There’s an old chap who lives in my village. He’s bearded, tall (he would be taller but he’s stooped), has less fat on him than a butchers dog and he wears a hearing aid. The first time we spoke was on the day of the Charlesworth Fell Race. The race is a traditional village festival one in the Peak. It involves running up a steep hill, along a ridge and down again! It’s 5km and it hurts so much that you get OMS rather than DOMS.
Anyway, I saw the gent in his running kit just before the race start but not at the finish line. Rather, we bumped into each other on the train both having been to Glossop for our shopping. I moaned about having a mild asthma attack on the climb and he gently teased me about how easy this particular race was and that he’d kicked over mole hills bigger than Coombes Edge. I instantly liked him. I love bumping into Neil now! He’s typically on his way back from watching an athletics training session or race. We’ll have a nice chat about what we’ve just done, he’ll natter a bit about the past and who’s running well in the present….. Running is his vital force, part of his soul, his being and his life. I want to be like him when I’m in my dotage . One day he said he’d just been to see his mate Ron another runner that he’d written a book with. It transpired that Ron is none other than the famous Ron Hill! When I got home, I googled Neil and found that he’d been a pretty handy sub 2hr 30min marathon runner back in the day of plimsoles.
Several weeks later I was reading Richard Askwith’s book Feet in the Clouds and Neil got a mention. He had been a buddy runner for one of the all-time running greats Joss Naylor, during a Bob Graham record attempt.
For the uninitiated, the Bob Graham Round is one of the toughest running challenges in the world, which anyone can attempt but few succeed. This is a truly gruelling run involves running up and down 42 Lakeland fells in a 24 hour period! The thing was, I was reading about the BG on my way to watch IM UK Bolton. Maybe a strage coincidence but it changed my whole view on big events. My initial fear of watching IM was that I’d be inspired to get enter next year. The opposite happened. It was a strange experience.
Imagine…. air thick with the whiff of silverback pheromones…….emanating from male gorillas of a similar vintage to myself, adorned with similar tattoos and ridiculous one-piece Lycra suits. As I stood watching at the entry point to T1, a man as previously described came zooming towards the dismount line on a Cervelo P3. He tried and failed to do a running dismount, falling arse-over-tit and took another athlete out. I felt sad. Don’t get me wrong……participating in sport is every bit as important as sporting excellence. It should be inclusive rather than exclusive. However, rampant commercialism of by organisers has overtaken the pioneering spirit. The first triathlon many people now do is IM distance and it shows!
Transitions are full of £5k bikes and with an entry fee of close on £500, it encourages a very narrow demographic to compete. Completing the distance is still an achievement but few manage to do so to their potential. That’s because many don’t understand or respect the race and its history.
Many of the perceived ‘successful’ events are those which market themselves as Savage Beastly Brutal Bollockbusting Nutcrackers! They may be really long, have challenging climbs or a few rocky trails. However, I’ve got adventure racing friends whose daily commutes are more challenging. Does this matter? After all, many people have a nice day out and get an ego boost as a result. What saddens me is that the aspects of sport that I hold so dear are being lost because races are becoming more about brand, marketing and bragging rights. Again, that may not be a problem to some and I’m certainly not one to impose my views on others. However, in a recent race, I was nearly wiped out by a chap who undertook on me at 40km.h and then I saw why…… it was the only way he could get round a small peloton to my right.
Now I know how Christophe Bassons felt! I was surrounded by a bunch of dangerous cheats. It doesn’t make something right if “everyone else is doing it” just like doping. However, in my case I think my fellow competitors had just not taken the time to learn about the sport. Back when I started cycling, in the late 80’s I was in a traditional cycling club. It was a strange environment for a young lad and I’m certainly not looking back with rose-tinted glasses. In many ways, they were the bad old days, where antiquated views were expressed. It certainly wasn’t inclusive and many first-timers never came back. To fit in, you had to prove yourself! I was a relatively slow rider, but managed to prove myself through sheer pig-headedness! I’d be dropped week-after-week but I’d always come back for more. The good side was that there was always one wise old chap on hand, giving encouragement, ensuring you knew group etiquette and always ready to show displeasure if you stepped out of line or rode dangerously. It’s where I learnt about the importance of respecting the history and rules of the sport. They weren’t there simply for tradition. Rather, if you’re belting down a hill at 50km.h in a group or chain-ganging along a busy road, you’ve got to respect and trust your fellow riders.
These early lessons have stuck with me. I’ve come from the sport of cycling where many, no all of my past heroes have been done for doping. It hurts but it heightens the importance for personal integrity and upholding the rules of the sport. That means not draughting, respecting fellow competitors and trying to be safe! It’s people like Neil Shuttleworth who are now my heroes. They’re not mere interlopers looking for personal gratification. They do their best, with performances often being as good as any world-class athletes. However, they rarely get rewarded or recognition. Rather, they do it because of a love of the environment and of the sport. If you think IM is tough, I challenge you to do a fell race. You’ll see a beautiful side to sport where courses may leave you frozen, soaking, bleeding and broken. You’ll be competing against people that look slightly unwashed and feeble but you’ll be so far behind them as not to worry about the smell. With a tenner, you’ll pay your entry fee, get a pint, a chip barm and an experience to compare with many of the ‘toughest races in the world’. In fact, such races are tougher because they’ll push you way beyond your comfort zone. You may even find yourself struggling to keep pace with a middle-aged granny in a pair of old Walsh’s! It takes a real man to cope with that!
If that’s too much of a challenge, what about a local sprint triathlon? You’ll taste your lungs in a way that’s not possible when going long! In fact the longer you go, the less it hurts…….the pain just lasts longer! The important lesson for me is that sport is more than just completing a distance. It’s about self-discovery, always pushing the boundaries and operating beyond the comfort zone!
99% of people enter races that they know they’re likely to be able to complete with their ego intact! Only 1% enter races where failure is a risk or they may lose face. However attempting such things makes you feel more alive and it’ll ingrain sport deep within your being!