I’ve just finished listening to a bunch of podcasts that were in my backlog. One of them was ‘The California Gold Rush’ from the BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg. In Our Time is one of the best podcasts around, seemingly capable of introducing complex issues discussed by experts to an informed audience. Even on topics that I knew quite a bit about, I ended up learning something new.
While American history is a passion of mine – though it has taken a back seat to others in recent years – there were a number of thoughts that stroke me while listening to the podcast. Firstly, the connection between the American war with Mexico which led to gaining California and the Civil War. Secondly, the impact of the Californian gold rush in the world economy.
There were a number of other tidbits in there, and if anyone doesn’t know about some of the experiences of native americans and Chinese immigrants to the USA in the 1800’s, it does provide some very introductory information. I particularly liked how one of the guests equated the acquisition of California and the subsequent discovery of gold and its repercussions as a testosterone injection to the United States; how the concept “manifest destiny” grew out of this process and its relation to the idea of the “city upon a hill” formed when the first settlers arrived; and the differences and links between the gold rush and the California that grew out of it with what it is today – a melting point, Silicon Valley. Some might also be interested in the beginnings of a certain Stanford, who would later fund Stanford University.
In conclusion, go ahead and listen. Just be prepared to be a regular listener.
I’ve just finished reading ‘Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World‘ by Professor Steven Mithen. It is a very interesting read. While I skimmed parts of it, the first chapters on the birth of polities and the importance of water management for their survival where very interesting. China’s history with water management was equally fascinating – I knew parts of it, but there were some stories that I had not heard of before. I particularly enjoyed the author’s comments on the difference between a confucian and a taoist approach to “control” water. The chapter also gives us a glimpse of how – even though so many authors continue to insist in the idea that China did not have a word for seapower before the 20th century – water, rivers and the seas have long been used and abused to harness and project power.
All in all, the book is a great read for anyone with an interest in ancient history, water and/or the use of natural resources by humankind for its development.
By the way, I’ve long had a dormant goodreads.com account, which I recently started to use again. It isn’t particularly well curated, and for now I will mostly add books that have recently read, are currently reading or want to read. How I read books for my PhD research is very different from how I read fiction or other, unrelated non-fiction works. I haven’t yet decided whether I will add my PhD books to my goodreads account, perhaps I will create a separate shelf for those. In any case, feel free to follow me through goodreads if you fancy knowing more about the books I want to read or have just read. You can also find a link to it on the menu on the right hand side of this blog.
As the first blog post of this “new” version of my blog, I decided to focus on my experiences while running “A Coventry Way” (ACW). I should start by mentioning that the organising team and all the volunteers were incredibly nice and supportive – as was everyone else doing the ACW. I hope that I was able to express my thanks to everyone at every checkpoint.
Defining what counts and what doesn’t as an ultramarathon os a regular discussion topic on the interwebs – I will spare everyone the details, as those that are interested already know, and the others don’t really care. Suffice to say, that the debate surrounds if anything over a marathon distance event can be considered an ultramarathon, or if instead it has to be over x number of miles, x altitude gain, and so on.
A Coventry Way definitely does not have any significant altitude gain (around 400m according to my Garmin), but it is 40 miles (around 65km); so I am counting it as my first ultramarathon. In fact, this was one of its major selling points for me, besides being really close to home and the entry fee only 15 pounds. Essentially, if on the day I couldn’t do it, I hadn’t spend a lot of money and time going there.
So how did it go you might ask? Quite well actually, except for a few minor issues (here is my strava activity data in case anyone is interested).
When you are preparing for your first time doing such a long distance, you read anything and everything you can find on the topic. So I knew everything about going slow in the beginning, eating, drinking water and so on. Myself having a reptilian brain though, I kind of forgot about that on the day. I had never actually trained my fuelling and water intake during my previous long runs. In fact, I seldom took anything to drink or eat – I only bought my first water bottles two weeks before the start of A Coventry Way, when I was already tapering. Which leads me to my second mistake, deciding to walk for over 5 hours on Saturday, the day before the race.
Still, on Sunday everything went smoothly. I ate my breakfast, packed a sandwich to eat in the Bus to the start line in Meriden, and started my run at 07:51. I had never run on these trails before, linking Meriden to Kenilworth. Still, I felt great, and the path is similar to all of those around Kenilworth, you can’t really go wrong.
Arriving at Kenilworth, the first checkpoint, everything was fine. Unfortunately, the checkpoint had some very nice looking cakes, and I committed my first mistake – one which I dully repeated in the first 2/3 checkpoints – of eating cake instead of bananas/sandwiches and not drinking enough water.
Around the 35km it started to become apparent that my fuelling strategy – trying out different types of cake – was not ideal. I had also gone slightly faster than I had anticipated, in large part due to the adrenaline rush that I was feeling. Yes, you read about it, yes you listen to everyone telling you to start slow; no, you don’t do it (or at least I didn’t). I still felt pretty well arriving at the 36km checkpoint in Brinklow though. I knew that the next checkpoint would be in 13km, so drank some water, filled my bottles, and off I went.
This was one of the toughest parts of the course, as it was very muddy. At one point I fell in the mud, twisting my ankle and getting some scratches on my arm. After the mud came the bloody wind. I had never realised how tough it is to run in the open terrain when it is really windy, a regular feature of the race from here until the end.
Arriving at the next checkpoint, i finally ate some bananas, drank some water and set off to the last 15km of the race. Before I started I had envisioned that once I arrived at this point, only 15km to go, it would be “easy”; the adrenaline would come back again from being so close to the finish line. What I had failed to consider was the previous 40 km that I had already run and ––– the wind (by now you might have guessed that I was really getting annoyed by the wind). So instead of it being easy, it was around the 55km that I strongly considered walking for a bit. Mind you, I know full well that walking is to be expected in ultramarathons. Before the race I was totally mentally prepared for the possibility that I might walk for a bit. Still, I knew the course wasn’t hilly, and it was “only” 40 miles, so I had this “secret” goal of not walking during the entire period. I accomplished that goal, but for 2-3 min, I came very very close. And to be honest, had I walked, I wouldn’t have gone any slower.
I finished, after 07 hours and 35 minutes, at the same place where I began – which I think it is a particularly nice way of looking at the reasons why you run long distances. At the end, while tired, I still felt pretty happy. My first objective was finishing it. My second one was going under 8 hours of total time, and 06:30min/km per running time. My garmin says 06:31, but screw it, I am ticking that box as well.
As a first experience, I think it went very well. I am really happy that I chose A Coventry Way as my first race of this sort (I might add that this is actually only my second race, the first one was a 10k). Everyone involved is incredibly supportive and nice, the atmosphere is small and friendly. I am definitely doing it again next year if I can. It was also a great way to learn by experience that in a less forgiving course, I need to actually train what I can/cannot eat, and replace fluids during the run. Now I am trying to find my next objective. Ideally it would be in the Peak District or Wales – not to far from the Midlands but in a course with some hills and nice scenery. I am not sure if I should go for a lower milage race – around 30 miles – to get my first experience of a hilly course, or if I should just go for another 40 or 50 miler. Ultimately, it will mostly be a scheduling decision, see what fits with my calendar and the commitments of my PhD.
I decided to bring back to life my long dormant blog. Instead of solely focusing on issues of International Politics, I will instead write on, quite frankly, whatever I feel like. To inaugurate this “new” version, I decided to write on my experience running “A Coventry Way”, my first “ultramarathon”. You can read about it in my next blog post.