Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Back on Track

'What's this?' I hear you say, 'I thought Project Five O finished at the end of 2011'. You're right it did, but the weekend I've just experienced is just begging for a PFO blog entry to be written about it. So think of this as a bit of an encore, possibly just a one-off, possibly not.

If you were a PFO regular during 2011, you may well remember my trip to Japan last October. Well, while I was there I received an email inviting me to apply for a place in the 'National Lottery Olympic Park Run', a five mile race around the Olympic Park in Stratford culminating with a lap around the track inside the Olympic Stadium. I applied, of course, but also emailed the link to Juliet urging her to try for a place too.

The results were out almost as soon as I got back from the far east. Juliet had secured one of the 5000 places in the run; along with 45000 other applicants, I had not. Was I jealous? Of course not! OK then, maybe just a wee bit! My disappointment was partially offset, however, by the news that two spectator passes came with each runner's entry. I would at least have the consolation of having an early opportunity to sample the arena from a spectator's perspective.

And so it came to pass that on Saturday Juliet, Hannah and I set off for Stratford station and joined an excited crowd skirting the outside of Westfield Shopping Centre en route to the Olympic Park. Getting inside involved first joining a lengthy theme park ride style zig zagging queue followed by an airport style x-ray machine and metal detector. If you've got tickets for the real thing in the summer my advice is to get there early. The queuing is a drag, but I'm sure most people will quite happy to put up with it in order to feel completely safe once inside.

Inside at last.

Inside the park it was buzzing. Not everything is fully ready yet but even so it all looks very impressive. Juliet had borrowed my Union Jack headband, which caught the eye of a camera crew who interviewed her on camera - for syndication abroad apparently. The stadium itself is a wonderful arena; the atmosphere during the games should be electric. Legroom is plentiful and sight lines excellent, although from our seats West Ham fans will only get a very distant view of much of the pitch if, as seems likely, the Hammers adopt the stadium after the Olympics.

Pre-race interview.

It was soon time for Juliet to head off for the start line, and the mere spectators amongst us were treated to entertainment from a couple of Saturday night talent show acts, the energetic Flawless and the excellent and foxy classical music girl band Escala. Iwan Thomas and Holly Willoughby orchestrated it all from the stage and on the big screen.

Iwan and Holly on the stage.

Oh and of course we were also treated to an appearance from the two Olympic mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville (or is it Manlock and Wendeville?). They were firing tee shirts through a pneumatic tube into the crowd, none of which came in our direction.

Wenlock or Mandeville?

As well as running in the race, Ginger Royal (that's Beatrice by the way - not to be confused with Sporty Spice who also took part) was the official starter.

The Royal Hooter!

First to enter the stadium to tumultuous applause was one of the wheelchair athletes, who was clearly loving every minute of his experience.

Winner of the wheelchair race.

The first runner, who entered to a similarly enthusiastic reception, was so far ahead of the field that he had crossed the finishing line before the second placed athlete had even entered the stadium. Before long a steady stream of happy runners were completing their glory lap of the track and crossing the line, with the celebrities among them being interviewed and shown on the big screen: Nell McAndrew, Roger Black, Sally Gunnell, Martin 'Moneysavingexpert.com' Lewis and dishy doctor Hilary amongst them. I'm sure if Jimmy Saville was alive, he would have been there too.

The leading athlete on two feet.

We spotted Juliet, pretty much on schedule, after around 50 minutes. She still had enough energy to wave to the crowd, eventually picking out Hannah and I, and crossed the finishing line in an excellent 52:49, all the more impressive due to the painful hamstring injury hampering her progress. As a result of her endeavours I can exclusively reveal that the Olympic track is 'extremely springy', which Juliet very much appreciated after pounding the hard concrete of the Olympic park. What a fantastic experience, a one-off piece of history! Watching it all did make me feel even more strongly that the 2012 Olympic marathon should be finishing in the stadium too, and not along the Mall in central London. OK, Buckingham Palace is impressive in its own right, but in the context of the Olympics, there is nothing more iconic for me than the sight of the race leader finally entering the stadium and hearing the roar of the crowd after twenty six miles of running.

A St Albans athlete enters the finishing straight.

Juliet's good progress enabled me to make a quick dash to the Valley via the Jubilee Line and a black cab in time to watch the second half of Charlton's 2-0 win against Orient. With six games remaining Charlton are now eight points clear of Sheffield Wednesday and edging closer and closer to promotion. However, Charlton never do things the easy way, and there may well be more downs and ups before the end of the season. We should go up but it's getting nervy.

Inspired by my brush with the Olympics, I was really looking forward to my own first race of the year on Sunday morning, the Regent's Park 10K, the first of a series of 6 'Summer' races that take place on the first Sunday of the month from April to September. You may remember me having a go at the July race last year. I've built up my training steadily since January, but the onset of a tickly, raspy throat and the resulting restless night left me feeling a little a bit apprehensive as I stood on the start line on a beautiful but fresh April Fools day. I needn't have worried though, as I put in a very pleasing performance. I even managed an feisty sprint finish, just about holding off the spirited challenge of runner number 6340, a young lady with whom I had been regularly swapping places since the start of the second lap.

The race to the finishing line.

The results on the event's website show that I maintained a remarkably steady pace throughout: 21:05 mins for the first lap, 20:41 for the second and 21:10 for the final lap to give me an overall time of 1:01:56. This was over 8 minutes faster than my Regents Park time last July and more than two minutes faster than the best time I achieved during 2011. In fact, it's not so very far off my personal best. I may be a year older, but, for the time being at least, I'm seem to be getting faster! How can I explain my apparent resurgence? I can think of four possible reasons:

1. A more structured and focused training plan - unlike last year when I entered so many different events, I'm mainly working towards two half marathons this year, one in June and another in October. As a result my training has been more consistent, with this particular 10K coming at the perfect stage in my preparation for my first 13 miler.

2. Lent - I've given up chocolate for the duration, and whilst I have still been enjoying the odd glass of wine, I am currently not weighing myself down with Cadbury's Whole Nut.

3. The 'Magic Pants' factor - last November my first pair of magic pants rescued me from injury and enabled me to put in a great performance at the Florence Marathon. Today I was wearing two pairs - over the original pair I wore some full length compression tights, alleged to work against muscle fatigue in the lower as well as upper legs. Well, it seems they did what it said on the tin!

4. The Olympic factor - I can categorically say that I felt athletically inspired by our visit to the Olympic Stadium on Saturday. A little of the magic of the Olympics definitely rubbed off on me.

So, weekend so fabulous that it's brought me out of blog retirement. I have no plans to make regular returns, but you can be sure of one thing - if I do ever achieve any more PBs I'll be back on here like a shot to tell you all about them.

Watch this space!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Project Five O-ver

"This was me aged two and a half in December 1963, 47 years ago. Cute, wasn't I?  OK, dodgy haircut I agree but cute in spite of it. It is now 1st January 2011, and I'm finding it hard to comprehend how quickly the intervening years have passed, but nevertheless here I am on the verge of a half century's occupancy of planet earth."

These were my opening words when I launched Project Five O just under a year ago. Well today is 28th December 2011 and 48 years have now passed since I waved coyly to the camera dressed dressed in my stripy pyjamas. I've actually made it to 50 (and slightly beyond), and the time has come for my final Project Five O post. It's a post I've approached with very mixed emotions. Writing this blog had been great fun, and has undoubtedly enabled me to feel much more positive about reaching 50 than I would have done without it. I am going to miss it tremendously, and in the month since my previous post following the Florence Marathon more than once I've toyed with the idea of keeping the blog going. But to do it well is time consuming, and my work year ahead is going to be even busier than the hectic lead up to Christmas I've just been through. Also Project Five O has had a definite focus, a central thread running through it, that 2012 won't have even though I fully intend to carry on running and taking part in events well into the future. Therefore, with a slightly heavy heart, I'm sticking to my original plan. This will be my final post, the natural end of Project Five O.

I'd like to think the blog has been a modest success, and if it has, it's because I've had such a great year in all respects. There's been plenty to write about. Running-wise, I haven't quite achieved my Project Five O targets. Apart from in the 5K, I haven't recorded new PBs, although the margin by which all of my 2011 times have been faster than those I achieved in 2010 has given me great pleasure and made me very proud of my efforts. On it's own, the ecstasy I felt at the end of the Florence Marathon has made it all worthwhile. I certainly trained hard during the year, and I'm delighted with my overall fitness. As I wrote back in July after the Regents Park 10K, I think the one area where I could have perhaps shown more dedication in is in my diet. Wine and chocolate have continued to prove too much of a temptation, in spite of the good intentions I articulated at that point. It's all about balance, though, isn't it? Lot's of exercise, and a reasonably healthy diet with the occasional naughty but nice element. Or in my case, substitute occasional with regular!

Just one more bit of running to report on. Florence wasn't quite the end of my running for the year. Two weeks later I took part in the Jingle Bell Jog, a 5K run through St Albans along with a few hundred others dressed in Santa costumes. The great thing about a 5K is that, being only a fraction over 3 miles, you can just go for it from the start, no need to worry too much about pacing yourself. For the purposes of authenticity in my role as Santa I downed a glass of red wine before the start, and sped off along St Peter Street as soon as Toyah Wilcox sounded the starting siren. Negotiating Christmas shoppers and having to wait to cross a number of busy roads makes this event very much a fun run rather than a serious race, but nevertheless I was very pleased to cross the line in just over 31 minutes, a full 4 minutes faster than last year although a couple of minutes slower than my Beat the Banana run back in May this year. Fantastic Fun! Sweaty too, thanks to the outfit!

The important requirement to take on fluid before the start
As well as the running, many other events have contributed to making 2011 such a wonderful year. Visits to four fascinating countries, a fantastic afternoon in the Sky Sports box at the Valley, busy times at home, interesting projects at work, I've loved it all. I've also enjoyed mining the photographic archives for the occasional nostalgia drenched trip down memory lane.

Thank you to everyone who has shared in these events with me, either by being there or by reading about them on my blog. I've greatly appreciated your kind feedback on my efforts. Thank you, it's lovely to know how much you have enjoyed reading about my adventures throughout the year. In particular, thank you to Juliet and Hannah, who have supported, encouraged and humoured me before, during and after my big Five O. It's alright being 50, it really is!

Best wishes to you all for a fabulous 2012.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Florence Marathon

Finding a burst of speed for the final bend
I knew it was going to be a special day as soon as I arrived at the start area of the Florence Marathon. The place was buzzing. Effusive Italians were everywhere, hugging and kissing each other. It was cold but the sun was shining; another glorious day in the making. The excitable announcer was building up the excitement and counting down to the start in a range of languages. I had decided to attach myself to the official 5 hour time pacers, three lovely Italian ladies whose guarantee to finish under their allotted time would provide me with a real chance of setting a new personal best for the marathon. To enable runners to keep track of them during the race, they each had four helium filled purple balloons attached to their back.

My excitement increased further when a group of lively mature Japanese ladies in fancy dress also congregated around the purple balloons. Regular readers of this blog will know how fond I have become recently of the Japanese. This was going to be fun. Unfortunately, though, after greatly enlivening the pre-race atmosphere, they quickly slipped off the five hour pace, never to be seen again. I hope they made it around OK and enjoyed the experience.

The Japanese contingent prepare for action
An overseas marathon is measured in kilometers, and whilst there are more (42k as opposed to 26 miles) there is less distance between them, which seems to help as they pass by at a faster rate. The route headed out of the city and meandered around the lush Parco delle Cascine before heading back towards the historic centre as the half way stage approached. Apart from a few gently sloping underpasses, the terrain was completely flat and for the first 15k I kept up fairly comfortably with the pace makers. They were great, offering plenty of encouragement and maintaining metronomic progress. I was on schedule for my PB and feeling strong, but slightly concerned that the pace being set was just a little faster than advertised. If maintained it would see me comfortably achieve my best time, but could I keep it up? It was faster for longer than I had run at any time this year.

After the 18k marker, very very gradually I found myself losing touch with the purple balloons. By the halfway mark, they were still just about in sight but very distant. Try as I might, I just could not close the gap. Nevertheless, I had reached the half marathon point in 2:25:17, two minutes faster than my fastest time of the year at Bath. I had only covered this distance faster three times before ever, and in theory I was still on track for a Marathon PB. However, I could feel my muscles beginning to tighten and, realising deep down that the second 21k would take longer than the first, I refocused and set myself a new aim of beating my second best ever time of 5:08, achieved in the 2006 London Marathon. Even allowing for a slower second half, this was still very much on.

For a long time I remained on schedule to beat 5:08, even after the pain arrived, in most of my left leg and groin (strangely not the right one that had caused me such trouble a few weeks ago). After a while it became clear that the agony was there to stay, but I somehow kept going purely by the dual power of positive thinking and my magic support pants, which somehow held my flailing parts together.

Each one only slightly slower than the last, the km markers continued to be left behind as did the refreshment stations every 5k. These welcome oases were remarkably well stocked with water, isotonic drinks, cups of sweet tea, bananas and other fruit, a variety of energy bars and, bizarrely at 30k, rock hard lattice style jam tarts, the strangest thing I've been offered on a run since the gherkins that I politely refused in the sweltering heat of the Stockholm marathon.

By 37k we were back in the city centre again, and the final 5k involved an amazing sightseeing tour around all of Florence's major sights. The Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, Piazza della Republica. You name it, we passed it, and all whilst running on cobblestones, which although quaint to look at, pull suffering muscles in every direction except the desired one. More pain, no gain.

Negotiating the cobble stones

Crossing the Ponte Vecchio, 2.5k from the finish

There were still decent crowds at this stage, cheering us runners on with generous Italian warmth and flamboyance. I felt I could barely stay upright and every stride brought new levels of pain, but I was somehow swept along by the magnificent surroundings and atmosphere.

Rounding the final bend into Piazza Santa Croce, the finishing line almost in sight
Crossing the finishing line

Eventually I rounded the final bend into to the Piazza Santa Croce passing in front of the magnificent Basilica. I picked out Juliet's face in  the crowd cheering me on and taking some action photographs. Magically the pain disappeared and I approached the finishing line feeling strong and lengthening my stride, but also struggling to see clearly as emotion overcame me and tears welled up in my eyes. 5:08 might have slipped away from me a little while back, but the Florence Marathon had nevertheless been the most exhilarating running experience of my life. A fantastic effort. Everything had come together. Running well, not so far off my best ever in fact, the magnificent surroundings, amazing atmosphere and just the great buzz that comes from being healthy and fit enough to complete a marathon at the age of 50. 

My finishing time was 5:13:32, my fastest for over 5 years. Sadly again not a PB, but I was still very very pleased with it. I had finished a long way from the back of the field. This was my seventh marathon; I've only ever run two faster. In order to achieve this I've trained hard, especially over the past two months; it's been gruelling at times and I'd kind of made a pact with myself that this would be my final marathon - that I'd stick shorter distances from now on. However, all of a sudden I wasn't so sure. I'd certainly wouldn't rule out having another go at this marathon. Never again had suddenly changed to never say never!

My exhilaration wasn't entirely down to the marathon, though. It had been a fantastic weekend in every respect, but now it was time to head for home. The hotel owners, Emanuel and Barbara, had kindly kept our room available to us until 3:00pm, even though there were new guests waiting to take our place. This allowed me to take a much needed shower and change into fresh clothes for the journey home. Because the city centre was still closed to traffic as the final runners finished and the tidying up operation got underway, I had to endure a slow and painful walk whilst dragging my suitcase over the cobbles to the edge of the city centre before we were able to hail a cab to the airport. At the time this was a real ordeal, but by keeping my muscles active it had the very positive effect of enabling me to move relatively freely the following day.

We were surprised to find ourselves sitting in the small business class section at the front of the aeroplane for our flight back to London City Airport, our every need attended to by a flight attendant who looked and moved like a young and slighter version of David Walliams. Being allocated these seats was purely down to good fortune; there were too many economy passengers for the available seats and we were the lucky ones to get an upgrade. The benefits of flying business class on a short haul flight don't really amount to much, although the extra leg room and unlimited supply of wine were especially welcome after the day's events. This small but unexpected bonus right at the end just added the final bit of lustre to what had been an amazing weekend.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Room with a View

View along the Arno from Piazzale Michelangelo

E.M. Forster's novel, "A Room with a View" begins with young Lucy Honeychurch and her overbearing chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, complaining that instead of the rooms with a view of the river Arno they had been promised, their rooms instead looked over a courtyard. Ummm, it's probably a good job they didn't have the view of the quiet, but extremely scruffy, backstreet visible behind the net curtains in our Florence hotel room. Can you imagine what Charlotte, played by Maggie Smith in the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation, would have had to say about that? Unlike Lucy and Charlotte, though, we weren't on a promise of any kind, and in fact we are very pleased with the reasonably priced and comfortable Hotel Privelege. It's right next to the river, no more than a 15 minutes walk from any of the main sights and, very helpfully, only a few hundred metres away from the start line of Sunday's Marathon.

A room with a view? Well, sort of!
It's Saturday evening and it's been an absolutely fantastic visit to Florence so far. Even the journey here was enjoyable. My first experience of the slick operation at London City was followed by a fleeting aerial glimpse of the Valley from my seat with a view, and a mere two and a half hours later we were being whisked by taxi across the four and a half kilometers that separate Florence city centre from its airport.

Charlton Athletic's Valley from the air.
Before starting to take in the sights, there was business to attend to, namely collection of my race number and timing chip from the Luigi Rudolfi Athletics Stadium, about a twenty minute walk from our hotel. After all the drama earlier in the week getting a doctor to sign the medical form, I'm not sure whether it was amusing or galling that the result of all my anguish and careering about merited barely a cursory glance. Nevertheless, it was exciting to see my name appear on the screen as I walked past clasping my hard earned requisites for entry.

I'm in - it's official!

There is so much to see and do in Florence, that even a week would be woefully too short to take it all in. In just over 24 hours so far, though, we don't think we've done too badly. We've certainly put ourselves about! The weather has been amazing. With not a single cloud in the sky, the City's treasures have been bathed in a startlingly clear light.

Our first adventure was to climb the 414 twisty turny stone steps to the top of the Campanile, Florence's 14th century bell tower. With 26 miles to run less than two days later, this was probably not the wisest of excursions. However, the view from the top was wonderful compensation - the adjacent Duomo, the world's fourth largest cathedral completed midway through the fifteenth century, all of central Florence and the autumnal shades of the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Breathtaking, in more ways than one!

The Duomo and adjacent Campanile
The colourful neo-gothic (so I'm told)  facade of the Basilica di Santa Croce looked particularly striking in the glorious late afternoon sunshine. We haven't found time to look inside yet, it houses the tomb of Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei, but hopefully I will be taking a much closer look at it's exterior mid-afternoon tomorrow, as the finishing line for the Marathon is immediately in front of it. 

The neo-gothic facade of the Basilica di Sante Croce
As the daylight began to fade we made our way towards the famous Ponte Vecchio with its multi-storied shops. Until the late sixteenth century the shops were primarily butchers, but since a Medici edict in 1593 the only goods on offer have been gold and jewellery.

Ponte Vecchio
Prettily lit up, the bridge was crammed with sightseers like ourselves but retained an enchanting atmosphere. As dusk fell, the sunset along the Arno to the west was magnificent.

Sunset along the river Arno
An early start this morning enabled us to beat the crowds to the Galleria Dell' Accademia and enjoy a long and tranquil look at Michelangelo's astounding David. Seeing famous works of art close up and for real can sometimes disappoint. I was distinctly underwhelmed as I jostled to get a good look at the surprisingly small Mona Lisa in the Louvre a few years back, for example. My reaction to Michelangelo's masterpiece, however, could not have been more different. It is without doubt the most beautiful work of art I have ever seen. It's sheer size (516cm high) is striking, but the attention to detail carved out of hard marble is amazing. Not only is the beauty of the body awesome, but so too is the sense conveyed of David's quiet strength and serenity as he prepares to slay Goliath with one throw of his sling. The Galleria Dell' Accademia was built specifically to house this statue and its placement in an airy high domed space adds greatly to its impact. Photography is rightly forbidden, although an excellent replica erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio provides a compensatory photo opportunity.

Not quite the real thing.

As the day has proceeded we have taken in many more of Florence's famous sights and ventured into the stunning interiors of some of its enormous churches. The vast light-filled space and coloured marble inside the Basilica di san Lorenzo and and the amazing frescos on the ceiling of the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine in particular stood out. We stopped for a coffee (for Juliet; I had tea) and a delicious cake at the ornately decorated Gilli. As is the Florentine way, we consumed this standing up at the bar. Next to us two smart young Italians each ordered an espresso, which they downed in one and then they were off. They were alongside us for no more than a couple of minutes.

As lunch time approached we took a taxi across the river and up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo. In normal circumstances we would have walked but by now I was starting to develop a mild sense of panic about the effect all of the walking we were doing might have on my legs tomorrow. In the Piazzale stands another copy of David, this one cast in bronze, overlooking panoramic views of the city and along the Arno. The whole area and the stunning cityscape reminded me very much of Montjuic in Barcelona. Previous Florence marathons have started up here, with the first couple of miles downhill, but this was adversely affecting the status of the race as the altitude gap between start and finish did not comply with international standards. Therefore the start this year has been moved to a less lofty location beside the river.

The Duomo and Campanile viewed from Piazzale Michelangelo

We meandered down from the bronze David and had a late lunch in a fantastic restaurant in the Oltrarno area. All of our meals since arriving in Florence have been great, but the fare in this cosy rustic osteria was the best of the lot. For just 10 Euros I enjoyed an absolutely delicious pesto lasagne followed by a traditional Tuscan dish of roast pork and potatoes. Accompanied by a smooth Chianti at a perfect temperature, it really was a superb dining experience at a very reasonable price.

We explored this side of the river for another hour or so before calling it a day and getting a taxi back to our hotel at around 4:00 pm. I could have quite happily continued for longer, but it was time to put my legs up and save them for the morning. It's been a fantastic couple of days. Hopefully I will be equally as glowing in my praise of Florence after pounding its streets for 26 miles tomorrow! Expect an update probably around Tuesday.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Medical Drama

I've taken part in three marathons and two half marathons overseas in the last few years, and the procedure has always been the same. You register online and pay the entry fee well in advance to secure a place and then set about making the necessary travel and accommodation arrangements. Later, a couple of weeks before the event, an email arrives with full instructions for the race and an official looking attachment which you present at the race headquarters a day or two before the race to collect your race number and timing chip.

Having followed the first part of this procedure for this Sunday's Florence Marathon, I grew increasingly anxious as last week wore on and I had still not received anything at all from the organisers. On Wednesday I sent an email, but by Friday evening it remained unanswered. I decided to search through the event website for any information about the whereabouts and timing of any joining instructions. What I discovered did not make good reading!

Tucked away, a little obscurely I felt, was a statement to the effect that confirmation letters, necessary for collection of race numbers and entry to the start line, would only be issued upon receipt of a completed medical certificate. Oh no, I thought, there's not much time left to get that sorted. But the situation quickly got a lot worse. Scanning anxiously down the page, my eyes alighted on the deadline date for submission of the certificate, Wednesday 15th November. I glanced quickly at my watch to confirm the date, it was Friday18th. I was already too late.

What to do? First step, beg for clemency. I immediately fired off another email apologising for having only just realised that a medical certificate was necessary and stating confidently that would have one by the middle of the week. Having invested a lot of money in arranging my trip to Italy and many months of hard training, I continued, would they please, please, please forgive me for being a few days late and let me fax a copy of the certificate next week and bring the original with me.

It was at this point, however, that I printed off the medical form from the website and discovered that obtaining medical clearance was going to be far from easy. The wording on the form was Draconian. I was going to have to persuade a Doctor to declare him or herself "fully responsible and accept the consequences for falsely declaring" that I am "in good health and fit to compete in a 42,195 metre marathon according to current laws" based on a "sport physical exam" carried out by the Doctor. Eek, if I was a doctor I'm not sure I'd be prepared to put my name to that based on a five minute consultation with a patient, even if I did have access to their relatively robust looking health records. What if they keeled over on the finishing straight, I'd be thinking? What do they mean by consequences? I've seen those Godfather films. Would I be in danger of waking up one morning with a blood-stained horse's head on my pillow?

Still, I had to give it a try, and even though there was a 10 day wait for the next available appointment at my local surgery, the very nice receptionist managed to squeeze me into a recently cancelled appointment for Wednesday at the practice's sister surgery on the other side of town. A few hours later I received further good news - an email from the race organisers containing my entry confirmation, conditional on presentation of the medical certificate on my arrival in Florence. Things were looking up, but that wasn't the end of the drama. Oh no!

Earlier today I arrived at the surgery across town in good time. Sitting in the waiting room five minutes before my appointment was due, I casually pulled the form out of my pocket to have it ready to hand over to the Doctor. Except it wasn't the medical form! I had picked up the race entry confirmation letter by mistake. The medical form was still on my desk on the other side of St Albans, at least 10 minutes drive away even in the unlikely event of no traffic hold ups. I hurriedly explained what had happened to the Receptionist, and asked whether she could possibly jiggle the appointments around and let the next few people in early while I rushed home to get the right form.

"I can't guarantee anything, but as long as you're no more than 15 minutes, it might still be possible for the Doctor to see you", she remarked rather sternly.

15 minutes! I'll be lucky to get home in that time, let alone back here again I thought, but kept to myself.

"OK, I'll be quick. See you in 15 minutes." I replied over my shoulder as I ran to the car.

Twenty three minutes later, I was back facing the Receptionist.

"How can I help you?", she asked.

"It's me, Martin Crisp!" I gasped having covered the distance from my car to the surgery even faster than Usain Bolt would have managed. "Am I back in time to see the Doctor?"

"Ah yes, Mr Crisp, take a seat. The Doctor will see you next."


The Doctor was young, female, gorgeous and sympathetic to my situation. Unfortunately, though, she was a locum, and said she would have to check with one of the permanent doctors whether it would be OK to sign the Italian form or issue something a little more general saying that I am generally in good health and that there seem to be no obvious medical reasons why I should not attempt to run a marathon. But first, I needed to undergo a couple of basic checks, pulse, chest and blood pressure. And yep, you've guessed it, as a result of my frantic certificate-chasing dash across town, my blood pressure came out a little on the high side.

"Just relax, take a few really deep breaths", reassured the Doctor, "you're bound to be a bit uptight after all that stress and rushing around."

So, after a short break she measured my blood pressure a second time. And guess what? It had gone up even more, and I was in danger of trying to chill out so hard that I was achieving exactly the opposite effect. It was third time lucky, though, as I finally relaxed sufficiently to produce an acceptable reading, and I was pronounced to be in good general health.

I left the form with the doctor; the surgery would call me when there was something ready to collect. I hoped it would be the official Italian form, but realistically a watered down declaration seemed more likely, meaning that uncertainty would remain until my arrival in Florence. So when I returned to the surgery later in the afternoon, I was delighted to discover that, undeterred by the possibility of waking up next to a horse's head, the lovely doctor had gone ahead and signed the official form. I would be making it to the start line on Sunday after all. Mind you, I had to pay £25 for the certificate, but after such a big pallaver to secure my entry, right now I consider it money well spent.