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My second race of the weekend wasn’t my race at all, it belonged to my daughter, ASK and I’ve never been more ecstatic not to be racing.
I remember when she was born, almost exactly three years ago that I decided I would enter a race with her and aged 15 days old she completed the Dartford Bridge 2km Fun Run with myself, the GingaNinja and Pops (my father).

Well much has changed since that race, ASK has become a boisterous toddler, my father and I fell out over Hillsborough (although it was always made clear he was welcome at our door to see ASK whenever he wanted) and both the GingaNinja and I have lost half a yard of pace due mainly to Dominos Pizza.

Anyway three years later we return to the scene of her first medal triumph, only this time she’s powered by her own legs.

Now I’ve been accused by many of being a pushy parent getting her to run but the truth of the matter is she asked me to find her a race because, ‘I want another medal dad’. She also asks to go training and use both the running buggy and the Unirider – I think it’s fair to say she’s the pushy toddler and I’d rather be taking her running than having her sat infront of Dora the Explorer or Paw Patrol!


Anyway we rocked up to the start line just after the 10km had started and we paid our £3 entry fee (which would be going to a local good cause) and waited for the main race runners to come in. ASK stood transfixed at the sides watching runners of all shapes and sizes crossing the finishing line and claiming their medals – desperate to know when she could get started! 

Before long it was time to line up – kids from near newborns to 13 and 14 year olds. We eyeballed a couple of our fellow toddlers that we knew we could take down and when the horn erupted we set off from our position at the back of the pack like lightning.


ASK quickly set a steady if unspectacular pace for the first 500 metres, preferring to soak up some of the undeserved adulation she was receiving! But once out of sight of the supporters we made better time taking two other runners on the first corner, followed quickly by a slightly older girl whose interest seemed to have waned a little. By the time we had reached the end of the first kilometre we had taken out another couple of runners but the field had now spread itself out but with just 8 minutes on the clock we looked to be making good time and ASK showed no sign of stopping (other than for water breaks).

In the distance – some 200metres ahead – we saw a couple of older boys, probably aged about 10 and we suggested to ASK that we could try and catch them. As they disappeared around the corner and into the final stretch she looked dejected that they had gotten away. 

‘Do you want to catch them?’ we inquired. ‘Yes’ replied ASK and so with that we hit the go faster afterburners and our little daughter responded with much enthusiasm and although we would never catch the boys we knew that the sounds and sight of the finish line would give her a huge lift to finish well. 


With just a couple of hundred metres to go ASK geared up again and started hurtling towards the finish – the remainder of the crowds cheering her every last step home.

Cruising through the barrier she stopped only briefly to grab a medal (we offered thanks in her behalf) and then some rehydration and refuelling – this had been a gruelling race.


What can I say? There are a few things to say about the race, the organisers and ASK.

Firstly let me congratulate Bridge Triathlon events who year in, year out put on lovely events for all ages and all abilities. As a regular runner I’ve taken part in a few of the events as has the GingaNinja and ASK marks her third Bridge Triathlon event here.

The Dartford Bridge 10km and the 2km fun run really help promote a healthy running lifestyle and it’s low key approach in a simple setting make this a perfect September Sunday morning event.

Secondly the event itself is magnificent, either the 10km or the 2km (the only reason I wasn’t doing the 10km was because I’d ruined my groin at the RunWimbledon marathon the day before). The route is fast and flat and if you want it to be it’s a really good event for racing FAST!

And finally, ASK (my UltraBaby) What can I say other than, well done little daughter of mine. She ran brilliantly, she ran fast and she wanted to do it and is already inquiring as to when she can get her next race medal. So if you know of an upcoming event please let me know – I’ve got a three year old ready to race and that’s an attitude I’m happy to encourage.


Some days you’re really up for a marathon and other days you simply aren’t.

Thankfully I’d really been looking forward to the Suunto RunWimbledon marathon as it was a chance to properly test myself after a few months out and also test the back injury that has been plaguing me since late last year.

For the first time in ages both the GingaNinja and ASK rolled up with me to the start line near the Windmill Museum and we sat on the grass in the early autumnal sunshine having some lunch and bimbling round on our balance bike (the toddler, not me). The race village was excellent and served as the hub for runners coming in and out of the event. Suunto had a significant presence as the events main sponsor but otherwise this was as low key as you like.


Prior to race start I had the good fortune to bump into @Totkat – fresh from her self supported adventuring from Lands End to John O’Groats. It seemed we were both there for a bit of Marathon tomfoolery rather than going out hard. That said when the horn went off at 2pm I found myself pushing out on to the trail and following my tried and tested method of flooring it for the first half and then dropping off or exploding for the second half.


The route was four laps of winding in and out of the trails of Wimbledon Common and there was a combination of lovely downhills to get your feet moving, a couple of minor uphills to let you have some hurt and some duller connecting trails to keep you on track – all in all not a bad route given the size of space being worked with.

I pressed on through the field, trying not to pace myself against anyone else as I knew that many of the runners were liable to be a) relay marathoners or b) just better runners than me and every time I felt myself speed up I tried to calm myself down and slowwwwww up.

About 3 miles in it became quite clear that I hadn’t had my pre-race dump but this, for a change, didn’t concern me too greatly as I knew that at about 4 and a bit miles in there were portaloos. However, when I arrived into the race village there was a significant queue and I was running pretty well so I pressed on into the second half of the lap. I think it would be fair comment that the second half of the lap was significantly less interesting than the first half but it did give some nice long stretches of path that allowed you to open the taps a little. 15 minutes I was back in camp and looking towards the loo.

Once more though my hopes were dashed and with a quarter of the marathon run in a little over 50 minutes I was keen to get going again. I stopped for water and a bottle refill but there was no time for the loo – I’ll deal with this on lap 2! I drifted around the course attempting to maintain my pace but with my already listed toilet problem this was becoming a challenge. However, an option presented itself on the lap – the Wimbledon Common cafe had a toilet that was only a couple of hundred metres off the route and if there was still a queue when I got to the halfway point then I’d try that!

Of course there was a queue! And so with the clock ticking I pressed quickly to the spare toilet a mile or so away. Needless to say I lost some time and when I came out of the facilities some 20 minutes later I knew that a good time was looking beyond me. I ran into the race village feeling much relieved in the bowel region but had now begun to notice that my groin was groaning from a distinct lack of fitness and my back was aching from what could have been the start of my injury seeking revenge. Effectively I was slowing and not even the smiling ASK and GingaNinja could lift my spirits – I was just going to have to grind this out.

The one thing the race was missing on the support table were some sweets or slices of fruit and so I was very glad I had my own reserve and took onboard some Haribo and a children’s fruit pouch. The third lap was my worst and I just couldn’t get going and no matter what my heart was saying my head was saying the opposite but as I crossed the trails and heard the sympathetic applause of several dog walkers I determined that I must make a better effort and so I stopped – massaged my groin for several minutes and lay on the ground to stretch my back. This had enough of a desired effect that as I set off on the final lap I actually felt better. Mentally I was back in the game and while my groin was pretty knackered I was running consistently! There were now very few runners out on the course – there hadn’t been that many to begin with – but I found it in myself to overtake a couple of people and get round. Even the hill overlooking the race village was mounted with relative ease and I pressed downwards to the final couple of miles. ASK was awaiting me and I had to explain I would be back shortly but she could run the last few hundred metres with me if she wanted (in training for her race the following day). We had a little cuddle and she told me she would, ‘still be awake dad, it’s getting dark but it’s not bedtime yet’.

With those words ringing in my ears I hammered home those final couple of miles and when I came up to the 200 metre marker she was waiting for me. Given that the ground was uneven i insisted she held my hand but we thundered our way to the line. ‘Faster dad, Faster’ came the familiar line as we raced across the line to the sound of cheers from the volunteers, event staff, and the remaining runners and supporters!

I think ASK was happier than I was at the conclusion of the race as she was awarded a medal for an outstanding sprint to the finish. But ultimately despite the challenges I personally faced on the day this was a damn fine event.


Key points

  • Distance: Marathon
  • Profile: mildly undulating
  • Date: September 2017
  • Location: Wimbledon Common
  • Cost: £35
  • Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, good paths
  • Tough rating: 2/5

Route
As I’ve already indicated the route was interesting without being spectacular, ultimately you’re in a borough of London – how exciting can you make it? but it was a very well thought out use of the space available. For me the best bits were when the trail tightened up, ran through the dirtier trails and forced you to beware but for many this would have been a lovely introduction to trail marathons. Interestingly despite being a trail event this felt like a fast event with good times perfectly possible – worth noting for the trail speed demons.

Organisation
Those who put on the Suunto RunWimbledon had a good plan and stuck to it. The placement of drinks support was excellent and you passed the table twice per loop and having a race village in the loops middle actually made this a jovial affair. The volunteers were universally excellent and for the most part the organisation was perfectly invisible which allowed the runners to simply get on with the job of running.

Awards
A new Salomon neck gaiter/buff, a decent bespoke medal and drinks – you’d be hard pressed to grumble.

Value for money
£35, 4 loops of a well thought out course, excellent support and little extras like the neck gaiter – yep this one would score highly on good value.

Conclusion
The Suunto RunWimbledon Marathon is an excellent trail running marathon that is well organised and well supported – with the addition of the half marathoners and 10km runners the field felt quite nicely full but never so much as to feel crowded. I’d say that if you were looking for an early autumn marathon near London then this one would have to rate highly in your choices. The question I often ask myself when I review races is ‘would I do this again?’ and in this case the answer is yes.

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  • Running poles making ascents and descents easier
  • GPS to making navigation a doddle
  • Compression kit to reduce muscle fatigue

What do all these things have in common? These are all aids many of us use to help complete long distance endurance events.

I use running poles when allowed, I almost always use a GPS device even if a map isn’t loaded on to it and before I realised compression kit was causing all sorts of injury problems I would often be found in ridiculously tight fitting attire.

There are two aid types though that I wonder about, the first I don’t use, the second I do (when I can convince the GingaNinja to rock up to a race registration).

Pacers and Crews: The aid I don’t use that I’m referring to are pacers and it was after seeing some amazing finishes at hundred milers and the like that got me wondering if using a pacer increases the likelihood of a finish and whether by using them are runners on a level playing field?

The other aid are crews – which I do, on occasion, use and I believe that in the early days of my ultra marathoning I really wouldn’t have gotten very far without a crew and the support they offer. But do they give me and others who use them an edge on race day?

Reading lots of recent race reports and talking to runners it’s clear that there is an appetite for the use of both pacers and crews but does it take away something of the challenge? Increasingly my view is becoming that yes, these things are taking away from something that, at its best, in my opinion, is a solo sport.

Perhaps if they’re going to be in play there should be greater scrutiny about how a crew and pacers can be used as I’ve witnessed some things during recent races that has made me wonder if too much crew access and too much pacing is creating an unfortunate imbalance in ultra marathons.

I met a Spanish runner at about 30 miles into an unsupported race recently and we ran together for maybe 12 miles. I enjoyed his company very much but the curious thing was that his crew met him at five different points along the route during the time we were together. Each time he would stop, chat, change kit, have a nibble, check his route, have a sit in the warm vehicle etc. It felt like the spirit of the race was not being adhered to and there were others too during this particular event that had cars literally following them down the roads – with family members joining in for a few miles as pacers – picking up food at McDonalds, etc. I’ve met people who’ve run past their homes or near enough to detour and been witness to them going indoors, changing wet or filthy kit, filling up food and then simply popping back on the route – all I should point out, within the rules of the race. I don’t begrudge this level of support – hell, if I could get it my DNF percentage wouldn’t be so high! However, though I’m far from a purist in running terms I do feel this takes some of the shine off the effort required.

The pacer question is very much a personal choice and are often subject to specific race rules but for me these are an aid that detract from one of the most important aspects of a race – the mental challenge. I could pluck an arbitrary percentage out of the air but I’d suggest that most endurance races are won and lost in the mind and not in the body. The pacer therefore can have a real, tangible effect on a racers performance and we are back to the point about imbalance.

All this said though I’ve been known to buddy up with runners on a route in order to ensure a finish although always with the agreement that if the pacing didn’t match we’d say goodbye and good journey. That changed a little bit when on the South Wales 50 when myself and two other runners joined up on the course then formalised our pacing/team running strategy to ensure that we all finished. It was perhaps this more than anything that got me wondering about just how much of a difference a pacer can make. Now to be fair Ryan, Pete and myself were all pretty ruined by the time we’d hooked up and it was as much about surviving the night as it was pacing but it gave me an insight to what a fresh pair of legs or a fresh attitude can do for a very tired ultra runner.

These days I’m much more a social ultra runner rather than a competitive one and I tend not to think too much about my position in the field, preferring to concentrate on taking in my surroundings and having a lovely time. However, this has got me wondering just how much better I might be if I had a team right next to me pushing me forward?

The purity argument: The reason I suppose I don’t do that and put together a team to get me through these things is simply because of my belief in the solo element. I probably would be a better runner if there was someone in my ear for the final 50 miles pushing me that little bit harder or if I had a crew with lots of kit ready and waiting. However, for me ultra running is being out there, facing myself and a trail and although I can very much respect other people’s decisions for using pacers and crews it’s less and less suited to me. Perhaps evidence of this was that the last time the GingaNinja crewed for me was the Thames Path 100 in 2015 – here she met me several times armed with chocolate milk, kit options and a regular stern talking to but since then she’s mainly been at starts and finishes if there at all and in truth I prefer this. Although it’s scary to think you’re on your own it really does heighten the elation (for me) upon completion.

All this said I’ll still be using poles (periodically) and GPS – I’m not giving those up anytime soon, I mean I’m not completely stupid! Therefore am I a hypocrite for suggesting pacers and crews detract from a level race but I’m perfectly content to gain an edge by using kit that some call ‘cheat sticks’ or by buddying up inside an event? I suppose it’s an individuals view and more importantly a race directors view and if you (or perhaps I) don’t like it well then I don’t have to sign up to that race.

And so… I’m curious about your views on pacers and crews, do you feel they offer you a better chance of finishing well? Do you think they give some runners an advantage that others don’t have? Would you consider them a hindrance? Or are they simply part of your ultra running armoury?

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As the summer comes to a close I can say that I’m a very fortunate fool, I’m pretty healthy, pretty fit, with a very silly family and mostly, I get to do the things I want to do. This summer allowed me to return to two festivals I haven’t been to in several years – WOMAD and the BBC Festival in a Day. In previous years the GingaNinja and I have seen some amazing performances such as Mama Rosin, Robert Plant, Lenny Kravitz and even the mighty Status Quo!

This year was a little different, this year we had ASK along for the ride – now it’s true that it’s not her first festival as the GN and I at 7 months pregnant took her along to the Hop Farm in 2014. It was here we believe she cultivated her love of James Blunt and gave much kicking dance action to both Sophie Ellis Bextor and the brilliant Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbot.

However, it would be nearly 3 years later before she got the chance to experience all aspects of festival life and we decided that WOMAD was a good place to start.

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WOMAD

We arrived early on the Friday morning to a relatively packed campsite and therefore had to park a little way from the camping. However, armed with a pull-a-long trailer we piled everything in and headed up to a relatively quiet, top of the hill spot. WOMAD is a well drilled festival and we were never far from either water, decent toilet facilities and warm showers.

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We had hoped that the weather would remain dry as this would keep our options open for what music to listen to but when it didn’t we decided that staying a little drier would make for a better experience with ASK. Over the course of the three day festival we saw some amazing acts from ‘World Music’ Trad.Attack! from Estonia playing amongst other things the bagpipes were a real treat. The Gubi Family (Beautiful), Goat (reminded me of Orbital), Las Cafeteras (brilliant), Benjamin Zephaniah and the Revolutionary Minds (Inspiring) and The Ska Vengers (Cool). For me though the best thing I saw was Kuenta i Tambu who brought a level of energy to the stage that I hadn’t seen in years, it was bring powerful Afro-Caribbean music that really made you want to get up and dance (and we did). WOMAD had such a hugely diverse range of music on offer and although you won’t like it all you really won’t struggle to find something that you do like.

Importantly ASK found much of the music to her tastes and we danced to the fast moving, beat laden tracks and we snoozed through the gentler music. Although we went to WOMAD for us, we wanted our daughter to experience live music and the energy that comes with it and thankfully she loved it.

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We found the use of a trailer meant we had a mobile bed for ASK and added large umbrellas to keep her dry if it rained. This was perfect for when she grew tired it meant we could stay out and she simply snoozed until she was ready to party again. What we didn’t take was a buggy and although many did they might have regretted it once the mud got thick – we chose to transport ASK on the Unirider when not in the trailer as this handled all but the worst of the conditions with great aplomb (and as we sped around the arenas we were much pointed at, talked to and even photographed – weird).

WOMAD though is much more than music it’s an environment of creativity, play, education and experience. Each morning we sought out the children’s world and joined in with the many wonderful activities on offer. We made masks, hats, skirts, created patterns in t-shirts (£4 for the shirt, a real bargain). We sculpted clay, played numerous instruments, engaged in group games and had several interactive story times – ASK had so much fun!

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The food was almost universally excellent too and although we did some camp cooking you really don’t need to – we had the delight of trying lots of delicious foods and the raclette was amazing as was the mac and cheese we tried and the plethora of cakes, coffees and treats we tried were all delicious. Pizzas offered a good and easy option with prices generally being reasonable for a festival. WOMAD scores well for its food options and have certainly improved since our last visit in 2012. As a teetotaller I don’t drink but the GingaNinja did try some of the ciders and exclaimed that the Mango Cider was her favourite of the whole festival!

Ultimately WOMAD is highly recommended on all levels and while some would argue that it’s a bit of a middle class event I’d argue against that. They do their very best to be hugely inclusive, ASK didn’t pay to attend and you can pay in instalments for adult 3 day tickets and there are options around this. WOMAD has a wide range of music and although nothing you’ll get on Radio 2 it offers you a chance to learn something new. The craft, poetry and children’s sections are phenomenal and as a family experience you really can’t go wrong. I’ll certainly be going back and I won’t be leaving it 5 years between visits!

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Practical Advice

We adventure a lot with ASK – running, biking, hiking, climbing, ice skating, parks, cultural trips, educational trips, parties and that other good stuff but we knew that camping would be something we should be better prepared than usual for. There may be some useful tips in here for new parents about to embark on their first camping trip or music festival.

  • Buy a big enough tent (we bought the Coleman Octagon – an eight man tent which was perfect for a 3 person family and all their stuff)
  • Spread yourselves out, build a proper camp and develop outdoor space that’s yours
  • Get the child/children involved in the buying of any new kit
  • Have full waterproofs for everyone
  • Take a potty
  • Buy good quality ear defenders
  • Buy or rent a trail trailer
  • Use the mornings to do things they want to do to make doing your things more acceptable to them
  • Get to know other families

BBC Radio 2 Festival in a Day

Our second festival of the year was the BBC Radio 2 Festival in a Day. A very different beast to WOMAD but no less enjoyable. A few months back I’d seen that Blondie were on the bill an having just bought their new album decided I’d like to see them live as I’d always been a fan. Looking further down the list I saw James Blunt, Shania Twain and the wonderful Take That. I urged the GingaNinja to make sure she had all the computers in the house ready and armed when the box office opened and after much effort we secured a couple of tickets! Ace.

Having been a couple of times before we knew that it would be hectic and that food outlets would be rammed and so decided to take quite a significant picnic to ensure that both we and our toddler didn’t suffer from any food outages! Armed with a picnic blanket, buggy and food we got to Hyde Park with a couple of hours to spare but this was soon eaten up by finding a decent spot, lunching and getting comfortable.


The weather was looking a little ropey too and we prepared our ‘camp’ for it getting wet later on. By the time the Stereophonics opened we were all in the mood for a little dance and the band delighted as they smashed out new and classic songs. The remainder of the afternoon rolled on without much disturbance, the Radio 2 team bringing truly global musical talent to the stage for everyone to enjoy. It all started to ramp up though when Rick Astley appeared and from here on it was simply a succession of bigger performances. James Blunt was brilliant as ever and I delighted at his live version of Bonfire Heart which I sang to ASK every night for the first two and a bit years of her life to help her sleep. Shania Twain was much as you remember her and delivered a magnificent reminder of her heyday and potentially a return to huge success. ASK, the GingaNinja and I bounced around all day to music as it belted out around Hyde Park with the child periodically requesting the opportunity to sit on our shoulders for a clearer view of the action.


When Blondie came on though ASK recognised and appreciated the pop rock that she’s been brought up on and we both danced for all we were worth! For me Blondie was the absolute highlight of the day but credit where it’s due Take That gave them a real run for their money.

With a 9.30pm (ish) finish/curfew this compressed festival makes the most of its family friendly credentials. The toilets are decent, it isn’t too overcrowded, it’s fairly priced at £50 for general admission and the music has all the toe tapping hits you could wish for. The biggest concern are the stupidly long queues for food and drink but by the food being within earshot of the music the organisers get away with it (just).


Ultimately the Festival in a Day is a wonderful experience and if you’re within spitting distance of London, love the music of Radio 2 and don’t mind the potential of getting wet then it’s a no-brainer!

And so… as parents what we learnt was that ASK loves music, lots of different music and being around these big events. She had no fear of the scale of it all and simply did her own little thing (singing ‘the wheels on the bus’ for example while the stage was blasting out pop classics). The most important thing in terms of enjoying a music festival with a toddler is to be prepared, it didn’t take much effort to get us ready for either event but doing our research and adequately readying ourselves meant that everyone had a brilliant time.

And will we go and do more festivals with her? Damn right we will!

 

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