Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Land of Mo-hope and bygone glory

Published in truncated form in Runner's World May 2014


In 1984 Britain was a global force in marathon running, complete with the world record and an Olympic medal. Now, 30 years later, we pin all our hopes on one man who’s yet to make his debut. What went wrong, and can we ever return our winning ways?

Photography: Justin Wood

When Mo Farah toes the start line of the 2014 Virgin London Marathon, the buzz of expectation surrounding him will be electric. His thousands of home supporters – the Union flag-waving, moboting multitudes – will line the capital’s streets in frenetic anticipation. We have been waiting a very long time. Twenty-one years have passed since a British man last won the London Marathon: Eamonn Martin in 1993. A whole generation of Britons have grown up never witnessing a fellow countryman break the tape, not just in London, but in any world-class marathon. Could the wait finally be over?

London will be Farah’s debut marathon, just as it was for Martin in 1993, but the challenge facing Mo is vastly different. Martin, 34 at the time and a former Commonwealth 10,000m champion, out-kicked Mexican Isidro Rico to clinch victory on Westminster Bridge in 2:10:50. Taking nothing away from Martin’s achievement, his winning time was the slowest since the inaugural race in 1981, and is six minutes 10 seconds outside the current course record, set by Emmanuel Mutai in 2011. In distance terms, that’s a gap of more than 2km. The Kenyan averaged an astounding 4:45 per mile and covered the decisive 10km split from 30km to 40km in 28:45 (4:38 per mile) – faster than any British man ran for 10k last year.

With the exception of the 2013 race, which was unusually poorly paced, the slowest winning time in London over the past six years was 2:05:19 in 2010. That’s nearly two minutes faster than Steve Jones’s 28-year-old British record. Can we really expect Farah to win on his first attempt? His Olympic medals are solid (gold) proof that he has the talent, the outright speed and the guts – plus, he holds the UK half-marathon record of 60:59. But does he have the even deeper store of endurance needed to hang with the leaders over 26.2 miles, covering their inevitable brutal surges before outkicking them to victory? Bear in mind, he will have to sustain sub-2:06 pace (4:48 per mile) – 10 seconds per mile faster than Martin in 1993 – just to be in with a chance.

We’ve every reason to feel optimistic for Mo; after all, the form-book deems him the best distance runner in the world. Yes, a British runner is the best in the world – well worth repeating. But, as gratifying as that is, it raises an awkward question: does Farah’s ascent to the top herald the UK’s return to the front of the pack in world-class marathon running? Sadly, the answer is a resounding no. Farah is an exception, a freakishly fast outlier, vastly more successful than all his British contemporaries. The same was true of Paula Radcliffe, whose 2:15:25 world record from 2003 remains nearly three minutes ahead of the second-fastest-ever woman, and an astonishing 7:47 quicker than the next-fastest British female.

The story of British marathon running over the past 30 years is one of bottom-up decline, where only the very top has defied the trend. Paula’s achievements – and Mo’s potential – distract us from the dire reality, which is that no other British marathoners, male or female, are getting anywhere near world-class standard. Our fastest man in 2013 ran 2:15:04 – nearly 12 minutes adrift of the world lead (Wilson Kipsang’s new world record of 2:03:23), while our fastest woman clocked 2:30:46 – 10 minutes wide of the world-leading mark and some 15 minutes slower than Paula’s world record. Britain’s prospects beyond Mo are quite literally too few to mention.

It was not always thus. Thirty years ago, Britain was arguably the best marathon-running nation in the world, with not only star performers but a huge depth of talent too. In 1984, no fewer than 75 men broke the 2:20 mark, and the hundredth-fastest man that year clocked a speedy (by today’s standards) 2:21:32. These days we’re lucky if a dozen men break 2:20 each year, having hit a low point of just five in 2007, when the hundredth-fastest man clocked a very modest 2:37:14. The extent of the decline is startling and disconcerting – especially when you consider how over the same period UK marathon running, in terms of sheer numbers, has grown spectacularly. So what’s going on?

I decided to seek out and draw together, within my home county of Sussex, two people who together should be able to shed some light on what has changed: the county’s fastest marathoner from then, Derek Stevens, who ran 2:12:41 in 1984, and our fastest now, Jon Pepper, who clocked 2:19:10 in October 2013. Derek’s PB would easily top the UK rankings today, but in 1984 it was only good enough for eighth spot. Jon’s best put him 11th in the UK rankings last year, so his and Derek’s fastest marathons are of equivalent merit relative to the standard of their day. Equivalent yet separated by six and a half minutes – more than a mile of running. How to account for this generational slowdown? Or, more bluntly, why can’t Brits keep up in marathons anymore?

***

Derek is now 59, recently retired from a senior position in local government and runs only occasionally to keep fit; Jon is 25 and squeezes in twice-daily training around his full-time job as a school science technician. The three of us meet at Lewes athletics track and take our seats for a roundtable discussion in the upstairs of the club-house overlooking the home straight.
Derek Stevens (PB 2:12:41, set in 1984) and Jon Pepper (PB 2:19:10, set in 2013)

I begin by quoting Charlie Spedding – whose 2:08:33 from 1985 still stands as the English record – from an interview in the Independent where he is responding to the question, why is British distance running in decline?   
“There’s not one straightforward, simple answer. There are several factors.” Spedding lists the ones he thinks are most significant. “Children are not as active as they were 40 or 50 years ago… Teenagers [nowadays] see people running in fancy dress or trying to lose weight [rather than] as a serious sport. It’s just not seen as a cool thing for teenagers to be involved in.”

Derek is nodding eagerly. “Charlie is right. When I was six or seven years old [in 1960-61], I was running more than a lot of the athletes today run. It was play. We used to run and cycle everywhere. Televisions were still black and white. I think my generation was fundamentally just so much fitter by the time we got to secondary school.”

“I definitely agree with that,” Jon says. “I’ve worked in schools since graduating, and I can’t imagine kids being any less fit [than they are now]… I’ll do a lap of the field as a warm-up and I’ll find only one out of 30 can do it without stopping.”
The suspicion that children have become less fit is backed up by strong and mounting scientific research. A recent study undertaken by the American Heart Association involving millions of children of various nationalities found that on average nine-to-17-year-olds today run 90 seconds per mile slower than their counterparts did 30 years ago – representing a decline in cardiovascular fitness of five per cent per decade since 1975.
And children who are generally less active are naturally less inclined to get involved in a physically demanding sport like running. Jon sums up the catch-22 situation:
“If your level of fitness is low, why the hell would you want to go and run? It’s horrible when you’re unfit! You can’t really blame them.”

Childhood activity not only lays the physical foundations for distance running, it also triggers the urge to compete, often in response to a direct or perceived challenge thrown down by a rival or role model. Consider this classic example from Derek:
“Our school’s sports field was half a mile up a track. We had this cocky teacher – I was only 11 – and he said, ‘I’ll give anyone a shilling if they can beat me up to the field’. And I beat him!” His eyes sparkle as he recalls this seminal victory – the satisfaction is still there, undimmed over the decades.
Jon quizzes Derek on how to nail 26.2 Eighties-style

In Derek’s heyday, he and others like him had an abundance of role models to follow: world-beating marathoners like Jones and Spedding, not to mention track icons like Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. At regional level too, there were more runners competing at a higher standard, and most clubs had at least one or two admired high-achievers. Derek’s first club Bexhill AC counted among its members one of Britain’s all-time greats, Dave Bedford.  “It was a great moment for me, as a 12-year-old, to be running with the man who was then the best in the world over 10k.” Later, Derek joined Hastings AC and often travelled to other Sussex clubs to train among the best in the county. “You need to seek groups out,” he advises Jon. “I used to come over [to Brighton] and run with Ovett and Mark Rowland [who still holds the UK record for the 3,000m steeplechase], and knew I’d get hammered! But you need to do that.”
Derek: "I'd train with Ovett and get hammered!"

Jon’s first club was Enfield and Haringey, and, like Derek, he was inspired by the man at the front in training. “The top guy in our group was a guy called Andy Coleman, whose highlight was coming second in the Great North Run [in 2000]. He ran 62 minutes and nearly won it and was on TV.” Witnessing his club-mate perform so well in a prestigious race clearly had a huge impact. “Seeing that, it makes it very real to you, and I was never looking back then because I realised I could do that. Without that, who knows; it could have just petered out for me. That was massive.”  

But unlike Derek and his peers, Jon’s generation has never witnessed first-hand fellow countrymen winning world-class marathons. Instead, Jon has admired the stars of Derek’s era in hindsight by poring over historic results and becoming a self-confessed “running anorak”. “It seems quite distant,” he admits. “Like something that’s not that real because you’ve never seen a Briton run that fast.” Indeed, it was not a Briton but a Kenyan, Sammy Wanjiru – winner of Olympic gold in Beijing aged just 22 – who inspired Jon to step up to the marathon while still in his early 20s.

Enchantment with East African runners is nothing new, of course – Derek reveals that his boyhood hero was Abebe Bikila, Ethiopian winner of the Olympic Marathon in 1960 and 1964 – but the competitive balance has dramatically shifted. Last year alone, East African runners racked up over 130 sub-2:10 performances, whereas not a single Briton has run that fast since 2005. Have would-be British contenders been put off by what seems like unbeatable opposition?
“No,” says Jon. “It should still be a motivating factor to be the best in Britain.” He flatly rejects the notion that upcoming athletes like him are put off or held back through drawing international comparisons. “It must be something within the British running scene that’s the problem.”
Derek agrees. “It wouldn’t worry me that the East Africans are so good, because I’d want to be the best in Sussex and the best domestically.”

Former world cross-country runner-up Tim Hutchings’ diagnosis is that Britain’s best runners no longer race against one another often enough. Derek broadly supports this theory, though he emphasises that his marathon preparation always took precedence over interim races. “I’d race five or six times within a 16-week schedule, sometimes racing off 100 miles a week.”
Jon takes a different approach, preferring to taper for tune-up races rather than sustaining a high volume; he believes structured preparation with specific efforts works better for him than constant hard training with frequent racing on top.
Derek won the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, on 16th June 1984, clocking 2:12:41

As regards the particulars of training, then versus now, it’s striking how little has changed – despite presumed advances in sports science. Derek’s regime was based on Arthur Lydiard’s time-honoured principles: a periodised plan with base-building, strength and anaerobic phases, and high overall volume.
“I could always train really hard. Three intense sessions [each week], and good distance stuff, at a good pace… Over the 16-week build-up, I would average 95-100 miles a week.”
Jon has had more injuries to deal with, so his training log reveals more recovery days between intense sessions and slightly lower overall mileage. Even so, his and Derek’s training plans are fundamentally similar, and I doubt that picking apart the minor differences would yield any telling insight.

The fact is, Jon and Derek are of the same athletic breed – dedicated, disciplined and fiercely competitive – but it’s a breed that has become vanishingly rare. Which is the crux of the problem. Marathoning success is a numbers game; each nation needs a critical mass of its population to start young and build a strong aerobic base before undertaking several years of hard, consistent training. Far fewer Britons are doing that now, and among the tiny number who are, ‘excellence’ is defined in relation to one another, so the decline is self-perpetuating.

“I guess it’s easier now for someone like me to say I’ll try to run 2:18 or 2:16 [rather than a world-class time],” admits Jon, “because I’ll still be one of the best in the country and that’ll be all right.” You cannot blame him; reaching sub-2:20 standard requires enormous commitment - why push even harder when you’re already the best in your region and one of the best in the country?
 
Clipping from 1984 notes how Derek's achievements are hardly noticed by the press

The root of the problem lies not within UK running but around and beyond it. British leisure culture has evolved along the lines of ‘the survival of the unfittest’; with the introduction of new technology and gadgets, sedentary amusements have replaced outdoor play. British youngsters while away their spare time socialising, shopping, or in front of screens, tweeting, texting, gaming – and putting on weight while their aerobic potential withers. Meanwhile, Kenyan kids are outdoors being physically active for as much as 3.5 hours every day – while dreaming of emulating their champion compatriots. It’s no wonder we’re lagging so far behind.


Can Britain return to aerobic health and fall back in love with competitive marathon running? There are glimmers of hope; at last November's Leeds Abbey Dash 10k, the top 82 runners finished inside 32 minutes – a greater depth of quality than had been seen in recent years. A reinvigorated domestic road running scene is a must if we are to revive a culture of competitiveness and draw in new talent. Standards have slipped back a long way, but a turnaround isn’t impossible. Mo Farah’s Olympic success lifted the limit on our dreams by proving that Britons can still reach the top; who knows what competitive hunger he can reawaken if he makes his mark over 26.2.

Alternative theories for the decline

1980s, Derek Stevens
2010s, Jon Pepper
‘Trainers have become overly cushioned and heavy’
“I used to run in a pair of Tiger Cubs, which had no sole to them. It does make you wonder.”
“I’m dead against thick-soled, very cushioned shoes. We weren’t born with half an inch of rubber under our heels!”
‘Athletes aren’t as competitive anymore’
“I was quite ruthless to other athletes. I’ve been in fights in races before. It could be quite cruel.”
“Losing really does piss me off. If I’m really up for a race, I’ll talk it up in my mind to beat someone”
‘Football has become too popular, too dominant’
“That hasn’t changed. Back in the Eighties, we even had quite a good national team.”
“Aged 11-12, I was really into football but my team was awful. We lost regularly with double-figure scores!”
‘There isn’t a big enough financial incentive’
“It’s no different. The appearance and prize money in the Eighties was minimal. It was never a motivation, only a bonus.”
“I don’t think anyone who’s a distance runner [in the UK] these days is doing it for the money. If they were, they’d be an idiot!”
 
Going back to go forward
Super-ambitious Michael Crawley, 26, decided to follow a training schedule from the 1980s in an attempt to emulate the success of his coach
Mike Crawley has made huge progress since following
his coach's schedule from the early-Eighties

"At the beginning of 2013, I persuaded my coach to lend me his training diaries from 1981 and 1982 (when he ran a marathon best of 2:14). My intention was to compare my training with his every week, using his schedule as a template to build towards.
"The diaries are heavy on numbers (9,037 miles, to be precise) and light on description. By far the most frequently used adjective is “tired”, with only occasional elaboration (“tired, knackered actually” or “eight miles hard, 5.30am”). The sparseness of words on the page is a reminder of how simple training really is; it involves, principally, a lot of running.
"The entry on 7th August, 1981, reads: “10 miles inc. 29mins 53.6secs for 10,000m (22nd), good.” Two days later: “22 miles alone – tired.” The near-constant tiredness was getting him somewhere, then. In how many races in Britain today would you expect to break 30 minutes for 10km and finish outside of the top 20? (answer: none).
"After I ran 50mins 52secs for 10 miles, in September, and finished second, feeling quite pleased with myself, I found an entry where my coach had run 50mins flat and finished outside the top five. I re-evaluated what constituted good running.
"Since then, I’ve built up my mileage to 100 miles most weeks, and run as many as 110 on a few occasions. The change is probably best summed up in ‘more running, less worrying.’ I threw away my GPS and heart-rate monitor and threw a decent chunk of caution to the wind. I stopped doing easy runs unless I was really knackered, and core stability didn’t exist in 1981, so that went too.
"One session that particularly stands out involves running a set distance (usually four miles) flat-out in the morning, then doing it again in the evening, on the same course, and trying to go faster on tired legs. This isn’t ‘tempo’ or ‘threshold’ running – those terms didn’t exist 30 years ago. It’s just called ‘hard’, and it is.
"I realised early on that I wasn’t going to be able to replicate every week of my coach’s training, but after five months my training diary is looking a lot more like his. It now contains what he calls ‘proper’ training, and I’ve got faster – by 1min 20secs over a half marathon (new PB, 66.52) and 50secs over 10km (new PB, 30.03).
"So it turns out that training like runners did in the Eighties isn’t very scientific, is often hard and very tiring, but it works!"

Read more about Michael’s training experiment on his blog: http://acceptableintheighties.wordpress.com/

Other experts asked...
What is the single biggest cause of the decline in British marathon running since the Eighties?

“Modern, overprotective society. Kids are aerobic monsters and need to be let loose at every opportunity when young!”
 Jon Brown, former European Cross Country champion (1996) & twice fourth in the Olympic Marathon (2000, 2004), with a 2:09:31 marathon PB (2005)

“Secular trends in physical activity are primarily responsible for the general demise in physical fitness, which in turn has had a devastating effect on sporting performance. School and university sports, now almost extinct in the UK in comparison to other countries, have done very little to reverse this general demise in physical fitness with dire consequences for health and sporting performance.”
Yannis Pitsiladis, Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton

UK male marathon times 1980-2010 comparison

1st                    10th                20th                 50th                 100th
2010               2:13:40           2:18:21           2:22:49           2:28:20           2:33:06          
2005               2:09:31           2:18:47           2:24:02           2:29:49           2:35:20
2000               2:11:17           2:18:49           2:22:47           2:28:39           2:34:09          
1995               2:10:31           2:15:02           2:20:17           2:24:57           2:29:57
1990               2:10:10           2:16:03           2:18:57           2:23:01           2:27:50
1985               2:07:13           2:14:20           2:15:31           2:18:34           2:21:31
1980               2:11:22           2:16:04           2:17:52           2:21:11           2:26:25


Top 10 UK marathons: now versus then

2013
1          2:15:04           Nicholas Torry         
2          2:15:21           Dave Webb                           
3          2:15:52           Ben Moreau                          
4          2:16:50           Derek Hawkins                                 
4          2:16:50           Craig Hopkins           
6          2:17:43           John Gilbert              
7          2:18:28           Ross Houston                       
8          2:18:50           Paul Martelletti         
9          2:19:01           James Kelly               
10        2:19:07           Phil Wicks    
(11       2:19:10           Jon Pepper)                                                                            

1984
1          2:08:05           Steve Jones
2          2:09:57           Charlie Spedding
3          2:10:08           Geoff Smith
4          2:11:41           Kevin Forster
5          2:11:49           Fraser Clyne
6          2:11:54           Hugh Jones
7          2:12:12           Dennis Fowles
8          2:12:41           Derek Stevens
9          2:13:24           Martin McCarthy
10        2:13:49           Jimmy Ashworth


Author's note
My own marathon PB of 2:28:46, set in 2012, snuck inside the UK top 50 that year, a fact that I'd been tempted to regard as boast-worthy. During the writing of this feature, my ego trip was brought to a crashing halt when I discovered that, had I been running in the mid-Eighties, my time wouldn't have made the top 300!

Any thoughts on the above, tweet me — @DeeBeeFree



Sunday, 6 October 2013

Break it to me gently, doctor, how long have I got?

Also published on HuffingtonPost.co.uk here: http://huff.to/19ePKsI

A notice on the wall of my GP’s surgery reads, “Do not discuss more than one problem per appointment. Remember, you are allotted only 10 minutes.”

It was a message reiterated to my dad during a consultation in early 2011 when he mentioned a second concern: a lump on his head. The primary concern was a larger, as-yet-undiagnosed lump on his shoulder.
“This is a 10-minute appointment,” the GP said firmly. The implication was clear: he didn’t have time to look at the growth on my dad’s head.

Three months later, Dad was dead. The lumps were cancer that had spread from his lungs. 

I’m not blaming the GP for my dad’s death. The cancer had metastasised and there’s little chance it could have been halted by swifter medical intervention. I am not blaming; I am asking: when did GPs run out of time for their patients? What changed? 

You don’t need to know much about biology to realise that the body is a holistic system: the component tissues and organs interact and affect each other. It’s not uncommon for a symptom in one part to be traced to a root cause in another. 

We rely on GPs to be crack detectives of physiology, seeking out as many clues as possible to home in on the underlying malady. Our lives are in their hands, and that shouldn’t be an unsettling thought.


For many of us, it takes guts to book an appointment and tell a stranger about our worries. (Not to mention the added stress of negotiating time off work, etc.) We’re often scared, especially if we fear it might be something serious. We also worry that we’re wasting the doctor’s time, even when we know deep down something is wrong. We’re easily put off by brusque treatment, made to feel feeble and even more apprehensive; next time something hurts, we think twice before seeking advice.

A detective wouldn’t cut short a witness: “Stop blathering about the colour of his clothes and cut to the bit where he pulls the trigger.” So why does a GP in pursuit of diagnostic pointers discourage a patient from describing fully their concerns?  

Yes, I know time is money (a GP’s time, lots of money) and money is limited. I know too that some people waste GPs’ time with untreatable sniffles etc, but that can’t be helped except through patient (in both senses of the word) education. If the system is buckling, let’s at least take notice and fight to save it. Institutional cursoriness isn’t a solution, it’s surrender.

Postscript

I’m a sniffling time-waster, perhaps: there’s probably nothing seriously wrong with me, but a couple of times lately while running my heart rate has leapt up to 220bpm. My usual ‘maximum’ is 185bpm. It didn’t hurt but I felt a flutter in my chest and running suddenly felt harder. The first time it happened I wrote it off as a one-off glitch and did nothing; the second time, I figured I should get checked.

The GP referred me to the practice nurse for an ECG, which came back as abnormal. The length of time between the electrical signal telling my heart to finish a beat and the beginning of the next one, to start the next beat, is longer than it should be. Having an over-long QT interval is associated with dropping dead while playing sport. 

“I want some advice from a cardiologist on this,” said my GP. “We ought to get an answer quite swiftly, so I’ll have a fax sent today. In the meantime, don’t push too hard.”

That was a fortnight ago. I’ve heard nothing. I phoned the GP’s surgery and the receptionist told me to contact the hospital cardiology department directly. So I rang the hospital, and was told that the relevant paperwork would be impossible to find unless I knew the name of the consultant to whom the fax had been sent.  

“Which consultant was the fax sent to?” I asked the GP’s receptionist.

“We never specify a consultant, we just send it to the department.” 
“But… But please, I don’t know what else to do.” 
“Well, I shouldn’t be doing all this chasing-up. We’ve been told not to. We don’t have time,” she huffed, before reluctantly agreeing to resend the fax. “Try calling us next Monday to see if we’re heard back.” She didn’t sound confident.

I don’t feel entitled to urgent attention; I suspect my heart is OK – I’ve been running for years and I figure that if my ticker were going to fall fatally out of rhythm, it would have done so before now. Even so, what if there were a serious risk? What if I did have a timebomb in my chest? Would the NHS have the time to tell me? Who knows.


Sunday, 19 May 2013

Not seeing: the funny side

First published on Guardian.co.uk on 17th May 2013, under the heading 'Facing blindness by seeing the funny side'.

The film Come As You Are depicts blindness, disability and illness
with humour, compassion and a striking lack of queamishness 
What would you do if you were told you were going blind? Quit your job, cut loose and rush to live out your most lurid fantasies? Nice idea, but your mates are still at work, and wealth doesn't increase in inverse proportion to eyesight, alas. Still, you'd be expected to react, so what would it be: fury, despondency, soul-searching, or would you try to see the funny side?

In the summer of 2006 I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) – an inherited condition that affects the retina of the eyes, often leading to complete blindness. It was picked up by an optician at a routine sight test after I casually mentioned my exceptional clumsiness after dark (how I'd fail to spot big things like cars and ditches which, I'd noticed, everyone else managed to avoid). That's how RP begins, with night-blindness and accidents, followed by a gradual erosion of peripheral vision and more accidents.

When I told my family, they frowned gravely and muttered terrible portents like "devastating" and "life-changing".

But I didn't feel as though much had changed. I might go blind; I might not. I might walk into the path of a bus; I might hop on it and go on a fantastic journey. The future remained unforeseeable, and the splotches of peripheral vision whose absconding I had barely noticed remained unseen – as well as unseeing. Blindness was already here in a ghostly, imperceptible sort of way; I felt more perplexed than devastated.

My mum, realising that half the genetic flaw causing my eyes to self-destruct came from her, was overcome with guilt. Learning about the randomness and odds-defyingly bad luck inherent in inheritance didn't help. Nor did it help when I stressed that I was not merely unresentful, but grateful to her for having had the particular genetic accident – coding error notwithstanding – that made me.

None of this was funny. I don't remember crying, but I definitely didn't laugh. Now, seven years on, when kindly folk ask – as they do – "How are your eyes?", what am I meant to say: "Still rotting?" Hardly amusing, I grant you, but what else?

There's no natural or comforting response to sight loss. A couple of years back, a Channel 4 documentary-maker leapt to the presumption that I'd want to go on a grand sightseeing expedition to curate a memory-gallery of sights to console myself with in years to come – a proposal I turned down after emailing the blind academic John Hull (PDF).
"The supposition is that the life of a blind person will be retrospective, living in the past," replied the media-wary professor. "But one must affirm one's grasp of life as a present reality, not live in nostalgia."

I also emailed the American memoirist Jim Knipfel – who went blind as a result of RP in his 20s – who explained how he too was approached by a film-maker of a sentimental bent. "Upon meeting me she said, 'Oh, how wonderful it must be to be blind – you're living in a whole new, magical world.'"
What possible response? "My first impulse was to grab a letter-opener and let her find out first-hand what blindness is like. Instead, I warned her that her belief in magic might not survive watching me try to get across my apartment without tripping over anything."

In fairness to these film-makers, it's not easy to depict sight loss in a visual medium – and at least they wanted to try. All too often, blind people are omitted from film and TV for fear of depicting them in an insensitive way or unsettling the audience. This lack of representation is creating a problem for visually impaired citizens of the US, reckons Knipfel.
"Kids no longer grow up with images of bumbling blind people in cartoons and on sitcoms, and so no longer understand the white cane. This move to make everything 'nice' has resulted in an incredibly dangerous situation, as all those people I've run into can attest."
Which is one good reason among many to endorse the daring exceptions, films such as Come As You Are (to be released in UK cinemas on 7th June) – a funny, moving and distinctly unsentimental story about three young men, one blind, one paralysed and one who has cancer, who go on a road trip in pursuit of sex.

Knipfel's writing is a masterclass in seeing the funny side when you can't see much else. Now 47, he has honed a knack for dragging readers deep into the awfulness of a situation before bursting the pathos with an acerbic joke. His grimly mirthful memoir Slackjaw – lauded widely, even by the usually reticent Thomas Pynchon – details some of the dire predicaments Knipfel got into as a young man with deteriorating sight. The worst was when, aged 20, he collided with a lamppost so hard that it left him with a brain lesion and permanently reliant on anti-seizure medication. His vision continued to recede and he was registered blind by the time he was 30 – the age I am now – yet he remains relentlessly sardonic and self-mocking. Is that what I should do, take my sight loss less seriously?
"Well, humour has always been my reaction to a world I find absurd," confesses Knipfel, "especially when the people around me seem to take it all so seriously. When I went blind, that seemed as ridiculous as anything else, so I reacted to it in the same way."

But does it help to cope with sight loss, this refusal to take the world seriously? "To be honest, blindness has never really bothered me that much. It's an annoyance – like a head cold or hangnail. The best thing about mixing blindness and humour is that I can now get away with even more than I did before."


I admire Knipfel's insouciance, but it's not for me, I fear. The prospect of worsening sight scares me, and I don't find it easy to make light of the gaucheness it causes. Remember when Gordon Brown, who is blind in his left eye, roused hilarity by appearing to shun a handshake from a policeman on the door of 10 Downing Street? I felt a stab of vicarious embarrassment because I suspected that Brown's failure to spot the officer's outstretched hand had been caused by his limited peripheral vision – it's a mishap that has befallen me several times. OK, such faux-pas are comical, but isn't it just plain cruel to laugh?

Author Jim Knipfel wears a fedora - for safety reasons
"Not at all," insists Knipfel, who wears a fedora because the brim gives a "split-second warning" before his head hits another post. "All of us – blind people, sighted, disabled, mentally ill, whatever race, whatever religion – we all have attributes that can and should be amplified for comic exploitation. We're all fodder!"
It's hardly comforting, the prospect of becoming ever riper-fodder for ridicule, but I suppose it's preferable to being disregarded or patronised. "Damn right. The blind are, for the most part, a fairly hapless group. You deny that and, as I mentioned, before long no one will know what a white cane is or what blindness entails, and that's no good for anyone."

"OK, Jim, I'll do my best," I resolve to email back. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy a sombrero. Even if it doesn't save me from handshake blunders or lampposts, at least it'll hide my blushes."


Monday, 4 February 2013

This is not a running blog


Updated version of 'Why I run' – originally posted on 20th January 2011:
Running can be painful but not as
painful as running blogs

I’m not sure about running blogs. Running is what makes life worth living, that’s true, but people writing about their running, well, it seems to me the potential for being dull heavily outweighs the scope for being original, insightful and/or entertaining. 
What’s enjoying about running is running: the act itself. Like sex, it’s rhythmic, invigorating, animal and difficult to describe beyond the basic mechanics: one foot in front of the other, repeat. The enjoyment is the doing: absorbed in the moment, body in motion, mind quieted, undistracted. When I am running, I am running.
Writing about running for other runners of similar standard is fine – we indulge each other as a means to ever deeper self-absorption – but for a general audience? No, no way. The last thing I'd want to do is add to the web-swell of boring blather about split times, barefoot shoes (eh?), journeys and goals. I’d fail to capture the appeal; I’d be anal and puritanical about training routines; I’d pointlessly deride slower runners; I’d be that most loathsome thing, a running-bore.
But there is one question that people, including and especially non-runners, want answered: why? Why do we go outside for prolonged periods every day, come cold and rain, come leg aches and bleeding nipples, to get our fix? It is baffling, we must accept, and it warrants an explanation.
So, this is not a running blog; this is a one-off attempt to explain why.
Hitherto I’d not felt called on to explain it. It was just something I’d fallen into the habit of doing every day, like walking the dog, only faster and without a dog. Explaining why – accounting for being apparently as burden-tethered as a dog owner while not in possession of a dog – wouldn’t be easy. But then I read a book assessing why men read men’s magazines. No, not porn, but laddy-lifestyle mags such as Men’s Health, GQ, FHM, etc.
It was a sociological study by a trio of academics, exploring why men enjoy reading articles about how to ‘get ripped’, ‘craft a washboard stomach’, ‘dress to knock her dead’ and ‘steer clear of gold-diggers’, that kind of thing. I will make extensive reference, for reasons that will become clear, to the chapter entitled “Consumption and the sociology of the body”.
That’s quite enough preamble; without further ado, this is why I run:
1. Because my job is too easy
I run because my job doesn’t tire me out or make me feel manly and important. I do not earn money by digging holes in the ground, like my father did. His job kept his body lean and muscular (and tired); it was a job for life; it fulfilled a useful function with obvious benefits to society; it earned him money to feed his family. My job involves sitting at a desk all day (burning very little energy), fiddling around with words no one needs to read, earning money to fritter away on my own amusement. I run because it makes me feel as though I am doing real work, helping me feel fit and alive, and giving me a project on which to expend surplus energy.
“Capitalism is no longer dependent upon the condemnation of sexual and physical pleasure and the maintenance of strictly disciplined forms of manual labour. Instead, the body in consumer culture is both disciplined and hedonistic. In such a culture, the body becomes a vehicle for pleasure, youth, health and fitness; that is, it is increasingly viewed as a passport to the good life… Life itself is a project within modernity.”
2. To feel superior
Running makes me feel as though I have an advantage over others. I have no power over others in my job or in my relationships (unlike my father, who was indisputably head of our family). Running is an arena in which I can strive to dominate others, to try and be exceptional; keeping fit makes me feel less fallible, less likely to need emotional or medical help.
“[Running] prepares men for the atomised world of late capitalism, providing them with crucial ammunition in helping them gain a competitive advantage… The hyper-competitive social relations of late-capitalism manifest themselves in male relations at work, in friendships and in relationships. The need for intimate human relations that men have found so difficult to recognise within themselves are displaced through myths of self-sufficiency and independence.”
3. To forestall my body’s decline
I'm 30 now, so my body is about to begin its slow yet inexorable decline towards old age and death. My job is not tough or tiring enough to distract me from this awful truth. But, all the time I am getting fitter and faster, I have firm proof that my body is an anomaly, defying science – not only evading deterioration but improving. Working hard at running provides definite, measurable evidence – in the form of improving PBs – that my body is flourishing; I’m not just outrunning the Grim Reaper but lapping him, making him look stupid.
“Just as men face an increasingly uncertain future in the workplace, so their bodies become places of intense anxiety and scrutiny in terms of their inevitable decline. In order for this decline to be halted or at least temporarily arrested, the body becomes something that needs to be invested in and worked upon… The body becomes a new site for social discipline.”
4. It gives me an identity
How do you define yourself? Which single word best sums you up? The first adjective in my Twitter biog used to be “Runner” (until writing this made me self-conscious about it) – I defined myself by my hobby, first and foremost. In the past, most people defined themselves by their profession, but less so these days. Nowadays, it is not sensible to get too attached to one’s job (consider all those people employed in the public sector to whom the government has said: “You’re not required anymore, and probably never were”.) Our jobs are uncertain, unsafe and of questionable utilitarian worth.
“In the new world of flexible employment, the rules are made up as we go along, the ability to adapt and change is the most prized of possessions and the act of departure valued above that of reaching the destination.”
Indeed, some of my fondest memories involve handing in resignation letters and leaving jobs.
“… the idea that our skills may well become redundant in the future means that the workplace can only offer the most insecure of identities. The body, then, becomes a domain to be ‘worked on’ and regulated. The body requires finely itemised forms of labour in order that it might produce measurable effects. This process of physical transformation grants the masculine subject a sense of security and continuity denied him within the workplace… Uncertainty converts the body into a new project of identity.”
5. To be a machine
The fallibility of my body is unbearable. Consider my eyes – one minute, they’re fine, seeing everything normally; the next, they’re destroying themselves and I’m going blind because of some silly little genetic quirk. Being trapped inside a human body is ridiculously perilous. It is far better to be a machine. Runners look upon their flawed carcasses as embodied apparatus – hard, robust and responsive to fine-tuning.
“Men’s relationships with their bodies is often represented as being purely instrumental… The application of instrumental logics… [and] tips and advice keep the body ‘running along smoothly’. The most often used metaphor in relation to the body and sources of food and energy is that of ‘refuelling’… [Men] seek to convert the body into something that can be controlled by scientific forms of rationality protecting the self from having to develop a more vulnerable relation with the body’s own needs.”
6. To flee from death
As discussed above, my body is about to begin its decline towards death. I am unable to accept my own death, for it is too terrible a prospect. While I’m running and getting fitter, I feel very alive; so it follows that running is the opposite of death and, as such, keeps death at bay. I know that immortality is a questionable corollary to “feeling very alive”, but the illusion makes existence more tolerable and helps me forget the terrible truth. Besides, no one has anything better to offer. Religion isn’t taken seriously anymore, and “a problem shared is a problem halved” doesn’t seem to apply to death – believe me, I’ve tried; it’s my favourite topic of conversation down the pub.
“The culture of bodily fitness and exercise is bound up with a fear of death and mortality… In the face of death we often go silent, because we lack a common language in which to frame the experience… Death is something to be hidden away and privatised within modernity. Fear of death becomes… as Castoriadis argues, ‘that everything, even meaning, will dissolve’… Death is that which cannot be mastered and controlled, despite all our efforts to mould and shape the body. These concerns can be forgotten about, or at least this is the expectation, through daily regimes that invite us to keep an ever-watchful eye on our health.”
Source: Making Sense of Men’s Magazines, by Peter Jackson, Nick Stevenson & Kate Brooks, published by Polity Press, 2001.