Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Is Enough, Enough?

I don’t really like quitting and I don’t actually think I’m a quitter, but sometimes you just have to say I’ve given it everything I can and it’s time to move on. I tried hockey, I was the worst player on the team, even though I scored one of those really spectacular goals that would feature on goal of the year, had there been cameras around, the sort that only the best players can conceive of, or, in my case, is a mishit back pass that not only doesn’t stay on the ground but also heads in the wrong direction. It was my first goal for the BBC, my 2nd and last goal would follow about 10 minutes later, less spectacular and, this time, actually intentional. Soon after I realised I was fooling myself if I thought I was going to be any good at hockey and gave up. My quitting of the hockey world coincided with the quitting of my career at the BBC, I was going nowhere in an organisation that I loved working for but they didn’t love me enough to pay me a salary that meant I could actually afford to live in London.

If it was money I was after then I needed a change and I found myself embarking on a career in the computer industry. It started well, I picked up programming quickly and was one of only three people, from the course, to get selected to work for the top employer on the list, NatWest. With a new career came a new sport, football. I’d never been a great footballer but I was above average. I didn’t have any dreams of playing for a proper club or even making any money out of it but I did harbour the dream that I would get a regular team place in a local Sunday league team. Those hopes were soon dashed when I realised the difference between playing with friends and playing competitive footballers. After 4 months of getting selected to join the team in the pub after the match I realised my football career was a non starter, time to try something else.

I tried running, I seemed to have some natural endurance so I thought I’d join a club. Hercules Wimbledon beckoned, but they were shut, so I ended up at Belgrave. I wasn’t much cop at running either; my first 800m, on 6th May 1989, ended in 2:15.2, but I still came 3rd. I followed this up on 12th June with a 5000m, which I completed in 18:12 – I wasn’t last. Two months after my first 800m I ran my second one and improved dramatically to 2:14.8. Not exactly Olympic material, but there was something about running that I liked. I could see that if you worked hard you could improve but most of all I didn’t have to get picked to take part, all I had to do was enter. Obviously I realised that for some events you had to be selected but in those days I had no real ambition, other than to improve my performance and have some fun.
A young Rog winning a mile race in 1990, 4:35 - a classic stopwatch photo

Twenty five years later I have improved, though I’m now slipping closer to those original markers I set down. Not only that but I did get selected for some big events, and I’ve had a lot of fun. However these days I really am beginning to find it hard to motivate myself and I’ll admit the thought of giving up has crossed my mind.
During the middle of my peak years, seen here leading a BMC 1500m with some of Surrey's best in action

In those twenty five years I’ve had two maybe three calendar years where I haven’t suffered an injury that has meant taking a break from the sport. A lot of the injuries were short term strains or pulls which took a couple of weeks to fix and then you were back, when I was younger it didn’t take that long to get fit again either. 1996 was the first serious injury, I strained my heart running with a cold. The injury itself sounds worse than it was, it was a simple muscle strain, the muscle being the heart. Had I carried on at the time I could have caused a more serious outcome but as it was I took a break and allowed it time to fix itself. It took me a while to get back to fitness and even then I was nowhere near the form I had been in prior to injury. So I trained harder, I’d been in the form of my life in the autumn of 1996 and I wanted to get back there. Unfortunately training harder didn’t work, it just broke my foot, metatarsal to be exact. Fortunately, when I tried to come back, nine weeks later, it had been a really wet summer and I began my training in a waterlogged park. Amazingly, after only 5 weeks training I anchored Belgrave’s Surrey Road Relay team to win gold, and I earned that gold with a fantastic run, under the circumstances, to hold off a Herne Hill runner thought to be of similar ability to me.

That winter I got back close to where I’d been the previous winter, some great Surrey Leagues, a good performance at the Inter Counties cross country champs and even one of the faster legs at the South of England road relays. This was it Rog was back and about to set the running world on fire. Only I didn’t, in the spring I started to get calf pains, I tried to run through but after several weeks of on/off training I decided it was time to see a specialist. Without going into details I had a problem, in fact it wasn’t only one my whole body was a mess. The answer was to have an orthotic built. In the meantime I had to rest.

This was to become one of the longest breaks of my running career, to date, about five months. Luckily I was contracting at the time, on an hourly rate, so I could focus everything into my career and making the money that would see me through rainy days in the future. The problem had been so painful at times that I really couldn’t see myself coming back from this one, particularly after how hard I’d worked to come back the previous two times. I reviewed my time in running and decided that I couldn’t complain, I’d had a good run of it, achieving much more than I could have hoped for, if I had to give up now so be it, I’d find something else.

But I wasn’t quite ready to give up yet. After watching Belgrave struggle to get out a team in the Surrey road relays of 1998, a year after we had won the title, we couldn’t field 6 Surrey qualified runners, in fact we couldn’t even field 6 runners and failed to even finish a team. I rarely get angry or moody with running but that performance took the packet of biscuits out of my hand. I was the fattest and heaviest I’d ever been at eleven and a half stone but I made up my mind that Belgrave needed me and I needed running.

I started running again soon after, it was slow progress but I aimed to make my comeback at the County Cross Country champs in December. It wasn’t a good start, it rained persistently and the course featured a steep hill that had little grip on it. We went up it four times, I had to walk on two of those occasions. I finished 66th, but I’d finished and I was only going to get better. A month later I was 52nd in the last of that season’s Surrey league races. I probably would have been somewhere in the 60s if it hadn’t been for some loud Belgrave runner following me round that second lap shouting his head off at me to keep pushing, the only reason I pushed harder was to get away from the annoying sound of his voice. As it turned out, no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t shake off Will Cockerell and this would be the start of another great running relationship, but at least I beat him. It did take a while for my fitness to come back but by 2000 I was running well again, a 31:04 10k, my best for seven years, and I lined up for the Surrey 5000m convinced it was my time to win, after so many 2nd and 3rd places, and I was right up there, sitting on Stuart Major confident I would sweep past when I wanted to, and then it happened, my calf tore. I hobbled round for two laps before realising that carrying on would make things very bad.

I’ve kept coming back for more, retirement in 1998 would have been premature, I achieved much more after that, in fact I’ve continue to achieve in running. Last year, threw up another bad injury that has caused me no end of issues and caused me to lose a lot of the race fitness I had built up, yet I still won races and I still took medals. So far this year has been pretty poor by my previous standards, I’ve struggled through two very muddy cross country races and I’ve found my fitness lacking in the three road races I’ve taken part in. The thought of giving in is not so alien a concept but I’m not sure I’m ready to do it just yet. I’m thinking of trying a different sport, perhaps that will make the decision for me, but all I need is a good race and I’ll embrace running again. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, there are thousands of runners out there who I’m sure wish they could run as fast as I currently am, but I’m no longer enjoying pushing my body so hard and worse I hate turning up at races feeling indifferent, the sparkle, the desire, the passion, the confidence have all deserted me. How do I get them back, perseverance is the key, keep plugging away and maybe, just maybe I’ll find some of my old sparkle, perhaps all I need is a road relay, particularly one where I’m handed the lead.
Give up in 1998, just think how many road relays I would have missed, let alone won. Here I am in 2009 leading on leg 1 of the South of England Masters champs, the day after my brother's wedding, I wasn't even in good shape but relays bring out the best in me.

But if any of my running buddies are reading this, don’t worry the towel is still on the rail. I am running relatively pain free and, though a little slower than I would like, there is a flow to my running. Deep down I know I can’t just give up the running, I also know that, if I can stay injury free, the form will return and I’ll be back competing with my peers, I might even get that first victory over Rob Tudor. But I always wonder if one of these injuries will eventually call time on my running, and if it does, I will retire a happy man, having been a part of four great clubs, Belgrave, Herne Hill, Edinburgh and Salford – five if you count NatWest, when they were the best.

Written by Roger Alsop

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