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.

PAC Homage to Catalonia

From Prestwich AC website

Barcelona has always held a special place in my heart. Perhaps inspired by the iconic Blaugrana football team managed by Johan Cruyff, the visual aspect of the 1992 Olympic Games Diving competition and the overall revolutionary nature of the city. It was odd then that it took me nearly forty years to actually visit the place.

A friend of mine moved to Barcelona a few years back so I chose 2018’s Half Marathon to visit him and do a bit of running tourism also. Held in the aftermath of the independence referendum where voters had been beaten out of polling centres and pro-independence leaders imprisoned or exiled it was clear that revolution was once again in the Catalan air. Yellow ribbons and Catalan flags decorated people’s clothing, buildings and the road surface.

I enjoyed it so much that when I could I immediately booked on for 2019 and was soon joined by PAC club mates Vicky and Louise. It wasn’t until track night last week that I found out that 2/3 of the Greggs crew, Rach and Bernie, had also signed up. A small PAC European away weekend was in the offing.

Rach and Bernie arrived on Friday night whilst Vicky, Louise and I joined them on Saturday afternoon and we headed straight for Plaça d’Espanya to pick up our numbers at the Expo in the old bullring (bullfighting is now thankfully illegal in Catalunya). Following a spot of lunch we all went our separate ways. Rach and Bernie headed out for a run chock full of photos, Vicky and Louise got caught up in an Iberian Devil-inspired parade whilst I got steadily borratxo as the drinks flowed with my old Instituto de Cervantes Manchester pal Charlie.

On race day we arranged to meet up at the baggage area at 8am. We then made our way to the start area bordering the expansive Parc de la Cuitadella to corral in to our time pens after a Rach-inspired group selfie (no smiling Mike) for the 0845 start. Poor Vicky was injured and couldn’t run so was on PAC support duties.

Bang on time the race started with a blast of confetti and the individual waves set off in five minute intervals. The kind of rectangular route first went along by the port toward the statue of Christopher Columbus who unhelpfully pointed in the wrong direction. He may well have been the first European to get to the Americas but he’s one crap race marshal. Ignoring Columbus we turned up the wide thoroughfare known as Avinguda del Paral-lal (it runs parallel to the Equator).

After 4km the route about-turned and sent us back in a northeast direction along Gran Via. After turning back toward the start/finish area with the sighting of the Arc de Triomf in the rising sunlight we then started a 5km tour around some of Barcelona’s less aesthetically pleasing residential architecture, Gaudí-inspired it was not, and arterial roads.

At 12km we turned right and the glistening Mediterranean came in to view but also the warming sun now hit the unsheltered runners. It was a stark contrast for those PACers that ran in the bitter cold at the Blackburn Winter Warmer 10k the previous Sunday. Following this there came a 2.5km out and back section along Avinguda Diagonal that I hated last year and still hate this year. There’s something about faster runners headed in the opposite direction that demoralises me a wee bit. Must be more mentally strong.

Between 16 and 17 kilometres we arrived at the coastal section of the race. To have the Mediterranean and Barcelona’s city beaches for company was fantastic and did a good job motivating the runner on the last hard bit of the race.

We turned left onto Carrer de la Marina and as we approached 20km Gaudí’s awesome but still unfinished Sagrada Família came into view. What a sight to behold and with one final left turn we were on the long finish straight. One thing I warned the other PACers about was to ignore the first eight inflatable overhead arches and just keep concentrating on running until the last of them, the finish line.

I originally thought I’d managed to best last year’s time by the finest of margins, 1 second, however on checking up the official results rather than relying on Tom Tom/Strava data my official 1:34:38 in fact was over by 1 second. Bollocks! Rach and Bernie achieved 1:54:37 and 1:57:21 respectively whilst an injured Louise valiantly limped home in 2:25:40. Only after looking at the results on Tuesday did I find out there was a fifth PAC runner out in Barcelona also, Helen Berry who finished in 1:55:10.

We all had a thoroughly enjoyable brief running sojourn in Barcelona. It was a real cosmopolitan affair and were proud to show the Prestwich AC colours amongst all the European running clubs in attendance. The support was fantastic with Vicky being ably assisted by tens of thousands of supporters with their ‘¡venga, venga, venga!’ (come on) shouts. There was also a great variety of live music playing along the route. The €25 entrance charge compares favourably to the exorbitant fees charged at our local half marathons in Manchester and together with the medal, t-shirt, poncho and as many bananas and oranges as you wanted proved great value.

Barcelona was great host city for our PAC away weekend and we have brought back unforgettable memories.

¡Visca PAC i Visca Catalunya!

Aviophobia

Last Saturday’s parkrun had to take a back seat as I headed out to Catalunya for the second successive year to take part in the eDreams Mitja Marató de Barcelona. My good friend Charlie lives out there so it’s an opportunity to see him, take in the culture and run the streets of one of my favourite cities.

The short visit (out Saturday, back Sunday) accompanied by my much better half, daughter and a few running club mates went well. The race is run on a great route that starts and finishes in the centre at Parc de la Cuitadella and takes in the broad thoroughfares of Paral-lel, Gran Via and Diagonal and the tough kilometres from 16-20 gifted us the glistening Mediterranean as company. I was a tad disappointed as I had targeted a 1:32 finish and was going great guns up until 16km however my pace fell away. I still managed to sneak a one second half marathon PB (1:34:36) so came away reasonably pleased. We returned home from our brief athletic and cultural sojourn happily fulfilled but also quite sore and tired.

Approaching 20km with Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in full view.

Our Ryanair flight departed a little late from Barcelona’s El Prat airport. It followed the usual course south west along the coast then turned northward to cross the Pyrenees. Pretty soon after we encountered a sustained period of mild turbulence. I used to be a very anxious flyer but thankfully it has eased off as I’ve grown older. It can be ‘triggered’ though and as the aircraft shifted about over the snowy mountains my palms became clammy, my breath shortened and I felt a bit uneasy.

My fear of flying stemmed from an incident when I was a wee boy. In 1990 on a flight back from the US following a family holiday our British Airways 747 hit severe turbulence. As the rough air ratcheted up my childish view of ‘oh isn’t this rollercoaster ride funny’ changed to a more concerned ‘this shit’s getting really bad’ pretty quickly. The wingtips flexed wildly, overhead bins creaked eerily, glasses crashed together and passengers exchanged worried glances as the aircraft bounced about in the violent thunderstorm that enveloped us. Then all of a sudden we dropped. Those that had not heeded the ‘fasten seatbelt’ signs briefly experienced zero gravity and involuntarily departed their seats skyward. It lasted all of couple of seconds but at the end of the drop there was an almighty bang. I looked back at Big Gerry seated two rows behind and saw fear in his eyes for the only time in my life. It was absolutely terrifying.

When the turbulence subsided somewhat a stewardess that had been in the nearby galley was helped into the vacant seat beside me. She had a nasty head wound and her colleague patched her up. Thankfully the remainder of the flight went smoothly but upon landing in Manchester the aircraft was not permitted to continue onward to Gatwick. It needed a thorough checking over. The poor Gatwick bound passengers had the privilege of a six hour bus journey rather than a thirty minute flight back to West Sussex.

It wasn’t until my next flight that I realised I’d developed a fear of flying. As the aircraft took off I immediately felt scared. Every movement, every sound unsettled me. Matters worsened a few months later when a US bound flight I was on had an engine conk out over the Atlantic Ocean and an emergency landing at Shannon Airport became necessary. This fear would continue over the course of the next few decades. I didn’t stop flying but by God when I flew I was filled with pre-flight unease, in-flight dread and post flight relief.

I developed religious rituals straight out of my Granny’s devout Catholic playbook. I’d bless myself and touch the fuselage upon entering the aircraft for divine protection similar to a South American footballer coming on to the field of play. If I ever forgot I instantly felt we were doomed and our journey’s end would be a mountainside rather than the actual destination. On a flight from New York bound for Brussels one time Orthodox Jews and Muslims headed to the Hajj made up almost half the passengers. My only thought was not the potential for airborne inter-communal tensions but that this flight was sound as it covered many faith bases. It was ridiculous I know but I’d take all the reassurances I could muster.

In the end though knowledge is power. I tried to be governed by the stats. You know the ones, that you’re more likely to (insert any crazy highly unlikely scenario) than die as an airline fatality. I read more about aviation as I wanted to understand the physics of taking a heavy object up into the wild blue yonder and keeping it aloft. I also learned the breathing techniques, basically yoga, that aided relaxation in times of anxiety. All these combined gradually gave me coping mechanisms and I became a slightly anxious flyer rather than a petrified one.

The leaving of Barcelona

Flying, although not very environmentally friendly, is my link to family and my passion for travel. I could’ve chosen to do a Dennis Bergkamp, the non-Flying Dutchman, following my bad experiences but realised that to do so would’ve significantly inhibited my life choices. Like all fears, you have to metaphorically batter the crap out of them and keep them held at bay or they’ll gleefully defeat you.

A number of runners I’ve met often say that they are anxious/scared as they approach the start of a race. I can kind of understand it if it’s one they’ve trained hard for and looked forward to but I’ve heard a few say it a bloody parkrun! As FDR said ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself’ and that remains as true today as when the great man proclaimed it in January 1933. So handle the fear and just f**k it and run or fly or ask that person out or do whatever, within reason of course.

I’m still scared of big angry looking dogs though, I’ve not defeated that one yet.

Hold the green and black vest, I’m not a Vegan Runner yet.

A regular traveler once told me how, though not a vegetarian, he always requested the vegetarian meal option whilst flying. His reasoning, 1) you always get your meal served first and, 2) it tended to be fresher and of better quality.

I tested this advice on a trip to Qatar visiting friends a few years back. I made my request with Emirates Airlines and on the flight it duly arrived first. I smugly rubbed my hands with glee but then saw the label with my name on it, ‘Strict Vegetarian – Vegan‘. As I opened the package what greeted me made my much better half and daughter collapse in a fit of laughter. A banana, an apple and a bottle of water. My fellow travellers tucked in to Danish Pastries, Greek yogurts and cheese sandwiches whilst I felt like Gavin’s mum in that Gavin and Stacey scene when she pretends to be a content vegetarian upon meeting Stacey’s family for the first time. I quickly decided that if this was veganism then I wanted no part of it.

Yet scroll on a few years and I decided to try out veganism for a month. It was mainly off the back of listening to a Marathon Talk interview back in July with Ben Wickham, a vegan runner. The ethical arguments that he put forward and his practical approach interested me. The Happy Eggs parkrun sponsorship furore in Autumn also brought it into focus. Previously I had been a ravenous carnivore but I’d grown steadily more concerned about the amount of meat we consume, the quality of that which is consumed and the land and resource given over for those animals to consume that we ultimately consume. The drive for choice and ease of access it seemed was inevitably driving welfare and quality downward.

Chester Rd, Manchester

Even with my Emirates vegan meal experience, it has entered family folklore (‘Dad, Dad! Remember your Emirates vegan meal? Ha ha ha), I didn’t think it was going to be too hard. At home we eat mainly vegetable based meals during the week and my much better half is lactose intolerant so we also stay clear of dairy. Snacking was going to be my major problem though. I bloody love chocolate bars, cakey buns and ice cream. I only have to pass within 250 metres of a shop and somehow a Twix Xtra or a double chocolate muffin magically appears in my grasp. This was going to be the hard part.

‘Ah you’re doing Veganuary?’

This was the reaction when I told people. If truth be told I didn’t even know about it. I usually avoid that kind of carry on. I’ve given up Lent (ironic eh?), never done RED or Dry January nor gone all Magnum P.I. for Movember. Finding out ‘it was a thing’ almost made me quit before I’d even started but I quickly caught myself on. I’d committed so Veganuary it was to be and on New Years Day my monthlong dip into veganism started.

The first couple of days were difficult particularly when in convenience stores or bakeries. I nearly folded on a few occasions, particularly at Oxford Services at 0645 on New Years Day morning en route to Bushy parkrun when a big bag of Maltesers were calling out to me Siren-like but thankfully I resisted and remained strong. After this it just glided by.

I was mindful of the minerals and nutrients that I was potentially missing out on so increasing my intake of nuts, chia seeds, beans, quinoa, lentils/pulses and dark green vegetables helped particularly with protein and iron. It wasn’t a bane though as they’re all ingredients we normally use anyhow so it was just a case of bunging a bit more in. I did not miss meat whatsoever. The pain in the arse is the ingredient checking. Who would’ve thought they put milk in salt and vinegar crisps and fish bladders in some wine and beer? Maybe the reader, but not the writer.

In terms of my famous sweet teeth I found out that Bourbon Creams are vegan so whenever I fancied a biscuit (or two) with a brew they held the fort. Some friends came in for me also. Guirganator produced a bonkers but tasty vegan Bakewell Tart effort for our mid-month ill-fated trip to Bakewell parkrun that didn’t get further than Heaton due to weather issues. Rebecca made her famous flapjacks also. The winner hands down though was the vegan Chocolate Cake that my fellow Run Together Run Leader Lynn baked me. Mother of God! It was the best cake that I’ve ever eaten. It was beyond delicious.

Lynn’s masterpiece

I’ve definitely enjoyed Veganuary rather than endured it. I’ve had great support from my much better half. I’ve buzzed off the discipline of it and delighted in knowing that practically everything I’ve stuck in my gob is good stuff. My digestive system has behaved itself, I’ve dipped below 13st for the first time since I was a teenager, I’ve felt less uncomfortably full and more energised. The running has thankfully remained unchanged although I guess one month is not long enough a period to gauge performance.

In terms of going full vegan I think that’s a stretch. I love my brown leather brogues and woolly jumpers too much and I don’t think I could completely eliminate animal products from my diet due to my love for fish and seafood. Having said all that the lifestyle has suited me and there is so much I will carry forward from it.

I celebrated the end of Veganuary by heading to my favourite chippy, Chips @ No. 8, for haddock and chips cooked in beef dripping together with mushy peas and tartare sauce. It did taste great, as always, but there was a part of me that wished I’d been able to carry on.

Back on it tomorrow then, maybe.


Favourite meals and treats

https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/aubergine-daal/

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/feb/27/flatbread-recipes-lavash-msamen-crispbread-yotam-ottolenghi

http://argirobarbarigou.com/recipes/spanakorizo-spinach-rice/

https://www.benjerry.co.uk/flavours/peanut-butter-and-cookies-non-dairy

A Marathon training run full of Wearside memories

The Sunday morning long runs tell a story of only one thing and no it’s not the prolonged after effects of a dodgy Saturday night norovirus-laden takeaway. Marathon training.

After a post Dublin Marathon hiatus I’ve upped the mileage recently to gear up for April’s Greater Manchester Marathon once again. A local twelve mile run with the Guirgunator two Sundays ago then a marathon paced fifteen mile out and back to Old Trafford the next Sunday both went well. A visit to the in-laws last weekend would not hinder what runners call ‘getting the miles in the legs’.

The in-laws live in Penshaw, a quiet former pit village in the North East between Sunderland and Chester-le-Street. When I started seeing my now much better half a gigantic slag heap competed with the Parthenon-like Earl of Durham’s Monument for Penshaw’s most prominent landmark. Thankfully the slag heap has now made way for Herrington Country Park, a popular cross country venue, and the monument has regained undisputed pride of place.

Penshaw Monument from Herrington Country Park

A fine vegetable curry plus sides and a few too many pints at Penshaw Tandoori the night previous meant I set out on my Sunday run a few hours later than originally planned. The intended run route was to Roker Pier in Sunderland via Chester Rd and back via Durham Rd. Fifteen and a half miles.

At 0830, with the Belgian rapper Baloji in my headphones, I set out in the cold, crisp, clear air. After a mile I passed the monument and as I hit the first incline up to the A19 roundabout my body warmed up and began to feel arsed about the run ahead.

As I crossed the A19 the huge Nissan production complex sneaked into view. I’m a Remainer but even if I wasn’t and lived here I would do nothing to potentially put that place in even the mildest form of jeopardy. The scene in The Wire springs to mind when crooked State Senator Clay Davis is guiding gangster-cum-businessmen Stringer Bell through the world of political contracts. Davis talks about the importance of ‘the goose…that lays them golden eggs.’ Sunderland’s goose is Nissan and the local vote for Leave in the 2016 referendum still bloody baffles me.

From the A19 it was downhill until Sunderland city centre and my legs got the run of themselves a bit. An alumnus of the city’s university I passed the site of my old halls of residence, the lecture halls I occasionally visited, the union bar I did my ‘studying’ in, and also the library I did my actual studying in.

After making my way through the quiet city centre I crossed Monkwearmouth Bridge under which the River Wear flows out to the grey North Sea. The waterway put the city on the global map due to it’s shipbuilding heritage. My much better half’s grandfather Ken, a man that personified the ‘Mack’ in the term Mackem, was a boilermaker at Laings and later Austin and Pickersgills and it was solid working class shipbuilding folk like him and her uncle Colin that were encapsulated in the opening lyrics to the theme tune of Netflix’s acclaimed Sunderland ’til I die series.

The River Wear

On the north side of the river with Sunderland AFC’s Stadium of Light to the left, I used to like them until they did the Poznań at us back on that bleak May day in 2012, it was a right turn toward Roker. I passed St Peter’s Church that dates back to 674AD and was where the Venerable Bede once resided. The church is located across the road from Manor Quay, the University of Sunderland nightclub, which is not venerable I can tell you. After passing pubs along the Roker seafront (The Albion, The Wolsey and The Harbour View) where more of my student finances were squandered than I care to remember I came to the steep ramp that led down to Roker Beach and then on to the pier.

St Peter’s Church

Roker Pier is truly a wonderful piece of workmanship. It smoothly stretches out into the North Sea for half a mile and with it’s shorter southern partner provides a calmness for the waters that lie within. At the pier’s end I rounded the lighthouse, exchanged pleasantries with the fishermen and momentarily paused to look back at the place that from 1997-2000 I called home. I thought of the city that still held fond memories and laughs, where I revelled in the ‘…and Solskjær has won it’ night in ’99, the 2.1 degree I somehow emerged with and most importantly where I met my much better half. There was also the aching disbelief of a forty year old that realised it was all half a lifetime ago.

Sunderland

I retraced my running steps back to Monkwearmouth Bridge but once recrossed this time I headed south down the once thriving Fawcett Street and then west along Holmeside to met up with the A690 Durham Rd. I passed the pedestrian crossing where my Geordie mate Ian was run over during Fresher’s Week. Apparently an A&E doctor actually told him that due to being drunk he escaped major injury as his inebriated body was completely relaxed when it met the oncoming car.

In planning the return route I had completely forgotten how steep parts of Durham Rd were. The area’s hilly nature is the reason that a dry ski slope was located in nearby Silksworth. It was a real slog and my earlier eight minute mile pace took a clattering. I started wishing I’d gone back the way I had come but then quickly rationalised that every steep hill is an opportunity and the distance covered on them counts double (my unscientific calculation). Thankfully after a few miles the gradient softened and as I turned off Durham Road onto Herrington Road the Penshaw Parthenon came back into view. With one last push up the incline to the west side of Herrington Country Park I was back at the in-laws for a brew and breakfast.

Apart from a nice run down memory lane what am I imparting here? Well the long marathon training miles are hard and can bore the shite out of even the most engaged runner. It’s crucially important to mix up the routes, make them interesting and give one’s mind something else to focus on other than the monotonous mile after seemingly endless mile.

Good luck to all the marathon runners this year.

In search of Kevin

As far as graveyard settings go the one in Baltyboys, Wicklow certainly takes some beating. On a peninsula that juts out into Blessington Lakes the cemetery is situated amongst farming land that gently falls down to the lake shore. The rising Wicklow Mountains form a majestic and breathtaking background.

My family hails from the west of Ireland so on holidays we disembarked the ferry at Dublin’s North Wall or Dún Laoghaire and headed out ‘Beyond the Pale’ as quickly as possible. The little time I had spent in Wicklow was in the coastal town of Bray where, most notably, in 1988 I threw a message in a bottle out to sea and a few months later it was picked up by a young lad on an Isle of Man beach. A few years ago I found out I had cousin, Dan, that lives in the Blessington area and as mentioned in a previous blog post we ran last October’s Dublin Marathon together.

For many years my father ran a construction company and most of those he employed were Irishmen that, like Big Gerry, had emigrated to England during the 1950s or 1960s and found their home in the building trade. They were grafters and in most cases hard drinkers (not Big Gerry, he took the pledge). Most had families but a few were lonely souls. There were many characters. People like John ‘Connemara’ McDonagh who had a tendency to trash dump trucks, Dick Dunphy who swore blind he’d fought during The Aden Emergency and the loveable Gaeilgeoir Sean Costello who spoke very little English when he arrived here. I’ll not even get started with my uncles Joe, Curly, Ivan, Brendan, Ronnie or Billy as they’re a whole bloody series of blog posts in themselves.

Wicklow native Kevin Clarke was one such character. Born in Ballinahown in 1938 his early life was filled with sorrow and upheaval. Kevin’s mother died when he was an infant and a few years later the family had to vacate the home place before Ballinahown was submerged during the construction of Poulaphouca Reservoir or Blessington Lakes as it is commonly known. After completing his schooling he headed for the boat, like many of his generation, and emigrated to England finally settling in the East Lancashire town of Waterfoot.

In the late 1980s Kevin found his way into my father’s employment. He was a great worker and also fantastic craic. Always one for a tale you never quite knew if he was telling the truth or spinning a yarn. It didn’t matter however because the tale was always compelling. As a youngster I spent weekends and school holidays working on my father’s building sites. It was a great time and Kevin featured prominently. His wild tales, he told me once that he and Gerry Adams were best friends, and funny demeanour always made me laugh and feel happy even on the most wintery of winter mornings laying concrete slabs or working in some trench. If I had a choice to work alongside anybody it was always Kevin.

Kevin possessed a unique sense of humour. During a break time whilst working on a job in Crawshawbooth he engaged in conversation with a quick tempered subbie joiner whose daughter owned horses. After asking a long sequence of seemingly interested questions Kevin, straight faced, said ‘so Jack, now tell me, do the horses actually talk to you?’ The brew room erupted in laughter and how Kevin escaped without an absolute throttling from Jack is still unknown. Kevin also convinced a guy that lived locally to site that he was going to move in with him and his wife. He stretched the joke to the point where he turned up one morning at their doorstep with his suitcase in hand.

In the early 1990s Kevin rather abruptly left my father’s employment. That was like Kevin though, ever the enigma. You could never quite gauge his thinking. There was always the feeling that there was a troubled interior masked behind the jovial exterior. Kevin crossed our paths only a handful of times thereafter until a few years back my father heard that he had passed away. His wish had always been to return home and so was brought back to Wicklow for burial.

On the day before the Marathon Dan picked me at Dublin Airport but there was one extra thing I needed to do as well as run the 26.2 miles. Knowing that Dan lived nearby I had to go to Baltyboys Cemetery and pay my respects to Kevin.

Though a small graveyard it took an age to find his grave as the headstones confirmed that Clarke was a common surname in the area. I’d been told that he’d been buried with his parents and after searching for some time Dan and I were about to admit defeat but one particular grave, of Patrick and Annie Clarke, kept calling me back.

I approached the grave and noticed a thin, rectangular piece of black plastic lying at the base of the headstone. It looked like rubbish. I bent down and turned it over. It was a plaque, Kevin’s plaque, and his name was written in fading pencil onto peeling bronze foil. Thinking of him and corresponding that memory to the rather pitiful memorial before me brought a tear to my eye. I quickly composed myself and then wedged the plaque to the headstone with the piece of timber it was originally affixed to. How long before that plastic would’ve blown away for good? A sad thought is that it now might well have despite my best endeavours.

Someone once said that it’s not dying that’s the most tragic part, it’s being forgotten. Although he may have neither a grand memorial nor headstone Kevin Clarke will live long in my memory and hopefully others too.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam