Spug gets on the  soapbox


Thighs, damned thighs and statistics


I describe myself as a writer, runner and aniseed ball fan. If I had to choose one of those three things to jettison, it would be curtains for the confectionary. Ask me to lob out something else to save a sinking ship and I would be stuck.

In the thirty-odd years that I have been running, I have covered the circumference of the earth and then some. I have had highs and lows. I have had, as all runners do, periods of progress and setbacks, and I have been injured plenty. Five months ago I was struggling to walk. This morning I ran six miles. I have spent almost a year getting treatment. I have sat for hours with my ankles in buckets of iced water. I have stretched and exercised, wept and raged, and every bit of it was worth the run/walk on Christmas morning when I covered three miles in the company of Donner, Blitzen and a billion hailstones. Persistence, bloody-mindedness, call it what you will, I was not ready to quit doing something that I love.

But there are drawbacks. Anyone who knows me will say that I am not massive. The average height for women in Britain is 5 feet and 4 inches. I am almost average height. I weigh approximately nine stones and according to the National Health Service, I am slap bang in the middle of the healthy weight range. And yet I cannot get my legs down a pair of jeans. If I could get my legs down them, I could fasten the button and sit down without bursting the zip. Unfortunately, I have a condition known as muscles and according to the designers of today’s trousers and jeans, I shouldn’t have.

Now, during my extended rehabilitation period, I have learned a lot about the musculature of the lower limbs and I can tell you this with absolute certainty: those muscles are meant to be there. Each and every one of them has a job, be it flexing the foot or stabilising the knee. Using these muscles strengthens them. Not using them causes them to waste. Jeans today are cut for people with wasted leg muscles.

You may have seen the ‘This Girl Can’ advertisements. Women are part of the human race. We wobble, we sweat, we achieve, we grow, and we develop, just like the male of the species. The Sport England campaign encourages women to be more active and to put up two proverbial fingers to the perceived notions of femininity. It’s a joy to watch. But when those same women go into a changing room, the message that the cut of the trousers sends isn’t one of health and strength. The message says: you are too fat to fit into our clothes. What is wrong with you?

I have started thinking about thighs, and calves for that matter. I walk around the streets staring at people’s legs. I may be arrested and you might think I’m weird, but my observations tell me that quads and hamstrings are no longer in vogue. The fashion for legs is parallel sticks wrapped in denim, and it’s the same for both sexes. Skinny jeans and skinny legs.

Let’s flip that and tell the truth. People do not exercise. They do not build muscle or bone mass and they risk osteoporosis. They wear skinny jeans on wasted legs. Is fashion dictating leg size or is leg size dictating fashion? Either way, it can’t be healthy.

Where there’s muck . . .

I recently cancelled my subscription to Runner’s World. A week later they telephoned to see if I wanted to re-subscribe. I declined. Over the years the magazine has changed; it may be beautifully laid out and full of pretty pictures now, but I’m after content, not glossy adverts and I’m wise enough to figure that however clever Asics slogans may be, their shoes won’t make me as fast as Lemaitre.
The same shoe companies who told us we needed their responsive cushioning or mid-foot stabilising technology are now spending their million-dollar marketing budgets selling us shoes stripped back to the bone. Thirty years ago, we refuelled on orange squash – not isotonic sports hydration. Who would have imagined, in Zatopek’s era, satellites tracking our training runs? Now we don’t step outside without strapping on a Garmin. Whatever way you look at it, running today is a global commercial business filled with shiny products and services.
Before The days of Dr Kenneth Cooper and Jim Fixx, there were estimated to be 100,000 runners in the USA. The growth in participation has been phenomenal. There are an estimated 30 million runners today in the States – one hell of a lot of wallets to tap into. Running is an activity that requires no specific facilities or equipment, but that hasn’t stopped the big boys. They have convinced us that we need their products and services and they have done so by tapping into a desire that most of us share – to be better runners than we actually are. Fools, like us, look for products that promise improved performance regardless of our own level of ability. We will use whatever we can get out sticky paws on if we think it will help. If it’s not a special shoe, it’s a lymphatic drainage massage, recovery shake or an on-line training league.
Being controversial, I’d say that none of this gubbins has helped. Listen to Brendan Foster and his views on the state of British distance running and look at some of the statistics. Our top athletes are not what they were in the early eighties and I believe that that’s because we’ve taken our eye off the ball. We have forgotten that running is about putting one foot in front of the other fast enough so that we lose contact with the ground. It’s about putting in mile after gruelling mile of training on cold wet winter nights. We have focused our eyes on the gizmos, the brands and the whole darned running “experience”.
If you think that what I’m saying only applies to the road running fraternity, I’d suggest you think again. Cross-country used to be something we did under sufferance at school, a few of the most talented kids were picked out and ended up in the club system. But “re-brand” cross country and it turns into an “Adventure Race”. It’s the same mud and water but this time it’s tarted-up with bells, whistles and a hefty price tag. Instead of a couple of hundred competitors, there are thousands and a massive publicity machine behind it all. These organisations aren’t staging races for the love of the sport – it’s a commercial venture. In the newsagent’s, alongside the familiar Runner’s World covers with their toned and tanned cover models, we can now buy Trail Running magazine – equally glossy and just as full of adverts.
I’m not saying that this is wrong. After all increased participation is sport surely is a good thing, for the health of the nation and the individual, and it can be enormous fun – but can’t we keep it simple? What are we going to feel like when the Goyt Valley Fell Series competes for dates with the big guns? When a four quid entry fee becomes forty and with it the Technical T-shirt that proves we are tough enough to run up a hill and race back down it, and yes, when fell running becomes mass market. Won’t ever happen, will it? Did Alfred Wainwright envisage today’s congestion in his beloved Lake District?
Follow inov-8 on Twitter and see the full-on assault of a company marketing its brand, shouting about its sponsored athletes and their feats of endurance on the world’s mountains. You can bet the other companies are at it too – Montrail and Salomon, planning their campaigns in corporate HQ’s. Wave bye-bye to the cosy image of a cobbler in Bolton making up a special pair of shoes for a man called Pete Bland.
Richard Asquith’s Feet in the Clouds, has never been out of print and yes, they’ve sold the film rights. When they’ve worked out how to make a movie from it, they will. There are enough people out there craving adventure and wanting to test their limits. That’s not wrong, but one small push may be all that it takes, to set something very ugly in motion. After all, there’s gold in them there hills.