The Blackpool Festival Of Running

Just over 6 months ago I completed my first marathon in York. Entering and training for the marathon was the catalyst for writing this blog. The day itself went pretty well but afterwards I vowed never to attempt the distance again, I even had the words “Never Again” engraved on the back of my medal.

I found the training a slog, the race itself was mentally draining and left me flat for weeks afterwards, I walked and ran the last 5 miles or so and finished in a time of 4 hours 1 minute 58 seconds. Whilst I was proud of that time, it began to niggle me as I knew I was capable of going under 4 hours.

In December the good people of Fylde Coast Runners ran daily competitions on Facebook to win places in their many fantastic events. I blindly commented every day and then received a message from them, I’d won a place in the Blackpool Marathon, part of their Festival Of Running weekend, on 22nd April 2018. Shit!!!!!!

I’d already booked my place on the half marathon which was taking place on the same day, did I really want to go back on my word? I mulled it over for a day or so and then took the plunge, do it, get the sub 4 hour time and then retire from marathons in a blaze of glory. I transferred my half marathon place to the Fleetwood half in August and I was in, no turning back.

Apologies here for the rather long preamble. I would have put all of this in a preview blog last week but I wanted to keep my participation as low key as possible. In the build up to York I’d been shouting about it from the rooftops, I was fund raising, writing my blog and actually I think to a degree I put unnecessary pressure on myself, I didn’t want to let people down and in a way I felt I did. This time though I only shared the news with a close circle of people and only tweeted about running on Sunday morning just hours before the start.

 

 

Before I get to Sunday’s events though a quick word or two about Saturday. The festival was a two day event with 2k, 5k and 10k races on Saturday and then the half and full marathons on Sunday. Saturday was glorious in many ways, the weather, the atmosphere, the apple cider lolly on the seafront bringing back childhood memories!

First up my wife Catherine and our friend Tara ran in the 10k, Tara hurt her calf after about 4k but they ran together and saw the race through in a decent time. Next up I ran with Linda, my mother in law who has been taking part in the Couch To 5k programme. It was 1pm when we started and it was HOT! The plan was that I would just stretch my legs before Sunday’s main event and help to pace Linda round, she wanted to run as much of the 5k as possible and to her huge credit she did apart from a nasty incline up off the front which to be honest everyone else we saw walked too. We crossed the line hand in hand in just under 36 minutes which was a fantastic achievement.

Linda now wants to run a 10k which I think is brilliant. A big well done here to everyone else from Activo in Nelson who took part and are achieving amazing health and fitness goals.

Finally there was the 2k, a large chunk of the field was made up of children either running on their own or with their parents. I think this is a great idea and something that other events should look to incorporate, I know some already do. It was lovely to see the enjoyment on everyone’s faces and my son Isaac even asked if he could race next year, more on him to come.

 

 

 

And so to Sunday. I had been checking the forecast virtually hourly for the week leading up to the race and it had changed from sunny, to cloud, to drizzle and then to rain as the week went on. Given the heat of Saturday and the weather in other parts of the country I was actually glad of the cool, damp conditions, I could have done without the wind but beggars can’t be choosers! I had picked up my bib on Saturday and so arrived in Blackpool about 50 minutes before the start to park up. As soon as I turned along the promenade the first spots of rain hit the windscreen and my prayers had been answered. I sat in the car for a while and then made my way down to the start via the usual loo stop. As seems obligatory for me I happened upon one of my running acquaintances Steve in the loo queue and we walked down to the start together discussing upcoming races and Steve’s amazing fundraising for Jane’s Appeal, find out more here. Just chewing the fat completely took my mind away from any pre-race nerves and before I knew it we were lined up and the gun went.

I shook Steve by the hand and wished him well and then I got my running head on. The plan was to just run by feel, my training had gone well and I’d done two 22 mile runs in around 3 hours so I knew that the ultimate goal of sub 4 hours was possible. I didn’t want to mess with my head by pacing myself too much though and checking my watch every couple of minutes so I just went with the flow and what felt comfortable. About a mile in I passed Caterina who I know from Twitter and have met at a couple of races including York where she had so kindly checked if I was ok at the point when I was really struggling. We had a brief chat and then I carried on, we saw each other again during the race and at the finish, she is a top runner and a thoroughly lovely lady.

The course itself was two laps up and down the promenade passing all the famous Blackpool landmarks. I know that some people find this type of course boring and it was my first time trying it. I have to say that I actually found it helpful, I know Blackpool well as a town anyway but the landmarks helped me mentally as I knew exactly where I was and there were no nasty surprises lurking around a corner.

The rain which had briefly abated at the start quickly returned and within a couple of miles we were all soaked, thankfully after an hour or so the rain eased and with a stiff wind blowing down the promenade I soon dried off. The miles clicked past nicely each one indicated by my watch vibrating on my wrist. I took gels on board as planned, sipped at my carb drink and sucked a few boiled sweets. Given that the promenade was closed off there was plenty of room to run and after the first lap the half marathon runners split off down the home straight whilst us marathoners turned back up to the main road and headed towards the Pleasure Beach again.

The support on the course was sporadic, it certainly wasn’t helped by the weather. At the start and finish there was a decent, vocal turnout but along the front we mainly passed stag and hen parties heading out for breakfast who looked at us like we had two heads! There were some groups of family and friends of runners huddled together though, mainly in bus and other shelters waving placards for their loved ones and applauding everyone else for their efforts, I made sure to acknowledge everyone as it was a filthy morning to be stood out for any length of time.

At York I began to fall apart mentally at around mile 18 and then physically from mile 20 and I was determined that would not happen again. This time my legs felt strong, I kept my head clear, ticked off the landmarks and before long I had reached the far end of Bispham and had made the final turn for home. As soon as I got down by the sea wall though the head wind hit me, I knew there were only 2.5 miles to go and I was certain that I would just put my head down and plod on.

 

 

 

My wife, my son and my father in law were waiting at the finish and as I eventually came back up to the middle walkway and the finishing straight I could see Catherine waving and cheering. Suddenly Isaac appeared through the crowd at my side and we crossed the line together. It was a really special moment and one I hope we will both look back on with great fondness in years to come. I know Isaac is proud of me but I secretly think he may just have been after the free Freddo I got too! I received my medal, a whopper, and a really nice tech top and then I needed to get warm. One of my mistakes after York was stopping dead and sitting down. After a brief chat with Caterina I walked the long way back to the car to get the legs warmed down and then relaxed as Catherine drove me home while I checked in with friends and family. I had good news to share, a PB by over 13 minutes, I had cracked it, I finished in 3 hours 48 minutes and 38 seconds.

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Overall the whole weekend was superb. Fylde Coast Runners are a great organisation and the work they put into their events is immense, I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who was involved for their part from the marshals stood out in the wind and rain, to the girls at the registration tent and water stations and the lady who did the finish line commentary. Every single person played a part in making the festival a triumph and something that I will remember for a long time to come.

So that is it, I am officially retired from marathons but I am certainly not retiring from running. Next up is the Leeds half marathon in mid May and then the Endure24 event in Leeds at the end of June which I am running with a right bunch of sausages.

Thanks for reading what feels like a marathon blog, well done if you made it to the end in one piece, until the next time…..

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Darwen Heritage Half Marathon – Race Review

Despite running countless half marathons in training I realised late last week that this was going to be only the third attempt I’d made at this distance in an actual race. The contrast between my previous two half marathons couldn’t have been more stark, the first was a disaster, the second felt like redemption, what lay ahead this time?

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I’ll tell you what lay ahead, hills, hills, bloody hills everywhere!!! Now don’t get me wrong, I like a hill or two, I knew that the course fell into the category of, “challenging yet scenic”, when I signed up and I had scoped out the route profile in advance but boy was this tough!

The race started outside Darwen Aldridge Community Academy and the school’s Sport Centre hosted the race HQ. I arrived around 8.45am for a 9.30am start and there were two long, snaking lines split alphabetically to collect your bib, timing chip and souvenir t-shirt. As at the previous two events I have run this year there was plenty of representation from local clubs with Blackburn Road Runners and Ramsbottom Running Club seeming to have the largest contingents. The sports hall provided warm shelter on what was a bright yet chilly morning and I stayed inside to get myself sorted and use the facilities, my one gripe of the day was that there weren’t many cubicles in the gents and one that I found free upstairs had the door missing! I made my excuses and went in the ladies!

The start of the race set the tone, you guessed it, uphill start, in fact the first two and a half miles or so were all pretty much uphill as we headed out of Darwen into the rolling countryside. The first section was on closed roads but once we hit the A666 towards Bolton, runners were on the pavement and open roads. Just after three miles the route turned off the main road and we picked up the country lanes that are the backbone of the course. The weather was fine and I took time to take in some of the fantastic scenery and views that the route had to offer. Even out in the sticks there were plenty of supporters on the roadside and I realised later as faces reappeared that several people were taking the opportunity of an open course to drive around and cheer friends, family and club mates at various points on the course, one chap who was running around the same pace as me from Blackburn Road Runners seemed very popular and got plenty of encouragement around almost every corner.

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Just before mile 5 the route headed downhill, having seen the profile I knew this was temporary and so I held my legs back whilst others overtook me at speed. Once we hit the village of Edgworth the climbing started again almost instantly and it was steep, I tried to hold my pace and passed several runners who had overtaken me on the downhill section beforehand. Coming through Edgworth I spotted the local vicar and some of his congregation at the side of the road, it felt for a second or two like the York marathon and the high fiving vicar all over again but this time sadly not. They must have been on some sort of parade, a marshal was holding the group back to cross the road at an opportune moment between runners and although there were some shouts of encouragement a high five didn’t materialise, maybe next year he’ll receive a command from on high to follow his colleague!

Pushing on through Edgworth the incline was almost relentless. At around 8.5 miles the road peaked and I glanced to my right to see runners in the distance heading down a steep slope before an equally vicious ascent, joy! Although relatively short this part was probably the toughest and numerous people were slowing to a walk as the gradient bit hard. Again I tried to maintain a steady pace and pushed on up. There was some brief respite at the top of this climb but it was short lived as the road continued onwards and upwards for another mile and a half. One nasty little section to the final summit remained to be conquered and the cheers of the large group from Blackburn Road Runners here really helped to push me and others on. At last there was nothing above but blue sky, all 1,244ft of elevation was behind me and looking down to my left at around 10.5 miles I caught sight of the school down in the valley below. It was time to let the hand brake off and open my legs for a fast finish, in fact my final mile of running at 6 minutes 55 seconds was easily my quickest of the whole race.

My wife and children were going to be at the finish to see me home and my parents had also come to stay over for the weekend and this was the first time they had been to one of my races so it was great to see them all cheering and waving. I made it back in 95th place, not sure how many finished but 500 entered so I was happy with that along with my time of 1.42:04.

 

Once over the line I received my medal and souvenir bottle of beer which had been brewed especially for the race. The medal is a beast of a size and it also has a section cut out so that it doubles as a bottle opener, nice!!!

Overall I really enjoyed the race, it was testing on the legs but a great challenge. Darwen Dashers who organised the race deserve great credit, the route was very well marshalled, the entry fee proved excellent value for money and by using the school as the base for the event all the facilities needed were on hand. A mention too for all the supporters out on the course and again those there primarily to back runners from the Blackburn and Ramsbottom clubs, they still made noise for every runner and I loved the clanging of the cow bells they’d brought along, very apt for what felt like some Alpine hills!!

This highlights video I think provides a great summary of the day too and gives you a flavour of the terrain and local scenery.

NB – If you have found the link to this blog via Twitter, I am still on my hiatus for Lent, I’ll be back soon, the link is set up as an auto post so feel free to retweet and @ tag any of the clubs I’ve mentioned above to share this.

Leeds Half Marathon – Race Review

Family, friends, Bradfordians, please forgive me for what I am about to write. On Sunday, Leeds, for a couple of hours I loved you. The cheering crowds, the kids with bowls of sweets, the ladies with orange slices, the sunshine, Leeds was the place to be and it was magnificent.

It was an early start for me as I made my way over to Leeds and arrived at around 8.15am. It had just stopped drizzling and was still somewhat overcast on the walk down from my parking spot outside the University. I’d arranged to meet up with some of Twitter’s finest and as I made my way to the portaloo I came across Luke and Tristan, it was fantastic to finally meet them in person even if wasn’t in particularly salubrious surroundings. We headed up to Millennium Square and met up with Sarah, Colin, Keith, Steve, Caterina and Alison. Even though we barely knew each other there was a great camaraderie with people exchanging stories, tips and hopes for how we’d get on over the coming 13.1 miles, this was the #ukrunchat community in full effect.

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The start was staggered and I was in the red group at 9.30am so I headed to hand in my bag, very efficient, and then made my way to the start pen to do a quick warm up. After a slight delay we shuffled forward and turned the corner onto The Headrow to pass the start line.

By this time the clouds were lifting and the sun was out. As a result of staggering the starting groups the field was well spread and with fully closed roads we were able to fan out quickly, the numbers were also thinned out as people headed off into the bushes for a quick comfort break, for next year I think it would be good if the organisers arranged more portaloos at the start.

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The first couple of miles were pretty uneventful until we turned onto Stonegate Road at mile 3 and the road took a relatively sharp climb upwards through Meanwood. The crowds at this point provided real encouragement, and bowls of Jelly Babies, and it wasn’t too far before we turned again and headed down to the ring road section.

Miles 5 and 6 were for me the dullest part of the route as the dual carriageway headed towards Weetwood. As you would expect there were few spectators in this section and the highlight was the water station at the bottom of the next hill.

Just past the 6 mile marker at the top of the hill the crowds returned and there were some great homemade placards hammered into the grass verge, my favourite was “pain is just the French word for bread”.

We wound our way through the residential streets of Weetwood for the next couple of miles and the support was superb, as you turned every corner people lined the streets to encourage complete strangers, it was genuinely heartwarming and made me proud to be a Yorkshireman. At the top of Butcher Hill there was a church choir on the grass bank singing their hearts out, there must have been at least 30 of them. I felt rather sinful as Guns N Roses were blasting through my headphones at that precise moment so I pulled one earphone out to give them a listen and applaud them back in recognition of their efforts.

A couple of hundred yards down the road was the 8 mile marker and the cue for me to take on board my SIS electrolyte gel. I’d planned my fuelling and I was feeling great at this point but knew I would need this to see me through and keep my energy levels up. Note to other runners here, if you are going to use gels please try and put the empty sachets in your pocket or the nearest bin rather than drop them all over the road for someone else to slip on, rant over.

From mile 9 the rest of the route was flat back into the city centre along Abbey Road and Kirkstall Road. My friend Catherine had arranged to cheer me at mile 10 and it was great to see her and her girls, it gave me a real lift just when I needed it, I stopped briefly for a quick hug and carried on. The sun was now high in the sky and the shade of the earlier sections of the course had given way to wide open roads with nowhere to hide. I spotted the Kirkstall Road viaduct in the distance knowing that signalled we were nearing home, it is a huge structure though and it proved to be a deceptive temptress as it felt like an age before I passed under it.

Finally I reached the bottom of The Headrow and knew the end was nigh. I pulled out both earphones here to take in the support of the crowd, having my name on the front of my top really helped, “come on Stu”, “keep going Stu”, “nearly there Stu”, unbelievable, I was really focussed on keeping my stride pattern going but made sure everyone who cheered for me got a thumbs up. The finish line was in Millennium Square so I passed the start line, turned left and there were just walls of people 4 and 5 deep on both sides for the home straight making an amazing noise, it was breathtaking.

I crossed the line in 1 hour 44 minutes and 55 seconds, I was thrilled and really proud that my training and preparation had paid off.

The organisation in the finish area was great, goody bag, medal and celebratory pint of Erdinger Alkoholfrei were collected in a flash and I sat down in the shade of the MacMillan Cancer Support tent to cool off and bask in the glory.

It wasn’t long though before I headed back down to the finish to cheer everyone else on. Runners are honestly some of the best and most supportive people I have ever met and it was nice to be able to see Alison and Sarah coming home and give them a shout. We rounded the day off with a few drinks to celebrate and it was great to share each others successes.

I can’t let this review pass without thanking everyone who has donated to my fundraising too, you are all so kind and generous and have given me extra motivation to train and run and be the best I can be.

This really was a day to remember. Yes it was hot, yes there were hills (they weren’t that big), but the event was very well organised and I have already signed up for next year. I felt great and really enjoyed my running, after my nightmare at the 2007 Great North Run my demons have been banished and I can now focus on the York marathon in October with renewed confidence. I know it will be tough but I also know that I can do it and when I need that extra boost a combination of energy gels and cheering strangers will get me through.

Thank you Leeds, it was emotional.