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The year of the perfect run. That is what I had in mind. That
would be my quest.
What is it they say? As men grow old they lose everything
but their ambition.
Of course, perfection is not easily come by.
But, I believe that anyone, anyone who runs and runs often
enough to make running second nature, can have a perfect run.
Is that heresy?
The average man in the average pub knows a perfect run
when he sees it. Chances are he would say, “That big, black
guy at the Olympics.” Chances are too that he has Usain Bolt
in mind, and the giant Jamaican on his 100m world record
breaking outing at the Beijing Olympics, or again, at the
2009 World Athletics Championships. Impressive
performances they were. “Poetry in motion” status was the
claim of world wide press hyperbole that greeted his success.
Needless to say – I’m no Usain Bolt and maybe I should
say I’m no sprinter.
I should really come clean and say I don’t and rarely have
run on the track, and while I raced the roads and cross-country
for many years that is not where my quest for perfection will
take me.
A ten miler on the roads was always, to my mind the
perfect running distance. The average club runner could go out
and race it pushing themselves, keeping up leg speed,
attacking the hills, working hard towards the finish. It is a
distance which puts them under pressure but never empties the
tanks. Get up towards half marathon distance and you have to
ration your output. Finishing still in running mode, rather than
racing becomes the objective.

Achilles tendon problems finished my road running career
many years ago, and cross-country, well that’s a winter
pastime. For reasons more historical than sensible, there is no
summer cross-country. I can think of nothing better than a
good “park” style cross-country run on a sunny summer’s
afternoon, but that is another story.
No - I am going for a perfect run but I’m going for it in
That’s the sport where the course is marked on the ground
by a series of flagged control sites where you check in
electronically with a time chip. How you get around is up to
you. All you have to help you is a map showing where the
controls are sited, and a compass to keep you running in the
correct direction. So it is map, compass, legs and thinking.
That’s orienteering.
Without orienteering, my running career would be a long
time dead. With it, I am into my fifth decade of enjoying the
sport nature intended, and while I am undoubtedly running
slower than in my heyday, I am running better than ever.
Let’s start by setting the record straight. At top level,
orienteering is a fast running, all terrain, long distance time
trial sport. Winning at top level requires quick thinking, quick
decision making, physical stamina, and running skill.
One World Championships winner says, “I train using all
the technique exercises track and field athletes do.”
It is tough. How tough? Running coaches these days are
talking about chaos theory.
Sprinting one hundred metres on the track has nil chaos
value. It is a straight sprint on a level surface.
Double the distance and negotiating the bend comes into
play, introduces that little bit of uncertainty, an element of
chaos. You have to plan your way round.
Up the distance again and going over 800m and 1500m
things outside your control really begin to happen. Not only do
you have to make your way round the track but other runners
can get in your way, and tactics designed to keep control come
into play; other tactics in pace and place have to be
The situation changes from second to second so this is
more chaotic.

Leave the track, get out on the roads and it is not just the
opposition which makes for chaotic going, it is the
environment – camber, potholes, kerb stones, corners, hills
going up and hills going down.
Take to the country and the chaos value increases yet again
with changes in terrain and underfoot vegetation to cope with
at every stride.
Orienteering is country running at its most chaotic. Like
cross-country you are running up hill and down, on the level,
on paths, fields and park land. But then, often as not, you will
run across marsh, through forest, on soft ground, rough
ground, boulder fields, through trees and bushes, and - think
well on this - all of that could be found in the first quarter mile
on the way to the first control point. That is just the first leg
with maybe fifteen or more control points and ten to fifteen
kilometres still to go. This is orienteering. This is chaos “big
And that’s not all. That’s just the macro level chaos. Look
more closely. Forest running especially keeps throwing up
change and problems: branches, fallen trees, thickets, holes,
hummocks, tussocks, all of which force changes in direction,
stride, foot placement and posture. This is micro level chaos.
It doesn’t get more chaotic than that.
One top British orienteer said she’d take on Paula Radcliffe
any day in a forest run, and beat her.
Her claim was never put to the test. Chances are Paula
would not have taken up the challenge if it had been issued.
Forest running looks far too dangerous to most track and road
runners, and Paula has too much invested in her legs to put
them at risk.
Orienteering is no place for so called “wimps”. This is the
sport for the real runner, the all rounder, out not just to put the
opposition under test but to test themselves as well.
And even running like a deer through the woods isn’t good
enough if you are going in the wrong direction.
You have to use the map. That’s one giant size drawback.
Maps put a lot of people off. A road map is enough set
their pulse racing let alone a detailed map of some stretch of
But, let’s forget that for the moment; let’s go back to the
beginning. Let’s just think about some of the perfect runs and
perfect runners, some of the legends of running history.
If sprint enthusiasts go for Bolt or nine times Olympic gold
winner Carl Lewis, middle distance aficionados – and I am
one of these – might well argue the point suggesting Britain’s
Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, who set world tracks on fire with
their 800m and 1500m outings in the 1980s, were and still are
rivals for any crown for perfection that might be going..
Just for starters, the 800m must be the most perfect of all
track races.
The fast staggered start, the jockeying for position at the
break, a brief settling of the status quo round the bottom bend
before heading for the bell with half an eye watching out for
any breaks or drives from behind.
Then it is into the second lap with the field, sometimes
strung out, sometimes bunched, everyone straddling a
metaphorical line between perfection and going over the top,
with anyone liable to make a telling move down the back
straight or going into the final bend before making a final
sprint for the line.
Early in my sports journalist career, I spent a lot of time
covering events other journalists did not touch. I was getting to
know the business, establishing my credentials. I could make
money that way.
I can remember a night of 800m finals at one of the early
World Masters Track Championships in Verona.
Men and women from forty to over ninety raced for their
age group titles. The younger ones probably carried a pound or
two more than they did at their best, older legs looked
stringier, skin hung looser, limbs and backs were not as
straight as they once had been but they ran with style. Without
exception, the best of them produced that easy, rhythmic, “feel
good” action that even the most inexperienced spectator must
appreciate and enjoy.
Somewhere in your genes there must be a chemical pattern
which helps you appreciate the beauty of a flawless runner in
It’s like looking at a fine picture.
There is something primitive about it, maybe something
that goes back to distant days when running meant the
difference between eating and going hungry, death or survival,
something that all but the artistically inept must appreciate.
Any runner could see that they had that “flying feeling” as
they glided along without effort and with no hint of
Without enough time and distance for the competitors to
run out of strength and stamina, “run out of legs”, each race
was full of tension and uncertainty as well as a thrill to watch
and, hopefully, thrilling to run.
So there were two hours of superlative athletics
entertainment, without a current world top ten runner amongst
The perfect run is no easy find for the best in the world if
for no other reason than that their superlative abilities set the
bar at a higher level. Running and racing closer to the edge it
is easier for them to slip off.
Coe and Ovett were masters at the art of 800m running,
both able to lead from the start or come from behind over the
final 200m with remarkable speed and acceleration but with an
ease which took them over the line scarcely breathing deeply,
untroubled by their efforts.
They met up but rarely, but their rivalry, as first one and
then the other would break a middle distance record, sparked
world level running for more than a decade.
I have always said Ovett was the better runner. During his
illustrious athletics career he ran with success at national level
over a whole gamut of distances from 400m on the track to the
half marathon on the roads.
His international career over he set up a runners’ holiday
business in Scotland and while building up his new career in
television - he worked as a commentator with International
Athletics productions - he kept his running ticking over,
training regularly. He dabbled in triathlon and ran regularly for
the Annan club in cross-country where he was unbeatable by
the best of the Scots runners at that time.
Of the two, Ovett was arguably the better all-rounder, but
equally arguably, Coe was the more poetic mover, had the
smoother action, ran with more appreciable perfection.
Athletics fans still argue the point.
Did their dramatic wins and record breaking outings come
from perfect runs?
Former world 5000m record holder Dave Moorcroft has
said that he had a perfect run on that historic night in 1982
when he set alight the Bislett Stadium in Oslo. During its long
history, Bislett has enjoyed the reputation of producing the
most exciting night of non-championship athletics of the year.
The crowd and the athletes are “on fire” producing that
electric atmosphere on which competitors thrive and come up
with world class, if not world record breaking, performances.
There are many world marks in the Bislett history book.
The men’s 10000m world record was broken no fewer than
four times at Bislett before the turn of the millennium, starting
with the great Australian Ron Clarke in 1965. Clarke, who in
1965 broke eleven world records over a period of six weeks,
became renowned as the best distance runner never to win a
major championship medal.
I saw his farewell appearance at London’s White City
Stadium when he jogged round the track waving to the crowd
at six minute mile pace.
The Bislett Dream Mile, arguably the major event at the
meeting each year, saw the world record broken twice first by
Ovett in 1980 and then by Steve Cram in 1985.
The women’s hall of record breaking fame includes local
Norwegian greats Greta Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen, both of
whom won the London and New York marathons.
On Moorcroft’s night of nights at Bislett he ran away from
the field, leading Kenya’s then world record holder Henry
Rono by over a hundred metres with two laps to go.
Speaking on an excellent BBC distance running DVD,
Moorcroft says of that night, “I was in the best condition I’d
ever been in. I was running really well and had done 3m49s
for the mile in Oslo a couple of weeks before.”
And he explains, “Every runner can probably count on the
fingers of one hand the number of times they race and it has
been perfect.”
The perfect run. What is it like?
“You just feel so light,” says Moorcroft. “You feel you can
run faster. You don’t feel any pain.”
And he says of that record breaking run, “It was fast, and
for ten or eleven laps I was just completely flowing, the most
relaxed and in control that I’d ever been. I was running faster
than I had ever done before.”