Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Lincolnshire Coast - Endless possibilities?

There's been a couple of things happening this week of any note. Firstly, the weather has been glorious. Secondly, the whole country is going mad panic buying petrol in anticipation of a strike by tanker drivers, and no fuel at the pumps.

As the sun shines, so my thoughts turn to the beach. The past few days I've headed out from the banger, clad only in old t shirt and shorts, jogged the half mile to the beach barefoot, and ran endless miles north along the coast. Sometimes it'd be on the soft sand, sometimes in the increasing network of emerging dunes, sometimes on the hard, wet sand, and sometimes in the seas edge. Wherever, I've loved every minute.

For anyone not local to the area, the Lincolnshire Coast between Skegness and north of Mablethorpe offers around 20 miles of uninterrupted beaches, and aside from a couple of areas, they are virtually deserted, even in the height of the season. For the more frugal amongst us, like myself, it is quite possible to run everyday from the end of March until October, without ever putting on a pair of running shoes.

My other passion is cycling. Not racing, time trialling, sportives or any of that. No big money bikes, carbon fibre or SRAM components- just getting from A to B, getting to work, picking up the shopping on a cheap, reliable runaround. General utility cycling. It always surprises me how few people, who live on the flat coastal strip between Skegness and Cleethorpes, actually use bikes as a means of preferred transport. Flat country roads abound, making a 10-20 mile round trip an easy and safe option.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that this area could become some sort of mecca for sustainable living and for those who want to live a more self sufficient life. For people to attempt to make a change, escape the tyranny of dependence on fossil fuels, and build a brighter future. It's happening to some extent, with one of Europe's largest off shore wind farms being constructed five miles out to sea. There's ample opportunities to obtain local fresh produce and great opportunities for small holders.

 Come check it out. The big skies are calling.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Competition and Parsnips

 You ever get the feeling that everything that you have been told is wrong? I have. Many times. You should work hard at school. If you do well at school, then you can get a good job. If you get a good job, then you'll get loads of money. Earn loads of money, then you can buy a nice house and a nice car. Ultimately you will be happy. I knew this was wrong.

One Sunday as the university group snaked its way along the canal network of Birmingham on the weekly long run the conversation turned to careers. One of the lads had secured a graduate place at United Biscuits. Others congratulated him. I remained quiet. Quiet because the only thing that went through my mind was this was a criminal waste of a higher education- to sell biscuits. I attended none of the final year graduate job fairs. I knew I had a summer job on the local market and this would pay off my overdraft. Another six months or so of doing whatever, would allow me to save some money, buy a round the world air ticket and take off and have a few experiences. Work could be left till later when you were older. I didn't want a house. The only cars I wanted were a Reliant Robin or a Skoda Estelle. Wouldn't of minded a nice bike though.

 As it happens these ideas on life turned out right for me. I still don't want a house. I still am not fussed about a car. I am not even bothered about a nice bike- in fact I would prefer an old, recycled one. These things I instinctively knew were right for me, and time and circumstance have not proved to have made a difference.

 However some things have changed.

 I am a twin. My brother, genetically identical, is 3 minutes younger than myself. Through the closeness has come intense competition. At primary school we were blessed to be the fastest. Correction- I was the fastest. In the final year Sports day my brother was leading into the final event of the overall competition .I'd won the sprint. He'd won the egg and spoon. I won the bean bag race. He'd won the slow bike race. I had never lost the slow bike race, and now , as I stood at the start line of the sack race, I was staring at a scenario I refused , even at 10 years old, to comprehend. Chris was the king of the sack race. No one had even beaten him in his age group. I tried to copy his style, the way he put his feet in the corners and daintily ran in small steps, while the both feet big jumpers floundered behind. Chris would win. He'd be overall champion. Everyone thought I'd win. I'd thought I'd win. Now I knew I'd lose. Lose to him.

 As the race started ,Chris assumed his customary lead. I just couldn't keep up. He'd beaten me. He was Sports day champion. We'd be at big school next year. I couldn't take revenge. I was comfortably in second place, when 10 yards from the finish he fell. I passed him and won. I was the champion. Was I happy? Yes. But more than that, I was relieved. Relieved I'd achieved something I was certain I would.

 33 years later we're stood at the start line of the seasons first cross country race, the Louth Open. The intervening years had been eventful, full of ups and downs, dramas and crisis's for both of us. He'd eventually beat me in a cross country when we were 16, and it was as if a physcological barrier had fallen . From that day onwards I'd never beaten Chris in a long distance race again. I'd recently got back into running, while he'd remained active running a low 2hr 30 marathon, a John O'Groats to Lands End ,and a Coast to Coast. When I started back I wanted to beat him, and things were getting closer. He'd won the local marathon the previous year, while I was 3rd, but I'd won it this year in a faster time. He'd won a local 12hr race, ranking him 3rd in the country the previous year. I'd won it this year in a bigger distance. But he'd not competed in those events this year. He'd been diagnosed with a potential heart scare and had been taking things easy. I knew this was my chance. A chance I needed to sieze. The race comprised of 4 laps. I was used to being behind, but after the first lap he didn't seem to be pulling away. At the end of the second lap I passed him. I glanced back. He looked drawn. For the first time in nearly 30 years I'd run him.

 Nerves ruined running for me as a kid. I set myself high targets. I needed to achieve them to maintain a personal status quo. The payback was only ever one sided. I now question competition. Question whether it is human nature and ere on the side of doubt. I question if I want to run competitively again and for how long. I question the concept of competition and ere on the side of co operation. If we cease to compete and concentrate to co operate surely thats the way.

 But  I still love to run.

 I've recently taken on a couple of vegetable plots in a local community garden. Today , as the sun shone , I was bent down weeding thinking about the Alfie Kohn talk I'd listened to the night before. If it was human nature to compete, then how was it that the indigenous, primitive tribes, such as those in the Amazon Rain forest, who many would think lived closer to nature showed almost no signs of competitive behaviour? Surely if competition was natural then these people would be more competitive than the general populous, not less? As I weeded another person who had several beds in the same garden came to chat. He'd grown vegetables competitively in his past and worked at a local garden centre. The competitive aspect of his nature had now disappeared. He freely shared his knowledge to a complete novice- myself. As he did so it emphasised the importance to me of co operation over competition. Before he left, he walked over again. He held out a gift- several parsnips. ' I've got loads growing in there,' he said pointing to one of his beds. ' I live on my own and there's far too many for me.'

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Kyle Skaggs, The Tramp and The Squirrels.

A dear friend relayed to me a wonderful story the other day. As she had walked in Hyde Park she saw a man, obviously homeless, slowly walk and sit at the base of a tree. In his hand was a brown paper bag. Now preconceptions would determine that inside the bag would be alcohol, glue or something equally bad for ones health. As he opened the bag, she quickly saw that, in fact, it contained nuts. She watched entranced as, one by one, first a single squirrel, but quickly followed by many more, appeared from the branches above, approached the unkempt man and ate the nuts held in his hand. They did so without fear. It was immediately obvious to her that this was not a solitary one off action, but one which he carried out regularly. The squirrels were his friends.

I listened intently. I was impressed, but not surprised she had stood and watched. In these days of hustle and bustle it is all too easy for people to fail to notice these commonplace acts of pure, innocent beauty, to be too wrapped up in the everyday pressures of aspiration and material gain. As she finished the story and commented on this man who had nothing, we both reached the same conclusion. Did he actually have nothing or did he, in fact, have everything?

Kyle Skaggs has, since my return to running, been a big inspiration to me. Part of the new breed of U.S ultrarunners with his brother, Eric, and Anton Krupicka, that made long distance trail running cool. With minimalist ideas to, not just running, but to life, they echoed the views and ethos that I had arrived at over my journey to make sense of this crazy, but wonderful world. I marvelled at his performance in the 2008 Hardrock 100, and how he'd based himself for the proceeding months of the race at Silverton, Colorado and constantly ran sections of the course, aiming to beat the race record. The Hardrock is, perhaps, the hardest 100 mile race in the United States, if not the world. With 34,000 ft of elevation and equal amount of descent , all at an average elevation of 11,000, it is certainly a major test. That year Kyle made history, with arguably one of the best ever utlradistance performances ever. He finished the race in a time of 23hrs 20m, becoming the first (and so far only) man to complete the race in under 24hrs. In doing so he beat the course record, held by another ultra legend, Scott Jerek, by an amazing 2hrs 45mins. I followed sporadic performances over the next couple of years, then he seemed to just disappear.

In these modern days of  virtual communication, it is very rare for an elite athlete, especially with the pressure of sponsors to appease, to have no presence on the internet. As far as I could tell Kyle had no facebook page, no twitter feed and no blog. Frustrating as it was for people interested in his running, it was also liberating. Here was someone who seemed to be untouched by the need to massage his ego, to not feel compelled to tell people what training he was doing and what races he was competing in. I came across snippets that he was organic farming in New Mexico, which appears were true. A couple of days ago I stumbled across the article at the start of this blog.

It is all so easy to pigeon hole ones running and take pride in times, places and performances. It is easy to enjoy the interaction with nature on the paths and trails, but to disregard this love in an holistic sense in life and everyday actions- to refuse to see the negative connection between such things as driving or flying great distances to be part of this beauty. To buy less and ethically, to shun transport utilising fossil fuels, to just be more respectful to our mother earth should all be part and parcel of enjoying nature. It's not easy, just as ploughing by horse instead of tractor isn't..... but it's right. For that, Kyle, I salute you. An inspiration.