So that’s it…

My 200 mile challenge is complete. I didn’t hit my deadline of 31st December 2016, and an injury in New York meant that I couldn’t do the final miles in Central Park either; but approximately half way up ‘the hill’ at Ashton Court parkrun on Saturday 6th May, the 200th mile was achieved. For good measure, I then completed the Great Bristol 10k in a new PB for the distance on Sunday – but that was just showing off!

Thanks to the incredible generosity of all my sponsors, £632.50 has been raised for the British Heart Foundation. That this great charity, supporting life-saving research into the UK’s biggest killer, has benefited from the challenge, is something that I am particularly pleased about. I am fortunate in my job to work with some of the researchers who receive BHF funding to push back the boundaries of knowledge about how the cardiovascular system works, and how we can better treat people with heart disease. Its a bonus that my own heart health has improved as result of the running. I can now run longer, faster and require less recovery time than at any time in the past 25 years. I have no intention of stopping running any time soon.

As well as the financial and health benefits of the challenge, I’ve also learned something else since starting running regularly. There’s an amazingly supportive community of people out there who are happy to share their time and knowledge to help complete strangers to improve their running. I had feared that entering club 10k runs would be an intimidating experience, with a load of super-fit individuals haring off and looking disdainfully at my plodding efforts. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In essence, most runners are really not that concerned about where they finish vis a vis other runners; instead, they are running against themselves – to improve their PB; or increase their distance; or simply to get to the finish and feel really good about it. If you are thinking about running but are worried that you’ll be sneered at, or won’t look good, or will finish last and be humiliated, then put all those negative thoughts to one side and get out to your local parkrun tomorrow morning. You are guaranteed not to finish last (there’s always a designated tail-runner whose job it is to bring up the rear), and I promise that you will find a community of people who are amongst the most supportive, least judgemental, and frankly happiest, that you could ever wish to meet! And if you are at Ashton Court in Bristol at 9am tomorrow, I’ll see you on ‘the hill’!

200@50 official miles

Orlando City v LA Galaxy : football, Jim, but not as we know it…

Our family holiday to New York and Florida over Easter coincided with Orlando City’s early season encounter with LA Galaxy at the home team’s recently opened, purpose-built ‘soccer’ stadium in downtown Orlando. Tickets having been secured before we left the UK, we travelled into Orlando from our base in Polk County in plenty of time for the 2.30pm kick off that the club’s e-mail had confirmed earlier in the morning. The Orlando City mascot is a lion and the stadium is seeking to brand itself as The Lion’s Den (prompting all kinds of comparisons with the sort of bear pit atmosphere generated by fans of Millwall FC in London). Unfortunately, the comparisons lose some of their intensity when you add the name of the sponsor to the title – “The Walt Disney World Lion’s Den” somehow lacks the fear-inducing punch of the Bermondsey version.

Orlando City stadium

 

The problem with football as a summer sport in a place like Orlando is that it’s very warm during the day. Even at this stage in late April, the temperature was in the mid 80s at kick off. This makes it great for the spectator, but a nightmare for the players. Copious amounts of water were sprayed onto the playing surface in the run-up to kick off and at half time, at least in part to cool the pitch-level atmosphere. The mid-afternoon kick off was (I suspect) to meet the demands of live television coverage, but it’s surely something that MLS needs to take into account in scheduling games as the season progresses and temperatures rise.

Perhaps partly as a result of the conditions, this game was played out in three distinct phases : an opening 15 minutes that saw Orlando hit the post, score, and then hit the same post a second time; a middle 60 minutes of huff and puff, limited quality, and gentle pace; and a final 15 minutes in which Galaxy created a series of excellent chances, equalised, and then contrived to concede a 91st minute goal scored by Orlando’s Larin – his only meaningful contribution throughout the entire game. That effectively summarises the key events. So time for some more general observations.

Will Johnson celebrates OC’s opening goal on 10 minutes

 

The overall quality of football on display today was not brilliant. At times, some of the defending bordered on the comical. That said, certain players stood out. Orlando’s Nocerino bossed the centre of midfield like an infantry general – barking orders and marshalling his team-mates with the kind of no-nonsense intensity that commands obedience. His reading of the game allowed him to get into positions to disrupt Galaxy attacks time and time again, and it was perhaps no surprise that the west coast team’s best moments came as he tired as the clock ran down. For Galaxy, their stand-out performer was Alessandrini, effectively playing in the modern no. 10 role. His close control and vision was – unfortunately for Los Angeles – so far in advance of his team-mates that they were often unable to anticipate his ability to get out of tight situations and open up the play. It was no surprise that Galaxy’s equaliser came from Alessandrini (a sweetly struck right foot effort from 20 yards). What was surprising was the much easier chance on his preferred left foot that he squandered moments before.

Alessandrini missed this glorious chance before equalising moments later

 

‘Soccer’ is still evidently a minority sport in the US. Whilst the club claimed a sell-out for this match, it was clear that many (presumably) season-ticket holders had not made it to the ground on this Easter Saturday. There were lots of empty purple seats in the two stands on either side of the pitch, and the terrace behind the goal opposite our seats was only about 80% full. The fact that there was a dedicated standing area does at least demonstrate Orlando’s commitment to creating the sort of atmosphere that makes football a compelling live event. Flags are encouraged in this part of the ground (and there was a proud Y Ddraig Goch on display for the Galaxy game), and huge plumes of purple smoke were released as the teams entered the stadium and when Orlando scored. The problem, though, is that there were almost no away supporters at all (unsurprising given the geography of a continental competition). When Galaxy equalised in the 80th minute, we only saw one LA fan rise to his feet to cheer (and I think even he was a holidaymaker rather than somebody who’d made the trip specifically for the game). As a result, the game was played out in a sterile environment with none of the banter between supporters that provides the humour and edge (and sometimes, yes, the menace) of the European football experience. That certainly contributes to the ‘family friendly’ feel of the event, but for me at least, it was all a bit anodyne – a kind of ‘if Disney did football’ theme park experience. I’m not saying that that is necessarily a bad thing – it is just different.

The LA Galaxy fan – we didn’t see another one…

 

So – overall : a good day out in the sun at a well-designed stadium watching too pretty equally matched teams struggling to overcome the heat and humidity but doing enough at either end of the game to send us home feeling that the trip was worthwhile.

No pyro, no party

Orlando City are now 4-0 in their new stadium – an MLS record for a club moving to a new ground #statattack

 

(Thanks to Dan for the match day photos)

Running in overtime

It’s now thirteen months since I embarked on a personal challenge to run 200 officially timed race miles before my 51st birthday. Despite a great start and being well ahead of target at the midpoint of 2016, a major change in my life circumstances in August brought an abrupt end to my running. Having lived in Cardiff all my life, and having reached the stage where I thought it unlikely that I’d ever leave, I was presented with an opportunity to take on a new role as the Pastoral Team Leader for two halls of residence at the University of Bristol. The role comes with accommodation, and so in September last year, Charlotte and I packed up some key essentials and moved our home to the southern side of the Severn Estuary. As if that wasn’t upheaval enough, we also then fell in love with a house in a new development that was being built not far away from ours in Cardiff, so promptly put our existing property on the market, sold it, and are now waiting for the new one to be completed in May of this year!

Whilst all this was going on, I was left with the guilt of knowing that many people had sponsored me to complete the 200 mile challenge, and that I was still some 60 miles short of the target. And so, on the first Saturday of January, I found myself once more lining up for a parkrun – this time in the beautiful (though foggy that day) surroundings of the Ashton Court Estate on the edge of Bristol. What they don’t tell you about the Ashton Court parkrun until you arrive for the pre-run briefing, is that it’s run up the side of a very steep hill. This makes for extremely asymmetric mile times – typically, in my experience, the third mile (on the way back down) takes about 4 minutes less to complete than the first one! Nevertheless, you do get used to it with practice, and I am now back to completing the 3.1 miles (5 km) in under 30 minutes, and I hope to make further improvements in the coming months. Just for a change, I’m actually going to be visiting the Llanelli parkrun this coming weekend, and I am reliably informed that this is as flat as it gets. I can’t wait.

In terms of the challenge, I estimate that (with weekly parkruns and some 10k races booked in at the start of March and April), I will complete the 200 miles in time for the Easter holiday. Just to be on the safe side, I’m also going to be running the Great Bristol and Great Manchester 10k races in May. The challenge will eventually be complete, but my running habit is hopefully here to stay now.

And so, the end is near…

Of National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo) that is! 30 days of blogging comes to an end today. I can’t believe how quickly the month has gone by. I hope that there’s been some posts during the course of the month that have amused, interested or educated you; and that if one or two have irritated or bored you, then I hope you’ll forgive me.

This is only the second time that I’ve successfully completed NaBloPoMo. It’s been a struggle at times. There’s been a lot going on in work and personally. But paradoxically – and entirely in keeping with the reason for starting doing this in the first place – blogging really has been cheaper than therapy!

I’ve surprised myself at the amount of novel content I’ve been able to generate this time; and I’ve only had to ‘steal’ stuff on a couple of occasions during the month. It’s been good to get back into the habit of researching and writing again, and I hope and intend to keep up the habit (although probably not EVERY day), as we move into December.

Thanks for reading (whether occasionally or – and you deserve a medal if this is you – daily). Thanks too for the comments and ‘likes’ that serve as a helpful incentive to keep on posting. I do this mainly for myself, but it’s nice occasionally to find that somebody else has found a post interesting or useful.

Until the next time – thank you and au revoir!

 

The good, the bad and the ugly

I love sport, in pretty much all its guises (although I struggle a bit with boxing and snooker). I remember distinctly where I was and what I was doing when Liverpool won their first European Cup (as it then was); and watching Botham and Dilley flaying the Australian attack to all corners of the ground in the astonishing win at Headingley. My heroes are largely drawn from sport : Beckenbauer and Moore; Lendl; Leo Fortune-West (although Leo is probably a bit niche, to be honest).

But while sport has given me some great memories across the 50 years of my life, it also never fails to cause me distress and pain through its ability to do stupid things. This week is a microcosm of that lifetime of experience.

To start with the good – the revelation of the nominees for this year’s Sports Personality of the Year. Sixteen women and men who have excelled in a year of sporting excellence that arguably has never been surpassed in the UK. The celebration of British sport on 18th December will culminate in one of the 16 receiving the top accolade, but (cliche though it is) they are all already winners.

Now the bad. The disclosure this week that tens (and possibly more) of young footballers were subjected to the most appalling physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the coaches into whose care they had been entrusted. To compound the issue, this has been known about in football circles for many years but it has only been taken seriously due to the incredible courage of one man who waived his right to anonymity to talk about the abuse that he had suffered. The FA and the football clubs involved come out of this looking clumsy and ineffective – but there’s no great surprise there.

And finally the ugly. The series of tweets from former professional darts player Eric Bristow that managed to display both astonishing insensitivity and complete ignorance in condemning both the victims of the abuse, and conflating paedophilia with homosexuality. I’m not going to dignify the tweets themselves with a link from this blog, but you can find them easily enough if you really feel you need to.

Bristow has already paid for his stupidity and has lost a punditry contract with Sky Sports. Whether the FA will be able to ride out the storm of criticism that is heading in their direction, remains to be seen.

 

 

Box A, Box B or both boxes?

I’m up against it a bit time-wise today, but thankfully the Guardian has come to my rescue with a humdinger of a logic problem that has all sorts of philosophical implications.

The link to the problem is here.

I’d love to know what approach you’d take and why, so please don’t be shy – leave your comments below!

Better by design

There was a fascinating programme on BBC2 television last evening, reviewing the design innovations of Sir Kenneth Grange. Across an astonishingly diverse career, Grange has been responsible for the design of the Kenwood Chef, disposable razors, and the InterCity 125 locomotive. It was great TV and the sort of thing that the license-fee funded BBC can do, but which would probably be almost impossible to get commissioned on a commercial channel.

Prompted (I guess) by the programme, there was a feature on product design and marketing in today’s Guardian newspaper. Alongside a discussion of the Kenwood kitchen aid and an old style telephone handset, there are features on lip balm (some contain chemicals that actually make your lips dry so that you end up using more of the product!); and Heineken beer (with the smiley face ‘e’s that are deliberately designed to create a sense of happiness and fun in the branding.

Good design is critical to the success of products in a consumer-driven society; but it’s also important in terms of the quality of our lives on a day-to-day basis. Another story in the news today focuses on nature deficit disorder. This is the term being used to describe the impact of lives that are increasingly mediated through technology (television, computers, smartphones, tablets), and where many people spend virtually no time in the open air and green spaces, simply ‘being’ in nature. There is an emerging body of evidence that this is bad for us both psychologically and physiologically. Actually spending time in a green space looking at plants and trees, watching squirrels and birds, is good for our bodies and minds. And denying ourselves these simple pleasures can lead to physical and mental ill-health.

Mindfulness has gained something of a cure-all reputation in recent months, and there is (probably rightly) some cynicism about the extent to which it can really have all the positive effects that are claimed for it. Nevertheless, at the most fundamental level, creating space to simply be, focusing on the here and now in the physical world and concentrating on really experiencing the world around you as it is, seems to offer one route to addressing the damaging side-effects of an over-reliance on technology and indoor-living.

Perhaps we all need to think about designing in some time to appreciate the natural world around us as much as the wider, virtual world accessed through our screens. Have a good week everybody.