Sep 16, 2014

Being Ruled By The Rules

Brent Harvey’s one match ban for a bump on Joel Selwood brought to mind another incident. A number of months have elapsed since the Jack Viney bump occurred but it highlighted a contradiction in the way the general public want the game officiated. On the one hand, players and supporters were appalled that Viney was charged with rough conduct and initially suspended for two matches. In the context of the passage of play, Viney had few options but to contest the ball and, unfortunately, break the jaw of Adelaide’s Tom Lynch. But increasingly the general expectation of society is that players and umpires must participate to the letter of the law. According to this philosophy, Viney’s bump was negligent, contact was high, and the force was medium. He should have been suspended. Similarly, according to this philosophy Harvey should not play this weekend.

Leaving the MCG after Richmond Tigers defeated St Kilda Saints

A common refrain from those criticising umpires is that all supporters expect is for them to be consistent. The impossibility of consistency is quite clearly lost. No two incidents that occur on a football field are ever the same. The events preceding it are different. The actions within the incident have differences. The events afterward are different. Further adding to the differences is the simple fact that each game is different. Some games matter more than others. The teams and players are different. The atmosphere is different. The conditions are different. Clearly, each and every incident in a game of football is unique.

Nevertheless, in a bid to pander to the expectations of consistency the AFL and its umpires increasingly look to the rulebook. They analyse the rules with a legal eye and interpret them as “accurately” as possible. They tinker with the rules to make them “clearer”. Nowhere can this be demonstrated better than with the push in the back rule.

The push in the back rule’s purpose is three-fold – to stop a player being pushed out of a marking contest, to stop a player being pushed into the ground when bent over attempting to collect a loose ball, and to stop a player being pushed as they run, kick or handball. But the subtleties and nuances in this began to create confusion. With an eagle eye, the interpretation for marking contests was changed. No longer could a player have hands in an opponent’s back. This interpretation ignored the facts that it was possible to have hands in the back without pushing, just as it was possible to push in the back without hands. Changing the interpretation and trying to update the umpiring did not improve the confusion nor did it decrease the ire of fans.

Daniel Zinn clears for Barwon Heads Seagulls in their match against Portarlington Demons

At the heart of this contradiction is a simple problem. The application of rules is always subjective. We expect that it is possible to be objective and finite, but it is not. Human judgements must always be made. There is not one aspect of the game where it is possible to be purely objective. Even scoring has an element of subjectivity.

Video review was expected to be a solution. What is frightfully obvious is that it is almost as hard using video replays to determine the “correct” decision as it is in real time. A collective groan is expelled by the crowd each time a review is called for, largely because they know the review will not improve the situation and will prove inconclusive. As an aside, it appears that to reduce ridicule of the flawed system, the video umpire now often confirms the goal umpire’s decision when footage is inconclusive.

This fascination with the ability of the law to be conclusive and finite is having dire consequences. Most obviously in the Essendon supplements scandal. The Bombers have taken ASADA to court, not to argue the substance of the issue, but on a distantly-related legal technicality. At the legal hearing, well-paid Senior and Queens Counsels will argue about a law and its application but not about if Essendon players took illegal substances. To a great many fans of the game, it will be a profound shame if Essendon is able to avoid producing the truth behind their supplements program due to a legal technicality.

Trent Cotchin watches as the umpire bounces the ball, Richmond Tigers vs Carlton Blues

Arguing over specific features of the laws also occurred in the Viney incident. The rules were pored over and analysed in depth. Was the conduct accidental, incidental, intentional, reckless or negligent? Was the impact severe, high, medium, low or negligible? Was the contact to the head, groin or elsewhere on the body? Was there any residual, additional or deductible points? On it went. A great many intelligent people trying to apply an objective system to a subjective situation.

When the Match Review Panel decided on a two match suspension for Viney, howls of protest erupted decrying the death of the bump in AFL football. The precedent set by the MRP would send shockwaves through the competition. Players would pull out of contesting the ball, fearing similar punishment should an accident happen. But precedents are a funny thing – they are only useful until the next precedent is set. A similar incident could happen in the very next round and the MRP could establish a brand new precedent.

Pre-season promises count for little in football

Arguing about umpiring decisions in football has been occurring since young Aboriginal men ran around playing Marn Grook. It will continue for as long as the game lasts. But to improve the level of debate a couple of things must occur.

The AFL, the MRP and the umpiring department should cease pretending that they can legislate and officiate as though beyond human error. All involved should confront this inadequacy, and communicate that their decisions are made with the opinion of a human who may well misinterpret rules and situations. Mistakes should be acknowledged but will never be eradicated.

But on the part of supporters, there needs to be renewed understanding that those officiating are applying objective rules in a subjective situation. Ultimately, the judgement will rest with a human who must be lauded for trying. As supporters, the best that we can hope for is that those adjudicating are truly independent and have the best interests of the game, the players and supporters at heart.

Aug 28, 2014

In The Footsteps Of Pheidippides On The Roads Of Alice Springs

Read the preamble here.

It must be said that Alice Springs is fantastic for running. Mid-winter days are clear and cool. Flat, concrete paths weave alongside the ephemeral Todd River, and clear, undulating trails meander throughout the rocky hills. The views from Anzac Hill and Mt Gillen impress. I would encourage anyone to take a look. We can easily negotiate meals and accommodation. My last long run took me past the Telegraph Station and I set off exploring. I stopped by our new home for sustenance twice. But after 36km, my pains, aches and doubts returned. Again, if I didn’t do the marathon this effort would have been for little.

The dry river bed of the ephemeral Todd River, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Counting and numbers are a fact of life in the marathon game. For the initiated, my watch told me that I usually ran 4:00-4:15min kilometres. This speed would see me finish a marathon in less than 3 hours. But my two >30km runs told me if I ran this pace I would be at risk of struggling during the latter stages. Some great advice is to ensure that the second half of your race is faster or equal to the first half. To make this happen I had to slow down. For the final fortnight of training, I concentrated on running at speeds 30 seconds per kilometre slower than I was used to. My new goal was to complete the marathon in about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

My pre-race anxiety centred on two things. The first may surprise. People don’t expect Alice Springs to be cold, but the clear skies, low humidity and elevation mean that during winter it is often below 0°C overnight. It warms to around 20°C in the sun, but the cold wind bites. It takes much more energy to keep warm than it does to keep cool, and for this reason I was concerned. From the local Salvos I picked up a jumper and beanie, and I bought new gloves. I thought and re-thought my race attire. The second was fuel. I knew I would need food regularly. Organisers placed a drink station every 3km and we were able to give them food and drink so they would have it for us at the stations. My plan was sound but untried.

I have to sing the praises of Alice Springs once more (again, happy to negotiate meals and a bed, drinks on the Bugler). The running community were so keen to hold a fantastic event, they assisted in any way they could. I called the  running club president and he patiently answered questions. I arrived late to registration the night prior and was met with smiles. People went out of their way on the morning of the race to ensure that a blow-in like the Bugler was comfortable. But I wasn’t. I had to run 42.2km.

The long and lonely road during the Alice Springs Running Festival Marathon 2014

The marathon is best related in chronological fact. In the pre-dawn light we set off and I immediately picked my way through the 42 competitors. As I settled into my 4:30min/km pace, I followed four others. I became a touch emotional due to the relief of finally beginning something I had thought so much about. The first 15km ticked by. The field gradually elongated and I was able to run my own race. I ate at 6km and 12km and told myself it would count later. I was all about running faster in the second half.

I awakened from my running stupor when I noticed I had made ground on fourth place. Dogmatically concentrating on a negative split, I had expected others to do the same. When I realised he was flagging, I told myself not to increase my exertions because it was inevitable I would catch him. Sure enough, I drew level and chatted for a moment. Another first-timer, we encouraged each other before I headed off.

Just over half a kilometre before the turn-around point, the race leader passed by on his way back. I clapped and encouraged him while secretly hoping disaster would befall him. Another guy went by, and then the leading woman. All three appeared to be well in advance of me and I continued to concentrate on regulating my speed.

As previously, I noticed that I was suddenly making ground on third place. Instead of seeing blacktop stretching away, I was seeing the well-worn soles of the leading female. I planned to slow and talk, but two road-trains meant I only offered a few words of encouragement as I slipped by and hunkered down against the trucks’ slipstreams.

Oddly, as I ran into 3rd my anxiety increased. Not wanting to relinquish a podium finish increased the consternation. Mrs and mini-Bugler were on hand to support. I pulled in to the 30km drink station for a quick stretch and some race updates. First and second were a long way ahead. Fourth was not long behind and fifth was a way back. I was going well. But 12km is still a bloody long way to run.

Farewelling the Ross Highway after 37km of the Alice Springs Running Festival Marathon 2014

To my mind, little changed for the remainder except discomfort. I had told myself that half-way in distance is a fallacy, because half-way in effort begins at about 30km. By this stage my left knee was regularly nagging at me and a blister was expanding on my right foot. I tried to adjust my gait. I stopped to stretch on a couple of occasions. But no matter what, I had to keep running.

At 37km the news was as good as I had hoped. Unless I collapsed, third place was assured although I had little hope of catching second. The guy manning the drink station was encouraging, but wasn’t keen to run the remaining 5km. I couldn’t stomach the food and drink that I had prepared.

There was no elation during the final kilometres. No sense of relief. No overwhelming satisfaction of achievement. Only the ache in my knee, the pain in my foot, the exhaustion in my legs and the thought that I still had to keep running. After 41.4km, even 800m felt like a long way.

I feel silly about the congratulations that have come my way. In my first attempt I came third in 3:11:46. I won $200 and I have the bronze medal. I almost caught the guy who came second. The race doubled as the Northern Territory marathon championship. Despite only being a resident for 2 weeks, I am the second best Territorian marathoner in 2014. I have the silver medal.

Crossing the line of the Alice Spring Running Festival Marathon in 3rd place. Relief.

I feel silly because there are stories more incredible than mine. The 33-year-old winner was running his 49th marathon, flew back to Sydney and is flying to Adelaide next weekend for his 50th. He has a goal of running 100 marathons. He runs 14km every day. Incredible. One guy turned 71 on the day and was running his 73rd marathon. Unfathomable. Another man has three kids, is a few years older than me, and at his first attempt ran an amazing time of 3:30 with a cramping hamstring. Impressive. The winners of the 10km and half-marathon ran times I could only hope to. Respect. The winner of the female 10km was 13 years old and finished in a shade over 40min. Wow. A friend of mine had planned to run the 10km, but on a whim in the morning decided to do the half-marathon and she finished 7th. Boom.

I think I could have spoken to every participant and found a story worth telling. And perhaps that is the point. Running has its inherent beauty in its simplicity. You only need a road or a path and a pair of runners and your story will be worth telling. But I am glad to give my legs a rest. And go back to the gym. And ride a bike. Maybe I’ll even play footy again.

Aug 21, 2014

Running The Length Of Australia

It was never one of my life goals to run a marathon. I met a man a year younger than I who had just run his 49th and has a goal of running 100. Although impressed, I couldn’t fathom the effort and commitment this would take. Nor did it seem appealing to me. For a great many, there exists a drive to gradually increase their kilometres in the pursuit of a distant goal. The marathon is seen as amazing achievement and its completion the reward for months and, perhaps, years of effort. This I can understand entirely. Nonetheless, it had rarely crossed my mind.

A road near Lismore, NSW

For me, running is a necessary evil. Something one must do if they are to remain fit. In most sports, the ability to run is paramount. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes in different directions, but always running. Counter-acting its evil, running has beauty in its simplicity. Little equipment is required. We learned to do it so long ago, we cannot recall being unable to run. Not long after the mini-Bugler was able to walk, he is already attempting to run. So despite the groans from my mind and my body, I have been a semi-regular jogger for years.

Upon up-rooting the Bugle catastrophe from Melbourne, I cancelled my gym membership. My bike and football boots were left in storage. On the road around Australia, the only exercise always available was the simple, and thus beautiful, running. Occasionally I paid over-the-odds for a casual visit to pick some weights up and put them down again. A couple of times I borrowed a bike. For a memorable few weeks I even joined a football team in northern NSW. But for 6 months, running was my primary exercise.

The spectacular gorge at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park in outback western Queensland

For reasons I cannot fully understand, there exists a competitive drive in my being.  Although it is undoubtedly true I can be competitive with others, my primary competitive drive is against myself. Or more correctly, my former self. As soon as I have set a standard, I seek to beat it. As soon as a personal best is achieved, it becomes the new normal. Somewhat inevitably, as soon as I began to run more often, I sought to run faster and further.

By the time the Bugle family arrived in Yamba on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, I was thinking about a half marathon. One Thursday the sky was overcast and the air was humid. Not quite a day for the beach. I set off on my solo folly and ran to Wooloweyah, then Angourie and back to the Yamba breakwall. The hill back to home seemed steeper than I recalled, but I managed the run quite well. With a new PB, my mind began drifting. For the first time I was considering a marathon.

An old caravan beside the road near Yamba, New South Wales

An interesting feature of training for a marathon is that you tend to lose perspective of normality. When you are 15km into a 25km run, you begin to think that there is “only” 10km to go. There is no recognition that 10km is a bloody long run in its own right, or that you have already been running for over an hour and that is enough. No. You stare at your watch and watch the kilometres mount, and watch the time go by. We camped in South Ballina over Easter with some friends and they were amazed that I ran a half marathon before cooking dinner and enjoying a few drinks. The absurdity of running 21.1km on a Saturday evening on holiday was not lost on them, but it was becoming lost on me.

By this time, I was allowing myself to dream. Our plan was to arrive in Alice Springs in early August. What better way to celebrate than to run 42.2km two weeks after moving in? Although my training was always done with a loose plan, I knew that I would have to start to run further. A lot further.

My first setback, only recognised in retrospect, was playing football again. I loved my brief foray into life with the Lismore Swans, but turning up to training twice a week and playing on Saturdays didn’t leave me with much energy for 30km runs. By the time a broken finger put me out for the season, and possibly career, a month had passed where my running had plateaued.

Lismore Swans gather in the three quarter time huddle during their AFL footy match against Ballina Bombers

With my finger in a brace, I tried to take up where I left off but a bigger problem presented. It took a long time and much complaining to Dr Bugler, but after a series of tests the diagnosis was giardiasis. While not totally debilitating, my ability to run long distances was severely compromised by stomach cramps and associated dehydration. By the time the week of antibiotics did their job, 6 weeks of illness and footy had set me back a long way.

We didn’t cover as many kilometres in the car, but two weeks in Cairns re-started my quest to put kilometres in my legs. I focused on speed and interval work to give strength to my legs in the hope that when the distance increased it would seem easier. The plan had some merit. But over 2000km up the coast, I couldn’t run as far or as well as I could back in Ballina two and a half months ago.

The Esplanade in Cairns has a flat and clearly designated path. Perfect for running when counting time and distance. The greatest challenge that remained was finding the motivation and roads on which to run in outback Queensland and Northern Territory. Running also had to be planned around long days in the car. The beauty and simplicity of running was increasingly not so apparent to me.

Twin Falls during dry season in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

Four runs stand out in my mind.

1. On a dusty, rutted gravel road in far western Queensland, I ran the 10km from Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park to our campsite in Adels Grove. The grey nomads in four wheel drives must have been astounded when they came across a lonesome jogger trying to keep his ankles and knees intact on the uneven road.

2. On a 35°C day camping at the base of Gunlom Falls in Kakadu National Park, I sprinted some laps of the campground. A group of fellow campers cheered and commented each time I passed. Hot and bothered, I stopped to chat to them after I had finished. One of them had run three Melbourne Marathons and I happily listened as he related his experiences.

3. I woke early in Cooinda and ran 32km on the roads of Kakadu. I had no breakfast, no food at all, and one water stop after about 12km at a ranger station. Overnight it had barely dropped below 20°C. I was a broken and thirsty man at the end. I severely questioned my desire to run a marathon.

4. The day prior to my 34th birthday, I planned to run 34km in the Litchfield National Park. I managed 12km. My left knee decided that the camber of the road was disagreeable. The walk back to the tent had me questioning my sanity.

The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I ever wanted to run a marathon in the future, I would have to go through a similar kind of idiocy. The thought of forgoing the effort I had already made was unpalatable. If I didn’t complete the marathon now, all the effort I had gone to for my goal would have been for not much. With this in mind, I felt I had little choice.

The serene waters of Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park, Northern Territory

Redemption came in the form of remembering. Remembering what I found beautiful about running. The ability to trot off and explore without thinking. During two glorious runs on the walking trails of Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park I forgot about my times, distances and speeds. My knee thanked me for the break in repetition. I ran to the top of lookouts and watched the sun setting over stunning rock formations created by the Katherine River. I stood by myself at remote and picturesque locales, confident that my legs would carry me back to camp before dark. Instead of being driven by the kilometres and minutes on my watch, it merely recorded what I had done. Perhaps a subtle change, but an important one for my mind.

To be continued.