Tuesday
Nov122013

The Kindness of Strangers (with thanks to Simon Nurse)

I’m reading a book at the moment – ‘The kindness of strangers’, a collection of travellers tales about kind souls, guardian angels and help provided at unusual and often dangerous moments. It’s a great that’s making me reflect on my own behaviour. Do I do enough of that? I stop at the sight of a puncture on the Taff trail. I help the elderly where I can. I annoyingly offer tourists advice when a map is in evidence (whether they want that advice or not). But I guess we could all do a little more. It also got me thinking about when I’ve received help from nowhere and reminded me of the visitation of my own guardian angel, who in my case was a huge, 6ft 2” black guy with a rumbling subterranean voice and a heart of gold.

Back in 1998 I ran the New York Marathon for Simon Weston’s then charity – ‘Weston Spirit’. Initially I didn’t want to. I was running reasonably successfully on the track, my speed was improving all the time and I didn’t want the pressure of fundraising. But I was approached by the charity, knew people there and felt pretty bad saying ‘no’. So I fell into it I guess. Suckered by the knowledge that I could run a marathon and that refusing them was impacting their bottom line. Anyway. I trained. And trained. And trained. Until one day, about 8 weeks prior to the event - and after an insane week of high mileage and speedwork - I suffered a partial rupture of the Achilles tendon. Marathon training came to an abrupt halt, whilst fundraising trundled along. I swopped the track for the pool and the road for the turbo.

Toeing the start line on a crystal clear and frosty November morning, I was not prepared to let go of my lofty aspirations. Why let injury and lack of training get in the way of a good target? So I start and knock out the miles at the right pace. I’m on track at 5 and 10 miles. At half way I clock 1hr 18 and twig that I'm about a minute off my target pace. Time to up the ante then. Not for one minute do I accept that given the circumstances, the target is entirely unrealistic and that this level of pig headedness is only going to end in tears  (which it did).

At 15 miles I emerged from the Queensboro Bridge and entered Manhattan. Huge crowds lined the road. ‘You’re in 76th place!’ someone shouted. The idea of 76th rolled around my head. 75 people in front, 35,000 behind. I felt hunted. Haunted. Pained. My Achilles throbbed.

On First Avenue, the road was wide and the building high. A runner from Poole in Dorset came alongside me. ‘You’re a Les Croup!’ he yelled, referring to my running club (Les Croupiers Cardiff).

Running through the Bronx, a roughly hewn lump of ice was thrown from an apartment block and splintered on the road in front of me.

The residents and Brownstone buildings of Harlem witnessed my pace dropping. 6’s were no longer obtainable. Soon, neither were 7’s. Or 8's. Runners streamed past.

By Central Park I was limping chronically. The place is mountainous. Or at least it is when you’re at the rump end of a marathon and feeling every inch of concrete beneath wafer thin racing flats.

I came up to the finish line. Went across it and burst into tears for the second time in my adult life. 2hrs 55mins 28secs.  540th place. £5k raised. Lots of pain (the Achilles never fully recovered).

I limped through the finish area. There was a triage area for suffering runners. No time for that. I had to get back to my hotel about 15 blocks away and lie down properly – such was the pain in my lower leg and the rapidly cooling and stiffening muscles. How much did I have on me? $2. Two. Paltry. Dollars. I was cocky and naive enough to think that I'd walk back after. There’s no way that $2 would get a cab and city marathons cause traffic madness. The roads were thick were vehicles. There were a few yellow cabs around, but none available for hire. I stood at the road side looking beaten up and dejected, a finishers medal slung around my neck. Out of nowhere a cab pulled up and the window wound down. The driver was a huge black guy, at least twice my size and 20 stone if he was a pound. He slowly looked me up and  down. His voice rumbled from a place far below us.

Where you headed?

I paused and produced two mangled, one dollar bills.

How far will this get me?

You done the Mara-thon? (the word was strung out and connected with a hyphen).

Yes.

Hell. I’ll take you as far as you wanna go.

It took an eternity to deliver me to that hotel, to a soft bed, a square meal and a lie down. I’ve never been happier to hear blaring horns and distant sirens through my open hotel window or to watch a lousy sitcom whilst drifting into immediate deep sleep. And the driver? He didn’t even want my two dollars and disappeared back into the bedlam of seized city traffic.

There are many things I'll remember this trip for. Being accosted by an irate cleaver wielding chef in a Chinese restaurant (long story). Watching a rat dart across a delicatessen floor. A sales assistant at Macy's telling me 'You have a lovely slim neck. Do you work out?' (Eh?.... Can't see that happening in Debenhams). A BBC documentary crew capturing our experiences on camera. But it was this Taxi driver's willingness to go out of his way and do something for free that will always stay with me. The kindness of strangers.

The Kindness of strangers is published by Lonely Planet.

Saturday
Nov022013

Cardiff Half 2013 Report by Steve Spears

Tuesday
Oct232012

Warsaw Marathon 2012

THE SUMMARY

A good race, good atmosphere, fairly good conditions, good people to go with, Polish food is delicious and reasonably priced, nice course, a no hassle race and a low priced city – beer is good too.   Apart from one very small steep slope after about 25 km, any other slopes were barely noticeable, so essentially a flat course. Great weekend without the stresses and queuing you get at one of the major marathons (but you will never get a perfect course..).

WHY DID WE CHOOSE WARSAW?

We (Amanda, Gareth, Dave E W and Gary) started thinking about the Warsaw marathon about December 2011   largely because most of us had run Berlin the previous year and enjoyed travelling as a group (and tasting the German beer!!).  The previous reviews of the race seemed reasonable and a few of us wanted to try a smaller marathon to see how it was running in less crowded streets. 

BUILD UP?

By about mid-Feb 2012 we had the date of the race confirmed.  But entries were not actually open yet – contrast with the London ballot that fills up within 6 hours!  A few marathons were already full for the September 2012.  By mid March quite a few of us had booked flights but not yet actually entered the marathon - it was not open.  It opened around April 2012 and  about 5 of us entered promptly.  Throughout the summer we picked up a couple of extras to the trip.  Making us a group of James, Amanda, Gareth, Dave W, Gary B, Caroline N, Gerry C, Brian R , Dave C - all running with Claire Beatty coming along to taste the beer.   During the later stages of prep for the marathon it was good being able to compare notes on expected performances in the marathon with others and training plans.  We arranged for white t-shirts to be printed - getting to become a tradition for the Amanda/Gareth/Dave W/ Gary, James ‘the Bruce’ marathons.   The majority of us stayed at the Novotel  central Warsaw. 

COST OF THE MARATHON:

The cost of the marathon was low (around £20) and the hotel prices in Warsaw are very reasonable.  Superior twin room in Novotel £60 per night, i.e. only £30 each if sharing   Flights were about 100 quid giveor take a bit.   Cost of official race photos very cheap - 78 photos for total of £8 - giveaway compared with more well known marathons (£8 per photo?? AT LEAST! ).

THE TRAVEL TO WARSAW:

We all had different routes to WARSAW, some via low cost airlines via Stanstead, others with BA, other with LOT airline and it is less that a 2 hour flight. Generally it was fairly easy to get from the airport to our hotel.  The public transport from the airport to the hotel was really expensive, all of 3.4Zloty (less than £1.   The airport information was fairly clear and the staff friendly.  Arriving in Poland you would not have know there was a marathon in Warsaw at the weekend, unlike Llondon and other really large marathon cities.  From Stansted on Ryanair, Warsaw Modlin airport is about 30 miles from Warsaw which  can tend to mean a long wait at the railway station after short shuttle bus ride from airport. Also on return trip, shuttle bus from Modlin station to airport really packed, so leave plenty of time in case you cannot get on. Really cheap on train - about £2 one way for 30 mile trip to Warsaw on decent train. 

INFORMATION ABOUT THE RACE:

Generally the information provided by the organisers was efficiently issued and in a timely manner.  No real issues. 

THE EXPO /REGISTERING:

The expo was a small event, only perhaps 10 or 12 stalls, located in the national stadium.  Easy to get to from public transport – it’s hard to miss the national stadium!  I got my number on Saturday at 12 midday, I waited all of 30 seconds to get my number, chip and it was nice that the chip scan showed my name so I was confident it worked. They had enough stalls (e.g. runners food, t-shirts etc to meet most needs) but not every type of food. Certainly not busy and certainly there was enough good stuff for me. 

THE DAY BEFORE THE RACE:

There was a protest the day before the race. We initially thought they were protesting because  Les Croupiers  came to Warsaw without Mick, but then we later found out it was a protest about going back to old fashioned values and austerity measures.  A non threatening protest, very peaceful. They even had a midday mass which a few of our crew watched.  

THE NIGHT BEFORE COULD WE GET PASTA? (Yes NO PROBLEM)

Yes, getting pasta was fairly easy in Warsaw - we all eat together with a quality meal - I forget the price but not much more than 10 GPB each at a good quality outfit.  Note smoking is not allowed in Warsaw restaurants (even if you run too fast!), seriously that's such a good thing - I was concerned that I was going to a smoke filled place.  Gareth had his trusted ipadwith him -in case we had any problems- but English was no problem in the restaurant.  It was a really nice atmosphere with the group we came with. We had the really experienced runners like Gerry, Brian and Dave to help calm the nerves of the rest of us..great to have a nice mix of people.  Some one ask Brian about 5 a side football - not sure why - you better ask him!. 

THE RACE DAY:

We met at reception early about 7am I think (9am race start). We took the bus to the start, transport was free on the race day to runners (Cardiff half - please take note!).  Oh! and Gareth you forgot your ipad (it wasattached for the rest of the time!)  Easy to get to the start, a bit of walk around the stadium and underneath but if it was raining you would have been dry and warm.  Toilets were a little short on numbers but generally ok.  Baggage store was easy to get to and to store bags. 

THE START:

The start pens were not actively managed, to keep the different bibs separate, but I generally found people kept to them.  It’s a small race and the elite field was quite small.  They had pacers for several times 3 hours, 3hrs 15, 3:30 and maybe another time as well but I could not see them. On the start, it took me a few seconds to cross the line and get going, it wasn’t too crowed and I got going into a good pace fairly early on.  The start for the first 1-2 km was slightly up hill (only a little) but then you knew that you had the last 1-2 km down-hill.

THE COURSE:

The first 5-15 km was reasonable well supported and mostly flat. At 15km to around 25 km we moved away from the city and there was less support.  For the most part the road surface was very even and flat.  At around 15 miles there was some cobbles and a wood lined section - this was a bit difficult, and a hill at 17 miles. This could have hurt if you were struggling though tghe hill was about equivalent to  the hill from the club to Gabalfa plus a bit I think give or take a bit but enough to add 30 seconds to 45 seconds to your mile/km split (at the time I was doing 4:09’s per KM) – this was a 5 min KM.  The last 6 miles or so (before we turned to the stadium was into a wind - the opposite direction to the weather forecast so a bit tough.  For me I had trained very hard for this race but still lost time in the last bits.  Once we turned to 40km, you could see the stadium and knew it wasn’t far and marginally downhill from 40 to 41.5 KM.  At 42km you had the hill into the stadium, which was a little hard but then you came through the tunnel and it was great to finish in the stadium - for me very special as I broke 3 hours after not quite making it in London.  It was good to finish and be able to be under cover almost immediately, so on a rainy day that would be really good. If you wanted a massage you could have one, I just wanted a beer (or 5!).  There was a bit of walk from the finish to the stands but really I didn’t care, it was a really nice atompshere in the stadium. 

WATER STOPS:

There were sufficient numbers and paper cups so no problems for there.  They had Poweraid which was a fine sports drink.  (Would have preferred bottles but oh well and  my plan of using a straw didn’t work) 

AFTER RACE CELEBRATIONS:

We enjoyed an afternoon in an Irish bar (a few people even knew Claire’s Dad!)  Then we all eventually met up, together with Gareths ipad, after an afternoon of watching a game called Hurling.  We went for food in a local steak restaurant, the Sphyn restaurant I believe a common chain in Poland It was good quality as was the Polish beer. Following this was a late night as we managed to drink until the early hours in the hotel bar.  Gareth and Amanda visited Krakow the next day, I went to Krakow with Claire on Tuesday. Krakow is worth a visit allow 5 or so hours in the city. On Monday night we went to a Polish restaurant, for 7 of us we all had dinner and beer for around 70 quid total very expensive..!  

WOULD I DO IT AGAIN..?

Maybe..but I like new challenges.. so probably look for another one? but would definitely recommended it..  Probably not myself, as I like the variety, but for those who want a change from the massive numbers of London and Berlin, this is perfect - large enough to warrant feeling you were at a big event, but far more relaxed at the start.

MY RACE:

I cannot leave a write up without giving a little info on my race.. This was another attempt for me to break 3 hours. My previous attempts have been

  • 1998 Las Vegas 3:03: Splits 131 / 132  * to be honest my goal in this marathon was to qualify for Boston in the April (8 weeks later rather than break 3 but it had remained by PB for 13-14 years)
  • 1998 Boston  3:05 ( Cannot recall the splits something like 129/136)
  • 2011 Edinburgh 3:09 (splits 126/ 143 – a windy day),
  • 2011 Berlin 3:06  (127/ 139)
  • 2012 London 3:00:30 (129/131), 

In the run up to Warsaw I’ve done some very high mileage, I’d managed 4 weeks of 80 miles and a week of 100 in August/early September- ran a PB at a half marathon in a 70 mile week.  And did some less exciting speed work on my own of 800m reps and mile reps so I felt reasonably well prepared. It also included 3 sports massages in the preceding weeks to get any stiffness out of out my legs.  In my race I started well, target pace i’d eventually decided was 4:09 per KM(2:55-2:57 pace). I had lots of helpful discussions with Ed Donavan and others on suitable pace  I’d also say Ed was very helpful in providing guidance for suitable marathon track sessions in the run up.  With the realization that if I hit even pace I’ll go 255 and with a 2 min drop off I’ll be 257,  at the expo I predicted my race time was 256:59 on the Adidas win a T-Shirt stand. 

THE RACE FOR ME:  

I started fairly steady at 4:09 pace.  A few of the KM markers seem to be placed 50 meters or so in the wrong place as I did a 400 km then a 415 km a few times.   Cannot see that happening in Berlin.  It was very good for me to have two similar paced experienced old heads in the same race, Brian and Dave.  I managed to keep them in my sights for the first ½ passing Dave at half way.  I struggled in the woods and after that the wind was tough.  I generally felt comfortable, much more so than London – no cramp.  I was quite gutted when I passed Brian at 32 or so km because I had been running to keep him in my sights as I know Brian was a good pacer. At about 34 km I was close to 255/256 pace.  But slightly eased my pace as I knew I was well inside 3 hr pace but wanted to make sure I broke 3 and remove any risk of going above 3.  The last 2 KM going down hill didn't quite feel as much down as I expected but none the less a good experience to finish under 3 (approx 127/129 for me a very happy camper).  Now looking forward to London 2013.

James Bruce

 

Monday
Sep102012

Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc – August 2012

I like journeys. I am drawn to races which make a journey, that make a mark on a map which fits with the shape of the land, traversing between places with meaning, round a landmass or water. This is what drew me to UTMB which follows the hiking trail around the base of Mont Blanc, run as a flat out race rather than the usual one to two weeks of hiking. The route follows a 165km route taking in 2500m passes and a total climb of 10 000m. The raw stats are intimidating; a course record of over 20 hours, most of the finishers scraping in close to the maximum 46 hours and nearly half the field chased down by the harsh checkpoint cut-off times, exhaustion, injury, dehydration or hypothermia.

UTMB and I have had a long four year courtship, getting the required qualifying races, with the bar going up each year, and being unlucky in the ballot. Demand for the 2300 places rising with the increasing popularity of ultra distance running. I should have felt pretty pleased just have got the start in Chamonix go as I waited with 3 hours to, but it didn’t feel that way. The weather was shocking, it had poured with rain for 2 days, the trails were boggy, and there was 20cm of snow on the passes. The finishers of the ‘baby brother of UTMB’, the shorter TDS, were staggering in after 30 hours, soaked, shivering, blank- faced and mud spattered. Only 40% finished the course. I don’t know whether I was disappointed or relieved when the announcement came in that the organisers had changed the course to a shorter low level route, a mere 103km with 6000m of climbing and a 26 hour limit. Six hours later at 2100m in the dark and a blizzard, the disappointment had totally evaporated as I the last thing I wanted to do was go up any higher!

The atmosphere at the start was a bit deflated, as there were many who had travelled from Japan and the US, feeling as though they had been beaten by the weather in an unfair fight. So at 7pm the runners packed in to the centre of Chamonix, were subjected to 30 minutes of annoyingly jovial Francophone razzmatazz, and a very brief English safety talk. ‘EET EES COLD. DO NOT STOP MOVING. YOU ALWAYS MOVE. ALWAYS. OK!’
I had managed to end up at the back so we all the shuffled the first mile and jogged the next 4 miles down the valley to Les Houches, it was just a relief to be on the go after all the tapering and waiting around of the day. The main hazard was being impaled on one of the ubiquitous hiking poles being flailed at eye level, for this reason they are seen as being rather suspect by the British. Having until recently dismissing them scaffolding for feeble continentals or crumbling ramblers, I underwent a U turn of opinion worthy of a nimble toed politician after borrowing a pair. It’s like changing from 2 to 4 wheel drive, so more miles for less pain.

Darkness came at the start of the first climb, and the reason for the evening start became apparent. A pretty line of torches danced ahead and behind. Impossible to get lost and benefitting from each other’s lighting. The grinding sensory deprivation of night running transformed in to a tunnel of light. The night passed quickly, but many succumbed to the lures of the lavish feed stations, gorging on Savoie cheese, sausisson sec, noodles and cakes whilst entranced by a brazier, only to be caught by the grim sweeper.

My race plan was just to stick with the pack during the night, keep steady, be gentle on my legs, stay warm, only 5 mins at each feed station and look forwards to the dawn – when everything feels better. The dawn came and it was rubbish. I was slogging up a hill in the mist in a place that looked just like Afan Argoed in winter. My morale collapsed and I threw in inner temper tantrum -  I decided to abandon the race as I was fed up and I can run up a hill in the real Afan Forest any time. The trouble was that the only way to abandon the race was to carry on for the next 2 hours – so I slogged on with only a few miles to my finish – and then the sun came out and revealed a view of a glacier across the valley. This interested me as there are no glaciers in the real Afan Argoed, so maybe it would be worth doing a few more miles to see a bit more. A few more miles added to a few more miles, and then it seemed a shame to stop because I was really enjoying myself!

The last 20 miles, although very hilly, was a spectacular traverse of the northern wall of the Chamonix valley. I took my time, enjoyed the view and was comfortably ahead of the time cut-offs. By early evening I was at the finish, pretty fresh, in good spirits and 1730th out of 2500 starters in 23hrs 30 mins. The winner finished in 10 hours 40 mins – all run in the dark. How? I don’t understand.

I got the T shirt but I didn’t really finish UTMB. I did have a good day in the hills and will be doing more trails racing next year. Having got a taste of how hard this race is I have the greatest respect for those that do the whole thing. If the weather had been fairer and the full race been on, would I have got to the end? I still would have had 20 hours to go and was only 2 hours ahead of the time cut-off, and a lot of things can go wrong in 20 hours. But I was keeping steady as those around me were slowing. I don’t know, but I give the same 50:50 odds that I gave at the start.

Will I try again? The hardest thing about this race is simply getting in. It has an international cult following, and next year everyone will need to run three trail races of at least 50 miles in the previous 2 years just to get in the ballot. I have no plans to try again – but I am planning on running a few longer trail races next year – and one thing sometimes leads to another.......

Richard Self

Monday
Jun182012

Kom Sa Michelle …

Not Port Talbot but Copenhagan….. that was the call from the spectators at the Copenhagen Marathon that I ran on 20th May.  The day before I was jogging at the back of the  PaAmager Fælled parkrun with one of the organisers of the event in Copenhagen on its 3rd anniversary.  It was a strange course where you could easily, especially in my case, go the wrong way and get a very good time by cutting ½ k off the route, so it was a good job I wasn’t running alone.  It was a great event, not many running that day due to the Marathon the next day, but everyone was friendly and shared home-made cakes and drinks with us at the end of the run where presentations also took place to members of the parkrun Team and Runners.

On the day of the Marathon the clouds disappeared and the sun came out – it was a warm start and the temperature rose reaching the high 20’s.  The route was flat and looped around in a few places.  There was plenty of entertainment on route – live music and dancing, DJ’s to keep the spectators entertained and runners spirits up.  There was hydration stops every 3 miles with water and powerade and some having bananas and oranges, unfortunately although the stations were well organised and well-manned, the drinks were in cups and with the hot weather there was a need to slow down to a walking pace to the get the liquid in.  There were also 2 toilets at each station; unfortunately, spectators were also taking advantage of these to the dismay of queuing runners. Showers were at each station, something that I thought I would not be using, however with the hot conditions I was grateful of these showers, as were many of the other runners.  The on-site first aiders and ambulances were busy dealing with people that had collapsed; there was very little shade to be had throughout the race.

During my run there were shouts of come on Wales from parkrunners that I had met the previous day, which certainly lifted my spirits.  The run included bridges that offered views of the city and marina’s and some of the fantastic architecture as well as the smaller streets with cafes and small shops where some spectators based themselves to cheer runners on.  By 35 k I was beginning to feel the effects of running over 20 miles in the heat and started to walk, but quickly decided that it would be a long walk and I only had a parkrun and a bit to go, so got back into my stride and tried to visualise the parkrun course, this kept me going until I ran over the bridge and turned the corner towards the end of the race. I imagined that I’d reached the 400m to go sign, the finishing line was in sight and so was a man wearing a Union Jack top, and at that point I decided that I could not let that man beat me at the line and in true Park Run Style, found another couple of gears and sprinted passed the Union Jack man and another three runners to boot.  With my arms in the air I crossed the line with a big grin on my face and to great amusement and relief of my partner who was patiently waiting for me in the spectators stand.

Over the line there was the customary medal and drinks, fruit and a goody bag, also a red rose for each woman.  Reclaiming the baggage was easy unlike at the start of the race where a huge bottleneck occurred at the narrow entrance to the baggage area.

I enjoyed Copenhagen, the transport system makes it an easy city to negotiate and there are lots to do and see there.  To save time on your legs, I would recommend a sightseeing tour on one of the boats.  The Marathon route although flat, does have its obstacles, high curbs and cobbles that you tackle twice on a loop, so maybe not one of the fastest courses, but on the whole enjoyable and one I would recommend.

Michelle Rivett