May, then. How did we get here so quickly? Where the blazes is 2013 going? I cannot believe that we are five months in already, and it is already two since the Liverpool Half Marathon, the last time I was going through all this pre-race build up malarkey. Port Sunlight is looming; it’s the final few days and I’m putting the finishing touches to my preparation. I’ve got my race number. I’m checking myself for aches, sprains and general wear and tear. Sick of too much bloody running. The long, hard, sweaty weeks are all behind me now.
Well, not quite. Yes, it’s the final few days before the run, yes I’ve got my number and I’m finalising the details for the race, and yes I am sick of running. But training?
Let me explain. The first three months of 2013 were pretty hellish at times. There was, as you very well may be aware, a lot of running. Looking back, it was probably the hardest I have ever dedicated myself to a run, and I include the marathon in that. Now I know a bit of mileage is pretty much a pre-requisite of training for an event of any size or shape, unless you are one of the three people I saw walking within 100 metres of the start in Liverpool obviously. The trouble is though, I had gotten it in my massive stupid head that I simply had to beat my sub 1:30 target that time around, and with that I based my whole life around training, eating right, and generally looking after myself and thankfully, I was rewarded with a new PB which may very well stand for the rest of my life, such was the sheer magnitude with which I obliterated my previous best. A proud day.
As I touched on in my last post though this isn’t always the way it goes, and for the Port Sunlight 10k, which takes place this Sunday, it most definitely isn’t. Not even close. I haven’t set a training plan. I haven’t thought about pacing, race tactics, what I’m going to wear. I haven’t replaced my shoes. I haven’t been eating particularly well. I have had a couple of ridiculously boozy weekends. Most worrying of all though, I haven’t been running.
The figures speak for themselves. Just look at 2013 to date: In January, I went out and did 18 runs. In February, one more than that, despite the shorter month. March: 14, including the half marathon. April: seven. And May so far? Zero. Nada. Diddly squat. Bugger all. Right now, I should be relaxing, basking in the knowledge that I am ready for Sunday, hundreds of miles in my legs, and one eye on keeping every kilometre under the magic four-minute mark to hit a sub-40 time on race day. And yet, my last run was over a month ago on April 12th. I haven’t done a single weekend run since the half marathon on March 17th. And the eight runs that I have done since haven’t even been proper training, I was just running home from work. There have been no interval sessions, no fartlek training, no hills, no long slow Sundays. Just eight gentle jogs home from the office, through Ardwick with my work clothes in my rucksack. And that’s it. Done.
It’s the complete antithesis to the opening three months of the year, and with Sunday fast approaching I’m entering brave new territory here. Or extremely stupid, depending on your viewpoint. Never before I have I gone into a run with so little preparation, even Standalone last October I managed two or three runs before the big day. This time I will be going in totally unprepared and I have no idea what to expect.
I know what you’re probably thinking, and that’s that there’s still time to get a couple in before Sunday without knackering myself up too much for the race itself. After all, for Standalone I didn’t start training until a few days before the race, and that didn’t go too badly. The trouble is though, I’m not sure I can do even that this time. As it turns out, I’ve grown rather fond of a slightly faster form of exercise: riding my bike. Fed up with shitty hot, slow, Magic Buses, taking an hour to get home from work and paying £8.50 a week for the privilege, I have decided that getting to work in under 20 minutes under my own steam on my lovely racing bike is infinitely preferable. And l sure as hell ain’t going for a run after I get back from doing that. Weekday biathlons are most definitely not my thing.
The focus of my weekends has changed completely too, with a horrible long run on the Sunday following a quiet night in replaced by a gentle potter around some country lanes with a couple of friends and a few ales on the way, or a quick shuttle to the park for a kickabout in the sun (once). All very agreeable, but I’m not sure I can count any of it as any sort of training.
So that’s where I’m at as it stands. I like think that all the ridiculous running for the first 14 weeks of 2013 might stand me in some sort of decent stead for this Sunday, and anyway it’s not like I’ve been totally exercise free for the past two months while I’ve been gradually drifting away from running about. My stamina should be OK, even if I have been piling into the cake and ale a fair bit lately (not simultaneously). And one major advantage is that for once I have no aches or niggles; I’m the least-injured I think I have ever been going into a run.
What could be interesting though is seeing if my body has changed at all over the past few weeks, gradually becoming more accustomed to a less strenuous, rotational exercise motion, rather than relentlessly pounding concrete for hours on end. Maybe I’m talking utter drivel, I don’t know. I have noticed even just doing the ten mile round trip to and from work every day has become a damn sight easier though, pushing a much higher gear on the way home than I was a month ago (there’s no difference on the way into work – I have to go slowly so as possible to prevent being a sweaty mess until 11am). If my legs have started to become used to doing this though, is it at the detriment to my running? Have my muscles developed differently? Will my feet and joints be able to take a pounding round The Wirral in a few days time?
It’s a sense of the deep unknown really, and if it does go tits up on Sunday I’ve only got myself to blame. As I’ve hinted at in the past though, I don’t want to always have to base my entire life around running. Yea I like to go for it every so often, and I’m overjoyed when it pays off. It makes it all worthwhile. Sometimes though it’s nice to just enjoy life a bit more, to be a little more “normal”. More sociable, less dedicated, more easy going. I suppose there may be some sort of a happy medium between training the absolute living shit out of myself, and not doing anything at all, but perhaps that’s something to ponder for another day. It’s too bloody late now.
I always feel a bit strange during the days and weeks following a race, especially one that I have actually worked pretty hard training for. The change in lifestyle in the build up to a race is a gradual process; more mileage, better diet, less drinking. The change in lifestyle after finishing is pretty much immediate; no mileage, crap diet, lots of drinking. It tends to follow a familiar pattern, first established in 2009 when I embarked on my first ever training plan for the Great Manchester 10k:
On Sunday 17th March, I went immediately to a German bierkeller, drank one of the most satisfying lagers of my life, followed it up with far too much wheat beer and then spent the rest of the afternoon in a slight daze before a 4pm bedtime. Probably blame that on the 13.1 mile run though, yea?
The magnitude of the post-race build down tends to be roughly proportional to the intensity of the pre-race buildup. As with the marathon, a dedicated and strenuous few weeks of training resulted in a serious and uncoordinated release of energy, celebrating hitting my target on the streets of Liverpool, in this case with – once reawakened - an evening of German beers, Guinness, ridiculously strong cocktails and chilli dogs, and then a terrible hungover sick outside (and inside) Liverpool Cathedral 12 hours later. Just like the pros do it, I’m sure.
For some races, such as those with lacklustre training and missed targets like the Silverstone half in 2012 or the Mersey Tunnel 10k in 2011, it’s usually a case of a more circumspect evening with a couple of beers and curry. After the jog round the Standalone 10k in October on the back of two or three training runs and five beers the night before, I sat on a coach for six hours heading back to Manchester. There was no celebration.
Deciding on the intensity of the buildup however is very much more of a subjective affair, mostly depending on how seriously I am taking it. I remember researching that very first training plan for the Great Manchester 10k, aiming for a sub-40 run. Once I had a target in mind, I looked at compiling training plans online. I put in in the number of days per week I would like to run for. Three, that seems reasonable, I thought. That sounds like a lot of running. And it was for me back then. A couple of runs in the week, then a longer one on the Saturday or Sunday. It felt like a lot, and having a semblance of structure to what I was doing felt good, instead of just running when I could be arsed (once a week, if that) and then playing football on Saturday. I did it for two months, and then I beat my PB by a couple of minutes and got under sub-40 for the first and only time. Well well well, all this training malarkey works.
The Great North Run was up next, which involved a slightly longer and more intense training programme as I tried to get myself ready to run mileage into double figures for the first time ever. Apart from the fact some of the longer runs made me feel like I was going to crap my pants, that all went rather well too, and I ran 13.1 miles in one go and managed to hit my target of a sub 1:30 at the first attempt.
Since then I’ve always made a point of putting together a training plan for a race, no matter what the occasion. How do decide how seriously I am going to take an event though? How hard I am going to train? How many of the runs on my training plan I will actually do? How many times I will go home early on a night out, or avoid going out completely because of the run the next day? I don’t, really, if I’m honest. It just sort of pans out that way. Often it’s a case of “the best laid plans” as I have a target in mind, but then something gets in the way, such as illness last year. Sometimes I lose the willpower a bit and cave to bad eating or drinking habits, or decide the weather isn’t right to go out and I’d rather sit in my pants playing Pro Evo. Then the race suffers and I think, oh well I gave it a pretty good go. Every so often though, I decide to absolutely go for it. Everything aligns. Every single thing I do is dedicated towards achieving something specific; getting round 26.2 miles. Getting round half that in an hour and a half. A sub-40 minute 10k, or a sub-19 minute 5K.
With these ones, serious sacrifices are made: no drinking. Staying in. Cancelling things. Running, running and more running. And then when it’s all over, the struggle to adjust back to normality as, suddenly, instantly, a massive chunk of my life has been removed. I have my evenings and weekends back, I have more time with my family, my friends. And unfortunately for them, they all have me back in their lives, boring them senseless with the stories of all the sacrifices I made in the weeks previous just so I could run a bit faster and then bore of all of you about it on here.
Weekend runs do not exist any more. Evening runs are suddenly half as long. Dinner time is no longer 9:30pm, bedtime is after 10. Normality. I remember writing this after the marathon, as that bloody thing had encompassed my entire life for pretty much half a year, and then suddenly, just like that, it was gone. And it’s been the same with this by and large.
So what’s next then? Regular readers will be aware of my next event at the Port Sunlight 10k 0n 19th May, where I was planning on continuing my run of success and aiming for a sub-40. A dedicated training plan to hit that though would have meant starting pretty much straight after the half marathon, and if I’m being honest, I’ve not really fancied it. The first quarter of 2013 involved four or five weekday runs, and then at least one run over the weekend, usually the Sunday slog, and I’ve enjoyed not having to base everything I do around that any more. I’ve run home from work a few times, been out on the bike a bit, but generally that’s been about it. I’ve not run on a weekend for over six weeks. I’ve been to the pub. I’ve been to gigs. I’ve been to the football. I’ve been enjoying the aftermath.
It’s taken me a few days to decide how best to approach this one. It’s been difficult to try to put my thoughts into words and adequately describe the range of emotions I felt on Sunday morning, starting and finishing on the very spot where I stumbled over the line after running 26.2 miles back in 2011. It was a strange day, a run like no other I had ever done before, veering at times from total panic and despair to stunning elation, and everything in between.
So much was going through my head on the morning of the race. The pessimist I am, I was convinced that I had already failed in my attempt to get under an hour and a half. Nothing had gone spectacularly wrong, but for some reason driving over I was probably the most nervous I have ever been approaching the start of a race. How was the weather going to be? Had I eaten correctly? Had I slept enough? The answer to the last one was an emphatic no, as I had gone to bed far too late and then spent six hours drifting in and out of a weird, restless sleep, full of nerves and thoughts of failure following my last attempt at the target at Silverstone a year ago. But with the knowledge of how much work I had put into this one in the back of my head, with weeks of training in my legs and over 300 miles covered, I was terrified that all that good work could be undone by something as seemingly trivial as eating too much pasta the night before or simply the wind off the Irish Sea trashing the last four miles of my race.
My nerves were definitely not helped by a sudden realisation strolling up to the line that we were in serious danger of missing the 9am start. Usually I would aim to arrive a bit before and attempt to stand as close to the front as I can so that I avoid the crush that can occur at the bigger events while everyone sorts themselves out. Here though, strolling past the Liverpool Arena with less than five minutes until KO and over half a mile still to go to the start line, it suddenly hit home what was happening. Breaking into a jog, I arrived at Pier Head to hear the countdown to the start. The jog became a sprint, and with a quick “good luck” to my fellow athlete, I shot across the road literally seconds before the first runners hammered round and past me, onto the opening yards of the run. And then panic really set in. It was impossible to join the start pens at any point other than the very rear, which meant starting dead last, behind potentially as many as 8,400 people according to the press blurb. I watched the start time roll on; one minute, two minutes, three minutes. And still we weren’t moving. I knew that my time would be from crossing the startline rather than from the time the gun went off, but I also knew that the opening miles were likely to be extremely congested. I began compiling the race report blog in my head, “The Best Laid Plans”, documenting how weeks of suffering in training all went out the window in the space of a few minutes due to my complete inability to tell the time, and another attempt at the sub 1:30 was to end in failure before I had even ran a yard.
Finally, I got over the startline and the race was on, a full seven minutes after starting gun had been fired. Seven long minutes that dragged on beyond all compare, full of thoughts of failure, of anger, of sadness and remorse. But now at least I was on my way and the adrenaline of the event took over. Whatever mistakes I had already made went to the back of my mind; I had a half marathon to run. As feared though, the opening sections were pretty hellish. Instead of a nice steady opening pace, checking how I was feeling and making sure I was not going too fast, I was coming up against hundreds and hundreds of people running at totally different paces, doing their races and sticking to their own plan for the day. I felt like such a horrible rude bastard, striding up behind people minding their own business, cutting through the middle of them and weaving across to where there was the most room for the next overtake. If you are reading this and I spoiled your race at the beginning – I’m so, so sorry. I tried not to barge through at all and instead take my time waiting for gaps to appear. This was at the expense of my own race early on, as energy was wasted slowing down, speeding up and riding on and off the foot-high kerbs along the centre of Princes Road, but I couldn’t let my own stupidity in arriving at the start late ruin other people’s race. I’d made my bed and I wasn’t going to force other people to lie in it.
Thankfully after three or so miles we were heading into Sefton Park, with wider pathways and thinner crowds. I had been keeping an eye on my pace throughout, knowing that anything under 6:52 a mile was good. Miraculously, despite the problems at the start (and the hill on Parliament Street) I had more or less achieved this which gave me a bit of confidence. I just hoped I’d not knackered myself up too badly doing it. Mile four slipped past in 6:37. Mile five, 6:40. Hang on, was I was running too fast? I felt great; barely out of breath, no sign of injury or dehydration. I had to consciously hold myself back at times, yet I was still running 10-15 seconds faster than my target pace. Mile six: 6:45. I began to think of the final section of the run, downhill and then flat with the wind behind me. If I could keep this up I would be in a great position to hit my target.
With over half the race done, we began to drop down through Otterspool Park and towards the promenade which would be the long sweep back to the finish. Apart from one 7 minute mile as we went through a congested underpass, every mile was now significantly under my target time. Mile ten: 6:39. This was getting ridiculous. Entering the 11th mile it was suddenly brave new territory. I had never gone this fast for this long before. I’d had a good couple of training ten milers, but nothing like this. I kept thinking, the crash is coming, the crash is coming. Mile eleven: 6:42. Still ten seconds per mile faster than I needed to go. Still I felt comfortable. Only two miles left. This was now the furthest I had run in the new lighter shoes – was an injury looming around the corner to ruin everything? The wind was behind me, the terrain flat. Mile twelve: 6:41. Holy shit I’m going to do this.
The last mile was a bit of a blur, to be honest. I’d already clocked in my head I only had to do something like an eight minute mile to hit my target, and suddenly the pressure was off. I came past the Liverpool Arena for the second time on the day, this time faster, less panicked. I was starting to feel dizzy, elated. The hard work was done. The big crowds were there, cheering, applauding. I flashed past where my supporting crew were stood. I never saw them, but I heard them shout. I knew where the startline was now, how far I had to go. I sprinted past the 13 mile marker and onto the home straight then I honestly cannot remember the last few yards. I was aware of the crowds, of the clapping, but emotion took over completely. Surely I had done it. Surely the split times had been right. Surely my Garmin hadn’t been lying to me. I collected my medal, stumbling along in a daze. Then I looked down at my watch, barely daring to change it onto the “total race time” screen.
I almost collapsed with joy. I had not only hit my sub 1:30 target, I had done that and also obliterated my personal best by nearly 90 seconds, and last year’s Silverstone attempt by over two and half minutes. I felt like hugging someone. I shook the guy’s hand who had finished alongside me but I didn’t hug him, that might possibly have been a bit weird.
Going into the race I’d had a feeling in the back of my mind an idea that I should be able to shave off the 36 seconds I needed after Silverstone get under 1:30 again. A longer, harder training plan. A month off drinking. New, lighter shoes. Cooler weather. The trial 13.1 mile run the week before in heavier shoes and with the second half into a horrific headwind had delivered a 1:29:18, so I kinda suspected it was possible, but I tried not to think about it too much in case I jinxed it. So much can go wrong on the day, and in fact after half a mile on Sunday I was convinced it already had. Not so.
The weirdest thing is, I actually think there might possibly be more to come. When I think how much energy I must have wasted over the first couple of miles, when I think about how slowly I negotiated the underpass, or the strange muddy, grassy bank before heading onto the promenade, and when I think about the congestion I got caught in down some of the narrower parts of the course just after half distance. I feel like I can shave this time down still further. Or blow up at the end because I ran faster elsewhere – either/or, I guess.
Whether I want to put that kind of pressure on myself again or not though, I don’t know. The perfectionist in me would have liked to have gone one tiny second faster to get into the 1:27s, but that’s not important now. What’s important is I have finally achieved something I set out to do. A target I’ve had in mind for longer than this blog has even existed. And I’ve done it starting from the back of the field, surging past all and sundry like Sebastian Vettel at Brazil last year. I was 478th over the line out of 6,714 finishers, meaning I probably overtook over 6,000 people over the 88 minutes I was running. 68 people a minute, or roughly one a second. Even better, my race time elevated me up to 213th place, which makes me feel enormously proud of myself and makes all that training worthwhile.
Days like Sunday remind me why I put myself through all this absolute nonsense, really. The pain and suffering on the bad days is far, far outweighed by the amazing feeling when you finally achieve something you set out to do. Hitting a target. Running a new PB. Completing a marathon. Storming over the line to hundreds of people shouting and cheering. I have achieved all of these things on the streets of Liverpool, a place that is fast becoming increasingly fond in my heart every time I go back there. And, I can now once again look Sefton Park and Upper Parliament Street in the eye without shuddering in fear after the dreadful hell of miles 16-23 in the marathon. It’s nice to end a blog on a high for once – I did what I set out to do. The failures of 2012 are fast becoming a trick of the mind. And so now, it’s onwards, upwards and onto Port Sunlight in May for a sub-40 10k attempt.
And so onto the now-customary pre-race blog, with the run looming into view. It’s now less than 48 hours now to go until I return to the streets of Liverpool for the first run there since 2011, and pretty much all the training is now behind me. Done. Complete. Finito. In the barn, as my old marathon trainer Jeff Gaudette used to say. 68 runs were scheduled, two remain; a Saturday warm up and then the race itself. Endgame.
Happily, I’m feeling a lot better going into this one than I have for a while, with many of the aches and strains of last year yet to rear their ugly heads. I do have a bit of a grumble in one foot, which to be honest does feel a bit serious, but it doesn’t seem to affect me too much while actually running so I am hoping Sunday won’t be an issue and then I can rest it for a bit after I’m done. It’s not surprising that I might have some issue or other really when I look back at the running I’ve been doing though. February was the big month, with over 127 miles covered (including a 47 mile week last week), and March has already seen my poor feet glide and stumble over a further 71.2. Dizzying numbers, but all essential if I am going to hit my target on Sunday.
All this extra running is beginning to have one or two extra side-effects though. First up, constant feelings of being absolutely shattered, pretty much all the time except for, bizarrely, while running. Maybe the adrenaline of the run staves off the emotions while actually out doing it, but on more than one occasion this past week I’ve got back, climbed the two flights of stairs to my flat, and then collapsed in a sweaty heap as soon as I have got in, feeling like I could spend the rest of the evening there, curled up on the foetal position whimpering and telling myself everything is going to be OK. Bedtime in the evening is now usually 10pm, and what I would give to be able to have an afternoon (and/or morning) siesta under my desk at work. Although two months into a new job perhaps that’s not the best idea I’ve ever had.
The other overriding feeling, which may or may not be a disadvantage depending on your point of view, is being absolutely and ravenously starving hungry, pretty much from the moment I first wake up to the minute before I nod off to sleep. As the weekly mileage have crept up approaching half a century, I’ve found that I need to shovel more and more into my massive gob to keep me well fuelled as I do it. Now I love a good slap up feed from time to time, but it’s starting to become an expensive habit. I’ve basically removed one costly vice (drinking) I’ve replaced it with another. Four or five meals a day is not uncommon, and I mean actual meals rather than snacks in between. Last Saturday I had two breakfasts, two lunches, a family dinner before an evening out and then half a pizza when I got back in at 11pm. And at no point did I feel like I was forcing that in – I was hungry every time.
The Thursday before that I had an eight mile fartlek session in store, the day after a six mile jog home. And I ate:
That is frankly obscene, writing it all down like that. The amount I am eating ashames me a bit, in many ways, but the trouble is it feels essential. Well, most of it. You can take the cakes and biscuits out (one of the perils of working in a large office, that), but the rest is fuel for the engine – rice, bread, bananas, eggs. An average run will burn around 800 calories according to my Runkeeper app, with some of the longer ones nearly double that. Now I don’t really know what any of that means but it sounds a lot, and it makes me hungry, so to the kitchen I go.
I don’t remember ploughing through quite as much food when training for the marathon a couple of years ago, but then I think I can safely say that this is the hardest I have ever trained for a run when I look back over the past three months. Yea the marathon had a few slightly longer runs, but I was never running six or seven times a week, and some of the sessions I have been running have been pretty brutal. I hope I never have to run another hilly interval session as long as I live. Although I probably will, let’s be honest.
All that mileage has served a purpose though, incorporating runs of varying pace, length and intensity. Short jogs, fast sprints, long, slow trundles and everything in between. It seems to be having the desired effect as most runs now seem a damn sight easier than a few weeks ago, and even last weekend’s monster 15 miler into the centre of Manchester and back via Chorlton really didn’t feel like that big of a deal at the time, apart from the general tedium. I have done a couple of comfortable 10 mile sessions at such a pace that I will beat my half marathon personal best if I can keep it up for another three miles, and all of a sudden I have a feeling of quiet confidence going into Sunday.
There is a lot that can still go wrong though. The weather is always a worry, with the last four miles along the Mersey riverfront being particularly exposed if it’s windy. There’s still plenty of time to pick up an injury by walking into something or falling over knowing my recent record. I have inadvertently been trying my best to injure myself this week by walking into an oven door, smacking my knee on a pub bench and going for a full-on stack across a wet bathroom floor, but as yet nothing has struck me down, touchwood. Oh, and finally, my new lighter, less supported running shoes could either be a stroke of genius or an absolute nightmare over the distance. The biggest worry I have at this stage though is having to go back to eating normal sized portions of food. But first: 13.1 miles.
As I head into March with a half marathon looming into view for the second year running, I’ve looked back to last year and decided that probably one of the biggest factors that affected me (other than the weirdly stifling heat on the day) is the fact that right up until the week before the run I was still drinking here and there. I remember posting the pre-race blog for Silverstone while working my way through two glasses of wine with only a couple of days to go and sadly I don’t think I can count it as carb-loading, or claim the grapes are one of my five-a-day. So this time around I made a conscious decision to, as with the marathon, have a few weeks off in the buildup to the race and give myself the best possible chance of hitting my target on the day.
So, with that in mind, what better way to say goodbye to the booze but with a railway journey across the Pennines, stopping at some of the oldest and best pubs in the North West as part of the Transpennine Real Ale Trail. Everything seemed to fall into place for it to happen on Sunday 17th February; it was exactly a month until the run, Huddersfield were at home to Premier League opposition in the FA Cup with tickets for a tenner, and most importantly, the weather was absolutely brilliant after a month of cold, depressing sleety greyness. I’ve wanted to have a bash at this for a while, and although I wouldn’t be able to manage the whole thing due to predictable rail replacement buses shagging up my schedule, it would mean I had more time to spend in the early pubs on the trip and hopefully longer to sample more delicious local ales I’d never tried before.
The first pub on the trip was one of the strangest, and yet probably the most special, all at the same time. Built into the station platform itself, the Stalybridge Buffet Bar is nearly 130 years old, yet still has the original bar from when it was first built, along with many of the original fittings and stuff. It is widely renowned as a true ale-drinker’s paradise, and standing outside I ran through in my head the traditional image of a station pub; garish, full of fruit machines and with warm Fosters on sale for £4 a pint, and I wished they all could be more like this one. Before realising I’d probably never reach my intended destination if that were the case.
Unfortunately, it was the scene for the first cock up of the day as I arrived a full half hour before opening and was forced to stand like Paul Gascoigne, waiting for the pub to open on a Sunday morning. Depressing. Luckily the weather was probably the best it had been so far this year and so sat on the platform gazing out over the hills, I felt pretty content with life. And I hadn’t even had the first beer of the day yet.
Shortly before opening, a couple joined me and I felt a little better about myself, before we piled in and the ale trail was officially on, kicked off with a Liverpool Organic IPA (6.5%) and an egg and bacon muffin. I felt the muffin would atone for the 6%+ opening salvo. And then, all of a sudden, within half an hour of the pub opening it was heaving. This well-trodden route has become increasingly popular over the years, apparently more so since 2009 when it appeared on BBC TV. Before setting off, I’d read a fair bit about the large groups that now frequent the route, and all the locals complaining of hordes of people in fancy dress, swigging cans and pissing over platforms and in front gardens, meaning plenty of Old Bill everywhere and pubs serving you in plastic pint pots. Here though was just a bustling Sunday lunchtime, and it was enormously pleasant. After a swift second, a rather odd cloudy, smoky effort from Outstanding Beers (White, 5%) it was onto Greenfield.
The Railway Inn stands a minute’s walk from tiny Greenfield station, and walking in I was greeted with the unfortunate pairing of a totally empty pub and Chelsea battering Brentford in the FA Cup, rounded off with John Terry of all people knocking in the fourth and final goal. An inauspicious start, but a very pleasant boozer all in all, with a fine selection of ales and especially ciders. Coupled with the fantastic beer terrace on the edge of a cliff with a view down into the valley, this would make a cracking destination for summer drinking. One of the great British pleasures for me is sitting out in a beer garden, whiling away the afternoon with a pint or two. It’s such a rarity getting a chance to do it, especially in the North West, so you when the opportunity presents itself, you grab it with both hands. I will be back.
The beers themselves were good – a slightly disappointing Theakston’s Lightfoot (4.1%) followed by an absolutely stunning Millstone Tiger Rut (4%), a big fruity, refreshing summer ale. Probably in my top three for the day, and light enough for a lengthy session in the garden. Apparently they do shit hot pork pies as well, but on this occasion it was not to be, as an apologetic barman informed me they were sold out, and “not to rub it in, but they’re amazing“. So, beginning to feel a little lightheaded already, I headed on my way, but not before knocking one of the carefully placed vases of daffodils over and spilling water over my entire corner of the pub.
Stumbling off the train at Marsden, I hit the first real snag of the day: no mobile data reception, and right in the middle of the first place of the day where I had no idea where the correct pub was for the trail. Sure, there was one across the road, and it would have probably been a perfectly good hostelry, but I was after the big gun: The Riverhead Brewery and Tap Dining Room, a microbrewery serving around five of their own beers and a similar number of guest efforts. So I did the natural thing and just followed gravity, down a massive hill and into the centre of Marsden. And there, shining like a beacon, it was.
Now I don’t know if it was just the increasing levels of real ale flowing through my veins, but each pub seemed to be better than the one that preceded it, and so it proved again here. This place was fantastic, with far, far too much choice of what to order. The natural starting point was the Riverhead Premium (5.5%). Anything with “premium” in the name’s gotta be good, right? It certainly was in this case, rich and sweet with a lovely aftertaste, swiftly followed by their March Haigh (4.6%). Then, aware time was running out I necked a Rat Brewery Rattus Rattus (I am not making this up! 4.3%) which was a delicious wheat beer, and it was time to bid Marsden a hazy farewell.
With kick off fast approaching I was forced to skip the next stop, Slaithwaite, and I headed straight to Huddersfield which would mean exactly half the ale trail would be done today. Talk about unfinished business, you can expect another one of these blogs later in 2013. Unbelievably, Huddersfield station goes one better than Stalybridge and actually has two pubs built into it, both proper boozers as well with a scarcely believable range of ales and ciders. But there was no time for that now – I scurried off to John Smith Stadium for a serving of fairly terrible football and even worse pies. I’m serious – Huddersfield served me the worst football pie I have ever had. They actually ran out over half time (unforgivable) and when I finally got one after dashing back down on 50 minutes it was flavourless and overcooked so badly I could flip it upsidedown to eat it, using its own lid as a sort of plate. Absolute rubbish. One of the key factors when judging an away day is the quality of the football pie, and Huddersfield FC erred badly here. Sadly the result of the football was never really in doubt either, as Wigan easily passed Huddersfield off the pitch and romped home 1-4; there would be no giant-killing here.
Feeling a bit deflated, it was time to hit the last three pubs of the day; the two at the station and another recommended to me, The Sportsman. This place was bloody brilliant, and absolutely heaving with it being on the main route back from the ground into town. An outrageous selection of beers, as well as separate pie and cheese menus, I was genuinely gutted to leave after just one. Luckily it was a good one, and possibly the best of the day – Redwillow Soulless (7.2%). A dark IPA, served in a chalice, it was rich and decadent, and just the thing to banish the memory of the dreadful attempt at a football pie back at the stadium.
Next up, The Kings Head was the sort of place I could spend a whole evening in easily; a menu of beers running into double figures, good prices and live music. I timed it so the live music had just finished, which about summed up a lot of my luck on the day, but the beer was diverse and interesting; first up Yorkshire Dales “High Sleets” (4.5%) and then a bizarre white stout from Durham Brewery (7.2%) which to be honest didn’t taste (or look) like a stout to me. It was extremely enjoyable though and a lot lighter than its “stout” moniker would suggest. There’s a good chance my tastebuds were fucked at this point though as it was all going distinctly hazy. A final stop in The Head of Steam for a McGrath’s Stout (4.3%) which was a big, proper stout, served with a bag of pork scratchings, and that was it. No more booze until March 17th.
It was a strong finish to the day, and I can safely say that I did not have one beer that didn’t have something to offer. There were a couple of slightly bland efforts, but generally it was day of weird and wonderful ales, many local, and many like nothing I had ever drank before. Nothing was quite as it seemed; white stouts, dark IPAs, smoky wheat beers and huge, rich ales. And now a few new names of breweries to look for on the taps in future.
It was also a very “British” day out, travelling over lush, rolling, fells, drinking in timeless boozers and watching the oldest cup competition in the footballing world. It’s days like this that remind me how much this country has to offer. Living in the North West, and working in Ardwick in particular, it’s easy to become disillusioned with England and yearn for sunnier climes. Walking to work past patches of desolate wasteland through the soaking drizzle. Out training in 40mph winds and freezing sleet. One good sunny weekend per year where there’s an opportunity to actually sit out and enjoy a beer garden or have a kickabout with your mates in the park. But where else in the world could you take such a scenic journey, stopping off every 10 minutes to visit a drinking establishment older than anyone alive on this earth and pick from a menu of over 10 beers that you’d never seen before?
There’s something deeply comforting about a truly great pub, and to the best of my knowledge it’s not something that you can ever get anywhere else other than the UK & Ireland, other than crap, overpriced themed bars in most capital cities the world over. I love going abroad, exploring new cultures and (Iceland excepted) enjoying the weather. But I would always long to come back and spend an afternoon in the pub with a few ales and good company, and I suppose as I get older, that’s unlikely to ever change. Long may it continue.
Back in early January, while recovering from the Christmas excesses, I spent some time putting together my first training plan of the year, aiming towards a non-specific half marathon in March. I had a choice of four dates for the run, all on consecutive weekends: Silverstone (been there done that, literally got the T-shirt), Milton Keynes (flat, roundabouty, probably dull), Liverpool (emotional) or Wilmslow (already full).
I eventually plumped for Liverpool. I had such good memories from the marathon I’ve wanted to go back and do another run there for a while. As a half marathon, it avoided the first 13 miles round dirty Birkenhead entirely (and that fucking tunnel), and concentrated on the north side of the river only, through the centre of Liverpool, out round Sefton Park and back along the waterfront. So with a date now in mind, I mapped out my training plan for the coming months, totted up the expected mileage, and to my great annoyance that sickening feeling hit me that I would yet again need to splash out on a new pair of running shoes before the big day.
Now people always say that running is about as cheap and pure a form of sport as there is – you simply go out and do it. And they are right to a point I guess. If you go and run a couple of miles two or three times a week you probably won’t feel the need to get another pair of shoes until they are literally falling apart, which will probably take years. But when you become an obsessive idiot like I am, it all becomes a bit more serious – and expensive. I’m now on my sixth pair of running shoes, and at an average of around £70 a pop that’s a lot of cash just to make myself feel like shit every other day or so.
My first pair – Puma H Street (purchased 2006)
I didn’t actually know until today what these were called, I had to look on the internet, and it wasn’t the easiest job trying to find a nondescript pair of Puma running shoes from 2006. They cost me £20 from TK Maxx and the sole was made of Goodyear tyres. I have no idea why someone thought that a tyre off a racing car would be a good compound for a running shoe, but I liked to imagine this would give me some sort of edge.
I’ll never know how many miles I ran in them, but they were in a right old state when I bid them an emotional farewell in 2011. No tread, sole hanging off, that sort of thing. I still miss them though – they got me into all this nonsense and I ran my very first event in them, the 2008 Sport Relief mile, which I actually won because I took it all A Bit Too Seriously and everyone else was there for a nice, fun charity day out. 75% of the field walked it, and some were actually pushing their kids in pushchairs. Five years on I still can’t work out if I am proud of this or not.
Unbelievably, somewhere is still selling them – go knock yourself out.
My first proper pair – Brooks GTS9 (2009)
Again I had no idea what these were called when I bought them. In the build up to the 2009 Great Manchester Run I was trying to do a sub 40-minute 10k and I had failed three times previously. I decided drastic action was called for and went to see a man in a proper running shop. He put me on a treadmill, looked how I was running then recommended me a pair of shoes and asked for £90. I nearly knocked him out. Up until then the most expensive pair of shoes I had ever bought was probably a pair of football boots for a third of that price. I trusted the man in the shop though, and walked out destitute. And then, a month later I smashed my 10k personal best and ran the Great Manchester Run in 39.29. I am still yet to beat this. Four months later, I did my first half-marathon and ran 1:29:38, which again I’ve never bettered. The man in the shop was right.
Replacements – Asics GT2160 (2011)
This was where it all began to get a bit serious. I’d accidentally signed up for a marathon. I needed help. I’d had the other pair for two years. Surely they were no good for a summer of training followed by a marathon? The obvious answer was no, and even when buying them I had the nagging feeling that such was the effort involved in training I’d need another pair for the big day itself. And so it turned out.
When I bought these I still didn’t know what I was doing. I went back to the man in the shop with the old pair, asked for another and was told “we don’t do those any more, have these instead”. Just under 500 miles later, this pair are actually still in use for my short, slower runs, such as jogging home from work. They still have a bit of spring in them and although I’ve never done an actual race in them, they are a good, workmanlike pair that I keep going back to fairly often.
Good enough for 26.2 miles – Brooks GTS11 (2011)
With a month to go until the marathon, I did a bit of research. I found out what the pair were that I’d done so well in back in 2009, and ordered the latest model online saving myself a few quid. I felt a bit sad that I hadn’t gone to the man in the shop, and who knows what I would have been recommended, but I felt like I knew what I was doing a bit now. The first run I did in them was amazing, the second not so much. 20 miles the day immediately after, including calf pains and fatigue from about half distance onwards. Had I made a terrible mistake? The marathon was looming into view, I couldn’t afford another pair, and I couldn’t take these back now I’d worn them. So I went for it. And although I again cramped up, it was at around 23 miles which was the furthest I’d ever ran. I’ll never know if the shoes caused it, or if it was just the sheer distance I was running, but I got round in the bugger anyway so I must have been doing something right.
I also did the Silverstone half-marathon in these five months later, and the We Love Manchester 10k a few weeks after that, but they were pretty shot by then and I had a bit of a mare towards the end of both races. Maybe they are cursed. Maybe I picked the wrong ones when I bought them. Maybe Brooks just didn’t make as good a shoe this time around. Who knows.
More of the same – Brooks GTS12 (2012)
By last August, the 11s had now done well over 500 miles which is quite a bit beyond what you should use them for. I was still out running every so often even with no event to train for, so I bought the 2012 edition of the same shoe. Wearing them for the first time, I was a little disappointed as they didn’t have that new shoe spring and bounce that I know and love, in fact they felt a bit too firm for my liking, and this hasn’t really changed as I’ve worn them in. But I’m yet to cramp up wearing them so maybe the softness of the 11s was the problem. I also yet to run over 12 miles in them though so that’s possibly more likely the cause.
Now well over halfway through their life, I’ve never really had a chance to test them in anger sadly, as I bought them just before my bout of illness in August. I was hoping they might give me the odd top 3 finish at the South Manchester Parkrun, but the one time I wore them round there was when my body decided to tell me I had Man Flu halfway round and I nearly keeled over. I’ve not been back since. I went round Standalone in a decent time in them but I’ve not yet seen what they can do when push really comes to shove.
An unknown quantity – Mizuno Elixir 8 (2013)
Much as I’ve had some cracking runs in the Brooks GTS series, a lot of the best ones were nearly four years ago now, and although they were obviously recommended to me for a reason, I’ve started to have a nagging feeling that there must be a smaller, less chunky, shoe that will still give me some of the support I need. After a lot of research, I came to the conclusion that these were the ones for me. I have no idea what to expect from these really, as I have only ever run in full-on support shoes. Opening the box, they felt ridiculously small and light compared to what I am used to. They’ll definitely be good for the shorter runs and speedwork training, but whether I go with them for a full 13.1 mile race in three weeks time I am not yet sure yet.
So that’s where I’m at currently. Roughly a new pair every year, and goodness knows how far I have now run in total. Just on the four pairs I’ve been logging the mileage I’ve done 1,328 miles, and that’s not taking into account the orange pair that fell apart and the first pair of Brooks. Assuming 500 miles on each, that’s a terrifying amount of running. It’s enough to get to Turkey as the crow flies, or the US East coast in the opposite direction. Not that I’ve perfected the art of running on water yet, but you know.
It’s funny how you can get attached to your shoes. But I am, in a way, to each and every pair. I even still miss the old, dilapidated orange ones a bit. I can’t seem to chuck any of the others away. The GTS9s probably should go really, but I’ve set PBs in them, and I wore them by accident for a seven mile training run a month or so back and absolutely smashed it, so they’ve got to stay. I thought the Asics would be for the scrapheap soon as I’ve never ran particularly well in them, but then they’re still useable amazingly so will stop me wearing out the good ones so fast if I rotate them with my other shoes. The GTS11s are totally fucked now and I’ll never wear them again for running. But then I did my first marathon in them, so can’t chuck them. I’ll probably keep them for sentimental reasons and use them for cycling or something. The GTS12s still have plenty of life left and the Mizunos are brand new so they can’t go. It’s a bloody nightmare.
For years I’ve always prided myself on only having a couple of pairs of shoes (pair of Converse, pair of work shoes) and looked on disparingly at the other half and her millions of pairs sprawling all over the place. Now though I’m getting nearly as bad, and actually asking her to move some of hers so I can get another pair of bloody running shoes on the shoerack.
I don’t know if I’m abnormal amongst other runners for being unable to say goodbye to my shoes, or if everyone has a similar affliction, but when each one has its own little story, or means something to me that only I can understand, it’s difficult to bid them that final farewell. Those horrible, grimy slabs of fabric and rubber, that have propelled me over so many hundreds of miles, will be with me for a while yet I’m sure. And before I know it, it will be time for a new addition to the family. Best get clearing the shoerack.
First up, happy new year. Are we really nearly two months in already? Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun. And with this being me, it being early into a brand, spanking new year, by fun I obviously mean lots, and lots of running.
I hope you are all well, anyway. I’m moving on from a slightly disappointing end of 2012 into a new and optimistic 2013. A new job with exciting new projects and opportunities. Tottenham (and king-monkey Gareth Bale in particular) looking strong. A frankly amazing number of potential festival and gig opportunities over the coming months. And, of course, a few running dates for the diary pencilled in already.
In pure running terms, most of 2012 was pretty average. After the ecstasy of the 2011 marathon, I was looking forward to a year of smaller runs (okay – so I was knocked back from London again). Half-marathons, 10ks, 5k Parkruns. Training runs with mileages in single figures and under an hour. And for the most part, I did it. But that was only half the story. Regular readers will be aware of the failure to hit my targets at Silverstone and Manchester. And the bout of illness in September knocked me right for six. I’m rarely ill, but it turns out when I am it lasts for bloody ages. My running went to pieces, I missed the end of the lovely summer evenings out on my bike, and I staggered into the Standalone 10k in October on the back of less than a week’s training (consisting of just three runs) and still feeling the after effects of Man Flu. IT’S A REAL ILLNESS, OKAY?
On the day though, Standalone was actually a decent day at the office. It was a weird, eerie kind of morning with thick fog all over the course. It’s a nice little event, Standalone; well organised, with, good supportive crowds, and a pleasant course around Hertfordshire’s country lanes. And this year was the 25th anniversary run – quite an achievement really, and made me feel proud to be a part of it.
Knowing I wasn’t taking it 100% seriously, I actually went out drinking the night before after having a load of wine with dinner too. A risky strategy and one that probably meant overall victory and a nice cash prize was out the window. But I felt fine setting off, put in a couple of slower miles initially then grew into it a bit more and actually hit a half decent pace at points without really feeling too bad. I came across the line a few seconds short of my 42 minute target and felt like that was a good job well done in the circumstances. Strangely, I’d beat my previous best round the course by about half a minute which I set in 2008, and I remember having an absolute nightmare that day and feeling like total shit for the last two miles after setting off too fast. It’s funny how perceptions change after a few years of training at this stuff. A nice easy jog round after hardly any training and five beers the night before, and I was faster than an all-out assault round the same course four years previously.
Oh, and on a final note on Standalone, I also beat my cousin by about 10 minutes. He was considerably less pleased with that than I was considering he’d trained properly and stayed in the night before. My uncle came home a couple of minutes after, bloody amazing for a pensioner in his late 60′s, and as someone involved in organising the event since its inception (and yet entering it for the very first time) he got an unbelievable reaction coming over the finish line. Good lad. I will be back for more in October.
So that was probably the high point, but yet again a target missed even if it was only a half-arsed “yea, I’ll do it in 42 minutes” sort of thing. I suppose that was all quite apt though in the grand scheme of things; 2012, the year of running failure. Missed targets in almost every run I did, outside my intended time by anything from a few seconds at Standalone to nearly two minutes at Silverstone. Technically I missed my target in the 2011 marathon, too, but you can fuck right off if you think you’re taking that one away from me. Just getting round it was enough, thank you very much.
There were also cancelled runs due to illness, absolute shockers in both training and events (the last Parkrun when the flu was kicking in spring to mind) and a general feeling of “I’ve not quite taken this seriously, have I” throughout most of the year. Standalone is a case in point. But at the end of the day, I’m not a professional athlete. I run because I (usually) enjoy it. I enjoy the buzz of running in events and being cheered on by strangers, and I also enjoy writing about it. Not that you’d be able to tell by the fact that I’ve posted about eight entries in 12 months but I’ll try to improve that from now on. Most of all though, I enjoy having a normal life and if that means going to watch the football, eating huge meals or just sitting in the pub on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon then that’s what I’ll do.
So, onto those runs I have pencilled in then. My first attempt at a sub 40-minute 10k for 2013 will take place in May for the Port Sunlight 10k, but first up it’s a return to the opposite banks of the River Mersey for the Liverpool Half Marathon and an attempt to get under an hour and a half. A no doubt emotional day, retracing many of my footsteps from the marathon of some 18 months ago. Training is going well, I’m off the booze for a few weeks now and I have a new pair of running shoes fresh and ready for battle. Let the games begin.