Not another kit review: an appreciation of the OMM Ultra 15 rucksack

This is just a note to say thank you.

I have never told you how much you mean to me. Until now.

I did not want you at first. All those years ago, when I first saw you – in the flesh, not just in those glossy pictures on the web that I couldn’t stop gazing at – I was not sure. I didn’t know then that I needed you. I went away. I left you. But I never stopped thinking about you. I was young and indecisive. I came back. I realised you were worth it.

You were now mine, and, together, we grew. Continue reading


A lesson for us all

There is something instinctive in human nature for the amateur to celebrate the professional. Radcliffe. Rudisha. Kimetto. We watch in awe as the extraordinary achieve the extraordinary. But there is something more extraordinary than this: the ordinary achieving the extraordinary.

That is not to say that Colin Dear is ordinary. Ordinary humans do not run marathons and ultramarathons. But Colin Dear is no Kimetto. But then Kimetto is no Colin Dear.

On a Friday afternoon, the head of media slipped out of the gates of his Croydon Continue reading

Cutty Sark

Lessons learnt about running in London

After five years of living in London, I am escaping to Edinburgh in July. Escape is the apt verb. I imagine I’ve run around 10,000 miles in just about every London borough. This is what I have learned.

The perception of danger is greater than the reality

And this makes me sad. Rarely have I felt in danger in London: an I-am-going-to-be-stabbed/attacked/mugged-danger. The perception of danger is ever-present, however. Across Tooting Bec Common in the dark? Never. Down the wooded track that is a summer shortcut? No way. You know what might happen. And that’s enough.


Passing runners do not make eye contact Continue reading

Running with the buggy

The art of the buggy runner

I am seconds away from finishing my first London Marathon. I am 18. I have discovered the ambiguity of walls. I am suffering, limping to the finish line. Suddenly, a grey streak passes my right shoulder. I am being overtaken by a Womble. I have no energy to respond. I watch the Womble charge into the distance, arms madly aloft.

Galvanised, I become a better runner, far beyond the reach of Wombles. And so I am embroiled in the final stages of a five-mile pre-Christmas race in Blackpool. Continue reading


Falling back in love with running in London

London and I have fallen out of love. I run along the River Thames, up to Buckingham Palace, through Richmond Park, around the Serpentine and over Tower Bridge. So what, I shrug. It was just a run. Another run. Miles – nothing more.

I have been here too long; I am blinded to the supposed merits – the geography, the history, the culture, the landmarks – of our capital city. I have become over-familiar. I have watched her pick her nose and break wind, eat with her mouth open and snore loudly in bed. London and I are trying to make it work, but our relationship has reached that inexorable stage of stagnation. We tiptoe around a seemingly inevitable destiny: break-up. I am casting envious glances to seductive others: Bristol, Edinburgh, even Inverness. Continue reading

Jonny and Arielle at the Tooting Bec track

The daddy of all compromises: trying to be a father and a runner

The essence of Nick Hornby’s biographical Fever Pitch is that Arsenal is the author’s constant in life. Amid the flux of education, work and relationships, happiness, sadness and indifference, Arsenal and football remain resilient to the vagaries of life. Come what may, for Hornby, it is Arsenal yesterday, Arsenal today and Arsenal tomorrow. The love is timeless and unconditional.

For Hornby, read me. For Arsenal, read running. I have run up clag-shrouded mountains in the western Highlands, pounded pavements in every British village, town and city I have ever visited, persevered non-stop for 19 hours in the hills of the Lake District, jogged 41 miles around a sweltering London in pursuit of the summits of the capital’s inner boroughs, raced horses in mid-Wales, grown dizzy circling a track in Tooting Bec, trudged through the mud of Parliament Hill, become hypothermic at Tough Guy, and been out-sprinted by a Womble in the London Marathon.

There have been life-changing runs. Winning runs. Inspiring runs. Good runs. Mediocre runs. Bad runs. Awful runs. Occasionally – very occasionally – I have felt like the hero in Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: ‘The first and last man on the world.’


Running is my thread, the simplest of sports that links a scrawny 12-year-old boy on a cross country course in Worcestershire to a husband and father on today’s seven-mile run around the better bits of Croydon some 20 years later. I will always run. I will always be a runner. Life will always attempt to intervene, attempt to woo you and I into lethargy. School tried. University tried. Alcohol tried. Jobs tried. Girls tried. Triathlon threatened to seduce me. Injury glowered. The dreaded monster ‘work’ forever looms.

But the thread – at times twisted and stretched, tense and ravelled – endures. And it needs to; the temptation of an easier, different life – a non-running life – is ever-present.

There is something more devastating to the delicate thread of being a lifelong runner, however, than triathlon, injury and work.

A baby.

It happened 19 months ago: six pounds of helpless flesh and bone called Arielle that turned two lives – mine and my wife’s – into bafflement and exhaustion. A baby means you do not sleep. A baby disrupts the rhythm of a life you have spent decades moulding. A baby distorts your judgement.

It distorted mine. I stopped running.

Even at three months, my daughter preferred nocturnal living. One night – a night that was probably no worse than many others, but seems, in hindsight, a psychological turning point – I frantically wrote in a diary: ‘Fatherhood is hard, desperately hard. I struggle for one all-defining adjective as every day the reality is shaped differently. Compromise. That is the great battle of being a parent and a father. Where do your priorities lie? Pre-baby, I ran a lot. Not as much as some, but up to 60 miles per week. There is very little more important than our health. As clichéd as that sounds, you only have to glance across a street, office or train carriage, to realise how many people forget or ignore that. They are fat. They have given up. They are lazy. Yet fatherhood has deeply compromised my sport, my running. I wonder if it will forever. Get your priorities right, some might say. Baby comes first, not an inconsequential trip to the track or a 10-mile tempo. She does, of course, but then other parts of my life do not simply stop because of her existence. No parent should feel guilty about maintaining a sense of independence, should they? Yet I feel guilty for even intimating that my personal pursuits might – for some minutes or hours of a day – be more important than the upbringing of my daughter.’

I re-read the words in the morning, pausing over one sentence: ‘Other parts of my life do not simply stop because of her existence.’

I resumed running.

But I was a different brand of runner.

Over the previous two years, I had looked to far-flung challenges. After completing a 13-hour Fellsman in Yorkshire and a 19-hour Bob Graham Round in the Lake District within six weeks, I became the fastest person to run the 66-mile Vanguard Way a year later. My running trajectory was seemingly clear: ultramarathons in the South and North Downs, the West Highland Way Race, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.


Not with a baby.

I would run, I decided, but I would be a reasoned runner. A clever, time-savvy runner. A faster runner. That meant no ultramarathons, no trips to the Alps and no 100-mile jaunts through the south of England.

I stopped looking beyond what was on my doorstep and considered what I had at my immediate disposal: an outstanding group of club mates at Herne Hill Harriers, access to one of the most competitive cross country leagues in England, numerous races within 30 minutes of home, countless runs that could start and finish at my front door, a commute to work of eight miles. I live in south London. We have parks and pavements. The hills are modest. I would be a road runner by necessity. I would focus on shorter distance by necessity. Most importantly, I was trying to find time: quality time to train consistently and most effectively.

In doing so, I became a better – for me, that means quicker – runner. I made an agreement with my wife. Tuesday night – for interval training – was mine; Thursday night was hers for whatever she chose. The arrangement was hallowed. I would get up early with the baby on Sundays while she had a lie-in; she would take over and I would run. The rest I would fit in when I could.


Jonny and Arielle at the Tooting Bec track

Running with the buggy

In 2006, I quit my job to spend three months cycling and walking some 5000 miles around the UK, climbing the 92 traditional county summits, from Inverness-shire’s Ben Nevis to Huntingdonshire’s Boring Field. It was my obsession, as long self-propelled journeys must become. I would set daily targets: to climb the highest point in Derbyshire and cycle 50 miles, for instance. If I failed to meet the objective, I would almost be reduced to tears, torn apart by my frustration at failing to meet an arbitrary goal that meant nothing to anyone but me – even if weather, illness or bad luck had been the cause.

Heights of Madness map

I would adopt the better part of this philosophy to running, I decided. Not the obsessional lunacy of run at all costs, but a logical, rational assumption upon beginning a new day: today I will run. Once you have emotionally committed to this idea, made it possible and probable, time is found because time has to be found. I would run to work or run home, rather than taking train and tram. I would escape at lunchtime or – being a teacher – during a free period. I bought a running buggy; now my wife and I could run at the same time. (I once used the buggy to run up the zigzags of Box Hill). I would get up early. I would go to bed late. I told myself that there were two forms of tiredness: being tired from life’s demands and being tired from running. My energy to run came from a different source, I convinced myself. I would always find the required energy. I would never be too tired. I built a rigid, virtually unshakeable schedule into my week: Monday recovery, Tuesday intervals, Wednesday easy, Thursday hills, Friday easy, Saturday race or threshold, Sunday long. I became more efficient at everything as a result: I marked by books faster; I planned lessons more quickly; I answered emails with greater alacrity.

Such was the rigidity of training and life – aided by the dismissal of apathy and procrastination – I could run around 55 miles per week. I lowered my 10k time to 34.19, my 5k time to 16.28. I raced on the track for the first time in 15 years. I was not a bad father. I was a father who recognised his existence was not exchanged at birth with his daughter’s.

And so the thread stretches into a third decade. I can see it coiling ahead of me, up more mountains, along more pavement, around more parks. Although I cannot see the end, I glimpse a knot a little closer, another test to the strength of the thread.

Baby number two.

It will be hard. But I will find a way.


Ten ways to find more time to run

  • Run commute. – You have got to go to work; you have got to get there. Kill the time you may have spent driving, on buses, trains or trams by running. The run commute can be recovery miles, a longer midweek run, a tempo or threshold session or include a series of hill repetitions.
  • Be ready to run. – Have running kit, shoes, a watch and whatever else you need – money, refreshment and so on – ready to go. I would have missed evening training sessions on numerous occasions had I not previously set out kit.
  • Do not procrastinate. – Do not worry about the weather, where you are going to go or whether you are adequately fed and watered. Just run.
  • Do not use the ‘too tired’ excuse. – Life is tiring, even more so with children. You will feel less tired after running.
  • Buy a running buggy. – They are not cheap and they are bulky, but they guarantee you time outside. The cost alone will make you feel guilty about not using it.
  • Be more efficient at everything. – If you need to find time for family and running, make time by being more efficient. Take a shorter lunch break, avoid time-wasting and become faster at mundane, everyday tasks.
  • Establish a routine. – Humans are creatures of habit. Make running an indelible part of your daily routine. You will run today. It is as simple as that. You find time for other things. Why not running?
  • Compromise. – Ensure your partner is explicitly aware of your running plans. I train on Tuesday nights. That is the law in my household. My wife goes out on Thursdays. I unfalteringly abide by her law.
  • Combine racing with a family outing. – This, of course, depends on a number of variables – not least the mood of your loved ones and the length of the race – but why not plan a day out around a race in a notable location or a weekend away at a European marathon destination?
  • Remember, nothing is more important that your health and wellbeing. – There should be no guilt attached to exercising. Running stops you becoming that fat oaf sitting at home watching hours of television and stuffing his face with fast food. You are a runner; you are different.


This article was first published in Men’s Running.


Cross country: 1999


Mr Hamflett was a tall, angular man. He was old and bald. I would never be as old as him. I would never be bald. He had the look of a runner: lean, lithe and long-limbed. If he could run a mile in under four minutes or a marathon in two-and-a-half hours, I would not have known. Teachers were one-dimensional beings, their lives beginning and ending at the school gates. He was a maths teacher who took us running and of whom I was scared. He was nothing greater than that.

Our nickname for Mr Hamflett was no more thoughtful or cruel than the man’s first name, Keith. But rather than use our own voices when uttering ‘Keith’, we spent childish hours honing a brittle, nasal tone, trying to imitate Mr Hamflett, and sought to exaggerate, to perfect the voice. Continue reading


The unpredictable art of running blogging

I have been blogging for some years. I was a writer and journalist first. My original purpose was to support the publication of my first book, Heights of Madness, and my second and third books thereafter. Over time, graduated into a running blog – a blog that last week pleasingly surpassed 50,000 visits. Writing permits self-expression, reflection and can be a carthotic process, but writers also write to be read. As I tell my students, writing is meant to be read. Writing must have an audience. Writing must provoke a response.

What is always surprising, however, is what people want to read and what becomes popular. Every blogger will empathise with the time you spent hours crafting the apparently perfect blog, adorned with beautiful images and scrupulously edited, only for very few people to engage with your masterpiece. And then there is the blog that you knocked into shape in 10 minutes while on the bus or the train from somewhere to somewhere that racks up hundreds of visits.

What I have learnt about blogging, particularly in the overcrowded market of running blogging, is that if you don’t shout, no-one will listen. The most successful blog posts – and I certainly don’t mean the best written, most interesting or most entertaining – stem from exposure, be it on social media or the traditional media. The cream does not always rise to the top.

To mark 50,000 visits for and in the spirit of if-you-don’t-blow-your-own-trumpet-you-don’t-get-anywhere these are my most visited blog posts.

1. ‘I was there…’ Marking 125 years of Herne Hill Harriers


2. ‘Do you want beans with that?’ A tribute to Stan Allen

Stan Allen

3. Bob Graham Round – SUCCESS!


4. Overcoming adversity and adverse conditions at the Box Hill fell race

 Box Hill village

5. Mont Ventoux

The north side of Ventoux

6. Beachy Head Marathon 2011 – race report

Beachy Head

7. The Bob Graham Round as seen from the water-carrier’s corner


8. The madness of the ultra-distance runner


9. Isle of Jura Fell Race

The finish

10. Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014



A sprain in the ankle

A stop-start 2013 has stopped again. I have sprained the right ankle of a troublesome right leg. A physiotherapist delivered the verdict. He looked at me in horror when I told him I would probably be running if I was not seeing him – 72 hours after the twist. It is a second degree sprain, he said. After going over on the ankle in mile 6 of a trail half-marathon that I subsequently finished, the joint swelled to impressive, bulbous proportions. Following the inevitable feeling-sorry-for-myself stage, I now feel fortunate. I have rolled my ankle numerous times when running on my own in the fells or mountains, and once memorably in the Rough Bounds of Knoydart. I was, in hindsight, extraordinarily vulnerable; a twisted ankle there would be potentially disastrous. For the worst ankle roll of my running life to happen in the sanitised environment of a marshalled race is, therefore, a stroke of luck.

I do not know when I will run again. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe not for a fortnight. The fluctuations of 2013 convince me that I should perhaps err on the side of caution.



Wild swimming in the River Findhorn

There is a place where the River Findhorn and the Davoch Burn meet, a wild place where soldiers of Scottish legend once battled. Here the churning gorge of Randolph ‘s Leap is a whisper on the breeze. A beach of shingle drops sharply into the confluence. I am ankle-deep. A step. Now thigh-deep. The water – water that once fell as rain or perhaps snow in the high Monadhliath – grasps at my legs, strangers to its previously unbroken flow. A sharp breath and I’m in and under, and suddenly breathless. I swim from the Irn Bru of the Davoch Burn into black, unknown depths, and roll onto my back. I swim again, into the whisky of the Findhorn. The water shallows and I can no longer swim. Dragging hands over slimy rocks, I reach the far bank. I have crossed a river. I shuffle and swim back to the river’s centre, guarded by a boulder. I scramble up and jump into the deeper, fast-flowing water on the other side. I swim, a lusty front crawl, against the current, the outflow of the Davoch. The fight cannot be won; the river’s will is unceasing. Knowing it is time to go, I emerge. Waist-deep. A step. Ankle-deep. And out, back on shingle, wondering which is the greater part of the wild swim: the wild or the swim?



DIY physiotherapy for the fed-up and injured

I have struggled with injury since completing the Vanguard Way in mid-June. My succumbing to injury was all the more frustrating as I recall thinking on the final miles of 68 what a relief it was to be ‘intact’. Tired and fading, but intact. Or not, as it turned out. A ball of tightness gathered behind my right knee in the following days. I rested. No change. I ran a little. No change. A fortnight rolled by. I visited a physio who diagnosed an issue with the gastrocnemius, a muscle I had never heard of. She advised stretching. I stretched. No change. I tried running again. No change. I hoped to wake up one day with the pain gone. That would not happen. Suddenly, the meat of July was on me. The Scottish hill races I had noted expectantly on my calendar months earlier came and went. A second physio visit followed. A new problem, apparently, had emerged. The popliteal fosso. More foreign words. Light running and stretching, she recommended. I stretched like I have never stretched before. I almost became bendy. I touched my toes. Running? No change. What is the point in touching your toes if you cannot run?

Fed-up. Frustrated. Exasperated. Desperate times, desperate measures. In a hotel room in Gairloch – surrounded by hills I could not run up – I appointed myself physiotherapist. Self-diagnosis (and subsequent treatment) is like cutting your own hair. Such action may seem the best idea you have ever had at the time, only to end in disaster and humiliation. I proceeded nonetheless. I examined my calf, feeling for discomfort. I found some on the inside back of my left leg below the knee. I pushed, poked and prodded until the muscle felt bruised. I found pressure points and squeezed. Was this the troublesome gastrocnemius? Who knows? The tightness behind the knee was loosening and the self-inflicted pain was cartharsis. That was all that mattered.

The next day I ran: 21 minutes and three miles in one direction, 18-and-a-half minutes and three miles in the other. Was I cured? No, of course not, but I felt immeasurably better. Was the improvement physical and the result of my crude handiwork? Or was it psychological? Had taking ownership of the problem, not simply waiting and seeing, not relying on the actions of a physiotherapist (a real one) made the difference? Who knows? Pummelling my calf with a pair of thumbs seems to have had an effect. I can only hope that DIY physio does not come back to haunt me like a bad haircut.


Stretching is bad for your health

I dabbled with proper mountain running when I lived in Scotland. Ben Nevis, Paps of Jura, Goatfell, Loch Lochy. That sort of thing. One of my strongest memories of this period was the Slioch hill race, a 12-mile dash up and down a Munro and its top. It is brutal: two to three (or four) hours of punishment. The fellows preparing for the race lined up idly and when the time came to depart, it appeared the only muscle the throng had stretched was their tongues. We ran. Up, along, down. We survived.

Stretching? What need is there for such a triviality?

Stretching is bad for you. Stretching antagonises. Stretching makes the stretcher dwell, even obsess, on that blighted area of injury. You lie awake thinking, thinking, thinking about that godforsaken body part. Your dark, lonely thoughts magnify the tweak into an I’ll-never-run-again disaster. The policy of quietly ignoring a niggle or ache should not be underestimated.

Yet, here I am nursing an irritating niggle behind a knee. The advice, inevitably? Stretch.

This is easier said than done. Stretching is harder than running. I would rather run for an hour in the rain, in the cold, in the dark, than stretch for an hour in the warm and comfortable.

But, it seems the one hour run in the rain, cold and dark will not happen without the one hour of stretching. I am two weeks into an eight-week holiday – sorry, I am a teacher – and I run the risk of losing a summer of running if I do not stretch and rest.

Only an idiot would persist with running.

Unfortunately, I am that idiot.