40 for 40 event 10: A Great run in Edinburgh

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The view from the course at Canongate, right in the heart of old Edinburgh

Ok, no-one likes a show-off. However, on this occasion I didn’t in the least bit mind bearing witness to some shameless bragging up close.

The culprit? Edinburgh. The gorgeous old city was in full-on boasting mode.

Scotland’s capital is a beautiful place in most weathers but when the sun is shining and the monkey puzzle of winding streets which make up much of the intriguing city centre -particularly the oldest part of town – are handed over to runners for the day, it’s really, really difficult to beat.

I don’t normally need an excuse to head there but my reason for being in Edinburgh was (surprise, surprise) to run. More specifically, I was there to take part in the Simplyhealth Great Edinburgh Run, a 10-mile event which presents the chance to push on through avenues and alleyways which are normally crowded with ancestor-seeking, tartan devouring tourists. Coincidentally, it would also be number 10 in my 40 for 40 challenge.

It felt right to be running that day. A few hundred miles south, at the same time thousands were hitting the streets to tackle the London Marathon so there was a solidarity about being on a start line. Also, with Stirling Marathon training to be done, this was the perfect way for me to clock up some miles and get another good fitness test under my belt.

We were to take in many of Edinburgh’s ‘greatest hits’, starting in the shadow Arthur’s Seat before winding our way past the Scottish Parliament building and then up Canongate at the foot of the Royal Mile before threading through various parts of town, not to mention the gloriously blossom-filled Meadows, before eventually ending up back where we started.

If there is one downside, it’s the uphills. Edinburgh is not flat. This is certainly not a PB course but the blow of the biting ascents was cushioned by the odd glance around and an awareness of the fabulous playground which had been made available for the day.

I’d done a few miles before the race got going to recce the closing stages of the race, to warm up and, with the marathon on my mind, also to simulate running on tired legs. The ‘running on tired legs’ part of the experiment certainly worked and I can safely there was a distinct absence of spring in my step when the course brought us back under Arthur’s Seat’s gaze.

There is a pay-off for participants, however, in that the final mile is all downhill and there was a great deal of satisfaction to offset my grumbling muscles when I crossed the finish line.

Not for the first time, I’d had an excellent day out in Edinburgh and, in the process, hit double figures for a challenge which is really starting to grow on me.

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in the calendar year of 2017, the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. It really is very much appreciated and if you have any event recommendations, please get in touch!

40 for 40 event 9: A run with my son

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I’ve well and truly dragged my family into this now! Not that they need much dragging mind you, my wife and two boys are the most supportive and enthusiastic bunch you could wish for.

Callum and Sam, our 10-year-old and 8-year-old, rarely need persuading to do something active and have run fairly regularly since we first discovered that taking them out for a mile or so on Christmas Day a couple of years ago really helped everyone to calm down from the festive frenzy.

Since then, my wife Fran – also a runner a rather good coach – has made sure they have been getting their trainers on and exploring plenty of the local neighbourhood on foot.

A focus for the boys’ running is often the Balloch Run n’ Park, which I mentioned in my first 40 for 40 blog and is essentially a parkrun in all but name which takes place just along the road from our house. With 2km and 5km options in glorious surroundings on the banks of Loch Lomond, and taking place every Saturday morning, it has been the perfect spot for the boys to begin to sample what running really has to offer.

Until recently, both Callum and Sam always opted for the 2km option. However, they are starting to progress and, with me in the midst of this challenge and putting in the training miles ahead of the Stirling Marathon, Callum was clearly beginning to think about going further.

And so it was that he and I lined up for the 5km to see how he would get on. It would either firmly cement running as a good idea to him, or put him off for life.

I’m rather chuffed to say he loved it. With a few gentle coaching points (turns out I have running wisdom I can impart!) on the run and a healthy dollop of encouragement, Callum had the energy and the urge to accelerate over the final stretch and achieve something that was entirely new to him.

It was lovely to see that happen – and to see him experience the runner’s high. To be out on a lovely morning with my family (Fran and Sam ran the 2km) and reinforcing to our kids that being outside and exercising is a really good idea…well, there are few better ways I can think of to start the weekend.

Incidentally, we were back a week later and Callum ran the 5km route precisely a minute faster. We may have awoken a monster…

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in the calendar year of 2017, the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. It really is very much appreciated and if you have any event recommendations, please get in touch!

40 for 40 event 8 – Tom Scott 10-Miler: the art of finding a ‘race face’

I do wonder from time to time what I actually look like when I’m running. I know what I’d like to think I look like – the effortlessly languid, flowing gait of Mo Farah springs to mind for example – but then there are occasions when I’m presented with the cold, hard evidence that reality is somewhat different.

I’ve never been a poker player, mainly because I don’t think I’d be very good at it due to the fact that my face is usually too quick to betray exactly what I’m thinking. You’ll hear of sportspeople regularly citing the need to get their ‘game face’ on  – that impenetrable veneer which suggests they are in complete control as the pressure mounts, even when it might just be that panic has decided to set in.

From the race photos I have seen of myself, it would appear that I have no such game face. If I’m hurting, if effort is really being expended, I simply don’t appear to have the capacity to pretend all is well with the world. The truth really is written all over my contorting features.

I was reminded of this recently when I was identified in a picture from the Tom Scott 10-mile race, number 8 in my 40 for 40 challenge.

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I’ll let you think of a suitably appropriate caption!

I loved the event. It may have felt for large chunks of my run like someone had fitted bolts to my hamstrings and was steadily tightening them, that my quads might explode at any moment, or that I might get to see what my lungs look like…but I loved it.

I was already starting with the event on good terms. Firstly, I’d never run a 10-mile race before so, barring serious mishap, a personal best was guaranteed. Secondly, I arrived at the race venue, Strathclyde Park on the outskirts of Glasgow, to find an excellent stage for running and ideal conditions in which to do so.

I arrived about an hour before the race was due to start and already the place was thrumming with sporting activity. Not only were the final touches being put to the race course, but there were runners everywhere indulging in catch-ups or warm-ups with friends and clubmates, while a number of rowers glided through the waters of the loch around which we would run.

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Final preparations are made at the Strathclyde Park finish line

There was barely a breath of wind, it was cool, the sun was starting to come out, the race route was largely flat and fast and I felt in reasonably good nick as I jogged a couple of miles to get the blood pumping.

This was the 55th year of the Tom Scott memorial race – an event I’d always been keen on but never taken part in. It draws a big running crowd and, being host to the Scottish and West District 10-mile championships, the sharp end of the race is properly pointy. It’s a good sign when you have an Olympian – in this case Derek Hawkins – toeing the start line.

I was a little nervous as we prepared to get going. I knew this was going to hurt. I was keen to see how close I could get to breaking the hour mark for this new race distance – well, new to me anyway.

The first mile or two felt good. I didn’t have a flow, and nothing was coming naturally, but I felt pretty fit. I had been warned that mile 3 would bring a small hill which might bite and so it proved – I spent much of mile 4 trying to get back on pace and, though I succeeded, I knew teeth-gritting time was on its way.

The course was clearly marked, the marshals helpful and the ebb and flow of the race field enjoyable as we wound our way around the loch and began to turn back towards where we’d come from. It made it easy to concentrate on the act of trying to put one foot in front of the other – and simply just trying to breathe.

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Going through mile 7, I was precisely on pace for a finishing time of 60 minutes. But then came a slightly undulating eighth mile, the camber of which would normally be easily negotiable but which felt almost Himalayan at this point in a hard race. At that point I knew I couldn’t scramble my way back.

However, even with those hamstrings tightening and my face crumpling, I kept trying to push and the finish line was soon hoving into view. Coming across it, I stopped my watch and bent double. A time of 60:34 and the buzz of a great race in the company of great runners seemed like a decent reward – well, that and the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers they were giving out.

A couple of days later and my attention was drawn to that race photo. My initial reaction was to recoil a little at the gurning figure which met my eye. Then I looked again and saw proof that I had indeed extended myself and that there was a good reason for the lingering dull ache in my legs.

Come to think of it, I might just forget about trying to perfect a good ‘race face’. For the moment, mine seems to fit.

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in the calendar year of 2017, the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. It really is very much appreciated and if you have any event recommendations, please get in touch!

 

Thanks to Kevin Ramage Photography for the  race image

 

40 for 40 event 7: a spot of turbulence at the Alloa half marathon

I shouldn’t have said a word and kept my trap shut. When I uttered ‘looks like the weather’s going to be kind to us’ all I did was not only make myself sound like a wee old man but also scupper any chances of the weather actually being kind. And me being an experienced runner, too…

The forecast for the Alloa half marathon had, indeed, been horrendous. At one point in the run-up to the race 40mph headwinds and driving rain were on the cards. However, instead, as the participants began to gather for the start of this well-established event, they did so in conditions which almost fitted the description of Spring-like.

I love this event and I wrote about the special place it has in my heart after taking part last year (you can read that post here) so it seemed right for it to feature in the 40 events I want to cover in 2017. With Stirling Marathon training now firmly underway, too, Alloa would give me a good gauge of my fitness at what is still a reasonably early stage in my training schedule.

A chunky warm-up left me feeling good, as did a quick catch-up and pre-race chat with some familiar faces. I bumped into Ross, someone I’d met for the first time on the Alloa start line the year previously when we were both preparing for the Boston Marathon. The last time I’d seen him properly had been at the post-race party in Fenway Park so it was great to dwell on that experience again and see how he was doing.

I also shared a common goal with Andy, someone I often train with, and someone who also has Stirling in his sights. A quick glance around, a few nods of good luck and it was time to go…so off we went.

I wanted to build into the race and was determined not to get caught up in the kamikaze nature of the first mile, which is flat and provides the perfect platform for many to explode into action and obliterate their chances of feeling strong 12 miles later by busting a gut too early.

It was one of the most conservative starts I can remember making to this race but I was happy with the pace and the feeling of having to hold myself back going through mile 2 confirmed all was reasonably well. Andy, running strong, began to pull away but I was knew I was in the zone of pushing but not over-reaching so I stayed where I was.

There was no wind in the next few miles and, in fact, my main concern at that point was a feeling of being too warm (ridiculous I know for a March morning in Scotland). Much of the course was downhill at this point, too, and it was then that the false sense of security kicked in.

The Alloa half covers a stretch of the Hillfoots Road which, on a good day, can be a brilliant place to run fast and log fast miles. Or another, however, it can be the venue for a
quad-rupturing, hamstring-shortening grind into the teeth of whatever conditions are on the menu that day.

As we approached the left turn which would take us on to the road, I could begin to feel the touch of a light breeze. As we rounded the corner, I had to allow myself at least a little, dark, laugh. I could see the weather coming.

As the windspeed increased and the rain began to pelt, so the pace dropped and what had been the right pace for a PB soon evaporated into the dense sky. This, however, was to prove my favourite part of the race. Finding myself in a small group, and without barely uttering a word (not that you could hear much anyway in the din of weather) we took it in turns to bear the brunt of the conditions and stop each other from burning out.

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To the person who finishes 82nd the spoils…

We caught another small group in front of us, including Andy, and I found that the ebb and flow of filing to the front made the miles fall away.

Scotland being Scotland, of course, just as we turned off the Hillfoots Road and theoretically out of the wind, the sun came out. But the incline of the road went up. We were on Menstrie Brae – the hill which arrives least when you want it to.

Yet, I felt good. I hadn’t been stupid in trying to battle the wind alone and still could feel something in the tank. So, as we hit the top the rise and travelled past the 11-mile marker, I was happy to feel my stride naturally lengthening, even if I was starting to tighten up a bit more than I’d have liked.

Andy clearly felt good, too, and the consistency in his training was evident as he began to pull away again. I didn’t have the same extra gear he had but I was pleased to see him running so well. When you see someone working hard in training it’s heartening to see the whole process working.

I pushed as hard as I could into the last mile and it was brilliant to hear the dulcet tones of Race MC Murdoch McGregor welcoming me across the line.

All in all, I really couldn’t grumble. It hadn’t been as quick as I thought I might run but I had definitely gained from managing myself properly during the race. When it comes to running Stirling at the end of May, listening to my body and the inner voice of reason will be key.

There was another reason to be cheerful when I saw my sister, Morag, as she finished in Alloa. She has signed up for Stirling as well – which will be her first marathon – and is being very honest about the fact that she might not be enjoying running quite as much as I do! Yet she has still been putting in the miles and looked strong as she finished Alloa – the training is clearly working.

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Me and my big sis

As usual, the Alloa half had been a rewarding experience. Just don’t mention the weather…

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in the calendar year of 2017, the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. It really is very much appreciated.

40 for 40 events 5 and 6 – a tale of two parkruns

It’s becoming clear that fitting 40 events into this calendar year is going to require some creativity. What with a busy work and family life, just about every opportunity is going to have to be seized.

I’d had always planned to include a parkrun or two in the schedule somewhere and, in the interests of variety and running somewhere new, I saw a chance to squeeze in some good miles on two consecutive weekends during which I was also away with work – and at two very different locations.

I’m extremely lucky in that my day job often allows me to see the world’s finest athletes doing their stuff up close so, when I knew I was going to be covering the Muller Birmingham Indoor Grand Prix in February, followed seven days later by the Lindsays Scottish National Cross Country Championships, I did a quick look to check my race options for both Birmingham and Falkirk.

During my trip to the Midlands, the Canon Hill Parkrun fitted the bill nicely. It would let me have the hard-running start to the day I was looking for before heading indoors to see the likes of Laura Muir and Mo Farah in ultimately record-breaking form.

Roughly three miles from my hotel room, it would also would also present the chance to do a bit of exploring in a city which I don’t know at all well. As it turned out, I was to do a little more exploring than I’d intended.

Saturday morning dawned and, with a hint of smugness, I got up early, got my gear ready and settled down to have a quick breakfast and take a final peek at the race info. I had been under the impression that ALL parkruns start at 9.30am on a Saturday (I’ve only ever done one or two previously). This, I can tell you now ladies and gents, is not the case.

Any smugness and relaxed demeanour on my part evaporated when I came to the realisation that, rather than a gentle amble to the start line, I was now going to be slotting in a tempo run.

I normally pride myself on my pre-race organisation so I was muttering away to myself as I headed in what I thought was the right direction. I had checked the map and jotted down street names but, when I came to a less than picturesque industrial estate, I began to fear a wrong turn or six had been taken in my haste.

A quick check with a slightly startled passer-by confirmed this to be the case. However, extra mileage is good, right? Furnished with the right directions and with an increase in pace, I soon reached Canon Hill Park. I could hear announcements being made over loudspeakers about the 9am start and, as I entered the park I quickly checked with the first steward I came to if I was too late.

‘No, you’re fine. You’ve still got time. The start’s just round that corner,’ was the cheery reply. I rounded the corner and was struck by a familiar sound. It was the sound of runners. Lots of runners. In fact, it was the sound of the entire parkrun setting off.

Being the honest sort I am, I ran up to the start line, to the back of the pack and got going. I wasn’t in the best of moods with myself when I set off but I quickly gave myself a metaphorical slap around the face, told myself to get on with it and enjoy the run…and that’s just what I did.

I pushed hard, I was running with hundreds of others, the park was great, as was the atmosphere. As with every parkrun I’ve been to so far, those taking part and organising could not have been friendlier, more encouraging or more helpful.

So Canon Hill Parkrun might not have been quite the accomplished 5km performance I was looking for but, as I gently meandered back to the hotel and the prospect of seeing some top class sport, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a spring in my step. I vowed I’d do better next time.

 

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Callendar House on the brooding day of the Parkrun and Scottish National Cross Country

Next time came precisely seven days later, in Falkirk. Given I was covering the aforementioned cross country unfortunately ruled me out of running ‘the Nationals’. However, the Falkirk Parkrun – which just so happens to take place every week in Callander Park (which also provides the venue for the cross country) came to my aid.

This time I was properly organised, managed a proper warm-up and even a stride or two. Again, there was an impressively considerable group of runners gathered to take on a course which proved to be mostly on trails and involved a chunky hill or two.

Given the pouring rain which had turned the cross country course into a bog and some of the parkrun route into a fast-flowing stream, my decision to have packed racing flats for the job at hand didn’t seem to have been my smartest move.

The light footwear were the least of my concerns when we got going, however. My legs were heavy and unresponsive but I’m trying to be a bit more patient with myself and my running this year so I allowed myself a little time and began to feel a little stronger.

As we reached some of the early uphills, a curious thing occurred to me. It became clear I didn’t have a lot of company. Now, maths is not my strong point but I knew I’d started near the front and I could only see three or four people ahead of me. My mind began drifting towards a top-five finish.

There’s nothing like an incentive to improve your running and it began to dawn on me that a couple of the other runners were starting to tire just as I was starting to feel like I was getting a rhythm. I duly passed a couple of others and had convinced myself I was in third spot.

We reached roughly 3km and hit the slopes of ‘heartbreak hill’, an incline we had been forewarned about that, while not quite matching the scale of its famous Boston counterpart, does more than enough – particularly with a steady flow of water coming down it – to tighten the muscles and squeeze the lungs.

To my surprise, though, I wasn’t caught on the hill and had in fact gained on the runner in front. The closing stretch is quick and downhill, so I extended my stride and passed him. There was another runner still in front, but I was running out of room to try and catch him so I set my focus not being passed.

I held my position and a strong finish left me more than happy with my morning’s work. I even took to Strava to post my second-placed glory (I don’t find myself in podium places very often).

Then it was off to watch Callum Hawkins and co make this running lark look effortless, even when they were basically wading through cross country treacle. Once the final runner had slithered through the mud and the reports had been written, I quickly checked the Parkrun results to confirm my time and to see my second place for certain.

I wasn’t second at all. Another runner, who I’d conveniently managed to forget after seeing at the start, had won by such a margin that I’d only seen him at the start but never again. Told you maths wasn’t my strong point! Still, I’ll make do with third – and a couple of Parkrun experiences to remember.

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in the calendar year of 2017, the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. It really is very much appreciated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

40 for 40 event 4: Using my head (torch)

I’d never been to a race where the participants register in a banqueting hall before. Then again, until this week I’d never taken part in a race in which head torches are mandatory because participants are throwing themselves head first on to the trails in pitch darkness.

But doing that sounded like fun – and certainly something a bit different – so I was very keen to add this latest event to my list when it came to tackling 40 events this year. I was just sorry I hadn’t spotted the other two races (this was the third and final instalment) in the Trossachs Night Trail Race Series.

Organised by the legendary local hill runner Angela Mudge, I’d heard really good things about this series. I wasn’t to be disappointed. In fact, I was impressed the minute I walked into the Forth Inn in the village of Aberfoyle, which is to be found in the heart of the Trossachs in central Scotland, and into that incredible hall to pay the exorbitant entry fee of five whole pounds and pick up my race number.

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Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought that rushing headlong into the inky night was a good way to spend the evening. A very healthy crowd had amassed in the car park upon the edge of which the race began.

After a few brief safety announcements and the warning of some boggy conditions awaiting us on the second half of the route, Angela set everyone off on what was to be a 5.9-mile mini adventure.

The properly sharp end of the field shot off ahead on what was a very straightforward opening section, the first 1.5km or so being run on a tarmac cycle path. It provided the chance to get loose, find a rhythm and, importantly, let your eyes adjust to being surrounded by the glow of head torches.

It all felt reasonably normal until we came to a sharp right turn, said goodbye to the tarmac and properly hit the trail. As the field of runners ventured into the trees and began to string out a little, where to point your gaze became crucial. The first section of trail was riddled with tree routes which meant that your focus had to be on every footstep rather than looking too far ahead.

It was hard work as we swooped round bends, through puddles, over bridges, crested rises – in the midst of the forest no two footsteps were the same and you absolutely needed to have full concentration. However, it also occurred to me that I was having a big bunch of fun in the process.

The first two events of this series had been particularly hilly and, by comparison, this was a pretty flat route. However, I did begin to wonder just what I’d let myself in for as we came through the 3km marker and I became aware that the beams of light I could see ahead of me were heading rather steeply upward.

We had reached Faerie Hill and a reasonably short, but hamstring-tighteningly sharp, climb. I tried to keep good form and get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible but there was no hiding the gasping for breath and my heart pounding in my head as we got back on to more level ground.

That ascent showed me again where I need to put more practice in and I tried to gather my thoughts – and possibly some semblance of consciousness – as what proved to be a chunky stretch of downhill began.

The main difference about racing in the dark is that you have no real concept of what’s coming, about how much longer a hill will rise up – or roll down – for. It really is more or less a case of run and hope…and it doesn’t half make life interesting.

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Post-race soup in the banqueting hall

It was on that downhill stretch where my Helensburgh clubmate Karl, who had driven us over to the race, came bounding past me with another runner. That group of three of us would remain just yards apart for much of the rest of the race and being part of a trio which was ebbing and flowing, stretching and contracting, really helped.

It was not getting any easier underfoot. That bog which Angela had promised us duly arrived around 5km and we all began to do our fair share of slipping, sliding and squelching. But the ever-changing terrain simply added to the atmosphere of the race and I realised that I felt reasonably strong.

Heading into the last 1.5km, with the silhouette of the hills and the appearance of a few stars on what was a surprisingly forgiving night in terms of the Scottish weather, and Karl and I began to move away from our fellow group member.

 

I was on Karl’s shoulder with around 500m to go but, as soon as he became aware of me, he put the foot down. I did too and finishing off such an excellent event with a good old-fashioned sprint finish, which Karl edged by a second, seemed fitting.

Fantastically appropriate as well, was the post-race soup being served up in the banqueting hall, where the post-race chat flowed with Karl and our other clubmate Michael.

The prizegiving revealed Karl was second in his age category, and ninth overall. That meant I had grabbed 10th spot and a bit of a confidence boost. If the rest of the events I take part in this year are as enjoyable at this – then 2017 is going to be a lot of fun!

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in 2017, the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. It really is very much appreciated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

40 for 40 event 3: Running with the Devil

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West Lomond looms over those finishing leg 2 and the runners getting ready to take on leg 3

The Devil’s Burdens. Just the name sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

This is an event which comes with a reputation for providing a properly stern test to those runners who choose to take part. It certainly lives up to that reputation.

It’s hugely popular too, though, and what I wasn’t expecting was to be quite so captivated and impressed by this tremendous hill running event which takes place in the east of Scotland.

I’ll give you a little background. ‘The Burdens’ is an off-road relay race in which teams have to complete four stages over a route that travels a combined distance of 34.5km, starting and finishing in the beautiful village of Falkland in Fife. There’s the small matter of  the Lomond Hills in the way, too, and between them each team will climb a total height of 1510m. Stages 1 and 4 are completed by solo runners while 2 and 3 need to be run in pairs.

This is an event cemented into the Scottish hill running calendar. It’s one that I’d heard my clubmates at Helensburgh AAC speak of regularly and, most importantly, fondly. I’d never had the chance to join in the fun before now but, having set myself this challenge of completing 40 events in 2017 and hoping to sample some new experiences in the process, I was keen to get my name down for the team.

I was so glad I did. From the moment I arrived at registration in the village hall I knew I was going to the like the Burdens. For a start the place was bursting at the seams with enthusiastic runners (147 teams of six people  and supporters makes for a decent crowd). Friendliness, informality and a sense of general wellbeing seemed to be emanating from just about everyone in view. This felt like a different kind of pre-race hubub than I’d perhaps experienced before.

In running terms, all human life was there. From those who were  using it as a chance to blow off some New Year cobwebs, to catch up with friends and enjoy more of a social challenge right up to some serious club athletes with their coaches in tow. Notably – and this is perhaps one of the greatest beauties of the sport – a few of the very best hill and mountain runners on the face of the planet had also turned up.

Jasmin Paris, who spent much of 2016 breaking new ground and rewriting some rather famous hill running record books (you can read my interview with her for Running Monthly here), and Team Salomon member Tom Owens – my first interviewee on this very blog (you can read that article here), were out in force and simply doing their bit for their clubs. It might not surprise you to learn that Tom’s Shettleston Harriers team took the top prize…

When it came to my team, I had been assigned leg 1 and was getting our mission under way. It turned out mine was one of the easier jobs of the day, yet still it was a real challenge. The level of tiredness I can feel in my legs on a recovery run the day after a race is usually a good gauge of how much effort I’ve really put in. By that measure, come Sunday morning, I knew I hadn’t left much in the tank in Fife.

I am spending more and more of my running time off road an up hills but still my experience and technique is limited when it comes to hitting the trails and trying to cover the ground quickly. I’m improving but there’s still plenty of work to be done so the more practice I can get, the better.

It’s fair to say there was a fair degree of trepidation on my part when I edged my way towards the start line among a group of people who looked like they had already been there, seen it and done it many times over. Off we set and the varied terrain, inclines and surfaces soon made their presence felt in my creaking calf muscles. ‘It’s doing me good, it’s doing me good, it’s doing me good,’ I kept telling myself.

There was no time for the mind to drift or concentration to drop,  with no two footsteps the same, yet my legs just wouldn’t wake up. The cold air meant I was wide awake and alert but there was little response when I tried to get my limbs to respond.

It wasn’t until after the checkpoint at around halfway through my 7.5km leg that I started to feel a rhythm, aided somewhat by a downhill stretch. I was soon given a demonstration of what good running ACTUALLY looks like, though. Entering the latter stages of my section, the aforementioned Tom Owens and his team-mate bounded past me in the other direction, setting off on leg 2 and already devouring the ground that stretched out in front of them.

I was reasonably positioned in the field when I ploughed my way down the last stretch to hand over to my team-mates Maddie and Campbell. It didn’t take long for the ‘after-run glow’ to kick in – it felt good to be out there – but there was no time to hang around. The Burdens is almost as much logistical challenge as it is physical, with runners needing transported to and from the various handover points, so I quickly jumped into the car with our leg 3 runners Iain and Karl to get them in position.

It was walking up to the foot of West Lomond – the location for the next handover – that I got a proper impression of the REALLY  hard part of the race, though. A low mist had covered everything for much of the day but, every so often the sun poked through – as did the top of one of the peaks the runners were having to scale.

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The reward for the runners who punched their way through the cloud (photo stolen from my team-mate Maddie)

I immediately felt enormous respect for the those tackling the seriously chunky parts of the run. Curiously, I also felt a surprising pang of jealousy at not being able to have a go this time round. I was struck again, too, by the sheer volume of people who were outside, enjoying the landscape and challenging themselves for little more than some free soup at the end. (The soup is incredible, I might add).

Maddie and Campbell did a great job on leg 2, Iain and Karl smashed leg 3 and our final team member, Helen, flew her way around leg 4. That soup – as well as the catch-up chat and note comparing with the second Helensburgh team of Laura, the two Gordons, Becky and Amanda which followed – brought a fitting end to a tremendous day.

It was a real eye-opener to me. Don’t be surprised if 40 for 40 happens to take in a few more hill races this year!

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you

40 for 40 event 2: Ups and downs in Edinburgh

I’d almost forgotten. It had been a little while since my last sizeable road race and the feeling you get – not to mention everything that goes with toeing the start line among thousands of others – really had almost slipped my mind.

However, when I stepped out of my hotel on to the Royal Mile and immediately saw expectant runners starting to emerge from what seemed like almost every crevice of Edinburgh’s old streets, heading down the famous hill, a very familiar and welcome sense of anticipation began to make its presence felt.byfb90481

The direction in which we were all headed was towards Holyrood Park and the Simplyhealth Great Edinburgh Winter Run. The event was to prove an ideal starter to a feast of running in and around Arthur’s Seat, which culminated in some of the finest athletes on the planet well and truly strutting their cross country stuff in international competition.

I was really looking forward to the next event I had selected for my 40 for 40 list. I haven’t taken part in many 5km events and have always found the distance a tricky one to judge and to get right when it comes to pacing.

I had been lucky enough to be trackside as Laura Muir gave a masterclass on how to do just that at Glasgow’s Emirates Arena just a few days previously when she broke the British indoor record for 5000m. Now I’m not pretending for a second to claim that my pace or performance was ever going to be on comparable with hers, but it still whetted my appetite to find out where my own fitness lay.

Judging this race was, indeed, going to be difficult. The route along Queen’s Drive, which loops around Arthur’s Seat, seemed simple enough. However it involved a chunk of climbing, a stretch which flattened out and then a chunk of downhill running to the finish.

There was a small downhill for the opening few hundred metres, too, which explains why the field shot off so fast at the start. It did mean an early rhythm was possible, however, which proved to be a very good way of settling the nerves. I had, in fact, been quite surprised by how nervous I had felt before the starting hooter went. Like I said, it had been a while.

As we began to climb and the field began to string out a little, I made sure not to do anything silly, to try and hold on to that rhythm as much as possible. The good (and bad) thing about the route is that you can see it all unfolding way ahead of you – there is plenty of advance warning about what’s coming and just how much hard, uphill work you have to do in the opening half.

So it came as something of a relief then when the incline levelled out and I could lengthen my stride again. There was further reason for the spirits to be lifted around the 3km mark, too.

Rounding the back of Arthur’s Seat – the rocky summit which towers over Edinburgh – a spectacular panorama of the city opened out further with every step. Throw in the fact there was a piper on hand at the side of the road providing an atmospheric skirl, there was no mistaking the Scottishness of the occasion.

It was, literally, all downhill from there. I’ve never properly perfected the art of descending quickly but there was plenty of road to get some good practice in and I felt good as I passed the second piper at the 4km mark.

I felt like there was still plenty in the tank as the finishing straight appeared and there was a spring in the step as I passed the cheering Team Crumley (my sons were taking part in the Junior Run later in the day) and hit the line.

I had worked hard – my finishing time around 45 seconds outside my PB – but I had a lingering feeling that I could have given that little bit more. Later in the day, watching the senior men’s International Cross Country race unfold in Holyrood Park, Callum Hawkins showed just what giving it everything really looks like.

With 38 events still to go, there will be plenty more chances for me to really test myself. For now, it’s a solid start and a very good reminder of just why I love pinning on a race number and seeing what might happen.

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you

40 for 40 – a plan for 2017

I know, I know – long time no blog. It was always going to be hard to follow up last year’s big Boston marathon adventure and a combination of waning motivation, a new job and life just getting in the way caused the radio silence.

That’s not to say I haven’t been active. After Boston, I took part in a triathlon, a 2-mile open water swim and a couple of other bits and bobs but there wasn’t a huge amount of racing to write about. That’s all about to change this year.

I’ve had an idea bouncing about in my head for the past few months. It’s one I may well live to regret but, sod it, I’ve decided to give it a go. This year, whether I like it or not, I have a landmark birthday coming up. Rather than plunge headlong into the typical midlife crisis, however, I wondered if I might be able to use my energy a little more constructively.

So here’s the plan. To complete at least 40 distance events during the year in which I turn 40. These events will vary in shape, size and format. As you’ll read further down, I’ve started out small but there will be some big races too – I’m well and truly entered for the Stirling Scottish Marathon in May for example. Rest assured – there will be a lot of running, some swimming and definitely a chunk of triathlon, throughout the year. The finish line will come at the end of a December event that is always in my running calendar and one I’ve just completed – The Marcothon.

For the first time I can remember, I’m also going to be aiming to raise some money for charity in the process – specifically for Macmillan Cancer Support (the link to my justgiving page is at the very bottom of this blog). If you can donate anything over the course of the year that would be wonderful but the idea of all this is really just to emphasise what a tremendous idea it is to get outside and be active.

I’ll be blogging about each event I take part in  so, with that in mind, I’ve made a start…

Event Number 1 – The Shortbread Run  (Jan 2)

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The Shortbread Runners make their way through Balloch Castle Country Park

There was no better place to start this challenge than a New Year event right on my doorstep. And there were no better people to start the challenge with than the rest of Team Crumley – my wife Fran and sons Callum and Sam.

This lovely local run in Balloch Castle Country Park, to be found at the southern end of Loch Lomond, is organised every  year by Maurice Donohue, the man also behind Balloch Run N’ Park.

The Shortbread Run is a short family run designed to help people get active and blow off the New Year cobwebs. Given that Talisker had played a big part in my ushering 2017 in, this was the perfect way to properly clear the head.  The added bonus was some free shortbread at the finish!

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Team Crumley

 

 

It was brilliant to see many other locals had thought the event to be a great idea too and there was a pretty sizeable group amassed at the start when Maurice yelled ‘go’. Callum, who’s 10, shot off into an early lead while Fran and I hung back to run with seven-year-old Sam over the 3km course.

We expected to catch up with Callum in the second half of the run but the penny is clearly starting to drop and some of my moaning about pacing himself seems to be seeping in. When we closed in on the finishing line there he was, looking very pleased with himself and wondering what had kept us all. Sam, too, seemed to really enjoy it all (he hid it very well if he didn’t).

So, we’re off! One event down. Let’s see what the rest of the year holds.

As promised, you can find my JustGiving page here.

Thank you!

Balloch to Boston: The finish line

The thing I’ll remember most is the roar. Not just some encouraging background noise punctured by the occasional shouts of ‘well done’ or ‘almost there’ but a full-throated, undeniable wave of celebratory sound pushing the runners towards the finish line.

Hereford Street to Boylston Street is not far. When you cover the distance during the closing stages of the Boston Marathon, however, you come a long way.

There is nothing ordinary about the left turn you make which places you on the finishing straight of the world’s oldest marathon. I’m not ashamed to admit, my already weary legs went ever so slightly weak at the knees when I was hit by the sights and sounds of that final stretch.

Those steps will linger long in my mind. I had arrived in town a few days before the marathon and had seen the construction of the finish gantry being completed as race day approached. Ever since my race entry had been confirmed, the prospect of crossing that famous line was a real source of focus, of motivation, and now there it was. This was actually happening now. I was about to finish what I’d started some months ago and complete this journey from Balloch to the end of the Boston marathon.

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There was just one problem. Even though the finish line was in view for some time – and I regularly checked that I was in fact still moving forward – it just wouldn’t get any closer. After one of the hottest, most challenging, runs of my life I was looking forward to it all being over. At the same time, however, I hoped it would never end. I was spent, dehydrated and travelling at a pace I was no longer allowed to dictate, but thankfully I still had enough wits about me to look up, to look around, to drink the whole wonderful scene in.

How often was I ever going to take part in something as remarkable as this?  To get that glimpse, however brief, of what life must be like for the sportsmen and women who spend their working lives in front of substantial crowds. It’s quite something to be surrounded by so many people doing exactly the same thing as you but also feel like you are being singled out for special attention at the same time.

Then, as soon as I had decided to let the whole experience linger, the finish line was upon me all too quickly. The time I had been training and hoping to run had long since vanished as a possibility when the sun decided to shine so fiercely. But this had been some adventure so I raised a smile, held my arms aloft and doffed my sweat-stained cap to this incredible race. Job done.

Just as I’d hoped it would be, April 18 2016 was a day like none I have experienced before. I certainly don’t normally begin my day with a ride on a yellow American school bus for starters but, after a good breakfast and some pre-race coffee at my hotel, I wandered round to Boston Common in the early morning to join the thousands boarding the fleets of these distinctive vehicles laid on to provide an express service out to the start line in Hopkinton.

For those of you who may not know, the Boston Marathon doesn’t actually spend a lot of time in Boston itself. Runners are, in fact, transported 26.2 miles away and then run back into town. The route affords the chance to see some parts of smalltown America that might otherwise be missed – and the race is all the better for it. I read that each town the race passes through works in conjunction with the organisers (the Boston Athletic Association) to make sure ‘their’ section of the course is up to scratch and ready to welcome the world. The idea engenders a brilliant community feel to what is an enormous event and there is little doubt that each mile has its own personality, its own characteristics, its own story and its own fantastic levels of support.

Yes, there are some parts of the route more densely populated than others, but you are NEVER short of someone urging you on when you find yourself amidst the Boston Marathon throng.

I’ll be honest, I had hoped to run Boston quickly. Quicker than I had ever run another marathon before. As I stood on the start line, with the sun beating down, finding myself not yet moving but already sweating, I knew my work might well be seriously cut out however. For all I wanted to push hard, creeping further to the front of my mind was an experience I had had not so long ago at the London Marathon, in almost identical conditions, which resulted in me finishing the race but ending up a crumpled mess in a wheelchair.

Everyone I’d spoken to about Boston, including the lovely volunteer who happily chatted away and put this nervous foreigner at ease on the start line (all those who give up their time willingly out of love for the race are heroes, incidentally) said to take it easy and hold back in the early, downhill miles. So, after the Proclaimers song had finished blaring over the tannoy (making me feel even more at ease), and we were sent on our way, that’s exactly what I did.

This was the 120th staging of the Boston Marathon and the feeling of running in historic footsteps is unmistakeable, enveloping you as you make your way along the rolling roads towards the city.

The cries of ‘you got this’ after we’d completed roughly 300 yards of the course made me smile. I was wearing my Helensburgh AAC club vest and the regular shouts of ‘Go Helensborrow’ raised a grin too and helped rid that pre-race tension.

With so many sights, sounds and smells attacking the senses, the early miles simply flew by. I had heard about the ‘six-mile moment’, a festival held in the town of Framingham to honour the flood of runners as they pass through. Not for the last time that day, I was taken aback by the reception the locals afforded the field on their athletic endeavours.medalno

I have a habit, particularly during marathons, of regularly ticking off a ‘systems check’ to help pass the time and also to help make judgements during the race. ‘Are my shoulders tight? Are my arms relaxed? Am I pushing too hard for this stage in the race? Is that calf niggle playing up yet?’. It was somewhere between mile 10 and 11 that this inventory brought the dawning realisation that I was going to have to change my gameplan. The sun was starting to take its toll.

I was still running reasonably well, and not pushing too hard, but after that London experience I knew what warning signs to looks out for. Despite pouring water down my throat and over my head at every water stop I was beginning to feel just a little thirsty. Not a good sign. I hadn’t expected the wind to be quite as fierce as it was either and I knew I was really going to be tested.

Approaching halfway and I knew that my dream finishing time was totally out of the question, especially when I was all too aware that the hilliest, hardest section of the course was lying in wait.

Before the famed Newton Hills played their hand, however, I first needed to run through Wellesley, another part of the route which I was told would be unforgettable. The women of Wellesley College have made it tradition to turn out in full force to distract, cheer, kiss and even propose to runners as they pass by. WellesleyThe students can be heard a long time before they can be seen, however. I was aware of the gathering sound storm some considerable time before I ran through ‘Scream Tunnel’ and witnessed first hand just what an effect they can on the suffering hordes!

Heartbreak Hill, at around mile 20, gets all the press but I’d argue that the steady climb which lasts around 3/4 of a mile between mile 16 and 17 is where your race is made or broken. That was certainly when I knew my top priority was no longer my finishing time and that getting round in one piece would in fact be a real achievement in itself. You come into this stretch, off a sharp downhill and the switch in the muscles you have to use really does have an impact.

On I ploughed though, at one point keeping things simple and concentrating purely on putting one foot in front the other. The multiple slopes of the latter part of the course began to merge into one and it was only when I spotted a big banner informing that Heartbreak Hill had now been ‘conquered’ that I realised I’d even been on that hallowed stretch of ground.

I knew it was (mostly) downnhill from there but, even when Newton was behind me, still the course rolled enough to never allow the runners t0 get properly comfortable. Not that comfort is ever expected at that stage of a marathon.

The profile of the Boston course is what makes the event such a tough proposition and simply adds to the feeling of taking on a substantial challenge. Respect is the watchword when it comes to the marathon distance – and most certainly when it comes to this course.

As the miles ticked by and the finish line edged closer, I simply could no longer stop the split times sliding. I have loved the excellent Garmin 230 I was given to use for this whole adventure, but I did curse its accuracy as it delivered news of my progress.

So there was nothing left but to soak it all in, cross

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Celebrating at Fenway Park

the finish line and savour the moment. I took delivery of a medal I will cherish and, in the end, I did have to speak to a few of the fabulous medics on hand. It did get to a point where a wheelchair appeared at my side and I was offered the chance ‘hop in’ and head for the medical tent. Thankfully, I didn’t need it this time and instead I was able to trudge, happily, back to my hotel.

The finish area of a marathon, particularly a big city marathon, is one of the most life affirming places in which you could ever wish to find yourself. Everywhere you look there is positivity, kindness, warmth of spirit, celebration. It makes the events which unfolded at the end of the 2013 Boston Marathon all the more gut-wrenching.

But, clearly, the people will not be stopped and the city’s new motto, Boston Strong, could not be more apt. It’s a wonderful place. It’s an amazing race and it was my privilege to be a part of it all.