Launching ‘ Running Up Top Down Under’

Meet my friend Nicki. While I  take to the roads and trails here in the North East of England, she tackles the roots, dust and mud in the southern parts of Australia. While she sweats under the unforgiving sun, I’m wrapping up to face the frost.

We’re both runners and love to write, so we’ve started a joint blog:
http://runninguptopdownunder.wordpress.com/

Running Up Top Down Under is a conversation between two runners at the opposite ends of the earth. An insight into two writing runners and proof that when it comes to running, there’s always someone in the world who understands.

I’ll still blog here and let you know when there’s something you might be interested in ‘Up top or down under’. It promises to be an adventure. So check it out and let us know what you think.

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2012 – a review of my training and racing year

It’s been a good year has 2012. I started with a run on New Year’s Day – a great way to see in the Olympic year, bounding through the mud and clambering up the hills on the Town Moor. I’d see a lot of this landscape throughout the year.

Me on the Resolution Run
Resolution run on New Year’s Day 2012

But I was carrying an injury and not really doing enough about it. By the time I saw a physio and started properly managing my plantar fasciitis, running had to take a back seat and I returned to walk/run to get my feet and calves fit and strong.

I turned it to my advantage by focusing efforts on my swimming, joining in club swims and clocking up my highest swim mileage month of the year. I logged my second highest bike mileage this month too.

I continued to recover and treat my plantar fasciitis throughout February, logging my lowest monthly run distance since I started recording such things. But it was the right thing to do and I learned a lot while I was doing it.

It actually really got me thinking about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to use my accumulated knowledge of training. Talking to and getting such good treatment from my physio and sports massage girl helped push me in the direction of looking at getting some training qualifications – convincing me I could do it.

I was recovered enough to take part in arguably the year’s A race – The Olympic Park Run. On 31 March 2012 I donned a red T-shirt and smiled all the way round the five miles of the Olympic Park, touching the side of the velodrome, and eventually emerging from the long corridors underneath the stands to run on that track.

On the route of the Olympic Park Run
Running with the Olympic Velodrome in the background

I still remember the bounce, the energy, the absolute thrill of entering the bright glare of that arena. On a cold grey day, with only a few thousand spectators, I could only imagine the roars that would fill it come July.

But the whole experience of being in London, of taking part in a warm up event absolutely convinced me that we would make a wonderful job of hosting the Olympics. And didn’t we!

I took a break in April – a few days in France and my first run in continental Europe. And I finished off the month with great day in Scotland tri training with Leslely and friends, finally getting to grips with my clipless pedals.

It was good timing, as May was full of tri activities. My first triathlon of the season and a return to the scene of my first EVER tri at Ashington. With a still nigglesome foot and little focused training, I failed to improve on last year’s time, but I was off and running and my enthusiasm for crazy multi-sport events was as high as ever.

My real triathlon focus of 2012 was to be my next race, the QE2 sprint triathlon, where I’d tackle my first open water swim. So that meant open water training, and I first donned my wetsuit and got in the lake in May. Pretty scary at first, I did seriously wonder whether I’d ever be able to get myself calm enough to be able to swim proper front crawl, but little by little, session by session, I built my confidence and began to enjoy the open water experience.

And I was back north of the border again for another fabulous tri day, swimming, cycling, running and generally messing about in the sunshine on the best day off work ever with Al, Ann and Lesley. I got some serious inspiration that day. A real dose of ‘you can do anything if you believe in yourself’ magic. It works.

For those who only remember the wet summer, I can assure you we did have some super sunny days. That tri day was one, and our Fetch ladies cycling day, when me, Karen, Penny, Lisa and Lesley Anne took on part of the C2C route, was another.

me crossing the finish line at the QE2 sprint triathlon
The moment I felt like Chrissie Wellington – finishing my first open water triathlon

Which brings me to June – an absolutely action packed month, starting with my big event, the QE2 triathlon – my first time swimming 750m in open water. I was seriously nervous getting in that lake. So it felt very reassuring to have a couple of friendly faces nearby in the form of my PT, Ian and Lesley’s son Al.

The rest of that experience is blogged at length. But if I had to pick a moment of the year, it would be that one. Crossing the finish at a sprint, hearing my name over the tannoy system, race face captured on camera, falling into the arms of my very best tri buddy Lesley. Oh, and the best finish photo ever courtesy of Bob Marshall.

I’m sure it felt harder, I had more doubts, and I know I seriously asked myself what I thought I was doing going into the water. But I don’t really remember that now. I just remember the sense of achievement, the elation and the joy of finishing and being surrounded by friends and eating cake in the car park!

I’ve already mentioned the weather, and Saturday 9 June was a day of sunshine and showers in Newcastle. As I made my way down to the Bigg Market for the start of the 150th Blaydon Race, people were sitting outside the restaurants and cafes, watching the world go by, enjoying the sunshine.

But as the race started, so did the rain. And less than a mile in, the roads were rivers and we were drenched through. I’d been drier in the lake. It made for a memorable race. Still a fun one as always, but definitely my wettest yet.

As the Olympics drew closer, the torch came to town, gathering crowds and celebrations, swiftly followed by a brand new north east park run on my beloved coast. On Olympic opening day itself, I was a visitor at Ellem’s again, enjoying a swim in a lake near where she lives, a cycle and a run before heading home to wonder in delight at the opening ceremony.

I’ve spent a good few days in Scotland this year, which is always good news for me, and I returned to Edinburgh for a day at the festival in August. I threw in a parkrun for good measure and caught up with some of my other Scottish Fetchie pals too.

I logged my highest ever bike mileage this month (still no great shakes by the measures of this site, but still significant for me) helped by my longest ride to date on the Great North Bike Ride.

Me waving at the camera on the last mile of the Great North Run 2012
Enjoying the last mile of the Great North Run 2012

And so to September, which sort of marks the beginning and end of my running year with the Great North Run. My fourth year of running it (who ever thought I would be saying that?).

It was important in that, thanks yet again to my generous Fetch friends, it helped me raise over £700 for Sands in memory of my baby sister Ava. And it was important to me that I’d recovered enough from my running injury early in the year to be able to take it on.

But in terms of time, of challenge, to me, it was no longer the big thing it has been. I was overjoyed to high five a couple of Olympic heroes on the start line and very happy to have stumbled into the company of the brilliant Elvet Striders 2 hour run bus, but right from the start I knew it wasn’t my race this year.

I’d already had a magic moment crossing the finish line the day before in the company of the amazing Tony the Fridge flanked by a host of Harley Davisons and the lads from his junior football team. A real privilege to run with this guy and spend time in his company.

Lesley, me and Jane at the finish of Haddington triathlon
Lesley, me and Jane posing at Haddington triathlon

So by the time I reached 10 miles and I was still not feeling it, I let it go, released any sense of pressure of time or achievement and just ran easy. High fiving all the kids along the last mile, waving, smiling, giving thumbs up to everyone who shouted out my name on my shirt, just cruising to the finish and enjoying it.

It had been a bit much to ask to run an amazing race after opting to do a sprint tri in Scotland the weekend before. But I wouldn’t have missed Haddington triathlon for anything. Another sunny day in the company of my lovely friends; a perfectly run event; a swim that frankly astonished me, and a run that convinced me I could get back to previous form. That was another event for the scrapbook.

After all that I was ready for a break and I really enjoyed our holiday to Canada, where I still managed to run, cycle and swim and watch part of a half marathon.

My plans to come back refreshed, revitalised and ready to enjoy the off season were scuppered by a silly fall during the Newcastle Stampede which had me finishing the best part of a 10k with a sprained ankle.

But actually this injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Using what I’d learned from my physio treating my plantar fasciitis earlier in the year I rested, recovered and returned using a walk run plan to build back up. Only this time, I also revisited my running style and with the help of drills and exercises from my PT, Ian, I started to transition to a more midfoot style.

Me, Ian, Les and George the pug
The Inspire team at Newcastle Stampede 2012

It felt strange at first and I had to make sure I did a lot of stretching and foam rollering to release the built up tension in my calf muscles. But that’s made me develop more good habits and the additional stretching, running drills and warm up are now a regular part of my routine.

Not running so much also drove me back to swimming and cycling. I used some drills with the pull buoy as my ankle was recovering and they’ve helped me improve my front crawl stroke a great deal, so that I now get my hands in the water more quickly, and finish every stroke, rather than rushing through to take the next breath.

October too saw me return to support the Town Moor marathon – another race that’s become a regular on my calendar. It was great to welcome Fetchie pals Ann and Les and to cheer on a host of other runners around the course. And it was absolutely brilliant to be there for Ann’s course record breaking win. I predict more to come from this fabulous runner next year.

And so onto birthday celebrations in November, combined with a return to parkrun and each week developing confidence in my new running style and chipping away at my time.

Runners standing on the track
Fetchies do the mobot

But my biggest achievement this month was returning to the exam room for the first time in over 20 years and passing the theory papers for my Level 2 gym instructor qualification. I still have to face the practical assessment sometime early next year, but a good set of marks on the exams has given me the confidence that I can do that too. And the whole experience has fired me up to do more and to pass on some of my learning and experience in 2013.

December saw us get together for a Fetch track mile – a great chance to meet up, run a bit and eat some cake before Christmas. And I ended the year with a very wet but enjoyable 10k race at Saltwell.

Track training obviously suits me, as I returned there for a session with my PT this week and have just clocked my fastest parkrun of the year at Whitley Bay  in a time of 25:49.

Now I may not have managed to run faster or PB at any distance I’e run before this year but I have:

  • Swum over 20 miles further than in 2011 (including my first open water swims)
  • Cycled over 100 miles further than in 2011 (including my longest single cycle ride to date)
  • Ran fewer miles than I’ve ever logged in a year
  • Cross trained a little less than I did in 2011, but not by much
  • Still trained for more hours than any other year – over 270 of them 🙂

There’s still a bit of time left to go, but I doubt I’ll get much time to train.  I’m enjoying spending a bit of time off, relaxing and getting stuck into my studies again.

I have plans and goals in mind for next year already, but I think that’s fodder for another post, as this has been a long one already. It’s been great to look back at another tremendous year, to reflect on the achievements and to cherish the friends with whom I’ve enjoyed some magic moments.

Running along the river

I went for a run last  Thursday. My first since the Great North Run. Just a couple of miles, under a bright blue autumn sky, along by the river. The St Lawrence river, that is, in Quebec, Canada. Yes, I’ve been away, on a wonderful holiday

View of the St Lawrence river and Chateau Frontenac from the Plains of Abraham in Quebec
A beautiful sunny day to explore Quebec city

A slight chill in the blueness kept me moving, and numbering the days left for shorts and a tech T. This was just a run for the hell of it. A couple of miles before breakfast, exploring the waterfront of an unfamiliar place, just happy to be awake, alive and enjoying the chances of new experiences that travel throws in your way.

It was my first trip to Canada but I doubt it’s my last. We enjoyed the friendliness of the welcome, the food,the ease of getting around and the differences we found in each new place.

We have taken a trip into the mists of a waterfall, watched puffins and penguins swimming, cycled round a race track, eaten dinner in a revolving restaurant and stood atop a glass floor looking down hundreds of feet below. I hope to blog the experience in more detail now I’m back.

I did manage a small bit of exercise while I was away. A huge amount of walking to explore Toronto, Ottowa, Montreal and Quebec. And when the hotel has a heated outdoor pool that no one else seems to want to use, it would be rude not to put in a few lengths, non? In Montreal, we also hired bikes and took them for a spin on the Formula One race track, which was great fun.

It feels an age since the Great North Run. A flurry of a weekend, almost too full of excitement, emotion and busyness. And I was ready for a training break afterwards. Once again it marks the end of my training year and I’ll no doubt reflect on that more in time to come.

Right now, I’m glad to be back in familiar surroundings, catching up with what my friends have been up to, settling back into cooking for ourselves rather than eating out and tackling the mountain of washing.

But my mind is full of memories, sights, sounds and smells – another kaleidoscope of experiences for the jars in my memory store. They shine and sparkle like the touch of light on a waterfall and smell of cinnamon and pine. I’m very happy to have them.

Bits and bobs and a welcome break

A few random thoughts to record before they’re forgotten as I find myself reliving and re-remembering the Olympic Park Run, trying to make it real.

Me in the Olympic StadiumWe were either incredibly lucky or something special was happening in London. It felt like everyone had been on a great customer services training course. I’ve never experienced that before. I like the city and its myriad opportunities, the fruit and veg stalls on the streets and the fact that you can taste a different cuisine every day of the year. But it’s not the city for me. It’s too fast. Too impersonal. Too cold and sharp and ambitious.

But last weekend I got a glimpse of its warmer side. Maybe it was the previous weeks’ sunshine. Maybe it was the Olympic spirit. Maybe it was just chance.

The mainly young people whose job was just to be there, with their foam hands directing traffic, they were smiling, relaxed, like it was the best job in the world. The guy who told us to look out for the people in ‘salmon vests’ laughed when we said they were pink and insisted they were salmon with a wry smile.

Inside the park there were signs of home. A runner with a sign saying Geordie racer on her back. A banner for Sunderland Strollers running club.

And on the way out, the guy with his walkie-talkie directing crowds, admitting they need a bit more practise at it, but thanking us for helping them test things out. And across the road, heading towards the tube station, another man in a pink vest, spotting me saying,”There’s no need to ask you how it went, look at you smiling! And look at your medal. That’s some nice bling!”

I waved like a loon and blew kisses to the crowds, enjoying my ‘victory’ lap before I hit the sprint button for the last 100m on the track. There was never any chance I was going to come out of that stadium without a smile on my face, but those little touches absolutely made my day.

Hold on to whatever that magic was and show that face to the people who will be flocking in their thousands to the games. When it’s busy and crowded and people don’t know where they’re going, keep your tempers and show those smiles and you’ll do the same for thousands of others.

The Swan Suite at Maison de Plumes
Our stunning room at Maison de Plumes

After our weekend in London, we took advantage of being so far south that popping over to France in the car wasn’t such a long haul drive. We found an amazingly stylish boutique B&B called Maison de Plumes and stayed there for a couple of nights, exploring the local area.

It’s an area we’ve driven through as quickly as possible in the past, hitting the autoroute to get further south into France or branching out to the beaches of Normandy and Brittany. The rolling pastures and windfarms didn’t seem like French countryside, but the space and time just to be and explore was a welcome break. Not to mention no chores, no cooking, no cleaning.

We were warmly welcomed by Richard and Vanessa at Maison de Plumes and made to feel very at home in their lovingly renovated house. It is an absolute masterpiece of elegant art deco style. Each room is very different, with its own character, but all are sumptuous, luxurious and incredibly stylish.

On one night we were treated to a fabulous five course meal, cooked by Richard. Great local food served with the same flair and elegance that Vanessa has lavished on this wonderful, relaxing place to stay. Highly recommended.

We explored some good museums and learned more about life under occupation during WW2 in a bunker used to launch V2 bombs. The films, footage and particularly the drawings of the prisoners of war really made me understand the war machine, the industrialisation of the processes and the human labour involved. Next time I read Tolkein, it will paint an even more vivid picture.

I ran too. Just a little bimble for a couple of miles around the local village one evening, frightening the locals with my Fetch top.

And we ate very well. Local, seasonal food. Mussels and chips served within sight of the sea. Smelly cheese and sausages. But although the French pastry is world renowned, and I enjoyed it while I was there, I don’t think I could take any more bread. Dear me, but I was craving porridge for breakfast!

It was quiet too. Unnervingly so. It’s early in the season and we stayed mainly in the Nord pas de Calais region, which is not really a top tourist destination, but we were often the only people eating in the local bistro and one of only a handful staying in the hotel in Montreuil the night before we came back.

It was a long drive back, broken up with a stop off to see our friends Bob, Carol, Sophie and William for an hour before ploughing our way North. Gary drove all the way, so I drifted into a doze and daydreamed.

And so now, here I am, back home and glad to be back, enjoying the long weekend. And getting ready for another race. My home race, my first race and a familiar 10k course along beside the sea.

Bella Roma day four – ciao bella

Chillies on a market stall
Fresh, local food at the market

Our last day at leisure in Rome and we make our way to the market at Campo de’ Fiori. Fresh bright produce tempts the eye and taste buds, a fusion of colour and smells. Red tomatoes, peppers and chillies set off by courgettes, romanescu cauliflower and bunches of basil, as peaches nestle in between the mushrooms and salad leaves. We would eat like emperors here.

We stop at the nearby Caffè Sant’Eustachio, which has been serving espresso since 1938. Gary says it’s the best he’s ever tasted.

From the market we go to the national museum, which surrounds a square designed by Michelangelo. After some messing around depositing our bags and trying to juggle maps and cameras, we begin to explore the maze of the museum.

The most impressive objects are the Roman statues and figures, then the plaques and signs that would have adorned the streets of this ancient city. Memories of school day Latin come haltingly back. It would have been much more fun deciphering these stones than reading text books.

The museum also houses art and sculpture from later times. But we grow weary of treasures and history and the confusing layout and finish rather hot and tired.

A return to yesterday’s lunch spot revives us. We’re recognised and welcomed and offered the dish of the day which proves to be mussels and clams and absolutely hits the spot.

A more relaxed afternoon of wandering back through the streets before we head out for our final pizza and say an evening farewell to this wonderful, friendly city.

Bella Roma day 3 – Gladiators and a feast

View inside the Colosseum
View from inside the Colosseum

It’s back to the Colosseum this morning, arriving early to beat the crowds. We pause in the wide corridors and then enter the arena, beneath the Roman sunshine, imagining the roar of the crowd and the clash of swords and shields.

The shape of the arena is so familiar, it’s easy to make sense of the games, the battles, the shows played out here. The archeology has unearthed behind the scenes too. Rows and channels for ropes and pulleys that housed the special effects and surprises to thrill the audience.

We peer down on the modern day players, dressed as Romans and earning money from tourist pictures, talking on their mobile phones.

As we leave the Colosseum we spot Fabio, our Segway tour guide with a group on their bikes and say hello. We head to the Aventine hill, site of grand homes and palaces of Rome’s ancient senators and rulers. The shady trees and views make this a pleasant spot away from the buzz of the city. We visit an old house where some of the wall painting have been preserved, the rich colours still vibrant after thousands of years.

Through the gardens we emerge into the Forum, finally on ground level with the site we’ve looked over before. We take a walk along the stone paths of the Via Sacre, imagining the long crumbled temples and a street busy with stalls, people, sounds and smells.

By now we’re hot and and ready for a break out of the sun. We follow a recommendation and go in search of a nearby restaurant for lunch. La Taverna dei Fori Imperiale presents one of the warmest greetings and the best meals of our trip. Veal saltimbocca, Roman pork with truffle oil and salad. A great find.

Happy and full, we head back to the hotel for a break before venturing out for our own cooking experience. We meet Natalya originally from the Ukraine, now living in Rome, and begin a walk around the city’s Jewish quarter, home of real food and real people.

We stop at a butcher’s and a cheese shop; snack on home-made pizza and learn some more local history before making our way to the restaurant to meet Chef Fabio and follow him to his home with views high above the city.

Our lesson is more of a prep and ask questions, trying to get a word in edgeways between Rhonda and Julie, two American women who are also taking the class. But we make our first pasta and turn it into ricotta and courgette filled ravioli and pasta twists eaten with a ham and pecorino cheese sauce. We finish with a dish of ripe peaches soaked in white wine.

The evening passes quickly and we walk through darkening streets still full of life, back to our hotel to sleep of a day of magnificent food.

Bella Roma – day 2 Michelangelo and the angels

A section of one of the richly decorated ceilings in the Vatican museum

We’re up and out early this morning in a bid to beat the crowds to see the treasures of the Vatican museums. Foxed at first by the metro and a lack of change, we eventually approach the vast walls around the museum. 45 minutes in the queue and then the numbers inside are overwhelming.

In a gallery filled with marble busts and statues, I declare, “They have too much stuff”. It’s only the first room.

We shuffle through room after room of unimaginable treasures. Paintings and tapestries, ceilings, marble floors, ceramics, vases, sculptures and mosaics. We are drunk on opulence.

And ever forwards, forwards. Shuffling through the narrow doorways, crammed and packed and shoved. All driven on a strange kind of pilgrimage towards the treasure at the centre of the maze .

At last we reach a small dark doorway and emerge into a vast space. Impossibly high above me, figures float in the air, draped in rich jewel colours. They reach down and take my breath away.

Giant men, women, gods and sybils confuse the dimensions and send my head reeling. Beyond human figures made real by layers of colour and paint. I am rooted to the spot and cannot look anywhere but up.

St Peter's Square, Rome
St Peter's Square

Eventually, senses stunned, I turn away and move on. The following rooms and corridors are crammed with art treasures, that now seem flat, pale and insubstantial.

Museumed out, we rest for a while and grab a mediocre slice of pizza before heading to St Peter’s Square – a huge clearing surrounded by colonnades and, at the centre, the great dome of the church itself. In the sunshine fountains sparkle and a child plays scattering pigeons.

We enter the church, which is Tardis like – even bigger on the inside. In the dimming light, immense statues ornament the elaborate ceiling. An elephantine cage of twisted black ebony surrounds the main altar.

We follow a group around behind one of the figures in an alcove and descend into the crypt. The surprisingly light and airy tomb houses the sarcophagi of former popes and kings and the relics of St Peter himself, hidden far behind the glass.

Once more out into the open, we walk foot sore, hot and weary along the river to the Castel St Angelo. Inside we wind through cool dark corridors, ascending in loops to emerge in the castle rooms, to see the armour, guns, cannons and spikes of battle. A Michelangelo angel with bronze wings overlooks the courtyard.

We enjoy more glorious views over the city from this fortified base, before making our way down down down to the bridge of angels and back to the modern world.

Through streets of luxury shops we emerge at the Spanish steps, a flutter of colour and custom in the afternoon sun as street vendors try to sell us roses. I think of two lovely people for whom this will always be a special place. But  we are weary and don’t linger too long, taking the metro back to our hotel.

After a rest and refreshment we head out in search of a recommended local restaurant, Nido D’Abruzzo. Its style is basic, old school, tatty even. But the pasta is fresh, rich and delicious, like you wish your mama used to make, served by an old guy who could be your Italian grandpa. And the fish I have to follow is one of the tastiest, simplest dishes I’ve ever eaten. A real treat of a meal.