Sky Sports Reporter On How Arsenal Boss Changed His Life
It started in Cornwall a dozen years ago. I don't know why I started, I was on holiday, so maybe it was the shock of a bare pelt and shorts reflection? For sure, I was 30 something and saggy, a father of two small children with a penchant for a pint of real ale - me that is, not the small children.
We were staying in a cottage overlooking one of those spectacular curved Cornish bays. With the tide out, the beach must have been a mile long. It was June and quiet, those were the days when we could holiday in term time without risking a two stretch in Armley. I woke early one morning, sun shining, and overcome with a sudden urge to run from one end of that beach to the other.
I didn't even have any trainers, so, t-shirt and shorts, I headed down barefoot over the dunes and started running and I've been running ever since.
I haven't done any marathons, just a couple 10k runs round Leeds, so I can't claim anything too dramatic in terms of distance, but it's still been life-changing. Okay, probably life-altering would be more accurate but very important nevertheless. It was months before I saw the cosmetic benefits, the bit that probably inspired the whole thing. I had been playing football once a week with my mates for years so I wasn't a complete wreck but I had to start slowly.
It was more about the commitment than the distance. I'd push myself out three or four times a week. I was lucky. Home offers plenty of scope to vary the route and the distance but whichever way I turned, there were hills, nasty, little hills.
At first I hated those hills, staggered up them, fought with myself to keep going all the way to the top. It was my first big battle, the bit of my brain that said 'this hurts so stop' against the bit that says 'this is doing you good, keep going'. It was a brutal campaign but good angel triumphed.
It has done me good as well. I'd gone up to a 38" waist, I'm now back to 34". I got the Ian Brown cheek bones I'd always craved but I'm also less susceptible to air rage incidents. Running's helped my head. That half hour or so in the company of nobody but my iPod and a good playlist is my time. Run off the anger, the frustration, mull over some issues or head off on a flight of fantasy. It's all going on under the now-white hair, behind the sweat-speckled forehead.
I've seen stuff about getting addicted to the endorphin rush of exercise. I understand that. I think about going for a run quite a lot, sometimes I actually crave it. Whenever I go away, I pack my running gear. On arrival, I'm already scouting a route. I love beaches or rivers, the Liffey, the Danube, the Rhine, the San Antonio, I've run along the banks of them all. It's a great way to explore places from ground level, cheaper than a taxi as well.
It's a cheap pastime. I pay £5 subs to play football, I pay nothing to run. I don't even spend much on trainers - TK Maxx or Adidas outlet, £20, thanks very much. I go through two or three pairs a year. The gear lasts for ever, it's all man made, almost indestructible. I've done the 80's PE teacher look in Ron Hill running trousers, a snip at £10, now I'm top to toe in Aldi, yup, they do running gear as well as frickadellen and wash tabs.
There is another aspect to my ritual that I adopted at the outset and Arsene Wenger takes the credit for this one. I'd heard about his belief in the importance of stretching, how he'd had his Arsenal players doing 45 minute sessions after training when they should have been heading to the bookies. It was all about gentle stretching apparently, not bouncing or thrusting, so I created a little post-run routine.
Bradford City once had a Brazilian lad called Edinho in their squad. I'd watch him after a session, he'd put a right leg up on the barrier around the training pitch and stretch for a few minutes, then he'd swap. I borrowed that. I leaned against a wall, one leg straight, one bent, then swap. They were my first two, later I added another-balance on one leg, tuck the other up behind my backside, couple of minutes, then swap.
There may be fitness coaches wincing, or laughing, whilst they read this. I don't care, maybe it's a placebo but it works well for me. Since I started running, the only time I've had to take a break was when I had a hernia op. I'm back playing regular, competitive football these days as well - albeit vets level - and never suffered a strain or pull, so Mr Wenger's helped extend my career. The game has cause to be grateful...