A mini adventure with #BarefootBritain

This week I ran with the amazing Anna McNuff who is currently on an adventure covering 2,620 miles running around Britain barefoot. Yes, that’s right, not just running all that way, but doing in in her bare little tootsies.

I loved reading Anna’s book The Pants of Perspective about her 2,000 mile run along New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail, so I followed her progress as she made her way down the east coast from Scotland.

The lure of the beautiful north east beaches and shorelines meant Anna changed her original route plan which meant that she’d be running through ‘my patch’ between Blyth and Newcastle. And I just knew I had to show her the sights of the coast that I’m lucky enough to run along regularly.

You know that sensation of miles going quickly when you’re running with a friend? From the second I saw Ana’s shock of pink hair above her visor, got a hug and then started trotting along beside her, the time just flew by and I barely felt like I was running at all.

Anna had been joined by fellow runner Sophie at Blyth, but I don’t think she got much chance of a word in on the 2 miles I was along for the ride. As Anna asked questions, I shared my local knowledge and we talked about running, adventures, travelling, the North East coast, writing books and a hundred and one other things.

Anna trots along so lightly and consistently you forget that she’s barefoot. She’s upbeat, excited about the adventure, practical in her approach and just drinking in the adventure as it comes. I absolutely loved running those miles with you Anna and felt like I could have carried on all day.

I was inspired, and a bit star struck. We talked a bit about her book and I was fascinated to hear how Anna had made such a success of self publishing. I admitted my life goal of publishing a book and recording the audio book. I guess I just need to find the right adventure to write about.

I told her all about Fetch Everyone – the amazing running community and website where I log all my training and talk nonsense with so many friends.

Anna still has a long way to go on her challenge, so I hope that more of you may get the chance to say hello and run with her as she passes by.  Find out more about her run and route on her website and social media: annamcnuff.com

Running has given me some amazing experiences, from running on the London Olympic track, to being accompanied by a group of Harley Davison motorbikes at the end of the Great North Run. Running with Barefoot Anna is another unforgettable running experience to smile about.

Whitley Bay parkrun 11 October 2014

“Aren’t we lucky?” said the lady who finished today’s parkrun at Whitley Bay around the same time as me as we walked away from the hubbub of the finish line. And today, under bright blue autumn skies with the sun on my face and the sound of the waves in my ears I did feel very fortunate indeed.

Here in the north east, we’re lucky enough to have a great number of parkruns from Middlesbrough through to Sunderland, Gateshead, Newcastle and right on up to the new route at Druridge Bay. My home run is actually Newcastle, although geographically, Whitley Bay is my closest. It’s close enough to allow me to run there and back, should I fancy a long run and take it steady, which is what I opted to do today.

I gave myself plenty of time to jog along to get there, so I’d had a really good warm up, before I huddled among the gathered runners ready for the start. The sun was in our eyes as we negotiated the first few twists and turns along the course and the number of runners helped make sure I kept my starting pace steady.

Once down onto the lovely flat promenade, we start to spread out and it’s easier to dodge past a few runners, or to be overtaken myself. I’m going easy today, it just feels nice to be out for a run.

At every turn or junction there’s a smiling marshal and a small chorus of thank yous from runners like me who have the breath to utter them.

Off the prom and up the small rise, I pick up my feet and use my arms to power up the incline, then cruise down the yellow stone path and over the bridge, before the second climb back up and round towards the road. I watch my feet over the cracked tarmac along the top path, heading back round towards the skate park and up another little rise to circle around the first lap.

Along the prom for the second time and the fastest runners have already crossed the finish line. How I wish I had their speed! But I’m feeling good, just enjoying being out in the fresh air today, and I start to catch a few runners in front of me. Reeling them in, slowly, one by one takes my mind off my legs which are starting to ache now and as I increase my pace, my breathing gets heavier and louder.

Still here I am again, about to climb the small set of rises and head back round to the road. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a lady running with a bright red buggy. That must be hard work up that hill!

By the time I’ve made it down onto the promenade for the final stretch, she’s caught and overtaken me, inspiring me to put a bit of a spurt on in the last few hundred metres and finish with a sprint.

Out of breath, I collect my token and walk over to get my barcode scanned. Hazel who takes my token from me, says “I like your blog”, which is a really nice surprise and makes me smile.

I’m very lucky that I found running as a means to keep fit back in 2008, and that parkrun has helped me maintain and build on that fitness. I’ve used the regular weekly run as part of my training for races like the Great North Run or the triathlons I do through the summer.

But more importantly, parkrun has introduced me to volunteering and to new friends. I do enjoy running, and am currently chasing down my 100th parkrun, but I really enjoy volunteering too. It’s fun to see parkrun from the other side, to appreciate how it works and to see all the runners from the fastest to the slowest, the old to the young all taking part.

My time today wasn’t my fastest, but parkrun isn’t always about being speedy. It really is for everyone and I think you see that as a volunteer.

So, yes, I do feel lucky to have a free, weekly, timed 5k run as a motivation to get up and out and get moving all year round. Lucky to be able to run along some of the finest north east coastline. And lucky to have the incredible support of the volunteers who make parkrun happen week in, week out all over the UK and beyond.

Kit review – Tune Belt

In the early days of starting running, I often used to listen to music. It helped block out the sound of my own heavy breathing as much as anything. But as I got more experienced, more confident, and started taking part in races, I stopped relying on it as a crutch to get me through a run.

Tune Belt
The Tune Belt I tested out on my run

These days, I very rarely choose to take music with me. But I’ve been having a hard time recently, increasing the mileage as I prepare for the Great North Run. As my long weekend runs get longer, I’ve reminded myself that 13.1 miles is a long way. And I’ve struggled to find both the time and motivation to fit in the midweek runs of 10k and more that are on my training plan.

So, time to shake things up a bit. And this week I received a Tune Belt to test out. The Tune Belt is basically an arm band with a pocket for your mobile phone. It has a plastic cover, so you can still see the screen and holes at the bottom where you attach your headphones.

It felt very comfortable as I adjusted the velcro strap to fit my arm. The material is soft but strong, like a very flexible neoprene. With an old running playlist lined up and my headphones in, I hit the road for an early morning run, with a target of 12k before breakfast.

Having some get-up-and-go music in my ears certainly encouraged me to head off at a good pace. And with the weather being pleasantly cool and still, I was enjoying one of my usual routes along the coast.

A couple of miles in, I decided the playlist really was a bit cheesy and I’d prefer to run without it.  I was able to stop the music by using my phone’s touch screen through the plastic cover and found I could tuck the headphones away under a little flap beneath the Tune Belt logo at the side of the pocket.

I carried enjoying a good run on towards the lighthouse, just taking in the still morning and listening to the sound of the waves. As I turned back, the early morning light was perfect for me to take a snap of the famous Spanish City Dome in Whitley Bay, where I took part in a triathlon last weekend.

I had to take the phone out of its pocket for this, but it was a great chance to capture my lovely running scenery.  I only paused for a few seconds – enough to take the picture and choose some classic Bowie as my get me home playlist.

Spanish City, Whitley Bay
Early morning at Spanish City, Whitley Bay

“We are the goon squad, and we’re coming to town…”

I bounced along  managing 12k or just short of 7.5 miles relatively comfortably before heading home for a shower, breakfast and then the rest of my day.

I like the Tune Belt. It’s neat, simple and does its job. It was very comfortable to wear. I always felt like my phone was secure in its pocket and didn’t bounce around at all, so there was no rubbing or chafing on my arm. In fact, when I didn’t have my headphones in, I could almost forget it was there.

Of course, you don’t have to use your phone to listen to music when you’re on the go. But if you want to carry a phone when you’re training, running or cycling, this could be a good way of freeing up a pocket and giving you easy access to it if you need it. Although it has a plastic cover, it’s not designed to be waterproof, so you’d be taking a risk in a heavy downpour, but otherwise it would seem to do a good job.

I was sent a Tune Belt as an accessory for my Apple iPhone 5 to test out how it would benefit my training. You can find out more here: http://www.three.co.uk/Discover/Devices/Apple/iPhone_5s

Spanish City Triathlon

This is a brand new event for 2014, brought to us by Total Racing International, the same team behind the popular Castles triathlon that I did last year. Being as it’s just down the road from me, and would be the shortest distance I’ve ever travelled to take part in a triathlon, I signed up early and got number  18.

Spanish City, for those of you who don’t know, is a now abandoned amusement park in Whitley Bay, famous for its building with a white dome, which still stands. It’s mentioned in the Dire Straits Song ‘Tunnel of Love’.  And the lyrics “Girl it looks so pretty to me / Like it always did / Like the Spanish City to me / When we were kids, ” featured on the back of the race T-shirt.

Triathletes enter the water
Warm up before the swim start. Photo by Claire Wynarczyk

I was a little nervous about it being a sea swim. Especially as the weather forecast was full of wind warnings. Now, I don’t mind swimming in the sea, but once it gets a little choppy, I get a bit nervous. And this year I’ve barely managed any sea swimming at all.

The original swim route had been to swim along beside the shore, entering onto the beach near it’s northerly point and exiting at the end beside a ramp and the beach cafe. But it was changed to being an out, along and back from near the ramp.

Having set up in transition, and got my wet suit on, I picked my way gingerly over the rough tarmac down to the beach. The water was clear and calm, barely a ripple of a wave. That was good. The two marker buoys didn’t look that far away. Excellent. I could do this.

I really welcomed the chance to get into the water before the race started. It was alarmingly cold. Much more so than when I’d last been in off Tynemouth Longsands on Tuesday evening. But I did my usual gasp and floated around, getting used to it. Then stuck my head under and blew bubbles and even swam a few strokes to make sure I was warmed up and ready.

Swim start at Spanish City triathlon
The swim start at the spanish City triathlon. Photo by Claire Wynarczyk

We were all called out before the mass beach start. I positioned myself off to the side and at the back, with my main aim being to keep out of the worst of the thrash as we got underway. It was a good move and worked well, as I only got a couple of arms or legs brushing against me.

I started swimming well. The water was clear, although I couldn’t see much beyond the bubbles churned up by 200 other swimmers hitting the sea at the same time. I kept it nice and relaxed and just held my nerve in the dash to the first buoy.

Then something went in my head. I really don’t know what it was. But something about swimming away from land, being out of my depth and feeling the sea start to grow choppy and I felt my chest grow tight and my breathing grow shallow.

I took a moment, swam heads up breast stroke to gather myself and pushed on. As I approached the first buoy, it seemed like the wind had picked up a little, sending little wavelets out over the water and it was spattering up as though rain was falling. I swam a little more breast stroke to get round the buoy.

And then at the turn the chop grew worse, with it hitting the side of my face as the second buoy looked as far away as the first. I tried to break back into front crawl, but I’d lost my rhythm and my confidence. All I could hear was my own shallow breathing echoing back in my ears.

I’d been glad of my neoprene swim cap to keep out the worst of the cold, but covering my ears it blocked out the sound of everything else except my own, panicky sounding breathing.   I kept trying to bring it under control, to lower my heart rate by taking some deep breaths, swimming breast stroke and then getting back into front crawl, but mentally I’d lost it.

And despite the fact that my feeble heads-up breast stroke meant I was getting more splashed in the face by the waves and the chop and when I did swim front crawl I moved quickly and easily through the water, I just couldn’t get it to stick.

I really wish I could get a grip on this mental aspect of swimming. So often in races, something happens and I get a rush of adrenaline and it all goes a bit awry. Today, I should have stopped, given myself a time out, floated on my back and then got on with it. But I just kept on struggling onwards, feeling like the last stretch back to shore was more about floating and surviving than swimming with any kind of style.

The white dome approached at last, and in a desperate effort to save some pride and determined not to be last out of the water with the rest of the breast stroking stragglers, I did manage a spot of decent swimming by counting my strokes and yelling at myself to do another 6 and then another.

I stumbled up among the pebbles and over the sand, totally out of breath and just pleased to have reached dry land. I could not even force myself to run up the long ramp back towards the transition area at first, my feet protesting at the rough ground and my lungs just bursting for air. I  only broke into a trot once I got to the grassy section at the top and started to think about the bike.

With hardly any bikes left in transition, mine was easy to spot as I wriggled out of my wetsuit. Less obvious was my helmet, which wasn’t where I’d left it on top of my shoes. It had blown or been kicked away along on the other side of the rack and I had to duck under and run along to retrieve it. I managed to find all the rest of my kit, including my number belt and headed out to hit the bike course.

Having had such a relatively poor swim, I took a little time to settle into the cycle, focusing on composing myself, getting my breathing back into some kind of order and taking a drink to was the salt water taste from my mouth. By now the sun was out and although it was breezy, I welcomed it as a chance to dry out after the swim.

The bike course was relatively straightforward. After a well marshaled right turn onto the main road it was straight up along the coast towards St Mary’s Lighthouse, then a left turn by the caravan park and up towards Seaton Sluice.

The wind was gusting from inland to offshore, so it was mostly a cross wind, apart from that slight uphill drag by the caravan park. The route is very familiar to me and one I do quite often. I was quickly through lap one and round again, feeling stronger and more settled, so putting more effort in on this lap.

I managed to overtake a couple of people on the slight gradients heading away from transition and again moving along back up the slight drag towards Seaton Delaval Arms. But I was overtaken by many more who came screaming through with aero bars and pointy helmets at the front of the field.

At times I felt the cross wind gust and push the bike sideways and I had to pedal against it even going downhill. But I always felt in control and actually enjoyed the bike course.

Back round to the roundabout near the Rendezvous cafe for the second time and this time it was straight on to transition. I jumped off the bike early at the turn, halting a runner who wasn’t part of the race and was probably wondering where all these people were coming from.

Off the bike and even running into transition, my legs felt wobbly. I managed a fairly quick stop, though I opted to put socks on, as my feet had felt chilly on the bike, so that added a little to my time.

Finally onto the run and I did wonder whose legs I’d picked up in transition as mine felt Bambi-like beneath me. But I knew that feeling would pass. More worrying was the fact that I couldn’t actually feel my feet.

As sensation returned, it felt like I was running on sandpaper as pins and needles burned the whole sole of each foot. I wriggled my toes trying to encourage the blood to flow faster and it was agony. But I’ve been here before and the only way is to keep moving, keep the muscles moving and get that warmth back into my poor feet. I used my arms to push on, thought about my leg muscles carrying me forward, kept my head up and kept moving, helped by shouts of encouragement from the marshals, including regular parkrun volunteer Claire Wynarczyk.

The route took in the coastal paths along the sea front and twisted and turned through some of the Whitley Bay parkrun route, although we ran it in the opposite direction, before dropping down onto the lovely wide promenade along the seafront and past the Rendezvous Cafe.

The ups and downs and turns made me wince as I put more pressure on my feet. But slowly, slowly I started to get the sensation back in them, and by the time I reached the seafront , I’d finally banished the pins and needles. Just in time for the steps…

Oh yes. The course designers took us back up from the promenade towards the War memorial via two flights of steps. A loud and enthusiastic bunch of supporters stood at the turn and encouraged us up. And it was back round for lap two.

By now I was feeling much more like my usual running self, so I pushed on and made an effort to pick up my feet more, now that I could feel them.  I started chasing a guy who had powered past me on the steps and we played cat and mouse, taking and then re-overtaking each other along the route. I finally made my last move to overtake him as we came back round to the promenade for the second time, feeling all the exhilaration that I normally get when sprinting this section on parkrun.

Up the steps again and this time a left turn towards the finish on the newly created plaza area in front of the Spanish City dome. I used the acceleration of the down ramp to power me up the other side and onto something like a sprint, so at least I finished strongly.

Chip removed and water thrust into my had, I sat on the steps to get my breath back and congratulated the guy who came through just behind me, thanking him for playing a key part in keeping me pushing onwards in the later part of the race.

I was just glad to have finished. To have completed my last tri of the season. And a little bit sad that this was my last multi-sport event of the year. Because for all that I find it tough, and for all that I’m frustrated that I’ve not really improved in my tris this year, I do enjoy them.

I know for many people this was their first triathlon, and for others it was their first open water, or sea swim. It is a big challenge and I hope you coped with it better than I did. The sea wasn’t really that choppy and the wind, although challenging, could have made it even more difficult. So I hoped you enjoyed it.

And if you’re reading this, thinking ‘That sounds horrible, why would you want to do that’, it really wasn’t. I finished with a big grin and a huge sense of achievement. It’s true I’ve done tris where I’ve been more relaxed, in control and raced harder. But I’ve never done one I haven’t enjoyed.

So yes, triathlon is a challenge. But it’s still a buzz and a thrill. And as I work out how I deal with all the challenges they throw at me, both mental and physical, I know they’ll help me be stronger, faster and more able to deal with anything. So I’ll keep on tri-ing.

My results:

Swim: 26:41
Bike: 49:42
Run: 30:57

Race results

Race photos by Derek Grant

50th parkrun

On Saturday 26 January, I ran my 50th parkrun. It’s taken me a while to reach that particular milestone as I only started running the free 5k timed runs  in September 2009  and I haven’t particularly made a big deal about notching them up.

But they have become a very welcome part of my weekend, giving me a chance to run or volunteer, catch up with friends I’ve made through parkrun or just see someone else enjoying the experience.

Me and Jeff at my 50th parkrun at Whitley Bay
Me and Jeff at my 50th parkrun at Whitley Bay – thanks to Mick Durnion for the picture.

I was sorry I couldn’t run my 50th at my home run on Newcastle’s Town Moor, but with snow, ice and flooded footpaths, the race director had no other option than to call it off. Doing so on Friday night meant that those of us who wanted to run could look to other venues, and with only a small dusting of snow, my nearest parkrun at Whitley Bay was declared on.

As I made my way to the start, I spotted a Newcastle regular on his warm up run and spotted  a familiar gathering of Toon run regulars, including Malcolm, Jeff, Fred, Eric and Mick who took a commemorative photo. So I felt in good company for a landmark run.

With a covering of snow being churned to slush beneath the pounding of multiple pairs of trainers and trail shoes, it was never going to be a fast run. I just focused on keeping my form as best I could and enjoying the contrast of the white ground and the clear blue skies, full of sunshine that would soon make the snow a memory.

I gave a good shout to runners I knew as I saw them come along the finish straight as I headed out to the second lap and managed a thank you to all the marshals standing around in the chill. There was even a Scribbler sprint finish, which was a fine way to mark my 50th.

North East Fetch Everyone track mile

There’s a bit of a trend on Fetch Everyone (the running site I frequent) to hold local mile races. Sometimes they are small, sometimes large, but generally they are just an excuse for a bit of a meet up with fellow runners, a race and cake.

Runners standing on the track
Fetchies do the mobot

And that’s why a small, select band of North East Fetchies and parkrunners met up at the track at Churchill playing fields, Whitley Bay on Sunday.

We had a range of speeds from the super fast to the pretty impressive, and ages from 17 to 80. We even had timing kit as Nigel from Newcastle parkrun turned up with the kit he devised with local school kids.

We ran three races in all. First off were the speedy boys, with 17-year-old Adam up from Durham to chase a sub 5 min PB. Despite having a Saturday parkrun and winning cross country race in his legs, he stormed off around the track looking very relaxed and in form. It’s a measure of his talent and focus that he took strides out of our speedy parkrunner Craig who arrived after an 8 mile warm up.

Race two was me, Jeff and Nadhim. In such speedy company, I set off way too fast and struggled to catch my breath, choking and wheezing in the chilly air. I knew I would be a good way behind the guys, but just tried to focus on my running form and keeping up my leg turnover.

I fought for breath all the way round, only really gaining control on the back straight of the last lap, at which point my only aim was to avoid being lapped. With Adam yelling encouragement from the final bend, I kicked in to a last sprint and powered home in 7:44. Not my fastest mile ever, but the only one starting with a 7 that I’ve run this year. So I’m happy with that.

Runners on the track
Karen, Penny and Eric running their mile

The last race saw fab Fetchies Penny and Karen, with parkrun legend 80-year-old Eric, all bidding to get round four laps in under 10 minutes. The dynamic girls in red and yellow kept pace with each other all the way round, until the last lap, when Karen broke free in the final straight to record a time that astonished her, with Pennyclose on her heels. Eric recorded his fastest mile of the year and all managed sub 10.

After the races, there was cake in abundance and smiles and chat in the winter sunshine. The meet closed with an optional 400m and 100m sprint and some photos emulating the Olympic superstars, Bolt and Farah.

The running was impressive, the sun shone and there were smiles all round and requests to do it again soon. I reckon we can count that as a win.

A tale of two parkruns

With a cold snap in the air, there were understandable doubts about parkrun being safe to run on 1 December. Indeed, a number of north east runs had to cancel due to icy paths, but Newcastle was still on.

The race director reported the run to be marginal, but made the decision to keep it on, with the extra help of the marshalls who did double duty directing runners away from the iciest sections and over onto the soggy grass, then came back to the finish to take numbers and scan tokens. It was bitingly cold on the moor, and the volunteers were in for a cold job.

I went to do my usual warm up in all my layers, including my Fetch hoodie and had a quick chat with a runner visiting from Edinburgh and staying nearby. And then it was time to line up at the start.

Some quick steps over the grass and negotiating the turns and icy sections kept the pace steady through the first kilometre, but I was able to pick it up again through the gate and out along the road. I felt good and strong when my footing was sure, even over the rough path back onto the moor, where the low sun provided another challenge, making it hard to see the icy ground.

The new running style has definitely started to stick. The only times it dropped during this run were when I had to divert over the grass and I found myself plodging or when I was skipping over the ice, uncertain of my footing.

I was out on my own between 3-4kms and felt my pace drop over this tricky section. But once back on the path, I gave it a good kick in the last km and tried to keep the pace up even over the grass. The final sprint to the finish line was painful and I needed a few minutes once over the line to stop the spinning feeling in my head. But I was pleased with my time which was only 7 seconds slower than last week. Without the ice, I feel it would have been faster.

Stats and stuff:
5k 27:32

1) – 0.62m – 5:45(9:17/m) – 63cal
2) – 0.62m – 5:26(8:45/m) – 64cal
3) – 0.62m – 5:20(8:36/m) – 65cal
4) – 0.62m – 5:49(9:23/m) – 65cal
5) – 0.62m – 5:08(8:14/m) – 63cal

So when this Saturday dawned ice cold again and ice threatened to make the Town Moor course a cross country fest, I opted for parkrun at Whitley Bay. It’s a long time since I ran this course, and in fact, they’ve changed the finish, so I hadn’t run this version before.

I warmed up as usual and found myself a spot, ready to give it a good run. Not knowing the field, I very much ran to feel, finding my own pace and enjoying the steady footing of the tarmac paths and the drop down onto the promenade.

Not too windy or too cold, I was on a mission to improve my run time after an encouraging chat with my PT. I’m enjoying my new running style and feel like it’s working, so I wanted to prove that and I’m using parkrun as my push it session in the week.

I made the mistake of glancing at my Garmin after 1k and noticed the pace was hot for me. In truth I was feeling it a little in my breathing and trying to relax into the run. The next part of the route has a couple of sharp inclines, that weren’t as long or as steep as I remembered, but I cut my stride and eased up them and onwards.

I was on my own for much of the run, with few targets to chase, but after the initial surge I tried to cling on to anyone that overtook me and I managed to outpace a couple of guys just by keeping my rhythm and reeling them in.

Back round past the starting point, I knew there was less than a lap to go and started mentally calculating the time left to run to distract me from the effort. 10 minutes of bright winter sunshine and clear skies, then less than six and keep pushing, keep the head, keep the desire.

It was tough, but I knew there wasn’t much further to go, even though my head hadn’t quite got the measure of the new course. Once more over the little bridge and up the incline, then back round along the road and onto the cliff top path down to the promenade for the finishing stretch.

A male runner in a blue top had run beside me for a while and I’d stuck with him, pushing my pace, but here he showed his form and stretched ahead. I knew I still had a kick, but it’s a short and fast one, so I picked my spot to really pick it up, all the time willing my legs into a faster turnover. Just after the Rendezvous I hammered it down, less than 100m to the finish.

Token collected, watch stopped, I stuttered away from the line, head down to catch my breath and it felt like minutes before I could look at my time. Target for today was faster than 27:25 which I’d run in Newcastle two weeks ago on a dry course. The figures on the watch face read 26:26 (official time 26:32)

Not only is that the best part of a minute faster, it’s my best time of the year so far, beating the 27:02 I ran in August. So, I think I can safely say that I’m seeing improvements from my new running style.

Stats and stuff:
5k 26:26
1) – 0.62m – 5:09(8:19/m) – 63cal
2) – 0.62m – 5:34(8:59/m) – 65cal
3) – 0.62m – 5:21(8:38/m) – 64cal
4) – 0.62m – 5:17(8:31/m) – 65cal
5) – 0.62m – 5:05(8:14/m) – 63cal

Great North Bike Ride

When a couple of my friends mentioned they were doing the Great North Bike Ride, and I had a cycle rather than a run planned this Sunday I figured it would be good to challenge myself to a  longer distance bike ride and have some fun.

The ride, in aid of local cancer charity The Chris Lucas Trust promised 57 miles of relatively easy riding in the Northumberland countryside with bike support, a couple of feed stations with water and bananas and plenty of places to stop for a snack.

Me and my bike at the start of the Great North Bike ride
Ready to hit the road in Seahouses

I thought I’d better equip myself with something a little more forgiving than my tri shorts and picked up a bargain pair of padded cycle shorts for the ride; checked my bike over and baked some flapjacks to keep me well fuelled. Bike checked over, I was set for an early morning wake up call to get to the meeting point where the organisers would pick us and our bikes up to take us to the start. Next time, remind me to check my shoes as well as my bike.

My friend Karen sent a text to say she was on her way, but running a bit late after having problems with the bike rack. With plenty of people and bikes still milling about waiting to get their transport, I didn’t think there was any danger of us leaving without her. In the end, I think we got one of the last buses and were over an hour delayed in starting off as there seemed to be more people than they had bargained for.

We were driven north to Seahouses, a beautiful little fishing village on the Northumberland coast. As we approached, we saw groups of riders already setting off in the sunshine. But this wasn’t about racing, it was just about enjoying a day on the bike and a chance to cycle with some lovely views.

We were further delayed as we managed to get to the start before our bikes, but eventually, after a good bit of faffing, we were off. I stuck with Karen and her husband Andrew for a while at the start, but with clear open roads and my road bike just gliding along beautifully they encouraged me to go on ahead.

I had a backpack full of stuff to cover all weathers and as we’d got a bit chilly hanging about I was layered up for the start. But, as predicted, within 20 minutes I was roasting and stopped to remove some of the extra garments. Karen and Andrew passed and then a bit further down the road I overtook them again. This was to be a repeat pattern throughout the day.

As we’d set off towards the back of the field, there were often times when I was out riding on my own, with no sign of other riders nearby. I’d catch up to small groups or couples and pass them, expecting to see another group of cyclists ahead, but then see no one for a while. But I was enjoying the freedom and simple pleasure of a perfect day for cycling. Not too hot, just a slight breeze to keep you cool and long, easy roads with the sea to the left and golden fields to the right.

I was amazed how quickly I passed through 10 miles. Even taking it easy in terms of effort on the bike, it felt like hardly any effort at all. But shortly after that I was to start my adventures.

The route was marked by signs and the occasional marshal, but was largely a straight road following the coast line. As I turned into Alnmouth, I came to a roundabout at which there were no signs, and no other riders in sight, so I carried straight on. And up a great big steep hill. Ouf! That was a bit of an effort, but still there had been another steep little climb just previously, and I didn’t expect the route to be completely flat.

I continued following the road and even caught sight of another cyclist ahead, so hoped I was on the right track. But this lead me to another long slow climb, followed by another and then another steep hill and I really began to think that this wasn’t the route I’d have chosen for a group ride.

With doubts in my mind, and by now, beginning to feel rather hungry, I pulled over to the side of the road near a big house part way up one of the hills and gave myself a break. No point pushing on, being lost and feeling hungry all at the same time. So I snaffled down part of my sandwich a bit of flapjack and had a good swig of water. That helped settle me a bit. And, not having seen any other cyclists during my pit stop confirmed that I’d gone off track.

I could have called the support crew for help, but I decided to push on with my basic navigation skill of keeping the coast to my left. The route took me up and down some more hills until I arrived in Shilbottle. There, a passing cyclist in a Team Sky shirt reassured me that I would be able to get back on track if I carried on following the signs for Warkworth, which I did.

Northumberland coast
Beautiful views along the Northumberland coast

I was very grateful to see the van offering bananas and water and know that I was back on the right course, even if I was firmly at the back of the pack by now. The rest of the route was rather smoother and less hilly and I sped up a bit to try and catch some of the other riders. When I caught up with Karen later on, we compared Garmins and I’d done about 5 miles extra.

It was a brilliant day to be out in the beautiful Northumberland countryside, diving along tree lined roads or rising up along cliff top roads to catch glimpses of the shimmering blue sea. As we approached Druridge Bay and later Ashington, the routes became familiar from a couple of my triathlons, so it was nice to be able to take a little more time to enjoy the scenery.

As we passed through Ashington, we were directed onto a nice smooth tarmaced cycle path that ran alongside the side of the busy main roads. This was a great place to ride, although it was a little narrow in places, which made passing a little tricky, but I was patient and enjoyed feeling like I was flying over the surface despite all the previous miles in my legs.

At places, the path stopped to cross a road. As I was unclipping to get ready for another stop, I felt a bit of resistance from my right shoe. When it happened again at the next crossing, I was ready for it and was able to unclip with my left and see what the problem was. My right shoe was jammed in the pedal. No amount of foot jiggling would free it. I slipped my foot out of my shoe and got off the bike to investigate.

A couple of other riders who I’d passed on the path stopped to check I was okay and offer help and advice. I managed to loosen off the tensioning for the cleats on the pedals, but still the shoe wouldn’t come free. I was about to set off again, and try to remember that I could only unclip with my left foot, when a cyclist coming back from the finish also stopped to lend a hand.

By now, I’d completely removed the tensioning bolts, and still couldn’t get the shoe free. He suggested getting something underneath to prize it away, but my little allen key set didn’t have anything long enough. Then he had the bright idea of using a tyre lever and that did it.

As the shoe came free, the problem became clear. I’d lost one of the bolts holding the cleat to the shoe, so it was twisting, rather than releasing from the pedal. I finished the rest of the ride with one foot clipped and one unclipped.

Me and Karen at the finish of the Great North Bike Ride
Still smiling at the finish with my Fetch buddy Karen (aka geordiegirl)

After that there were no further adventures. Back on the bike, my legs felt fine and fresh, but my shoulders and back were a bit niggly, no doubt from being leant forward for so long and carrying the backpack all day. The route took a less pretty turn through the industrial backways of Blyth and then returned to the coast by Seaton Sluice, where my local knowledge took me to the road rather than the cycle path, which is always busy with people walking and seeking out the local ice cream van.

Down the hill to St Mary’s Lighthouse and I was on very familiar ground, flying along the coast and trying to avoid getting stuck in the Sunday traffic cruising along the promenade. I’d had no idea how long the ride would take me, and now I knew I was within 3 miles of the finish. I glanced at my watch which told me I’d been riding for just over 4 hours as I passed the lighthouse and shortly afterwards, it went blank – out of juice about 2 miles from the finish.

But this wasn’t a ride about pace or speed. It was just a challenge to see how I got on with a significant increase in distance. And although I took it easy, enjoyed a few breaks and a few faster sections, I was very grateful to freewheel down the hill at the end and cross the finish line where I picked up a cycling shirt and medal.

I know 58 miles isn’t a great distance by the standards of regular cyclists and many will think nothing of a 100 mile day. But it’s a big step up for me from around the 20- 25 I usually do. I’d worked out on the way that it was roughly half ironman distance and sent my good wishes to Susan who I met at the Northumberland triathlon and was racing that distance in Salzburg.

I couldn’t have faced a half marathon after that ride. I was just grateful for the back and shoulder massage that helped ease out some of the knots and a home made chicken tikka masala that awaited me at home. I think I’ve only stopped eating to sleep since!

So, yes, I’m very pleased I did it and how much I enjoyed a longer ride. And I’m very happy that my legs and bum feel okay today (the cycle shorts obviously worked). The back and shoulders may be something I have to adjust to for longer rides.

Not sure I’d do the event again as some of the organisation was a bit hap-hazard and really I could manage a lot of it under my own steam. But it has reminded me that there are some great places to cycle up here, and just an hour up the road in the car would take me to some lovely countryside to enjoy.

The first Whitley Bay parkrun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stats and stuff:

5k 29:28

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

The Olympic torch relay comes to town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olympic torchbearer
Torchbearer running into Tynemouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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