Brownlee triathlon 2015, Harewood house

It’s 8am on a Saturday morning and I’m on my way to my last triathlon of the year. I’ve never been so undertrained, and under prepared for an event, and yet it’s the one I’ve most been looking forward to.

It’s the Brownlee triathlon, in the grand setting of the grounds of Harewood house, near Leeds. I have wanted to do this event for the past 3 years, but have always been put off by the cost, travel and timing. This year it was the first event I booked on my racing calendar back in January.

Me and Jonny Brownlee at the Brownlee tri
First Brownlee bagged

I love the Brownlees and the excitement and success they’ve brought to this utterly brilliant sport. I have yelled and screamed at them in races on TV and was glued to the Olympic coverage.

And now I was heading to compete on their Yorkshire turf, to tackle hills and trails like those they train on, in the biggest triathlon event I’ve ever taken part in.

I had to take a break from triathlon training from the beginning of July, making long runs for the half marathon my priority. I barely managed a bike ride in six weeks, let alone a swim. And as the day of the tri got closer, I was trying desperately to shake off a cold. Even as I travelled down, I was throwing back throat sweets and trying desperately not to cough, for fear of being told I wasn’t fit enough to be there.

But I made it to the glorious grounds of Harewood house and the biggest triathlon set up I’ve ever seen. The music was pumping and the announcer commentating as I arrived, racing already underway from about 9am, and I wouldn’t get my chance until almost 1pm.

I made my way to registration to pick up my race pack, number stickers for bike and helmet and proper race number tattoos. Then off to rack my bike in transition, well ahead of time.

As I was faffing about laying out my shoes and helmet ready for the bike and run, the commentator was yelling about Jonny Brownlee leaving everyone behind as he took part in the swim. And then suddenly, there was a slim figure in a wet suit running up the grass, towards the rows of bikes racked at the top of the hill.

I ran to see Jonny pass his chip onto his relay team member who was going to do the bike leg. There were plenty of shouts from the gathered spectators and a few photos, and then, after he changed out of his wetsuit into some warm dry gear, he seemed happy enough to hang around and chat to the competitors and I bagged myself my first Brownlee picture of the day. Brilliant!

Me and Alastair Brownlee at Harewood house
Second Brownlee of the day.

Not long afterwards I got the chance to say hello and shake Alistair’s hand too, as he posed for a picture too. They were both lovely, unassuming and not making a big fuss about being the centre of attention. Alistair is currently recovering from an operation on his foot and was wearing a boot on his left leg. I got the sense that, for all that he’s a World, Olympic and Commonwealth champion, he’d probably have swapped places with an over 40s, slow, but uninjured triathlete so that he could take part today. I wished him well for his recovery.

In the world of British triathlon, Alistair and Jonny are legends. And they’d probably be the first to try and deny that label. But they are champions. Determined, fast, hard-training and more importantly, cracking Yorkshire lads. I was honoured and delighted to shake their hands. It was the best start to a fantastic day.

And so to my race. It was good really that the pressure was off, and I had no expectations other than to enjoy the experience. But still I couldn’t help wishing I was in the same form I was in earlier in the year and that I’d managed to keep up cycling and swimming alongside my running.

The swim

I wriggled into my wetsuit and took one last look at my transition set up, before heading down towards the lake. On registration they’d said the water temperature that morning was 12C. I hoped it had warmed up a little, but was prepared for it to be chilly.

The nerves started to kick in as my time grew closer. I watched some of the swimmers from the previous waves looking decidedly tired and wobbly as they made their way back to the swim exit. I wasn’t close enough to see them emerging with silt covered faces, which was probably just as well.

Race briefing took place by the swim start. Nervous rubber wet-suited ladies gathered beneath their green caps and tried to decide whether to go with the first group or the second. I opted to get it over with.

I turned to look at the water before heading to the pontoon, and there, standing right beside me was Alistair Brownlee. I took that as a good omen, smiled and said hello again, before he was surrounded by the remaining group and posing for photos.

I walked out along the pontoon. A flock of geese flew overhead and the water looked calm. We were invited to get in but hold onto the pontoon. I dunked my head under and gasped. It was cold and silty. I felt like I could almost stand up on the mud that clung round my ankles like weeds. I didn’t have time to catch my breath before the hooter sounded and we were off.

I struck out with front crawl, but knew I was in no state to get my breathing under control, so switched to breast-stroke while I got used to the water temperature. As the rest of the group swam away from me I fought to control my breathing. A couple of times I stuck my head under, only to come up gasping at the pitch black siltiness of the water.

Me at the swim exit of Brownlee triathlon 2015
Happy to be out of the water

I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I don’t always swim in perfectly clear water, but this was the darkest I’ve been in and it really unsettled me. It felt like swimming in a flooded coal mine. The water, thick and soupy, clinging to my face. Each time it was a mental battle to put my head back under the surface.

Eventually, last in my group, I struck clearer water, found a clearer head and began to really swim properly. I made it round the top buoy and saw the next wave of swimmers approaching. Never mind, I know I’m a slow swimmer anyway. At least I’d overcome my initial nerves and was swimming front crawl, trying to relax and enjoy the views of the trees.

I made my way back down the lake much faster thanks to the company of the second wave of swimmers. I even managed to stay out of arms way until I began to approach the pontoon where the water turned murky again and I got bashed by a swimmer alongside me. At this point there was a drone flying very low overhead too, so I carried on as best as I could and kicked out towards the exit ramp. Once again the water was thick and black, but I was close enough to shore to push on.

With a bit of a leg wobble, but a relieved smile, I plodged out of the lake and up the exit ramp, then onto the grass for a long run into transition. Wetsuit off, helmet, shoes and number on and I ran with my bike up the grassy hill, with the longest ever run to the mount line.

The bike

Even with my bike in a low gear, it was a hard push uphill from the start. Tough going when you’re still recovering from an adrenaline busting swim, but I made it and started to settle in and try to enjoy the bike.

It certainly was scenic, and undulating, with a couple of smaller rises and then one long steep climb towards the end of the lap that had a few people off and walking. The ups were suitably compensated for by some spectacular downhills, although these ended in sharp turns, so I needed to take care. I’ve never used my brakes so often in a triathlon, but got braver at each turn.

Me on the bike at the Brownlee triathlon 2015
Passing behind Harewood house on the Brownlee triathlon bike route

The marshals on the route were brilliant, shouting encouragement or instructions at every key point. They must have been a bit bored being out for so long, but no one showed it and they really helped add to the friendly atmosphere. As did the competitors who were good at shouting when they were about to overtake. I even got a ‘well done’ as I pushed up the steep climb, standing in my pedals. Sadly I didn’t have the breath to acknowledge it, but thanks, whoever you were!

I ticked off key landmarks – the field of corn, the black sheep, the steep down hill with the right turn, the bit through the estate buildings, the marshal with the hat, and four laps went by quickly (although not as quickly as I’d estimated based on my time over a similar distance on the flat).

Soon it was up the hill for the last time and round to the right to the sound of cow bells and back to the long run into transition. By now the sun had come out and as always, I knew I could cope with the run.

The run

My legs felt strange as I set off over the grass, but with half marathon miles in my legs I was in no doubts they’d carry me. The run route soon dipped into woodland, with muddy patches underfoot and then soft trails, but for a while I still felt like I was running in bike shoes. I must have been pushing hard on those pedals.

It really was a beautiful run route on quiet trails through the trees. There was a steady climb from about a mile in and then a steep drop round to the right and alongside the river. There was even a ford to cross.

Me at the finish of the Brownlee triathlon 2015
Skipping over the finish line

As the route began to climb back round towards the house, I ran alongside a lady with a soft Scottish accent who had walked a bit of a hilly section, but who I judged to be a faster runner than me. We had a bit of a chat and ended up keeping each other going right back round to the finish.

I could hear the race commentator and the noise of the entertainment village from a long way back, but with a sign saying 500m to go and some more enthusiastic cheering marshals, I really began to smile. Onto the grass and a bit of a spring into something like a sprint finish, arms aloft and a daft grin for the camera.

Time to shake hands with my companion for the last mile or so and then catch up with Tove who had just finished her first triathlon in the super-sprint event. Proudly sporting medals and T-shirts we compared races and Brownlee spotting. And all agreed, we’ll be back again next year.

I’ve done quite a few triathlons now, and enjoyed everyone, but I really wanted this one to be something special, and it didn’t disappoint. Even with the big numbers, the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. The route was scenic and challenging and the organisation absolutely spot on. The fact that I got to meet a couple of my sporting heroes, who were just as lovely and down to earth as you’d imagine, was the absolute highlight of a fantastic day, enjoying this sport that I love.

Reading and eating

I always delight in a new book. And although I have embraced the electronic version as an excellent way of carrying a library around with me, there’s nothing quite like the feel of book made of paper.

Today’s is a particular delight, being an extravagant hardback. A hefty tome that sits, spine along the palm of my hand as its glossy pages open, peppered with photographs. For, this is not fiction, but a cookery book.

As I glance through its pages at random, I stop at one headed ‘Breakfast in Japan’. Here’s the first paragraph:

“Kyoto wakes late, which at least gives me time to write. A perfect morning. Grey clouds. Mist hangs low over the hills like woodsmoke. Soft raindrops. An old woman rides her bike, wobbling, a transparent umbrella in her right hand. Breakfast is miso soup in a deep, black, lacquer bowl, and grilled silver mackerel. A plate of pickles, vivid purple cabbage, white radishes, shredded daikon is salty, sour and crisp.”

Fresh sushi
Sushi at Tsukiji

Which is why Nigel Slater is my favourite food writer. You will find recipes in his books. Good ones, creative and useful ones. But he’ll also take you through the whole sensual experience of growing, preparing, cooking and sharing a meal.

In a few words he’s taken me to the other side of the world and offered me a rather strange, but enticing breakfast, and I’m hooked to a cookery book. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to Japan and had fish for breakfast – raw fish in fact in the form of sushi and sashimi just outside Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fishmarket. But good writing can transport you to new places and give you a sense of sights, sounds and cultures you may never actually experience.

So what does it matter that a cookery book is beautifully written? Surely it’s all about the recipes and the method? The proof’s in the pudding, so to speak.

Well I think it does matter. Because it shows me that Nigel Slater really cares about his work and that he wants to share, not just the end result, but the whole experience. By opening up his memories and thoughts he shares something of himself, as he passes on the pleasures of tastes, flavours and ingredients. If he writes so beautifully, you just know that what he cooks will be served up with as much love and care. To me, Nigel Slater is just as much a writer as he is a cook. And probably the person I’d most like to invite me round for dinner.

Dipping into the third volume of his Kitchen Diaries at that particular page has also brought back memories of my own wonderful time in Japan. The blog posts I wrote then are no longer online, but I still have my notebooks, photographs and poems inspired by my trips there. Maybe it’s time to reflect and republish. Would you like to read more about travelling and eating in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama?

Great North Run 2015

As I spoke to three Americans in the queue for the loos before the start of this race, I told them: “It’s a bit special.” Now, I don’t have any other half marathons to compare it with, but I still stand by my remark.

For me, this year’s event was special because it’s the first time I’ve run as part of a team. I was already signed up for the race when the challenge was laid down that the company I write for would be entering a large team to take part and raise money for Cancer Research UK, but that gave me an extra incentive to train for it. And the added benefit of team mates I could talk to almost every day.

New team mates

Team Sage ladies at the start of Great North Run 2015
Team Sage ladies at the start of Great North Run 2015

Over the past few months, our internal online ‘chatter’ board has been full of running and training discussions. I’ve written a good few articles, building on both my experience of running, and learning a lot along the way too. And I could barely move around our building without someone asking how training was going.

Seeing and hearing the excitement and nerves from the new members of the team, some of whom had only really taken up running, just so they could do it, really inspired me. It was very flattering to be asked questions,  even though all the time I felt a fraud, as I’m not that good or fast, but I am known as a runner.

With any group of runners there are ups and downs, triumphs and disasters, and as the weeks went on, we learned to trust each other more and share doubts, fears and some very personal reasons for running and supporting Cancer Research UK.

We are a very mixed group with a range of speeds and experience, but by Sunday 13 September, wearing our green T-shirts, there was a palpable sense of pride and togetherness.

With 50,000 runners lining up at the start, we couldn’t all be together, but we were watching out for each other, and I certainly saw and spoke to a number of team Sage runners as I prepared for my 7th Great North Run.

The weather forecast had been pretty perfect running weather, a bit grey and overcast, light breezes and temperatures rising from about 12 to 15C. As I made my way towards my starting pen, the skies were blue and the sun was blazing. It was going to be rather hotter than that.

I’d arrived early, but time has a weird way of compressing at the start of a race, and as the wheelchair and elite women athletes started ahead of the main field, I was still walking back towards my starting pen.

I joined in the warm up, shared some chat with the people around me, cheered loudly for Mo Farah with the rest of the crowd and got goosebumps as Local Hero began to play and Alan Robson tried to read everyone’s T-shirt as they passed through the start.

Sign over the Central motorway
Encouraging the runners in the first mile

The start

From the green starting zone, it took about 25 minutes to reach the line. Watch set. A couple of high fives and then off, easy, easy, easy – or so I thought.

I ran to the left hand side, opting for the cool shade of the underpass. I ran to feel, just glad to be bouncing along and enjoying the slight downhill. I found my feet and began to enjoy the race, watching out for the billboard over the central motorway in the first mile, where I saw the Team Sage message I’d written. I heard plenty of Oggy Oggy Oggies so I think it hit the mark.

Over the Tyne Bridge, and no one to watch out for this year, but I heard my name a couple of times and smiled and said thanks, even though I couldn’t see who shouted. I think I remembered to wave to the cameras at the end of the bridge and I know I heard the band on the roundabout.

Now, that’s all the excitement over with, onto the race proper. The other thing I’d told the Americans, was that this isn’t a pretty race. It’s pretty much all main roads and concrete and once you’re away over the Tyne Bridge, few landmarks to spot. But with the runners and the crowds watching, you really don’t need them. There’s as much colour, noise and distraction as you could wish for.

I keep my head and body in a semi-permeable bubble. I let the sights, the people float by, taking care of myself, watching where I’m going, focusing on how I feel, slowing myself down, because I know from my breathing I’ve gone off a bit fast.

I get a good loud shout out and a glimpse of a Team Sage flag somewhere around Gateshead and that’s a nice unexpected boost. Children at the side of the road are trying to start choruses of oggies, but they get rather fewer responses now the heat has broken out and the initial euphoria has changed to a dig in and get on with the race.

I run for a good few miles next to a pair of guys carrying a flag with three red castles on it between them. I occurs to me to ask what kind of pace they’re running at as we seem to be well matched, but I never speak to them and I doubt they notice me, but they are in and around my eyeline from the Tyne Bridge to about halfway I think.

I spot Team Sage runners regularly and find breath to give them a shout and sometimes exchange a few words. At this stage, I’m passing them. Later, I’ll see those green shirts passing me.

Half way

I feel like I’m running well. I’m not looking at my watch and I never once hear the mile beeps, but I do spot most of the mile markers and at 6 miles I’m feeling good. I sneak a look at my time to give me a sense of how it’s going. I go through 10k in 1hr 2 mins, which is probably a bit too fast, but I deliberately didn’t set myself a time or pace targets, and I just go with the flow.

I’d planned to have a couple of gel sweets at 5 miles, then 8 miles. I end up taking them early, at about 4 and 7. I think I remember feeling a bit of pain in my right knee, but the sequence of what happens when is already beginning to blur. In any case, no niggle lasts long enough for it to become a concern.

It being a hot day, I’ve grabbed water at 3 and 6 miles – just a couple of sips as I manage to keep on running. The awesome rock band are there again at the roundabout just before the John Reid Road, playing T Rex, ‘Get it On’ as I pass by. I give them a big wave.

Over half way, but this is where I know it gets tough. Mile 8-9 is a gradual slow incline, barely noticeable other than it seems to take more effort to keep going at the same pace. And the inclines continue to come right through to the end of mile 11.

Me and Tanni Grey Thompson
Me and a very special volunteer – Dame Tanni Grey Thompson

But I have distractions in these miles. I’m still going strong at the water station between 8-9 where I watch out for Tanni Grey Thompson. I stop and we have a chat and a selfie as she carries on passing out water bottles. I can’t thank every volunteer and marshal on the course, so I hope she’ll represent the brilliant crew who help us runners have a great day.

As I stand up to carry on running, I know I’ve lost a bit of time, but it’s worth it. Even as my feet cramp and my legs struggle to get going again. It’s a feeling I’m used to from triathlon, and it soon passes, but I really do get the sense that I’ve slowed down and lost my rhythm.

I’m sensible through the boost zone, enjoying the announcer and the music, but not dancing or finding a spurt of speed as I have done in the past. My next focus is ten miles. After that I can start thinking, just a parkrun to go.

And somewhere along this part of the route I know I’ll see the Elvet Striders cheering point. They won’t be watching out for me as I’m not a team member in their purple kit, or wearing my Fetchie red and yellow, so I watch out for them. They’ve stationed themselves just a bit further along from the guys handing out beer. It’s a raucous and lively part of the course.

I spot Dave and shout his name, and then Flip, and blow kisses. I’d half planned to stop and say hello here, but having stopped and struggled to get going again once, I opt to plough on.

There have been runners walking from mile one. But as always, around this point I see more and more of them. The day is very hot and they are still moving with purpose, but they start to walk and in my head it becomes a battle not to.

I have slowed down. I have slowed down a lot. My run is barely that. I do not need to look at my watch to know that I’m talking 11-12 minute miles here. I can feel it in my heavy legs.

The wheels start to come off

I remind myself today is not about performance or times. My mantra is to relax and enjoy. I don’t beat myself up for slowing down. My breathing is relaxed and so I just go with it. Slow and steady and determined not to walk. This is, on reflection probably a bit of a mistake, as a short walk would have allowed me to refocus and perhaps get some running form back, rather than carrying on with my shuffle.

I grab an orange segment from a bowl held out by a family at the side of the road and cannot express my thanks enough. My tummy has started to cramp up and I cannot stomach another gel sweet.

Dig in, dig in and look for the 11 mile marker. Say to myself that anyone can run 2 miles, and then look for the sea.

There is never a more glorious site than that dip down to South Shields sea front, knowing you have just over a mile more to go. But the sharp downhill really does rattle my knees and I grimace for a few uneven steps before they loosen off a little. That’s going to be another attractive race photo.

Still, I’m practically into the last mile and I catch glimpses of the Red Arrows performing their display over the sea. Once upon a time, I had finished the race, got my T-shirt and was able to watch all this. Today I just grin as they give me a fly past in my final mile.

An incredible last mile

And then I see a figure in a Darth Vader costume, with a sign pinned to his cape that says ‘Charlie, running for my son Daniel’. And I can’t believe it. In this throng of 50,000 runners, I’ve spotted the man who I shared tears and hugs with at the start of the 2010 race when I ran for my baby sister Ava who died at birth.

I tap him on the shoulder and speak incredulously. I think he remembers me too. I’m swept along by the crowds and my slow but persistent rhythm, so it’s a brief moment, but a barely believable one. It brings me to tears in that last mile.

It’s a flat mile alongside the sea front, but my emotional rollercoaster is still rolling. I pull my happy, unbelievable emotions together and high five the kids along the sidelines. In the past, I’ve bounded, sprinted and bounced along here. Today, I’m drawing on the crowds energy.

I spot local runner Paul ‘Lord’ Smythe who normally has a job escorting a celebrity. But in truth he’s almost celeb status himself. Today he’s with Frank Bruno, who looks like he’s struggling a fair bit, but will make the finish now.

And then I see Phil, a fellow team Sage runner, who I think I saw go past me around 10 miles. He’s walking and I try to bully him along. By now the 800m to go sign is in sight. I try to get him running, but he has pains in his chest. I check he’s okay, make him promise he’s okay and then I’m gone.

I feel bad about it. Like I should have walked with him to the finish. But my legs though slow and achy have their own rhythm and the end is tantalisingly close. We spot each other once we’re both over the line and he’s fine.

For me, it’s just about digging in for a last gasp spurt over the line, a smile for the camera and stop my watch once I’m through, before heading off to collect my medal and goody bag. My time, is 2:26:24 – and, having said I’d be happy with anything under 2h 30 mins, I am pleased with that.

I knew I’d struggled from around 10 miles, and later when I get chance to look at my split times, it’s obvious that’s where I really started to lose my pace. But I didn’t have a plan, or a pace target. I just wanted to get round, without injuring myself and enjoy the day.

And I really did enjoy it, much more than I did last year, when I ran with a similar kind of plan. I will admit, that I found training for it much harder than in previous years, as I wasn’t enjoying the long slow runs and felt I had to sacrifice a couple of other events I’d have like to do.

But the team spirit has been amazing and the support and appreciation for the effort and fundraising amplified by being part of a great team. The Great North Run was the catalyst for me making new friends and sharing a special experience together.

Great North Run 2015 coming soon

Today I ran my 7th Great North Run. It was, as always, an amazing and surprising experience. It wasn’t my fastest or slowest, but probably one of the ones I’ve most enjoyed.

I usually try and write my blog on the day of the run, but tonight I need to rest and recover, and that means letting my brain wind down from all the sights, sounds and sensations of a brilliant day to.

So I will be back. I will tell the story of a great day, and I do have some tales to tell.

10 things I’ve experienced at every Great North Run

Inspired by the Evening Chronicle’s 36 things you only know if you’ve done the Great North Run, here’s my personal reflection on the things that always happen to me, ahead of this Sunday’s epic event.

1. Cry on the start line

Years before I ever ran it, I reported on the Great North Run for BBC Newcastle and the local website. I mingled with the runners, took their photos and asked them why they were running. Every year, someone’s story broke through my professional mask and I had a little weep, and usually a hug.

Me holding my Great North Run 2010 medal
Me at the finish with that very special medal

It’s been the same since I started running it. In 2010 when I ran in memory of my baby sister Ava, I spotted a bloke dressed as a beer bottle with a sign on his back saying he was running for his son who he lost at birth too and we stood and hugged each other all the time Abide with me was playing.

Now, I take tissues, and I always have a couple spare.

2. Spot someone who’s run every single Great North Run

There are 103 of these very special runners who have done this race every year since it started. I usually see Anne Wilson who dresses as Minnie Mouse. They now get a special number.

3. Say hello to someone from BBC Radio Newcastle

Usually on the bridge over the start line. It’s always nice to get a wave from one of my former colleagues. I know they’ll be having a busy day!

4. Can’t believe I need the loo again

Honestly, talk about nervous race bladder. I always need to go at least one more time before the start.

5. Set off too fast and shout out oggies in the underpass

Even when I know I really should be trying to run a sensible first mile and save my energy, I get carried away by the atmosphere.

6. Miss people looking out for me 
With a stream of coloured shirts passing by in their thousands, it’s often easier for runners to spot familiar faces in the crowd that the other way round, but every year I’ve missed seeing someone who later says they gave me a shout!

Me and Tanni Grey Thompson
I get my water bottle from 16 time Olympic Champion Tanni Grey Thompson

7. Get a bottle of water from Tanni Grey Thompson

The first time this happened was a complete fluke. I ran to the end of the water station just after 9 miles and took a bottle from a lady in a wheelchair, did a double take and realised who it was. After that, I knew she was there and made a point of looking out for her, even on my PB or bust run in 2011. Last year I stopped for a chat and a selfie

8. Thank the good folks of South Shields
By South Shields, you’re really flagging and locals know that climb up the John Reid Road is hard on tired legs, so they turn out in their thousands to urge you on. They shout, cheer, clap, spray hoses of water, anything to help you through the last few miles. Bless the mammies who hold out plastic boxes of jelly babies and orange segments. There have been times when I could have kissed you.

9. Sprint for the finish line
It’s a race, and I can’t help myself. No matter how tired my legs are and how much I’ve suffered and slowed down before I get there, I’ve always managed a death or glory spurt over the line.

10. Ask myself could I turn round and run back

I consider myself a runner. And I’ve not yet done a marathon. Would I? Never say never. But at the end of the Great North Run, the answer so far has been a resounding ‘no’.

And something that’s only happened once:
I got spotted on the TV coverage, running towards the finish line and waving for the camera last year.

This year I’m running as part of #TeamSage and raising money for Cancer Research UK.