Book Review: The way to get up and running

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TRAILBLAZING IS nothing new for Julie Welch. Back in 1973 she broke into the bastion of the nation's press boxes as Fleet Street's first female football reporter. "It's our last acre of sacred ground," she was told by one outraged male chauvinist hack. "We don't interfere with your sewing and cooking. Why would you want to interfere with our football?"

Twenty-six years later, any football-following pen-pusher spouting such political incorrectness would risk death by handbag - and not just from the ladies. Press boxes aren't what they used to be. And we have Welch, the Emmeline Pankhurst of football writers, to thank for that quantum leap from the not-so-distant dark ages.

Long Distance Information (Macmillan, pounds 12.99) touches upon that pioneering part of Welch's life but only as one step on a marathon journey, a marathon journey of not so much self-discovery as self-acceptance. It is an autobiography with a difference - the difference being that the subject, for all her accomplishments (she won the Daily Telegraph's Young Writer of the Year Award long before her emergence on the sports pages of The Observer) considered herself to be a failure until she joined the ranks of the sporting also- rans or, in the first instance, the also-bikeds.

Welch, as it happens, is from bicycling stock. Her great uncle, Charles Kingston Welch, invented the beaded rim of the pneumatic tyre and, while on a tandem trip with his girlfriend, inspired the ditty, "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do". She did not, however, own a bicycle made for one, let alone two, when "in a moment of vainglory" she decided to cycle from the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, to the Arc de Triomphe, Paris.

It was not a smooth ride, by any means. Charles Welch's great neice lost her way as the 263 participants in Pedal to Paris, a fund-raising venture organised by the Royal British Legion, negotiated what she recalls as "the Andes of Kent". She ended up "jostling with juggernauts on the M20 for 10 minutes". But after four days of painful pedal pushing she managed to complete the 320-mile route.

"I won't claim that one cycling trip to France rid me of all self-hatred, sorrow, boredom, rage and fear forever," she writes, "but the moment when I slid off a bike and wheeled it to a war monument in a foreign city was when 48 years of failed exams, abandoned novels, missed deadlines and rejected scripts began to slip off my back."

That defining moment came in September 1996. Welch, a long-time sporting observer, has since become a dedicated sporting achiever. She has run the last three London Marathons. After the first, she reflects "how marathons mimic life, with their illusions of glory and savage pratfalls and sheer grinding miseries and very occasional raptures". And through her marathon running Welch comes to terms with her marathon life, with all its pratfalls and miseries, and in turn with her self.

Her story is both brutally frank and frankly amusing. She is a mistress of self-deprecation, though the memorable lines are not all her own. After her epic ride to Paris, for instance, a photographer says to her: "I'd say you were an adventuress...I mean, the way you take yourself off to press boxes up and down the country." Even the gnarled veterans of the press boxes would have to say that the girl has done good.