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

The one and only New Year’s Resolution I’ve ever kept to

New Year’s Day 2019. The clock showed 0700 as I drove with two other parkrun tourists, Amanda and Nigel, on the M40 motorway just past Oxford Services en route to Bushy Park in South West London. The home of parkrun was to be the first of two that day as part of parkrun’s New Year’s Day Double, the second being Upton Court in Slough at 1030.

The first rays of sunlight partially illuminated the nearby Chiltern Hills and I couldn’t help but contemplate New Year’s Day 2012. Back then I was unfit, unhealthy, overweight and stressed with work but about to embark on something that would change my life.

At high school I’d been physically active. I had no ‘first touch’ so veered away from football and focused my efforts on rugby union. I played for my school team on Saturdays and Sedgley Park Rugby Club on Sundays. It kept me reasonably fit and also provided an avenue for controlled (for the most part) aggression. I was also a decent sprinter on the school athletics team and a numbermakeruperer on the basketball team getting the ball at every opportunity to Jason and Big John Mac, the only two good players.

At sixteen I got a job working weekends at a local supermarket and pretty much gave up sports-based physical activity. I tried out Gaelic football at university but the Irish lads with GAA coursing through their veins just ran rings around me. Other than that then nothing for the next fifteen years.

By that stage my much better half and I started our own temporary recruitment business. Although it was good financially the stress got to me, badly. I was irritable and thought continually about work. The 24 hour nature of the business didn’t help. The sedentary office environment together with a dubious diet led to me becoming overweight. I needed a productive avenue to take care of both issues.

In October 2011 I visited my cousin Genie in Atlanta, Georgia as the first part a three state tour visiting American family. Genie owns an independent running store called West Stride and she gave me some West Stride branded gear. When I returned to Blighty however I put it in a drawer and forgot about it.

Myself, in West Stride technical tee, and cousin Genie

On New Year’s Eve 2011 I endeavoured to do something about my physical and mental wellbeing. I’d read that physical exercise was good for relieving stress and, of course, weight loss so I decided to take up running the following day. A New Year’s Resolution was made.

At 0700 on New Year’s Day I went to the drawer took out the running gear that Genie had given me, put on some old trainers and headed out the front door. I got as far as the local park, about 400m away, and questioned my decision. My legs ached, my heart beat so hard it felt like it was going to explode out of my rib cage, my lungs felt like they were internally combusting and I was dizzy. I reached the nearest post box and sought sanctuary on it like a drowning man would do with flotsam. I felt horrible, like I was dying. Once I’d recovered I walked back home.

I didn’t give up on my resolution though like so many of the past. The next morning I went out the front door and set out for the post box. I again felt terrible but once I recovered I ran back home rather than walk. The next day I cut the recovery shorter, the following day even shorter. By day six I needed no recovery whatsoever and ran to the post box and back. I ran every single day of January (before RED January was a thing) with each time stretching the distance out a little more until I could run 2.5km without needing to stop by the end of the month. I started to notice my stress levels changing slightly. The best tonic to a shit day at work became a run as soon as I got home. It took troubles away for a short time and my outlook just became putting one foot in front of the other. I used to return from a run feeling tired yes but paradoxically feeling refreshed and relaxed. As February moved in to March with my distance increasing I signed up to my first race, the Great Manchester 10k, and also discovered Heaton parkrun that gave me a weekly focus.

There’s been ups and downs along the way but two hundred and fifty three parkruns and countless races of varying distance later, including five marathons, have proved that the decision not to give up when I walked home from the post box a physical wreck to be one of the best I ever made. I’m physical fit (Tom Tom Sports says I have a fitness age of twenty, hopefully not when I was twenty), I feel good and manage stress reasonably well. I’ve gained a whole raft of friends that share my running passion and I have achieved goals I never believed possible.

I still run past the post box quite a bit and every time that I do I look at it, smile and think about where I was seven years ago and how far I’ve come.

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.

“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.

http://blog.parkrun.com/uk/2018/07/18/the-parkrun-alphabet/

https://www.flybe.com

http://www.parkrun.org.uk/queens/

https://dukeofyorkbelfast.com/venues/harp-bar/

https://www.bunsen.ie

http://www.kellyscellars.com