The day the rains came

I should have been running a training course in Glasgow today. But yesterday, having very little voice and rather less energy, thanks to a rather stubborn cold, I decided I’d better cancel it. It looks like it may have been the right decision as trains have been stopped on the East Coast line tonight and Newcastle station closed due to flooding.

We stood and watched the black cloud roll over the hill and across towards my workplace. Sheet and forked lightning sparking the distant horizon as the sky grew darker and darker, until the houses disappeared and we were in the heart of the storm. After an impressive rendition of the BBC sound effects CD entitled Frankenstein’s Castle, it swept off swiftly followed by rain of biblical intensity.

Social networks were soon filled with photos of waterfall staircases, exploding manhole covers and a river encroaching on city streets. Lauren Laverne even told us to put our coats on. #newcastleendofdays

My homeward journey, which normally takes about 30 minutes by car took almost 2 hours. And I was one of the lucky ones. With Metros off and people stuck in offices, many were left walking or plodging through the sodden streets.

I’d normally have a wetsuit in the back of the car on a Thursday night. I wonder how they got on at the open water swim session?

I am feeling much better after a frustrating few days with this cold. It’s never been bad enough to keep me off work, but it has put paid to any training. And left me wondering whether or not to start Sunday’s tri. Yet again, I find myself feeling less fit than I would wish.

But on some good advice, I haven’t written it off yet. I may try a gentle run, as per my plan tomorrow. Just a leg loosener, to see how it feels. And if that feels good, then yes, I think I’ll give it a go. But no pressure.

New article featured on

You can now see another version of my report on the first Whitley Bay parkrun on North East Runner.

I hope to keep writing articles for this new and growing website, so if there’s anything you’d be interested in hearing, let me know.

The first Whitley Bay parkrun

After an inspiring and emotional day watching the Olympic flame being carried through my home borough of North Tyneside yesterday, it was time for me to stick my trainers on and take part in my regular Saturday morning ritual at parkrun.

Only this was a special parkrun – the very first one in Whitley Bay. It’s been a tough one to get off the ground and I’m sure at times the volunteers who organise it thought it would never happen. But finally, North Tyneside council were won over and elected mayor Linda Arkley was on hand to give the new parkrun her approval.

Runners on the promenade at Whitley Bay
Picture from the first Whitley Bay parkrun courtesy of droughty on Flickr

Even on a grey and overcast day this has the makings of a lovely parkrun course. With a backdrop of the sea and traffic free paths along the cliff tops, it’s certainly scenic. The two lap route and change of terrain, with a couple of short inclines make it a decent challenge too. The hills aren’t too scary – honest!

Starting from Panama Gardens, you run on the well used paths over the Links towards the War Memorial then turn along the path nearest the coast towards St Mary’s Lighthouse. The route goes up and around down to the promenade alongside the popular skate park.

Along the promenade, past the Rendezvous Cafe is a nice long wide stretch with plenty of chances to pick up the pace, or just admire the view of the beach just feet away. Towards the end of the path, marshalls direct you up a small bank and onto the light coloured paths that take you over a small stream and up around another short climb to emerge on the footpaths just before the Briar Dene pub.

Then there’s a sharp left turn back onto the links, heading slightly down hill and a swift right hand turn up the bank to run along the cliff top path looking down over the promenade. The path is slightly narrow and rougher underfoot here, but it gives you good views of the other runners.

Back towards the start and at the war memorial, the cheery marshals will tell you you’re more than half way round as you repeat the route for another lap, finishing just short of the starting point and being funnelled into place on the grass.

I really enjoyed seeing so many familiar faces and getting a few shout outs as I ran. The lapped route gives you a good chance to see other runners, which can be either encouraging or demoralising depending on your attitude. And the change of terrain also helps keep things interesting.

With local cafe, the Boardwalk offering bacon butties and drinks (and a parkrunners discount), it’s also a good chance to catch up with my running pals.

Hats off to Heather and her Whitley Bay parkrun crew for not only getting this event off the ground but coping with a large field of runners for a first time event. As far as I could see, everything ran very smoothly and the cheerful and encouraging marshals were very welcome. And it was good to hear people just passing by afterwards taking an interest in what was going on too. It deserves to be a popular and well supported event.

Stats and stuff:

5k 29:28

1) – 1km – 5:38(5:38/km) – 63cal
2) – 1km – 6:02(6:02/km) – 65cal
3) – 1km – 6:00(6:00/km) – 65cal
4) – 1km – 5:51(5:51/km) – 65cal
5) – 1km – 5:53(5:53/km) – 64cal
6) – 0.02km – 5(4:40/km) – 1cal

The Olympic torch relay comes to town

It’s fair to say I’m a little bit excited about the Olympics coming to London this summer. As someone who has lately learned the benefits of sport, I will be willing our team GB athletes and paralympians on. And I’ll probably be watching a fair bit more TV than I usually do.

I don’t have tickets for any of the London events, although I’ll be watching the football at St James’ Park and I was lucky enough to enjoy my own Olympic experience, running through the Olympic park and finishing in the Olympic stadium.

And today the Olympic torch relay came to my neck of the woods. I’ve followed this on and off since it arrived at Lands’ End, dipping in and out of the TV coverage and watching the BBC live torchcam. It’s been brilliant finding out about the inspirational people chosen to carry the torch (and no, that doesn’t include US record producers promoting a talent show on TV). So many great people raising money, coaching sports and doing great things in their local community.

I took the day off work and as the relay was approaching the coast at lunchtime, I cycled up to Whitley Bay, the location for many of my runs. It was grey and overcast, but earlier downpours had eased and I began to see people walking out towards the route. I stopped at a random point near a bus stop and locked up my bike, securing myself a good spot to view the convoy from the pavement.

There was a great deal of excitement as I chatted to the people nearby and the crowds really began to gather, including scores of very excited primary school children with their union jags at the ready. Soon the police outriders came past, high fiving the crowds and waving. Then came the first stage of the convoy, the advertising buses dishing out sweets, drinks and things to wave and bang.

They were accompanied by a bus taking the torchbearers further down the route. This got a huge cheer, and as it slowed down to pass where I was standing, I saw Michael Moore, a colleague from work on board the bus, in his uniform, ready to carry the torch. I wasn’t exactly sure where his stretch would be, but I hoped I had a good chance of seeing it.

A little bit of a lull after the excitement of the first stage of the relay procession and then the blue lights and sirens of the main event appeared at the top of the road. First the media bus and then the torchbearer herself waving to the crowds nd getting a huge cheer from the children. She passes in a flash and just a few metres down the road, the flame is passed to the next torch bearer.

Michael Moore takes the Olympic flame from Jonny Miller
Michael Moore takes the Olympic flame from Jonny Miller. You can just see Stephen Miller in the background too

As the crowds move away, I retrieve my bike and begin to pick my way back down the coast towards Tynemouth. As I cycle along the paths parallel to the route, I spot a torchbearer I recognise as Jonny Miller. Jonny is brother to Stephen Miller, an amazing, inspirational paralympic athlete from Cramlington. I got to know Stephen when he made a film when I was working at the BBC and I’ve followed his athletic success ever since. He’s one of the athletes I’ll be yelling at the telly for at this year’s games.

I shouted out some encouragement and rang along beside the road with my bike for a while. I managed to get a bit ahead and spot the next changeover point, where to my delight, my friend Michael was waiting to ‘kiss’ torches and enjoy his moment carrying the Olympic flame.

That was a very proud moment for me. To see someone I know carrying the Olympic torch. Michael is a great guy and a keen runner, but he also gives up a lot of his time to coach kids’ football too. I knew it would mean a lot to him to enjoy this amazing privilege.

I was soon back on my bike again, my mission to get ahead of the convoy as it turned away from the coast and get to Tynemouth to see it again. I pedalled like fury, taking advantage of the off road cycle paths and then dipping back onto the road when they began to get crowded with people waiting to see the torch.

I’d got my bright yellow cycle jacket on and I think some people thought I was part of the convoy. I got a huge cheer and flag wave from a group of children that made me laugh as I passed. I shouted out to some others that they didn’t have long to wait.

Olympic torchbearer
Torchbearer running into Tynemouth

I made it home, ditched my bike and helmet in the hallway and slipped my trainers on for a smooth transition into a run up to the end of my street, just in time to see the support buses pass by and know that the torch was on its way.

Another flurry of photos, a cheer and a wave to the torchbearer and  torchcam bus and I was on the move again, into Tynemouth village.

I’ve never seen so many people out on the streets. I didn’t know that many people lived nearby. There were balloons and flags and music and people on stilts entertaining the crowds as the convoy passed down one side of Front Street and back up the other.

I caught my last glimpse of the flame again as it came past before heading away down the road towards North Shields.

And I’ve spent the rest of the day, watching the live coverage, heart in my mouth as Bear Grylls took it on a zipwire over the Tyne, tears in my eyes seeing William Hardy, future paralympic hopeful light the cauldron on the Quayside in Newcastle at the end of today’s journey.

The flame has much further to travel through this region and many more moments to come. But today I was proud and thrilled to be a Geordie (albeit not a home-grown one), to celebrate with the people that make this area so special and to add more memories to my store cupboard.

Who cares about the weather? It’s going to be a summer to remember.

Further adventures in open water swimming

I’m almost scared to write this in case I jinx it, but it feels like I’ve made real progress with my open water swimming.

Immediately after my first open water swim triathlon, when asked about the swim, I replied that it had been ‘okay’. Not fantastic, not amazing, just okay. But buoyed by the adrenaline of completing my first race at this distance and enjoying a fabulous day with my friends, that got lost in the general high.

I know I struggled to calm myself during the first part of the swim and was frustrated by my breathlessness. I know I had doubts in my head even as I swam and wondered how I would ever be able to get over them and swim further. But I did it, which was all that mattered. And knowing that I had done it would give me confidence that I could do it again and do it better.

And then a strange thing happened. I was happy to take a couple of days off to recover from the tri, but when I got back into training, I had a real desire to swim again. And not just in the pool. I wanted to go back to the lake and swim in the open water. Like the itch of a run after a good while static, I felt the pull of the water and wanted to be swimming again.

Last Thursday

The open water swim sessions are on Thursday evenings. I usually train with my PT early, before work on a Thursday morning, so it’s quite a demanding ask for me to make both sessions. But I really wanted to go. Even with the prospect of a race on the Saturday evening, that I knew I’d be wise to rest for, I wanted to swim.

Ian was kind and we did a light training session, still enough to wake up my muscles in my legs and upper body. And all day I watched the weather, wondering how it was going to turn out and whether he would, as he hinted he might, make it along to the swim session too.

Once out of work, I was quickly at the lake, changed into my wetsuit and ready to go. Chatting to a few tri club mates and comparing race stories before I spotted Ian and Lee and we all got in the water together.

Me swimming in the lake at the QE2 triathlon
In the swim at the lake

With different groups doing fast sets around the buoys or longer swims further up the lake, I was just happy to pootle round the buoys at my own speed as I have done in previous sessions. Although it felt great to be in the water, and it was clearer and even felt a bit warmer than during the tri, I soon found myself flooded by the familiar feeling of being out of control, nervous and breathing patchily.

I was having to coax myself to put my head in, fighting the panic response and wearing myself out too quickly. Once round the buoys with a mix of breast stroke, doggy paddle and crawl and I was once again thinking, “Why am I doing this?”

A bit of time out in the shallows and a quick chat with Ian who was having problems with his goggles and I set off again for another lap. A little better this time, but still struggling to get my head in, breath out and smooth my stroke. Still feeling anxious, frustrated and worn out by a relatively short swim.

‘Oh well, something to work on,’ I thought as I headed back round for another rest. One more lap for tonight and then I’d call it quits. That third lap was somewhat delayed as the fast group came round and I let them get out of the way. Meanwhile, I’d also found Ian again, still suffering leaky goggles, and another girl who was quite happy chatting to us.

Eventually we set off again. And whether it was knowing that Ian, who I trust, was swimming nearby, or that I’d given myself time to get used to the water and finally relaxed, thinking it was to be my last lap, but suddenly it worked. And I was swimming. Nice slow, easy strokes, giving myself time to breathe to both sides. Striking out towards the buoys, head in the water and making progress.

I swam to the first buoy and then swam alongside another girl, drafting her to the second. The cool green water flowed over and around me. I watched the bubbles emerge beneath the surface and came up for air, glimpsing at the trees and the lake. Round the second buoy and back towards the shore, I boosted my kick and felt myself glide through the water.

By the end of the 250m lap I was grinning like a loon, and Ian spotted me, saying I looked strong. “I’ve just got it,” I replied. “That’s so much better than swimming in a pool.”

Filled with confidence and enjoying the water, we did another lap, not really swimming together, just being conscious that there was someone near by. And I had another lovely smooth swim, all the way round front crawl, just lifting my head to sight and enjoying the swim.

I don’t seem to have suffered any bad effects from a double session Thursday before the Blaydon Race on Saturday. In fact, given the weather, you could say the swim was good practice for the run!

And on Sunday, when my legs were aching after racing, where did I end up? Yes, back in the water at the pool this time for a nice leisurely shake it out swim. And I was cool, calm and felt like I could have swum all night. It was a great recovery set.

This Thursday

Another Thursday and another sunny start to my day, down on the beach, training with Ian. A complete body workout to strengthen muscles, improve balance and work my core. We talked a lot about training in general and the benefits of a complete programme with weights and resistance as well as the cardio work. I like the way it makes me feel and the hour passes quickly.

After work, I got to the lake early, looking forward to the swim. With the sun out, the lake was warm – 17C, we were told. But there was quite a breeze and the surface was a little choppier than I’ve been used to.

I took my time getting in the water, floating on my back and trying to relax before I set out to swim around the buoys. Consciously, I felt calm, but as before, I couldn’t convince myself to put my head in the water until part way round the first lap. And when I did, I was holding my breath and then struggling to control my heart rate.

A bit of breast stroke and treading water to settle myself and I kept trying. Swimming with my head out of the water inevitably resulted in a gasp of water as a stray wavelet hit my face. I did have moments of it coming together and feeling quite pleasant, but they never seemed to last long enough to allow me to swim one complete side of the triangle consistently.

But I managed 3 laps, around 750m in total and it’s all good practice. Maybe I had set unreasonable expectations, hoping to get in and instantly feel at ease. I should be happy with feeling more under control and less panicky.

Thinking about it on my drive home, I realised, although I enjoy the open water swims, they are probably the most stressful thing I do. Although stressful maybe isn’t the right word. They are the thing most likely to make me feel anxious, not in anticipation, but while I’m doing it. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.

Because how fortunate does that make me? That my biggest worry is something I can and am controlling, little by little. That it’s something I choose to do and actually something that I can glimpse I will enjoy. I wish all my friends could exchange their troubles for such easy anxieties.

There was a moment when I thought once again, why do I want to do this? What’s the sense of putting myself through another open water tri? But if I want the adrenaline high, the confidence and self belief that my last one brought me, that’s the price. It’s like riding the roller coaster or travelling on the ghost train, you have to have the scare to get the thrill.

And this is far from an unbeatable challenge. It’s a manageable one. Even if I was twice as scared, my sheer stubbornness would get me through. But actually, I do quite like the challenge. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be a test. And I know, because I’ve felt it, that open water swimming can be joyous and liberating. Even coming home smelling of rubber and duck poo, I was gratefully not to be snotty and sneezing from the chlorine.

I’ve no doubt, I will go through the ups and downs of swimming again as I seek to improve on both speed and distance. I have one more open water, and a couple of other tris that I’m looking forward to this year, and big plans for 2013 already. So, as Dory says in Finding Nemo, ‘Just keep swimming’.

Blaydon Race 2012 – the wet one!

I think the correct description of the weather conditions in the first mile or so of this historic race is ‘stottin down’. The 150th anniversary and the bells of the cathedral rang out at the start, commanding Noah-like floods to wash away the unworthy.

Ian and Kelda with Tony the Fridge in the background at the start
Well done to Kelda in her first Blaydon Race

Gathering crowds and clouds in the Bigg Market. Mingling with regular city revellers enjoying a drink or a bite to eat on the way down to the start. Spotting a few familiar faces as I warmed up and heading to the start with Ian, Kelda, Big Les and Tony the Fridge. A rousing chorus of the song and then a wait and a wait for a sign of the start.

Shouts of good luck and enjoy and I was away over the cobbles and onto the road. Despite the drizzle, there are smiles and cheer. I pick my way through the crowds with no problems. My legs feel fresh, I’m ready to go. My mouth is a little dry from the excitement, so I stick out my tongue and drink in the raindrops.

Out into the space of the Scotswood Road and it really is pouring now. Runners split and divert onto the paths, dodging puddles across the carriageway. I pick up my feet and splash on through, my shorts slick and sticking to my skin.

Supporters huddle under umbrellas or cower at bus stops and there are a few shouts back from the runners as we clear rain from our vision and plough on. “You’re not laughing now?” says one man to a girl running beside him as we splash through another road river. “No,” she replies, but she is.

So many people I know are here, work colleagues, parkrunners, Fetchies, friends and twitter connections. I manage to spot most of them somewhere along the route. I manage a wave to Diane in the crowd at the start.  On the Scotswood Road, there’s Penny, hair plastered to her head and then Danni running with another Tyne Bridge Harrier. Shout outs along the way and I’m running strong, enjoying the rain and the feeling of freedom.

Me and Tove on the Blaydon Race 2012
Me and Tove heading over the Scotswood Bridge. Picture courtesy of runnerwanderings on flickr

Somewhere along the road I fall into step with Tove from parkrun. She says something that sounds a little down hearted and I know she’s afraid of aggravating the injuries that hold her back. But I know that on form, she’s a bit better than me. Not so much that I can’t catch her on a good day, but enough to spur me on. A lovely nemesis to have. I say something about not talking yourself out of the race, but talking yourself into it.

For I am bubbling with confidence. Still on the updraft from my triathlon. Still happy to be asked about it at parkrun and at the start of the Blaydon Race. Telling the story and lifting my spirits again as I recall how it felt to finish. Right now, I feel invincible. I can meet any challenge I set myself, because I’ve already done more than I imagined I would.

Tove and I run on together. We don’t say much. I’m a bit of a lone focused runner, even when I’ve just set out to run this with no plan, no pace, no target time. But I remind her as we turn and begin the climb at the bridge that Jeff will be waiting for us.

She spots the parkrun cheering squad before I do and we yell out. I spot Fred and Eric and get a shout back from Angela as the hardy crew cramp themselves into a hardly big enough bus shelter. On the way up and over the the incline and away across the Tyne I blow kisses to special people – my new little brother, my nephews and my little sister Ava.

I am enjoying this race. My legs are starting to tire a little, being more used to running 5ks than longer distances at the moment. But the shouts and exhilaration get me through and onto the next section, the out and back along the river. I scan the passing stream of runners for faces I know and give a shout out to Big Les, who can’t hear me, lost in his headphones.

At the water station I spot a red and yellow shirt and shout “Fetchie coming up behind you,” to Minardi. I really must get my name on my Fetch shirt. I wave at the band, playing gamely on in the gloom beneath the bridge.

Round to my least favourite part of the course, through a bit of an industrial estate and Tove’s beside me again, a spot of brightness in her pink top and white hat. I stick with her, though my calves are beginning to winge a bit from the cold and the up and over sections.

On the main road towards Blaydon she begins to pull away. For a while I dig in and stick with her, telling myself that I’ll regret it if I don’t try. But eventually her long legs pull her away.

I keep her in my sights for a good long time, resolving not to let the gap get any wider. I’m not consciously slowing down, but the distance is starting to tell a little now. I haven’t run 10k since the middle of May and haven’t properly raced a run this year. My goal here is to enjoy it and run well. So I just keep going as best I can. Not fighting my pace or pushing so it hurts too much, just revelling in the run.

I reckon we’ve passed four miles by now and I mentally clock this one up as six, although it’s a bit shorter. Just 18-20 more minutes of running I tell myself, and I’m actually a little sad because my heart and head are enjoying this and I sense those around me are laughing off the rain too.

It’s the running madness. This thing we do, that causes the muggles to stop and stare in disbelief. This thing we know ourselves is slightly crazy. But it’s a good kind of crazy. And something about the Blaydon Race, especially in the rain really celebrates that.

I’m pondering the finish now as soggy spectators stand beside the road beneath umbrellas. It’s different this year and I haven’t been able to get a picture of it in my mind. We circle round beside the old finish and I spot the baggage buses and runners with goody bags coming the other way, so I know it’s close.

I get a shout from the side, spectators trapped behind the fences and it’s friends from parkrun. I smile and get ready to give myself a boost for the finish. A marshall shouts “Just over 200m to go,” and I start to power up. My legs protest, too much too soon. But I continue to find a bit of pace towards the end.

Over the grass and the race face is on, blurred by rain, feet finding purchase on the soggy grass as marshalls loom before me and direct me to the left into the finish funnels. I stop my watch and stumble forward, recovering my breath. It’s some moments later when I check my time – 52:00.

My best ever run here, also in the rain, was officially 50:01. Last year I ran a few seconds slower than that. This year, I would have been happy with anything under an hour, secretly hoping for under 55, but telling myself that the time didn’t matter, just having a good race did.

So it really is time to forget the PF. I’ve come through another race with no signs of it re-appearing. And although my focus will be on tris this summer, there should be a few pure runs where I can challenge myself and see if I can improve. I might even try to sneak in a fast 10k into a fast filling race diary as I’m not so far off last year’s glorious form as I thought I might be.

And I did have a terrific race. I ran well and enjoyed it. I felt strong in my heart and my head and my legs followed. I had friends around me and smiles all the way. I finished fast and rejoiced in the racing. I wish that all my crazy running friends can say the same.

Official results

Photos from runnerwanderings on flickr

Chronicle report and photo gallery

Stats and stuff:
5.79 miles 52:00

1) – 8:37(5:21/km) – 106cal
2) – 8:36(5:21/km) – 104cal
3) – 8:43(5:25/km) – 105cal
4) – 9:21(5:49/km) – 105cal
5) – 9:31(5:55/km) – 105cal
6) – 7:12(5:40/km) – 81cal

[NB. my official time is 53:38]

And in case anyone thinks we’re all winging about the rain, honestly, I was drier in the lake last Thursday.


Blaydon Race preview

The Blaydon road race commemorates a popular music hall song from 1862 that tells the tale of a riotous trip from Newcastle to see the Blaydon Races. There’s been a road race that takes in the landmarks mentioned in the song since 1981, so this year marks its 150th anniversary.

It’s always on the same day – the 9th of June as mentioned in the first line of the song:
Aw went to Blaydon Races, ’twas on the ninth of Joon”

Oh yes, it’s written in the Geordie dialect, as are the race instructions sent out to the 4,000 runners who now take part in this annual 5.9 mile race. In fact, getting a place is almost as challenging as running the route as they are snapped up within minutes of being announced.

It has a great atmosphere, with crowds of runners packed into Newcastle city centre at the start, hanging around the Bigg Market area, better known for its bars and nightlife. It’s quite a challenge to put on as the route goes through some of the busiest roads in the city centre. It’s well supported too with spectators and bands along the route and watching from the bridges, before gathering in numbers around the finish area at Blaydon.

The route has been changed a few times. It was originally 5.7 miles, then lengthened to 5.9 miles. It’s run mainly over main roads and dual carriageways, so not the prettiest scenery. It attracts a good mix of runners, from the super speedy club runners to those just giving it a go, running for charity and being part of a local tradition.

Crowd of runners at the Blaydon race
Can you spot me ‘Gannin’ along the Scotswood Road’?

It’s usually pretty congested at the start, as runners pick their way through a couple of twists and turns, minding not to trip over kerbs and street furniture in the city centre. Once the crowds reach the dual carriageway onto the Scotswood road, it thins out a bit and there’s more space to run.

A couple of up and over bridges and an out and back along the river add to the variety, although there’s often a bit of a bottleneck coming down off the bridge to the riverside. And there are usually a few groans as the race reaches the final flyover before Blaydon.

There’s another change this year, with the finish at the playing fields on Shibdon Road, which looks like it could be uphill. But the distance remains at 5.9 miles.

Once through the finish line, you’re guaranteed a decent goodie bag with a much-prized T-shirt, bottle of beer and a selection of local food (usually including tripe, pease pudding and pickled onions).

This will be my fourth time running it and it’s firmly established as one of my favourite races. The distance, just short of 10k makes it unique and the fun atmosphere lifts it and makes it special. I’ve also always run really well on it.

My first run was in 2009, when I was still a pretty new runner and it was, at that point, one of the biggest fields I’d raced in:

In 2010, with a bit more experience, on a cold wet and rainy run, I had one of the best races of my life. It’s still up there in my top ten.

So last year, I felt a bit deflated when I failed to better my performance. Soon afterwards, I went on to run some record times over a shorter distance, so really I was quite hard on myself.

This year, I’m running again. And I know I’m not running as fast as I was this time last year. So I’m going to learn from my experience and not put too much pressure on myself. I shall just run and enjoy it for what it is.

I still hope to run well and I’ll be pushing as hard as I can, but I hope I’ll be smiling too and I’m guaranteed to be among friends at the start and finish.

So roll on the 9th on June and I’ll see you on the Scotswood Road.

QE2 sprint triathlon – my first open water tri

When the first people you see as you pitch up in the early hours of the morning to a former colliery site are your best tri buddies down from Scotland for the day, Lesley, Bob and Al, your collywobbles disappear in a mountain of hugs and you know you’re about to have a fantastic day.

I have had this event in my mind for a year. Last year I watched friends and my PT Ian taking part and I thought, “I could do that”. It was once of the first races I entered this year, knowing I wanted to move up in the world of triathlon and to do that I had to tackle the open water and my first true sprint distance event.

In other words, it’s a pretty big deal. As big as my first Great North Run, bigger than my sub 2 half. Basically the only thing that’s been on my mind all week.

And oh boy, do I realise what a step up this was. Like so may wannabe multi-sport athletes, it’s the swim that’s provided my biggest challenge. Getting over the fight or flight response, learning to breathe out under water, building up confidence and endurance and conquering my nerves.

I managed two open water swim sessions before this event and still felt unsure and very nervous.

Lesson 1: Time goes more quickly than you think when you’re setting up

I’d arrived pretty early, registered, got numbered up and set my bike up in a fairly quiet transition. But spotting my PT Ian and one of his other client’s Big Les (about to take part in his first ever triathlon, having done the Edinburgh marathon last week) and having a chat with them, it was suddenly race briefing time and my wetsuit was back at the car.

I start listening to the briefing, doing some deep breathing and roll downs to calm my nerves. But all around me, people are half in wet suits and I start to get anxious. So I have a quick warm up jog back to the car and get into my suit.

Me about to enter the lake for the open water swim
Looking a bit dubious about the swim

As I run back, the crowds are disappearing towards the lake. I tag along with Ian, grateful to see a reassuring face as I wrestle my shoulders into my suit and wriggle into my swim hat. It’s a massed swim start with over 200 competitors taking to the lake at once.

As I make my way to the water, Gary spots me and wishes me good luck. I was so happy to see him. I start training him up as my tri sherpa, passing him the aqua shoes I should have left in transition.

The colour coded caps we’re given are thin and Ian rips his to shreds trying to put it on. I have my regular red swim hat beneath my yellow one and offer it to him. But he goes without.

At the pontoon, the nerves really kick in as I sense this is all going to happen very quickly. I’m not going to have time to get in and calm myself down. Indeed, as I potter about princess-like, they call back those who have started to swim in the warm up area.

Lesson two:
Next time swim more front crawl

I spot Al who makes me feel a bit safer, so I get in and into the water quickly. It’s not cold at all, but it’s murky and dark here with a petrol like sheen on the surface. I spit in my goggles and get set, splashing water on my face, in the hope it will encourage me to get my head it and swim properly.

The hooter goes and we’re off. I’m well to the back and my mission is basically to stay out of the way as much as possible, not to get kicked, punched or pulled. I strike out with a strong heads up front crawl.

The fear quickly strikes me. Those buoys look a long way out and I’m heading for deeper water. My hands brush aside tendrils of weed  and I bump against another swimmer.

Keep the bouys to your right and just swim. I try to calm myself and swim some breast stroke to give myself a breather and make some space. It turns into quite a lot of breast stroke as I seek to calm my breathing and keep moving.

There’s another swimmer just to my left who is breathing heavily and that makes me anxious, so I try some front crawl with my head down and start to make up some ground.

Around the first buoy I allow myself a breast stroke break again and see swimmers nearer the bank who look like they are standing in the shallows and one man getting out and peeling down his wetsuit to give his number to the marshall.

I mustn’t let this get to me. I swim some more heads up front crawl, but still manage to splutter on a mouthful of water. The nearby safety canoe advises me to take a glass of gin tonight to get rid of the taste.

But in truth, the water here is somewhat clearer and less weed-ridden. I am not cold, my legs are still moving and I am keeping my head above the surface. I round the top buoy and make an effort to but my head in and swim. Long slow strokes and give myself time to breathe. I manage it for a while, then take another breast stroke breather and try again.

To the right of the last buoy and just striking for the lakeside now, two sighting markers ahead and I’m finally starting to think I can make it. I’m aiming for the right hand side of these markers just in case, but I see swimmers heading through on either side. One has a very familiar pair of goggles on and I realise it’s Lesley.

I suddenly think I must be having an amazing swim to have caught her up and strike out in full front crawl again, hoping to make it all the way to the shallows. Only the dirty water forces me into a safer stroke as I find my feet and stumble zombie like up the bank.

Helping hands out of the water, finding my legs rather jelly like, and a push and a shove in the right direction. Up the bank and a good long run into transition. I peel down my wetsuit and remove my hat and goggles. My feet are covered in dirt and bits of weeds. Off the grass and into the car park area, they protest at the hard ground.

Lesson 3:
Don’t hang about in transition

Me on the bike course at QE2 sprint triathlon
Heading out on the bike course

I take my usual ‘I don’t care how long I take’ approach to transition, peeling off my suit easily and giving my feet a quick wipe and dry on the corner of my towel. Then it’s a bottom up approach to getting my kit on. Shoes, number belt, helmet, a quick swig of water and a faff to put my Garmin on. Lesley has already gone, by the time I’m finally off clicking over the concrete in my bike shoes.

I don’t even bother with a fancy mount, just get on and go, happy to have swum the swim and feeling right at home on my bike. More water from my bottle as I click up through the gears over the smooth road out of the museum entrance.

And then it’s just me and my bike and the road. I’m feeling good, feeling strong, elated at conquering the swim. I start to turn over quickly and make the most of the adrenaline rush. I am in buoyant mood, imagining I’m Chrissie Wellington out ahead on the bike at Kona.

This really is a lovely bike course on wide flat roads through the former pit and mining areas, where now you’re more likely to see fields of vibrant yellow oil seed rape. I try to keep up a decent cadence, but also enjoy the landscape around me.

We pass through Cresswell, a seaside village with a famous ice-cream shop. A string of pretty coastal cottages where a wagtail flits across my flight path. And to the right a bomber squadron of geese in perfect V formation.  A small hill and you’re out over the top of the cliffs. Black cows on green grass farmed by the blue sea and below and on the road, yellow sand.

Just before the factory at Lynemouth, I’m startled by a noise and a movement in the trees as a huge tethered shire horse comes charging out from the trees beside the main road. I’m glad here’s no traffic here as I instinctively move out of its way.

My scenic admiration is cut short as soon after another small rise, I’m passed by another rider. It’s not the first time I’ve been passed on this course, but the others have had the decency to look like skinny whippet triathletes, and this bloke doesn’t. I wake up and put some effort in, catching and passing him just as another bloke goes by.

In transition, I’d noticed some tasty looking bikes. This really wasn’t a tri for the shopper or the mountain bike. But this guy’s bike looks like it’s just come out of the lake with him. It’s either been stripped back for a respray or is as old and rusty as your favourite park bench. I resolve to try and keep him in my sights and his blue shirt is a marker for the rest of the ride.

A couple of speedy straights and a chance to dip down onto the drops. A couple of nifty corners at roundabouts and I am feeling so at home on my bike. My feet are still a little cramped or cold and I try at times to curl my toes to get some life into them. It proves a useful distraction on any small rises, but really there’s nothing you can’t ride on the big ring here.

I’m back round and heading into the museum again, bumping over the speed reminders in the road and spinning to get the blood flowing into my legs.  And I’m off the bike before the dismount line, running clipped and wobbly legged over the grass and then concrete into transition. Quicker this time to slip out of bike and into running shoes, lose the helmet and go.

Legs and feet protest as I try to shake the bike off. Just keep moving and the feeling will fade I tell myself. Up ahead on the path is Mr Rusty Bike in the blue shirt. Bye, bye fella – you just got chicked on the run!

Lesson four:
Your friends are always there for you

Here I am at home, running in lovely surroundings on a path beneath the trees around a lake. But still it is hard to keep moving as my feet and calves feel stiff and I feel the force of every step.

I had some great messages last night and this morning from my friends, so as my mind starts to fret over the thought there are two laps of this to get through, I draw strength from their support.

‘Relax and enjoy.’ Scotty’s mantra is truly one I am taking to heart for this race. It soothes my fretfulness and reminds me that today, the result really does not matter. It is about the experience and meeting the challenge.

Another Scottish Fetch pal , Katy  said ‘you rock’ and you’d have to be braver than me to let Katy down. So I run for her and her determination to face things head on.

I’m all smiles as I pass by Gary and see Al, finished already as I approach the end of the last lap. A naughty little rise up the tarmac and then a down over some grass and back round towards the colliery museum.  I hear Barry, who ran the  tri training I did earlier this year calling out my name as I pass through and nearly take the turn for the finish instead of heading through for another lap.

A quick dose of support and it’s off along the lonely lanes again. More runners though and I try to offer some encouragement as I pass. I feel like I’ve found my legs a little and can stretch out and run freely, but it’s still hard work. How will I ever be able to face a 10k run for a standard after double that swim and bike?  I’ll just have to get hellish fit for next year won’t I?

me crossing the finish line at the QE2 sprint triathlon
The moment I felt like Chrissie Wellington. Thanks to Bob Marshall for the best finish photo I’ve ever had.

The sun is making an appearance and I am actually starting to enjoy this. It is a lovely place to run, flat and easy underfoot. Back round to my support crew again and the smiles are on, even though I know there’s that ugly little hill and back of the buildings bit to go.

In my head I’ve been saying there’ll be no sprint finish today. My legs have worked hard. But as I hit the last few hundred metres of pale, clean, hard surface, they rocket into action. Race face on, arms working like the pumping pistons. I don’t know where it comes from.

I hear Barry calling my name and Tyne tri club as I cross the line and fall into Lesley and a big hug from her and Al. I could not be happier.

I have barely looked at my watch. Mrs pace and stats took a break today and just went with the flow. No targets, no expectations, just relax and enjoy. And I did. Oh how I did.

But you want to know don’t you? Here are the provisional timings:

Swim 750m (and a decent transition run) 21:27
T1: 03:03
Bike 26k: 1:01:15
T2: 01:14
Run 6k: 38:20
Total 2:05:19

Post tri cake score = 2

I finished 194 out of 201 finishers and 13 out of 15 in my category. Full race results from V02 Max Racing who did a fantastic job of organising, marshalling and supporting this great event.

And I got the best ever race finish photo thanks to Bob Marshall. There’s a full set of race pictures on his Picasa site:

Triathlon is an amazing challenge and an incredible buzz. I’d encourage anyone to give it a go. It’s friendly and helpful and encouraging. All the marshalls had a ‘well done’ or a ‘looking strong’ or a name check for us. Competitors shared wry groans and encouragement as they went by. And that’s what it’s always like.

Today I was proud to represent Tyne tri club who have helped me improve my swimming a lot. And also to be part of the more informal Team Inspire. My PT, Ian and four of his clients took part in today’s event. It’s thanks to him that I even thought about doing triathlons and also thanks to Ian that I’m fit and ready to give them my best shot. I may be at the back of the field, but that doesn’t dent my enthusiasm or love of triathlon and how I feel to be this fit and healthy and blessed with friends.

So that’s me, fully converted to triathlon. I have a lot of work to do to get to where I’d like to be. But I shall relish that. Just as I relish days like that spent in the best company of the best friends.

Super six go cycling in the sunshine

After a proper big week of training and fun and taking advantage of our sudden British summer, I started to dial things down a bit last weekend.

I couldn’t resist the lure of parkrun and the rare chance to run on the Town Moor under blue skies. I had few expectations for this and as I set off, I felt my legs just lacked any power. I’d warmed up and felt fine, but when it came to the run, I just sensed I wasn’t really going to get much from going for it, so eased back and tried to enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong, I still put the effort in and it was still a tough run, but I wasn’t constantly pushing or agitating my breath.

It’s a balance, knowing when to listen to a head that says “You’ve had a big week, you don’t need to go nuts,” and when to ignore the kind of thoughts that talk you out of a race before you’ve even started. But I’ve promised myself I will learn from this year’s injury spell and just enjoy the experience sometimes. So, I finished slower again this week, but I recovered quickly and was pleased with a decent training run.

On Sunday, I had a much more exciting prospect planned, a Fetchie girls meet up for a spot of cycling and cake. Sue, Karen, Lesley Anne, Penny and I got together at Lisa ‘s place in Beamish and after a bit of bike faffing we set off up part of the Coast to Coast route, enjoying the sunshine and chat.

Unlike my last cycling adventure, I realised that I was probably one of the more experienced cyclists in the group, but our newbies did a fantastic job. I’m not sure I could have managed a good couple of hours in the saddle in my first adventures. But it was great to be travelling along the traffic free paths, passed many times by fellow cyclists, stopping to catch up or enjoy the view.

Sunshine and optimism and good company and there was even talk of a complete C2C trek maybe next year. I eyed up Lisa’s cyclocross bike as I felt very strange to be riding my old mountain bike again, but it was perfect for nice, easy cycle with a quick blast of speed at the end.

I even managed to persuade Karen, Susie and Lesley Anne out for a bit of a run off the bikes before we collapsed in the garden ready for squash and cakes and more chat. I think we all felt like we could have settled there for the afternoon, with great hospitality from Jason and Lisa. Another great day out on the bikes with friends I’ve only met through running.

This weekend I will be taking part in my first open water triathlon. It’s a sport I’ve really grown to love. So I’m excited and a little nervous, but that’s not such a bad thing.