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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, heightsofmadness.com 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 heightsofmadness.com 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

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

Stan Allen

3. Bob Graham Round – SUCCESS!

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

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5. Mont Ventoux

The north side of Ventoux

6. Beachy Head Marathon 2011 – race report

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

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8. The madness of the ultra-distance runner

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9. Isle of Jura Fell Race

The finish

10. Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014

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@MuirJonny

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Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014

Humans have been running for centuries, devising a variety of odd and generally painful forms of leg-moving activity to keep us active and amused. When running was no longer a necessity for survival, it became a sport. Cross country evolved. We started to run around tracks. On roads. Up mountains. Over fells. Along trails. We got bored. We needed a new challenge. Obstacle racing? Don’t be daft. That’ll never catch on. Let’s race animals! Our Stone Age forefathers chased and hunted animals. Let’s conquer them again – only this time we will outrun them. But what animal? Had this conversation been happening in June 2014 and not June 1980, the landlord of the Neuadd Arms Hotel in Llanwrytd Wells would have pulled out his iPhone, checked he had 3G, and found the Speed of Animals website.

He would have scrolled down the alphabetical list.

‘African bush elephant?’

‘Black mamba?’

‘Coyote?’

‘Galapagos tortoise?’

‘Anything that we’re likely to find in mid-Wales, landlord?’

‘How about a horse? Plenty of those knocking about. Top speed of 54.7mph. Let’s see a runner beat Dobbin. It’s that or sheep…’

And then they all had a good laugh and ordered another round. Yet what could have been a we-were-so-drunk-last-night-we-talked-about-humans-racing-horses drinking story became the birth of the Man v Horse race.

(Or that’s the way I like to think it might have happened).

Fast forward 35 years and the 35th annual running of Man V Horse, the horses should have been quaking in their hooves. The top-end of the running race was strong. There was the great Huw Lobb, one of only two men to beat the horse in the 35 years of Man v Horse. Next to him was John Macfarlane, a runner who was around 30 seconds from beating the winning horse in 2008. Further back stood Jon Albon, the UK’s foremost obstacle racer who was fresh from winning the Welsh 1000m Peaks Race. And then there was probably the most famous athlete to grace the streets of this little Welsh town: four times Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington.

The runners departed first; the horses some 15 minutes later. Events were entirely predictable: Lobb led the way, Macfarlane was in pursuit, Albon was working his way through the pack. Wellington had probably been hoping she could have warmed up with a swim and a 100-mile bicycle ride. The course was a marvel, alternating between moorland trods and sweeping forestry tracks, but always going up or down. It demanded the poise of a fell runner, the speed of a road racer and the endurance of a marathoner. I was happily running in about seventh place (including relay runners, presumably), having overtaken Macfarlane, and was chasing down an athlete in a Blackheath and Bromley vest. (The race was awash with London-based club runners). It was not until about nine miles into the run, high on the moors, that a horse swept past, then another a couple of minutes later.

For miles I saw no other competitor. I had left the Blackheath vest behind. No horses came by. No other runners. I ran as hard as I could, revelling in the blissful tunnel vision that comes with racing. My race burst into life again at 16 miles. Looking up, at the top of a winding track, were two runners, the first I’d seen in an hour. One wore blue; one wore black and white. Behind me were two horses, the same two that had already passed and had presumably been held up by vets. The horses would catch me long before I would catch the runners. We congregated on a steep section of rough forestry track. I passed the runner in the black and white Pontypridd vest first; he had started to walk. Seconds later, I drifted by the runner in blue. I glanced to my left. It was Huw Lobb. The last time Lobb and I had been in the same race, unbeknown to both of us, he had beaten me by five minutes in a 10k road race.

I did not hang around to chat or dwell on this turn of events. Working hard to the top of the hill, then flying down a smoother section of track, I gazed back to see I had already taken out at least 300 metres on Lobb. Running is not a sport you can fluke. Events within a race may transpire to be fortunate, but a runner is not lucky. The best will out. That is why only a runner will appreciate the significance of overtaking Lobb – or someone like Lobb – and the burden it then carries. I am a good club runner who was having a good race; I am not Huw Lobb with a marathon best of 2.14.

The race thereafter resumed its oddly lonely feel. No-one in front. No-one behind. No horses. This wasn’t a bad thing. It was not until mile 22 – when the route awfully climbs through a sloping field of long grass – that any further horses would overtake. I saw runners too, but they were stick men several minutes back. The objective now was to break three hours – albeit not a marathon three hours, but a 23.6 miles three hours. Once back on road, I assumed I’d stay on road, only to be directed down a track to another river crossing, the widest and deepest of the race. I was touching the far bank when I slipped backwards into the water, and then laboured, dripping wet, up a rise to meet the road again. I could hear the finish, smell the finish, but I could not see it. At last, with seconds fading and legs flailing, I was directed onto a field and very quickly across a grassy finish line, half a minute better than three hours.

Horse power had won for the 33rd time in 35 years, with Jeff Allen’s Leo (2.23) overcoming Jon Albon’s legs (2.42). It wasn’t even close. The results take some puzzling over. I was 14th. Remove nine horses and one relay team, and I was fourth, ahead of 30 horses. Even so, the combined efforts of Albon, Lobb (whose shoe fell apart some miles from the finish to add to his misery), Macfarlane, Wellington (who finished in 3.07) and the rest of us could not vanquish the best of the horses. If I can be profound after my earlier sarcasm, I would venture that it will not hurt for humans to be put in their place and reminded – in the literal and metaphorical form of the horse – of the raw power wielded by nature. We are meant to lose.

Results here.

@MuirJonny

Start

Started

Horse

Jonny Rick

Race report: Beachy Head Marathon 2013

I was standing at the finish line of the Beachy Head Marathon yesterday afternoon, discussing with other runners the merits of Richard Moore’s book on the 100m final at the 1988 Olympics, The Dirtiest Race in History. As the conversation fell quiet, I thought (and I appreciate this is a gross generalisation): what can we trust about professional sport? Elite competition can be driven by money, commercialism and the sad spectre of drugs. What can we – the watching, trusting public – believe? And then I turned back to the Beachy Head Marathon, the stream of runners parading down the finishing slope before meeting the road and launching into a sprint finish. It was a little American at times: occasional whooping, arms above heads and fathers plucking baffled children to carry across the line. They deserved their moment in the limelight, nonetheless. They had endured 26 miles of the South Downs, ascending and descending some 4000ft, with the vast majority run into the teeth of a very determined westerly wind. This I could believe in: these 1,000-plus brave souls running for nothing but pride and achievement. Long live amateurism! This is what I can trust; this I can always believe in.

Countless times as I was running yesterday, I asked myself not why I was doing this, but why I was pushing myself so hard to do what I was doing. I would finish fourth in three hours, eight minutes, 47 seconds. What difference would fifth or sixth place make, or even 100th? Why try so hard for something that has no material reward? There is no prize money at Beachy Head. There are no trophies for winners. There are no team awards. Financially, I made a big loss on Saturday. But – as I ran over those Downs and Sisters – nothing mattered more to me than finishing this race as fast as physically possible, as fast as my preparation would allow. My headmaster calls it ‘flow’ – when an individual is so focused on the moment that external distractions cease to matter.

Sometimes when I asked myself the why-I-am-pushing-myself-so-hard question, I did not have an answer. Those were my lowest points. Mostly, I had a reply ready. Because Stuart Mills is behind me and I will not, cannot let him pass. Because of the adrenaline rush that comes from running fast. Because of the insistence of my watch to bring a 7.01 split to 6.59 before the mile is out. Because I desperately want to reach the end – and the faster I run, the faster I get to that hallowed finish. Because I do not want to think I wasted time training: the long runs, the tempos, the speedwork, the hills, the recoveries. And, perhaps most importantly, because I want to be better; to be as good as I can be. That does not happen without making the required effort at the required moment. There lies the spirit of amateurism: the common bond between every athlete that finished the Beachy Head Marathon yesterday, from Jeff Pyrah, who won the race in a stunningly-fast (given the conditions) two hours, 55 minutes, to a woman called Emma Alexander who was out there for nine hours, nine minutes. Nine hours! Presumably, Jeff and Emma were striving to be as good as they can be.

This year’s race was unrelenting, not only because of the hills, but because of that wind. What was the speed of it – 30mph? There was simply no chance to recover on the downhills or flat stretches of the course. Having reached Bo Peep car park in fifth, what could have been a glorious cruise into Litlington became an almighty battle with the gusts. There were two or three runners in close pursuit at half-way, but upon reaching Litlington, I realised I had created a gap of at least a minute on sixth. It was my reward for perseverance. By the time I began the ascent of the first Sister, I finally glimpsed a runner behind, descending to Cuckmere Haven. It was, unmistakably, Stuart Mills. I ploughed on, counting the Sisters off, not giving them give too much respect, not even contemplating walking. I caught a Tunbridge runner who had been locating fourth. He was walking uphill. I mumbled words of encouragement as I skipped by. He did not respond. I did not blame him. I would have hated me at that point.

Coming up Beachy Head, the wind, so long a nemesis, became a friend, putting a hand on my back. I had only to keep running with a semblance of pace and co-ordination to secure fourth. As I crested the summit, a spectator commented on my apparent freshness and ease. ‘You’re fourth,’ they enthused. I did not have sufficient energy (or time) to point out that I had been on the exhilaratingly terrifying edge of exertion for 15 miles. It was then – about seven minutes later – an absolute delight to simply finish. And then I watched them come in, hundreds of them, cheered home like heroes. I suppose that is what they were. Dads, mums, people who had not slept the night before, the overworked, the underpaid, the over-stressed, the under-trained. Normal people. All somehow finding time amid the melee of just existing in this life to train for and run the Beachy Head Marathon. Once again, long live amateurism!

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@MuirJonny

Beachy Head Marathon 2013 preview – the runners and riders

It is the annual Stuart Mills Processional Marathon on Saturday. Excuse my facetiousness, I mean the Beachy Head Marathon. For many years, the rollercoaster race along the South Downs Way and over the Seven Sisters was the most predictable in England. Mills dominated, winning seven times in nine years. Not last year, though. Rob Harley, Mills’ University of Brighton contemporary, took the crown, with Mills a runner-up. Imagine the water cooler small talk on the Monday after.

‘Stu, mate, about Saturday…’

‘You know the deal, Rob. The Stuart Mills Processional Marathon. What part of that don’t you get?’

‘Stu?’

‘You’re dead to me…’

I should say at this point that Stuart Mills is a very nice man. We spoke after he beat me (obviously) by 42 seconds at the Steyning Stinger Marathon in March and later he said some kind things about me on his blog. He is also a very good runner, having won the Lakeland 100 earlier this year. It stands to reason: you do not win a race as arduous as Beachy Head without being a bit good.

Will Mills make it eight victories in 12 years on Saturday? Lacking a time machine, I can only reserve judgement on that. Whoever does win, however, will have their work cut out. The front end is sharp and if the weather is good, which looks increasingly unlikely, a time very close to three hours will be the requirement. There is Mills, of course, as well as defending champion Harley. Then there is a supporting cast of winners: Mark Perkins (South Downs Way 50), Paul Sargent (Three Forts Marathon) and Paul Navesey (Downslink Ultra 38 and Sussex Marathon). And those are only the guys I recognised on the entry list. There, I have jinxed them all now. Let me make it up to them by jinxing myself; after all, I am a winner too. I am the reigning champion of the Lloyd parkrun, Croydon’s premier (and only) parkrun, having beaten two 15-year-olds into second and third. Never mind the Lakeland 100, that is form.

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@MuirJonny

Three Forts Marathon and the need for constancy

The essence of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is that Arsenal is the author’s constant in life. Amid the flux of education, work, relationships, happiness and sadness, Arsenal and football remain resilient to the vagaries of his existence. Running has been my constant since the age of 18. Through university, through jobs, through seasons, through highs of fitness, through hangovers, through break-ups, through reconciliations. I ran on the day of my graduation and the day I got married.

The need for constancy has been challenged over the years. Habits have slipped, resolve has faded. But, it always returns. Nothing, however, has been as challenging as the past nine weeks. A second place finish at the Steyning Stinger Marathon in early-March was followed three days later by the start of a cold or flu – call it what you will – that travelled from throat to nose to head to ears to chest and back again; it threatened to go, only to linger, then rev again through my sinuses, leaving in its wake an unshakeable lethargy. In the middle of The Cold came a baby, my first child. Constancy? A baby knows no such thing. Gradually, I recovered. Eventually, I began sleeping hours that resembled normality. Crucially, I began to run again. They were snatched minutes on a Sunday morning, swift lunch break sessions, commutes with a bag on my back. I came to yesterday’s Three Forts Marathon (27.2 miles/3450ft of ascent and descent) on the South Downs having run a dozen times in those nine weeks.

A group of five of us led from the off, becoming two, Mark Perkins, the winner of the South Downs Way 50 in April, and I, with a chaser, Paul Sargent, a Burgess Hill Runner and a 2.56 marathoner, as the first hill claimed early victims. That’s how it would stay until mile seven, where we crossed the Steyning bypass and began a long drag uphill towards Devil’s Dyke. Sargent breached the gap and took over the lead, Perkins settled into second, I followed in third. We would finish in this fashion.

Today was not a day for heroics; survival was the best I could hope for (and a suntan such was the radiance of the sky). At mile 15, we crossed the bypass and River Adur again, with the route sending us up high to Chanctonbury Ring. Memories blur. I remember envying a great fat pig that lay happily in the sun. I remember feeling very tired and having to work very hard. I was hot and feared sunstroke; I felt constantly thirsty and a little dizzy. My usual policy of grab-and-run-and-never-stop at feed stations had been scrapped: I was pausing to glug three or four tumblers. The leading two were visible for long stretches, but I had stopped caring. Hold what I have, I told myself, and I had third place. The first half of mile 24 was dreadful, a long, modest climb that grew to be interminable. I crawled past back markers in the half-marathon race. Determined to run nowhere near 10-minute miles, I ruined my legs trying to catch up on lost time, only to run headlong into Cissbury Ring. I ran downhill to Worthing slower than I had run up, counting down every step. When I crossed the finish line some three hours and 21 minutes after leaving it, I have rarely been so happy to stop running.

And so running (and inevitably racing) remains: a constant pre-fatherhood, a constant during fatherhood, a constant as long as my legs allow. What now? Having been second at the Steyning Stinger and third at Three Forts and Beachy Head, I might just win a race in the South Downs one day. I just need a little more constancy.

 Results here.

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Steyning Stinger Marathon in pictures

158 162 107 167 583 000 misc start

I am 162. I do not know what I am doing. Usain Bolt-style warm-up? Trying to psyche out Stuart Mills (the runner rubbing his hands together)?

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The first ‘sting’: running comfortably

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Around 24 miles in: Stuart Mills is a few yards ahead and fatigue begins to take its toll

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The end is in sight

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But where is Stuart Mills?

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A final grimace to the line

My final word on the Steyning Stinger Marathon will be to direct people to Stuart Mills’ blog, where he has posted a detailed analysis of our race, Here is a snapshot:

So with seven miles to go, I am 15 – 20 seconds behind, with there being one ‘Sting’ left involving a climb of around a mile and a half, and then the last two miles is all down hill.  I do some calculations and predict that as long as I am within 30 – 40 seconds of Jonny at the start of the two mile descent to the finish, I should be able to pull back the time and run past him just as we approach the finish line.  I immediately find myself getting excited at the prospect of a sprint finish.  Right then, having processed this all within my head, whilst descending at sub six minute mile pace, I realise that the next few miles are key, to ensure that I don’t let him get any further ahead between now and the start of the last climb.  I am therefore preparing myself for an increased effort.

Then to my surprise, as I round a sharp corner, Jonny has disappeared.  He is no longer 75 metres in front of me.  I conclude that he must have turned the sharp left corner, and is following the route markings latter on in the course at around the 22 mile mark after we have completed the loop of Steep Down.  As the route he is on turns and drops out of sight immediately behind a small hill, it is not possible to see him so I am unable to shout out to him. I therefore assume that since he will be seeing direction arrows indicating the race route, that he will continue running in the wrong direction, and it will be a wee while before he sees the 22 mile marker and realise he has gone astray.   I experience a real mixture of feelings, all at the same time. There is the sense of pleasure in knowing that I am now guaranteed of winning the Steyning Stinger Marathon for the fourth time, but also disappointment in that the anticipated sprint battle, and really having to earn the victory is now gone!  I immediately slacken off the pace, take a longer stop at the next drink station as I consume my third and final gel for the day, and simply cruise along the route, trying to deal with these mixed emotions, and trying to get myself back on task, i.e. to really test myself, push myself for the entire 26 miles.

One thing that always amazes me whilst I am racing is how the sub-conscious formulates an argument to try to get you to slow down.  My main goal for the race was about me, testing myself, extending myself, but then when I have the win in the bag, the arguments that are being presented within my head are that the win is what it is all about.  “You have now achieved this, simply cruise to the finish.”  So as I am trying to fight against these arguments, I hear a gate shut not too many metres behind me.  To my shock it is Jonny, and what a shock.  For the last five minutes I had already accepted the win, and now it was ‘battle on’ again!

Read the rest here.

What have I done since? Nothing. I felt unwell on Monday and Tuesday, and assumed it was marathon-related. I felt even worse on Wednesday and self-diagnosed a ‘flu’ – marbles seemed to be rolling across my skull – that would stop me running for a few days.

What is Alan Hinkes up to at the moment? … and other questions

Traffic – is that the right way to describe people? – to this blog arrives via a plethora of web searches. Handily, WordPress lists these terms. Many are questions: some are perfectly logical, others make me question the sanity of the human race. However, according to the web search questions, people do not want much. Generally, they care about three things.

– How hard things are.

– Ben Nevis.

– What Alan Hinkes is up to.

Here are my Christmas top-20 (and some helpful answers). The hard stuff first –

1. Is it hard to row the English Channel solo? Probably, yes.

2. How hard is the Inaccessible Pinnacle? It’s tricky, rather than hard. Take a climber with you.

3. What is the hardest Corbett to climb? I really don’t know. For the hardest Munro, see above.

4. How hard is the Beachy Head Marathon? Not as hard as the Ben Nevis Race.

5. How hard is the Ben Nevis Race. Harder than the Beachy Head Marathon.

6. Is the Highland Cross harder than a marathon? If it’s the Beachy Head Marathon, yes.

7. What is the weather like on Ben Nevis in September? Wind, rain, fog, sleet, snow, mist, and probably all at the same time.

8. Which Munro should I climb in preparation for walking Ben Nevis? Why are people obsessed with this mountain?

On to the information seekers-

9. How do I prepare for cycling Mont Ventoux? Cycle. Lots.

10. Where is there a half-marathon tomorrow in UK? Tomorrow? Nowhere.

11. When are midges worst on Rum? All summer long. But don’t let it put you off, though.

12. How high is Worcestershire Beacon? 425 metres.

13. Is Catbells on the Bob Graham Round? No – unless you’ve had a navigational catastrophe.

14. What speed do you need to run for a Bob Graham Round under 24 hours? Three miles per hour-ish. Sounds slow, doesn’t it?

15. Why is Twmpa called Lord Hereford’s Knob? I’m still not sure. Something to do with Lord Hereford? And his…

Now for the ridiculous –

16. What’s going on in the Cotswolds? You’re in the wrong place.

17. How long will it take for my blood blister to go away? Umm…

And the utterly ridiculous, the bang-your-head-against-a-table level of ridiculousness.

18. Is Marble Arch the same as the Arc de Triomphe. NO!

19. What country is the south of England? Country?

And one that only Alan Hinkes can answer –

20. What is Alan Hinkes up to at the moment?

Ben Nevis pony track

Ben Nevis: very hard

What’s worse? DNS or DNF.

I would have finished the Richmond Park Marathon by now. Instead, I am mooching around my flat, having not run a mile, my thoughts drifting forward to a fortnight’s time when I will be – all being well – embroiled in an attempt on the Bob Graham round. I had to pull out of today’s marathon, although I left it until 9pm last night before making the final, inevitable decision. It is always disappointing to drop out. Not least because it’s the third time I’ve had to pull out of a marathon, having bailed out of a London some years ago and Loch Ness more recently.

There was no sense in starting and seeing how it goes. Running when I shouldn’t have been running caused this problem, so it would be idiocy to aggravate an injury unnecessarily. Besides, not starting must be better than starting and dropping out mid-race, physically and psychologically.

I’ve got form when it comes to this. Most hopelessly optimistic of all, I ran the Moray half-marathon several years ago, despite carrying a calf strain going into the race. I lathered the limb with some Deep Heat-type substance in the vague hope that this would somehow rid me of pain. It didn’t. Within the first mile (after going off fast), I felt (and heard) my calf pop. I carried on, limping all the way to the finish. I constantly entertained the prospect of DNF from mile 2 to 13.1, but wouldn’t allow myself to act on such poisonous thoughts. Besides, I had to get back to Elgin somehow; I may as well run.

And that is exactly what I would have done today in Richmond Park. I may have got round uninjured, untroubled, of course, but had the niggles returned I would have run through them, wouldn’t have pulled out, no way. So, to answer my self-posed question: when there is no such thing as DNF, the best course of action – to save me from myself, to save my Bob Graham – is DNS.

Greenwich foot tunnel

The best place to run in Britain

The best city for running? The answer is subjective, of course. Who am I (or anyone else, for that matter) to suggest Nottingham is better than Norwich, or Dundee is better than Derby. We all have favourite places, whether we’ve lived there for 50 years or once passed through on a sunny afternoon and thought: this seems like a nice place.

Moreover, much depends on what the runner likes beneath his or her trainers/spikes/fell shoes (and so on): road, trail, cross-country, fell, hill, mountain, tow path, river bank, park. If you like running on coast paths, Birmingham is not much use. If you like the fells, Cambridge is best avoided. If you are incline-phobic, Sheffield is a bad place for you. I’ve lived in enough cities to have a view, yet my favourite city to run in remains one I haven’t lived in. One day, perhaps.

First up, Exeter: the scene of my university days. I remember runs down the Exe, all the way to Dawlish Warren, and up and down the formidable hill that winds up to the university campus. It was also in Exeter where I learned that just the right level of intoxication made me feel like I was flying, not running, as I made my late-night way back to halls.

Then there was Preston. A river beckoned again, the Ribble. I lived here for a year, spending that time training seriously for the Paris Marathon and a BUSA indoor championship 1500m race (in which I was comfortably last). I remember once running from the city centre to the M56 junction at Broughton with a super-fit soldier who hurdled traffic barriers and had a suicidal approach to crossing roads. I liked Preston, and I liked running in Preston, probably because I didn’t live there long enough for the place to get boring.

Work took me to Cheltenham (a town, not a city, I realise). One of the best things about Cheltenham is its 1930s lido, hence I made a short-term transition to triathlon. The sport didn’t possess me like the singularity of running would. Nor could the meagre salary of a cub reporter support the lifestyle of a triathlete. Living in Cheltenham was, however, a launch pad to the hills – Cleeve, Leckhampton and Nottingham, notably, and for the first time I experienced that now regular sensation of lactic drowning my calf muscles.

As is often the case, you don’t appreciate a place until you have left. I swapped Cheltenham for Peterborough, a low and flat land. I’m tempted to add ‘uninspiring’ but that would be unnecessarily cruel. Trotting around Ferry Meadows and along the River Nene was generally a pleasure, after all. There were less good times, though. When the wind blew, there was rarely a hiding place, while the glaring absence of an even modest inclines meant my ‘hill’ reps started from below sea level, in the bowels of a quarry.

And so to Inverness. I felt safe in Inverness. In London, you never know what might be lurking in a bush. I hate that feeling – not so much living in fear, but the sense that you can’t let your guard slip. Craig Dunain is to Inverness what Arthur’s Seat is to Edinburgh. Only a lot less famous. A protrusion at the end of a wide ridge that drops to the Beauly Forth, Craig Dunain is an innocuous tump, a domain of the Forestry Commission. Even the Great Glen Way ignores the summit. But ask me now, or on many, many other occasions, where I’d like to be running, the answer is Craig Dunain. Preferably with a torch strapped to my head, in the dark, in mist, and with a cover of snow on the ground.

I think about Craig Dunain when I run in London. Chalk and cheese. London – inevitably busy, smelly, smoky – isn’t too bad really. I can run an 8-mile loop from home through the commons of Tooting Bec, Wandsworth and Clapham. I can gain one of the most astonishing views in the world when I run across Waterloo Bridge. I can (almost) get lost in the tracks that criss-cross the Addington Hills above Croydon.

Exeter, Preston, Cheltenham, Peterborough, Inverness, London – put them together and you’ve got an ultimate running destination. But that’s impossible, which means, for me, Edinburgh, a city I have never lived in, wins. Maybe I’m overly impressionable? I’ve just spent three days there – although it did rain incessantly. But each time I go there I’m giddy at the prospect of running in this city. I was on Arthur’s Seat on Friday (as were dozens of others) and looking down on Edinburgh the possibilities seemed immense, incalculable. I picked out three hills I had ran over in previous days – Blackford, Braid and Craiglockhart. I must do the Seven Hills of Edinburgh race, I told myself.

My mind was working. I could run into the Pentland Hills. I could cross the Forth bridge to Fife. I could run down to the sea and the docks. I could be running over Munros in less than two hours. I could be up here – on the breezy, rocky summit of Arthur’s Seat – every day. So that’s why I choose Edinburgh – because nowhere else do the possibilities of running and living seem so powerful.

Recovery…

Post-marathon recoveries are tricky things to get right. After London in April, I abandoned the sport for a fortnight, then ran 30 miles in the following three days. My body was all at sea. There was an illustration of how not to recover after a marathon. After the Lakeland Trails Marathon  in July, I was running sections of the Bob Graham route two days later. Nor was that – essentially, more punishment – an ideal ‘recovery’.

Not one to learn from my mistakes, I am about to repeat the errors of history. Following the Beachy Head Marathon on Saturday, I had not run for more than 48 hours until today, when I stepped out in a new pair of Adidas Supernova Glide 2 (replacing a now-retired, triple-marathon and rather smelly pair of New Balance MR759SR) for a four-mile trot around Tooting Bec Common. So far, so sensible.

Tomorrow, however, and the next day, and the day after that, will test my post-marathon recovery. I plan  to cycle close to 200 miles over those three days, crossing Wales from Swansea to Chester, with – weather-permitting – an on-foot detour up CadairIdris in a Heights of Madness-style assault a distinct possibility too. The weather forecast, particularly for Thursday, is grim. Foolhardy maybe, but it is harder to do nothing.

Beachy Head Marathon 2011 – race report

So, Beachy Head, the second hardest marathon in the UK. Which only makes you wonder what could be harder. The ironically named Picnic Marathon in Surrey, a quick Google search revealed, with that race climbing 6000ft in 26.2 miles compared to Beachy Head’s 3300ft.

Second place it may be, Beachy Head, nevertheless, starts hard, gets harder, then becomes very hard, before becoming extremely hard indeed. This overarching – at time, overbearing – theme of hardness begins immediately, with the course rocketing up a steep grass slope to escape Eastbourne before the South Downs Way turns north and climbs almost continuously to the summit of Willingdon Hill. On the way a spectator told me I looked like ‘Dr Who’. I didn’t think to stop and ask: ‘Which one?’ I could make some wise crack now about teleporting myself to the finish line, but I’ll resist the urge.

Back to running. I was 4th over the top of Willingdon Hill, with seven-times Beachy Head victor Stuart Mills, Steve Nimmo and a Lewes runner not far ahead. The descent to Jevington and the 4.4-mile checkpoint was more technical than I anticipated. A cautious descent and stopping momentarily to drink relegated me to 7th place. I was happiest when climbing, though, and by the time I reached the zenith of the second major rise, Wentover Hill, I was 4th again.

Downhill again. I was overtaken, again. A trio of us ran through Alfriston, chasing down the leading trio ahead. Slowly but surely, I pulled away from the other two as we ascended Borstall Hill, the longest single ascent of the race at around 150 metres. I felt strong; my stride was steady; my breathing shallow. It was a marvellous day to be racing. Blue skies. A fresh if not brisk breeze. Views for miles.

The leaders remained in sight as I plummeted south, into a headwind, as I departed the heights of Borstall. As the route closed in, the front three were hidden. I was alone: runners were no longer visible in front or behind. Now it seems a virtual taboo to criticise the Beachy Head Marathon, such is its standing and reputation in running circles. So, deep breath, here goes: for me – running without the benefit of following-the-man/woman-in-front – the route wasn’t clear. Signs were sparse. For long stretches I ran in hope that I remained on the race route. I resorted to asking walkers if they had seen runners pass this way before me.

Dashing through a narrow lane, I emerged into Littlington; the village was abuzz. I wasn’t lost. The excitement, the shouting, the cries of ‘come on, the leaders are only two minutes ahead’ buoyed me – too much. I surged through the village, running zealously onto an awful ascent on a field of overgrown grass. For the first time, my stride faltered. There was more confusion as I skirted a farmer’s field. ‘Is this the right way?’ I asked a cyclist. It was, mercifully. Then came steps, a steep downhill, more steps, a piper at the brow, then a terrific panorama of Cuckmere Haven. Running towards the sea, I was gaining on 3rd place. It was the Lewes runner, who had gone from 1st to 3rd, and soon to 4th. In sight, just, were Mills and Nimmo, matching each other stride for stride.

I finally usurped the Lewes man on the first of the Seven Sisters. He looked spent. The Sisters were short but steep, so steep that walking can be more effective. I experimented, walking the first two, then running the rest. Walking hurt more than running. I was becoming very tired. I recalled reading Mills’ report from the 2010 race when he described his efforts on the Seven Sisters as ‘hill reps’. For me, these were no hill reps; moreover, survival mode was beginning to creep in.

I was glad to see Birling Gap. Two or three miles to go, I thought. I can hang on, I told myself. No, ‘four miles’, a spectator corrected. My heart sank. I looked at my watch, contemplating the grimness of the next 30 minutes. I was struggling now even on gentle inclines. Inevitable exhaustion. A lack of long runs. A lack of hilly runs. A lack of food. The motivation required to race solo. Wavering concentration. All those things.

I trudged up Beachy Head, wobbling a little. I was not running the way a runner in third place should. Even the spectators massed on Beachy Head looked embarrassed to see me. Cramps in my quads – ever-present since the first of the Seven Sisters – worsened. I didn’t, I couldn’t, appreciate Beachy Head. A field of grass was all I noted. I had no concept of the brilliant whiteness of the chalk, the fearful heights of the cliffs. I simply shuffled, head down, lifting it occasionally to glance at Eastbourne and salvation.

Suddenly it was all downhill. Not as simple as it sounds. Gravity worked its magic, but after 25-and-a-half miles of punishment, my cramping legs knew only one speed. A South African man joined me, trotting alongside for around 400 metres, insisting he do the talking, I do the running. He told me about cycling adventures in the Pyrenees before peeling off at the steepest section of the descent to the finish line – the same stretch of grass I had freshly skipped up three hours earlier. So, I was at the end, 3rd in the Beachy Head Marathon, the UK’s second hardest, in a shade over three hours, 15 minutes. Very tired. Very pleased.

POSTSCRIPT: The results are now up on the ‘unofficial’ Beachy Head Marathon website. Orpington runner Nimmo denied Mills an eighth win, with the one-two separated by 31 seconds. Sunday night and my feet remain very tender.

MONDAY UPDATE: Sore shins, sore feet, sore quads. I feel like I am recovering from a fell race, not a marathon, such is the pain in my quads. A bath hasn’t helped. Stuart Mills has posted his thoughts on the race on his blog here, and there is also an insight from Steve Nimmo in the comments section. I’ve also added some further photographs of the race below.

Photographs courtesy of Mike Stringer

Photographs courtesy of Roger Muir

When running a marathon is no longer enough

I’m running the Beachy Head Marathon tomorrow. It is my ninth marathon in the 11 years I have been old enough to compete over 26.2 miles. Following a 2.50.23 London in April and a 3.15.39 Lakeland Trails in July, Beachy Head is my third marathon this year. Prior to 2011, I had never run more than one marathon in a calendar year. I thought it was a bad idea; the notion, for some reason, was lodged in my thinking. Then people like Ranulph Fiennes, Eddie Izzard and Andrew Murray started running multiple, consecutive marathons. I began to change my mind.

The achievement of Fiennes (and his running partner, Mike Stroud) to run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents was hailed as extraordinary, partly because Fiennes was recovering from a double heart bypass at the time. (Incidentally, when I pointed out to my father-in-law, who has undergone a similar procedure, that Fiennes had not only ran all these marathons, but also climbed the Eiger and Everest, it wasn’t terribly well received.

Izzard’s exploits are well-documented; he ran 43 marathons in 51 days. The BBC footage of his journey around the UK was inspirational. Murray ran from Scotland to the Sahara, averaging 34 miles a day for 78 consecutive days (and wrote a book). But then along came Stefaan Engels who would outdo all. The Belgian ran a marathon every 24 hours for 365 days. He covered nearly 10,000 miles and his fastest marathon was ran in less than three hours. Bringing up the story of Engels (and Fiennes, for that matter) is always a good response to those people who say, ‘I couldn’t do that,’ when talking about the prospect of doing a marathon.

So where does that leave me? Nine marathons in 11 years? It amounts to very little, really. Murray did that in a week; Engels in nine days. The solo nature of running means there is always someone better, always someone faster, always someone madder. For all the bravado, even Usain Bolt looks over his shoulder.

All runners have been there. Among one circle of family, friends or work colleagues you’re a hero for even contemplating stepping outside into a cold, wet, winter’s night (in shorts!) to run, let alone actually enter and compete in a race.  You’re a God, a fitness freak, a machine. Among other circles – a Herne Hill Harriers training session, for me for instance – I slink to the back of an all-star group and try like billy-o to cling onto their spikes. Yet put these ‘all stars’ next to Bekele or Farah on a track and they would be run ragged. Here lies the delicious frustration of running.