Sports presenter and author Vassos Alexander talks to RiverTribe Editor Linda Duberley about running and how it became central to his life.
Most of us moan at one time or another that we simply can’t fit fitness into our daily lives.
The pressures of work, raising a family and commitments to our social circle leave little room for the even the kind of activity that is likely to prolong our lives and enhance our happiness. The truth is, we don’t prioritise exercise or find ways of integrating it into our daily routine.
So it would benefit us all to take a look at broadcaster Vassos Alexander and how he stays fit, gets up a 4am to co-present the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on Virgin Radio and still co-parents three youngsters with his wife, Caroline.
The answer, as regular listeners know, is that he runs home from work. The studio is at London Bridge, 11 miles from his home in Barnes. Sometimes he runs in as well.
Unsurprisingly, he is a very fit man and runs seven ultra marathons a year. What did surprise me, when I met him by the river in Barnes, opposite the new Waterman’s Arms, is that his passion for running is quite literally infectious. His sheer joy at completing some of the toughest races in the world is inspirational. Within a day, I was back running along the Thames Path, an activity I shelved months ago in the cold winter months.
Running is one of the most effective forms of exercise. It sheds pounds and builds muscle. Yet, for many people it is the one activity they find hard to master – somehow expecting miracle results way too quickly. Vassos is extremely good at explaining how on the one hand you need patience and discipline, while on the other just the simple motivation to go out and get moving – even if you have to walk at intervals.
His undiluted pleasure and belief in the empowerment of running on any level could galvanize anyone – young or old, overweight or under-enthusiastic. Vassos believes, like the iconic running author Christopher McDougall, that we are born to run. He says, to some extent – disregarding injury – we can all do it; it is a matter of willingness and habit.
Vassos himself is a renowned sports commentator and writer of two books, Don’t Stop Me Now and Running Up That Hill, and has literally taken running to its highest levels. The sense of achievement he describes undoubtedly fuels his feeling of immense delight when running: “The feeling I get when I finish a 100-mile race is of real joy,” Vassos explains. “It lasts for days. I have three children and the feeling I get at the end of one of those big races is the same kind of limitless happiness I experienced at each of their births. The sense of euphoria when I cross the finish line in a long race is the same.”
His biggest achievement, by some margin, is completing the ultimate endurance race, the Spartathlon in Greece. Vassos – as his name suggests – is of Greek heritage and the race, usually held around late September, was a physical and emotional milestone.
Runners have 36 hours to run 152 miles, the equivalent of six consecutive marathons, between Athens and Sparti, the site of ancient Sparta. They have to deal with the Greek heat in the day, the cold at night, and the mountainous terrain. There are 75 checkpoints along the way, where runners are disqualified for safety reasons if they fail to meet time cut-offs.
The race begins at daybreak, at the foot of the Acropolis. Runners ascend 3,900 feet up the Sangas mountain pass and then descend 120 miles from the start line. The rest of the race is 31 miles downhill to the town of Sparti. The ultra-run is designed to replicate the epic race of Pheidippides, the Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides arrived in Sparta the day after he departed.
Although for Vassos it was the run of a lifetime, he enjoys all endurance runs and finds them a potent force for mindfulness. He runs his commute, often runs along the Thames and then fits in a lengthy spell with the family black Labrador.
“You never regret a run – even if you find it hard. Just lace up your trainers and see where they take you. Running is the most welcoming sport. With the long races there is little difference between the genders. In endurance events there is less intensity. Time does not matter and you can chat to people.”
Nevertheless, Vassos has clocked a personal best of 16 hours for a 100-miler so there can’t have been much time for chatting on that occasion.
He claims to be very disorganised with this running gear, allegedly needing the services of the kind of producer he works with on radio. On one occasion he actually turned up without his trainers and had to run over the Chilterns in his brogues.
Wife Caroline also runs, as does his youngest daughter, who notched up her first junior Parkrun just after her fourth birthday. His son is sporty too and his oldest daughter rows for her school on the Thames close to home.
Caroline and Vassos moved to Barnes 14 years ago from Earls Court with a view to raising their family in a child-friendly community. Vassos was then at Radio 5 Live. He moved to Radio 2 in 2010 and then to Virgin Radio with Chris Evans at the beginning of this year.
“The sports community has always been a love of mine. I started running in my early thirties. I wish I had started earlier, for so many reasons. You run for fitness first, then for the sense of ‘va va voom’. It sorts out your head. At first I could not run to the end of my street. Now I want to run for as long as my legs will hold out.”
Running Up That Hill is published by Bloomsbury Press. www.bloomsbury.com/uk.