The Brass Monkey is one of my favourite races, a chance to see ‘where you’re at’ at the beginning of a new year, a new decade in this case. I’d purposely dedicated a four-week block of training to this race, and throughout December I’d managed four consecutive 100 mile weeks, an arbitrary target for the obsessive club runner in me. I’m not blessed with natural top-end speed but I am very lucky in that I’m pretty resilient when it comes to knocking out fairly high mileage without breaking. A preventative flu jab and plenty of vitamin C had got me through December without so much as a sniffle.
A two-week taper, of sorts, including a few much-needed lie-ins over Christmas and I arrived at the start line in good shape. I knew from a few key work outs and a good race at the North Easterns’ that a PB was possible. I’d decided to race, rather that run to a target pace and latched onto the second group, and I was probably only twenty seconds or less behind the leaders at 5k. The pace was quick; but felt comfortably hard. I was on the edge, but that was exactly where I needed to be to run my best.
By 10k I was in a group of 5/6 runners, taking turns to lead the pace. I was deliberately not using too much mental energy off the front, quite happy to ‘tuck in’. We passed through half way in 34:32 – I made a conscious effort to look at my watch at this marker. There was lots of surface water but it was a mild January morning, with very little wind – perfect running conditions really once the rain had subsided early on in the race. Around mile 9 there was a change in the group dynamic, two runners had caught us and began to increase the pace, three or four dropped off the back. Liam Aldridge of Bill Marsh House had finished ahead of me recently at Alnwick and I knew he was running well, I tried to hang on. Kilometre 15 was a 03:12 split, 16 minute 5k pace; I was starting to feel more ‘on the edge’ than before.
Rather than back off I adopted a ‘now or never’ approach, I decided I’d rather blow up than back off too much; not wanting to settle for second best. My experience told me the body sometimes has a little more to give. Suddenly, those early relaxed miles felt a long time ago. It occurred to me I’d had a gob of spit on my chin for a few minutes because I was too tired to wipe it off, I didn’t want anything to break my rhythm. I was still moving fairly well and despite the best efforts of the two guys in front of me they were no further ahead by mile 12, in fact I’d closed the gap a little. I knew a PB was in sight, I just wasn’t sure how big.
I instantly though of coach Allan at mile 12. Every year he made the trip to this race to support Elvet Striders. He would appear after about a mile on the way out, disappear for cake and coffee (of course) before standing at the top of the bank, just as York racecourse is in sight. I realised just how much he will be missed on days like this. “You’re running really well Stephen, just relax”. I suddenly had his voice in my head. Often, he would shout my position, never as high as it was to be this year.
This is an event I do every year, not because I particularly like it (though I do), but because of the four years that this event has taken place I have taken part.
The half marathon this year, as it was last, forms part of a double event where by you can run both the marathon and the half to get a special prize. Unlike in previous years however the full marathon was being ran on the Saturday, with the half taking place on the Sunday. Weather conditions up on the Cheviot, which the full is supposed to go over, took a turn for the worse and their Saturday route became two laps of Sunday’s half route.
Great, what was looking to be an already soggy and boggy course had been churned up even more with the full runners tackling it twice the day before us half runners got set loose on it. Safety first though and the right decision was made for the full runners.
Running this event with me were two of my work colleagues, marvellous I thought to myself, this means I’ll have to put some effort in to beat them.
So onto the run itself. I’ll summarise this very quickly. If you’re not going up hill, you’re going down and on this occasion if you weren’t running in thick mud you were running in a stream. Yes, my shoes went from nice and clean to very dirty multiple times before they joined me in the shower at home.
This really is a great Half Marathon and I’d highly recommend it to anyone.
Ok so how do I start my first race report? What do I put into it? Who will read it? My god the questions that went around my head at mile 18 at my first marathon in York, me writing my race report is what got me through the next 8 miles, but this isn’t that report. I never wrote it, don’t know why. Fast-forward 7 months my 2nd marathon running Windermere with my strider girls, a completely different experience, but still no report, I don’t know why. Fast-forward 4 months my first ultra-marathon, do I write about this new-found enjoyment of Hell? …no because I still have nightmares. Fast-forward a week it’s the GNR, it’s my 5th time I know the route. Most of us do. We’ve either ran, supported, or volunteered at it. So why this one, why do I feel the need to write about this one, even write about my 5th GNR in fact. Because this wasn’t my run this was David’s.
I met David in June when I became his guide runner, David is visually impaired blind in his left eye, visually impaired in his right only seeing shapes (but not branches he hits a lot of branches, he’s quite tall and I forget to say duck!) Anyway I digress, David and I have been running together since July, not much time to train, he doesn’t like speed work, and he doesn’t like hill reps. So basically, we just went out together he would decide a route I would follow. I would tell him when there was change of surface, heights, obstructions, roads, dogs, pedestrians (they are often the worst, quite funny though either literally jumping out of your way with an embarrassed look or totally not caring that you are running tethered to a 6ft blind guy and it’s you veering off course. Sometimes I would be chatting that much that when I needed to let him know of a change, my brain would not kick in, in time and I’d often say a completely wrong word for what was coming. Any way he somehow trusted me to be his guide runner for the GNR.
8th September 2019
The day starts early, I pick David up at 6.45 to be on the bus at County hall for 7, sorry Mark but that walk to the Lookout pub was too much to bear for David after 13.1 miles. We find ourselves on the start line at 9.45, our time for leaving was 10.16(Very precise), we are at the very start I can’t believe it. Usually I’m way back in the masses I can’t even see the start line. We chatted to other Blind, VI runners and their guide runners, a couple of guys in wheelchairs, (not allowed with the elite racers not the right chairs.). well I had to ask! I asked for advice from other guides and their runners, and asked David what he wanted from the day… his reply Just to Finish… fair enough I said. Seconds later the gun went off, I honestly jumped out my skin, it was so loud. The elite woman were off, then the wheelchairs, or the other way round I can’t remember I was too excited and I was trying to stay calm for David.
Then it was our turn, there was about 20 runners and their partners around us, I knew from our training runs it was going to be a steady pace, but that was fine this wasn’t my run. The gun goes again, and we’re off. Strange feeling being at the front, the road is all you can see not masses of bobbing heads and back signs that make you cry, no fancy dress to laugh at. We soon lost sight (no pun) of the other runners and the road was literally ours, “oh my god David Mo Farah is warming up in front of us! Hey MO, see you in 40 mins” … no reply… I suppose he was in the zone. We carry on for another 100 metres and a few other elites were warming up, one clapped as we trotted past, “have a good day” he said. The first mile was bizarre no one around us except some supporters clapping and cheering David, it was like a scene from 28 Days Later at some points, we could have literally done anything, no cars, no people, a deathly silence apart from me wittering on about how weird it was, and how I needed to wee!
So we are approaching the underpass that leads to the bridge I explain to David about the people on the bridges etc., there’s not much surface changes to let him know about no kerbs to watch and at this point certainly no runners. As we start coming up to the Tyne Bridge I say to David “are you ready?” “ready for what?”, “this I say”. The roar of the crowd was so overwhelming, so loud, clapping, shouting whooping, David’s name being shouted over and over, I couldn’t help smiling from ear to ear, I looked at David and he was smiling back, the crowd was amazing all cheering for us lonely goats on the bridge, never will that moment be erased from our memories. Incredible, no words, we feel like how an elite runner must feel, but obviously not in the same head zone, they go so fast they must only hear one syllable and one clap.
Well we only had a quick wave and shout from Heather and Ian before we found out, a marshal was telling us to stay right, the front runners were on their way. I looked over my shoulder and said David its time, up went the arms and we tried to do a MO sign as he went past. It kinda worked, well no sooner were they past us then the first purple vest went past belonging to Steve Jackson, my god that guy moves quick! He was so quick I couldn’t even get his name out to cheer him on, then another purple vest then another one with a yellow hat! Well I knew that was Michael. Then a cool breeze came from behind as more and more runners came whipping past, quite a few shouting well done to David, he was so laid back just lifted his hand like the queen.
Mile 2 and the road belonged to the masses now, my real job was about to start. From mile 2 to 6 was pretty much the same a steady pace that David felt comfortable with and no stopping, I told him he can stop when he’s dead…Not the best thing to say perhaps but he laughed, the support continued throughout, runners clapping David on the back with “Well done David, park runs are working for you David, keep going, riverside parkrun well done, go on Big Lad”, if I had a £ for every well done we would have been buying a pint for the whole of striders. I’ve never felt so much appreciation, admiration and support for 1 person ever. I kept telling him, that’s for you, how does that make you feel? Brilliant he replied. I felt brilliant for him, we danced as we passed bands. We soaked up the atmosphere and we enjoyed ourselves, we mooched along as others panted by, me on so many other occasions! We walked through the middle of water stations to avoid the caps and bottles, in the end instead of saying bottle and trying to avoid them, I would just say kick! He managed 20 kicks and 5 misses! Not bad for a Vi runner…
We get to mile 8 and David is starting to feel the emotions of the day, we slow to a walking pace as we come across a band playing heavy metal, after a minute of head banging which ended up with David’s bottle being launched into the air and landing several feet away. Forgetting that I’m tethered to David, I went to retrieve it with him being dragged along… oops rookie error. We carried on, along the way we saw other striders who shouted encouragement. Happily mooching along from mile 8 to mile 12, my day was easy apart from bottles and timing mats, it was more describing people around us, the costumes, the people who lined the streets, than many obstructions, and luckily no branches. I soaked up the atmosphere the support and didn’t look at my watch once. I didn’t need to know my pace we weren’t out to win.
I see the sea, but we’ve still got a long way to go, David is tired. The crowds are still shouting his name. We hit the 400 metre mark and I ask “are you ready?”, David nodded and that was it, we started up again, nearly there I promise, he felt the change from tarmac to grass, and he started to slow, no 10 more meters …crossing the line was the most emotional thing ever. He cried I, cried, the Marshall cried, we all hugged…..I smugly smiled that he didn’t fall over at any time! We went to collect our medal I was looking for a strider, I found Wendy and I was so happy to be with David to see him receive the well-deserved medal. Unfortunately, David took a bad turn when we finished and needed a medic, after a sit down, some Lucozade we were off we had 15 minutes to get to coach. At this point I wasn’t taking no for an answer we were ducking and diving the crowds, David remained quiet.
Safely on the coach I ask David if he fancies doing it again ,” possibly /probably,” he tells me he wants to run the Kielder marathon, I reply “are you joking it’s really hilly”, “yeah but the scenery is beautiful” he replies with a wicked grin on his face, he then offers to drive the bus home. He’s feeling better. I get home at 6pm exhausted but elated, it was David’s 3rd GNR and my 5th and it has to be without a doubt my proudest must fulfilling GNR to date.
It’s getting hard to be first-timer at any race in Striders nowadays. There are so many far-travelled adventurers competing in so many events that there’s often nothing new under the sun. I’d intended to do the Club La Santa Duathlon/Half-Marathon/Triathlon triple back in 2016 but I’m pretty sure even then that Neil Sleeman had already got the t-shirt.
Mon 9 Sep 2019 – Duathlon
The duathlon was first. All these events are done and dusted before breakfast before the weather gets too hot so they’re not massively long, but still long enough to wake you up and give you an appetite. I was looking forward this as my previous attempt in 2016 had given me the dubious honour of DNF’ing after the first monster 2.5 km run stage.
Despite being a remote lump of lava just next door to
Africa, Club La Santa events definitely have their regulars. The route isn’t
complicated but you have to be paying attention to the briefing otherwise a
wrong turn may take you into the supermarket or swimming pool rather than on to
the running track. I was disappointed to hear that the bike section no longer
took a long climb up to Tinajo to turn there with a gleeful descent back to
base, but instead went ‘four times round the lagoon’. Well that sounded fun. It
wasn’t surprising though, as the previous route was on busier roads with the
potential for a high-speed encounter with a speed-bump and a local out to buy
their breakfast in the village of La Santa itself.
It’s a good way to start the day and even though it was a
short event I was mindful of going off too fast and too early. I enjoyed the
bike section more than I expected and just had to concentrate on counting the
laps. It had a couple of bumps and troughs enough that it wasn’t a simple
single-gear time-trial. The finish as with all of their events is a lap of the
running track to finish under the timing tower.
Tue 10 Sep 2019 – Half Marathon
I did this event in Mar 2016, and quite a bit faster too. Perhaps it was cooler then but it was pretty hot today. The route is a simple three lap out-and-back to La Santa, and I was pretty comfortable for the first two. On the third lap the sun was well and truly out of bed and things were hot. I’m not a good hot weather runner but I have a sound strategy for dealing with the heat. I slow down and ease up. It’s the only way. I’ve learned from experience how small my margin of error is when it comes to pushing the envelope in hot weather.
It meant I wasn’t as fast as I would’ve liked, but, on the plus side, it also meant not having surreal conversations with palm trees and unpredictable physiological responses. Half Marathons are an interesting beast; very easy to under-estimate. Another hot weather race, not really in my comfort zone, hard going, but not in trouble either. Still in control of the race.
Wed 11 Sep 2019 – Triathlon
And finally, the fun one. I’m continually fascinated by the
fact that I can run ultras, and cycle rather a long way. But try and do a
length or two of freestyle and I’m gasping at the pool-side in weary
bewilderment. A project.
Although my swimming has improved a little it wasn’t enough for me to have the confidence to venture out of the slow lane. And it was busy. Lots of sign-ups for this event and I got chatting at the start to an Ironman vet. I knew this from the tattoo on her leg, and I suspected she might be reassuringly geeky as it was a tattoo of the periodic table entry rather than the more familiar splodge.
She went into one of the faster swim lanes but I bumped into her at transition as she’d had a poor swim. My improvised hybridised breast-stroke-freestyle had worked out quite well and I was feeling fine. I’m also pretty clueless about triathlon dress-code so I just slipped on my shoes and Striders top and off I went, while some people had brought towels and stuff. I’d forgotten a towel so I was relying on the wind-chill drying me off on the bike section. There was no transition policing as such so I just had to imagine Ian Mackenzie shouting about touching the helmet before the bike. My stuff was at the front of the bike (“Everything happens at the front of the bike”) and my practice with the Tri Club Duathlons had helped a lot. There was only one timing mat per transition, but, geek that I am, I was inventing my own. I’d set my Garmin for Triathlon and so I had to be a little creative about where I decided my transitions had begun and ended.
Ironlady caught me after a lap or two, where I sat on her
wheel for a bit, which I rationalised was ok because others were sitting on
mine. Someone had asked about draughting, and, the response had been that it’s
four laps around the lagoon; it’d be impossible to police, so they weren’t
going to get excited about it. Which I think meant that it was ok. The bike
circuit was windy and in a way that was good as it made it more interesting.
There was a modest climb into the wind, then a section back past the centre
where it was possible to get some good tempo going.
I’d been carefully counting the laps as ironlady gradually
edged away from me. I’m not sure if it was guilt that made me decide to
subconsciously drop back, or whether she was just, you know, faster than me.
But either way, as I was about to turn into transition, she kept on going for
I was pretty, pretty sure I was right, and that I’d done
four laps, but I wobbled, dangerously close to choosing a line that was neither
transition nor another lap. I decided that I was right, and veered away from
the line of parked cars that were in the middle position, and headed for
At the finish I was still unsure how many laps I’d done, and she was pretty sure she was right, but, everyone else was pretty sure she wasn’t, and when I checked my garmin later it confirmed I had been able to count to four. But it just goes to show how easy it is lose count. I mean, four isn’t a very big number.
These events are small but unpredictable. You might be rubbing shoulders with serious athletes who are on some serious training as well as first-timers. A bit like turning up for a fell race and standing on the start line next to a national champion. Great fun, exciting, competitive, and sunny.
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.
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.
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.
Having only joined Striders towards the back end of 2018 Sunday 13th January marked my first race in the purple and green vest. Not knowing many people and complete with my shiny new Striders hoody I arrived super-early so as not to miss the bus to Brass Monkey 2019.
I’ve never really described myself as a runner, so joining a club was a big deal for me. I’d done some running prior to having my children (a couple of GNRS back in 2013 & 2014 – one of which is best never to be mentioned again and a handful of 10ks) but always seemed to find myself injured.
The last 12 months have been different. Coming back from having William, I have done a lot of running. Significantly slower than I used to try to run, I have learned to love it and this led me to joining Striders and getting up at silly o’clock in October to try and get a place in Brass Monkey. Well okay – I was up anyway with an 11-month-old, but it was still very early! I was keen to have something to aim for over the winter to keep me going out when the nights were dark and cold and so was delighted to get a place.
Having done the GNR 2018 in 2hr10 (including having to stop for the loo!) I knew I would likely go a little faster and the intention was to do my best but to try and relax/not worry about time. I had in mind to work towards the magical sub 2 hour half later in the year after trying to build up some speed and so decided to run the race without looking at my watch and just go by feel. I seem to not be very good at the battle inside my head during a race. I see a fast pace and spend the whole time worrying I’ll blow up – which then of course I do or I see a slow pace and spend the whole time thinking I’m not good enough. Perhaps only recently have I truly realised how much of running is mental strength.
Anyway, Sunday morning was here and the weather was really very warm for January. It was certainly windy but the potential 40mph gusts didn’t worry me too much as this was about enjoying the race no matter what. Brass Monkey is a very well organised race with lovely indoor facilities and a massive Striders contingent. I certainly don’t feel like I don’t know anyone anymore! Having been chatting at the start I met another lady who was also going to run without her watch and although I knew she was quicker than me I thought I could probably stick with her for at least the first few miles, so I wasn’t on my own.
The race itself is fast and flat apart from two tiny hills at the beginning, which they then take, away and double in size in time for people coming back on the return leg. The marshalls are amazing and so supportive. Harriet who I was running with said thank you to everyone and I soon started joining in this, adding to the enjoyment. I knew we had set off pretty quickly as I could see other Striders near me who I know are speedy people but I felt fine and the chat was good so was happy to keep it up for a while. My inner voice started at about mile 3 where I was worried I was holding Harriet up and encouraged her to run on. She, in turn, tried to encourage me to leave her and run on which settled my anxiety for the next few miles. A quick stop for water seemed to settle my breathing too and the next few miles flew-by still feeling strong. I did see the main clock at the halfway point and knew we were going well but didn’t give it any further thought. The second half is always harder anyway, and no matter what time you get in they give you a lovely T-Shirt.
Mile 9 onwards became harder but still manageable. I had no idea what speed we were going but had a sense we must have slowed, as I was still feeling okay. The gap between us and the Striders ladies in front wasn’t growing though, so who knows. By now we were onto a very interesting discussion about veganism so there wasn’t much time to ponder it further.
At about 11.5 miles Harriet fell a couple of meters behind me and encouraged me to go on. I really struggled with this as we had run so far together and I knew that the main reason I was feeling good was that of the support she had given me. I also knew though that I would have wanted her to go on if she could have and that by that point we were both clearly going to finish so I did push on and sped up a little.
It was really hard work now but my training was paying off as I did still have something to give. With just under half a mile to go, I finally decided to look at my watch. I couldn’t believe the time and nearly started crying right there in the street. With the distance left it was looking pretty certain that I’d be under 2 hours. A barrier I never thought I would be able to achieve. Turning into the racecourse and hitting the worst headwind of the day wasn’t enough to stop the joy at this point and I crossed the line in 1:56:57.
Looking at my splits now I can’t believe how strong and consistent we were. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have let myself go that fast if I had been looking at my watch. I’m utterly over the moon with how it went, thoroughly grateful to Harriet and all the other Striders support we got on the way around and maybe, just maybe, have a little more belief in myself. I’m still not calling myself a runner though… 😉
Nestling at foot of the North Pennines, Appleby, famous for its annual horse fair, hosts this race. Described as a tough run by some reports, I was about to find out.
The journey across from Durham was fraught with two major road closures, one in Barnard Castle and the other on the A66 at Brough (which I later discovered, much to annoyance, was only to HGVs). These closures nearly sent my Sat-Nav into an apoplectic rage and decided to send me off on a very interesting detour. I ended up in a cul-de-sac in an industrial estate in Kirby Steven at one point and finally along some very, very narrow lanes. However, I arrived in good time at Apply Grammar school where the race started and finished.
It is a low-key affair organised by the local Rotary Club and at the start, there were just over 100 runners. The forecast rain had kept away, so I opted to run without a jacket.
The course is all on roads with only the first few hundred meters marshalled. After that, it’s a matter of keeping to the left!
Down the main street into town and through the other side where a sharp left turn heralds the long slog up to Dufton. The hills are never ending but gradual so it is simply a matter of heads down and dig-in. The views came into their own as I climbed ever higher. Hereabouts are some of the finest Pennine walks to be had. Cross Fell, High cup Nick, all on the Pennine Way of course.
As I approached Dufton at about eight miles, I was quite tired and looking forward to some gravitational relief! However before that came, as I turned out of Dufton, there appeared a 100m steep hill. It nearly stopped me dead in my tracks and after a short walk I lumbered up to the top.
Now began the return; a long downhill stretch back to Appleby. Well, mainly downhill with a few sharp surprises thrown in, including, at mile 11 a short 5-minute storm which threw the dead autumn leaves high into towering vortexes and the rain lashed down. Then as soon as it came, it stopped. Quite bizarre.
The finish leads you right back to the school hall where a commemorative mug filled with soup is presented to you and very welcome it was too. My time was 2hrs 9 mins (although my Garmin begged to differ) which I was ok with. The official elevation figures site 262m and I won’t argue about that. Put into context, the GNR is approx. 107m, Coxhoe trail 114m, Brass Monkey 10m and Dent 220. So, all in all, I can’t be too disappointed.
I’m not sure if I would do this again but I recommend it from the point of view that it is well organised, well marshalled and all for a good cause in a beautiful part of the country and about 80 mins from Durham, normally!
Four weeks prior to race date, I’d completed my first ever half at the Great North Run; it was definitely an experience. I can’t say an enjoyable one.
I’d signed up for Kielder half quite a bit in advance thinking it’d be good to do another half a few weeks after my first. I was told it’ll be tough, there are lots of hills and the terrain isn’t great.
The lead up to the race, I really wasn’t looking forward to it, my mojo had disappeared after GNR and I just knew I wouldn’t be able to run a good run.
I was running the full race with my other half, Robin Linton, as Kielder has some sentimental value to us both. We had no plan other than to just get around it.
The night before, I boldly said I wanted to beat my time, which Robin told me not to get too hung up on because the course is so much different.
We set off on our way at a nice steady pace, which I was sure I’d be able to keep all the way around. The first four miles were actually quite nice and they went by so quickly. In my head, I was thinking this is going to be okay. The tactic was to take a slow run up the hills, use the downhill for speed and normal running on the flats. It really seemed to be working. People that had passed me in the first few miles were now starting to get behind me but I still felt strong. The ups and downs continued and they were tough; mile 8 of the zigzag was definitely the hardest.
Around 8/9 miles, I remember taking an isotonic drink and thinking how tasty it was, at the same time I was wondering how I still felt so good and strong. I was really enjoying the race.
As we got to about mile 9/10, Robin’s knee really started to give him hassle. I was trying my best to take his mind off it, but he was in pain. We slowed down a little, but I had to keep moving because of the inclines. I was a couple of yards in front and could see the pain on his face, so I turned around and went back to him. He told me that I had to go on, that I had a PB in me and he’d be fine. I was a mixture of emotions, felt awful leaving him but was determined to finish the race. After a quick kiss of good luck, I headed off on my last 3 miles.
They were definitely hard but I just couldn’t stop thinking about Robin. Lots of music we both loved was playing through my headphones and I just thought, get this done and go back for him. I really pushed those last miles, this time attacking the hills, as I knew it was only 5k left.
I got to the 800m marker and people were walking. I stormed passed, with a few people shouting go on!
Approaching the finish line I saw a worried mother (Helen Linton). The first thing I shout is he’s okay! I had a sprint finish over the line and I see a friendly strider face…Wendy Littlewood. I just hugged her and burst into tears whilst struggling to get my breath. I’m telling her (between the tears) that I’d left Robin and felt awful. She then turns me round to show me the time, it’s showing as 2:11. I couldn’t really register it but what she’s telling me it’s amazing. I just hung onto her; I needed that so much. After finally letting her go, to let the other runners have some of her time, I stumbled to get my race bag, trying to keep the tears in.
I actually couldn’t believe I was over 2 minutes faster than GNR and this course was definitely different level. I actually really enjoyed this race and I think I’d 100% do it again with the same tactic!
Apparently, the previous organisers had turned to a local race organiser (Trail Outlaws) for some help to ensure the future viability of this race. I decided at an early stage to support it. It was to form part of the RAF Centenary celebrations on 2018 and let’s face it, you don’t get the chance, every day, to run around a historic base that was part of the UK’s missile project during the cold war.
I was also lured by the description of, “stunning views along its length, winding its way around and through Spadeadam Forest with views over to the Lake District and Sycamore Gap on Hadrians Wall. With numerous RAF practise targets and tanks along the route..”. I figured the RAF wouldn’t be doing much practicing on the day!
I set off to drive the ~1.5hr journey, stopping off at a national chain of coffee purveyors on the outskirts of Hexham for a latte and luxury fruit toast – an army marches on its stomach (oops – wrong service!)
Leaving the A69, I headed toward the base along minor roads and then encountered a tail-back – cars and passengers dealing with the security measures to access the base. Fortunately, this gave me time to stretch my legs, and don my offending compression socks (I’m amazed they let me in!).
Once through the gate and parked up, I collected my number (if only every race organiser insisted on seeing a form of photo ID, we’d avoid Bill running as Ben and so-on). I then decided a warm up was in order and being a bit of a radio geek, and noting the additional hazard at one point of non-ionising radiation above 2 metres, I decided to keep my head down!
There was a bit of delay to proceedings with many a pre-race photo opportunity but before long we were lining up. Now having run an Ultramarathon a fortnight ago, and with another a week away, I decided my plan was to throttle back a little and enjoy the sights. Then we were off, up the hill past the parked cars, and up, up, up – in fact the first few miles were definitely ascent territory. Once off the tarmac, we were on lumpy gravel paths for the majority of the remainder, which were ok on the uphill (plenty of that) and on the downhill corners, enough scree to catch you out.
I remember being pleased with myself and thinking that 53 minutes for the first 10km was half sensible and then there was another series of leg-pulling uphills.
The wind was truly formidable – trees were uprooted and it was hard to run straight at times – I remember thinking that the wind would excite a RAF pilot. The highest point was around 13km and I heard one runner say something about it all being downhill from that point. Now I’ve been to a fair few of these events, and whereas there were some fast downhill stretches there were many uphill sections, including one hill near the end which caught a few folk out.
I was hitting a ~1:55 half marathon by distance, again half sensible but from my earlier warm-up, I knew I was about a mile from the finish – a typical trail race then in terms of value for distance. I decided to drop a gear on the last mile and 7 min/mile pace to the finish, feeling the value of my Hoka Speedgoat 2 cushioning.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, managed to stop for a few obligatory selfies, and actually managed to appear in the race photos looking remarkably presentable for once. In summary, not an easy route, but a great experience, with amazing views and I’d do it again in a flash.
Congratulations to Robert Allfree who was 1st Strider home and all the other Striders!
Many thanks to RAF Spadeadam for their hospitality, Hippie Nixon Photography for the photographic memories and Trail Outlaws for a great event, and a rather cool medal!