One Under

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Sometimes, just sometimes, I think there's something wrong with me. Chaos and disaster seem to follow me around like frightened children.

Admittedly I rarely plan stuff, and despite purchasing an iPad last year, upon which I detail all of my engagements, I still get a surprise nudge in the goolies every time the iPad reminder alerts me to the fact that I need to go to work or not go to work. So, as the old adage goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail, but I'm not talking about simply turning up to a wedding with only flip flops to accompany my suit (yep, done that), I'm talking about the type of disaster befalling me that an iPad alert and an electronic diary are gonna do absolutely fuck all about.

Take my journey home after assisting Mrs Mac with the Clyde Stride ultra marathon. It's Sunday morning and I need to be at work, in London, for 20:00 (excuse the use of the 24 hour clock.....I've been trying to polish off some of the remaining militaristic ingressions left over from my army days but I can't face saying eight O'clock when that might either be bacon and egg time or wine and kebab time). A swift look at the iPad and its handy train timetable app tells me I'm gonna have a battle getting home. Sunday, is of course, the day when track maintenance is carried out because every one is at church or sitting down to a roast dinner with the family. Not this call sign.

It's gonna take me the best part of the day to travel from Strathaven to Glasgow, then onward to Edinburgh, then, and only then, start heading south for Englandshire and eventually, London. I can't lie any longer in this bed, I need to get my sorry arse up and shake a tail feather.

A short while later I'm at Glasgow Queen Street with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier by my side and we're saying goodbye to Mrs Mac. The journey to London is aboard a train that has two overheating carriages. I wander through the train looking for somewhere that Mason (dog) and I can park our butts. The carriages are crammed with passengers and luggage and looks of disgust and bemusement are fired my way whenever the suggestion that I might sit down is demonstrated. In my years of travelling with a pooch I've discovered that the majority of the transport using public prefer to share their space with other bipeds rather than a four legged fighting dog.

As I enter carriage 'F' the heat hits me. It's not unlike walking into a sauna but there are seats abound in this carriage sans air con. I take a seat and Mason (dog) stretches out in the aisle. Before long I've stripped off most of my clothes down to a running vest and shorts yet the cushioning under my arse is getting damper by the minute as I sweat into it.

Just over four hours to London; I reckon I can hack it and with a regular ingestion of bottled water should be able to avoid heat stroke. Then, as we approach York, the bastard train in front of us breaks down and we're stuck for ages on a train that ain't moving, in a carriage that is slowly cooking my flesh.

The rest of the journey is typified by a short shunt forward followed by a long spell static. By the time the train pulls into Kings Cross I'm already late for work and in serious need of rehydration. The  weekend model for public transport delivery is mirrored on the underground where the Northern Line is shut for maintenance. No problem, I skip across to the Victoria Line where I can travel to Vauxhall then onward to Clapham Junction where I can begin my night shift, albeit two hours late.

I stand on the platform alongside dozens of other weekend travellers. Next to me is a slightly dishevelled, middle aged man who stares blankly at the tracks. Something about him unnerves me so I take a half step backward. As the train slows down and travels along the platform approaching the head wall to the tunnel the fella standing next to me kind of flops down onto the tracks. In a flash he's lost under the train and gasps and cries ring out from our fellow travellers.

I've been here many times before. I know the drill. As a London firefighter I've lost count of the times I've crawled beneath a tube train to release an unfortunate victim but it's never done without ensuring the power is off and PPE is worn. And this is the first time I've witnessed the act first hand.
Some of the passengers on the platform are either unaware of what just happened or are lost in the unreality of the occurrence. They swarm around the carriage doors waiting for them to open and disgorge their travellers and allow them onto the train. I know the driver is sitting in his cab, informing control of a 'one under' and awaiting the arrival of my colleagues from Euston fire station. The doors ain't gonna open any time soon.
There's nothing I can do here so I head off as police officers and community support personnel come haring toward the platform. I understand the futility of their haste: I always tell my lads and lasses to never run to a one under, you'll get there quickly then wait around feeling useless while you wait for confirmation that power is off. Better to walk quickly while carrying out a dynamic risk assessment and going through a decision making model in your mind, it pays dividends at the scene.
I arrive at street level to see fire appliances arrive from Euston and the surrounding stations. I stop briefly to inform the officer in charge of the scene below ground before being castigated for being late for work.
And this, Dear Reader, is a typical day in my life. To prove it I direct you to the story in this blog where I was travelling home from a training session in Southwark a couple of years ago when gunshots rang in my ears and two police officers were shot. I'm not making this shit up.
I considered not telling this tragic tale of a person who decided that life was so terrible that an end to his misery would be found under a London Underground train. But I discovered recently that he was recovered by crews from Euston and is recovering in hospital so I've recounted it here. I got that shift off work so my lateness was never questioned. My Station Commander decided that attending two suicides in five days was enough for anyone and my welfare dictated a night off. To be honest, I've become used to it now and I was more affected by the overheating carriage and the torturous journey home.
And I tell this tale while aboard a Virgin Pendolino to Scotland. So far there are no occurrences other than Mason (dog) farting and my fellow passengers looking at me in disgust. But I'm used to that too.

Strikes, Pensions and General Bitching

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Within the virtual pages of this blog I would often discuss the details of my job. Never the sad or heartbreaking parts of it, just the amusing stories that punctuate the career of a firefighter. Like the time a colleague received two pairs of new uniform shoes; Doctor Marten style soled, slip-on gusseted, black leather numbers.

One of my other colleagues had switched a shoe from each box before the two boxes were given to the recipient, who for the detail of this story, will be known as Stewart.

Stewart's face was a picture when he opened the first box to discover two left footed shoes.

'Bloody typical.....they can't get anything right,' he exclaimed, as he held two identical shoes in his hands. 'They've sent me two left shoes. Good job I ordered two pairs.'

The second box is opened and Stewart's eyes widen before he shrieks,

'I don't believe it! What's the chances of that?! They've sent me two right footed shoes in this box!!'

My blog was once littered with these types of tale, mainly to provide some relief to the running related matters, which however you tell them, are as boring as hell. But some close attention from my employer back in 2011 led me to delete everything I'd written over a period of four years.

I've rarely discussed my job since, but the amusing occurrences are still there, as are the heartbreaking  and sad. 22 years of service has provided me with enough material to write a book, and when I finish the one I'm writing at the moment, I might just tell those stories for publication when I retire.

I suppose some of the most difficult decisions I've had to make in those 22 years are the two occasions when I've been forced to take strike action. The first being in 2002/3 when firefighter salaries were so poor some were in receipt of top up benefits, and the second in 2010 when we were threatened with mass sackings to change our shifts. On both occasions, after going back to work, I've prayed that I never have to remove my labour again.

Unfortunately, enter George Osborne, a morally bankrupt coalition government and the worst financial crisis in living memory, and that time has come again.

'You want more money!' 'You want to work fewer hours!' I hear you cry.

No we don't. We want the pension we signed up to when we joined the service. I could witter on endlessly about the ins and outs of the government's plans for our pensions but that would probably be as boring as reading about running. Just consider this: I have a colleague who has served 23 years and was looking forward to retiring in seven years' time. The government's plans, and the fact that his age dictates that he misses out on any protection, means he will no have to serve an extra 10 years, paying 10 years of extra contributions (somewhere in the region of £50,000) to receive a poorer pension than he was promised. Whatever your political persuasion, or your opinion of public sector workers, tell me if you find that fair.

In an almost perfectly timed kick in the bollocks, George Osborne, the archetect of the raid on our pensions, is about to receive a recommendation that his salary is increased. Now I actually agree that MPs are underpaid when a comparison is made with head teachers, chief fire officers etc. But if you're gonna reluctantly accept IPSA's recommendation on pay, how about taking notice of your own, independently compiled report that states it's impossible for firefighters to work til 60 without being a danger to themselves and others?

Anyway, enough of a rant on pensions and strikes. I'm on my way home from the fourth Clyde Stride Ultra Marathon where I performed the enviable role of Race Director's bitch. Yep, the race director, one Mrs Mac, had me running around like a blue arsed fly buying water, ice and beer and performing other general bitch duties. The race was, again, a runaway success although the sun persisted in shining all day with temperatures touching 30 degrees. For an RD's bitch that's fantastic, but put a runner in those conditions and things can get a bit uncomfortable. My pal, Dave Egan, who so valiantly supported me in the West Highland Way Race, became a victim of the conditions. You see Dave is of the red headed persuasion and doesn't react too well to intense sunlight. He made it 30 miles to Maudslie Bridge before being forced to withdraw. He wasn't alone. 

As well as being a running buddy Dave is also a fellow firefighter and victim of the raid on pensions. He is used to enduring heat, being treated appallingly and general discomfort so you can see how hard things in the race became for him to have to pull out.

I'm gonna sign off now as my train is approaching London. When I began writing this I was going to relate the detail of the incident we attended a week or so ago. The tale of a young man who decided his future was so bleak the answer was to lie in front of the Gatwick Express. I was going to ask how that goon, George Osborne would have coped in that situation, and whether he would consider it appropriate that 60 year old men and women attend such incidents. But I will leave the detail at the incident, it's not for retelling here.


A Tale of Bodily Movements in the West Highland Way Race

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

I didn't really know how to do this without it becoming a sorrowful tale of woe so I decided not to. But Mrs Mac took the time to tell the story of the 2013 West Highland Way Race on her own blog and what a story it was. I couldn't hope to create something that contains so much emotion so you'll just have to put up with a sorrowful tale of woe. I was going to entitle it simply 'The West Highland Way Race' but after reading it through it was apparent that the tale is punctuated by faeces, urine and vomit, hence the title. 

This year, after seven years of mixed success and failure, with failure often accompanying almost zero training, the real boot in the backside to take things seriously came in April when Fi asked me to wear her race number. There's a couple of things you should know here: to a Londoner forenames are always reduced to one syllable, so Marmaduke becomes 'Duke', Muhammad becomes 'Mo' and Fiona becomes 'Fi.' The other thing you should realise is the three forenames used here are the names of fighters, Duke McKenzie, Muhammad Ali and Fiona Rennie. And it was the fight Fi was involved in that failed to allow her to run in her own number.

So with race day looming I meet a few race entrants and associated luminaries in a pub in Glasgow for a pre race social and some scoff. This was on Thursday. My intention was to sip something non alcoholic, to eat something easily digestible, and to go home having been a good boy. But I walk through the door and standing there, like some Highland Lazarus clutching a pint of foaming ale and sporting a wicked grin, is Uncle Duncan, founder of the West Highland Way Race.

'You can fuck off with that soft drink pish,' says Dunc when I request a fatboy Coke. 'I've come from Newtonmore on the bus so you're drinking with me til five when I have to go home.'

Never one to be swayed from my intended path, unless beer and Uncle Dunc are involved, my resolve crumbles like a paper hat in the rain and me and Dunc are drinking ale and exchanging war stories til five. Then it's home with Mrs Mac who tells me we're meeting her Ma and Pa in the boozer. More ale and a half past midnight stagger home fail to set any alarm bells ringing. Fuelled by Guinness and kebab I am a Jolly Green Giant, striding the earth with a pair of running shoes, and the beer I consumed that day was the finest sports supplement known to man.

Until I awake on race day feeling tired and hungover.

Fast forward a few hours and for the eighth year in a row I'm in the car park in Milngavie dressed like Max Wall. All around me are other Max Wall lookalikes mingling with people who are doing a fair impression of escaped POWs. Mrs Mac feeds me a shop bought sandwich, that if beer on Thursday was mistake número uno, this was mistake number two (or número dos if you wanna be pedantic).

You see, these sneaky, shop dwelling sandwich makers have a habit of secreting lactose in anything they create. I wonder whether, in such politically correct times, it's their way of torturing a racially and sexually indistinct section of society....the lactose intolerant. How they must clap their little hands with glee every time they catch someone out and send them desperately searching for a public toilet whilst holding in a fart that may or may not become a flock of sparrows.

Anyway, the race starts and Martin Antoninus Horatio Hooper and I (or Hoops for short), run out of Milngavie chasing 170 or so others. The early stages of the race come and go but at Beechtree Inn I feel the flock of sparrows begin to awaken in my belly. A mile or so later I tell Horatio that I'll catch him up and I find a quiet spot where I bare my arse to the world. An explosion of fecal matter and fluid are left decorating a famer's field and the only evidence that a human is responsible are the shit stained dock leaves that performed the function of bio degradeable bog paper.

We crack on.

Balmaha comes and goes and the only remark I have about that is the strange lack of midges. Or maybe they have an aversion to the recently suffered lactose intolerant. The following six miles are always a bit of a struggle for me. It's the point at which things start to get uncomfortable before slipping into second gear, so I'm ready for a bit of a battle. But while negotiating those cheeky little hills and horrible asphalt the injury that has plagued me for nearly two years begins to surface. At the bottom of my spine, near the top of my arse cheeks, a sharp pain starts to bite. By Rowardennan it's singing like Susan Boyle and causing me just as much suffering as listening to the pan faced bint.

Mrs Mac feeds me some brufen (for fuck sake don't tell Dr Chris) and I'm cracking on. I'm wearing Fi's race number and in my bum bag is her small hip flask of Glengoyne so withdrawal before toasting Dario in the Angel's Playground and giving our departed Italian/Scottish friend a wee nip is absolutely unthinkable.

Forward progress is made and somewhere before Beinglas Farm I see a blue baseball cap hanging on a tree. A while later I look back for Horatio and he's got the thing perched on his swede.

'What the fuck you wearing that for?' I ask.

'Because I need a shit and I've got no loo roll,' replies Horatio. 'This baseball cap is a gift from God and I'm making full use of it.'

The grunting and rustling that emanates from a bush would have any casual passer by believing that bears are no longer extinct in the Highlands. A moment later Horatio emerges sans baseball cap but with a satisfied look on his face.

We crack on.

On arrival at Auctertyre Farm the pain in my back has been a constant companion but the miles are being eaten up slowly. At this stage runners are required to be weighed, primarily to identify a possible gain which might signify over hydration, but also with a weight percentage that shouldn't drop below. I stand on the scales and record a drop of two kilos. No problem. Then, as the recorder is looking away, I remove my bumbag and another two kilos fall away. A four kilo drop from a starting weight of 73.6 kg is a bit hefty and I see my concern mirrored in the eyes of Mrs Mac.

We crack on.

Before we hit Bridge of Orchy the sleep deprivation and over indulgence of the Thursday begin to exact their toll. I'm feeling exhausted. The lactose intolerant movement, the weight loss, the dehydration, the pain in my back and constant diet of brufen may or may not be causes of failure, but lumped together they make for a difficult time at the very least. I tell Mrs Mac that a quick kip at Glen Coe will recharge my batteries for the final push and the thought of laying my head in her lap pushes me up Jelly Baby Hill to meet Murdo the Magnificent. Jelly Babies are indeed doled out to me and Horatio then Murdo requests that I turn around. I dutifully do so, after all, an instruction from someone so magnificent should never be ignored, and a boot is placed firmly in my backside.

'That's from your remote coach, Andy Dubois,' states MtM. 'He told me to kick your arse so you can assure him that I did exactly that.'

The long drag over Rannoch Moor is never something that fills me with joy. Having bollocks that look and feel like they've been sandpapered is no joy either, despite the liberal application of Vaseline. But if you ever want to give yourself someting that really smarts, try splashing piss on your chafed area. You'll laugh!!

Anyway, Ba Bridge seems to get further away every time I cross Rannoch Moor but reaching it this year accompanies another nail in the coffin of David William Waterman. Dry heaving becomes full on vomiting and the ten minutes planned in Mrs Mac's lap at Glen Coe becomes an age with my head in a bowl discharging everything I try to consume. The feeling of nausea remains despite the sickness and the time ticks by. Then I'm informed that the sweepers are outside and my already murky mood darkens further. Horatio has cracked on and I'm at the back. How did it come to this? 

I tell Mrs Mac there's only one thing for it. I tell her to look away and shove my hand down my throat and rid myself of absolutely anything and everything in my stomach in an attempt to dispel the nausea.

It works.

I get rigged in warm clobber and me and Dave Egan, my co runner from Tyndrum, crack on through Glen Coe to Altnafeadh. At this point, despite being accompanied by the sweepers, I'm feeling positive  and think that I can probably muster something to claw back some time and places. Then, after climbing the Devil's Staircase, my eyesight becomes blurred and the exhaustion returns with a vengeance. Ideas of lying down on the ground enter my head and the granite rocks look as inviting as soft, feather pillows. I stop and ask one of the sweepers how long til we reach Kinlochleven. She looks at me and says a couple of hours. I know exactly how far it is but hope beyond hope that maybe I'd got it wrong. I didn't realise it at the time, mainly cos I was seeing double and enjoying strange hallucinations, but the sweeper was Rhona Mitchell who performed her roll admirably. 

As we descend that long, miserable path to Kinlochleven the idea that I might miss the cut off becomes a reality. I pretty much resign myself to this until we come across George Reid and Karen Donoghue. I feel nothing short of embarrassment at being in this condition and at this place in the race but indulge myself and lie down on the ground. Immediately the pain in my back is relieved and despite beneath me being mud, rock and dirt I feel myself drifting away to a land of plump duvets, crisp clean sheets and softly sprung beds.

'Get up you slacker,' shouts Karen, and hauls me to my feet. We begin to move slowly until George starts encouraging me to move faster.

'If you get a move on you'll make it. It's shit or bust,' says George. 'You can do this.'

We arrive in the town and George encourages me to run. The movement achieved you'll find in no instruction manual or magazine on running. If a periodical called 'OAP Shuffler's World' existed you might possibly find it there among adverts for Zimmer frames and false teeth, but the movement, and George's endless cajoling, gets me into the med centre somewhere around the cut off but within a time that I am permitted to continue. Mrs Mac is in tears and big George has something in his eye.

I sip some Coke and ice and exchange banter with Pete Duggan, resident of Kinlochleven, player of pipes, and Ramsay Round finisher. Inside me I feel a bit of a warm glow. 'It's in the bag, despite all the setbacks I can do this for Fi, ' I say to myself.

A few minutes later Dave Egan and I are on our way. I know the rest of the route well and think that a steady push up the hill should get me to Lairig Mhor in time to run the flats to Lundavra and maybe make some places up. The positivity lasts until we plateau then it was as if everything crashed. I could hear voices in my head....not malevolent stuff of horror films that might see me throw Dave Egan off the side of the hill, but nonesnse banter about cakes and things. I can see Facebook status updates written on rocks and my body has started to uncontrollably spasm. I attempt to move forward but my body lurches sideward toward the edge of the hill.

'What are you doing over there? Get away from the edge!' Shouts Egan.

Then, as if things could get no worse, the heavens open and Dave and I are treated to a cold shower that soaks through my clothes and into my bones. I start shivering.

It was then I knew I'd had enough. I had about five hours to cover 13 miles and knew I'd never make it. If I heard this tale in a pub in London, I'm pretty sure I'd scoff at it and say 'I could crawl 13 miles in five hours.' Well, that talk is cheap and I don't think I could have crawled anywhere.

'I don't think I'm gonna make it, Dave,' I say to my co runner. 'What do you think?'

'I think you were an idiot for getting out of the van at Glen Coe,' he replies.
I pull my plastic wrapped mobile phone from my race sack for the first time. My home and work life are complicated. I have four children of either adult or teenage years all of whom can be colourfully challenging. I work with 15 men who, at times, make my children seem statesman like. I told Mrs Mac that their problems would remain theirs until I finish the race and only in an emergency would my phone be switched on.

I switch it on.

'Can you come back to Kinlochleven for me babe, I'm done,' I speak into the phone.

'Are you sure?' asks Mrs Mac?

'Yes. Sorry,' I answer.

As I descend the hill back to Kinlochleven the West Highland Way Race retains one last kick in the bollocks for me. I'm about half way down the hill and I can see our rented Mercedes van parked in the distance on what appears to be a track. I can see the distinct silver/grey paintwork and blacked out windows. Mrs Mac has obviously found a route up I don't know exists. But I can't see her sitting in the driver's seat....she must be in the back preparing for my arrival. As I get nearer I'm slightly bothered by the idea of this track up the mountain. I've been here many times and never noticed it, but there in front of me is our van.

I must have been within 20 feet or so of the van when it became the rock that it always was. Mrs Mac was in Kinlochleven and I was right to be bothered by the (non existent) track up the mountain. Hallucinations are a well documented phenomenon in this race, and I filled my boots.

On arrival at the real van Mrs Mac peels my wet and stinking clothes off and puts me into a sleeping bag. Then I experience what it must be like to be dead. The last time I slept like that I had received a general anaesthetic before some surgeon repaired a torn diaphragm and sewed up the top of my stomach.

Some time later I was woken to be told Horatio was about to finish. Despite me being cocooned naked  in a sleeping bag from where I never wanted to emerge, I pulled on some clean clothes to see my mate reach the leisure centre. Martin is a lump, built for running he ain't. Last year he battled against injury to make it to Kinlochleven before withdrawing, unable to lift his feet from the ground. It was a joy seeing him finish this year. He had trained well, shifted some weight and had kept to his game plan throughout the race. Top man.

As for me, at the moment, I'm saying my love affair with the West Highland Way Race is over. I have three finishes and a clutch of DNFs that, quite frankly, I probably deserve for a failure to prepare. But this year, after training solidly and putting everything into it, the West Highland Way proved she can be a cruel mistress. 

As Uncle Dunc told me, anything can happen in that race.

And it did.