The hardest week

As soon as I drew up the training plan for this year’s marathon, there were one or two chunks that looked horribly daunting written down with the figures for the week staring me in the face. The general cycle of hard week / easy (ish) week as per usual, but with one or two notable spikes of difficulty that looked monumentally difficult compared to anything that had gone before it.

Last week was the first of these, and with one or two extra challenges thrown in alongside for good measure which I’ll come to in a bit. The first week of the second mesocycle of the training plan (building on the endurance phase of the first one) and the seventh week of eighteen overall, it was Serious Business. Almost every run had a slightly sadistic twist compared to the pattern I’d been following for the first six weeks, and I can safely say it was the hardest week of training I have ever done in my life, eventually leaving me absolutely broken and in bed before 9pm on the Sunday evening.

So why exactly was it so hard?

Well, for starters it was simply just that; hard. Bloody hard. Leg breakingly, soul tearingly, pant soilingly hard. The most running I’ve ever done in a calendar week, a monstrous grand total of 63.2 miles, taking the crown from a week in March 2014 the last time I was doing all this marathon nonsense. I’ve smashed up all sorts of Runkeeper records – distance, duration, all that calorie stuff (over 7,000 since you asked, whatever it all means). 8 hours, 16 minutes and 21 seconds spent running which if my maths are correct makes it nearly 5% of the entire week spent trudging round and round in the dark, the rain, the freezing cold. That’s absolutely ridiculous.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Aside from the horrendous total, the individual runs themselves were a step above weeks previous, with the two weekend sessions especially tricky both on paper and in the cold hard light of day. The obvious challenge was the incredibly daunting 21 mile Sunday long run, only the fourth time in my entire life I’d ever gone above 20, the second longest run on my training plan and the most I had run in one go since staggering over the marathon finish line nearly two years ago. Three miles longer than my current longest on this regime and taking up exactly 1/3 of the week’s running, it’s safe to say it was a bit of an effort.

Added to that, the session the day before kicked things up a notch or two as well by swapping the usual Saturday five mile slow recovery jog for a seven mile interval effort, which I managed to accidentally plot over one of the hilliest bits of earth I have ever ran on. Er hang on a cotton picking minute. I know what you’re thinking. Hills? In South Manchester? Well, ladies and gentlemen, the extra twist to this whole sorry saga is the fact that right slap bang in the middle of this gigantic, humongous beast of a week, came a nice little weekend jaunt north of the border to Glasgow for a friend’s birthday celebration. Nice in every aspect apart from the fact I had to run 39 miles in amongst it all anyway. How on earth was I supposed to fit in an eleven mile Friday, seven mile Saturday and (gulp) a 21 mile Sunday in amongst all that?

I’m pleased to report that I did it, but not without a few “challenges” long the way. I battered the Friday run out the way before heading up North so that wasn’t too much of an issue, but bloody hell the Saturday run was hard work. Beautiful as Kelvingrove Park is, MY GOD is it hilly. My puny legs are used to the flat lowlands of my Mancunian homeland so plotting a route on Google Maps for a few laps of what I thought was a lush Scottish paradise turned into a horrendous sweaty hungover nightmare in oddly warm weather, with a stomach full of fried food, a head full of Scottish ale and over 1km of sprints amongst families, dogs, kids on skateboards and oh yes ALL OF THE HILLS. It was not fun.

With that in the bank then, I headed back to Manchester the following morning to attempt The Beast And I can safely say I’ve never had a run like it in my life before. But first, let’s get the excuses in early doors:

  1. Beer

Look, I was on holiday for a birthday weekend, OK? Nevertheless I did my best to mitigate the damage, finishing the Saturday festivities a good three our four hours earlier than everyone else, heading back to my hotel before midnight, all tucked up in bed. A nice early (fried) breakfast the next morning, an early lift back to Manchester from a legend of a chum and a four hour journey spent quaffing Lucozade, egg sandwiches and water and I felt ready to go. I laced up my trusty pair of Mizuno Sayonaras and headed out for the fourth longest run of my entire life.

It did not go well.

If you’re reading this, maybe you’re a runner? Or at least, you know someone who is? They ever complained about needing to, er, number two every so often during a run? We all know what happened to Paula Radcliffe that time and all I can say is, she ain’t alone. Something about all that bouncing around can lead to a few…issues. I’ve done my fair share of running over the years but every so often I get caught out with this, and all I can say is barely a couple of miles into this one I felt that telltale “drop” of the lower bowel and I knew I was in trouble. I won’t go into any more detail than that, other than to say I will be eternally grateful to the Heald Green Beefeater and their singular gents’ cubicle. Apologies to everyone there enjoying their Sunday roast. And no, I didn’t buy a pint.

That enforced delay then led to my second issue of the day as my route was due to zip through an unlit wooded area in what was now pitch darkness as I headed into Wilmslow. Trying to stay on the path, splashing through massive unseen muddy puddles. Attempting to avoid ending up in the bloody River Bollin. Wracking my brains to remember exactly which way I should be going. Ah yes, here’s the massive hill near the rugby club, here we go. I’m bloody knackered. Not even half distance yet? Oh. My. God.

It the got steadily worse from there. The route back to Manchester was one gradual incline after another, the only bright spot a bit of encouragement heading through Handforth from an inebriated local “GO ON YOU FOOKIN’ PUSSY, RUN! FOOKIN’ RUN”. Thanks mate, I never thought of that one. I was out of energy gels and I still had eight miles to go.

I got over the line in the end but it felt like only just. The curtain had fallen on The Hardest Week and I staggered into my cosy flat, ordered a takeaway pizza and put myself to bed before 9pm. I was absolutely, completely and utterly broken. But I had done it.

I’ve probably got bigger weeks ahead of me in terms of outright mileage, and I’ve definitely got longer Sundays still to come. Especially on April 10th when we do it all for realz. But all things considered I can’t see any of it being as hard as this; a perfect storm of heavy running, heavy drinking and, er, heavy toileting.

It just goes to show how bloody difficult it is to balance a marathon around your work and social life though. Look at the absolute state of that weekend, I mean look at it. I made us all late setting off for Glasgow on the Friday because of running. I missed the start of the Saturday activities because of running. I then went to bed three hours before everyone else and was first to leave on the Sunday because of poxy bloody running. Only to nearly crap myself miles from home and stagger in crippled two hours later and put myself straight to bed.

But then I think about all the good the money we’ll be raising will do for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and it keeps me going, throughout all the hard times, of which there will be many more to come I’m sure. Through the freezing cold, through the rain, through the mind-numbing boredom. Through Atlantic storm after storm after storm after storm. Through the feelings of discomfort in the lower bowel (OK we can stop talking about that bit now). It’s all about getting myself in shape to be able to kick off the year’s activities on April 10th and I guess it’s not supposed to be easy. But safe to say, I never envisaged it being quite this hard either.

Featured image (top of page) of Kevingrove Park
© “phantom of the flicks” on Flickr

New year, same old me

Happy new year folks!

So here we are again, it’s time for the now traditional start-of-year blog. Hitting all these well-worn subjects from years gone by:

  1. Hope you had a good Christmas
  2. The weather is rubbish
  3. The weather has been rubbish all Christmas
  4. I’m doing loads of running again
  5. Most of this has taken place in really, really rubbish weather
  6. Got me some new running shoes
  7. The rubbish weather has trashed them already
  8. Happy new year!

It’s been an busy couple of months since my last blog marking the close of the year’s activities – where I hinted at bigger things to come – to now where I am in the very midst of the first of these “bigger things”. Two months ago I was laying the foundations; now the walls are going up. And it’s bloody heavy going. November: 60 miles, December 185. January nearly 130 to date.  The average per week now over 50, the Sunday long run up at 18. Literally, hours spent out there in the torrential rain, gale force winds and rush hour traffic in the pitch dark in a tiny football shirt and shorts.

See where all this is going? That’s right folks: it’s marathon time again! Dear God. An 18 week training plan in place, from the beginning of December to the middle of April, and so it came to pass that yet again I was running through the entire festive period, including Christmas Day, Boxing Day (which was horrendous, by the way) and New Years Day. Three consecutive years now I’ve headed out on Christmas morning. Three bloody years. What am I doing with my life?

This year’s wasn’t quite up there with the last two though, for many reasons if I’m being honest. As soon as I realised I’d be out and about again I consoled myself it’d all be OK, harking back to how much I (bizarrely) enjoyed last year’s effort where I’d only had to jog the three miles to fulfil the Marcothon requirements, and on a lovely bright, crisp wintery morning to boot. Off out I went, saying hello, Merry Christmas or whatever to the steady slew of others I saw out and about as the sun’s rays peeked over the horizon and bathed us all in a lovely orangey glow, even high fiving someone as I jogged through one of the local parks. Yes I’m bloody mental for going out on Christmas Day I’d say to people, but I actually quite enjoyed that one.

Unfortunately this year forces conspired against me to deliver a bloody nine mile tempo run, in the pissing rain, with an above average hangover. Not quite what I had in mind. Nevertheless, I laced up my shoes and headed out into Storm Steve (or whoever’s turn it was to batter us in that week) with the consolation that I’d at least hopefully see a few others out and about and be able to share a “Merry Christmas” to raise the spirits. I don’t know if it was the weather or something though but I tell you what, it was a right set of miserable bastards out there this year. The first four didn’t even bother looking up to acknowledge me until finally the fifth raised the kind of grim smile of appreciation at another idiot out there foresaking their festive lie in, the exact look that I have spent the last two years perfecting. It was a nice moment as we briefly acknowledged each other, before going our separate ways destined never to see each other again. But it wasn’t enough to make up for the general depressingness of being out in the Mancunian drizzle as if it were just any other morning. Merry bloody Christmas eh.

With that all behind me though, I sit here now and look ahead with the usual fear and trepidation about what lies in store in the weeks to come. Today marks the end of the sixth week and the first “mesocycle” of my training plan. One third of the way through in terms of time (if not distance…) and the end of the endurance building phase before the extra speedwork comes into play. In terms of fitness and stamina, I feel probably the absolute best I have ever felt at this time of year. I feel good on most of my sessions (even the poxy tempo runs), I’m finishing the longer ones strongly. I’m dealing OK so far with the cold, the wet and the boredom. I have been managing a few niggles in both feet as the mileage ramps up which has been the main challenge so far, but all in all I have a quiet confidence at this stage that was missing from my last two marathons in 2011 and 2014. I’ve been here, I’ve done it. I’ve got the T shirt. And now I’m back for more.

In terms of the event itself, I have quite literally been here before (and got the T shirt) as it’s round two for Manchester after my 2014 romp round the same course. A second bash at the “flattest, fastest and friendliest” marathon in the UK, and this time it’s for all for charideeeeeeeeeee. MNDAThe opening event of a year of fundraising activities, some taking two days, some barely 40 minutes. Some with a single participant, some with half a dozen of us including a support vehicle. A whistle stop tour of the UK with events in the North West, North East, down in the capital and surrounding area or from one coast to the other across the north of England. A combined effort to hopefully cover over a thousand miles by foot and by bike to raise as much as we can for the Motor Neurone Disease Association in memory of a man taken far, far too soon in the absolute prime of his life.

I’ll get a post up in due course explaining in more detail why we’re doing it, as my good friend will be able to articulate better than I can as someone who sadly last year saw first hand the terrible damage motor neurone disease can do to a loved one in less than three months. And over the course of the year there’ll be bits from hopefully all of us as we sweat, struggle and swear through the following events:

  1. Greater Manchester Marathon – 10th April
  2. Stockton duathlon – 24th April
  3. Great Manchester Run – 22nd May
  4. Memorial bike ride – May
  5. Great Manchester Cycle – June/July (date TBA)
  6. Coast to Coast bike ride – July
  7. RideLondon-Surrey 100 – 31st July
  8. Paras 10 – 4th September
  9. Great North Run – 11th September

There may be more to come as well depending on how close to the target we are as the summer progresses. Maybe a repeat of the overnight spin to Dunwich to add another ton on there? Another cycling sportive or two perhaps, or maybe a tilt at Manchester’s brand new half marathon in October? After the customary jog round Standalone, of course. It all adds up.

Shoes

So the 2016 “MNDA biathalon” is on, and we’re just getting started. Turbo trainers are being set up in our garages, new running shoes are on the rack. Feelings of mild panic about what exactly it is we are all letting ourselves in for. The biggest year of fundraising yet, with each and every person aiming to achieve something they never have before and hopefully raise a shedload of cash to help MNDA to do what they do best: to enable everybody living with motor neurone disease to receive the best care, achieve the highest possible quality of life and to die with dignity.

You’ll be able to keep your eye on this blog for all the detailed updates of how training is going and the stories behind the events after we’ve done them, as well as guest blogs from other members of the fundraising team and family members who will be able to expand on why we are doing all this. You can also follow the dedicated Twitter account for all the up to the minute news and updates on our struggles (it’ll get more busy as the spring turns to summer and the events begin to come thick and fast).

We’ll have a JustGiving page setup very soon as well for any of you that would like to make an early donation and get the ball rolling. Your money will go towards a huge target we are setting of £3,000 to help buy a lightwriter to help those diagnosed with MND to communicate with their loved ones. Of this total, £1,400 will be raised from specific events through golden bond charity places (£550 for the Ride 100 and two lots of £425 for Great North Run places). But anything you can give will be a great help; no sum too big or too small.

So that’s where I am at the start of 2016. This time last year there was no plan in place; twelve months on, it’s all mapped out. Dates are in the diary, training plans in place. Winter running, followed by spring and summer out on the bike, and then back on my feet to close out the year and hopefully put the lid on a massive year of fundraising in memory of one the best blokes I ever met.

Let’s do it.

Stepping stone

And so it comes to wrap up the blog for 2015, a year quite unlike any other in my recent history. A runner since 2007, and a running blogger since 2011, this year marked probably the first time in my life when I started to maybe consider myself a cyclist instead. The events, the achievements and the blogs still came and went; I just did things faster. Longer. Further. Me and my bike against the world.

That’s not how it started though. On the back of a hugely successful Marcothon, I pencilled in an April marathon and the opening month of 2015 followed the usual pattern of new shoes, training plan, Sunday long runs. Winter storms, a few miles after work in the dark and pissing rain. 9pm dinner, 9:30 bed time. Hungry, tired. Miles and miles, up and down the same stretches of South Mancunian roads in a tiny football shirt in sub-zero weather.

And then just like that I fucked it all off. It was all about the bike now. The new steed was finished and new challenges began to fall into place. Winter behind me, spring a springing. 50 mile weekend rides were now a regular occurrence along with 30 milers in the week after a day stuck in the office. Trips over the Cat and Fiddle pass, Saddleworth Moor. Up the Brickworks near Pott Shrigley and down the other side. Lyme Park, Tatton Park. Round the back of Jodrell Bank and beyond on the Cheshire flats. A spin over the same roads as Bradley Wiggins and co and then of course the centrepiece of the whole year that epic overnight 112-mile excursion to Dunwich in July as I finally achieved my ambition of a century on two wheels. A year of discovering a new-found freedom, heading further from home than ever before under my own steam and doing things I never imagined possible this time last year.

Despite all that though, as I said in my last blog I do still, deep down, consider myself a runner I guess, and so as well as that amazing Olympic finish in July, one of the more familiar events of the year was a return to Standalone last month along with 1600-odd others for a quick 10k out and about on the country lanes surrounding Letchworth and Stotfold. My fourth Standalone in a row (and my fifth overall) and one of my favourite races on the calendar, the scene of some of my proudest moments and some of my biggest failures with two of my fastest ever 10ks and my two slowest nicely bookending the other few races I’ve done over the years around the country. A lovely little event, starting and finishing on a small farm in Hertfordshire and almost always with a few family members out and about on the course; running, spectating and even in the case of my uncle, on the tannoy. This year very much followed the pattern, with my sister and cousin competing, both my parents stood at the finish cheering us all on and my aunty out in her customary spot around the four mile marker doing the same.

Family

For the first time since 2013 I actually chucked in a bit of training for this one as well. In stark contrast to my last four or five 10ks, I’d been out following the basic concept of a 10k plan for a few weeks leading up to it; a tempo session here and there, a cheeky Sunday long run or two. It all sort of came together really; one of the nicest autumns for many a year, an event in the diary with a bit of a target (a third sub-40 minute Standalone in a row would be nice), and most importantly a few plans for 2016 already beginning to form which would require a lengthy buildup. It really was a pleasure training for this one, with some of the nicest runs I’ve ever done, mostly around Chorlton Water Park and along the River Mersey with the autumnal sun setting behind me. I genuinely ran over a mile longer than I intended to on one evening because I got a bit carried away jogging along the grassy banks instead of heading straight for home along the road, and I didn’t regret it one bit. It was almost (if you excuse the sweating, panting, feeling like I was going to keel over etc) fun.  But mostly, after a solid six months or so fannying about on the bike, I was keen to get a bit of structure back and get my stupid little legs used to the long run / rest / fast run cycle in preparation for bigger things to come.

So yea. Serious business. Proper training. Perfect preparation. Well, perfect until I went to the pub the night before the race anyway to watch Australia hoof us out of our own rugby World Cup. Despite the beers though I was back home early, had a decent night’s sleep and woke up raring to go.  I laced up my best pair of race shoes and headed for the farm.

For the third consecutive year it was a stunning morning as we milled about waiting to get going with the sun peeking through the chilly early morning mist and bathing the course in rich autumnal sunshine. I actually felt a few butterflies as the 9:30 start time drew nearer and I realised that the usual platitudes of “anything under 42 minutes will do me” were hollow this time around. I had a bit of a target in mind and I wanted to hit it.

HillAs with every single Standalone I’ve ever done though, the opening few hundred metres filled me with absolutely zero confidence whatsoever. It’s that fucking hill, honestly. Every year it’s just a little bit worse than I remember. That little bit steeper, that little bit longer. The frantic rush downhill from the start and then BANG. Shit, I’m so not up for this. I shouldn’t have gone out drinking last night. I’m ruined. The target’s gone, it’s bloody gone. This bastard hill. And then seconds later, that’s it over and done with and all is right with the world. Open road. Quiet country lanes, mostly downhill, my pace back to normal. A few spectators clapping us along. I’m alright here actually! 6:22 per mile, 6:21, 6:10 (!), 6:23. The first four miles all inside what I needed and as with the two years before I had nearly half a minute in the bank with two thirds of the run behind me. I felt good, I felt confident. I saw my Aunty out on her usual spot at the end of the bypass and prepared myself for the glory of another sub-40 a couple of miles down the road.

Trouble is though, those last couple miles along the undulations of the A507 can be bloody hard work at times, and all of sudden the wheels came off. Right off. Maybe it was the booze the night before, maybe I had overtrained in the week leading up to it. Maybe cycling to work all week as well wasn’t the best idea. Probably a combination of all three, I dunno (it was almost definitely the booze). Regardless, in all the 10ks I’ve ever done, I’ve never had quite such a sudden meltdown, such a contrast between the serene progress over the first few miles and the horrendous slog bringing it all home. It was a struggle to keep it together even on the flat bits, never mind the little inclines, and all I could do was hope I’d done enough in the first half to mitigate the shitstorm of the second.

I hit the big descent back down onto the farm and couldn’t bring myself to look at the time on my Garmin as I summoned the big finish. The clock on the line was already over 40 but I clung to the hope that my chip time would see me right. My uncle on tannoy gave me the usual big shoutout, I heard my parents cheering me over the line and then it was all over. I took a few seconds to compose myself (i.e. not be sick everywhere) and then glanced down to check my time.

Finish

40:03. Three seconds outside. Three bloody seconds! The nearest miss I’d ever had, stealing the crown from the 40:09 I ran in the Mersey Tunnel 10k in 2011. I’d probably rather have ran it a minute slower than come in three seconds outside, but there you go. In the end, looking back the time isn’t that important. Instead of marking the end of my running season, Standalone is just the beginning. Only my second running event of the year, nearly three months after my first, yet it’s the first step on the road to something bigger. Something much bigger. Rediscovering my feet. Back out on the pavements and dirt tracks of South Manchester, round and round the water parks and along the riverbanks. Up and down the Parkway, the Kingsway. Through Sharston Industrial Estate and into beautiful, beautiful Baguley. I’m planning my spring calendar already, I’m obsessing over new pairs of running shoes. I’m looking at dates, challenges. Ideas. Putting together a plan, with a few friends in tow, for what we hope will be the biggest fundraising effort yet since I set this blog up in 2011, a combined effort of greater mileage than ever before and hopefully the highest fundraising total to date.

New shoesBut more on all that later, for now it’s just a case of putting the pieces in place and keeping the legs ticking over. Dates are in the diary, training schedules  are being put together. Two new pairs of running shoes already purchased ready for the challenges that lie in store. With an expected life of 500 miles on each pair it may give you an idea of where I’m aiming for in five or so months time, but for now I’ll keep you all guessing.

Aftermath

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 big 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

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.

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