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.