Olympian footsteps

2015 has very much so far been the year of the bike, it’s safe to say. After drawing a line under a spring marathon all the way back in January, I’ve been out and ridden nearly a thousand miles on various steeds alongside my daily commute. And it’s all been rather fun. Long rides, short rides. Overnight centuries, quick spins to the pub. Hilly / flat, fast / slow. Mild sunburn, severe drenchings. Even a bit of off-road stuff on my old mountain bike. Six months of getting out there, spreading my wings and finding new challenges.

I do think though, deep down, I’m still a runner at heart, and every so often something crops up which piques my interest. I’m in the ballot for the London Marathon again, for all the good that’ll do. I’ll probably make a fourth consecutive appearance at Standalone in October, with various members of my family in tow. And then last weekend I slipped in a cheeky 10k on one of the grandest stages of all, finishing at the venue for the 2012 Olympic Games.

I’ve missed out on the chance to do this one a couple of times now, with 2012 and 2013’s shorter 5k requiring a ballot victory to get in, and regular readers will know how painfully unsuccessful I am with London ballots. I don’t think there was an event last year, probably with the stadium being ripped to bits, and so to the best of my knowledge this was the inaugural running of a brand new event in the always-reliable Great Run series: The Great Newham London 10k. The only slight stumbling block with the whole affair is the teeny tiny fact that I hadn’t actually been for any sort of run since the end of February, probably the longest gap between runs since I laced up my very first pair of lurid orange shoes in 2007.

I’ve done this sort of thing a few times now over the past couple of years. Essentially these days I’m a non-running runner, going from rigorously following regimented training plans for weeks on end, running miles and miles and miles and alienating my friends and family, to just deciding to run an event and then worrying about the details later. It’ll be fine, I still ride my bike. I’m still healthy. I nearly ran a PB at Standalone in October, and three of my last four 10ks have been under the magic 40 minute barrier. Everything will be OK! Then I hark back to May 2013 and remember: don’t be such a fucking idiot. The first (and last) “10k without training” experiment was an abject failure, coming in over two minutes off the pace, rinsed beyond belief and unable to walk properly for a over a week afterwards.

So I’ve learnt the hard way that you need to do at least a bit of training for these things. Respect the distance and all that. I’d have liked to have had a bit more time to train for this one I guess, but coming barely a fortnight after that epic excursion to Dunwich, in the end it was just a case of a couple of jogs to build up and then a practice 10k a few days before to see how I held up (clue: not very well). It mattered little though; this one was all about the taking part rather than the result. The chance to finish in the bloody Olympic Stadium with crowds in the stands cheering us on was not to be missed. And, as a Tottenham fan, it was one of the last opportunities to get inside the thing before the dirty Hammers got their grubby little mitts on it and made it their home.

Before

OrbitFor once we were mega early getting to the start which gave us a chance to mill around the village, take a few photos and enjoy basking in the early morning sun. It was destined to be a warm one and as someone who struggles to even walk to the pub in the summer without breaking out in a horrific sweat I began to lament the lack of training, knowing it would be hard work in the second half of the race. We were then held for an extra ten minutes at the start which wasn’t ideal, the heat already feeling a little stifling and we’d not even got running yet. But finally at 9:40am my first running event of 2015 was underway and we headed off out onto a congested perimeter road, accompanied by polite clapping from assorted spectators and the first shout of “urgh, a Spurs shirt!” from a little kid noting my choice of attire for the morning.

I’ve not really got much else to say about the main chunk of the run other than the fact it got steadily more horrendous as it went on. There were a few bright spots along the way, seeing some of the sights of the Olympic Park as well as catching a glance of a fellow Tottenham shirt on the way round. Every so often a little group of spectators or one of the many music spots on the way round. Generally though, it was surprisingly hard work as the tiny undulations over the park took their toll. Well that and the heat. And, er, the almost complete lack of training.

The finish though was something else entirely, and well worth the entry fee alone. With a mile or so left I knew I wasn’t anywhere near a PB but that was OK. I’ve long since conquered my sub-40 demons and so didn’t worry about the feelings of helplessness as the pace crept up with every mile. I just had to finish the job. Oh yeah, and make sure I beat the arrogant knob I’d been swapping places with for most of the race. The one who insisted on constantly cutting me up on corners and drifting across me on the straights despite the road being almost entirely empty. I literally had to stop running on multiple occasions otherwise I’d have tripped him up, and although that would have been the easy way out I simply vowed to make sure I beat him across the line fair and square.

In the end I did exactly that, but I have no idea of the magnitude of my pointless little personal victory. I overtook him on the little drop down into the stadium and never saw him again. He could have finished in my slipstream, he could have blown up completely and come in minutes behind. I honestly couldn’t tell you. I barely even cared. Once we came into the stadium tunnel I was totally overcome by the most incredible emotion as Chariots of Fire (a firm favourite of mine as a kid) was played over the tannoy, accompanied with crowd sounds and a TV commentary soundtrack. And then we burst into daylight and onto the Olympic track. The actual Olympic track! It was amazing. Supporters were dotted around the stadium, and having a camera setup on the back straight projecting us onto the big screens was a lovely touch. I acknowledged it as I went past, hoping my one-lady support crew somewhere in the vast stands would see me.

Coming round the final bend I waved to the big crowd sat on the outside and they responded, raising the volume as we headed onto the home straight. It was totally like anything I have ever done before; a sprint finish with three or four others, in a massive stadium, on a proper track, my massive face on the big screen and people cheering us all on. Physically, I can honestly admit that I felt like complete and utter dogshit coming over the line, probably the worst I’ve ever felt after a 10k, but emotionally I was absolutely delighted, bursting with pride despite completing a distance I had now raced a dozen times. I came in over a minute outside my PB but it didn’t matter to me in the slightest. I felt like a champion.

As with the last 10k at Standalone, my sister was out on the course somewhere too and she came in a remarkable six or seven minutes inside her PB, absolutely smashing it despite the sweaty conditions. OK, so she looked like she was about to be sick everywhere as soon as she’d crossed the line but I guess you’ve got to suffer for your art a bit haven’t you.

Olympic Park

All in all, a cracking morning. Even writing this now a week or so later while looking at the official race photos it still sends a little tingle down the spine thinking about that last 400m or so. I’ve mostly forgotten how absolutely terrible I felt for a good half hour before that, and instead focus on one of the most brilliantly unique experiences I’ve ever had as a runner, something I can look back on in years to come and say “I bloody did that”. I came inside the top 200 of a field of over 10,000 and I finished in the Olympic Stadium. And besides all that, when else would I have got chance to wear a Tottenham shirt inside West Ham’s new home before they’d even moved in?

Stadium finish

Sunset to sunrise: The Dunwich Dynamo 2015

It’s been a long time coming this one. One of the last personal ambitions left since starting this little blog up all those years ago: a two-wheeled century. 100 miles on a pushbike. I’ve blogged about it, I’ve worried about it, I’ve put it off, I’ve blogged about it again. I’ve been rejected by ballots, I’ve had bikes stolen. I’ve gone back to running, I’ve got bored of running, I’ve got new bike(s) and began blogging about the century again. I’ve been rejected by another bloody ballot and so on the very day of this year’s rejection, I vowed to do a ton in 2015 by hook or by crook. And so on July 4th I did exactly that, and I enjoyed it more than you could possibly imagine.

Regular readers will know that I had been bit apprehensive about picking the Dunwich Dynamo as my first century, what with it being pretty much unsupported and all that. In stark contrast to my last sportive at the Tour de Yorkshire in May, with signed route, mechanical support, broom wagon, official feed stations, start line, finish line etc etc. This was little more than a grand expedition, the 23rd running of an event dating back to the early 90s when a group of London couriers decided to cycle through the night on their fixies to the lost town of Dunwich. Just for the sheer hell of it. As simple as that may sound though, it’s always been a bit of a worry when the bike you were planning on doing it on is over 25 years old and liable to fall apart with no notice at 2am in the middle of nowhere.

As it turns out, poor Claudette never even made it to the startline. I’d said that I needed a bit of luck with her reliability and sadly on her final training ride before the Dynamo, her ancient rear wheel popped its second spoke in a month and with no time or money for the full wheel rebuild or replacement that now required, I was left with a stark choice: pull out, or think outside the box.

After umming and ahhing all week, I finally made the decision to ride at around 3:30pm on the day of the ride. My accomplice had already pulled out a few days before, so if I did go for it I’d be flying solo. Buoyed by the weather forecast though, of no rain and a gentle tailwind all the way to the coast, I knew I may never get a better chance to do it. So, I grabbed the only bike I had available and headed for London.

SteveMeet Steve, ladies and gentlemen. My 15th birthday present, sat in my parents’ garage for nearly 20 years with only light use every so often when my Dad fancies a weekend spin. Despite this he was in Tyreremarkably good shape and after a quick once over he was ready for the biggest adventure of his life. We both were. We’d never ridden more than 30 miles together before, barely a quarter of the distance I would be attempting here, and although the chunky tyres would likely prove a drag on the long road to the sea at least I’d hopefully have a bit of protection from punctures and potholes along the way.

London FieldsThe atmosphere in London Fields that evening was cracking. On one of the hottest days of the year, the smell of barbeques and the sound of music filled the air, and everyone seemed in great spirits. I met up with my sister and a few friends, including my erstwhile Dynamo compatriot, and asked him if he felt he was missing out by not taking part. With an icy cold pint in each hand, he proudly declared “no I fucking don’t”. As my own nerves were building ahead of this most daunting of challenges I found it hard to argue.

As is customary with the Dynamo, there is no designated start time, but as 8:30pm approached I noticed a distinct thinning in the number of bikes scattered around the park and decided it was finally time. I sank the last of my beer, bade my farewells and rolled out of the park. After months of preparation, setbacks, challenges, fears and nightmares, this was it. I was finally underway. The Dunwich Dynamo was on.

The best way to report on the next few hours is probably just to pick out the key points rather than drone on about everything that happened in exact order. No one needs to read all that; after all I was physically cycling for nearly eight hours and with pub and bacon breaks it was over ten all in. So, here are a few of the things that made my first century so bloody special.

SUPPORTERS
The reaction from the general public, along the early stages especially, was pretty much complete and utter bemusement. What on earth were we all doing? Why? It was difficult to give an answer that didn’t make us all sound completely unhinged.

“Where are you all going?”
“To the sea!”
“What, now?! Why?”
“We just are!”

Several took pictures, one chap in particular with an SLR standing for ages snapping away while we waited at a junction. To be honest, I felt a bit special being part of this mad crowd as we weaved our way out of the city, even though not one of us could adequately explain exactly why we were doing it.

There were a few hardy souls further down the route and deeper into the night as well. The chap sat in the pitch dark on a sofa on the pavement shouting the directions to us before a roundabout, or the hammered fella on the bench in Sudbury at nearly 3am doing the same. Families stood clapping us as we rode past, and groups of little kids with arms outstretched waiting for low fives. It all helped, and it kinda made me wish I’d set off a little earlier in the hope of seeing a few more along the way.

SUNSET
Despite the stresses of getting out of London, mixing it with the heavy traffic and the odd abusive driver, there was (literally) light at the end of it all as crossing a bridge over the North Circular we were presented with the most stunning sunset. It was the perfect piece of timing; any earlier and it would have been hidden behind the capital’s architecture, any later and it would have been obscured by the trees of Epping Forest. I stood for a few seconds to admire it, knowing this was the beginning of the end. The next time I would see the sun would be some six hours and 75 miles later.North CircularPUBS
One of the best things about the Dunwich Dynamo is how much the spirit of a drink or two is embraced. Now I’m not suggesting by any means that it’s about getting as twatted as possible on the way; there are obvious safety considerations when riding in the dark, riding alongside traffic and people, trying to navigate etc etc. But for someone such as myself, whereby beer and bicycles are two of my absolute favourite pastimes, it was heaven. As a solo Dun Runner especially, the chance to have a cheeky half of a local brew every so often and chat to a few fellow participants was thoroughly welcome. White HartThe opportunities to stop were plentiful, with many boozers serving until 2am, although in the end I only drank in a couple after realising at the second stop around midnight that I was only a quarter of the way through the bloody thing and should probably get a bit of a wriggle on.

Axe & CompassesNIGHT RIDER
I’d spent months worrying about riding in the pitch black along unlit, unfamiliar roads, but once darkness had fallen it actually became brilliantly invigorating experience. The crisp smells of the great British outdoors in midsummer were almost intoxicating at times, away from the grimy urban air I’m used to riding in on my way to and from work. Every few hundred yards a different aroma; freshly cut grass, lush fields, dense forests, open water. Even the odd stinky cow shed. Perhaps my senses were heightened by having to concentrate so much, but everything smelt so much more potent than whenever I’ve been out riding in the countryside by day.

The visual changes in light as day became night, and then back again, were incredibly pronounced away from the city lights. Buildings and trees cast strange and beautiful shapes, huge imposing shadows against first the dusk, then the hazy moonlight, then the early dawn. It was a brilliantly bizarre experience and, coupled with the sleep deprivation as dawn began to break, totally unlike any ride I had ever done before.

Dunwich Dynamo dawnFAERIES
The biggest fear about the whole thing? Getting lost. A long list of unfamiliar place names to aim for, on deserted roads, after being awake for a day and a half. Helpfully, the Dunwich “Faeries” had been out along the route long before us, and so at almost every junction there was a little tealight showing us the way, in the early stages anyway before they all went out.

Even better were the “confidence” lights on long stretches when you began to think “I’ve missed a turning here, haven’t I”, before catching a glimpse of a tiny flame flickering away on the side of the road to assure you everything was going to be OK, you’re doing great, kid. Whoever was responsible for these, as well as directions scrawled on the road closer to Dunwich, chapeau.

BACON
Or any kind of grilled meat, basically (sorry to the veggies amongst you). I’d packed plenty of grub with me for the journey, but after three or four hours of eating bananas, Soreen and gloopy carbohydrate gels it was time for a change. Queue the smell of burnt animal in the air, rolling into Sudbury at 2am around half distance. The local fire station had set up a BBQ and so I duly pitched up for a bacon roll and a cup of coffee. An odd experience, sat on the side of the road having “breakfast” in the pitch dark at 2am, but then nothing about this ride was particularly normal.

Dunwich Dynamo SudburyFrom then on, every 15 miles or so came the opportunity for more meat as enterprising locals had set up little stalls raising money for charity and whatnot, some even dishing out free tea and coffee. The stop at Needham Lakes (below) was particularly beautiful as dawn was breaking and I sat gazing out over the water, with ducks splashing around and the sky growing lighter by the second. After that, just the little matter of another 45 miles on the bike and I would be done. Simple as, er, that.

Dunwich Dynamo Needham LakesSUNRISE
The photo speaks for itself here. After the mental strain of riding in the dark, following tiny blinking red lights in the distance for hours on end and praying we hadn’t all gone terribly wrong somewhere along the route, the first golden rays of one of the most welcome sunrises of my life was a thing of sheer, transcendent beauty. The brutal shadows were replaced by lush green fields, with mist hanging in the trees and a bright, blue sky overhead. Spirits were lifted, the worst was now behind us. The beach was getting ever closer.

Dunwich Dynamo sunriseFINISH
And so all good things must come to an end. We began to see signs to Dunwich over the last 10 miles or so and I knew then that I’d achieved my first century, although my shattered mind couldn’t be sure exactly when I’d gone through the magic barrier. I duly rolled onto Dunwich beach a few minutes shy of 7am to the bizarre sight of hundreds of cyclists in varying state of disrepair strewn out across the pebbles.

Dunwich Dynamo beach 1 Dunwich Dynamo beach 2Some were partying away, music blaring and cans of beer in hand. Some were flat out on the beach, absolutely KO’d from 112 miles and no sleep. I was halfway in between but after a quick dip in the sea I felt suitably invigorated and sat down to dry out, gazing out to sea and trying to comprehend exactly what I’d just done.

Dunwich Dynamo beach seaI had completed my first century, I had ridden the Dunwich Dynamo, and I’d done it on a mountain bike I got for my 15th birthday. Little did I know all the way back in 1996 that me and Steve would have this epic adventure together nearly 20 years down the line. I’d somehow ridden more than twice as far as I’d ever done in my entire life, and I’d done it overnight. All that was left was a quick congratulatory pint at The Ship Inn and then back on the bike to pedal three miles back to meet my absolute hero of a Dad who’d done a 200+ mile round trip just to take me back home. Job done.

Looking back, I still can’t quite believe I did it. As you’d probably expect it wasn’t all rosy and there were some dark times, both literally and figuratively. The third quarter was probably the hardest as dawn was slow to break and the mileage remaining still seemed incredibly daunting, knowing that despite already putting in a 70 mile shift, the distance I had still to do was roughly equal to my longest ever ride. I had a proper wobble after about 80 miles as my patented ale and bacon diet beginning to fail me, but then once the sun came up and I began to break the last quarter down into manageable chunks in my mind it was easier. And then just like that it was all over and I was splashing about in the sea at 7am on a Sunday morning with an enormous grin on my stupid massive face.

It had gone well. I was amazingly lucky with the weather, I met some great people (who I’ll never see again), I saw some weird and wonderful bikes (making my choice of steed seem somewhat conservative). I had a lot of meat. I visited a tonne of new places I’d never heard of before, saw some absolutely beautiful sights and some of the memories will be etched in my brain for years to come. Next time I’m pointlessly sweating up a massive hill, commuting in the torrential Mancunian rain in the dark or battling with a puncture in minus 10 degree weather I will look back and remember how bloody great the simple pleasures of riding my bicycle can be. The Dunwich Dynamo distills all those pleasures into a singular event: leave A, get to B. That’s it. It doesn’t matter how you get there; just get there if you can. And I am absolutely delighted to be able to sit here and say that, along with a couple of thousand other absolute nutcases, get there I did.

Me & Steve

A ton to Dun

Now that the dust has settled on my whirlwind spin round Yorkshire, it’s time to look at the bigger picture. I’ve said a few times now: this is just the start of it. A warmup. Testing the water. Finding out a bit about myself. It’s all a bit like when I took my first steps as a runner in back in 2007; starting small, then building up. My first ever race was a three-mile fun run around central Manchester, which I still to this day believe I won because I am an idiot and took the whole thing too seriously (there were literally people going round the course pushing prams). Shortly after, I had my first 10k under my belt. A couple more of those, suddenly I was doing a half marathon in the North East and before I knew it I was a full-on marathon wanker. It makes sense; no one in their right mind would go all in for a marathon as their first race, although by definition us marathoners are a bit unhinged so no doubt there are people out there that went all in straight from the off. Me though, I prefer to start slow and then move onto the next challenge. Something bigger than last time around. Onwards and upwards.

It’s the same now with the bike. A few weekend spins in the bank, a smallish event done and dusted. I feel I’m finally back at roughly the same place as I was back in summer 2013 before my trusty steed was stolen and I was left with only my feet again, and with that comes a recurrence of the next challenge on the cycling ladder, a long-held ambition of mine: a century on two wheels. The difference this time around though is that I actually have something in the diary. And rather worryingly, it’s just over three weeks away.

The Dunwich Dynamo, or Dun Run, is something I’ve long had an interest in taking part in, so on Saturday 4th July 2015, me and my weekend cycling chum will be aiming to do just that. Why, I’m not actually sure. You basically have to ride 112 miles (more if you get lost), all the way from London to Dunwich out on the Suffolk coast. Overnight. And there’s no official support if you break down or crash. And it’s the day after I’m at a wedding.

Something about the “spirit” of the event has attracted me though. It’s free to enter, in fact there isn’t even an entry process. You just turn up at London Fields in Hackney and off you go. It’s totally non-competitive. Everyone is in it together. It’s not about the fastest time, the most expensive bike, saving milligrams here and there or wearing your best full-team lycra clobber. It’s not about racing, smashing Strava segments or steaming along in a 40-strong peloton.

It’s a grand adventure, an epic quest. A challenge to enjoy and savour, rather than bludgeon into a bloody submission. The assortment of bikes ranges far beyond what you would see at your average sportive; Bromptons can be common, a couple of tandems maybe. Last year someone got there on a BMX and it’s been done on a Boris Bike before. In 2009 someone even got there on a Penny Farthing for crying out loud. I’m taking Claudette, my beloved 25-year old steel racer instead of the mighty, but clinical, beast that is The Red Arrow, just because it feels right to. And it won’t be anywhere near the most leftfield choice out there, of that I am sure.

Claudette

There’s no start time. No target finish time. No broom wagon to mop up the stragglers. Rest stops are common, with enterprising locals on the route selling vital bits of sustenance (bacon is popular, I’m told). Pubs stay open. Just get to the finish when you can basically, enjoy the sunrise on the way, or on the coast if you started early enough. There’s no medal, T-shirt or jersey at the end, just an enormous sense of achievement and a full English with a pint or two, sat on the beach after a quick dip in the freezing sea.

It sounds fantastically brilliant and absolutely awful all at the same time. I guess if I’m gonna finally do a century though, why not do something a bit “different” to your average sportive? Thousands of others who’ve done it over the years since can’t be wrong after all. The camaraderie sounds great and will make a nice change from being elbowed aside by pro-peloton wannabes on super-expensive bikes, or having idiots suck your wheel for miles and not even bothering to say hello.

BUT. It’s 112 miles. In the dark. In a (generally) single direction, so if it’s a headwind all the way it’s gonna be grim. How will I see potholes in the road? How will I see a sharp bend when I’m descending? How bad will it be if it rains for the entire eight or so hours I’m expecting it to take me? What happens if (when) I get lost? How am I going to repair punctures in the dark? What if my vintage bike falls to pieces in the middle of nowhere? What the fuck am I doing?

It’s all a bit frightening, and as someone whose biggest single ride to date is around 50-odd miles (and this was two years ago) the distance alone is giving me The Fear. I’ve got just two weekends available to improve so that I can ride more than double that, and that’s pretty terrifying. I finally made the decision to ride this thing back in February after a third successive knockback from RideLondon, when both my bikes were still in pieces, and I honestly cannot believe how quickly all the time has gone. My furthest training ride to date is literally about a third of the total distance of the entire bloody thing.

It’s a big challenge, but one I am relishing. For a start, there’s no rush to actually finish it, whereas I tend to hammer my training rides a bit as I know they are shorter. It’s a pretty flat route. There’ll be a good few stops, plenty to eat, and perhaps I’ll even have a couple of pints along the way. There’ll be loads of other nutters along the way to chat to. And come on, if someone can do it on a bloody penny farthing I’m sure I can do it on a racing bike, no matter how old she is.

Apart from the fact I haven’t actually worked out how I am getting down there for the start of the ride, it’s all looking rather good. I’ll need a bit of luck on the weather and Claudette’s reliability, and I definitely need to get a couple of 50+ milers in before the big day. But I’m getting there, and then once it’s all done that’ll be another of my life’s ambitions ticked off. For Liverpool Marathon 2011, read Dun Run 2015. For 26.2 miles by feet, read 100 en vélo. Game on.

Featured image (top of page) of Dunwich Beach
© Trunk

On tour

After becoming a running idiot all the way back in 2007, I’ve now got 25 running events under my belt. And yet somehow I’ve always seemed to just about dodge any horrific weather while I’m out there racing. There’s been a few near misses along the way, don’t get me wrong; I live in the north-west, after all. Both marathons were forecast to be pretty horrific, only for me to end up dodging it completely as the heavens opened within a few minutes of crossing the line. Some of parkruns near me have been somewhat soggy underfoot thanks to the legendary “ditch of doom”. Mersey Tunnel 2011 was a bit drizzly. Generally though, I’ve been lucky, never getting completely soaked. Which brings me nicely onto my return to the road, and the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire sportive on one of the wettest mornings of 2015.

Arriving at the startline for my half ten kick off, I was already absolutely drenched just from the two mile shuttle over. I gazed enviously at all the others in their fancy cycling shoes with posh covers over the top of them and then looked down at my sad, soggy pair of running shoes I always used for cycling. A knackered old set originally bought for my 2011 marathon, with over 600 miles covered on foot before their deserved retirement in January, they soaked up the muck and moisture off the Yorkshire tarmac like a sponge and refused to let go. It was going to be a long morning.

Start (1)

After a short briefing telling us which route to follow and to not ride like dickheads, we set off. I found the opening few miles a bit confusing though if I’m being honest. I’m a solo rider; occasionally with a couple of others (at most), but usually just me and the open road. I’m used to my own pace, which is usually a case of me going as fast as I feel comfortable until I realise I’ve overcooked it a bit too late to do anything about it and then trundling home in a bit of a daze dreaming about sandwiches and cakes. The only ever time I’ve ridden in a big event, the Great Manchester Cycle, it was full of lycra-clad nutters on crazy-expensive bikes, all forming little pelotons and hammering round at close to 30mph. I even got in a little group myself at one point before being left behind after stopping for food (standard).

A sportive though, is about “enjoying” the ride. As best you can anyway while grinding up a two mile hill in the pissing rain and gusting wind. It’s not about smashing it round, jostling for position, trying to muller all the Strava segments on the way round (although that doesn’t stop some from trying). It’s the taking part that counts and all that. What I’m trying to say is basically it all felt a bit…well, slow. The wave I set off with were trundling at literally half the speed I’m used to, and so after a short hop out of Roundhay Park and onto the main roads, I legged it up the first little climb and was suddenly alone. 6,000 entrants for this we were told; now it was just me and the open road.

With everyone setting off in small waves every few minutes there was a steady stream of people on the route and so I wasn’t flying solo for too long. As I’d picked the shortest of the three distances – with much, much bigger things to come later in the year – I saw all sorts on the way round. Mountain bikes, touring bikes laden with panniers, Bromptons, even a shopping bike or two (which promised to be fun on the hills in the latter half of the ride). The roads were mostly quiet and it was common to come across groups as many as four or five abreast, the grim weather refusing to dampen spirits as everyone chatted jovially on the way round.

There were even spectators at various points on the route, and I always made a point to wave back and acknowledge their support. It was one thing us lot being out there in the awful weather; after all, we’d paid close to £50 to do so and all had our own challenges and targets in mind, not to mention the fact that we keeping warm(ish) as we shuttled round. These fools though were just there to cheers us all on. The pros wouldn’t be coming past for hours, yet these hardy souls had given up their Sunday morning just for us. The woman stood alone after just a couple of miles outside The Dexter pub, in the absolute worst of the morning weather, and yet still enthusiastically jumping up and down and cheering us on as we trundled past in dribs and drabs. The group with a homemade sign at the top of a small climb yelling allez allez allez! as we struggled to the top. People stood in clusters in the small villages politely clapping us on, as if we were the pro peloton on the way round a tour stage. They were all amazing, and it helped no end as the rain and cold began to take hold.

Otley_rsz

After just over an hour I rolled into Otley and the rest stop; the tiny village taken over by a mass of brightly coloured lycra and carbon, as well as a few bits of lovely vintage steel that caught my eye. I was glad to load up on energy drinks (served piping hot – a revelation!) and flapjacks as next on the agenda was East Chevin Road; a fairly legendary climb round these parts.

I’m crap at hills. My commute is flat. Most of the surrounding area where I live is flat. I have to cycle about twelve miles to get anything remotely lumpy, so basically I just don’t get the practice. Even with my triple chainset I struggle, using up all my gears before I’m even halfway up and often having to stop at least once for a breather (Blaze Hill and Cowlishaw Road – I WILL beat you one day).

So with that in mind, I wheeled out of the feed stop, headed for the foot of the climb and…turned left. Hang on. What? The Chevin had a police car parked halfway up and a sign with ROAD CLOSED at the junction. What was going on? We took a route around it, and while still a bit of a grind, it was nothing like we would have faced had we done the full thing. Shorter, less steep, not as high. All that worrying! I would later find out that we were never destined to do it; only the middle and long distances would be going up there. Either the maps online had changed, or I had cocked up and looked at the wrong one. No matter; the biggest challenge was suddenly removed, only ten miles to go, plain sailing all to the finish, right?

Not quite. Just when I was starting to think it was all a bit easy, one little sadistic lump at two thirds distance absolutely finished me off. Short, sharp hills are my worst enemy on the bike and this was exactly that. Within a few yards of hitting it people were off and pushing; some were still on, but wobbling and zig zagging across the road as if they’d just staggered out of one of the many pubs on the route. I dropped to my bottom chainring and started climbing, not daring to look up, mashing away at the pedals. Hang on; I was doing it! I cruised past several others struggling up, I was flying. I could see the summit, I rounded a slight left and then…shit, more climbing. It had flattened out a bit but I wasn’t even halfway up the bloody thing. Oh dear, the legs have gone. And now I can’t breathe. And now I’ve stopped. And I’m walking. Fantastic, there’s one of the photographers. That’ll look great on the mantlepiece. And so, another one to add to my list of Hills I Have Not Conquered In One Go: Black Hill Road. You utter, utter bastard.

That was it for me after that. I got back on my steed after pushing up the last few yards, but my legs were never the same again. Slight undulations had me dropping down off the big ring; anything previously considered a tiny pimple was now an Alpine ascent. One grind after another. We were now back on familiar roads, yet just when I thought the finish at Roundhay was close they sent us off down the ring road on a long detour into a headwind. And suddenly I noticed I had a passenger, silently sitting in my slipstream; sheltering from the wind and making me do all the work.

And so it was that my final challenge fell into place. I had to beat him to the line. Had to. In my head I began to play out epic finishes in grand tours of days gone by; a pair of riders battling each other to see who blinked first. Alright for those guys though; they didn’t have to content with fucking traffic lights, and despite managing to drop him on a 35mph descent, we stopped again at the bottom of Roundhay Park with less than a mile to go and my nemesis was back with me again. It was the endgame.

We stopped for what felt like an age as a few other riders joined us. My fingers twitched on the handlebars, waiting for the green light. This was it; no more stoppages from here until the finish line. Sportive my arse, this was war. There was no way I could let him jump me at the end after getting a free ride for the past five miles. The lights finally changed and I hammered off, not even daring to look back. Onto the final straight, the marker boards counting down 500 metres to go, 400, 300. The road sloped gently upwards and I was absolutely rinsed, but kept pushing just in case he was still there. This was the finish line the pros would be storming across in a few hours’ time and in all fairness, I felt like one of them as my final effort was greeted with cheers and banging on the barriers from those spectators already there reserving their spot for the main event. I realised I had left everyone behind at the last set of lights and I rolled over the line alone, absolutely delighted with myself. I had done it. My first ever sportive in the bag, and my nemesis nowhere to be seen.

FinishSo a successful morning, all in all. I was wet, I was cold, I was filthy, I was knackered. But I had enjoyed myself, riding with others, spinning over some different roads and attacking a few new climbs. Even having a little duel over the last few miles. And then finishing on the actual finish line with scores of people cheering me on was pretty bloody special. It was exactly as I wanted it to be really; a nice little warm up for the bigger things to come in the next few months. But first, a shower.

Filth_rsz

Breaking down

I’m beginning to think I’m cursed.

Saturday morning and a beautiful clear, crisp spring affair. The third consecutive weekend longer spin out on the bike, training for my first bike event since 2013, Le Tour de Yorkshire in just over a weeks’ time. The weekend before had been a bit of a struggle, back home for the weekend and out on my 18 year old mountain bike with knobbly tyres struggling on the road and a horrific headwind. This though, was heavenly; birds chirping away as I whizzed down the country lanes of Cheshire, the sun gradually taking the edge off the early morning chill. Thirteen miles down of a potential 32 miler, a nice flattish affair with a gradual descent for the first half and the breeze behind me, about to reach the furthest point from home before swinging round and back up through Knutsford and Tatton Park. An average speed a touch under 20mph, smashing all my PBs on Strava, it felt about as good as a ride could be. The Red Arrow, freshly rebuilt and with all the gears now in order, was absolutely flying along.

Suddenly, disaster. Dropping down onto the middle ring for a gentle incline and a without warning I was greeted with a horrific crunch, followed by pieces of metal flying everywhere, my chain in pieces and my legs flailing around like Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux. The bike was fucked, and I was stranded again.

My mind drifted back to my birthday back in October. A similar story, although this was a failing of my own idiocy. Sweating up Blaze Hill near Bollington (I know how to celebrate a special occasion, okay?) and about to enjoy the descent back down into Pott Shrigley, I felt the unmistakable jarring of a flat rear tyre. Happy bloody birthday. Foolishly swapping the inner straight out without checking the outer casing, I was instantly Thorngreeted with a second flat as the tiny thorny bastard struck again, and suddenly I was stuck on top of one the highest points in Cheshire, some 14 miles from home.

Thankfully, Saturday’s disaster had an ultimately happy ending as by a remarkable coincidence, my chain had snapped five minutes walk from a local bike shop. Helpfully directed by a kindly soul sweeping his drive, in one of the last properties on the road before I would have been proper Out In The Sticks, I walked in pushing my crippled machine, and despite them clearly being in the middle of other jobs, within 15 minutes I was back on my way and only £14 worse off. Great lads.

A lucky escape then, but it really got me thinking about how bloody unlucky I’ve been over the years. My first ever proper road bike was constantly cut down by punctures and then just as I began to get a grip on them and get out and about on some longer rides, off she went. Stolen from, quite literally, under my nose by an opportunist shithouse spotting the door to my building left open.

It took me until the following August to finally replace her with The Red Arrow, and then after barely a handful of the rides came the birthday incident, a new set of wheels and a winter rebuild. A new year, a couple of pretty ropey rides with the gears slipping around all over the shop as I tried to get the indexing right and then when I finally got all that right the bloody chain exploded. Oh, and none of this is taking into account all the occasions when one of my vintage bikes has had some sort of complete mare; brake blocks and cabling failing, loose pedals, wheels and headsets, slipping chains, puncture after puncture on 30 year old tyres, a snapped saddle (!) and then the absolute nadir on KaputChristmas Eve when the entire crank fell off in the dark and pouring rain on my way home from work one evening.

I’m absolutely loving the new-found freedom of being out on the bike again, heading out to far flung places, up hill and down dale. The upturn in weather in the past few weeks mixed with me having two beautiful racing machines available has made a pleasant change to the usual start to a year, sweating and panting in the pouring rain, running up and down the same old stretches of South Manchester six days a week. But bloody hell, cycling is a pain in the arse sometimes. There’s so much that can go wrong, I can barely remember a ride without some sort of weird incident along the way.

It’s enough to almost yearn for the simplicity of going out for a run sometimes, where the only thing likely to ruin it is the usual worry about accidentally having a Paula Radcliffe moment on some of the longer runs or something. There is something beautifully pure about lacing up a pair of shoes, slapping an old football shirt and heading out just to run around for an extended period of time. But, after several thousand miles on foot, through a dozen pairs of running shoes and countless tales of sweaty woe over the past six years or so, I’m enjoying a bit of a change of pace. And with my first event of the year looming on the horizon, a lumpy 60km over some of the route of the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire, I just need to hope the bloody machines are up to the job.

A return to the road

So here we are, in April. The days are getting longer, spring is a-springing. Time for the annual running checklist. Sayonara 2New shoes? Check. Training plan in place? Kind of. Running lots and lots of training miles? Erm…not so much. Building up to the first big event of the year? Well, yes and no. Yes, I have an event in the diary. But not as I know it.

For the first time since 2011, I arrive here without a run in the calendar, this year’s pair of running shoes remain boxed away yet to see the light of day. But why? What happened? Well, dear readers, let’s just say it wasn’t entirely a conscious decision.

It all started back in December, at the peak of the daily Marcothon runs (which raised over a grand for the Booth Centre, you lovely lovely people). As is often the way, sat in the pub on a Sunday afternoon with a couple of premium-strength IPAs inside me, I began to ponder. I’d been running every day for nearly a month, and I’d be continuing to keep myself in some semblance of fitness by carrying on all through the Christmas break. The daily runs were getting easier and I’d already chucked a couple of slightly longer ones in on a weekend just for shits and giggles, because I’m a bit odd like that. I’d had an email offering me a discount entry to the Manchester Marathon and I thought about the challenge awaiting me, right here on my doorstep. I thought back to last April and the 150-odd seconds I’d missed out on the good for age time to get into London. I thought about the 12 minutes I’d lopped off my marathon PB on that occasion. Was another two and a half feasible?

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Conveniently forgetting the sheer horror of the last time I attempted marathon training, I began to crank the Marcothon runs up a bit and see what happened. Suddenly, the Sunday long run was into double figures, the first time that had happened since April. It felt OK. Unlike last year, most of the runs seemed to be on beautiful crisp, clear wintery mornings and it was almost a pleasure being out there. Just two days after Christmas and the long run was up to twelve miles, a week later and it was fifteen. I’d sworn back in April it’d be another two or three years (at least) before I went again for a full marathon, and yet here I was again, out running for over two hours on a Sunday morning, or nearly the same again straight from work on a Tuesday. Running six days out of seven, over 60 miles a week.

As January wore on though, it began to hit home just what a ridiculous commitment the full distance is and in the end I’m not ashamed to admit that I began to feel increasingly like I wasn’t quite ready for it again so soon. It was set to be my biggest month of running ever, hitting 170 miles in the opening three weeks alone and well on target to beat the previous best of 216. The Sunday long run by then stood at 18 miles (twice) and it was all getting A Bit Bloody Serious. It was also God forbid, A Bit Bloody Boring. All the runs seemed to be low speed chugs, and after only really running 10ks for the past six or seven months I’d forgotten how bloody dull the slow stuff can be sometimes. I got to the 23rd of January and climbed the stairs into my flat, absolutely exhausted after a ten-miler straight from work in the dark and pissing rain, with my clothes in a rucksack. I slumped against the front door and sat there. I felt a bit down, a bit sad. I thought of how far I still had to go, not even a third of the way through the 18-week plan I’d set myself. And so, after the hardest opening to a new year in living memory, I tapped out.

Instantly I felt a wave of relief wash over me, and I knew then I’d made the right decision. I’ve got nuff respect for people who constantly marathon and enter events left right and centre but for me it’s something to do every so often I think. Something special, something meaningful. Go absolutely all in for a few months, then steer clear for an extended period of time, never to speak of it again. Leave it to the other nutters for a bit.

With that decided I then set sights on a spring half. I mean, why let all that hard work go to waste, right? And I always say that it’s my favourite distance anyway; a rewarding challenge, but without the batshit mentalness of the full effort. Nothing would fall into place though: without a car I’d struggle to get to any of the further flung ones before they actually started (Oulton Park, Silverstone, Liverpool) and the only local one that I could actually get to (Wilmslow) had already sold out. I’d left it all too late and run out of options.

So, I switched focus.

Triban 3The gradual death of the marathon dream had neatly coincided with the completion of my beautiful new road bike. Bought on a whim at the tail end of last summer, I’d not had much of a chance to truly stretch her legs before a final ride of the year resulted in her being cut down in her nascent prime. A puncture, followed by an instant second puncture because I am a complete helmet and forgot to check whether the tiny thorny bastard was still in the tyre, resulted in a 14 mile ride home on a flat rear, and subsequently a dented wheelrim. But now, she was ready.

Brand new wheels, hubs, skewers and tyres, a bit like Trigger’s broom I guess as more and more of the original bike was replaced. Just like that though, a whole new world of possibilities had opened up and I sit here now with less than four weeks until my first event of 2015, and the first on the bike since 2013 when I went for a 50 mile spin of four laps of the Mancunian Way, shortly followed by my bike being nicked.

I’m back in the game. Despite a third successive knockback from RideLondon (London fucking hates me), I now have potentially four events lined up over the next six months, including an attempt at my first ever century in July and a big fundraising effort later in the year with a few comrades in tow. More on those to come, but first up it’s a crack at the big guns.

What a brilliant way to kick things off, the start of my little odyssey on two wheels. Basically, on the final day of the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire, I’ll be riding around the same route that the pro riders (including Sir Bradley Wiggins) will be hammering round later that very day. I’m not doing the full distance because I don’t even know if I can ride that far yet, not to mention the fact that Yorkshire is considerably lumpier than the pancake-like nature of most of the roads I commute on at the minute. Nevertheless, it’s a nice first challenge of the year, 60-odd kilometres with a really nasty bastard climb towards the end which looks on paper like the biggest I will have attempted on the bike to date. Game on.

So that’s where I’m at. I know it’s been a while since the last blog, as I attempted to plan what I would be doing for the year and I flopped between marathon, half marathon and now all the bike stuff. But now it’s all falling into place and I’ll be aiming for more regular posts throughout the year as each ride comes and goes, especially as the big charity ride looms up in September. I’m looking forward to having something new to bore you all about for once, rather than just banging on about sub-40 10ks or moaning about being out training in the pissing Manchester rain. OK, so you might get some of the latter but them’s the breaks with living in the North West.

Most of all, I’m just looking forward to spreading my wings a bit further afield over the summer, culminating in a huge effort with friends to raise a shedload of money for an incredibly worthy charity. As I said though, more on that later in the year, but first up I’ve got a month of training to get myself in shape for a 60km spin over the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve not ridden further than 50km for nearly two years so I’ve got a bit of work ahead of me to get myself in a decent state so I don’t embarrass myself in front of Sir Wiggo and co. I have to be honest and say I’m rather looking forward to it all. I feel positive, excited and keen to get out there and do something a bit different to the norm. Most of all though, I’m just relieved it’s not another bloody marathon.

The final run

So here we are. The 31st December 2014. The end of the year, and most importantly for me the end of the month. A 31-day challenge taken on, on a boozy whim over a month ago, is now close to completion. 31 consecutive runs, one per day, for an entire calendar month. And finally, it’s 30 down and just one to go.

After work today I will lace up one of my trusty old battered pairs of running shoes and head out for the final time in 2014, satisfied in the knowledge that I have managed to complete every single run for this year’s Marcothon. At least three miles a day, every day, through wind, rain, ice and hail (and even the occasional sunny one thrown in along the way too). I’ve run on Christmas Day, I’ve run Boxing Day. I’ve run with a cold, I’ve run with horrific hangovers and minor injuries, and I’ve (unintentionally) even run with a small yappy dog trying to nibble my ankles for a few yards too. I’ve run fast, I’ve run slow, I’ve run long and I’ve run short. On Sunday, I ran the furthest I’ve run since Marathon Day all the way back in April. I’ve run 120 miles this month and now I’m 97% through the challenge. And, remarkably, thanks to all you lovely people I’ve raised over £600 for the Booth Centre. I’m genuinely so incredibly, unbelievably happy with that. Thank you all so, so much.

I probably have to say that the favourite run of the whole month was actually Christmas Day, believe it or not. Arising early doors to squeeze it in before all the presents, family visits, eating and drinking, I headed out with a mild hangover in near-darkness and returned feeling clear headed, under resplendent blue skies having seen a stunning sunrise as it peeked out from behind the gloomy overnight clouds. Despite the time and date, I saw (I think) six other runners out and about on my quick festive loop around South Manchester and each and every one acknowledged me, which almost never happens. Most reflected my grim smile of appreciation at another seeing nutcase forsaking their traditional Christmas morning, and then in most cases followed by a cheerful “Merry Christmas!” as we flashed past each other, never to be see one other again. I returned home feeling refreshed, revitalised and ready to smash Christmas Day in, and unlike last year I hadn’t fallen over on the way round which is a bonus. Maybe this should be an annual thing from now on.

That was probably the high point anyway, with the two terrible hangovers probably the lows. It’s been an odd month generally, and somewhat dull at times trudging round the same three mile loop from my flat every single day. I should have mixed it up a bit more I think, as the middle of the month became a bit of a chore at times, and as the month has gone on those of you who follow me on Strava or RunKeeper may have noticed that I’ve started to do just that as I begin to build up to what could potentially be my next challenge.

Regardless of how I got here though, the fact is that I’m chuffed to say that I have, and I wanted to thank you all again for taking the time to read my ramblings, and to those of you who have donated. My JustGiving page is still open, and will be for a time after I’ve finished the whole bloody thing, so anything you’d like to chuck in would be gratefully received, no amount too big or too small. You’ll be helping the Booth Centre to go about their amazing work at a time of year when homeless people need them more than ever. Just yesterday they posted on Twitter to announce they’d found employment for the 50th person since April, and then today an announcement that they’ve managed to help 44 people into accommodation in just two days, which is absolutely fantastic. And you’ve all helped to make it possible.

So I’ll sign off for 2014 by saying again, thanks everyone, and I hope you have a good one this evening and 2015 treats you well.

Happy new year. x

If you’d like to donate you can visit my fundraising page at
justgiving.com/marcothon2014

Or text GUMP81 followed by your amount (e.g. £5) to 70070

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