Running Marathons – a Guide for Guitarists

Me looking surprisingly camp in my Autism Initiatives vest.

Wham! The ZX Spectrum, The Miners’ Strike, Atari, Neil Kinnock stumbling on a beach… Who remembers the 1980’s? It was a peculiar decade – one of transition driven by Thatcher’s profit- and efficiency-driven government, often at the expense of culture, tradition and community. I also remember the ascent into the public consciousness of the marathon. Twenty six miles (and a touch more, as if that weren’t enough) was a distance which held mythical status. It was a domain ruled by the elite, or the insane, depending on how you looked at it, yet this was all to change. More-or-less overnight, the marathon challenge was thrown open to the masses. Television viewers – particularly a young budding guitarist in South Wales – became transfixed by the sight of thousands upon thousands of ordinary people pounding the streets of London in a bid to earn the ultimate badge of athletic honour. For many, the only run they had undertaken in the previous 10 years had been a 100-yard sprint to the chippy to purchase the last battered sausage of the evening. Suddenly, every man and his dog identified himself as a sporting giant, participating in endurance runs across the UK. As our country’s leaders had yet to recognise the money-making potential of what we now call ‘Health and Safety’, people were allowed to act with impetuous freedom, and to accept the consequences. Participants indulged in ever-more bizarre stunts: running in fancy dress, running backwards, three-legged marathon running, often with little or no training. Cardiff, the home of the aforementioned young budding guitarist, also got in on the act. Within a few weeks I had made a decision: I was going to run a marathon. I was fourteen years old.

A battered sausage for those who have not had the pleasure.

I have always had an obsessive personality. Perhaps my temperament is particularly suited to the necessary repetition required to become genuinely technically proficient at the guitar. I’m a sucker for a hero. When at music college, I’d enjoy the daily ritual of arriving early in the cell-like practice rooms in order to perform a 45-minute cycle of scales in all keys, using every possible right-hand combination, all to the steady beep of a metronome which would be increased in speed by one beat per minute each week. As well as developing my finger dexterity, I felt heroic. I suspect there was an endorphin release going on somewhere and I soon became a guitar-nerd of epic proportions. So, the fourteen-year old guitar player started running. I was rubbish at sport in school. We played rugby of course, and my only redeeming quality was an unquestioning willingness to leap onto a pile of writhing teenagers in pursuit of a ball – even if said ball had departed the mass of limbs some time earlier. Personal injury was a likely outcome; in fact, to be unsullied and uninjured was a disappointment. We wanted to be heroes. The quantity of mud, and hopefully blood, sported by our clothing at the end of a match was a measure of contribution to the collective effort. I recall rolling in a filthy puddle in the dying moments of a match, some fifty yards from the action, on at least three occasions in order to be recognised as a warrior. I had no idea of the score; the aim was hero-points.

The Western Mail Cardiff Marathon 1984. I struggle to believe I was even alive at this time, never mind old enough to run the race.

As the months went by, I ran and ran, usually every other day. I did this alone and without really discussing it with anyone. The first inkling of a sense of payback came during the school’s cross-country competition. In previous years, my friends and I had retired to a pal’s house conveniently placed a moment’s stroll from the school gate during timed, competitive runs. There, we spent an agreeable afternoon playing cards and drinking Panda Pops fizzy drinks before joining the returning party in an unsuspiciously mundane mid-pack position so as not to draw attention to ourselves. I believe we poured water over our heads and sprinted the home straight to imitate a degree of physical exertion. In early 1984 though, I was up for it. I recall the look on the PE teacher’s face when I ran around the corner in 5th place – out of a field of about 90. He was nearly as shocked as I was. I then made the somewhat rash decision to enter the Western Mail Marathon, held on September 9th 1984. In those days, one popped a cheque or postal order in the post and a few days later, a shiny number came back, complete with safety pins. I still have mine in our attic in France. I was fifteen years old when I set off from Cardiff City Centre. Incidentally, the same PE teacher was also an entrant. I didn’t bump into him. I can remember surprisingly little about the race. With no little discomfort, I recall running alongside Jimmy Saville for a couple of miles. He seemed like such a great guy and judging by the cheers and whoops of the watching crowd, most of the world agreed with me. How powerful is hindsight… I recall feeling utterly dreadful at about 22 miles but I kept running – never once resorting to walking – and finished the course in a respectable 4 hours and 8 minutes. I still have my medal in a case which was imprinted with the date, my name and the time.

My 1984 finishers’ medal

As the years passed, I continued running half marathons, 10km races and others. My late father dutifully and uncomplaining me drove me around the country leaving me to pound the roads as he somehow occupied himself for a few hours before returning his panting, stiff and sweaty offspring to the bath back in Cardiff. It was in 1992 that I entered music college. I had worked for five years and experienced family life. My son Matt was born but my relationship with his mum ended. My success in gaining a conservatoire place was vitally important for my self-esteem, as well as my future career. I ended up spending 18 years there; firstly as an undergraduate, then as a postgraduate before gaining employment in the Junior, Academic and Guitar Departments. My running days had more or less disappeared but the discipline instilled in those youthful road-pounding days remained. So how can endurance sport help the classical guitarist? Firstly, there is the physiological aspect. Guitarists spend hours upon hours in classical position. This involves placing the body in a low, seated position with the left leg raised about seven or eight inches to lift the instrument. The position places considerable strain on the lower back and injuries were, and remain, commonplace. Self-medicating, beer, painkillers and soft drugs are ‘solutions’ I’ve witnessed being employed by players wishing to overcome their difficulties. More thoughtful techniques employed include stretching and The Alexander Technique. I’ve come to the conclusion though that most guitarists are simply unfit. Running keeps the body strong, supple and active. It is a powerful antidote to the fixed, seated posture in which we spend countless hours.

Start-line selfie. Man, this was gonna be EASY!

Equally interesting though are the mental benefits guitarists can gain from the discipline of endurance running. A practice session can be a hard slog. Non-guitarists imagine ‘practice’ being the act of ambling to a field full of summer flowers, complete with obliging cooing partner, and strumming a few tunes in a breeze, assured of certain adulation from the masses. In reality, one is often in a small room slogging through repetition exercises which sound like a cow being tormented. Such acts are necessary if one is to truly do justice to great repertoire, such as that by J S Bach and his contemporaries. A condition from which I suffered extensively as a guitarist was what I named ‘Last Lap Syndrome’ (©Dan Jones 2019). In this, I would be performing a challenging work, such as Britten’s Nocturnal, The Aranjuez Concerto or a Bach fugue and, after perhaps half an hour of intense concentration, the final page of black dots would arrive. Right in cue, a voice would enter m head saying such things as ‘Nearly there!’ or ‘OK, here comes that tricky coda’, or even ‘Man, I am looking forward to that post-gig beer BIGTIME’. Of course, the consequence would be musical disintegration as the mind wondered. The focus on the immediate note being played was lost and the magic could be extinguished like a burning match popped into a pint.

Around 18 miles in…

How on earth does this relate to endurance running? Well, despite being a reasonably mature and rational adult, I made the somewhat questionable decision to run another marathon this year. I have just reached a significant birthday (half-century, not out) and being unable to afford neither a sports car, nor a powerful motorbike, I rashly entered The Dublin Marathon in response to the callings of my mid-life crisis. My son, Matthew, also a keen runner, entered as well. We made a pact to stick together in the likely event of me slowing down in the later stages. I decided to publically announce an ambition to beat the time I set in my youthful years. Oh dear. My training regime was strict and disciplined. I had no problem with that. As the months passed, I decided to attempt my first major run – a distance of about 18 miles. All was going swimmingly until mile 17. I suddenly felt like death. In fact, if death really feels like that, I want to live forever. I staggered home and was unable to mount the ladder-like staircase at the entrance to our flat. My concerned family watched on as I used my arms to drag myself up to the landing, like a Gore-Tex clad Day-Glo slug, before lying inert on the bathroom floor for some hours.

Such glory! Heroes again! Random bloke photo-bombs us who weirdly and wonderfully recognises himself on Instagram!

Predictably, I was worried. After some reflection on the incident, I decided to fight fire with fire (and energy gels) and set off on another big run – this time 19 miles. On this occasion, the agony kicked in at 18 miles. I kept on upping the distance and, time and time again, I would experience near-collapse on the last lap. I began to wonder. Was I experiencing a kind of physical breakdown, not only because I was physically spent (which I truly was) but because I was mentally giving permission to my body to cease functioning a little too early? I scoured podcasts on the topic and to my amazement, discovered that this is a known phenomenon. In endurance races, athletes commonly collapse yards from the line. It is believed that had the line not been present, they’d have been able to keep going. So, one Saturday night, I set out on my final big pre-marathon run – 21 miles – armed with more energy gels than a Kipling trifle factory. As I ran along the A912, approaching my village, I felt a familiar sense of near-panic. ‘Almost there… come on… you’ve got this…’ and noticed that I was actually trying to speed up to get this darn thing over and done with. I focused hard on my individual steps and realised that I didn’t feel so bad (relatively speaking). I found myself singing ‘Ten Green Bottles’ starting with a bottle count akin to that undertaken by a stock controller at a Heineken factory. The body has a strange ability to anticipate the resolution of a much-needed task before the ideal moment. If you are of a sensitive disposition, you may do well to turn away now as going to the toilet is another excellent example. Who has endured the experience of mildly needing a wee (or indeed, a Number 2) while walking home – not so much as to be desperate but to certainly feel discomfort – only to turn the key in the front door and the body to shout out ‘Yippee! We’re home! Let it go baby!’? One is obliged to indulge in an odd sprint-waddle to the bathroom, all the while praying one’s teenage daughter has completed her morning routine, and hurl oneself onto the lav, trousers having been discarded on the landing and ‘making it’ with micro-seconds to spare. Such events are clearly in the consciousness of the Dublin marathon-watching public as I saw at least ten supporters holding warning placards reading ‘Never trust a fart after twenty miles’. Humour or wisdom?

Me, tired? Not at all!!!

I had put such things down to middle-age, but it seems that the brain is releasing too early, just as the marathon runner collapses on the little mat with that big yellow clock ticking above them, only to be hoisted to his/her feet by well-meaning co-runners, and just as the guitarist completing the Gigue of a Bach suite mysteriously fluffs a few notes in the final cadenza of an otherwise flawless performance.  So on October 27th 2019, Matt and I completed the Dublin Marathon. How things have changed. We still had numbers attached with safety pins, but now a micro-chip was taped to the back so that my family back in Scotland could track me by GPS. My estimated finish time was fed to them (notably elongating as the race progressed) so that they could watch my moment of glory as we plunged over the finish line via a live YouTube feed. Bizarrely, as we were crossing, the producer decided to interview a spectator, there to support her husband who was running the race to honour their yet-to-be-born baby (she was pregnant). Despite such setbacks to my dangerously-swollen ego, I broke my youthful PB by 15 minutes completing the race in a respectable 3 hours and 53 minutes. Matt and I crossed the line together in a moment of true glory, arms aloft although he would clearly have broken 3 hours 30 had he gone full pelt. The moment was captured by a photographer and was emailed to me courtesy of facial recognition technology. I looked like a man who’d been trampled by a herd of Highland bulls but it was SO worth it. In the later stages, I felt truly dreadful, but my experience as a guitarist made me concentrate on the rhythm of my feet and the moment in hand. The incredible Dublin public were just wonderful – genuinely inspiring and encouraging. What an extraordinary city. It was magic. I was raising funds for Number 3 One Stop Shop in Perth and was supported by Perth Strathearn 200 Round Table who are giving an extraordinary gift to augment my total. Our Co-op in Bridge of Earn also hosted a collection pot into which the lovely community of our village chipped in most generously. Watch this space for a total…

Three-and-a-half decades on, another medal. 15 minutes faster too…

I’ll be playing a number of concerts in Scotland in 2020. I’d love to see you there! Also, if you live in the Perth area, or in the Dordogne where I pass much of my time, drop me a message if you fancy going out for a run.

Dan is the author of Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, available here from Amazon.

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