I was tempted to run today. Cronkley Fell is an old Strider favourite and a traditional GP fixture. But 14 days after Comrades I knew it’d be unwise. Many times I’ve run a favourite race, felt fine for the first mile, then not so fine for the remaining 90% of the race. Lessons learned.
So Roberta and I wandered up by High Force, flasks and flapjacks packed, bumped into Jan, and settled down beside the Tees. This is a fine course. There were moments when I wished I’d been on the other side of the lens, but a man’s got to know his limitations.
But it illustrates the wonderful fickleness of the GP. The GP is the Elvet Striders all-rounders race. It’s open to all. And if you had been a lady Strider today, and ran, and finished, you’d have scooped 15 GP points.
Callum Hanson (Pudsey & Bramley)
Geoff Davis (NFR)
Robin David Parsons
Susan Davis (NFR)
GP Note: Geoff and Susan are not eligible for GP points as they ran as NFR. If I’d run today, as DFR, as I’d planned, I would’ve been ineligible too. To be eligible for GP points you must run as a Strider.
A wonderful low-key but challenging fell race (also with a kid’s race, a 10k run, and three ‘Alwinton Challenge’ walks) – all to support North of Tyne Mountain Rescue.
There are no cut-offs in this race, and I entered this with no time to chase or expectations – just to enjoy the run out. I persuaded mum to come along as my #1 cheerleader, and for a walk out on the hills. As always, she performed admirably, including fending off some inquisitive bullocks in one of the fields on the return.
The course was marked pretty much all the way round, so I didn’t even need to navigate, and we all got some sunshine, a dry day, and some glorious views of the Cheviots (though plenty of bog underfoot in some sections 😁).
A good day out, and a race I would recommend.
Thanks to the cheery marshalls at the seven checkpoints, and to the ROs for a great race, and the snacks and drinks afterwards
I am presently typing this report while sat at the computer wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, alternating the soles of my feet between a blocks of ice, a ribbed roller, and a stretch band; and whilst glowing with moisture having returned from one of the gruelling track sessions. The pong emanating from my body has even driven away Rosie and Tess, my ever loyal Border Terriers, who prefer to sniff each other’s back sides rather than associate themselves with me at this time.
I sometimes wonder why we do this running and training lark, and so do the dogs. All that effort, managing the pain, followed by some gain. Whilst I enter a fair number of races I’m never going to be a star runner, nor likely to finish in the top 10, or win a trophy or get a mention in dispatches other than a few sympathetic ‘well dones’ and ‘good efforts’ from fellow competitors. However, I have a real competitive urge, and so having given this much thought I decided to review my race strategy and see how I could improve on my performance to secure a higher race finishing position. I needed to find a race that best suited my talents.
Then last week my wife Heather found the ideal answer to my needs, the inaugural TRAILDOG running event at Chopwell Woods, to be run on Father’s Day.
The idea of this race is that a runner and his or her race dog run around either a 5 mile or 5k course along the woodland forest trails, against fellow runners and their dogs. This was ideal for me, as our Tess, a young Border Terrier is built for speed, especially when called for her breakfast, tea, or a treat, and I was sure that if we trained properly, then we might be able to secure that podium finish I’ve been after all this time.
The first bit was to test if it was possible for Tess and I to run the distance together without getting in a tangled mess between her, the dog lead and me. So on the week before the race we did two training runs over the full course distance. To be fair, I was the one out of breath, and we ran really well together, with Tess seemingly to have boundless energy. The only problems I found that may have an impact on race day, was her tendency to bark loudly at other dogs, and her need to complete full doggy ablutions a part of the way around the route.
These were issues I would have to deal with on the day, but never before have I done a race with 3 emergency doggy poo bags in the back pocket of my shorts.
On arrival at Chopwell Woods, it was clear that Tess was excited and raring to go, by the height of her leap from the tailgate of our car. We made our way down to registration and confirmed our participation as bona fide Elvet Striders, as I was wearing my club T-Shirt. I was classed in the usual way as MV55, whilst Tess was FTU2 (Female Terrier Under 2 years). I think we were in a class of our own.
The next thing I needed to sort out as a matter of urgency was for Tess to have her second full ablution. If we were to be competitive and do well in this completion, which I was determined to be, then we had to make sure that there would be no time delays on the route. We simply could not drop a second, so we nipped off in to the woods for Tess to clear her system fully.
On our return I got chatting to other competitors in the usual form of human greeting and general chitchat. Nothing controversial was said and it was all very pleasant, For example, I met up with fellow Strider Katie Davison who was running with her dog Fenton, so a strong Strider contingent was committed to the race.
However, on the doggy front, not everything was totally civilised as the dogs tended to take one of two postures with their fellow competitors: –
a) Friendly approach – shown by the dogs wagging their tails and then sniffing each other’s bits
b) Unfriendly approach – shown by a general round of barking, yapping, snarling, accompanied by owners shouting ‘Gerrrrroffff”, ‘Get down’ and a generally pulling of leads to split up the fight
I have only previously witnessed such appalling behaviour from competitors at Harrier League races.
I then took Tess to one side to give her a pep talk. For the race she would be on a harness, attached to a lead, and would run alongside me. I told her to ignore other dogs, don’t get involved in any argy bargy, and to concentrate on her run.
In addition, we went around to suss out the opposition. On the human front, there were some clear competitive sorts in club running vests, with top-notch harnesses linking man to beast. They were clearly pretty decent runners who looked the part and experienced to this sort of race. They tended to have the sort of dogs with them that suggested speed and agility. Border Collies and Spaniels were clearly favoured running dogs.
On the other hand, along with the experts there were families running, along with runners in general with a wide variety of dogs.
Tess identified to me that she should have the measure of the Beagle and the Labradors, along with some other lumbering types.
What was clear to the both of us, was that we could do alright in this race, if everything went our way
Effectively there were three races to this event. Firstly the family friendly general walk, then followed by a mass start for the 5-mile and 5K races.
We had elected to do the 5k race, based on the fact that on the previous day I had completed The Haydon 100 Cycle Sportive, covering 65 miles from Haydon Bridge down to Alston and Nent Head. This was a somewhat hilly course, and my legs were empty, therefore the 5-mile route was a non-starter for me. The good thing was that Tess’s legs were full, and she was raring to go, so hope fully she would pull me along.
We made our way to the star line, and after a briefing of sorts we were formally sent on our way. The 5 milers set off straight on to the course, whilst the 5K group performed 400m lap and then back through the starting gate. We were off and running.
We quickly moved to the front of the 5k group as Tess was quickly in to her stride. The two training runs we had done meant that she knew what was expected and got in to her rhythm. There is some research that suggests that dogs love this pack type activity and that it helps them bond better with their owners, and that was clear from her response.
The first kilometre was downhill, and we took advantage of this knowing that my legs were tired from the previous day, and that we needed to get ahead of the pack for when we returned up hill.
We passed some of the 5 milers on the down slope. As we overtook, Tess took a wide berth and basically ignored them, which was great.
After about 1.5k we passed the first ‘doggy slurp station’, but Tess declined any water. Whilst I (sorry, that should be ‘we’) were determined to do well, it was important to make sure Tess was happy and comfortable, therefore she had every opportunity to get a slurp.
We then moved on to a long slow uphill section, which to be honest was no good for my dead legs. We were overtaken by two long legged pointer types and their handlers on the 5-mile route who we had passed previously on the downhill section. Tess only has little legs, and mine were non-functional, but to her credit, she ran ahead and virtually pulled me a long.
We got going again and at the second slurp station she took a quick drink and we were off and running along at a good pace to the final slurp station and then towards the finishing line.
By this stage I knew that we were ahead of the rest, and despite my heavy legs we were determined not to let go of our lead, even if it meant that I would have to pick Tess up and sprint with her in my arms over the line. So we pushed on hard and with growing confidence, and thankfully for me Tess was hardly out of breath.
We came in towards the finish line and to the sound of blaring music crossed the line, much to my and of courses Tess’s delight.
One of the organisers came running up to us shouting’ You’ve won, let me put your medal on’. and then ceremoniously placed a medal over my head. It was like being at the Olympics. I was also handed a joint ‘doggy bag’ of gifts and prizes for both Tess and I. Rather than getting a trophy, we got a play ball to go on the mantlepiece, a bag of dog treats, a chocolate bar and a can of posh water.
We now waited for the other competitors to come in. The first home in the 5-mile group came charging in at a rate of knots. He was with his Border Collie and was a clear veteran of these events as he had all the gear. I heard him saying that they had to stop for a poo half way around the course. I asked him innocently if he was referring to him or the dog, but the question went unanswered as he was still in the competitive zone. However, it turned out that he travelled all over the north of England competing in these type of events, and made some good recommendations on future events and best fit leads and harnesses if we wanted to repeat our efforts another time.
I had achieved my ambition and won a running race as an Elvet Strider. Admittedly, Tess was there and played an integral part in the achievement, but I can now honestly say that I have found my niche where I can compete on equal terms with others.
Pleased as punch we made our way home, imagining the headlines in the sporting pages of the Northern Echo or the congratulations from our peers at our outstanding achievement.
So, on arrival home, much to her delight, Tess’s Mum put our victory photos on various pages of Facebook. The response was outstanding, and to be honest fairly predictable.
450 likes alone came from the Border Terriers Owners Club Facebook Page, accompanied by loads of comments along the line of ‘Arrrrhhhhh – How cute’, ‘Well Done Tess’, ‘Absolutely Brilliant Tess’, How wonderful Tess’, ‘Tess this’, ‘Tess that’ etc. etc.
Little was said about our joint achievement. In fact, I might as well not have been there. In reality, what chance did I have of getting the kudos? Me, a sweaty middle-aged runner with no hair, Tess a cute one-year-old little waggy tail dog!
Honestly, this was a great event and much fun. It can be both a simple family dog walking exercise in the countryside, or it can be as competitive as you wish as the event caters for all types of runners, dog walkers and dog types.
As excuses go, Sunday being Father’s Day was pretty good for getting my wife and kids out to Seaham. We hadn’t seen the sea for a while and didn’t know this bit of the coast. They watched the race start, saw the view, and headed down to the beach to look for sea glass in the sunshine.
In the race, Graeme Watt and Michael Littlewood shot off as expected but I wasn’t too far behind – I counted 12 in front of me and it was a fast, fairly flat start. The path was clear enough to enjoy the scenery as well. As the gaps got bigger it became clear that I and another guy were pretty even. He was good at the ups, I knew the pace on the flat and we both enjoyed the downs. I followed him for a few miles, then passed him – and found he’d been helping me find the route, too.
Courtesy of Jan Panke
Every now and again there was a stream that had cut down to the sea. At one point I could see the front of the race just 100m away – but they were on the other side of the stream and a mile ahead. We had to go inland, down and up and back out to the coast but it was good to see the leaders flying.
The race information warned about the 320 steps in those down and ups. Before the race I had gone over the river at Finchale Priory to practice a few times – but those steps are nice easy ones (I now realise). The steps along the coast are a whole lot higher so it was quite a relief to see everyone walking up them. Being in 13th place wasn’t too unlucky then – I’m not sure I’d want to watch the leaders on those climbs! The key was to start running at the top. I suspect that’s when my heart rate hit 178.
Then it started raining. In case you’re wondering, my family, with their waterproofs by the buildings of Seaham, got a few spots of rain on the beach. A few miles South it was pouring down on my Striders vest. Then we got to the stream that almost stopped the race. Over-the-ankle paddling, and we were told to stay in the middle of the ‘path’. It felt like running in lead boots for a while after that, so it was great to have Jan Young encouraging me up the hill. It also meant that Tony and I, still running together, exchanged names. Pairing up is great when it works, and we exchanged thanks at the end.
I didn’t cross the line with Tony, though. This was my longest race since 2003. Back then I was training for the London marathon, mostly alone and on the roads down South. I had learned that I could run up to 17 miles with no fuel. Turns out that, if you push hard enough off-road, the limits around 12. Tony edged away and, instead of speeding up on the flat finish, I lost places. Thanks to Allen Renwick’s yells of encouragement I did run over the line – but boy was I glad to see those cakes.
Thanks to all for the shouts and photos; the course and the education. I’m looking forward to the Northumberland Coastal Run.
November 17 was my 50th Parkrun which I celebrated at Riverside but one I will remember for all the wrong reasons. The run route had to be changed 5 minutes before the start as a young man was threatening to jump from the footbridge. Rumour has it that a parkrunner with connections to If U Care Share talked the young man down until the police arrived. I will never forget seeing that young man being escorted to safety through the park by police.
Only a few days earlier I had been invited to participate in Parkrunathon 2019 for this self same charity. Irony or karma?
So along came June 1st, and after a series of injuries I was probably the most unfit I have been since taking up running and was going through one of my lowest periods ever. I had no idea how the day would evolve and even less idea how my running would stand up to this rather obscure running challenge.
The atmosphere was electric. We were all buzzing. The organisation was flawless. A sprightly bunch of runners descended the coach at Sedgefield, looking fresh and enthusiastic. Junior Parkrun followed by the “official” Sedgefield Parkrun – we were well on our way! For me it was all about finish lines. Finish times were banished from my mind!
From Sedgefield we got back on the coach to Hartlepool. Wasn’t sure what to expect. After all their official Parkrun had been finished only minutes earlier. Would anyone be there? Of course there was…local support was out in full force. 2.5 runs ticked off and back on the coach – direction Cotsford Field.
Timing was tight for this one. 40 minutes’ turnaround time. It’s one of my favourite parkruns but not an easy one. My legs were kind and got me round the full course just in time to get back on the coach to Sunderland.
We had a generous amount of time at Sunderland and were “blessed” by the rain. I was cold, stiff and fairly miserable by this point, and although I walked some of the course it was here that my determination kicked in. I was suddenly determined to tick off all these parkruns. Sunderland I didn’t enjoy you…at all! But the Sunderland crew supplied us with ice lollies and we were off again. Next port of call – South Shields.
It was here I got my mojo back. Kept a slow but steady pace and ran the whole course. We had terrific support with hot drinks, snacks and fresh strider faces to join us on the run. By this point we were more than half way. Only 3 left to go…
Windy Nook was our next chosen destination. Boy did I suffer on this one. I literally felt broken. But if I could get through this one, then there was just Riverside and Durham left. My family were coming to support at Riverside so I knew I’d find some renewed energy there, and, well even if I had to run till midnight I would finish Durham!
Windy Nook has to be THE most complicated parkrun ever; twists and turns everywhere. The core team were there thankfully to keep us right. On the last lap I teamed up with George who was also battling the beast and we crossed the line, albeit in last position, together.
Only 2 left. It started to really feel like I could do it. Did I mention I’d never run this far before? Longest run to date had been a half marathon. Even getting on and off the bus at this point was proving tricky!
Riverside was fab. My local parkrun. Mam, sister and bestie all there to support me, but the support for the event as a whole was simply amazing. Another fab supply of drinks, snacks and encouragement.
Back on the coach to Durham and I was giddy knowing that I was on my way to running my first ever marathon distance. But by this point I was hurting – everywhere.
I will be forever grateful to Kerry for running with me at Durham. She fixed me mini challenges of reaching a lamppost, a bridge, a tree then allowing myself to walk and recover before starting to run again.
I crossed the finish at Durham with a massive feeling of accomplishment and pride and maybe a year or two. Not necessarily pride in myself but in the club and running community that I am part of. I can only imagine the organisation that went into planning everything. The support throughout the day was simply amazing.
What a day! Pushed myself to my absolute limits. But more importantly we raised awareness and precious funds for this amazing charity.
I hope the young man who marked my 50th Parkrun has found solace in this or another similar charity.
Often a popular Striders event, and this year saw 11 of us brave the elements – heavy rain at times, and breezy in places. I didn’t mind the weather (preferable to sunstroke!) though it made it a little miserable for those spectating – thank you to our supporters.
This was my 19th outing, and I was aiming for sub-4hrs (a personal target that over the last few months has grown out of all sensible proportion in my mind) and anxiety had built up over the previous week. I felt ridiculously stressed at the start, and all the way through to Whaw. I started enjoying myself more on the climb up to Punchard – partly because it’s not easy, and the weather became pretty bad here (so I had other things to think about) and also because I shared this section with Robin, who made me run when my legs didn’t want to, and was good company as we headed into a claggy section over the moor. I was seriously thinking at this point that mum had paid him off to pace me, he was so good at pushing me on, and he didn’t seem tired at all.
As always, I thoroughly enjoyed the descent into Gunnerside. I got there just after my planned time and I thought 4hrs might still be on, though by this point I had remembered that running should (must) be fun – goals are a good thing, but not if they detract from the pure enjoyment of what we do. The pull up to Blades hurt (as always) and the odd cramp here was also pretty unpleasant, but I always like this section; getting to Surrender Bridge and knowing you’re almost home, you’ve just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I think I remember the weather improving slightly from Gunnerside. Great to see mum and Tony supporting on the stony track back down to Reeth – my favourite finish!
I didn’t quite get that elusive sub-4 but still very happy knocking a minute off my 2011 PB, and enjoying the company of others throughout, and the bogs and the rain!
Some superb performances by Striders – a ‘comfortable’ win (10 mins clear) for Fiona in the ladies race, both Michael and Stuart in the top 10, and some excellent times and positions for others, particularly given the conditions. Well done to all, whether first-timers or Swaledale ‘veterans’ – I hope to see you all there next year
I’d not intended running Comrades again. Twice is a nice number. You can run Comrades to the end of your days, but you can only get the back-to-back medal once. As a novice, by successfully finishing your first two Comrades. I got that last year, but at a cost. It had been a bad race. I had suffered badly and had a nagging doubt that I’d got things wrong. I’d hoped and believed that I was capable of sub-11 and a bronze medal, and it turned out I wasn’t. It itched.
So when late last year, I mentioned to Roberta that, given the chance, I’d do Comrades again in a blink, I detected a flicker of an eye-roll. Comrades is hard on the supporter. A 55 mile point to point, with no view of the race except the crowded finish. It’s harder on the supporter than the runner. And only a few months earlier I’d vowed never again. Never. Again. Too Hard. Then BA announced a new direct service to Durban and things gathered momentum and I thought, third time lucky. One more try at bronze.
I was a bit late to training, but I was structured and focussed. I hit my racing weight, and on the 9th of June, I was in my pen early, munching on a potato, and chatting to a novice South African lady who was telling me she’d be disappointed with anything over 10 hours. Nice problem to have. Bronze is sub-11, and although I suspected I might not be fast enough, I thought I’d get pretty close. My pacing and race plan was for sub-11.
For anyone planning Comrades there is a lot of good writing on the race. I’ve followed the official coach Lindsey Parry’s training guides but I’m also a big fan of the blogs of Norrie Williamson and Bruce Fordyce. On the whole I run a disciplined race and to a plan. I suffered hugely last year and had been puzzled. In an excellent blog post from March this year, Bruce Fordyce writes about his 1985 Comrades:
It wasn’t easy and flowing. I was toiling. I remember the sickening realisation: “You are not in control of this race.”
That summed up my 2018 Comrades. Many of us have mantras and mind games that keep us going when the going gets tough. And this has become mine. Whenever I feel something is wrong I say this to myself as a warning. Something’s wrong, and a rethink is needed. In a long race, even a slightly faster than planned initial pace can cause disaster further down the line.
Comrades is not flat. And the up-run is very not flat. Average paces are meaningless and I was following the pacing suggested by Norrie Williamson. Practical suggestions on where to be and landmarks along the course. I was on target pretty much until the half-way point, almost to the second
At the Ethembeni School I looked forward to some high-fiving with the kids. I confess to indulging in mild mischief here. There’s loads of ebullient confident kids, but there’s all the shy ones too, and the naked delight on their face when you single them out and go up to them and thank them for watching is fab. One lad was so excited he grasped my fingers and wouldn’t let go. Still, my ‘Ethembeni split’ was only 40 seconds so I wasn’t there as long as it felt, but moments like that are intensely emotional and help put the race in perspective.
The school is 36.5km to go on the up-run, and my pace had slipped a fraction. I refocussed and concentrated and tried to go faster. However, at Cato Ridge, with 30km to go, it had slipped some more. I wasn’t going to get sub-11. I wasn’t going to get bronze. I had a pang of disappointment but I knew I couldn’t go faster and maintain it to the finish. In the endgame you can see many that overstretch themselves only to find themselves overstretched in the grass at the side of the road. In an ultra your race pace is the pace you can maintain for the duration of the ultra. So there was no dramatic change in my pace, I just carried on running at the pace I know I could maintain. I was surprisingly upbeat. I was still in control of the race.
With about 20km to go and on a rare descent my legs were telling me an indignant and incessant tale of woe, but my running economy felt not too bad and my breathing was ok. My legs hurt, but I was ok with that. It was just a case of concentrating on a spot in front and keeping the rhythm moving. Then I became aware of a presence behind me. A bloody bus.
After my initial fascination with the Comrades buses in 2017 I have revised my view somewhat. They can be great. but then again, they can be a pain. Sometimes their pacing is good, and sometimes it’s not. And with the organisers squeezing more entries in each year, the roads are fuller, but not wider. I felt, rather than saw, the bus come up behind me and begin to envelop me. I was irritated but resigned to my fate. Resistance was futile. Soon my biological and technological distinctiveness was added to their own. I was assimilated into the collective. I became part of the bus.
But this wasn’t an official bus. It was smaller, leaner, tighter, and I wasn’t sure who was driving. Must be that tall lanky bloke. Except he disappeared after a few kms and the bus kept going. Then that bloke going for his back-to-back. Very impressive. But then, where did he go? I liked this bus. It had raised my pace a fraction, and I had struggled initially to hang on, but I was ok now. The passengers were quite experienced too, watching out for the cats-eyes and pot-holes and such that can be your undoing in a compact running group. I was also rethinking some of my pacing strategy. On a long steep hill, I usually walk the lot, as I can’t see the point of doing 20 paces running every now again and burning energy. But this was exactly what this driver was doing, and, and, I was quite liking it. In fact, when we hit the last of the Big Five, Polly Shortts, we did a walk-jog strategy that was, well, pretty hard, but I hung on.
By this time I had identified the driver. His name was Dean, and apparently, according to what was written on his Adventist running vest, Jesus was coming soon. Dean was certainly working a few miracles and I decided to try and stay on his bus to the Finish. In these last few kilometres Dean encouraged and cajoled us with a faultless pacing strategy and I found my atheism was more than a little challenged.
As we ran into the stadium we instinctively spread out in a line around our driver and then we were swallowed up in the crowded finish. I looked around for Dean; I wanted to thank him. I wanted to shake his hand. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but this had been a big deal. I normally, and contentedly, run alone. But that bus for the last 20km had been an <ahem>, godsend. I couldn’t see Dean in the crush so I looked at the clock to check my time. 11 hours 40 minutes. 20 minutes spare. Gulp. That had been too close for comfort. Nearly half an hour slower than 2017.
But I was happy. I can’t think what I would’ve done differently. I’d done the training, lost the weight, drunk less beer, rested some more, had a revised plan, had arrived fresh, confident and positive and had gone out to get bronze. And I hadn’t got it. I’d hit my pay grade and wasn’t going to get any further. Time to move on.
Growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s was not all about long hair, flares and discos, and worst of all the Bay City Rollers. For me and the vast majority of my mates it was about ‘The War’, and reliving that through our playtime.
For example, I do remember Christmas 1972, when my dad gave me an empty cardboard box as a present. He said it was an Action Man Deserter…
You see, playing with Action Man (the one with moving hand and scar, not the deserter), or manoeuvring my toy navy around the top of the landing with the theme to 633 Squadron on the record player in the background was pretty standard fare. Escaping from Colditz or watching Dads Army, The Dambusters and The Cruel Sea were required Sunday afternoon entertainment, whilst reading about the exploits of the Commandos on The Raid on St Nazaire in The Victor comic or in Commando books (Still available from WH Smith in Durham Market Place) were our text books to history.
Whilst this may sound very jingoistic, in our defence I don’t think we could help ourselves in our passion and it really was not our fault. That is because war films, model aircraft, tanks and soldiers were representative of real events, lived by the people around us. My parents, extended family and friends lived through and served this country throughout that conflict. Therefore, as children we were culturally conditioned through the people around us to have a deep fascination and interest in the Second World War.
I have continued with this interest in all things military to the present day being a member of the Durham Branch of the Western Front Association and the Dads Army Appreciation Society. However, over time I have developed a deeper understanding of conflict, the impact of conflict and in particular the impact upon individuals as participants of war.
Therefore when Saturn Running announced that to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of D-Day that they were organising a commemorative run at Druridge Bay, then I just had to take part and in my way pay homage to an older generation.
The generation that served did not consider they to be victims of war, nor that they were heroes, although I considered them to be my heroes. They rarely mentioned events that they had lived through, events which in many cases stayed with them for life.
My dad for instance was in the RAF, trained for D-Day on Salisbury Plain in order to build temporary allied airfields in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of France. Sadly, for him (he wanted to stay with his mates) and luckily for me, he was struck done with appendicitis and spent that period in hospital. He then went to London as part of a RAF recovery team on V1 and V2 impact sites. Yet his only war story was when he was chased by the police during the blackout for having no lights on his bicycle. My Uncle Les was a soldier in the Hallamshire Battalion of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment. He was landed in and then evacuated from Norway during the ill fated allied expedition of 1940, served on the garrison of Iceland up to 1942, then returned to Britain to prepare for the future allied liberation of Europe. He landed in France on D Day plus 4, and took part in bitter fighting in the Normandy before the allied breakthrough in the late summer of 1944. His unit was all but wiped out to the extent that he was about to be commissioned as an officer in the field, but was blown up and wounded as his unit entered Holland. His only war story he would tell us was about wounding himself by dropping a beer barrel on his foot whilst in Holland in preparation for the battalion VE Day celebration.
This unassuming and quiet generation of heroes left a massive impression on me personally, from that small boy innocently playing at war with his mates, to the more considered and thoughtful adult of today. Therefore, I just had to take part in the Operation Overlord Commemorative Run as a part of my tribute to that generation.
On the drive up to Druridge Bay the weather was simply awful, with rain tanking it down almost horizontally in a strong northerly wind. So when we arrived at the Country Park we had to dash from the car to the refuge of the visitor centre.
On dashing in to the men’s toilets I came across Paul Smith changing in to a full WW2 soldiers uniform and who was running the event in his own commemorative way. The funny thing is that I have exactly the same uniform at home as a part of my collection. I acquired mine a few years ago when I was working with Oscar winner Catherine Zeta Jones, and Knights of the Realm Sir Tom Courtney and Sir Michael Gambon, amongst others, in that classic 2016 war film, Dads Army – The British Empire Strikes Back. I didn’t actually meet any of the stars, but I was in the final marching scene at the end of the film, and if you look closely you may catch a passing glimpse of me at the back of the parade, marching behind the boy scouts.
The great thing about Saturn Running events is that you basically follow a circuit and cover the ground as many times as you like over a 7 hour period. In this case it has a 6 and a bit mile circuit around the country park and out on to the beach and back. So you could choose what distance you wish to cover, and in this case I aimed for the half marathon distance.
Druridge bay was a perfect location for a WW2 commemorative event, for during the war defences were constructed around the bay as a part of anti-invasion preparations. Defences included scaffolding barriers, anti tank blocks overlooked by pill boxes, behind which were minefields and an anti tank ditch. Thus the place has a military history and is ideal for a running event.
After the pre-event briefing we all set off on an inland circuit of about 2 miles around the lake. My aim was to complete the half marathon, but with no time in mind I just wanted to get some miles under my belt and enjoy the route.
Although it was still raining and blustery, I found myself just behind the lead group, as many of the ultra distance runners were running at a more conservative pace.
After a lap of the lake we turned on to a service road running due north parallel with the beach, and directly in to a very strong wind, which certainly knocked the pace down a little. As I turned on to the beach I was aware of a runner coming up behind me, and so we ran the beach together with the wind now on our tail. I wanted to run a negative split with my second lap faster than the first, but with the wind and my new companion we were running far too fast on the first lap to achieve this.
He then went on to tell me in great detail about being in the army, being in a covert unit, working with the SF (Special Forces) deep under cover, and then running faster and harder than the Para’s whilst in training. Now call me a cynic, but his unit couldn’t have been very good at being covert if he was telling me all this. I’m probably doing him an injustice, but at the end of the 2-mile stretch of the beach he said he need to stop for a quick toilet break. He clearly had not got his pre-race ablutions sorted as we had only just started, plus I have always read that the SAS never stopped for a pee or poo or leave a trace of their presence, and if they did then it was in to a plastic bag, So I expected him to catch up with me again with a doggy poo bag in hand as I plodded back in land in to the teeth of the gale, but I never saw him again. I suppose I will never find out the truth about his military service.
I then made my way back to the start and started my second lap. I met up with a great fella who had come up from Chester and was in to ultras and marathons. He had done the Dragon’s Teeth 3 day ultra race in Wales the previous week, but had pulled out part way around with sore feet. We were going at a good pace, certainly for me, but a part of the way around the lake he started to slow with a hamstring pain. I dropped my pace to keep running with him, but found that I was holding myself back a little.
At this point a stick thin ultra type runner caught up with us and I joined him back on the beach service road and on to the beach its self. This runner turned out to be doing a marathon (plus a little bit more if he felt like it), and was certainly bombing along. It turned out that he was a head coach of the NE Marathon Club, and he provided me with some great ideas for training, and was simply a knowledgeable and friendly runner.
I matched him along the beach, but as we turned yet again in to the wind I could not match his pace. However, what I did notice was that behind me the beach was almost clear and I could not see any runners close behind, therefore I must have been quite away head of many other runners without realising it. I suppose I just got carried away with the chit chat with the other and lost all thoughts of pace, and just hanged in.
On my own I worked my way back towards the start and over the finishing line in a time just over 1 hour 50 minutes. Whilst it was not a really fast time, I was pleased with the result, especially taking in to account the route, terrain and weather conditions, and the fact that I haven’t run much this year owing to injury. In addition, out of 68 athletes that completed the half marathon that day I finished 4th, which I find completely unbelievable.
I then picked up my commemorative medal, which is one of my favourites as it depicts the scale of D-Day though images and statistics of that day, and is a fitting tribute to the events of 1944.
This was really a good event in my view. Well-organised and very friendly, plus it highlighted that running is not just about the time or the podium finish. It can be a time for reflection and consideration, and in this case an opportunity to pay homage in a small way to a passing generation.
Sometimes setting yourself a challenge seems like a good idea. In spring 2011 I first took up running to get fitter and faster for my 5-a-side football. Mainly so John Calvert and Gary Messer wouldn’t complain as much about the number of late tackles I caught them with. I soon found the running was more about what I could do and less about everyone else. I had always been almost the last one picked at school sports and walked more than ran cross country, but this felt different. Perhaps I was in the wrong game? A year later I had done a marathon, won a club cross country trophy and competed in a few fell races. I decided I was retiring from football while I could still walk and took up running full time.
Fast forward to early 2019. I’ve got a seven year Harrier League race streak (every one since I stopped playing football), with a few near misses for a place in the fast pack, I’ve done a few short ultra-marathons, ran a road half marathon in under 1hr25 and completed every distance from 800m to 10,000m on the track in 2017. To be honest though everything else I have competed in is just a sideshow or a warmup for what life is all about: a day out on the fells.
As a man with a short attention span and little patience the monotony of road running was never going to be my thing and any enthusiasm I had for tarmac quickly dissipated. As a member of a traditional road running club since 2012 I’ve always felt like an outsider, a man on a mission to convert the heathen roadies to the joys of big hills and wild descents. Fell running is simple, get from A-B as fast as possible without getting lost. On the uphill’s put your body under as much stress as you dare, stay on the edge of being oxygen deficient for as long as possible before walking regaining strength and increasing oxygen flow to start running again. My general rule is stop when the runner behind stops, start running again when the runner in front starts running. On the down hills the strategy I use is to move my feet as quickly as possible and be prepared for a loose rock or trip hazard. I’ve always understood injury is potentially just around the corner, but you just need to put that to the back of your mind and be confident.