Sunday, 24 November 2013

Run to the hills

My more avid and/or attentive readers may recall that at the end of each August me and The Lad spend a boys' weekend walking in the Shropshire hills around the towns of Church Stretton and Craven Arms. While we have the same nominal route each year, there's always a minor variation of some variety. When I was thinking about next year's variation, I mused about the possibility of running the route, not as part of one of our weekends, but separately.

It seemed like quite a tough challenge; this year's route was 32 miles with 5000 feet of climbing. The idea to run it took hold properly early in October, when I thought that with a couple of months or so of decent running, I'd have a shot of doing it by maybe the middle of February. But then last weekend two things happened. First, I realised that Mrs M wouldn't be around in mid-February to come and bail me out if anything went wrong. And second, the weather forecast for this weekend looked pretty kind. So I decided to go for it...

...which is why I set my alarm for 5am yesterday, so I could leave by 6, and be down to and parked in Church Stretton by 7.30am, and running by 8. I had no idea how long the run was going to take, and wanted to give myself as many daylight hours as possible. I needn't have worried as it turned out.

I did, however, need to worry about the cold. It was -5c when I left home, and hadn't warmed up at all by the time I started running. Which meant that the ford that's crossed after the first mile wasn't the dribble of tepid water that it is in August, but a gushing cascade of ice cold numbing-ness. Having cold, wet feet that soon into a long run wasn't the best start, but hey ho. A few hundred yards after the ford comes the first of many climbs, but the only one you can't run up - it's a scramble up damp, slippery rocks. The reward, however, was getting to the top of the Long Mynd valley. By the time I got up there the sun was up, everything was still frosty white, there was a pack of wild horses just across the gorse, and the views were sensational - to the right, the Welsh Marches, to the left the Wenlock Hills. And me, just me, no one else. Even the early starters at the Long Mynd Gliding Club hadn't arrived.

Anyway, the run itself was reasonably straightforward. There were some hazards naturally; frozen back roads where staying upright was a challenge; not jumping out of my skin when one of the many shoots that were out yesterday fired a little close for comfort; and the deep squelchy mud on some of the uphill tracks. But I was back in Church Stretton 4 hours 50 mins after leaving, of which I'd spent 4 hrs 18 mins actually running - the Faff Factor was quite high on the run itself, what with needing to eat, photograph and add and remove layers fairly regularly. The vital stats - 28 miles (I removed a couple of this year's walk variations), 4500 feet of ascent, 1 knackered but happy man. The only disappointment was not being able to find a hot pasty, the thought of which kept me going for the last few miles.

Apart from the glory of the route itself, the best thing has been the physical aftereffects - none, apart from a tiny bit of stiffness in my hips. Well I say none - I obviously ate something that didn't agree with me yesterday. I won't add any more detail, other than to say I'm yet to make it back on to solid food.

That, however, hasn't detracted from yesterday - it's the fourth time I've run a marathon distance or more, I did it without a training programme leading up to it, and I'm not crippled today. The star of the show though was the countryside of Shropshire; it was tough, challenging, but beautiful.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

"Hello, I'm on the train..."

This post is devoted to trains. It hasn't got a defining thread; it's neither a moan, nor is it full of praise. It's just observations and experiences, because being on the the things how I spend much of my life at the moment.

I'm not as vitriolic as I might be, and as others might be, partly because t'eldest now works for Network Rail, so it feels like I'm criticising her personally when I take aim at them, and partly because as a bit of a railway geek anyway I've got a modicum of insight into how the things run. Take right now as a case in point. I'm somewhere just south of Birmingham New Street, diverted up this route (along with all other trains tonight to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow) because of a lineside fire near Tamworth. I don't know what caused the fire, but I do know that there's no point being upset at the slow running, because there's a massive bottleneck caused by loads of trains in the same place at the same time. I'm now just hoping - and I think it's guaranteed now - that I'm going to be more than an hour late, so that I can get a healthy refund on my (get this) £197.50 single ticket from London to Macclesfield.

Last week, however, I was upset. I was only trying to travel from Euston to Kings Langley (just north of Watford for all my loyal readers for whom south of Watford Gap [which is not particularly near Watford] is as big a mystery as the moons of Saturn). However, one of London Midland's trains had brought down the overhead power lines at Watford (there it is again), meaning there was only one line running north. But the misinformation we were fed was shocking. Maybe Network Rail have bigger fines to pay to Virgin than London Midland if the former's trains can't run, but Virgin were clearly taking priority, as their trains were running up the slow line rather than London Midland's. And yet....London Midland refused to admit any of their trains were actually cancelled until 45 mins or so after they were supposed to have left.  People stood on Euston concourse for hours trying to get a matter of miles up the road. I gave up, and went back to my hotel to work, but for the poor buggers stood stranded in the concrete hell of Euston, it must have been a massively frustrating waste of time. Simply because one train company - for reasons best known to themselves, but I'm sure the labyrinthine nature of the post-privatisation legal agreements between Network Rail and the TOCs had something to do with it - wouldn't admit they couldn't run any trains.

By contrast, a brief journey yesterday on First Great Western from Reading to London was comical. The train was packed, and I ended up at one end of the buffet car next to half a dozen early middle aged women (I think I called them yummy mummies on Twitter, but on reflection that was being a bit generous to them; tummy mummies might have been more accurate). Anyway, they spoke what my old mum would call "far back". Conversation ranged from their sons' and daughters' 'exeats' (public school-speak for day off), through this winter's skiing destinations, to - genuinely - the size of their Agas ("mine's got 16 burners, and an oven you could roast an elephant in!" [or words to that effect]). And all this was done in the 105-110 decibel range that only completely self-awareness-free posh people, and drunks, can manage). Brilliant entertainment, you couldn't parody the rich and privileged better if you tried; it made up for not being able to sit down.

And partly made up for being nearly half an hour late into Reading earlier in the day, which was attributed to, I quote, "extreme weather conditions". It had rained for a couple of hours. Come on Cross Country, if that was extreme, I'd love to hear your description of what went on in the Philippines recently.

Anyway, I'm knackered in a way that then even Virgin first class can't remedy. Night, all.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

An occupational hazard

So I'm back to spending more time in London than anywhere else now. It's a little strange, being back as a consultant at the place I worked for more than 20 years. The single worst thing, to be honest, is not being able to recall the names of people I met in passing during that time, but who nevertheless greet me like a re-captured prisoner-of-war ("You made it out! How did you do it? What's it like on the outside?"). And the best thing is being reminded almost daily of the reasons why I left; the bureaucracy, the inertia, the posturing and the position-taking.

At least being there regularly means it's possible to create something like a routine - same hotel, Tube journeys, and even now somewhere to run - the inner and outer roads around Regent's Park. They're a bit flat, and a bit busier than I'm used to, but for central London, they're not bad; better than a sweaty gym, that's for sure.

However, when a weekend morning dawns light and bright, as it did on both Saturday and Sunday last weekend, it feels like the time for real exercise has arrived, regardless of whether you're actually in good enough condition to cope with it. For example, last Saturday, my ambition was just to run for two hours, to get in what counts as an endurance session when you're on your legs (as opposed to being on wheels, where two hours is only just about worth pulling on the lycra for). I did the two hours more or less to the minute, but I spent most of them going uphill or downhill, getting 3000 feet of climbing in, over the course of just under 14 miles.

By the time I got home I was beat. However, the house move has meant that there are, erm, one or two things to do at the weekends, and I thought retreating to bed for a couple of hours would be a surefire recipe for incurring the wrath of Mrs Monmardman. So I showered, breakfasted, and kept going. By late afternoon I felt like death, and even Mrs M observed - unprompted - that "I looked a bit pale". Now that was all fine, I knew that one of our Saturday night curries and a good night's sleep would have me right as rain. However, whereas a decent level of exertion turns me into a bit of a tigger, over-exertion turns me in Victor Meldrew. I grumped away at anything and everything the TV had to offer, from the football results to X Factor. I really don't know why I watch either. In the end I feared that my general misanthropy was going to get me into worse trouble than if I'd sloped off for a liedown earlier in the day. So I went for a liedown. A nine hour one in fact, which sure enough proved restorative for both mental and physical health.

Sunday saw some more running, and critically, some garage sorting. Bicycles have begun to emerge from the general chaos, so I'm hoping to get back in the saddle some time in the next few weeks. Audaxes have been entered, plans are beginning to be made for 2014. In the meantime, I'll keep running round Regent's Park to try to be in something approaching reasonable condition for them.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Plus ca change

I don't think I've ever left as big a gap between posts as this and the last. Then again, I haven't moved house since I started doing this blog. So, an update...

Starting with most recent events first, we had a murder locally this week. And not just a domestic violence one of the sort that barely get a mention on the news, a full-on, road closed for two days, two forensics tents up, stabbing and cars screeching away kind of murder. This was 200 metres or so from the old house, 450 from the new. The poor unfortunate turned out to be a local 19 year old, with, it's fair to say, not a wholly unblemished record of adherence to the law of the land. Still, he didn't deserve the fate of being found on a cold wet road with a knife wound, and enduring the last moments of life having his chest pumped by desperate police and paramedics. Someone has been charged with his murder, so no doubt the full story will emerge in due course. It is, however, just not the sort of thing that happens round here, so the locals have found it quite shocking.

I'm not doing much exercise at the moment, through a combination of the rotten weather, the chaos that reins post-moving house, and the related inaccessibility of my bicycles. A few runs here and there, but my fitness is on a bit of a downward trajectory at the moment. I'm not especially bothered; as long as I don't give up entirely I know that I usually come back just before or after Christmas quite enthusiastically. 

Talking of Christmas, the 30th of December is now booked as the date when Mrs M and the cat emigrate, for three months at least anyway. Me and the good lady will drive down to Portsmouth for the ferry across in separate cars, and six days later I shall return home on my own, which will be quite strange. It'll be even more strange now that Ryanair have, annoyingly, decided to stop running the East  Mids to Dinard flight, for the winter months at least. There are plenty of other ways for me to get across to Brittany, but that one was the most time-efficient, and cheapest, so my Channel hops might be a little less frequent.

And so to the house move. We've moved in. But I think the move has only just started. We've lost 23% of the floor space at the old place, and have got stuff everywhere. We've simply got too much furniture, and quite a bit of what we have got isn't the right shape or size. We knew all that before we moved of course, but you still have to figure out the solutions when you move in. The biggest temptation I've got to resist is getting rid of stuff before I've had the chance to live with it. I suspect it's going to take a year or more to get thplace as we want it, and longer than that to fine-tune it to the point where everything runs like clockwork. All that feels like a right hassle, but as I keep telling myself, it's all part of a longer term plan.

Right, my attention has now been diverted away from putting up shelves and emptying boxes for long enough, so I better hasten away back to domestic hell.

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