Running Into (and Out Of) the Darkness

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The runners await the off. Grey but not raining at this point.

A little over a year ago, spurred into challenging myself by a combination of boredom and the marathon-running example of my younger brother, I signed up for the Focus Ireland Triathlon. Not having done any serious exercise in years, I was pretty happy to finish the event, let alone do so in the middle of the field. A longer-lasting effect of this success was that I decided to make an effort to maintain my fitness and maybe enter the odd event or two.

That was how I ended up at the Point Village this morning, waiting with a few thousand others to begin the Focus Ireland Tunnel Run, a 10k race through the twin bores of the Port Tunnel that links Dublin’s docklands to the north of the city. Sunday morning may not be the best time for exertion, but it’s a habit of mine to run and swim on a Sunday, so it wasn’t a complete shock to the system. My preparations could have been more professional though: Saturday night drinks with friends and only five hours of sleep, most of which were pretty restless and dominated by dreams of giant spiders – interpret as you will.

My goal for the run was to finish in 45 minutes or less. Although this was only my third 10k run in the year since the triathlon, I’d managed 46 minutes on the Samsung Night Run, despite pouring rain, an overcrowded course, a futile attempt at shoelace-tying, and the decision to wear my rain jacket all the way through. The other 10k run had taken place the week before the Focus Ireland event, a more leisurely solo run along the coast near home in Northern Ireland.

This was the first time that the Port Tunnel had been closed for runners. A previous 10k event had taken place just before its grand opening, but Focus Ireland had managed to secure it for three hours, hopefully not inconveniencing the Dublin traffic system too much. Organisationally, it all went pretty smoothly, apart from a few glitches, like the Bootcamp Ireland warm up music drowning out the official announcer just before the start.

What the announcer was trying to tell us about was a last-minute change in the plans for the start. Initially, the idea had been for the runners to start in waves, fastest first, presumably to prevent crowding in the two-lane tunnels. Instead, were all released together, shuffling towards the start and then pushing hard for position as we escaped the starter lane. Whatever the reason for the change in starting protocol, crowding proved an illusory problem. The wide toll plaza gave everyone room to run at their own pace before they hit the first tunnel, sorting out the strollers from the runners.

During the much more crowded Samsung Night Run, I’d found myself stuck well back down the order at the start, meaning that when I had the chance to run at pace, I was able to target runners ahead of myself and overhaul them. Being nearer the start, I had few slow runners ahead of me and was overtaken as often as I overtook. Still, running as part of a pack makes it easier to pace yourself, and I felt pretty comfortable after any initial stiffness faded away.

Running through the tunnels proved a strange experience: long, sweeping curves; gentle slopes that were difficult to gauge due to the lack of a horizon; and absolutely no wind. The air didn’t get as stuffy as I’d feared, but it might have been worse for those further behind. There was plenty of space too, and there was more and more as the race went on. Adding some amusement to the run was the fact that the lightboards used to deliver warnings to traffic were instead filled with messages of encouragement for runners, presumably tunnel staff or their family members.

The first tunnel was the tougher of the two, with a long uphill stretch towards the end, and it was a relief to see daylight and the water station at the halfway (actually just over halfway) mark. Quick sips solved any dehydration problem that had lingered from the night before, and the long, gentle downhill slope that began the second tunnel allowed me to push harder as I began the run for home. Other runners must have had a similar idea, as I was overtaken more than I overtook once again, but as soon as I hit the flat, that changed. I had targets in front of me again, and I knew I was closing on the finish line.

The appearance of daylight at the far end of the tunnel was cruelly deceptive, bouncing as it did off several curving walls that marked the end of the hardest uphill stretch of the whole run. Still, the announcement that there were only 500 metres helped me to summon up what energy I had left and head for the line as fast as my tiring legs could take me.

Not quite fast enough, as it turned out. My own timekeeping marked me at 45 minutes and 3 seconds, which the official results would later amend to 45 minutes and 21 seconds. Even so, that was a personal best, placing me 161st fastest among the runners on the day, and far better than I would have considered myself capable of a year ago. I barely noticed the rain as I trudged back to the Point Village to collect my bags. Though to be fair, the rain may well have been steaming off my overheated shoulders as I recovered my breath.

Although it wasn’t quite an Olympian endeavour on my part, it’s hard to be unhappy. A year ago, I hadn’t run in almost 20 years, hadn’t cycled in almost as long, and was at best an indifferent swimmer. The changes since then have contributed a lot to a year that’s been all about rebuilding and expanding my horizons. The simple satisfaction of being in shape and being able to challenge myself and come out on top is a well I plan to keep going back to.

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The Olympics Gap

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Watching the Olympics outdoors in Belfast on a sunny day. Something of a surreal experience.

Much to my surprise, I’ve found myself really enjoying the London Olympics. Having been mired in British cynicism ever since London won the bid many years ago, I guessed that this would be, at best, a mediocre games. Well, I’m glad to say that I was wrong. From the torch run that visited Ireland on the way to criss-crossing the U.K. to Danny Boyle’s spectacular, whimsical and multicultural opening ceremony, the build-up was pitch perfect: positive without being pompous or pretentious. Amazingly, the games themselves took that solid start and ran with it, converting even the most ardent sceptics.

The success that British Olympians have enjoyed in the past two weeks has helped a lot. I’ve been flicking between BBC and RTE for my coverage, and while the former’s constant mood of celebration has occasioned eye-rolling at times, there have been some spectacular moments at times, and the flood of golds have undoubtedly added to the party mood in London. Having considered going last year, I decided against it. A bad move, it seems. Every report I’ve heard has suggested that there’s been no better place to be this summer.

RTE has had a tougher time with its coverage – not having the resources of the BBC, it has more or less devoted one of its channels and much of its Internet resources to covering the massive array of events. The start of the games wasn’t easy for RTE either, with one Irish Olympian after another seeing their hopes of a medal slipping away before the final moments of their events. Thankfully, things seem to have come good at last, with the boxing team, led by the amazing Katie Taylor, now on course to take home a fistful of medals, together with a surprise bronze in the individual showjumping.

Those early struggles though, combined with British success, may have given rise to some suspicions that the Irish media has been deliberately avoiding giving much prominence to the British gold rush. Partly this might be down to the fact that anyone in Ireland who wants to know how the British team is doing can quickly find out by switching (as I’ve been doing) to the BBC. There’s always a small section of the population in Ireland though who’ll reject anything with the taint of Britishness. Whether that extends to the media, I can’t be sure, but I’m glad to say that I’ve only heard of a few examples of it. (About as many as I have of the British media trying to claim our more successful athletes.)

As for myself, despite the fact that I sit at two removes from any sense of Britishness (growing up in a Catholic, nationalist family in Northern Ireland, and living the most recent half of my life in Dublin), I love the fact that this Olympics is so close to home. The BBC has a lot to do with that: it was responsible for at least half of my cultural education, and I tend to prefer watching the Olympics on the BBC rather than RTE, for at least two reasons: no advertisments and a multiplicity of channels, meaning I can watch what I want, when I want.

I can live with the BBC presenters’ over-the-top praise of their athletes as they get swept up in Olympic fever, but when the time comes for coverage of Irish athletes, I’ll turn to RTE for all the details. If nothing else, there are gems in the RTE coverage too. Such as the wildly enthusiastic commentary on the basketball and Jimmy Magee dissolving into raptures every time an Irish boxer lands a punch or two. And when Katie Taylor and the rest of those who have trained for all of their lives for this moment get their just rewards, it won’t matter where my own heritage comes from: I’ll be cheering along with the rest.

Well, that was tense: Curiosity spots the landing

Even as the London Olympics strive to inspire a generation towards physical perfection through washboard abs, world records and tales of Olympian sexual shenanigans in the athletes’ village, inspiration of another kind was taking place several hundred million miles away. Human ingenuity, engineering and scientific skills combined to hurl an SUV-sized vehicle across the void of space and land it within a few hundred metres of its target on the red planet.

NASA has had plenty of practice at flinging scientific instruments at Mars, but this was still no small feat. Missions to Mars have failed before completing their missions around two in every three times. Moreover, the Curiosity rover, part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, is far larger and more sophisticated than anything landed on Mars before, requiring a Heath Robinson-esque method of getting it safely to the planet’s surface, involving a parachute and a flying sky crane. Since I’m currently sitting here watching some of the first photos from Curiosity, it’s fair to say that the whole thing worked pretty well.

I’m far from alone in getting up early on a bank holiday Monday to catch a glimpse of humanity’s latest adventure on another planet. NASA’s dedicated TV channel lasted long enough to broadcast the euphoric celebrations in the control room before it crashed under the load of viewers from around the world. That kind of enthusiasm, allied to the sheer joy of the crew who have worked for years to bring Curiosity safely to the point where it could begin its mission to survey Mars for signs that it could have supported life at some stage in its past, is simply inspiring.

There will be plenty of news about this, and more science and pictures in the days to come. But for now, it’s great to be reminded of just what we can achieve as a species.

July Book Reviews

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Nothing to do with books, just a visual representation of my state of mind.

In the absence of anything resembling a summer, it was no hardship to retreat into a few good books (and at least one not so good). Wholly fiction this time out, if with a hint of history in some of the pieces reviewed. Plus, my first review of a graphic novel and a stand-out piece at that.

The Betrayal, Helen Dunmore: In the years after World War II, a Leningrad doctor and his family find themselves caught up in the politics of paranoia and fear, where the desire to be a good human being comes into conflict with the need to protect oneself and those one cares about. Deeply researched, this is a very human story taking place in a world that feels entirely genuine, from the daily lives of those surviving in the last days of Stalin’s reign to the constant fear of the political apparatus that surrounds them and crushes those that come to its notice. It never hits the heights of drama, but that’s not really the point: this is a human story of endurance and patience, one in which the small victory of surviving is enough to overcome the terror of being mangled by the machinery of an oppressive state.

Seven Days in New Crete, Robert Graves: Cast into a future utopia founded on Goddess worship and occult social control, a poet finds himself the catalyst for the introduction of evil as a force for change. Writing in the wake of WWII, from the perspective of a veteran of WWI, Graves is clinical as he cuts into the notion of how ensuring the best of all possible worlds can’t account for the imperfections and the desires of the human heart. His vision of a future grown stagnant in its peaceful compacency is a chilly one, even as it builds towards a frenzied climax, but it’s the voice of the observer who comes to understand the world he finds himself in even as he begins the process of its disintegration that makes this worth reading.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: Charting a spiral course through the lives of an interconnected group of characters, Egan’s novel constucts a web-like frame on which she hangs the struggles of those characters to connect, comprehend and survive everything that life throws at them, as well as their decisions to maintain their masks or reveal their fragile selves. That unusual structure provides much of the life for this novel, which paints its characters in humour and desperation as they strut their brief moments on the stage before stepping into the background of someone else’s tale. It’s an easy book to become attached to, and it’s over all too soon.

Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks: Returning to the Culture, his galactic society of hyper-intelligent AIs and adventurous and occasionally lost humans and aliens, for a tale of war, revenge and heaven and hell, Banks proves himself in fine, if somewhat light, form. The central conceit of artificially constructed hells and a war fought over the moral right to destroy them interweaves with a woman seeking revenge for her own murder, but this is a romp with disturbing overtones rather than an exploration of deeper themes. Tinged with more Adamsian touches than usual, particularly in the form of a warship AI absurdly delighted at the opportunity to exercise his gifts, but this is a fine addition to the series of Culture novels in its own right, albeit one where the whimsy occludes the admittedly heavy subject matter.

Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips: Brubaker and Phillips are one of the finest writer-artist teams in comics, and this beautifully presented collection of three interwoven tales of betrayal and secrets among the criminal fraternity is a fantastic introduction to their oeuvre. Damned by their own pasts, the protagonists of the three tales may be the most moral of the characters inhabiting their shared world, but that’s a relative term, and the world of the lawless that they inhabit is one where no-one has clean hands and the spark of hope is always at risk of being snuffed out by someone more brutal or better prepared to step beyond the bounds of the unthinkable. Phillips’ scratchy, yet solid, art perfectly matches Brubaker’s terse dialogue and descriptive narration, and together they create a world of dark corners and filthy alleys that’s impossible not to get sucked into.

Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock: Delving back deeper than Tolkienian fantasy, Holdstock works with the clay of primal mythmaking as he crafts a tale of a family whose encounters with the last vestiges of chilly antiquity change them utterly. Steeped in British folklore and spanning the human imagination from the last ice age to the second world war, this is a story in which the very human emotions of love and loss are rooted in and sometimes overwhelmed by the unconscious need to craft stories out of the world that surrounds us. Deservedly a modern classic of the fantasy genre, it’s a fascinating read, dominated by the stunning creation of the myth-infused world that lies within a single scrap of primeval woodland.

The Bone Hunters, Tom Holland: When one of your leading characters is a “naive but wilful heiress,” you know that you’re in for a traditional romance, for all that the setting is the Bone Wars between palaeontologists in 19th century U.S., amid the blood and recrimination of the Indian Wars. So it proves to be, though that’s a far less important sin for this book than the kludgy language and the choice of the author to mark every encounter and glance between two characters with at least three paragraphs of insight, flashback and emotional resonance. There’s an interesting story here, one with historical resonance and clever use of its setting, but it’s buried very, very deeply by the language and syntax, and I’m still not altogether sure it was worth unearthing it.