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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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Does this look like a man with a heart condition?

Sometimes as ultra runners we are required to prove that we are fit to race, sometimes it’s enough to highlight your experience over a specified distance or terrain and sometimes it’s to prove that you have no health issues that might affect you on the course. I don’t have any trouble confirming that I can run distance and ice covered most of the available terrains now but there is a medical problem and has been since my idiot brother died about 6 years ago.

Let’s not bother with the sympathy about my brother, we did not get along, hadn’t spoken in years and when he died I really wasn’t moved by it at all. Why am I telling you this? Well because from the grave my brother haunts my running and this is how.

It was early 2015 and I needed to get my medical certificate signed for the CCC – I was just returning from a stint on the sidelines it’s some glute problems but this seemed to be working its way into the background. I went along to the doctor and asked if she would sign my mandatory form.

‘I see that your brother died of “heart complications” at the age of 29’ she said. It was here that I knew I was going to have some trouble, ‘and your father has some heart conditions?’

I confirmed that both of these were true but that my brother died because he lived on frozen pizza, beer and a range of unhealthy activities that ultimately lead to him dying young. My multiple marathon running father I explained had developed relatively minor heart problems in his early 60s but was still hiking and running to a reasonable level and had even completed large swathes of a 96 mile walk less than a year previously.

‘You’ll need tests,’ she said and with that sent me on my way.

I assume I’m going to die pretty hideously, a bus smashing into me, falling off a cliff edge, one of the nastier cancers and I’ve always been okay with that because I’ve not waited for life to find me – I’ve gone out and found life. I’ve fought to have my life and in my opinion I’ve earned it but I’ve always said that when my time comes then my time will have come and I don’t need any forewarning.

This doctor wanted me to have forewarning of any health problems I may have, what she failed to realise is that death doesn’t scare me, I’m into making positive life choices that aren’t determined by the boundaries set out for you.

However, she wouldn’t sign the form without the tests and so they ran a decent set of tests and told me to give it 10 days. Turns out, despite abusing my body for years doing all the things I’ve done, I was fine.

Signature, medical certificate and stamp acquired.

With those I disappeared off to the CCC. This same certificate covered me for the SainteLyon as well but had run out by the next time I needed one.

I assumed that it would be a fairly simple process to get a second one signed. Roll up, pay the fee, get the certificate, run. This was not the case. I was told that not signing my medical certificate was not about me, but about the doctor – he didn’t want to be held responsible for approving someone with a heart condition to race.

I don’t have a heart condition

He cited Fabrice Muamba as the reason why – the footballer who collapsed in a game between Tottenham and Bolton. I explained that the echocardiogram he was insisting I have would be no were near the levels of medical care that a professional footballer received, therefore surely we should consider the other more relevant evidence. He stood firm that he wouldn’t risk his career on a man whose family have heart problems.

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My immediate thought was to go out the car park and take my fists and the rocks liberally littered around the place to his Mercedes but instead I settled for shouting abuse at him from outside the surgery ‘useless cockbag’ and ‘cunty features’ were certainly issued. The truth is that had he looked at me at all he would have been able to see that I was in no way up to running. I had limed into the surgery as I’d injured my calf pretty badly the week or two previously and I’d put on weight after my retirement. Both of those alone should have been enough to disqualify me from running but no he used the ‘family heart problem’.

I went home and resolved the issue. I signed my own certificate and produced my own stamp – the benefit of being a graphic designer – then I submitted it.

About three weeks before the race start I received my echocardiogram date and of course I went because otherwise I would struggle to get a medical certificate anywhere. They prodded and probed my like I was a lab rat and I lay there angry that I was going to be given information I really didn’t want either way. I’d also missed the cut off for submitting another less fraudulent medical certfiicate and so I was feeling a little down when I left the hospital.

The hospital told me to call my doctor in a day or two. I did so and I did so for a further 12 days until the receptionist said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t discuss this with you, the doctor will need to see you’. By now I was the kind of fucked off that I reserve for those times in my life that I’ve actually had to hit someone and I responded rather curtly, ‘that is unacceptable’. Little Hitler told me the doctor would call me, I said that would be ‘acceptable’.

I don’t sleep well at the best of times but I really didn’t sleep well that night and spent much of it wondering if I would get to see UltraBaby run her first ultra or even her first 10km. I could hear the sound of my heart, I was listening for anomalies and I was replaying in my head over and over the letter of complaint I was preparing.

At 9.07am the doctor called, ‘You’re heart is as strong as an Ox’.

I assumed that was a good thing.

And so in theory I should be clear to have my medical certificate signed for the Madeira Island Ultra Trail and I know that the doctor was only doing his job, attempting to give me peace of mind while at e same time sating his own appetite for security that he was sending me to my doom in the best possible health. The problem for me comes in that I didn’t want to know whether my heart was healthy or not, part of me likes that idea that one day on a trail or a mountain somewhere I’m just going out drop dead and yes that possibility still very much exists but not so much from my heart failing me.

Ultra running and my health are deeply connected but I like to face them as an unknown – too much knowledge really can stifle you and in my case at a time where I am trying to up the ante this medical drama seemed pointless, I don’t feel better for the information that my heart is strong, I feel like something has been taken from me.

I know that the response to this I will receive is that the doctor was simply doing his job and I can accept this but his rationale was way off, he didn’t appear to adequately take into account my experience, training or my own lack of health issues. When I pressed him about the 40+ other marathons or ultras that I didn’t need a medical certificate for he seemed disappointingly nonplussed, he admitted he was covering his own arse and that says a lot about the way the world is these days.

Perhaps we should all be able to take a little bit more responsibility for ourselves and then I/we won’t run into a chain of red tape that was more about filling out forms, crossing ‘t’s’, dotting ‘i’s’ and avoiding legal action than it was about my health. Humph.

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I know I’m going to die, I have no idea how and I have no idea when.

I’d love to make sure I’ve read all the books I want to, seen all the movies I wanted to see, admired all the art I’ve always desired to pore over and run all the races I’ve dreamed of partaking in. The reality is that this is unlikely to happen, there’s too many books, too many races, too many movies and way too many art works to see, experience and absorb before I end my time on earth.

UltraBaby
Having a child has changed my perspective on life a little, but not in the way I imagined. I always thought it would make me realise how precious and fragile life is and in fact the opposite is true. I’ve come to the realisation that the thing I have often thought, ‘we get a limited time allocated to us, so bloody well use it’ is true. However, the arrival of UltraBaby gave me rise to realise I have responsibility to myself and those around me to give it my all, every single day and not accept second best. Second best will sometimes occur naturally but I must strive to experience the best I can and I want to instil that into UltraBaby.

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Death?
Weirdly, I used to have a ‘death fantasy’, perhaps I still do. It went something like this; I would send out an invite to a party on my 40th birthday, somewhere cold (Iceland), flights and the like fully paid for and the attendees would be all the people I have hated in my life – my mother wold be the top name on the guest list – for those who might be wondering. They would all arrive to my specially hired out mountain retreat and in my mind they’d be having a fab time – I would not be there. No. I’d be on the mountain above – snowboarding down it with a shitload of high octane explosive strapped to my chest and as I sauntered over the precipice I would unload the fiery package setting off a gigantic avalanche that would, along with my entrails, devour the mountain retreat and killing the specially invited guests.

Barkley
Now since this idea first came to mind I have mellowed somewhat, not completely but enough to realise that my idea might be considered a little unorthodox as a way of smiting others and bring my own life to a conclusion. Now my ‘death fantasy’ would be to die at a race, a very special race – I’d like to die aged around 75 or 80 having just completed the Barkley Ultra Marathon, at the third attempt. Because I would want a couple of RTCs because of the iconic nature of it.I’d die as I crossed the finish and I’d die with a smile on my face.

Why the gloom?
Recent events have forced further analysis of what it means to be alive and the gift of living that we all possess. However, my conclusions that I came too all those years ago are even more firmly ingrained in me. When bad things happen you begin to understand that everything you take for granted now might soon be taken away from you, so you learn to value every single experience, good or bad.

If you feel your life is not going the way you want it to at the moment can I urge you to change it, even the tiniest little bit of change can have huge ramifications. I’ve always maintained that dying is the easy part of life, its the living that’s the tough bit – but be selfish and do this for you – because by living for you you’re helping everyone else.

Live Well.

Pictures taken leaping from the river edge into the fast flowing Hvítá river in Iceland

I wrote the following post almost a year ago and with Boston approaching I’m revisiting the sentiments I put down as when I wrote this it was still so very fresh in my mind. Below is the posting

It’s been a few hours since the Boston Bombings, I suppose you’d say the Boston Marathon Bombings and maybe to me that’s the difference, you weren’t attacking a political ideology here, you weren’t looking to exact revenge on anybody you were simply causing mayhem at a high profile event.

Runners are a rare breed, they go out daily no matter the weather, often without thought to other commitments and they are truly special breed-made of the sternest stuff. They can be liberal, conservative, fascist, communist or donotgiveafuckist, they can be male, female, black, white, yellow or even grey. Sexual orientation and even musical taste cannot separate these people. These people just go out and share running. I’ve never met a runner who couldn’t leave their allegiances behind in favour of an hour of pounding the ground. So why attack them, or those that support them? To a point you can see why a terrorist organisation would attack a building like the twin towers. They were a powerful symbol of Western life and capitalism and while the loss of life was horrendous you can see the logical lunacy of fanatics the world over who would want to destroy something like this in the name of whoever. But this attack, like the car bombings and such that we see in Iraq or Afghanistan are not against symbols they are against individuals. These are acts intended to inflict not just death but affect our spirit.

The running community seems united in its condemnation of this and so we should be for those who we know not, yet share a bond with have been attacked for doing something they love, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That seems so wrong to me, perhaps because this attack feels very personal – I wasn’t there thankfully but I aspire to run Boston. I know that should I ever qualify my partner would be near that finish line camera in hand. Had I run it this year she might have been in the firing line, that thought turns my stomach.

When I go running tonight I will be offering my thanks for the life I have and each step I take will remind me and others that being attacked like this won’t stop runners, we will line up again, especially at Boston and they will not win.

It’s the London Marathon this weekend, one of the showpiece European events – a possible target? Who knows, I hope not. I was thinking of going to watch but other things had overtaken me and was unsure if I would make it but now I am determined to be there, showing my support for the runners who put body and soul on display.

Our thoughts are with you today Boston. Take care.

As I reread the above posting all the feelings that I felt as I wrote it came flooding back – the revulsion and the stupidity of the attack, the horrendous maiming of innocents and the deaths caused – this was a dreadful day.

However, a year on and there have been enormous reminders of the power of the human spirit in the face of this horrific human tragedy, think about all the runners who showed their support as they crossed the line at the London marathon or the huge, near universal condemnation of the attackers and the ferocity with which they were hunted down. The memorial at Copley Square, which saw thousands leave mementos and tokens in honour of those affected and plans are set for these items to be displayed at the Boston Public Library in April as part of the #BostonBetter events that will mark the anniversary of the tragedy. Think about all those who are thinking about Boston, writing about it and talking about it. What happened almost a year ago will live long in the memory.

So this year as the Marathon runs and remembers and I am completing the WNWA96, in honour of the families, victims and supporters of the Hillsborough Justice Campaigns my thoughts will be with those who have lost their lives or been affected at sporting tragedies. Boston, I really felt, both as a runner and as a human being and I hope that you’ll give a few moments of reflection too over the next few weeks because as I’m writing this I feel like a very lucky person.

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Asics full length running tights
November 2010 – January 2014
Taken before their time by the Shorne Woods Trail.
RIP my old buddy, you deserve it, you ran long, you ran short, you just ran. Thanks.

Please note, they aren’t being thrown away, I’m hiding them from my OH in my box(es) of running memories which are hiding in the loft

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