Swan Song

(Back in 1992 I published a slim volume of stories about running experiences: “Running Shorts”, which is currently free to read on the website scottishdistancerunninghistory.scot. Now, aged 70, realising that this ‘faction’ sequence only took my lightly fictionalised self from 17 to 40-ish, I decided to write this additional “RS”, which I promise, to the relief of several, will definitely be the last, although I hope to postpone permanent retirement from my favourite sport for a few years yet.)

                                                                                 SWAN SONG

It had been a day full of other days, yet unique, as every day may be, Alastair Taylor mused around midnight, as he lay on the hotel bed.

Running hard was one reason for tiredness, of course, but travelling from the North of Scotland to Northern Ireland had not been straightforward – a long bus journey to Glasgow, overnight there, then bus, plane and taxi to arrive the evening before the event.

In his youth he had merely walked or cycled to a local grass track or parkland and rough trails for cross country. Scottish Schools’ championships had involved bus trips, true, while, at university, subsidised travel was by train and, later, minibus – or, each December, a swaying, dipping ferry to Ireland for two races in Belfast and Dublin, each followed by many pints of black nectar. As a senior athlete, but still young, he cadged lifts from car owners. Planes had only been necessary years afterwards when expenses-paying European marathons beckoned.

During more than fifty years, he had competed in a number of exotic countries: Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Czech Republic, Australia, USA (the Boston Marathon, with its ten miles of quadricep-mashing descents leading to five miles of wall-inducing heartbreak hills) – plus every part of the British Isles. Yet the actual venues often tended to be less attractive – post-industrial towns or sprawling untidy cities. Never mind, in each place, only the race had mattered.

As usual, Alastair had slept fitfully the previous night, after booking in, chatting lightly with familiar grey-haired team-mates, exchanging ritual complaints about injuries and lack of fitness, marvelling at the athleticism of 35 and 40-year-olds. Old Masters, not! A sensibly small meal – low-fat and easily digested – had been consumed, with not even a beer to wash it down. He recalled that, in his prime, he had avoided alcohol only before marathons or ultras – concerned to avoid dehydration. While in his late 30s, with carefree confidence, the night before one Scottish Senior National Cross-Country Championship, he had downed four pints of real ale – after all, the distance involved had ‘only’ been seven and a half miles – and had almost made the top twenty, considerably better than expected. Nowadays, although M70s were expected to cover a paltry 6 km, he went teetotal for a couple of days beforehand. It would be stupid to add (to the impossibility of quality training and frequent leg niggles) yet another probable cause of failure. Before competition, optimism had never been one of his characteristics, unlike moaning.

Long ago, some self-appointed sage had stated that it was not sleep the night before that mattered – but sleep the night before that. If you couldn’t doze off, between nightmares about missing the start, try to remember that you were lying down, as calmly as possible, getting plenty of rest. Easy for that guy to say.

On race day he had nibbled breakfast (toast, cereal, banana, fruit juice) a full four hours before the start, leaving plenty of time for digestion, sips of water, changing into kit and nervy repeated visits to the loo. Surely, at this late stage, he should be less twitchy? Yes, wearing a dark blue vest added extra responsibility, but nowadays he could only start slowly, not jet-propelled, so why not age-related wisdom and composure?

At least his pre-race meal had not been steak and chips, which he had chomped an hour before his first marathon back in 1969. Strangely, at the age of 21, that had not caused a problem. However, the pint of cream (in theory, taking on fatty acids as fuel, to go with a ‘fast start’ triple black espresso) half an hour before a Scottish Championship marathon in the late 70s had caused a massive personal worst after so many pukes, plods and pitstops. Curry was best avoided, too.

A brief coach trip to the course, two hours before “Go!” and the build-up began. A walk to inspect at least some of the two-kilometre lap – some tricky mud and rather mossy underfoot but only lightly undulating, thank goodness, and suitable terrain for veterans aged 35 to 80 plus. Steep climbs and drops nowadays? No thank you!

Traumatic memories of ghastly trails passed through his mind with merciful brevity. The 1972 English National XC in Sutton (very) Coldfield (nine miles of mud, sub-zero temperatures, extra wind-chill and snowstorm – on the last desperate lap, a reigning Commonwealth gold medallist had been passed, upside down in a ditch); uphill slurry before clambering over barbed wire fences in Dunbartonshire; near death by hypothermia in Hawick. That one had been a Scottish Masters; the very first he had contested was Clydebank 1988. Some sadist had taken a film of the three laps. First one, pretty snowfall adding enchantment; second, the action totally obscured by a blizzard of heavy, wet, white flakes; the final lap, knackered survivors of a Norwegian notion of hell (unless Vikings would actually be more horrified by unaccustomed extreme heat?) Any hat-wearers now sported snow-stacks stuck to their heads. Despite tackling any conditions when forced to, really Alastair had been a bit of a ‘road fairy’, whose favourite cross-country routes traversed firm, dry, grassy, mainly flat golf courses.

Heat exhaustion, Alastair thought, had not been a problem in cross country events; only in long, scorching road runs, especially marathons or ultras. Foreign ordeals where you were shocked yet grateful when spectators sprayed you with garden hoses or chucked buckets of water; that Lairig Ghru 28 miler (80 degrees in mid-glen) when you struggled exhausted past the finish line on the wrong side of the busy main street in Aviemore. Officials hauled you across safely, then left you hanging over a fence in blessed shade. And how long it took before even a vestige of energy returned so you could fumble to untie over-tight running shoes and find something, anything, to drink! A final heatwave moment, was finishing as roasted runner-up in a South of France marathon. A photo in the local newspaper had been published in black and white – despite this, it was obvious his face had been bright scarlet. The report had referred to him as “Taylor, l’epouvantail”. Alastair’s schoolboy French had not included that word. Back in Scotland, a language teacher had cackled as she told him it meant “the scarecrow”.

Photographs were taken on time, an hour and a half before the start. So many grinning male and female team-mates and now, unbelievably, he was in the second-oldest age group. When happy, he still felt like a teenager, as long as he avoided mirrors. However, while cycling a road bike in perfect weather gave an illusion of fitness, running told the truth about damaging impact, physical deterioration and advancing years. Shut up, too bad, keep trying!

Warming up routine. Alastair recalled that, in earliest days this was merely a five-minute jog; at the peak, an hour of steady running, stretching, strides and sprints; now the process was laughably but necessarily careful. This was no parkrun where, if something hurt before the start, you could simply forget it and get back into the car. Injury might force you to drop out, but it could only be even slightly acceptable if a calf or hamstring ruptured during the actual race.

Start by walking away from the rest to find a quiet area. Don’t be psyched out by superior-looking rivals – Alastair had learned that trick as a teenager, when impressive lads with fancy tracksuits covered with running badges usually proved easy to beat. Very slow jogging, short strides, try to keep upright, stop occasionally for a gentle hamstring stretch. Then five or ten minutes steady; concentrate on smooth progress. A loo check, no problem. Half an hour to go. Steady with a few fifty-yard strides, gradually working up to what passed for race pace. Save any real effort for mid-contest! More stretching, lower back, hamstrings. And, miraculously, muscles and tendons ease a little, permitting increased range of movement. Hope increases, some confidence re-appears. Maybe this might be okay! All you need is just a little luck.

Between 40 and 15 years ago, luck was hardly necessary, since injuries occurred seldom and proper training was normal – 60 to 80 miles each week, sometimes including a twenty miler, plus hill reps, group fartlek, steady runs and a time-trial or a race, in which you were almost certain to run well or even very well. Nowadays, Alastair had to listen to his whingeing body very carefully indeed, and work within those frustrating limits. Still, fortunate to be able to jog at all. No hip or knee replacements yet!

A last, totally unnecessary, loo check. Then the call to the start-line. Alastair was edgy but under control. Not like before long ago high-pressure road relay events – they were the worst. Sometimes he actually stress-retched five minutes before receiving the baton – fairly cleared the tubes, though, for the panting, eyeballs-out charge all the way to the next changeover. Now he took up position near the back of the field, alongside other old fogeys. Injuries usually happen soon after too rapid a start. With some common sense, he might just come through eventually to a decent finishing position. Let young women, fast old guys and idiots go for it! Some might blow up before too long. Experience might count for something, after all.

An officious self-important official bawled irrelevant guff about the course and warned that anyone with even a toe in front of the line would have it amputated. False starters would, deservedly, be executed. Or some such traditional nonsense. Impatient athletes jiggled up and down and ignored him. Alastair had a brief flashback to Nos Galan, the Welsh New Year event through the narrow streets of Mountain Ash, when stars like Dave Bedford used to emerge from shop doorways in front of the start line and took their places seconds before the race commenced. Then there was the English National, when thousands anticipated the gun and started jogging away inexorably before they were ordered to go. No chance of calling them back!

Bang! Release! While speedsters shot off, Alastair focused on getting into a short, pattering rhythm, keeping upright and swinging his arms forcefully. For the next 400 yards or so, the trail was extremely muddy – if this continued throughout the race, it would be horrible. However, they emerged onto the loop and most really sticky patches could be avoided.

Gazing ahead, Alastair noticed without surprise that the leaders were already out of sight. At 41 he had led every step of the Scottish Vets cross country championship – a sequence of photos proved it. In this event at M45 he kept up with the fastest M40 men for quite a while, before winning his age group. Ah well. Occasional nostalgia can be pleasurable; but remember to appreciate the present moment! Although he knew that few in his category had started more slowly, Alastair still felt in control. In front he could see a straggle of individuals and small groups, including men around his age – who were the real targets today.

Taking care to accelerate only slightly, he started to inject more effort, and gradually moved out to pass ‘victims’. If he could just keep working hard, then others might fade. Anyway, overtaking was much more fun than being overtaken.

At his peak, Alastair had loved front-running and also putting in surges mid-race. Road had been his favourite surface, and long uphills where he tried to break away. Not having much of a sprint meant that he had to go for it early, at unexpected moments. Even as a veteran on the track, these tactics had sometimes worked well. Nowadays, grinding away, hopefully at a single semi-decent speed (the only alternative being slower) was the simple strategy. At least it meant that he didn’t have to think much. Just aim for the runner in front or try to hang on to others.

As usual, he seemed to be puffing faster – still testing for possible heart attacks – compared to everyone he plodded past. A team-mate was only fifty yards behind and, when Alastair glanced back, it seemed that they were moving up the field at the very same pace, as if attached by invisible rope. Since this old friend possessed a sprint finish, Alastair would strive to keep clear as long as possible. Being trounced by strangers was much less irritating.

A long shallow downhill was negotiated gingerly. Thirty years earlier, in the British Vets XC, Alastair had been clinging on to the leader and race favourite – a very classy Welshman – when a steep downhill proved his undoing, as a hamstring strain forced him to ease off and (at least he was thoroughly warmed up) concentrate on holding second place. Eventually, still clear of the bronze medallist, but moving with difficulty and discomfort, he approached the finish, to be “congratulated” by a famously-grumpy Scottish blazer-wearer who grated, “Taylor, you’re such an ugly runner!” which, although he had never been a stylish swan, seemed a trifle uncharitable to Alastair, who had rated himself a “brave war-wounded soldier”!

Now, much closer to second-last but trying his best on the day, Alastair entered the third and last lap. He must have moved up thirty places, passing several age group rivals, but had no idea of his current position. Not last anyway, and still making slow progress. With two kilometres to go, he pushed some more, since he could see a few more strugglers coming back. Half a mile left and one more man within reach. At the start of the long finishing straight, Alastair forced himself ahead, but the effort emptied his energy tank, so his rival closed right up and then strode away in the last hundred yards. Knowing he was beaten, Alastair looked over his shoulder for other sprinters. Clear, thank goodness, and over the line. His team-mate was only eleven seconds down – they had both squeezed into the M70 top ten.

On a previous occasion, as a dirty, knackered runner collapsed at the end of a such a race, a bewildered spectator had inquired, “Who are you trying to impress?” Well the answer could hardly be a potential girlfriend, with a warped lust for mire and snotters. Self-respect after trying hard, that was all. A stamina adventure!

One good thing about having dodgy, fragile legs was that they would not permit racing too far or hard, so Alastair recovered quickly, glad that disaster had been avoided. His team definitely wouldn’t be fifth, thank goodness, and he would not be to blame. Quite an enjoyable run, in fact. Winners nowadays punch the air; while respectable also-rans mainly feel relief. Still in the game! And forget the warm-down. Who knew when he would next take part in an important race?

Of course, you could be left in a dreadful state after really tough events: hitting the proverbial in marathons, for example, battering through the final miles gasping, weaving about and groaning aloud. Off normal training, Alastair had once attempted the famous challenging London to Brighton road race (54 miles – and a quarter). Even pacing it perfectly, he had run out of blood sugar at 40 miles but did not drop a place during the last 14, since everyone within range was feeling just as weak. At the longed-for end, he waved away a space blanket and then his legs buckled! Shortly afterwards, he had been deposited in a deep bath, and had to scream for help, since it was far too hot. However, drinking colder water, warm tea and (with difficulty) consuming a few biscuits had encouraged a quick recovery. Since the pace had been steady, his legs hadn’t been destroyed and he managed to take part in a short road relay six days later. Years afterwards, he wished that energy bars and gels had been invented earlier….

The afternoon passed in a contented blur. The showers proved impossible to locate but he found a doorway and changed into dry clothes, while spectators were fascinated by much younger men bounding athletically through their races. A lift to carefully selected Derry pubs – old friends, including all the M70 team, turned up – assured ‘rehydration’, thanks to pints of stout and nips of Irish malt whiskey.

Back to the hotel, shower, change for the banquet – the food was delicious, but Alastair sobered up with water.

The Scots had tables farthest from the stage. As ill-prepared speechmakers droned on and on, Alastair sat back and assessed the British and Irish Masters International XC experience. A decade ago, he had looked through a long running career and tried to order his top ten races. These were fairly easy to list, but somehow he ended up with a top fifty worth remembering. It was not all about ‘lifetime best times’. (When else could you achieve them?) Nor about most significant wins or medals or (badly designed) trophies. As park-runs suggested (with their age-grading of times), any event, even when you were old, could give some sort of satisfaction. Team wins stood out as important. Running was essentially a solo activity, and it was a real bonus when fellow enthusiasts banded together to do well. Like today.

Was that to be his “swan song”? And what did those words mean, anyway? His phone supplied formal research answers.

“Swan Song came from ancient Greek, and was a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement.

However, the common Mute Swan (Cygnus Olor), although not actually mute, was known neither for musicality nor to vocalise as it died. The only sounds it could make were honking, grunting, and hissing – not unlike over-stressed runners, perhaps.

Yet the snow-white Whooper Swan (Cygnus Cygnus), a winter visitor to parts of the eastern Mediterranean – and Scotland – did possess a ‘bugling’ call, and had been noted for issuing a drawn-out series of notes as its lungs collapsed upon expiry, both being a consequence of an additional tracheal loop within its sternum. This was proposed by naturalist Peter Pallas as the basis for the legend.”

So there! Ye ken noo. Well, Alastair had no thought of imminent retirement from his beloved running, or indeed expiry, unless that referred to breathing out before breathing in again.

The medal presentations were nearly complete. Every recipient was applauded generously by folk from all five nations. The Scots were noisiest, as usual.

His M70 team was announced – they had won surprise silver medals!

White-haired Alastair and his three companions, heads high, floated the length of the hall, down a river of shouts, cheers, claps, handshakes and even mistimed high fives.

Alastair tried to maintain dignity and smiling self-control. Yet, although no song came from mute lips, around his mind echoed a silent whoop!


Story 10: Refreshment Stations


A frosty moon glittered behind the dizzy granite spires of Marischal College, as Alan Simpson crunched his way over the snow-crusted pavement, before swinging left through the narrow doorway of the Kirkgate Bar. Aberdeen at 6.30 p.m. on a Wednesday night shortly before Christmas. He was early for the Road Runners’ pub-crawl.

Alan was aware that at this time on most Wednesdays he would be in the sweaty heat of a dressing room, preparing to creak round the track a few times. Then, just after 7 p.m., he would set off with the pack on the usual circular route along the promenade, up the hill and back – a distance once thought to be ten miles. However the record breakers, Alastair Taylor and Graham Fraser, had made clear to lesser athletes that the run was no more than nine and a quarter miles long.

Since the holiday had almost begun, a brisk lunch-time five had seemed sufficient to prevent loss of fitness and to develop a thirst for the evening’s strenuous elbow-bending.

Having abandoned the car at his parents’ house, he had wandered down the road an hour before the official start-time of this non-competitive event. A gentle warm-up seemed desirable, although Alan was determined to pace himself steadily and to avoid becoming a post-crawl cripple. This might turn out to be a marathon in which the refreshment stations were likely to worsen his performance! He surveyed the possibilities and invested in a pint of Belhaven 80 shilling ale (real, of course) and a dram of Bowmore Islay malt.

The smoky pungence of the whisky went well with the heavy full-bodied bitter beer. Having savoured both, Alan leant back in the battered cane chair and took in his surroundings. ‘Basic local bar, popular with students’ (the CAMRA Guide description) was fairly accurate, he supposed. Yet the poky little pub, with its scratched lino, cramped tables and single unstable-looking pillar which was meant, in theory, to support the ceiling, had considerable nostalgia for him. The walls were covered with cracked brown and cream paint and fading photographs of university sports teams from the past. Athletes long retired or gone to seed, no doubt. Just round the corner from the Students’ Union, it must have been a goldmine over the years. Alan smiled wryly. It looked as though the owners had increased those profits by a thrifty refusal to indulge in pretentious redecoration. Of course the main source of income had been the many spontaneous attempts to create a record for cramming drouthy young people into a very narrow space. Superman would have been hard-pressed to find room to pull his underpants over his trousers on Saturday nights in the Kirkgate!

“Daydreaming again, you dozy old has-been?” A friendly hand shook Alan by the shoulder as Tony Harris greeted him with the inevitable (and partly accurate) insult. Alan looked up and watched the lads begin to limp in. Nobody walked more awkwardly than cooled-down stiffened-up runners. Slicked-back smoothy hairstyle, elegant black leather jacket and jeans with cute designer holes: the self-styled expert chatter-upper, Tony Harris. Oxfam cast-offs, geriatric stoop and cheerfully half-starved appearance: Jim Alexander. Casual Frank Bruno label gear, carrot-coloured hair and an outsize grin with a mouth to match: Charlie Middleton. The tall quiet youngster, Kevin Carmichael, his gold-rimmed spectacles glinting surreptitiously at the barmaid. That deadpan wit and over-trainer with hair like an ageing loo-brush: Gordon Bruce. Brian Mackay, whose legs moved almost as fast as his Lada car-salesman’s patter. The balding intellectual in crumpled slept-in free running gear: Alastair Taylor. And last of all the lean figure of Graham Fraser, his streamlined forehead shining in the lamplight. Looking at Graham’s and Alastair’s hairlines, Alan wondered whether running fast and drinking faster tended to accelerate hair loss.

Of course it was Graham, as usual, ever-generous and delighted to bring pleasure to his mates, who first offered to buy a round of drinks. Gratefully but firmly ignoring his desire to spend most of his hard-won trust-fund on the venture, the others swiftly organised a kitty and the crawl was underway.

After a rowdy game of darts in the Kirkgate they plodded cheerfully on their way through a light snowfall. Tony complained about the weather conditions but Alastair dismissed the flakes as ‘Mere spindrift’. Charlie blamed Tony’s dandruff. Their destination was ‘The Prince of Wales’, a long-established haunt with its rare example of a traditional Scottish long bar and tasteful redecoration. There had been no doubt that ‘The Prince’ must feature in any tour – but where else would they visit?

“How about that new Café-Bar on Union Street?” suggested Tony, “It’s really smart, plays the latest music – and we might just meet some chicks.”

“Control yourself, you big stud,” growled Charlie, “This is a stag do.”

“It certainly is – and I’m not going near some over-priced fashion-spot like that. Fizzy lager and deafening disco sound pollution!” added a horrified Graham.

“Better stick to the traditional pubs for a start,” advised Alastair, “Better beer and more peace.”

Lacking support, Tony backed down. “All right. Just thought it would make a change. Probably wouldn’t have let you scruffs in anyway.”

“Belt up, poser,” laughed Charlie, “You’re lucky it’s too early to chuck beer over you.”

So the next halt was the ‘Snug’ of ‘Ma Cameron’s’, the cosy original part of the city’s oldest inn. While the barman poured the beer, Alan noted that the gantry displayed ten different types of malt whisky. Quickly he memorised the brand names and called across to the rest, “Hey, you lot – fancy a ‘Whisky Connoisseur’ contest?”

“Good idea,” replied Jim, who was keen on all things Scottish, “But get Kevin to choose the whisky or else you’ll win again, as usual.”

Alan returned to his seat with the beer and young Kevin was persuaded to ask the barman’s advice on which five varieties to select. The drams were brought across on a tray and Kevin numbered them one to five. He seemed particularly pleased with himself, for some reason. Solemnly, the others sat round a table, and took their turn at sniffing, sipping and even gargling the small measures of spirit. Words like ‘peaty’, ‘robust’, ‘flowery’, ‘subtle’ and poisonous’ were bandied about with what was meant to be a knowledgeable air. Then an attempt was made to name the origin and brand of whisky. Mistakes were greeted with gales of ridicule. Alan, with the unfair advantage of knowing the possibilities, managed three correct: Glenmorangie, Laphroaig and The Glenlivet. But the general standard of judgement was more typical of Charlie, who proclaimed number four to be ‘a fine Highland malt’ when it turned out to be ‘Old Cameron Brig’, the only Lowland straight grain whisky. Tony spoiled his ‘cultured’ reputation by naming number five Glenfiddich. Kevin was delighted to reveal that it was in fact a brandy.

By the time the company were settled into a corner of ‘The Grill’, the alcohol was taking the desired effect. The Good Beer Guide (an essential part of Alan’s pub-crawl equipment) described the place as ‘a superb Edwardian pub with magnificent loos, a twenty-four hour clock and splendid wood panelling’. Although Tony was drinking bottles of fashionable Becks Bier, and Kevin preferred orange squash, the rest enjoyed cask-conditioned McEwan’s 80 shilling. Alastair had switched to student mode.

“I wish to pose you a question, gentlemen, in the interests of research.”

“Go on then. We’re all fascinated. Don’t keep us in suspense,” commented Gordon.

“The question is, why are we here?” and then, while the others groaned loudly, “I mean, why DO distance runners enjoy pub-crawls so much?”

“Because we like getting drunk – like everybody else,” answered Jim scornfully.

“I just like the taste of a decent pint,” added Alan.

“And it’s good to get away from the wife and have a night out with my mates – and Tony as well,” said Charlie.

“Well I think there’s more to it than that,” Alastair stated.

“Could be,” Brian agreed, “Perhaps we all train hard – and it’s a special pleasure to relax and feel half-cut, you know, muzzy, instead of concentrating and trying like hell.”

“I’m sure that’s part of it, “ declared Alastair, “And then there’s the Thatcher factor.”

“What on earth do you mean by that, professor?” asked Tony.

Alastair replied in rapid detail. “Well, the Tory government want to control everything and everything, don’t they? Make us behave in a so-called ‘normal’ way. Stamp out the difference between us. Turn us all into good Little Englanders. And many Scots like being different. Enjoy their local traditions. Not only that – distance runners are eccentrics, thirsty ones too. Real ale and malt whisky are unusual too. So it’s no wonder we all like pub-crawls!”

“I think we’d better agree, lads, whether we understand all that or not,” responded Gordon.

“Yeah, and buy him another pint before he thinks up any more theories,” Charlie insisted, “But let’s stagger on to The Bridge Bar first, and then up the waterfront..”

Amiably they continued their expedition, battling against a wintry climate. Pubs loomed out of the dark like sheltered oases on a cold windswept desert night – the more bitter the weather, the more welcome the refuge. Each had a friendly yet formal atmosphere and even honoured customers realised that convivial behaviour would be permitted only within certain limits – ‘The Management reserves the right etc’.

The runners cracked jokes, spun tales and explored their mutual athletic obsession plus the usual masculine topics. Even the arguments were light-hearted. Alan was aware that, despite the satirical backchat, there was a strong bond between them all. Shared experiences of successes and suffering leading to understanding and camaraderie. He recognised that alcohol only served to increase the group identity. Singing in the bath always sounded more tuneful; talking in the pub seemed wittier and more profound. Runners were geared for flight, not fight – and booze seemed to produce mellowness.

By now immune to the chill, they reached their last watering hole at ten p.m. ‘Peep Peep’s’ – weirdly named and notable for a tough clientele and three kinds of draught stout. An elated Charlie insisted on drinking his next pint while doing a headstand against the wall. Alan made the cautious decision to switch to half pints. He was of course mocked for having no male pride – but was not persuaded to change his mind. Kevin, by contrast, was induced to sample a pint of Murphy’s. Then Charlie and Tony made unsteady but determined tracks for the pool table to continue their friendly rivalry, while the others flopped happily onto a collection of warped wooden chairs and chatted their way to chuck-out time.

The subject of discussion became ‘Best Pubs I’ve ever drunk in’ – a favourite preoccupation.

Graham tipped a time-warped Edinburgh institution, officially ‘The Athletic Arms’ but nicknamed ‘The Gravediggers’. “It’s a Hearts pub – so you mustn’t wear green in case they think you’re a Hibs supporter. The place is mobbed – standing room only – but as you squeeze inside a wee barman in an apron will always catch your eye. Hold up a finger and nod – and he’ll start pouring you the best pint of McEwan’s in the world. The perfect blend of sweet and bitter. Just glides down your throat. You HAVE to order another.”

“A good place but hardly ‘athletic’,” scoffed Gordon, “Now I’ve been to what must be the finest runners’ bar anywhere – in Boston, USA.”

“Oh yeah. You did the marathon, didn’t you?” asked Jim, “Is it the pub in ‘Cheers’?”

“No. The real name for that is ‘The Bull and Finch’,” Gordon explained, “On the outside it’s the same as the T.V. one, but I believe it’s quite different inside. Anyway, there was a queue so I didn’t bother waiting to get in.”

“So what about this runners’ bar?” inquired Brian.

“’The Elliot Lounge’,” replied Gordon, “Just half a mile before the end of the Boston Marathon course. Inside the place is covered with photos of famous athletes – and behind the actual bar are the national flags of all the marathon winners, male and female, from the 95 years of the race. Not only that. Along the floor the current World long jump record is marked out. And up the wall, the high jump record.”

“If Charlie had been boozing there,” laughed Graham, “He would have marked the wall for them – probably puking for height!”

“Newspaper headline – ‘Marathon drinking runner hits the wall’,” added Gordon.

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Charlie, returning from losing at pool, “I can hold my drink as well as anyone!”

“True, true,” Gordon soothed, “But you can fairly let go of it too.”

“Calm down, lads,” Alan advised, “Have a seat, Charlie, and I’ll tell you all where the best pub in the universe really is.”

Once they were settled, he continued, “It’s a Victorian pub, not more than two hundred yards from the gates of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. The name is ‘Ryan’s, in Parkgate Street. Alastair will know that it’s mentioned in the play ‘Juno and the Paycock’ by Sean O’Casey. The exterior is painted black and gold. Inside it’s just beautiful – mirrors, mahogany, brass, stained glass. Even a couple of four-seater snugs like old railway carriages – you just slide the door shut! Excellent home-cooked food, not too expensive. But the stout is unbelievable. The elixir of life, the ambrosia of the gods. Pouring the stuff is an art. You wait for ever before it settles. The Irish don’t mind – time moves slowly there. Eventually you get your pint. Dense black beer with a rich creamy head. Apartheid of the only acceptable type. I swear that the top of the pint arches not only above and across the glass – but actually curves outside it. And the cream is so thick that it won’t slide down onto the bar! Tastes magical – dark, cool, delicately bitter, refreshing. I tell you – if there is a heaven, it will have a Ryan’s!”

The silence broke. “Ah,” breathed Charlie, “Time for the last round. Guinness for everyone, I believe?”

Once they had been served, Kevin surprised them by claiming, “Robert Burns described it best, you know. Drinking, I mean.”

“It speaks!” gasped Tony, “And what quote would you be thinking of, oh wise youth? Perhaps the one about the state Charlie’s in – ‘bleezin’ finely’?”

“No,” Kevin stated, “Burns wrote ‘Freedom and Whisky gang thegither.”

“And he meant the same as I was trying to tell you all earlier,” Alastair butted in, “Freedom, Beer and Running go together!”

To a chorus of Slainte! Lang may yer lum reek! Cheers! Prosit! Sante! and any other toast the runners could think of, their glasses tilted.

Shortly afterwards the company dispersed, most pouring themselves into taxis. One or two, who lived nearby, meandered off into the icy gloom. In the back of his cab, Alan lolled comfortably, sated, tired and content. He looked forward to dreamless sleep in his parents’ spare room bed. And from the first genuine refreshment station, the essential two pints of water, which might prevent dehydration and prepare him for a mildly hungover lunch-time jog.

Story 9: Inter-City


“Now remember, young Kevin. This is a TEAM race – the most important one in Scottish Athletics. You’ve seven people relying on YOU. So hang on to the group until the hill after Barnton roundabout. Then give it everything you’ve left. One hundred per cent all the way to the line – EYEBALLS OUT!”

“Okay, Alan – I promise I’ll do my best.”

“I’m sure you will. You’ve got the talent and the guts. Right – two minutes to go. I’ll take your tracksuit. Best of luck – I’ll be watching!”

Obviously nervous but resolute, nineteen year-old Kevin Carmichael, stripped to vest, shorts and road racing shoes, edged through the crowd and up to the white start line. His tall fragile figure mingled with twenty other restless athletes who stretched, strode to and fro, or jogged in circles outside the ornate gates of Fettes College, Edinburgh, at 10.30 a.m. on a chilly November Sunday.

A whistle blew and a serious-faced official called each runner to the mark, in alphabetical order according to the clubs they represented. Each man was handed a light metal baton. One, decorated with dark blue ribbon, was presented more ceremoniously to a tanned athlete wearing the dark blue vest with a white thistle of Dundee Kingsway, last year’s victors. Enclosed in this baton was a message from the Lord Provost of Edinburgh to this counterpart in Glasgow.

Shouts of encouragement rang out as the runners leaned forward, poised for flight, while the starter raised his gun. It fired – and freeze frame became fast forward as 21 determined men launched into sprinting action.

Spectators too rushed away, urgently diving into cars, starting and departing. This was the fiftieth annual running of the Edinburgh to Glasgow Road Relay, climax of the winter season.

Still clutching Kevin’s tracksuit, Alan Simpson regained control of his breath as he guided the Volvo smoothly up the long drag of Craigleith Road before parking a hundred metres from the junction with Queensferry Road. He emerged from the car and gazed back downhill at the familiar scene. Alan was 39 years old and this was his twentieth E to G. Once again he had squeezed into the team for his favourite race. He intended not only to try his hardest on the eighth and final section, but also to savour bitter-sweet nostalgia and relish the traditional suspense and surprises of an old-fashioned yet wonderful event.

After only a mile, one of the principal, even Oscar-winning stars of this long-running saga, was producing a commanding performance. A calm but stern athlete in the colours of Edinburgh Breweries AC had established a lead of fifty yards and was steadily cruising away up the incline. The top-class experience and stamina of Bill Grimson, the Scot with the Newcastle accent, was clearly superior. A panting group of five pursued him in vain. Alan was delighted to see Kevin was one of them, sheltering from the headwind behind a taller opponent. “Good lad! Just stay there!” Alan yelled, adding to his companions, “Will you look at that. The top six are clear already.”

A knowledgeable onlooker like Alan was not surprised that, although the best twenty-one clubs in the land had been invited, only half a dozen could compete for the medals. Few teams possessed the strength in depth essential for success in an eight-man relay. Just one weaker runner, stroke of bad luck, misjudgement or failure of nerve would lead to defeat. Only ‘good men and true’ would do for this trial.

During the next twenty minutes the Volvo containing half the North Select squad – Brian Mackay (Leg Seven), Alastair Taylor (Six), Jim Alexander (Five) and Alan – kept in sight the straggling procession of runners. They forced their way over two further tiring hills and then accelerated down to Barnton, turning left for Maybury and the Glasgow Road. Although Grimson’s stocky yet long-striding legs stretched his lead remorselessly, the second group was still intact as it reached the last mile of the five and a half mile stage. Following instructions, Kevin surged into second place and pushed hard up a steep hill to an overgrown roundabout. Surely it would be downhill to the finish from there? Swinging past the foliage he glimpsed the road ahead – and his spirits sagged. The hill continued climbing for another two hundred yards! A wave of weariness slowed his speed and his nearest rivals plodded dourly past him.

With 800 metres to go, the route swooped down to the main road. Concentrating fiercely, Kevin accelerated and his resilient limbs managed to pull back lost ground. After a last desperate sprint, he handed over still sixth but only thirty yards behind second place (although a full minute down on Grimson). Gasping helplessly he was led away by Alan who gave him his tracksuit, and enthused, “Great run, Junior! Could be a medal chance today. Right – into the Volvo. Jim’s switching to the Cavalier.”

Alan hauled the protesting but fast-recovering novice along the congested pavement to the cars. Jim congratulated Kevin briefly before driving off to deliver Charlie Middleton (Leg 3) and Gordon Bruce (4) to their change-over points.

Leading positions after Stage One were 1) Edinburgh Breweries Athletic Club 2) Govan Harriers 3) Partick AC 4) Falkirk Fliers 5) Borders AC 6) North Select.

As he adjusted his seatbelt, Alan remarked to Brian, “Did you spot that Cross Country Federation guy in the striped blazer nicking the fancy baton from the Dundee runner? His team-mate sneaked off ten yards too early with an ordinary one. They give the special one to the leader at the start of Leg Eight. Clearly can’t trust the Pony Express to deliver the mail to the Wild West!”

Cautiously he manoeuvred the Volvo into the outside lane, avoiding both traffic and tail-end runners. “Feeling better, hero?” he inquired, glancing over his shoulder.

“Much,” replied Kevin, sprawling deliciously exhausted in the back seat.

“Your stage was like a normal race,” Alan continued, “But not it’s each man against the elements. Determination, intelligence, self-motivation – a relay runner needs the lot.”

“What’s this bit like anyway?” asked Kevin.

“Six miles straight and flat until the last uphill mile. It’s for track athletes – a lot of fast guys on this one. Ian Stewart holds the record – and he won gold medals at 5000 metres, as well as the World Cross Country Championships. Before your time, of course.”

As they eased past the backmarkers, Kevin felt pride (that his stint had left so many teams behind) and a prickling of tension. How well was Tony Harris doing for the North Select?

An accurate countdown from 21st (and last) as maintained. Some well known but strained faces were identified by Alan (whose knowledge, Kevin thought, was vast to the point of boredom). The older man insisted that the younger one learned who was who. (“There’s old Iain Stoddart, the marathoner – stride like a metronome and that sardonic little racing grimace.”) The front seat passenger’s window stayed open so that a variety of cheerful or mildly insulting comments could be hurled at athletes.

Alan, Kevin, Brian and Alastair were surprised to see, in ninth position and limping heavily, a Partick competitor who turned out to be Gerry McGrath. Hysterical ‘supporters’ were screaming advice (and several unsympathetic curses) at the poor fellow, who seemed in considerable pain. Later it became clear that, after moving into second place in the first half mile, he had developed a stress fracture! Gerry handed over nineteenth. Kevin, when he heard the story, said that he hoped those who had abused Gerry as a quitter later apologised and praised his courage in continuing. Nevertheless his team, one of the favourites, was out of the quest for success.

Tony Harris too had a tale of misfortune to tell but, luckily for the North Select, lost no more than twenty seconds. He had tucked into the second-placed bunch (of four runners) and they had worked together into the headwind to halve the gap to the lone Edinburgh man. Unexpectedly, due to roadworks, they had to cross a pedestrian overpass. Descending the final flight of steps, the Borders lad had caught Tony’s heel and down he had crashed. Fortunately the clumsy one was a gentleman and helped Tony up. However he was shaken out of his usual smooth style and failed to keep up when his rival spurted back to the windbreak created by the Govan and Falkirk men. Grey-faced, Tony eventually managed to pass the baton to Charlie Middleton and then, completely spent, sagged over the bonnet of a parked car.

Shortly afterwards the Dundee Thistle athlete, similarly knackered, staggered over the line. His team had no chance of repeating the previous year’s win, since ‘flu had affected four key runners. Nevertheless he had given his all. Consequently he seemed shocked when, with the rapidity of a ferret, a stunted sharp-eyed official pounced and started haranguing him. Apparently the ‘crime’ he had committed was reducing the size of the unwieldy numbers pinned to front and back of his club vest.

“Tampering with race numbers is contrary to rule fifteen!” snapped the irate one, “Dundee may be disqualified for this!”

Open-mouthed, the runner observed his attacker. His face was flushed because of flat-out exertion; but this was quickly replaced by the redder glow of absolute fury. Normally a mild character, but now evidently inflamed by injustice, he suffered an instantaneous personality change, swearing and ranting at the officious one, prodding him repeatedly in the chest. Sensibly the runt backed down, perhaps realising that he had been too hasty and that his health depended on immediate retreat. Thus soothed, Mr Hyde of Dundee reverted to Dr Jekyll – and the drama fizzled out.

Looking out of the rear window as Alan drove away from Broxburn Town Baths, the start of Stage Three, Kevin observed the bald heads and gnarled legs of most of the runners clustering round the baton exchange area. These were the older veterans. Kevin admired their enthusiasm but smiled at their unathletic appearance. He knew that this was the shortest stage (4.7 miles) and assumed that many clubs put their slowest man on it.

Yet the first couple of miles were an undulating switchback, testing for even the most youthful of competitors. Alan parked the Volvo about two hundred yards ahead of the leader. Edinburgh Breweries AC was still well clear. If anything their representative had stretched his lead – but he seemed in some distress, breathing very heavily, his features twisted. “Started too fast – he’s in oxygen debt,” Alan muttered, “That’s young Lothian, a superb 1500m prospect but this will seem a long way to him.”

They cheered on Charlie, whose powerful straight-backed style looked impressive. He had almost caught the Falkirk so-called ‘flier’. Alan, Kevin, Alastair and Brian set off again. They overtook the Govan runner as the road curved sharp left – and there was the Edinburgh man standing, hands on hips, on the pavement! Frantic supporters were shouting at him and he was responding vehemently.

“That’s it, he’s cracked up!” grunted Brian unsympathetically, “Look – he’s just chucked the baton over the fence. It’s in someone’s front garden!”

“Great,” added Alastair with callous pleasure, “They’re going to have to convince him to pick it up himself. If anyone else does, the team’ll be disqualified.”

Kevin, being much the same age as Jimmy Lothian, was less hard-hearted but couldn’t repress a grin as Charlie passed by in third position. It turned out later that Jimmy had felt isolated, overtired and depressed. A sense of futility and reluctance to continue hurting himself had led to the breakdown. Eventually, after much pleading, cajoling and threatening, he was persuaded to rejoin the race, but handed over in nineteenth place! Truly, Kevin thought, the Edinburgh to Glasgow was a passionate and unpredictable event.

Govan fans were visibly ecstatic. Their man seemed inspired by Edinburgh’s demise. Over the final two miles of the leg, he extended the lead to forty-five seconds. Then he produced a sprint and positively zoomed in to the changeover point. His blurred vision tried to focus during the final strenuous yards. There were the timekeepers, spectators and other runners. Where the hell was his team-mate? In disbelief he overshot then raced back to the line. No sign of the right face – but there was Alec who was meant to do the last stage! Exhaustion and frustration combined as he turned the air blue with unquotable curses and bent the baton by bouncing it violently off the tarmac.

“Get yir tracksuit aff, Alec!” he bawled, “Ye’ll jist hafti rin this yin. We’ll sort oot the officials and that wee nyaff McGregor la’er!”

At this moment, the absent relay runner appeared, plainly panic-stricken, grabbed the baton and, probably deafened by obscenities, scampered off – in fourth place, having lost ninety seconds. Tragically, from a Govan viewpoint at least, it transpired that he had not expected his comrade so soon and had been relieving himself in a field. Naturally the champion swearer soon simmered down and admitted to shame at his outburst. Friends agree, however, that he had been provoked beyond endurance.

Positions at the beginning of Stage Four were: Borders fifteen seconds up on North, with Falkirk third and Govan fourth.

Yet by the time that the Volvo moved past, Gordon Bruce was leading! For the first 800 metres the enthusiastic but unmistakably naïve Borders lad had done his utmost to run right away from the opposition. Like a runaway train, inter-city, he had careered down a slope to the Bathgate roundabout and, blind to the signals of a marshall, made tracks straight onwards. Urgent shouting brought him to his senses and, looking sick as he realised his mistake, he had ploughed across rough ground to the correct junction. By now, Gordon was twenty yards in front, instead of a hundred behind.

With anguish on his face, the Borders man charged into the headwind and tried to make amends. Sensibly, Gordon ‘sat’ behind and conserved energy because almost five miles remained to the baton exchange in Armadale. With two miles to go, he sensed his rival was wilting and burst decisively away from him. Gordon could see the clock tower which he had to reach before he could give his body the joy of stopping and the rest it craved. But the icy wind, sleet-laden now, was a bitter enemy and this road led only upwards. With a mile left, he suffered a ‘stitch’ but refused to slow, concentrating on ‘belly-breathing’ until the pain lessened. At last the haven of the line and the anxious yet welcome face of Jim Alexander who snatched the baton and darted up the High Street. North led by twenty-five seconds from Borders, with Govan closing up again in third and Falkirk fourth.

Soon Tony helped Gordon into the Cavalier. As they drove on, Charlie insisted on blowing the North Select bugle at every available Southern rival. Poor Jim, however, was struggling. Keen to impress, he had run the first mile too fast. The headwind sapped his energy and heavy snow froze on his spectacles. It was a real blizzard and Jim began to wish he was wearing more than vest and shorts – gloves, hat and thermal underwear were required. The frozen baton began to stick to his rigid fingers. When the Borders man surged past, Jim was shocked, but alert enough to keep close behind.

Within 400 metres he began to feel much better. He felt warmer and more relaxed now that his burly challenger was shielding him from the elements. Shortly afterwards he decided to share the work and battled into the gale for a couple of minutes before sheltering once more. These tactics ensured that the Govan man, who lacked a running companion on this exposed five and a half mile stage, began to lose ground to the other pair. Eventually, Jim let the Borders guy lead for four minutes and, sure he must be tired, injected a hundred yards sprint which created a vital gap. By the time the ‘Hunter’s Rest’ pub loomed through the white-out, the North Select was ten seconds up on Borders AC with Govan Harriers a minute down. With three stages to go, these clubs seemed to be assured of medals. But which of them would win gold?

Luckily, Alastair Taylor made the changeover, but only just. It wasn’t Alan’s fault. He had dropped Alastair off at the pub half an hour early. But on E to G day, the ‘Hunter’s Rest’ was always packed with runners past and present and Alastair wasted time chatting before completing his warm-up, stretching and visiting the loo. Then he jogged about near the start, gazing back nervously, trying to spot the first oncoming runner. Would it be Jim? Agitation elicited a second call of nature. There was a queue, and when Alastair exited once more he was surprised to see his team-mate nearing the finish! Rapidly ripping off his tracksuit, Alastair had seconds to check his shoelaces before it was time to take the baton and go.

Undoubtedly he would have to take care. This was the longest stage (seven miles) with many of the best athletes on it. The snowstorm was petering out but the weather was still chilling and blustery. A fast yet cautious start was essential. Fast enough to stay clear; cautious enough to avoid blowing up and ruining his team’s chances.

Alastair paced himself perfectly. Although the Borders AC man ‘bust a gut’ trying to close up, he failed and had to drop back and run more economically. Alastair’s team-mates were nearby, cheering their man on, timing the gap and then forging ahead in the cars to report progress. There was no need for Alastair to look back. Although he was racing at his maximum speed, he knew exactly what was happening and felt strong and in control. There was no real need for his headband – he was hardly sweating. Yard by precious yard he increased North’s slender lead. Passing under a railway bridge, he knew there were three miles left, an insignificant distance for a well-trained runner.

Then, with a mile to go to the Airdrie War Memorial and the exchange, he tripped and almost fell! A lace was loose and he regretted his own carelessness. Quickly he calculated the odds, before deciding not to stop and tie it tighter. With an exaggerated knee-lift and stride length, his tall rangy body tensed to correct possible disaster, Alastair managed to negotiate the final section but was extremely relieved to pass on the responsibility with the baton to Brian Mackay. The Northern Scot, inter-city express, had to pass only one station before the run-in to the terminus. With continued luck, it might arrive on time!

Brian had been given a twenty second lead over Borders AC. Govan Harriers’ man on Leg Six – a ‘track fairy’ – had obviously not enjoyed the experience, and slipped back to the fifty second mark. Falkirk, having finally found a genuine flier (who set the fastest time on the stage) seemed galled to discover that their Stage Seven guy was keeping warm in a car instead of shivering on the start line eager to take over. Thirty hard-won seconds were lost as the poor chap wrenched off his ‘sweats’, leaped out of the vehicle and shot off like an electric hare.

This was the action that Alan Simpson couldn’t watch – he was already at the start of the last stage. Tony, Charlie and co. did manage to snatch a glimpse of the leaders. However the Cavalier was ordered to depart and its occupants were unfairly accused by an over-zealous official of driving too close to the runners and ‘pacing’. Brian kept calm and exploited his flexibility and good 1500m speed on the mainly downhill five and a half mile leg.

Neither Borders nor Govan could make an impression. In fact the North Select lead was slowly increasing.

Meanwhile on the outskirts of Glasgow, Kevin, who was to collect Alan’s warm-up gear, expected to watch a casually confident campaigner prepare for victory. No way! Alan was a very worried man. Previous experience counted for nothing, at least before he started running. Kevin observed Alan’s behaviour with concern, noting the furrowed brow, silent withdrawn concentration (so unusual in an old blabbermouth) and neurotic attention to the stretching of hamstrings and the testing of shoelaces. The youngster could not perceive Alan’s feelings of nausea and weakness, or appreciate how important the near-veteran considered personally ensuring team success.

Central Belt teams traditionally won the Edinburgh to Glasgow Relay. North Select had never achieved victory. Alan felt that, if he ‘blew’ this opportunity, he might be required to walk home to Inverness. There the sarcastic tongues of the stars of yesteryear might justifiably tear him into small pieces, thus saving him the bother of committing hara-kiri!

Alan exchanged curt nods of acknowledgement with his two main rivals, Big Paddy Graham of Borders AC and the fast-improving Govan Harrier Paul Daly. Unusually the changeover area was in a little side street below and parallel to the main road. The first warning anyone had of the incoming runners was when there was a screech of brakes, a rush of feet, and Charlie Middleton’s red hair and freckled face appeared above the grassy bank near the line. “Alan!” he yelled, “Brian’s almost here. He’s about thirty seconds in front of Borders with Govan another twenty behind. Go for it!” – and the North bugle’s ‘war-cry’ emphasised his message.

All at once the athletes were called to the line, an official handed Alan the special baton, and Brian, in a state of controlled stress, came loping round the corner, touched Alan’s outstretched hand and the final drama began.

Sprint down the street, swerve right out onto the main road Alexandra Parade and settle into racing stride. Calm the breathing, check the knee-lift, grip the baton safely and CONCENTRATE. Work hard but don’t overdo it. Keep a little in hand in case someone gets too close. Don’t look round. The lads will tell you what’s happening behind.

Fear hastens the hunted fox but his hope lies in stamina and intelligence. The hounds are eager to catch him but keenness may be their undoing. Alan’s previous relay experience was invaluable. His nervousness gone now, he refused to panic but began to enjoy the challenge. Life took on an intensity which made racing worthwhile.

Spectators however thought that Alan’s lead was in danger. Young Daly rocketed away and overtook Paddy Graham after a mile and a half of this five mile stint. The unfortunate Irishman, struggling to hang on to his rival’s pace, damaged an old Achilles tendon injury and was reduced to an agonising hobble. Paul continued his meteoric progress until at halfway he was only twenty seconds behind.

Alan was well aware of his predicament. The North cars passed him several times but encouragement (“That’s fine – keep going like that”) changed to warning (“Push it, man. He’s catching you!”) He noticed the strain on his team-mates’ faces as they stared back at his pursuer. Naturally, Govan Harriers’ supporters, never sensitive introverts, became excited and loudly confident. Their triumphant bawling was clearly intended to unsettle Alan as well as to motivate Paul. An example was “At’s MAGIC, Paul! Ye’re almost there. Ye’ve GOAT him – he’s DEID!”

Then, just as insecurity began to grip his mind, Alan was rescued by two major hills. He had always been strong when tackling these and this time his thin body scudded up them with total determination. Paul’s initial impetus was just beginning to slow, and a few significant yards were added to the gap between the pair. With a mile to go, Alan passed Jim and Charlie, who were jogging in to the finish. Their relief was obvious and Alan started to savour victory while maintaining the pressure on his fading rival. Charlie blew his bugle joyfully.

A steep downslope, turn right and only 800m to go. As he ran through a set of traffic lights (which showed red), Alan was grateful for the presence of a policeman who had halted vehicles just in time. There would have been no question of stopping – Alan would have sprinted straight across, ‘jay-running’ flat out. Relay runners are utterly single-minded. Surprisingly there are few accidents. Perhaps drivers recognise dementia when they see it.

Marshalls guided him left, right and right again. As he rounded the corner into George Square, Alan saw the finish banner only yards away. One last effort – and the tape was snapped. Exultantly, Alan tossed the baton aloft – North had won! Govan Harriers were forty seconds down, with Falkirk a distant third. Borders AC limped in sixth.

Much later, as he relaxed by the fire in a pub well up the A9, Alan asked Kevin, “Well, how did you enjoy your first experience of old-style athletics?”

The youngster eyed his ‘gold’ medal as it glinted in the firelight. “It was great – I particularly liked the sentimental way they let an old guy win it.”

“Cheeky boy. I could hardly throw the race away after all the work you lads put in.”

“We had the luck, though.”

“You always need that. Well, let’s drink a toast. To the E to G – may it provide triumphs and disasters, tears (and beers) for many years to come!”

In unison, the North Select drank deeply. And then Alan added, “Now, who’s going to drive the Volvo instead of me? I’m afraid my eyesight’s going all fuzzy. Who else wants another pint?”

Story 8: Ultra!


Shivering slightly in the cool morning air, Alastair Taylor stood on Westminster Bridge with 136 other ‘sight-seers’ in summery beachwear, at the unlikely time of 7 a.m. on a late September Sunday. Not a single Japanese tourist was present to photograph the scene. To the left of the towering mass of Big Ben, the moon was clearly visible. Its rays fell on Alastair and his fellow lunatics.


Three hours earlier, startled from uneasy sleep by a piercing telephone alarm call, he had stuffed down toasts, jam, coffees and two slow sodium tablets. Then he made a silent exit from his friends’ flat and hauled his rucksack down to Wimbledon Station for the 5.31 a.m. train. Having explained with difficulty to a pair of London Irish cops what a tracksuited weirdo was doing at that hour, he joined the local dossers and grew increasingly worried as the train delayed its arrival. The need for an expensive unnerving dash by minicab became more likely.

Eventually the diesel rumbled out of the gloom fifteen minutes late. By 6.10 he had navigated from Waterloo (to make preparations for a personal battle) to the G.L.C. County Hall, where all was light and bustle. Polite posters indicated the route to the dressing rooms as taxi-loads of more affluent or less tight-fisted competitors and supporters arrived. There were dozens of aged, incredibly pukka officials of the organising Road Runners Club. Otherwise, the place was packed by a posse of Yanks, most wearing the scarcely modest luminous orange vests of the Central Park Track Club, New York. They broadcast in ‘faghorn’ voices to their adoring female fans. Pushing pins through his number into a boring plain blue vest and tee-shirt, and drink bottles into cardboard boxes, Alastair jogged to the loo and warmed up twice round the luggage bus.

Having established that his joints were functioning, and thus relieved the tensions of a pre-race runner with rampant hypochondria, he relaxed on a bench for five minutes. A final glass of water was sipped, while he scanned the information booklet on this, the thirtieth running of the London to Brighton footrace. No wonder there was an abundance of blazered officials – not only a starter but also a referee, judges, stewards, timekeepers recorders, police, a medical officer, an announcer, results staff, a rear guard and even a pilot were required! There were to be 12 refreshment stations. Dangerous traffic and diversions might be encountered along the route; and fatigued competitors were likely to become vague in thought and movement. So it was as well that umpteen road marshalls were prepared to help (mainly athletes and boy scouts).

This would be longest ‘Brighton Road’ at no less than fifty-four miles and four hundred and sixty yards. He tried to forget that stamina-sapping statistic while glancing at the list of participants – 170 entrants (including eight ladies). The majority, of course, were English, but countries represented include the USA , Canada, Australia, the Bahamas, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Finland, Holland, Germany – and Scotland (two runners). They were to proceed, two abreast or single file, on the left hand side of the road, because the Highway Code considered them ‘a marching body’. He hoped to avoid both marching and ending up a body. The time limit was to be eight hours, twenty-three minutes and, after that, ‘all facilities’ would be withdrawn. Anyone having to run for that duration, Alastair mused, would find that ‘all faculties’, both physical and mental, would have withdrawn of their own accord.

For a provincial lad like Alastair, trotting casually up to the starting line in the heart of London did give a certain sophisticated devil-may-care feeling. En route he fastened on a Gloucester athlete called Dave Martin, whose consistently good ultra-distance form Alastair had researched back home. He introduced himself, checked correctly that Dave would be going for a finish time of 5 hours 50 minutes at a steady rate, and boldly expressed the hope that he wouldn’t mind company for a few miles if things went to plan. As a mere marathon runner, Alastair needed all the guidance he could get! Dave seemed agreeable and they lined up with the rest. A heartbroken harrier from Birmingham was moaning about his favourite football team losing a vital league match the day before – but since the time was a few seconds to seven, his self-centred audience had no time to share his grief ………………………………………….

BONG! On the first stroke, they all headed over the bridge and made for the south coast. Psychologically, distance runners have been described as introspective, independent, intelligent – and a wee bit mad. The latter seemed most significant to Alastair at that moment. Trying to absorb the Thames scenery, he gave his weaker ankle one nasty little wrench (amazingly, the only one of the entire journey). The first two miles seemed uncomfortably fast, as he manoeuvred himself along the Gloucester man. Then the pace eased and they settled into a steady rhythm at something faster than 6 minutes 30 seconds per mile.

By now the previous year’s winner Alan Rodgers from New York, bronzed legs shuffling along with a short jerky gait, had gone straight into the lead. He was defending his title in a most determined manner, despite having spent Saturday ill in bed (possibly due to lager-loading during Friday’s reception in that ancient public house ‘The Cheshire Cheese’ in Fleet Street). A Finn was tracking him, as he gradually moved away from his major challengers. The main one was likely to be Ian Hill. This was his ultra debut, but he had been an international marathon champion. Ian’s light, even, deliberate stride did not falter – and Rodgers’ lead never extended beyond forty seconds.

Back with the pack, at first Alastair felt a touch warm and took off his tee shirt, leaving the mesh vest in the patriotic dark blue of Scotland. But he soon encountered a cold white mist which insisted that the tee-shirt went on again for the remainder of the race, in spite of the brighter conditions which prevailed towards the end.

During the first seven miles, apart from the first three thoroughbreds, an assortment of experienced ultra men (often noticeably chunkier than marathoners) and foolhardy optimists disappeared into the distance. Thereafter the traffic was one way only, as Dave and Alastair edged slowly up the field. History records the first successful completion of the London to Brighton distance by a ‘pedestrian’ (a running, race-walking athlete) in 1897. Alastair was resolved to do everything possible to emulate the pioneers. He knew that, as nothing more than an apprentice ultra-distance runner, he would have to pace his efforts very cautiously.

A knot of serious-faced officials shouted out a time for Dave and Alastair of just over 64 minutes at ten miles (Croydon). This did seem over-timid so they decided to increase their tempo a little in an attempt to catch (by twenty miles at Redhill) the small bunch of competitors who were trotting along easily a hundred yards in front. They did not succeed despite a 63 minute stretch but they overtook quite a few stragglers.

Alastair’s legs were just beginning to stiffen up, a process which continued inexorably throughout the event. Gradually increasing sunshine dispelled the mist, and he was mildly annoyed that, just when an increase of fluid was becoming essential, the organisers forgot to hand him his bottle. (He was to miss at least three precious containers along the way, including the two with a plastic bag of dates tied to the top! It was probably just as well he didn’t get the chance of experimenting with mobile munching.) Luckily, Alastair was given a share of one of Dave’s drinks. (He was mainlining on a preparation known as ‘Accolade’.)

Not unexpectedly, maintaining their speed throughout the third ten required an increase in effort. Alastair was gaining even more respect for his small but stocky 25-year-old partner, who was pushing on vigorously with a well-balanced mechanical motion. They were running well, but Alastair was starting to wish Dave would slow down! They re-passed a suffering soul who had overtaken them much earlier, and then the most elegant of the New Yorkers, his Christian Dior neckerchief less jaunty than previously. When he was still twenty yards in front of them, they heard his ‘dying words’ of instruction to his back-up car. The strangled grunt from his pain-twisted visage was ‘The other shoes!” Desperation personified. (He later dropped out – surprise, surprise!)

Alastair halted momentarily to siphon off excess liquid (the first pee of his racing career, but not performed using the non-stop system previously described to him by a World Record-breaking ultra expert!) Hurriedly he caught up with Dave and they passed the traditional checkpoint at Crawley at the unlikely distance of 31 and a quarter miles in three hours sixteen minutes (including a 62 minute ten). However increasing tiredness informed Alastair that he’d have to let go of his energetic new acquaintance before long. Dave stopped at 35 miles for a fresh vest, and although Alastair plodded on past a fading star and one Peter Hastings (of whom more later) he guessed correctly that the redoubtable Dave Martin would soon bowl past, commencing his planned run-in to Brighton beach. When this happened, Alastair wished Dave luck, thanked him for the pacing and companionship and watched him vanish over the horizon. Alastair settled into a survival struggle to the sea.

At roughly the same stage but twenty minutes earlier, Ian Hill, who had not actually drawn alongside Alan Rodgers until Crawley, had cruised away up a hill into a commanding lead he was in no danger of losing. In Ultras, the ‘man-to-man stuff’ tends to be over by about thirty miles, and then individuals are left fighting on their own to complete the course.

Alastair’s problem was lack of adequate preparation, and muscles unused to more than a maximum of three hours on the road. Averaging 66 miles a week for the previous ten months, completing two marathons and eighteen runs over twenty miles in length had given him a reasonable background – but it was hardly ultra-training. The real specialists tend to run 140 miles per week and frequently insert three or four hour efforts into their schedules. Alastair’s only genuine attempt had been five weeks earlier when, without prior rest, he had completed the ‘Two Bridges’ thirty-six mile race as a steady training run. All had gone well for thirty miles and then he had ‘hit the wall’ and had difficulty in finishing fourth. However the time was only 3 hours 38 minutes – over two hours less than this trial was liable to last.

Therefore the final eighteen miles was to be a voyage into the unknown by a hopeful novice who feared the worst.

Symptoms of imminent collapse started to appear at Bolney (forty miles). At least Alastair’s carbohydrate-loading pre-race diet, plus sensible tactics, had got him this far. Clinical assessment of his condition revealed that the front of his thighs were sore and becoming more so due to the switchback nature of the Brighton road. He was also in danger of cramping up. Consequently a comically stiff and straight-legged mode of progression, like an arthritic giraffe, seemed necessary; plus a tendency to beg complete strangers for something, anything to drink. He even tried an eccentric piece of ultra ‘wisdom’ – rubbing Coca Cola on sore muscles to ease the pain. This made him very sticky but was otherwise a failure! A degree of mental angst was caused by the optimism (by two whole miles) of road signs and spectators – they both underestimated how far it was to the finish.

Peter Hastings tended to close on downhills and Alastair stretched away on flat or uphill sections, but he wasn’t particularly interested in other runners – just in keeping going himself. Fatigue was making his aching limbs heavy and reluctant, and he found himself becoming increasingly prone to irritation (caused by minor things like sticky hands) and panic (about the likelihood of cramp and the whole stress situation). ‘Stitches’ and slight nausea did not ease his discomfort. Yet there was no real chance of cracking mentally – just a danger of total leg collapse. Lack of a ‘second’ (i.e. a back-up car) meant isolation and insecurity. Alastair had heard an anecdote about a supporting wife who, on seeing her ultra-running husband suddenly crumple to the verge, his legs knotted with cramp, had simply hauled the invalid to his feet. Then she spread-eagled him unceremoniously over the bonnet of the vehicle, yanked powerfully at his ankles, dumped him back on his feet and kick-started him on his way again. Alastair yearned for the relief of similar loving massage.

When he passed Dave’s fan-club van with eight miles to go, Alastair’s scrambled brain didn’t register the fact that the Gloucester man must have given up. (Due to, as Alastair later found out, dehydration, leg pains and loneliness.) What a pity – he had really been going well until then, but Alastair was sure there would be a next time for a man of such obvious talent. (Later, Dave became a World-Record-breaking 24 hours runner.)

At the Pycombe checkpoint, the notorious Dale Hill signified that, in seventh position, Alastair had seven miles to go. He was in the finishing straight, but the worst part of the race, despite the fact that the road was mainly flat or downhill. The two pillars beside the sign saying ‘Brighton’ meant, as he had been warned, six whole miles left. The traffic was really heavy now, streaking past his right ear and blowing foul fumes up his nostrils. Fortunately he wasn’t ‘wobbling’ much, but was surprised more competitors didn’t end up under passing cars. (In Victorian times, six-day events were popular, the winner being the ‘pedestrian’ who covered most distance. Such races were nicknamed ‘Wobbles’, for obvious reasons, but at least they were held indoors, away from the horse-drawn carriages.)

A pavement appeared – a safer place to be than the road, and the ordeal (as it had become) continued. With two miles remaining, Alastair realised he was being reeled in again and managed just a little extra to hold him off. Brighton Pavilion, that Turkish Delight of an architectural curiosity, was not even noticed. Half a mile to go and at the end of the prom, the Dolphinarium swam into the blurred sea of Alastair’s vision. Suddenly it was all over – round a corner and the finish just a hundred yards ahead. No sprint for the crowd’s benefit – just a dogged dream-like plod over the line, and stop dead, holding onto a barrier.

Having reassured the guy with the blanket that, of course, he could walk unaided, Alastair suddenly found that he couldn’t! Temporary seizure of the front thighs. However a tee-shirted beauty assisted the hirpling old cripple into the breakdown van, which carted him off to the Park Side Baths.

An agonised hobble down some steps, backwards, a tired wriggle out of soaking gear, and into the deepest hot bath (individual tanks) he’d ever had. Ankle-deep he was compelled to scream for help – the water seemed close to boiling point! Sinking back, relaxing at last, Alastair drank two cups of water and one of tea, but couldn’t face a biscuit (unusually for him). Yet within five minutes the sick, totally drained feeling passed, and he was on the mend – legs helped by the heat treatment and liquid intake gradually increasing. The steady pace meant that no real damage had been done – he found it possible to race in a short road relay only six days later!

The next couple of hours were spent sunbathing in a deckchair on the prom, as well as eating ice-cream, drinking coke and chatting to a number of early finishers, while watching slower runners wending their weary way home. Alastair’s time ((5 hours 52 minutes) had been 37 minutes slower than the record pace of Ian Hill, whose opinion of his fifteen minute victory was “Apart from the sore feet, quite pleasant.” He was awarded the Arthur Newton Cup, and the winning team (runner-up Alan Rodgers’ New Yorkers) won the Len Hurst Belt, both old trophies named after famous ultra runners of the distant past. The ever-lovely Lynn Weston, masseuse of must marathoners’ dreams, who had run more than 150 races of 26 miles or over, arrived only an hour after Alastair but well ahead in the Ladies’ competition. As she strolled up to receive her prize from the Mayor of Brighton, she looked cool, composed and elegant. By contrast when, trying not to limp, Alastair stotted onto the stage to collect a tiny but treasured first class standard medal, his main worry wasn’t appearance (more rumpled than ever) but, during the descent of the steps, avoiding a prat-fall because of buckling knees.

A truly amateur affair, and apart from Hill versus Rodgers, not really about competitive sport but personal challenge and self-esteem. Having read the pessimistic pre-race comments in his training diary, Alastair’s exasperated partner had written “Into the Valley of Death! What about REALITY?” And indeed Alastair recognised that ultra distance running was worlds apart from the ‘normal’ stresses of domestic and working life. However this did not make the experience of completing the London to Brighton race unreal. ‘Ultra’ meant beyond – beyond the marathon, testing his stamina and determination beyond previous limits. Achieving his physical potential, living on the edge for a few hours, had been vividly and intensely real. Ultra-distance running might be ultra-eccentric, or painful, or even farcical – but also ultra-satisfying!

Story 7: Downhill


Dawn, in the Grampian Training Centre.

Alan Simpson stifled the insistent beep of his alarm chronograph and slumped back in the lower bunk. He listened to the silence, which was broken only by gentle birdsong. Eventually he prodded the figure above him until Graham stirred mumbled something inaudible and swung his legs over the side before stumbling off to the changing room for his kit. Alan followed more slowly, his limbs stiff as usual.

In the dry stagnant warmth of the changing room, there was no conversation beyond a few meaningful grunts. It was Sunday, a three session day for Graham. Alan would help with two of them – this ten mile preliminary and the pre-lunchtime speed-play on Balmedie Beach (part of the longest stretch of uninterrupted sand in Britain, according to John Merrill, who had walked three thousand miles right round the coast.). Alan loved running, close to the elements on the damp hard-packed sand, the roar of the North Sea breakers in his ears. Then ploughing up and over the yielding golden dunes, before swooping down like a parched cormorant on Newburgh, for a thirst-quenching pint of hand-pulled real ale from the pub. Early morning runs, however, got harder with the years.

With the keenness of youth, Graham was ready first and led the way outside. An unusual tawny glow was fading from the summer sky, and the sun’s disc hung, dazzling, low down to the east. After a few perfunctory stretching exercises, they jogged off down the deserted road.

The Grampian Training Centre had been the inspiration of Jim Simpson, Alan’s father, who had founded it after the IAAF had introduced cash prizes for athletes. Jim intended to spend time and money helping aspiring young runners, like Graham, to earn an honest living from their sport. The immediate target was the New York Marathon (first prize a hundred thousand dollars) – and Alan was helping out during the long summer vacation from his teaching job.

A mile down the road, the pace started increasing. After the usual grumbling and mutual promises to keep it easy, the two athletes were warming up. Sleep-cramped legs were regaining resilience, lungs expanding with fresh conifer-scented air. There were only five buildings on their route through this quiet rural area of North-East Scotland – all farms, one of which was mentioned in a 16th Century map. No human life stirred apart from the runners – Sunday morning means a long lie-in, even for most farmers. The road had a few steep climbs but Alan and Graham eased their way over the crests and relaxed into the dips.

Their run was in three parts: this initial stage; a timed five-mile burst on a hilly forest trail; and three miles steady warming down. Alan knew it wasn’t far to the hard part for him – to where he was meant to act as a pacemaker for Graham. He remembered with distaste an ageing coach who, for two whole years, had retarded the progress of a young runner, by insisting that he ran no faster than his own fading plod – not a precedent to follow. Glancing at Graham, he noted the broad chest, the easy swing of the arms and those elongated legs. It’s like jogging with a giraffe, he thought wryly.

Graham Fraser was just 22 years old and had been running for only four years. His progress had been rapid – to second in the National Cross-Country, 17th in the World Championships and first in the Scottish 10,000 metres. His only marathon had been a casual local affair which he had run as a training session, finishing unruffled in two hours nineteen minutes. Now, however, Graham was deadly serious about his next race – aiming at two hours twelve at the very least. In a couple of years time, old men like Taniguchi and Bordin, not to mention those Africans, had better look out.

Swinging into the forestry car-park, Alan moved in front, asked, “Ready?” without expecting a reply, pressed his stop watch as they passed the noticeboard and stretched immediately into full stride. The slender pathway varied considerably in smoothness: in some places it was carpeted with pine needles, an ideal surface; in others it was criss-crossed by treacherous tree-roots. The ground wasn’t hard, however, and Alan had become used to the undulations. He had never tripped or injured an ankle. It was like running down a long twisting tunnel with bare brown dusty walls and a ceiling of shifting green and blue and white. It was dark, yet light, with a profusion of natural life – wild flowers and mushrooms thriving in the damp atmosphere, birds, squirrels and the occasional roe deer. Alan could even remember hurdling a snake one day – a very high clearance!

Alan was working hard now, his knees lifting as high as they ever did (not a lot – he had always been a shuffler), this fists punching through and breath coming in deep controlled gulps. Behind him he could hear Graham’s light footfall and easy breathing. Still, at least he hadn’t had his heels stepped on yet – the pace must be okay. Gradually the path was meandering up the hillside in a series of little ups and downs to where the trees thinned out and heather took over. He cracked on a little more speed – only a few yards till the bottom of Millstone Hill, where Graham would move into the lead. Really, he was feeling good today, Alan thought – it must be the weather – so still with that pleasant hint of warmth in the air.

Abruptly the path turned right and the incline steepened. Graham cruised past and Alan slipped a couple of yards behind, but then, shortening stride-length, he leaned into the gradient and concentrated on maintaining the right tempo. For a while he managed to keep the same speed as the younger man, until breathing meant gasping, his thighs grew leaden with lactic acid and, against his will, he was forced to slow down a little. Graham’s lean sinewy legs drove remorselessly to the end of the seven-minute uphill stretch. Yet Alan fought on over the weather-beaten granite and black peat of the path, grinding steadily into the rising breeze that lurks on every hilltop, and was no more than ten seconds behind as Graham passed the summit cairn, switched into overdrive and loped away down the others side.

For the next half mile, Alan relaxed his effort slightly for several reasons. He still felt strong and fit, but Graham’s hill-running technique was far sounder than his had ever been – and there might be an accident if they jostled for the lead on that tortuous winding trail. Anyway, Graham would have no difficulty now, in pushing himself to the finish of the timed section.

As well as that, while Alan enjoyed running downhill at a moderate pace, trying to race down always seemed disastrous for his legs. He was 35 years old now, and in his youth had been able to hurtle down hills (road ones at least) but had usually run out of steam on the climbs. By the time he’d acquired the stamina to run uphill as well as anyone, his hamstrings had tightened, and he couldn’t charge down without straining something or other. All the loosening exercises he’d tried (too late) couldn’t compensate for the scar-tissue built up in those overstretched muscles. That was why he’d concentrated on the marathon, which is seldom on really hilly courses. He had raced many, won a few, run for his country (usually in unglamorous places where the ‘big boys’ didn’t want to go, like Holland or Northern Ireland) – and fulfilled most of his potential. He was fairly satisfied that his talent had not been better than his results – although he might have knocked a couple of minutes off his marathon best with the constant attention of a physiotherapist – Leslie Watson, the thinking runner’s pin-up, for instance. But he was past his peak and going downhill, from now on, would have to be taken at a sensible speed. Despite this acceptance of the inevitable, he could not repress some bitterness and a momentary envy of Graham’s more robust youth.

The main reason for slowing, however, was the best one – the scenery was breathtaking: all around the purple heather and the gaunt silhouette of the mountain called Bennachie with its startling shattered crest, a kestrel, wings outspread, hovering effortlessly above it; below, a sea of swaying pine-fronds, stretching down to the familiar patchwork of some of the best farmland in Britain, Donside, the river coiling lazily through the landscape, winding past the strange silver-topped hexagon of a new building, through Paradise Woods, well-named, and out of sight into the blue haze of the distant Cairngorm Mountains. Alan experienced the momentary exhilaration of a man at one with Nature, in harmony with his environment. Aberdeen, the so-called oil capital of Europe, was twenty miles away but could have been a million.

As he re-entered the forest and reached the last mile of broad, gently descending track, Alan found a new zest and vigour, and stretched out purposefully after the distant figure that was now two hundred yards in front. Revelling in the hard exercise, he tested his long-trained body at optimum pace for a few satisfying minutes, even managing to retrieve a few of the lost yards. They were 35 seconds apart when Graham slowed at Donview car-park and stopped his watch. Alan soon caught up and they strode the quiet country road together, down an avenue of luxuriant deciduous trees, along the riverside.

The ‘record’ for the five mile trail had gone to Graham by ten seconds, and Alan too was pleased to have kept going so well. Perhaps when he was 40 he might shake up those ‘veterans’ after all, he exulted. Yet he smiled at his own foolish optimism, reawakened so easily, on the basis of merely a mile or two of decent training. Chattering amicably, they rolled along the last miles. One of them occasionally broke into a sprint to surprise the other, or laughingly tried to imitate the more eccentric gaits of other runners.

They arrived, sweaty and glad to rest, but contented, at the Grampian Centre. There they were greeted by Alan’s father, before heading for a hot shower and a huge carbohydrate-packed breakfast.

Even for Alan, the run had been surprisingly smooth and untroubled – downhill all the way, as the saying goes.

Story 6: Shap Summit


Some time after eleven p.m, at a roundabout south of Carlisle, the radio crackles into life and delivers a series of inaudible messages. Blearily, Alastair Taylor peers out of the van window to see several so-called co-ordinators rushing vaguely around. Iain groans, crawls out of his sleeping bag and exits to help. Minutes later Van Three, warning lights flashing monotonously, rolls into view and past. It shelters a scarecrow figure from the inevitable headwind. Francis strides out briskly and demonstrates surprising energy by smacking the roof of an overtaking car as it squeezes past his hip-bone. He waves encouragingly at the rattled driver.

Forty-five minutes to changeover. Angus, looking grey and far from co-ordinated, staggers into the dormobile, climbs straight into the top bunk and flakes out immediately. Bert drives off, one-handed as usual, while Neil chats into the microphone. Charlie Middleton and Alastair struggle to their feet, shove on their crumpled gear and lace up battered training shoes. They pause to shout encouragement at Tony as he fights on down the endless stretch of tarmac. His loose-limbed track athlete’s style seems incongruous in this setting.

Van Four travels five miles down the route and parks outside a deserted garage with a vast car-park. Alastair creaks down the backstep and commences the so-familiar routine, automatic now on his third JOGLE. Stretching exercises up against the van – hamstrings, Achilles tendons, then hamstrings again (try to touch the toes and eventually reach mid-calf). The stiffness is only partial as yet – just wait till the last day, when legs will set like concrete within ten minutes of stopping running.

After jogging around in circles, and a visit to the next field, the adrenalin begins to build up a little. A few medium pace strides, some knee-lifting and Alastair discovers that he can touch his toes again.

The night is mild, the atmosphere invigorating. Pity about the headwind but they ought to be used to it after four hundred miles. Traffic is sparse, so it is easy to spot the travelling fairground moving steadily through the darkness towards them. Green, white and orange, radiating light in all directions, Van Three trundles by, they cheer, and then clamber into their own Van Four which follows close behind.

With ten minutes to go they synchronise watches over the radio, then drive ahead for the final ‘sprints’ before this, the fourth two-hour session. (On the last day of the relay, they will endure seven painful warm-ups in only fifteen hours!)

Sure enough, Francis, the elder statesman, insists abruptly that they take over three minutes early (and who are they and Greenwich Mean Time to argue?) The Van Four Show is back on the road again. Two miles before Kendal in the cool midnight, Alastair soon eases into a stride pattern rather faster (he hopes) than the eleven miles per hour target. The first five minutes in the glare of the headlights seem less effort than usual. Right on schedule Van Four overtakes and he strives to accelerate to his partner and the haven of the dormobile.

Charlie’s familiar figure chugs along like a souped-up traction engine, puffing and blowing rhythmically but generating a lot of power. All too soon for Alastair, it’s his turn again and this time the strengthening breeze dictates treadmill formation. Traffic-permitting the van slips past the runner as soon as possible after changeover, and then tackles the awkward task of providing shelter without hindering progress. Bert is on the stopwatch, lolling indolently against the kitchen sink beside the open rear door. He ‘talks’ driver Neil into the appropriate place where he can see Alastair in the mirror and the runner can avoid asphyxiation from the exhaust fumes. Too close to the back-step, and he will bruise his shinbone and lose pace – too far away and he will lose the windshield and the incentive of ‘chasing’ this mechanical rival. There is only a ten yard gap between these extremes – and to keep the vehicle in the correct position, a delicate touch on brake and accelerator is essential. Neil’s sensitivity to the demands of the job had improved to the extent that self-obsessed paranoid runners like Charlie and Alastair have stopped moaning about his driving. Indeed even the volatile Bert seems content with his co-driver (apart from a couple of explosive outbursts.) It amazes Alastair how little friction there is in Van Four, despite the predictable stress caused by lack of sleep.

As Neil gentles the pedals, Alastair forces adjustments to the speed by means of hand-signals and urgent gasps. Bert muses and occasionally checks the watch. Meanwhile Charlie sweats into Alastair’s towel on the bed, relaxing as completely as is possible in a mere five minutes and, sometimes, glancing without much interest at his partner’s straining figure.

Sleepy Kendal blinks and they are past. The session is gathering speed – the road merely undulating despite the fact that the first sign has been espied bearing the short and ominous place name ‘SHAP’. In past JOGLES, so the legend has it, this well-known mountainous stretch, snowbound and icily windswept, had caused a severe slump in pace, hypothermia and even frostbite! According to the gutter press, this is a ‘crucial crunch crack-up crisis point’ in the relay – but the Van Four men are determined that things will be different this time.

Extra stimulus is provided by Iain, who is timing them from the link car. Typically he invents a fifty yard shortcut across an overgrown roundabout at one a.m. “It’s okay – there’s a faint path!” Alastair steams across and narrowly avoids breaking an ankle on the dimly glimpsed grass tussocks which have to be negotiated after the ‘path’ disappears halfway. Undaunted, the crafty co-ordinator reminds them that they are nearing the mid-point of the JOGLE itself, and threatens to play his dreaded bagpipes to celebrate, if they can pass the landmark. On checking the schedule, Alastair calculates that they can just make it before the end of their stint. The challenge is zany enough to appeal.

Consequently they push harder and stride out faster. Bert and Neil join in the team effort – muttering words of encouragement, driving extra carefully, and grunting diplomatic assent to semi-coherent chatter from psyched-up runners. Van Five makes an appearance, enabling them to bash on, secure in the knowledge that Jim and Alan will take over on time. Three-way wisecracking starts on the radio between Ronnie, Bert and Neil – mutual agitation brought to a fine art by now.

Last half hour, past Shap Village, and the real hills have appeared – long relentless drags winding over the fells. The temperature has dropped with the gain in altitude and a cutting Arctic wind whistles into them, chilling their sweat-stained teeshirts. A grey cheerless place and an insane time to be running. There is an air of unreality about it all – the pool of light sliding along the tarmac behind the floodlit vehicle, the lone figure struggling to keep up, pursued by the shadows of night. Tiredness eats insidiously into the whole body, but can be ignored if the incentive is sufficient – and they really want to reach ‘halfway’ before handing over. Every five minutes is a flat-out effort. Thirty seconds to loosen up and get into full stride behind the van, then fighting on uphill at maximum tempo, fists punching rhythmically, oxygen sucked hard from the icy air until ‘Three minutes gone!” is called. Then an attempt to maintain pace until “Thirty seconds!” when the comfort of the windbreak is brusquely removed as the dormobile accelerates. It leaves the runner alone to stride out of the darkness to his team-mate before bouncing up the step and crashing heavily onto the bed. Purring engine, reeking exhaust fumes, the sobbing of straining lungs, throbbing head, dry throat and a sour smell of perspiration – these are the impressions of a leaden-legged Jogle runner nearing the end of his stint.

An athlete’s sense of time can become acute – and poor Bert is cursed after forgetting the ‘three minute’ signal – a vital psychological crutch for a suffering cripple whose wish for speed is only matched by his desire to rest his weary bones.

At five minutes to two, a weird sound, blown down the wind from a distant lay-by, tortures their ears. As Charlie grinds on up the inevitable slope, Alastair can pick out through the windscreen the unlikely figure of Iain, pacing back and forth in the gloom, piping a piercing pibroch. Without thinking, Alastair bullies Neil into a quick acceleration and jumps out to join a puzzled Charlie. The two of them run the last fifty yards to the ‘mid-point’ of Jogle 1982. Then Alastair completes the final half mile to Van Five.

Exhilarated, they collapse into their dormobile. Ian declares that at his rate they’ll take three hours off the record! (He doesn’t know that they’ll have to cover an extra ten miles missed out on their schedule). The link car departs and the four men gather to share their impression of one of the most satisfactory sections of the relay. Their friendly chatter in this remote peaceful place is disturbed rudely by a commotion in the upper berth. A tousled Angus emerges from dreamless sleep to ask the time and establish his whereabouts. He’s missed the entire session!

Ten hours later near Whichurch in ‘The Bull and Dog’, real ale pub of the trip, they interrupt the hilarity to rush out and cheer their team-mates. Jim and Van Five roll past, en route to their Club’s new End-to-End record (Seventy-seven hours twenty-six minutes eighteen seconds for 850 miles). While Neil, Bert, Alastair and Charlie sip their third pints of Wem Ale, the Jogle seems hugely enjoyable and they wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. Such is the benefit of resilience and a poor memory!


1982: Donald Ritchie and Colin Youngson in ‘The Bull and Dog’, Shropshire.

Story 5: International Experience


A few aged locals leaned against the time-worn but solid bar of a bistro in small town outside Antwerp. Communication was limited. It was Friday noon – time to sip reflectively at a couple of glasses of pils and to daydream, peering absently at the dust motes dancing in the beams of weak Autumn sunshine straying through the portions of window not covered by painted advertisements for beer.

Peace was dented by a squeaking of brakes as several vehicles drew up outside. Then the swing doors crashed open and more than twenty customers squeezed inside onto scratched chairs round circular tables in the cramped little dining area. Regulars raised eyebrows at the appearance of the incomers, who were nearly all sparely-built with prominent cheekbones. Skin-colour and style of clothing varied considerably – suits and blazers contrasting incongruously with jeans and tracksuits. The plump little extrovert who was clearly in charge certainly sounded Belgian – but who were these others?

The magic word ‘Marathon’ explained all, as the well-fed fellow confidently started to run up a considerable bar-bill by ordering drinks and lunch for his party. Anyone who kept in touch with the sports news was aware that the sixth and biggest ‘Internationale Antwerpen Marathon’, one of the highlights of the Septemberfest, would take place on Saturday evening. So these must be the invited competitors! Assorted nationalities, obviously – must be from all over Europe.

Alastair Taylor couldn’t help grinning as he relaxed, his tonsils tingling from his first good mouthful of ice-cold Belgian lager. His gaze took in the traditional décor, yellowing posters, curios (wasn’t that the figurehead of an old sailing ship?) and sawdust on the bare floorboards. Then he enjoyed the sight of shining silver beer fonts and a gantry packed with multi-hued unfamiliar liqueurs, mainly flavoured gins. Just the sort of place he liked; and the company he preferred – other runners. Pity he couldn’t speak much French and German, let alone Dutch, Belgian, Danish, and certainly not Polish and Turkish. Thank goodness for the Irish and for his British team-mate, Mike Durham.

Mike was talking now, animated and relentless, the words pouring out. He’d hardly stopped chattering since they’d met at Heathrow Airport. Alastair hoped the Englishman’s legs would lack the stamina of his mobile mouth. He could not rely on the truth of Mike’s claims to be unfit and injured in many minor but significant ways. Not surprisingly the Turks had only each other to talk to, and the French seemed rather aloof. Yet Pidgin English (with an American accent) plus meaningful gesticulation seemed to enable everyone else to cross the language barriers.

Alastair remembered in the past, managing to communicate with a Finn by exclaiming “Lasse Viren!” with thumbs up and vigorous nodding. The response had been “Brendan Foster!” and the conversation had continued with reference to football teams, Scottish kilts and whisky. Of course marathon runners the world over had their obsession in common, so there was no problem discussing current fitness, injuries and training distance per week. (Some exaggerated but others cagily admitted to much less than they had really run.) Most competitors seemed cheerful and carefree, yet Alastair noticed how few accepted a second beer and how many switched to fruit juice or bottled water.

The meal was excellent: plenty of crusty white rolls to go with home-made onion soup, tender medium-rare steak (a Belgian speciality, possibly marinaded), lots of fresh salad and bowlfuls of boiled potatoes. Then fruit and ice cream, (“Great after a race – it cools the blood,” said one of the Irish.), coffee and Danish pastries. Enormous quantities of food disappeared rapidly into apparently famished bodies. Almost a perfect menu, thought Alastair, although a syrup sponge and custard would have provided even more fuel.

Mike and he chatted amicably to the other athletes, especially the three from Eire. Every other national team had only two runners, but the Irish were from the same Dublin club and hoped to win both club and international team prizes, as they had succeeded in doing the previous year. Alastair found listening to Gerry O’Neill particularly easy, partly because of his delightful Dublin accent – the total inability to pronounce ‘th’ other than ‘t’ or even ‘d’. The bespectacled Gerry looked rather staid (and indeed he turned out to be a college lecturer) but was in fact an eloquent and amusing person with a wide range of opinions and a considerable knowledge of running. He had won the Antwerp race three years previously in a personal best time which was precisely the same as Alastair’s. They also shared a love of that creamy black nectar Dublin Guinness.

Jim McIntyre was a witty talkative man too – but although Diarmid McDonnell seemed pleasant, he was rather withdrawn and serious, the gauntness of his face evidence of many tough training miles and exhausting races. Indeed on paper he was one of the two fastest men in the race, the other being the Belgian Peeters. The best times of the top fifteen participants ranged from 2 hours 13 minutes to 2 hours twenty-two – so a close contest was guaranteed.

At the thought of the race, Alastair’s already full stomach tightened further. Throughout the meal, despite the light-hearted atmosphere, he had felt an inner tension. At seven p.m. on Saturday night, in twenty-eight hours time, the marathon would start, and he expected it to be competitive and strenuous. Not that there was such a thing as an easy marathon, the sheer distance made sure of that – 26 miles 385 yards or rather 42 kilometres 195 metres. Alastair remembered that he would have to think in terms of five kilometre sections rather than five mile ones.

He was glad when the party split up and were conveyed to their accommodation. Some who had competed in Antwerp before were enjoying the generous hospitality of local families; but Mike and Alastair had adjoining single rooms in the Eurotel. Alastair was relieved about that because he needed time to rest and then concentrate. Having agreed to meet Mike for a jog (“A SLOW one, mind!”) in a couple of hours’ time, he went back to his room and lay on the single bed.

Dozing for a while was possible but then his mind drifted inevitably onto the coming test. Alastair knew he would have to be especially cautious in this marathon – a follower rather than a bold front-runner. His preparations had been less than ideal – how could they be otherwise when he had received the letter inviting him to represent his country in the race only ten days earlier? Still, this had been a very good year so far, and he was sure that his general fitness would ensure a much stronger performance than he had managed in his third marathon three years earlier.

On that occasion, he had made several errors – training hard until a couple of days before the race and then running the first sixteen miles too fast. To make matters worse, he had been using a better runner as a windshield when his more experienced opponent had demanded that Alastair share the work into a strong headwind. Foolishly he had obeyed and inevitably had been unable to respond when, with a derisive chuckle, the tactician had swept away to victory. Gradually Alastair had ‘hit the wall’ – particularly badly in the last couple of miles.  A curious shivery increasingly weak feeling had come over him and he couldn’t have cared less when he lost his second place with four hundred yards to go. The final lap, in front of an embarrassingly large crowd, had been a dream-like slow motion very careful run/walk, as performed by a shorter anorexic version of the Incredible Hulk. A ‘friend’ had timed the last lethargic two hundred metres which took Alastair no less than eighty aching seconds!

Alastair was sure he had learned from that experience. His training had improved in quantity, quality and above all consistency, with the results that his times had improved from 5000 metres right up to the marathon. April, May and June had been a marvellous time for him. Three months of solid training, getting the balance right between long distance runs, speed work, hill work, time trials, races and recovery sessions. Two weeks before his chosen marathon at the end of June, when he had broken right away from his training companions in the final few miles of the long Sunday trail, Alastair had proven that he was succeeding in ‘peaking’ correctly. After all they had only run sixteen miles, whereas he had managed twenty-seven!

Following a week of easy running, he had managed to complete the ‘pre-marathon diet’ with scientific exactitude. Without more than a cup of tea for breakfast, he had run a steady but tiring eighteen miles before completing the ‘bleed-out’ process by trudging ten miles a day on Monday, Tuesday and early Wednesday. During this time he had eaten only protein and fat – no carbohydrate. Wearily clambering into the shower after the final session, feeling like an exhausted deep-sea diver whose oxygen cylinder was almost empty, he had consoled himself with the thought of rest and stuffing himself with the stodge which his leaden body craved. He weighed himself before breakfast and last thing on Wednesday night – and was mildly startled to note a thirteen pound weight gain! Potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, cakes, biscuits and precious little protein plus lots of fluid – he went from feeling starved to satisfied to bursting to rather sick! By Thursday evening he had reverted to a more cautious and normal mixture and was feeling fit if plumply moist.

Sure that the extra blood sugar (glycogen) was safely stored, Alastair was very careful to jog only three miles and eat light easily digestible food in the twenty-four hours before the race. He stuck to white bread in preference to wholemeal since he had no time to waste on ‘pit-stops’ during the actual marathon.

In future years, Alastair would come to believe that the ‘diet’ regime was too strict and that most of the advantages were psychological (“I have suffered more than these guys and therefore will the stronger in the last miles.”) Perhaps he had been in such good condition that he had been sure to run well anyway; perhaps the theoretical extra fuel could be pumped aboard without the ‘draining’ stage. But at the time he believed in the whole process with the faith of a Christian Fundamentalist.

No matter the reason, the June marathon had gone like one of the dreams that runners really do have. Alastair’s training partner, also in the form of his life, had run very strongly into a slight breeze during the first half of the out and back course. Alastair simply had to shelter and hang on. On the return journey he had waited for the right moment to attack and then, when his opponent had shown a slight sign of strain at nineteen miles (he had cursed a tardy water station attendant with unnecessary vehemence), Alastair had made the break. He felt calm, strong and in control all the way to twenty-five miles, by which time he had a lead of a minute. A slight jolt of cramp had worried him at that stage, but he had kept going well enough to preserve his lead into the stadium, round his ‘lap of honour’ and through the tape, taking four minutes off his previous best for the distance. A day to remember always. As someone once said, “If you want a race, sprint a hundred yards; if you want a real experience, run a marathon.”

Lying on the bed, Alastair smiled at the memory. But his happiness faded as he admitted to himself that fitness had been lost since then. July had been a holiday month. Then he had been called up to run a ten kilometre track race, followed almost immediately by and ‘adventure’ – a thirty-six mile ultra-marathon, no less. That had been satisfactory, for a masochistic whim. But the problem was that the ‘ultra’ had been precisely three weeks before the Antwerp race (to which Alastair had no way of knowing he would be invited).

So there had been no question of ‘peaking’ for this one. Had his legs recovered properly? He hadn’t even done ‘the diet’. Caution, patience and of course luck was going to be essential.

The ‘jog’ with Mike was less than ideal. Alastair was wearing his racing shoes and socks but had no desire to run hard. Mike talked his way through the first mile but then grew strangely silent as, hardly surprisingly, the pace edged upwards. After a couple of uncomfortable miles, Alastair was content to take the shortest route back to the hotel and leave Mike to impress himself further. Some team-mate, trying to give a compatriot an inferiority complex!

A wander round the diamond-selling area of Antwerp was followed by a light meal and an hour lingering over a single beer and enjoying the ‘crack’ (that is the high speed witty conversation, otherwise known as blarney) of the Irish. If Alastair believed what he heard, everyone was at best half-fit for a wheelchair marathon and consequently treating the race in an extremely low-key manner. Then he went back to the room to read for a while before an early and optimistic attempt to get some sleep.

Naturally Alastair spent the night worrying, swallowing to check if his throat was sore, having hot flushes, and making conscious attempts to calm pre-race nerves and to relax his body from toes to brow. Occasionally he dozed and had that repetitive nightmare in which transport to the start line breaks down, racing shoes are forgotten and the runner arrives five minutes too late! Eventually he did manage four hours of deep sleep from dawn onwards. Fortunately he was not over-concerned because he had heard the wisdom that it was the sleep you got the night before the night before that counted – and that had been eight hours solid.

A solo jog after breakfast (just a couple of slow miles, but enough to reassure a hypochondriac that his ankles had not gone wobbly overnight) gave Alastair a chance to check the weather. It was overcast, cool but not too breezy and therefore favourable for a marathon.

At three p.m. he had his final ‘top-up’ meal – two white bread jam sandwiches washed down with a pint of glucose drink. Then a steady intake of bottled water (not fizzy). Having dressed for battle, by fastening his chain mail (or more precisely his number, secured by several safety pins) to his vest, Alastair tried to relax completely for a while. Several visits to the loo later it was five-thirty and time to meet the other invited athletes in the hall.

A bus arrived and they reached the town square an hour before start time. Two thousand club runners and joggers were already there in rows, restlessly shifting like cattle in market pens. The more fortunate ‘elite’ were escorted into a nearby building to rest, stretch, jog up and down or go out for a thorough warm-up. With twenty minutes to go, Alastair drank a mug of black coffee without sugar. He hoped that it was true that caffeine not only gave one a smooth rapid start but also made it easier to metabolise fatty acids for energy later in the race. Then he checked that the tape on the pressure points of his feet hadn’t slipped, ensured that his racing shoes were tied firmly but not too tightly, stripped to his vest and shorts, made one last precautionary trip to the toilet and eventually reached the line with five minutes to spare.

A few nods, handshakes and muttered good wishes were exchanged, but each athlete seemed to be lost in his own private world. Alastair was vaguely aware of crowds of spectators on either side and, above his head, the festival lights outlined against the darkening sky. Then the start controller gave a ten second countdown, everyone bent forward in readiness and the gun was all but drowned by the simultaneous beep of two thousand stop watches and a stampede of expensively-shod hooves.

With a nervous rush, Alastair managed to avoid being trampled to death and then settled down behind the two hundred metre specialists. By the two kilometre mark a group of thirty runners had separated from the herd and were making progress at a reasonably fast but sensible pace. The Dane Lauenborg was a maverick with his own ideas however – he had shot off very rapidly and gained a fifty metre lead. His pursuers were not disposed to panic, but were keeping their eyes on him and the gap steady.

Alastair was relieved that on this occasion the organisers had not provided ‘pacers’ – men who were paid to shield the leaders from any headwind and to make sure that certain fast split times were achieved all the way to 20km or 25km. Since he was unsure about the state of his fitness, he preferred to rely on the caution or commonsense of the others to run at a less ambitious speed. This might enable him to store as much energy as possible for the later stages. He hoped that the Dane might falter and be reabsorbed into the main bunch – and so it proved.

The course chosen for the race was an irritating one, twisting through the streets and suburbs of the city. Although there were some steady drags uphill and other undulations, the route was fairly flat but Alastair found the constant corner-cutting a nuisance. A major problem which slowed the pace considerably was a series of cobbled sections which were slippery and treacherous in the damp, increasingly dark conditions. A stretch of dual-carriageway was rather exposed but usually buildings helped to shelter competitors from a cold breeze. The leading group fanned out craftily to gain maximum protection from any wind that did slip through and try to sap their strength. A six kilometre loop was followed by two laps of a fifteen kilometre circuit before another tour of the first six kilometres, this time to the finish.

During the first 10k there was some pushing, heel-tapping and elbow-work to avoid, as runners manoeuvred for position. On downhill stretches with a following wind the pace seemed uncomfortably rapid, but of course the group slowed considerably on hilly windswept sections. Alastair stayed at the tail-end of the bunch and kept out of trouble, since he knew how difficult it would be to regain contact if he were tripped. A twinge of cramp in his left leg unsettled him at eight kilometres but a few stretching motions (karate contortions carried out on the run) seemed to solve the problem. Some opponents tired themselves by putting in a fast burst to every refreshment halt – they seemed to have a desperate thirst for such a cool evening. The drinks attendants were so inexperienced that each station turned into a cursing, shoving, rugby scrum of heaving bodies and flying elbows and cups of liquid. Alastair, glad that he was well-hydrated , saved energy by ignoring it all and, moistened by a misty drizzle, plodded dourly up the middle of the road. The 10k mark was reached in 33 minutes 15 seconds. Alastair was coping fairly comfortably with that speed and was pleased to note that the leading pack was down to about ten men. Obviously some of the invited athletes had not been lying about their lack of sharpness!

Positions were unchanged at 15k – no wonder after a slow 5k split of 17.39. He was content to follow the pace and concentrate on his own form. Was he ‘belly-breathing’ properly (his stomach going out as he breathed in and vice versa)? He knew that if he lost his breathing rhythm and started gasping, sucking air into the top of his chest, he might get a ‘stitch’. Was his stride length economical and appropriate to the gradient (shorter uphill, longer downhill)? Were his arms swinging in a controlled fashion and were his hands lightly closed, not clenched? Was he the correct distance behind the runner in front and was anyone liable to tread on his own heels? Was he looking where he was going? Was he alert but as relaxed as possible? How comfortable did the others seem and when might he himself consider making a positive move?

By 20km they were eight. One of the Belgians had slipped behind and then poor Jim McIntyre had succumbed to cramp. Since he was the last counter in the club team, he felt compelled to struggle on to the finish more than twenty minutes behind the winner, but had the consolation that the Dublin outfit did retain their title. The others did not pause to commiserate but swept on dispassionately into the night.

At 25km, Alastair felt a little tired but had happy enough that he could maintain the tempo that the leading group was setting. Quickly he assessed the condition of his rivals. Diarmid McDonnell looked very easy indeed and his compatriot and club-mate Gerry O’Neill was breathing hard but seemed strong. Mike Durham was speechless for once but rolling along smoothly. Peeters, the local favourite, was still there but not looking at all composed – he kept rubbing his side and shaking his head in reply to anxious (and, to Alastair, incomprehensible) inquiries by his supporters. The other three were drifting off the pace almost imperceptibly: Altun, the short dark impassive Turk; Lauenborg the big Dane, who seemed to have lost his initial drive; and Rottiers the Dutchman. Apparently the latter was ceasing to respond to the hysterical prompting of his coach, the rotter, who persisted in appearing on a bicycle, indulging in illegal motivation.

As his body plodded on automatically, Alastair’s mind wondered what DID motivate distance runners. They might continue training and racing because the sport was addictive. If a few sessions were missed, the runner couldn’t sleep normally, complained about having cold feet in bed, became less relaxed and more neurotic, couldn’t eat or drink in the usual quantities and generally suffered from withdrawal symptoms. More positively, it was only right that any human being should try to develop to his or her potential (in this case mainly physical) to the maximum. Yet, no matter how hard people trained, the extent of their improvement was limited by their original talent. And very few were blessed with the world-record-breaking, Olympic-gold-medal-winning gifts of an athlete like Sebastian Coe. Without such talent, success could be only within certain bounds. Most distance runners, of course, came to accept their own frailties with a cheerful philosophical tolerance. They were motivated to keep on racing, Alastair decided, not just because of the company of friendly rivals who might share a few beers afterwards, but mainly because of the joy of swift movement, the excitement of the contest, the challenge to their own self image, and their sense of themselves as free adventurous individuals in a mundane society of constipated conformists.

Spectators huddled in overcoats or under umbrellas, and wished they had a hipflask of cognac to make the cold rain more bearable. They could see only a procession of ruddy-complexioned inappropriately-clad characters clattering round the Antwerp cobbles with manic determination. Even the friends or relatives they had come to cheer failed to fascinate. The sight was hardly worth missing an evening in the warmth. And the leaders, that dwindling band of eager ectomorphs, loping more lightly, undoubtedly seemed, in their dedicated, deadpan way, more demented than the rest.

Inside the mind of a contender it was different, however. Alastair’s fatigue was growing, but he was making a decision to take a chance, to gamble or what the newspapers call ‘glory’, to go for home with a third of the original distance still to cover. It might not seem sensible, considering his lack of peak form, but it would inject some drama into the race, and his own life. Foolish, perhaps, but fun. Maybe he would over-reach himself and probably he would lose, but he might just succeed – and if he did fail it would be in a bolder, more cavalier fashion. Consequently he looked ahead and, picking out the 28 kilometre signpost, which was positioned at the bottom of a gradual climb (one of his strengths), he steadied his breathing, gathered courage and concentration, sidestepped the front rank of the bunch and accelerated into a higher gear.

The effect was instantaneous: like human magnets the two Irishmen immediately increased their pace to match his but the others fell behind. Alastair pushed hard right over the summit of the gradient, then slowed for a few metres before kicking again. This time he could ‘feel’ one of his opponents losing ground, could hear a heavy footfall and heavier breathing fading away. He glanced sideways and saw, as expected, the calm grim face of Diarmid McDonnell. Side by side over the cobbles they strode into the darkness. At 30km (1 hour 41 minutes exactly) they were eighteen seconds clear of a group of four pursuers: O’Neill, Durham, Peeters and Rottiers.

Having achieved the desired effect (although dropping McDonnell too would have been preferable) and feeling the strain of his exertions, Alastair was content to coast alongside Diarmid for the next few kilometres. To be more accurate, he was relieved that the Irishman did not counter-attack. He tried to control his breathing and to conceal from his rival the tiredness he felt draining vitality from his limbs. He remembered reading about a great race in the past – the barefoot Ethiopian Abebe Bikila and the Moroccan Rhadi competing for gold in the 1960 Olympics, fighting along the Appian Way through the night to the finish under the floodlit Arch of Constantine. On a scale less grand, perhaps this was to be his own starlit triumph…… But as he mused vaingloriously they passed the 35 km marker and, peering over his shoulder, he was chagrined to discover that their speed had slackened and O’Neill was only ten seconds down! (Rottiers and Durham 22 seconds behind but Peeters cracking up).

Alastair’s reaction was instinctive – that of the hunted animal. He dug in deep and raised the tempo once more. McDonnell followed closely but to Gerry O’Neill it was a bitter blow. Seeing the leading duo drifting back, he had mustered his remaining strength and forced himself ahead of his companions, striving to bridge the gap to Diarmid and the Scotsman. The effort hurt but he had been succeeding, and was looking forward to taking a breather once he had regained contact, when Alastair saw him coming and went away again. It was not to be Gerry’s race and he knew it. When Mike Durham came past he could offer little resistance.

Mike the Englishman reckoned that the leaders were on the road to self-destruction. He himself was the only person near the front who had stuck to steady even-paced running and he was confident that his economical strategy would succeed. Already he had cruised past one Irishman and he could see no reason why he couldn’t overtake the other one and Alastair Taylor as well before the end – especially since something like a fartlek session seemed to be developing up front!

Indeed the fastest five kilometres of the marathon was turning into a duel. Alastair had ceased to care about the risk of blowing up. He had forgotten that he had no carefully-garnered extra glycogen stores this time. He had one single objective – to drop McDonnell – and was trying everything he could to achieve it. And Diarmid was responding with similar spirit. First one man surged into the lead, while the other refused to give in, resisting the temptation to restrain his opponent by grabbing his sweat-stained vest. Soon the pace slowed again because the leader was tiring and realised that his attempt to escape was futile. Then the hunter became the hare and tried to surprise the greyhound by breaking away at an unexpected moment.

Attack, fail, hang on, attack again – the seesaw battle continued. And all the time, Mike Durham, mobile war correspondent, observed the conflict and moved steadily closer to the scene of the action.

A shadow of doubt was creeping into the mind of Diarmid McDonnell. He knew that his personal best was faster than Taylor’s and that his international experience was greater. But the uneven expenditure of energy was unsettling him. It had been a disappointment when Gerry had been left behind. Irish chances in the team race had looked very good. Still, marathoning was essentially a sport for the isolated individual – and victory might still be his. Perhaps the Scotsman was weakening.

Alastair was near exhaustion now. He realised that each surge was shorter then its predecessor, that his determination was ebbing with his physical resilience. Yet he persisted automatically. At least McDonnell would know he’d been in a race. His sight was blurred, dimmed by darkness, dazzled by streetlights. His thoughts were becoming dazed – this was moonlit madness. At 39 km Diarmid went into the lead once more – and Alastair could feel himself beginning to lose touch. Was his body refusing to fight – or was his mind accepting defeat? The effect was the same. With a dull resignation, Alastair watched McDonnell edge away from him.

At 40 kilometres there was a six second, growing gap. Alastair could do no more. The route suddenly swung round a bollard in the middle of the street and went back the other side. To his horror Alastair saw that Mike was only about ten seconds behind, waving encouragingly to his team-mate! Compatriot be damned – one thing a Scotsman hates is losing to an Englishman. At least the Irish are fellow Celts!

The final run-in was a desperate struggle for Alastair Taylor, as he flogged his knackered steed up the finishing hill. Diarmid, his ears ringing with cheers, was savouring the delicious taste of victory, while Alastair could only create a crick in the neck caused by panicky glancing round at the pursuing Mike. Seventeen seconds after McDonnell took the tape (2 hours 20 minutes 51 seconds), Taylor flopped over the line, with a comparatively fresh and very frustrated Durham a scant nine seconds behind. Gerry O’Neill, a minute back, was fourth, Rottiers fifth and the rest, as they say, ‘nowhere’. Both Britain and Eire had four points, but Alastair and Mike won the team prize because they had completed the course before Gerry.

Applause, handshakes, congratulations, flowers, presentations, photographs, interviews. Showers, rehydration, food, beer, dehydration, carousing, collapse, bed.

A reporter for a Belgian newspaper dismissed the Antwerp marathon as a typical procession, with a group of runners following each other round the route, before a sprint finish.

One individual perceives Truth, or Beauty, differently from another. Alastair’s viewpoint contrasted with the journalist’s verdict. His ‘international experience’ seemed to him arduous, enthralling, disappointing but undoubtedly worthwhile. Even at the depressing hour of four a.m. on Sunday morning, as he lay slumped with a hangover, too tired to sleep, in a hot bath, trying to soak the interminable twitching out of his battered legs.

Story 4: Glorious Mud!


As he surged smoothly over the tussocky crest of the first steep little hill, only four hundred yards after the start, Jim Alexander sensed that, on this day, success would come easily.

Masochistic old-timers might scoff at the conditions but Jim loved cross-country running – of this variety. Modern World Championships tended to be run on similar courses – fast, dry and undulating. As soon as he had stepped off the team bus and surveyed the route, which snaked round the resilient turf of a seaside golf links, Jim had felt a stirring of optimism mingled with the usual tension.

For late January in the South-West of Scotland, the weather was exceptional – mild and sunny with a cool breeze. Proximity to the sea (plus the greenhouse effect?) had kept the snow away. And most miraculous of all – he was fit and ready to defend his County Championship title. Six weeks of serious, satisfying training, uninterrupted by injury or illness; six days of easy jogging; some brisk striding; deep untroubled sleep; a comfortable journey. No wonder he felt so vibrant.

Road-Running was Jim’s forte, and cross-country racing like this could be even better. Unlike tarmac, the grass cushioned the impact of foot on ground and reduced the likelihood of muscle bruising. He had felt alert and controlled during his warm-up. The stretching had been without strain. At the start, without hesitation, he had managed to glide powerfully into his best racing stride.

Of course his confidence was increased by precise knowledge, not only of his own excellent form, but also of the opposition. He had beaten them all before, and had no reason to suppose he could not do so again. Indeed his only slight worry had been Ewan Cameron. Since the latter was a deep mud specialist, Jim felt that on this springy surface victory was almost assured. Furthermore, he had a secret weapon! While cruising around inspecting the course, Jim had laughed aloud when he realised that spikes were unnecessary. He could sneak a slight advantage by wearing racing flats and running at least half a mile (per two mile lap) on the tarmac path which paralleled the route indicated by the marker flags. In a three-lap race, that could be a decisive tactical move, since road running tends to be a little faster than running on grass.

Everything, but everything, went to plan. Five minutes (and one mile) into the race, Jim was dictating the pace. Ewan was tucked in, panting very hard but refusing to give way. The rest were fifty yards to the rear and fading. The last half mile of the lap offered the alternative surface, and Jim put in a fierce burst of speed. This left Ewan, whose spikes on the bumpy turf lacked the traction that Jim enjoyed on the firm path, drifting ten yards behind. Ewan fought his way up to Jim’s shoulder by half way, but this merely delayed the inevitable, because the effort drained his reserves. Inexorably, Jim drew further and further away – a greyhound outpacing a terrier. At the ‘bell’ he was almost a hundred yards in front and the gap continued to grow. The final circuit was virtually a lap of honour. ………………………………………..



Light-headed, exultant, his ears ringing with cheers, Jim punched the air and slowed to a jog. He managed to control his breathing – and grinning widely, shook hands with an exhausted Ewan before easing his way out of the crowd for a gentle but joyous warm-down. Cross-Country Running seemed the finest, most delightful sport of all. …………………………………………………………………………

Four weeks later, however, things looked very different. The omens seemed less than favourable. Jim was not comforted by the likelihood that holes in the ground might swallow him up. The Inter-County Championship was a major fixture. Jim’s county was defending the team title. The first nine individuals would represent Scotland in the Inter-Area match versus Wales, Northern Ireland and the Auld Enemy, England. And he felt absolutely dreadful.

For a start, he had been injured. The week after his County race, bursting with over-confidence, he had run too far, too fast, and strained an Achilles tendon. Reluctant to rest, he had trudged on grimly, suffering increasing pain. Inevitably, he had been forced to take five days off to treat the affliction. Stretching, strengthening and that vital athletic aid, the packet of frozen peas, had repaired the damage. Cautiously he experimented, finding the tendon tender but serviceable. Then he succumbed to the prevalent ‘flu bug!

Another six days of sweating, snuffling, sneezing, coughing and complaining, drinking gallons of water, consuming umpteen grams of Vitamin C – and Jim was ready to start again, only one week before the Inter-Counties. Had his stamina been affected? Was he fit to compete? These questions were about to be answered but Jim wished the examination had been postponed.

To make matters worse, torrential rain had lashed the countryside for a fortnight. The course designer, judging by his creation, was a sadist. The route looked awesome. Road Racers (like Jim) regarded it with repulsion. Track ‘Fairies’ felt faint. And Mud ‘Puddlers’ purred with pleasure and sharpened their long ‘claws’.

A muddy field on top of a potential ski-slope was the chosen site for the start. After four hundred yards of precipitous descent, the flags veered sharply to the left. The track narrowed before plunging into half a mile of tree-lined corridor, where only jet-propelled karate experts would find overtaking a simple matter. A series of alarming switchbacks ensued, and the sadist had subtly included a number of right-angled turns before a ‘killer hill’ and the obligatory ploughed field. Then, for the delectation of the crowd, An arduous steadily rising drag of a finishing straight. Three laps of chocolate-tinted ecstasy, totalling seven and a half miles. An alien landscape liberally lubricated with millions of melted Mars Bars. At least there weren’t any steeplechase barriers to negotiate.

Jim sighed with desperate resignation to his fate as he inspected the ground conditions. These seemed to be an attractive mixture of marsh, swamp and quagmire. The phrase ‘missing, presumed drowned’ occurred to him. Nevertheless he went through the pre-race routine, trying to create some heat in his wind-chilled body by plodding stickily round the course. Unfortunately he cooled down again during the lengthy queue for the inadequate toilet facilities. With five minutes to go, he shoved on his spikes (only medium length, alas), stripped off and tried a few perfunctory strides. What a surprise – the start was delayed by ten minutes as ‘jobsworth’ officials explored the formal niceties of the rule book, while runners cursed and hopped up and down, nursing their burgeoning chilblains. An icy drizzle began to seep from heavy-laden clouds.

Tenth was the position in which Jim had finished the previous year (on another ‘soft’ circuit) and consequently he had missed out on the representative team by a single place. He had hoped to make it this year or perish in the attempt. The latter seemed more likely. However, when the gun fired, he launched himself into a manic attempt to fulfil his faltering ambition.

Struggling to sprint on a treacherous unstable surface, Jim lurched uncertainly down the slope. Disaster was avoided, just, when he managed to hurdle an unfortunate rival who had tripped and sprawled headlong prior to perforation by sympathetic but preoccupied runners. Soaked, mud-splattered and punctured, the poor fellow lay there in shock, like a discarded tea-bag.

Reckless leaders with longer spikes than Jim slalomed round the left-hander into the forest tunnel, leaving him trapped, slithering and helpless. He was unable to pass slower competitors who were throttling back for a breather after an optimistic “Hello, Mum!” start. Frustrated, he was caught in the traffic jam until emerging into the open at the three-quarters of a mile mark. Then he zoomed furiously up the first of the hills, and proceeded to overtake madly. Amazingly, these tactics, brave yet burning fuel extravagantly, seemed at first to be correct. By two miles, Jim had climbed up into the first ten and desperately tried to cling on.

Suddenly success began to slide away as Jim did likewise, losing control on the slick churned-up morass, as he made a futile attempt to turn right at speed. Face-first into the mud he tumbled, to lie spread-eagled in the bog for a moment, before scrambling up and dashing off in pursuit of elusive glory. Fifteenth.

As he wheezed up the north face of the steepest climb on the course, Jim began to flag. His rivals seemed to be growing stronger. Forcing his way doggedly through the viscous clay of the ploughed field, he was dismayed to note Ewan Cameron passing him, cruising light-footed over the surface and moving steadily towards the leading group. “I beat that guy out of sight a month ago!” Jim thought disconsolately as he trailed fifty yards behind Ewan at the end of the first lap. Still two circuits to go! Seventeenth.

By now visibility was obscured by heavy swirling snowfall and the race became a nightmarish procession of demented vest-clad wraiths, with steam rising like ectoplasm from their lean forms. They stumbled in slow-motion through a barren Icelandic notion of hell. Having glissaded nervously down the sheer drop, Jim was relieved to reach the haven of the tree-lined avenue. Fatigue gnawed at his aching limbs as he realised numbly that he had no chance now of selection for Scotland. Another time perhaps, on a totally different surface. Yet he strove to maintain his effort, to slog on regardless. At least his county could retain the team title, he reckoned. Ewan and two others were in front of him; and the first six home would score. Eighteenth.

Crash! Another belly-flop onto squelchy mire, at one of those damn corners. What made it worse was the fact that he had anticipated, and tried to avoid, such a slip. Under the slush, the ground was surprisingly hard. The jarring winded him badly. He felt like a boxer left gasping by a body blow. Grinding uphill once more, Jim felt bone-weary. Dimly he glimpsed an ex-international runner, now over forty years old and therefore a’veteran’ splashing eagerly past him and surging powerfully through the glutinous muck of a farmer’s field. The old so-and-so seemed to be enjoying himself, Jim mused sourly. Last lap. Nineteenth.




Utterly spent, Jim hauled himself into the funnel, leaning heavily on ice-encrusted ropes. He plodded slowly past the recorder in twenty-third position. Glimpsing Ewan chatting to a county team-mate, Jim wandered over.

“Good one, boy,” he muttered, “Where’d you finish?”

“Sixth!” Ewan exclaimed happily, “Made the Scottish Select!”

“Lucky sod. Still, we must have won the team title.”

“Afraid not, Jim. Didn’t you see Ian and Alex spectating? Dropped out with a lap to go.”

Incredulous and suddenly very angry, Jim reeled away. All that effort for nothing! Despite his own problems, HE had managed to complete the course! How dare those two lose him the team prize – he’d tell them EXACTLY what he thought of them!

Wearily he collected his sodden tracksuit and headed for the showers. Inevitably a long queue had formed outside. The guy that had won the race was well down it. No privileges even for champions. Already, word was being passed that the water was going cold.

Glumly, Jim eyed his fellow so-called athletes. Haggard and hollow-eyed, they slouched, stamped or shivered in clammy running gear, their legs smeared by clotted mud and with slimy liquid oozing from their shoes. Some were gazing around vacantly; others talking obsessively about their own personal adventures.

Involuntarily, Jim started to laugh out loud. He knew that he must look the same as the others – dishevelled, filthy, ludicrous. The whole event was a farce! The joys of truly amateur sport! He could even feel sorry for the drop-outs, realising that they would be depressed for days because they had let the side down. At least he had finished.

Thank goodness, it was the end of his cross-country season. Triumph or disaster, as Rudyard Kipling had perhaps implied, should be met with modesty or calm resilience. Never mind – a couple of days off and he knew he would be glad to start training again. Things could only get better. Perhaps he’d aim for the Isle of Man Easter Road Running Festival – excellent real ale and a chance to get some revenge on Ewan and the others.

Shaking his head, and still chuckling hysterically, Jim made visible tracks in the direction of a wash-basin. Open-mouthed and bewildered, the shower queue watched his departure.

“What’s he got to laugh about?”

“Mud on the brain, if you ask me!”

Story 3: Getting On


Once more, Gordon Bruce checked his digital watch. Still five minutes to go. Surrounded by restless, lightly perspiring bodies, he felt cramped and weak-kneed. Nervously he tried to stretch his hamstrings, touch his toes and test his shoelaces, all in one motion.

As the crowd shuffled forward slightly, he unbent rapidly and had to wait for a sudden giddiness to pass. Surely those were merely ‘butterflies’ in his belly? He just couldn’t need to go to the loo again? Four minutes left. Relax, he told himself. Try the deep breathing, jog on the spot, think of something else – anything. ……………………

How had he got involved in this public display of masochism? His parents certainly wouldn’t approve. He could just imagine his mother’s critical tone. “Grown men – and women too! Prancing about in their underclothes. And on the Sabbath! Just a waste of time and effort!”

They believed in hard work all right, he reflected sourly, but only for money. Behave yourself, he’d been told, pass your exams, wear a tie, cut your hair, polish your shoes, go to church, find employment, settle down.

Even his father, a silent morose man at home after another long day selling expensive cars to ungracious but wealthy businessmen, had nodded approvingly when Gordon had landed his first job with Taxcon Oil. After all, Mr Bruce had expected his boy (a prefect at a fee-paying school, no less) to have no difficulty clearing the hurdle of youth unemployment. ………………………………………………………….

A loud bang jerked Gordon back to the present and the mass of folk around him steadily gained forward momentum. The Aberdeen City Marathon was on its way at last. Mildly startled, he gathered some concentration as everyone wheeled right into the Beach Boulevard and ground smoothly and confidently, like eager lemmings, up the incline into Union Street.

Already the leaders were stretching away fast but Gordon had positioned himself near the back of the field. It was his first marathon and he had been warned to start slowly. More than a thousand ‘athletes’ were in front of him. Glancing round as he found space to run and settled into a rhythm, he smiled wryly at the wide variety of body types participating in the race. They ranged from the frankly obese (such effort for so little pace!) to the near-emaciated whippets of the leading pack. Were they that shape because they ran fast and far – or vice-versa?

By now Union Street (so quiet at 9 a.m. on a Sunday) had been traversed by the tail-enders and most competitors had swept downhill along Holburn Road. As he turned left onto Riverside Drive and passed the Duthie Park, Gordon felt relaxed, calm and free. Already (he knew he had been over-cautious) he was moving gradually through the field, leaving behind the kamikaze starters, publicity seekers and unreasonably optimistic.

There were two theories about how to cope psychologically with the strain of marathon running – one adopted by self-centred masochists (the leaders) and the other by less-obsessed individuals, like himself. The former concentrated hard on their running style, monitoring every muscular complaint, implementing race tactics and ensuring that maximum performance would be achieved [although the plans of mice and (marathon) men……..]

Gordon, on the other hand, preferred to opt out, to disassociate his mind from the discomfort of the body, and make progress while considering something else. During training, he frequently ‘woke up’ several miles further on, his feet keeping to the route (however tortuous) while his mind contemplated romantic possibilities, dreams of the future, or simply what he would like for his evening meal and how good a cool beer was going to taste after he had ‘earned’ it by completing his run. On this occasion, however, he continued explaining to himself exactly how he came to be taking part in the Aberdeen Marathon at all. ……………………………………………….

Young Executive in an Oil Firm sounded glamorous enough. As he discovered in the next few years, the work was repetitive and very tedious. It involved an endless stream of office jobs performed hastily to a tight schedule in a claustrophobic air-conditioned hell. His workmates seemed to have a vocation for such tasks. Certainly they arrived bright-eyed and early and didn’t seem to mind being kept behind after office hours if there was another petty crisis to solve.

Over a series of fattening boozy expense account lunches, Gordon came to realise how keen these people really were – desperately ambitious workaholics who saw themselves as a new breed of dedicated heroes. They talked about their work, possessions and social adventures, compared holidays and hi-fi systems, cars and cocktails, salaries and sex-lives, waistcoats and wigs. Gordon was the odd one out.

When he met Jean, he believed he saw a chance for happiness at last.


A jolt, as his feet stumbled over quayside cobbles, forced him to keep his mind on running for a change. A slight drizzle had made the uneven surface greasy and treacherous. But after slithering about for a moment, he found that shortening stride length, leaning forward a degree or two, and maintaining a faster tempo, enabled him to deal with the stones quite efficiently. He was continuing to pick off stragglers and revelling in the competitive situation.

Gordon was cruising along – the engine seemed in tune, the fuel supply plentiful and the driver well motivated.

At six miles he passed the Beach Ballroom again and received his share of the crowd’s cheerful, envious or insulting comments. The route wound round the Broad Hill and up a narrow tenement-lined avenue to King Street, before plunging down Market Street and back into Riverside Drive. Then came the most testing hill – up Holburn Road, left onto Great Western Road and then out the North Deeside through Cults.

Halfway in one hour thirty-one minutes, Gordon noted as he strode into a slight cooling breeze. A heaviness in the legs was noticeable, but the effort wasn’t too intense, and his movements remained rhythmical and almost automatic.


Jean. An image of her face, animated and smiling under that unruly mass of flaming red hair, passed briefly through his mind. That was the girl he had fallen for – the lively non-conformist who seemed so happy to move into his flat at the first tentative suggestion. She had been even more dissatisfied with her secretarial post (also at Taxcon) than he was with his executive one.

Gordon reasoned glumly that, caught up in those first few weeks of novelty and passion, he had never guessed that Jean’s wildness was superficial. Subconsciously at least, she must have yearned to escape into the conventional role of wife and, above all, mother. Soon she announced that she was going to have his child (which seemed strange, since he thought the Pill was fairly accident-proof). Trustingly he’d arranged a quick Registry wedding – and then the trouble really started.

During the rest of her pregnancy, Jean had been busy preparing for the birth. The flat was redecorated and a box-room transformed into a tiny nursery. She attended ante-natal classes (and insisted he accompany her) with a near-religious fervour. Her diet was planned in scrupulous detail, while he was left to exist on junk food – and her nightly exercise routine would have exhausted Jane Fonda. All good for the baby, and quite normal, he’d supposed, quashing his doubts. But after the birth (natural, straightforward, without drugs) – he’d found it a very emotional occasion – Gordon had begun to realise his true predicament.

Jean had become utterly different from the fun-loving extrovert of only a year before. Getting on with her was very difficult for Gordon by then. She was remote from him, obsessed by her baby girl (Tamsin – her idea). Jean spent her days fussing over the child, and chattering endlessly on the phone or over countless cups of decaffeinated coffee to other ‘young mums’. Then she collapsed grumpily into bed, claiming to have a tension headache and to be totally exhausted because she’s been looking after HIS daughter.

Gordon had been rejected and excluded. He had tried to share domestic chores, help with the baby and give his wife some time of her own. However his efforts were criticised as clumsy and inadequate.

Eventually, he had given up. Once again he felt trapped, having to withstand the strain of an unsatisfactory marriage as well as that of an enervating job. He began to suffer from every clichéd mid-life symptom (at the age of 25) – nervous stress, constant tiredness, depression, and either insomnia or the sleep of the dead.

Sometimes things seemed so bad he had to laugh. Was he a character in a soap opera?

It was when a colleague also laughed, ridiculing Gordon’s expanding waistline, that he started trying to reverse the process of deterioration. At school he had been reasonably adept at rugby, so it seemed a good idea to take part, one Friday evening, in the casual game of football organised by a few of his sportier workmates, before they headed for the pub to celebrate the weekend.

It was hardly a success. After several moments of competence (his co-ordination was still there at least) he found himself blowing hard, and eventually went over an ankle, straining his Achilles tendon. He limped miserably off the pitch, but got some measure of enjoyment from the hot shower and some good-hearted banter in the bar afterwards.

Once the injury healed, he decided to achieve fitness cautiously, in gradual stages. Some of the Taxcon employees were in the habit of jogging two or three miles at lunchtime. He made up his mind to join them after a few tentative solo trials.

It was tough at first. He could hardly run more than 400 metres without gasping helplessly and having to stop. His limbs ached for days. But gradually the muscular pains eased and some breath control returned. Yet his ego suffered when, trying to participate in a group run at work, he discovered that much older men could converse fluently while sailing effortlessly away over the horizon, leaving him speechless in their wake, floundering like a novice in a coracle.

A strange determination made him keep trying. He realised the benefit of gentle, yoga-based stretching exercises, and found physical tiredness much easier to withstand than the nervous exhaustion he had been enduring for so long. He slept much better, his appetite was keener, and yet his weight started to return to normal, pound by pound, as his metabolic rate increased.

Steady jogging seemed to be therapeutic. His other worries were absent while he concentrated on simple forward movement or let his mind wander as his body settled into rhythmical progress. Once he was able to talk during training, he discovered the common bond between all runners – a mutual understanding and sympathy, engendered by a shared pleasure (and sometimes a shared discomfort).

A discussion with a training partner could take on a confessional nature. It was as if the run took place in a time capsule, quite apart from the pressures of normal life. It seemed natural to impart confidences and mention personal problems, secure in the knowledge that the listener would refrain afterwards from malicious gossip.


Gordon had to muster his concentration during the grind up to Milltimber Brae. He was puffing by the top, but seemed in better condition than most in the straggling crocodile of runners stretching before him. Gaining speed on the twisting left-hand bend, he flashed past several other competitors whose legs couldn’t absorb the extra strain of downhill racing.


It had been near the end of the Duthie Park ‘Fun Run’ only six months previously when he had come upon an ability to push himself more fiercely than the average jogger. Half a mile before the end of the four mile trail, which undulated over grassy hills, round tarmac paths past beds of brilliantly coloured flowers, he had noticed a workmate (one of those who had obviously relished running away from him in the early days) plodding along only twenty yards in front.

A rush of competitive energy had given his weary legs new life. Feeling like a fresh thoroughbred racehorse flying past a ponderous broken-winded Clydesdale, he had accelerated hard to the finish, more than thirty seconds in front of his astonished rival. It had been a minor breakthrough and Gordon’s confidence had grown considerably.

Shortly after the fun run, he joined the local athletics club. After listening to advice offered by experienced runners and the distance coach, he mapped out a two-month training programme aimed at a half marathon in June.

The first Wednesday that he took part in the pack run which started down King Street and up the promenade, he got quite a shock. With an effort he hung on until the Bridge of Don, without managing to chat freely like his club-mates.

However the route swung right, then left up the long drag to Balgownie, the talking stopped, the pace increased dramatically, and they seemed to vanish with the casual rapidity of deer escaping over the skyline. He was left a disconsolate straggler. Not knowing the trail he lost contact with the others, and found it awkward to trudge back to Linksfield Stadium, very tired indeed.

Perseverance paid off after a few weeks, though. A longish run at a slow speed on Sundays (15 miles through Hazlehead and Countesswells); a track session on Tuesdays; six repetitions up a steep hill on Thursdays; some steady recovery jogging on the ‘easy’ days; and he found himself keeping up with the main herd during the Wednesday night ‘race’.

Self-respect was his main reward and the esteem of others. His club-mates seemed to admire natural talent, speed and stamina but, most of all, wholehearted effort. Gordon enjoyed their friendship and the harmless mickey-taking in the pub after the Wednesday run.

His general morale was much higher now. He felt stronger and more relaxed, physically and mentally. Not only had he found an escape from the stresses of work and home, but he had also gained resilience, and was better able to deal with such pressures. Alienation was no longer a problem now he had some companionship and shared common goals with others.

And yet, more significantly, he began to develop an independence, a self-reliance, he had not achieved before. Gordon thought of running as a purposeful activity with very real benefits. ……………………………………………………………………

Now these qualities were really being tested. He knew that the size of challenge he faced (in the 26 miles 385 yards of the full classic distance) would be, oddly, more than double any minor trouble endured, while completing the half marathon.

Passing other runners was harder now, since the gaps were greater. At 23 miles, on Riverside Drive once more, he began to experience the symptoms of ‘The Wall’. Scaremongering veterans had done their best to ensure that he knew exactly what could happen if he ‘hit it’, although he has assumed their horror stories were exaggerated.

Yet it worried him, now that the sun had broken through, that he had begun to shiver with cold. His feet and legs were jarred, sore and stiff because of repeated contact with hard tarmac. There was a dryness in his throat, a pounding in his head, and his whole body felt weak and leaden, as if the air he was parting was becoming as resistant as water.

Briefly, Gordon lost control. He doubted if he could keep going. Several acquaintances had been sceptical about his ability to complete the distance. Maybe they’d been accurate in their judgement. He faltered, lost momentum and had to walk for a few yards. But this slight respite was enough – he wasn’t going to quit without a struggle. Grimly he broke into a slow trot and regained rhythm and purpose.

Progress was possible, after all, and he was glad he had eaten properly in the days before the race (potatoes, pasta and white bread, mainly, with only toast and jam four hours before the gun). Drinking a couple of pints of some electrolyte preparation that morning, and topping up with water and a cup of strong black coffee in the last hour, had ensured a good start. Despite heavy perspiration, he had managed to remain well-hydrated, taking frequent sips at the drink stations and enjoying a refreshing sponge when available. His preparation had been sensible and thorough. Now it was paying off.

Over the cobbles for the last time, keeping well away from the harbour’s edge, and he was past the 25 mile point. Up a nasty little hill and round an army cadet (acting as a marker). He ignored the final chance to take in some liquid, because by now he could hear the applause of the crowd at the finish.

Wiping sweat from his face and, with an automatic gesture, passing a hand through his hair, Gordon took a few deep breaths and, turning right onto the boulevard, tried to run powerfully to the banner and the time clock. He overtook a fellow sufferer and crossed the line, with the announcer’s hoarse voice bawling congratulations through the loudspeaker. Two hours, fifty-five minutes exactly. Not bad for a first attempt.

Although his legs were stiff and awkward, he felt as if he were floating, a permanent grin on his face. They were right – just being able to stop WAS great! He demolished three cartons of orange squash, and was chatting eagerly to a club-mate (each attempting, simultaneously, to tell the story of HIS race), when a pram came to a half beside him and he was surprised by a warm embrace.

It was Jean, more vibrant than he’d seen her for ages, saying well done with what sounded like sincerity! She hadn’t expected him so soon, and seemed glad to have a successful (and still healthy) husband. Together, they wheeled Tamsin’s chariot across to the changing tents.

Gordon was tired but content. He recognised that the sensation of strength and control, of achievement and self-respect, was mainly an illusion. This glow would pass, he knew, like all joys (and sorrows), but seemed all the more precious for its transience.

Getting on would always be a struggle, but now he knew that perhaps struggling well  was what was important – and he had proved to himself that he was capable of that.

“I’ll show them,” he thought, with a surge of defiance. But first, the beer, the bath, the bed and the sleep – of the truly alive.

Story 2: Fun and Games


As the battered blue Volkswagen careered northwards, the three students tried to relax. Surprisingly for early July in Scotland, weather conditions were sunny and still.

“Fine day for the Highland Games,” exclaimed Alan Simpson, “Hope it doesn’t get any hotter, though, or I’ll melt during the road race.”

“Tough luck,” laughed Tony Harris, “You should stick to real athletic events. The grass track will be drying out nicely for me.”

“You’d better hope those lunatic bikers don’t cut it up,” commented Charlie Middleton, “Not that I care. The track will seem as smooth as a snooker table, if I reach the finish of the hill race.”

“There, there, Charlie,” soothed Alan, “We know it’s your first attempt at hill running. But if you’re a good boy and don’t break your neck on that nasty terrifying vertical descent, I might even buy you an ice-cream!”

“You really know how to cheer someone up,” Charlie moaned, “I’m dead worried about this, you know.”

“Never mind,” said Tony, “You’ve just got pre-race nerves – we all do. Think of it as an enjoyable challenge to overcome.”

“Anyway,” Alan added quietly, “With Dad driving you might never reach the start. Let that be a comfort to you.”

Old Jim Simpson, Alan’s father, said nothing, as was his habit, and concentrated fiercely on his task. Gradually the others lapsed into silence also. They coped with the stress of the journey by dozing, watching the road unfold rapidly, or even praying, when absolutely necessary. Jim was sixty-one years old, and as fit as most thirty-year-olds. He was extremely hard-working and prided himself on his smart attire and politeness. From the shining toes of his formal black shoes to his immaculately combed hair, he was every inch a gentleman. But although he never swore and had no real vices, Jim was a demon behind the wheel. The Beetle roared up the middle of the road, dominating the white line and skidding violently round corners. Its engine, which normally ticked over like a contented sewing machine, protested as Jim’s foot pressed ever harder on the accelerator, searching for the power of a souped-up Ferrari.

Almost the worst recurrent situation was when the Volkswagen was baulked by a slower vehicle. Jim could not overtake because of bends or oncoming traffic. He fretted ferociously about road hogs and cripples and imbeciles. The worst situation, of course, was when he declared with grim intent, “Right! Next straight I’m going to get this blighter!” His unhappy passengers knew he would be true to his word. He would not be deterred by minor obstacles like the three ponderous Furniture lorries thundering relentlessly head-on towards the bonnet of the overtaking Beetle, apparently ready to crush it contemptuously under-tyre as if it were truly an insect. Miraculously the Volkswagen escaped without a scratch. Possibly because of the communal prayer and wail, or Jim’s frequently underestimated steering skills. By the time they arrived at the Games car-park, the three athletes had little need of a warm-up, they were sweating so much.

“Never thought we’d make it!” gasped Charlie.

“Didn’t trouble me at all,” lied Tony, “A few hours rest in Intensive Care and I’ll be ready for the trip home.”

“I was not aware of any difficulties, gentlemen,” asserted Jim in a hurt tone.

“Anyway, we’re here now, so let’s get changed and ready to run. The road race starts in half an hour,” Alan cut in, “Okay if we meet afterwards in ‘The Red Dragon’?”

There was general agreement, because the pub, which had once been famous for selling the most northerly real ale in Britain, was one of the main reasons for attending this particular festival. Poor Charlie, still travel-sick, muttered dismally, “I could murder a pint right now.”

Once he had been convinced that real hill runners had no need for Dutch courage, the three younger men departed with their kitbags. Old Jim strolled off to buy a programme and spectate from a sunny vantage point.

For a Highland Games, the setting was perfect. A closely-shaven grass track was marked out on a broad undulating expanse of lush parkland, with acres of open ground to accommodate athletes and onlookers. Between the main road and the arena was an avenue of mature deciduous trees and the town gardens – fountains, topiary and vivid flower displays. Behind the Games venue, the land rose abruptly into a series of small steep wooded hills, culminating in a lofty tower dedicated to Admiral Nelso. From there one could view the fertile farmland and forests of Moray, against the backdrop of the blue Cairngorm Mountains.

Encircling the track were hundreds of folding chairs, painted white, with spacious marquees for changing and the sale of local produce. To one side a small funfair adjoined the car-park and public conveniences. Directly opposite, a whitewashed rustic pavilion served refreshments and provided first aid for over-enthusiastic competitors. Few required it. This was a delightfully low-key amateur occasion.

Sightseers applauded a Pipe Band as the musicians marched proudly, heads high and kilts lilting, round the track. The stirring strains of ‘Flower of Scotland’ rang out. After they departed the announcer, a local worthy with a dreadful sense of humour and unbearably boisterous bonhomie, welcomed everyone to the Games. As he chuntered on amiably, Jim Simpson ignored the tannoy and inspected his programme. He skimmed through the list of events, identifying only the order of his favourites. Cycling first; the ‘Heavies’; and finally the Sprints. He sighed with satisfaction as he settled down to survey the high-speed drama of the Grass Track Cycling, which seemed to him almost as thrilling as Formula One Motor Racing.

Starting proceedings was the shortest sprint, the 800 metres. Ten kamikaze bikers lined up, clad in full Tour de France gear – long thigh-hugging black shorts, multi-hued shirts and obviously inadequate leather crash-bunnets. The gun fired and they charged madly into the first bend of the two-lap race. Although the surface of the well-cut grass was quite dry, moisture lurked just beneath. The centrifugal force of ten sets of tyres, cornering at speed, started to churn up the edges of the track. Surprisingly everyone stayed in the saddle but a lean young daredevil, trapped at the back of the pack, swerved into the outside lane and attempted to surge past before the end of the straight. He succeeded in doing so but omitted to plan his next manoeuvre – negotiating the curve. By dint of skidding off the ropes and digging his right heel into the turf he managed to prevent himself from ending up in a startled sunbather’s lap. Unfortunately he over-corrected and sped into another rider’s rear wheel. There was a clash of metal, some muffled swearing, and both men and their machines, hopelessly entangled crashed into the fence. Without a sideways glance, their heartless rivals slewed round the wreckage and shot down the home straight into the final circuit.

As the bell rang a stocky figure, with brown bulging thighs as thick as pregnant telegraph poles, hurled himself to the front and made a long burst for the finish line. Judging by the way he slung his bike round the bend, he must have been super-glued to his seat and his tyres metal-studded. Straining every muscle he zoomed into the last hundred metres – and then could only groan with disappointment. A cool confident figure, who had slipstreamed his ever move, switched on maximum power and swept past to win by a wheel’s width. Rolling easily into a warm-down lap, he accepted congratulations with poker-faced grace.

Old Jim shook his head admiringly, thinking that cyclists were tough, fearless gymnasts and certifiably crazy. Later in the afternoon there were four more races for him to relish. In the Senior 1500 metres, one hardy hero slalomed helplessly through sludge into the crowd. The Junior 1500 featured the collision of two youthful hopefuls – one buckling a back wheel, the other a collar bone. The 6000 metres was without incident apart from a repeat victory for the last-minute ‘kicker’ who had snatched the 800 earlier. But the “Deil Tak the Hindmost” was a fitting climax to the series.

Seven scarred Samurai survived to endure the torments of this particular circle of hell. The name of the race sums up the callous lack of sympathy for losers in sport. After a smooth start and a preliminary tour of the track, the fun begins. On every second lap there is increasingly frantic jockeying for position followed by a bunch sprint. Last one over the mark is eliminated. He peels disconsolately over to the sidelines while the rest of them start the 800 metres build-up again.

Some cyclists seem to have that slight but significant advantage in speed which separates a sparrow-hawk from its prey. The fellow who had won twice that afternoon seemed to have the edge on his opponents, such was the ease of his progress into the ‘final’. Exuding class and nonchalance he glided into the ‘recovery’ lap, preparatory to enjoying near-certain success. He acknowledged the cheers of his admirers and then was unnerved by a strange sense that he was on his own. Realising rapidly that there was yet one contest to conclude, he glanced round for his rival and was astonished to spot a short muscle-bound figure, head down, streaking away down the back straight! Eager to avenge his defeat in the first race, the stalwart second-placer had taken his chance and sneaked off very early to ‘go for gold’. Desperately the ‘superior’ one shot off in pursuit and had reduced the leeway to twenty metres with one lap to go. However his finishing burst had been used too soon and he had to rely on staying-power and mental strength to peg back his adversary any further. Foot by foot he strained ever nearer and it seemed possible that he might just win after all. Then two things happened simultaneously. The stocky one somehow managed a last leg-blurring lunge for the line; and the Seb Coe of Northern Scottish cycling sagged (doubtless the victim of some mysterious virus?) his tyres lost traction and he slithered, elegantly of course, to the ground. A victory for stamina and smart tactics – and a warning against over-confidence and lack of alertness. Remembering the title of the event, the response from Jim and the rest of the crowd to the star’s demise was loud laughter! ……………………………….

After the Games, Jim looked forward to telling his passengers about the highlights of his afternoon. He was well aware that they would have been wrapped up in their own events and would have observed little else. However his good manners made it difficult to get a word in. He found them relaxing in that unspoilt wood-panelled traditional Scottish bar ‘The Red Dragon’, which is famed for beautiful booze, a welcoming atmosphere and remarkably untalented darts players. Alan was drenching a marathon thirst with his second glass of orange squash, but had the grace to buy his father a shandy. Charlie was attempting to drown himself in pint-sized pools of real beer – McEwan’s 70 Shilling Ale.

Having lubricated the lining of his throat, Tony stretched luxuriously and drawled, “Well, aren’t you going to ask me how I got on this afternoon? Jim was watching but you two weren’t.”

“Suppose so,” muttered Charlie, “If you listen to what happened to us.”

“Love to,” Tony stated sarcastically, “But me first.”

“Okay – just don’t take too long, big head,” Alan chipped in.

“Right,” promised Tony, “Well it was like this. I felt really good in my warm-up for the 1500, bouncy and loose. That steeplechaser guy was running. You know – Bill Edwards. He looked very cool and easy doing his strides, joking with his mates – perhaps he thought it would be no contest. After all he’d won both the 1500 and the 3000 last year and he didn’t know me from Adam.”

“No wonder – you only ran 4.25 last year,” commented Charlie dismissively, “What a fat sod you used to be, Harris!”

“Fair enough,” Tony agreed, “Though I had a better social life in those days. But Edwards couldn’t have known about my extra training since Easter – and neither did the handicapper! I was off ninety metres in front of scratch. So I reckoned, right, this was my chance to sort out a really good guy at last. Since that coach came to the University pre-season, I’ve been sticking to his schedule like a demented monk. It’s been hard work but I’ve been chipping away at my personal bests and the last two weeks I’ve felt more like Steve Ovett than my old self. My last serious session was on Wednesday: up the clock 200 metres with a minute’s recovery; 400 with 90 seconds; 600 with 2 minutes; 800 with three minutes; and then all the way down again. I was absolutely flying! Massacred Alec Forbes and knocked five seconds off the 800 training ‘record’.”

“Cut out the gloating,” protested Alan, “You know Alec’s just had ‘flu!”

“Yeah, but he’s always pretty fast,” asserted Tony, “And I tell you – I’ve never felt so fit in my life. A couple of easy days and I was set up for this afternoon. Anyway, the starter gets us sorted out and I’m standing on my mark ready to go. I glance back at Bill Edwards and he’s waving at a girlfriend in the crowd! The gun goes and woosh! I’m off like a real bullet, not a blank this time. Bill’s still moving into gear and I must have stolen another twenty yards on him. You must have seen it, Jim! Mind you I didn’t look behind again – just kept going flat out. Three laps to go and there’s only one old guy in front and he’s going backwards. No problems with the legs and breathing controlled. Two laps to go – no hassle. Gets a bit tougher then – some of that lactic acid building up, legs getting heavier but they’re still pumping away fine and I’m in the lead. The bell! I’ve just got to risk a look round – can’t hear any footsteps but still …. What do I see? Edwards is still a hundred yards back! Have to amputate both my legs to lose it now – probably hop to the tape if they only cut one off. Bit of a struggle round the last lap but I was miles in front – at least ten seconds. My time was fast too! In fact if I add on what it would have taken me for the ninety metres, probably I would have broken 4 minutes ten seconds. Not bad, eh?”

“Sounds like a good one right enough, you lucky so and so,” agreed Alan, “Didn’t think you had it in you. Prize okay?”

“Set of reject mugs,” admitted Tony, “But who cares? Anyway, it gets better – Bill didn’t like getting beaten, although he was decent enough to congratulate me. Claimed a shin was hurting but did say I’d have been very hard to beat. Still, he didn’t show for the 3000. It was off scratch, of course, but I was well recovered for it since it was two hours after the fifteen. Just used the same jet-propelled start but settled down quickly and ground out the laps, keeping an eye on the other lads. Had to work a bit near the end but managed to break nine minutes – 8.53. On a grass track that’s pretty good – and another PB of course. I’ve had a great time in fact. Wish they were all like that!”

“I suppose you did run well,” admitted Charlie, “Almost like a real athlete, in fact.”

A real athlete. As they bickered amicably, old Jim sipped his drink and his thoughts drifted back to the Games – and competitors that most spectators would consider to be the real men on show. ………………………………….

Much of Jim’s attention at any Highland Gathering was paid to the ‘Heavies’ i.e. the big men who competed in traditional trials of strength: hurling the Scots Hammer (with the wooden shaft); putting the shot (often a stone); throwing the 28 pound weight for distance; heaving the 56 pound weight for height; and of course tossing the caber.

All afternoon, like a tribe of Mountain Gorillas being observed by David Attenborough these huge individuals padded slowly around the arena, associating only with their brothers and an occasional official (who was almost certain to be a retired Heavy events athlete himself). Jim regarded them mainly with awe, since they seemed to possess immense destructive potential, yet remain such gentle giants. Normal males (let alone seven stone weaklings) felt inadequate just looking at them. Physically, they seemed to be a separate species – the shortest a mere six feet tall but with such breadth of shoulder, brawny biceps and kilt-enhancing calves. Some of the older athletes were notable for well-developed bulging bellies too – but Jim just knew that the fat there would be rock-hard!

They seemed to be at ease, secure in their sense of themselves. If your engine is turbo-charged, if your tank is full of five-star, you can afford to cruise comfortably – the power will be there, should any pipsqueak dare to challenge you. Jim smiled enviously at the thought. With hands on hips and the broadest of smiles, they appraised each others’ efforts with jovial good humour, backslapping, bear-hugs and nods of appreciation.

When it as time for one of these supermen to demonstrate his ability, he moved apart from the perambulating porridge commercial and prepared in a brief and dignified manner. Perhaps stretching a little, loosening a knotted muscle or even jogging a few sedate strides. Then, without sign of strain, he selected his missile and took up the appropriate position. There was a breathtaking surge of strength and speed, an animal roar, and the object arced through the air before plunging, bouncing, denting deeply and resting heavily on the scarred turf. The muscleman ambled back to the brotherhood.

Jim considered the caber to be THE heavy event of the Games. He relished the practised ease with which the awkward length of heavy timber was raised to the vertical then lifted to knee height before the rapid little run and almighty heave which sent the tree-trunk end over to land perfectly at ‘twelve o’clock’ straight out in front of the thrower. Weaker athletes were found out by this implement, and displayed symptoms of stress (or imminent apoplexy): the crimson face, sweat pouring from the brow, dire groans and finally the uncontrolled staggering rush to release the caber – squint.

However Jim was sure that the most dangerous stunt was hurling the weight over the bar. He could hardly bear to watch every time it happened. Nonchalantly, one of the warriors lugged a four stone lump of iron to the mark directly beneath a pole-vault bar. Straddling his legs, with both fists he grasped the ring attached to the weight and swung it backwards between his knees, brushing his kilt aside. Then he hurled the missile skywards above his head, aiming to arch it over the bar. Just before this deadly blunt instrument descended, he strolled away casually, narrowly avoiding lobotomy, decapitation or merely skull-crushing. Jim and the rest of the crowd sighed with relief or disappointment and the next candidate for execution stepped forward steadily. No matter whether the reason for such behaviour was confidence, fearless bravado, lack of imagination or sheer suicidal stupidity, Jim considered the ‘Heavies’ to be a race apart. ……………………………………………..

A race of a different character, much rougher than Tony’s track athletics, also appealed to the mildly sadistic spectator. Jim had been fascinated to watch the more hapless hill runners skidding helter-skelter down the final steep slopes before staggering round the field to the finish of the four mile Hill Race. Back in the pub, he regained concentration, just as Charlie was describing his experience.

“It all began well enough,” he remarked, shaking his head dolefully, “You remember what a good cross-country season I had? The muddier it got, the further up the field I finished. Wind, rain, snow, uphills, cliff edges – it was all the same to me. I guessed the tougher it got, the better. Must have thought I was a hero or something. And I’ve never had any real leg-speed when it comes to the track or the road, so I made up my mind to try the hills this year – I’d be a fell-runner or bust.”

“Well you’ve made it to The Red Dragon,” declared Alan, “So you obviously didn’t bust. What happened?”

“As I said, it was no bother at first. Three times a week for the last month I’ve been doing hill repetitions – even up that monster sand dune at Balmedie. So the steep climb up the winding little path through the woods felt okay, although it was irritating when Mel Ewing decided to run beside me. He kept yattering on about how well I was doing for a new boy, while we were actually hauling ourselves up the scree slope at the steepest bit! Maybe he meant to encourage me but I started feeling inferior because, unlike him, I hadn’t developed an extra lung to talk with while the other two were panting like a pair of Pekinese scaling the Eiger!”

“So what went wrong?” interrupted Tony.

“The uphills I could cope with,” continued Charlie, “And I kept bashing on in third place all the way to the summit of the fourth and final top, round the Nelson Tower – and then the trouble started. When I tried to read the map before the race I just got confused so I didn’t bother and thought I’d simply follow the faster men. But because I was so far up, and the first two (including Mel, who’d got away) were a hundred yards in front, I went wrong on the first downhill. They totally abandoned the path (which wound round backwards and forwards at that point) and disappeared into the undergrowth straight down the hillside. Well, I thought I’d better try to follow them, so I dived off the path myself. It was sheer murder – tree roots and thorn bushes. When I did find the path again lower down I got muddled and turned left instead of right. Didn’t know my mistake until the lad who’d been fourth crashed into me face-first! Then I started straining a hamstring on a slippery descent so I had to slow down on the fastest sections. All sorts of OAPs, weight-watchers and wheelchair athletes started to come past – some of them were crazy on the dangerous bits. I swear those guys can put a foot into a rabbit hole and take it out again before their ankle snaps! What a technique – I’m sure one nutter whizzed past me upside down! My quadriceps were killing me because I had to brake so hard on the really treacherous parts. I only must managed to stop myself falling down a waterfall. When I finally tottered into the field I was frustrated and furious at myself. I charged round the last half mile of park to the finish. Must have overtaken ten on that stretch, but still finished only fifteenth, in a bad temper, with knackered legs. What a sickener!”

Alan managed to stifle the laughter he felt bubbling up and tried to sympathise. “Hard luck, Chas. But don’t give up yet. It’s just a matter of training on the downhills as well as the climbs. Try a few strides on Brimmond Hill when your muscles recover.”

“Maybe,” replied a doubtful Charlie, “Although the way I feel now – absolutely pulverised – I may never be able to run again. What gets me most is how embarrassing it was. The only good thing about trailing in, five minutes after the winner, was that most of the crowd seemed to be concentrating on the big Sprint Handicap, rather me and the other war-wounded.”

Jim smiled to himself as he remembered the event in question. …………………

In a normal hundred metres race, competitors start level with each other and finish apart; whereas in a properly-handicapped Highland Games event, very nearly the opposite may be the case.

Pre-race drills remain the same, however. Jim had observed representatives of the two types of sprinter – short strong scrum halves and big bear-like bruisers – carrying out their routine with stern religious intensity. Swaddled in heavy sweatshirts, whatever the weather, lone figures reeking of embrocation plodded with painful slowness round the outfield, fast-twitch muscles protesting at excessive distance. Then, reluctantly, they completed a second circuit. Ten minutes of rigorous stretching ensued: bending, sitting, lying or apparently trying to fell a tree by pushing it over. Cautiously, they removed a single layer of clothing, and then, self-absorbed and solemn-faced, they strode out monotonously down a suitable stretch of grass, with repetition strolls back to their discarded kit.

At this juncture a few starting blocks (which are seldom in evidence at the Games) were hammered home and painstakingly adjusted until perfect. A series of sprint starts followed, violently punching fists and exaggerated knee-lifts – ecstatic explosions which fizzled out limply after a few anti-climactic seconds.

Finally on this occasion the starter, a natty oldster in red blazer and jaunty peaked cap, called them to their separate marks. These were as much as twenty metres apart, depending on prowess or decrepitude displayed during the previous season. “SET!” In slow motion, rumps reared. “BANG!” At the report of the gun the ‘Scratch Man’ (insultingly named but impeccably hygienic) who had furthest to run, leaped into action just before his less alert rivals. One evergreen competitor, an old bald but indomitable chap in long khaki ‘shorts’, reacted eventually by standing up straight and scuttling stylishly (but with little stiff strides) towards the halfway point. By this time he had been overtaken by a loping lad in a rugby jersey. Meanwhile the faster men were hurling themselves down a tunnel of concentration towards the tape. To a crescendo of shouts and applause, it was snapped by the backmarker, whose legs twinkled like a well-oiled hyperactive metronome as he dipped expertly at just the right moment for him to tumble into an unintentional but well-disguised forward roll. Copying their American counterparts, the more extrovert athletes indulged in a hand-slapping demonstration, but only succeeded in looking like fitter versions of Laurel and Hardy.

Jim enjoyed the spectacle but then listened intently as a tannoy announcement was made about a special event to be added to the programme. ………………………

In the bar of The Red Dragon, after Charlie had told of his disappointment, Jim bought the next round. “Of course I myself will drink only mineral water from now on,” he announced selflessly, “Since I do not believe in over-imbibing and in any case must retain a clear head for the drive home.”

The others exchanged perturbed glances at his but did not comment on their joy at the prospect.

With a heavy sigh, Alan said, “I suppose you’d better hear what happened to me in the Road Race.”

“You mean you didn’t win it?” inquired a puzzled Tony, “I thought you’d walk it.”

“Well there was that local runner Sandy Macmillan,” Alan responded, “But I must admit I thought he was past his best. Anyway there were about a hundred competitors but only Macmillan and I had a chance of victory. A wee bunch of six stuck together on the little circuit round the houses. Since I felt comfortable and wasn’t too sure of the route I just settled in until we hit the country road and started the nine mile loop. First long uphill drag I sank the boot and tried to drop the rest.”

“And did you?” asked Charlie.

“Almost. I pushed really hard for half a mile but I could hear one guy’s footsteps close behind. There was a headwind so I sidestepped and let him be the windbreak for a while. It was Sandy Macmillan of course. He was puffing a lot but going well. Then I tried a series of shortish surges and managed to gain a twenty yard lead. This stretched painfully slowly to fifty yards but it was tough staying clear – he just refused to let me go completely and kept hauling me in on the down-slopes. You would have thought we were attached by a big rubber band. The old nuisance must have been on a course of steroids. Anyway, about seven miles I got sick of the strain of being just a little way in front so I went absolutely eyeballs-out for ten minutes without looking back at all. When I finally glanced over my shoulder, he was a good two hundred yards behind. What a relief!”

“So how could you lose?” asked Tony, mystified.

“Listen and I’ll tell you. I eased back a bit in the last couple of miles, just cruising home or so I thought. One mile to go and Sandy well beaten, I reached the bottom of the hill near the park. There was no sign of any officials marking the route so I followed the main road and suddenly got a shock – I was running past the door of this pub! Ten seconds later I found myself in the main street! Realising too late that there was something wrong, I veered right and sprinted up to the front of the park and tried to find an entrance. I had to force my way through a queue for ice-cream and past a ticket seller before I got near the track. Of course I had flipped completely by then – you know my rotten temper under stress. I was raving like a Rangers supporter after a loss to Celtic, swearing blue-nosed murder at spectators and especially officials. I moaned about the lousy marking on their stupid road race. Naturally, by the time I’d grumped my way round the last lap to the finish, I was fifth. And what I couldn’t believe was when I went up to Macmillan to tell him what had happened. Turns out, he saw me go straight on instead of having the local knowledge to turn right up a lane. Claims he tried to shout but was too far behind for me to hear. Probably a very quiet shout if you ask me. Then he has the brass neck to say this to me. “Pity to defeat you this way, Alan – but a win is a win.” Then he coolly accepts the cup and first prize and saunters off! If I had been him, and two hundred yards behind with a mile to go, I would NEVER have done that – I know when I’m beaten, fair and square.”

Charlie and Tony stopped laughing at Alan’s rueful face and tale of woe to sympathise, to some extent anyway. Alan’s final comment was that he was beginning to see the funny side now and wished he hadn’t sworn so violently at everyone. Perhaps the Games Committee would refuse his entry next year!

“It is my opinion,” old Jim interrupted gravely, to everyone’s surprise, “That members of the Games Committee are totally incompetent and thoroughly untrustworthy!”

“What do you mean?” quizzed Tony, “It’s still a very good Highland Games even if there are a few cock-ups.”

“This afternoon, gentlemen,” James continued with doleful dignity, “Despite enjoying several events as an observer, I was deeply disappointed. My faith in the integrity of my fellow man was dashed. The facts are as follow. At three p.m. approximately, an announcement was made to the effect that, since the weather was clement and it had been noted that numerous mature but sprightly spectators were present, the organisers proposed to add what they termed ‘an extra novelty event’ to the programme. To wit: a ‘super-veterans’ hundred metres sprint for those over sixty years of age. Now I qualify by no less than fifteen months and furthermore consider myself sufficiently fit, because of lifelong attention to matters of diet and exercise. Therefore I made the immediate decision to put myself to this test, which I perceived to be a rare opportunity to measure my condition against that of my peers.”

“Sounds tailor-made for you, Father,” interjected Alan, “If a little short.”

“Indeed, I was aware that stamina rather than speed has been my forte,” Jim concurred, “After all, it was as a miler that I had some success before the last war. Nevertheless I considered that, with the aid of a thorough warm-up, I might complete the course with distinction. I must confess that the prize, half a bottle of my favourite Glenmorangie ten-year-old malt whisky, was an additional incentive. Imagine my discomfiture when, at the allotted time, there came a further announcement. Since only one ‘veteran’ i.e. myself, had entered so far, the judges planned to open the race to those over fifty. My heart sank but I resolved to compete, despite the challenge of mere youngsters. Yet I was shocked when, fifteen minutes later, the sprint was changed to one for over-forties. Finally, after I had spent an arduous  hour preparing by walking briskly, carrying out a series of military callisthenics, jogging and striding, the tannoy had the temerity to tell me that the event was cancelled, because of lack of competitors! After due consideration I proceeded to the Judges’ Tent to discuss the situation. I informed them that I was willing to stage a demonstration sprint if necessary but thought it only fair that I should receive my prize. They were a shifty-looking lot – only one of them dared to look me in the eye. He had the gall to refuse my request, refund my start fee and close the tent flap in my face!”

Tony, Alan and Charlie kept their faces straight with difficulty and shook their heads in well-feigned disgust at this dastardly action. However their deadpan façade was cracked wide open when Jim concluded his story with an air of anguish, saying, “Do you know, gentlemen, it is my firm belief that those scoundrels disposed of my Glenmorangie by drinking it themselves!”

If Jim sought shared outrage then he did so in vain. The three young men hooted with mirth at the poor chap’s chagrin. His expression of suffering was more than they could bear – they giggled and guffawed uncontrollably. Eventually, as the irony penetrated Jim’s righteous indignation, the merest trace of a reluctant grin flickered across his face. It became a rueful smile when Alan declared, “Poor old Dad! Never mind. To help you get over the shock we’ll each buy you a whisky. A triple Glenmorangie and water in a tall glass, please!”

As the barman poured Jim’s rightful reward, Alan soothed his parent and delighted his friends by adding, “Of course, you’ll be over the limit for driving home, Dad, but it’s all right, I’ll have my beer once we get back to the city. We’ve had enough fun – and Games – for one day!”