Friday, 21 January 2011

Moving to the Guardian for a while

Writing two blogs - this one and one for the Guardian - as well as a book, and several articles, all on the same thing, is getting a bit too confusing for my poor head. So I'm going to focus my blogging on the Guardian site for the next few months. Every Tuesday a new blog will appear here, so please bookmark the page if you want to keep up with my progress.

Bye for now. I will be back.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Iten: land of a thousand runners

I've started writing a blog on my trip to Kenya for the Guardian. The first piece, written before I left, was put up on the website last week: and the second piece went up today:

Things have been pretty tough over the last few days. We made it to Iten, but finding a house to rent has not been easy. The houses that are available are very basic, but still not cheap when it's a mizungo [white person] wanting to rent them. We think we've agreed to rent a half-built bungalow from a politician. It has all been negotiated through two other people, so it's hard to know exactly what is going on. But one thing is for sure, the politician is not interested in negotiating. He has my main contact running scared at the moment because we dared to say we only wanted the house for two months, instead of the four months we initially mooted.

All the uncertainty has been tough on the children, on top of the constant attention they get and the fairly basic campsite we've been staying in. They keep telling me that they like England better. To give ourselves a little break, until our house is ready - on Friday, we think - we've moved to a more expensive "resort" for a few nights. It has a swimming pool with a waterfall. The loo has a seat. And the beds have lovely, soft, fluffy pillows. It's complete luxury.

As for the running, I've been out for three runs since I left Lewa, two with Kenyans. The pace has been very slow each time, which is allowing me to get used to the altitude, and to test out my sore calf - which feels better. The "barefoot" running style now feels completely natural to me, though I have to admit I've seen plenty of Kenyans running heel first in big Nike running shoes.

The key question, though, before I bin my theory of barefoot running being part of the Kenyan secret, is how do the best Kenyan runners run? There was an incredible cross-country race in Iten at the weekend and I was watching the feet closely. It was only a district race, but the standard of competition was probably higher than the world cross-country championships - there were world championship medalists finishing way down the field. Interestingly, though, nearly all of the top 50 or so athletes in each race were definitely running "barefoot style", or, to put it another way, were not landing heel first when they ran.

I briefly contemplated entering the race, but felt it was too soon. In hindsight, I would have definitely come last, probably by quite a long way. There was one English guy in the race, and I've just discovered he's also writing a blog about training in Kenya. He didn't come last, but he was a long, long way from the front.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Roaring lions and other creatures

Running through the bush in Lewa, without a lion in sight. Photograph: Marietta d'Erlanger
Last night we heard lions roaring as we were walking around outside, flashlights darting across the darkness. We ran to our tents, dived in, zipped up and then lay there listening to the terrifying but incredible sound as they continued to prowl and roar just yards away for the next hour or so.

All the wild animals are making it hard to run right now. We're staying with my sister-in-law, Jophie, and her husband, Alastair, a slow talking bushman who once stopped a charging elephant in its tracks just by roaring at it and waving his arms like a wildman. They live in tents in the bush. It's fairly rustic, but also quite luxurious. They have three staff working for them who keep the place ship-shape and cook lots of lovely food, and the girls get hot water bottles placed in their beds each night.

Just outside their camp is a short 200-metre loop on a dirt track, which Alastair says is relatively safe for running. Because it's open, and near the camp, it's less likely to be the resting place of a rhino, buffalo or lion, he says. Less likely. Not impossible.

Needing to get some running in to test my sore leg, I have been out around the track a couple of times - although after hearing the lions last night I'm not sure I'm brave enough to risk a third run.

The good news is that my calf seems to be better. Although it is still sore to touch, it doesn't complain when I run on it. Jophie organised a masseur from the nearby luxury safari camp to come and give me a massage and I think that helped. Or maybe it was just the altitude that was causing the problem. Either way, I'm now acclimatised and ready to roll. Marietta even shaved my head this morning, ready for battle. All I've got to do now is find me some runners.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Starting and stopping: my first run in Kenya

In my imagination, my first run in Kenya was going to be across wide, open plains, the gazelle and wildebeest absently chewing on the tough, dry grass as I loped by. In the event, it was on a treadmill overlooking a poolside cocktail bar full of lounging diplomats.

After our epic journey out here, we were happy to be booked in as guests at the luxurious Muthaiga Country Club. The famous Nairobi members club, replete with manicured lawns, neatly pressed shirts and colonial swagger, was where Karen Blixen stayed when she first arrived in Nairobi in 1914.

I did attempt to locate some other runners in Nairobi, but there were none to be found. I was told some people ran somewhere on the other side of the city. It would take three hours to get there because of the Nairobi’s chaotic traffic. But there was a gym at the club, with running machines. At least I could start getting used to the altitude.

I put on my running shoes, set the treadmill at a nice slow pace (8-minute miles) and started to jog. As it turned out, it was lucky that I hadn’t journeyed across the city to run with a team of crack Kenyans, as I lasted barely a mile. I was just increasing the pace slightly, beeping the machine up to 7.6-minute miles, when I felt a sharp tightening in my calf. I stopped straight away. After a bit of stretching, I tried jogging again at a slower pace, but it was too sore. I causally backtracked out of the gym, smiling pathetically at the resident fitness instructor. It wasn’t a very impressive start.

Later that evening, someone told me it was probably the altitude. I hoped that was all it was. I really couldn’t afford to be injured already.

A few days later, out in the bush, on a ranch owned by some of my sister-in-law’s relatives, I set off on my second run. This was more like it, I thought, as the plains stretched out before me, a few isolated mountains dotted on the distant horizon.

I followed a dirt road for about a half a mile until I came to some sort of guardhouse at the gate to the ranch. Two men in uniform came out to watch me run by, calling to me in Swahili. I had no idea what they were saying, so I just called back: “Jambo.”

Then my calf went again. I stopped at the side of the road, feeling suddenly vulnerable. Up ahead a man with a cow was stopped, staring at me. Behind, the two guards were still standing there watching. I had no option but to start walking back.

Was it the barefoot running technique that was causing the problems? I really hope not. Yesterday I saw a Samburu tribesman running past – as you do – in full traditional costume. He wore sandals and was clearly landing forefoot first. He was the first Kenyan runner I’ve seen. If they do it, surely I can too?

Next week I’ll be in Iten, the epicentre of Kenyan running. Hopefully they’ll be a few decent physios around.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Waltzing through Heathrow

Whatever the Lewa marathon throws at me at the end of my six months in Kenya, it is hard to imagine it being more challenging than the journey to get out here.

On the Saturday before we left, a tonne of snow fell across England bringing the country to a standstill. We thanked our lucky stars we weren’t flying until Monday.

Come Sunday night, however, all flights from Heathrow were still being cancelled. I went to bed hopeful after hearing that no further snow was forecast and that Heathrow was expecting to be fully operational the next day.

At about 4 o’clock in the morning, my youngest daughter, Uma, came in to my bedroom wanting to do a wee. I stumbled sleepily out of bed, picked up her and then stopped. Outside the window it was snowing a blizzard. The cars, our carriages to the airport, had disappeared under two silent mounds of white. I went back to bed but couldn’t sleep.

At 8am it was still coming down. The road was buried under two feet of fresh snow. We weren’t going anywhere. We wouldn’t even get the cars out of the drive. I tried ringing the airline but the number was constantly engaged. Sitting in the kitchen, endlessly hitting redial, as my children talked excitedly about being on the aeroplane, after all we had done to get to this point, was heartbreaking.

“Let’s just go,” said Marietta. It meant dragging my parents and Marietta’s mum, Betty, who were all giving us lifts, as well as the three children, on a perilous, if not impossible, journey up to Heathrow airport, to sit with 500,000 other demented people wondering how to go about rebooking a flight when the airlines wouldn’t even answer the phone.

There were stories in the press of late-night drunken fights as families tried to sleep on the terminal floor. On Radio 4, Simon Calder said: “It’s grim. But it will only get grimmer.”

It felt as though the whole project was unravelling. All those plans, all that excitement, being slowly buried by the gentle, beautiful snow that just wouldn’t stop.

But my Dad, game for the challenge, was out clearing the drive. Marietta was packing up the last bits and pieces. We had to go. We had a flight to Kenya booked that night. It had cost me £4,000. We couldn’t afford not to try.

The drive to Heathrow was intense. Abandoned lorries littered the carriageways like dead cows in an icy drought; the endless, ominous whiteness lay over everything, contemptuous of our efforts. The radio talked of Heathrow being so full of flightless passengers that police were stopping people entering the terminal buildings. Would they even let us in?

The children were coping amazingly well with all the glum faces and the talk of impending catastrophe, eating Marmite sandwiches and describing to me in intricate detail the way cars fit on a car transporter. I nodded blankly. “Amazing,” I said.

Eventually, despite the slippery roads, we made it to Heathrow. We walked in past long cues of tired people leaning on overloaded trolleys. Marietta went up to the first desk she could find and asked the man if he knew where we could check in. “I’ll check you in now,” he said. Just like that. Ten minutes later we were waving goodbye and waltzing through an almost empty security check into the departure lounge.

It was still not certain whether the flight was going to leave, but it was not listed as cancelled on the board, unlike many others. So we found an empty row of seats by a big window and hunkered down to wait. The hours went by and the flight kept being delayed, but still not cancelled. The uncertainty was sending an aching craziness though my veins. I paced back and forth, occasionally kicking a chair, or gently knocking my knuckles together. To add to our problems, Uma came down with a fever and fell asleep. Lila, the eldest, after some reading and running around, settled down to watch Peppa Pig on the internet.

Little Ossian, meanwhile, was having the time of his life. He drove his toy cars along the endless rows of empty seats. Then he climbed on the seats. He looked out of the window at all the trucks whizzing by with their flashing orange lights. He ran up and down the moving floor. He was in heaven.

Eventually his fun was ended when they finally called our flight. I could feel the tension easing from my limbs as the plane finally, after endless taxiing, lifted off into the sky. Marietta looked at me. We had done it. Somehow, we had actually done it.

That, of course, was just the beginning of our adventure.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

'That's a lovely forefoot style you've got there'

It's now three weeks since I started "barefoot running" - which is running "barefoot style" in "barefoot shoes". Yes, I know, it doesn't make much sense, but if you read my earlier post, hopefully you'll know what I'm talking about.

So, with less than two weeks to go until I touch down in Kenya, how is it going? Today I managed to run two miles and my legs are only mildly aching afterwards. That might not sound great, but it was what I was told to expect. I'm using different muscles and so my legs need time to readjust. Meanwhile, my waist is expanding and I'm obviously losing fitness.

But it's not all bad. A few months ago, before I started with all this barefoot (in shoes) malarky, I went into a running shop to buy some new trainers. I was with a friend who runs, by all accounts, considerably slower than me. The shop assistant got both of us to run on the treadmill and filmed us on his souped-up computer-aided gait analysis machine. He told me that I needed extra support, cushioning and stability because my knees were collapsing in on each stride (pronation, they call it). It was a fairly damning analysis.

My friend got on and jogged for a few seconds before the shop assistant told him he had a perfect running style. Ouch.

Yesterday, I went to a different running shop to buy some racing flats - it's what the Kenyans run in, I'm told. I was nervous about the shop assistants getting me on their treadmill and then telling me I couldn't buy racing flats as I needed more support padding etc etc blardy blah.

I picked out the pair I wanted - the flattest shoes with the least support - and asked if they had them in my size. "Do you pronate?" the man asked me. "Er ... I don't know," I said, wary of lying outright in case he could tell just by the way I walked or something that I did. But it was the wrong answer.

"Hop up on the treadmill and we'll take a look," he said. I considered bolting for the door, but decided against it. Instead I obediently put on my trainers and clambered aboard the treadmill. I wasn't sure if my "barefoot style" was up to a public examination by a gait expert. Would I look completely mad if I tried it? If I didn't, though, he'd tell me I couldn't buy the trainers. I had to give it a go.

The machine whirred slowly into action. Lead with your chest, I told myself. Legs like a unicycle. It started to get faster. Pad, pad, pad. He was crouching down trying to look under my feet. I tried to look casual, like this was my natural running style, not something I was working hard to maintain. He was checking me out from the side now. After about 30 seconds, I hit the stop button and the machine came to a halt.

"You're lucky," he said. "You have a lovely forefoot style. It's the most efficient way to run."

I stepped off the machine and tried to look surprised by the good news. Of course, it had nothing to do with luck. In only three weeks I had gone from having a calamitous style to having a "lovely style". True, I could only maintain it for two miles, but progress was definitely being made.

The experiment continues ...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Struggling around the Drogo 10

Struggling up the last few steps. Photograph: Jiva Finn
About half a mile from the end of the Drogo 10 on Sunday I saw my brother and my daughter standing among the trees cheering me on - my brother grinning and taking a picture of me with his camera. I'd just climbed up one side of the beautiful Teign Valley, a half-mile accent so steep I had to walk most of it. I was running along a rare stretch of flat, looking out across Dartmoor, when the race stewards directed me right and up another short, sharp incline. My legs turned to sand. I could hardly move them, even to walk. My daughter, who is four, looked very concerned.

This was not my kind of race. Too many steep hills. Up one of them, a man in his mid-60s - I'd guess - edged passed me wearing a pair of Nike Free - Nike's barefoot-style trainers. I suddenly felt like I was wearing bricks, especially as my trail running shoes are too big for me and were caked in mud.

I ended up trundling across the finish line in 65th position. In a local race in Devon. What hope does that give me when, in just a few weeks, I turn up at the fastest village on earth?