Monday, 15 September 2014

Swindon parkrun

This weekend I went to visit my friend Rose in her new home in a village on the outskirts of Swindon. While we were there, my husband  and I decided it would be a nice idea to do the Swindon parkrun. We set off to the venue at Lydiard Park without much of an idea what it would be like and with an added wildcard in the form of our two children aged 6 and 4 years who we hoped we might encourage to run at least part of the way.

I should probably mention that due to a packing oversight, our plans were nearly scuppered. I had failed to put my shorts in the overnight bag. I don't know if gratitude or embarrassment dominated  my emotions when my friend's lovely husband let me borrow a pair of his and they fit perfectly!

The park was beautiful and it was obvious that the parkrun itself was much bigger than we were used to. Over four hundred runners congregated at the start.

The route consisted of two laps and the plan was that my husband would race off as fast as he could leaving me to cajole the children into taking part with whatever bribes I had at my disposal. We would cover as much ground as possible and when my husband finished in as close to 25minutes as he could manage, he would come back for the kids whilst I ran for all I was worth in the hope of at least finishing somewhere around the 40 minute mark. We had looked at  previous results for this parkrun and it seemed that there were a number of participants who took a similar amount of time to complete it. I would not be alone.

The children were very keen to run at first but waiting around for the race to start got them a bit agitated. Then when daddy took his place in the crowd with the other 25 minute pace runners leaving us at the back, they were grumpy and agitated. No amount of encouragement or persuasion could get them back on side.

Reluctantly they came with me as the crowd edged forwards to cross the start line. It was wonderful watching all those people with a common purpose running off into the distant, giving their best. I longed to be amongst them but I was being held firmly back by two little monsters dragging their feet and continuing to moan that they wanted daddy.

I had to accept that they were not going to be obliging. They were not going to run and that was that. I settled for a slow walk. They would happily run off the path to explore but I could not get them to channel that energy into a faster walk in the direction I wanted them to go.

I did consider giving up and turning back and waiting for my husband to finish his race in one of the play areas but we'd started, so we plodded onwards. There was always the slim chance that they'd decide it might be fun to run.

Far from a having a change of heart that incorporated more speed, my little boy dug his heels in, started to cry and said I'm not growed up enuff  for runnin'. At this point, I picked the poor little soul up and carried him on my back. My daughter had the occasional burst of speed in between moaning and my son whooped with delight and waved his little legs around as I struggled to run with him on my back to keep up with her. I was beginning to wish that the borrowed shorts had not fitted and I'd had to back out.

The marshals were lovely. I think they must have felt my pain and were very encouraging.

Before long, we were being lapped by the elite athletes chasing their sub 20 minute finish times. The paths were very narrrow so I now had the added difficulty of trying to keep my daughter tucked into the lefthand side whilst the herds of lean, determined runners thundered past us. It was inspiring to see them racing by but nerve wracking too. I feared that my daughter might stray from her position of safety into the path of one of these unstoppables. The momentum of even a glancing collision would have been enough to send her flying in a tangle of long blonde hair and longer skinny legs. Thankfully, this did not happen and the pace of the runners lapping us was becoming noticeably more sedate as time went by.

I don't know how much distance we had covered when my husband on his second lap caught up with us on our first (he suggested about 2 kilometres). I urged him to continue to the finish but he could see how much I was struggling under the weight of our son and he admitted to having a twinge of pain in his leg that he didn't want to risk aggravating as he was due to take part in a triathlon the following weekend. He took over babysitting duty and gave me the freedom to run.

If his estimate of distance was correct, he only had about 1 kilometre to go before the finish. Having been on target for a 25/26 minute time, he finally made it across the line in 35 minutes. Meanwhile, I was running like a woman with a mission.

Photograph by Martyn Joyce

To begin with, I had the company of the runners on their second lap hoping to achieve times not much faster than my own personal best. I felt quite comfortable running with them but then we reached the parting of the ways. As they all took the left turn to the final push before home, I took the right and started my second lap. Rather than feeling disheartened (or tempted to to slip home unnoticed with the left turners) I had the hugely motivating sight ahead of me of the back runners - two ladies I had noticed earlier both wearing bright red T shirts and following a minute walk/ minute run plan. I knew I could catch them up and I did. I overtook them and locked my sights on the next person ahead of me.

I have been working on my downhill technique - letting myself go with gravity doing the hardwork rather than waving my arms and trying to pull the brakes on to feel in control. Coming up was a downhill stretch followed by an ascent. I overtook the next group of people on the downhill which felt quite liberating and easily passed the people who were walking up the hill.

I think some of these people must have wondered where on earth I had come from. I was certainly shaking things up at the back. I did nod and say good morning as I passed but I really wanted to tell them how much I admired them, how fantastically they were doing. These people were not great runners, yet here they were taking on this 3 mile course at their own pace and achieving their own personal goals. It is SO hard to say well done without sounding patronising.

It felt like no time before I was back at the fork to turn left for home. I didn't quite manage to catch up with a tiny little lad who had been riding on his dad's shoulders when he first came into my field of vision and was now running like the wind towards the finish line under his own steam. It was wonderful to see him go and it reminded me of my own two little ones who were now no doubt having a great time in the play area with memories of their own half hearted efforts fading into oblivion.

I finished in position 430 out of 449 in a time of 42:01. Hopefully, the next time I visit my friend Rose, I'll get another try, without the handicap of a first lap with two stubbornly reluctant children.

I love being part of the parkrun community and would definitely recommend it to anyone.

Photograph by Rose 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Irish Regiment 7 Mile Multi Terrain Race

When I embarked on a beginners course at my local Running Club a couple of years ago, I could never have dreamt that one day I would be signing up for a 7 mile multi terrain cross country race. In a moment of optimism or madness, that is exactly what I did. The race was organised by the Irish Regiment stationed at our town's barracks and was part of an initiative to promote community relations.

My daughter Liberty signed up also along with her boyfriend and my husband.

I can' t say that I did a lot in preparation for the race. I hadn't run as far as 7 miles for quite some time and the day before the race I spent at a beer and music festival enjoying more pints than I should have of the real ales on offer. I wasn't feeling fantastically confident but by the time we arrived at the start, it was too late to worry about it.

Army vehicles and men in uniform set the scene for the race. There were plenty of familiar faces from my running club but I couldn't help feeling a little intimidated by all the incredibly fit army personnel taking part. The British Army Cross Country team were there and of the civilians taking part, I was struggling to spot anyone that looked like they'd be slower than my daughter and I.

As my husband and Liberty's boyfriend found their strategic position for the start of the race, Liberty and I stood well back and watched as the field opened out before us. We crossed the start line at the back and didn't expect to be doing any overtaking.

Resigning myself to the fact that we were almost certainly going to finish last was quite liberating. Someone has to be last and today it was going to be us. I was determined to finish and enjoy myself. I am a slighty faster runner than my daughter but we made a promise to each other that we would do this together. We would help each other. There was no way I was going to leave her behind. I had a not unrealistic concern that with my slight hangover from the ales, she could be leaving me behind.

We ran the first couple of miles keeping the other runners in sight but then the course started to take twists and turns through fields and woods that made us feel quite alone. The race was marshalled by smart young men in military attire who were incredibly supportive and generous with smiles and words of encouragement but there were times when we weren't exactly sure which way to go. It was quite an adventure. I was very glad that I was sharing the adventure with my daughter.

As we dragged ourselves up a steep bank in the woods, I wondered how on earth anyone could actually run up such an incline, especially given how soft and crumbly the surface was underfoot. At the top, there were three well placed trees. I held onto them in turn to manoeuvre myself cautiously over the top of the bank as I planned the equally steep descent. I mostly let myself go and trusted to luck to stay upright. A log at the bottom needed to be jumped over but I surprised myself by timing it just right and coming to rest without injury to body or pride. I turned round to see how my daughter was doing. She was clinging to one of the trees for dear life bemoaning the fact that this was her worst nightmare. To her credit, she took my advice and just went for it. She made it safely to the bottom ready for the next ascent.

I was actually starting to love this rough terrain, skipping down the slopes with a childlike abandon and something of a daft grin on my face. My daughter was less amused by it all but we were making progress.

It would not be fair to write about my daughter's tree hugging incident  without mentioning an incident of my own. I was drinking plenty of water to try and counter the hangover symptoms and I had a sneaking suspicion that my bladder was going to start to protest loudly if I did not do something to relieve it before the seven miles were over. Liberty needed to stop to catch her breath and stretch her tightening muscles. We were in a wood. There was a conveniently large tree. I popped behind it for a wee. I did check first to make sure there were no marshalls in sight but mid wee I had a moment of panic imagining sophisticated army surveillance equipment monitoring the activity. The feeling of exposure and vulnerability was not good but the lightness of an empty bladder most definitely was.

We moved swiftly on away from the scene of the crime against modesty.

As we emerged from the woods and began running on more open stretches, we occasionally caught sight of other runners ahead of us. It was lovely to see a friendly splash of our club colour orange running shirts. We weren't too disgracefully behind.

The route was comprised of a two loops joined together by a long straight stretch that included an underpass. You ran round one loop, out through the underpass, round the second loop and back through the underpass to the finish where you started on the first loop. As we were running out towards the second loop, the elite runners were making their way back and towards the finish. How do they make it look so easy? It was a very humbling feeling to be taking part in the event with these amazing athletes and many of them, to our delight, took the time to offer us encouragement. And we certainly needed all the encouragement we could get! We had a long way still to go.

The route was tough. To our tired legs it seemed like never ending hills but eventually, we were running back towards the underpass with the promise of the finish line not too distant. Liberty's boyfriend had completed the race in under an hour and had now come back to run her home. He was using all his best motivational one liners: you're doing great, not far now, dig deep, keep breathing. I think for poor Liberty 'keeping breathing' was proving increasingly difficult.

I was actually feeling pretty good. My bladder felt comfortable (good call having the wee behind the tree despite the embarrasment)  and a glucose gel sachet that I had slurped up at about the halfway point was having a positive effect on my energy levels. When my husband (who finished his race in just over an hour) came back to run with me, it didn't feel too different to when we go on our training runs together. We chatted, he told me he was proud of me and we ran ahead. Just behind me I could hear the motivational one liners picking up pace: final push now - the finish line is just around the corner - come on Liberty, push harder. The one liners were picking up pace. Liberty wasn't. Her breathing sounded awful and I thought she might actually be close to tears.

We started the race together, we ran the race together and I was absolutely determined that we were going to finish this race together. I gently pushed my husband out of the way, paused for Liberty to catch up and held out my hand to her. She took my hand and suddenly, the finish line was there in front of us.

I imagined that by now most of the runners and supporters would have dispersed. We would have the satisfaction of crossing the finish line but quietly and unnoticed. Wrong. A huge crowd of army, civilians and competitors were waiting at the finish and cheering us on. I felt a cocktail of emotions welling up and threatening to completely overwhelm me. I looked at Liberty. She looked at me. I held her hand tight and I ran.  I think I blurted out some nonsense like we're nearly there as much for me as for her and we made it. To cheers and applause, crossed that finish line -  together. Seven gruelling miles in 1 hour and 24 minutes. We'd made it.

I have never been so happy or so proud to come last!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

A Fordhall Farm Running Club Party

Yesterday evening, I found myself back in the same field where I had enjoyed the Fordfest event two days previously. This time, Fordhall Farm were playing host to my Running Club's party to celebrate five years of affiliation to England Athletics. We were using the same marquee and the same catering from the beer festival. The acoustic stage where my daughter Taylor had played guitar and sang was still in the corner (although now it had a table on it!) bringing the proud memories flooding back. Different memories were ignited by the sight of the beer barrels stacked along the back of the marquee. We were welcome to help ourselves to any leftover ale and despite it being a school night, I would have gladly worked my way along the row of barrels but for the fact that I had driven. Reluctantly, I stuck to coke.

The party started with the choice of a game of rounders or a stroll around one of the picturesque farm trails. I opted for the walk on account of being useless at hitting a ball, too easily distracted to field and fiercely uncompetitive! I am no stranger to the walk but it was a beautiful evening and the setting sun gave it a quite different feel. It was lovely and we arrived back as the rounders game finished and the food was ready.

I am ashamed to admit that when I booked my ticket, I did not order the vegetarian option. I respect the organic farming methods practised by Fordhall and feel there is a certain honesty to visiting the pigs then buying the pork sausages from the shop. When I booked my ticket, the lure of one of their pork baps was enough for me to temporarily park my vegetarian diet off to one side. Had I known that I would also have been eating a pork bap two days previously at the Fordfest, I would most likely have settled happily for a bit of quiche and lettuce. I thoroughly enjoyed my meat indulgence but I do feel this morning as though I am sweating pork through my pores. Too much of a good thing maybe.

After the baps came the Cake.

I had baked some chocolate fudge cake and was really pleased to see that it all got eaten. There was an amazing selection of cake to choose from. I am wondering if there is a correlation between being a runner and making good cakes. I am happy to do further research on this hypothesis. The centrepiece was an amazing cake in the shape of a five to commemorate the five year affiliation and decorated to represent a variety of different races including mud runs. A fondant runner wearing the club's distinctive 'Where's Wally' fancy dress was buried up to their armpits in a chocolatey muddy puddle for a comic touch.

The best part of the evening for me was listening to one of the club members give a talk about his recent travels. Without the aid of a slide show, a script or a power point presentation, this charismatic young man perched on a table in a gloomy tent in a moonlit field and talked honestly and passionately about his solo cycle ride around the coast of Australia. I was captivated by his story (apart from the moment when a huge beetle flew past my head then got tangled in my hair - all I could concentrate on then was GET THIS BEETLE OUT OF MY HAIR!!!)

I will never be a traveller but in the sense that Life is a Journey, we are all travellers. I found the talk hugely inspirational and was surprised by how much his experiences resonated with my own values. The thing that he emphasised repeatedly was that the connections he made with the people he met and the kindness of strangers were more important to him and left a longer lasting impression than any sense of achievement of actually clocking up the miles or seeing the iconic landmarks that tourists flock to photograph.

I think I will remember this young man's words for a long time. I have learned a little more about Australia, a little more about cycling and lot  more about how far a little kindness can go.

To round off the evening perfectly, I got to take home a plastic bottle of one of the ales to share with my husband. We had a pint each before bed and saved just enough for me to have a go at making a beef and ale pie for dinner the following day. This time the 'beef' will definitely be 'beef style soya pieces'... but the ale will be real!

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