The Glasnevin Schillaci

Salvatore ‘Totò’ Schillaci. People of a certain vintage will recall that name. Whilst England was consumed with Gazza hype it was the diminutive Sicilian striker and his six goals who really took Italia ’90 by storm.

Schillaci came from almost nowhere to be a household name. Yes he played for Juventus, the old lady of Italian football, but up until 1989 he was still plying his trade at lowly Messina. The Palermo native was a surprise inclusion in Italy’s World Cup squad and was the runt of the Azzurri forward litter. He lagged behind more recognisable names like Vialli, Baggio and Mancini and was there seemingly just for the ride. However by the end Schillaci with his satanically wild eyes and emotion-riven goal celebrations would almost drive Italy to World Cup glory on home soil.

As an Ireland supporter Schillaci broke our hearts. His quick reaction to Packie Bonner’s paltry block was all Italy needed to blast them past The Boys in Green and into the semi finals. Jimmy Rabbitte’s ‘Fuck Schillaci’ t-shirt in Roddy Doyle’s The Van spoke to many of us but fair play to Schillaci, he took his opportunity and made sure his hitherto unknown name went down in football history. A true Italian dark horse.

Jimmy Rabbitte.

The story of the dark horse brings me neatly on to last weekend. I was over in Ireland again with a fellow parkrun tourist Adrian. Originally we’d planned to run the parkrun out west in my dad’s hometown of Castlerea in Roscommon but plans had been changed by James and Dan, two Dublin-based cousins. And so it was to Bushy parkrun in Rathfarnham we would be headed. I’d already done Bushy parkrun in London, the so-called Bushy pilgrimage, on New Year’s Day so I was on for a 2019 Bushy double (don’t snigger).

Dan and myself are the runners but I was staying with James in North Dublin and he was coming along to parkrun ‘just for the craic.’ I knew he’d run the New York Marathon in the past but he never spoke of it. We assumed it had gone all wrong so we never asked questions. Maybe it was his running equivalent to Vietnam so to speak. We didn’t go there, no need to stir up bad memories.

Being in Ireland we spent the Friday night in a pub, John Kavanagh’s ‘The Gravediggers Inn’ by Glasnevin Cemetary. The pints of Guinness flowed and I started to get a handle of what I thought was going on. James was getting me ‘locked’ so Dan, sound asleep in his bed in Wicklow, could beat me in the morning. Unfortunately as Oscar Wilde said ‘I can resist everything but temptation’. James’s sister Claire turned up with fiancée Joe later in the night and we finally departed just after midnight.

Lining up at The Gravediggers Inn

With heavy heads we made our way over to Rathfarnham on Saturday morning. In the nearby Tesco carpark we met up with Dan, fresh as a daisy, and his sister Aoife and headed to the start. Luckily enough the park is quite sheltered and had survived the cancellations that affected other parkruns due to Storm Hannah but numbers were swollen with exiles.

The parkrun route follows the River Dodder for nearly 1km then enters Bushy Park for a couple of figure of 8 loops around duck ponds and along wooded trails then back down the path we ran out on to the finish. The pathway was narrow so to get a good time it was integral to get up near the front which Dan and I duly did. James was happy to stay in the middle of the pack.

We started and I headed off quickly in order to lose Dan. At 1km I briefly looked back and didn’t see him. Job done, so I thought, but don’t let up. Life, however, has a funny way of knocking one down a peg or two and sure enough after 2km it happened. I got caught, but not by Dan.

I was running along reasonably well considering the libations of the night previous and all of a sudden a looming moving object appeared by my right shoulder.

“Hi Mike, howya gettin’ on?”

It was James. James! He was here ‘just for the craic’! What the bloody hell was going on?

I fathomed that he had got all excited and set off too quick. He’d falter, they always do, but nice one for having a go though mate. However over the next 1km he stuck to me. Every time I injected a bit of pace, James stayed right by me. I was breathing heavily whilst he was almost Kipchoge-like in his ease of breath. I tried to shake him but just couldn’t. He was so relaxed and was even helpful to a lad running alongside of us.

“Hey young lad! Watch out there, you’re shoelace is loose. Sure you’ll be okay?”

At 3km James made his move and passed me without much effort. Even still I had notions of catching him as his engine was surely going to give out. I’d reel him in on the long finish stretch. Not a bit of it. He put twenty seconds on me and that did not change. James finally crossed the finish line in 20:24 with his English cousin trailing in behind.

What a mighty performance in his first parkrun. It took me six years to get that time, albeit the anaemia didn’t help, and he rocks up ‘just for the craic’ and lays down a great marker. Apparently he even went the wrong way on exiting the figure 8 bit to further rub salt into the wounds. Fecker!

Dan finished in 23:00 and won the ‘closest to the PB’ challenge we’d set ourselves as I was 1:23 outside mine and he bagged a PB however the day was all about James, the Glasnevin Schillaci. I’m now seriously thinking of getting a Jimmy Rabbitte-style t-shirt made up in his honour.

Dan, The Glasnevin Schillaci and MC

P.S. Dan’s daughter came up with the below after reading. Absolutely marvellous.

The Longer Than Planned Good Friday

I was brought up a Roman Catholic and Good Friday mornings used to entail attending Mass, feeling guilty about the Passion, uncomfortably having to kiss a big crucifix and refraining from eating meat. These days it involves dodging dog shite and traffic and being directed by signs on scrap white goods whilst trying to bag a PB at the Salford 10k Road Race.

It’s all about the coaster

Lower Kersal and Agecroft, on opposing banks of the River Irwell, are the race setting and refreshingly it doesn’t paint itself to be anything other than what it is. No bullshit, no dressing up with frilly descriptions. It’s a 10k race along Salford roads in two of the city’s less salubrious wards. The route is simple enough. A two lapper that starts on Littleton Rd near Salford Sports Village and is a circuit ran mostly on Littleton and Langley Roads that crosses the Irwell twice. It’s flat so should be a PBer and is littered with cracking club runners. The types that see 3s rather than 4s or 5s beginning their 10k times and taking it easy usually means running at a quicker pace than I can belt out a 1500m. Seeing them warming up with their fantastic running form just breeds my runner envy.

Whenever I run along Littleton Road I’m brought back to a priceless childhood memory of a cold January morning 32 years ago. My uncle (Big) Brendan surprised my cousin (Little) Brendan and I with a quite special trip. We were both Man Utd daft and he brought us to The Cliff training complex in Higher Broughton. After meeting players arriving in we were told that the squad would be training on playing fields that bordered Littleton Road so we got back in Big Brendan’s maroon Ford Escort Ghia and headed over. All the talk was about the new manager that had done so well at Aberdeen and his decent start. A group of supporters though told us of his unfriendly manner toward fans and how he was nothing like Big Ron whom he’d replaced two months previous.

We happened upon a good spot that bordered the playing field and watched on with a few others. Midway through a man approached us in a Utd bobble hat and training jacket. As the figure grew closer we realised it was Alex Ferguson, the new guy at the helm. Based on what we’d heard earlier we feared the worst however our worries couldn’t have been more misplaced. The future Utd legend spent time chatting and joking with us and made my 8 year old self and 12 year old Brendan feel on top of the world. Fergie was an absolute gent and polar opposite to Captain Marvel who, together with the World Cup’s youngest player, raced past us not bothering to stop for a photograph or autograph despite our forlorn cries when they arrived to training. Football in sunshine and shadow as Eduardo Galeano put it. I’m not still bitter, honest.

MC, Fergie and Little Brendan

And so race day came and by God the temperature dial had been turned up a bit. Arriving I was reminded of Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, when he dished out the weather forecast. It was ‘hot!’ In fact Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, the film’s location, could pass for the area we were to run through if more in spirit than architecture especially since the demolition of Kersal flats.

I absolutely love the start of this race. The organisers, Salford Harriers, must have the most minimal of road closure permits. Runners border each side of the road until at the last minute traffic is stopped, the timing matt is set and the runners are beckoned on to the tarmac by the marshals. Then it’s go. After about 800m the duration of the race is ran more on the footpath than the road.

Starting imminently

I had notions of putting in a good showing, perhaps a PB, this year and I set off slightly quick alongside Pete, an evenly matched clubmate. My expectations went out the window by 3km and Pete bounded off in front of me as my body just failed to respond. My subsequent km splits tumbled and as the clock approached 45:50 I stuttered across the line a sweaty and semi-delirious mess thoroughly relieved to be finished. I was 3 minutes slower than 2018 and nearly 5 minutes off PB time set at Wilmslow back in November. I felt that bad that I almost pulled in at the end of the first lap but pride, fantastic support and the lure of the all important finish coaster kept me out on the course. I commented later that I felt better on the last 10k of the Greater Manchester Marathon two weeks previously than the entirety of this 10k.

Not withstanding my performance I really enjoy this expertly organised and marshalled race and, as I’ve said previously in the Coniston blog, it’s cemented in my athletic calendar. It’s as proletarian as they come and that’s what endears it to me. It holds no pretensions and is all the better for it. It stands in stark contrast to the more sanitised event later in the year at the Quays. If I was in charge of setting the motif it would be ‘This is Salford, get use to it and run fast whilst you’re at it.’

All in all it wasn’t the best of Good Friday mornings for me, maybe I should’ve opted for the crucifix kissing. I could trot out a number of excuses as to why but ultimately they’re all worthless. It was a bad day, move on and do better next time. At least that’s what Fergie would’ve said albeit with a little barbed moan aimed at the timer.

They channelled their inner Pheidippides through Trafford

“It’s a twenty mile training run followed by the toughest 10k you’ll ever do.”

Forgive the imperial/metric mix but this is how a Prestwich AC clubmate once described a marathon. Sunday was my sixth and that statement remains true. They are very hard and take guts to train for and run. Marathons eh? Why do we do them?

I tend to focus on my own story on this site but here I’d like to highlight the achievements of some runners I know amongst the twenty thousand others I joined pounding the streets of Old Trafford, Stretford, Sale, Altrincham, Timperley, Carrington and Urmston at Sunday’s Greater Manchester Marathon.

Firstly Mike G, my ofttimes Tuesday 6am training partner. He set himself the personal task of eclipsing his old fella’s 3:12 marathon time and his monstrous training miles and discipline over the past six months have been inspiring. Though his 3:16 fell short of target it wasn’t through lack of effort nor determination and a 12 minute marathon PB is nothing to be sniffed at. I would’ve paid good money to have witnessed what I imagine to have been his Francis Begbie-style ‘get tae fuck’ screams to scare his cramp away. Also don’t worry Mike I’m still striving to be as good a JCB driver as my father.

The G-Man in full flow

Dr Ryan. What can I say? I’ll not disclose his age but he was rampaging around Europe supporting the mighty reds whilst I was in the neonatal ward at Townley’s Hospital in Farnworth. His 3:39, GFA for London, was phenomenal running but more impressive were his even splits. The Good Doctor ran alongside Swanny, a man more used to running stupidly steep fells rather than Netherlands flat Trafford Borough. He managed to outdo my fortnight before late entry time by four days and also bagged an eleven minute PB. Nice one Niceswan.

Last May I attended a good pal’s stag do in Reykjavík and in the obligatory WhatsApp group I broached the subject of a morning run to a group of mainly unknowns. Expecting tumbleweed I was surprised when three lads stuck there hands up. Two of the Reykjavík Stag Runners, Ben and Chris, subsequently signed up to their first marathon at Manchester. Both trained hard for their debuts and completed it with creditable times although I hear that Ben nearly ODed on the free gels. Lads I raise a £10 glass of Gull to you both.

Reykjavík Stag Runners. MC, Chris, Ben and The Diplomat

The Carrington section between 19-21 miles is unforgiving. It’s almost Western-like in its bleak desolation. I maybe hyperbolising but I find it a truly awful place to run through. The defining image for me of 2018 marathon occurred here and was Band of Brothersesque. Stu lay prostrate on the pavement with his right leg extended upward whilst a spectating Dr Ryan attempted to relieve his cramp-riddled calf. Stu’s run had been hampered by his body but he finished. He entered this year in order to exorcise his 2018 demons and though his 4:03 fell just short of his sub four hour target he was still elated with his performance nonetheless. The Dude Abides!

Brothers in Arms (and legs).

My first marathon in 2014 was an absolute nightmare. Unpreparedness mixed with being the recipient of errant water bottle discarder at mile 15 sent me off kilter. Though obviously gutting both pride and encouragement can be taken from completing a run that doesn’t go as planned. This happened to my fellow parkrun tourist Guigunator, my fellow RT run leader Linzi and Andrew on Sunday. Whether it be cramp, a knee issue or something else the key thing to remember is that even though it took longer than expected the finish line was crossed and you earned that medal and t-shirt. Strength and resilience through adversity and all that.

Sub three. That’s a time I’ll never achieve but I know a few that did. Byron came in three minutes behind his 2:40 time in Tokyo, you’re getting slower since you entered V45 pal. Matt, Dan, Rob M, John, Jordan, and Sol the Honeyman sailed home in the last few minutes prior to 3:00 appearing on the clock. Fabulous running guys.

What about Louise? Another fellow parkrun tourist and she bagged a great PB with 4:48 although I’m pretty sure she’d knock a sizeable chunk from that if she halved the amount of dickingaboutery she does on the course. Just kidding Lou, a big peace sign coming your way.

Strike a pose

Mentions also for The Manning siblings, Rob F (who ran over distance to retrieve his beau’s buff), Steph (another London GFAer), Leo and Leon from Middleton, Lil’ Hilary, Eddie (the prizewinner for possibly the biggest positive split of the day), PC Neil, Danny (with guide Alistair), Sharon, Suzanne, Jenn, Linda, Chris McC, Rob T, Mike S, Evvie, Vicky, Libby, Fairbanks, Aussie Harry and Cat. If I’ve omitted anyone then please forgive me.

Back at da Club

Last but not least Dan the Man. Until eighteen months ago I didn’t know that he existed. Being from a huge Irish family means that relatives can often be strangers. On first meeting he basically press-ganged me in to the 2018 Dublin Marathon, something I was ultimately glad about given my finish time. I returned the compliment and on Saturday he left rural Wicklow in Ireland to run in my home marathon, the away leg for him. The poor guy with Liverpool sympathies had to put up with a Man Utd adorned bedroom, drink every brew from a Utd mug and start the race outside Old Trafford but with his 3:48, a 5 minute PB, he closed the aggregate gap to me from 27 to 22 minutes. See you back in Dublin in October col ceathrair.

U-N-I-T-E-D, United are the team for me!

The 2019 Greater Manchester Marathon was once again a great experience and the support was as always fantastic (even the Timperley Tories). The course proved itself to be both friendly and tough in equal measure and the event is a wonderful day in our area’s sporting calendar.

Anyone up for 2020? Me? Possibly.

The day Connaughton ran Coniston (with 1600 others)

“Mike, you have to do Coniston 14.”

Lines uttered to me umpteen times by Lee, a guy I used to work with in Stockport. More of a cyclist and swimmer than a runner Lee however waxed lyrical about the 14 mile race around Coniston Water pretty much every time running cropped up in conversation. Thankfully in 2019 it fitted into my diary so at 0730 last Saturday morning I departed North Manchester bound for the Lake District.

The convenient gun time of 11am allowed me to sneak in a parkrun at Fell Foot near Newby Bridge on the way up. Now the last time I was in Newby Bridge, on Lake Windermere’s southern shore, I was repairing the roof of a rich man’s tennis court building when suddenly a US Air Force F-15E (#avgeek) screamed by directly overhead. The shock and deafening noise nearly knocked me from the roof and my future running could’ve been ended before it started by an ‘oversexed, overpaid and over here’ Yankee airman on a Lakes training sortie.

After a quicker than planned parkrun at Feel Foot mainly due to a bit of friendly rivalry I got my barcode scanned, swapped the trail shoes for road shoes and set off on the thirty minute drive to Coniston village.

As I approached Coniston Water the race feel became apparent. Marshals were out on the course, water stations were being set up, cattle grids being taken care of and mile markers were already in place. The approach also hinted at what was in store namely country roads filled with upping and downing.

Race HQ

The race HQ was in John Ruskin School but with numbers already posted out there was plenty of time to take care of last minute toilet business, browse expensive running clobber at a mobile store (£140 for a light jacket! Must be some garment) and soak up the vibrant atmosphere of a Cumbrian village taken over by runners. I met up with Glyn, a Salford/Prestwich birunningclubual, who was taking on the race for the tenth successive year. Meanwhile his much better half and Prestwich AC (PAC) race chooserer Jo was scaling the nearby 2500ft Old Man of Coniston rather than racing. Moments before the start we bumped into Andy and Steve, a couple of ex-PACs, and a non-running PAC in Tony.

The not so Fab Four (Andy, Glyn, MC and Steve)

Coniston Water is the typical long and narrow glacial lake, 5.5 miles in length by 0.5 mile wide. Coniston village is located at northwestern end of the lake and the route followed an anti-clockwise direction around it. Due to being a participant in next week’s Greater Manchester Marathon I fully intended to take it easy and enjoy this scenic 14 miler and initially I did. However following the steepish climb out of Coniston village along the A593 the gradient eased somewhat and my legs took the run of themselves and quickened up. It then settled into the lumpy up and down affair and after five miles of running on country road between rock, greenery and trees the route proceeded to pretty much border the lake from there on in to the finish.

Upon reaching Water Yeat at Coniston’s southern tip we made a left along a farm track, crossed the River Crake and then turned left again shortly after and headed north along the quieter eastern bank road. This is where the scenic beauty of the race truly imposed itself upon us. The Lake District needs absolutely no introduction but the views across the Water toward the Coniston Fells were bloody breathtaking. Thankfully the early morning low cloud had receded leaving Old Man of Coniston and other fell summits in full view. Simply majestic.

Photo c/o Coniston 14

I had been forewarned about a rather arduous incline at Brantwood between 11-12 miles and by God it duly delivered. It was a real pace reducer. The benefit of the climb however was the opportunity to look down from height directly across from Coniston village and up toward The Old Man. The two mile remainder of the race route could also be viewed.

What went up sharply also dropped sharply and pretty soon we were down by the lakeside once again for the final dash around the north of the lake, through Coniston village rammed with vocal support to finish where we had started just off Lake Road. My finish time of 1:48:17 ended up nearly twelve minutes ahead of what I intended but hey what can you do when your legs take the run of themselves. Not the best of marathon tapers.

After collecting the branded Cumbrian slate coaster at the finish, I’m a big fan of useful race gifts, and perusing the cake stall we repaired to the Black Bull Inn for post race chat over chips washed down with a pint of Old Man Ale for me and Special Oatmeal Stout for Jo and Glyn from the local Coniston Brewing Co. There I met some fellow parkrun/race doublers, one of whom I had previously met at the all beach Portrush parkrun last September, who had like me done Fell Foot or Ford parkrun in Stan Laurel’s home town of Ulverston.

The Après Run

Running the Coniston 14 is a truly fantastic experience. I grow weary of the expensive big event races so it’s refreshing to participate in a decent sized race cemented with a local ethos and brimming with community spirit. From it’s humble beginnings in the early 1980s the money raised from the registration fee right down to the cakey buns sold in the school gets redistributed amongst local charities and organisations. It’s the type of event where you feel good parting company with your hard-earned readies.

I am definitely a convert to the Coniston race and it is now copper fastened into my annual race diary alongside the Good Friday Salford Road 10k (if only for the scrap washing machine with the ‘caution runner’ sign on it) and the Dublin Marathon. To others that have not yet experienced it I simply quote my pal Lee when I state that ‘you have to do Coniston 14.’

I’ll always have Paris

The last time I finished first in something was the 400m at my secondary school sports day in 1992. It was a splendid early summer’s day and I distinctly remember that Friday I’m in Love by The Cure was riding high in the charts at the time. I was unable to defend my crown the following year after a friend that was an alright 800m runner dropped down to the single lapper and turned out to be phenomenal at it. The fast fecker would go on to represent Ireland.

For as long as there have been Parisian parkruns I’ve wanted to do one so after spotting a cheap flight option I booked an early March trip. After in-depth research similar to the priests that upgraded the Holy Stone of Clonrichert in Father Ted I opted for parkrun de Montsouris.

Two other PAC tourists, Guirgunator and Adrian, also bought in and we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport on Friday evening and a budget hotel within the airport grounds was our kip for the night. At 0715 on Saturday we checked out and headed for Montsouris. Our hotel was merely 100m from the train station and RER line B offered a direct journey to our destination.

As the train trundled through Paris’s northern suburbs my inner historian was grabbed by two neighbouring stops. The first was Drancy which having read Paul Webster’s book Pétain’s Crimes years back I knew held an internment camp during World War Two for French Jews prior to being transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Le Bourget followed where Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis touched down at the local airfield following the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927.

At 0820 we arrived at Cité Universitaire station. As we entered Parc Montsouris it was clear that it was going to be an uppy downy one rather than a flat affair. Built on the site of an old quarry the area was transformed into a park under the orders of Emperor Napoleon III in 1869 to give green space to local Parisians.

The northeast point of the park was the parkrun rendezvous area and all the usual hallmarks were present. There was the flag, runners and volunteers although not adorned in hi viz vests, or gilet jaunes, perhaps to escape a skull cracking by the gendarmerie. The run brief was simple enough. Three anti-clockwise laps of the park, keep to the path close to the perimeter fence on the right, prepare for the steep hill and to get the full 5k take the outside line.

I’ll not bore you with a self indulgent run commentary but I crossed the line in 20:23 gratefully receiving token 0001 for the first time in 262 parkruns. I was elated to be first finisher and I’m trying so hard to stick to the parkrun ‘it’s a run not a race’ parlance and not scream out loud ‘I won a race, I won a bloody race!’ Never did I think a first finish would ever occur nor do I think it likely to reoccur. I’m an okay runner but usually accept a top ten percent finish as a great personal achievement. The caveats are numerous but hey you can only run against those that turn up on the day.

Also being a Man Utd fan in Paris shortly after Solskjær’s men defeated PSG had something of an ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’ feel about it but like the Reds I too came away with a very positive result.

Première arrivée

The overwhelming majority of the 38 finishers plus volunteers were British immigrants living in Paris or British visitors, mainly from Glossop, so the parkrun itself didn’t necessarily feel French apart from the location and the ‘tous les samedis à 9h’ on the flag. The post event meet up at the nearby Cafe Chinchin however gave it the Parisian air we were looking for and, I kid you not, there was even a women wearing a beret smoking a Gauloises cigarette sat outside.

After a coffee and a chinwag there was a presentation by SAP, a group raising awareness about organ donation. In France organ donation is ‘opt out’ rather than ‘opt in’ like in the U.K. which to me is a wholly more appropriate and efficient way of going about things. Two organ donor beneficiaries talked about the inspirational things they have achieved following donations and both take part in the arduous La Course Du Coeur every year, a 750km organ donation awareness run from Paris to Les Arcs in the Alps. Complete heroes as were their donors. To be a U.K. organ donor then please register here.

We decamped from Chinchin at 1130 and based on a parkrunner recommendation headed to Tour Montparnasse. The view of the city from the 56th floor after riding the insanely rapid elevator was breathtaking. Following lunch atop the tower we headed over to Notre Dame, took in the fantastic Shakespeare and Co bookshop (a recommendation from a Paris-based old school friend), ambled along the Seine and then people watched outside L’Ebouillanté in Marais enjoying a good few glasses of Minervois red wine in the glorious afternoon sunshine.

My travelling companions had an earlier flight home than me so we bade farewell at Châtelet-Les Halles station. I had just enough time before my flight to fulfil a long held ambition. My fascination with The Doors started from the Jim Morrison poster that adorned my sister Katheryn’s bedroom wall. I just love their music and on previous trips to Paris I haven’t been able to shoehorn in a pilgrimage to Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery. This time though I succeeded in paying my long overdue respects to a musical icon.

Jim Morrison’s grave, Père Lachaise Cemetery

I’m enchanted by Paris. I absolutely love the place. Since the 2015 terror attacks I’ve felt a tad uneasy about going back but I’m pleased that I did. Yes the armed French troops patrolling the streets give the feel of a city on the edge however the place still is magical. As Thomas Jefferson said “a walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty and in the point of life.” All Jefferson needed to add was a parkrun barcode and a pair of Brooks Ghosts and he’d be bang on.

Memories…

I’m not a big fan of Facebook these days but one thing I do like is the ‘Memories’ alert that you get each day. It’s nice to have a look back even though there may be a sinister algorithm at play.

One such ‘Memory’ popped up yesterday. It reminded me that ‘3 Years Ago today’ I was at Stormont parkrun in Belfast. There was a photo of me posted by the volunteer crew with the parliament buildings in the background. It documented my trip there, how I had flown in that morning, been picked up by Mel the RD at the airport, ran the parkrun then left on the 1300 flight. That visit was where my parkrun tourism journey really kicked off however it wasn’t the first time that I had been to Stormont. I had been there before almost 15 years previous when I was a student.

I’ve always been interested in Irish political history and it stems almost entirely from my Granny’s influence when I was young. We would sit for hours and talk about Ireland, the Black n’ Tans (they burned her neighbour’s house to the ground), her brothers John and Pat that had fought in the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War and also about the more recent Troubles. She was an inspirational person with great humour and I have so many fond memories of her.

Following my BA degree I enrolled on a history MA at the University of Liverpool in 2000. I wanted to do my thesis on the Troubles and with it being twenty years since the 1981 Hunger Strikes I settled on the political impact of the period as my theme. One day Jimmy, a Belfast-born painter that had worked with my father, visited our house. I chatted with him about my proposed thesis and he said that his nephew Dan could assist me with my research. I didn’t think much of it but that night I got a telephone call from Belfast.

A few weeks later I was knocking at Dan’s door in Andersonstown, West Belfast. I’d been to the city centre before but not here. History surrounded me. Not too far away was Milltown Cemetery the scene of Michael Stone’s attack on a funeral in 1988, the site of the corporal killings that followed it was just up the road and closer still an RUC police barracks that imposed itself over the neighbouring terraced housing. Peace had come by way of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement albeit it was an uneasy one.

Dan came to the door putting his jacket on as he opened it.

“Michael, I’m having to go out. I’m away to Stormont to film an election broadcast with Martin McGuinness. You can either come along or I can drop you at Linenhall Library to look at the archives.”

It didn’t take much thought so I was off to Stormont with Dan and a camera operator. As far as primary sources go this offered an excellent opportunity.

Growing up in England in the 1980/90s the conflict was close at hand. My dad had employed men from The North, a good school friend came from Ardoyne in North Belfast and I had also worked with ex-squaddies who had served there. There was also the quite regular IRA bombings and security alerts. The appalling murder of two young lads in Warrington left an indelible mark on me and there was also the 1996 Manchester bomb. I had a more critical view of the conflict though and never bought into the simplistic sectarian narrative. Even growing up I believed that dialogue, however uncomfortable, was the only way out of the human tragedy.

We were met at Stormont’s entrance by a Sinn Féin worker called Denis. He gave us a brief tour around and then escorted us to McGuinness’s office. Martin McGuinness was the bogeyman figure of the British media, the alleged IRA godfather with ‘blood on his hands’, but in March 2001 he was Minister of Education in the newly devolved Stormont parliament.

The office door opened and McGuinness greeted Dan as old comrades would. Due to his tight schedule it was straight into filming and I watched on. Here I was in a room with a man whom it had been illegal to hear speak on TV a few years previous and probably one of the most influential figures in modern Irish politics yet all I could think about was his resemblance to Art Garfunkel.

With my Eamon de Valera glasses and Press Pass

At the end of the filming I managed to get McGuinness’s attention.

“Mr McGuinness do you mind if I have a quick word?”

“Of course as long as you don’t call me Mr McGuinness, it’s Martin.”

It was short as he was in a hurry but I managed to squeeze in a few questions. I had an interview scheduled back over in West Belfast so it was also time for me to leave. As I departed I said my goodbyes to Denis and wished him well. Five years later he was found shot dead in Donegal after being outed as an MI5 agent.

A lift had been arranged for me and I was picked up near the Edward Carson statue in front of Stormont. We pulled up at a set of traffic lights and a official looking black saloon was to my left. Ciarán, my driver, nodded his head toward the passenger seated only metres from me. It was David Trimble, the leader of Ulster Unionism and Northern Ireland First Minister. Ciarán had only recently been released from prison and so I was in the surreal position of being sat between a convicted IRA man and David Trimble. The traffic lights changed before I could get my dictaphone out and tap on his bullet proof window for a quote.

I’ve revisited Stormont twice since that day in March 2001 but for the sole purpose of running the parkrun there (23:35 and 20:34 in case you were wondering). It is fair to say that both visits two and three have been slightly less eventful than my first one there.

Pirates!

Near where the Mersey Estuary and Irish Sea meet is the place that I officially became a pirate. Now don’t get the wrong idea, I wasn’t hepped up on khat and armed with a Kalashnikov rifle aboard a skiff terrorising shipping entering the nearby Port of Liverpool. I’d have loved that. No, as I crossed the finish line last Saturday at Crosby parkrun and had my barcode scanned I became a bonafide parkrun pirate.

Crosby Beach

A bit of background. When I started going to parkrun things were simple. You ran, your barcode was scanned and later a results email arrived. You could scrutinise the results on parkrun’s website to see how you’d fared on the day and against your own previous performances but that was about it.

Then some clever parkrunning bods extracted data from parkrun results pages and transformed it into extra information, formed clubs and came up with funky challenges and this could be displayed on a handy Google Chrome/Firefox extension (don’t worry I’m losing myself here). Amongst others there are:

  1. The Alphabet Challenge – Collect the letters A-Z (except X, there isn’t one) corresponding to a parkrun location’s starting initial.
  2. The Wilson Index – Build up the highest number of consecutive parkrun event numbers starting from one.
  3. The Compass Challenge – Complete parkrun locations with the four points of the compass in the title. Interestingly the UK’s most easterly parkrun has west in the title, Lowestoft.
  4. Parkrun Bingo – You win (nothing) by gaining every second element in your parkrun finish times from 0:00 to 0:59.

I currently only need J and Z (the closest Z is in Poland) to complete as an Alphabeteer, my Wilson Index is 5, I’ve only 0:05 and 0:25 to go for Bingo and having done South Manchester and Singapore’s East Coast parkruns I’m still lacking the names of Kanye and Kim’s firstborn to wrap up the Compass Challenge.

This brings me to Pirates, the first and only challenge I have completed. The origins of it I’m not sure about but the basis is that you need to complete seven parkruns starting with C and one with an R. It’s a play on the Seven Seas that pirates sailed upon and their famous phrase ‘Arrr!’ People dress up in pirate garb to complete it but I don’t do fancy dress so donning an eyepatch, a cutless and breeches was never ever going to happen. When I completed it however it got me thinking about the parkruns that helped me toward it.

I got my ‘Arrr!’, or R, first at Riverside in Chester-le-Street, Durham on a visit to the in-laws in December 2012. It’s a lovely little venue down by the River Wear and within sight of the famous cricket stadium.

I then waited over four years and ventured thousands of miles to unintentionally bag my first two Cs. Cottesloe Beach parkrun, Western Australia was memorable as my fellow travellers stepped in for a bit of voluntourism. Mark, the Event Director, confidently enlisted my then 10 year old daughter as timekeeper and my much better half as finish token giverouterer. My daughter got 95/95 runners bang on whereas when yours truly took over when her hands got cold I missed one of the last six runners. Two weeks later, thanks to the 7am start, I sneaked in Cairns parkrun in Queensland just prior to a day spent snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.

The superstar timekeeper at Cottesloe Beach parkrun

The Australian Cs stood alongside each other until I found out about the Chrome Extension and subsequently the Pirate’s Challenge in June 2018. I then proceeded to rattle off four Cs in quick succession. The first came at Cuerden Valley near Preston, a complete headbanger of a course with ups and downs and twists and turns through woodland which gave the parkrunner absolutely no opportunity to relax. Next up was a relatively new one at Clitheroe Castle and the five laps within the grounds beneath the castle proved a rather testing encounter. Two weeks later came Cheadle Hulme directly beneath the final approach to Manchester Airport, a winner for an AvGeek like me, where the rutted grass surface was baked as hard as concrete from last summer’s heatwave. The fourth British C came just down the road at Chadderton Hall. I dubbed it the ‘I beg your pardon parkrun’ as you have to circumnavigate a small rose garden near the end of each of the four laps. Unlike Lynn Anderson’s famous song however the run brief did actually promise it to us.

Cheadle Hulme parkrun with an American Airlines A330 on short finals #AvGeek

On Saturday it was to Crosby for the seventh and final C to complete the challenge and it has to be the hardest flattest 5k I’ve ever ran. ¡Dios Mío! The reason? The coastal wind. We started on the beach and headed southish into the headwind toward Liverpool docks. Running on the beach was fine as the sand was quite compact but the wind was brutal. We rounded Bing Crosby, an Antony Gormley ‘Another Place’ statue bedecked in hi viz and fluorescent helmet, and the headwind then became a tailwind. You could once again hear things and the running became much easier. A 2km run followed back northish along the beach and promenade toward Blundellsands. At the RNLI building you turn southish and then a punishing 1.6km run on grass into the blowing hooley ensued to the finish. Arduous isn’t the word, it was a proper reducer. I came away pleased with taking sixth position, the wind unassisted time of 21:37 and also becoming a pirate of course.

Blow dried

Now I just need to find a couple of G’s to complete the Stayin’ Alive (three B’s and three G’s) Challenge or tick off Pontypool, Pontypridd and Pontefract for a Full Ponty perhaps. Or maybe I should just concentrate on getting my time down at my local run, you never know I might bag the last of the Bingo numbers along the way.