Back in the saddle

IN WHICH WE GET SOME EXERCISE THAT DOESN’T INVOLVE RUNNING, RUN OUT OF WOOD AT JUST ABOUT THE RIGHT TIME, AND HAVE A TIMELY REMINDER ABOUT THE LAMENTABLE LEVELS OF SAFETY FOR CYCLISTS ON THE ROAD… AND MAKE YET ANOTHER IMPULSIVE PURCHASE


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I treated our wood-burning stove to some TLC yesterday. I took the doors off and replaced the rope, and cleaned the glass with vinegar (as recommended by a stove guy up the road). Worked a treat. Alas no stove black in a tin for that really smart finish, but that’ll be along soon, and she can have a fresh coat and look good as new. With a decent stove, and good, dry firewood, there is precious-little ash left after a night’s fire. These Stovax stoves use a secondary burn technique that makes them very efficient. And the wood pile is running low, so it’s just as well Spring has sprung.

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The Grand Old Beech; a marker not just in the physical sense, but also a living barometer of the seasons.

S and I had a good long walk of about 10k through the park and around by the canal. Holly came too, and even got in for a dip. This section of the towpath is certainly easy underfoot, and is shared by a variety of users. I understand the Royal Canal is being ‘upgraded’ for use as an official cycle path, and even the keen cyclist in me is not convinced. These canals are part of our built heritage, and the towpaths were designed for use by horse. In many places, there simply isn’t room to create the width for all users to share the path. Some of the work is already done in the urban sections in Dublin, and there, it works. But the surface is plain ugly; certainly in comparison to grass. Nothing wrong with a good cycle path – the Greenway out west to Achill is absolutely wonderful. But not everything transforms neatly into a cycle path. Another disaster in the making is the Barrow Way ‘blueway’. Check out this site for more information about the plan, which is quite frankly shambolic.

I’ve run a few sections of the Barrow Way, and in the Summer, a group of us are going to do an ultra of about 62k. If the short-sighted mandarins have their way, it may be the last time it can be enjoyed as it was meant to be; a grassy track along a river and occasional stretches of canal, and not as a wide, hard, gritted bike track. And this from a keen cyclist who loves a decent bike track. Anyway, enough campaigning for now – if you know it, try and savour and save it; if not, pay a visit. Most Irish folk can name our longest river (The Shannon) but not many can name the one after that. There’s a hint in this paragraph… 😉

After the long walk, I was still itching to get out again, and wonder of wonders, I had some time off from the station, so I took the Orbea out for a spin. Just a little leg-loosener of about 20k but it was a joy to get out. Coming back through the village, I was reminded by a series of idiots in cars, or walking, just how much you have to contend with when you are on a bike. In fact, even out on the open road you are still very much at the mercy of traffic. I wonder about the driving skills of some motorists when they come across a cyclist and hang in behind them, waiting for a chance to overtake. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the number of times I’ve had some car up my backside with plenty of clear open road in front, and they still don’t overtake…. makes me wonder how confident a driver they are. And that makes me nervous too.

As I mentioned in a recent blog, we attended a cyclist fatality last week, and it’s a salutary reminder of the vulnerability and fragility of a bod on a bike on a road. I know the whole helmet argument too; I’ve read plenty of blogs where seasoned cyclists argue that the bike helmet may actually be a factor in increasing injury. And I understand the argument. It’s just not one I share. I understand the effects of a speeding hunk of metal weighing several tonnes hitting the human body. I’ve had to deal with the aftermath. A few ounces of polystyrene are not going to save you. But if you’ve ever come off your bike courtesy of a pothole or patch of oil, and banged your noggin, then you will have your lid to thank for avoiding a trip to A&E and a possible week off work with concussion, or worse. Not to mention a nice dose of road rash across your forehead. But each to their own. I just think not wearing one sets a bad example for younger cyclists, who are more prone to falling off. We need to do everything we can to encourage, not discourage.

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Can you see the Heron?

Enough blathering for now. A few ranty lines in an obscure blog is not going to change a lifetime’s experience on the road, in the saddle. If you’re one of those cyclists who really doesn’t believe in wearing helmets, all I can say is good luck to you. I’ll wear mine. Always.

So in other news, I have been reading Born to Run. I have no doubt quite a few runners out there have already read this fine yarn.

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If you haven’t, I heartily recommend it. In amongst some tall tales and a smattering of science, there is a reasonably cogent argument for the barefoot running style. I was interested to read that the whole Chi Running idea was actually developing in different parts of the world at around the same time. Not unlike many scientific breakthroughs, it was just a matter of when, not if, and it just took someone with the right vision to join the dots. A sort of organic process, if you will, and less of a ‘eureka’ moment. In fact, you could really say it was a ‘rediscovery’. (Tangent warning! I always smile when someone says that Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492 (technically, he landed in Haiti). This would have been news to Leif Erikson and his Viking colleagues, about 500 years before that (who, to be fair, technically landed in Newfoundland, in Canada). And even more bemusing for the native Americans who had been there for thousands of years. Then there’s the Asian migration angle before that, but here I’ll respectfully bow out… Paleoanthropology is a hobby, not my area of expertise).

You are probably familiar with the barefoot argument. In a nutshell, the modern ‘style’ of running is really an affectation; the human form is designed and built to run. And we should be running on organic surfaces with little or nothing on our feet, and we should be utilising the balls of our feet, and the Achilles tendons, and the arches, and all the other architecture that has been specifically put there on the end of our legs to help us get around at a reasonable pace over long distances. And also to try and defy gravity. After all, running is just a myriad steps, each one an attempt to leave the earth’s gravitational pull and soar into space. Earth always wins of course, so the trick with running is not send the shock of each failure to launch into your ankles, knees and hips. And nature has provided, of course. The shock absorbers are there, in your feet, and behind your ankles, and on up into your calves. We just tend to let the running shoes take the pain. Which it turns out, is a bad idea.

By adding a well-padded (and usually) expensive running shoe to nature’s great achievement, we have, overnight, effectively dismantled this running machine. And created a money monster into the bargain. But that’s another argument.

In another life, when I was involved with historical re-enactment, we used to spend weekends in Viking-style turn-shoes. Apologies to whomever made these below; I shamelessly robbed the image from the internet. But the idea is simple – one piece of leather, stitched, turned inside-out, and there’s your shoe.

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Whilst some had additional soles, the typical shoe was one piece, so you very much felt in touch with the ground when you moved around. After a few days in these, your feet began to come alive. Perhaps a little sore, but overall, once your skin is protected from the worst of it, your feet can handle quite a lot of hardship. And is there any more delicious a feeling than running barefoot along the strand, in and out of the waves? Perhaps the closest ‘modern’ running style today to that of the barefoot runner is that of the hill and fell-runners. Watch any of these seasoned athletes, and they all tend to be up on the balls of their feet; literally, ‘on their toes’. If you have ever tried a few runs in the mountains, you will understand what I mean. And I would be willing to wager that your average hill-runner is fitter and stronger than your average flat-earth runner. Though I may talking absolute bollocks here of course. I don’t have any empirical data to back that up. (Not the bollocks bit, the running bit. I have plenty of witnesses who’ll confirm that I am fluent in Bollocksology!)

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This is me in another life, doing a show for the public at Craggaunowen Crannóg in County Clare. I’m wearing the typical clothing of your average Viking. Woollen trews (trousers), linen shirt, and in my case, a felted hat with animal fur trim. On my feet are Viking turn-shoes. I’m spoon-carving, as you do. If this is your bag, check out this site – an excellent resource for all things leather and authentic. And the maker of these wonderful shoes on my feet…

So this is a build-up to the next plan.

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I’ve bought myself a pair of these… ‘these’ being Vibram Fivefingers Komodosports. They’re second-hand, so they may not be a perfect fit. I’ll know shortly. Why they decided on fingers and not toes is a moot point.

What’s somewhat amusing about this plan is that the last time I heard runners talking about these Vibrams was last week at the Donadea 50k. Prior to the race start, two runners were talking about another race they were at when one of the participants stopped at the side of the road, whipped off his Vibrams, and emptied the blood out. I didn’t get any more of this conversation. It was just a snippet, and it sounded rather… uncomfortable! Certainly one of the surfaces we were never designed to run on is concrete (or tarmac roads in general). So even if my fivefinger experience is a positive one, you are unlikely to see me pottering along with them on the road-side.

Around here there are a few wooded trails, and plenty of grass and towpaths to try them out. I plan on throwing in one run a week in them, and build up to more if they are working out. I don’t plan on growing a big long beard, eating locusts and wild honey, and running semi-naked in the woods, chasing down badgers. For a start, I suspect badger-hunting is illegal, and I imagine they don’t taste great either. So I will leave our badgers alone. But it will be an interesting experiment to see if I can re-awaken some of the natural running apparatus that has not been used properly for… well, probably since I was a kid, I guess.

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And to finish off, here is a picture of a sluice valve cover. Cast iron things just seem to be beautifully made. Needless to say, to wheel out that old cliché, they don’t make ’em like that anymore…

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6 thoughts on “Back in the saddle

  1. So, with vibrams, you still spend all of the money (actually more) that you normally would on a normal running shoe but without the cushion. In other words, the money machine still survives unharmed.

    Humorously, I’ve read the other side of the story as well, about why shoes, and cushioning, followed the path it did and the unbelievable amount of science that went into producing them.

    To keep this short, ironic, and funny, how many Born to Run books were sold? MILLIONS. Who was made rich for those sales? The author and his publisher. They beat up on the running shoe industry to bite off a chunk and buy a nice BIG house on a lake somewhere in the country that neither Columbus nor the Vikings discovered, but indeed did grow to be badass nonetheless, against all odds.

    As a fun aside, how about we demand a study, funded by proceeds from the sale of Born to Run of course (because we wouldn’t want anyone to make money, now), about which form of running, shod or unshod, begets more injuries. I’d bet my lunch it’s the latter.

    So the dude who wrote Born to Run made a mint injuring would be runners. Now THAT’S a news story!

    Just sayin’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, someone is always making money somewhere, and I was conscious of that. No doubt the author Christopher MacDougall made plenty of money as did his publisher. And he unwittingly brought a lot of attention on to the real hero of the story, Michael Hickman. And it sounds like that fame sat uneasy on his shoulders. And then there was a film… Yes, there truly is gold in them thar hills, as they say.

      Whenever you hit a dichotomy in life like this, you nearly always find the great Irishman Oscar Wilde has beaten you to the punch. “Each man kills the thing he loves” springs to mind here. As regards buying stuff… hell, we’re all buying stuff all the time; that’s the nature of commerce and making the world go round, or at least, it’s the way we do things these days. I’m no different. I work for a living, like you. I do, if possible, like to buy second-hand. Not because I’m a cheapskate, but because I like the idea of moving stuff on.

      I bought a Garmin second-hand. It did the job. I got a slightly better one (with a better battery life) so I sold on the first one to a runner just starting out. And as my wife said recently, if we stopped buying clothes and never bought another stitch for the rest of our lives and lived to a ripe old age, we would still have more than enough things to wear. It’s not much different from n+1 – the number of bikes we need in life, or in my case, running shoes (or in fact, it’s probably guitars). Or just swap out whatever ‘n’ is on your life. My first decent bike was a Mercian frame that I did up myself, with a lot of help from my friends. I really love my Orbea but there’s still a part of me that regrets not doing the ironman on the Mercian. There’s always another time, I guess.

      I’m not going down the rabbit hole on this one. I’m just curious and interested in something that seems to make a lot of sense. If I’m cynical about the shoe industry then I think I have some reason: apps on your smartphone to log your miles to tell you when you need to buy yet another pair of shoes? Again, I could probably stop buying runners now, and still be buried in one of the pairs out in the hall (though ideally not for a VERY long time 😉 ).

      There are studies which will back up whatever argument you believe in. This whole ‘echo chamber’ theory has been doing the rounds lately. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between: some runners do well with lots of bouncy padding, some do well without. Some runners have injuries brought about by wearing shoes, some by not wearing them. The main thing, in my mind, is to keep running. And that I hope to be doing for a long time, regardless of what I have on my feet. If you didn’t have the Venge, you’d cycle the Trek. Then the Cannondale, and then… well, you’d find something. And you would do whatever you could to make that experience more interesting. You would explore. Ask questions. Investigate. You would get the best gear you could afford. And you would also be the first to say that all of this gear means little if you are not out there, doing it, which is by far the main thing. And that perspiration beats inspiration most of the time.

      But I’m nothing if not curious, so if there are studies out there (not funded by big companies on either side of the debate) then I would be keen to read them. As for MacDougall… I’ll say one thing. He tells a good yarn. And in Irish culture, the storyteller was revered. He was the ‘seanchaí’ and travelled from village to village, bringing news and telling great stories. He entertained the kings and chieftains, and received food and board, and often payment for his skill. They were up there with the poets and shamans. But as we know, there are always one or two chancers out there. We have ’em here in Ireland too. Feck, I sometimes think we invented the chancer and exported them around the world. Tammany Hall was one of ours. And there are plenty more of those in American culture, and around the globe. MacDougall’s ancestors must have been roaming the Scottish Highlands or the plains of Ireland at some point.

      But Jim, as always, thanks for the comments. If ever I feel myself getting sucked into a potentially bad decision, I reckon from now on “what would Jim do?” would probably sort my head out.

      Now there’s a T shirt!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That last bit was the done of it, my friend. I’ve seen people get sucked into this and have to resort to walking because they’re so intent on making their body “work right” they miss the forest for the trees. I know one in particular who is just heartbreaking. She’s injured more than she runs, but she’s certain if she just catches lightening is a bottle, she’ll run the rest of her life with no shoes whatsoever (!), just so she can “feel connection with the Earth”.

        I say put on some shoes and run with a handful of dirt! At least that way you get to run!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I spotted the reflection of the Heron before seeing it!
    Good luck with the vibrams, be careful. If you haven’t already I’d recommend Eat and run by Scott Jurek next. Or … running with the Kenyans 😀. My toes are not happy with each being separated so 5 fingers aren’t my thing, I mostly run in minimalist shoes. I love my Merrel gloves, they do have a vibram sole. It will be interesting to see what happens with you.

    Liked by 1 person

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