Toughest. Race. Ever. The Northern Cross Country Championships. Witton Park, Blackburn. Saturday 30th January, 2016.

Here is my review of yesterday’s Northern Cross Country Championships, which I have written for the Wigan Harriers website. I was going to re-write it for the blog, but I’m sure you can spare me that chore and forgive me if you do not know the people involved. Hopefully it will at least give you an insight into why I am enjoying being part of a team so much.

 

Before I begin this write up I feel the need to justify myself a little. Firstly, I LOVE cross-country. I am not one of those soft road runners who cries every time they see a hill or, more importantly, a puddle! I love to run on trails, I generally enjoy running uphill (although I will happily admit to hating descents) and, most importantly, I love a bit of mud! It makes you fitter, stronger, faster in the long run. I am not telling you this to show off. I am telling you this so that when I tell you that this cross-country was the hardest hour of running in my life; that the conditions were so bad I wanted to drop-out with every fibre of my being; you know I am not exaggerating! To anyone, of any age or gender, who finished their race today, I salute you!

Saturday 30th January, 2016. Witton Park, Blackburn. The venue and date may be forever etched deep into my soul. When I eventually arrive at the Pearly Gates and some angel is tasked with viewing my life in a timeline of emotions before deciding whether I can enter, they might just glance down my life as a line graph before looking up and asking; “Jesus, what happened in January, 2016?!”

It’s lap 2 of a 4 lap race. Yes folks, FOUR laps. That was sticking the knife in for a start. I have only run a few club cross-countries but my body is already trained to deal with three laps. The first lap is for finding a good pace and learning the route, the second lap is consolidation and adapting your pace now you know where you’re going, the third lap is to expend any remaining energy. What the hell is the fourth lap for???

Anyway, I am already digressing, it’s lap 2 of FOUR laps. The hill is steep, the mud torturous, the wind (into your face, obviously) is bitingly cold, the hail is being driven sideways into every available piece of flesh on show. For the first time in my running life, I am genuinely wondering what the **** I am doing being out in this – for fun. I want to cry. I could get away with crying too. No-one would know; the hail sliding down my cheeks would hide the tears. But mostly, I want to stop running, get indoors and get some clothes on. This has never happened before. And there are two more ****ing laps left – after I get round this one!

Looking back, I am pretty certain that I would have carried on anyway, I am pretty stubborn in these situations, but, at the time, the only thing keeping me going was the team. And this is the beauty of running for a club and not as an individual – the ethic that you cannot let your teammates down drives you on. Both the men’s and women’s teams had exactly the right numbers. One drop out – no team. So on we all went, through the mud, up the hill, into the maelstrom…

The Course.

Longer standing members may know the Witton Park venue. Apparently the usual Red Rose league route involves a similar lap of the flat field at the bottom of the course and the climb behind the Pavilion cafe. However, with this being the Northern Championships, an extra climb was added, also behind the cafe. The route was now, in my opinion, the perfect cross-country route – a 1.6 mile lap, half through flat fields, the other half a double shark fin of climbing and descending. The first climb (the additional one not on the league route) was particularly tough; steep and unrelenting on an adverse camber meaning you couldn’t even aim straight up it without being sent slithering off course again, before a hilarious vertical descent in shin deep mud down a bank that would make the most graceful of runners look like a Wildebeest during a lion attack!

So, all sounds good so far, what’s to moan about? Well, it is very difficult to describe the conditions underfoot without being accused of exaggerating. But I can tell you, hand on heart, that the entire course was mud. The best conditions were ankle deep mud. The worst conditions were shin deep and, for some people, knee deep mud! For the entire route! There was no ‘ideal line’ to be had. Believe me, I did four laps and never ran the same line twice! It made no difference. Pile straight through it was the only option because the other options were merely a longer route in the same conditions!

In the changing rooms afterwards, more experienced runners than I discussed if these were the worst conditions ever experienced. The only event comparable, they decided, was a Northern Championships at Knowsley in similar mud and heavy snow. This was, however, largely dismissed as (and I was not there to confirm this) apparently at Knowsley there were some sections of the route solid enough for actual running to take place. This certainly was not the case at Witton Park!

Oh, and one added bonus – this was the Northern Championships, so it’s longer than usual! For the women: a lap of the field section, then three full laps – 8.8km. For the men: the same with the bonus fourth lap (have I mentioned the fourth lap?!) – 11.5km.

The Build-Up.

The first thing that cannot go unmentioned was the team ‘carb-loading’ session the night before the race! Thanks to our Social Committee of Nina, Mel and Becky for a great night at the Christmas/NY bash! However, this may not have been the best preparation for the following day…(!)

Mike and I arrived nice and early and soon found Jayne and Dave huddled behind a large tree! Almost immediately the first squall of biting wind and hail came in. The weather pattern would remain consistent throughout the day – 15 minutes where the sun would appear and it would seem to be a reasonable winter’s day. Then 15 minutes where the wind would blow, the hail would bite, and the temperature would feel to drop about five degrees. Initial disappointment at the absence of our team tent soon disappeared – many teams have the same one as us; most of them were blown down during one or all of the squalls which blew through!

One by one the team arrived and all began the same mathematical equations in their heads; ie. ’Until exactly what time can I leave every item of clothing on my body without actually missing the start of the race?!’

The Women’s Race.

I could only look on with sympathy as the women finally had to don their race gear whilst I remained in my six layers of clothing. Off they soldiered towards the start line; framed from our vantage point by the next menacing black cloud looming over the hill.

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Sideways hail. Just before the women’s race.

The much larger number of runners is certainly an impressive sight and, after a lap of the field, the women swept past us, round the bend and off towards the first climb of the race. It is always worth attending these larger events just to watch the front-runners. They are so impressive – a different breed. (More on this later!)

Then the hail came.

I tried to stay out and support them! I really did. Honestly! I saw Jayne come round again the first time, then Shona. Every runner’s face bore the same haunted look – it was like a scene from Platoon! And this was the first lap! But the hail was driving and it hurt your face to look up, so the entire men’s team took the soft, unanimous option and decided that we needed to prepare for our own race – in the changing rooms!

I therefore cannot comment further on the women’s performances, other than to reiterate that anyone who finished that race, in whatever time, deserves respect. The women undoubtedly copped for the longest, most prolonged hailstorm of the day. Brutal.

The Men’s Race.

We got changed slowly. No point going outside unnecessarily. We had a team selfie – inside, (that took up a couple more minutes.) We went to the doorway. We stood in the doorway looking out for a bit. You get the picture. We weren’t keen.

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The men, hiding in the changing rooms: (left to right) Steve, Dave, Tony, Gary (centre), myself (back), Mike (sideways).

Eventually, there was no alternative. The run from the changing room to the start line was our warm-up. And even then Dave and Tony nearly managed to miss the start! The start line was the best bit. Being huddled in a large crowd was the only time I was warm all day.

Then we were off. My general strategy is to bolt off a bit at the start and try and find some space. “Bloody hell, Mark’s buggered off already!” was the last thing I heard Mike say from behind! (He was upset at leaving his Garmin at home, so I’d told him just to run next to me and I’d record it for him.) However, this was a large field, a fast field, so there wasn’t going to be any space. It also became very quickly apparent that the nice, flat lap of the field to get your legs moving was going to be nothing of the sort. Already we were up to our ankles. ‘It’ll settle down in a bit!” Nope. Ankle or shin deep mud every bit of the way to the tented area. Less than one mile down – the four laps only now commencing. Jesus. No wonder the women looked so traumatised. My legs and lungs were already burning and we hadn’t technically started the laps yet!

Up the first climb we slipped. Two steps up, one slide right, course bearing left. Into the wind. Adrenaline already waning. Down the bank desperately trying to remain upright. My shiny new 15mm spikes no match for this terrain. (“Never mind 15mm spikes, you needed javelins in your soles!” Steve afterwards!)

Up the second climb. Slightly less room, absolutely no ideal line. Onto the second descent, described as the ‘muddy field’ by those in the know pre-race! So yes, shin and knee deep mud all the way – but at least the gradient was more gentle, so this part of the course was actually quite enjoyable. At the bottom there is a gate where you emerged back into the lower field and a large crowd was assembled here. I know why they were there! There was a particularly deep bog right at the bottom on a camber. There must have been some hilarious full-body-bog-dives there! For anyone out-of-control, tired, going too fast or simply not picking their feet up there could only be one outcome! On the four occasions I went through there were audible groans from the crowd when I emerged unscathed!

Round the field. This should be the easy bit. But it’s not. It’s torture. Now you feel like you should be running properly but you just can’t get going.

Onto lap two.

Up to that point us gents had got off lightly weather wise.

Then the hail came again…

I have already described my emotions as I began climbing again. Insanity. What were we doing out here? Get your head down, try and keep moving.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Field. Repeat.

Lap three. By now the top of the first climb is like the Somme. As with the women’s race, I have no idea how many dropped out of our race, but I have never seen so many runners walking back down the course in the wrong direction or simply stood at the side of the course with their families. I am now starting to lap a lot of people. Usually, by this stage, you have an idea of the guys around you, the ones you are vying for position with. But not today. It’s impossible to tell who’s on your lap and who isn’t.

Gary said it was at this point that (his words) “I did one of those burps where you’re sick in your own mouth!” He wasn’t sure if it was the party beer, his morning bacon and sausage butties, or a combination of the two…

Into the field and heading for the finish area to begin my last lap. Funnily enough, as if to prove the point that running is as much in the head as the legs, I am undergoing a recovery of sorts. I feel pretty good. I’m starting to revel in what, after-all, should be my kind of conditions. But really I’m just delighted that there is only one more lap to go!

Then it happens.

It’s the vociferous shouting of the crowd that alerts me to it first. Then it’s the sound. It’s like galloping horses hooves! S*** – I’m going to get lapped!!! Into the final straight I turn, right where the finish funnel splits from the course proper. But there he goes in my peripheral vision; a blur of Sale Harrier green. Then the second place guy. I never saw the third place bloke but he must have been right there as the crowd were shouting three different names!

As I said before, one of the amazing things about these big races is seeing the elites in action. The other Harriers said it was amazing to watch these guys appearing not to touch the ground at all, even in these conditions. I was stunned. But, mostly, I was just jealous that they could stop running and I had to go round again!

Lap four – the unnecessary lap!

The top of that penultimate climb was only bearable because I didn’t have to do it again. Most were walking up. I maintained the pretence of running only because I was determined to be able to say afterwards “I didn’t walk!” – not because I was actually travelling any faster than those who were walking!

The last climb – oh the joy of cresting it! I pretty much laughed all the way down the ‘muddy field’ and attempted a finishing spurt of sorts round the field.

The finish line. Thank **** for that. It was one of those finish lines where there was a marshal specifically charged with the job of making runners move away from the finish line and through the finish area. To a man every runner crossed the line and stopped dead, there and then.

Mike was the next Harrier in, narrowly seeing off Dave (again!) in their personal battle! Steve, Gary and Tony soon followed and finally it was over!

Coffee and cakes have never been so deserved!

 

For the record, I ran the 7.14 miles in 57mins 14 secs. I was 261st of 719 finishers.

 

2015 – The Year of the Gear.

nb – apologies for the lack of pictures to make my boring writing more interesting. For some reason I am unable to add any media to this post due to (apparently) an annoying HTTP error(?) If I resolve this issue, I will add some images later. Sorry!

December 30th, 2015. I suppose the purpose of this blog is to round up the running year that was 2015. It’s not really about the kit as such, although I keep threatening to write about that, it was more that ‘gear’ rhymed with ‘year’ and sounded more snappy than ‘2015 review’. (So, pretty much a lie just for the sake of hoping you might carry on reading.)

Anyway, as usual, it is over two months since my last post so, before rounding off my year, a brief running update is required.

I have finally gone into ‘end-of-year-taper’ mode after a fairly full on 12 months. By mid-October I was suffering pretty much constant pain in my right heel and foot from planter fasciitis, caused by not replacing my longer mileage training shoe and therefore doing all my running in my Adidas Boston Boost – a superb race trainer but simply not built for everyday use by a heel-striking flat-footer like myself.  I should have rested earlier, but had two races penned in for late October/early November so persevered with the training until then. (Clearly, this is NOT the advisable course of action – treat this as a cautionary tale rather than an injury advice training plan!) The two races were, however, hugely successful personally, highlighting my level of fitness at that time.

The Standish Hall Trail Race – Saturday 31st October.

This is my most local of local races. A twice yearly event held only a mile up the road on farm tracks and muddy woodland trails. The course is almost exactly 10km long and is an approximate figure of 8 up-and-down a steepish hillside. I have entered the race on several previous occasions and therefore can use it as an accurate barometer of my current level of performance. My previous best was 42 minutes which, at the time, was good enough for 10th place. The field is never more than 250 runners, often less, which gives a really intimate atmosphere to proceedings.

I wrote a review of the race for the Wigan Harriers website, so rather than totally re-write the same thing again, please click on the link below to read my report:

https://wiganharriersendurance.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/standish-hall-trail-race-3/

You are forgiven if you couldn’t be bothered clicking that! To summarise, I ran into a really satisfying (and fairly surprising!) 4th place. Only 78 raced on the day; a local parkrun had had its inaugural event that morning, reducing the field for this race, but I was still delighted with 4th. Logging 40mins 13secs for a hilly, muddy 10K was also pleasing.

The only thing to add to my public recount above is to add a personal footnote:

The race date of 31st October was quite an emotive one.

Firstly, it was the one year anniversary of tragically losing Alisha Bartolini at 18 years of age to Meningitis. (Please see all my previous blogs for more details / fundraising etc.)

Secondly, I had received further tragic news just the day before. Iestyn Keir, a 12 year-old former pupil of my school and child of a work colleague, had suddenly and tragically died just hours after a cycling event the previous weekend. To say this was a shock was an understatement. Iestyn was such a great lad who, unusually for a child of his age, shared my passion for endurance sporting persuits. I loved listening to his cycling news and would share in-depth, analytical  discussions of any cycling Grand Tours taking place at the time.

My mind was therefore awash with thoughts on the start line of the tragedy of young lives cut short, the never-ending pain this causes to the families concerned and, personally, a renewed determination to live life to the full at each and every opportunity.

With these tragedies at the forefront of my mind, I had therefore pre-determined that I was going to absolutely flog myself into the ground on this run and attack from the start. My normal conservative race start went out of the window and no-doubt contributed to finding myself in the leading pack. Everytime I felt my effort levels waning or my pace drop, I thought of Iestyn hammering up a climb on his bike (his favourite cycling discipline) and put the hammer down as hard as I was physically capable.

I crossed the line absolutely spent. If Alisha had pushed me round 110K in June, then Iestyn certainly dragged me round this course. I hope they were both watching.

One positive outcome of racing so well was my first ever running prize! I was 2nd Vet & 2nd Vet40 in the race but, as the leading Vet was the actual race winner, I was promoted to 1st place Vet and won £20 of vouchers for the local running shop ‘The Endurance Store’ – result!

Lakeland Trails Helvellyn Race, Glenridding – Saturday 7th November.

The following Saturday saw us travel to the Lake District for our final Lakeland Trails series event of the year. We were particularly excited to return to Glenridding as it held such fond memories for us from the summer Ultra. The girls, my parents and in-laws had surprised me in the village by coming to support me at the breakfast feed station.

To say the weather conditions were slightly different is an understatement! In summer we had enjoyed beautiful early morning sunshine with temperatures already on the rise; in November the forecast was apocalyptic rain. (A forecast that would become all too common for the entire month which followed, projecting Glenridding to national prominence just a month later, when flash floods wreaked havoc.)

The forecast was such that we considered not attending – not so much for Leanne and myself, who were more than prepared to confront the conditions. More for Hannah and Nancy (aged 8 and 4) who, we thought, might not be too keen on standing in a field for a whole day in dreadful conditions. However, we delved deep into our rucksacks in the loft and found full waterproofs that fit both girls  – so off we set. (Hannah may disagree that the full-sized adult waterproofs fit her, but it was nothing that a bit of rolling-up at waist and ankles didn’t sort!)

We were glad we made the effort as, despite the weather, we enjoyed an absolutely fantastic day out. The girls absolutely loved being given free license to jump in every puddle available, (there were many!) Leanne loved the liberating experience of heading into the hills in conditions where you would normally retire to the hotel bar for the day, and I ran another blinder to finish in 12th place despite again performing my ‘Bambi-on-Ice’ impression on every slippery descent!

We then retired to the shelter of the event marquee to enjoy our final Pete Lashley gig of the year – he even played Hannah’s request of Jacob’s Creek for her! We thanked the event director Graham Patten and his team; the events are such a focal point of our family life now and obviously played a major role in our year. We wished him luck for the final event the following day which we couldn’t attend – again in Glenridding. As it turned out, he would need that luck as the weather was even worse the next day! The planned Ullswater ferry crossings had to be cancelled meaning a cleverly arranged back-up route had to be set up on the morning!

Once again I send my thanks and seasonal greetings to Graham and the entire Lakeland Trails team – we already cannot wait for Cartmel in March!

Perhaps more importantly though, we send our best wishes to everyone in the Lakes, and indeed much closer to home in Lancashire and Yorkshire, who have suffered so terribly in the recent rains and ensuing floods. To see places so close to our hearts suffer such devastation has been really upsetting. Of the six Lakeland Trail venues in the year, three (Staveley, Keswick and Glenridding) have suffered such damage that sections of the actual race routes are currently impassable. These will possibly be repaired by the time we visit in the New Year, but the damage to people’s homes and livelihoods will continue long into the future. Good luck to everyone involved; our thoughts are with you.

Mid-Lancs Cross Country League, Sefton Park, Liverpool – Saturday 28th November.

As there were three weeks between Glenridding and Liverpool, I took two weeks completely off running to rest my sore foot. I resumed some light running in the week leading up to the Sefton Park event. Although a Mid-Lancs league event for our club, this race was much bigger than that. Both the Men’s and Women’s races were also U23 European Championship qualifiers, meaning that there was a National element to the field (at U23 level at least!) and a couple of other local leagues also in attendance at the event, swelling not only numbers of participants but also increasing the quality of the competition.

I arrived at Sefton Park on another wet and windy afternoon. I know the area well having lived on the nearby Penny Lane for three years during my student days. I was greeted by large crowds, lots of super-fit, sleek looking national standard athletes and commentary on the races booming across the park from well known BBC athletics commentator Paul Dickenson. (I hope I’ve got the right commentator there, it was over a month ago – it was the guy who normally does the field events for BBC at the big championships!) It took quite a while just to find the Wigan Harriers tent and my team mates!

This was the first race when I was at a genuine disadvantage not yet possessing cross country spikes. By the time the Men’s race began, large sections of the course had been reduced to slippery, slushy mud. I skated down the start hill and only really regained my footing for the uphill sections. Ploughing through the deep mud was not a problem – everyone slips in that! It was the treacherous surface mud which was the problem, forcing me to the outside of most bends of the course in search of traction. The effort of this constant slipping and sliding reduced my legs to jelly by the third lap and I was clinging on for dear life as the finish straight was finally reached.

I was totally stunned to find I completed the 6.15 miles in 39 minutes 53 seconds! If you had asked me on crossing the line I would have said that it felt around 43/44 minute pace. It certainly felt like I had been running a long time! Still, the watch and the final results don’t lie, so I was more than happy with that – and a top-half placing of 278th in a high-quality field of 577 finishers was also pleasing.

December…

Even after a good 17 days off it was clear my foot was no better than it was before, so I resigned myself to having the final month of the year off. By mid December I was feeling some improvement so I used my Endurance Store vouchers to purchase a new pair of more cushioned distance trainers. I have only worn my Brooks Glycerin four times to date but the fact that my foot feels better for running in them than it did before tells me that I have made a good choice.

Thanks, as ever, to the staff at the Endurance Store, and Tim Pilkington at Wigan Harriers, for support and advice during purchase, (including quite a bit of time on their tread mill in different shoes.) If you live anywhere near Appley Bridge, Wigan, get down to the Endurance Store – they will point you in the right direction and won’t try to sell you a product they don’t believe in.

There is time for one last little running outing tomorrow but I have surpassed my goals for 2015. Yesterday’s run took me over the 1200 mile mark for this year. I wanted to exceed a 100 miles-per-month average and, considering I have missed over 8 weeks of the year with injury or enforced rest, I am delighted to do so. I will have trained in some form on 143 occasions – over 3 times a week for the time I have been fit to train in. I will still be aiming to beat both these totals in 2016, though! Obviously the main aim was to complete the Ultra, but to do it unscathed and unscarred was especially satisfying.

So what’s changed in 2015?

  1. Well, my shoerack for a start! – At the start of the year I possessed two pairs of trainers; one road, one trail. I now possess four pairs of trainers, (all purchased this year, the original two pairs are long gone!) I have two pairs of road shoes – Brooks Glycerin for everyday training and longer distances, Adidas Boston Boost for races and short, sharp stuff. I also own two pairs of trail shoes – Hoka One Ones, the super-cushioned long distance comfort shoe for long runs on firmer ground, and Adidas Adizero Raven Boost for muddier trail conditions and shorter, faster work. Ridiculously I really need to purchase some cross country spikes too which would push my footwear count to five. But sanity (and finances!) dictate that I may try and blag my way through this winter and pick those up next year!
  2. My kit drawer! – Where once my running drawer would be opened to find clothing consisting of nothing more than a couple of pairs of shorts, a pair of Ron Hill bottoms and a couple of t-shirts – now there are long sleeves, shorts sleeves, compression tops, fully waterproof jackets, running tights, waterproof bottoms, Injinji socks with toes in (try them, you’d be surprised!), running specific caps, buffs, sunglasses, two-layered running shorts… and on and on and on. That’s not including the running backpack, headtorches (2), various water bottles, survival bag, energy gels etc. It cost a bit, but I use it all – a lot! It all works too, (thanks again Endurance Store!) so I haven’t wasted any money on pointless, poor performing rubbish or things that I don’t need. Oh, and I had to move my stuff into a much bigger drawer!
  3. My base level of fitness – I have looked back at my starting point of January 2015 and the routes I was running. 10/11 mile trail runs around Ashurst Beacon and Parbold Hill were considered major expeditions 12 months ago. Now they are bog standard trot outs used as recovery runs or hill climbing practice. I am starting 2016 out in a position of such strength in comparison.
  4. Wigan Harriers – This was certainly an unexpected development in 2015! I had no intention of joining a club and, if I had considered it, it wouldn’t have been Harriers. I have at least two little clubs on my doorstep that I could reach without the need of a car. However, opportunity knocked after the Wigan 10k, and I received the gentle shove I needed to get involved. (Thanks, Mike!) Unfortunately time commitments, personal race commitments and, finally, injury niggles have meant that I haven’t really been able to properly throw myself in yet – I have probably only managed to train with them five or six times! However, I really enjoy it, have met some lovely people and plan to get involved far more next year.
  5. PBs – I expected to thrash my marathon PB and did so, despite not quite breaking 3.15. (I will sort those 54 seconds out sometime in the future!) I was not expecting to run 38.13 in the 10k and this was a genuine shock to me. The thought of going under 38 minutes was something I would have considered super-human a couple of years ago but is now a genuine target.
  6. Fundraising social-media style – Having never raised money for charity before, it was stunning just how easy social-media makes it these days. I hate asking for money so just never did it. But it was fantastic to be able to raise £2500 pounds for Meningitis Now and I am so grateful to people for their support and generosity.
  7. Becoming ULTRA – Obviously, this was the aim of the year and I was delighted with the way it panned out. I learned so much and was grateful that any slight misfortune I suffered occurred during training and not the race! Even the Lake District weather, so poor on both the day before and after the race, was absolutely perfect! A magical day!

2016 and beyond.

So what next? Well, I have a few things booked in and a few general ideas!

  1. Beat 1200 miles and 143 training sessions – You’ve always got to try and be better than the year before!
  2. Lakeland Trails 110k Ultra – I’ve entered again. I’d like to go faster! Clearly though, there is a lot of luck involved. First I need to be fit enough to be faster, so I need to avoid injury. Secondly, and more importantly, I will need good conditions on race day again; never a given in the Lakes! The course could be 3K longer if route permission is given on stage 4, where we had to cut a corner to avoid a farm this year. But I have a plan of attack, and it would be great to go under 17 hours! A friend of mine from the Thunder Run team has entered and we hope to get up to the Lakes a couple of times to run some of the course beforehand.
  3. 100 miles? – It’s the next natural progression after the Lakes 110k. I need to properly research the events to find one suitable for a debut at such a distance, and that may mean I have already missed entry deadlines for the 2016 events. So this target is more of a two year thing, but something I am going to have to attempt in the future.
  4. Half marathon PB – I haven’t run an official half marathon for three years so I know I can absolutely slaughter my current PB of 1.33. I’d be looking to knock a good six minutes off, so need to find a good course in early 2016.
  5. Cross Trainer & Core Exercises – We have a cross trainer in our conservatory. A pretty good one too. Most of the time it’s used for drying wet running gear. When I have injuries I use it as the starting point to getting out running again. I also use core strength exercises when injured. However, as soon as I am fit enough to go out and run again, these go out of the window. Yet I fully understand and appreciate the benefits of both cross and core training, so 2016 is the year that I make them a regular part of my training program and try not to just obsess about miles covered.
  6. Diet – Surely I can eat a bit more sensibly than I currently do? I dine out (literally!) on the premise that I can eat what I want because I burn it off, (my current weight and body shape would prove that this is largely true!) However, could there be marginal gains to be had in eating better to refuel and repair properly? No doubt there could. I need to at least try. (I won’t be turning Vegan though, despite just about every Ultra legend in the world doing it!)
  7. Blog – Try and post more regularly. Get this bloomin’ picture problem sorted. Learn how you can leave messages at the bottom of posts. Learn how to use possessive apostrophes properly! (Very embarrassing for a teacher!)
  8. Charity – Unfortunately, due to another unwanted tragedy, there is now another charity that I would quite like to support. Iestyn’s family have been raising money for the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital and you can find information at the following site dedicated to Iestyn:

http://iestyn.keir.muchloved.com/

I don’t know what I will do yet, but it would be nice to support in some way. I will also continue to support Meningitis Now; information on this charity can be found on the site dedicated to the memory of Alisha:

http://alisha-bartolini.muchloved.com/

 So that just about wraps up this year. Thanks for reading this post and any others you may have read through the year. Thanks if you contributed financially to the fund-raising. Thanks if you have supported my running in any way this year, (an exhaustive list of these people can be found in my last post!)

Finally, I hope you all have a fantastic 2016. Whatever it is you were thinking of doing ‘sometime’ in the future; be it physical activity, a holiday, visiting friends, taking up a hobby or just planning on spending more time outdoors whatever the weather (this would be a good one – do this one!) start planning to do it immediately!

Get out there and live life! Do it now! Quick!!!

Me? I’m going to pop out for a quick run…

footnote – as I proofread this post, the radio has just reported that the road between Pooley Bridge and Glenridding is closed again as Storm Frank blows over. Stay safe out there, and best wishes to those battling yet more floods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Ultra Runner to Club Runner – how did that happen?!

Time continues to fly. I continue to spectacularly fail to keep my blog even remotely up-to-date. School work continues to get in the way – of the blogging, I hasten to add, not the running which, through as much luck than management has, if anything, been taken to a new level since the ultra; rather than the general tapering off which I envisaged.

So what’s being going on? I hear you (probably not) ask. Well, since you so kindly (probably didn’t) ask, I’ll tell you.

The 24 hour Adidas Thunder Run.

I did enjoy a couple of gentle running weeks after the ultra, but had generally emerged unscathed from the experience. So, when a running pal asked me if I fancied helping out his Adidas Thunder Run team, I jumped at the chance.

If you have read my previous blogs, you will recall that I was lucky enough to win the 12 hour Conti Lightning Run with the Men’s Running magazine team in 2014. Well the 24 hour Adidas Thunder Run is the Lightning Run’s (very) big brother. I have kept in touch with all my team mates from that event due to their inspirational qualities and one of them, Pedro, had also maintained contact with the race sponsors. (Useful stuff – must remember to get better at this networking lark!)

And so it was that I became a member of the ‘ContiGrip’ Adidas Thunder Run 24 hour team! I’d heard the event was something of a ‘Trail Runners Mecca’ and I wasn’t to be disappointed. ‘Glastonbury for Runners’ was a phrase regularly banded about. If I was more organised, this event would have a blog all of its own, but for now I am grateful to Pedro for letting me borrow his write-up for the Conti Running facebook page – see link below. (Nice that he describes me as a ‘veteran ultra runner’! I assume he means veteran in age, not because of my vast ultra experience!)

https://www.facebook.com/contirunning/posts/879884642092131:0

My ContiGrip Adidas Thunder Run teammates. (the before shot)

My ContiGrip Adidas Thunder Run teammates. (The before shot.)

Glastonbury for Runners.

Glastonbury for Runners.

The ContiGrip team 'after' shot! (We look pretty good for about 3 hours kip and 4 cross country 10ks in 24 hours.)

The ContiGrip team ‘after’ shot! (We look pretty good for about 3 hours kip and 4 cross country 10ks in 24 hours.)

Pedro’s review neatly sums up a fantastic experience. I arrived knowing only Pedro and Felix, from Continental, of my seven teammates but left with five more new friends who it was an absolute pleasure to spend time with. Great memories. My sides hurt from laughing as much as my legs hurt from running. Happy days.

The Fuerteventura Training Camp (or all-inclusive-fortnight-feed-and-booze-up)

The first thing I packed was my running stuff. The first thing my wife packed was her running stuff. Then we packed the kids stuff. Then, if there was any luggage allowance left, we packed some real clothes.

I think the above is probably the first sign that you have taken your running to another level of commitment. People look at us like we’re mad for getting up at half six while on holiday to go running. But we both love it. And it is an amazingly simple way to get to know your way around an unknown place. Throw in the peace and tranquility of holiday resorts at 7am, as well as the beautiful sunrises, and I, for one, wouldn’t swap it for all the fuzzy headed hangovers in the world. Not only that, but you can then laze around the pool or beach all day knowing you have already done something worthwhile for yourself and ‘earned’ your downtime and food/drink treats!

Off before sunrise - beating the heat in Fuerteventura.

Off before sunrise – beating the heat in Fuerteventura.

'Morning has broken!' Sunrise above Corralejo.

‘Morning has broken!’ Sunrise above Corralejo.

Why wouldn't you want to get up for this?

Why wouldn’t you want to get up for this?

Due to the girls being young, Leanne and I alternate mornings to get up and go out, meaning our running has zero impact on the girl’s holiday. It does create an amusing situation at nights (especially on all-inclusive!) where my running morning leads to a night when I can enjoy a few drinks knowing I’m not up running the next morning. However, this pattern is exactly the opposite for Leanne, so my drink night becomes her ‘dry’ night and vice versa!

However, all this is a choice – we might enjoy running but we’re not monks! Holidays are meant to be enjoyed. We did both have our date with the October Chester marathon in the backs of our minds, but these runs were very much of the ‘ticking-over’ variety. The farthest I ran was 11 miles and that was only once. It was much more of a ‘sightseeing-photo-opportunity’ running program than a serious workout!

We did have one lovely day though, when the rest of the family kindly whisked the girls off to the beach allowing Leanne and I the rare opportunity to go out running together. We resisted the opportunity to turn it into a bar crawl and instead hugged the coast from port to beach to join our family once again. I must admit, charging straight into the sea instead of taking a shower was just about the most refreshing thing I have ever done after a run!

A rare 'Team Morgan-Hillam' photo opportunity! Corralejo jetty end.

A rare ‘Team Morgan-Hillam’ photo opportunity! Corralejo jetty end.

Leanne negotiates the town beach (and a bare bottom...)

Leanne negotiates the town beach and a bare bottom… (not hers, I hasten to add.)

Magazine front cover shot (if you photoshop the face.)

Magazine front cover shot (if you photoshop the face.)

Magazine front cover shot 2 (no photoshop required...)

Magazine front cover shot 2 (no photoshop required…)

Leanne's Marathon des Sables training coming on a treat.

Leanne’s Marathon des Sables training coming on a treat.

Home to Marathon Training.

I have to be honest at this point and say, even in a blog dedicated to espousing the joys of running, that I didn’t really enjoy the marathon training. I was committed to it from a long time ago or else I simply wouldn’t have done it. I am far more interested in trail running now and so continued to use trails for the majority of my long runs. I don’t mind road running for shorter distances; say up to half marathon distance, but anything longer and the body was willing but the mind was numbed.

I was very motivated for Leanne. She was making her marathon debut and it was definitely a leap into the unknown for her. Her training took priority as she had so kindly passed over six months of weekends to my ultra training schedule. I was only running because;

a) I told a friend I would if he did, and

b) my brother entered and got injured. I lost £50 in similar circumstances last year and so I transferred his number so that he got his money back.

I don’t know if it was this slight lack of motivation that meant my training runs felt sluggish or what, but I was revising my 3 hour 15 minute target further and further towards just beating my PB (3h29m58s).

The Wigan 10k – the race that changed everything?

It does feel ironic indeed that, in a year when my entire focus was on becoming an ultra runner, it was my homely little local 10k that was actually the race that changed my running life!

In the first week of September, exactly a month before the marathon, The Wigan 10k was as much a chance to shirk out of a long weekend run than it was an actual race. It is a truly brilliant event though – the best 10k I have ever done, (no bias!) There is a food market, beer stalls and kids entertainment in the town before, during and after the race, turning it into a day out – not just a run. Spectators have just as good a time as the runners, (or better?!) I was injured last year and had gone to support Leanne. It is the only time I have supported her and been genuinely jealous of not running; such was the pull of my ‘home’ race. So this year, marathon or no marathon, I was going to run.

As mentioned above though, my sluggish training times meant that, rather than hoping to beat my PB of 39.25 (same course, 2013) I was merely hoping to run sub 40 minutes and get close to the PB.

I don’t know what happened that morning. Was it the perfect conditions? The flat course? (All my training runs are, by necessity, on hills.) Whatever, within the first km I suddenly fancied my chances.

I spent the first 5k trying to keep a lid on my pace, just making sure I was sub 4mins per km to keep on target. The 6th km is a bit of a soul destroyer, into the wind in the only crowd-less part of the course. The real clincher though, is the last 2km. A slight rise (the only one) followed by a bit of annoying zig-zagging through a park. (The zig-zagging path is annoying, but the atmosphere in the park is incredible – so it sort of evens itself up!)

Having burned out in the last 2k two years ago, I saved a bit this time. I absolutely flew home to crush my PB and run an astonishing (for me) 38mins 13secs. 35th place of 3000 runners. I have no idea where that came from. Given that 3 years ago I thought sub40 was superhuman, this was a turn-up.

Sprint finish to 35th place at the Wigan 10k. (PB of 38m13s)

Sprint finish to 35th place at the Wigan 10k. (PB of 38m13s)

So how did this change everything? Well, I had been tentatively using twitter to follow a few local running clubs, individual runners etc. I do understand the benefits of being part of a club but have always been a lone runner by nature. I think I also felt a bit chivalrous turning up to races as an ‘independent’ and taking on the might of the club running vests all by myself! Maybe it was also the distant memory of a bad running club experience 30 years ago in my childhood that put me off. Either way, I told Leanne on a fairly regular basis that, when the girls were a bit older, I would join a running club ‘one day’.

So I suppose I should be grateful to one of the afore-mentioned local runners, Mike Harris, (@Mchbiker) who spotted me in a picture, then in the results, and gently tweeted to ask “So what club do you run for?”

“None,” I replied. “I am a heroic, chivalrous independent, bravely fighting the evil forces of Clubvestdom!” (I didn’t say this at all, but I was probably thinking it.)

“Right, get your arse down to the DW stadium at 7pm on Thursday night then!” he insisted.

“Oh, OK.” I replied, totally caving in to the powers of Clubvestdom at the first possible opportunity. (Long suffering friends will tell you that standing up to peer pressure is not one of my strong points.)

And so it was that, on Thursday 10th September 2015, approximately 30 years after the last time, I became a club runner again.

Wigan Harriers debut.

One training session was all it took to convince me I was doing the right thing. As everyone will tell you, running clubs are invariably friendly places whatever your level of ability. It is simply overcoming that fear of attending the first time which puts people off. I know it was for me – I was just waiting for someone to push me into it.

Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I have so far only managed three training sessions and two cross country races. I hope this will settle down and I will be a more regular attendee from now on. But straight away I enjoy the banter of meeting up with like minded souls and the gentle ribbing I am already being given for a variety of (well deserved) reasons.

The main reason I wanted to join was the winter cross country leagues. I have read so much about the step up in quality of these races compared to your average trail race that I was really keen to test myself. I have been pleased with my first two efforts, getting into the top 25% of the field, and hopefully more quality training with the club will improve this over time.

The Harriers website kindly published my report of the first race, click the link below to read on;

https://wiganharriersendurance.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/mid-lancs-cross-country-astley-park/

Proudly wearing my Wigan Harriers vest. Pennington, Leigh.

Proudly wearing my Wigan Harriers vest. Pennington, Leigh.

On my way to 45th of 229 runners.

On my way to 45th of 229 runners.

The push for home. (note: I'm lapping the guy behind, not just saving a sprint for the camera!)

The push for home. (note: I’m lapping the guy behind, not just saving a sprint for the camera!)

This would be a good time to say thanks to everyone at Wigan Harriers for making me feel so welcome. If anyone out there is thinking of joining a club, go and have a go – I’m sure you won’t regret it. And if you are one of those people in the WIgan area, get your arse down to the DW on Tuesdays or Thursdays!!!

So, finally onto…

The Chester Marathon.

Needless to say, running 38mins for 10k meant my target time needed re-evaluating for the marathon. 3.15 was now very much back on! Indeed, most websites (and new club mates) were informing me regularly that my 10k time equated to more like a 3hour flat marathon! I was way too scared to aim for such lofty heights but decided, if conditions were fair, I would certainly be trying to break 3.15 – a time which would qualify as ‘good for age’ in my Vet40 category. (Still can’t believe I’m a Vet – in my head I’m still in my 20s!)

Conditions were perfect as we left Chester Racecourse. My pace was comfortably on target. I’m not going to bore you with the details but, with a half completed in 1h35m I knew i had a chance to break 3.15. Eventually I was to fall 54 seconds over my self-imposed time limit. A couple of stomach cramps probably put paid to my chances as I felt OK the whole way. My legs did get tired a little bit (probably those missed long runs when I ran the Wigan 10k and a club cross country instead of 18/20 milers!) but I was pleased not to hit the wall in any way. Another slight annoyance was joining up with the metric marathon field at about the 21 mile mark. It’s not ideal when you are trying to maintain your pace after that distance to be joined by the slow, back end of a different event on a small country lane. (No disrespect intended to those runners – 16.3 miles is an epic achievement; I just mean that when two races join where the participants are running totally different speeds, it is not a good thing. Hopefully the organisers will look at this again for future years.)

So the slight tinge of disappointment at 3h15m54s was more than offset by knowing I’d knocked another 14 minutes off my PB and had run the two half marathons of the race in 1.35 and 1.40 – 1hr39 was my half marathon PB 3 years ago!!!

Top of the biggest hill on the beautiful, otherwise fairly flat Chester marathon route. Farndon. Approx 18 miles.

Top of the biggest hill on the beautiful, otherwise fairly flat Chester marathon route. Farndon. Approx 18 miles.

The main success stories of Chester marathon 2015 were not mine. And that is where the joy and wonder of the shared running experience comes into such striking play. My mate Gaz, on his marathon debut, ran a superb 3h38m. He learned so much about his training and himself that he is certain to be back to smash that time out of sight in the future.

But pride of place goes to my long suffering running-widow, Leanne, who ran amazingly to break 5 hours! And the crazy thing is – she loved every minute of it! She planned her training and race in such detail that she knew exactly what she wanted to do and executed her plan to perfection. Amazing. I was hobbling round the house and work, like you do, for the best part of a week afterwards. You genuinely couldn’t tell Leanne had done anything! Brilliant.

How can you be this cheerful after 26 miles?! Leanne on her way to the finish line at Chester Racecourse.

How can you be this cheerful after 26 miles?! Leanne on her way to the finish line at Chester Racecourse.

Myself, Leanne and Gaz. Stiff, smelly, but happy.

Myself, Leanne and Gaz. Stiff, smelly, but happy.

2015 – what a year. I will be forever ultra. Leanne will be forever a marathon runner. And, to my great surprise, I will always be a Wigan Harrier.

#110kforAlisha. Becoming Ultra. Memories and conclusions drawn from the Lakeland Trails 110K Ultimate Trail.

It is now almost two months since I successfully completed the Lakeland Trails 110k Ultra and, in my eyes at least, officially became an ultra runner. Given that this was the entire purpose of this blog, I feel slightly sheepish and embarrassed that it has taken me this long to pen my review of the event. There are a few genuine excuses; school work inevitably had to take a front seat for a few weeks, a fortnight abroad followed soon afterwards and, before you know it, time has passed! I read some excellent blogs by other competitors** but still couldn’t rouse myself from post race slumber to actually write my own! Eventually, this week, I cobbled together my family’s pictures of the event, along with my own video footage (I borrowed a friend’s GoPro – what a bit of kit!) and it finally spurred me on to write about it. I think the two months have certainly wiped the pain from my mind, leaving just joyous memories. I will try and recount as honestly as possible, before leaving you with some things I have learned on my journey and maybe persuade you – yes, YOU – that it is possible to become an ultra runner yourself.

** Please visit the Ultimate Trails facebook page and follow the links to other race reviews. All well worth a read, especially if you are considering having a go yourself.

https://www.facebook.com/UltimateTrails

Saturday 27th June, 2015. 00.15hrs.

Headtorch check 157 with Mrs Sticks looking equally apprehensive! (All official photographs courtesy of James Kirby @jumpyjames)

How many times can you check a headtorch? At he start with Mrs Sticks looking equally apprehensive! (All official photographs courtesy of James Kirby @jumpyjames)

The startline.

It’s finally here. I feel as if I am in a strange parallel universe. In all honesty, I have been thinking about this moment almost exclusively for six solid months – it seems surreal in the extreme to actually be here.

I’m definitely apprehensive. A subtle difference to nervous. I’m not scared, but the fear of the unknown is trying to drag me towards the latter. This wasn’t really helped at the pre-race safety briefing. I suddenly felt totally out of my depth. Everyone there looked so…. well, ultra. All chiselled cheekbones and not an ounce of body fat to spare.

“Relax, you look like one of them!” said Mrs Sticks reassuringly. Hmn, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t feel like one of them.

Still, the thing keeping me calm was that this was what I had wanted. I wanted to enter something to focus my mind, something truly challenging, something – yes, scary. So I could at least console myself with knowing that, whatever happened in the next 24 hours, I had at least achieved that aspect successfully!

As cool as a cucumber. A nervous cucumber.

As cool as a cucumber. A nervous cucumber.

12.15. Start delayed by 15 minutes so as not to baffle the German timing systems with a 00.00 start! The countdown begins. In whispered form so as not to disturb the locals. And we’re off. That’s enough worrying. Time to run 110k in one go. In the Lake District. And to start with at least, in the dark!

Stage 1 – Ambleside to Kentmere.
12.4km (12.4km), 7.7mls (7.7mls)
Troutbeck climb (250m).
Garburn Pass (447m).

A gentle start through Ambleside to encouraging shouts from supporters and locals leaving the pubs (so much for keeping the noise down!) An extra boost for me as the route leaves town passing the cottage that my family have hired as, ‘Supporters’ Base Camp,’ for the weekend. They were all having a great time with beer, wine and bolognaise while I tried to catch the last few winks of sleep a couple of hours earlier and I couldn’t help thinking that they were going to have a great weekend while I flogged myself up fells in the night!

Within minutes we were off tarmac and onto trail, climbing above Windermere with stunning views of the lake below; reflecting silhouettes of the surrounding hills and the beautiful star and moon filled sky above.

It had rained heavily on Friday until about 4pm. It was to rain heavily for most of Sunday. However, we had perfect conditions – as guaranteed by Graham Patten, race director!

Ultra running, I have learned, is the art of energy conservation. I needn’t have worried about setting off too fast. As the snake-like trail of headtorches reached the narrowing paths and first inclines, your pace is dictated by those immediately in front. With each steeper section of path, the runners in front would slow to walk, meaning you would too. When you heard the footsteps in front break into a trot again, you knew the climb was over. Unless someone was running in the wrong group of runners pace-wise, no overtaking was necessary. Everyone found their pace and their natural position in the pack.

The only thing I hadn’t practiced properly was night running. I’d had a go on roads but never done it on trails. I loved it. You have to run at a pace slightly slower and more cautious than you may do otherwise. And that is perfect for the opening stage of an ultra.

We climbed gently before dropping more steeply into Troutbeck. Then we climbed again, this time with a bit more altitude gain towards the Garburn Pass heading for the first food station at Kentmere. The first proper descent was a good test – I was a bit apprehensive in the dark given my recent ankle issues, balancing on the high soled Hokas. But before I knew it we could see the welcome lights of our first food station at Kentmere. 1 hour 30 minutes. Perfectly paced. All was good. (So was the tea and flapjack!)

Stage 2 – Kentmere to Mardale Head, Haweswater.
9.82km (22.22km), 6.1mls (13.8mls)
Nan Bield Pass (approx 600m).

And so to the first proper challenge. Nan Bield Pass is steep and technical whichever direction you take it, but especially the way we were to descend it. But first, the climb! The view on the way up was simply stunning – one of the highlights of the whole event. Walking up the switchbacks afforded us brilliant views back down the valley. A mist had built at village height, meaning we now looked down on cloud. For over a mile behind us, and on the snaking path below us, all that could be seen was a procession of headtorches. I wish my camera had been good enough to pick up the image – it was spellbinding.

I had really come to understand the benefits of power walking the climbs training on the cliffs of Devon, and it paid dividends here. Before I knew it I could hear cow bells and the enthusiastic greeting of the summit race marshals. (More about these amazing people to follow.)

At the top we were greeted with another stunning view. It was about 2.45am and the first glow of morning light was becoming visible in the sky. Seemingly miles below us was the black of the descent, only made visible by the reflection of the sky on the surface of Small Water half way down and Haweswater at the bottom. Breathtaking.

The path is rocky, uneven and technical in daylight, so this was very knarly at night in race conditions. I overheard other competitors discussing broken legs at previous events in this area and it is fair to say that everyone was being ultra-cautious. They must have been, because my descending is rubbish and I overtook a good number of people in this section. Reaching the more comfortable path on the lower slopes was a blessed relief and I reached the second food station at Mardale Head in good nick, ahead of schedule after 2hrs 45mins.

Stage 3 – Mardale Head to Bampton.
12.96km (35.18km), 8mls (21.85mls)
Full length of Haweswater.

Stage three was a flatter one, but one I was a little apprehensive of. Basically it was a run along the full length of Haweswater. I had walked this before on the Coast-to-Coast with my brother and we had endured a boiling hot, dehydrated slog along an uneven path in very hot conditions. (Granted, we had got absolutely bladdered in Glenridding the night before, so you could say it was self-inflicted!)

Apprehension soon gave way to enjoyment though. The path was mostly flat and runable, a blessed relief after concentrating fully on the illuminated circle of light 2 metres in front of me for the best part of 3 hours. Visibility was improving with every five minutes that passed. And I suddenly found myself in total isolation. In fact, I would not see a single runner for the entire hour it took to run the reservoir.

Early morning light at approximately 3.30am around Haweswater.

Early morning light at approximately 3.30am around Haweswater.

I cruised this section, pleased with how good I was feeling, trying not to get carried away. I did have a little energy wobble approaching Bampton, but I think that was more of a mental thing as I was looking forward to a proper sit down, cup of tea and, most importantly, a bacon butty! All these things I enjoyed, taking about a 15 minute breather, leaving food station three at 5am – 4hrs 45mins race time.

Stage 4 – Bampton to Howtown.
14.95km (50.13km), 9.3mls (31.1mls)
Askham Moor – Stone Circle (325m).

The longest stage of the run, but another flattish one. There would be no more ‘flat’ stages until the last one – stage nine. In actual fact a route diversion (thanks to an unsupportive farmer who didn’t understand the 24 hour clock) meant that this stage was in fact approximately 3kms shorter than advertised, and now had a bit of tarmac bashing.

Still, this meant quicker progress and, after a brief climb up onto the moor, we could all enjoy a long, steady descent on good running trail all the way to the next food station at Howtown. The early morning views were again stunning. This time it was the full length of Ullswater appearing below us. Pooley Bridge at the near end; Glenridding, an eventual destination, way away at the far end of the lake.

Ullswater, approximately 5.30am.

Ullswater, approximately 5.30am.

I passed marathon distance for the first time ever somewhere on the descent. I don’t know exactly where – my old Garmin 405 watch hasn’t the battery life for this kind of thing, (another expensive investment required for future ultras!) But I still felt pretty good arriving in Howtown. The food station was a magical little building so I had another brew and some porridge to spur me on. A big chunk of time gained on my 7.30 estimation (partly because of the shorter route). 6hrs 15 mins.

Stage 5 – Howtown to Glenridding.
9.93km (60.06km), 6.2mls (37.3mls)
Boredale Hause (399m).

Glenridding was billed as ‘Half-way House’ but it was actually 60k in, therefore over halfway. Quite a bonus. Even more of a bonus as it was where Mrs Sticks and my parents were going to meet me. I certainly hoped they had risen early, as I was going to be a couple of hours quicker than the time I estimated! The legs were showing the first signs of weariness here, but there was a flat path into the climb of Boredale Hause, so I figured on a trot to the foot of the climb as I would definitely be walking up that! It was now a beautiful, sunny morning and the scenery was spectacular. Unfortunately this meant we had a clear view of the impending climb as we neared the end of the valley! I was now learning that there is a blissful ignorance to nighttime running when you can’t see the climb ahead!

Sorry fellow Ultra-athlete, but I don't know who you are! But I had quite a laugh with this lad and his mate as we huffed and puffed our way towards Boredale Hause!

Sorry fellow ultra-athlete, but I don’t know who you are! I had quite a laugh with this lad and his mate as we huffed and puffed our way towards Boredale Hause!

The climb was a brute but, as earlier mentioned, it is amazing how quickly you climb. 20 minutes of pain is usually enough to get you within sight of the summit and, sure enough, before I knew it, I was staring down on Patterdale and Glenridding as I began the descent down another well-known section of path. The descent is tricky but not overly steep and technical and I was soon heading into Side Farm – well-known to walkers as a popular bacon butty/tea bar to begin a day in the fells.

I was surprised there wasn’t a race sign taking us left at this point on the well trodden path to Glenridding but decided to follow the runners in-front of me going straight on. I knew Lakeland Trails run an autumn event here (I haven’t attended that one yet) so assumed they must use another path that I didn’t know of. However, after a couple of minutes, I began to have doubts. So did the lads in-front, who were now peering over a wall. None of us could see another path, so we all decided to back-track and use the path we knew. A good decision, as it turns out as the sign had been ‘removed’ at Side Farm by some unkind soul – several runners didn’t realise this and unwittingly added on quite substantial needless miles. We lost maybe five minutes. A little frustrating, all the people I overtook on the climb were now in front again, but not a disaster.

And so into Glenridding I pottered. Tired legs, but amazed at the smoothness of my progress. 8 hours dead for the first 60ks (well, 57!) And an extra bonus – everyone had got up to come and meet me! Leanne with our girls, Hannah and Nancy, my parents and my parent-in-laws all lined the street! A lovely surprise. I enjoyed a sociable half hour changing into fresh running kit, eating and drinking, re-applying plasters and vaseline, putting on sun-cream (it was only 8am but it was hot) and generally relaxing. Maybe relaxing too much, as the next stage nearly finished me off!

Up and off early! My fantastic support team on their way to Glenridding!

Up and off early! My fantastic support team on their way to Glenridding!

The girls, proudly clad in their Meningitis Now t-shirts, patiently wait for my arrival.

The girls, proudly clad in their Meningitis Now t-shirts, patiently wait for my arrival.

Fresh kit (slightly wonky!) ready for the 3 killer stages! Just time for another bit of flapjack first...

60k down, 50k to go. Fresh kit (slightly wonky!) ready for the 3 killer stages! Just time for another bit of flapjack first…

Stage 6 – Glenridding to Dunmail Raise.
11.75km (71.81km), 7.3mls (44.6mls)
Grisedale Hause (approx 600m).

This was the make-or-break stage. I knew the route well. Or rather I thought I did. What I actually knew was the ascent section. I didn’t know the descent – I do now!

The climb to Grisedale Hause is one well-known to me through the Coast-to-Coast and lots of walking in a popular corner (well, centre) of the lakes. Most of my experiences of this bit of path involve descending from the high fells on my way back to a parked car in Glenridding. And I associate it with being knackered. Every time. And that was going downhill! So I was mentally prepared for the climb upwards to be no fun.

After a steep little pull from Glenridding itself, the views were lovely. It felt so hot, and I had been up so long, that my mind was playing tricks on me. It was just after half past eight but it felt like midday! Fortunately it was much cooler the higher we climbed so the heat didn’t play too much of a factor.

Despite thinking I’d eaten a lot, my legs felt hollow by now, so I decided that I was going to walk the whole climb, even the flattish valley path to the foot of the climbing proper. This probably paid dividends later on, but at the time I felt quite sluggish and a few runners passed me here.

I was still enjoying the climbs though and caught a few of them back up again once the path reared properly upwards and forced everyone to walking pace. Once again, after a hard-working half-hour or so, Grisedale Tarn appeared over the horizon and my heart skipped a little beat, knowing I had knocked-off a section I was worried about.

Premature…

Grisedale Tarn - cracked it! (Or so I thought...)

Grisedale Tarn, with the destination of Grisedale Hause just above – cracked it! (Or so I thought…)

I wanted to run along the top path but it was actually quite tricky underfoot. ‘Just walk it and run the descent’. I knew the contours were tightly packed on the map for the descent but just didn’t realise the path would literally go straight down. And I mean straight. Underfoot was so tricky, like a scramble or down-climb in many sections. That’s what it felt like to me, nearly 70k in, at least.

My legs went to jelly, and instead of skipping down a descent, I suddenly found that my legs didn’t want to bend to the steepness of the path. Different muscles would cramp up with each over stride, each downward step was such a huge effort and the road at Dunmail Raise seemed miles below me. I was passed several times and even ramblers coming up the other way looked as if they felt sorry for me. I felt sorry for me. It had totally taken me by surprise.

At the bottom there was about a kilometer of flat path to the food station but I could only manage a slow walk. My mind and body were temporarily shot. I was still way ahead of my 20 hour schedule but was having my first doubts about the distance. Especially knowing that the next two stages were equally as difficult. I sat at the food station downing flapjack, jelly babies – anything I could get my hands on. I needed an energy boost. Flat coke? Who would have known it would taste so good?! The other runners obviously agreed; it was in short supply at all the food stations! Crucially, I also ate every piece of Soreen malt loaf in my pack here too. Malt loaf had been my running food of choice during training. I reckon my well-being on the next stage was down to you, malt loaf!

I had a ten minute sit-down and generally gave myself a good talking to. I was doing very well and had simply had my first blip. 71k, approx 10hrs 45mins. Pull yourself together, Sticks!

Stage 7 – Dunmail Raise to Rosthwaite.
10.91km (82.72km), 6.8mls (51.4mls)
Blea Tarn/Watendlath Fell (530m).

This was a step into the unknown. The only stage I had never stepped any foot on before. Descibed as ‘the boggy bit’ in most recce notes, I knew it involved a steep up and down with a moorland, Pennine type section in the middle. I walked into the climb, still re-enthusing myself, and attacked the uphill in my now familiar route-march fashion. It was steep and pretty relentless, although at least the terrain changed. Bracken, tarn side paths, woodland tracks – I wasn’t particularly seeing the beauty at this point! I did recover uphill though and began to catch the specks in front of me. Once over the summit there was another spectacular view – right down Bassenthwaite Lake in the North, with Skiddaw and Blencathra gazing over from the distance.

By the top I had recovered enough to have a little run. The soft, peat-like moorland underfoot certainly helped and, fortunately, there wasn’t as much ‘bog-hopping’ as I’d expected. A steep drop down towards Watendlath Tarn followed. There were loads of groups of teenage outward bound students in the area. At least 7/8 groups of up to 10 at a time. I have to say each cheery ‘Hello!’, ‘Keep it up!’ and ‘Well done!’ were a huge pick-me-up. I heard a few snidey grumblings about ramblers and day-trippers during my weekend in ultra-land but I have to say that, practically without exception, the general walking/day-trip public that I ran into were massively supportive.

Mum and Dad had warned me about the sharp little climb at Watendlath Tarn before dropping into Rosthwaite and I’m glad they did. I was ready for it. Psychologically it could have been a killer.

I ran the descent and tottered into the food station feeling tired but much happier with life. This was temporarily crushed when the advertised pizza had run out! I figured that, as one of the later runners, it was only to be expected. Only later did I realise that was inside the top third of runners! I consoled myself by eating every other available item… 82kms down (over 50 miles). Approx 13hrs 15mins.

Stage 8 – Rosthwaite to Stickle Barn.
13.72km (96.44km), 8.5mls (59.9mls)
Stake Pass – safety check point (480m).

The other stage I’d dreaded. Although it wasn’t the whole stage I dreaded – just Stake Pass. A proper beast of a pass, steep in either direction. Another path I associate with feeling absolutely knackered at the end of a day’s walking. However, there were positives – it was the last major climb; break this and it’s downhill (sort of!) all the way to Ambleside! Plus there was the bonus of the final food station – the Sticklebarn Tavern! A welcome sight on any day of the year. The last food station would stock everything a weary runner could possibly require – and they definitely wouldn’t run out of coke! Coupled with the fact that all my family were going to be there again, and possibly the family of Alisha Bartolini too (see previous blog) and I generally couldn’t wait to get there!

But first – Stake Pass…

It was a long path to get to the valley head which Stake Pass climbs from and, as it was pretty warm, I decided I was going to walk to it regardless of running energy. Walk this bit, then hopefully run all the last stage at a decent pace.

This I did. Tired legs, but comfortable enough. All the time though, Stake Pass began to loom ever closer. A relatively new path has been built from this side. I began counting switchbacks on the approach and got way past 20 – it was like a mini Alpe d’Huez!!!

I crossed the stream at the bottom and steeled myself. ’30 minutes, 30 minutes, just 30 minutes’ I chanted to myself, over and over. (Making sure I did it in my head when passing anyone.)

The zig-zags of mini Alpe d'Huez, aka Stake Pass, from about half way up. Just what your legs need after 90ks!!!

The zig-zags of mini Alpe d’Huez, aka Stake Pass, from about half way up. Just what your legs need after 90ks!!!

Following the pattern of the rest of the day, I found going uphill OK. Sure, I was blowing out of my arse. It was so steep you just put your head down and kept going, stopping every couple of bends to admire the ever more beautiful view – and take in oxygen! But, as I knew it would, after about 20 minutes the crest of the ridge was in sight.

There was a little bit of respite at the top before one last knee-crunching descent. Not as bad a Dunmail Raise, or Nan Bield for that matter, but knackering none-the-less. Despite that, I could barely conceal my grin at this point. I now had a wonderful view down the end of the Langdale valley, one of my favourite places in the world, I knew the pub wasn’t too far round the corner where family and friends were waiting, and I also knew that, whatever happened from now, I was definitely going to complete my first ultra.

As I neared the bottom I could make out my Mum and Dad who had walked up the valley to meet me. Another welcome boost. Little did I know they were on their second lap and had been part way up Stake Pass once already themselves. They even spent a bit of time with the official photographer, James Kirby, and bagged themselves a little bonus treat…

My mum and dad halfway up Stake Pass, the stunning Langdale valley behind. Thanks @jumpyjames!

My Mum and Dad halfway up Stake Pass, the stunning Langdale valley behind. Thanks @jumpyjames!

My legs felt hollow again at the bottom so, despite it being a mile or so to the pub on flat, good tracks, I decided I was going to walk it. I was in good time and knew that, with a decent run on the last stage, I would have a good chance of breaking 18 hours – a time that I considered would be very successful during the months of training.

It was pretty warm and I was generally drained but, with the thought of the pub keeping me going, I finally spotted a few orange t-shirts in the next field! Leanne had to run alongside me as I marched straight past – the thought of food and flat coke spurring me on!

Aahhh, The Sticklebarn! I wasn’t going to be able to make myself as comfortable as I usually did in there, but I would enjoy it none-the-less! There was the bonus of Michaela, Sean, Sonny and the rest of the Bartolini/Bradley family there to greet me which really made my day. I’d broken the back of the race – now I was determined to actually finish in style! 96k done, 15hrs 45mins.

Han and Nan outside the Sticklebarn - the orange Meningitis Now t-shirts got a lot of attention. Oh, and Hannah was chased by a sheep, which amused the entire pub!

Han and Nan outside the Sticklebarn – the orange Meningitis Now t-shirts got a lot of attention. Oh, and Hannah was chased by a sheep, which amused the entire pub!

My fantastic family - support is everything.

My fantastic family outside The Sticklebarn Tavern in the wonderful Langdale valley – not many better places on earth.

Stage 9 – Stickle Barn to Ambleside.
11.73km (108.17km), 7.3mls (67.2mls)
Nr Loughrigg Fell (190m).

12k to go. And a lovely 12k at that. I knew the route, with one little diversion. Flat or rolling, a little climb at the end, then one last descent into the finish. I wanted to stay at the Sticklebarn longer. I wanted to chat to everyone who’d given their time to come and support. But… I was getting finish line fever. The last 3 stages had taken longer than I estimated due to all the walking I’d done, but I felt good and I was still well inside the 20hour timetable I’d set. It was approaching 5.15pm, so I had 2 hours to run the last stage to break 18 hours.

I had some soup and sandwiches, a lot of coke, a cup of tea and I then began apologising to people, telling them I wasn’t hanging around!

The atmosphere at the pub was amazing. It was a glorious afternoon, the terrace of both the pub and the hotel were heaving and there was a fantastic marshal with a cow bell practically announcing each runner down the lane to huge applause! It was like being a famous athlete for a fleeting moment! Definitely another highlight of the day!

Suddenly I was re-invigorated. It just goes to show what a mind game this ultra lark is, but I knew I was going to run this entire stage. James Kirby was hidden in some bracken round a corner to capture the moment…

Another great @jumpyjames shot. Maybe Leanne was right at the briefing, I do look at least a little bit 'Ultra'. I didn't even recognise myself on the photo when looking through them initially.

Another great @jumpyjames shot. Maybe Leanne was right at the briefing, I do look at least a little bit ‘Ultra’. I didn’t even recognise myself on the photo initially.

It was such a joy to run through Langdale. Partly because it was the first ‘flat’ in quite a while, partly because it was a beautiful day. Mostly I think it was the pressure lifted knowing the next stop was the actual end. There was one moment of confusion when the 55k route crossed the 110k route in the opposite direction. Fortunately, knowing the area pretty well, I knew I was on the right path.

It was a lot busier in the valley but clearly the tourists had got used to runners passing and there was still lots of encouragement from bystanders. Past the Wainwright’s pub and then the Brittannia Inn at Elterwater (more places I like to ‘rest’ in!) before the race director, Graham Patten, delivered one last kick in the pants!

There is a path straight towards Loughrigg and Ambleside at this point, but no – we had to run straight up the hillside one last time, just to get a nice view of Loughrigg Tarn! Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against Loughrigg Tarn, but at that particular moment I had seen enough gorgeous views to last me the year and would rather just have run on the path to Ambleside! Still, we’d have had to climb at some point, so no big deal…

Up and round Loughrigg Tarn we went. Then a gentle, flat section and one last raise before the drop to Ambleside. And one last treat for me, too. An old work colleague, who retired to the area a couple of years ago, had heard about the run and was sat on the pathside waiting with water and a piece of lemon drizzle cake! (She’s a great baker!) Water and cake were devoured in seconds! A brief chat – for which I felt very guilty as she’d been there a couple of hours – but I really wanted to finish now. I was off.

One last ridge to climb, then a very steep descent. Strange how they don’t hurt anymore with just 1km left isn’t it?! By now I could hear the drummers at the finish line and the commentary, which also quickened the pulse. Then footsteps behind? How come? I’m flying here, there’s no way I’m being overtaken now! It turned out it was the winner of the 55k race, overtaking me at the bottom of the last hill! That made me mad! Should have eaten that lemon drizzle quicker!!!

Finally into Rothay Park and a sprint finish of sorts, accompanied by Hannah and, eventually, Nancy.

I had made it. Officially ultra. 17hrs 37mins 50secs. 67th place on 194 finishers. 380 entered so I have no idea what happened to half the field. I was pleased with the time, obviously, but mostly I was pleased to have managed the race well so that I could actually ‘enjoy’ practically all of it. Immediately after the race I said that, although I did enjoy it, I probably wouldn’t do another one. But that feeling was long gone by the next day. I know I will. After all, I’m an ultra runner now. (And I’ve spent a fortune on kit…)

Is that it?!

Is that it?!

“Will you stop going out running all the time now, Dad?”

Footnote/Video Footage – Trek & Run.

I mentioned the filming I did during the race previously. I will get round to editing it soon and will post it. However, during my epic sprint finish (!) I overtook a guy called Dave Wise who makes the ‘Trek and Run’ films. Mad really, cos his films inspired me to borrow my friend’s GoPro! So I filmed him filming me! You can view his great effort here…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fciaLx_e3ak

I am in it 3 times. Briefly just after Glenridding, running infront, then I am in the Sticklebarn getting stuck into the buffet as he enters, then finally he captures my finish! Good job, Dave! Congratulations on your run. His film does give a great insight into the race, what it looks like and how it feels. Please check out his many films on You Tube!

What Have I Learned?

First, the technical running stuff…

1 – Train properly!

Have a plan over 6 months, build up gradually, take your time with injuries (better to miss a few weeks than months – or miss the race), mix up distances as per any training plan, put in hills – if you are entering this specific ultra, LOTS of hills! Practice descents the same as ascents. Go to places with terrain similar to that of your course, some do course recces – invaluable. My week in Devon made my race – lots of miles more than usual on hills much steeper than usual – invaluable practice for the race. I never ran over marathon distance once. You don’t have to. Quality training will win over quantity but don’t use that as an excuse to shirk out. Every bit of training is invaluable. CORE WORK – I must include more core work!

2 – Respect the distance

Walking is my new running! Conserve energy wherever possible in the race! I trained by running up hills. In the race I walked practically all of them. There’s no point burning out your legs running up a hill in 10 minutes that you can walk up in 20. Walk up, get down as best you can, run the in-betweens. Obviously this advice depends upon your level of expertise! Kim Collison, the winner, finished in 10hrs 48mins!!! Obscene! I bet he didn’t walk much! How the hell did he manage the descents, never mind the ascents?! My Mum and Dad watched some of the leaders descending Stake Pass and said they were lunatics!

Here I am at Sunday's presentation with the winner, Kim Collison. He looks scared doesn't he? He knows I'll beat him next year...

Here I am at Sunday’s presentation with the winner, Kim Collison. He looks scared doesn’t he? He knows I’ll beat him next year… Photo courtesy of @jumpyjames

3 – Get the right kit.

You cannot short change on this one. Or you can, but it will just be more uncomfortable. Shoes are crucial. I used Hokas but they’re not for everyone. Back pack is vital, they can rub terribly. Mine was recommended and is great – Ultimate Direction (kit blog to follow). I bought kit over a period of months to spread the cost, but it was all well used before the event. The trainers and bag are useful for the long training runs so get them first. Clothing, waterproofs etc can be picked up later.

4 – Know the route.

I don’t necessarily mean recce, although it is useful. The more you know, the less surprises. I was lucky to have perfect conditions on a waymarked route. There was only 3 occasions when I wasn’t quite sure if I was right or wrong. But I’d studied the route and, at worst, I knew where I was even if I wasn’t sure of the exact path. However, if the cloud had been down on Watendlath, for example, I bet spotting the next marker would have been very tricky. Psychologically, knowing which bits are going to be difficult and where you can have a ‘breather’ is very helpful.

5 – Don’t take descents for granted.

It may be a personal thing, but I am much happier going uphill than down. The descents really got me – especially Dunmail Raise. Partly because I didn’t know the terrain (see point 4!) But descending batters tired legs, and I bet they’re where most injuries occur. Go steady!

6 – Try to remember to enjoy it!

It’s hard work. It wears you down. You’re tired, obviously. Reading other people’s accounts, some get into a right state – either by bad luck or bad planning! But I was lucky enough to always be able to look around and enjoy the scenery. It’s a day out in a beautiful place. Try and remember that! (Much easier said than done!) You are doing something amazing that you will remember for the rest of your life. You’re doing something that will make other people’s legs hurt thinking about it! So give yourself a little self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back and get on with it!

Now for the peripheral stuff around the running…

7 – The support of your family (and friends)

No-one can make you do it. The training is long, hard and, mostly, utterly thankless. Things that you need to do in other areas of your life simply won’t get done. The one thing that has surprised me more than anything else is how totally ‘all consuming’ this event was. It was in the back of my mind for six months. For the last month it was pretty much all I thought about. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Every conversation I had seemed to be about it. I was boring myself. Have I got the right kit? Am I eating properly? How will this run affect that run? When can I run? How will that feel? How are we getting there? On and on…

I cannot say ‘Thank You’ enough to Leanne, Hannah and Nancy who have supported me every step of the way. No-one can make you do it. But I tell you something for definite family could easily stop you from doing it. They support you clearing off running every given hour, they don’t mind you hijacking family holidays to turn them into training camps, they let you off for not sitting down to meals with them because it’s not convenient for the running to eat at tea-time – I could go on forever. I am very lucky that I have that support because I know a lot of people don’t. Leanne will be sick of me ‘supporting’ her marathon debut this October, just to try and repay her a little bit. Love you guys!

8 – The Lakeland Trails Team

I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time chatting to the event director, Graham Patten, and his family/friends/support team over the weekend. What a military operation it is! And all from a band of amazing, willing volunteers. Truly incredible. Thanks to all of you. Without exception the marshals were supportive and cheerful. The food station people did an amazing job and were also rays of sunshine when required! There were loads of other people behind the scenes but, on behalf of everyone who ran – thank you to you all! There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at Sunday’s presentation – it may have been sleep deprivation, beer, or both. Congratulations, Graham!

Yes, there was the odd teething problem. But what can you do if some ###### nicks a sign? I’m sure there will be coke lorries arriving like the Christmas adverts for next year’s event and Graham had better share the pizza out next time too! Feedback has been asked for, and responded to, and I’m sure that next year will be even better again! And the weather is guaranteed!!!

9 – Could I go faster?

Short answer, yes. I could definitely spend less time in the food stations eating for a start. I know you need to refuel, but I think I got a bit carried away! Also, if I just ran in the valley to the Grisedale climb, the valley to the Stake Pass climb, and ran from Stake Pass to Sticklebarn it would make a big difference. I was being conservative there. But I wanted to finish and enjoy it – and I did. There’s every chance next time I’ll try to go quicker, but blow up and end up slower. You need a bit of luck in ultras I reckon. I would do the first half (to Glenridding) exactly the same, then try and improve the second half.

10 – Charity

mn-master-logo-hires

I’ve never run for charity before. I may never run for charity again. But this time I had a cause I believed in. It was truly an honour to run in Alisha’s name. The support it generated from people who wouldn’t normally have been interested meant that I definitely had extra motivation – especially when training early mornings when the weather wasn’t great. Knowing all those people were asking how I was doing was huge. When I felt a bit down at Dunmail Raise the thought of Alisha laughing at me actually made me laugh out loud! I wish Alisha was still here. But the awareness being raised this summer as teenagers go to university – knowing there is a vaccine out there for free for all students, is a small consolation. Please support this charity where possible and if you know anyone heading off to university in the next few weeks, let them know too.

Thanks to Michaela and the extended Bartolini family for allowing me to run in her memory and thanks so much for actually coming to support – especially given the journey you made that day! It was great to see you all.

If you are interested in raising money/awareness then please follow the link below;

http://alisha-bartolini.muchloved.com/

11 – Last, but not least, YOU could do it!

Yes, you! It doesn’t have to be this race or this distance, but you could. Set yourself a challenge and go for it. It may be only 5/10k. It might be a walk or a mad expedition. It might be something for charity. I don’t know. But you could do it. Others could stop you, you might have a million excuses. So write the excuses down, knock them off one-by-one, because you could do it. You have to want it. You have to dedicate some time and effort to it. But you could do it, you know…

#110kforAlisha

Alisha Bartolini / Meningitis Now

Friday night. 11pm. In exactly a week it’ll be last minute preparations, kit checks and safety briefings before a midnight departure onto the fells to start the best part of a full day running. So it’s long overdue that I tell you a bit about the person who has inspired, if not the running itself, then certainly the publicising of it. I have looked forward to, and dreaded, writing this blog almost as must as I have looked forward to, and dreaded, the race. But the story must be told, because special people like Alisha do not come around too often, so we owe it to each other to make sure we remember what it was that made her so memorable in the first place. And for those of us lucky enough to know Alisha, they are memories to be cherished.

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“Hi! Who are you?!”

“Er, hi. I’m Mark,” I stammered, taken aback. “And who are you?”

“I’m Alisha. My Mum works in reception!”

“Oh, right. Hi Alisha! Nice to meet you.”

Summer 2003. The first week of the school holidays. Which, for those of you who may be non-teachers immediately passing ‘teacher-holiday’ comments, is the week when most of us go to work for the week to tidy up. However, in my case, I was just about to start work at a new school, Lowton West. This was my first visit there, in fact. I was in the old computer room. I hadn’t met a soul that morning and, moments before the interruption, I had been engaged in that time-honoured teacher tradition of trying to get a printer, any printer, to print something – anything.

Next second, the door behind me had swung open and, bold as brass, I was suddenly being interrogated, in the nicest possible way, by a beaming, bouncy haired six(ish) year old girl who clearly thought I was trespassing on her private summer playground.

It turned out I had actually met her mum before. Her mum was the third member of the three person interview panel when I got the job. (The other two interviewers being the Headteacher and the Chair of Governors.) Alisha’s mum was the one sat in the corner giggling while I desperately flailed around failing to answer one the Governor’s questions in three separate attempts! (It’s the only interview in which I have ever uttered the immortal words “I think we all know I am not going to answer this question satisfactorily, so shall we move on?!”)

Anyway, I digress. (As usual.) I recall my first meeting with Alisha so vividly because;

a – she really was the first person I met at Lowton West, and

b – because, even in that first instance, it was quite clear that, in Alisha’s eyes, this was not a conversation between an adult and a six year old, this was a conversation between two adults.

The same can be said of any conversation with Alisha at any age of her tragically short life. This wasn’t an act of bravado or cockiness on her part, quite simply that any friend of her mum was a friend of hers – on equal terms. If Michaela was having a ‘get-together’ at her house for friends, or the school crowd, Alisha was severely dischuffed not to be in attendance!

Alisha was well known around school. From the youngest of ages she would attend all school functions; Christmas plays, Christmas Fairs – any special event that required assistance, she was there. She attended two school ski trips as a pupil although, in reality, it was much more like having an extra member of staff.

Lowton West Ski Trip, Easter 2007: Alisha the pupil.

Lowton West Ski Trip, Easter 2007: Alisha the pupil.

Lowton West Ski Trip, Easter 2009 - Alisha the teacher! (Miss Reynolds, Miss Bartolini(2), Miss Lea)

Lowton West Ski Trip, Easter 2009 – Alisha the teacher! (Miss Reynolds, Miss Bartolini(2) and Miss Lea lead the disco dancing!)

In her middle teens, Alisha came on our GB Ski Team group holidays. (Not that GB Ski team!) She fitted in like a glove. Again, this wasn’t a kid tagging on, this was another adult on the trip. (Although she wasn’t keen on Jagermeister, which some people did find strange – especially for a teenager!) By this stage it was becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to think of Michaela and Alisha as mother and daughter – to all intents and purposes they were sisters!

February 2010: Alisha (and Zoe) the fully fledged Apres-skiers!

GB Ski Team, Kitzbuhel, February 2010: Alisha (and Zoe) the fully fledged Apres-skiers!

You knew where you stood with Alisha. One withering look could reduce you from confident, trend-setter to crushed has-been in seconds! I don’t know where teenagers go to learn that disparaging “What are you on about?” look, but Alisha had not only read the book, I think she may have contributed to its writing!

I can’t remember if it was Alisha who actually told me about this ‘Sean’ bloke who secretly appeared on the scene. If it wasn’t, I can certainly remember her response when I asked what he was like! “He’s alright!” she nodded approvingly, which must have felt like the ultimate seal of approval for Sean! Us blokes think that going to meet a new girlfriend’s parents is the scariest thing you can do – well I certainly wouldn’t have liked to have been in Sean’s shoes the day he was presented to Alisha! But one thing was for certain, if Alisha was telling me he was alright, then that was good enough for me! (And, as events have shown since, she was right.)

We were therefore delighted when the three of them moved in just down the road. (Pre-Sonny!) Alisha had already been up once or twice to look after Hannah. One day, when Hannah was only just one year old, Leanne had gone away for a few days. I decided to surprise her by doing some Daddy DIY around the house. (Disastrous mistake!) I picked Alisha up and she did an amazing job of looking after Hannah all day while I toiled. I came downstairs once to find them both asleep on the couch, exhausted! Alisha took one amazing photograph of Hannah that was so good, we had it turned into a canvas and hung it in our front room!

August, 2008: Alisha and Hannah chilling after a hard days entertainment!

August, 2008: Alisha and Hannah chilling after a hard days entertainment!

The picture of Hannah, taken by Alisha, which we had printed on canvas for our front room!

The picture of Hannah, taken by Alisha, which we had printed on canvas for our front room!

Alisha didn’t babysit for us nearly as much as we would have liked. Partly because she was usually busy studying for exams or holding down her jobs at The Wayfarer or Slater’s Uniform shop in town; but mostly because Leanne and I have no social life whatsoever!

She just happened to be round our house on my 40th birthday. Typically, both Leanne and I had had meetings at school and Alisha had helped us with the girls.

“Do you need to dash home?” I asked.

“Not really.”

“Oh great, do you mind if I pop out for a quick run?”

“What?” (Cue disparaging teenager look.) “On your birthday? Running? You’re off your head.”

Hannah always looked forward to seeing Alisha. Nancy was a much tougher crowd! “I no want it, Alisha!” was the stock 2 year-old phrase. But she was no match for a force of nature like Alisha, who would stride into the house and sweep Nancy off her feet. Inevitably, Nancy would have to cave in to her sheer force of personality! The girls would always wake excitedly the next day to tell us of funny things they had done with Alisha – usually with fancy hairstyles in place!

September 2012: multitasking as only a true teenager can! Nancy tamed; update facebook...

September 2012: multitasking as only a true teenager can! Nancy tamed; update facebook…

Having a cuppa with Alisha after she had looked after the girls would usually, for Leanne and I, be the highlight of the night – better than the actual night-out bit. She would have us properly belly laughing; sometimes because of what she’d done with the girls, but usually filling us in on the exploits of her mum returning home from nights out! She would roll her eyes with ‘shame’ (pride!) telling us how Michaela had bounced off walls trying to get upstairs! If we ever have a staff night out, invariably Michaela and I are the last two in the taxi, and we would spend the last leg of the journey laughing at how Alisha would be at the door in curlers and a dressing gown ready to tell Michaela off for coming home drunk again!

However, Alisha was not a typical teenager. She loved a party and a good time, but I have never heard anyone speak about knowing where the line should be sensibly drawn with as much clarity as Alisha did. We used to tell Alisha that, when our girls were in their teens, it was Alisha we were going to get to talk to them about what to get up to and not to get up to. She would have done it brilliantly.

She sat and talked one night about whether she should move out to go to university or stay at home and study. We both told her she should definitely move out – she would have such a good time. She may not have been there long, but the response of her college mates since proves that she clearly made as big an impact in their lives as she has done in all of ours.

In the days leading up to Halloween last year a couple of strange things happened. During the half term Hannah asked, out of the blue, when Alisha could come and sit again. “She lives in Liverpool now,” I told her, “but when Mummy comes back from London we’ll send her a message on facebook. She might come round at Christmas.” I must text her, I thought to myself, being a non-facebooker.

On the Saturday morning Leanne and Hannah went off to Slater’s to buy Brownie uniform. “I love going to Slater’s, Alisha sneaks us into the queue!” said Hannah. “No, Alisha won’t be there, she lives in Liverpool now,” we reminded her again. They went off to Slater’s, I went out for a run. Passing the end of their street I thought, I must text Alisha when I get back and tell her what Hannah has been saying. The girls were home when I got back. “It’s really boring there without Alisha.” I never did text.

To hear the terrible news the next day was so crushing and such a shock that I still can’t quite believe it. I think, in my head, she’s still in Liverpool and that’s how I deal with it. Goodness only knows how her close family and friends deal with it – but that is where Meningitis Now come in. They do such an amazing job of supporting the families affected. If raising money for them can, in some small way, help, then I for one am going to do all I can to support them.

Alisha was a truly wonderful person. It is so sad that she is not still with us. But at least we can comfort ourselves with the memories we have of her because, without exception, every time I remember Alisha it makes me smile.


It’s now 1.45am on Saturday morning. This time next week I will be on the fells in the pitch black. And in Alisha’s words, “I must be off my head.”

If you would like to sponsor me, then please follow the Just Giving link below;

https://www.justgiving.com/GBSticks11

If you would like to know more about other fundraising events taking place in memory of Alisha, then please visit;

http://alisha-bartolini.muchloved.com/

If you want to follow my progress next week, I will try to keep twitter as updated as possible, (phone signal permitting). Follow me on;

@GBSticks11

or search the hashtag;

#110kforAlisha

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Thanks for reading.

Double-Header Part 1: The Running Update…

It’s been over a month since my last post (thanks for all the messages about that one, BTW  – must try to work out how to keep the responses on-screen!) and, as expected, mad work season plus the resumption of training (thank goodness!) has meant there simply hasn’t been time to keep my blog up-to-date. So tonight comes a double-header, (hopefully!) School reports can wait another night…

This first section will detail the running. The second section will profile the reason for the running – or at least the reason for the charity I am supporting for the fast-approaching ultra.

Saturday 18th April – Saturday 9th May

So, last thing you knew, I was spraining my ankle at Hawkshead. Bit of a nightmare with exactly 10 weeks to go and my mega-mileage weeks lined up. The first week was spent hobbling round trying to ensure I didn’t make things worse – not easy when working in a primary school. A trip to the physio the second week at least confirmed nothing worse than a sprain. He was able to give it a bit of a thrashing about without too much discomfort; so at least I knew it was getting better! He also gave me the green light to have a go on our cross trainer, (the machine we use to gather dust and hang wet running kit on in the corner of our conservatory,) as long as I didn’t feel any pain doing it. This I did – no pain. So the third week was spent absolutely thrashing the life out of the previously life-less cross trainer as I vented my frustrations on it! I also turned the rest of the conservatory into a mini-gym of sorts and set myself a core strengthening program in order to maximise the time spent off actually running.

I was very pleased with this week of training and remember making a mental note to myself to ensure I still incorporated this training into my routine once back on the roads… (Hmn, not happened…)

I can’t say there were any highlights to this 3 weeks off running, but there was a moment I am, looking back, extremely proud of.

Saturday 9th May. Exactly 3 weeks after the unfortunate injury. Lakeland Trails, Staveley, ‘Sting in the Tail’ race day. Mrs Sticks entered in the 10k in the morning. Myself, by way of the series entry I paid in January, entered in the afternoon’s 17k event. I had hammered the cross trainer for the week and knew my ankle was ready. So the four of us packed the car up and off we went to the race. And I didn’t even take my kit with me. That’s right. Left it at home. On purpose. I know the route, you see. Done it twice. Mostly dead simple running. Quite a bit of tarmac actually. Loads of flat farm tracks too. But I also knew there were two pretty tricky descents. The rain hammered down the night before. I knew my ankle was ready to run, but I also knew that one slip would cost me another 3 weeks of training and, therefore, probably my ultra debut with it. So I didn’t take my kit. Because I knew that, once we got there, I would be so swept up with the atmosphere that I would definitely run. And I was glad I didn’t, because I definitely would have!

Mrs Sticks tops out on Reston Scar (aka The Sting in the Tail) above Staveley. I was with the kids at the start/finish, not in running gear!

Mrs Sticks tops out on Reston Scar (aka The Sting in the Tail) above Staveley. I was with the kids at the start/finish, not in running gear! (photo courtesy of James Kirby @jumpyjames)

Sunday 10th May – Saturday 23rd May

I stuck to my plan to do my first week of running on the safely flat tarmac, where an ankle re-injury was at least less likely. The next day, Sunday 10th May, 7 weeks from race day, I was back out on the road. I planned 3 miles and ran nearly 7, mostly through the sheer excitement of being out again. In fact, I only went home because I knew Mrs Sticks would be panicking thinking I’d broken my ankle somewhere!

I was intentionally careful during this fortnight and had to constantly fight the urge not to do too much – to try and ‘make-up’ the mileage I’d lost during the layoff. I was lucky that we had a family break planned in Devon over half-term (thank you in-laws!) so I knew, if I just got back on a firm footing before then, the South West Coastal footpath would be the perfect ultra-training ground.

My first trail run was a nice, safe, flat 12 mile towpath run and I backed it up the next day by hitting the more uneven hills at a careful pace with Mrs Sticks. We took advantage of family staying over by having a rare run together up Ashurst Beacon and, thanks to her enthusiasm, even tagging on my favourite training footpath – the steep one from the canal bridge between Appley Bridge and Parbold straight up to the Miller & Carter Steakhouse at the top of Parbold Hill. There are few finer running pleasures around here than descending through Fairy Glen and it was great to get to share it with Mrs Sticks – herself now a fully converted trail runner!

Mrs Sticks approaches the summit of Ashurst Beacon for the first time.

Mrs Sticks approaches the summit of Ashurst Beacon for the first time…

And begins the descent back down again...

And begins the descent back down again…

Mrs Sticks climbs the (very) steep footpath between the canal and Parbold Hill - my favourite training path.

Mrs Sticks climbs the (very) steep footpath between the canal and Parbold Hill – my favourite training path.

Skipping back home through Fairy Glen - delightful whatever the season.

Skipping back home through Fairy Glen – delightful whatever the season.

The ankle was fine. The strapping was gone. 6 weeks to race day. Now it was time to get serious.

Sunday 24th May – Friday 29th May (half-term week)

Thanks to the kindness of my in-laws, we spent half-term week on a quiet little caravan site in the slightly unusual setting of Westward Ho! (I could write a whole blog just about that place! We had a great week, but what a peculiar town it is!) What a perfect setting for running though, with the South West Coastal footpath within view from the caravan window! To the North (or East) the footpath is a reasonably flat affair, but to the South (West) the cliffs begin to ramp up, and this is where I intended to test myself. The weather threw a little bit of everything in to the mix too, meaning I got to try out my full range of newly purchased kit, (which will be the feature of a future blog for you running anoraks.)

Day 1 - 16 very hilly miles to Buck's Mills and back testing my wet weather gear! Do I look 'Ultra' yet?!

Day 1 – 16 very hilly miles to Buck’s Mills and back testing my wet weather gear. Do I look ‘Ultra’ yet?!

In the first 4 days I ran a total of 65 miles; 16-16-7-26.

Day 1 was a wet, hilly run South (West) on the footpath. After a couple of flattish warm up miles the cliffs rise and fall with greater altitude at each turn. There was also a pleasant, rolling woodland section just before my turn around point after a vertigo inducing drop into Buck’s Mills. My watch recorded 2500ft of ascent in those 16 miles so the training could not have been more testing! The only scars I had to show for it were quite blistered feet where the constant soaking had reduced my feet to putty – something I must be careful of on race day if the weather is wet.

Dropping back to sea level at Buck's Mills.

Dropping back to sea level at Buck’s Mills.

Day 2 was a far more relaxing 16 miler North (East) to Bideford. The path is much more gentle and, again, myself and Mrs Sticks were able to enjoy the first 4 miles together into the delightful village of Appledore. (Fantastic place, great pub [the Beaver!] way off the beaten track, you must visit one day!) Mrs Sticks turned back for home at this point and I continued to follow the River Torridge to Bideford – passing underneath the impressive new road bridge to enjoy my ‘Malt-Loaf-break’ at the similarly impressive old town bridge.

Mrs Sticks off-roading on the approach to Appledore!

Mrs Sticks off-roading on the approach to Appledore!

And running in a more conventional fashion through the charming village of Appledore.

And running in a more conventional fashion through the charming village of Appledore.

Malt loaf break - the old road bridge spanning the River Torridge at Bideford.

Malt loaf break – the old road bridge spanning the River Torridge at Bideford.

After two 3 hour plus days, day 3 was a conventional 7 mile road recovery run, all-be-it with a steep climb chucked in, before my epic training day was upon me – not without incident though…

Tuesday evening was spent in the local pub. I was being monk-like and not drinking; I was eyeing up a marathon length run on the crazy up-and-down cliffs with a 5am start. So we headed home at 10pm, the kids scootering on ahead. As we approached the caravan though, we heard a scooter hit the deck and our eldest, 8 year-old daughter cry out. “Ssshhhhh! You’ll wake everyone up!” was our general soothing response! Or at least it was until we turned a light on in the caravan to see said daughter covered in blood with a dirty great chip missing from one of her front teeth! After a mop up job and a bit of TLC, we headed out to the local A&E, roughly 15 miles away in Barnstaple. We returned to the caravan at about 1am, none the worse for wear aside from a missing bit of tooth and an extremely fat lip! On the plus side, thank goodness she picked the night I didn’t have a drink – I never expected ultra training to come in useful in this manner!!!

The morning after the night before...

The morning after the night before… Fat lip and chipped tooth. Moral: never scoot home from the pub…

Anyhow, 5am was out of the window. Not just because I hadn’t had enough sleep; even I wasn’t selfish enough to clear off without making sure Miss Sticks wasn’t OK first! However, once playing with her cousin’s it became apparent she was fine. The weather was also genuinely hot for the first time, so a lazy beach day was lined up, meaning I had the green light to go out running for the day!

So-it-was that I set off at the less than ideal time of 11.30 in the midday heat. The plan was to head South (West) passing Buck’s Mills and stopping for a late lunch at Clovelly, some 13 up-and-downy cliff miles away before retracing my route back to Westward Ho!

If there was one thing I learned this week it was this: walking slowly in the short-term means running faster in the long-term. I utilised my Ultra run plan of walking anything remotely steep uphill regardless of whether I felt like I could run it. On this hottest of days I definitely felt this paid off. You will simply have to take my word for it that parts of this path are seriously steep! The fact that I felt relatively fresh on returning to Westward Ho! after 26 miles some 6 hours later is testament to the fact that I didn’t push it at all on the hills. I must remember this on Ultra day. “No point trying to be a hero up this climb, no-one is watching. They’ll only see you at the end.” I must have chanted it a hundred times up those hills. And anyway, the fact remains that I probably walked up them quicker than I could run up them anyway!

Hot, summer weather selfie! Back at Buck's Mills, 8 miles. But this time, only a quarter of the way into my training run.

Hot, summer weather selfie! Back at Buck’s Mills, 8 miles. But this time, only a quarter of the way into my training run.

The sensational fishing village of Clovelly, (lunch break on the quay) way below. All the way down, alllllll the way back up again.

The sensational fishing village of Clovelly, (lunch break on the quay) way below. All the way down, alllllll the way back up again.

Yet another descent from cliff top to sea level, and back up again!

Yet another descent from cliff top to sea level, and back up again!

Unfortunately, I will never quite know how far I ran. I wanted to run just 27 miles, enough to take me beyond the magical marathon distance of 26.2 miles and therefore into ultra territory. Unfortunately my old, battered phone which I was using for the attached Instagram pics and for Strava decided that this was the day it was going to officially pack up! (It had, in fairness, been held together with selotape since before Christmas!) So cross was I with this, that after one snack break, I forgot to restart the Garmin watch as well! I reckon I restarted it after about .25/.5 a mile and my watch recorded 25.3 miles so I would have been close. however, with 5250 feet of climbing, I reckoned the distance became pretty irrelevant. This was a mighty good training run. 5hrs 20mins running, probably about 6hrs 30mins in total. The time and climbing was more important than the distance.

A perfect run was capped off when, approaching Westward Ho! with about 2 miles to go, I realised that the orange speck in the distance was actually Mrs Sticks running out to meet me! I was so pleased to see her that we had a proper ‘running-towards-eachother-arms-outstretched’ moment!!!

Quickly followed by a ‘Christ-that-was-embarrassing-there’s-no-one-around-is-there?’ moment!!!

A well-earned day off (and a few beers) followed before rounding off the week with another gentle 7 mile recovery run. I thought about running further but the weather was atrocious that morning and, as daughter no1 was beginning to remind me, “You’ve spent quite enough of this family holiday out running!” Never-the-less, the half term ‘training camp’ could not have gone any more successfully. I was beginning to feel prepared…

June 1st – present day (Lakeland Trails Coniston Marathon)

It is a sign of my fitness now that 10-13 mile runs, whether road or trail, I now regarded as easy, run of the mill stuff. I keep chucking in the steep hills like the Parbold Hill footpath and the newly discovered Stoney Lane (climbing from Parbold to High Moor) to make sure I am testing myself.

Only one serious training run remained – a return to the Lakeland Trails and the Coniston Marathon. I had initially not entered this race; I felt Sunday 7th June (3 weeks before Ultra day) was a little too close to be running a hilly marathon. However, having lost so many training miles to injury, I felt it was now a must in terms of mileage, equipment testing and, probably most importantly, experience of Lakeland terrain.

I had read so much about what a great event it was and, trusting the organisers as I do, I knew a tough challenge was in store. Initial plans to camp at the venue the night before the event were scuppered by selfish daughter no2 and her selfish idea of having a 4th birthday the day before. (Selfish.) Therefore, my alarm pointlessly went off at 4am the following day. (Pointless because I had been awake since 3am making sure I didn’t miss the 4am alarm.)

There was no point us all setting off at that un-Godly hour, so I set off alone with the stereo turned up loud for some serious singing en-route to the Lakes. The family were coming up later to watch me finish. (Actually, I think they were just coming for the Pete Lashley gig, but i would be finishing too at some point.)

The run itself went very smoothly and, I have to say, without incident. The first thing to say is that the route is every bit as beautiful as advertised and, for the first 18 miles at least, the footing is sure enough to be able to take in those views without breaking stride too much.

9am, ready for off. (6 hours after waking up...)

9am, ready for off. (6 hours after waking up…)

The reason for the running - more to follow in the next day or two...

The customised vest. And the reason for the running – more to follow in the next day or two…

The stunning Tarn Hows. Probably the jewel in the crown of the Lakeland Trails marathon, (so they make you go round it twice!)

The stunning Tarn Hows. Probably the jewel in the crown of the Lakeland Trails marathon, (so they make you go round it twice!)

I planned to take it at ultra pace and include snack stops. However, when I first stopped to walk on about 9 miles above Tarn Hows, I was soon being overtaken by runners I had just climbed past. “Sod that, I’m racing!”

I cruised round 20 miles in around 2hrs 50mins. I even tried to call Mrs Sticks to tell her she’d better get to the finish on time ‘cos I was going to be a lot quicker than the 5 hours I told her I’d planned! (No signal!)

However, after the last climb, the descent that I thought I’d cruise down turned out to be the first genuinely technical ground of the run. Most of the time it was proper walking pace either navigating around bogs or negotiating rocky outcrops. The brave guys/girls were steaming straight through these, but I was now thinking of my ankle and how stupid I would feel if I injured myself on a ‘training run'(!)

Still, I was slightly surprised and pleased to be cheered into the finishing loop by Team Sticks (the 3 of whom had only just arrived!) after 4hrs 13mins of relative cruising. As I suspected, the Devon training route had actually consisted of double the climbing of the Lakeland route; the bonus of which was that I found the latter to be a relatively comfortable run. Whether this will count for anything when I have to run two-and-a-half marathons in a row on even hillier terrain is anyone’s guess – but, for now at least, I’m clinging to that small crumb of comfort!

Cruising, some may say smug, 9 miles into the Lakeland Trails Coniston Marathon. (Photo courtesy of James Kirby @jumpyjames)

Cruising, some may say smug, 9 miles into the Lakeland Trails Coniston Marathon. (Photo courtesy of James Kirby @jumpyjames)

So there you have it. Up-to-date, fit(ish) considering the injury, and raring to go. I’m now into every runners favourite part of training, the taper, where you try to remember to do a bit of running and not eat too many pizzas or too much cake.

There will be another blog to come in the next day or two with details of my charity and the reason for the orange vest. Please share it around. Thanks for reading!

Saturday 11th May, 1985.

This post is a bit off-subject, but today is the 30th anniversary of the Bradford City fire disaster. On a bright, sunny May day in 1985, thousands descended on Valley Parade to celebrate that rarest of events – a Bradford City Championship winning season. What happened next is etched into the minds of any Bradfordian (or Lincoln folk, for that matter) as triumph turned to disaster in four frantic minutes; the main stand burning down as half-time approached, killing 56 people.

I was one of the fortunate ones. Aged 12, I escaped unharmed with my 7 year old brother, Jeremy, thanks entirely to our quick thinking Dad. I lost no family members or close friends. Only the death of a boy from the year below me at school, Adrian Wright (11), one of our playtime football crowd, finally brought the trauma of the event home to roost.

There was a time when the anniversary would fill me with dread. However, having not lived in Bradford for the best part of 20 years now, I am no longer surrounded by the build-up to the date, and have simply decided that the best way to honour those poor relatives left behind is to say a little prayer for them and then get on with my day as positively as possible.

This year has felt a little different though. Perhaps it is because where I live, in Wigan, only people of a certain age even remember the event. To most here, even football fans, it is one of those events that people can sort of recall, but don’t know anything about. Maybe it is the regulation photos banded about in the press, which look ever more grainy and ‘from-another-era’ with each passing year. I just feel that, this year more than ever, the disaster is being referred to as much as a historical event as an emotional one.

Personally, I choose not to watch any TV programmes on the subject, nor to read too much on the subject either. Nothing against any of them, I just find forgetting is much easier to deal with than remembering. It also opens up the opportunity to see or read opinions you may not agree with. But seeing one or two things on the news and internet building up to today made me realise that, although all these people were in the same football ground at the same time, everyone’s experiences were different.

It must be something like 20 years since I have spoken about my memories of that fateful day. I have thought long and hard about whether this is the forum or the time to do so. But I have chosen to write it today so that my story is recorded forever in history; perhaps for my children to read in future years. But mostly because, as the disaster itself proves, you never know when you may no longer be around to tell the story yourself.

Preface – Please do not read if you think the content may cause upset. This certainly is not the intention. Hopefully my reasoning is provided above. I have included times-of-day; not as a perfectly accurate scientific record, but hopefully to convey the timescale of what took place to those who are unaware. I apologise for any factual inaccuracies that may be contained; these are my honest memories of a childhood event 30 years ago written on a whim – no research has taken place.

Saturday 11th May, 1985.

10.00am;

“Dad, please can we go to the match?”

“If you finish your French homework, I’ll think about it.”

“But it’s going to sell out!”

“Well you’d better work quicker then!”

Enough said. I loathed languages at school, dropped the lot. Much to my disgust nowadays, as I spend every winter skiing in countries where they speak the languages I chose not to learn. But I was way more enthusiastic that Saturday morning. Bradford City had only gone and won the league. Even this most sport-allergic of towns had burst with civic pride as, starved of success for generations, the football team had finally achieved something. Today was the last day of the season and City were to be presented with the trophy before the match. It seemed that all my mates from school were going. Now all I had to do was persuade Dad to take me.

Homework was rapidly completed, followed by another round of pestering. Eventually, Dad began to cave in, ringing friends to see if they wanted tickets too. Phone calls to the club began, (no internet booking, folks – this technology free age will be a running theme,) before he finally managed to snare five of the last remaining tickets for our party of Dad and Jack (adults), myself aged 12, one of my three younger brothers Jeremy (7), and Jack’s son, Simon (8).

For only the second time that season, (and the third time ever,) I was going to the match.

1.30pm

It is one of life’s great anomalies that I can remember so vividly the events and feelings of the day, when I can barely remember what I did last week. But the atmosphere and excitement I felt walking down Valley Parade that day towards the ground was incredible. The place was buzzing. It was a bright, sunny day and everyone was early. Partly because, in those days before all-seater stadia, you had to be there early to ‘get your spot’, but on this day it was because the Division 3 trophy (Division 1 in modern football currency) was to be presented the best part of an hour before kick-off. The ‘stadium’ was (still is) built into a steep hillside meaning that, in those days, as you walked down the road you were afforded delicious little sneak previews through the turnstiles of the hallowed-green playing surface below you. I distinctly remember the high-pitched tinkling of the majorette troupe instruments echoing up the road – a noise I now forever associate with this day. (Oh, the joys of old-fashioned pre-match entertainment! It sounds dreadful, but I assure you it was much more enjoyable than having terrible pop music blasted into your ears by a deafening modern PA system! ‘Let Me Entertain You’ by Robbie, anyone? ‘We are the Champions’ perhaps? Apologies, I digress.)

2.00pm

We entered the ground. We were to be sitting in the main stand. I wanted to go on the Kop, but Dad said it would be too busy. He had taken me on the Kop once before, the day City were promoted from Division 4 by drawing 2-2 with Bournemouth in 1982. Bobby Campbell scored in the last-minute that day, sparking a joyous pitch invasion which I joined in with. Mum was not impressed when she saw me on TV that night! First football match, first involvement in hooliganism! I suspected Mum had played a part on insisting we were not on the Kop this time!

Because we had bought our tickets so late they weren’t great seats. We were in ‘G’ block, the very last block at one end of the stand. I liked it though because it was the Kop end of the ground and I could look over and see some of my friends at the bottom of the huge terrace, draped over the wire fences which were the norm at football grounds back then. City completed a lap of honour with the trophy to rapturous applause and, as the team approached the Kop, my friends Peter (who I still ski with today) and Andrew even managed to sneak onto the pitch as the players approached to shake hands!

Bobby Campbell, goalscoring hero, was still in the team and still scoring goals at hero rate. Peter Jackson, the club captain proudly holding the trophy aloft, was my other favourite player, mostly because he scored the City goal in a 1-1 draw with Rotherham earlier in the season – the other match we had been to. Ironically, we bought tickets at the last-minute for that game too and found ourselves in ‘A’ block at the Bradford end of the main stand. Jackson scored at that end and I thought it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen! Dad, however, said it was a rubbish game and we weren’t going again! (He was still a Park Ave fan at heart. That’s Bradford Park Avenue. Long story. Look them up.) Regular supporters though, loved young guns John Hendrie and Stuart McCall, of whom great things were destined.

3.00pm

And after the festivities, the match. To say it was anticlimactic would be an understatement. No-one had come for the match. It appeared that the players hadn’t come for the match! It was just something to do before the end of season party. Lincoln City were the opposition but there was nothing to play for. City were champions, Lincoln were safe from relegation. It is one of fate’s cruel twists that a fixture which would usually (in those days) have been played in-front of perhaps a 5000 crowd was, on this day of celebration, being played in-front of well over double that number.

3.37 (approx)

A policeman comes down the central gangway of ‘G’ block. He’s been alerted to something by someone and is looking beneath his feet. The stand is an old wooden structure. The flooring is the old ‘railway-sleeper’ style wooden beams. People around us also begin to look down and, sure enough, between the beams underneath our feet, small flickers of orange flame can be seen.

3.38

Another policeman comes down the aisle and asks the supporters on the left hand side of the aisle to go and wait on the concourse at the back of the stand while they sort it out. Being on a hill, the pitch can still be seen from there. Fortunately, we are sat on the right of the aisle. A football playing pal of our friends, Paul, is amongst the left-siders and he and his Dad give us a cheery wave and a ‘We’re going to miss the rest of the half!’ shrug as they make their way up the stairs. Somehow, they both survived the next few minutes, but I dread to think how many of the others did not.

3.39

The flickers of flame have not yet reached the wooden beams, but are increasingly visible through the gaps. You can smell it now too. But it is entirely invisible unless you are stood directly above it. The match goes on. The police are back, and now they want our section of ‘G’ block to go to the back of the stand too. I’m up and off straight away, doing as I’m told. Dad stops me though. He waits back a moment while the police move away.

“Come on, Dad!” I implore.

“No. If we’re moving, we’re going this way.”

Instead of moving upwards towards the back of the stand, Dad and Jack lift myself, Jez and Simon forward, over the retaining wall that separates the upper seating from the lower seating.

I have replayed that moment over and over in my mind a million times in the last 30 years. I think it is no exaggeration at all to say that, with that simple decision, Dad saved our lives.

3.40

We are now stood with our back to a five or six-foot wall. The match is still in progress. Dad can see over the wall, I cannot. At that very moment the ball finally falls to City hero Bobby Campbell, in the box in-front of the Kop. He blasts the ball so far over the bar it nearly clears the entire terrace. The whole ground groans.

Dad looks over the wall again. “I think it’s taking hold,” he says of the fire. We begin to walk along the centre of the stand, moving in-front of ‘F’ and then ‘E’ block before stopping again to watch the match.

3.41

“Sit down!” shout a couple of irate fans whose view we are now blocking. The match is still in progress. Looking to our left though, smoke is now clearly visible and flames can be seen above the floorboards. Everything is wooden. Everything is old. Very old. The referee must see this too and he consults with a linesman and stops the game, much to the dismay of most of the ground, who are totally unaware of why he has done so. The fire looks so inconsequential. Just put it out. The fans in the paddock right next to ‘G’ block sing of an inventive way in which the fire should be doused, such is the lack of urgency!

Dad, however, was watching over the wall all along, and knows the fire is anything but inconsequential. We move along further, making our way towards the halfway line, still in the middle of the stand.

3.42

By the time we reach half-way, which can only have taken a few seconds, the next look over our shoulders changes everything. The end of stand where we were seated moments ago is now full of smoke. Flames leap out of the smoke like a wild beast released from a cage. Moments ago, people were telling us off for blocking their view – now those same people are beginning to panic and head for the pitch.

I feel like we are frozen to the spot.

“Dad, can we go on the pitch now?”

“I think we better had.”

(nb. I have rarely spoken about this with anyone, never mind Dad. We did talk about it once though, and he says this conversation definitely didn’t happen. I remember it vividly, but it is entirely possible that this conversation was going on in my head and not with Dad.)

3.43

We are now heading down the stairs as quickly as we can between the seats. Panic is not a sufficient word. Every glance to the left looks worse than before – and you couldn’t help but look. Flames are up to the roof and, unbeknown to anyone, the roof is tar coated. I believe it has been timed at less than 30 seconds for the fire, once it lit the roof, to travel down the entire length of the stand. This made those of us in ‘G’ block the lucky ones, as we had some prior warning. At the Bradford end of the stand, they were watching football one minute and running for their very lives the next.

I was too young to do anything other than try to escape, although I do remember trying to make sure Jez was in-front of me, (this may also be imagination on my part.) I am always full of admiration for people who perform heroic deeds in these situations now because I am pretty certain that, in the same situation, I wouldn’t be brave enough to help anyone other than family members. I remember reaching the front of the seated area and looking to my left again. It was coming. We all knew it. The roar of the fire was only muted by the shouts and screams of the people. I still hear that roaring noise every bonfire I attend. I still see it. I still smell it. When a bonfire warms my face, I think of the heat on the back of my head.

The front of the stand was a mass of people. Our family-collective-minds have played a trick on our memories at this point, as none-of-us remember the paddock area, (an area of standing a few steps deep between the seating and the pitch.) Apparently, many of the victims were older people unable to scale the wall from the paddock to the pitch. None of us remember the paddock at all; I just remember Dad launching us over the wall from the seating onto the pitch. Jez’s trainer came off mid-flight and I managed to catch it as we ran past. The roof had clearly caught light behind us by this point; the heat was unbearable, even when running away. I didn’t look back to see if Dad was coming, I could hear him right behind us, imploring us to keep running.

3.44

Less than four minutes was all it took. Most people had much less warning than that. The pitch was the only real source of emergency exit. There were emergency gates at the back of the stand, but these were locked to stop hooligans getting in, not for actual emergencies. Any people sent to the back of the stand, or being unlucky enough to be caught there, could only escape by crawling under the old-fashioned waist-high turnstiles. The hell of waiting your turn for that can only be imagined.

Even a football pitch width away, the heat was incredible. I gripped one of Dad’s hands, Jez the other. Goodness only knows where Jack and Simon were.

“Don’t look down.” Dad kept repeating to us, over and over. People were spread around the floor in various states of injury and distress but, for the second time that day, I am grateful for doing as Dad said. I didn’t look down.

An old man emerged from the stand ablaze, a brave policeman went to his aid. People were screaming for loved ones or screaming for help. I just looked up at the sky, now filled with a huge black cloud.

3.45

To properly ascertain the panic and lack of clarity of the situation, it is crucial at this point to remember there were no mobile phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, no 24 hour news channels; nothing.

Mum was shopping in town. I assume my other brothers, Chris (10) and Simon (4) were with her, but I don’t know. What I do know is Mum heard the fire engine sirens roaring through town. Lots of them. She could see the huge cloud of smoke and she instinctively knew where it was coming from. No phones remember. Just a crowd of people gathering around a shop front of Dixon’s or some other such electrical goods store. The ITV sports programme (was it called World of Sport?) had cut live to Valley Parade and Mum had her worst fears confirmed. It was Valley Parade. She dashed for home to get by the phone. That must have been an equally long, traumatic afternoon.

4.45

I actually have no idea how long we were on the pitch. I just remember walking around, holding Dad’s hand, looking upwards. Eventually the stairwell at the Bradford End of the ground was opened and, maybe an hour later (I’m not certain) we made our way out of the ground. I think some felt relief that it appeared everyone had got out, all-be-it with injuries. I also know that some, Dad included, suspected there was no way that could possibly be true.

We walked up Holywell Ash Lane. The local Asian community were amazing. Doors were open to all. The players from both teams were lined up the street, still in kit, wrapped in blankets from the locals, with their families – if they were fortunate enough to be reunited yet.

We climbed up to Manningham Lane and bumped into one of my best friends from school, Simon. It was only at this point did I realise that my hand was still glued to my Dad’s – not cool for a 12 year-old! Simon had been in the Bradford End but had still become separated from his cousin. Although that stand had not caught fire, the heat was so intense that they still had to escape onto the pitch.

Only when we got back to the car did any sense of relief begin to drip in. Dad worked for British Telecom at the time and his company car had an amazing gadget – wait for it – a car phone! This made Dad’s car something of a spaceship to my friends but on this occasion it was the greatest piece of kit ever, allowing us to ring round family and let them know we were safe.

The only thing I cannot remember at all is when and how we found out that Jack and Simon, our match companions, were safe. But safe they were.

Postscript.

I could write at length about how life changed in the aftermath. At first I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what had happened and got a well deserved telling-off from Mum for ‘showing-off’ about being there. I think the Monday morning news at school changed that. (Remember, no phones or internet – the first I knew of Adrian was walking onto the school playground that morning.) I became very agitated in large crowds and, if I went to watch rugby with Dad, I always had to go and stand right at the front so I could get out if anything ‘happened’. I had an awesome bedroom upstairs in the converted loft at the time, but found it difficult to sleep up there so Mum and Dad swapped my bedroom for the newly built ground floor office. Over time these things ease, but I still need to be able to see an escape route wherever I am to this day.

The main thing I learned though, was to try and enjoy every minute of life. Try to spend as little time doing things you dislike and as much time as possible doing things you like. Even better if you can do those things with people you love.

Ironically, one of the things to fall by the wayside was football. I was City mad for a good decade or so, going to the matches with a life-long friend who, ironically, was sat practically right next to me in the main stand 30 years ago today. We didn’t know each other at the time, but we instantly recognised each other when we met a year or so later at high school.

Nowadays I would rather spend my time in the park with the girls, visiting family or running a race somewhere, which I suppose does tenuously bring me back to a running theme.

Love life. And do it now.

IMG_20170511_215901

In memory of the 56 who went to the match and never came home.

The Conti Lightning Run – One Year On…

Sunday 3rd May, 2015. 3.00pm. The injured ankle is improving. Not run yet, but have managed to get on the cross-trainer, so at least I am doing some sort of training. (8 weeks to go…)

However, at this very moment, somewhere near Walton-on-Trent in Derbyshire, hardly souls will be entering the last 3 hours of the Conti Lightning Run, a continuous 12 hour race set on a roughly 10k trail course. Today, conditions are pretty wet underfoot and the weather, while improving, has not been dry.

A year ago today, I was part of the winning team, representing Men’s Running magazine. By way of re-cap, (and by way of logging a free blog entry!) here is my report which Men’s Running magazine were kind enough to publish.

Name in lights, courtesy of Men's Running magazine.

Name in lights, courtesy of Men’s Running magazine.

My first (and probably last) ever published article. (Men's running magazine.) As yet, this has not made me enough money to retire from teaching. Still, we live in hope... (If you are reading this and feel like employing a full-time writer to attend races around the globe and write reviews, please do contact me.)

My first (and probably last) ever published article. (Men’s running magazine.) As yet, this has not made me enough money to retire from teaching. Still, we live in hope… (If you are reading this and feel like employing a full-time writer to attend races around the globe and write reviews, please do contact me.)

Conti Lightning Run, 2014.

Boxing Day. I’m sat reading my Christmas edition of Men’s Running in the only room in the house where a bloke can get some peace and quiet on Boxing day. (I bet you read yours there too, don’t you?)
The page drops open as if by magic on an advertisement for the Conti Lightning Run. Or, more specifically, on a request from our esteemed Editor for potential members of a Men’s Running Conti Lightning Team. No point entering that though, eh? They must get thousands of applicants. Still, all you have to do is send off an e-mail. No harm done. So I reach down for the I-pad (Yes, still on the toilet – stop judging me) and fire off a mail which I hope may stand out from the crowd.
Fast forward to March. As I zip through my inbox deleting the copious junk we all have to deal with, I suddenly land on the name of David Castle. Hang on, I know him… “Mark, if you are still available, and fit, we would like you to be part of the Men’s Running Conti Lightning Run team.” I literally jumped off the toilet in excitement! (Yes, yes, there are other rooms in my house.)
Immediate excitement about the event and the potential for free kit was soon replaced by fear and dread: what if the rest of the team are loads faster than me? What if I pick up a stupid injury on a meaningless training run? What if the wireless isn’t strong enough to reach the downstairs bathroom?
The next two months fly by in a blur of extra training runs and, before I know it, we are assembled at the pre-race briefing at 5.40am on Sunday 4th May.
The Conti Lightning Run is a 12 hour race over a country 10km course in the grounds of Catton Park, near Burton-on-Trent. Individual entrants mingle with pairs teams or relay teams of 5 runners. Here is what I knew about my Men’s Running teammates:
Euan McGrath – ultra runner, UTMB finisher, coach, a 30-miles-before-breakfast type of guy. Sub 36min 10k runner. FAST.
Jonny Muir – ex-journalist, teacher, Author, bloody good sub 34 min 10k runner. VERY FAST.
Pedro Upton – a one man running success story. 19 stone 12 months ago, now running 37.30 for 10ks. FAST.
Euan Mathieson – a bit of a man of mystery, don’t know his running background. But he’s in the Army, so he’s going to be knocking out 40min 10ks carrying a full pack, surely?! HERO. STRONG.
Me (Mark Morgan-Hillam) – primary school teacher, just turned 41, very pleased with finally ducking under 40 mins for 10k for the first time last year. MEDIUM PACED. NERVOUS.
6am – we’re off. Pedro’s up first as it was practically impossible to keep him caged any longer, such was his enthusiasm. 39 minutes later, he’s back with us in 2nd place; Army Euan is out next and returns looking strong with us still in 2nd place.
My turn next and finally, after all the anticipation, I’m out on course. The first half of the course is predominantly uphill with a substantial section of woodland weaving; the second half is predominantly downhill mostly on farm tracks. I’m pretty happy with breaking 41 mins as I hand on to Jonny two minutes behind the leading team.
Saving Jonny and Euan Mc for legs 4 and 5 was clearly a tactical masterstroke as they both whip round in under 39 minutes to put us in the lead by 11 minutes after the first 5 laps, (one for each runner on the respective teams.)
And so the day continued; I had thought it would be a lazy day of hard running followed by rest and re-couperation between runs. But far from it, I found myself constantly clock watching to ensure I was there to cheer teammates into the finish, offer encouragement where required, to cheer on the Women’s Running team who were also running well, and also to check on opposition times to keep an eye on our ever increasing lead.
As a team we managed to avoid all the pitfalls that can derail a team in an event such as this; no injuries, we stuck to our pre-race strategy, all of us managed to maintain lap times at our level without any major drop –off in performance and, probably most importantly, we didn’t suffer the one catastrophic lap which can blow your hopes out of the window in one go.
As we entered the last hour it finally dawned on us that we were going to win. Army Euan went out at 5.03pm and the only question was whether he would return in time to allow me a 4th lap (my heart was way more enthusiastic about this than my legs!) Euan returned with an extra spring in his step in plenty of time and off I went on what amounted to a victory lap of honour for the team.
With the pressure off and the course practically empty, I enjoyed one of those magical runs where you remember why you put your trainers on in the first place. This will undoubtedly be the only time I will ever get to genuinely ‘win’ a race and the bond I felt with my teammates, who I didn’t even know the day before, was immeasurable.
We made sure that the whole team were there to join me as I descended into the start/finish area for the last time and we crossed the finish line together – a lovely moment to cap a magical day.
Thanks to Men’s Running for the opportunity, congratulations to the Women’s Running team who finished a well deserved 3rd in their category, thanks to Felix from Continental and Adidas for the kit, thanks to the Catton Park team for setting up the course so well and, finally, thanks to my teammates for the support, advice and laughs!

The Men's Running and Women's Running teams on the finish line.

The Men’s Running and Women’s Running teams on the finish line.

The victorious Men's Running team: (from left to right) Pedro Upton, Euan Mathieson, myself, Euan McGrath, Jonny Muir

The victorious Men’s Running team: (from left to right) Pedro Upton, Euan Mathieson, myself, Euan McGrath, Jonny Muir.

I do need to add a footnote to this article, as I promised to tell you how I met Laraine Wyn-Jones, herself a brilliant blogger and part inspiration for me getting round to blogging myself.

After the above race was over, many competitors packed up and left. I could have done the same, as my in-laws live in nearby Wolverhampton and, indeed, Mrs Sticks and the kids were heading back there themselves after supporting me. However, I decided I wanted to soak up a bit more post-race atmos, plus my new mate Pedro and his good lady were lighting a BBQ, so I decided to camp the next night too and make some inroads into the crate of beer in my cool box by way of celebration.

After a quick shower and pooling of anything edible from the remains of team Men’s Running, camping chairs were opened, feet were raised and the first beer was cracked open. It was at this point that we realised one of the Women’s Running team  were having trouble starting their car.  A breakdown guy arrived to do whatever he needed to do to get her moving.

Next thing we know, we hear an engine rev, followed very quickly by crunching and ripping noises, followed even more quickly by screams. We all jumped up to be confronted by the horrifying scene of the car (Laraine’s, obviously) now parked on top of, and partially inside, a tent. Fortunately, it was quickly established that no-one was inside the tent – and I mean fortunately as the car ended up on top of a sleeping pod. The only injury sustained seemed to be to the breakdown guy who had managed to brake his arm in the action of doing whatever he was doing. Obviously though, there were a lot of shocked people around, not least the tent owners who were moments away from turning in for the night. Thank goodness they didn’t, as the car had come to rest on their bed.

To cut a long story short, medics were called out for the breakdown guy and, as Laraine lived in Telford at the time, I drove her home before spending the night in comfort at my in-laws. I never did get the celebratory beer, and I can only assume Pedro ate all the sausages and burgers!

Laraine doesn’t live in Telford anymore. Check out her amazing new life and planned adventures at;

http://www.wyn-jones.co.uk/laraine/

Follow her on Twitter at: @LaraineWynJones

Jonny’s blog is also amazing – proper pro. Find it at:

http://heightsofmadness.com/

Follow him on Twitter at: @MuirJonny

Get his books too, they’re great. (I will get round to reviewing them here one day.)

Euan McGrath is my Ultra-Hero! We will meet again in 8 weeks as he is also participating in the Lakeland Trails Ultimate Trails 110k event. (I suspect he will be well in front of me though!)

Follow him on Twitter at: @madonadventure

Finally, Pedro! An inspiration to all. Follow his never-ending running and obstacle race expoits on Twitter at:

@Toro_Rabioso

Please leave comments below! I apologise for not getting back to the kind people who have left messages about previous posts – as I didn’t add the e-mail box in I couldn’t reply! (I’m still a blogging-amateur!)

 

 

The Highs and Lows of Trail Running (or Easter 2015 update, if you want a dull title instead.)

Nine weeks today (Jeez, only nine?) I will (hopefully) be nearing the end of 110km of running, basking in the satisfaction of completing my first ever Ultra. If I was feeling supremely optimistic, in nine weeks I may be already finished, given that the race clock would now be showing 18 hours 15 minutes! However, given that I am sat here with a bottle of beer and a quite heavily strapped ankle, my optimism is slightly dialled down at the moment. Why the strapping? Read on…

Trail Running – the highs.

Easter holidays for the Morgan-Hillams means our annual family ski holiday to Saas Fee, Switzerland. At 1800m above sea level, perfect skiing is guaranteed on the glacier and perfect, sunny, blue sky days can also be pretty much guaranteed. What can also be guaranteed is excessive beer and pizza consumption! Not, then, ideal conditions for a budding Ultra runner.

I had factored this week into my training plan as a last ‘easy’ week before a full on heavy-mileage assault on the last half of April and May. However, I wasn’t going to totally rest the entire week – at the very least I would spend it at altitude, lugging two lots of kiddie ski equipment across nursery slopes, hoiking my youngest up slopes and on and off drag lifts, and dragging Mrs Sticks down ski runs that she would rather view from the sun terrace!

But my running kit was also packed, as it had been the previous year. As we drive to the Alps, I intended to have my annual early-morning-hangover run along the Doubs river in the French city of Besançon, our usual en-route sleepover destination. But, for the first time, I also packed my full trail running kit – the tentative idea being to find a suitable mountain trail to run up; if I found the time or the guts!

Last year I had felt quite the explorer simply running round the village for a couple of laps. I think it was more embarrassment at the quizzical looks of the apres-skiers (of which I am usually one) that made me feel so self-conscious. This year, inspired by Paul, a friend who lives in Kitzbuhel, Austria, who is forever uploading training run pictures onto Strava of his snow-covered, tree-lined, blue sky mountain training runs, I intended to take it up a notch!

After checking the local maps and studying Google earth, a suitable route was found and, taking advantage of the fact that it wasn’t going dark until after 8pm, I was able to drop the family at their ski school disco and get back to the chalet for my run. I was going to take on 7 hairpins from the end of the village to the gondola station at Hannig. I reckoned on it being about 2.5 miles up so figured, if it went well, I might do it twice. (My naivety really does have no bounds sometimes!)

So at 5pm, after a little loop around the top of the village to warm-up, I left the comforts of tarmac behind and hit the trail. Conditions underfoot were a mixture of snow and trail and I loved it from the get-go. The only moments of self-doubt came when, at the 2nd hairpin, I realised I had underestimated the distance of the route – I had run nearly 2 miles already and still had 5 corners to complete! The higher I went, the deeper the snow became and, as the sun had long since left this side of the valley, the surface became crisper, meaning the foot broke the surface and sank into soft snow with each step. This made running tricky and greatly increased the effort but I doubt it can be possible to do better training. Altitude, 4 miles of non stop climbing, draining conditions underfoot, continuously sensational views – no wonder Paul from Kitz blazes round City marathons at the speed he does!

On the Alpine trail, Saas Fee, Switzerland. Tricky and tiring underfoot but, with views like that, who cares?!

On the Alpine trail, Saas Fee, Switzerland. Tricky and tiring underfoot but, with views like that, who cares?!

After just under an hour of running (although that did include at least 10 photo stops!) I reached the gondola station and was rewarded with a stunning view of the village 500 metres directly below. The sun cast its last lingering rays onto the snow-capped mountains opposite, in front of a sky so blue that it could have been painted by an over-enthusiastic infant. I had the mountain to myself, I could hear the apres bars below and I could practically make out the restaurant that the girls would be guzzling pizza in at that very moment. The sense of adventure, mixed with satisfaction of achievement, made this probably the highlight of my running career – certainly my training career at the very least! I admit to having a little moment stood there, looking down at the sheer wonder of the world, thinking how lucky I was that I could experience it.

Summit selfie. Saas Fee ski area in the background.

Summit selfie. Saas Fee ski area in the background.

Looking down on Saas Fee, village. Best running view ever.

Looking down on Saas Fee village 500 metres below. Best running view ever.

By myself.

Up a mountain.

Sun setting.

By myself.

Up a mountain.

By myself.

There might be wolves.

By myself.

Sun setting.

Wolves.

Mountain.

By myself.

Yes, the zen-like, man-tear moment passed rather quickly and was suddenly replaced by a desire to get back down, rather quickly, to civilization and the safety of beer and pizza and families and not Wolves. (That’s the animal, not the City, although they both fill me with equal dread.)

The underfoot conditions, which made ascending so difficult, made descending an absolute joy. Indeed, it was not entirely unlike skiing as I could fling myself at the slope with wild abandon, knowing that each foot-strike would be greeted with the crunch of freezing crust and the safe planting of the foot in the soft snow underneath. The descent took less than 28 minutes and was as thrilling as the ascent. (I was extremely quick – did I mention I thought there might be Wolves?)

Best. Run. Ever.

Trail Running – the lows.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and so, in the blink of an eye, we found ourselves back in Blighty. Another week off school meant I could get back on the running horse mileage-wise, although I wasn’t going to overdo it as I had the second Lakeland Trails race of the season on the Saturday, so wanted to at least conserve a little bit of race pace.

If you read my last blog (if not, go and read it right now – immediately. I insist.) you will know all about the excellent Lakeland Trails events and you will also remember that I made a bit of a horlicks of the first Lakeland Trails race, setting off like an elite runner and finishing like a geriatric. I was determined not to make that mistake again.

But first I had the joys of supporting Mrs Sticks as she ran her debut trail race in the morning over a 10k route (Ha! A very approximate 10k which, unless everybody’s GPS watches are faulty, was a generous 12k or so!) I was far more nervous for her race than my own; so desperate was I for her to enjoy her first trail experience. So I was both proud, delighted, and a little relieved, to see her enter the finishing field with a huge smile – even if that huge smile was accompanied by a grazed and soon-to-be very bruised elbow from her first trail tumble!

Mrs Sticks lovin' the Lakeland Trails! (Photo courtesy of James Kirby @jumpyjames)

Mrs Sticks lovin’ the Lakeland Trails! (Photo courtesy of James Kirby @jumpyjames)

The kids ran next, chasing the budget-costumed Jerry Giraffe around the field to great cheers!

Finally, I was off. See my last post for route details but, you can be assured, I set off at a far more sensible pace than last time, ready to attack the infamous ‘Coffin Trail’ climb in the last 2/3 miles.

It is amazing what a funny thing pace is, especially on hilly trails. It felt as if the slower I ran, the faster I got. At the top of the first climb I had deliberately paced myself not to get out of breath, and yet here I was beginning to overtake the field in front as we rolled towards Far Sawrey, above Windermere.

Scenery to match Switzerland! All smiles approaching the top 20 and Far Sawrey - mostly because I have no idea what is about to happen...

Scenery to match Switzerland! Langdale Fells in the background. All smiles approaching the top 20 and Far Sawrey – mostly because I have no idea what is about to happen…

I was feeling great and began planning an assault on a top 30 finish. We crested the ridge summit to begin the steep descent to Windermere. “19th.” I thought I heard the Marshall shout to the runner I was about to overtake. “20th.” 20th? Really? Well this is going well, I thought to myself, whilst looking for a spot to effect my next overtake as the path pitched steeply downhill.

It is amazing sometimes what a difference 5 seconds can make. As quickly as you have just read that last paragraph, I went from “Blimey, I am feeling great!” to “Ouch.” I went over on my ankle very quickly and recovered immediately. These things happen two or three times in every trail race, usually followed by a few steps of panic and then a “Phew, that was close!” This time, however, I knew I hadn’t got away with it. Steeply descending wasn’t helping either. After a few steps I knew this wasn’t a pain that was going to subside and I was reduced to hobbling and hopping down the steep path.

Whilst it was disappointing that my race on the day was in ruins, I was obviously far more concerned with the bigger picture and not doing any long-term damage. Once the descent bottomed out on the shores of Windermere, I knew I had a mile or so along the lakeside, before the Coffin climb and the final descent. I assumed that I wouldn’t be getting a lift back to the finish area if I did drop out, so I simply took it very easy and decided to get back without inflicting further damage. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, although it has to be said the final, mile-long descent to Hawkshead was a very painful and generally unpleasant experience, especially on such a beautiful day and in such beautiful surroundings. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised that I still managed to complete the 10 miles in 1 hr 25 mins and in 52nd place, despite hobbling and hopping the last 5 miles or so!

And so now you are up-to-date. A week later the ankle is sore but definitely better than a week ago, I am determined to man-up and do some core training this week while I can’t run, and just maybe by next weekend I can get some cross training in and hopefully not lose too much valuable training time. I really need to be putting the miles in over the next 6 weeks but am very conscious of remaining patient and not making the injury worse.

Instead of a morning run, I will sit in front of the box and subliminally cheer on the London marathon runners, hoping they achieve their personal goals and generally have one of those magical running experiences. One that will live in the memory forever. Like I had up a mountain in Switzerland.

By myself.

Up a mountain.

Sun setting.

With Wolves…

Loving the Lakeland Trails! (Even when they bite back!)

Last Saturday (21st March) saw the return of the new Lakeland Trails season. A series close to my heart for at least 2 reasons: firstly, it was the series in which I made my ‘proper’ trail debut just two years ago and, secondly, they are also the hosts for my up-and-coming ultra debut in June this year competing in their Ultimate Trails 110km race.

http://www.lakelandtrails.org/

(nb – I’m not a ‘facebooker’, but look them up on there, it’s the most up-to-date source of information.)

I am no expert in this field, and I am certainly biased, but I do think that if you have ever fancied dipping your toe into off-road racing but were nervous or apprehensive about doing so, there simply cannot be a better event to try out than any of the Lakeland Trail events.

There are 3 Spring races (Cartmel, Hawkshead, Staveley) and 4 Autumn races (Keswick, Coniston and a Helvellyn/Ullswater double-header). Added to these is a summer marathon/half marathon and, this year, for only the second time, the 55k/110k Ultra event and you have yourself a recipe for a great trail running year!

The Spring and Autumn races follow the same format: 10k in the morning, kids races at lunchtime, 15-17k race in the afternoon with the option to start an hour earlier than the main race if you fancy a more leisurely pace. All the above means that, whatever your ambitions and abilities, there is a race for you. Throw in the family friendly atmosphere, the soothing tones of resident Lakeland Trails singer/songwriter Pete Lashley and you have a winner of a day out!

Unfortunately, I have never been able to participate in any of the Autumn races due to other race or family commitments (I know the routes of these races well; they would be great!) but I am in my 3rd year of running the spring series and myself and the family love going to them. Here is a brief review of the 3 courses…

Cartmel (2015 race review below)

For me, the toughest of the three spring courses. Mostly because, in March, you can expect a substantial amount of mud! But also because of the consistent undulations of the course. No killer hills as such, it’s just the feeling that you are never on the flat! Also, it can be tricky underfoot as much of the course is slightly off the beaten Lakeland tracks, so grip can be an exhausting issue. This latter point is also the charm of the venue though. As a less frequently visited corner of the lakes, many of the views are new and unexpected. And Cartmel racecourse and village – stunning!

Cartmel 2013. My debut. Cold weather, cold water and mud; lots and lots of mud!

Cartmel 2013. My debut. Cold weather, cold water and mud; lots and lots of mud!

Hawkshead

Only raced once due to a cancellation last year, the ‘Coffin Trail’ gets its name from a brute of a climb from the shores of Windermere back over towards Hawkshead. The 17k course begins with a slightly less severe version in the opposite direction. Apart from these two climbs, however, there is quite a bit of fast trail running to be had. Just make sure you save some energy for the ‘coffin’ climb or… (insert the coffin based punchline of your choice here – I haven’t the heart!)

Hawkshead 2013. What a picture! (The scenery, not me.)

Hawkshead 2013. What a picture! (The scenery, not me.)

Staveley (Kentmere)

Brought forward in the calendar this year to accommodate the Ultra, Staveley can often be attritional in terms of summer heat. Named the ‘Sting in the Tail’ for it’s short, but sharp, final climb up onto Reston Scar looking down on the village, I think the name is very deceptive! Really it should be called the ‘Chuffing Big Sting in the Middle’! The race begins with a dangerous 3 to 4k road climb towards Kentmere – dangerous in the sense that I reckon most of the field sets off way too quick. (Or at least I do!) On my debut in this race in 2013, a sweltering day, I burned all my bridges on that first climb and suffered as I rarely have before or since for the rest of the course. This is a crucial mistake as the real challenge of the route comes bang on halfway with a never-ending farm track climb over a series of morale-sapping false summits onto the opposite side of the valley. In 2014 I used my negative 2013 experience to my advantage, pacing myself to the foot of the climb and roaring up it as everyone else faltered, eventually finishing in 17th, my best Lakeland Trail finish to date. Sure, be mentally ready for the ‘Sting’, but the finish line is seemingly one decent triple jump from its summit! It’s the sting in the middle you have to watch…

Climbing another killer false summit of the 'Sting in the Middle'! Chasing down the top 20...

Climbing another killer false summit of the ‘Chuffing Big Sting in the Middle’! Chasing down the top 20… (Staveley 2014)

In summary, get yourself along to a Lakeland Trail. Leanne, my wife, has finally taken the plunge after supporting me for two years and will be making her debut in the 10k at Hawkshead. She is nervous but I’m not – I know she will love it! And the best bit of the whole Lakeland Trail experience? Leanne will run in the morning, the kids will run at dinnertime, and I’ll run in the afternoon – no babysitters required; all participating; all enjoying a great family day out in the Lakes – can you beat that?

Cartmel 2015.

And so to this year’s race. Hopes were high pre-race, mostly ego-boosted by the above-mentioned 17th place finish at Staveley last year and knowing I was in better shape this year. Thus I positioned myself on the start line in a top 30ish place, thinking I was now some sort of elite fell runner. Oh, the folly…

The first surprise was the relatively dry conditions underfoot. Where was the carpet of sludge from previous years? This, combined with my arrogance, is probably what lead to a 6m 15s first mile, which in turn led to an all-too-swift climb up the only real continuous hill of the course (miles 2 and 3) which left me in an enviable position of approximately 15th place on course, and an unenviable position of being totally spent with 8 miles to go! Humble pie was then consumed for the remainder of the course as I was steadily passed by the same runners I had just sprinted past up the hill, all passing with the smug look of “Oh dear, set off a bit quick did we?!” looks on their faces!

To be fair, if you told me pre-race I’d finish 29th, covering the 11.25 miles in 1hr 26m 50s, I would have been very happy. But it’s always frustrating to know that you haven’t stuck to your pre-race plan. It really is so much more satisfying to be feeling good, overtaking in the 2nd half of a race than to be knackered and being tagged by other runners.

Absolutely goosed just over halfway! You can always count of James Kirby, the official photographer, to be hidden away at the most tiring point of the course!

Cartmel 2015. Absolutely goosed just over halfway! You can always count of James Kirby, the official photographer, to be hidden away at the most tiring point of the course!

But any feelings of frustration at my performance were more than alleviated by the Lakeland Trails experience. My daughters, aged 7 and 3, had a great day out in the fresh air and countryside, my in-laws were visiting Cartmel for the first time and thought it was delightful, and Leanne was inspired to enter her first Lakeland Trail on our return home. And that, ultimately, is what it’s all about isn’t it? Without the support of our loved ones the running would be guilt-ridden and joyless, but if we can all participate together then that, in the words of an advertising campaign, really is priceless.