Running Repairs

The sin of pride

Nick Cohen blames testosterone for his latest sports injury

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Astute readers of this column — as if there is any other kind — will have noticed an uncharacteristic note of vainglory in my last piece. Having described the hell that was my first cross-country race across the rain-soaked, mud-choked playing fields of Merchant Taylors’ School, Herts, I concluded with the brag: “My time over 8k was 42m and 14s. At Merchant Taylors’ next race, I will be much faster.”

Now 42m and 14s is not fast by the standards of good runners or even half-decent runners. But it wasn’t a terrible time over 8k (five actual miles). People still finished behind me. Not many, I grant you, but still I’d like to see you lot try it. And as I said when I made that brave, proud promise to you, I expected to be able to train and strengthen and return for Merchant Taylors’ next race where I would smash my old time to smithereens.

It didn’t happen for a reason that has caused codpieces, spats, floral ties, steroid abuse, great art, scientific breakthroughs, pub fights, all wars, most divorces and the high fade with textured quiff: male vanity. 

There is a plausible argument that masculinity is the cause of my infirmity

So determined was I not to be overtaken I forced myself forward driving my spikes into the mud until I felt a twang in my left calf. The pull wasn’t so bad and I finished the race in a reasonable time — 42m and 14s, as I believe I’ve already mentioned. I returned to the car with my so-called friend Martin, who enticed me into the extreme sport of cross-country racing, and felt only a dull pain at the back of the leg. Soreness is normal after races and training sessions so I thought nothing off it.

The next morning, the pain was still there, and I realised I had torn a muscle. Not seriously, and if I had put ice on it and rested I would have been fine. Male vanity prevented me. I was determined to come back to running stronger than ever before. I threw myself into building up my injured body. 

I tried single leg calf raises, where you stand on one leg and then go up on your toes, bent leg calf raises (ditto, but you are in a crouch), hip raises where you lie on the floor and push your pelvis up towards the ceiling in a frankly revolting manner, and many more involving weights and giant elastic bands. 

The result was that I turned a minor tear in my left leg into a major tear. I also tore my hitherto uninjured right calf. I have been out for weeks.

Why do I keep doing this? I know runners are most likely to injure themselves when they go faster than they have trained for or they expand their weekly mileage volume too quickly. Yet I have torn my left calf three times in races and torn it again by trying to come back from injury too fast. 

I do not want to pass responsibility for my impatience and stupidity to the entire male sex. I am sure there are women runners who are just as foolish as I am. But there is a plausible argument that masculinity is the cause of my infirmity.

The evidence comes from ultra-marathons, which take runners over unimaginable distances and incredibly tough terrain. Men appeared to have the advantage in ultras as in all sports: longer legs, bigger heart, greater glycogen stores and, of course, more testosterone. But something new is happening in the ultras. 

In 2016, Nicky Spinks broke the record for the double Bob Graham round, which essentially forces competitors to run round the Lake District — twice. The magnificent Jasmin Paris not only won the 268-mile Pennine Way race in 2019, she knocked 12 hours off the course record. In the Utah desert and New Zealand’s forests women are beating men.

Women are less likely to be egotistical and to burn out by dashing ahead

Women’s higher levels of body fat undoubtedly help when dealing with extreme levels of endurance. But so too does mental endurance. One theory holds that women are better than men at pacing themselves and controlling their emotions so they can prepare for what is ahead. They are less likely to be egotistical and to burn out by dashing ahead. In the longest running races, and increasingly in the longest swimming and cycling events, these psychological advantages are starting to tell.

I am not repeating a sexist stereotype. Academic studies of marathon results show that women are more likely than men to keep close to an even pace throughout the race. The difference may be the result of social conditioning rather than innate capacity. Society tends to reward girls less than boys for being competitive and taking risks.

If it is, I need intensive social conditioning now. The way I am treating my legs it is doubtful I will be able to walk soon, let alone run.

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