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half marathon

I was looking forward to the Tour of Tameside, on paper it looked like a good mix of distances and a race series with lots of heritage and in a place I had never run before. It’s therefore with immense sadness that I didn’t enjoy it, that’s not to say it was terrible, it wasn’t, but there were a number of issues that really hampered my enjoyment.

The tour consisted of four races starting on Thursday 29th July and concluding on Sunday 1st August and took place in and around Tameside. Organised by the Running Bee Foundation it promised agonising race after agonising race all in order to support charity – so far so good.

For me personally I had travelled from my sunny Scottish location to rainy Tameside in order to meet a lady from the Running Friends Scotland Facebook group. Nicky and I have chatted extensively across the pantheon of running topics and had hoped to record a podcast episode (more on that later) but it was mainly just a great opportunity to meet her.

And so on Thursday I thundered down the M74 out of Scotland’s sun soaked landscape and down the M6 into the grip of North West England for a few days of fun. I unpacked quickly upon arrival at my hotel, got my race kit ready and prepared the podcasting gear incase tonight was a good night for a record.

Race 1
X Trail 10km
With the first race taking part in the evening I ambled along from the hotel down to the parking at the local rugby club. I was amazed at the amount of people who were there – I had assumed that the Tour of Tameside would be quite a small race with a few dozen runners but it turned out there were hundreds. Clearly some where here just for one day of the tour but I saw lots of full tour runners who would compete in the four races.

The start line was about a 10 minute walk from the parking and so having not being able to see Nicky I decided to head down to the start line and see what all the fuss was about. When I arrived it was even busier at the start line than it had been at the parking – it wasn’t quite a mass participation event but it was the biggest event I had been a part of since long before the pandemic began.

I was quite surprised by the way in which people were interacting even with the relaxing of the pandemic rules in England. I wandered around a bit exploring the course and trying to see where the trail was, this had the benefit of maintaining social distancing but also allowed me to experience the Tour of Tameside vibe.

But then it was time to go.

I headed to the back of the course and finally came across Nicky and we had a few minutes to chat before the race began but soon it was time to go. I hadn’t really thought about whether I would be running alongside Nicky or whether I would just go and do my own thing. But as it turned out we mostly stayed together and ambled gently around the course, which was very nice indeed.

It quickly became apparent that the best way to approach the Tour of Tameside was to just have a bit of fun with it and not take it too seriously. And so as we pushed up the hilly tarmac roads of Tameside and I awaited, with eagerness, the arrival of the trail to bring me the joy I was looking for.

The route was hillier than I imagined but not unpleasantly so and the running was interesting enough as we ambled through little villages where the locals had come out to support the competitors. Wonderful. The route though was tight in places and making progress through the throngs of runners was challenging even as the competitors began to spread themselves out. I made a nuisance of myself by making jokes with volunteers and supporters alike, always keen to mostly poke fun at myself and I am sure that runners both ahead and behind me must have found me a real irritant – wishing I would just piss off. I’m confident that the supporters near the start line who heard me calling for a change in the music from whatever shit it was they were blaring out to a bit of George Michael must have wondered what the fuck was going on.

But I’d found my fun groove and began a little sing-a-long or two, told some terrible jokes and hurled out a few expletive laden anecdotes but it wasn’t enough to make me love the race.

The key concern was that the route showed little sign of trail despite the name – I had assumed that the last minute change of route was responsible, although others suggested that the original route ran along a disused railway line, which I suppose could be considered a trail, although not my preference. and with a good portion of the run now completed we still had yet to find some good old fashioned mud or woodland trail.

The route looped in and out and down and around the roads of the villages until we ended up back at the start once more and finally we found a narrow piece of trail – this was fun and there was just enough room to go past the other runners.

Nicky was thundering along just nicely and as we approached a little bridge and I took a moment to grab a photograph or three and then it was a race to the finish – all downhill, through a tight gate – up and over and then bomb it down to the end. Boom.

And bomb it I did – I love a fast finish and I flew past several other runners and into the funnel for the finish where Nicky’s other half and the first medal awaited us.

The end of the first day and I had a lot to digest, it had been an odd race but now it was time to stretch, relax, hot bath and get ready for tomorrow. In the walk back to the car we met a young lady called Hatty who was both an absolute delight and an awesome runner and somebody that I would cross paths with several times during the next few days.

So as we ventured towards the car park with Nicky and Rob (Nicky’s other half) we chatted about life and colourful running leggings and then departed rather quickly – sadly without recording a podcast episode, but there was always tomorrow I thought and put it to the back of my mind.

Race 2
Hell on the Fell

Living in Scotland gives me access to some wonderful hills and mountains which from time to time I am known to run and down. However, I tend not to run the hill races here because I feel I wouldn’t be competitive enough and I’d be guaranteed to miss checkpoints or timing points. However, the Hell on the Fell sounded like a great little bomb around some hills in Tameside and so this was the one I was most looking forward to.

Again the race was in the evening and on a cool but very runnable evening I made my way to another part of Tameside where I was greeted with a decent walk to the start line once more. Parking had been allocated at a local leisure centre but given the legions of runners, supporters and organisers this was clearly not going to be enough. However, everyone squeezed themselves in and around the local area and made their way to the start line – which was overshadowed by a couple of small hills and a picturesque reservoir – this is more like it I thought.

Nicky and Rob once more rocked up close to the starting time and took up their positions alongside me near the back just in time to hear me grumble about the man operating the PA. I’m aware that race information needs to be given out but there was a lot of that, ‘don’t worry it’s all downhill’ and ‘it’s a nice flat one tonight’, I didn’t find it funny I found it mostly tiresome but I am confident he had some fans, just not me.

Just prior to the race start though there was a disagreement between a couple of runners and I had stupidly gotten involved, I found myself in a heated exchange that I really didn’t want to be in and to be honest it really ruined the start of the event for me and while I won’t go into details I think it may have ruined the race for others too.

Still, this was a fell race and I was going to enjoy it but then we turned to the tarmac and headed down it, up it and around it. Hmmm. Now I realise I’m not a regular fell racer but I was fairly sure that fell running usually involved mud, trails, off trails, beating back the bracken, Walsh trainers and generally being covered head to toe in shit.

This was not that and the events at the start line were weighing heavily on my mind, although outwardly I was doing my best to project the happy go lucky, expletive delivering runner that I usually am recognised as.

Eventually we did finally leave the tarmac behind and climb a bit of trail and this was really good fun running, I leaped and lumbered up the hills chastising Nicky any time I felt she was starting to slip behind. The 30 minutes that we were actually on a hill, on an actual trail were really enjoyable and if the bulk of the running had been like this then the Tour of Tameside would have been right up my street but it really was just these 30 minutes that were like this.

Because we were at the back of the pack when we came to the narrow descent off the hill the pace slowed to a crawl and we couldn’t move any faster than the person at the front of the queue and so I was a bit disappointed as this would have been great to hurl ourselves down in the way the front runners had. However, once clear of the backlog we, like everyone else, began to fly down towards the end.

At this point Hatty had joined us and so I took the opportunity to mess around a bit and make aeroplane noises amongst other things, I’m sure both my lovely companions must have been wishing I would once more sod off but I didn’t I just carried on regardless. As we approached the finish the marshal advised me of a step down and I advised him that I was stopping, which must have looked strange but I was keen to capture the finish line moment as Nicky and Hatty battered towards the line. Annoyingly though another runner came thundering through and so I decided to put a little spurt on to the finish, stopping just short of the finish to allow him to cross the line before me – he must have thought me a dickhead too.

Boom, we crossed the line and collected another medal as the man on the PA system commented on my video-ing of the event. Something I noted as I entered the final day was against the rules of the race.

There was still a finish line photograph to do and then off but in all the excitement of the event, thoughts of podcasting were lost but I’d suggested ice-cream post race tomorrow to help celebrate Robs birthday and hopefully we could do it then.

Race 3
Hero Half Marathon

I can’t remember my last half marathon but I think it might have been the 2013 Royal Parks Half Marathon and the half, in my opinion, is the toughest of all the race distances – it’s the one I struggle to judge in terms of pace and so I’ve found I don’t bother with doing them any longer.

Therefore it was going to take an amazing route and experience to make this one a great day. Once more I arrived early to ensure that I managed to get parking in the large field the organisers had arranged and I felt fortunate that the weather conditions were overcast and a little cooler than of late which meant that running conditions would be fine.

Not knowing much about the race I asked one of the organisers if I was better in road or trail shoes and he immediately advised road – I was glad therefore that I had invested earlier in the week in the Fli-Lyte 3 (a shoe I shall be reviewing once I’ve fully tested it).

I also had the good fortune to meet fellow instagrammer and ultra runner Karl and it was lovely chatting to him about the event and also about Topo Athletic shoes. It’s always fun meeting people from the internet, I very rarely recognise them, but my collection of Oddballs T-Shirts, wild beard and brightly coloured race packs makes me and easy spot. I’ll assume this is also how Nicky and Hatty picked me out of the crowd too!

Therefore, phew we had made it to race 3 mostly in one piece – but this was the one I was worried about. My already destroyed hamstrings, after the previous weekend of racing at the Solway Coast Marathon (read the review here) and the Splash & Dash (read the review here), were on fire and the hill race the night before had done them no favours – nor had my titting about on the route.

I knew that I had to run this one slowly if I had any chance of making it to race day 4. Although to be fair I was already having serious doubts about whether I wanted to continue with the Tour of Tameside given my experiences at the events and also in the wider Tameside area.

However, I was here and Nicky was here and that meant I was running.

We set off at a leisurely pace and ambled along the course, we passed through the village that sat just before the start line and then headed for an out and back race along a hard packed path. Annoyingly the day was now warming up but thankfully the course had a good deal of cover and we able to avoid much of it. I don’t recall what we talked about as we ran along the path but I punctured our chatting with attempts to soak Nicky as I launched myself into every puddle imaginable. This tactic didn’t start well when I found myself sliding towards the water instead of leaping into it but it was something I stuck with – although I think that Nicky soon became well educated to my sly watery tactics and knew how to avoid me.

Puddle after puddle I ran through and I’m sure it wasn’t only Nicky that I soaked but few complained and so I just happily did my own thing. I’d also taken my Insta360 camera so that I could capture the race and at one point one of the marshals told me to put it away (it would later be explained to me by the marshal that she thought it was a whip – wtf?).

The landscape and the scenery in the background was as pleasant as you can get but the route itself was a little devoid of excitement and interest, hence why I found myself leaping into the puddles and the second half of the out section felt like a real slog and mentally you knew you had to come back this way. The benefit of the out and back though is that you can cheer on runners that you have met along the way and I passed several runners that I was happy to cheer on or give support to because at the back of the pack there was some tremendously tenacious running and that deserves a cheer.

I noted that Rob was checking to see if Nicky was interested in a new PB because he was clearly keeping an eye on the clock but this is something that doesn’t really interest me and I’d decided that if they fancied cracking on for that new personal best then I’d just sit where I was and finish a bit behind them. However, I think Nicky picked up a bit of injury somewhere here and the PB looked like it would have to be saved for another day. Therefore once more the three of us just plodded back towards the finish and with me just looking to finish without incurring the wrath of my already dilapidated body.

Rob being relatively local knew quite a lot of the runners and would say hello or be able to provide interesting insights into people, places or clubs and that was fun and we as a trio would interact with other runners.

Then in the latter stages of the race I met a lady called Emma who was clearly having a crisis of confidence using terms like, ‘I’ve failed’ and ‘it’s such a disappointment’ and I immediately took her to task. The thing is, with 3 miles still to go you really don’t want to punish yourself mentally like that and so I hope that I gave her the tough love inspiration to finish.

Emma eventually managed to power her way back up to running properly and it was so pleasing to see her do so – watching her power away from me was a joy. That said I caught her on the final climb to the downhill sprint to the finish and I urged her on, well shouted at her really – I don’t really remember the final push but I remember that she crossed the line about the same time as me. Nicky and Rob were close behind but it appeared that Nicky really was nursing an unpleasant foot injury. Not exactly what anyone wanted for her and we would have to see if it would clear for the final race.

Again there were some finish line photographs and I congratulated a few of the runners I had spoken with on the way round – including Emma and Hatty. Nicky, Rob and I headed off into what I assume was Glossop in search of some ice-cream but ended up with a coffee, a poor choice of cakes and Rob feeling rather sickly after the race (not a great start to his birthday!).

Nicky and I agreed that we’d do the podcasting therefore after the race on day 4 and so ended the half marathon, I’d survived but it seemed that the rest of my little band had been given a right kicking by it.

Race 4
Dr Ron Hyde 7 mile

By the time I came into the Dr Ron Hyde 7 mile I had pretty had enough of the Tour of Tameside and Tameside itself. I had considered not racing and just returning to Scotland but having gotten this far into the event I felt like I should at least finish and obviously there was Nicky to consider who I had enjoyed running with and didn’t just want to not turn up.

Therefore, I parked in the town centre, as advised, but with all my gear in the car and pretty exposed I became a touch worried when the driver next to me fitted his steering wheel with a huge stoplock… ‘is this not a nice area?’ I inquired. I don’t know Hyde at all but the man suggested that it wasn’t the nicest of places but it was too late now – I was here.

I ambled around once more, attempting to avoid the bits of rain that were hanging in the air but without going into the town hall as there were too many runners congregated with very few of them wearing masks or socially distancing. I realise that the pandemic has been hard for people but I didn’t really want to expose myself any more than I felt was appropriate.

The race was busy and had attracted what looked like every racing snake from far and wide but I did my usual and headed to the back, only really looking round to see if I could see Nicky or Rob – but there was no sign. Then I saw Nicky coming to the barrier and she was still hobbling with what sounded like a nasty foot injury, I did for a second think – ah fuck this, perfect excuse I can just go home – but she was visibly distressed by not being able to compete in race day 4 and therefore I felt it wouldn’t be right for me not to complete it.

That said I really wasn’t in the mood for it, I wasn’t in the mood for running on tarmac once more and when the race started I just tuned into my own personal little bubble, avoiding eye contact with my fellow runners and I just wanted to get this done.

However, Rob caught me up after a mile or so and started chatting but whatever it was he said it opened the floodgates to my frustrations with the last few days and I wasn’t in an appeasing mood and when a fellow runner passed comment I was rather unapologetically robust in my commentary. Ho-hum.

‘There’s no need for language like that’, she said,

‘The thing is’, I said, ‘if you know who Paul Dacre is – there is need for such language’.

As road races go this one was okay, the route itself didn’t have anything spectacular in terms of its scenery to write home about but there were some up hills, there were some down hills and there were a few bits were you could stretch your legs on. I met a young lady in the middle of the race who I joked with that I was going to make her earn her overtaking and she was a fabulous little pocket rocket of a runner who did in the end overtake me – but I really did make her work for it.

Now I was simply bumbling my way round, once more silently sitting in my own bubble and for a change focusing on just getting to the finish, I stopped only to say hello to the wonderfully colourfully attired spectator in the dungarees who I had seen the day before and had a bit of a laugh with.

As the race was winding down to its conclusion I could see that the route was mainly going to be downhill and so I pulled my big boy pants on and gave it some welly.

I ran hard along the road, I could feel the energy burning through my legs and in the distance I could see a young girl and her dad perhaps coming together to hold hands – I didn’t have the time to move around them and so shouted, ‘out of the way’ and barged through them.

In the distance I could see the little pocket rocket I had encouraged earlier and overtook her – closing a huge gap. As I went past her I turned and told her she could overtake me again but she just didn’t have a last blast of power in her legs and then another chap who had gone past me earlier thought he could race me to the finish but I still had a bit in the tank and having hit the afterburner of rage I pipped him to the line.

I slowed in the finishers funnel, ‘did you enjoy that?’ asked the marshal.

‘No’ I answered honestly.

Annoyingly I couldn’t find Nicky or Rob at the finish and after about 40 minutes of cantering around looking for them where I saw Hatty finish and Karl come in I had to leave because it was going to be a long journey to Scotland and I couldn’t risk time slipping further and further away. So the Tour of Tameside came to a conclusion but it’s not one I enjoyed writing about and I am confident you didn’t enjoy reading about it either.

Overview

  • Distance: 10km / 6 miles / Half Marathon / 7 miles
  • Date: July 2021
  • Location: Tameside
  • Cost: £65
  • Terrain: Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Routes
The Tour of Tameside has been going for 40 years and I am sure that most of the people who run it, love it. I’m confident that lots of them are relatively local and know this area of the world well and love battering around their own stomping grounds. I on the other hand travelled a reasonably long way to test myself on what I thought would be awesome routes and I’m sorry to say that for me they were not.

As I mentioned earlier the second half of the ‘Hell on the Fell’ and some bits of the Hyde 7 were a bit of fun but mostly I found the routes uninspiring – the half marathon and the X trail being the least inspiring. It actually pains me to write this because I don’t want to put anyone off doing this, but I, as a mostly trail runner and adventurer, found these routes disappointing.

Who might these routes suit? Well if you enjoy tarmac running in mostly closed road situations, where supporters can line the routes then this would be a good series for you to consider.

Organisation
There was a lot of organisation that went into this I would say, from the road closures to the permits required, to the actual on the day organisation and setting up the starts and finishes which were not always located in the same place.

There must have been a massive logistical effort that went into staging the Tour of Tameside. The amount of volunteers and marshals seemed enormous, the amount of toilets seemed enormous and the amount of road closures seemed enormous – I can’t fault any of that.

On course signage and marking was also excellent and that can’t be faulted.

I also liked that the parking at races 1 and 3 were supporting local community with a £1.00 donation per car, this meant that unused parking space was generating income and helping a race happen. That said the field that race 3 used for parking looked like if any more rain had come down then we might have needed a tractor to get out. I do very much enjoy it when the community gets involved in local races and this was very evident at the Tour of Tameside.

However, I did feel Covid took a real back seat at the Tour of Tameside and that was both surprising and disappointing.

Late in the day there was an email that suggested lateral flow tests should be taken for each event you attend and I did do these tests for each day but I wonder how many of the other runners did? Social distancing would have been near impossible because of the numbers involved and the amount of spectators but there wasn’t much evidence of people trying not to get too close or wearing masks even in indoor settings.

It must be incredibly difficult to balance the needs of the event against the pandemic but I’m not sure a good balance was struck here. However, I did note that race numbers were sent out ahead of time and that did at least reduce the need for queues at race starts – so it wasn’t all disappointing.

On a final note and one very large positive is The Running Bee Foundation who organise the event use these races to generate funds for charity and the winners cash award of £3,000 is given, not to the winner of the tour but, to a charity of the winners choice. In that sense the Tour of Tameside is a community project that benefits others and for that the organisers should be congratulated.

Litter and sustainability
So sustainability is something we are seeing increasingly in races – numbers are not posted out, information is provided digitally, goody bags have been dropped in favour of say one good quality item such as a medal or decent technical t-shirt. Sustainability is less of a buzz word and more of an action word but I’m not sure the Tour of Tameside was quite as sustainable as it could have been, it is important to note though that if you want a sustainable race then it is the responsibility of both the runners and the organisers to make this happen and I hope in the future the tour addresses some of the issues around sustainability.

Let’s start with the good – the race handbook was digital and most communication was via email. Race numbers were sent via the post but I imagine this was a Covid issue.

There has been an increase in plastic reduction at races by suggesting that runners should carry some form of cup if you want water and while is mostly relevant at ultra distance running I have seen an increase in the idea at shorter distance races too. To be fair the water bottles are recyclable and there was clear guidance at the race about disposal to help marshals clear them away but there were water cartons spread over a very wide area, much wider than I imagine the race organisers would want and therefore some cartons might have been missed.

This brings me to the other issue – I have gotten very used to not seeing litter on race routes but here there was litter, not tonnes but enough for me to notice. Now be it deliberate or accidental it still gives runners and running a bad name and makes it much more difficult to say that races are good for the community. I’m sure the organisers will have done the best job they can in clean down but littering is something we as people, never mind runners should not do to our community.

And then there was the goody bag at the end, the tour really didn’t need it and it was a very mixed bag of stuff, the tour top was excellent quality as it was Ronhill but there were bits of plastic nonsense from the sponsors and the bag that it was all in was just more plastic. Then of course there were the bits of paper to advertise future races – I think in future the organisers and sponsors might be better finding more sustainable ways of presenting themselves to the audience.

Value for money
It was about £15 per race when you break it down and for that you got a lot of stuff, there were medals each day, there was lots of marshal support, there were so many toilets, the road closures, etc. If you like racing and you don’t care about running beautiful routes then this represents excellent value for money.

Awards
Let’s start with the good stuff – the Ronhill top that I mentioned above for completing the full tour is excellent. In addition to this you could purchase a range of other tops and vests (which I did) and they were also excellent quality and will be used as training shirts.

The bag, stress balls, piggy bank, cup, etc are less welcome – the race didn’t need it and I would rather the money was funnelled into the charitable aspect of the race and I hope that is a conclusion the race directors come to as well.

The other thing is the medals – there were four of them, one for each race and that’s lovely, as a runner and racer I am rather partial to a medal.

However, there was a problem, the medals are made of either glass or perspex with a sticker stuck to the reverse of them. They feel very cheap and that the stickers are not going to be in it for the long haul. I compare this to the 2015 set of medals which I saw displayed at one of the races and there was no comparison – they’ll still be going strong in 100 years but these ones I doubt will. It also comes back to the sustainability issue again, either get rid of the medals or maybe consider wooden medals which once they fall apart will simply be recycled. I wonder if the stickers on the back of the medal is recyclable?

Volunteers & support
There were lots of marshals, lots of supporters and for the most part they were hugely supportive and fun, I really enjoyed laughing and joking with them as I made my way – mostly being a bit silly. There were a couple who were a bit miserable when I tried to have a little joke with them but then I suppose if I was stood for an hour on the top of a hill in the rain I might be a bit sour. Volunteers and marshals have a tough job as they are committed to being out for a long time and while the runners may be out for an hour or two the team will be involved in the set up and breakdown of an event – it can be a long day and they should be applauded.

On the whole though there was some lovely support and of course my ridiculously bright and colourful shirts always attract comments – mostly positive, although there were one or two comments that seemed to draw into question my sexuality, which is fine, I don’t mind you thinking I’m gay, I take it as a compliment.

There was one woman in particular that I must mention and I think she must have had a runner in the races and on the final day she had these wonderful dungarees on at the top of the hill and I’d seen her the previous day when she wonderful colourful trousers on – she was soooo positive and soooo lovely, I really enjoyed chatting to her as I ran past.

Special Mentions
There are lots of people I could mention such as Rob, Hatty, Karl and Emma but the special mention must go to Nicky, she was very much the reason I was at the Tour of Tameside and meeting her was an absolute pleasure. She’s a great runner and only going to get better and is a wonderful human being. Despite not having lots and lots of race experience she smiled through most of it and laughed through much of it. Well done Nicky.

It was a massive disappointment to see her injured on the final day hobbling towards me, although it hadn’t come as much of a surprise having seen her the day before, I was also sorry to have missed the opportunity to record the podcast in person and will now look to organise that for a zoom call or some such in the near future.

There was so much to say and talk to Nicky about and I look forward to another opportunity to do so.

Conclusions
Well I want this to be as positive conclusion as I can because although the Tour of Tameside wasn’t for me it clearly has a loyal following and is very popular year in, year out.

The charitable aspect of the tour is a wonderful thing that should be supported and the thing is that the issues I had could very easily be resolved by revising the awards given to the runners and examining how the routes could be improved.

If you’re local runner or somewhere relatively nearby then the tour or a couple of the races, even in their current format, are probably something that you do or would consider doing on a semi regular basis and I can see how that works. However, I’m not sure I could justify recommending that you travel any significant distance to come and do this.

I did have some fun during the Tour of Tameside but that was more to do with some of the people I met than my race experience and usually I’ve found that my best races are the ones were I can have a laugh surrounded by stunning scenery.

If I were to recommend any of the races then probably the Hell on the Fell is the most scenic and the most fun. I don’t enjoy writing negatively about races because I know the effort that goes in to staging them and so if the organisers wish to discuss my experience of the Tour of Tameside then I would be happy to go into further detail but it could be that the audience for this series of races is a group I’m just not a part of.

You can check out the Sports Tour International website here for more information on the races and you can check out the excellent work of the Running Bee Foundation here.

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There is a really weird sensation about rolling up the start line of a race and being the only person there, I suppose this would make me the both first and last finisher in the race I was runningbut the Pike and Back (Virtual) Half Marathon had much more meaning than just a run, this was a run that filled with history, emotion and of course mud.

I left my home in Scotland at about 7am with the aim to start running around lunchtime and hopefully avoid those who might be considering running the virtual race on the course at the original designated time – it’s about a four and half hour journey and I broke this up with a swift stop at a McDonalds for a ‘nourishing’ breakfast.

I was driving the little car as it was just me travelling and as the sun beat down on the car I thought it was going to be a scorcher for the run, something I had not counted on when I had been packing my kit (I was all waterproofs and survival blankets). I arrived bang on time despite a couple of little mis-steps in my directions.

The man in the car next me glared as I pulled up next to him he tossed his cigarette out of the car and wound his window up – presumably because he believved I had arrived to lick COVID 19 all over him which couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Anyway I had a Tesco pastry and a bit of chocolate milkshake to make sure I was fully energisted and then quickly got changed into my kit. I had vague memories of Moss Bank from my childhood, although I’m not from Bolton I do know the area quite well from visits as a child and Winter Hill is a well known landmark but I couldn’t remember ever being allowd to go up it (we were not a very active family). We also used to come here when I was child to a restaurant called Smithhills – it was a dickensian themed place and for our birthdays my grandparents would take us there as a treat. This event, virtual or not was loaded with memories for me and on the day before I led the funeral to my grandmother  this was rather a poignant thing I was doing (you could read about this in a separate blog post here).

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I set up the navigation on my Suunto and started to amble around aimlessly looking for the start (this did not bode well for following the route). Eventually after a few minutes of groping around the park I came to a small opening in the bushes which looked like the kind of place that a race might begin – Suunto agreed and so, after a couple of pictures, we set off.

Now lets be fair Suunto and the breadcrumb trail is at best, ‘not bad’ so as I ambled up the hill towards what I considered to be the route I figured quickly that I had made a mistake – what gave this away was that I found myself launching my poor, knackered body off a wall and onto the street below and then around a few narrow winding streets and then some steps where I finally picked up what was probably the route. There were clues that this might be the route, the first was the winding river and the trail in the distance, the second was that my watch finally looked like it was going in the right direction and thirdly two fellow virtual half marathiners came thundering past me.

Aha I thought I have found my way.

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Now I really hadn’t done that much research about the race or route, I’d left it to the rose tinted specs to assume that this would be something I’d like to do. I’d glanced at the elevation profile which looked like there were two small hills at about the mid-point of the route and the rest of it was pretty flat. It was only as I was about 600 metres in that I realised I had rather misjudged the situation and I had rather misjudged the route. Effectively the route was made actually made up of two tough climbs on a variety of surfaces and then in reverse it was made of a couple of hanrd going downhills and one really tough as old boots uphill that really sapped every last bit of energy you had!

The first three and bit kilometres of the route were mainly tarmac, quiet roads (or they should have been given the COVID-19 trouble), the elevation felt really tough. The toughness wasn’t just the route, this was very much a combination of a long drive from Scotland and a lack of training in recent weeks, my lack of training has been in part to COVID-19 but mainly due to the stress of work and my grandmother dying and having to do all the arrangements from this and now I was feeling it.

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The road seemed never ending and I did for a moment wonder if this was a trail half marathon but then glinting in the distance I saw the outline of a gate and a route on to the rolling trails around Winter Hill and Rivington Pike. I crossed the gate and bade the cyclists a good morning as I passed by them and then continued onward and most importantly upward. At this point we had moved from the tarmac to hard packed and stoney trail. I bimbled along, stopping only to allow past me, faster moving traffic and to take pictures of the truly spectacular surroundings. In the distance I now had clear sight of the Winter Hill transmission mast and realised that I despite having been here many times before I had probably only ever seen this at a distance.

I pressed on across the rocks, the mud and the water, the route had now gone from a bit of a slog to being genuinely fun and I was finally enjoying the route – especially as the sun was shining but also lovely and cool, a perfect running day. My feet for the first time that day felt free to unleash a little bit of pace inspite of the uphill – this is why I run I thought. I found myself feeling rather jaunty depsite the situation we all find ourselves in and I could simply revel in the reason I was here – to pay a small tribute to my departed (but much unloved) granny.

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I skipped down the stony path and alongside the transmittor and marvelled at the scale of the structure that had once (and may well still) send out things like the signal for Granada Television, I felt like a young boy in the back seat of grandfathers car as a ran beside the mast, the only thing missing was the twinkling red lights that adorn it as the lights go down.

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I assumed that Rivington Pike could not be that far from the mast and in the distance I could see a small structure which I asssumed was the destination and turnaround point. I therefore joined a narrow piece of tarmac and wended my way downwards and started arching away from the small structure, that was not Rivington Pike – oh dear. In the distance I could see a flurry of people around what looked like a small fortification or castle – that was Rivington Pike and I was what looked like several miles away from it. Thankfully this was now downhill but my knees don’t much like tarmac and they were feeling the stress of the pounding they were taking and although my Lone Peak 4.0 are well built they aren’t suited for sustained running on tarmac.

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I ran down and down, and down and down and then weirdly what felt like more down and down, yet, and this was the strange thing – Rivington Pike was up – totally in opposition to my descent.

However, eventually my downward spiral stopped and I returned to hard packed trails – here it felt very busy, lots of people travelling up to the Rivington Pike and dusty hard packed trails gave the illusion that everybody had a dry and dusty cough. It was rather interesting to watch as people covered up their faces as they walked past you or as I ran past them. I mean yes I was breathing more heavily than most of the people there but then I was exerting more pressure on my poor old body. I was mostly being sensible and passing people at a distance but one couple, who were wearing face masks, moved away from me at 90 degrees and zipped up their heavy duty winter jackets to fully cover their mouth – which I felt was a little excessive given that I was never closer than about 20ft away.

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Anyway I hurled myself on to the final climb of Rivington Pike and chatted (at a safe social distance) to a local cyclist, both of us wondering why the hell we were here. I waved at him as I left him behind and continued my climb to the top which was awash with people. I stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and then made a swift sprint down the front of the Pike knowing that an absolute shit of a hill was waiting for me.

I’ll be perfectly honest, not a lot of running was done back up the hill, my legs were absolutely cream crackered and all I wanted was to be back at the car and maybe stop at the ice cream van who was awaiting customers in the park. I was also very keen to relieve my bladder of its contents but given the throngs of people that were festooned around the route and the lack of any cover meant that I really had to tie a knot in it and hold on. It was here that I noted I had probably made a routing error on the way out and added several hundred metres to my journey as my beloved Suunto insisted that I head across the wet boggy trail. Of course this was music to my ears – get off the tarmac, get back in touch with nature and as cold mud sprayed up the back of me and my feet found themselves submerged I thought, ‘bliss’. I came across a father and son who were clearly not geared for this kind of trail and looking rather unhappy at the prospect of having to continue through this but they managed a cheery smile as I ran by them.

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Soon though I was back on the path and facing the Winter Hill mast, I waved goodbye to it as I turned away from it and pushed on as fast as I could knowing that it was mostly downhill all the way home. However, as I’ve indicated the route was hard going and even in a downhill situation if you’re undertrained and exhausted then it is ging to be hard. But with the wind on my back and surprising cheeriness in my heart I ran happily off the hill and back to road which seemed so long ago now.

When I arrived back to the gate it felt like I had really achieved something and I gently ran down the road, attemptin not to punish my old nears any more than I needed to. I was so close now and in the distance I could see the park where all of this had started. Down, down, down I went – bit like a first date that has gone too well – and as I arrived back to the point I met the earlier virtual runners I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes I’d been slow but I’d had good reason not to rush this one – I had time and I wanted time to be able to reflect on everything that is currently going on both personally and globally. I crossed the finish line to the sound of silence, or rather the sound of nature and actually rather enjoyed it.

I’d completed the Pike and Back Half Marathon and I was pleased to have done it.

Distance: Half Marathon
Type: Virtual (due to COVID-19)
Ascent: Bloody Hell
Date: March 2020
Location: Bolton
Terrain: Very mixed
Tough Rating: 3/5

Conclusions
I would traditionally write a full breakdown of the event but that is impossible given the nature of this one in its virtual format. What I will say is that full credit goes to the team of Time2Run Events for allowing runners to complete the event virtually – they could simply have said ‘cancelled’ but as many Race Directors have done they have looked for alternatives and we should be grateful for that.

The route was really tough, the elevation was challenging, the mixed terrain meant that shoe choice was a nightmare and if you really weren’t prepared for this then you were going to have your arse handed to you and mine was handed to me gift wrapped.

Had I not been attending my grannies funeral, and referencing the race in the eulogy I had written for the following day, then I probably wouldn’t have come down for the race I would have transferred my entry to next year, done the training and actually run much better but there was something special about this, about doing it alone, abour forcing myself to push on. I’m an ultra runner really and the half marathon distance is my least favourite race length so to come here and really enjoy myself is really quite wonderful.

There was also something joyous about finishing the ‘race’ first and last – that’ll make me laugh for the rest of my days and I feel like this is a medal I have really earned. I will looking forward to receiving the medal knowing that whenever I look at it with all the others at the top of my staircase that it will bring back a smorgasbord of feelings and that is the sign of a great thing.

The one thing I did notice was how friendly people were in comparison to the Scottish races I run, up here almost all the runners, hikers, walkers, etc have time to smile or have a laugh and a joke with you but despite smiling and saying hello to everyone I went past there was something of a lack of response. Now some of it I’ll put down to COVID-19 but I was rather surprised that the north of England, famed for its friendliness, was a little less than I’ve gotten used to in Scotland. That said, those people that did wave back or say hello or smile back at me were warm and wonderful, I was just surprised by how many people simply didn’t bother.

If you’ve never run this race before then can I urge you to look up Time2Run Events and sign up to this most wonderful of race – even if like me you have to travel down from Scotland to do it, I will certainly be considering entering again for next year.

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