Runner's World, January 2006

Added on 29 January 2009

Douglas Lindsay is currently writing the upcoming crime comedy blockbuster, The Final Cut. The following first appeared in Runner's World magazine in January 2006:

Crawling topless through the snow, jumping practically naked into a freezing river, boxing, kick-boxing, wrestling, supporting yourself on your feet and forehead, skipping with heavy metal chains, walking backwards like a dog, spinning around and around until you want to vomit, doing endless forward rolls and backward rolls until you want to vomit, push ups in three feet of water, swinging an over-sized baseball bat at a tractor tyre. It’s not marathon training as we know it, but it works.

Last summer my running was at a low ebb. I had two marathons behind me, with a best of 4:23, but that was three years ago, and by last August I was having trouble covering six miles with my running partners. Strong measures were called for if I was to compete in a marathon this spring, and so I engineered an invite for myself to a three times weekly training session by the Sava river, in Belgrade. My friend had been attending the session for a few months, and had returned with strange tales of sparring with men called Commando, doing cartwheels and hundreds of sit-ups, and jumping into the river, regardless of weather conditions.

The session is run predominately for the benefit of kickboxers and those who practice other free-fighting sports with eccentric eastern names. The trainer knows no English and my Serbian is limited to numbers and saying goodbye to people I’ve welcomed in English, so from the beginning I had to watch my fellow athletes and follow them a second or two behind. The exercises are a wonderful mixture of the mundane and the bizarre. The basis of the programme, for almost two hours, is a fearsome set of abdominals and squat jumps, mixed with ten yard sprints to six hundred yard sprints, push ups and pull ups. The bulk of the exercises themselves are what you might expect from a fitness video, but the pace and ferocity of them are definitely bootcamp. Squat jumps then abdominals, then run, abdominals, then squat jumps, abdominals and so on, in three minute bursts. And, mixed in with this wealth of standardised torture, there is the exercise where you walk like a dog, jump on your haunches, then spin round and point your fingers like a gun. There is the one where you hold your right ear with your left hand, bend over with your right finger pointing an inch off the ground, and spin round as fast as you can, stopping just before you welcome your breakfast back to an unenthusiastic world. At the end of every abdominal set, you have to lie on your back, arch your body, support yourself on the souls of your feet and your forehead, and wave your arms around in a way which I’ve never quite worked out. (It’s the only exercise where I can’t see what everyone else is doing.) The first time you sit on your buttocks, legs held straight in front of you a couple of inches off the ground, and then slap yourself on the face, head and chest, it feels a little strange. Eight months later it all becomes commonplace.

On my first session I had to spar with a man about eight inches taller than me. Added to the height disadvantage, I had never sparred or boxed in my life, and he knew his way around a ring. He proceeded to hit me at will, a feature which was to develop more and more as the weeks progressed. Taking my curiosity about boxing gloves the wrong way, the trainer presumed that I was keen to learn, and so every session would see me boxing for up to twenty minutes with a variety of partners, who would take it in turns to punch me repeatedly in the face. Each meaty blow to the nose would be accompanied by an apology. One month in, bruised and battered, I finally informed him that I was attending to improve my marathon running, not to become proficient in any of the martial arts.

In September every session ended with a swim in the Sava, which was a refreshing conclusion to the workout. As autumn progressed, and the river became colder, the swim became more of a quick dip. I presumed that as the cold Balkan winter began to grip, that the river would be dispensed with. Sadly, and not unexpectedly, I was wrong. The refreshing swim was replaced with running and jumping into freezing water, getting out as quickly as possible, then working out on the river bank in one’s underwear for a couple of minutes, before jumping back into the river, and repeating it all at least once or twice more. We did this on days when the air temperature was well below zero and steam rose from the water.  Usually this part of the workout would be done to an audience of old women, out for their morning walk, watching ten or twelve men and a couple of women leaping up and down in their underpants.

At the end of January the snow finally came and stayed for seven weeks. Jumping in the river was replaced by stripping off and exercising in the snow. Forward rolls, backward rolls, sideways rolls, crawling on your stomach and back. After the river insanity, this wasn’t too bad, until the snow became old, soft under a crunchy top layer of ice, so that the forward roll onto your back was even more excruciating than, well, being punched in the face by a group of well-meaning kickboxers. As winter turned to spring, and the snowmelt from the Julian Alps bloated the river so that it burst its banks, jumping in was replaced by exercising in, so that we were doing push ups and abdominals in two or three feet of water on the riverside promenade.

At the end of each session, we all break up into smaller groups for various martial activities. People are kickboxing, boxing, wrestling, lifting weights and free fighting. It only lacks a couple of guys trying out a flame thrower and someone throwing knives at a cardboard cut-out, and we could be in one of those SPECTRE training camp scenes in a Bond movie. The strange eastern European shouts ringing round only add to the illusion. Now, fortunately, when all this testosterone-driven pugilism is taking place, I am dispatched along the river for an extra twenty minute run ‘at my own pace’.

It all seems vaguely ridiculous, apart from the important point that it is has been of enormous benefit to my running. Squats and jumps are tremendous leg-strengthening exercises, which one doesn’t get from running alone. The amount of abdominals leads to upper body strength which is very necessary for marathon running and easy to neglect. Much of the rest of the programme is of the ‘it breeds character’ variety, but is just as important as the body strengthening. When you’ve jumped in the freezing river and had your face repeatedly walloped, when you’ve nearly thrown up and rolled topless onto icy, rock hard snow, when you’ve sat there on your backside like you’re in some parody of a Python sketch, slapping yourself on the head, it focuses your mind on making sure you get a decent marathon time.

One of the best things which my trainer did for me, on hearing that the marathon was my aim, was fix me up with a runner who has represented Serbia at the world half-marathon championships, and who has become my new, slightly out of my league, Sunday morning running partner. To add to the hard work of the three training sessions a week, I now have an experienced runner giving me advice specific to the marathon.

And so, this spring to the proof of the workout. A half-marathon at the beginning of April, followed by the full Belgrade marathon three weeks later. The half-marathon was a small affair, run alongside the Sava and Danube rivers, dodging in amongst the families out for a Saturday afternoon stroll. I ran 1:33, an improvement of more than fifteen minutes on my PB three years previously. It was a good start, and gave me plenty of confidence for the full race a few weeks later.

The Belgrade marathon is small by big city standards, with this year under two hundred participants. The down side of this is that you know, if you struggle, you’re liable to be coming in close to the back. The upside is that you’re not going to get passed by three women dressed as a diplodocus in the last couple of miles. Regardless of the small field, there were still teams of African runners participating, so that the overall winning time was just outside 2:12, and there were no Europeans in the top 10.

The marathon begins in Belgrade and then quickly comes downhill and crosses the Sava river into New Belgrade, where the bulk of the race is run on flat roads. This makes the marathon fast paced on an easy course, the problem being that in the last two miles the runners have to climb back up the hill into the old town. It is an excellent kick in the teeth which you need to be prepared for, and makes sure that you keep something in reserve for the end.

So, what did all the insanity of the previous eight months, as well as long Sunday morning runs with a 66-minute half marathon runner, do for me in the end? For the first time in three marathons I managed to keep running the entire distance, I reduced my PB by almost fifty minutes, down to 3:34, and it was well into the last five miles before I began to feel uncomfortable or jaded. Given that last summer I would have struggled to run a marathon in six hours, it has been a huge advance for such a short period of time.

I leave Belgrade at the beginning of July, and it will be funny wrench to part from my wonderful trainer and his strange workout by the Sava. It has, however, been an excellent grounding in fitness, and once I have moved on I can concentrate on the more mundane marathon preparations of endurance and sprint intervals which my new running partner has been keen for me to do, and which I have so far neglected in favour of tae kwon do, bare-knuckled push ups on concrete and sprinting backwards in the snow.