Blessed are the Pacemakers

Christmas Day arrived and South Manchester parkrun at Platt Fields, Fallowfield was where I ended up marking my 250th parkrun. It was a fantastic morning with family, running friends and cakes in attendance and it will live long in the memory.

Parental Advisory. Explicit Content

South Manchester is my second most visited parkrun venue (fifteen visits) after Heaton. I first ventured there in 2013 after Rebecca, a workmate, took up running and Platt Fields was her most local parkrun. It’s disparagingly called ‘Flat Fields’ by a number of running pals that are used to more undulating routes due to it’s Netherlands-like flatness but I’m a fan of it. It’s definitely a PB course but just because it’s flat does not mean it’s easy. If you’re going for it ‘eyeballs out’ then there’s no place to hide. You just have to batter it from 0:01 to the finish line. I’ve tended to set fast benchmark times there in the past then my times elsewhere have risen to meet it.

Just prior to start Ian, a quicker Prestwich AC clubmate, approached me and enquired as to my target. I told him that I wanted sub 20 minutes but ideally in the 19:40s to give me an overall 5km PB. We started the run apart but after about 500m Ian sidled up beside me and took one look at his watch.

“Set off a bit quick there Mike.”

He was right, I had and it was clear then that Ian was going to be my personal pacer for the next eighteen or so minutes.

Pacing is a hard task whether doing it on an individual basis for someone or taking a bib, a flag or a balloon and being a designated pacer. It’s taking responsibility to run a time and keeping to that pace as others are depending on it. On an individual basis it’s about managing expectations of the one being paced also. Some want to go out a bit quick and ‘bank time’ others want to run at an even pace throughout. When Ian checked his watch he quickly calculated my pace against target and let me know accordingly. Had I carried on at that pace I’d have blown a gasket sooner rather than later. He did right.

I’ve paced quite a bit in the past and never take it lightly. In the recent Greater Manchester Half Marathon I was ‘a pacer for hire’, literally. A Prestwich ACer called Liz actually paid for my race number but on the proviso I paced a 1:50 time. As the race drew closer and based on her improved performance we revised that figure to 1:47 as a top end target with 1:50 being the acceptable fallback. We set off and as with many runners Liz blasted away quick with an adrenaline-filled enthusiasm. I gave her some latitude in the first kilometre due to the occasion but after that I started a slowing process. At one point I had to go in front of her and perform a blocking manoeuvre to slow her down. I felt bad stymying her pace but Liz had paid me to do a job and that was the sole focus. It was 1:47. I told her if she wanted to change that during the race it was up to her but I advised against it. In the end she crossed the line, on target, in 1:47:04 with some absolutely courageous running from her in the final 5km where we were absolutely drenched by a typically Mancunian downpour.

Previously when I’ve paced and someone has thanked me for ‘getting me a PB’ I’ve felt uncomfortable, borderline annoyed, but I just simply smiled and took the undue plaudits. Why am I uncomfortable? Because I don’t control their body movements, their breathing, their psychology nor do I put them on my shoulder and fireman’s lift them around. They’ve pushed themselves far beyond what is comfortable and done all the hard work, all I did was run to a time and shout a few words of encouragement. Having said all that though I can definitely understand the sentiment now having been on the other side. Having that person beside you to support and cajole can be a very valuable asset indeed.

All the way through the run on Christmas Day Ian was the consummate pacer. He was by my side and kept me to pace by the merest action of looking at his watch and not saying a thing. I knew we were alright by the sound of silence. At half way he told me we were doing good and to keep going, one leg in front of the other. The only place I faltered somewhat was at 4km, I always do. I feel that the run is nearly over but in actual fact there is still a canny distance left. I slowed a bit. Ian quickly spotted it and that’s where he gave me a gentle gee up.

“Come on! You’ve done the hard work Mike, you’ve got hills in your legs. This is nothing. Keep going!”

In the last 250m you emerge from the outer perimeter trail and it’s just a short run around the pond to the finish. The only things you have to worry about is hope you’ve got a final sprint left in you and not to slip on the goose and duck shite. I took one look at my watch and saw that I was on for a really good time and gave everything I had. I was determined not to leave anything out on the course, unlike the wildfowl. I crossed the line in 19:27, a 24 second personal best. A great Christmas present. Thanks Ian.

MC knackered, Ian is to the left.

“Think of a reason to go training rather than a reason not to go.”

Five years ago when I was scouting around to join a running club I happened upon Stockport Harriers and Athletic Club. I was working nearby in Cheadle at the time and their training nights (Tuesday and Thursday) at Woodbank Park in Offerton suited me. I simply stayed behind at work an extra hour then headed off to training. It was also good because for at least two nights per week I escaped the God awful rush hour traffic on the M60.

Our group was led by a great coach called Gill (I still call her coach). She would put on a thirty minute warm up drill session prior to training called, rather unsurprisingly, ‘Gill’s Drills’. An hour long training session followed with the usual track training namely intervals, pyramids and speedwork but also complimented with off the track work like hill training (I still have nightmares about the New Zealand Rd lamppost endurance runs). Top sessions and I loved every one, afterwards.

Woodbank Park, home of Stockport Harriers and AC, from the air.

Although Gill used to dish out wisdom-filled advice, principally about my hunched up shoulders, the thing that sticks in my mind most from my Stockport days came from one of my fellow trainees called Steve. One dark winter evening walking back through Woodbank Park to our cars we were chatting together. It was raining, there was a icy chill in the air and we’d just completed a particularly gruelling 10 x 400m session. As we walked we joked about what kind of eejits we were doing this whilst the majority of people were tucked up in their warm houses. It was then that Steve said the phrase that I continue to remember now.

“Think of a reason to go training rather than a reason not to go.”

It’s not a mantra, more of a ‘catch yerself on’ as they’d say in Belfast. I can be quite flaky if I allow it so it’s ideal for me. All to often I’d look for the reasons not to do something rather than to do it. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’ll be too difficult, I can’t be arsed, I won’t fit in, I’ll look a dick etc etc. The saying fully encapsulated everything I need. I go training because although it feels terrible at the time and my body is crying I know that it’s doing me good. The focus, that reason to go.

Anyway Gill left, I finished working in Stockport and continuing at the club was impractical in terms of travel so I joined my local running club Prestwich AC. I bumped into Steve a few months ago at the Hatters Half Marathon, it was one of Prestwich’s championship races. After exchanging pleasantries I reminded him about his saying that had stuck with me and how it had benefited my running. Steve was surprised but pleased.

I bloody hate alarm clocks, I wake early but I like to do it naturally, so I had to think really hard about ‘the reason to go’ this morning when it blasted me out of my slumber at 0545.

Over the past few months I’ve joined up with a fellow PAC Mike on his Tuesday morning training sessions. I love training sessions as opposed to just running routes which I generally find boring. Training hard with others gives you motivation and support as long as it’s focused.

Mike is faster than me, his 5k PB is 18:30 whilst mine is just under 20:00. However on short distance (max 1km) sessions the gap between him and I is such that he feels under pressure not to drop his pace even for a moment whilst I feel that he’s not too far away as to be unbeatable. A good combination that motivates us both. He also thinks up the sessions so all I need to do is just turn up. This morning’s planned session was a simple fartlek of 1 minute fast/1 minute slow finishing with a 2 minute sprint along a straight but undulating bit of quiet road.

When the alarm went off I just didn’t feel it. A wicked wind was whirling outside and I had a slight pain in the ball of my right foot. Mike wouldn’t think any less of me if I pulled out, the ‘injury’ is bonafide after all. I twice composed a ‘crying off’ message but I deleted them both. I then thought about Steve’s saying. It’s not about what Mike would think of me, it’s about what I would think of myself. My foot issue was more a feeling rather than a pain so if the feeling turns into a pain on the session then I can pull out but not before I’ve even pulled back the duvet.

Catch yerself on Mike! Get yourself out of bed and go you muppet!!!

So I did.

I met up with Mike at 0615 at the agreed rendezvous point and throughout the session I was as close to him as I had ever been. It did help that he’d done a hard 16 miler on Sunday and during it had been bitten by a dog but I’ll take my successes wherever I can get them. I felt great upon my return home and gobbled my post session blueberry pancakes with gusto. I’m glad I had Steve in my ear at 0545 this morning, not literally of course, to remind me to search for those reasons to go training.

Some people might quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War or more latterly Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running when they need motivation whereas I quote Steve, from Stockport.

The moment I realised ‘yeah I’m a bit of a selfish b*****d’

8th December 1999. That was the day I asked a young Mackem woman out at the steps of the Priestman Building in Sunderland following a politics lecture at university. The day is a vivid memory as straight after I drove down to Old Trafford with a fellow red to see Utd batter Valencia 3-0 that evening. It was announced that Roy Keane had just signed a new contract at kick off and he scored a cracker. Great day. Anyway the Mackem said yes, two days later we went to watch the latest James Bond film and the rest is history.

Nineteen years in and I’ve gotten used to the way that she looks at me. In particular the look I get when I come up with a madcap idea just because I’d happened upon ‘a good deal’ on a travel website. The ‘oh, really darling’ look where her eyes widen ever so slightly and a smile that isn’t a smile appears.

Since I started running it’s become more acute. Planning holidays with a parkrun destination in mind or in between Saturdays is commonplace. Going away, or thinking about it, to do a marathon or half marathon is just part of my life. If fortunate enough to be in a partnership with someone that shares a passion then it’s all good. My much better half however is a rower not a runner and her double scull plus oars plus other sculler is a hard pack given Ryanair’s new cabin baggage policy and you can’t exactly stick them on the roof of a Fiat 500.

So last week I approached her with the lastest of my ‘would you mind ifs’.

“You know my 250th parkrun is on Christmas Day?”

“Is it?”

“Yes. Well seeing as though it’s a very special milestone and Christmas Day parkruns there are supposed to be amazing would you mind if I went to Bushy Park for it? I promise I’ll be back by 1pm.”

For those that don’t know Bushy Park, in South London, is the spiritual home of parkrun. Founded there in 2004 by Paul Sinton-Hewitt, from the original 13 runners at the first Bushy Park Time Trial it has spawned into the phenomenon that it is today. The so-called ‘Bushy pilgrimage’ is the parkrun equivalent to summating The Reek (Croagh Patrick) for Irish Catholics or the Hajj for Muslims.

My much better half’s exterior didn’t display the usual humouring. Her eyes narrowed. The smile that’s not a smile was missing. Her face silently screamed ‘are you for real?’

“Bushy! In London! On Christmas Day!”

I won’t go much further into the dialogue, well monologue, but I think I hit her Popeye ‘that’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more’ point. Let’s just say that I am going down south for my 250, but it’s 9 miles down the road to South Manchester rather than the 220 miles to South London and I will be back considerably earlier than 1pm.

Quickly it dawned on me that I was being selfish, very selfish. The plan seemed perfectly plausible in my mind beforehand but she made me look at myself from the outside. I was actually putting it out there that I wanted to miss the usual family trappings with my wife and daughter of Christmas Day morning to go to London, on my tod with nothing but podcasts and BBC6 Music for company, for a parkrun. I’d be setting off at 4am for heavens sake! Added to this my sister and niece will be visiting from Greece. Sheesh! Back for 1pm? Not a chance. Perhaps if I battered it back up the M6 like Sebastian Vettel, and in his car. What was I thinking? Had I lost my mind? What an eejit I was to even consider it never mind ask. A friend of mine from Hull would use a more colourful adjective to describe me.

The problem is I’m an addict. There you go, I’ve said it. I’m addicted to attending parkruns. They’re copper-fastened into my diary. The thought of missing one gives me palpitations. I was speaking to a fellow run leader recently and he told me he was going away for five weeks at Christmas, to a non parkrun country. Oh Jesus! I couldn’t deal with that at all. I was pleased when we went to Australia, where there are loads, so that I could easily do one every Saturday and get my fix. By the way that wasn’t the reason we went just in case you were wondering. I’ve missed seven this year due to bad weather, travel or injury and I remember every one. It irks me. But as with all addictions the admission of the problem is the first step.

Fountains Abbey (top left), Portrush (top right), Clitheroe Castle (bottom right), Nant y Pandy (bottom left).

In the grand scheme of things it’s not a very bad addiction to have. Attending my home parkrun at Heaton Park amounts to nothing more than an hour out of the day all told. However I’ve been touring a lot in 2018 (26 different venues excluding Heaton) and trips although great can extend anything up to twenty four hours if we hit an Irish parkrun. I’m not going to give up touring completely but I’ll scale it back somewhat in 2019. Perhaps just once a month so I’ll be able to spend more time at home working on the PB and my actual home, with the family, as well. I prioritised badly there didn’t I?

A run route, a pub and a bit of historical perspective

The Sunnybank loop is a local training run I have done regularly since my early running days. At just over 6.5km it is short enough to do in a limited timeframe but has good short sharp and long gradual hill sections within it as a tester.

During my recent marathon training I completed five consecutive laps of Sunnybank loop as a last long run before tapering. I christened it the ‘headf**k’ run as it was designed to build mental resilience, something found wanting on previous marathons. Following each lap I’d deliberately return to my house, round the tree outside it then head back out. The newly opened Jamaican barbecue joint half the way around didn’t help matters. The waft of barbecuing chicken every 45 minutes was pure salivating agony. The fifth and final lap was torture and I was 10/1 against carrying on but persevere I did and completed it in just under three hours as planned.

After approximately 2km one passes the Lord Clive pub. It’s a typical nondescript post war housing estate pub and although I’ve never been in they do advertise Northern Soul nights which is a good sign. The pub’s name intrigued me and the sign clearly showed that Lord Clive was historical figure however I kept forgetting to investigate further after each run. A forgetfulness probably induced by the hilly sections that followed the pub. My ignorance lifted when he featured in a book I read last year called Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Dr Shashi Tharoor. It’s a fascinating read that’s broadened out from Tharoor’s own participation in an Oxford Union debate in 2015 about colonial reparations.

In history lessons at school I was taught scarcely little about the British Empire. The curriculum dictated that I knew Harold Godwinson got an arrow in the eye at Hastings, that Henry VIII liked wedding cake, that the canals and railways were manic, that cotton was king and that the Nazis were very bad indeed but I was taught next to nothing about the land masses coloured red on old maps. When Empire was brought up it was viewed as a benevolent entity that helped rather than hindered those it governed over and the opposing view just did not arise. What I did learn was self taught.

Robert Clive was born in 1725 in Shropshire into a landed gentry family. He had started out as an agent of the East India Company, a private company established in 1600 to trade with the Mughal Empire in India. This seemed to work on a more or less equal footing until the Mughal Empire, weakened by war with Persia and internal strife, began to rupture. European tensions also spilled over on to Indian soil and Clive became prominent in the Company’s own private army. A fine military leader he led forces to victory against the French at Arcot (1751) and Bengal, the richest Indian state, at Plassey (1757). These two campaigns laid the foundations for the East India Company’s takeover of Bengal and the subsequent establishment of the British Raj. What started as a purely capitalist enterprise turned into a full on colonial land and resources grab.

The East India Company’s policies under Lord Clive changed India seismically. The policy of divide and rule was instituted and puppet rulers were put in place. Previously a major exporter of finished products it became an exporter of raw material that was processed in Britain then resold at high prices in India. The loss of industry forced an urban to rural population migration. This movement together with high taxation and agricultural practices brought about widespread poverty and subsequent famines killed millions. All the while Bengal’s riches left Calcutta aboard ships bound for Britain.

It seems Lord Clive enriched himself handsomely from his Indian exploits and his avarice knew little compunction. Though he claimed that he’d acted with ‘moderation’ Clive nonetheless became a very wealthy and influential individual. He bought himself a parliamentary seat and a large estate in County Clare with his Indian loot. Coincidently the estate, renamed Plassey after his famous victory, lies not far from my Granny C’s birthplace. Tharoor states it simply, “the British had the gall to call him ‘Clive of India’, as if he belonged to the country, when all he really did was to ensure that a good proportion of the country belonged to him.” (Inglorious Empire, Shashi Tharoor, p.10).

Like all nations we bask in the sunlight of that which gives us pride. We celebrate those that fought and fell at Flanders, Gallipoli, Dunkirk and Normandy yet the silence is deafening regarding those that extorted the riches from others and made this country what it is. Signposts to Britain’s imperial past surround us so it’s crucial that we know our history, the good and bad, own it and reflect upon it.

It is a little known fact that Lord Clive could also run a sub four hour marathon. Nah, I made that up but I had to get it back to running before the end somehow.

Postscript: The Lord Clive pub has been demolished.

“Belfast! That’s a long way to go just for a 5k!”

Last Saturday a group of Prestwich parkrun tourists, Adrian, Amanda, Louise and I, ran at Queen’s parkrun in Belfast. In doing so I completed my 246th parkrun and took in my 50th different parkrun venue since my barcode was first scanned on St Patrick’s Day 2012.

This year parkrun tourism has really grabbed me by the running shoelaces. Previously I’d been content to go to my home run at Heaton Park or freshen it up with another local parkrun every now and again. Away from home whether in the northeast visiting the in laws or on holiday in Australia I’d pack the barcode, seek out the most local parkrun and run it. This reached it’s most bizarre point during a friend’s stag do at the Southport Weekender in Minehead, Somerset in 2014. I hit the hay at midnight in order to do Longrun Meadow parkrun in Taunton the following morning. I emerged from my chalet at 0730 in full running clobber whilst the rest of the lads were still up in various states of dishevelment. My friend Jason later said that the sight was as stark a contrast between good health and bad health he’d ever bore witness to. Hyperbole maybe but it highlighted the importance of that Saturday 5k run to me. It just couldn’t be missed if at all humanly possible.

Our little group are by no means uber tourists but have decided to stretch it a bit this year. We’ve been up to the Lake District, to Cheshire and over to Yorkshire but the combination of affordable flights, convenient departure times, great location of arrival airport, nine parkruns within relatively short distances and 0930 starts has made Northern Ireland our destination of choice this year.

We have a clear plan. Choose a parkrun beforehand and should the flight be delayed for anything under one hour we have a failsafe option in Belfast Victoria parkrun located at the southern end of Belfast City Airport’s runway. It’s just a right turn upon leaving arrivals and a short warm up jog to the start area. If the flight is significantly delayed we head back through departures at Manchester airport and do the most local one. At the moment it’s Wilmslow and thankfully it has not yet been needed.

In March seven of us flew out at 0700, ran Stormont parkrun followed by a black taxi tour around Belfast’s political hotspots. We were back in Prestwich for the running club pub quiz that night.

In September we overnighted on Friday so that we could run the iconic all beach Portrush parkrun. A fabulous out and back course with the North Atlantic waves lapping one side and, at one point, galloping horses on the other. We then ‘visited’ the Giants Causeway and drove along the beautiful Antrim Coast followed by a political tour in West Belfast laid on by a good friend of mine.

So last Saturday Queens was our destination to bag a Q for our parkrun alphabet hunt (see below) and also for a good day out. The alarm clocks sounded at 0400, the taxi picked us up at 0500, Flybe flight BE470 departed on time at 0700 and arrived into a very wet Belfast 45 minutes later. We sought shelter for nearly an hour in the airport then got a taxi to the Queen’s University Sports Complex in South Belfast, a fifteen minute journey away.

The sports complex housed fantastic facilities as would be expected from such a prestigious institution. The welcome was customarily Irish in its friendliness and thankfully the rain had abated somewhat prior to start. The undulating run route was around the outer perimeter of the rugby, football, hockey and GAA playing fields on the Trim Trail. It was on hard standing apart from a short muddy puddley out and back section. A War/Run of the Roses broke out with some Yorkshire tourist brethren that we had met at Manchester airport and pleasingly the Lancastrians crossed the finish line victorious. Cracking refreshments were laid on after the run and I was able to make use of a shower, a parkrun venue first for me.

At 1100 we bade our farewells to the great volunteers and headed into Belfast city centre to the much talked about Cathedral Quarter. First stop was The Harp Bar for a few pints before sating our appetites with great burgers and okayish fries at Bunsen. The Christmas Markets were in full swing in front of Belfast’s City Hall and we had a mooch around. As with all festive markets they were crammed full of people perusing overpriced tat and drinking crap Glühwein. After a detour around the burnt out listed building that once housed Primark we happened upon Kelly’s Cellars, home of the world’s best doorman. The fella just could not do enough for the clientele in this traditional Irish drinking establishment. With the open fire burning, the mighty craic and great tasting Guinness and Hop House 13 it proved difficult to leave when the time arrived to head back home. Our flight departed on time again at 1755 and we were all back home before 2000.

So why do I do it? I’m not really sure. It does appear a lot of faff for what is essentially just a 5k. I suppose it’s the mix of doing one thing I love, running, combined with another, travel even if it is just a hop over the Irish Sea in narrow prop driven tube with wings. It’s the crew that I go with also. We’ve developed into a tight knit bunch that love to dream of what’s possible parkrun wise, do what’s feasible, have a good bit of craic along the way and still aim to be home before Chips @ No.8 shuts, well Prestwich M&S at least.

It’s obvious but running is a people thing

Last Sunday was the Wilmslow Festive 10k and also the final race of my running year. Apart from parkruns and a crazy retro mile around Cadishead RLFC on 30th December I’m going to rest a bit.

Catching a lift down to Wilmslow with two clubmates aiming for sub 34 and 35 minute 10ks was an invaluable boost. The chat and advice really gave me confidence to go for my target (sub 42) with gusto.

Wilmslow was buzzing on what was a cold November morning and as I approached the packed starting area following a warm up my attention was diverted by women in purple running vests. The vibrant colour didn’t strike me as much as the motif upon it, PSPA (Progressive Supranuclear Palsy Awareness). Before January 2nd 2017 I was blissfully unaware of PSP however l found out that day when somebody close to me was diagnosed with it. PSP is a neurological condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. It’s progressive so gradually gets worse over time and there is no cure. Not a nice condition whatsoever. We exchanged stories but the start warning interrupted further chat so we wished each other well and headed off.

The course was a nice route through the Cheshire countryside taking in villages south and west of Wilmslow. It was a course of two 5ks, the first flattish and second more undulating with a nasty little uphill tester at 8k. I felt prepped, especially after a ‘Batman’ 8x200m interval session with Rob a few days prior, and was confident of achieving my target. I went out hard for the first half (my 6th fastest recorded 5k) as advised and then held/hurt on in to achieve a 41:19 finish, a 1:40 improvement on my last 10k PB at Salford on Good Friday. Paul and Rob, the speedsters I was in the car with, achieved their targets also with a 33:54 and a 34:59.8 respectively.

In the finish area I noticed a very distinct but familiar individual rising a full head above everybody else. It was Rob, a former employee, so I went over for a catch up.

For my sins I used to be in the temporary recruitment business supplying HGV drivers. One afternoon in November 2011 I was stood at my work desk taking a phone call when the office door facing me suddenly opened and in walked a 6’ 6” gentleman covered in tattoos. When I say covered, I mean covered. There appeared no visible skin uninked. Face, head, neck, hands, arms, everything. My phone conversation paused abruptly.

I quickly got over my initial shock, told the caller I’d ring them back and ushered him in. As we went through the interview process my mind was conflicted. Rob ticked all boxes from licence, experience, references, knowledge and manner but what client would take him completely covered in tattoos. All the companies we worked with were customer facing and image was everything but I was determined to ‘get him out (to work)’ in temp recruitment parlance.

We did have one client though, a supplier of metal tubes and fittings, that had a pretty relaxed transport manager (a rarity) so I tried him out.

“Tony, a great driver has just registered with us but he’s got, erm, a few, er, tattoos (cough).”

“That’s fine Mike. My wife and I run a pub frequented by bikers so we’re used to lads with tattoos. Send him in to us.”

Five minutes after his start time the following day the phone rang. I answered, it was Tony.

“F*****g hell Mike! A few tattoos!!!”

Thankfully all went well and Rob went on to be one of the finest people I ever employed. Every client took to him. His individuality and friendly nature endeared him to people but his professionalism led Rob to become the preferred driver of many clients.

Rob was a big football fan and watched England home and away. In 2012 he followed the Three Lions to the Euros in Ukraine. I heard that he’d been photographed in the Daily Mail so I looked online and sure enough there he was enjoying a beer outside the Donbass Arena in Donetsk before the England v France game. I then read the comments underneath the article. Each one slated his appearance and called him a ‘thug’ or worse and a good few questioned who would ever employ him

I despise the Daily Mail but my blood boiled sufficiently to register with the rag in order to reply. I launched into a vehement defence of Rob informing the keyboard warriors that one couldn’t meet a nicer guy and that I was very proud to be his employer.

Prior to meeting Rob I had a negative view of tattoos, I didn’t like them and could not understand why people got them. If I’m honest I probably had an attitude not too dissimilar to the Daily Mail commenters. Since meeting him though it highlighted to me the old adage that you should never judge a book by its cover nor a 6’ 6” fella by his completely tattooed face. He changed me. I thought I’d entered a dystopian nightmare when he opened my office door in November 2011 but I believe I’m all the better person for him doing so. Tattoos are still not for me personally but I’m very much each to their own now. Sure if we were all the same then the world would be a very boring place indeed.

As we departed Wilmslow I again bumped into the purple vested PSPA women. Though cold they were ecstatic to have completed the race and also raise over £2000 for more research into the condition. Heroes in my eyes. The race itself was fantastic but seeing Rob again and meeting the wonderful PSPA fundraisers made the event more memorable.

Running is all about the people.

“There’s raisons for everything and currants for cakes” (old Irish saying)

“Danny! If we keep going at this pace I’m going to f*****g die!!!” I then yanked back the tether (shoe string) that linked us like an Oklahoma cowboy reigning in an unruly steer.

This was me at the 2017 Great Manchester Run 10k and Danny was a visually impaired runner that I’d guided many times. Usually it was Danny urging me to slow down on runs, now the (running) shoe was on the other (runner’s) foot. He had definitely progressed in his running but something was going on with me. I had no bloody stamina.

Danny with a knackered MC following the 2017 Great Manchester Run 10k

I traced the issue back to about a month following the Manchester Marathon 2016. My times dipped and I wasn’t feeling it but I just rationalised it as being the aftereffects of two marathons plus training reasonably close together. Over the remainder of the year the times continued to fall and I found myself pacing down the order at parkrun and ‘taking it easy’ more.

The nadir came with the 10k. The plan was to pace Danny to his first sub 50 but he ended up literally dragging me, his bloody guide, over the line in 53 minutes. The blind leading the absolutely, totally knackered. I felt terrible and embarrassed. I’d held back an in form runner because I couldn’t cut the mustard. I went home and that night seriously considered ditching running altogether, I felt that low.

The turning point came a month later when I finally went to the doctors. He took a full blood count then called me back in the following week. Bracing myself for bad news, I’m a natural pessimist, I awaited his assessment.


“Yes” (da-dum-da-dum-da-dum)

“Your vitamin B12 is low and your iron is very low.”

There it was. There was the problem. I had iron deficiency and that’s why I was knackered during runs. It wasn’t a bad year, it was medical. He immediately prescribed iron and B12 supplements to boost my flagging levels and told me to increase my intake of red meat, green vegetables and other iron rich foods. I went out with friends a few nights later and one tried to ply me with stout, purely for medicinal purposes.

The change was gradual but the trajectory was positive. I went to Australia and the Far East on a family holiday and whilst away I ran four parkruns naked (without my watch, not in the buff) and when the emails arrived the times, though not amazing, were headed in the right direction.

On my return from The Antipodes I took part in some of the remaining Prestwich AC championship races and felt much better. I began to enjoy races again.

2018 has been some running year for me. I am by no means the fastest around but I’ve blasted PBs (PRs for United Staters) across the board from 5k up to Marathon. From wanting to chuck it in altogether 18 months previously to my current place pleases me no end.

The iron and B12 are now at normal levels thankfully so the supplements are long a thing of the past, fingers crossed. Further (invasive) investigation found nothing untoward and regular monitoring blood tests are all that is required of me going forward. It’s puzzling as to why it occurred but I’m probably just the human version of my old Ford Fiesta that used to burn oil for no apparent reason. God I loved that car.

I’m not usually one to impart advice but should you feel that something is up then get it checked out quickly. Don’t be stupid like me, but I am a man after all and we do have previous.

A Morning in the Fair City

Ring a ring a rosie, as the light declinesI’ll remember Dublin city, in the rare auld times

The light was arriving not declining and the times weren’t so rare nor auld but I’ll certainly remember Dublin last Sunday. 

My father is one of nine children and his parents were one of eleven and twelve children. I have a huge family and umpteen cousins that I have never met. Why am I telling this? It was the first meeting of one cousin, Dan, that initiated my involvement in last Sunday’s 39th Dublin Marathon. 

Dan’s mum is my dad’s first cousin and I first met him with two other cousins, James and John, last November in a pub in Dublin. At the beginning of the night Dan let slip that he’d ran sub 4 hours in the Dublin Marathon two weeks previously. I’d never gone sub four in three marathons and swore never to do one again, in fact Mrs C had banned me, but the Guinness flowed and the temptation increased and by night’s end I’d signed up to do 2018 with him. 

Fast forward eleven months and last Saturday afternoon I flew into Dublin on a rowdy Ryanair flight seemingly full of pissed up hen and birthday parties. Part of me wished I was joining them getting locked in town rather than 26.2ing. 

Dan picked me up at the airport and our first stop was a carb loading session at the famous Eddie Rockets American Diner. Following burgers, fries and milkshakes it was off to rural Wicklow where he lived and after family introductions we rested for the remainder of the day. 

Marathon morning came and after an early breakfast of porridge and bagels it was off to the Fair City. Ice covered the car windscreen and there was a skin stinging bite in the air but as we left the countryside and entered Dublin’s southern suburbs the temperature started to rise above freezing. 

We had one pickup to make, Dan’s mate Neal, and we reached our pre race HQ at around 0815. Conveniently Dan’s office was two hundred yards from the start on Fitzwilliam Square and thus gave us opportunity to relax, stay warm and most importantly stay clear of the portaloos for our pre-race ballast shifting. The Green Wave that we were in started at 0915 so we left the office at 0900. 

Originally my target had been a first sub 4  however a late entry into the Manchester Marathon in April (again to run with a cousin) had sprung a surprising 3:42 finish and a recalculation of my Dublin target. A further recalculation arrived three weeks prior to race day when Pete, a similar paced club mate, ran a stonking 3:28 at Chester. I had a dilemma. Should I go with my original target of simply bettering my Manchester time or should I go with a ‘well if Pete can do it then so can I’ attitude and dangerously go for his time? Decisions, decisions. I was still umming and arghing as we left the office. 

My training had gone fairly well. No major injuries, 25-35 miles per week, two long runs with built in ‘headf***s’ to fortify mental strength and plenty of short to medium range progression runs. Add that to my times getting quicker in races I was reasonably confident. Many people had said that I had a 3:30 in me but the thought of 26.2 x 8 minute miles frightened the bejesus out of me. 

As we approached the start of the Green Wave I made up my mind. Balls to caution, I was going for it and Pete’s 3:28 was my target. I’d found out a Salford Harrier was one of the three 3:30 pacers so that pleased me, a local (to me) voice. After displaying the admirable qualities of the Englishman abroad with choruses of ‘excuse me’, ‘would be so kind’, ‘please can I just sneak past you’ and ‘ever so sorry’ I finally got near to the front of the wave just before the starting gun fired. And off we went. 

My race and fuelling strategy was simple. Only look at my watch every five miles (I covered it with my PAC buff), keep to 4:56 average kms, a gel every seven miles, don’t overdrink the water (one mouth swill then spit and one gulp at every station) and stay clear of the jelly babies and treats being handed out. 

Within the first mile I spoke with Paul the Salford Pacer and he knew of me, ‘ah you’re Nigel’s mate’.  I stuck around him for a few minutes but the buffering I got from his balloon and the general busyness around him caused me to just go off in front as we crossed the Liffey over to North Dublin and I settled into what I felt was a comfortable pace. 

The first incline of note was running up Chesterfield Avenue that bisects the Phoenix Park. It’s not steep at all but it just goes on for a couple of miles before it plateaus at Castleknock where the first major cheering sections were. Absolutely fantastic support as it was to be pretty much the entire distance around. Plenty of ‘g’wan ya good ting’, ‘fair play t’ya’ and ‘pull like a dog boy’ shouts of encouragement.

At 8 miles we reentered the Phoenix Park and this was the only point where it became deathly silent. Only the sound of runner’s feet along the road on the twisty-turny road through wooded area broke the silence. I didn’t spot any of the famous deer but I guess 18000+ runners interrupting their Sunday morning hindered any sightings. 

We exited the park at Chapelizod, another section where the crowds were phenomenal, and we recrossed the Liffey. We headed out toward Inchicore as I checked my watch at the 10 mile marker, 1:16. It momentarily worried me but I was feeling strong. 

The first ‘take the pace from under you’ incline was near Inchicore. One of the two South African runners I was beside shouted ‘come on guys, let’s sprint it’ and off he went like an actual Springbok. Nobody followed him. His mate shuck his head and told me that it was his 226th marathon. 226th!!!

At 11.5 miles we passed by Kilmainham Gaol. Sounds hammy but I looked up at the prison walls, thought of the sacrifice of Connolly, Plunkett, Pearse et al, blessed myself and pushed on. Strength can come from all manner of different sources. 

I passed through halfway in 1:41 and was feeling good but then again this is where the actual marathon starts, the hard road was ahead. Pretty soon after I saw a spectator holding a banana and it was here that I re-evaluated my fuelling. I took it from her, after asking of course, and decided to take a bite after every mile. I fathomed that not only would it give me a slow release of energy but it would also give my mind something to focus on. 

At 17 miles near Terenure I spotted spectators that I knew, Dan’s wife, mum, dad and kids. Terenure was like a Tour de France mountain section in terms of support. The crowds roared and narrowed in so much that if one reached out both arms one could probably touch a person on each side of the road. Potentially dangerous but an immense adrenaline boost. 

The banana lasted until 19 miles and the last bite was a mushy browning mess but it had served its purpose and my pace was still consistent. Fortunately enough another bananagiverouterer appeared soon after so I simply repeated the process. 

In marathons you see a range of people dressed in all kind of garb and it was just before 20 miles that I moved up alongside a huge Irishman wearing a blooded helmet with a hurley stick embedded in it. It was nearing Halloween after all. Fair play to him.

I must confess that I did miss the ‘don’t trust a fart after 20 miles’ sign as it always makes me chuckle but also intestinally paranoid.

In my plan I wanted to be at 22.5 miles by the three hour mark. Before that point though is what’s known as ‘Heartbreak Hill’. It’s a short and steep incline near University College Dublin that I’ve faltered on previously but I hit it with no fear and summited it before I knew it. Mile 23 came and a quick time check showed 3:00 with a only parkrun left to do. It was here that I knew Pete’s time was within reach but it was also where I started to fade a tad. The fillip that I needed came when Paul the Salford Pacer appeared beside me at 24 miles without balloon, it had burst on a low hanging branch, and gave me a wee pep talk.  

The last two miles are down hill slightly which helped massively. Entering Ballsbridge (that always makes me snigger too) as mile 25 came up I now started to enjoy the marathon. The 400 metre sign appeared at the moment you cross The Grand Canal and then the finish line in Merrion Square came into sight. The crowds felt deafening once again, so much support, and I could just about muster enough energy to break into a mild sprint and crossed the line in a time of 3:26:35. Sixteen minute marathon PB. Absolute unbridled elation. 

Getting a hold of the medal at the end with Constance Markeviez engraved upon it, a woman that the dearly departed Granny C loved, added an extra bit of emotion to the occasion. 

Neal (3:40) and Dan (3:53) performed great with personal bests also achieved so the après marathon in Ryan’s Bar on Camden Street went on well into the evening as the celebratory Guinness flowed. The craic was mighty as my dad would say so it was a fitting end to a great day. 

Dublin is an unbelievable marathon venue. The route is challenging without being overly difficult and the crowds really will the runner on. The post race atmosphere in the pubs and bars is as you would expect in Dublin. If in search of a marathon to do then pick this one as you won’t regret it, I’ve signed up again for 2019.

No place like home

If you will it, it is no dream

Sub 20, sub bloody 20! It’s been a long time in the arriving but it finally occurred on Saturday 22nd October 2018 a shade before 9:25am. Actually I lie as in truth I’d already broke through the 5km glass ceiling and chalked it up on two previous occasions. The first was at Sale Sizzler #2 (19:55) in the summer and then at The Wammy parkrun (19:51) a few weeks previous however this time was most special being on a hilly course and, most importantly, at my home parkrun.

Ever since I first ambled down to Heaton parkrun on St Patrick’s Day 2012 the place has been fundamental to my running progress. It’s a great place and the venue, the facilities and, most importantly, the people provide a perfect mix. I’ve clocked up 46 other parkrun venues so can speak with a wee bit of experience.

Back to the run then. It was my first opportunity to attack the new/old course as the previous two weekends I had put on the pacing bib (24 and 22 minutes) due to either nursing an injury or a hangover respectively. The Dublin Marathon training plan that I was very loosely following called for a 4 mile time trial that day so a parkrun fits that somewhat if a bit short on the mileage.

After discarding the ‘24 minute stand behind this sign’ placard that has somehow become my own in recent weeks I moved further up the thronged mass of people and stood just behind the very quick people brimming with an unusual thing called confidence. I was up for a sub 20, I just needed my body to do the rest. Not an easy ask after all the recent marathon training lately as my body feels like Paul McGrath’s used to in the old days.

When Duncan shouted ‘Go!’ I was off, together with 686 others. I didn’t heed his warning in the run brief about running through leaves as in the wooded area before 1k (the old 2k point) I moved left along the border of the path to overtake someone and hit a leaf-obscured depression that turned my ankle a bit. I feared the very worst and my running life flashed before my eyes but after 10 seconds I knew it was fine.

I love the new/old loop whereby runners go through the finish area in the first 1.5k as the support you get from the volunteers, even the cheeky ones, really spurs you on to attack the impending Angina Hill. After a quick salute to ‘Man with Brush’ I attacked it, the hill not the brush, with vigour and arrived at the Lions (halfway) only 15 seconds outside pace time. Knowing that the long downhill section was to come this was a good thing.

I knew that I was going well as I was running in and about people that I never usually run with. It could’ve been disconcerting but I wasn’t in that frame of mind, I was determined to not leave anything out there. Near the toilet block after 3k a runner passed me and left me in the backdraft of the most opulent eau de toilette. Although he smelled fantastic I had to get back in front of him as it distracted me somewhat.

Having the long downhill section near the end of the run certainly helps the tiring legs so a quick time check at 4k told me that all I had to do was keep it going. The finish loop around the lake reminds me of that scene in Apollo 13 where the stricken spacecraft has to do a slingshot around the moon to gain speed. Although I did gain a bit of speed the more seasoned quicker runners whom I’d passed on the downhill, including eau de toilette guy, overtook me. I wasn’t too bothered about position though as time is what I was after.

The left turn to the finish arrived and with as much pace as I could muster from the ‘200m to go’ sign I eventually crossed the line in 19:57. Absolutely elated, but absolutely knackered. I was also happy when another runner whom I know quite well sneaked sub 20 for the first time right behind me.

Heaton parkrun is a very special place alright but even more special when you achieve a target