Interesting you should ask…

A month or two ago, I figured I should get back on a bike. I’ve barely ridden in years, and the last time I was on a road bike was probably when I was 15.

So, a check of the cycle-to-work options, a trip round a few cycle shops and an order placed and I ended up with an Avanti Giro 1 road bike. A good choice? Who knows, certainly not me, but it looked nice and sounded similar to the other bikes at the same kind of price so what the heck. The people I bought it from, Team Cycles in Team Valley Gateshead, also seemed canny, and that’s a big tick for me.

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Nice, eh?

So, bicycle bought, pedals fitted, shoes purchased, cycling clothing purveyed and that’s me pretty much ready, eh? Well, other than not have been on a road bike, on the road for (let’s call it) around 25 years.

I had a quick tootle around the village, though where I live this means some hills, which was a bit of a shock – compared to the one time I’ve had my ancient girder-formed mountain bike out this year it was easy-ish. Ok, so it was flippin’ hard, but I could tell it was easier than the mountain bike would have been.

I couldn’t quite get the hang of pedalling out of the saddle – just wouldn’t work, but I now realise that was because I needed a slightly beefier gear so my legs didn’t need to pin wheel. If you’ve read any of my running shenanigans to date, you’ll realise these legs aren’t packed with twitch-muscle at all.

I’ve even got the hang of clips – (touching wood so as to put off the likelihood I’ll fall in a heap a the next junction I pull up to) – and now own an unfeasibly reflective jacket.

I’ve cycled into work three times now, and home again one-and-a-half times. Much, much more fun that driving, and in general a much less stressful experience.

Other than the arseholes.

I don’t often swear on the blog, but I can’t find another word to explain how irritating it is when someone does something truly stupid. It doesn’t happen often (twice today) but it leaves me very irritated as it’s putting my safety at risk.

The first time was heading through town down St James Boulevard and looking to cross the lane to turn right onto Scotswood Road – as I indicated, waited and the moved across, the chap behind decided to overtake into the other lane meaning I was unable to get over there without going into his side and instead was stuck in the wrong lane with traffic haring up behind me.

The second time was cycling up past the DWP building at Longbenton – the lady behind me wanted to turn left. Clearly she must have been on some kind of emergency paramedic or had the code to shut down the bomb. Rather than be five seconds later getting back (and this was turning into a street of houses so I’m guessing she was at her destination, she decided to overtake me then turn left against me. Which would have been a bit scary, if she hadn’t then slowed as she turned so I was travelling towards the side of her car at the fastest speed I can go at on the biggest ring as it’s a lovely, straight, mildly downhill stretch. According to Strava I was going at around 21 mph at that point. Brakes on, swear loudly, and try to avoid the collision. Just came to a halt in time.

OK, so I also didn’t mention the bit where some fool decides you’re not filing past their car and pulls as far in to the left as they can to block you getting past. Or the fool who overtook me as I went around the crazy-tight corner at the top of Matthew Bank.

I’m realising I might be giving a less-that-jolly write up here, I have to stress that I am really loving the cycling, it uses a whole different set of muscles to the running and is much more achievable for commuting when you life 17 miles away (or maybe 15.5 – not sure where the other mile and a half went this morning) than feets. For 99% of the time it’s fantastic, life-affirming and sets me up for the day.

Look ma, I’m cycling!

Need to get some club gear and veg it up…

 

If there’s one thing the British are good at, it’s eccentricity. We’re so good at it we would be able to export it, if only the rest of the world got what it’s all about.

One of the key bits of our national oddness is tradition of the the village show – where else can you find horse trials, dog obedience, humorous vegetables, country crafts, a parade of tractors, agricultural supplies and cut-price Tweed (not that I own any Tweed, being vegan and all). And fell racing, don’t forget the fell racing.

Fell racing originates in the idea that the fit young folk of the village should like nothing better than running up to the highest hill about the village then descending as limb-disjointingly quickly as can be achieved in order to be judged maddest fool at the show. It goes without saying that it was invented before TV, which explains why the field of runners are not the green-limbed youths of the village in the main, but a more veteran and philosophical crowd.

The Europeans have recently caught on that it might be a bit of a lark to do this, but christened it the much more respectably named “sky running”. But don’t let that fool you, it’s probably just as barking.

So, to Thropton, the third show I’ve been to this year and the only one I’ve run at. Thropton Show holds a special place in my heart for a few reasons.

  1. I used to live along the road from Thropton at Elsdon and quite liked it thank you.
  2. I ran my first fell race at Thropton last year and it remains the maddest race I’ve ever taken part in, beating any ultra, any Christmas-pudding run and all the stupid “let’s see what happens when I eat x while running” experiments.
  3. I know one of the organisers, Mary, who I work with and her husband, Ian, who I also used to work with.
  4. This year, my friend Mike brought along the region’s only mobile bell-tower for a display of campanology. See, eccentric, I told you – none of the other shows had a bell-tower and I can only suggest it was a mighty addition to an already quintessentially British affair.
  5. I got to have a go on the bell-tower – it’s pretty difficult, you know, I was fairly rubbish, but left with a new-found respect for bell ringers everywhere.
  6. The quality of mud in the bogs of Simonside is unparalleled in any other murky quagmire I’ve ever found myself wading through. Proper clag, they should be proud.
  7. There was also Cumberland Wrestling – that looks bizarre too, I mean, you do it in your socks, what’s that about? Brilliant!

I arrived at the show, dumped the car in the adjacent field (without thoughts of getting it out again later, some things can wait) and headed into the show field. Finding the registration cabin I handed over my £2 and in time-honoured fashion pretended to read the safety guidance before signing my name on the sheet. I suspect the guidance is a bit like small print in a contract, if I look hard enough I’ve probably just signed away my spleen for posterity.

An amble about before the kick off unearthed Mike and his bell-tower, looking mighty fine and a chap I was sure I must know – I recognised him, but then it was time to toe the line. Hang on, he’s running too – it’s Stephen, right? I wandered over and said hello to Stephen, looking decidedly more trim and sportier than when I’d last seen him, which must be four or five years ago I guess, when I used to live here. I walked up Simonside with Stephen and some folk on an organised wander at a time when our paths had crossed due to locality and a shared interest in photography and geocaching. It was great to catch up briefly and then we were off!

Mike grabbed a shot:

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If you look closely I’m left of the centre, yellow vest with green band and an orange long-sleeve underneath. If that doesn’t help, I’m the one smiling like an idiot.

This year I was ready for the river crossing at the end of the road, it really is only ankle deep (ish) but just as cold as I remember. Splosh, splash, splash, out the other side and you’re heading up the gentle incline of a well-cropped field. Up to the top gate and out onto the road.

It gets steeper.

And steeper.

And then a bit more.

Up the deceptively steep road past Great Tosson (still my candidate for best named place in Northumberland) and through a farm yard. Turn left, through someone’s garden and up onto the hill itself (sorry, but it turns out that the bit before this was the gentle foothill before the real work begins). A bit of walking as the first bit of grass is actually a series of steps cut into the hillside then it starts to level off as you hit the trees. Along the edge and the views are good – then into the trees and a narrow track cutting up through the wood.

Since last year there’s clearly been a bit of logging going on in the woods – there were large bare areas with stumps and ma-hooo-sive tire tracks. The path gets steeper, and rockier – proper boulder pathway and I always worry about slipping on the damp rocks and somehow, inexplicably, killing myself. It isn’t enough of a worry, or sufficiently likely to happen that I’ve given it much thought, and the roister-doister trail running alter ego doesn’t like to admit to worrying about anything so mundane, so on I plod. A bit slower now, and with a bit of a walk when it gets too uneven to run (or maybe when I’m a bit pooped, you know).

One of the things I remember from last year the bit where you break out of the trees and can see the stony massif of the crags above you. It was a bit of a revelation last year, and it didn’t disappoint this year either. Big, rocky, stony, bouldery – they really need a good few more adjectives to cover the marvellousness of the crags.

Along the fire road, and then the slow walk up the twisty ascent to the top of the crags. I got overtaken by a few people going up here, I really need to work on my hills, and I think Jedburgh will be a bit of a slog up the volcano. Eventually, nearly to the top, and one of the marshals asked how it was going. “I’ll be better once I’m up there on the top” – he replied that it was hard on the way down, but I wasn’t fooled – I know where my worst weaknesses lie, and they’re up the hill.

The view from the top of the crags if fantastic – last year I took a camera, but this year I was travelling light, so no shots. It’s so worth the trip up there, a marvellous panorama around Northumberland. I may have stopped for a moment, or at least bumbled along slowly, and there was no way it was because I was tired, Scout’s honour…

Part way along the crags you turn down to a fissure and then, for want of a better word, scramble or perhaps climb all the way back down – the mud between the rocks was thick, wet and had already been churned up by 50-60 runners. A bit of skidding, but I only had one mishap, wedging my foot against a sharp rock, but no-one was hurt, thank goodness. The mud got thicker, the pools a little deeper and through the heather back to the woods.

It’s worth pausing here for a moment before the descent through the woods, and asking you to consider the effect of trees that hold a lot of moisture in the ground, overhead cover that means the water doesn’t evaporate off and years of decomposing needles and leaves to fuel the creation of darkly perfumed uber-mud. Maybe churn the ground up a bit with planting in order to form deep pools and lethal slopes down which to careen. That sounds about right.

So, into the woods and into the mud. It was ankle deep, calf deep, in one place knee deep, it was lovely. It stank, it stuck to shoes, it tanned the leg – honestly, if I was a poet I’d write a poem to that mud.

It was also like the worst ice you’ve even inched across, every step an uncertain future.

You just can’t take it easy, or you’d be there all day. Crash on, cross fingers and hope to die. Well, not literally.

Then, after a while we come to Church Rock, a local landmark in the woods, a huge monolith sunk into the side of a near-vertical hillside and here we go down the side of it on an almost-path that falls alway below you, coated in the Teflon-mud.

At the bottom I realised Stephen was behind me, and we ran for a while chatting – through the woods and back out to the farm yard, running and chatting, it was like being in the middle of an ultra-marathon, only the desperate attempts to force feed ourselves were missing.

Back down the road, which was becoming less steep with each step and I made a bit of a break for it, madly hoping to beat my time from last year where I came in around 1:20 for the just-short-of-7-mile route. That was in much drier conditions, but you can hope, right?

I went back over the bridge rather than the river, mainly because everyone else in front was going that way – the guy behind me opted for the river and finished in front of me – he came over for a chat at the end – I don’t really mind about the time, but I really enjoyed the river the first time, so I was a bit gutted. The legality of heading back through the river is still not something I’m clear on, I’ve got a feeling you’re supposed to head over the bridge, but I’m not sure.

Back along the bottom of the field and up into the finish and the marvellous folk at the show were hanging by to clap and cheer – I ran past Mike, who nabbed another photo…

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A grand time, a few minutes slower than the year before, but that doesn’t really matter. Got my breath back, drank a bottle of water Mary kindly brought over and then wandered around talking to folk I knew – Mary, Ian, Fiona, Stephen (a different Stephen), Mike and had a bag of chips and a go of the bell-tower after watching the wrestling. How could the day be any more cosy and eccentric? Perhaps a steam-powered time machine?

This year was the 99th Thropton Show, which means next year is likely to be something special. I’ll be there, I reckon, which gives me a whole year to practise the hills. Why don’t you come, we can wallow together…

Bring on the mud!

 

Four years ago, in mid 2010 and before they invented colour computer screens, I took a photo of myself as part of a 365 Photo Project (for the record I titled it “I come in peace… to eat your pies”). It probably coincided with my weightiest period, around 17 stone, and was a year and a bit before I was to discover that I owned a pair of feet and some running shoes. Yesterday Mrs Bees took another photo of me after the Penshaw Pieces of 8 Half Marathon, and I proclaim myself “pleased” with the resulting time spent running around like a loon…

yy6

 

As you can see, my choice in backgrounds has significantly improved. I’ve also lost a chin along the way. For some inexplicable reason my eyebrows now look straighter…

Apologies if this comes across a bit gloat-y and self indulgent, but I figure I’m allowed a bit of that every now and then.

I think my head may have gotten bigger.

 

Yes, it’s been a while – nearly two months, in fact.

I must have been up to something, right, I mean I wouldn’t just disappear off, would I?

So, in no particular order, the things what I have done are:

  1. A 50 day run streak – this was mint, though difficult to fit around life. Every day, at least a mile, finishing up at the end of July. I think it made a difference in my general fitness, though I’m not sure you’d notice in my times. I saw more wildlife in the woods than you could shake a stick at (I tried, my arm got tired quite quickly) and re-affirmed my belief that you can only get so wet before rain becomes a bit of an academic point.
  2. Swimming – I’ve never been able to swim more than a casual “non-drowning” amount, and even that was debatable. See those dogs you get in rivers that look like they’re regretting jumping in the deep bit? That was me. So I’ve had a lesson or two and can now comfortably call myself “a swimmer”. Not much in the endurance stakes, which is what I need to build up next, but my fabulous swimming teacher pronounced my form to be “very good”, even if my ability to complete a length without attempting to drink half the pool and filter the rest through my ears was pronounced “piss poor”. I now enjoy swimming, who’d have thought? Much like the story of my rise to running mediocrity then…
  3. Cycling – well, not much of this, though I did cycle to work once on my aged mountain bike and am now the proud possessor of a road bike. I’ve been out on it once so far and have discovered they’re not the same muscles as for the running, and I’m even more rubbish at getting up a hill on a bike than I am on me pins. This will change if I ever find the time to cycle more. The plan is to commute one day a week, which will pretty much pay for the bike on cycle-to-work in petrol saved. In theory. Clip-in pedals mildly terrify me, but I’ve managed that terror so far.
  4. Holiday! I went to Corsica and bummed around camping on the beach with Mrs Bees for a week. It was lovely. A fair amount of open-water swimming took place, something I would have never attempted before item 2. on the list. I even own my own goggles and a nose clip so I don’t snort the ocean (which is considered bad form when visiting other people’s countries).

So what next? Well, Sunday is the ‘Pieces of Eight’ half marathon at Penshaw monument, run by the Trail Outlaws. It’s their first event and I’m pretty excited, their podcast is groovy and if you haven’t checked it out you certainly should.

The Jedburgh Ultra is coming at the end of October, a small amount of training may be in order.

I went to see the film of the 2012 Dragon’s Back race across the spine of Wales last night – it was fantastic and made me wonder… I’m rubbish at mountains, so it seems like a really bad plan, but then most of my running is technically beyond my abilities… favourite quote of the film was from Helene Whittaker – “you don’t enter a race because you know you can complete it, you do it for the challenge, to see how far you can go”, now that’s my kind of crazy thinking. :-)

Rock on, and a race review after Sunday.

 

Lambton 10k

Posted: 29/06/2014 in Uncategorized

Whist, lads, haad ya gobs, aal tell yu aal an awful story…

55:29, 270 of 550.

Well, OK, it was the Lambton Estate, not Penshaw Monument, the spot where the Lambton Worm holed up, but it was still a bit of a fairy-tale setting.

The Lambton Estate is private, usually you don’t get to go in – but Sunderland AFC’s Foundation of Light hold a 10k here. I’d signed up on a bit of whim, with a vague recollection of visits to the Lambton Lion Park when I was wee. A vague hope that they’d remembered to move all the lions out was foremost in my mind as I rocked up in the car.

OK, bad bit out the way first – the toilets. All five of them. For several hundred runners. There was a queue when I arrived at 9:15, and I got my turn about 9:50. There was still a couple of stragglers when the race got going at 10:07. Seriously, get some extra lavvies next year, eh?

Other than that the organisation was fabulous, the marshals canny and the route well marked. Through woods and woods and woods, over bridges across the Wear, past old buildings in wee clearings, some of which were used for The Paradise, apparently. The light was ace, the weather was perfect, it literally couldn’t have been better.

If you fancy a PB, my advice would be to get to the front – there’s a bottle-neck on the trail just after the start, and if you can’t see in front of you it’s a bit uneven – I did OK but there were echoes of “ayah”, “y’bugger” and “shite” from a few of the people around me as they found rocks, potholes and unexpected tussocks.

I wasn’t out for a PB, rather more looking for a lovely jaunt around the woods and a bit of discovery. It pretty much felt effortless, the early couple of hills were a mild slow down but nothing major.

I think there’s something about running in the woods that gets me going – not sure what that’s about, maybe it’s the constant plodding around Chopwell, or maybe it’s just the fact that you’ve not idea what’s only a few metres away through the trees?

In the early stages, a quick glance at my watch had revealed a heart of of 184 bpm, which should really come with a huge flashing sign and an attendant ambulance. I wasn’t running hard (and even when I do, I rarely scrape the top end of the 170’s) so I figured I must just be having a very exciting time. Later on a saw a much more reasonable 154bpm, that’s my sort of heart rate.

The seventh kilometre is along the riverside, then back over the bridge and along the other bank to the hill up to the run into the finish. You run past Lambton Castle, which looks lovely (and currently unoccupied due to a legal wrangle over the late Lord Lambton’s estate) and then it’s the hill. It’s a cracking hill – I ran it slowly, a lot of people walked, I only spotted a couple of folk really going for it – then a little jaunt through the woods, back onto the entry road and a canter past the front of Lambton Castle and you’re done.

Lovely. Really lovely.

I was a bit carried away and forgot to stop running at the end – I was physically stopped by a marshal in the finish funnel, to be honest the finish line could have been a little more obvious. The two Sunderland mascots were there, high-fives all round and then off we go – nice tech tee and a bottle of water.

Pow!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve discovered a lovely bit of fun in running. When you receive your number, sometimes, just sometimes, you get a magic number. Now, 1 is clearly a magic number, as is 13 or a nice round figure like 100. However, the Ditch-Number is pay-dirt for an ultra run. But what is a Ditch-Number?

Imagine the scene; you’ve been running for many hours, you’re tired, a bit confused and not as steady on your pins as you would usually be. It’s probably raining, it’s Britain after all, and there’s not a day you can guarantee you won’t get rain. Unless it’s snowing.

You stumble a little, veer to the side and through your misty carb-starved eyes you fail to notice you’re going off the path. Slip, trip, whoops, plump.

You’re in a ditch.

It’s wet.

You’re upside down.

After a certain amount of running this feels like a safe and comfy place to be, so perhaps you need a little snooze.

Eventually another runner or a marshall or the sweeper will find you, and at this point the Ditch-Number comes into its own.

You see, a Ditch-Number is any number that reads the same upside down that it does the right way up. No chance you’ll be mistaken for Mr Scoggins from Wayward Heath* and sent to some la-di-dah private hospital**.

So, the holy litany of Ditch-Numbers is this:

1, 8, 11, 69, 96, 101, 111, 181 and so on***.

I had the pleasure of running The Wall in 2013 with 101, and I’m running the Jedburgh Ultra in 11 this year, then the Jedburgh Half Marathon the day after with number 8.

C’mon, you want a Ditch-Number, don’t you?

I knew it…

*Apologies to Mr Scoggins, you’re likely a good five miles ahead of me, and you probably don’t want people to think you’re the inverted snoozer, do you?

**Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that when they find out I’m not Mr Scoggins they’ll throw me back in the ditch.

***I may have missed one, five or two hundred in there – I started thinking through the numbers and got a bit tired.

I hadn’t intended to run this race, I thought I was going to be busy, so it was a bit of surprise last Wednesday that I found myself looking at a free evening.

The day started well, a quick message on Facebook showed that there were some places left on the night, so the stage was set. Almost.

The race started at 7:15pm, registration for those last few places began at 6:15pm.

I left work in good time at 4:30pm for the half-hour journey home to get ready and get down there. And then disaster struck.

The motorway was crawling, seriously inches at a time, and it took me a gut-wrenching two hours to get back – only a blast of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” on the iPod stopped me from boiling over, but eventually I got back. A quick change and out we go – the race is only a few miles from the house, so I drove down, rushed in at 6:50pm and discovered there were still three places left in the 200 line-up. Handed over my pennies, grabbed my number and a few safety pins and headed out.

In all the excitement I hadn’t really twigged to the fact that it had been tipping down most of the day, and was still raining now. Now the imminent stress of getting a place had passed I started to wonder what I was up to – a 6 mile run in the wet and the mud. Then I remembered, I’m a hardy northerner, unfazed by precipitation, and mud is something to enjoy. So that’s fine then, just the race, eh?

I bumped into the marvellous Andrew Callcott, member of the PBF Running Club who were organising the event. He’s looking very trim and hill-ready, a proper fell-runner if I ever beheld one. A bit of a chat and I discovered he was running sweeper for the race.

Turned on my GPS, only to see a “low battery” message. Hmm, maybe it’ll last, perhaps I left it turned on after my abortive run the other night?

Announcements, count down and off we go! Pressed ‘start’ and the GPS turned itself off. Good start.

I sped(!) off up the path with the other runners, heading up the beautiful Derwent Valley. The choice of crisps for a mid-afternoon snack started to show itself as a bad one, as I soon developed stabbing pains in my stomach that resolved themselves into an almighty stitch, the like of which I’ve never had before. Still, stitches are stitches, eh, and on you go, the end isn’t going to get any closer.

When I ran this for the first time last year, I was stunned with how lovely it is, just a mile or two from the Metrocentre and hiding away from the main road. Up the old train line that forms part of the Coast-To-Coast cycle path and across the viaduct over that spans part of the valley. The first few front runners came past the other way, with a cyclist in front to clear one side of the lane.

I remembered there was a bit of a hill after this, thin, muddy and I remember holding another runner back last year until I realised then letting her get past as I gasped up. Not so bad this time, though I did walk a bit as I think I’d set off a bit too excitedly, and when I reached the top it was down the other side, a mixture of the fun of running and the stabbing of the crisps working through my gut.

Half-way point and you turn back down the valley – there’s a water station that was belting out music, just as there was last year. As I came up it changed to Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F”, which made me laugh like an idiot – you don’t hear that song much these days, but it was straight back to memories of watching Beverley Hills Cop. :-)

Down, down, down to the floor of the valley and through meadows. Along by the river through puddles and mud and then a turn up another hill.

I wonder how many shorter races include kissing gates? It’s an interesting feature, and while it didn’t bother me so much, I wondered how the front-runners had managed, and whether they’d wasted valuable seconds saying “after you”, “no, no, after you”, “oh, I couldn’t possibly”. It would have been the right thing to do.

Back up onto the track now and after a wee while the stabbing was bad enough that I had to walk a tiny bit and clutch at my sides – a couple of finished runners heading back up enquired if I was OK, which I pretty much was, then off again.

It’s about two miles down the track to the finish, though it feels like longer, round the corner, back into the cricket club and Bob’s you uncle. I checked with a lad who came in at the same time as me and he reckoned about 53 minutes.

Better than that, the results the next day showed 51:48 – slightly slower than the previous year’s 48 minutes, but then I doubt I was stupid enough to eat crisps then, as I was planning on being here that time. I was pretty happy with the result, and wandered back to the car to drive home.

So, we can add crisps to the list of things not to eat while running or in preparation. So far the list contains:

  • Peanut butter
  • Crisps
  • Dried apricots
  • Muesli

Actually, the dried apricots is a simple never, ever eat, they are like tiny hand grenades to my (clearly delicate) digestion and muesli is much the same. If only I had the constitution of the chap eating pork-pies and custard mid-way through the Glasgow to Edinburgh Ultra I might be fine.

Next up, Blaydon Race. One of my favourites.

Rock on!