to tell them that their time at the top of the cycle will come again if they have patience, that they should use their downtime wisely, and that, believe it or not, there are more important things in life than running.

Sleep

Late night dinner in the western Queensland town of
Cloncurry while trying to break the round Australia
record in 2007
The problem with Thursdays is, that after getting up early to supervise the 6:00am Terrigal Trotters track session at The Haven, I eat late and get to bed late after supervising the 6:00pm track session at Adcock Park in Gosford.  (I'm not complaining about the track sessions.  I find them rewarding and it's a way for me to pay back with a bit of volunteering after a working career during which my volunteering was minimal.)

As I get older, it seems I like my sleep more.  If golf is scheduled for early Friday morning, as it often is, I get very tired and start to dread the early starts that follow on Saturday and Sunday.

Crossing the Atherton Tableland in the Northern Territory
during the 2008 attempt to break the round Australia record

I'm sure that all serious runners think about the amount of sleep they get and regret that they don't get more.  Earlier in my running career, I envied the full-time athletes who had nothing to do all day but train and sleep and figured this could be a key factor in their success.  I also used to get stressed if I could not get a good night's sleep before a big race.

However, as I have aged, my views on sleep have become more relaxed.  I now don't worry if I get insufficient sleep the night before a big race.  Instead, I try and get a few good nights' sleep in the week before and just take what I can get the night before.  Often you are sleeping in a strange place or maybe sharing accommodation and subject to the night routine of others.  Despite a lack of sleep, I have found the adrenalin, excitement and atmosphere of race day is enough to get you up mentally for the race.  The last thing you need to be worrying about is a sleepless night.  Once the race starts, you tend to forget all about it.

Taking a break in the Northern Territory during the 2009
attempt to break the round Australia record
The other thing I have learned is that I can survive on a lot less sleep than I would like.  During my working career, I averaged a little over six hours per night, but functioned fine so long as I was doing something.  If I sat still in a presentation or lecture, or on a plane, I was prone to go to sleep, but if I kept working I was fine.  The real sleep test for me came during my three failed attempts to break the record for riding a bike solo and unsupported around Australia.  I soon learned that success was as much a function of being able to operate on little sleep as it was on cycling prowess.  Almost all nights were limited to four to five hours sleep, with 1:00am starts, 300 kilometre days, and occasional brief cat-naps during the day if I became too tired to continue.  I was amazed at what my body could do if tested, though if you consider the privations of, say, soldiers in the trenches during the First World War, my efforts were modest.

The lesson for me about sleep is that you should get as much as you can, but not sweat it if you run short.  So long as you are motivated, you can keep going on minimal sleep.

Not wanting to leave today's run until after the morning golf game, I got myself up at 4:30am and squeezed in a slow 5km around Copa in the early morning half light.  My right Achilles was quite painful and my pace was slow, but I do feel I'm moving more freely.  It's the monthly Terrigal Trotters 10km Time Trial tomorrow, and I would like to run a reasonable time, but am trying to avoid any expectations.  I feel that my overall fitness is at about 75% of where I would like to be, and this is unlikely to translate into a good 10km time.

Hidden treasures

Trails atop Kincumba Mountain
Summer has come early to the NSW Central Coast, and it was even warm for the Thursday morning track group going through their paces at 6:00am at the Terrigal Haven.  By the time I headed out for my run around 7:00am it was warm and sunny, but not oppressive.  After the easy recovery day yesterday, I hoped to run about 15km today, and since I was car-less after the track session (Sharon attended the session and drove my car home), I picked a course that included some nice trail and avoided some of the busiest peak hour roads.

Looking east over Avoca Beach from Kincumba Mountain
My route was up and over Kincumba Mountain, one of the hidden jewels in our area.  I suspect that there are people who drive around the base of Kincumba Mountain for much of their lives without ever venturing into the 700 hectare reserve, and they don't know what they are missing.  Atop the mountain, you could be hundreds of kilometres from suburbia. It's far enough from the roads to avoid traffic noise and the only sounds tend to be those of the birdlife.  The climbs on the trails through the forest up the 200m high mountain are steep, but runnable, while the top is almost plateau-like with some nice long flattish fire-trails where you can stride out.  But perhaps the best thing of all about Kincumba Mountain is that you can frequently run right across, as I did this morning, and not see another person.  You feel that you have the whole place to yourself, a precious pleasure amid the hubbub of the Central Coast.  And, to those in the know - mostly runners, mountain bikers and hikers - there are other mountains around the Central Coast where you can enjoy the same solitude.

My right knee was very sore during the run, but I tried to tread carefully and avoid stress on the inside where the pain is greatest.  I suspect I also have some bone bruising at the top of the tibia, but that's a layman's diagnosis based on previous MRI's and the prevailing pain at the time.  On the positive side, my Achilles tendon wasn't too bad and for the last 5km, when I came down from the mountain and ran along the roads with more reliable footing, I felt like I was moving well, and with some stamina for a change.  It's probable that the reduced pain in the Achilles was allowing me a longer stride length and better running form.  Whatever the reason, the beautiful run over Kincumba Mountain followed by a good stride out along the road back to McMasters Beach, made for a great morning session.  It was good to be alive.

Technology

Gloucester, NSW
I don't own a GPS watch as used by many runners these days.  It's not that I have a philosophical objection to them, it's just that they look a bit bulky and don't meet any of my current running needs.  I do, however, like to use MapMyRun for plotting routes and measuring distances, and wish it had been available 30 or 40 years ago.  In my earlier running career, distances were calculated using street directories, rulers, paper and pencil, and measuring a long run was a big exercise, especially if the roads weren't straight.  These days it's relatively easy to measure a course pre- or post-run on my computer and save the information for another day.

Another great advantage of MapMyRun and Google Maps is being able to work out a running course in an unfamiliar area.  In years gone by, when on extended touring trips in Europe and North America, many of my daily training runs consisted of running out along a main road for 20 or 30 minutes, turning around and then running back the same way.  If the main road was busy or lacked a shoulder, the run could be unpleasant.  Nevertheless, when you're in a strange town and don't have detailed maps, it's not always a good idea just to set out along a side road in the hope you'll be able to find a safe loop of the desired distance.  Often on these minor roads you can encounter unrestrained territorial dogs, or perhaps find yourself unexpectedly on private property or at a dead end.  Maybe you just get uncomfortably stared at by folks unused to the sight of a runner on their back road.  Of course, these things can happen even if you know where you are going, but at least the maps, satellite views and photography can give you a better idea of the roads, distances, settlements and terrain.

Oops!  There's supposed to be a bridge here
This morning, after the long run yesterday, I was looking for an easy 10km running route from our motel in the small town of Gloucester that didn't involve running out of town along the main road.  Using MapMyRun, I worked out a loop of 9km that kept to the local back streets and minor roads of the town and set off at a very easy pace, with my Achilles tendon and knee both still painful from yesterday's run.  After about 3km, I went to turn right along a street on my planned route to find a dead end.  Alas, Google Maps and MapMyRun showed a bridge crossing a small creek on the edge of town where no bridge existed.  I could see the gravel road I planned to run along on the other side of the creek, but would have had to wade across to get there.  I abbreviated my run to 7km following a few other minor roads and didn't encounter any dogs or banjo players.  So much for technology! 

Barrington Tops

Sharon tackling one of the obstacles on
the Link Track
Being in the Barrington Tops area for a couple of days, I just had to search out a nice long trail run for Sharon and me to do today.  Neither of us is in great form at present.  My problems have been documented ad nauseam in this blog and Sharon has been making a slow comeback from shin stress fractures.

The route we chose was the Link Track that connects the Gloucester Tops to Barrington Tops via a forested ridge, a 34km out-and-back trip, starting at about 1300m and climbing to about 1500m at the Carey's Peak turnaround.  It was forecast to be a warm day, so the idea of running at altitude had some appeal.  It was also quite windy, so that helped keep us cool as well.

The track wasn't that hilly, but was narrow and technical in many parts.  The terrain varied from glades of Antarctic beech to more tussocky open alpine forest.  We had the place to ourselves and saw no-one at all, despite it being school vacation time.

Beautiful trail running on the Link Track
It turned into a run of two halves, with me leading on the way out, waiting at the top of hills for Sharon to catch up, taking pictures, and walking the more significant hills.  Sadly it was quite hazy at Carey's Peak, so the views were restricted, but it was still impressive.  I started to feel very achy and sleepy as we began the return trip and soon it was Sharon waiting for me on the hills and taking the photographs.  The further I went the more liberal became my interpretation of what was a hill, and therefore walkable.

With a few kilometres to go, I caught Sharon making hand signals at a distance to indicate the presence of a snake on the track and I got a good picture.  From there, I pretty much walked all the way back to the car, feeling absolutely exhausted.

Some wildlife on the Link Track
I shouldn't feel this bad, so will write it off to remnants of the illness I had on the weekend.  By contrast, Sharon was very happy with her run, being easily the longest she has done for some time.

On the plus side for me, my Achilles pain wasn't too bad and the knee bearable during the run.  Neither seems to be worse post-run, but I did kick a rock or stump during the second half of the run and felt sharp pain in the right arch that was giving me problems a couple of months ago.  Hopefully, it will be fine.

Despite my exhaustion, I count myself lucky to have been able run/walk through such an environment, and will relish the memory.  I think the Australian bush is in my DNA and I always feel right at home there.  Despite going quite slowly, we essentially completed what is supposed to be a two-day hike in just 5.5 hours.  Trail running gives you many more options in wild country.

A sedentary life

Golfing with Sharon at Gloucester, NSW
Another warm day on the Central Coast, so it was a sweaty 10km round my usual "garbage" run course.  I didn't feel too bad, though the right Achilles tendon and knee remain painful. It was almost another enjoyable run.....two in a row.....but I flagged a bit near the top of the hills.  Nevertheless, it was a good, if easy, training run and my time was a respectable 54 minutes for this course.

Sharon and I headed off for a few days away in the Barrington Tops region after my run and we played a game of golf in the afternoon.  My Achilles was sore walking round the course, and I wondered about the wisdom of playing.  It's often a dilemma for a serious runner, whether or not to participate in other recreations that could cause or aggravate running injuries.  I think that when you are younger, you can get away with it, but as you get older the risks increase.

Some of my serious running friends are tradesmen and I admire the way they can run after a day's work when they must already be physically tired.  If they get injured, they have to soldier on at their work regardless, or the bills don't get paid.  I've always thought that unless you are good enough to be a professional athlete, a sedentary job is preferable to one involving physical labour, or being on your feet all day, if you are serious about your running.  I consider myself fortunate to have had sedentary jobs during my running career, and I still spend a lot of each day at my desk.  I don't have any statistics to support this contention, just my personal preference for recovering from, or preparing for, running training sitting at a desk than physically labouring.

Having said that, I have known some serious and accomplished runners whose work involves physical labouring.  Maybe that builds a core strength and toughness missing from us desk wallahs.

Glimmers

Terrigal Trotters preparing to leave Yarramalong for
Somersby along the Great North Walk trail
After a late night ensuring all of the Terrigal Trotters finished the 28km Yarramalong to Somersby trail run safely, I didn't get to bed until about 12:30am, still feeling a bit under the weather but happy that the runners, especially those new to night running, seemed to have enjoyed the experience.  It's always nice to organise an event that attracts interest and goes off well, but it's even more rewarding to see people willing to explore outside of their comfort zone and finish knowing they have accomplished something that would intimidate others.

McMasters Fire Trail
I slept in and woke feeling better than yesterday, but left going for a run until late morning on a beautiful warm and sunny spring day.  Having missed the trails last night I decided to run one of my favourite local 10km runs that incorporates McMasters Fire-Trail with some nice bush, though also some challenging hills.

This morning's run finished around Cockrone Lagoon
The further I ran, the better I felt and the more confident I was that whatever ailed me yesterday has passed.  The climbs were tough, but I didn't push it, and the trail sections were magic.  On the flat and downhill sections, I actually felt I was moving freely for a change, despite still nursing my right knee and taking care not to over-stretch the right Achilles tendon.  Of course my weekly mileage is down, so I should be feeling fresher, but the contrast to how I felt yesterday was stark.  Maybe there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel I have been running through for the past couple of months.  It's certainly nice to have a run that is almost 100% enjoyable for a change, but I'm not getting carried away just yet.

Nevertheless, it gives me hope that perseverance will yield results and that I should keep trying to run as often as possible, even when it is a grind.  I'm a believer in "use it or lose it" and once you start lowering your expectations, the outcome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Additionally, it's sometimes easy to forget that although the hour of exercise each day might be hard work, painful, and not particularly enjoyable, the consequent well-being and quality of life bestowed on the other 23 hours of the day are a more-than-adequate reward.

Some kind of bug

Terrigal Trotters tackle the Hastings Road
hill during this morning's run
(courtesy: Adam Couchman)
Not much forward progress today, nor much to write about.  I had a sleepless night and woke with a headache, nausea and tired legs.  Hoping that the usual large mug of black coffee would give me a boost, I headed down to Terrigal Trotters for the Fragrant Garden-Erina Valley 11km run, one of my favourites on a beautiful Spring morning.  A slow 1.5km warm-up jog did not improve my sense of well-being, so I started the run cautiously hoping I would feel better later on, but I never did.

My legs were heavy all the way up the Terrigal Drive hill and I was well back in the field thinking I might end up walking at any moment.  I did walk up some of the later steeper hills and was, unusually, one of the last runners back to Terrigal, although I'm starting to wonder whether I should get used to it.  No doubt I have some kind of bug, and in a few days will feel better, but it's hard not to get depressed.

To top it off, I was planning to run, slowly, our first Trotters night trail run tonight - 28km from Yarramalong to Somersby - but that now seems very unwise.  I will still go, as the organiser, but it will be hard watching the 25 runners head off for a night of adventure.  Instead, I will drive to a few access points just to make sure everything's OK.

Yellowstone

A hiker on the Howard Eaton Trail in Yellowstone
National Park, Wyoming, USA
Whenever I see anything about Yellowstone National Park on the television, or discuss the animal perils of trail-running, I think back to a run I did in the famed Park in the early 1990s.  It's a run that doesn't reflect that well on me, I'm afraid.
We were on a multi-week camping trip with another young Australian family from St Louis, where we were living at the time, and had driven our small Recreation Vehicles (RVs) across the mid-west to Yellowstone.  Andrew, the father in the other family, was an enthusiastic, if occasional, runner and was keen to join me on some of the runs I planned during the trip.  As usual, I spent a lot of time scanning maps looking for interesting places to run, and had spied the Howard Eaton Trail that ran from near our campground at the Canyon Village to a place called Fishing Bridge.  There was a picnic area at the latter and we arranged for our families to drive there and meet us for lunch.  The total running distance was going to be about 25km, which was going to be a challenge for Andrew. 

The Howard Eaton Trail route in Yellowstone
National Park
The trail followed the valley of the Yellowstone River so wasn't particularly difficult, but it did pass through known habitats of grizzly bears and bison.  While I don't go looking for trouble, I'm willing to take calculated risks if I deem the rewards worthwhile, and am fatalistic about the outcome if the worst happens.  We had seen bison roaming in our campsites, and though of intimidating size and appearance, they didn't seem to be particularly aggressive.  We had also seen a grizzly from the road, and they are of even more intimidating size and appearance.  We were caught in a "bear jam" at the time and it was amusing to watch all of the mothers suddenly hustling their children back into their cars when the grizzly we had all got out to observe and photograph turned in our direction.

A bison in Yellowstone National Park
The early kilometres of our run to the trailhead from the campground and along the trail were easy going and we ran at a good pace.  As we got further into the run, our trail crossed a pasture where we could see a herd of bison grazing.  The nearer we got, the more they began to pay attention to us, until they were all quietly watching our approach.  One, in particular, had our attention as it was standing right on the trail.  Our distance closed to less than 100 metres and still the bison did not move.  I was in the lead and telling Andrew I was sure that the bison was playing a game of bluff and would get off the trail (the only alternative seemed to be retracing our steps, and I wasn't keen to do that).  With less than 50 metres between us, the bison put his head down and started snorting and pawing the ground with his right foot, and I started to doubt the wisdom of trying to call his bluff.  I kept running and the distance closed to 25 metres.  Suddenly the bison snorted, lifted his head, and bolted away from the trail.  I think our collective exhaled breaths were nearly as loud as the bison's snort and we continued on powered by adrenalin.

A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park
After about 15 kilometres, as we entered a dense pine forest, Andrew's pace flagged and I waited a number of times for him to catch up.  This caused him some embarrassment and he soon suggested I go on ahead.  I was selfishly frustrated at the pace and accepted his offer, taking off through the forest.  Of course, this was the area where we were most likely to meet a grizzly, and any such meeting was likely to end badly.  After a short while, feeling very alone and with all my senses on high alert, I began to wonder whether we might have been wiser to stick together in case of an ursine encounter, but I was reluctant to stop running and kept going.  About 30 minutes later I emerged from the forest and met our families in the picnic ground as planned.  Another 30 minutes passed, still no Andrew, and I started to feel guilty.  After another 15 minutes, visions of a grizzly munching on Andrew began to take shape in our minds.  The guilt finally got to me and I started jogging back along the trail, but had only gone a short distance before meeting Andrew, still happily all in one piece, but exhausted.  He had barely run at all after I left him and the last 10km had taken well over two hours.

My run today was a flat and slow 7km across the sandbar, through McMasters Beach, and return.  I tried some new shoes, but my right Achilles was still sore and my right knee needed nursing the whole way.  However, I didn't force the pace and tried to enjoy the beautiful warm and sunny morning, telling myself that I was lucky to be running at all.

Central Park

Central Park, New York
I was joking with the members of the Terrigal Trotters track group this morning about how the session, which involved striding the straights and jogging the bends of the grass track, was the antidote to the "garbage" runs we do most of the time - the runs we generally do from home, around a regular course and at no specific place, just to maintain fitness.  My own run, following the track session, was truly garbage.  I started slow and finished no faster, coughing and hawking the whole way, and never feeling like a runner.  It's hard to believe, that four months ago, I was hopeful of being in sub-3 hour marathon shape about now.  I seem to be regressing rather than progressing.

Training in Central Park, New York
(courtesy, Robert Caplin for the New York Times)
Turning my mind to happier running times and more inspiring garbage runs, perhaps the best known garbage run in the world is around New York City's Central Park, a run I came to know and love over 16 years of business trips to New York, sometimes for extended periods.  There are other places to run in New York, principally along the Hudson and East River waterfronts, but none comes close to Central Park for interest and challenge.  I soon learned to book myself into hotels and apartments convenient to the Park if at all possible on trips to the Big Apple.  In the late 80s, the seedy Days Inn on W57th Street, a couple of blocks from the Park, was a frequent stopover.  It certainly established my budget-conscious credentials with my colleagues, and the rooms all reeked of cigarette smoke, but the clientele was often exotic and it was common to find the lobby full of ballet dancers from the collapsing Soviet Union (it was also close to the Lincoln Center) or nefarious-looking tanned and bejewelled foreign businessmen.  I also spent a lot of time at the mid-town Club Quarters, a business hotel ten blocks south of the park, and for a three-month period, had an apartment close to Times Square and the theatre district.  Of course, I didn't go and see a single show during that period.

Sharon running in Central Park, New York,
during our Christmas 2009 visit
Even the runs to and from Central Park in the early mornings along the broad and quiet 5th, 6th or 7th Avenues, dodging the hose spray from janitors cleaning the sidewalks beneath the towering skyscrapers, were a time to stretch out and appreciate life's blessings.  Once at Central Park, you would become one of an ever-increasing throng of runners joining the merry-go-round from surrounding streets and apartment blocks.  Most runners travelled anti-clockwise on the largely traffic-free loop road, but not all ran the big loop which took you right up to the edge of Harlem.  Some preferred flat laps of the reservoir which provided great views of the city skyline, while others had their own shorter loops utilising some of the cross-roads and paths.  I liked the full 10km lap around the outer road.  It incorporated some good hills, long straight stretches and plenty of greenery.  You could hear and occasionally glimpse the busy city traffic on the roads adjacent to the Park, but it was relatively peaceful inside the Park unless you strayed a little wide from the pedestrian lane and got shouted at by one of the cyclists who looped the Park at speed.  There were literally hundreds of runners circling the Park in the peak morning hours, and if you were feeling good, you always had somebody up ahead to catch and pass at impressive speed.

The runners exemplified New Yorkers and included some strange sights.  I remember one guy who always ran in shorts and bare-chested, even when the temperature was well below freezing (his chest was very red on those days), as well as a variety of incredibly well-muscled Atlases and Amazons.  Others always looked immaculate in the latest gear whilst a few looked like they had been sleeping in the Park before their run.

I never had a bad experience running in Central Park, though I do vividly remember one morning when I ran there at 4:00am because of an early flight out, and found myself the only runner there.  I could see shadowy figures in places by the side of the road in several places and ended up running down the very middle of the road, adrenalin pumping, ready to make a speedy escape in any direction if necessary.  Nothing happened.  I would love to still be able to run some laps of Central Park on a regular basis, but opportunities are few and far between these days.

Strategising

Crossing Austria as part of my 2012 Via Alpina hike
I did manage to run 5km this morning, but I felt slow and heavy-legged.  I took care to minimise the strain on my injured right knee and it survived the distance without getting worse, but my right Achilles tendon was sore and I didn't feel like I was moving well.  With an Achilles tendon injury, my body subconsciously responds to the pain signals by shortening my stride length and avoiding pushing off too hard from that leg.  The consequence is an inefficient gait, more effort to run at the same speed, and premature fatigue.

Crossing a river on the Old Telegraph Track in Far North
Queensland during my ride between the southernmost and
northernmost tips of the Australian mainland in 2006
Even accounting for the Achilles and knee problems, running has been a chore of late.  Apart from a very modest performance at the Woodford to Glenbrook 25km a few weeks ago, satisfying runs have been scarce for three months.  It's enough to make me wonder whether I need some kind of circuit breaker, a period where my body can get back on an even keel.  In the last ten years, such a circuit breaker has been provided by the annual hiking or biking adventures I have been lucky enough to enjoy in retirement.  In almost every case, I have finished the adventure feeling fit, strong, refreshed and ready to resume my running career.  Maybe it's been one of the reasons my running career has lasted through these last ten years.

My intention had been to dedicate myself to running the best marathon I possibly could in the period up until mid-2014, but I'm worried that my right Achilles tendon injury might be a show-stopper.  My favourite medico, Dr Jon, is away for a few weeks, but when he gets back, I intend to find out whether surgery is needed.  My expectation is that I have a calcification on the heel which is inflaming the tendon and will need to be removed.  An MRI will tell the tale.  If surgery is required, then it will almost certainly involve a lengthy rehabilitation period and the shelving of any short-to-medium term running ambitions.  It may be the right time to embark on another hiking expedition, once ankle function has been regained, and I'll be looking at the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States and the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand (see Downtime post) as primary candidates.

For the time being, however, I'll soldier on as best I can, hoping that something turns up, and continue the blog.

Outclassed

Peter Norman finishing second in the 200m Final
in the 1968 Mexico Olympics
Amongst the early highlights of my running career were the occasional encounters with world class athletes.  In a previous post, Brushes with fame, I wrote about crossing paths with New Zealand greats, John Walker and Rod Dixon.  Much earlier, in April 1970, at the age of 19, I had the thrill of racing against an Olympic Silver Medallist.

It came about at one of the country athletics meetings to which my club-mates and I used to travel in my early running career.  Most of us were still living at home and these meetings, in Victorian country towns such as Horsham, Stawell, Halls Gap, Strathmerton, Myrtleford and Omeo, provided a great reason for us to get away for a weekend.  The usual routine involved driving up late on the Friday night, often after a volleyball game, camping at or near the track, racing on the Saturday afternoon, adjourning to the local pub on Saturday night in the hope of meeting some girls (rarely successful), and a longish run on the Sunday morning before driving home.  Apart from the attraction of a weekend away with our mates, the track meetings were an opportunity to be big fish in a little pond.

A track meeting at Stawell, Victoria, in the early 1970s
They were usually part of an annual town festival, with the track marked out on the local football ground and other events, such as highland dancing competitions and wood-chopping, going on around the perimeter.  We always fancied our chances of coming away with some trophies, but there always seemed to be a local dark horse who showed us our place.  I can't remember why, maybe because of some family connection to the area, but the big attraction for this particular weekend at the Wimmera Athletic Club meeting in Horsham (300km north-west of Melbourne) was to be Peter Norman, who had finished second in the 200m final at the Mexico Olympics just two years earlier.

A track meeting at Myrtleford, Victoria, in the early 1970s
Early in the afternoon, I had competed in my primary event, the 880 yards, without distinction, finishing unplaced in 2:06.  After the 880, I discovered that there were still some places available in the 220 yards, an hour or two later.  I suspect that was because only a limited number of local sprinters were willing to be embarrassed by Peter Norman, but this didn't bother me as a brash 19 year old with no sprinting ability.  I booked my place in the race and don't recall where I finished (almost certainly last), but my time of 25.7 would have put me about half-way down the straight when Norman crossed the line.  The only thing I really do remember about the race was that Peter Norman was a chatty down-to-earth guy without a hint of arrogance or pretentiousness.  His speed was awesome.

I walked for about 5km this morning, and found that so long as I concentrated on keeping my right foot aligned with the direction of travel, i.e., not splayed to the side, as is my habit, the pain in my injured right knee was not so bad.  I sense that I may be able to resume limited running tomorrow as long as I keep that right foot pointing forward.  Time will tell.

Isle of Dogs

The Greenwich Foot Tunnel
For a couple of years in the late 1980s, I had begun working for a new employer in London while still living at Chappel in Essex, a little over an hour's drive north east of London.  My new employer had two offices in London where I needed to spend time, one at Watford in north London, and the other in Docklands, a new development on the Isle of Dogs.  The giant Canary Wharf project in Docklands was in financial trouble and the whole development had pretty much stalled at the time.  My memory of the place at the time was of bleak isolated business parks, wintry rain squalls, the wide brown Thames River, empty blocks and vast wastelands.

The old Royal Naval College at Greenwich with Greenwich
Park including the Royal Observatory in the background
Because it was a long commute and prone to traffic chaos in peak hour, I developed the habit of leaving home soon after 5:00am and driving to the office in Docklands from where I would go for my morning run.  Although it was an apparently forbidding place for a run, my regular 10.5km run was full of interest and contrasts that remain clear in my memory.

The early kilometres were across the Isle of Dogs through narrow streets that were a mixture of poorer residential and businesses until I reached a large wasteland that has since been developed into Mudchute Park.  Here I ran along dirt and grass trails across the vast wasteland to reach the new Islands Garden railway station and the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and joined the foot commuters crossing under the Thames.  The Tunnel was a highlight of the run, with a spiral staircase at either end of about 100 steps and the tunnel itself nearly 400 metres long.  I can remember striding out along the tunnel, dodging round pedestrians, and then running up the staircase at the end, taking the steps two at a time and trying to maintain my momentum.

The modern day Isle of Dogs
At the Greenwich end of the Tunnel it was like entering a new world, or maybe old world, characterised by the stately buildings of the old Royal Naval College and Museums, wide pedestrian walkways and the famous Cutty Sark tea clipper dating from 1869.  My route passed by these scenic highlights and entered the famous Greenwich Park, home of the historic Greenwich Observatory.  I ran a lap along the paths inside of the park, which included a significant hill from which there were views north across the Thames, and then returned to the Tunnel and retraced my steps to the office.  There I would quickly have a shower, some toast for breakfast and start my day's work.  Unfortunately, in those days there was only one road route into out of the Isle of Dogs, so to avoid traffic jams I often stayed late at the office, occasionally wondering whether I should just sleep in there overnight to save the commute.

I visited the Isle of Dogs in 2012 while attending the London Olympics, and the place has been completely transformed into a vibrant business centre.

My right knee is still proving difficult to flex quickly and awkward to walk on, so I decided to have another day off training.  I will try walking a few kilometres tomorrow to gauge how much it has improved.

Reptilian encounters

Eastern Tiger snake
The warmer weather in the last month has encouraged the emergence of reptiles in the Australian bush, and there have been a number of sightings by runners along the local trails.  I have never heard of a runner being bitten by a snake, but no doubt the risk exists.

In the 1980s, my then wife and I owned a weekend shack at a place called Labertouche in the foothills of the mountains about an hour's drive east of Melbourne.  The shack could sleep a dozen people or more, in somewhat rustic conditions, and proved to be a great place for serious running training along the nearby fire-trails for us and our friends.  For some reason, in the earlier years of our ownership, there seemed to be a boom in the local snake population and almost every run of an hour or more involved at least one snake encounter, with the most common type being the Tiger snake, known for its aggressive nature.  The snake-spotting instincts I developed have stayed with me and I still analyse all sticks on the trail in front of me for the tell-tale signature of a snake in repose.  For those snake-abundant years, even at the height of summer when I would usually run topless, I always wore very thick long socks to just below my knees to reduce the chances of a successful envenomation, and carried a compressive "snake" bandage in case the worst happened.

Australian goanna
Despite encountering many snakes while running over the years, I have only once been close to a bite and that was when a small group of us, distracted by conversation, ran over a Tiger snake sunning itself on a fire-trail.  The first couple of runners frightened the snake which then reared up and lashed out in different directions as it sought to protect itself and find an escape route.  There were panicked runners leaping and yelling in all directions until the snake made good it's escape into the nearby undergrowth.

Another reptile frequently encountered in the Australian bush which can be scary, but not particularly dangerous, is the goanna.  It can grow up to two metres in length, possesses a nasty looking mouth and claws, and has the unnerving habit of crashing through the undergrowth and rapidly ascending trees when alarmed.  On one occasion, also when running from Labertouche, the fright we received when a startled large goanna raced up a tree was compounded when it lost its grip and crashed the ground just in front of us.  More leaping and yelling runners.

No training for me today; not even a walk.  My knee was quite sore all night and still painful this morning, though not as bad as yesterday.  The tell-tale test for recovery will be the ability to kneel down and then sit back on my haunches.  With this injury, the pain behind the right knee makes sitting back impossible at present.  If I'm lucky, the pain will abate sufficiently in the next few days to allow me to resume jogging.  Unfortunately, I may have to remove the heel raises protecting the sore right Achilles to give the knee more stability.  Everything's connected to everything else.

Best laid plans

I had hoped to be running this trail in the
Australian Alps early next week (photo taken
 on my hike through the Alps in 2011)
Injured again!  Yesterday I was starting to believe that I had resolved my right Achilles problem with the new heel raises, and that I was getting over my bronchial problems.  I was looking forward to a few days down at Thredbo in the Australian Alps early next week, where I planned to run some favourite alpine trails while Sharon and Jack did some skiing on the last of the season's snow.  With just a month to go until the Melbourne Marathon, and less to the shorter Australian Masters Games events prior to the marathon, there seemed to be some chance I could perform respectably, at least.

Some more of my planned running scenery for next week
Now I don't think it will happen.  I started Terrigal Trotters 10.5km North Avoca Lake Run quite conservatively this morning, having warmed up for a few kilometres.  Although I found the whole run hard, particularly the hills, I gradually worked my way through the field.  I never caught the front-runners, and still lack freshness and zest, but at least I ran a lot better than last week.

I wasn't conscious of any particular problems during the run, though my chronic right knee and Achilles injuries were about as worrisome as usual.  The new problem became evident after the run, when a dull pain emerged behind my right knee and proceeded to get worse and worse during the day.  If I sit down for any length of time, the pain is significant as soon as I try straighten the knee and begin walking again.  I have a feeling that it is related to the Baker's Cyst, a fluid sac behind the knee, that can become swollen if the knee is unstable.  It's an injury I have had in the past and the swelling can take a long time to subside (friends have had the fluid in the sac removed via a syringe, but often the problem quickly recurs if the knee is still unstable).


Diagram of the knee showing the location of the
Baker's Cyst, which I believe to be my latest injury
Anyway, given that I am not in peak form nor believe I'm destined to run well in Melbourne, it's easier to be smart and see if the knee settles down rather than plough on with the planned training for this week.  Today was the first time I have run faster in the new heel raises, and my guess is that this slight change in the angles of the lower leg and foot biomechanics has increased the pressure on the knee and affected its stability.  I've only been wearing the heel raises for four days, and my muscles and ligaments have probably not had sufficient time to adapt to the change in the biomechanics, especially if I'm running faster and putting more pressure on all joints.  There's an outside chance that the pain will subside overnight, and I'll be able to run tomorrow, but already in my head I've written off the next month, including the planned races.

Exotic podiums

Finishing the Quebec City 10km Fun Run (5th, 33:50)
while touring Canada in 1985
It was actually drizzling with rain when I jogged a slow 5km round Copa this morning.  It seemed exotic after our long warm dry spell, and may herald a return to more seasonal spring weather, though it stopped shortly after my run.  Although only over a short distance, I was moving more freely this morning, and my right Achilles and arch weren't too painful.  My time was a minute or two slower than I expect to jog round this course when I'm in good shape, so I'm not getting my hopes up.  Tomorrow morning's run with Terrigal Trotters will be more useful in gauging my fitness.

A steady run through the field yielded
a win in the 40+ age group, and 2nd
overall in a trail Half Marathon
while working in Germany
A runner I know has just left for the UK on vacation, and another I know will be visiting there at Christmas.  I was pleased to hear that both are looking to find some races to run while they are away because I know they will savour the experience.  Running some local races adds an extra dimension to any trip.

If you have hopes of a podium finish - open or age-group - there is a frisson of excitement in being the unknown quantity or dark horse in the field, especially in small local races where everybody knows the fast runners.  I have been in races where the fast early starters drop rapidly away and you find yourself in front, others where the pace seems slow and you can't believe how easy it is to get away, and others which became duels to the finish.  I have also been left in the dust by clearly superior athletes.

With the winner of the 60+ age group (I was 2nd) in the
2012 Orange County 10km Santa Run in the US
Depending on the location, the scenery, terrain, smells and culture can feel exotic and stimulating while sometimes the weather can be an experience in itself.  Races draw you to locations and communities that you might not otherwise visit.  Your horizons are broadened, you meet new people and you see different ways of doing things.

I have always sought out races in places I have visited while touring or working over the years and often tweak my schedule to fit them in.  Almost all have been cherished and remembered experiences.  Even now, when I travel on vacation (unless it is a hiking or biking trip) I scan the web calendars and try to work as many runs into the itinerary as possible, always with an eye on those age group podiums.  It doesn't always happen, but when it does you can score nice little trophies to accompany those eye-catching race T-shirts.

September 11th

Pear Tree Point Road, Darien
My legs were very heavy, as I expected they would be, when I set out for this morning's 11.5km run after supervising the Terrigal Trotters track session at The Haven.  I plodded slowly up the early steep hills, with my legs still feeling every metre of yesterday's 30km trail run.  When the course flattened out, I felt a little better, but as soon as I hit the hills again, the fatigue returned.  I was still coughing a lot, but was happy to find that my right Achilles tendon wasn't too bad after yesterday's exertions.  Perhaps a glimmer of light at the end of that particular injury tunnel?

Looking down Long Island Sound from Pear Tree Point
Beach, Darien
As I often do on these tedious runs, I listened to the morning news programs on my radio, and heard a report on yesterday's commemorations in the US of the 12th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  I was working in the New York area on that day, on the top floor of an office tower 30 miles north of the Twin Towers, and the events are etched in my memory.  On a very clear sunny day, we could see the smoke rising from the downtown skyline while we followed events on television, and soon sent our anxious staff home.  My company, which was a major supplier of financial information and systems to Wall Street, had a number of offices near the Twin Towers, and I was a frequent visitor to our offices and clients, including in the doomed Towers.  Sadly, six of our staff died, along with many clients.  I knew a number of people directly affected, including some later honoured for their efforts that day.  Our lives had a shadow hanging over them for many months.  Parents at my children's schools had been lost and forlorn cars in the station car parks along our line gathering dust over the ensuing months.  They were the cars of commuters who never came home.

The New York City skyline was incomplete
after September 11, 2001.
There was a pervasive sense of loss in the community, and it affected us all in many ways, large and small.  One of my favourite runs from my home in Darien, Connecticut, went along the pretty Pear Tree Point Road past Pear Tree Point Beach.  Although they were 35 miles away across Long Island Sound, on a clear day it had been possible to get a glimpse of the Twin Towers from a couple of points along the road, something we enjoyed showing our visitors.  It's trivial in the scheme of things, but for our remaining time in Darien I rarely ran past those points without looking in the direction of Manhattan and experiencing a visceral feeling that something was missing.