Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why I'm not running the marathon

If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re probably familiar with my frequent tweets about running. I was never much of a runner until recently, but in the past year or so, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve become addicted to running.

I aim to do a 20 mile+ run every Sunday, and try to squeeze in a couple of gentle 10km jogs during the week, too.

Almost every time I write something on Twitter after one of my long Sunday runs at least one person will ask if I’m training for a marathon – and if not, why I don’t consider doing one. The answer to the first question is a simple “no”; the answer to the second is a little more complex.

A few years ago, I did consider entering the London Marathon for charity. I told family and friends I was going to enter and then never did. At the time, I think a lack of self-belief that I could ever run that distance was a large factor – but looming equally large over my decision not to enter was the knowledge that people would be watching me run, texting me afterwards to ask how I did, and asking me what my time was. In short – I’d be setting myself up to be judged on how I did in the marathon, and that was enough for me to abandon the plan to run it.

These days, running the marathon distance would be possible. I regularly run 20 miles around the parks and towpaths of East London and occasionally stretch that to a 40km run if I’m feeling particularly energetic or if the mood takes me on a given day. I’d never say running that distance is easy and even though I’ve done it many times, running 20 miles is still a both a physical and mental challenge; that’s not to deny it gets easier then more I do it, though – I just don’t think it will ever be “easy”.

But still, even though I know I could do the distance, the thought of the London Marathon fills me with dread. So if it’s not the distance, what is it? Well the part which fills me with dread is the part which people who’ve run the race tell you will act as an encouragement – it’s the spectacle of the event and the crowds lining the route. Let me explain – or at least try to.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with sport, and a general distaste for anything which involves being watched by other people. I’m sure a psychologist would have plenty to say about incidents in my childhood which may precipitate such things, but let’s just take those as a given for now. Sport in general was always difficult for me. Never a coordinated child, I excelled at all things academic throughout school, but was never the sporty type. I still can’t kick a ball in a straight line or throw a tennis ball with anything other than wild inaccuracy.

Objectively, I’ve never been fat. I’ve carried a few extra pounds at various points in my life, but I’ve never gone above a 34 inch waist. But still, I’ve never been happy with my size and so a few years ago decided that exercise was the solution. My first choice of sport was badminton. I had played a few times socially, but decided to start taking it seriously and played regularly. It was great fun, but in the end I realised I was taking it too seriously and wasn’t really enjoying it anymore, and so my playing fizzled and I’ve not played for a few months now.

Around the same time I started running. Initially I was just running a very short 2km route from home, around Wapping and back home again. It was hard work, but eventually I got to running it without stopping and that felt like an achievement. I got up as far as running 10km around a different loop, and ran that distance regularly. Then one day I decided to try going a bit further until I ran around the loop three times for my first 30k run, earlier this year.

But running around the same loop three times is very boring, and so eventually I decided to try a new route. I walked the route first, as familiarity with the route was important to my self-confidence in running it. Eventually the regular Sunday morning run grew in length until it reached 20 miles – from Wapping up the Lee Valley Navigation and back with a little detour around Victoria Park on the way.
When I’m out running, I get myself into a little world of my own. I put on an mp3 player and turn the volume up loud enough for me to be lost in the music – but not so loud as to drown out the world around me. I focus just on the path ahead, and don’t look sideways as I’m running – quite literally. My route is chosen so that there are as few people around as possible. Most of the other people on the route are cyclists who appear and disappear quickly or other runners as absorbed in their own world as I.

Even if there are people idly sitting by the side of the canal watching everyone as they wander past, if I think they are watching me, I start to feel tense and lose my stride. My usual response is to speed up to be past them as quickly as possible. I know that they aren’t really watching me, but even the feeling that they may be is enough to make me self-conscious and speed past them.

So imagine that feeling multiplied by however many thousand people watch the London Marathon from the sidelines as the runners go past. Whereas many people would see this as an encouragement, to me it would just increase the sense of competition and weaken my confidence in finishing the race with a respectable time.

I could run a marathon if I had an invisibility suit. If nobody could see me do it and I couldn’t hear the crowd at the sidelines. I would wear blinkers and stare straight ahead. I would put on my mp3 player (yes, you are allowed to wear them during a marathon...) and ignore the crowd. I wouldn’t have my name on my shirt for people to shout, and would probably wear sunglasses so that people couldn’t see my eyes. I would aim for a time of between 4 and 4 and a half hours so as to be amongst many other runners who would surround me and hide me from the crowd. And most importantly, I wouldn’t tell anyone I was doing it – that way, nobody would expect to see me and nobody would be looking for me. I would just be another anonymous runner amongst the thousands slowly making my way around 26 miles in the April sunshine.

So there you have it. I’m not going to do a marathon. I’ll happily run the distance and I’m sure I’ll run 26 miles more than once this summer during my Sunday outings – but I’m not going to enter an organised marathon in the foreseeable future.

And when I do eventually enter one, I shalln’t be telling anyone about it before, during or afterwards.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What a week to live in Wapping

It's not every day that you walk out of Waitrose to see a red Range Rover sweep past you and get back home, switch on the news and find out that an embattled Rupert Murdoch was in the car.

I'm no lover of other people's pain. And I'm no lovers of blood sports. But to watch the underdogs of the Guardian and the Indy slowly ripping the jugular out of News International like two enraged and tenacious pitbulls does put a smile on my face.

There is no doubt in my mind that Rebekah Brooks should resign because either she was party to illegal hacking or she should resign through incompetence if she didn't know what was going on. Either way, she certainly shouldn't still in be her job right now.

It would be too easy to sit back and celebrate the demise of the News Of The World. It's certainly true that a world without that horrid rag is a better world than one with it; but there are still other horrors lurking in the British press.

An easy way to see which papers have been involved in illegal hacking is to look at how they have covered it this week. The Guardian and the Indy are going in for the kill. They are so confident that there is nothing lurking in their closets to be discovered by the Met investigation that they have nothing to fear. It took a couple of days before the FT joined in on the act; showing some confidence that they haven't hacked the phones of any murdered schoolgirls.

But look at the coverage in the Daily Mail, The Express, The Daily Star. Even the Daily Mirror has only bring itself to dance on the grave of News International and has not condemned the hacking. It almost makes you wonder whether they are scared that if they shout too loudly, their closet door will creak open and then who knows what will fall out.

As I say, I don't take pleasure in other people's displeasure - but if the Murdochs and the horrible Brooks woman are going down then it would be a mighty shame if the despicable Paul Dacre wasn't also burnt on the same pyre...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why I don't like politics anymore

Over the past few years - and in the past year especially - politics has taken a turn into a direction which leaves me feeling cold.

It's got nothing to do with the particular policy, but it's to do with the quality of the debates and discussions which have been happening.

Whichever party had won the election last year, there would be difficult decisions to make and steering the economy back into growth is not an easy thing to do. So now, more than ever, we could do with some clarify of explanation behind the decisions being made, and more importantly to have the alternative options presented in the form of a reasonable argument rather than partisan ranting.

Take the AV referendum for instance. Both sides of the discussion resorted to rhetoric and soundbites to make their case, rather than presenting a logical argument about why they did (or didn't) believe AV to be a fairer system than first past the post. I would much rather hear an eloquent speech from someone with whom I hearily disagree than a rant from anyone - whether I agree with them or not.

We were told to vote "no to AV" because "The Lib Dems want AV, and we don't like them" or to vote "Yes to AV" to "annoy the Tories". Well no. I'm afraid I won't vote for or against something simply because of who the result will upset - I will vote yes or no for something based on whether I think it's the right thing to do, or not.

Even worse has been the quality of the debate surrounding the cuts being introduced by the government. At the moment, the only opposition to the cuts seems to be vocalised by saying "we don't like cuts". There are very few (thankfully some) voices in the crowd talking about the alternative to the cuts. Very few people talk about how savings could be made elsewhere, or engage in the discussion about how quickly the deficit should be paid back and whether the cuts could be introduced more slowly. Instead, it's finger-pointing and ranting about job losses. The people making incoherent cases are actually doing more to harm the cause than help it.

There are plenty of meaty, interesting and (most crucially) important debates which need to be had at the moment. There should be a sensible and open debate about the strategy to deal with the budget deficit. There should be a rational discussion about whether public sector pension reform is necessary, and if so, how it should be fairly introduced. Instead we have politicians, journalists and other commentators shouting at each other like children in the playground.

The shame is that most - if not all - of the people doing the shouting are actually quite intelligent and would be perfectly capable of putting together a structured and eloquent explanation of why they are supporting or opposing something. But instead, the only way they can secure votes is to come up with childish insults and petty point-scoring soundbites which fit into the space of a tabloid headline.

Of course, the other place where this petty approach to discussion proliferates is on Twitter. I tried a few times to engage in sensible discussion on there, but people who really should know better are all too often tempted to slip into point-scoring and bluntly refusing to engage in what I would describe as an adult conversation.

And that's why - a month or two ago - I un-followed everyone political on Twitter. I used to follow MPs, party members and councillors. I used to follow people of all political parties, whether or not I agree with what they have to say. But eventually it all got too much for me. It felt like I was listening to children in the playground rather than sensible adults.

Politics should be interesting. Democracy is an interesting and deep philosophical concept. But the problem with politics is that it's packed full of politicians fighting for votes rather than leaders fighting for what's right. And that really is a shame.