Images from a lovely Dartmoor run with Nicky last week
No Lazy Steps
Three years ago I ran my first 50 mile ultra marathon. I might have mentioned it once or twice (you can still read alllll about it HERE). I took a tumble early on in that race, making the remaining 43 miles extremely painful! I’d share a picture of my post-race ankle with you, but to be honest I’m not in a massive hurry to look at it again myself.
Well, I’m planning on attempting another coastal 50 mile event. And I would rather not attempt it on a bulging ankle. So I’ve been rolling out my favourite running mantras as training starts to (and I apologise for employing the phrase which has been wrung out by 2020) ramp up.
The most important of those mantras has to be no lazy steps, no lazy steps, which I tend to repeat to myself when the terrain starts to become, to use another cliched expression, technical. And by technical I mean when there is an abundance of rocks, roots and rabbit holes. But also to be negotiated carefully are steep edges, muddy descents, steps, loose, gravely paths, sheer drops on the side of the trail, standing water (you never know what it might be concealing!) etc etc.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
I heard a great interview with Beth Pascall on Adharanand Finn’s podcast The Way Of The Runner where she explained that there really isn’t any substitute for practice. Not just training to get fit, but specifically experiencing the type of terrain you are training for. I guess it’s no different to any other skill, like writing, playing the guitar, or driving or anything else, it doesn’t matter how many instruction manuals you read or videos you watch you’ve just got to get out there and do it.
Never stop learning.
I’ve been trail running and tackling ultra marathons for quite a few years now, but I still like to try and learn something new, improve something about my running every time I go out. I started running later in life and for the first couple of years only ran on the road.
The biggest thing I’ve learned to change is not to trust the ground! Doing laps around Paignton Green on the pavement, I would only need to consider the ground below me a couple of times in a mile, where the curb drops and rises again.
On the trails by contrast, as Beth Pascall says, I need to be reading the ground a few steps ahead. All the time. I guess we learn to cover the ground quicker the more experienced we get on the terrain.
Running For The Joy Of It
Another major change in my own running from those time-chasing days on the roads is that I really no longer care how fast I run, nor where I might place in an event. Selfishly, the Covid restrictions which mean events starting in small waves doesn’t affect how I might approach the event.
For those who enjoy a good tear up on the roads, racing the girls and guys around them, this has taken some of the fun and motivation out of the events. I’m there to run the best I can still, but really don’t mind what that looks like in terms of time or pace.
The first thing I look at when considering an event is the cut-off time. That becomes my goal, to be quick enough to be inside that. Whatever else I might achieve is a bonus, but sort of unimportant.
After battering myself for a couple of years early in my running career, it is bloomin’ liberating to be running just for the pure pleasure of it.
So on loose rocky descents, covered in freshly fallen leaves and where the light is inconsistent thanks to a canopy of trees, giving the image of running along a blissful tunnel of autumn colour, I slow down to make sure I’m not going to hurl myself to the ground. I think I’ve improved over the years. As I get fitter, I will hopefully be naturally covering the ground a bit quicker without really noticing. But if not, then so be it.
Don’t Be A Whiny Git
With all of this in mind, and in response to me becoming a bit of an annoying whiny git a few weeks ago (‘I’m so tired, I can’t do it’ etc!), I’ve written myself a training program.
10 days in and I’m still following it. I want to be fit enough to complete a challenging (and long) trail marathon in a few weeks time and then continue getting fitter for the big 50 mile challenge at the end of January.
I bloomin’ love being on the trails, and this week I’ve rediscovered my love of running by torch light in the dark too. Even if the situation changes for event organisers, and for their sake I truly hope it doesn’t, I’ll still be happy to get out there and enjoy the process.
And After That?
Beyond that 50 mile event next year, I might even be having another crack at *say it quickly and it won’t sound so scary* the big century. I know the phrase never again might have passed my lips after I very nearly got to end of my last attempt! If I haven’t yet bored you with that tale, feel free to check out my blog about it HERE.
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If the words “tooth” and “fairy” have placed a warm cuddly, call-the-cute-police image in your mind, soothing, calming and reassuring memories of those little traditions of childhood we cling to; the innocence and the trusting of our younger years, then I’m afraid I’m going to shatter your inner peace.
Try and imagine a pile of broken glass lying on a concrete road, then (bear with me on this) place a microphone next to the pile and connect to a pair of noise cancelling headphones. Ready? Now close your eyes and try and hear a car tyre slowly driving over the pile, grinding it further into the ground. Now place your clenched fist hard against the back of your jaw and push hard. The harder you push, the louder the glass gets crushed.
This was no milk tooth falling out to be placed delicately under the pillow as I drifted off to sleep in my fluffy pyjamas, cuddling my pet Sky Blues elephant (it even had the club badge sewn into its side).
After the first infection developed under the offending tooth, timed perfectly with every single dental surgery (like everything else) closing down back in March, I’ve battled toothache. But, shut the back door, the last two weeks have been horrendous. Eye wateringly painful. Sleep denying agony. Obviously, this has been helped enormously by the tropical night time temperatures.
So, after five days of telephone consultations I found myself nervously loitering outside the dentists’ shop front in Union Street in Torquay. The glitzy, high end window display of the dentist felt rather out of place amongst the nail bars, boarded up shops and old school cafes of the upper stretches of Torquay town. As all walks of life were gathering at the line of bus stops and taxi ranks in front of me, I started to become as self conscious as I was anxious. Standing in my supermarket uniform, fresh from a shift which I had completed without pain killers as I was unsure whether taking them would prevent any treatment taking place, I didn’t know whether I looked like I simply needed the toilet as I rocked from foot to foot, or perhaps I was the world’s least discreet drug dealer.
After what felt like long enough for the firebrand sunlight to raise my temperature above the threshold for being treated, I couldn’t decide whether I was relieved or terrified when a friendly, bemasked dental nurse beckoned me indoors.
I passed the temperature test and was led directly to the executioner’s chair. I’ll save you (and me) the details. And no, I was neither offered, nor asked for the offending tooth. What does happen to such delightful remnants of a life well lived? Actually, I don’t want to know, I’m sure it’s not just popped into the bin with the dentist’s apple core and hummus tub.
My wonderful wife Nicky had thankfully insisted that she drive me and after a brief dribbling call to tell her the deed had been done, the Mini pulled up amongst the Iceland and Argos bags waiting for taxis and I gingerly lowered myself in.
The pain had played havoc with my running ambitions over the previous couple of weeks and I was now resigned to a few days of further down time for my trainers as I recovered from what was starting to feel like a few slaps from Anthony Joshua.
As Nicky blitzed a banana into a bowl of natural yoghurt, I sat in the window nursing my tingling and sore jaw, marveling at just how wonderful my life truly is with this remarkable lady. My recovery would be fine, and I didn’t have toothache!
That night I was, for the first time in a while, glad to lay my head on the pillow and looked forward to a few hours of sleep. The tooth fairy never crossed my mind (not least because I was thankfully not in possession of the feckin’ tooth anymore). Little did I know that Nicky did indeed have a ‘who’s a brave boy’ tooth fairy style treat lined up for me.
I remember (do I actually remember? Let’s pretend I do for a minute) placing milk teeth under my pillow as a child and getting excited that there might be a sixpence (which by then was worth two and half new pence) in its place in the morning. This was significant because at the time it would have bought me a packet of football cards. While many were after Kevin Keegan and Mick Channon, I was hoping for Coventry City legends Ian Wallace, Mick Ferguson and Chris Catlin.
I don’t suppose our grandchildren will be so easily satisfied. A mere coin might not cut it anymore. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s youngsters are only willing to sacrifice their little white treasures in return for a stretch Limousine with six of their friends, a few games of ten pin bowling and a good old Maccy Dees nosh up. Although I’m not sure how we’ll get all that under the pillow? Maybe they’ll settle for a fiver?
What, I here you bleat, has all of this got to do with Matt Haig?
In the absence of running, I enjoyed a walk with Charlie before work yesterday (Charlie being our faithful Border Terrier). When I returned there was a parcel tucked behind the gate.
With my name on it. Book shaped. How very exciting.
Nicky had hinted that the tooth fairy had been on the internet and found a surprise for me. And here it was.
I resisted the urge to tear it open and waited for Nicky to get home before, well, tearing it open. Those that know us and anyone who’s read my previous blogs will know we do love our books. You’ll also understand why, as the box revealed its contents; a signed, hardback first edition of Matt Haig’s latest novel, The Midnight Library. There must have been something in my eye, and I was certainly, at least momentarily, stuck for words.
It’s no secret that Nicky and I took extra measures, especially because of my job, to shield her from any potential exposure to Covid-19. It would be foolish to pretend that during those weeks in March and April we hadn’t been fearful. In May, my employer had given me the green light to ‘shield’ for some weeks. Up until then we were living ‘together apart’ and it definitely played havoc with my mental health. Well, Matt Haig was certainly one of the voices I turned to for comfort in those times. Not only is he a writer of beautiful novels and life affirming nonfiction, he is somebody I both relate to and draw comfort in ‘following’.
His, for want of a better word, humanity is so acutely observational, eloquently expressed and is grounded in a true belief that we should all be living as one community which is constantly looking out for each other. We should all have the opportunities to express ourselves adn chase our dreams, regardless of our background or place in society.
The new book is a thing of actual beauty just to look at and hold, and I can’t wait to start turning the pages.
Before that though, I need to get to London with Stuart Maconie. I’m lapping up his account of retracing the steps, 80 years on, of The Jarrow Crusade in his powerful, almost battle cry of a memoir, Long Road From Jarrow. We’re currently in Bedford, one of my old stomping grounds, having passed through a few public houses I frequented back in the day, particularly in Nottingham.
So my recovery continues, I managed a hard fought 10 miles on the coast path this morning, falling well short of my hoped for mileage but I’m sure my body is still reeling from the physical and emotional assault of the last couple of weeks.
The epic ultra marathon I had hoped to be tackling in October has been cancelled. Understandable of course, but it did leave me without a short term goal for my running. I have decided to create my own one man ultra marathon which I am now officially in training for!
In other news, the grandchildren are now back ‘in da house’ and the new sofa has no trouble in hosting the 6 of us!
With the comforting feeling that the tooth fairy really was looking out for me, onward we go……
“I knew you’d be hating this bit, I just had to come and find you.”
The words of my beautiful wife.
She was right. I was about 92 miles in to my attempt at the inaugural Dragon 100 Ultra Marathon and my soul was being broken by the roads and pavements leading me out of Barry, the famous South Wales coastal resort.
I’d made a small navigation error.
I was now beyond exhausted.
I’d been heckled by some young hipsters heading out for the night.
I was crying.
I was moving very, very slowly.
As Nicky got out of the car, we were both emotional wrecks.
For the previous 24 hours, I’d had a great big smile every single time she appeared on the route. Something which she’d managed so many times I simply couldn’t count any more.
It had all started the previous evening at the glorious setting of Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsular.
About 70 hopefuls lined up on the chilly windswept headland to set off east towards Cardiff. Alongside me was Lewis, running buddy and founder of Keywood Preston Runners, the running group where we both coach.
Nicky, Lewis’ girlfriend Gemma, and a few other hearty souls braving the icy wind, waved us off before returning to the warmth of their cars.
Following the Wales Coast Path, with its challenging ups and downs and beautiful scenery, we soon warmed up. Those of us who had put on our extra layers started to pause for wardrobe adjustments.
As we enjoyed the stunning scenery with the bright spring sun lowering behind us, we felt good.
Until Lewis caught a foot in a divot and rolled his ankle over. We’d probably only covered 3 miles and he was clearly in pain. We joked about having 97 miles to run it off, but we both knew it was potentially not good news.
The first checkpoint, at Port Eynon, was soon upon us and Nicky was there, battling the cold wind for some lovely words and encouragement. Bottles filled and snacks scoffed we headed into the evening.
The gloom started to become dark and I paused to reapply some layers and fire up the head torch. The extensive compulsory kit list may seem long, but as the night and following day wore on, I was to make use of much of it.
Lewis was keen to push on, trying to divert his focus from the worsening discomfort in his foot. As the sun set behind us and darkness fell, we made good progress towards the second check point at Southgate.
In the darkness all spectators see is your head torch approaching. We had to shout out to Nicky before she realised it was us. Again we had snacks and new drinks but best of all was the can of Coke Nicky gave us to share.
Nicky retired for the night to head off to her cold and noisy accommodation. Apparently, her upstairs neighbours sounded like they were alternating between games of skittles and tap dancing. A hair brush hurled at ceiling seemed to calm them down!
With the lights of Swansea in the distance, we turned into the Mumbles. A long, straight, flat section on hard surfaces here. I find this hard and I don’t think Lewis was enjoying it either.
We got in to stride with a number of other runners here and ticked of the miles to checkpoint 3.
Soup! A quarter of the way into the race, and way passed my usual bedtime, I found my spirits lifted by the hot food and soft bread roll. Lewis changed his socks and freshened up but he was clearly in pain. We didn’t say much, but I think we both feared for his race.
Out of the checkpoint and back to the long promenade of Swansea Bay. A beautiful location which started to lose its novelty value as the relentless hard paths started to get inside my head. We zig zagged, using the grass verges where possible to give our joints a break.
The port of Swansea was a change of focus. The route weaved around the various docks and we focused our attention on not losing the route. We ran alongside a canal for quite a while, the quiet and dark lending an eerie feel to the night.
Another road section and Lewis was really struggling now. This is a man who has covered 100 miles before, I knew it was serious. We made it to the next checkpoint and we both knew the game was up for Lewis.
I won’t dwell on this point, that painful decision was hurting him badly.
With Lewis urging me to carry on, I headed out into the night. From here the route went inland to the long dark forest trails which meant we avoided Port Talbot.
I loved the night. Through miles and miles of forest trails. I had the great company of other runners for some of it. At other times I was in solitude.
Dawn in a silent forest. The haze of day break in the distance. Birdsong, wow, the birdsong.
Only a very brief ‘dark’ 5 minutes broke the spell and I was caught by Boris and Christian, two guys I’d ran with earlier. We shared some fabulous miles as the forest came alive with light.
Something I had worried about was how I’d fare with my stomach. It was about 5 am when I asked the other two to push ahead in order to have some private time to, well, you know……
50 miles came up on the watch and I did a mental check over of how I was faring:
I’d kept my promise to myself to slow down, slow down, then slow down some more. TICK
I’d been extremely careful with my kit and hadn’t found myself hot, nor indeed cold, even though there was frost on the ground. TICK
I’d eaten and drank consistently well throughout and was feeling better after my little disappearing act behind the trees. TICK
I’d kept myself lubed in areas which would thank me for it later. TICK
I felt good. Tired, naturally, a bit sore, naturally. But good.
The seaside beckoned as I headed through Margham. A wonderful early morning telephone conversation with Nicky as she headed towards me really boosted my spirits. I joined up with another runner, Stacey, who was also on the ‘phone to his loved ones.
The dunes down to the sea were tough on the legs but we’d formed a gang of 4, with Boris & Christian catching us up again.
I wouldn’t say I was bouncing, but I had now gone further than ever before and no matter what the next 50 miles had in store, nobody could ever take that away from me.
Went through 60 miles along a great boardwalk approaching Porthcawl and there was Nicky. We were both tearful and so, so pleased to see each other. I will never stop saying it, without Nicky I would achieve nothing. We are a team.
Nicky’s role in the team was to keep supplying me with smiles, oh and welcome slurps of fizzy drinks.
As I headed to Porthcawl Rugby Club for more soup and coffee I ticked off another small victory: 100km. Blimey it felt good. I couldn’t help but start thinking about how much further there was to go. This didn’t help me much but the next section certainly did.
My Uncle Mike moved to Bridgend to work and then retire back when I was a young man. This next section of coast was his stomping ground. I have many happy memories of times around Ogmore and Southerndown. I knew I was going to run past the spot where we’d scattered his ashes and couldn’t help but be spurred on by this.
Mike was taken too soon in the same year that I also lost my sister. I ran this ultra marathon with a piece of my ‘Karen ribbon’ tied to my rucksack and with Mike and Karen very much in my heart and thoughts.
Another little navigation error as Ogmore came into view brought the focus back to the job in hand. I was back in the gang of 4 again and we found our way back onto the route before, guess what?? Nicky appeared in a little car park in the middle of nowhere!
A cuddle, a slurp of cold drink and I skipped away again, across the second set of stepping stones the route had treated us to, and along the path to Ogmore.
Here, Nicky was joined by Lewis and Gemma. Lewis very generously lending me strong support despite his massive disappointment of having withdrawn in the night.
Nicky again appeared on the next headland. I’m getting emotional just writing this. I was about 75 miles done by this point and still moving ok, but the lift I got from seeing Nicky here was just wondeful.
On to Southerndown, I ushered the other 3 on and used the beach facilities to get myself empty and fresh again before having a moment on the beach to think of Mike.
I then made another navigation error. You wouldn’t think it possible, on a coast path, but I ended up circling a headland before heading east again. Emotion was starting to get the better of me, so I walked quite slowly for a while and had a stern word with myself.
“I’m at a lighthouse, are you on a big hill?” Nicky was at Nash Point and as I crested that big hill, there she was in the distance. Another spring in my step.
I was chatting away to myself as I descended the headland towards the lighthouse and my incredible lady.
Hurting now, and so tired, but still moving, I even ran a little up the slope to where Nicky was waiting.
No matter what the moment; good, bad, wonderful, tragic, immense, beautiful, inspiring……. any moment we share is just so precious.
Back onto the coast path again, the next section to the check point at Llantwit Major went really well. Nicky was there, what an incredibly lucky man I am. This is how we work, Nicky and I, and here we shared another emotional moment.
Christian and Boris were here and Stacey was heading out. I set off replenished with fluid, calories and emotion.
I started to struggle on the next section of coast path. The industrial skyline coming into view in the distance, the tightening muscles and fatigue were getting inside my head.
My struggle became more acute when I had a sudden and blindingly painful sensation in my big toe. I’d been feeling quite squishy in my trainer for a while. I sank to the floor and braced myself for what I was going to find inside my sock.
Sparing the gruesome details, 15 minutes later, after some self surgery, used my extensive first aid kit and half a tub of Vaseline, I was up and away.
Then came my biggest route error. The coast path (I now realise) goes up on the sea wall around Abethaw power station. Me? I headed across the ‘beach’ made entirely of boulders!
Ow! Ow! Ow!
My ‘phone rang. Nicky. What a woman. After she negotiated her way through a caravan park, and I across the beach, with Nicky’s relentless encouragement I made it back up onto the cliff path.
Fanta and a Mars Bar. How did she know?
With the love of the most incredible person I’ve ever known, I pushed on again. Try as I might, I think the previous few miles had already started to break me.
I arrived at the penultimate check point, at Porthkerry, quite distressed. The welcome sight of Nicky, Lewis and Gemma and their incredible support gave me just enough lift to crack on.
From here the route quickly became road, and I knew that was it for the trails now. Moving very slowly, I plotted my way through the streets of Barry.
“I knew you’d be hating this bit, I just had to come and find you.” Nicky had started to drive towards the last checkpoint but had turned around when she realised I’d be on main roads in built up areas.
Another couple of miles (with Nicky driving to every quarter of a mile or so) my body decided enough was enough.
Without going into too much detail, I seemed to go into shock. My dry feeling got worse the more I drank. I was dizzy, disorientated and broken.
I was violently sick, shivering quite dramatically and seeing double. The game was up.
A call to my incredible friend, Martin (regular blog readers will know Martin well), confirmed I was making the right decision.
Nicky wrapped me up and got me as comfortable as possible. We let the organisers know I had stopped and headed for the Travelodge.
Once I was showered and laid down, I started to feel a bit brighter and we had a late night pizza feast lying on a Travelodge bed, trying not to look at my toes!
Am I disappointed?
Not in the slightest. I’m more gutted for Lewis.
Nicky and I, as regular readers will know, are THE team. Yet again we were invincible. I covered nearly 95 miles in about 25 hours and without Nicky, I would never have been on the start line, never mind cover that sort of distance.
I’m proud. really proud.
As I leaned against the wall in the Travelodge reception, dizzy, nauseous and in a ridiculous amount of pain, I knew I never wanted running to make me feel like this again.
I absolutely love running, love challenging myself. BUT, I only ever want to run with a smile on my face.
For that reason, this has been my last 100 miles race, my last run with sleep deprivation, the last time I’ll put myself, ourselves, through that!
So, what have I learned?
I’m as tough as I hoped I would be. The mind is a wonderful thing. I have nothing to prove to anybody. I am the luckiest man alive to be half of the most incredible team, thank you Nicky x
And thank you Lewis and Gemma.
Thank you Run Walk Crawl for another epic event in South Wales. And thank you for the incredible support from the teams at all of the checkpoints.
Thank you to all of the amazing friends and family for their support for both Nicky and myself and all the wonderful messages we received before, during and after the event.
Thank you to all of the runners who shared the course, particularly those I spent time with. Special thanks the guy who offered to crawl the rest of the way with me as I was slumped on the boot of the car where I stopped.
A 5.30am start the day before the clocks sprung up, fell over, dropped back, or whatever it is they did, meant hitting the beaches of Paignton, Goodrington, Broadsands and Elberry Cove as the sun burned into the early morning mist.
Picking up the Musgrove Trail for a while after leaving Churston Village, some of my favourite local trails. from the top of the hill the views take in Torbay in one direction and the River Dart the other way.
Past Greenway and down to the boat yard on the creek there before climbing the field on the outskirts of Galmpton. A bit of road from there until you get into Stoke Gabriel.
Picking up Fleet Mill lane towards Totnes where I can never resist running to the end of Long Marsh, particularly early morning, for the jaw dropping view down the river.
From Totnes, picking up the Torbay/Totnes trail, through the traveller’s site which has been there for decades, passing the Mare and Foul Sanctuary and into the shadow of the spooky ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle.
The trails towards Marldon are fabulous running on soft ground, woodland and fields (with a very slow mile as I tip toed through some young cattle!) before running under the gorgeous underpass to head towards Occombe.
Passing the marathon point of the run in Scadson Woods before popping out on Preston Sea Front then running up through Victoria Park and home.
It’s been a while since the old trio of Nicky, Martin and myself entered a running event and had a gigglesome road trip.
For new boys and girls to the blog, Nicky is my awesome, inspirational, beautiful, relentless, stunning and quite frankly, hot, lady wife.
Martin? Or, as he’s better known, The Silver Fox. Well he’s as good a mate as you could possibly wish for. He’s also Nicky’s training partner as they limber up for one of those MASSIVE triathlons later in the year.
So, if you look back over the last few years of the blog you’ll find plenty of tales of our little gang’s running adventures.
The Tavy 13 half marathon is a community event hosted by Tavistock Athletic Club and this was our third time here. Regular blog readers may remember me taking a tumble here two years ago. (Read about that HERE)
As elite athletes in our prime, all the talk in the car was of fine tuning our nutrition, getting more scientific about running and which particular dynamic stretching routine we should be using as a warm up for a hilly half marathon. Something like that anyway.
Just before the scheduled kick off, we discovered that the race needed to be held back for an hour whilst the roads were cleared of an earlier accident.
Having suffered a little for the lack of toilets, we’d had to rush straight to the start line before discovering the delay. We took full advantage of this extra hour to carry out a thorough warm up and dynamic stretching routine….. Oh hang on, no, what we actually did was have a lovely cup of coffee and a great big slab of banana cake.
The cake sat a tad heavy in the first few miles!
We had our usual debate about where to start (my days of elbowing my way to near the front are long gone). Martin opted for the middle somewhere, whilst Nicky stuck to her preferred tactic of starting right at the back.
This half marathon has 8 solid miles of climbing and descending and climbing again before the flat and downhill charge back to Tavistock.
It is a road event but captures the magic of open moorland and on some of the steep ascents, reminds us ex-smokers what our lungs are for!
With my eyes firmly on future ultra marathons, and Nicky and Martin both in heavy training towards their iron distance triathlons, none of us was predicting we would go as quickly as two years ago.
We were right.
I was more right than them though, adding a full quarter of an hour to my time.
I took my new toy, an action camera, with me and had some fun with (or got on the nerves of) some of the runners around me. I also tried to film the spectacular scenery and some of the dozens of fabulous marshals and volunteers out on the course.
“HI, I’m Kevin from Sky Sports.”
I introduced myself as I filmed runners trotting along with me.
I received, laughter and plenty of self depreciating humour, along with occasional bemusement and grunts. Check out the little video HERE.
A ran my race comfortably hard for those first 8 miles and then upped the effort on the 5 mile flat and downhill run for home. Whilst I may be slower these days, I felt really good throughout the run and am quietly chuffed with how it went.
And I enjoyed every step.
Martin was secretly hoping to run under 2 hours.
Nicky, as she entered the arena to run her final 400 meters shouted something like “Stop feckin’ filming me” as I chased her round the bend. I still managed to capture her sprint finish.
The Tavy 13 is quite a big event with nearly 500 finishers this year, yet once out in the countryside, it never feels busy or crowded. There’s a cross section of the running community here, whatever pace you run at there are always a few people around you.
With marshals at every single junction, crossing, and water stations a-plenty, not to mention rescue and medical teams, the runners are so well cared for. Great signage and a fabulous route, we’d all heartily recommend The Tavy 13.
Nicky was right to double check. 3.30am really isn’t early morning, is it? More late night.
Tucked in our rented barn near Hayle, we listened to the rain batter the roof lights. The farm’s wind turbine was getting plenty of encouragement from the brewing storm to provide fuel with. “WHOOSH. WHOOSH.” it rhythmically insisted. The accompanying, constant whine from its motor completed the orchestra.
We did sleep eventually. But 3.30am comes around so quickly.
Shower, muesli and strong coffee and I was ready for battle.
It Takes Two (or three)
My inspiration, my world, my whole reason. That’s Nicky. Regular readers will know that my beautiful, amazing wife truly is the heart and soul of everything I do.
Nicky was ready for battle too. She has left the marathons and ultra marathons alone this year in order to concentrate on her ironman ambitions.
So instead of competing, Nicky was ready for scrambling under electric fences, abandoning the car in random locations and appearing at some of the most remote and inhospitable vantage points on the Tin Coast.
Our intrepid Border Terrier, Charlie, by her side.
And They’re Off
Bys Vyken Events‘ Cousin Jack Ultra (35 miles) set off from The Surf House on The Island, St Ives at 5.30am. A trail of head torches and tail lights snaking across Porthmeor Beach under a cloudless sky. (I know it was a trail of lights as I was right at the back so I could see all of my fellow runners!)
17.5 miles away, Cape Cornwall, in all its raw, bleak, midwinter glory, awaited us.
Our mission was to conquer this most inaccessible, isolated, desolate chunk of the South West Coast Path.
And then turn around. And conquer it all again.
Let There Be Light
A flicker of my head torch, as dawn approached, suggested an equipment failure was imminent. Fellow runner, Martin, magically produced a small hand torch, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I was able to return it to him as both the sun and my own torch both came alive.
The weather was remarkably kind to us. Sunshine was short lived and the wind was keen but the threatened storm delayed its arrival to this remarkable place until the event was pretty much over.
Most events, particularly in trail running, and even more particularly in ultra marathon races, have time limits within which us competitors must reach certain points on the course. Primarily for the safety of runners and crew alike, they go a long way to ensuring we prepare as best we can before tackling these challenges.
The first cut off point in The Cousin Jack Ultra was at 9 miles and we had 3 hours in which to get there. Whilst this may seem generous, the terrain can change your day rather quickly.
I was pleased to be over 30 minutes in front of that target by then, but certainly not complacent.
How Hard Can It Be?
The first (and later on, last) section, between St Ives and Zenner is about 7 miles long and probably the most challenging on the course.
Lots of rocks, awkward paths made of boulders (even a boulder beach!), mud, special knee deep cow mud, electric fences, ups, downs and an increasingly enthusiastic headwind (not to mention the first 90 minutes in darkness) all contribute to the challenge.
Yeah, it’s tough. But maaaan-alive, it’s gorgeous.
How Tough? How Gorgeous?
The entire route is trail running heaven. As I mumbled into one of the video moments I recorded during the day, “Until I do a race that’s tougher and more beautiful than this, then THIS is the toughest, most beautiful race I’ve ever done.”
Cornwall. It gets under your skin.
It was an absolute privilege to be running here.
Lest We Forget
I raised a water bottle as I passed Levant mine. 100 years ago a catastrophic man-engine failure at the tin mine here resulted in the deaths of 31 local men. Countless others were injured.
This is poignantly remembered in the engraving on the wonderful medals awarded to finishers of this incredible event.
It was an emotional day. I found myself welling up every time I saw Nicky and Charlie (7 times, you need to come here to see just what an achievement that was!)
The land has a magic to it, as I passed these almost mythical places; Zennor, Pendeen, Gurnard’s Head, Cape Cornwall, I could feel the history.
This coast has become synonymous with epic trail running, certainly in the small world I operate in, and to be here, becoming a tiny part of that history, felt so special.
Dot To Dot
As a self confessed dot watching addict (many events fit participants with trackers in order to see their location on an online map), following the trackers of runners at these types of events, it was great to actually be one of the ‘dots’ this time around.
Suck It Up Princess
Flu (and I mean actual flu, not the ‘manflu’) had wiped out two weeks of running (and anything else) and I only passed my self-imposed fitness test two days before the race. I certainly wasn’t oozing confidence at the start line. Prior to the flu, I had prepared well, so I was hoping this fitness was still in me.
Turning back at Cape Cornwall and looking back at the first few headlands to be negotiated again, I took a deep breath…… I noticed the organisers’ sign: “Suck It Up Princess, You’re Only Halfway”
I was feeling a bit weak, my thighs already objecting to the relentless ups and downs, but I was loving every step. Every single step of the way.
I sucked in that bracing Atlantic wind (thankfully now at my back), zipped up my man suit and set off for St Ives.
She’s Got My Back
Nicky and Charlie met me again as I left Cape Cornwall, at Pendeen Watch, then in a random location far from anywhere, before scrambling to Gurnard’s Head, Zenner and finally at the finish.
I may have been exhausted but my wonderful lady wife and cheeky chappie Charlie deserve so much credit for what I achieved.
Crossing the finish line, I couldn’t wait to hold Nicky and tell her just how incredible she had been and how much we shared that proud moment.
Did Someone Say ‘Steps’?
After following my footsteps back to St Ives, perhaps not quite as quickly as on the way out, I did try and save a little energy for the last half mile.
I knew what was coming. A leg burning trudge across Porthmeor beach followed by the climb up The Island’s steps to The Surf House.
Cruel. But fitting.
Such a perfect, iconic location to finish this tremendous day.
Bys Vyken Events Put On Quite A Show
A small, homely feel to race HQ and all the pre-event information gave way to an epic feel to the actual race. All race communication was brutally honest, tongue-in-cheek and absolutely comprehensive.
The Race Director, David, and his fantastic crew managed what looked like a logistic headache (there were three race distances on offer, the 35 mile Ultra Marathon , The 17.5 mile Classic Jack and a Little Jack 7 mile) and the whole event started as planned and felt as well managed as any ‘bigger’ event I’ve done.
There were enough course markings, but not too many. Well placed and thought out aid stations were manned by exceptionally knowledgeable and supportive crew. Similarly the marshal points were enough but not overkill.
I felt trusted to have prepared properly and to give the course the respect it so dramatically commands. But, I also felt protected and at no point did I feel I was facing the challenge alone.
And It’s Goodbye From Him
I only fell over once! I only (briefly) went the wrong way once. I was still running (using the term loosely) across the beach after 35 miles before hauling my sagging legs and beaming smile up those final steps.
Beating the time limit by just over 2 hours too. I’m rather proud of myself I hope you don’t mind me saying.
What Will I Take From The Cousin Jack Ultra?
A stunning medal, a handshake from the welcoming Race Director, a hot pasty and a heart full of memories.
But nothing will top the moment of cresting yet another rocky headland somewhere on the way back to see Nicky and Charlie awaiting me. In the middle of nowhere. Car abandoned, they’d crawled under an electric fence and made their way through the wilderness to the coast path.
Why my writing and running careers are more Grendel than Blitkreig Bop.
“Listen to me, just hear me out. If I could have your attention.” Fish whispered at the start of the nearly 9 minutes of Vigil In The Wilderness Of Mirrors.
Led Zeppelin’s Kahmir, Pink Floyd’s Welcome To The Machine, Rush’s Subdivisions….. They all start minimal, teasing, suggesting, gently finding a path. Showing hope and promise before building, rising, becoming powerful. A lost art in the mainstream but still an art to behold.
Not that I’ve anything against a quick fire American Idiot or Wreckin’ Bar. They just don’t represent the road my writing and running are taking.
As the years have gone on, I’ve nibbled away at being a writer. This blog, in fact, and the wonderful feedback I get from it, has pushed me forward so much. And being lucky enough to have the support of someone who says “Why not?” instead of “Why?”!
My running, started with a desire to be fit, then to run a half marathon.
Here I am 12 years later, feeling like I’ve ALWAYS been a runner. Bit by bit, mile by mile, my endurance has grown.
How did it start?
Running: A desire to be a non-smoker – a few out of breath strides.
Writing: Home made comics, football and music reviews.
Where are you now?
Running: I’ve ran 43 marathons (or longer), I run 50+ miles a week. I do some coaching and help run a group.
Writing: I’m officially a paid writer, my novel is well under way, THIS blog, managing 2 other blogs, just agreed a campaign with a lady attempting JOGLE.
How long has this taken?
Running: 12 years so far
Writing: Since I first held a pen. Nearly 50 years.
Where are you going?
Running: This year I have a 100km, a 100mile and a 24 hour event.
Writing: My goal is to gradually reduce my ‘day job’ hours until I am full time. I’d like my first draft of the novel finished this year.
I ran a mile the day after giving up smoking (14th January 2007). It took me about 20 minutes. It wasn’t pretty but it was everything I had.
I’d been lucky enough to be a teenager in a sport mad house during the 1980s. I witnessed (on a colour telly no less) the great races between Steve Cram, Steve Ovett and everybody’s favourite posh boy, Sebastian Coe. All three still feature in the all time 25 fastest times by men over the distance.
It inspired me. But not right away…….. 20 years of fags, booze and a shocking lifestyle later, I was setting my 20 minute mile.
When I joined forces with Lewis Keywood to help him with his wonderful run group Keywood Running (see THIS blog post to read all about us), we brain stormed some ideas to inspire the group.
I’m fascinated by the mile as distance to run. We tend to talk about our runs in miles (rather than kilometers) – miles ran and minutes per mile. The process of running a single mile, particularly if you attempt it as fast as possible, is a challenge of both speed and endurance for the body. The mile requires a steely grit to convince yourself to keep going.
“It’s a long way to sprint!” quipped one of our runners the other night.
He’s not wrong.
Since 1970 it has been the only IAAF world record officially recognised over an imperial distance. Whilst it hasn’t featured in the Olympics, there many highly prestigious runs and races over the distance.
The Oslo Dream Mile, The Fifth Avenue Mile and the Westminster Mile all spring to mind.
There’s even The Christmas Day Mile – my beautiful lady wife and I head to the sea front for a flat out timed mile early on the big day before gearing up for an eating marathon.
Whether you’re chasing Mo Farah, or chasing my famous 20 minutes, it is a magical distance.
Well there’s a new magical event to add to that list.
In our New Years’ brainstorming session, we came up with this:
Time our runners over a measured mile. Once they’d recovered, ask them to predict what time they’ll run in 6 months time. Simples
We set the date. We printed some numbers. We did social media (oh yes, we are SO down with the kids). We ignored the rain. We set them on their way. We, er, ‘encouraged’ a couple of cars to “WAIT!”.
We timed all the runners.
My own inspiration comes from my amazing, determined and quite beautiful lady wife, Nicky. Having ridden a 6 hour hilly ride the previous day she was quite happy to don her bobble hat and record the results. Don’t worry though, she’s a steely girl and plans to time a mile another time.
With ‘the boss’, Lewis (Keywood – hence the group’s name) charging around encouraging the runners and several injured and ailing members turning up to shout support, there was a fun, excited atmosphere on the night.
It seemed that everyone who ran gave their all and were keen to predict faster times for the summer. A seemingly simple idea which has captured the imagination.
Lewis and I completed our miles straight afterwards. We love a challenge too. I hope the runners were encouraged by their coaches sinking to the floor at the finish line.
You’re new to running races. You’re stood on the start line at your debut event. You nervously look around at the whipper snappers in their team vests and sparkly running shoes and start to question why you’re there.
You have what we writers call ‘imposter syndrome’
If you run, you ARE A RUNNER
(I know the CAPITALS are shouty, but I wanted to SHOUT IT)
The second in my “Yup, that happened to me too” series of running blogs, here’s a summary of MY first race.
After battling through being a newcomer to running (see last week’s blog), I took the plunge and entered my first 10k race.
I chose a low key village race, in another county, hoping that I’d be completely anonymous.
That part of my day was a success. Nobody knew me there.
Actually my goal for the day was to finish all 10 kilometres. Also a success.
And I learned so, so much from the mistakes I made on that first race and I hope I’ve never stopped learning since.
It poured down during that March morning. I wore baggy cotton jogging bottoms, I must have doubled in weight as the race went on.
AND finished holding my trousers up.
So, looking back, did I belong? Hell Yeah!
Sporting chaffing which brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it now, bleeding nipples, blisters and black toe nails, I was utterly spent as I crawled across the finish line.
The event was a fund raiser for the primary school where the race was based.
In lashing rain, a child shouted “You did it!” and waited for me to bow my head before hanging a medal around my neck.
For any new runners reading this, please be assured that we’ve all asked this question.
Back at the start of my own wonderful running journey I didn’t have the confidence I might mistakenly display these days.
Having started to help out at the wonderful Keywood Runners (see this blog), I am now having the pleasure of helping runners who are at the beginning of their own journeys.
Well, when I first started I wasn’t in the rather wonderful place I am now in life (see pretty much any other blog post to see how I embarrass my beautiful, amazing, inspirational lady wife, Nicky, by telling the whole wide world just how I feel about her!) and I didn’t really know anybody that ran.
I just put some old trainers on and went running. It wasn’t pretty. Some say it still isn’t. One well respected local running coach once described me as ‘running like a drunk man herding cats’!
I used to go out late at night. In dark clothes. Puffing and panting around the streets. Several times in those first few weeks I was asked if I was alright by concerned late night dog walkers. 25 years of smoking took some time to cough up!
But it started to come together, a mile of non-stop running, then half an hour, 3 miles….. and so it went on. I was starting to enjoy running. If you’re reading this and aren’t sure, trust me, it gets easier. (And please get in touch with Keywood Runners for advice and group hugs)
It was then that I asked the question “It’s a WHAT run!?” after reading my first generic training program in a running magazine. You know the sort of thing Monday – rest Tuesday – 5 miles steady Wednesday 3 miles recovery run
I could not for the life of me imagine a world where the words ‘recovery’ and ‘run’ could be used in the same sentence. I was quite into running by then and even had my eyes on a 10k race (which is another story!). But every single run felt like I was at my maximum. I couldn’t picture there being any other type of run.
And then there’s ‘easy’ runs. EASY!! Were these people pulling my doo dah?
Here I am 12 years later (pretty much to the day) and I can honestly assure all you new runners it IS possible to enjoy running!
I wish they’d been Keywood Runners when I started, I might have learned a bit quicker that varying pace and distance would help me develop into a stronger runner.
5 TIPS FOR A NEW RUNNER
Find A Fun And Friendly Group – there are lots of lovely groups and clubs as well as our own gang at Keywood Runners
Take Regular Walk Breaks – Don’t run until you are gasping, even if this means running for 20 seconds and then walking for a minute. Before you know it those 20 seconds will become 30, 40, a minute….
Don’t Try And Run Every Day – As your muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons get used to the new form of exercise, give them time to heal between runs. They WILL get stronger but avoid over straining, any injury would be demoralising.
Wear some well fitting, comfortable kit and running shoes – most running shops will do a running gait analysis. Poorly fitting kit could result in unfortunate chaffing. I learnt this the hard way.
PARKRUN- Find your local Parkrun, a free weekly timed 5km run/walk. Not a race just a run with a smile on your face. A great way to build up your running without the potentially intimidating atmosphere of a race.
As for those ‘recovery’ and ‘easy’ runs? We’ll talk about them next time……