Stockton duathlon 2014 – my sprint story

Early on Sunday morning, I drove through grey fog, following the vagueries of the sat nav, getting stuck by ‘road closed’ signs for the event I was desperate to get to, I arrived, in Stockton, rather frazzled, for my first duathlon or run, bike, run.

With three events taking place on much the same course, I’d wanted to get there early to support my friends tackling the novice version, including Sue taking part in her first multi-sport event and the reason I was there at all. So it was a huge relief to see her, Tove and Jules as I wheeled by bike along to register.

I could have wished for kinder weather than the grey clouds and chill over the Tees, but spirits were high and I was able to wish them luck before the start and give a few encouraging shouts as they passed on the bike and the run.

Soon it was my turn. I set up in transition for the sprint distance and a little warm up run settled any remaining nerves as well as convincing me that I would be okay with my choice of long sleeve top and tri-suit.

Just before the start, all the competitors were called to transition to check that bikes had been properly racked. The marshals were very efficient controlling security of bikes in and out of the area, but perhaps a few more would have been useful to give advice on racking. With all abilities represented, there were bound to be some rookie errors.

I had joked that I’d feel strange not getting onto the bike sopping wet. There was still a chance of that as grey clouds loomed. But the first run was like any other mass run start. A gaggle of shivers and just wanting to get off, then a surge forward and I was on my way.

The route for the first 5k took in much of the riverside and took us over a couple of bridges. Much of it was familiar to me from the Tees Barrage 10k, but with lots of twists and turns, I really was doing nothing more than following the ribbon of runners and pushing hard, not thinking too much of the ride ahead. It’s just a Sunday run and ride I told myself and a chance to blast out a decent 5k.

Run completed and into transition. I see my bike, but not my helmet, which has been knocked off from where I’d balanced it on the brake cables. I pick it off the ground – no obvious damage, so on it goes, along with my bike shoes and I’m off to the mount line before I can think any more about it.

The surge of adrenaline carries me off and away, pedalling fast on the bike, up a bit of an incline and spinning the legs in an easy gear until I start to settle and pick it up onto the big ring. 

It’s a closed course of three laps, which is great for me as there are always cyclists around, unlike at many events where I’m passed by the fast groups and left out on my own on empty roads. It’s twisty and turny and you have to keep your wits about you. 

The super-fast road warriors first lap me as I’m negotiating the trickiest part of the course – a series of tight bends over the potentially slippery paving in front of the council buildings. There’s a loud, clear shout as they take the inside line and slower riders clear out of their way. 

It’s the first chance I have to catch my breath and bring my heart rate down to a more reasonable level after the surge of the start. But I do my best to keep the cadence fast and chase down riders who I think may be on the same lap as me. As I gain in confidence, I make use of the bends and turns to gain advantage and I hope a place or two. Overtaking is a new experience for me on the bike.

Three laps down and I remember to drop through the gears and spin a little before the dismount line, then ignore my legs as I judder into transition. 

There’s a bike in my slot. I check my number, thinking I’ve misremembered, but no, that’s my slot and there’s a bike there. I cannot rack my bike. I shout that I cannot rack and think about shoving it further along, but I know that I could get into trouble if I do. A marshal comes over and moves it, but I’ve wasted some time, and in the anxiety my left quad has cramped up. I limp out of transition and battle on.

‘Ignore it and your legs will come back to you,’ I say to myself. I take small steps, just keeping moving forward, willing my muscles into this new action. Back out along the riverside and over the bridge again. This time, the route is shorter – around 2.3k.

I start to target runners, picking them off one by one. Guy in black T-shirt… guy in white and orange… girl in pink…We loop round and a cheery marshal directs us round to the left and up some steps. Steps! That’s just mean. Around the corner, a young lad gives a big grin, clear directions and a ‘doing well’. Top marshalling young man.

My legs start to regain some feeling and I push on, looking for the pace of my first run. The last bridge is in sight. A quick up and over and I let myself go down the ramp on the other side, picking up places as I go.

At the final corner is Alister from Elvet Striders, with a big shout and just 200m to go. I’ve turned onto the final straight with another girl beside me. She pushes on, picking up the pace. I stay with her, shoulder to shoulder and push on. But I have a sprint, and this sustained hard pace proves just a bit too much for me, so I let her go, hoping, hoping I’ll be able to pull out a last gasp of power.

Less than 100m to go and I pick up my feet, rev through the gears and close her down. Another surge and another. I catch her as the route is narrowed by a couple walking beside the river. If she’s got a sprint in her, she’ll still beat me. I put my final surge down just metres from the line and accidentally bump her shoulder as I go through to finish. 

She takes it in good form as I apologise, understanding it wasn’t an intentionally aggressive move and we chat as we recover our breath and pick up our water and chocolate bar. 

I felt really unprepared for this race, but was pleased in the end to give it a really good shot. It’s really well organised, marshalled and inclusive. It’s definitely one I’ll think about returning to next year.

Total time 1:37:04
Run 1: 27:29
T1: 1:00
Cycle: 53:20
T2: 1:25
Run 2: 13:53

Pictures and report from Gazette Live

North Tyneside 10k 2014

Go hard and hold on were my pre-race tactics. And I was raring to go for the first outing of the season. Not too outwardly nervous, deliberately not setting myself a time target, just go out there, give it plenty and see where I am. That’s not quite what happened.

This is my home race. It’s the first road race I ever did. And I reckon my legs could run the second half of it on their own, they’re so used to the route.

North Tyneside 10k 2014
Me getting into my stride after the hill

Today, as I arrived at the sports centre for the start, I reflected on that first race, and how I felt so out of my depth, seeing all the club colours and little groups of people greeting each other, wishing each other luck.

Now, as soon as I pitch up, I spot parkrunners and Fetchies, and Elvet Striders who I always muscle in on, as I’ve adopted myself to their crew. I catch up with some of my running friends and I know there are more that I won’t see, but who will be there.

I do a bit of socialising, but remember I am here to race, so take myself away from the crowds to do a good warm up. High knees, heel kicks, a bit of bounding and then just a gentle run around the park paths. I wave at Kev Lister, Newcastle parkrun legend and super speedy runner, and he stops and jogs on the spot for a bit until I join him for a bit of a warm up run.

He must be at crawling pace, as he’d be twice as fast as me at my top speed, but he seems happy enough to run alongside and chat for a bit, and I relax and enjoy and look forward to the race. Eventually I slow to a walk, and send him on his way as I do some more bounding and a couple of sets of strides. I feel good, nice and relaxed, legs fell like they’re ticking over nicely.

But there’s a niggle. My right shoulder, around the trapezius has been tight and uncomfortable, like I’d cricked my neck or slept funny. It’s a niggle I’ve had before, but rarely, and never due to an identifiable cause. I put it to the back of my mind and get set to race.

Go hard and hold on, I say to myself as I huddle in with some Elvets, rather closer to the front of the line than I like, but still excited to be racing. It’s felt like a long winter and I want to remember what it feels like to be racing

This isn’t a chipped race, so I start my watch at the gun and take maybe 10-15 seconds to cross the line, only to be baulked just afterwards as the crowds navigate a roundabout. But all good, no problems, we’re off and running. It’s congested at the start and easy to get knocked or elbowed, but I always seem to get lucky and find space, without having to jink about too much.

It’s a fast first kilometre with a steep downhill. I know to stick to the road and avoid the risk of turning an ankle on the curb at the side. I spot parkrun regulars Penny and Paul and pass them on the downhill. I’m tempted to try and stick with them as I know they’ll run a good even pace, and they’re regularly ahead of me at parkrun. But this is my race and it’s go hard and hold on, remember. And I do love a downhill.

Left turn onto the Fish Quay and the run opens out a little. There’s a good stretch of flat space here, a chance to pick up ahead of the hill. I normally find my feet and blast out along the promenade beside the water. But not today.

A sharp jab between neck and shoulder shocks me to actually cry out. And every footstep jolts and jolts again. The nearest I can describe it is like having a stitch. The pain, stabs suddenly sharply, then retreats to a dullness before jabbing again and again.

My mind runs to experience. I’ve had this before. It’s nothing serious. It goes if you let it. Just believe. It will go. It will go. I reach across and put pressure on the sore spot, hoping that an extra degree or two of warmth might soothe it. But it takes a while. And all the time, the hill is approaching.

I talked another parkrunner up this hill yesterday. Spoke of its twist and then the downhill and then the real climb up the road beside the Priory. Nothing to fear. Just short and sharp, face it and forget it.

But I need rid of this stabbing shoulder before I tackle it. So I let myself ease back just a little, breathe deeper, consciously relax my shoulders, rather than letting them tighten anticipating the pain. The jolts really hurt now, but I just have to have faith they will stop. I’m up the first rise and running the downhill before I realise they have gone.

Little steps, little steps, keep the heart rate down, ready to push on at the top. I pick up my feet, keep my cadence fast and top Priory Hill feeling stronger than I have at this point in the race before. Around me runners are gasping, breathing heavily, dropping back. I push on.

“It’s all downhill from here,” I hear someone nearby say. I know that’s not strictly true, but there’s nothing approaching that steep slope in the next three miles. But the damage to my pace has been done. Easing back to save my shoulder, I’ve drifted into my hard but sustainable groove.

I look for positives. I spot Gary and wave and smile for a photograph. Tell myself to dig in for the second half of the race. keep believing. Don’t let your head drop.

There is a headwind. But I’m not feeling it hurting my pace, just welcoming it keeping me cool. I know I’m battling my mental demons and am happy that I’m just about keeping them in check. Run your own race I say to myself. Believe.

That becomes my mantra for the next few miles. Believe. It would be easy to give up. To use the excuse of a jabbing shoulder to write off this race. To cruise round, high fiving the kids. But that would be the easy way out. You never know what the run’s made of until the finish. It ebbs and flows. Keep believing, keep looking for the flow.

In my running reverie, I realise I’ve turned myself into the lone runner of my training runs again. Head into the wind, tackling this coastal path on my own. When in reality, I am surrounded by other runners. Time to get selfish. Time to start using them, picking them off, overtaking.

I hone in on a target just ahead and cruise past him. And then another and another. Mile 4 to 5 passes and I’m in the last part of the race now. I become aware of a girl on my left shoulder in a red North Shields poly top. We cat and mouse a little over about half a mile, first her just a stride in front, then me. This is good, I think. Now I’m racing. Finding a focus as my legs start to tire.

A gaggle of club runners go past us and she shouts encouragement to one of them. I try to latch onto the group as protection from the wind, but there’s a little rise up and they pull ahead, and at the same time I feel my shoulder throb.

Come on, come on. It’s the last mile, I say to myself. Push on, push on. I feel a pat on my back and a cheery ‘Hello smiler!’ from Peter. He’d said he’d be taking it it easy. And although I know his taking it easy, would be a good pace for me,  I honestly think I’ve really dropped off the pace and have a moment of feeling down hearted.

Then I spot the North Shields Poly girl who had been running alongside me off to the side, looking a bit distressed. I’m clearly in better shape than her. “I was running with you,” I shout “Come on! Come on!”. Probably not the most helpful thing I could think of, but still I don’t want everyone to have a miserable race and I feel guilty about being grumpy as Peter passed me. She shakes her head, but I can see she’s trying to dive back into the run. I hope she finished and feels okay.

There are crowds lining the links and faster runners walking back along the course. I see the buses lined up waiting to take runners back to the start. The sign says 300m to go. Then the 6 mile marker, partially obscured. Then 200m and I try to wind it up. Then there’s a crowd of Striders and Alister giving a great big shout and it’s the last corner, and bugger the shoulder, I’m going to sprint finish.

Someone’s breathing down my shoulder for once and coming with me. Not now, mate. You’ve got to really try to catch The Scribbler in the death or glory final yards. I overtake one runner before the line, stop my watch and manage to keep moving, before looking at my watch – 57:41. That’s not so shabby.

I shuffle forwards and my shoulder gives me another jolt, pain kicking in after the adrenaline surge. But a swig of water and a walk back up the finish straight, soon takes my mind off it. There’s always a decent goody bag for this race, and this year, the T-shirt is very nice, branded up for the 10th anniversary, and there’s a pair of socks the right size for me.

I join the Elvets at the last corner in time to give a shout out and high five to Sue and Karen and to be sufficiently adopted to be offered malteser traybake. I LOVE the Striders.

I’ve probably made the thing with my shoulder sound worse that it is. It just threw me a bit at the start of the race. I did want to go and put it all out there. To run as hard and as fast as I could, even if that meant blowing up and shuffling to the finish. I didn’t do that today. As I remarked to the girls in the car on the way back, my legs didn’t hurt enough. So that’s there for another race.

I finished and in a decent time given the conditions. And I’ve set my benchmark for 10k this year. I enjoyed seeing my friends and hearing of happy runs and some cracking performances.

And I’ve had a sharp dose of perspective, reading  Nicki’s blog post today. She didn’t have a great time on a 42k run this weekend. She still finished, and knowing Nicki, she’ll be smiling and laughing about it over a beer or two. So really, I have nothing to moan about.

But still, I have unfinished business with this distance. I know I can run it faster. So, reflect, regroup. Stuff face with Easter chocolate. Lessons will be learned and experience gained. I just feel like I’m due a really good run.

Appearing at the Oxford Story Museum

There’s a place in Oxford called The Story Museum. It’s just re-opened after a bit of a break, with an exhibition called 26 characters, which features 26 famous authors dressed as their favourite character from childhood, photographed by Cambridge Jones.

The list of writers is like a who’s who of children’s literature and includes some of my contemporary favourites. There’s Neil Gaiman as Badger from Wind in the Willows, Philip Pullman as Long John Silver, Terry Pratchett as Just William, Malorie Blackman as the Wicked Witch of the West; Julia Donaldson, Holly Smale, Francesca Simon (of Horrid Henry fame), Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and many others.

And thanks to my wonderful writing mentor, John Simmons, a piece of my writing features there too. I’m a member of a writing organisation called 26 (after the number of letters of the alphabet) ideally linked to the theme of this exhibition. So, I was invited  to contribute a poem, to accompany one of the portraits.

The 26 writers were matched completely randomly with an author and a letter of the alphabet. We got to see Cambridge Jones’ splendid photographs of our author and were set the task of writing a sestude – a literary form of exactly 62 words (26 in reflection).

I positively squeaked when I discovered that my author, Steven Butler, had chosen The Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as his favourite character. I love Alice in Wonderland and the characters have continued to inspire some of my creative writing.

Michelle reading The Horse and His Boy
Enjoying one of my favourite books from childhood again. Photo by Mike Tulip

I didn’t know Steven Butler’s work, so I quickly read a couple of his books and found out a bit more about him. He’s written a fabulously funny series called ‘The Wrong Pong’ which tells the story of how Neville Briskett is mistaken for a young troll and sucked down the toilet to Underland.  And more recently, he’s written ‘The Diary of Dennis the Menace’.

I loved ‘ The Wrong Pong’ and think it’s a great series for children to read for themselves. It has the right mix of disgusting, yuckyness to put off most adults as well as being a cracking adventure story that rips along  at a fair pace.

It’s been great to discover a new writer who I wouldn’t normally come across too. I really like the way he creates his characters, especially the troll family who adopt Neville and absolutely love the special language they use. I was delighted to be able to include one of Steven’s brilliant made-up words in my sestude which you can read on the Story Museum’s website.

I’ve also written about one of my favourite childhood characters, Aravis from the Horse and His Boy for the museum’s digital gallery. Thanks to Mike Tulip for taking the accompanying photo.

It would be enough to have a poem in an exhibition alongside some of our most brilliant writers, but to have the chance to pay tribute to one of Lewis Carroll’s most memorable characters in the city where he first created Wonderland is a real honour, and a little daunting.

But Carroll wasn’t just an Oxford man. He has connections with the North East of England, where I live too. He visited members of his family who lived at Whitburn, and according to his letters, wrote the first verse of the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ while he was in the area. So there’s a nod to that in my poem too.

I studied Carroll at university and later researched the influence of the North East landscape on his work for a feature I produced whilst working at the BBC. You can see what I discovered about Lewis Carroll’s connections with the North East on this archived website.

I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, but thanks to stalking the story museum on twitter, I’ve seen a few glimpses. It seems each room becomes the setting for a different character, so I look forward to stepping into Narnia, Neverland and Wonderland when I go to visit in May.

It’s been a brilliant project to work on. The only difficulty has been keeping it secret for so long. And now I can’t wait to see it for myself. The exhibition lasts until December, so if you’re in Oxford and go to see it, I’d love to hear what you think.