Wednesday 5 November 2003

In a darkened underpass I thought, Oh God, my chance has come at last

Apparently, perennial J-Lo botherer P Diddy was presented with the chance of competing in the Stevenage Half Marathon, but he opted for the balmy climate and iconic architecture of New York over the undulating cycle lanes and busy roundabouts of Hertfordshire's finest. Wuss. I'm made of sterner stuff than the hip-hop has-been and on Sunday I lined up with about six hundred others outside some anonymous leisure centre just off the A1 to compete in my second ever half marathon.

Conditions were not particularly good, wait, let me rephrase that, conditions were foul, appalling, disgusting. As I arrived torrential rain fell from the low, dark ceiling of cloud and was whipped in all directions by squalling gusts of cold wind. Ankle deep puddles of murky water lined the kerbs and the pavements were covered in a skin of slippery leaf mulch.

I met up with my virtual running partner*, Helen, as she pulled another fleece out of her bag and hurriedly wrapped it around herself. She quickly informed me she wasn't going to compete against the elements as well as her own fitness and I would be racing alone, she'd provide occasional cheering support on the route and a cup of tea at the end.

Somehow the rain managed to get heavier as I lined up on the start line, my long-sleeved top and tracksters quickly soaked through, and I had to bounce up and down on the spot like a gormless boy-band member just to keep warm. Unsurprisingly I was surrounded by runners, proper pink-of-thigh, ruddy-of-countenace runners. I like running, it's a portable way of keeping fit that suits my lifestyle, but I don't think of myself a runner; my frame is altogether too well upholstered to be considered lithe or athletic and I don't own a pair of much too revealing shiny shorts. There were plenty around me who did.

Barely audible over the howl of the wind, the starter blew his whistle and we were off, six hundred people first walking, then jogging, then running over the chalk line being washed off the cycle lane tarmac.

Whilst I picked a path through the crowd I kept a close eye on my stopwatch as I had no idea how I was going to perform. A time of 1hr 50m (about 8.5 minutes per mile) seemed a respectable target given my minimal training schedule. Ten minutes in I still hadn't seen the marker for the first mile and my heart rate was at the upper limit of my normal endurance range - I started to worry about quite how long I'd be jogging the wind-blasted wastes of Stevenage. Eleven minutes passed, twelve, thirteen, and still no sign. Finally, and with much relief, bang on sixteen minutes, I passed the two mile mark, the one mile mark had probably been blown to Dublin. I relaxed a little and switched the watch off to remove the distraction.

Anyone who says they go running to give them time to think over a particular life-problem is a bare-faced liar. Whilst I'm running there's no room for contemplative thinking or problem solving, my mind fills with bizarre little loops of thought - snatches of songs, finishing time mental arithmetic, wandering why club runners have such leathery necks - that spin around and around, occasionally interspersed with worries about how much my calf is tightening up. This time I played "Where's Wally/Waldo" to spot Helen amongst the crowds lining the course. It wasn't difficult, there weren't any crowds. Plenty of cheerfully damp yellow clad marshalls pointed the route through the maze of cycle-paths but there was no happy throng cheering on the runners. Helen popped up every three miles in an alarmingly bright Gore-Tex anorak to provide a welcome smile and shout.

On the stroke of eleven miles the wind, the rain and I ran out of energy. The clouds started to lift and some blue sky appeared, but I wasn't really taking it in. My stomach yawned for food, my head span and my legs felt distant, the world narrowed to the few metres of track immediately in front of me. I kept my legs moving as my mind tried desparately to ignore the pain. Over the last half mile other runners cheerfully belted past, picking up the pace to hit their own personal bests, but I had nothing left. Only in the final hundred metres did I find the energy to sprint past the small crowd, now containing two supporters calling my name, Louise having joined Helen, but I was so exhausted that I couldn't work out where the finish line was and a marshal had to catch me before I ran through the back of the timing and reception area.

I recorded a time of 1hr 48m 35s, good enough to win the Female Over 65 category if I'd only had the foresight to enter it.

So then, Sean "Puffy" Coombs, I'll be seeing you at the Gt Barford Half. I'm ready for you.

* Virtual as we never actually run together, merely send each other occasional motivational e-mails and text messages.

Monday 3 November 2003

Geeking out

Non-technical readers please look away now.

OK, those still with me, prepare for some self-indulgent geekery and a small drum roll - compared to Friday, this website is now totally different. I'll admit it's not different in any visible way unless you're someone who uses a text browser or takes great pleasure in viewing the page source, but nevertheless I spent most of my weekend on a redesign and I'm rather pleased with the result.

I've had a nagging feeling I should be doing something with CSS after reading people's bletherings on various blogs, but I never really understood what they were talking about and dismissed it as handwaving by standards-obsessed arty designer types. Then I found this excellent presentation and, with a bit of work-avoidance surfing, realised that CSS was probably fairly straightforward.

Like a work related version of the Fire Triangle I remember from GCSE Chemistry, the perfect alignment of motivation, time and the spark of inspiration came together this weekend to migrate everything to CSS and rid my site of the horrendous crossword puzzle of nested tables and <div> tags it had become.

Now everything you can see is CSS driven (go on, view the source, it's a thing of <p> and <h1> tag beauty) and I only use tables for image alignment in my walking pages. There are still a couple of minor issues, but I've tested in IE, Opera and Firebird and everything looks alright - IE's ridiculous inability to centre tables properly notwithstanding. I also took the opportunity to simultaneously migrate most pages to PHP so that I can unleash more functionality which in turn has let me reduce my dependency on Blogger for page generation so that I can migrate to Movable Type or similar if or when the fancy takes me.

I know it's all a bit pointless really, I don't have a wide enough audience to worry about text-browsers or full standards compliance, but I feel...virtuous. Yes, virtuous.

If I'm being far too smug too soon and this page doesn't render properly in your browser, please let me know.

Please update your bookmarks

I tweaked this site a lot over the weekend, and some of you might be experiencing problems with your bookmarks. The proper address for the home page is (as you should know if you managed to get here). Sorry for the disruption.