The Restorative Powers of Cricket

Last night’s run was a bit of a shocker. I’d waited until after seven to head out, partly because I thought I would be a bit cooler by then but I admit it was mostly because I was watching Step Brothers on television. I am supposed to be on holiday after all. It might have been a little cooler but it the air still wrapped itself around me like a hot towel in a barber’s shop as soon as I stepped out of the hotel.

Now, I know that everything in America seems just a little larger than necessary. Portion sizes are generous to the point of profligate in some places. Anne’s pancakes at breakfast yesterday morning were tremendous but even Desperate Dan would have struggled to finish them. Cars are vast. Cities sprawl. Personalities expand to fill even the largest venues. I wouldn’t have thought that something as foreign as a kilometre would also increase in size but it seemed to do just that last night. I set off at what felt like my usual warm-up pace of 5:30 per k down the slope towards Grant Park. I checked my Garmin after I’d been running steadily along the dreadful pavement for a few minutes. The watch said my pace was over 6:30 per k. I didn’t really feel that slow. I know it was hot and I was just jogging along but I thought I was quicker than that.

I tried pushing along a bit but my pace hardly increased at all according to the GPS. In the end, I only got as far as the southern end of the park before I headed back towards the hotel, rather demoralised. My mood lifted hugely when I spotted some young Indian men playing cricket on what appeard to be a completely trashed baseball diamond in the middle of the park. The wicket must have been an utter sod and they seemed to be using a tennis ball instead of a cricket ball. Nevertheless, they were giving it a good go. The bowler was what Blowers would have called “military medium” but the batsmen were having real problems dealing with the uneven bounce. I watched a couple of overs and the ball did everything other than go straight on. It kept down, stopped dead, popped up begging to be hit and the poor man at the crease didn’t know whether it was Thursday or kippers. One finally got some bat on the ball only to see it rocket skywards on a ballistic trajectory over the bowler’s head. He was easily caught by a fielder running in from long on.

Having been cheered by this reminder of home, I found a nice, shady slope of about 60 or 70 metres and did some reduced recovery hill reps. There were two lampposts on it dividing it nicely into thirds. I sprinted to the first, turned and jogged back down, then again sprinted to the second and jogged back to the bottom before a final hard sprint to the top of the slope. I jogged to the bottom again and repeated the drill after three minutes recovery and then again after 60 seconds. I would usually call that one set and do three or four sets. It was still hot, darkness was falling, I was getting increasingly strange looks and I needed to eat so I called it a day and jogged the half mile back to the hotel immediately after the final rep.

I was trying to apply Helen’s efficient running principles during the hill sprints. It wasn’t easy. I try to maintain good form when I’m sprinting. I think about increased cadence, light steps and balance and poise. I had the quick cadence thing but I felt each step quite heavily as I sprinted further up the slope. It was effective but not particularly efficient. I wasn’t going to worry the juniors at the Cambridge track with my abilities but I came home feeling better about the session than I thought I would when nothing was going right for me.

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The Past Is Another Country, They Have Morton’s Foot There

It seems so long ago, it could be another country. It’s not that long ago; it was only Tuesday. It was another country. I’m now sitting on the 24th floor of the Hyatt in Chicago and I very deliberately have my back to the window. It wouldn’t be completely fair to say that I have a fear of heights but only because you would miss an ideal opportunity to say that I am completely petrified of them. The only reason I don’t have the curtains closed is that the room is quite dark enough as it is. We’re not even close to the top of this tower and there is another one, even taller just across the road. The room faces north west and never sees direct sunlight. It’s a vampire’s wet dream. My poor, old laptop needs to be charged more frequently than a fat bloke in a marathon so I can’t take it out and use the WiFi downstairs yet. (28% battery, and climbing!) Here I sit, shivering with the combination of over-powerful air-conditioning and abject terror just to write you a blog post. I should have been a war correspondent. It would have been easier on the nerves.

So, after all that pre-amble…

I went to see Helen Hall on Tuesday so she could help me address the inadequacies of my Morton’s foot. She has a completely brilliant shop in Amersham where she stocks minimal shoes for efficient running and bike frames and where I would spend stupid, stupid amounts of money on shiny things for triathlons were I to forget that I need to pay for sensible things like food and my mortgage. My Dearly Beloved would probably complain – with some justification – were I to bring home a carbon-fibre time trial bike frame when all I went out for was some coaching, assessment and a roll of kinesio tape.

I was sensible enough to turn up dressed and equipped to run. Helen popped me on her treadmill having first checked that I was happy on them. I’m not, not really. I hate them but this was the easiest way for her to assess what was going on with my feet. She had me walk at a very steady pace and watched my feet intently. It was quite strange to have someone pay such close attention to me but that was what I was there for. I forgot the weirdness after a couple of minutes and just go on with the business of walking barefoot on a treadmill without falling off.

Helen began cutting strips of kinesio tape which she placed on the ball of each foot, one layer at a time. She would have me walk at the same steady pace after each strip went on until she was happy with what she saw. She wouldn’t immediately tell me what she was looking for because she didn’t want me to change what I was doing consciously. Instead, she wanted my feet and brain to work together without my conscious self getting in the way. She was happy when we reached six layers of tape on each foot. She said that at that point my little toe touched the ground for the first time. That was enough.

She had me step off the treadmill and walk across the floor of the shop. I did and I was struck by a sudden giddiness. It wasn’t because I’d been on the treadmill for the best part of 25 minutes at this point. Rather it was was because my body position had changed just enough for my balance organs in my ears to pick it up. The feeling only lasted a few moments but it was enough for me to remark on it. Helen then asked if I noticed any other changes. I did. My toes – especially the big toes – were touching the ground on each step now. I hadn’t noticed them do that before, even when I had been walking around in bare feet.

What the six little strips of tape do is very subtly change the way my foot works. Helen says that my foot now has the chance to be a foot: that is to allow the complex of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones to act as shock absorbers and an energy recovery system. They will feed some of the energy they take in on each stride into the next one, if I allow them to work.

Having established that each foot now had the chance to work properly, Helen had me pay attention to my posture. I have to confess that I am a lazy, slouchy excuse for a man. I have read somewhere a Chinese saying that sitting is better than standing, but lying down is bes of all. I would prefer to slump, round-shouldered and hump-backed even over lying down. That is not good enough for Helen. She had me standing up more straightly and walking with my head up, my shoulders back a little and with my weight more on my heels on each step. I should imagine a plumbline down through my body and keep it as straight as possible. I said that I felt about an inch and a half taller just because of paying more attention to my posture as I walked.

She then had me run on the treadmill in the Hattori shoes I brought with me. She gave me even more to think about. She said I should allow my feet to become less rigid by imagining the shoes giving the soles of my feet a massage on every step. She had me exaggerate various parts of my gait to check if I could see any difference in how each move felt to me. I had to allow the angle between the top of my foot and my shin to decrease, or to flick up my heels. Each time she asked me to do something differently, she checked whether I felt a difference. Most of the time I did, but occasionally I could feel no difference at all.

She gave me what an actor would call “notes.” My ankles are very rigid, apparently and my right foot doesn’t pronate at all. My ankles are only hinges and my feet are stiff little levers. It means that my calves end up doing an awful lot of work getting my feet and ankles to move instead of just acting as postural control mechanisms. My bum and thighs do much less work than they should in powering my motion.

It seems that every time I speak to Helen, I have my head completely filled with new things to think about. That is brilliant in some ways but I need to break down what she says into manageable chunks. I am a runner of very little brain so I like to have just one or at most two things to do at once. My body has spent the last forty six years learning to move the way it does and I’m trying to change some of what it likes doing in eight weeks. Well, six and a bit now. I’m off to do The Drill in Grant Park followed by a speed session if the weather ever cools down enough.

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I’m Going To Be A Natural

I’m going to be a blogger for inov-8 and I’m quite excited! They asked for applications on their Facebook page a while back and I applied and then promptly did what I always do and forgot about it. What I should have remembered was this: they wanted people interested in transitioning from cushioned running shoes to less cushioned, more natural-feeling shoes to go through the process with a coach and blog about it. Well, you know me and shoes…

In days gone by, a gentleman needed no more than one pair of black shoes for smart, one pair of brown shoes for casual, sandals for the summer, a stout pair of boots for the country and Wellingtons, puddles, for the jumping in. Sandshoes or jimmies were an optional extra. I have so many pairs of running shoes now that whatever claims I may have had to gentlemanly status have been thrown out. I shall never gain admittance to The Drones. The current list includes but is not necessarily limited to three pairs of road training shoes, one pair of cross-country spikes, one pair of trail shoes, one pair of racing flats, two pairs of silly racing slippers in different colours so I don’t get them mixed up and one pair of trainers which I could use as racers in a pinch. That doesn’t include the cycling shoes I bought with the cleats in the bottom which nearly always come undone from the pedals when I ask them to. They live and perhaps breed in the bottom of my wardrobe. For all I know, they gang up on my sensible work shoes in the dark and call them names. You know how cruel shoes can be. I don’t think they’d take on my DM boots but the brown brogues are sensitive and probably wouldn’t cope well with being bullied.

I might have been on the cheese again. I’ll stop this train of thought before the spikes do anything unseemly with MrsHL’s new Vibrobarefoots.

I have to go to London on Saturday afternoon now for an assessment session. I don’t know what that involves but I’m looking forward to it. Running around, I suppose, under the watchful gaze of Helen Hall. I really hope it’s Helen Hall, the triathlete and running coach and not Helen Hall, the piano teacher who I’m sure is a lovely person in many ways but not necessarily for advice about running.

More on the Saturday session afterwards, of course.

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My Left Foot

I’m on the injury bench again. It’s quite comfy. We have hypoallergenic cushions and buckets of chocolate as big as your head. You’d love it. Or you would if you didn’t have a marathon in October and were facing the loss of three weeks to three months of training.

After last weekend’s Runstock (thank you, David Mould) I was on top of the world. I came through a big weekend of hard miles intact but slightly stiff. I couldn’t find my favourite post-run shoes – K-Swiss Blade Lights – and instead pulled on an old pair of sandals. I wore them for about half an hour and pulled them off when I noticed that a pad was folded over and digging into the instep of my left foot. I couldn’t really walk on my that foot the next day.

I had a couple of days of not running. I had Monday off completely but on Tuesday I went down to the track to catch up with friends at the C&C Tuesday night training session. I wasn’t intending to run at all and hadn’t dressed in running gear or taken a pair of road shoes. I was wearing the kit I’d intended to take to the gym for a core workout including my blue Hattori shoes. At best, I was going to run a stopwatch for the track session and hold some clothes. The road group were heading out for a fartlek in the country with Neil as leader. He asked me to come along with them because it’s the session I’m going to be taking on my own later in the month. I almost said no, but I love the fartlek so I went out in my silly slippers and long gym shorts.

Neil got lost. He took a wrong turning and took us on a small detour. It didn’t matter much in the end. It added about three quarters of a kilometer onto the usual route but everybody got the reps they needed and a little more jog recovery. More to the point, my foot was okay. It had been fine during the day and I’d been a little worried before I set out but I had no problems with it all evening.

I didn’t run again until Friday evening. I missed C&C’s round of the Kevin Henry partly because I was still tired but mostly because I was helping out at the water station at the end. I didn’t want to run another 22:30 5k which was all I thought I’d manage on tired legs. On Friday, I did two long reps of 5 miles each with four minutes recovery with Alan Baldock alongside me on his bike. I was quite tired at 9 miles but I’d been keeping a steady 8:35 to 8:40 per mile. I was comfortable at that pace and was cruising along easily enough. I had another four minutes before starting my final 5 mile rep. Two miles into it, I felt my foot begin to throb and just before the end of the third mile I felt a sharp pain and had to pull up.

My left instep is angrily inflammed now. I’ve been treating it with ibuprofen gel to reduce the pain and inflammation, rest and elevation. I’m going to rest it for the week I’m away in Scotland next week and see a physio when I get back if the current dull ache and reddened appearance hasn’t gone.I might need an x-ray or a scan so if you know a way to blag one of those, please let me know. I’d like to rule out a stress fracture or a serious soft tissue injury.

Whatever happens, I’m withdrawing from the Amsterdam marathon. Every time I try to increase the intensity or duration of my marathon training, I get injured. I don’t think that this is not a training injury but I’m fed up feeling like this. I just don’t think that my body can cope with high-intensity marathon training. All this to break four hours for the first time. It’s just not worth it. Instead, I’m going to transfer my entry to the half marathon and run it if I can. I can take a break from running now, continue my cross-training on the bike and in the pool to maintain my fitness then when I restart my running do a shortish programme on the run-up to Amsterdam in October. That way, I can have a holiday with my friends and enjoy the weekend with the prospect of 13.1 instead of 26.2.

There are other things I can do. I can concentrate on 5k and 10k road races with occasional half marathons just because I like running 13.1 miles and I’d like to see how quickly I can do it. There’s a series called the A1 which is made up of a lot of local races at a variety of distances from 15 miles to 5k. It would be fun to do the whole lot in 2013 and fit in my first triathlon as well at some point. The important thing is that I’m changing the focus of what I do. I just can’t do distance, not now. Maybe I’ll be able to go long again in the future but I just want to keep running, get quicker and enjoy myself. I can do all that much better without the pressure of 26.2 hanging over me all the time.

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