Dear Richard, please could you fix it for me to get a place in the VLM?

vlmlogo“I never thought I’d have cause to be thankful to you Mr Branson, but as you have just saved me from breaking a promise to my Good Lady Wife, I can at last (partially) forgive you for all the times I’ve been delayed at Derby, waylaid at Watford and marooned at Manchester by your sodding trains.

You see, when I last ran London in 2005, it was…well…a bit messy. A blown knee. Heatstroke. Tears before bedtime. I trust that I don’t have to draw pictures here? And in the sweaty aftermath, I willingly promised the GLW that she had just witnessed my FLM swansong.

And so it turned out, because despite disgracefully back-pedalling on my decision, I have never since managed to pick up a place in the ballot for the FLM. But in 2010, it won’t be the FLM will it? It will be the VLM, and therefore in the unlikely event that I get through the ballot this time, I won’t have broken my promise, if only on a really spurious technicality.

But what are the chances of me collecting a place in the ballot though? I’ve only been rejected 4 years running, rather than the 5 years that means guaranteed acceptance.

And what significance do the answers you give to all of the many questions on the application site have? Am I more or less likely to get a place based on my occupation, or my membership of a running club? Does being rejected 4 years running get me any sympathy at all? From anyone?

What, at the end of the day, is the secret of getting through the ballot? If you know, I wish you’d share it with me.

And look, Mr Branson. Or may I call you Richard? Apropos of nothing, I just wanted to say that, on you, the beard looks good. Your cameo in Casino Royale? Stellar. Your trains? Like a Swiss watch. Space Ship One? The stuff of dreams. Virgin Money? Astonishingly good APR. The abseiling thing? Just jolly bad luck and not funny at all.

So please, could you, for the love of all that’s holy, just spare one lousy place in the VLM for an aging plodder, so he can finally run a decent time in London and hang up his high mileage shoes for good? The GLW and I will be eternally grateful…”

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Hawkshead Trail Race 2009: Beaten by a Hill called Ron.

hawksheadfinishBefore running the Hawkshead 15k Trail Race, I had provisionally titled this post ‘Taking Kendal Mint Cake From Strangers.’ Clever huh? Can you see what I (nearly) did there?

But then, as so often on these occasions, if you’re me, fate intervened and threw up something far more relevant, interesting and…well…slightly embarrassing. But before I get to that, what about the race itself?

The Beauty and the Beastliness of the Hawkshead Trail

Hawkshead is a fairly small village, so I rolled up at the event in plenty of time, to find that not only was it possible to park within yards of the finishing line, but that there was a great atmosphere for this one, as befits a race being held in one of Britain’s prettiest villages and under clear blue skies.

Registration was quick, easy and friendly, and I was even given my finisher’s t-shirt before the race (though I did wonder if that was a wise move on the part of the organisers. The unscrupulous and the very nervous could simply have cleared off at that point. And I fell into at least one of those categories…).

It was just a few hundred yards walk to the start line in the village, where after waiting behind the drum band, we set off pretty much on time, tracking through the village before hitting a gently inclined rocky trail that was a pretty tame introduction to what was to follow. As is my wont when I’m not fully fit, I hung near the back from the start, but quickly regretted it, as some competitors at my end of the field were walking before we’d gone more than a kilometre. So, unusually for me these days, when the trail opened up a bit, I found myself passing a few people and really enjoying the feeling of performing fairly well on what is the rockiest course I’ve ever run.

It couldn’t last though, as even on the single flat stretch that runs alongside Lake Windermere, there are still rocks and rabbit holes aplenty for the unwary, so by the time we reached the foot of the infamous Coffin Trail at the 11k marker, I really was all in. Even after grabbing some Kendal Mint Cake and Water, I was totally out of strength, and had to resort to walking up this smooth rock path.

Strangely though, while this part of the trail runs for nearly 2k, during which I was able to run only intermittently, I wasn’t passed once; as everyone behind me at this point was just as shattered as I was.

All except for one man, as it turned out…

Just as we reached the 200m high peak of the Coffin Trail, I was finally passed by my worst nightmare: a spry, fairly elderly gent, wearing heavy knee support, but moving as if he hadn’t even seen the hill he’d just run up. He wasn’t going that fast though, and once we were on a flat-ish section, I picked up the pace again with every intention of putting on a fast finish to make up for my shameful performance on the Coffin Trail.

Before I could overtake the old chap though, I spotted the legend emblazoned across the back of his running vest: Doctor Ron Hill MBE.

Yes. It was that Ron Hill. You know, running legend Ron Hill. Former marathon World Record Holder Ron Hill. The man whose name features in the little logo on the corner of my shorts Ron Hill.

I ran alongside him for a minute or two, desperately wanting to say ‘hi’, but not really wanting to put him off his stride, or, if I’m honest, to look like the world’s most red-faced and out of breath autograph hunter. And so the moment passed, and I had to console myself with the fact that for a minute or two on a glorious spring day, I had had the honour to run alongside a living legend.

And now the really bad bit…

While I was feeling OK again by this point and all ready to give it my big finish, I really was loath to blast past the great Ron Hill, what with him being a couple of decades older than me. And so, I took the decision that I would simply run the last couple of kilometres in his wake, basking in the turbulence of his magnificence…oh, and getting my picture taken with him at the finish…

And then, as the trail became rockier and more steeply downhill, he took an enormous rolling fall, obviously hitting his left hip pretty hard on the ground. I, and another guy we were running with, stopped to help him up, but he was back on his feet having hardly missed a stride, and setting off down the horrendously steep and difficult trail like a mountain goat.

I tried to stay with him. Really I did. But I had neither the balance nor the courage to get down the jagged, treacherous, plummeting trail as fast as he did. On the upside though, neither did quite a lot of other people, my age and much younger, with the upshot that I finished about 10 places behind the great man, even after my big(ish) sprint finish allowed me to pass quite a few people over the last 400 metres.

All in all, this is a difficult but rewarding race, and one I’m almost certain to enter again next year. Obviously my 1:46 time is appalling for just 15k, but not so terrible when you consider the terrain, which is as bad to run down as it is to run up. And where flat sections that allow you to get into your stride are few and far between.

As it turned out though, the greatest challenge I faced on the day was my own misguided notion that if I finished behind the great Ron Hill, it would be through choice…