Flaming June

Since we’re in the middle of a heatwave I thought “Flaming June” would be a good title. I only just discovered, however, that it’s not as I thought some sort of folk expression or quotation from a poem, but the title of this Pre-Raphaelite painting by Frederic Leighton of a lady wearing what looks like a dress made out of old curtains. Apparently the oleander branch seen in the upper right symbolizes the fragile link between sleep and death. Or, in this weather, the fragile link between sleep and sunstroke.

Anyway, the year rolls on. The examination period is almost over, marking season is upon us and it will soon be time for  examiners’ meetings, class lists and all the arcane business of academic life.

Yesterday I sat in the garden marking a third-year paper or, actually, only half a paper as I give the course jointly with another member of staff. After I’d finished I decided to go for a ride on my bicycle up the Taff Trail and around Bute Park. It was nice, but should have been nicer. Unfortunately, Cardiff City Council’s insane policy of organizing “events” all over the park, involving heavy vehicle movements and temporary buildings, has led to the wholesale destruction of the grass in many places. If the hot summer continues then this will get worse. The site of last year’s National Eisteddfod on Pontcanna Fields still hasn’t recovered; fifteen local sports fields have been completely ruined as you can see from this little video taken a couple of months ago.

Despite ongoing protests, the Council seems determined to press ahead with its plans to make Bute Park unfit as a place of quiet recreation by building a road so that more lorries can enter it.

Anyway, hordes of people were still about in the park yesterday, sunbathing, playing cricket, having barbecues, swimming in the Taff (illegally) and a few brave souls were jogging  around, leaving trails of sweat on the footpaths.

This took me back to the occasion – the best part of twenty years ago – when I entered the Great North Run for the first time. Nowadays this race – the biggest mass participation half-marathon race in the world, with 50,000 competitors – is run in September, but in those days it was held in June. As it happened, there was also a heatwave the first time I did it. I remember lining up at 9.30 on a Sunday morning on the start grid (I was number eleven thousand and something) while the stewards went round pleading with all the participants to take plenty of water as they went around as it was going to be very hot indeed and they didn’t want people suffering from dehydration.

In those days I was quite a keen long-distance runner and was fairly fit. I wasn’t that concerned about the heat but took the advice to heart and determined to stop at all the water stations on the way from Newcastle to South Shields. When we started I also took care not to go off too fast over the first mile or so, which is basically all downhill from the Town Moor to the Tyne Bridge. Not that you could go fast anyway, as the track was so crowded with runners.

I remember the wonderful feeling as we emerged onto the Tyne Bridge and took in the splendid view of the bridges along the river. When we got to Gateshead the crowds were out in large numbers cheering everyone on and I felt completely elated. The first water station was near Gateshead athletics stadium, and I took a drink there as I did at the next, and the next. After Gateshead the route heads towards the Felling bypass at about 4-5 miles and then the runners can see a long climb in front of them. A large thermometer showed the temperature on the road to be about 45 Celsius. Fortunately the people living in houses either side of the road were out in their front gardens offering encouragement and sometimes had their hoses out to shower people as they went past. At one point there was a fire engine that had made an impromptu fountain by the side of the road too.

Unfortunately, as I near the ten mile mark I started to feel a bit strange. I had never actually taken on water while I was running before this race; I never felt the need for it when on training runs. My stomach wasn’t used to the water sloshing around while I was running. I felt quite sick by the time we got to the top of the climb but when I saw the sea and felt its breath on my face I cheered up and descended the steep downward slope towards the seafront near Marsden Rock.

There’s a good mile and a half along the seafront to the finish, however, and I was definitely struggling really badly by then. I could see the finish line but it felt like it wasn’t getting any closer. I slowed to a crawl but kept going, finally reaching the grandstand where a large crowd shouted encouragement. I must have looked dreadful because I heard several people shouting out my number along with “keep going, son”  and “you’re nearly there”.

Eventually I got to the finish line but the feeder lanes were quite busy then – I was finishing at about the peak  time of about 1hr 50 – so I was forced to slow right down because of the people in front of me.

As I crossed the line, I stopped running and was immediately overcome with nausea. I bent over, hands on my knees and emptied the contents of my stomach – mainly water – all over the grass. I felt absolutely dreadful but, after a quick check from the St John Ambulance crew who were on hand, I recovered and found my folks who were nearby. After we got home and I had a shower I felt fine.

About a week later, when I had returned to my flat in London a letter arrived for me. I opened it up and found a small passport-sized photograph, with the caption “YOUR MOMENT OF TRIUMPH”. It turns out there was an automatic camera near the finishing line that snapped everyone crossing it along with a shot of the digital clock showing their finishing time. The idea is that you could order a blow-up of the picture for £25 to put on your wall.

In my case, though, the picture showed not a moment of splendid athletic achievement, but a bedraggled creature puking uncontrollably while those around him looked on in disgust. I didn’t order the blow-up of my throw-up.

Over the years I did the Great North Run a number of times – six or seven, I don’t remember exactly – and a few marathons too, but the strain of running on the roads around London gradually told on my knees and I had to stop because of recurrent pain and swelling. Eventually, a few years ago I surrendered to the inevitable and had arthroscopic surgery to sort out the damage to my knee joints. That seems to have fixed the problem, but my running days are over.

14 Responses to “Flaming June”

  1. There seems to be some conspiracy regarding the Pontcanna fields. Many people see Welsh as a dead language and have some fierce hatred towards anything in Welsh with the same old drivel, wasting our taxes, nobody speaks it anymore, used to alienate English speakers. The conspiracy seems to be regarding the council dragging their heels with the restoration of Pontcanna fields.

    It seems odd at how quickly the grass in front of City Hall has recovered whilst Pontcanna still remains a wasteland.

  2. telescoper Says:


    After the destruction caused by “Winter Wonderland” the grass in front of City Hall was basically replaced with turf brought in from elsewhere. It now looks OK but it’s a funny way of caring for lawns: destroying them and then replacing them after few months. I wonder what the cost is, for one thing.

    Other activities on Coopers’ fields (such as the RHS flower show in April) have destroyed large chunks of grass there but there’s no sign of any attempt to repair them.

    I have nothing against the Eisteddfod but the decision to place it on low-lying ground next to the river was asking for trouble. The whole area has been devastated and, despite promising to get the sports fields back into action months ago, it’s still a wasteland. I’m sure this is all costing local residents much more than the Council have let on too.

    In any case the Council’s attitude to the Park is beyond my comprehension. The plan seems to be to exploit it for commercial gain until it’s completely unusable as a Park. It’s on the way to that state already, even before the wretched lorry road is built.


  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I was astonished to see the pictures of Pontcanna fields. The park looks like a ploughed field, rather than the green lawns that it used to be.

    Of course, the Eisteddfod left the park in a mess: the National Eisteddfod is such a popular festival that a hundred thousand pairs of feet always leave a mess: I have pictures of deep Eisteddfod mud from previous years, though almost always it is in fields rented from farms. Cardiff City Council should have planned for this and repaired the mess last autumn.

    And I haven’t said anything about Cardiff Council’s sale of its historic books collection.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Heaving in front of a stills camera is nothing to what Paula Ratcliffe had to do to finish a marathon. So how *do* the top runners stay hydrated? Perhaps isotonic brew is more readily absorbed than pure water?

    • telescoper Says:

      I did take on liquids at the London marathon, but my first attempt to do so nearly ended in disaster. The year I ran it was sponsored by Nutrasweet so they supplied their sports drink free of charge for the runners, but it is flavoured with an artificial thing that makes me retch (as it does for a small but significant fraction of the population that doesn’t taste it as sweet). I spat out the vile junk and ran on to the next station where I had water instead.

      I felt very sorry for Paula Ratcliffe but, well, better out than in.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Indeed! But that’s not quite the answer to a genuine question. Did you take on too much fluid that time; or is decent isotonic stuff more readily absorbed than pure water; or have top runners trained their bodies to absorb fluid faster than usual?

  6. telescoper Says:

    I think my problem was simply that I drank too much and wasn’t used to running with a lot of water in my stomach. If you watch top runners taking on fluids they generally seem to drink only a little which suggests to me that their bodies are better tuned to cope with the loss of water than ordinary mortals. Drinking too much water can actually be dangerous, leading to kidney problems and other problems too especially if your metabolism is working at full kilter such as during strenuous exercise. People using drugs often have this problem too, and many of the deaths caused by Ecstacy for example have actually been due to drinking too much water.

    I’m not sure how long it takes for water to get absorbed versus isotonic drinks, but I think drinks like lucozade do boost your blood sugar level quite quickly, which helps you cope a bit better when you start to hit the wall.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    I guess lilttle and often is the way to keep hydrated, although running presents unique difficulties because the stomach is being jarred unlike in cycling. I have always regarded the wall as your body telling you to stop, which surely any sane person would heed unless you had a motive like Phaedippides. 10 miles was as far as I got for fun, at age 37.

    • telescoper Says:

      “The Wall” is quite an interesting thing. Your body is clearly telling you to stop and it’s a tremendous psychological effort to keep going. However, once you go through it you experience a strange euphoria. Apparently having realised that you’re not going to be sensible and stop, your system starts to release endorphins to block the pain and allow you to squeeze a bit more out of yourself. As far as I understand it, what happens is that your available glucose has basically gone at that point and you start frantically trying to access stored glycogen to release more. This is quite a painful process, which is why the natural painkillers come out. People get hooked on them like junkies.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Beyond the wall you are clearly in the zone at which your body regards you as in deadly danger and does anything it can to keep you going. It’s interesting that we have these mechanisms within us. Personally I’d pack it in unless I genuinely was in deadly danger.

  9. telescoper Says:

    That’s clearly the evolutionary origin of the mechanism. I’ve often wondered if a similar thing happens to troops in combat and if the inability for some of them to readjust to civilian life is a consequence of the same kind of addiction as runners get.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Would you like to expand on that ‘clearly’? I can see the logic but, without doubting natural selection or the genetic basis of heritance, there are an awful lot of missing connections in the argument.

    There is a fascinating book by Geoff Thompson about fear. He and his business partner Peter Consterdine are both very highly trained martial arts people who realised that their expertise was little use in working nightclub doors or bodyguarding VIPs, and they got into what is now called ‘streetcraft’. Most of it is about awareness and avoidance, but there are parts about not confusing genuine fear and adrenaline rush, because if you are not experienced then you can easily confuse the two. Soldiers need to be told this.


  11. telescoper Says:


    You’re right that it’s not a watertight argument, but I imagine that our ancestors probably had to undertake strenuous exercise more often than we do and that those that developed such an emergency override probably had an edge that led to the relevant gene combinations being preferentially selected: they may have been more successful hunters, have been better able to provide for their young, etc.

    I have no idea how specific this is to humans, though.


  12. […] Flaming June June 200913 comments 3 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: