The Casual Soccer Fan’s Guide to Premier League Football Clubs

A view of Tottenham Hotspur Football Stadium from the south stand
Tottenham’s palace of football

When I was a young warthog, in the ancient days following the 2010 World Cup, I emerged from the tournament with a conviction to start watching soccer again. At the time, that meant the odd televised MLS match or Saturday mornings with the English Premier League. I was quickly entranced by the skill and pace of the Premier League. The lack of commercial breaks certainly helped. Since then I’ve continued following football, moved to England, and been to (nearly) every professional football ground in London. If you’ve just finished watching the 2022 World Cup and you’re looking for a league or a club to follow, let me introduce you to the Premier League.

First up: you know about relegation, right? The bottom three clubs from the Premier League get relegated to the next division down (charmingly called the Championship) while the best three clubs from the Championship are promoted to the Premier League (technically the best two clubs with the third coming up as the winner of a playoff between teams in third through sixth). While there’s certainly good football played in the Championship, it’s the money that’s the big difference. Premier League clubs make 10x the television revenue (or more) than clubs in the Championship, which can be life-changing for a smaller club that joins the top division, or devastating for a Premier League club that is relegated and suddenly loses most of its revenue.

The Clubs:

Arsenal

Fun facts: London-based Arsenal moved from Woolwich in the southeastern part of the city to north London in 1913, to the intense frustration of the existing clubs in the region. After a backroom deal saw Arsenal promoted to the new First Division (despite only finishing fifth in the old Second Division) at the expense of neighboring Tottenham Hotspur, a 100+ year rivalry was fully cemented. Arsenal saw a leap in popularity in the early 2000s with their French coach Arsene Wenger bringing an attacking style of football that caught the eye, proved immensely successful, and captured the imaginations of the kind of people who think a knock-off handbag with a continental designer’s name on it means you’re posh.

Cheer for Arsenal if: you think Benedict Arnold was a good lad and you like a bit of peace and quiet at your football matches

Aston Villa

Fun Facts: Villa is based in the midlands (the hollowed-out former industrial region of England that’s basically English Ohio) city of Birmingham (basically Cleveland). Argentina’s penalty shootout hero and all-around madman, Emi Martinez, is Villa’s keeper, so while the football may be stodgy, the penalties will be entertaining.

Cheer for Villa if: you’re from Birmingham. 

Bournemouth

Fun facts: The beach in Bournemouth has sand, which is not true of most beaches in this country. Bournemouth, as a football club, are almost certainly playing in a division too difficult for them, which means they’ll end up relegated, but only after beating your favorite club. That relegation will likely be confirmed with a few games to spare, which will be convenient because the players will be able to nip out early for the nearby beaches. (jk jk. They’ll be off to Marbella and Mallorca.)

Cheer for Bournemouth if: you follow the Championship and have a way to watch Bournemouth in it next season

Brentford

Fun facts: Despite being founded in 1889, Brentford Football Club are named after me. The club’s owner is a childhood Brentford supporter who bought the club after making a moderate-sized fortune in the gambling industry. He brought his data analysis background to the club and has helped them achieve promotion from League One to the Championship and from the Championship to the Premier League. The club have found their recent success by being cleverer than most of the clubs around them. Unfortunately, after gambling and analytics carried them to success, they are about to lose their star striker, Ivan Toney, for a year+ due to… gambling on football. (Bit of a double-standard, innit?) 

Cheer for Brentford if: you play Football Manager or FIFA Career mode and you want to support the real-life moneyball team of the Premier League and aren’t secretly worried about them being relegated after they lose Toney

Brighton

Fun facts: Remember how in the Brentford section I mentioned that their owner made his money in gambling? He got his start in the industry by working for Brighton’s owner, and their parting of ways left a certain amount of bad blood between them. The city of Brighton is on the south coast, but the pebble beaches are categorically inferior to those at Bournemouth. As a football club, Brighton are unobjectionable. Canny ownership, a good manager, good football. Basically Brentford, but harder for me to personally reach. 

Cheer for Brighton if: you want an underdog who plays good football and is probably safe from relegation

Chelsea

Fun facts: Chelsea aren’t even based in the village of Chelsea; they’re in Fulham but couldn’t use the name because Fulham FC got there first. Previously owned by a Russian oligarch, Chelsea blazed the trail for the sportswashing we just saw at the World Cup. Their owner used the wealth of the Russian people to buy some of the best players in the world and win multiple Premier League and Champions League titles. To make it worse, the club have America’s best player, Cristian Pulisic, on the books, but have been criminally underutilizing him and are likely to sell him in the summer. 

Cheer for Chelsea if: you like kicking puppies

Crystal Palace

Fun facts: Crystal Palace are based in the south London village of Crystal Palace, which is named after a structure originally erected in Hyde Park (further north) for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The cast iron and glass edifice was moved in 1854 where it stood until it burned to the ground in 1936. The football club’s mascot is an eagle, and for a while, a local wildlife foundation would bring a living bald eagle to matches and let it fly around the stadium pre-match. Sadly, that ended in 2020 when the eagle had a heart attack and passed. 2020 was a rough year, okay.

Cheer for Crystal Palace if: you’ve ever lived in Croydon

Everton

Fun facts: Carissa’s cousin married an Irishman, and he’s a massive Everton supporter. That poor man. Everton are a middling Premier League club who have long been overshadowed by Stanley Park neighbors Liverpool FC. I’d feel bad for them, but I’d probably get punched in the teeth for saying it.

Cheer for Everton if: you’re willing to suffer

Fulham

Fun facts: Fulham are in southwest London in the village of Fulham, which wouldn’t be notable, except Chelsea FC are just down the way and their owner backed the club with a billion pounds of blood money, and Fulham’s owner built a statue of–checks notes–Michael Jackson out front. On the plus side, Fulham have historically given us Yanks a place to ply our trade, and their current squad includes Missouri native and US National Team central defender Tim Ream plus surprisingly-good-for-a-Yank leftback Antonee Robinson. 

Cheer for Fulham if: you don’t mind bouncing between the Premier League and the Championship, you want to support good-but-not-amazing Yanks, and you fancy a trip to one of the nicest parts of London to watch your football 

Leeds

Fun facts: The English have a phrase: “doing a Leeds” to describe gross financial mismanagement, poor squad building, successive relegations, and the near-destruction of a once-proud football club. After a decade in the lower leagues, Leeds returned to the Championship and managed to hire another Argentinian madman–Marcelo Bielsa–who helped them back to the Premier League. These days they’re managed by American Jesse Marsch and sport a midfield including Americans Tyler Adams and Brendan Aaronson. I don’t have the multi-generational knowledge of English football that the locals do, but Leeds were historically one of the universally-hated clubs in the country, though that seems to have mellowed after their near-destruction.

Cheer for Leeds if: you want to support the largest concentration of Americans in the Premier League 

Leicester City

Fun facts: Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 and it was such a surprise that not even a screenwriter could have written the script and had it be believable. Several of the players from that title-winning side promptly left the club, but ownership has done a good job of spending the money and solidified them as a top-half (but still mid-table) side. If you want a wild story that encapsulates modern England, read the Wagatha Christie saga sometime; one of the main characters is married to a Leicester City player.

Cheer for Leicester: if you want to be 7 years late in cheering for the underdog, but also don’t want the stress of annual relegation battles

Liverpool

Fun facts: Liverpool are a historic powerhouse of English football, but had a rough time out of the spotlight through the 90s and 2000s. They returned in the teens after their American owners (who also own the Red Sox) quietly embraced analytics and had the money to buy Very Good players, including Mohammed “Mo” Salah. A study in 2019 found that Mo’s presence in the Champions League-winning Liverpool side contributed to an 18.9% reduction in Islamophobia in the Liverpool area. Liverpool’s 2020 Premier League win was their first in nearly 30 years and cemented their place as one of the top English teams of the last decade. 

Cheer for Liverpool if: you want to jump on a massive bandwagon, but don’t want to support Manchester City

Manchester City

Fun facts: The club were massively overshadowed by Manchester United for most of their existence until Abu Dhabi decided that the Chelsea sportswashing experiment could be done bigger and better and conclusively proved that money can buy championships.  

Cheer for Manchester City if: you want to win at any cost and don’t mind blood on your hands

Manchester United

Fun facts: Manchester United were THE team of the 90s and early 00s until the (American) Glazer family purchased the club in a leveraged buy-out and drove it into the ground with poor management and a decade+ of wealth extraction. It would be sad if it weren’t so funny (as an outsider). Bloody Americans, amirite. (More like “bloody capitalism,” tbf.)

Cheer for Manchester United if: you care about The Brand more than actual success on the pitch. 

Newcastle

Fun facts: I was at the pub a couple of months ago with some local friends. One of the guys there was “Geordie Bryan.” (A Geordie is someone from Newcastle.) He was wearing a black and white Newcastle top. One of the other guys said, “Bryan, show the Yank your badge,” and Geordie Bryan lifted his top to show me the Newcastle badge tattooed on his left tit exactly where the badge was on his shirt. Geordie Bryan is the Ur-Geordie. Possibly the Ur-Englishman. In other news, the Saudis bought the club last year to see if they can pull off another sportswashing “miracle.”

Cheer for Newcastle if: you’re from Newcastle OR you want a healthy dollop of fossil-fuel-driven global warming with your inevitable on-the-pitch success

Nottingham Forest

Fun facts: Carissa and I saw them play an FA Cup match at Arsenal a couple of years ago. Their mascot, a cartoonish Sheriff of Nottingham, took the lead in a pre-match penalty shootout against Goonersaurus and still managed to lose. That’s how you know he’s English. Their owner is a Greek shipping magnate who totally wasn’t match-fixing or drug trafficking, I promise, guys.

Cheer for Nottingham Forest if: you totally didn’t threaten to murder that referee and the FA totally ignored it and let you buy a football club, anyway

Southampton

Fun facts: Southampton are another south coast city with a moderately successful football club. They’ve historically had a great academy (for youth player development) and been a club who have recruited well, turned decent players into good players, and sold them on to larger clubs for a profit. If I lived in Southampton, I’d be a satisfied season ticket holder. I do not, however, live anywhere near Southampton, so whatever.

Cheer for Southampton if: you want to see your favorite players get sold to one of the top 6 clubs for tens of millions of pounds

Tottenham Hotspur

Fun facts: After that 2010 World Cup, I spent a season watching the Premier League before choosing a club to follow more closely. At the time, I didn’t want to cheer for the English Yankees (Manchester United) or the Obviously Funded by Blood Money Club (Chelsea), but I did want to follow a team who played exciting football and would keep me entertained without feeling guilty about their off-pitch activities. It really came down to a choice between fierce rivals Arsenal and Tottenham. At the time, Tottenham had Luca Modric and Gareth Bale, who were both young, massively talented players. They both quickly forced their way out of the club to join Real Madrid and win multiple La Liga and Champions League trophies. Spurs re-invested the money poorly and limped on until Harry Kane emerged from their academy and powered them to a title challenge where the club somehow came third in a two-horse race in the season when Leicester City won the league. The last twelve years have been objectively good years for the club as they’ve established themselves firmly in the top 6 places of the Premier League, have played in European cup competitions year after year, built a magnificent stadium, and generally punched well above their (financial) weight class. And still won nothing.

Cheer for Tottenham if: you don’t mind being the bridesmaid and never the bride, don’t want to support a sportswashing empire, but still want a puncher’s chance of winning something every season (and yet always fall short)

West Ham

Fun facts: the Hammers play in east London in the Olympic Stadium that hosted the 2012 Olympics. It is the worst football ground I’ve ever been to, mostly because of the huge track that runs around the pitch and separates the fans from the action. The West Ham supporters think that Tottenham are their rivals, and the Tottenham supporters mostly forget that West Ham exists.

Cheer for West Ham if: your dad and granddad would be bitterly disappointed if you didn’t

Wolves

Fun facts: In Football Manager the club have a philosophy–based on real life–that you should sign Portuguese players. I’m not sure the exact relationship between the owners and the player agents that drives this, but there’s something fishy going on here. You might expect someone to investigate, but that would assume that FIFA weren’t making money on the whole enterprise somehow. I don’t actually have anything against Wolves, but I don’t think the good times can last.

Cheer for Wolves if: you’re from Wolverhampton (or Portugal) and want to see roleplayers for the Portuguese national team ply their trade. 

Conclusion

If you don’t have any prior allegiances, watch the rest of this season and pick a club to follow who catches your eye (and hopefully aren’t built on an empire of human rights abuses). The above list will give you a tongue-in-cheek idea about each club, but there’s also a germ of truth in most of the descriptions.

Or, and bear with me here, you can follow Spurs and learn the true meaning of pathos, the essence of human frailty, where you have the talent, you have the opportunity, but you reach for success only to fail at the last moment, falling on your own sword over and over again.

Sounds a lot like my marathon experience, actually.

New Story Day! The Regolith Eaters

Another new story?!?

I know, right! That’s three in basically a month. There are times of famine, and there are times of feasting, and apparently, this is a time of feasting. Which is a metaphor entirely appropriate for this story.

The Regolith Eaters is online at Martian Magazine. This is a fun horrific little story that I tried in a few forms until I decided to try my hand at a drabble* (for about the third time ever) and it just fell into place.

Am I bothered by repeating the word “leg” near the end? Yes! Can I change it now? No! Am I still proud of this little story? Also yes!

Fun fact: I stole the title of the story from a card in the board game Terraforming Mars. The story itself is vaguely inspired by the game since it is, technically, about terraforming Mars.

*a drabble is a story that is exactly 100 words

New Story Day! Three Resurrections and the Warm, Embracing Earth

My story “Three Resurrections and the Warm, Embracing Earth” is out today in the wonderful British magazine Shoreline of Infinity. This one isn’t a gimmick. It’s a raw, painful story about separation and sacrifice, told from the point of view of a woman called to war by a necromancer and forced to fight battle after battle through death after death, all while haunted by a creeping realization that she’s left something important behind.

New Story Day!

Gratuitous Aela photo. (Cheering for the USA during the World Cup)

You all know that I love a good gimmick story, and I cooked up a wild one this time. My story “First Sergeant Xelos Nesteroy’s Christmas List, care of Admiral Almay, Seventh Fleet, Interstellar Navy” is live today at The Dread Machine. It’s a Christmas list from a prisoner of war, addressed to the admiral who let him be captured. It’s inspired by Starship Troopers and Children of Time, but it’s a Brent story, so it Goes Places. Also, it’s a Brent story, so it’s only about 3 pages.

Santorini; Or: The Great Octopus Hunt

View from the crater in Fira

Around a decade ago I found myself in Astoria, Queens sitting across a dinner table from my pal Carey, who was trying to convince me to try the grilled octopus he had just ordered. “Trust me,” he said. “I was skeptical, too.” Or something like that. I’m using some dramatic license here. I was definitely skeptical, though. Octopus? Like, the grabby bastards that pulled wooden ships to their wat’ry doom? No, that was kraken, he explained. I, a Missouri rube, was not as enlightened as Carey, a recent Missouri to New York transplant. The octopus arrived. A pink and white tube of meat, charred and half-covered in blackened suckers, lay on the plate amid a swirl of olive oil dashed with oregano. It didn’t look appetizing, but my culinary philosophy was “I’ll try anything once.” Carey cut himself a chunk, popped it in his mouth, and moaned slightly.

My first bite was more tentative. A little piece, with no suckers. It practically melted on my tongue. The flavor came through as something like chicken, with hints of char from the grill and a bit of seasoning from the olive oil and oregano. The texture, though, was what really elevated it. Firm, yet buttery with enough tooth that you knew it was meat, but so tender that it couldn’t possibly be meat. “Try a bite with the suckers,” Carey said. “They’re the best part.” I did. They crunched a little, adding even more texture to an already mind-blowing mouthfeel. He was right. They were, in fact, the best part.

Reader, I’ve been chasing that high ever since. The chase has stretched from New York to Florida, from London to Lisbon, from Italy to–most recently–Greece. I’m not saying I planned a family vacation around my hunt for the world’s best octopus, but I’m not saying it wasn’t on my mind, either.

Carissa, doing her best to emulate a Greek goddess

Planning for this started in May. I had a milestone birthday in October, and it was the same week the kids were out of school for their midterm break. With Covid interrupting travel for the last two years, I wanted to do something special. My first thought was Portugal, but I’ve been there a number of times for work, and I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t already been.

A few years ago I was sitting in a bar in Reno talking to one of the sales guys at work, and he mentioned how the most amazing place he had ever been was Santorini. This was a guy who basically lived on the road and had been successful enough in his career to be able to go anywhere he wanted. That comment lodged itself in my brain. In May, when I was looking at destinations, Santorini came to mind. With the busy season in Santorini being in the summer, there were plenty of hotel rooms and flights in late October. I checked with Carissa–who was convinced the moment she saw the photos–and booked the trip.

After some quick research, there were three things I wanted to do, for sure. Take a boat tour of the island’s beaches, hike down the island’s spine from Fira to Oia (ee-UH), and continue The Great Octopus Hunt.

If you look at a map of Santorini, you’ll see that it’s a crescent-shaped island with more islands in the middle and another off on the west side.

A map of the island of Santorini. Screenshot from Google Maps.
From Google Maps. Click for more details. We stayed in Fira, which is where the map says “Thera”

Originally Santorini was one large, circular volcanic island and home to a village on the southern edge near where the map shows Akrotiri. That lasted until about 1700 BC when the volcano erupted. Much of the island ended up submerged and what was left ended up covered in lava, ash, and mud. The village was inundated with mud, and the island’s physical shape was forever changed.

Sometimes the cliffs just collapse

Our first full day included breakfast at the hotel on the patio outside our suite. When I booked the rooms, I didn’t realize how nice the breakfast would be. That was a delightful surprise. We wandered Fira, the island’s capital and largest village, for a bit, then caught our bus to Vlychada on the island’s southern shore. The boat tour took us west past Red Beach, White Beach, the black cliffs, and the island’s caldera. Red Beach is a product of the iron the volcano ejected. White Beach–only reachable by boat–is named after the white cliffs overlooking it and is actually a black pebbly beach with shockingly clear waters.

The water is especially clear due to the larger sediment

The black cliffs (I’m struggling to find the actual name) are another product of the volcano and include a bunch of linked caves only reachable by divers. I was hoping we would have time to hike on the caldera, but the tour only included a swim in the volcano-warmed waters near it. The scenery wasn’t as impressive as the beaches, but it was interesting to swim in such sulfur-rich water. Well, I thought so until I realized that my damp swimming shorts were stinking up the closet two days later and I had to give them a thorough rinsing.

The author, swimming in the sulfurous caldera waters

The real pinnacle of the sailing was the sunset. We had already seen one sunset from the crater’s rim at the hotel, but seeing it from the water was even better.

The famous Santorini sunset as seen from the water

The second full day was the hiking day. I led the girls out of Fira, through the neighboring villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli, and out to Skaros Rock. The stairs down to the rock ended at the ruins of a fortress that fell into disuse after a series of earthquakes in the 1800s. We wanted to climb out to the top of the rock, but the path up to it involved more actual climbing than we were prepared to do. (Two of our party thought hiking in their Air Force Ones was a good idea.) After Skaros we climbed back up to Imerovigli and continued along the trail toward Oia. A few different churches clung to the hills, their white walls and blue domes little oases amid the dusty rocks and withered grape vines. It wasn’t hot, but it was definitely warm, and the anti-hiking whining crescendoed a kilometer short of Oia.

That’s Oia in the far distance. We hiked the crater’s rim around to the right and into the village

Fortunately, we made it to Oia without anyone dying of dehydration or sunstroke, and a bit of ice cream helped revive morale. We wandered through the warren of alleys that is Oia–I may have led the party astray with a poorly chosen turn–and made our way down another long flight of steps to Ammoudi Bay and a little taverna right on the waterfront. 

Oia, as seen from the steps down to Ammoudi Bay

The Great Octopus Hunt resumed at Dimitris Taverna with a local beer, a half liter of local white wine, and an order of grilled octopus. My expectations were tempered. Not only do I still have a high bar to clear from Taverna Kyclades in Astoria, but I’ve also had A LOT of mediocre octopus over the years. Did you know that people willingly make boiled octopus? And that they serve it cold? I learned that the hard way. A few times. Dimitris, though. Dimitris delivered.

The elusive S-Tier grilled octopus

I’m not going to say it was better than Taverna Kyclades, but I will say that they are both S-Tier. We ended up ordering a giant seafood platter that included more octopus, but the second order was a bit tough and overcooked. It was still better than the boiled appetizers I’ve had at other places, but only B-Tier at best. 

The octopus on the platter was meh, but the rest of it was divine

We had three full days in Santorini, and I didn’t have concrete plans for day 3. The options were to catch the bus to Akrotiri and see the ruins, book a boat to take us to the caldera for a hike on the active part of the volcano, or tour a winery. All three were supposed to be reasonably fun activities, but Carissa and I are both history buffs (and the girls refused to go hiking again). We went down to Akrotiri and wandered the ruins. In retrospect, I probably should have booked a guide, but it was plenty impressive to see the village and read the plaques describing the excavations. The building itself was fascinating, too. It had wonderful natural light and was pleasantly cool inside. All with minimal energy usage. 

The mudflow from the volcano protected the site for 2500+ years. These are the vases the excavation team uncovered from among the many dwellings and storage buildings

We watched the sunset at the hotel again, then wandered Fira to find dinner. I had a few places in mind, but they were a bit too low-scale for our tastes that evening, and my nicer option was already closed for the season. After a bit of recalibration, we found a place on the edge of the cliff and settled in for another round of The Great Octopus Hunt. As ever, I assumed the worst. We ordered another big seafood platter, and the octopus was actually pretty decent. Not quite to the heights of the first taste in Greece, but better than the second batch. We’ll call it A-Tier. (If you’re wondering how S-Tier is better than A-Tier, just roll with it. You clearly don’t spend enough time on the internet; that’s probably for the best.)

The octopus was A-Tier, the fish was also A-Tier, but the squid was rubber

It wouldn’t be a family vacation if everything went to plan. We had a minor wobble Sunday evening. The plan was to take the train to Gatwick, stay at a hotel by the airport, and fly out early Monday morning. We made it as far as Clapham Junction where we learned that there were no trains leaving Victoria, therefore our path to Gatwick was blocked. We solved that problem by paying for an Uber to take us to the hotel. The real wobble came in Greece on the way home. We were flying Ryanair to Milan and EasyJet from Milan to London. I was able to check in online for the EasyJet flight with no issues. When I tried to check in for Ryanair, it gave me an error on the youngest child’s birthday. After trying two browsers and the airline’s app, I figured I’d just go to the airport a little early and get a boarding pass printed. LITTLE DID I KNOW that Ryanair charges 55 EUROS PER PERSON for in-person check-in. I tried to explain that I would have done it online but their system was giving me errors with no clues on how to solve them, but the clerk manifestly did not care. The message was to pay up or find another airline. I grudgingly paid because what else was I going to do? There was some follow-on drama with the staff that I don’t want to get into here, but we were ultimately able to get out of Greece on schedule and get home on schedule, if unnecessarily poorer. It was absolutely extortion, and it will be a good, long while before I give Ryanair another cent. 

Setting aside Ryanair being shambolic, we had a lovely trip. The boat tour was phenomenal. The company was wonderful. The Great Octopus Hunt was a resounding success. The hunt, however, will continue. Much like life itself, The Great Octopus Hunt is about the journey more than it is the destination. May your own journies be as fulfilling and delicious.

The tables at Dimitris were right on the edge of the pier with a perfect view of the harbor and beyond

Publication News: The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide to 21st Century Attire

My short story “The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide to 21st Century Attire” is out in the POST ROE Alternatives: Fighting Back anthology. Like much of my work, this is a story with a grim undertone. Also like much of my work, it has a good gimmick. In this case, it’s written as if it’s a guide to style with perfectly sensible advice for suits, shirts, shoes, and ties, but there’s a thread of story woven into it, and it turns into a look at what it’s like to live in a country where the police think they’re the military and that civilians are their enemies. Modern America, in other words.

Most of my friends will likely enjoy this story. Most of my family probably won’t.

Every Run Is A Gift, Loch Ness Marathon Edition

This is going to be a long post about running with a family anecdote at the end. Skip to the last section if you’re just here for kid stories.

The author, on the home stretch, already thinking about the bratwurst waiting on the other side of the finish line

Background

I’ve been running fairly consistently since mid-2020. I started with some 10ks in the first year and moved on to a half-marathon in the autumn of 2021. Somewhere around mile 11 of 13, I was calling past Brent an idiot for signing up for a 13-mile race, thinking I’d never do that again, and that only utter lunatics would run 13 miles in one go and then do it all over again. I finished the race, had a protein bar, and started thinking about how I’d tackle the next one to run it faster. 

My second half in April 2022 was a much better experience, in which I felt like I was fully in control throughout the race and crossed the finish line with enough gas left in the tank (charge left in the battery?) to keep going a few more miles. I finished that race and started thinking about running a full marathon in the autumn.

But why?

I’ve heard that a lot over the last few months. Why would you run that far? Why would you subject yourself to that?

The marathon is a different beast from running 10ks and half-marathons. The human body normally only stores enough glycogen to get you through 18 to 20 miles of running, so if you’re not carb-loading in advance or taking on sugars on race day, you’re likely to experience what runners call “hitting the wall,” i.e. glycogen depletion and the ensuing muscle cramps that can turn 23 miles of good running into a hellish 3-mile shuffle to the finish. Add to that the usual muscle strains, overheating, and the non-zero chance of cardiac arrest, and the marathon comes with a level of risk that doesn’t exist at shorter distances. You can get all the health benefits of regular exercise without running any races, and shorter distances come with the same completion medals and t-shirts. 

So, Brent, why?

I’m a middle-class, middle-aged white man with a good job in tech. I have a loving wife, two well-behaved children, a dog, a cat, and a hedgehog. There is minimal pain and suffering in my daily life. There are limited places in my life where I can push myself to my perceived limits. This was a chance to explore those limits in a way that came with big upsides (better overall health, stress reduction from regular exercise) and–if I was smart about it–limited downsides.

Training Lead-up

Maybe there are people who have an uninterrupted training block, but in two years I haven’t managed one yet. Going into April’s half-marathon I was fighting knee issues from trying to do too much, too soon. I came out of it with a goal of doing nothing but base building for a fall marathon. Lots of easy, long runs with a few strides here and there, but no dedicated speed sessions. Things were going great into late June when The Virus struck.

Three days of fever followed by three more days of major fatigue put a crimp in my plans. I was wary of stressing my heart by returning to training too soon, so I ramped up over the next two weeks. Somewhere shortly after that, my knees were aching something fierce. I knew from prior experience that I had to back off the mileage and increase the rehab exercises or what felt like patellar tendinopathy would turn into full-blown patellar femoral pain syndrome. The last week of June and all of July were basically shot.

The River Ness lapping against the shore of the Ness Islands
The Ness Islands

I was finally able to run consistently again from early August. I made it through August with a modified training plan that culminated in two final long runs of 17.5 and 20 miles in early September. Those runs each sucked after about 15 miles, but they gave me the confidence that I could finish 26.2, and they also gave me opportunities to test my race day nutrition plan. I averaged something like 35 miles a week over the final six weeks, with a peak of about 40. This was supposed to be more like 50 on average with a peak near 60, but I didn’t have time to safely build to that volume.

My taper coincided with a trip to the States for work. I did some light running while I was there, but put in fewer miles than a real training plan would expect.

Pre-race
The girls and I flew from London to Inverness Friday evening, which gave us all of Saturday to wander Inverness and pick up race packets. I grabbed mine while Carissa and the girls signed up to run the 5k with our friends–the Diullos–who were visiting from the States. We admired the castle and went for a stroll along the River Ness and the Ness Islands where the girls would be running (walking) the next day. I went back to our room for a nap. Carissa, the girls, and the Diullos went on an adventure down the loch, including driving up to some castle that was apparently off-limits. They had a good time, I had a good nap, and we met again at the Fig & Thistle restaurant for an excellent pre-race dinner. 

I was up early on race morning and off to the bus pickup spot for a 7:30 departure. I expected the ride to the starting line to take about an hour, and my mental model was that we would drive the most direct path to get there, following the course in reverse. Instead, the bus went along the road on the northwest side of the loch, down to Fort Augustus, and back up to the starting line. I was getting worried as we went up and down the hills and through switchback after switchback. It turned out that this was because the road on that side is two lanes, and the road we followed during the race was mostly one lane. My worries were unfounded, thankfully.

The trip to the start line was my first view of the loch. The sun peeked over the hills and shone down golden through scattered clouds. The loch glistened below us, whitecaps racing each other before a fresh southwestern breeze. I didn’t expect to see the sailboats moored in the loch, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. The loch is a perfect place to spread a full press of sail and glide along for 20+ miles. 

Loch Ness on a sunny autumn morning
The view from the bus window on the way to the starting line

We rounded Fort Augustus and climbed up into the hills. The bus motor strained, and I wondered if we’d have to run to our marathon. The road turned into a single-lane track with highland lakes on one side and hills dotted with sheep on the other. I’m not sure where exactly the waterfall was, but at some point we passed some falls that must have been a couple of hundred meters tall with water falling from ledge to ledge and running out to the loch in the distance. I don’t have pictures of it all, but that’s a deficiency I want to correct in the future. The highlands are stunningly beautiful, and I want to go back when I have more time to spend exploring them.

The race organizers had three groups of portaloos. The biggest batch, near the baggage dropoff trucks, had a horrific queue. If you’re running this race in the future, walk a bit further up the hill to the next set of loos with shorter queues. Or do what many of us did and find a quiet pine tree to water off to the side of the starting area. 

The clouds, hills, and bracken of the highlands
The view from the edge of the starting area

A special shout out to the young lads and lassies who piped us over the starting line. You were incredible. Video on Insta:

https://www.instagram.com/p/CjN0hk6D9-b/

Race
Things were congested to start, which wasn’t a surprise given that there were 2500 people all running down the same single-lane highland road. After getting into the wrong corral for the Richmond Half, I made sure to start in the middle of the 4:00 corral for Loch Ness. The race started with a long downhill, which made for a nice warm-up after a chilly wait. I tried to stay around my target 9:00 pace, but it was even slower in the first mile due to congestion. The first few miles were easy, and I wasn’t fooled by my quads complaining or the blister that was sure to derail me and turned out to be absolutely nothing. 

I responded to Carissa’s messages a few times, took a couple of selfies with the loch, and basically ran a controlled race up to the halfway point. I wasn’t seriously racing, which was thoroughly proven when I saw the halfway point and sent my running buddy in New York (sup, Carey) some shitposts on WhatsApp. I was passing people fairly often in the first half of the race, which worried me a little. Everything I had read said that a marathon is a 20-mile warmup and a 6-mile race, and the people doing the passing in the first half are the ones on the side of the road in the second half. I was running at the pace I expected, so I kept at it and hoped for the best. 

Going into the race I had 7 SiS gels in my vest, 2 packets of Tailwind split between 500mL flasks, and an extra packet of caffeinated Tailwind in a pocket. The idea was to take gels every half hour, sip the Tailwind between aid stations, drink a little water at the aid stations, and refill a flask with the final pack of caffeinated Tailwind around mile 18 when I started to flag.

I cruised from the halfway point up to mile 18, still regularly passing people, and still felt good. I ended up skipping the flask refill and drank some extra water instead.

The author on the shore of Loch Ness
You know it’s a Serious Business race when there’s time for a selfie

My feet were aching, but I felt better after 18 miles of marathon pace than I had on my 17.5 mile training run at an easier pace. My legs were tired but didn’t feel even close to cramping. The worst issue up to then was that there were a few times when I started to feel the gels coming back up, but even then it wasn’t ever a real danger.  

Just past mile 18, the course starts sloping uphill through mile 20. I mostly jogged up the hills, with a few places where I slowed to walk for a few strides to catch my breath before heaving back into rhythm. At the top of the climb, the road sloped into a long, glorious downhill. I checked my watch, did some math in my head, and decided that I hadn’t come all that way to miss my sub-4:00 goal by a minute. Baby, I ran. I pelted downhill as fast as my tired legs would carry me. It wasn’t–objectively–all that fast, but at the time it felt amazing. I powered on through 22, 23, and 24 miles. I was feeling the effects of the increased pace and repeating my race mantra, “Every run is a gift. Every run is a gift. Every run is a gift.” The footbridge across the River Ness approached. I could hear the crowd across the river at the finish line cheering. All I had left was the wobbly bridge and a sprint to the finish.

Then the spectators pointed to the next bridge another half mile down the road. 

Honestly, at that exact moment, I was gutted. I slogged my way to the far bridge, across, and back along the river. At the 26-mile marker I forced myself to pick it up again, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it across in under four hours. I didn’t. Sorry. There’s no Disney finish. I crossed at 4:01:14. I had come all that way, only to miss it at the last. 

Race Stats
Goals
A: sub-4:00: No
B: Get to the start line healthy: Yes
C: Get to the finish line healthy: Yes

My goals were not aggressive. Based on my half marathon time, I should have been able to run a full marathon in around 4 hours. That was always what I had in mind, but the most important things were getting to the start line healthy and finishing the race healthy. 

Splits
(Mile/km splits are too annoying to format on the blog)
Half time: 1:59:32
Full time: 4:01:14 
Details are on Strava if you’re a runner and want to dig deeper.

I was aiming for sub-4:00, but I am still happy to have gotten close to it. The 4:01 is better than what the 538 marathon predictor thought I’d do, given my training volume and past race finishes. 

Post-race
I crossed the line and collected my medal, shirt, and a goodie bag full of tinned soup, porridge, and low-sodium salt. (Seriously. Tinned soup. Thank the race sponsor, I guess.) I also collected a banana, some water, and an alcohol-free beer. The water, banana, and a couple of protein bars went down well. The beer I couldn’t manage, and I was fresh out of can openers for the soup. Carissa did pick me up a bratwurst on the way out, which was maybe the best bratwurst I had ever had in my life until I dropped the last 1/3 of it when the bun gave way. I’m more devastated about losing that brat than I am missing my target time.

We didn’t have much time between the race ending and our flight from Inverness back to London, but I was able to swing by the Diullos’ rental to grab a quick shower and change into warm clothes. They even gave us a lift to the airport. Thanks, Diullos! 

It was a good race. I had no idea what to expect given it was my first full marathon and the disruption to my training. In retrospect, I feel like I was in control the whole way. I was never close to hitting the wall. Even the final mile that was rough was only rough because I had run myself into my lactate threshold, and I couldn’t hold the pace. Looking back at the splits, even if I had held my pace for that last mile, I would have missed sub-4:00. I needed to be a little smarter at the beginning of the race and paced more consistently on the flats.

All in all, I had a great time, and I am pretty sure I have another 10, 15, maybe 20 minutes of easy noob gains to pick up in the next 6-12 months.

Gear

The race day gear in all its poorly-lit glory

From top to bottom:

Shirt: white race shirt from a Kew 10k. It was soft, well-loved, and I knew it wouldn’t cause any problems.

Shorts: Tracksmith 5″ Session shorts. These are my favorite shorts ever. They’re soft, comfortable, light, and slightly stretchy. If they had pockets, they’d be the perfect shorts. 

Socks: Balega Hidden Comfort. These have been my goto running socks for the last 18 months. I have three pairs, and I snap at anyone in my house who tries to borrow them.

Shoes: Saucony Speed 2s in the Campfire Story colorway. Did you know that bright shoes make you run faster? It’s true. (It’s not true.) These are blaze orange and have glow-in-the-dark soles. They also have a nylon plate that’s supposed to make you run faster. That might actually be true. What I can say is, they were good. My feet ached a bit from about mile 18 onward, but my knees and ankles had zero issues. 

Vest: Salomon Advanced Skin 12 with two 500ml flasks. I’ve been running with this vest all year. I like it for training, but in retrospect, I think I’ll find a way to race without it going forward. That will probably mean trading out the Session shorts for some tights that will let me carry my phone and gels. Or maybe get a Flipbelt. We’ll see.

Anti-chafing stick: Squirrel’s Nut Butter. This was a relatively recent acquisition, but I started getting some chafing on 15+ mile runs, so I picked up a stick before my 17.5 and 20-mile long runs. Liberal application to the groin and nipples eliminated all chafing.

Nutrition: SiS Go Isotonic Energy and Tailwind. The SiS gels don’t require extra water, which is nice and supposedly means they’re easier on your stomach. I had zero issues with them on training runs or during the race, so I suppose they work. Tailwind is supposed to be the same way, and I took some in my flasks. I felt like I was on a 26-mile snack run, and I never even glimpsed the wall.

Pre-race sweats: Some cheap sweatshirts and sweatpants from Poundland. I looked for cheaper charity shop options but didn’t find any in Twickenham. For 11 quid, I can’t really complain. They were soft and warm.

Apple Watch Series 6, not pictured: this is the non-data-enabled version. I generally like the watch since it lets me train without carrying a phone or a debit card, and I make use of the WorkOutdoors app to track my runs (and upload from there to Strava), plus Apple Podcasts and Spotify, both offline. The battery held up with no issues, but the heart rate monitor was terrible for basically the whole race. I plan to experiment with a chest strap heart rate monitor for my next training block, so hopefully that solves the issue. In retrospect, given how much I run, I wish I had gotten the watch with mobile data on it; it would have been nice to put my phone into the bag drop and run with nothing but the gels in my pocket.

What’s Next
Before the race, I had already signed up for the London Winter 10k in February. I’ll spend October recovering from the marathon with mostly short, easy runs, then get back onto a training plan for the Winter 10k. I’ve also entered the ballot for the London marathon in April and the Berlin marathon next September. Odds are high that I won’t get into either of them, but I’d happily run either (or even both) if I get lucky. Assuming I don’t get into them, I’ll probably aim for a half marathon sometime next spring and another full somewhere interesting next autumn. Maybe I’ll finally do that trip back to Germany and run in Munich.

Family Anecdote
While the kids were out exploring while I was napping on Saturday, they went to the loch and took a bunch of photos. They also, apparently, collected some souvenirs. When we went through security at Inverness airport to fly back to London, the eldest child’s bag was pulled aside. The security person had her open it and move some things around until she came up with two sizable rocks. I don’t mean little arrowhead-sized things. I mean big, honking bricks. Those things probably weighed 8 lbs each. Unfortunately, they were confiscated. When the security worker went to dispose of them, she was caught between heaving two giant rocks into her waste bin (and presumably ripping the bag) or just leaving them on the floor for someone else to deal with. She chose the second option.

We went on into the terminal and found some empty seats. The younger child reached into her jacket pocket, produced a smaller, palm-sized stone, and sat it on the table for her sister to admire. You’ll never see a creature smugger than the little sister who got something over on her older sister. 

She didn’t even run 26 miles yesterday

Publication News: The Mission Continues

The inspirations

Apparently I’m terrible at noticing these things, but I had a new story published at the end of May. The Mission Continues is available now at Factor Four Magazine. I was trying to brainstorm a topic, and Fezzik and Aela were chomping on each other, as they do. It got me to thinking about writing a cleverly disguised pet story about pets that actually get along. Dozer and Digger are post-apocalyptic robots trying to complete a long-standing mission of replanting a devastated Earth. It’s the story of their friendship, but it’s also a story about autocracy.

Four Years (and Change)

There’s wayyy more dog under the water that you can’t see (thanks to the eldest child for the photo)

This summer marks four years since we moved from the Ozarks to London. We’ve survived a global pandemic, multiple heat waves, and the brilliant idea of adopting a puppy and a kitten at the same time. 

The pandemic did, eventually, catch up to us. Both the youngest child and I had positive tests in late June and early July. It was a miserable experience, and not one I want to repeat. I had a fever and sore joints for three days. Those eased up, but a sore throat, persistent cough, and general fatigue hung around for a few more days. Eventually, after about a week, I was down to a mild cough. In the time we’ve been in London, I’ve been wiped out a few other times by viruses that ran their course in a couple days. This was much worse and for much longer. I feel fortunate that covid didn’t impact me as much as it did some of my coworkers, and even more fortunate that I was able to get back to running after about three weeks. 

Gratuitous food pic so Brittany isn’t disappointed

Speaking of running, I’m in the middle of a marathon training block for a race in October. Post-covid I tried to ease my way back to my prior mileage, but it was a bit too much for my knees to handle. I’ve had to lower my training targets, but that still means I’m running 30 miles a week and will be in the 40s when I hit the peak in late August and early September. 

I have not yet taken Aela out running, but her day is coming. Fetch is life, but hopefully, she’ll take well to running with me once I get through this marathon. We’ll practice a bit between now and then, too. She’s gotten past the worst of the chewing, but at the cost of four sets of headphones, countless boxes, and my 20-year-old Serengeti sunglasses. I did, finally, have to replace them. 

The weather in England has been sunny and hot this summer. This is a country where most homes don’t have air conditioning. Not only that but they’re built to retain heat. Historically, we spend much of the winter around freezing with highs in the (I’m switching to Fahrenheit for the Yanks) 40s. When you’re heating the house with hot water pumped to radiators in each room, you want the building to hold the heat. Summers are usually more like highs in the low 70s. This summer we recorded the nation’s highest-ever temperature of about 105. Add a drought to that, and this is a very crunchy, very brown island.  

That boy loves him some dog food

Despite Aela’s best efforts, Fezzik is still alive and well. They fight like, well, cats and dogs. I understand the cliche now, okay. It would go easier for him if he didn’t try to steal her dog food at every opportunity. Or if he didn’t periodically race past her and swat her in the face. We joke in the house that Aela is smart, for a dog. Well, Fezzik is dumb, for a cat. It’s opposite ends of the pet intelligence bell curve in here. 

Stealing more pictures from the kids. Aela loves the paddleboard as much as they do

The kids are well. We–mostly the eldest child, to be fair–survived the nearly two months of GCSE (general certificate of secondary education) exams. Results are coming later this month. Imagine taking the SATs, but you have to take them every day for the better part of two months. The education system in this country feels practically foreign at times. The youngest child had school until mid-July, but she’s on break now, too. Both kids and the dog have been spending the last week taking the paddleboard out on the Thames. It’s very much tbd on which of the three of them like the paddleboard the best, and in this heat, it’s hard to blame them. 

A day out in Tottenham with new sunglasses and a pretty lady

Football is back. The England women’s team won the European Championship a couple weeks ago. The youngest child and I were able to get to the Germany vs Austria match at Brentford. We had a lovely time. Last weekend Carissa and I went out to Tottenham for Spurs’ Premier League opener. It was beautiful weather, the nicest stadium in the world, and the home team won. We had a great day out. 

The writing continues, albeit slowly. I’ve written a few short stories this summer and sent them out on submission. I’m stalled on two novels. One needs edits; the other needs me to finish the first draft. The combination of being busy with work, busy with running, and having Fezzik and Aela around has reduced my time and energy to a point that writing has had to take a back seat for a while. I’ll work more diligently on both novels again in a few months, once I get through the marathon and a few trips. 

Take care of yourselves, folks.

He’s as dumb as he is cute, and he’s mighty cute

Publication News: Retirement Options for (Too) Successful Space Entrepreneurs

I am delighted to have a new story out in the May/June 2022 issue of Analog Science Fiction. “Retirement Options for (Too) Successful Space Entrepreneurs” is the story of a space entrepreneur who has achieved his goals, but found that he hasn’t quite realized his dreams. It’s a story about food, regret, and doing a little good in the world.

You can read it via most major newsstands and bookstores, or through the Analog website. My personal suggestion is to go visit your nearest independent bookshop and buy all the copies on the shelf.

Selling this story to Analog was the realization of a long-time goal when I started writing. Analog is one of the big, historical markets for SF, and having them buy one of my stories is a validation that I am, in fact, getting better at this whole writing thing.

I just re-read the story. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written. You should read it, too.

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