Don't Stop Me Now
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Summary

This is a celebration of running - and what lots of us think about when we run. Part escape, part self-discovery, part therapy, part fitness. Part simple childlike joy of running when you could be walking.
Vassos Alexander shares the highs and lows of falling in love with running, from his first paltry efforts to reach the end of his street to completing ultra marathons and triathlons in the same weekend.
Each of the 26.2 chapters also features a fascinating insight into how others first started – from Paula Radcliffe to Steve Cram, the Brownlees to Jenson Button, Nicky Campbell to Nell McAndrew.
Also includes a foreword by Chris Evans.
Funny, inspiring, honest - the perfect read for anyone with well-worn trainers by the door (or thinking of buying a pair...)
Published: Bloomsbury Publishing an imprint of Bloomsbury on
ISBN: 9781472921550
List price: $9.99
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Don't Stop Me Now - Vassos Alexander

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Page 1 of 1

This is for Caroline, Emily, Matthew and Mary. Who are everything.

Contents

Foreword

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 26.2

Acknowledgements

Foreword

Chris Evans

Vassos Alexander is an extraordinary human being. His Dad also has the finest, firmest, happiest and most committed handshake I have ever had the pleasure of being on the other end of. Energy and what to do with it are obviously deeply rooted in the Alexander gene pool. As a result of which Vassos simply has to exercise for a huge amount of his waking hours otherwise he might explode all over his beautiful wife Caroline and gorgeous and exemplarily well-behaved offspring Matthew, Emily and little Mary (who by the way could all run before they could walk and are already smashing their own PBs at weekly parkruns).

The result of this is our man Vass often turning up to work with a sweaty top lip at Radio 2 where he presents the sport on my Breakfast Show. The few droplets of glistening perspiration however, are the only real evidence of any extreme physical exertion. Bear in mind his commute often involves needlessly extended runs and cycles in various attempts to break his own personal bests between Barnes and New Broadcasting House.

But of course this is not Vassos actually exercising. That comes later in the day, via a 10-, 20- or 30-mile run depending on how he’s feeling, how much time he has spare or what he might be training for at the time. The man is a phenomenon of calorie burning. Recently, during a ‘thank you to my amazing team for putting up with me’ trip to France, he’d run 50k before I’d even arrived from the airport, which he then followed with a one-mile pre-lunch swim and a display of truly fearless diving off the 10-metre-high sky deck of Eddie Jordan’s old motor yacht The Snapper.

And so here he is now encroaching on my territory, having written a book about putting one foot in front of the other at various speeds and seeing where that can get a person and how it can make us feel. Encroachment eventually turned out to be mutual, as half way through his endeavour to get his running thoughts, experiences and encounters down on paper, I secretly took it upon myself to run the London Marathon.

I had become the first recorded human case of being infected by fitness from another person. Just being in the same studio for three hours a day, five days a week, forty weeks a year had been enough for him to infect me with energy, purpose and a goal that would change my life more profoundly and positively than anything I have ever done before.

He knows his stuff when it comes to running. His is the most authentic messenger of the art of running you could ever read. There are some amazing books, and I think I may now have read all of them, already written about what I do a bit and he does a lot. I am certain this tome is about to join the very best of them.

He’s also a thoroughly good human being. But then I’ve never met a runner who isn’t. It goes with the miles.

1

 Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

‘Outlaw’ Ironman Triathlon, Mile 1

My body is at war with itself.

Every step is surprisingly excruciating. Of course having just swum 2½ miles and cycled 112, you wouldn’t expect running to be easy. But I’ve trained hard for this. Almost every day for four months, I’ve forced myself to go for a run straight after a long bike ride – and nothing has prepared me for feeling as desperate as this.

My legs are like lead. It’s not just a struggle to put one foot in front of the other; it genuinely takes every ounce of effort just to stay standing up. My right calf is screaming at me to stop. It began hurting early this morning, just after I started on the bike, and it’s been getting steadily worse for five hours. I’m almost certainly doing myself some proper damage. Meanwhile my hip flexors have simply given up. They’re not working at all, and seem to have downed tools and gone on strike in protest. I can’t believe their timing; I’ve never needed them more. The only way to keep going without them is to twist left and right with every step – and that’s starting to have a negative effect on my already-sore lower back. In fact, the hours in the saddle have seized up the muscles around my middle and forced me into a strange forwards-lean from the waist. I must look decrepit. I certainly feel it. My feet hurt, my neck and shoulders ache, my head is pounding, even my wrists are painful.

Yet all these issues pale into insignificance compared to whatever the hell is happening inside my gut. It’s burning in there like I’ve swallowed a bottle of neat bleach. And the way it’s throbbing must be how the Mexican boxer José Luis Castillo felt when Ricky Hatton knocked him out with that legendary body shot. It’s also a constant, desperate struggle not to throw up. Every ten or fifteen seconds a tiny torpedo of bile shoots into my mouth, so every ten or fifteen seconds I somehow have to force it back down. But occasionally I fail, and some foul-smelling liquid dribbles down my chin and onto my running shirt.

I’ve run dozens of marathons before today, and never felt remotely as bad as I do now. Surely the only sensible thing to do is to stop running immediately, and find the nearest doctor.

And this is mile one. Compared to how I’ll feel in an hour, this is a holiday.

You wouldn’t describe me as an exceptional runner in any sense. I’m neither especially quick nor particularly graceful, although I suppose I can run a long way. And I try not to take myself too seriously when I run. So what follows is definitely not a celebration of my running ability – or inability – so much as a celebration of running itself. It’s taken me on quite a journey, from my first pathetic efforts to make it to the end of my street to completing ultra-marathons and triathlons in the same weekend. And all I did was simply stick with it. Amazing really what a difference running, just plain old running, can make. Life-changing and life-affirming. A happy emoji.

I didn’t start running because I gave up smoking, and I didn’t stop smoking because I started running. The two just seemed to happen at about the same time, and each probably fuelled the other. That, and the fact I was starting to get a bit fat.

It began on my way to work after an early round of golf. I was looking forward to an afternoon reading the sports bulletins on Radio 5 live, happened to glance down and noticed what can only be described as a spare tyre, an alarming tube of fat about an inch wide, wrapped in a yellow golf shirt and flopping over my belt. I’d never considered myself to be anything other than slim before now, but suddenly realised I might need to re-evaluate. Because there it was, unmistakably. Fat.

I called my wife.

‘Caroline, am I getting fat?’ Caroline and I have been together since we were teenagers and she’s usually really nice about this sort of thing. Wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings. Wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings come to that. She’s the sort of person who only sees the good stuff. So her answer came as something of a small electric shock.

‘Well... (awkward pause)... I still think you’re great... and it’s completely normal to add a bit of ballast.’

It was true then. I was genuinely getting fat. It was bound to happen I guess. When you hit your mid-thirties, either you eat less, exercise more – or expand outwards.

Admittedly that last option was quite tempting. I remembered a conversation I had with the veteran sports journalist Steve Bunce during a late-night drive from Oxford to London. ‘Let me tell you something Vass,’ he intoned in his inimitable North London bark, ‘I’m getting older, I’m getting wiser, I’m getting fatter... and I’m getting happier.’ Well who doesn’t want to ‘get happier’, even if it does mean buying some new, elasticated trousers? So yes, going the fat/happy route was kind of tempting. I could simply forget about that unseemly bit of flab hanging over my trousers, perhaps stop to buy a chocolate bar and a packet of crisps, and continue on my merry way to Television Centre safe in the knowledge I was merely relaxing into an older, wiser, happier middle age. And it would have involved a good deal less sweat than the route I chose.

I arrived at work on that inconspicuous Tuesday in October, and midway through an afternoon looking ahead to England’s Euro 2008 qualifier against Estonia, snuck outside for a cigarette and a chat with my producer friend Jim. As always, I was armed with a frothy coffee and the obligatory packet of Frazzles.

Jim didn’t actually smoke, and neither was he particularly overweight, but you could scarcely have described him as someone at the peak of physical fitness. Most weeks, after finishing our shift at half past six, he and I would head for a bit of a session in the on-site BBC bar. We could comfortably get through five pints and as many packets of crisps before calling it a night. Neither of us did any exercise (if you don’t count golf – and frankly, with the best will in the world, you can’t), we both ate badly, drank too much and we’d both left our twenties far behind us.

So on that autumn afternoon, during a break between bulletins, we decided something had to be done. We goaded each other, set our sights ridiculously, unrealistically high. One day, we vowed, we’d run a marathon. It seemed completely ludicrous – and it was exactly the sort of ambition I’d usually aspire to one day, and cheerfully forget about the next. But something about this stuck. I popped my head into the TV Centre gym on the way to the bar that night. The two were literally seconds away from each other – in fact you had to walk past the gym to get to the bar – and a good thing too, as I don’t think I’d have bothered if it weren’t so convenient. But I did go in, albeit a little apprehensively, and found myself booking an appointment for the following morning with an amiable physical trainer called Andrew. He’s almost as wide as he is tall, Andrew, but it’s all muscle. I awoke the next day to a slight hangover, and was tempted to call and cancel. But that would have meant sneaking past the gym like a naughty schoolboy every time I wanted a pint. Plus, Andrew’s arms were wider than my legs.

On my way to that first session, I drank a can of Red Bull believing the various stimulants might help ease the pain. Andrew took my pulse and almost called a halt there and then; my heart rate was through the roof. But I persuaded him it must be the caffeine, and the torture began. First up, 20 minutes on the treadmill.

Paula Radcliffe MBE

Marathon World Champion and women’s world record holder. Her time of 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds is widely considered to be the greatest distance run by anyone, ever.

I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t running, so I don’t really remember my first actual run. But I was always joining in. My dad was running marathons for fun. I guess he ran at school, gave up, smoked at university, gave up smoking, put on a lot of weight, and took up running again to lose the weight around the time I was born. So I remember him always getting ready for London marathons, Mersey marathons and other races.

And when he was training we used to go to the forest. We lived near Delamere Forest in Cheshire and we used to go along, basically to give him a drink on his long runs. I also used to join in with him for small sections of his runs. They always seemed like a long way at the time, though it was probably only about half a mile.

Then I had a friend at school who was in the local athletics club and I knew you had to be nine to join that. So as soon as I was nine, I remember my dad took me down there and I joined Frodsham Harriers. I instantly knew I loved it, I instantly knew this was something I enjoyed, but I wasn’t instantly much good! I wasn’t bad, but I guess when I started I was just average.

In fact, in the early stages I tried everything: high jump, long jump, sprinting... But I knew that the longer stuff – the 800m and cross country – was what I enjoyed the most.

When I was 11 we moved to Bedford, and my dad did some research into the local clubs. He decided Bedford and County was the best option so he took me down there, and that’s when I met Alex and Rosemary Stanton who became my coaches.

I used to do judo as well as athletics before we moved. But in Bedford I decided I much preferred the running, so I asked my mum if I could drop the once-a-week judo sessions and go twice a week to the track. She agreed, and it all built up from there. I was very fortunate that it was a good group and they were great coaches – under Alex and Rosemary I really started to just move through.

But at that stage I think it was as much the social side of it as the running that kept me interested, kept me keen. That, and the fact that the team was doing so well at the time. The women’s and girls’ sections of Bedford and County became amongst the strongest in the country, in spite of the club’s relatively small size.

Initially though, our success was nothing to do with me. When I first started, I went to the national cross country and I came 299th. That was in the under-13 girls, and I was admittedly one year younger so I would have been 11 or just turned 12. After that Alex decided he was going to try to get the team to win the nationals the following year, so he went to talk to my mum. He said to her, ‘I’m trying to get a group of six girls together to win the nationals next year, and Paula is one of them. Please can she come training an extra day a week, including one day at the weekend – so we can train to try to do this?’

And mum was great. She just said, ‘Why are you asking me? It’s Paula’s decision; it’s her you need to ask.’

And of course I did want to go more frequently, and in the same race the next year I was the second scorer in, and finished fourth. And we did win the team. After that we were always in the top three and I was always there or thereabouts. But in fact I didn’t actually win the national cross country until I was 17.

These days I have moments when I simply love running, when I’m out on a run and realise there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. But there are also days when simply getting one foot in front of the other is an issue. When you train hard there are always going to be tough times when you almost need to just switch off, or literally just focus on one foot in front of the other to keep going.

But then there are days when time passes really quickly, and it’s my time to think and get my head in order. Sometimes when I run, that’s when I think things through, and sort things out in my mind. But sometimes I’m running and thinking about nothing at all and I’m just in the moment, enjoying the experience.

Certainly after my foot injury, ahead of my farewell marathon in London in 2015, there have been lots of days when it’s just one foot in front of the other just to make sure I’m running correctly. But then suddenly things will just click and it’ll feel like it used to and I’ll be running along simply enjoying the run.

I don’t remember the first time I was ever on a run and suddenly thought, ‘I’m really loving this’ – but what I loved from the very beginning was that sensation of feeling alive and being in tune with everything.

And if I look at my kids now I can already see it in Raphael, who’s five. Obviously he’s not training or anything, but when he’s running around, just the way he runs, I can see in his eyes that he’s getting the same buzz from it. Isla is three years older, and by contrast she just runs because she’s competitive, not because she loves the feeling.

Whether they want to follow in our footsteps or not (my husband Gary is a former Northern Ireland 1500m runner) I’ll leave up to them. But I think being involved in sport is really important. From all the work I’ve done with kids and also from my own experience, you’re more self-confident and you do better at school, you feel better about yourself, you’re more in tune with yourself, you’re generally a better person and a healthier person if you’re involved in sport.

So will I encourage my kids to become involved in sport? Yes I will, but which one they choose is completely up to them. Because it has to be the one that lights up the passion inside them, and gives them the same enjoyment that running did for me.

And obviously, if they do choose running, I’ll love it!

2

 One Direction, Ready to Run

‘Outlaw’ Ironman Triathlon, Mile 2

I’m generally quite easy-going and not much fazes me. Sometimes I can even be a bit steely. I once flung myself behind a horse which was about to kick my elder daughter, took the full force in my shin – and pretended it was all a big, funny joke so that a four-year-old girl wouldn’t develop a phobia of horses. Every morning I broadcast to 10 million people without missing a heartbeat. I’ve swum in the North Sea without a wetsuit in winter. Out of choice. I’ve been mugged at gunpoint in Johannesburg and was fine to continue broadcasting within minutes. But right now, on a sunny summer Sunday by a lake in Nottingham, surrounded by family, friends and well-wishers, I just want to curl up and cry.

This is mile 2. And I’ve just realised it’s only going to get worse.

Every year a few hundred lunatics embark on a week-long race across the sand dunes of the Sahara desert. They carry all their own equipment, they tend to their own injuries (you should see the state of their feet), and in 50-degree heat they cover approximately the distance of a marathon every day for six consecutive days. Ask anybody who’s run a marathon how their legs feel the following morning. It’s nigh-on impossible to walk downstairs without wincing, most attempt to do it backwards. Now imagine how much worse your legs would feel after running 26 miles in the desert.

It’s not just the heat that saps your energy: it’s landing on loose sand, making you work hard for every single footstep. You’d wake up after that and have trouble simply standing up. So what would your legs be like if, somehow, you managed to persuade them to go through the same again, to run another 20-odd miles over the Sahara, 24 hours after doing it for the first time? Then imagine doing it for a third straight day, in the heat and the sand. And then on the fourth day casually double the distance, an ultra-marathon, still carrying all your own food and equipment. What state would your legs be in when you woke up on day five? And your legs aren’t even your biggest problem. They’re not even in the top two. More pressing is the state of your feet, bloody and swollen with nails missing and blisters on top of blisters. And most urgently of all, you somehow have to keep your mind positive enough to do it all over again after breakfast, to run another sapping, sandy marathon knowing you’ve got yet another in front of you tomorrow.

Meanwhile, every summer in the Lake District, a few dozen lunatics embark on a personal 24-hour crusade up and down 42 different mountains, or fells. Being in the extreme northwest of England, the weather is generally diabolical; freakishly strong winds carrying horizontal hailstones are not unusual. The runners do all their own navigation, frequently getting lost in thick clouds, which can appear from nowhere. They force their way up steep, seemingly impossible slopes totalling around 27,000 feet. They hurl themselves down dizzying descents in total darkness over loose stones, thick gorse and hidden boulders. Assuming they don’t get lost and run further than necessary, which most do, it’s about 72 miles of unrelenting slog. And if they finish one second over the 24-hour time limit – then quite simply, they’ve failed.

I’m guessing you may have heard of the Marathon des Sables in Morocco, but perhaps you’re not aware of Cumbria’s Bob Graham Round. Both events are currently very much on my ‘to-do’ list.

In fact I’d have run the Marathon des Sables last year if my wife hadn’t forbidden it on the entirely reasonable grounds that she was seven months pregnant and could do without the added stress. And as for the Bob Graham, well I’m becoming increasingly obsessed with it since visiting Keswick, running in the fells, and meeting perhaps the greatest fell runner of them all, Joss Naylor. It’s no exaggeration to call Joss a legend. And I don’t use the term lightly.

He runs in the fells beyond the point of exhaustion, beyond the point of serious injury, beyond sleep deprivation, and he simply keeps going. Extremely fast. Here is a man who was told as a child that his bad back would forever prevent him doing sport of any kind. A man who aged 18 had an operation on his knee, which went so badly wrong that he was warned he’d never walk without a limp. A