Category: Running

I AM BOLT: USAIN BOLT DOCUMENTARY – Men’s Running, February 2017 issue

Spoiler alert! There’s a new film out about Usain Bolt, and I can tell you exactly how it ends. The man they call “Lightning” defeats the baddies, wins all the medals and returns home to Jamaica covered in more glory than a Magnum ice cream is covered in delicious chocolate.

 

It was a slight problem for British brothers and co-directors Ben and Gabe Turner: how do you give a documentary film the required dramatic tension when practically everybody in the world already saw your finale in Rio, August 2016? Besides that, how do you maintain interest in a protagonist who has barely put a foot wrong since his first spectacular trio of gold medals in Beijing 2008? Even the cheesiest Hollywood blockbuster puts its hero in grave peril before the obligatory happy ending.

 

“With a guy like Usain who’s given so many interviews and had the same questions constantly asked of him, it’s not interesting to make a film telling you stuff you’ve heard again and again,” admits older brother Ben, 39. “We wanted to find out what HE wanted to say about his life. What’s it like to him to be this dominant athlete? He’s the fastest human being in the world so to get into his perspective and find out what it’s like to be him – that’s fascinating to me.”

 

The brothers spent a year and a half following Bolt, beginning a few months before the World Championships in Beijing in August 2015. They captured him training hard, hating ice baths as much as anyone, dying of boredom in hotel rooms and yes, partying hard too. Crucially for the film’s dramatic value, the Bolt of these World Championships and Rio is a different man from the one who set the 100 and 200m World Records in Beijing 2008 looking like he was just nipping past on his way to the shops. Having raced less regularly than others, he’s got the USA’s Justin Gatlin – an easy sell as the villain of the piece – snapping at his heels. A few months before Rio, he suffers an ankle injury that he must go all the way to Germany to get treated. “The older I get, the less fun it is,” he complains. He’s no longer the clear favourite.

 

“He blew the field away in 2008. He won that on talent, on sheer God-given ability,” says Ben. “But by the time we got to Rio, others could run faster times than him. He won that with character. He won because of who he is, not because of talent. That’s a tribute to what it is to be a champion.”

 

Watching the film, the man who smiles, dances, then opens his stride and puts acres between himself and the seven other fastest men in the world, does turn out to be human. He struggles with motivation, given this unprecedented physical gift but preferring to go quad biking. He shows his father, Wellesley, and his second father, coach Glen Mills, quiet respect. He irons his own shirts!

 

Viewers may be surprised by his training setup, which appears to be a handful of people, including his schoolfriend and manager Nugent ‘NJ’ Walker, and a tent in a dusty field in Jamaica. Mills is a star of the film, a man so chilled that hospitals could boil him down and use him as morphine. He looks like he should be playing dominos outside a rum shack, but if he tells the fastest man on the planet to sprint up and down dragging a sledge loaded with weights, Bolt will do it. “We don’t need to have a military thing. If you can reach people you tend to get more out of them – that’s my philosophy,” he says, very slowly.

 

The Turners didn’t have much trouble winning Bolt’s trust. They arrived on the project fresh from making a documentary about the sprinter’s favourite football team, Manchester United. Class of ’92 told the story of the blessed batch of United youngsters that included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and the Neville Brothers. Helpfully, Bolt had no problem with being on camera all day. “He’s very of the modern world,” says Ben. “He’s always filming himself on his phone.” At one point they were worried that his Snapchat feed was going to be more revealing than the documentary.

 

But it’s the self-shot footage from Bolt and other members of the Jamaica team that gives a new perspective on events that might otherwise be overfamiliar. You can see part of the 2008 triumph on decathlete Maurice Smith’s tiny, flickering athlete’s village television, and hear Smith’s jubilant reaction. And you get a sense of the flipside of that ecstasy when Bolt is sluggish and contemplative in hotel rooms, talking to his phone camera because he has nothing else to do.

 

It’s not an unbalanced idealization of the 30-year-old, though you’re unlikely to come away from it loving him any less. It’s simple, says Turner: he really is as cool as you hoped he would be. “He’s not actually a dickhead who’s pretending to be a good bloke. He just is who he is. He’s a special man and doesn’t think that he’s a better human being than other people. He restores your faith in everything you hope sport should be.”

 

So when he looks straight at the camera and says: “I am the greatest,” it’s not the big talk of an idiot. He just is. Who else could prompt Pele to announce that he is “one of my idols”?

 

These are the stellar circles in which he now exists. There’s Serena Williams comparing him to Pele, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and, um, herself, as “amazing athletes that reached beyond what any other athlete has reached.” There’s Sebastian Coe saying, “I don’t think I can remember anybody since Muhammad Ali that has just grabbed the stage in any sport in the way Usain did.”

 

So there may not be much that we can glean from the film to help our own running. His is an ability that will remain in a different universe to ours no matter how many extra Parkruns we do. “What did I learn from him? Just that I’m a very ordinary human being physically,” says Ben. “I’ll never forget the sight of him in full flight. It’s so beautiful. Everybody runs, it’s part of humanity, so to see the fastest person ever recorded, the idea of what that represents… You’re dead if you don’t care about that. It’s like the Moon landing.”

 

 

BOXOUT: FIVE SURPRISING BOLT FACTS

 

1 – He works harder than you think

Supposedly he won his Beijing Olympic titles fuelled by chicken nuggets, but by the run-up to London 2012, he was fully committed to training. “I vomited daily,” he reveals.

 

2 – His greatest moment came when he was 15

Never mind the World Records. According to Bolt, it doesn’t get any better than winning the 200m at the 2002 World Junior Championships in front of a home crowd in Kingston, Jamaica.

 

3 – He wants to play for Manchester United

For his post-athletics career, Bolt hopes to avoid the pundits’ box and switch to the top level of another sport entirely. It would be unprecedented, but so was the triple-triple.

 

4 – He doesn’t think talent comes naturally

“If you want to be a winner you have to work hard to be a winner,” he says in the film, suggesting that those who aren’t prepared to graft should take up, “What’s that sport with the broom? Curling!”

 

5 He’s a terrible singer

After all the elation, the enduring image of I Am Bolt might actually be the fastest man on earth rolling around his hotel room on a hoverboard scooter, crooning R Kelly like a cat on an operating table.

 

 

I Am Bolt is released in cinemas, on digital download, Blu-Ray and DVD on 28 November.  iamboltfilm.com

 

HOW TO PUSH THROUGH PAIN – Men’s Running, Jan 2017 issue

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As R Kelly sang in Bump ‘n’ Grind, the R&B superstar’s famous song about cross country running, “My mind is tellin’ me no, but my body, my body’s tellin’ me YES!” We can receive conflicting messages when racing, and it’s hard to know what to believe. Most confusingly, how can we tell that we’re trying as hard as we can when we run?

 

If you cross the finish line and are able to chat straight away, or indeed feel comfortable enough to natter during a race, you could probably give a little more. The problem is that we don’t usually recognise that until late on. If you can summon a blazing sprint finish at the close (and most of us can – that’s the best bit, isn’t it?), who’s to say that you couldn’t have used that extra energy more effectively in the rest of the race?

 

“The question, ‘How can a runner tell if he has given his best effort over the full distance of a race?’ is fundamentally unknowable,” says coach and author Matt Fitzgerald, who wrote the book How Bad Do You Want It? “No matter how hard an athlete feels he has tried, he always finishes a race – or at least reaches the point where he begins his finishing kick – with a reserve of physical capacity. This is because runners pace their races based on subjective perceptions of their physical limits, and humans appear to be wired to always underestimate these limits.”

 

You can’t win a top level race without trying your hardest though, surely, so how do the big boys do it? I ask triathlon gold medallist Alistair Brownlee who, as a less than ideal interview mix of single-minded professional athlete and Yorkshireman, doesn’t have much to offer in the way of deep psychological insights.

 

“It’s hard for me to answer because it comes quite naturally and I’ve done it from a very young age,” he says of his ability to push himself towards first place. He isn’t a believer in visualisation or other ways to train your mind as well as your body for success. “I’ve never let myself focus on crossing the line. I have to remain very much in the moment. I am aware somewhere that I’m really really pushing hard, but I’m staying in the moment, trying to hold on til the next corner, breaking the race down and staying in the present. My opinion is, train as hard as you can physically, get yourself on the start line and embrace the challenge of the race. Just get on with it.”

 

Simple, huh? “You can almost always try harder than you think you can,” he continues. “So basically you do something as hard as you can, then try and do it about five per cent harder.”

 

It makes sense that a good way to understand your effort level is to have done something before. When you do it better the second time, you have measurable proof that you’re trying harder. Plus, as we know, having a goal to beat is a great motivator.

 

Fellrunning world champion Ricky Lightfoot understands the determination that results from doing less well the first time you try something. When we speak he’s just back from the Grand Trail des Templiers in France, a 76km race in which he finished a mere 24th. However, his previous visit was worse. “Two years ago I had an injury at this same race which stopped me finishing it, so I was more determined than ever to finish this time,” he tells me. “I’ve been carrying an injury for about two years. It started hurting after about 30k in this race. I found myself almost wanting to give in and stop. It’s points like that when you feel a bit of self pity. I found myself wishing I had my phone so I could call my partner. But I knew it wasn’t going to get any worse. I just kept on telling myself: get a little bit further, get to the next checkpoint. I told myself I wanted to get to the finish, and I was more than happy with that.”

 

You’ll have noticed both Brownlee and Lightfoot thinking about their races only in small increments. If you tried to comprehend the magnitude of, say, the Marathon des Sables and its endless stages all at once, you’d run screaming in the opposite direction. But putting one foot in front of the other, then doing it again, and again, ought always to be something you can manage. In practice you can persuade your brain to think positively about repeating these small achievements, according to Andy Lane, Professor of Sport and Learning at the University of Wolverhampton. It’s interval training that will teach you how to push harder for longer.

 

“If you’re doing 20 reps, you don’t think, ‘I can’t do 17 more of these.’ You don’t have to think about that. You only have to think about the next one,” he tells me. “So you think, ‘Can I do one more? Yes.’ That brings the mindset: ‘Can I go quicker? Yes I can.’ That’s the foundation of mental strength for any endurance event: ‘Can I do this again? Yes. Can I push myself hard? Yes. Is it tiring? Yes. But am I stopping? No!’”

 

A problem that we face is that we almost always feel that we are trying our hardest, even if the reality is that we could try harder. Matt Fitzgerald cites a study in which cyclists completed a time trial, then did it again racing against an avatar on a computer screen that was programmed to do it two per cent faster than each cyclist had done it previously. The cyclists did better the second time, but on both occasions reported that they’d been trying as hard as they could.

 

So what you’re trying to do is increase your maximum tolerance for perceived effort. “When you complete a hard workout or race and realise that it didn’t kill you, you feel comfortable pushing a little harder in the next one,” says Fitzgerald.

 

But how do we measure that effort during a race? An attempt to run at a certain pace per mile can come unstuck when there are hills or a headwind. Using a heart rate monitor can teach you the top level at which you can work, and help you to know the line to keep just underneath. However, they can lag, continuing to climb after you’ve already reached the top of a hill, for example.

 

Some devices, such as those made by Stryd and RPM2, can now offer a power reading in watts, of the kind used by cyclists. It could be a more accurate way to keep track of physical effort regardless of hills, wind or technical trails.

 

But no one has yet come up with a gadget for measuring mental toughness. For that, you simply have to suffer. “You’ve got to be broken a little before you can improve your mental strength,” says Ricky Lightfoot. “Without seeing how far you can push it, you’ll never know how much you’re capable of.”

 

 

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5 TOUGHEST RACES FROM AROUND THE WORLD

 

Self Transcendence 3100 Mile

Your best chance of achieving running nirvana or going completely bonkers. Run 3,100 miles (you read that right) over 52 summer days around a single block in Queens, New York: 164th Place to Abigail Adams (84th) Avenue to 168th Street to Grand Central Parkway.

 

Marathon Des Sables

If, on your regular runs, you find yourself thinking: “I wish I had more sand in my socks,” why not go for the big one? Over six days, masochistic runners cross 156 miles of the Sahara Desert.

 

Otillo

An island-to-island “swimrun” near Stockholm, competitors must cross 24 islands, running a total of 40 miles across them and swimming just over six miles between them. Pippa Middleton did it in 2015, so how hard can it be?

 

Dragon’s Back

A daunting traverse of the whole of Wales from north to south: 200 miles in five days, including about 8.5 miles of ascent. The organisers insist it’s “the toughest 5-day mountain running race in the world.”

 

Badwater Ultramarathon

Mid-July in California’s Death Valley is a fine place for lizards and cacti, but less so for runners. Nevertheless, people keep attempting this 135 mile course in temperatures of up to 54C.

 


5 ATTRIBUTES/PERSONALITY TRAITS THAT MENTALLY TOUGH ATHLETES SHARE

 

They’re hyper competitive

“I’m always trying to win, and giving up is like losing. Being mentally strong and trying to carry on to the finish is probably my way of winning,” says Ricky Lightfoot.

 

They stay in the moment

“I don’t want my mind to wander off from the moment,” says Alistair Brownlee. “If you’re in a race thinking, ‘I can’t do this. I have to make myself do this,’ it would already be too late.”

 

They stick to a schedule

Says Andy Lane: “Pro athletes’ ability to stick to training programmes is collossal, plus their ability to run on the edge of where it hurts and be okay with that. Most people could get a lot better at learning to cope with more.”

 

They exhibit inhibitory control

That’s the ability to stay focused on the thing that you want most, even when confronted with two incompatible things, such as A: wanting to finish quickly, and B: not wanting to suffer.

 

They know it’s not just about effort

Technique is important too. “There’s a balance between going as hard as you can and maintaining your technique,” says Brownlee. “You can try too hard and lose out in another way.”

 


5 WAYS TO IMPROVE MENTAL TOUGHNESS

 

Reframe your suffering

As author and runner Haruki Murakami reminded us: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Andy Lane elaborates: “You can train your brain to interpret sensations of fatigue as sensations of goal achievement.”

 

Repeat yourself

You know for sure that you’re trying harder if you do the same thing again, and do it better.

 

Set goals

You’re more likely to try harder if you perceive your extra effort as worthwhile. So go for that PB, or that good position.

 

Do short intervals

The shorter the better, says Lane. “Make each rep short enough for you to go hard and not overthink pacing. When it’s short, you can do another one and develop your ability to say, ‘Yes, I can keep going.’”

 

Pace yourself smart

“If you did a Parkrun in 20 minutes, the first half in nine and the second half in 11, a lot of people would go by you in the second half and you’d feel awful,” says Lane. “The other way round, you’d be accelerating and finish feeling fabulous.”

ASICS BEAT THE SUN – Men’s Running magazine, Sept 2016 issue

Capture

Beat the Sun sounds more like an undertaking for astronauts than athletes. They call it “nature’s toughest challenge”, though at 5.44 in the morning, the toughest challenge for the residents of the hotels that surround Chamonix town square is remaining asleep while commemorative cowbells clang, flares erupt and a DJ greets the alpine sunrise with deafening dubstep.

 

ASICS have been putting on this relay race for three years now, the brainchild of French race director Laurent Ardito, who has found that sweet spot for a test that is daunting, just about achievable and captures the imagination. In the simplest terms, it’s easy to understand: start at sunrise, run around the Mont Blanc massif, finish in the same place before sunset on the longest day of the year. To say it again with numbers, that’s 87 miles through three countries, including 29,000ft of ascent (the equivalent of scaling Everest) in 15 hours and 41 minutes. This time eight teams of six will attempt it, three elite runners and three amateurs, in 12 legs, the longest of which is 11.8 miles.

 

Chamonix, the site of the first ever Winter Olympics, is accustomed to being invaded by trail runners, as the home of the iconic Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in late August. This course is similar but a little shorter, following a hiking path that usually takes walkers 7-9 days. The town sits beneath the surrounding mountains like the plug in a gigantic sink, and when you’re there, the only inclination is to go up. A statue of 18th Century Swiss explorer Horace-Benedict de Saussure points enticingly towards the summits in the central square. They look inspiring, overwhelming, and astoundingly beautiful as the previous day’s lowering sun turns the snow caps golden.

 

Matty Hynes, the only British elite taking part and the primary runner for Team Europe North, is feeling less poetic in the build-up. “The first stage is a twat of a stage,” he announces. He’s a Middlesborough man (“God’s country,” he says more than once) who came 17th in the 2015 London Marathon with a time of 2:16:00, but missed out on a place at the Rio Olympics due to illness during qualifying. He’s also something of a wild card among the more robotic stars of distance running, struggling to sleep the night before the race because he’s so angry at England’s feeble football performance against Slovakia in the Euros, and slipping into a Joy Division T-shirt as soon as his sporting duties are finished.

 

A remarkable array of different talents gathers to meet the press on the day before the race. There’s Ryan Hall for Team Americas 2, runner of the fastest marathon by an American (2:04:58 in Boston 2011). Now retired at 33, he’s been spending his time body building and looks quite the beefcake. There’s Deena Kastor for the same team, an Olympic marathon bronze medallist in 2004. Eun Ju Kwon, for Team East Asia, held the Korean women’s marathon record for 18 years. Also present are Olympic speedskater Erben Wennemars from the Netherlands, Italian cross country skier turned trail champion Xavier Chevrier and German obscacle course racer Charles Franzke.

 

Americas 2 is the team everyone wants to beat. But leading Americas 1 is the real expert: Colorado trail champ Megan Kimmel. She’s participated in both previous Beat the Sun events and known the pain and the joy. The inaugural event in 2014 was a two horse race between a team of four ultra runners and a team of seven shorter distance runners. Kimmel’s team, the latter, missed the sunset by just 33 seconds. Last year’s Beat the Sun featured five teams of six and included amateurs selected from thousands of applicants for the first time. Kimmel’s team won, outrunning the sun by 38 minutes. “A lot of our trails in the States are made for trail running, whereas in Europe a lot of them are just old passes for going from town to town. They’re more direct, and more vertical,” she says.

 

In any case, she doesn’t have much of an advantage on her return, because this year they’ve decided to do the course in reverse. There’s a lot more snow this year, and they want to get the whitest leg out of the way early on. “It’s too dangerous to have this part at the end, with the risk of crossing a high pass in the dark,” says director Laurent Ardito. “The race is very technical this year.” He’s got three helicopters on standby and eight mountain rescuers.

 

At 5.44 on June 21, damp greyness slowly pales and the first eight runners begin to head upwards. By the end of the first leg, when the elites hand over their tracking devices to the first set of amateurs, there’s already an 18 minute gap between first placed Chevrier of Europe South and eighth placed Kwon of East Asia, who looks utterly spent and has two more legs to run later in the day.

 

Leg 3, a steep descent in thick snow, is tackled by two team members together, holding on to a rope as they stagger and slide downwards. The doubling up here means that each team’s first runner has to tackle three legs in total. “I didn’t want to flatline on the first leg, as it’ll catch up with you,” says Hynes. In his training for this event he’s cut out his big Sunday runs but gone out twice a day to get used to running on tired legs. “Everybody tries to complicate marathon training, but all it is is learning to run when you’re tired.”

 

The long day wears on. It’s not easy to spectate, and much of the race is spent peering at coloured icons creeping along a map on a computer screen. It starts to be a battle between the three European teams – North, South and Central. But by the leg 7 handover, in Courmayer in Italy, it’s obvious from the huge gaps between teams that many are struggling. Teams East Asia and Oceania-Pacific are eliminated at this point, having failed to meet their cut-off times. Brazilian amateur Mariana Bruger from Americas 2 has to pull out here with a leg injury and be replaced by a substitute. “It was not an easy decision but I need to think about my team,” she says.

 

The British amateur, James MacDonald, takes on leg 7, the shortest and steepest. It’s been switched at the last minute for safety reasons, from a climb that requires ropes and a helmet to a plain old horrendous ascent. He’s a cancer survivor who organises the Junion Parkrun in Wilmslow, and has an Ironman coming up in Bolton a few weeks later.

 

After that he can head off for a well-earned lie down in his hotel spa, while Hynes waits patiently for leg 12, a road run, relatively flat, back into Chamonix. His yellow-shirted team mates join him for a triumphant sprint through the streets, an amazing 51 minutes ahead of the sunset. They’re 38 minutes ahead of Europe South, the only other team to beat the sun this time.

 

“I just see myself as an ordinary runner. I can’t see how I would ever top this day,” says a beaming MacDonald. Deena Kastor, despite finishing in the dark, can’t stop smiling either. “I can’t believe how challenging and joyous it was at the same time,” she says. The sun will make the same journey again tomorrow, but the runners have more than earned a long rest.

 

 

Sign up for a chance to Beat the Sun in 2017 at races.asics.com/beatthesun

RUNNING STEREOTYPES – Men’s Running magazine, July 2016

Running Stereotypes

As you become more and more immersed in this fine sport of ours, do you ever worry that you might have become a cliché? Ever find yourself jogging down a towpath, perhaps, spot another guy running the opposite way and panic that you’re going to smash into a mirror? Next to skiiing or deep sea diving, say, this isn’t a particularly complicated pastime, and there are only so many varieties of trainers, stopwatches, fuels and techniques you can explore before you start repeating yourself. We may believe that we’ve found the unique formula for personal running success, until we line up at a start line beside nine clones of ourselves.

But even if you haven’t succumbed to the obvious yourself, this field guide of running stereotypes ought to provide a small distraction from the pain and boredom of the long Sunday run. Tick them off as you spot them, like a twitcher without the anorak, and allow yourself an extra protein bar if you get all five.

 

THE BAREFOOT RUNNER

Distinguishing features: well the shoes, obviously. Or lack of them, if he’s a real purist. More likely those foot condoms with individual toes that are illogically called “Fivefingers”.

Where you’ll find him: tiptoeing across the softest available surface near his house, squealing at pebbles.

Most likely to: persuade you to read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, bang on about ancient man’s innate ability to run huge distances on hunts, then run off with a perfectly crafted forefoot strike before you can ask: “And when did you last catch and kill an exhausted antelope?”

Least likely to: get injured, if you believe the hype.

Loves: playing “This Little Piggy Went to Market”.

Hates: dog poo.

 

THE GEAR FREAK

Distinguishing features: glowing Bluetooth headphones, a watch bigger than his fist. If you pass him during a race he will be giving off more bleeps than R2D2. Describes the zip on his shorts as “fastening technology”.

Where you’ll find him: at home, hunched over a laptop analysing elevations and heart rates for far longer than his actual run, before displaying his route (the only thing less interesting than other people’s baby photos) on Facebook.

Most likely to: film, painstakingly edit and upload to YouTube a GoPro video of the loop around his local park (“Check out the angry swan at 19:56! LOL”) which will eventually attain 11 views.

Least likely to: look at a view without taking a picture and hashtagging it #inspired.

Loves: being filmed for a gait analysis in a trainer shop, even when he isn’t going to buy any.

Hates: hills that don’t have wifi.

 

THE OLD TIMER

Distinguishing features: tiny body made entirely of wire wool. Shuffling stride. “100 Marathon Club” Tshirt. Plimsolls which he bought in 1961.

Where you’ll find him: at the back of the Parkrun, being patronised by lapping whippersnappers who don’t realise that he did the Bob Graham Round in three hours in 1871.

Most likely to: be featured in the local paper for doing the same race without missing a year since radio was invented.

Least likely to: use any performance enhancing device more advanced than chalk.

Loves: routine.

Hates: how popular this sport has become.

 

THE SLOGGER

Distinguishing features: heavy belly straining at four layers of clothing that can’t wick fast enough. Steady, solid plod. Eyes down beneath large, feature-concealing cap.

Where you’ll find him: on his local streets, after dark, hoping no one notices him finally taking an interest in his health.

Most likely to: stop at the mini-roundabout near his house to google “Am I having a heart attack? Signs and symptoms” on his phone.

Least likely to: throw in a few dozen pushups, just for fun like.

Loves: covering distances he never dreamed possible a few months earlier. The feeling of finishing.

Hates: having gold-plated witticisms such as “Run, Forrest!” yelled at him by hilarious teenagers in passing cars.

 

THE OBSTACLE COURSER

Distinguishing features: muscles like ballon animals. Face hidden beneath three inches of mud.

Where you’ll find him: at any race that sounds less like a fun day out and more like an FBI interrogation technique.

Most likely to: make a traditonal road race “a little more interesting” by strapping on a backpack full of sand and filling his trainers with glass. For charity, of course.

Least likely to: snuggle up with the cat and a romcom.

Loves: being electrocuted.

Hates: cushions (unless being forced to eat one), warm baths (unless they’re at the bottom of a skip filled with ice cubes), scented candles (unless held directly beneath his testicles).

HOW TO RUN A SUB-3 HOUR MARATHON – Men’s Running, April 2016

Telling everybody you know that you’re planning to run a marathon in less than three hours is a bit like telling everyone you’re writing a novel: they’ll keep asking you about it every time they see you and it will be embarrassingly obvious that you haven’t done it. But a pointless running goal shared is a pointless running goal halved,… Read more →

THE POWER OF SLEEP – Men’s Running, Nov 2015

I assumed that being tasked with writing about sleep would be a fairly restful experience, yet here I am for the second time in seven days in a Fitness First gym, first thing in the morning, with my hand in a bucket of ice. In an attempt to understand the relationship between sleep and athletic performance, I’ve agreed to be… Read more →

RUNNING BLADES – Men’s Running, Sept 2015 issue

blades 1
blades 2When the Paralympics earned their highest profile ever in London in 2012, running blades became unlikely objects of desire, perhaps even more so because the majority of us would never own one. Yes, you need a severe physical disability to need a blade, but they look so cool, don’t they? The products made by leading manufacturers Ossur, Ottobock and Freedom Innovations are futuristic X-Men weapons of speed rather than clunky approximations of the real thing.

Richard Whitehead saw at first hand the upswing in public attitudes, from mild pity to intense admiration, after he won the T42 200m at the Games and set a new world record of 24.38 seconds. A congenital double amputee, born without lower legs or knees, he went on to run from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 2013. “The perceptions of what a disabled person can and can’t do have gone from zero to hero,” he says.

He runs like Pete Townshend plays the guitar: by circumduction, windmilling his straight legs in circles from the hips. This made him stand out in the 200m, where he was the only one starting upright in the T42 class of single above-the-knee amputees, all in the traditional sprinter’s crouch. He was slower off the blocks before taking off on the straight to beat the others by a considerable distance. He’s keen to stress, though, that it isn’t the blades that made him the best – his two to their one. “It’s athletic ability. Otherwise everybody would be running marathons and breaking world records.” He ran his first marathon, in 5 hours 19 in 2004, on exactly the same kind of blade as his fastest, 2 hours 42 in 2009. The difference was his training, not the technology. The type he uses are available to anyone off the shelf. Although he goes direct to the manufacturer for his rather than the NHS, and gets through a set every six months or so, they’re not like unattainable Formula 1 cars.

Richard Hirons, clinical specialist at Icelandic prosthetics company Ossur – the company that makes the Cheetah blades used by Whitehead, British 2012 T44 100m gold medallist Jonnie Peacock and Oscar Pistorius – agrees that it isn’t the blades that make a great runner. “We can take the credit for the technology but the ability is absolutely paramount,” he says. “Without the athletes they’re just passive devices, like running shoes.”

Nor do they, as some might imagine, give an advantageous kangaroo-like bounce to amputee runners. They are carbon fibre springs, comprised of more than 80 layers of carbon, with normal trainer soles on the botom, but they can’t return more energy than is put in. The geometry of the curve and the thickness of the blade corresponds to the intended use – so if you’re a sprinter you’ll have a stiffer blade than you’d need for running a marathon, as up to five times your body weight could be going through it.

Stride length can be an issue. Pistorius famously slammed Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira for beating him in the T44 200m at the 2012 Paralympics, as the latter’s blades were longer. Oliveira’s blades were legal for Paralympic events, whereas Pistorius’s had to be a little shorter for the IAAF to allow him to compete fairly against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics.

But the disadvantages still far outweigh any positives. “For a below-the-knee one-sided amputee, to do the same thing [as an able-bodied runner] you’d use about 50 per cent more energy,” points out Hirons. “For a bilateral above-knee, you’re talking 200 per cent.”

“My cardiovascular system is working much harder. Blood flow is going round my body a lot quicker so my heart has to work a lot harder,” says Whitehead. It’s also no advantage for the blades to be lighter than a normal leg, as they have no dedicated muscles to move them.

Injury-wise, of course Whitehead avoids the Achilles tendon problems that can plague runners, and unlike the rest of us, if he has a problem with his foot he can simply replace it. But he can have trouble with his lower back and hips because of his running style. Also, falling over can be a huge problem. Without feeling in his feet, if he hits a stone in the road his brain doesn’t hear about it fast enough for him to instinctively put his arms out and protect himself – smash.

Kelly Bruno, who has competed for the USA paratriathlon team, struggles the most with downhill running. “When you don’t have that heel strike it’s harder to brake, so there are a lot of stresses put on the hips and knee,” she says.

Corners can be troublesome too when you don’t have ankles. Whitehead prefers the long straights of the Chicago marathon to the winding streets of London. “Carbon fibre works really well in a linear direction, but if you twist it, it can shatter,” says Mitchell Phillips, performance analyst at StrideUK, who assisted Whitehead on his Land’s End run.

Design-wise, the blade has changed relatively little since the American inventor Van Phillips started his Flex-Foot company in 1984. Chris Moon has seen more important changes at the top end than the bottom, where silicon gel now allows for a much more comfortable fit.

Moon, a former officer in the British Army, was blown up by a landmine in Mozambique while working for a charity in 1995 – it literally cost him an arm and a leg. Over 20 years, he’s seen great improvements in comfort, and is running a mile three minutes faster now, at 53, than he did as a 33-year-old. “I used to have to stop and pour the blood out of my socket. Now there’s none of that,” he says. He ran the Marathon des Sables just two years after sustaining his injuries. “It was extra tough then because I was still recovering. I think it would just be a good laugh now.” If you say so, Chris.

He’s just started using a new blade with a heel, which he thinks will suit him on the ultra distances he prefers. Whitehead will stick with the same C-shaped blade he’s been using since 2004 as he prepares for the Anniversary Games in London, the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Qatar in October, then Rio 2016 and the World Championships in London 2017. He wants to continue to show what’s possible for disabled athletes for as long as possible. And as with any runner, getting the right footwear is only the first step – it’s what comes next that reveals the real champions.

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