Thursday, 19 November 2015

Review of New Order, Brixton Academy, November 17, 2015

We’ve grown up together, New Order and I. Watching them live isn’t like watching any other band. 
We used to hang out in The Hacienda when I was a teenager. They owned the place and I was queuing four-deep at their bar for an overpriced can of Red Stripe or something.
Whatever happened to that carefree, red-haired Mancunian with blue glasses and an unjoined-up love of New Order, Yazoo, Howard Jones and the Human League?
Well, he became a careworn, silver-haired Londoner with rimless glasses and an unrequited love of New Order, the Human League and The Go! Team.
So trekking to Brixton to see them again is, to use the happy cliche, a personal pilgrimage. Walking from the godforsaken tube station to the Academy via a couple of pints at the Prince of Wales has definite echoes of walking from the 86 bus stop in Piccadilly to the Hacienda via a couple of pints at the Briton's Protection. 
There's even a genuinely warm, alcohol-fuelled glow of nostalgia in the inexplicably long delay before the band's appearance, the exhilarating price of a pint of p*ss at the Academy and the ear-numbing volume level that I never liked even when I was 18.
But hang on a minute. Here they come. And they may look a bit past it like the rest of us, but don't you agree that they sound like the past, the present and the not-too-distant future?
They’ve used their years and years of global stagecraft to become the masters of the disguised intro. Evergreen Stephen kicks off the beats, static Gillian layers on the synths, happily beer-bellied Bernard dad-dances away self-consciously front and centre
Then in comes the Hooky bass line minus the bitterly estranged Hooky. Could it be Temptation? Or 586? The roar of a thousand 40-somethings rises as the melody kicks it. And it turns out it’s the peerless Bizarre Love Triangle. Remember the lounge-style acoustic version that duo played every night in the Ko Samui restaurant in Thailand back in 2012? I do.
Keeps you guessing. Keeps you smiling. Keeps you foot tapping.
Then the Crystal guitar riff growls into view. Remember that time we heard it while wallowing in a hot tub in Hyde Park ten years ago? I do. What was that all about?
Then Ceremony’s siren-like opening melody swirls with the dry ice around the Academy. Still sounds as urgent as that time my brother and I heard it rammed at the front of the Hacienda in ’83.
And Perfect Kiss, the song that sounded as far away from Joy Division as New York dance clubs were from Manchester when I bought it from a record shop in Blackpool after cadging a couple of quid off Dad on a seaside trip in ‘85.
Then the gentle bickering of Your Silent Face Tardises me instantly to the day I played it unheard at home for the first time as a teen and got a tut from Mum at Bernard’s very Mancunian lyrical demand, "So why don’t you p*ss off." It could have been directed straight at Peter Hook. 
Ah, Hooky. The bearded, Mancunian elephant in the room. Last seen singing his own bitter, gruff and ready versions of these very songs at the Victorious Festival in Portsmouth under an August monsoon. His versions were raw, less polished, more retro. The New Order versions are fuller, grander and retain the smiley-faced freshness of the originals. 
It helps that the Brixton gig is bathed in a spectacular light show while poor old Hooky’s festival slot was sandwiched between the truly awful Laura Mvula and the no longer Magic Numbers. 
I love both incarnations. Just love them. But Peter Hook and the Light may be living solely off the past.
In contrast in south London, up pops La Roux’s fresh-faced Elly Jackson to sing on a couple of new numbers. A smarter pop philosopher than me could have some fun charting the electronic dance lineage from Depeche Mode via Blue Monday to Elly's own, brilliant Bulletproof.
At the eleventh hour, the three-song encore rightly remembers the past and recalls the missing. Ian Curtis’s voice can never be replaced on Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere (remember listening to that one over and over again in your girlfriend’s bedroom back in ’83?) so black and white photos on the big screen will have to do.
And finally, mightily, Blue Monday - the chest-thumping ghost of Hooky alive like a spinning head in an exorcism. It may be over-familiar but it still feels as futuristic as the famous floppy disc sleeve that sheathed its mighty 12 inches 32 years ago.
Too soon it's midweek tube-dash time and a final thank you to London and Manchester from Bernard: “You’ve been great  - thanks for all your support over the years.”
Music complete. Memories complete.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Ich Bin Ein Berlin Marathon Runner 2015

There was only about a mile left when the tech failure happened. The pace was slowing and the Brandenburg Gate was in sight when the final water station popped up on the right.

A desperado in front of me saw the outstretched plastic cups and veered drunkenly in front of me to grab one. He accidentally bashed my arm but I thought nothing of it as I grabbed a cup of my own for the final push.

But when I looked at my Fitbit, the impact had stopped the GPS timer and cut to the end-of-run summary screen. It had stuck on 25.2 miles - exactly one mile short of marathon distance with no way of restarting it. My first marathon would go unrecorded by Fitbit and Strava. 

Maybe it was the fatigue or the adrenaline of the moment but it seemed really important at the time. I wasted valuable energy by cussing under my breath and wondered what to do for the best.

It had all gone so well until then. That September Sunday morning in Berlin was beautiful - sunny but chilly enough for me to wear a disposable M&S pullover and bright enough to need the Sunwise shades while I waited with 40,000 nervy others on the Stra├če des 17. Juni.

Deborah and I had made the 20-minute S-train journey from the Zoologischer Garten station near our Wyndham Excelisor hotel and walked with the giddy crowds from the Hauptbahnhof to the starting zone. I was smothered in vaseline in all the right places and feeling as slippery as a German eel. I'd breakfasted on a banana and a train station croissant plus a Morning Berry protein bar and an SIS Hydro sport drink.

My Batman-style utility belt was loaded with two mini bottles of SIS Go Electrolyte plus a couple of gels. I had an extra gel in my left shorts pocket and a handful of chewy gel Shot Bloks from personal trainer Yasmine in my right. I was a walking nutritional time bomb.

I left Deborah at the German Chancellery after a good luck hug and headed into the secure start area for a forty-minute wait for my wave to set off. I stretched, relaxed, marvelled at the runners of all nationalities gathered for this run-of-a-lifetime. We walked up towards the starting arch in front of the Siegessaule victory column. I seemed to be surrounded by Danes. Hooded crows flew across the road that divided the Tiergarten park. A final dash to the side of the road to shamelessly depressurise and I was ready.

The first couple of miles were slow through the sheer volume of traffic. I dodged and weaved through the pack trying to find a rhythm and a route amid the pattering running shoes. 

By mile three I was starting to hit my race pace - around 8'34 per mile. I felt great. The streets were lined with cheering crowds, bands popped up every so often - a jazz quartet here, a steel band there, an oompah band on the right, a rock band on the roundabout on the left. It was exhilarating, thrilling and joyful.

And that was it. The miles rolled by with high-fiving kids and clapping pensioners lining the streets. I got halfway round and was delighted to hear a cheer from Deborah. There was plenty left in the tank and the legs were feeling good. The 60-minute Thursday night massage by Richard was paying off.

We raced through the utilitarian apartment blocks of old East Berlin and emerged into the leafy shopping boulevards of the old west. I felt as cheerful as a chaffinch - head up, smiling, hoping I wouldn't hit the dreaded wall. But there's not much of that left in the city anyway these days.

By 20 miles the outside of both knees knew they were in a race and my calf muscles were grumbling slightly but it was nothing serious. At 38km Deborah popped up again on the roadside to give another kickass cheer.

By 24 miles the calfs were complaining a bit louder and my pace slowed to 9'20 per mile. By now all the gels were gone, the bottles were empty and I was down to my last chew. I'd never run out of nutrition on my training runs but with less than a couple of miles to go I was out of fuel. I was heading into the unknown.

But the water station jostle and a glug of cold water were enough to provide that final psychological boost to press on for the finish line. I faffed about with the Fitbit and re-fired up the GPS for the last mile. 

It was a fabulous feeling, running along the Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate with crowds cheering on either side, the finish arch ahead, the feet thumping on to the timing mat, stopping the bloody watch and slowing to a walk for the first time for nearly four hours.

The water kerfuffle meant I didn't have a proper unofficial time. I knew it must be under four hours and by adding together the long run and the short run a time of around 3hr 53mins looked probable. I wrapped myself in a yellow plastic binliner and feasted on a banana and a bottle of water.

I grabbed a medal and queued for a complimentary pint of Erdinger alcohol-free beer - not as bad as it sounds - than headed out to meet Deborah. I stretched out in the sunshine waiting for an official time.

I searched for my name in the iPhone app and there it was: I'd finished my first marathon in 3:51:30. I was pleased. I was hoping for under four hours and I'd done it fairly comfortably. Not only that, I felt great. The calves were already feeling better and after a bottle of SIS protein shake we walked to the finish line village to a buy a finishers' t-shirt, a bratwurst and a pint of real beer.

It was delicious. Ich bin ein Berlin Marathon runner.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Berlin Marathon: Weeks 10 & 11 - Long Running Back in London

East Acton has never looked worse. After two weeks in California, the walk to and from and the tube has become more miserable than ever. I've spent my running hours over the last fortnight plotting my escape. A move west to somewhere nice on the river, more time in Norfolk, Christmas in Lanzarote. None of it will happen, of course, but it dulls the pain of motorbikes trying to break the land speed record when the lights go green at Savoy Circus, speeding left-turners careering through red lights at the pedestrian crossing on the Westway and Romanian squeegee abusers turning the central reservation of the A40 into a raft of empty plastic water bottles.

We got back after the overnight flight from San Francisco on Sunday, August 9. We cabbed it home and I dozed through the first Super Sunday of the season before heading out on my longest run yet - a fifteen mile loop via Kew Bridge and Putney Bridge. It felt good at a pace of 8:24 despite the jet laggy leginess.

Monday's rest day was boosted by City's 3-0 win at WBA and the rest of the week passed in a flurry of 40 mins, five miles, 60 mins and a Friday personal training session on the TRX ropes focusing on upper body strength. The DOMS from this one didn't kick in fully until Monday morning when I could barely lift my right bicep. Honest pain. We even managed to sneak in a welcome-home midweek family feast at the Monkey Temple with Cath and Andy.

It was a trip to Manchester for City v Chelsea on Sunday so I had to do my next long run on Saturday. Sixteen miles on the same loop as last time but this time starting and finishing from the gym. This one fizzed by in the sunshine. It was eight miles by the time I looked at my watch for the first time and I hit the jacuzzi after 2:11:59 at 8:14. I still think that's a bit fast for the marathon - PT Yasmine thinks I should be aiming for 9 mins per mile to go under four hours but that feels slow.

The City match was a welcome break after the first week back in the office. The 3-0 win helped but so did the bus ride home to see mum and dad plus a couple of pints with Mark in Oddest, a couple more with Vince at the ground and a couple more of Hyde's Manchester Star on the train home. I eased the guilty conscience with a quick sprint from the Etihad to Piccadilly Station at full time, comfortably making the 6.35pm rattler.

Another routine week of 40 mins, five miles, 50 mins and a PT involving kettlebells and polar bear push-ups was broken up with an unexpected bonus trip to the Oval on Thursday for the first day of the fifth Ashes Test. England had won the series and it showed. It turned into the slowest scoring, least wicket-falling day of the series. Old school 1976. The day may have been overcast but the ticket was free, the company good and the Marston's New World IPA flowed much more freely than it does in the office.

The week climaxed with yet another longest run yet - 17 miles.

This was the same loop as last week but extended with a trip into Wandsworth Park and back. I deliberately slowed the pace this time - 8:34 for 2:26:09. It was a straightforward, niggle-free run but as I was dripping wet and drinking a protein shake in the gym changing room it was difficult to envisage keeping that up for another nine miles and 90 minutes. That still seems a daunting distance.

I celebrated by watching City beat Everton 2-0 on the TV followed by a Sunday evening feast at the Monkey Temple with Deborah while her mum and dad kept the kids company.

So with under five weeks to go I was up at at 6.30am this morning after yesterday's rest day for another steady 10k along the Thames before work. The body's holding up well but I can sense the challenge is about to become more psychological. Better that than a physical injury at this stage, though.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Yosemite Valley 10k

Mirror Lake meadow at Yosemite

Friday, August 7

Nothing emphasises California's wonderful extremes better than the drive from Death Valley to Yosemite. The five-hour journey rises from the devil's furnace way below sea level to a stunningly beautiful landscape teaming with life from the valley floor skywards from 4,000 feet.

We made a detour to see the ancient bristlecone pines on the White Mountains on the way then yomped up to Lembert Dome overlooking the alpine Tuolumne Meadows near the eastern entrance to the national park. We did two more hikes the next day, the first five-miler a steep climb along the Mist Trail to the top of the Vernal waterfall and an easier five-miler through the woods to Mirror Lake in the afternoon. It was this route that we decided to jog the following morning.

Big Joe and I were up at 7am for the half-hour drive from Yosemite View Lodge to the car park at Curry Village. It was a lovely run around the traffic-free loop, up through the woods, across a butterfly meadow then splashing across Tenaya Creek for the run back. I left Joe in the car park to complete another circuit of the loop around a campsite to make it a satisfying 10k run at an altitude of 4,135ft in just over an hour. 

We rehydrated on protein shakes then headed back to the lodge before the long, long drive to our final Californian stop, Napa Valley. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

Altitude Training at The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Monday, August 3

I had never run at high altitude before and the reports I'd read about its effect on the body meant I approached the rim of the magnificent Grand Canyon with some trepidation. This was going to be an epic 14-miler under the Arizona sunshine.

The plan was to adapt to the conditions by keeping a close eye on my heart rate and making sure it hovered around the border of the cardio and peak zone even if that meant slowing the pace right down to cope with the lack of oxygen. We'd spent all of yesterday hiking around the Canyon so we were already getting use to the thinner air without even knowing it.

Research suggests a normal pace of 8 mins/mile becomes 8:45 per mile at an altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level. The there-and-back part of the rim trail I selected started at 7,133 feet above sea level, dipping to 6,800 feet along the way before climbing back to its starting level so I was expecting it to be tough.

But it was also exhilarating. Big Joe joined me for the first half-hour from the Mather Point overlook near the main visitor centre running west until the end of the very steep incline three miles later just after the Bright Angel trailhead. We started running under the Californian Condors at 7am to beat the heat and the cool conditions were perfect. The canyon falling away forever on the right made this one of the most memorable runs available anywhere in the world.

After Joe dropped out I was on my own as the paved path eventually ran out after five miles and the rocky trail tested the grip of my Brooks trainers to the limit. I knew my pace was slower than usual but I was enjoying the run and coping with both the distance and the steep undulations that added up to a 1,104ft elevation gain.

It was just me, a couple of startled rabbits, a mule deer, ravens, turkey vultures and the odd early hiker with one of the Earth's greatest views all to ourselves.

By the time I'd finished 2:16:01 later, equalling the furthest distance I'd ever run, I'd averaged 9:43 per mile, about a minute and a half slower than my usual steady pace. It was the most memorable training run I'd ever done.

After that it was back to Vegas for an overnighter at the MGM Grand and a dip on the rooftop pool before heading down, down, down to Death Valley.

Training Below Sea Level at Death Valley, California

Wednesday, August 5

Two days after the 7,000ft highs of the Grand Canyon we found ourselves two hundred feet below sea level in the furnace of Death Valley.

The temperature on the dashboard of the Dodge edged over the 100 degree mark as we drove through the high desert from Vegas to the Valley. Stepping out of the air conditioning for the first time at Dante's View was like walking into a hair dryer. We marvelled at the salt deposits at the bottom of the endless valley surrounded by steep Toblerone ridges.

Another stop at Zabriskie Point on the way to the Ranch at Furnace Creek revealed the start of interesting trail - the Badlands Loop. The terrifying sign at the trail head said it was a two-and-a-half mile loop through a mountain pass via the Gower Canyon but should not be attempted after 10am due to the extreme, life-threatening heat.

So we hatched a plan to get up at 6,30am and jog around the trail a couple of times before the sun was barely above the top of the mountains.

A bold idea and it started ok. Big Joe and I jogged from the car park to the edge of the rocky trail and descended at dawn into a spookily deserted gully. The silence was eerily deafening. It wasn't long before we stopped even trying to jog through the rocks and concentrated on just finding the sign posts that marked the scary route through the arid terrain. It was unusual and intimidating to be devoid of directions.

After about a mile we reached a post that had two arrows pointing in opposite directions - clearly the start of a loop. But at that point we turned round and retraced our steps. Without a map and when everywhere looks the same - sand, rocks, desert - the last thing we wanted was to end up lost in the valley as the sun was doing its worst.

A few days later I found this comment on hikespeak.comI managed to get lost on this trek. Ended up down there for 3 hours on my own and ran out of water and almost hope of ever finding my way back. Was close to death…literally..:-(

I'm glad we turned back. It was a memorable experience but no jog. I changed the status from "run" to "hike" in Strava later that day. We headed back for a buffet breakfast at the ranch and the long drive to Yosemite.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Las Vegas Gym Day

We stepped out of the air conditioned Dodge Journey and into the outdoor sauna of Las Vegas on a Friday evening. Only a fool would run in these conditions. The plan was to jog a circuit of the strip this morning but the intense heat meant I headed to the small and spartan fitness room of the Tropicana hotel for a body conditioning session. 
I lunged with weights, planked, squat jumped, calf raised, hopped and generally faffed about while Big Joe did some serious weights work not far away. No cardio but it was good to get last night's Pinks hot dogs and Sierra Nevada beers out of the system. Vegas is weird. Bright, brash, trying too hard. 

We packed up and headed to the Grand Canyon. It took more than four hours and was rewarded with a truly awesome sunset and an excellent Grand Canyon beer complete with an internal hop bomb. At 7.5%, it was a two bottle maximum.