Bugger BrExit

Firstly, this isn’t a political blog. It’s about running with MS, a small tumour called Nigel and a brain that is ever so slightly out of whack. But no man is an island and recent events have added greater impetus to how I spend the time I have left. All of us are counting down to the end. For some of us that clock is louder and may jump a few steps ahead with little warning.

With limited options ( I can’t drink myself catatonic, I have kids that deserve a semi sane father etc) I have taken to exercise and (hopefully) evidence based nutrition. I get that my kids call me the ‘sugar nazi’ and I look forward to the day when they realise asking them to eat less cake is in no way comparable to Belsen but I digress.

In a week where Trump finally got his little hands on the big nuclear codes and Theresa Maybe outlined her plans for BrExit, a prosaic thought entered my head which may affect the next couple of years of races. We live in a connected world that will become less connected in a couple of years time. I have run in Ireland and Italy and have done the Barcelona Triathlon for a number of years now. Tourist events have always been the most challenging and the most fun. Not speaking any language apart from English there is something magnificently stupid flying somewhere and trusting to luck. It simply isn’t true that ‘everyone speaks English these day’ as I found out to my cost when the Barca Tri had shifted its racking area and I really didn’t know where to go…

But I digress (AGAIN). I am 5o this year and was considering whether I should throw caution to the wind and sign up for the Great Ethiopian Run. It is considered one of the great Great runs, if that makes sense, and it seemed a wonderful late 2017 celebration of my birthday if I make it that long as a viable entity (terms and conditions may change). The problem, as always, is medical insurance. Africa poses its own challenges for travellers and as a man with multiple sclerosis, a Nigel and zzzzzzzzzz.

I know dull, I do go on about it :). Insurance for Ethiopia would be difficult and expensive to cover everything.  The risks of running a high altitude race with insurance exclusions seem daft even by my levels of stupidity.

BUT I DIGRESS AGAIN. I got to thinking that maybe Europe was enough for me. Then I got to thinking that maybe Europe was about to become my new limit. Because Theresa Maybe is about to add not just unnecessary trade barriers, nor restrict freedom of movement beyond what any sentient being might think the referendum indicated. Nope she is going to take us to a place outside the EU (fine, done deal) AND outside the European Economic Area (EEA) too.

EU, EEA erm…..It seems such a minor thing. An extra letter on another acronym. However for this aging scrawny bag of bones it is meaningful. The European Economic Area is not the EU and was not on the ballot paper. The EEA is the area in which the Agreement on the EEA provides for the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital within the European Single Market. That’s all the EU members. And a few other countries too. But apparently we are leaving it anyway.

So what Rusty? The E111 European Health Insurance Care, the EHIC, that’s what. The EHIC which creates reciprocal health care arrangements throughout the EEA, not just the EU. If we leave the EU there are many futures. If we leave the EEA as well one of those futures includes travel insurances premiums looking hotter than that final 5k sprint on Selva de Mar…

BrExit might be a fantastic adventure. But it’s difficult to get adventurous when you can’t get affordable travel insurance.

Bugger.

BrExit.

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Has running become a new co-morbidity?

I am sitting in the conservatory, frost turning the windows from transparent to translucent. The heat has quickly left my tea but I am not moving, considering something many people have hinted at recently. Is my exercise routine a help or a hindrance? Are the running and the triathlons keeping me on the road or causing more problems? If exercise is an obsession has it become my latest co-morbidity?

The case for the prosecution is clear. I now spend more on entry fees, kit, physio etc than I did on booze before the Great Immune Attack of 2014 removed my ability to be a happy yet ineffectual lush. I plan holidays around running terrains and the possibility of races whilst away. I have become a running bore and can debate the quality and effectiveness of different carbohydrate gels whilst anyone standing within a three metre radius weeps with boredom. I have pushed myself so hard I have begun to damage my knees. Am I running to stand still, to keep the MS at bay, or have a discovered a subtle way of self righteous self harm?

The case for the defense is simple. Exercise, MS or not, is essential for a long and happy life. We have become a sedentary species, us English, the complications of which may become too expensive to comprehend. Many years ago I had a coffee with the Director of the Institute of Ageing at Oxford. She was expansive in her views that we were the ‘sandwich’ generation, our parents battling dementia, our children diabetes. We need to exercise. My neurosurgeon, who keeps a watch on my friend Nigel nestling at the base of my spine, has shown me the MRI detailing the current state of play of each of my thirty three vertebra. The wear and tear was obvious. When I asked her whether I should stop running the answer (with respect to my back) was no. Doing nothing would create bigger problems still.

I have lost three stone over two years and many people who I use to work with recognise only my voice now. I am guilty of a level of obsession, that is true, but I believe (mainly believe…) that is no more than a side effect of being human rather than a new co-morbidity. Some people go bird watching, others have more shoes than cupboard space. I run. A lot.

But but but…nothing makes you think more than sneaking out the house early on the 25th of December to go to a Parkrun whilst your sons slumber the first moments of Christmas Day without you. Even if it was a seasonal best at 20 minute 43 second.

Ho ho hum.

Continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità

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What is it that makes a man, defines him?

Before you run away this is not going to be some BS blog about the glories of manliness and how the great feminazi conspiracy has kept me from my rightful place as pack leader. I am a white middle class middle-aged bloke living in the South East of one of the most prosperous countries on Earth . There is no glass ceiling based on my chromosome count, more of a glass platter with some rather good cheese on…

What makes a man then or at least what traits are more likely to be evident in men than women? Two things come to mind but this blog concentrates on one – our love of numbers.

To be clear I don’t mean maths. I have two kids. One loves the subject the other abhors it but both love numbers. They love to quantify things. I still chuckle when I remember taking a group of 9 year olds to football practise a while back and listening in to an argument over ‘favorite moons’. They were all compiling verbal lists and collating a winner (Phobos since you ask, my vote for Europa roundly ignored…).

Men tend to love to quantify, to measure, to number. This maybe no more than conditioning. From an early age we look at league tables and memorize sport stats. I don’t believe or pretend this to be an exclusively male trait but it seems heightened within us or within the men and boys I know.

And within me as I am utterly driven by ‘threes’.

Nothing exists until it is repeated, done or measured three times. Once? Pointless, a single point on a curve. Pah. Twice? So what, a simple echo. Three times…..ooooooo….ding dong.

I use to think that this was an affectation of my (failed) training as a biologist. Three is the smallest number any meaningful statistics can be performed on and then only just. My doctorate, written mainly in the alcoholic afterglow from the Jabez Clegg or Mantos, was littered with data points repeated 3 to 5 times. But as I said I think the need to count, to replicate, to quantify runs deeper than that. It is a defining characteristic.

My MS wasn’t real until the third attack. I couldn’t process the spinal tumour until the third scan (which I paid for myself). I could go on.

But the same applies to my running and triathlon. I have run 5k races timed under 20 minutes only twice in my life. But I will not call myself a sub 20 minute runner until I hit it three times. I can retire from half marathons because I ran three under the target I set (90 to 99 minutes). If not, knee problems or not, I would keep trying. In my head all that the Great South Run in 69 minutes means is I now have a target. At least two more 10 mile races that have, just have to be under 70 minutes. I’ve already signed up to Salisbury in April and the Great South again. My MS and comorbidities means I push the pace a little. Get the trinity done. Move on. Tomorrow it may not be possible.

This post was to celebrate but also to explain the last 6 weeks. To fund raise for Asthma UK I set myself three challenges. The Great North, the Barca Sprint and the Great South. It hurt. It was stupid. But if it wasn’t three challenges, it wouldn’t have been a challenge at all.

That’s it till the new season. An early Season’s Greetings and see you at the starting line at Milton Keynes in March.

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Breast(stroke) is best…

It rained, it was cloudy but, by fuck, it was good.

Having changed sponsors from Garmin to Santander apparently mid-stream the organisers had made a number of changes to the triathlon this year. Normally it has been a festival of sorts, lasting three days with the race on the Sunday. But a more subdued organisation prevailed this year, opening quietly on the Saturday to pick up race packs, roads being closed late Saturday night and the dismantling of the course by mid-afternoon Sunday.

In the past they had separate racking areas for those doing the Olympic distance to those doing the Paralympic (sprint) and super sprint races. This year it was all as one which was cosy. Whether that meant that less people had signed up to it I don’t know. It felt smaller and the course slightly different. Add to that pot I couldn’t hire the bike I wanted and had to accept a heavier one and my ongoing knee injuries I approached the day a slightly diminished figure.

But there are certain things that raise a smile. For some it’s the smell of freshly baked bread. For some it’s that first cup of tea in the morning. For me it’s racking the bike (heavy or not) and heading towards the water’s edge.

 

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Second wave. Far too fast for a rusted out bag of scrawn like me. An estimated time based more on a moment of hope than experience as I entered all those months ago. Second wave, expected time between 70-80 minutes for the Paralympic distance. With my bones and based on realistic expectations, 100 minutes made more sense. This was not a moment of self-hate on the sea shore. I remembered that I can’t really swim…

Yup. My eye sight is so bad (minus 10 or so *coughs gently*)  that I have to swim with glasses. You can get prescription googles but at that strength they bend reality as well as light and the one pair I tried (custom made) leaked. Pointless for swimming over any distance. Swimming with glasses means one thing. Breast stroke. Slow, ponderous but gets you there in the end.

In pool triathlons I end up starting way back on the list as, for the uninitiated, pool triathlons have staggered starts with competitors ranked by estimated swim speed and separated by 20 second intervals. Not a problem. I know my place…

But my optimism when I entered the triathlon earlier in the year was coming into sharp relief standing in the sand. Second wave (out of eight I think); would I even finish the sea swim before the last wave?

The sea is a cruel Mistress someone once said (God, I’m eloquent….) but she is also a great leveller. Freestyle may be faster in a flat pool or calm lake but many of the Catalan triathletes ended up attempting to swim through the water whilst end (up to a point) skimmed. I can’t swim, I really can’t but I wasn’t last to get the shore from my wave and only one or two from the wave behind caught me. I actually passed a couple from the first! I fell onto the shore and with little breath and less composure managed to make it into the stadium and pick up the bike.

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I realised two things. Firstly my knees were holding up. Secondly I hadn’t adjusted the bike straps for my trainers making me Dr Twat, Head of Twatology, Cretin University. Having wasted a minute (crucial in a sprint) trying to adjust the pedals with cold non-functioning hands (thank you multiple sclerosis for removing working opposable thumbs when cold) I legged it with the bike to the next stage and pedalled as fast I could without the extra power and speed strapping would have allowed.

Twenty uneventful kilometres later (save for a drafting argument in a language I don’t speak over a rule that makes little sense for this tri) I was off on the final sprint. And, as per normal, passing many of those ‘better’ swimmers earlier. Paced by a young Catalan lad (thank you 1984 your time is most definitely not up) I crossed the finishing line in a personal best of 82 minutes and 15 seconds. With this body, riven with an angry immune system and uncertain spine let alone aged knees this was an excellent result.

 

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What threw me (and still does) was my run time. 5k in 19.47minutes. Formally timed and perfectly formed, only the second time I have run 5k in under 20 minutes in an official race. Maybe I am more second wave than I thought.

Next stop the Great South in under two weeks. Will my knees hold?

Watch this space…

Barcelona or Bust.

On Thursday I go back to Barcelona for the second part of my fundraising for Asthma UK but also to say hello again to a city that has become as much as my psyche as Liverpool, Amsterdam and Boston. There are many triathlons but only one Barcelona, a city that starts with a waterfront and ends with a mountain. A place that hosted my closest friend’s stag weekend and the airport where I sat nursing a beer before returning to bury my father and close that chapter of my life forever. 

Over two years ago, after pulling my back the day before, I ‘stood’ on the beach caught up in the entire stupidity of it all. Dosed up on dicloflex, I gingerly entered the Mediterranean and swam for my own lost cause before somehow getting on a bike and limping over a finishing line so far behind everyone else it was laughable. Well it would have been but I was slightly out of my tree. Dicloflex on an empty stomach….*giggles*

Last year, recognised as that fuckwit English man who fell into the sea, I got it right. A little local knowledge, a lot of proper training and not pulling your back makes all the difference. I sprinted from my multiple sclerosis and passed the finish line. I live I live I live 🙂

And this year? October the 9th? Well I start with one advantage and one problem. I am fitter than I have been since I was 16. I am lighter than a 16 year old too. The problem is I have pushed myself too far and done too much. A wonderful (and for me fast) Great North Run has knackered my knees adding a different element of pain to my life. Not overwhelming by any rational standards and nothing in comparison to so many in my MS tribe but I’ve gone from running half marathons to be limited to 5 miles max. The fun has (temporarily) gone.

I will get round Barca. The crowds will be their normal generous and loud selves. I hope to come back no further diminished and with fun reinstated if not through the triathlon then because of the finest selection of non alcoholic lagers outside Madeira. Oh and a meeting with some clinical researchers at the marvellously named UNIBAPS.

But that is a story for another time. 😕

Wish my knees luck.

Limping with Both Legs

So there it is then. The first leg of my season finale done in fine style. The Great North Run done in 93 minutes allowing me to complete a bucket list wish – three half marathons in the 90 minute range.

Truth be told I have never enjoyed running long distances. The training can be tedious, hours out on the roads and fields. Old injuries from a lifetime away flare up. Warm downs can take longer than the training itself. Preparing for autumn events can break into a summer better spent reading books and lying on the beach. I had been told my right knee was at risk of serious damage and I should consider stopping. I misheard and stopped considering.

The Great North is less of a run for the first kilometer, more of the largest lycra fetish event ever. The crowding in the pens meant I felt real kinship with battery hens and as you literally shuffle out onto the less than open roads your first instinct is to bomb a little, to get some distance between you and the pack. The pack, obviously, has the same idea…

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So even after a kilometer or two you are still sprinting to ‘get away’. My first 5k was as good as the vast majority of my parkrun time. My first 10k the fastest 10k I have ever done. At 15k I was on for a sub 90 minute time. But obviously there was a price to pay.

At 15k I had a twinge. In the left leg. After all that worry and concern the left leg started to complain. Having to slow down was not what was on the agenda but as my body adjusted to ‘protect’ the left, everything began to moan. I am a scrawny old man so I run mainly on empty anyway. With 1.5k to go the 95 minute pacer caught up with me and, stupidly, male pride overtook  human sensibility. Gritting teeth I sprinted home, passing a few of the delirious who had mistimed completely and momentarily enjoying the announcement over the finishing line tannoy that “the first of the charity runners” were coming home.

With little time before my flight home (told you I was stupid) I had little time to warm down. I had to get back to my AirBnB, shower and check in. At this point both knees had gone and I began limping with both legs. The flight, apart from a small crying child and Denise Lewis (no connection) was uneventful. The coach back home survivable. Sadly both my knees were shot.

To this day I have no idea what damage has been done. The pain has subsided but only a fool what suggest I am back to normal whatever normal is for a man with MS and a tumour named Nigel. I have the Barcelona Sprint Triathlon in under two weeks and, for a reason I don’t quite understand, the Great South (a 10 miler) in just under four weeks. I managed a moral boosting 20.28 at the Shrewsbury Parkrun on Saturday but am not so stupid that I don’t know that race was more body memory than new achievement. More wounded animal screaming across the line than anything else. The knees are gone, another clock starts to tick.

So why keep going? Because if it is a choice of letting my body eat itself or running it into the ground then it is no choice at all. As I keep saying, if the MS or Nigel wants me they are either going to have to run faster or risk finding nowt left to feed on.

See you on the beach…

 

MS, Mortality and Me – Rusting For Ever

The Great North is but a few days away. As it stands the forecast looks perfect. Cloudy, 17 degrees etc. My race number has turned up and I’ve been put in the C Pen on the day. For those who don’t run (really?) it is common practise to group runners according to ability so a C ranking is frankly astounding for me considering they pen all the way to group M, I think. Just shows how far I have come over the past year or so.

I’ll be tail running the Harcourt Hill Parkrun on Saturday before getting a train up to Newcastle. I have a room booked and flight back to London on Sunday. The flight is at 3.45pm to encourage me NOT to dawdle during the race. I need to finish in 1 hour 39 mins or less to hit the target I set and retire from Half Marathons. An old knee injury from way back when and the funny way I run have conspired together. The knee pain on longer runs is……unpleasant. So pain or not, I’ll have to run fast or I’ll miss my flight.

The pain today is just an ache. I am doing the accepted routine of tapering, reducing the amount of running before I race. I hit my peak (just over 20K in 1 hour 33mins) early August and yesterday was down to 12.5k. One quick jog on Wednesday (5 miles) and that is the last sweat til Sunday.

Tapering though has not been without its problems. I run everywhere and don’t stop for holidays. Every time I come up off a steroid drip I find it hard to get back into an exercise routine so holidays can’t be a self-defeating excuse. After my peak 20k run we all flew off to a Portuguese volcanic island in the middle of nowhere. Idyllic yes. Flat, erm, not so much.

Before we left I had used MapMyRun, a wonderful little app, to help plot a circuit to minimise the wearing on the knee. I had worked out a course where the elevation was no more than 70m which seemed fine. The first Sunday abroad the kids were occupied at lunch so it seemed a good time to go. Yes it was 27 degrees but I’d run in hotter and the humidity? Pah.

I had to do the circuit six times to hit 17.5k. And that 70m elevation was all front loaded. After one lap I could see, perhaps, on reflection, 1 pm with the sun overhead wasn’t the best time to be doing this. By lap three my eyeballs needed windscreen wipers as the sweat poured forth. As I started lap four I could see six laps was going to be more imaginary than real and as I finished that lap my better self (rarely seen but available on request) decided to intervene and insist on just one more circuit. Even that wasn’t possible.

As I finished the elevation my legs began to fail as did any coherency of thought. I had just enough about me to realise my only friend left was the force of gravity so turned round and head down hill. As I reached back ‘home’ I pissed myself.

Reading that again I understand that sounds bleak. I have always described my condition as Diet MS. When the tumour was then discovered I named it Nigel. When the blackdog returned (in the guise of BDD) I out ran it. It’s not a case of whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Much more you play the hand that is given. With luck you can game that hand and that’s what I have been doing.

My father, before he died of a broken heart, was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had immense difficulty with the consequences. A man of his generation, his lack of bladder control became one of the walls in which he hid from polite society. My MS tribe know this problem well. For women who have given birth, a weakened pelvic floor mean leakage at the end of a race is not unusual and why many such runners prefer black shorts and leggings. However, the loss of bladder control was a new one for me. And I mean loss not leak.

I have heard about hitting a wall when running longer distances but this was the first time I had done so myself. I think, in many ways, this save me from too much introspection. My legs were jelly and I was full on mumblecore. The fact I slightly smelt of a distant dark corner of Paddington Station was neither here nor there. I had run when it was too hot, too humid and without at least a walk around of the circuit beforehand. The consequences were predictable and a reminder that as much as I joke I have to be honest. I have MS. I am mortal. Hear me mumble…

After the obvious shower and lie down I spent some time working out what next. I now realised that I did have a physical endurance limit and actually took some strange comfort knowing what borderline delirium felt like. It IS good to know and better to know in those circumstances with support than finding out half way through a race, God knows where. But I can’t stop. I maybe rusting forever but I cannot stop.

I started from scratch, running four laps a couple of days later, earlier in the morning when the temperature was more conducive to that sort of stupidity. There were no ill effects from the fuck up run and what I drank before had either sweated out or was stored for later (“coughs gently”). A couple of days after that, 8.30 in the morning, I headed off for the full 17.5k.

There was cloud which helped. I took it easy to start with on the elevation and didn’t bomb the downhill part. Any downhill is always hard on the knees and lower legs anyway. The pace gave me time to think. My MS and all its little comorbidities have begun to bite but this doesn’t mean giving up on my targets, just rethinking how to achieve them. Maybe I do need to run a little slower.

But as I turned the corner on the sixth and last circuit and began to run down to the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean I saw something beautiful. The light was making patterns on the water that Sir Issac Newton would have been proud of and I am with the Issacs. As I approach the Great North Run, slower than I would have hoped, but running still all I can do is repeat my mantra.

“Fuck you MS”.

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