Hello. Sorry I have neglected this running and triathlon blog for a long time. I have done a few races and events since I last wrote, but mainly I’ve been pootling along with no real focus to my running.
That’s already changed as in 2019 I decided that I’d like to run a half-marathon again. So in January I signed up for the Edinburgh Half Marathon and entered the ballot for the Great North Run in Newcastle. This week I found out that I have a place in the Great North Run, so I’ll now be running 2 half marathons in 2019 and I thought it was time to get back to writing about running again.
For those who don’t know, a half marathon is 13.1 miles. It’s likely a wee bit further than your run to the bus stop. And unless you’re a dedicated distance runner, it takes a bit of training to be able to run that distance comfortably.
The last time I ran that distance was in 2015. I didn’t really enjoy the training for it and by that time I was more focused on doing triathlons, so running took a back seat to swimming and cycling.
But I feel like I’ve been drifting along, getting slower and not really doing anything much with my running for a couple of years. So I decided I needed a challenge, to shake things up a bit and to push myself to run at my full potential.
Whether you’re a new runner feeling nervous about calling yourself a ‘runner’ and or an experienced runner who has run hundreds of miles and loads of races, there are always challenges, both physical and mental in the act of running.
Motivation, training, setting goals and expectations, where to run, when to run, how to run, how fast, how far, what to eat, what to wear, where to find a toilet… These can all be thoughts on the mind of any runner at any time.
I’ve been running fairly consistently now since 2009, so I have a few things that I know help me. As a kid I delighted in a smart school timetable with subjects colour coded so I knew where I had to be and when.
It’s the same now that I have a half marathon to focus on. I have a plan of 3 or 4 runs a week of varying distances to help me build up to the big race. The first event I’m doing is Edinburgh half marathon on 26th May, so I’ve got a good few weeks to get ready for it.
So far I’m three weeks in and really enjoying the fact that my runs have a bit more focus to them. It’s really easy, especially over the winter when it’s cold, dark and rainy to decide not to run ‘later’ or find an excuse not to run at all. But so far I have managed to persuade myself to run all my planned sessions, even when that means getting up at 5.30am and running on frosty pavements before work.
How’s it going?
I’m going to use a technique I learned when I did some triathlon coaching to help me keep track of my running progress. It’s a good way to measure more than just time and distance and is based on answering 3 simple questions – what went well? what could be even better? what do I need to pay attention to?
What went well:
Ticking off all the sessions and mileage on my plan
Running in weather (wind/rain) and doing some hill and speed work
Starting slowly (mostly not having much choice) and allowing myself to warm up
Persisting with a run when it felt difficult at first and then feeling like I could have carried on at the end
Being on target for my goal of running 500 miles in 2019
Even better if:
I space my runs out throughout the week to allow recovery time
I increase my effort levels on at least one run by including more faster efforts
I add in another strength training session
Watch out for:
Niggle in my shoulder/neck
Warming up my feet
Do my post-run stretches and get up from my desk regularly at work
Two realisations ran through my head as I caught the metro to take me into Newcastle for the start of the 2017 Blaydon Race. The first, that I hadn’t run anything more than 4 miles since Easter Sunday, and the second, that I’d never worn that particular pair of trainers over that kind of distance before. Not exactly race fit and prepared then.
But it’s the Blaydon Race. My favourite running race, and the one I try hardest not to miss. The race I’ve done every year since I started running in 2009.
I wasn’t expecting it to be fast. I was expecting it to hurt a bit, but I had no doubt, that barring a disaster, I’d have another memorable run.
Why do I love the Blaydon Race?
Why do I love the Blaydon Race so much? It’s not a beautiful or inspiring course. In fact, it takes in some of the dullest and least scenic parts of my adopted home town. But I do like its history, the fact that it takes place on the same date every year. And that, despite being a large event in terms of runners, it maintains a local feel, rather than having been swamped by corporate marketing.
I love seeing runners gather in the city centre, flooding the narrow streets around the Bigg Market with colour and noise. Taking over the usual haunts of pubs and clubs and exchanging stories of other runs, plans for the race, hopes and expectations, and of course, remembering the year there was a deluge. If you were there, you’ll never forget it.
Runners take over the city streets
I spotted the great crew from Newcastle Frontrunners, out in force for this race, and took their team photo before the start. They returned the favour and snapped me, Karen and her mum – a small gang representing Fetch Everyone this year. Sadly some of our regular running pals are injured, so missed this race. It’s always a great excuse to catch up with one another.
The excitement builds as the band plays the Blaydon Races down the street. I’m so far back I can barely hear it, but I sense that we’re almost ready to start. I chat to some of the runners around me, excited nerves starting to bubble.
A secure and reassuring presence
One thing that’s different this year is the visible presence of armed police. There are two standing nearby as we line up. I’m sad, but grateful they are there. A sign that recent events in Manchester and London mean we are all more aware of potential threats.
Personally I feel no fear being among this crowd of runners. Running, racing and being part of this very special, joyous community is one of the touchstones of my life. Running brings me happiness and a feeling of togetherness that has a value that far outshines the darkest fears.
And so, to the race itself. There is the usual walk, then jog, then run over the start line to the sound of the ancient handbell. I wish runners around me ‘Enjoy!’ as I bounce off through streets that are normally sluggish with traffic.
In previous years, I have tanked my way through the first mile, buoyed up by adrenaline and over eager. This time I am more cautious, knowing I really do not have the miles in my legs to go off like a rocket and hope I can hold on.
I run at an easy effort, thinking of how I last ran with my sister at her first ever parkrun, trotting along at a pace not far off my usual speed, but just a little bit more comfortable.
It’s a warm night as the sun sinks low in the sky over the hard concrete and tarmac. After the tight twists and turns of the city centre, the long wide straight of the Scotswood Road offers space to run freely and I settle into a nice rhythm.
Spectators along the side of the road offer welcome support and encouragement. I’ve already had a shout out from Angela Kirtley at the Centre for Life, and continue to drink in the shouts and cheers from the roadside and bridges along the way.
Bands on the run
Familiar landmarks approach and the sound of the band playing at the Fiat Garage on Scotswood Road is always a welcome lift. It’s ‘Honkey Tonk Women’ as I approach and then ‘500 miles’ as I pass by, clapping along in appreciation. There may even have been a bit of singing.
At this point I’m feeling good, strong in my legs, sensible in my pace. I don’t feel the urge to surge onwards, knowing there are couple of climbs to come.
I hit three miles and feel that there’s still more in my legs. I spot Claire from Newcastle parkrun ahead, recognisable from her cap and shout encouragement as I pass. She really does look strong in her running.
There’s a police car at the bottom of Blaydon Bridge, signalling the start of the first climb. Runners ahead start to slow and walk as the sun beats down on the climb. I power on, determined to run every step. I shorten my stride, and use my arms to add a little more effort to ease on up. At the top, as well as the usual cheering spectators, there are two more armed officers. I smile and shout ‘cheers’ and get a nod of recognition. You are here for us tonight.
Down the bank on the other side and watch for runners along the out and back section beside the river. I shout at my friend Karen, miles ahead of me tonight with solid marathon training miles in her legs.
Despite the heat, I dodge the water stop, but relish a refreshing splash on my legs from the discarded cups. I am still running well within myself, enjoying the experience, playing games of catch the runner ahead, spotting familiar club colours and listening to the odd bit of chat and encouragement around me. I hear what I think is thunder, then realise it’s a band of drummers. It feels like miles before I see them, but their beat encourages me onwards.
Towards the finish
At around 5 miles, my lack of distance training starts to tell. There’s a heaviness in my legs now and a weird pull low down in my stomach. In previous races I have really had to dig deep here, after a speedy star, telling myself not to let that hard work go to waste. Tonight I am just focused on keeping moving, staying steady and not dropping too much pace. It is easier mentally, but part of me longs to be really putting myself out there, striving for speed, feeling the exhilaration of the extra effort.
There’s a last little kicker of a rise before the finish, well supported by friends and family. It’s a tough ask at this stage in the race, but it’s over before it really saps my legs and now all I have to do is get to the end.
Around me I feel the sense of excitement, a surge of speed as we know we are close to the finish. The route jinks round an industrial estate so that although you know the finish line is approaching, you really cannot see it until the last few hundred metres.
I get a shout out from Lesley, who would love to be running this and has turned out to support. I’m so grateful I give her dog a shout out – but not her!
And then, there it is, the finish line. I put a bit of a spurt on, sprint over the grass, and smile arms aloft over the finish. Another Blaydon Race completed and thoroughly enjoyed.
The usual brilliant organisation and bevy of marshals sees me through to collect my goody bag and much prized T-shirt. I’m through and out into the crowd of finishers in double quick time, smiling, congratulating finishers and drinking in the great carnival atmosphere.
The Blaydon Race may not be the prettiest or fastest run. For me, in 2017, it’s my slowest time ever over this course. But it retains a charm and atmosphere all of its own. It’s bold and crazy and a little bit anarchic, just like the song that inspired it. And that’s why it remains my favourite race.
It’s been a long time since I wrote a race report, but then it’s been a long time since I’ve raced. September last year saw my final triathlon of the season at the Brownlees event at Harewood House and I haven’t done a competitive race since then.
Easter Sunday was to be the day I stuck a number on my shirt, a timing chip on my trainers and ran 10k along the North East coast from North Shields to Whitley Bay in the annual North Tyneside 10k.
This is my most local race and the first one I ever did back in 2009, so it has good memories for me. It’s always on Easter Sunday, which means that the conditions can be very variable. I’ve run it with snow and hailstones lashing down, and then another time got sunburned shoulders and plodged in the sea at the finish. But there’s always the promise of some chocolate indulgence afterwards.
I’ve been focusing on building up Wordstruck, my freelance writing and training business over the past few months, so haven’t done anything like the volume of training that I’ve done in previous years. One or two runs per week, and a weight training session is about all I’ve managed with any kind of consistency. I also hurt my back a few weeks ago, luckily not badly, but it has meant I’ve been easing back into running and other training.
So, those are all my excuses. But really I don’t need to make them, because like everyone else running, I was prepared to get up, get there and give it a go. My aim was to run harder than I would do in training, run every step and to enjoy it. And I did.
In a well practised routine, I dropped my car off near the finish and got a lift to the start at the Parks Leisure Centre in North Shields. There was a great sense of anticipation, seeing lots of running club vests and runners all gathering together for a big race. The air was chilly, and the forecast rain and wind were being kept at bay.
My pal Peter Brooks spotted me and said hello and we had a nice chat before the start. I only saw a couple of other runners I know, which was surprising given the crowds. I remained quite relaxed as we made our way to the start.
Wearing my new Garmin Fenix 5S for its first race, I got set to press start as I stepped over the line, with a chorus of beeps showing our timing chips had been activated. I was off and running! And it felt great.
The first section of the course is pretty crowded as runners find their way through the streets of North Shields and then turn down the hill towards the Fish Quay. I didn’t have any problems running among the crowds though, just finding my own space and really picking up some speed on the down hill.
Along the Fish Quay, it felt quite sheltered and even warm, and there was plenty of space as runners in brightly coloured shirts streamed in a ribbon along beside the river. We all knew there was a hill coming, and as it got closer, there was an almost palpable sense of tension. I focused on shortening my stride and just keeping going, up, then a little left turn and up again, before the road opens out beside Tynemouth Priory and another steep uphill, crowned with supporters.
In a bid to do some training, I will come out and run hill reps up this slope, so I’m not frightened of it. I kept my pace steady, just pushing on, counting the lamposts to emerge at the top, and keep going, knowing there’s a nice easy downhill to help regather your energy.
Now I was on familiar ground, running along the route of many regular runs, the sea on my right, a cool breeze on my face. The only difference from my training runs are the number of other runners and supporters on the course.
Three miles down and I was feeling good, knowing the hardest part of the route was behind me. At this point, I was saying to myself, push on, keep pushing and don’t leave anything in the tank.
Having focused on recovering, I’ve been running at relatively easy effort, with little focus on speed, so I wasn’t too sure how I would feel picking up the pace for a race.
I was still enjoying it and high fiving the occasional supporter along the route. I got a couple of shout outs, but didn’t always see where they came from. One little lad with blond hair was doing a great job of cheering on runners and gave me a good loud “Go on Fetch” (reading my race T-shirt). That gave me at least a half a mile boost.
I deliberately didn’t look at my watch, but felt the buzz as I clocked up another mile. Knowing the route, I also had an innate sense of where I was and how far I still had to go. I glanced at the view a few times, but today was more focused on looking ahead and pushing on. I started to target runners in front to chase down and pass, but I was starting to feel it was taking more of an effort to keep up the pace.
Just before Spanish City, the path narrows sharply, and marshals directed us onto the road for a short section, before we ducked around the new hotel and back onto the footpath beside Whitley Bay links. Somewhere along here I saw a runner I recognised from parkrun, with her distinctive hair braids, and wearing a Newcastle Front Runners shirt. I went to shout her some encouragement, but blanked on her name, so burbled something incomprehensible that she didn’t hear. Sorry Vanessa!
By now I was running along the Links, knowing that there was only just over a mile to go. Nothing hurt, I still felt good, but it felt like I’d started to go backwards as my pace dropped and runners seemed to pass me on both sides. My old work pal Helen Riding gave me a shout as she passed by and I focused on keeping her in my sights as long as I could. But by now there were supporters and runners who had finished beside the paths, and I lost track of her as I absorbed energy from their support.
The signs appear for the last few hundred metres and a runner behind me encourages two girls to push on for the finish. I’m still thinking ‘leave nothing in the tank’ and pick up the pace as I round the final corner with the finish line in sight. After feeling a bit sluggish for the past half mile or so, my legs surprise me with a blast of pace and I manage a sustained sprint for the line. Wow! That felt great.
I have a chat with Helen at the finish. She thinks she’s got close to the hour and my watch tells me I’m just over 1h 1 min. I’m slower than last year when I just scraped in under the hour, but really happy with how I ran and how I felt running and racing again.
It is a glorious thing to be able to do, to just get up and know that I can run 6.2 miles. I’ve run further and faster, but 10k remains my benchmark of a decent but enjoyable challenge and the kind of run that I aim to do regularly, either training or racing.
Running it along a familiar and beautiful piece of coast line with so many fellow runners and friends is a once a year privilege, and one I hope to enjoy for a long time yet.
The North Tyneside 10k, is traditionally the first race of the year for me. As my first ever race, it signifies another year of running and acts as a marker for performance and progress.
I’ve been less focused on training and sporting goals this winter. Maybe that’s no bad thing, given how dominant they have been in the past. My energies have been directed elsewhere, dealing with changes at work, setting up a new website and co-creating another writing project.
I have, just about, give or take, kept a level of activity ticking over with a mixture of strength sessions, runs and a bit of cycling. But I’ve felt slow, heavy, stuck in the rut of an easy plod and going no faster, even over shorter distances.
Running has been a release, a place to settle my thoughts or simply breathe in fresh air and escape for a while. So I’ve gone easy on myself, just enjoying the activity for itself, no goals or targets.
Except there always are, aren’t there? Try as I might, I always compare against myself. And there are certain thresholds I think I should always be able to hit – like the 30 minute 5k and a sub 1hr 10k. And I haven’t been close to those for a while.
I wasn’t much feeling like racing on Easter Sunday. The weather forecast promised gusty winds and showers. But the day came bright and warmer than anticipated, and the wind, uncharacteristically from the south, promised to push all us runners along the seafront towards St Mary’s Lighthouse.
There’s a spring like feeling of anticipation and excitement as I arrive at the start. Throngs of runners warming up, greeting club mates and friends, getting ready for another road race season. I spot a few Newcastle parkrunners and have a good chat with my running pal Kathryn who I rarely see nowadays. I jog along for a bit of a warm up, and spot Jacquie and Alister up form Durham for the race. It feels like old times and I’m starting to relax and look forward to racing.
We line up before the start, the tang of deep heat and the laughter of some gentle mickey taking among the gathered runners. I’ve placed myself somewhere anonymous, nearer the back of the pack than the front. I do not hear any of the announcements and only know we’ve started when the crowd begins to walk forwards.
Start the watch as the timing chips beep over the line and get my feet moving through the streets of North Shields. Careful of the curbs, dodging a few elbows, looking for space among the pack I trot into an easy run. Cadence high, small steps, light feet, don’t go off too fast.
I’m aware of runners around me putting the brakes on down the steep bank to the Fish Quay. I let myself go a little, have confidence in my footing and core to keep me upright, trying not to surge away too fast, but taking advantage of the slope. This feels good, my pace just on the right side of uncomfortable.
I settle quickly into a nice groove, still mindful of the busy running traffic around me and my space among it. The shops and businesses pass by in a blur, and I navigate the turn around the street furniture and out along the promenade.
The multi-coloured shirts stretch out ahead in a glorious bright ribbon as far as the eye can see. A long straight before the climb gives a chance for the field to spread out before it narrows again on the path up to the Priory.
A short, steep slope, and a curve and another. I pick up my feet, use my arms but don’t try to power up too hard. I need to keep my breath knowing there’s another longer slope to come. On the main road beside the Priory, photographers snap grimacing faces, and some walk the steep bank. But I keep my cool and trot to the top and power on.
It’s warm now and I’ve regretted my choice of a long sleeve top. In my head I’ve been thinking, I’m not so fast as I was, I need to keep warm. On the descent towards Longsands, I catch a welcome breeze across my face. Not far off half way and I’m feeling good.
I smile at the stretch of golden sand, so familiar, but still a sight to lift the spirits. I sneak a peak at my watch at half way and am pleasantly surprised at my time. Half distance and the hill behind me. I just have to hold onto this pace and I’m on target for under an hour.
I keep reminding myself of coaching points, keep my feet light, lift my chin, lean forwards a little. I realise I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at feet just ahead and try to raise my gaze. Everything’s working okay, no niggles and even the usual three mile pins and needles don’t make an appearance.
I focus on keeping going, keeping up the pace. I run beside a couple of men for a while. They are chatting easily to each other, probably taking in this race as part of a longer run. Their pace feels like the right kind of push on for me, so I stick with them for as long as I can.
The advantage of knowing this coastline so well is that I soon start to count off the landmarks, and the miles passing by. With two miles to go, I give myself another mental shove to dig in and keep moving.
With a mile to go, the course is getting congested with supporters looking out for their friends and family. A driver tries to leave the car park at the Rendezvous Café and is held back by a marshal, until a break in the flow of runners.
I watch out for Ian and Kelda and wave as I see them on the bank, happy that I still feel like I’m running well and putting the effort in. It is staring to hurt a bit now, my feet feeling hot spots and by hips beginning to ache. But with the end in sight, all it takes is another mental push to abandon thoughts of easing off.
Starting to see the faster finishers walking back along the course carrying goody bags and wearing this year’s bright T-shirts. Don’t get distracted, stay focused, keep pushing.
I never really know how far along the road to St Mary’s the finish is. I started to push along the straight before the turn and power up through all the gears into a final sprint, passing a few runners as I stretch out for the line. There was still a bit in the tank after all. Over the line, stop the watch and catch my breath – 59:10. Oh yes, that’ll do.
I’ve run this route faster, and slower. Last year I was 3 minutes faster, and that’s not an unrealistic time to aim for for the future. But I’d doubted I could go under an hour given my training and lack of fast running this year. But I did it and I didn’t have to battle all the way or stress to the max to get there. I enjoyed running, racing, being out on the gorgeous coastline near where I live and sharing the experience with members of my running tribe.
I’ll take that as a good start to the season and build on it with optimism.
There is something quite special about an early morning run. I love the quietness. The solitude.
An early start. Cool and clear as I head out in the darkness. Steady, steady, run for an hour, no hassle, no pressure.
The tarmac glistened and Jack Frost had been skating over the car windscreens as I rolled my shoulders and got my legs moving along my street and out along the coast.
I was weary, feeling the effects of a tough training session the day before, and then the stiff, creeping stillness of a day sitting in front of a screen. But I’d put my kit out ready, roused myself to the alarm and got out of the door before my brain really cottoned on to what was happening.
There is something quite special about an early morning run. I love the quietness. The solitude. The sense that I’m experiencing something that others miss.
My thoughts drift easily as I head out towards the lighthouse, wondering if I’m in the right time frame to spot the International Space Station in the clear sky.
I warm into my stride, try to pick up my feet when I hear them slapping down and feel the pull on my calf muscles. Easy, easy, call it base training.
The familiar tingle of pins and needles in my right foot. No matter how gently I ease my laces, I get this on longer runs until my trainers are well worn in. As I turn back, I walk a few steps and shake it out.
I’m wrapped up in long tights, long sleeved top, gloves and a hat, but as so often on this route, if I feel warm in one direction, I’m glad of the layers in the other. Today it’s as I turn, I feel there is a chill wind after all and now it’s in my face.
But the light is lifting as I run into the sunrise, and even out early along this stretch I’m never alone. Runners pass with good morning greetings, recognising the shared experience of braving the darkness and finding this time.
I stop for a few seconds and take a photo as the gold begins to lift over the North Sea – flat, calm and gentle against the cold sands today, a contrast to the churning grey of recent days.
Back home for a warm shower, porridge and my day proper to begin. Already it’s been a success. My legs may ache and my body may stiffen as I spend much of the rest of it in a chair in front of a screen, but it started with a run with the sunrise.
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.
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!
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.
I was very honoured when my writing mentor John Simmons asked me to guest post on his blog 26 Fruits. I frequently refer to his books on writing, including 26 Ways of looking at a Blackberry in my job as a copywriter, and always look forward to his weekly posts.
So this week, having made a return to writing about running, it feels very appropriate to redirect you to John’s blog, where you’ll find my guest post on the connections between running and writing.