Day Eight – Saturday 13th August- Talysarn to Worlingham
Although the leaving time set down by the owners was to be ‘by 11am’, most of the packing and general tidying up had been done on Friday. All that remained was a general clean up of the house ready for the next guests who were due around 4pm.
With the cars loaded up and a last check to ensure nothing was left behind, we left for the final time a little before 10:25am on our mammoth 330 or so miles, 6 hours journey.
In truth the journey was unproblematic and smooth, the only slight area of slow moving traffic we encountered was in the Flint area on the border between Wales and England. The other direction was a different matter with miles of slow moving or static traffic especially in the Colwyn Bay and St Asaph areas. With temperatures in the low 30s centigrade that would have been mightily uncomfortable.
Our planned stop en route was at the Norton Canes service area on the M6 toll road, close to 150 miles into the journey. The services were very busy, a hot Saturday lunchtime in mid August and during the football season is always going to test the patience but fortunately we managed to park quickly, get to and from the toilets quickly, get a good shaded spot to eat our lunch and avoid any total idiots (there were a LOT of those!!)!
After a 45 minute break we hit the road again. Apart from a complete idiot on the A143 near Diss the rest of the journey (approximately 180 miles) passed without any major incident, the only fly in the ointment being the usual Saturday afternoon football debacle with regular reports on radio five of Norwich City’s latest catastrophe, this time at Hull City.
A supply stop at Morrisons, Beccles, for beer, wine and pizzas was the last pause in a week of great fun with an awesome family, lots of great trips and the creation of some great memories. At 5:45pm I switched off the engine at home and brought to a close our North Wales holiday 2022.
Day Seven – Friday 12th August – Criccieth (again!), Lloyd George & The Goat
Friday was set aside as the ‘kid’s choice day’ and, as they’d had a taste of the beach on Tuesday, they opted for a dip in the sea at Criccieth. On yet another blazing hot day we drove the dozen or so miles to the same car park used earlier in the week and headed, not to the beach, but to the castle. The person at the entrance was the same one who greeted us at Harlech on Thursday which threw me initially but she saw the funny side of it!
The castle is another of the heritage castles mentioned in previous diary blogs, perfectly positioned at the top of a steep climb, there’s not much left but the views across the bay towards Harlech & Pwllheli, the mountains in the distance and the town of Criccieth itself more than made up for that and especially on such a sunny day. An unexpected benefit was the discovery of a beach which we hadn’t seen on Tuesday. A much more interesting beach with a little area of sand. We headed to that and quickly found that the sand was scarcer than we had imagined! Regardless of that myself and the kids all discarded our footwear and headed into the sea for a paddle.
R, G, I and myself had a fantastic time up to our knees in the cool and clear water. Unfortunately the yardstick for us all appeared to be MY knees so the shorter people, I.e the kids, all got soaked! We spent most of the time skimming flat pebbles across the surface of the water, most successfully by myself and G, less so for the girls! S, F in law & M in law spent the time standing by the cliff directly below the castle chatting and laughing at the kids half hearted attempts at trying to avoid getting their clothes drenched!
After an hour we decided to head back to the cottage to relax and get ready for an evening out. Before departing for Talysarn however we headed a couple of miles West along the coast to the village of Llanystumdwy, the birthplace and burial place for David Lloyd George, the UK Prime minister during World War one and the last Liberal PM in the UK.
The DLG museum sits 100 yards off the main coast road (A497), the grave itself another couple of hundred yards away up a narrow and quite steep minor road. With F in law not happy about access arrangements and S not too bothered about getting out of the motor just myself and G wandered up to the grave.
It’s difficult to imagine a more peaceful burial site. At the top of a river (Afon Dwyfor) bank amongst the trees, a stone walled circle with a gate grave covered by a boulder, the sound of rushing water, birds singing and a small boy asking questions about the man who is buried here, what’s not to love!
Traditionally we have ended our family holidays with a meal at a local pub. After a little research we hit upon Tafarn Yr Afr (The Goat Inn) at Glandwyfach, on the A487 directly opposite the turn off to Criccieth. An old looking pub but very modern in its gastro pub setup, its pretty non descript but the food was excellent (main: salmon in my case) and generous in portion. However, the desserts were ridiculous! They all arrived with the largest helping of ice cream that any of our party can remember, apparently that depended on whoever the staff member was on the night!
The meal was paid for by the in-laws a treat for which we are truly grateful.
Day Six – Thursday 11th August – Harlech & Porthmadog
My Thursday morning run took me on a journey of exploration. You have to be careful what you’re exploring in North Wales however as, before I knew it, I was regretting not taking the ropes and carabiners! Kilometre two included an elevation gain of 52 metres, the third gained another 38 metres! Needless to say that I was glad of a rest at the top and the excuse to take photos! The descent was somewhat easier with kilometre four dropping 72 metres and the fifth by a further 21! After eight sweaty kilometres, a good breakfast and a cuppa we were off on our travels.
The longest single journey of the week at 23 miles (Llanfairfechan is 24 but that was the third stop of that day) took us to the third Welsh World heritage castle of the holiday, the spectacular Harlech Castle.
Getting to it took us passed Porthmadog and along a steep(ish!) mountainside Road, the castle visible at regular intervals for most of the last few miles. Parking proved to be tricky, the road down to the castle car park was thin and had a lorry on it so we headed through the village and found a pay and display. Full of loose children, a bin lorry, a dog and total idiots we eventually managed to get parked, all the time roasting in the tropical heat!
Another of Edward the first’s coastal fortifications, Harlech Castle uses the same design features as Beaumaris but was completed and subsequently used for its intended purpose. With loads of nooks and crannies to explore it was a fun place to visit, the only issue I had was that the protective walls on the high wall walks are not fenced, they are very low, and a stumble could easily allow you to fall the ten + metres to the ground. Other than that it’s a superbly preserved monument.
The access road to the castle is one of two exits from the main road at that point. The other one is named Ffordd Pen Llech and, up until 2020, held the title for the world’s steepest street. The title now belongs to Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand after a campaign of moaning to the Guinness world records people and devising a new method of measuring steepness! I don’t really care, all that I can say is that it’s bloody steep!
We decided to have lunch in Porthmadog, only a short distance back along the coast. The main car park was adjacent to the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railway line, we crossed that into a narrow, tree lined field which was sandwiched between the rail line and (River) Afon Glaslyn basin. A nice shaded area to eat our egg rolls and to be visited by a friendly little dog who enjoyed trying to get the crumbs out of my beard!
Our short walk around the town took in the beautiful harbour with, in what little water there was, swam large shark like fish, clearly seen in the crystal clear water. The water levels in Tremadog Bay were very low, a large expanse of sand was visible, so the harbour was in turn very low, the boats on display all sitting on the bed.
That was all very nice but the only thing on child number one’s mind was a particular ice cream parlour. Once that was tracked down we quickly scoffed our rapidly melting treats, delicious but if only the temperature allowed us more time to enjoy them!
A quick trip to the railway station to see if any steam trains were about, there weren’t) and we decided to call it a day for the sight seeing.
Another cracking day, rounded off with an excellent pasta tea and the usual beer and wine!
I have had a memory of an event going back to 1981 which I was keen to revisit. Our planned day on the Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) would give me such an opportunity but, as usual with my memory, not exactly as I had expected.
Anglesey, like all of our trips this week, is only a short journey from Talysarn. Beaumaris, our primary destination, being only 21 miles away. Getting onto the Isle allows you to witness a marvel of 19th Century engineering, Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge. An awesome suspension bridge, truly wonderful in execution and aesthetics. Once over the bridge, the journey to Beaumaris is along a winding and quite narrow coastal road. A bonus was the discovery of a Texaco petrol station, that would be utilised on our way back.
Beaumaris Gaol has, for 41 years been front and centre in my recollection when relating stories of pop music from 1981. On visiting this well preserved 19th century prison I quickly realised my error! There is no lawn, there is no area where anybody could run across the grass shouting “Hey Mum, Soft Cell are number one!!”!
Nevertheless the first visit of day was a cracker and took us through to lunchtime. We wandered back to the car park (a very busy piece of grassland by the straight), via a hippy shop where S bought her birthday present from me!, and ate our packed lunch on the seawall whilst watching a sailing regatta. The glorious sunshine adding to the spectacular scenery and peaceful atmosphere (despite the crowds!)
On entry to the Gaol we were offered the opportunity to visit the old Court House near to the castle so after lunch we paid it a short visit. A short but interesting visit during which we were all either condemned or aquitted and dressed up as judges!
Over at the castle my 41 year old memory error was fixed! The large interior area included a large area of grass which perfectly fitted the picture in my mind!
Beaumaris Castle is a fantastic example of a seaside fortification. Edward the first initialised it’s construction but never finished it, a small, irritating uprising by the pesky Scots diverted his attention and cash. However, it is still a mighty piece of work and one of my favourite ancient monuments.
No trip to Anglesey is complete without visiting the railway station with the long name! Although the village is known as Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, the tourists still flock to the station to see the sign in its long version of:
Day Four – Tuesday 9th August – Criccieth beach, Sygun Copper mine & Beddgelert
Er indoors’ birthday started with a 5 and a bit km run around Talysarn and Pen-Y-Groes then S opening her presents & cards over the usual mountain of holiday toast! We then headed out for a day in the sunshine at Criccieth, a fly in the ointment appeared before we left the cottage when we discovered that Criccieth Castle, our secondary destination, is closed on Tuesdays. I say secondary as the primary focus of the day was fish and chips on Criccieth beach. The castle would have allowed us to kill enough time up to lunch and most likely help to create the hunger pangs!
The five minute walk from the car park to the beach wasn’t really a good substitute for a couple of hours in the castle but it did allow us to recce the chip shop location, ironically directly opposite the castle entrance, and then check out the beach. The view across the bay was magnificent with the sun reflecting off the sea. Sailors, paddle boarders, swimmers and snorkellers taking advantage of, what could have passed as, Mediterranean conditions!
After an hour and a half or so of photos and exploring the rocky beach we headed up to the chippy and ate a superb portion of cod and chips (sausages in the kid’s case) on the lawn outside the castle gates under the watchful gaze of a number of Jackdaws!
Sygun copper mine, on the outskirts of Beddgelert, does exactly what it says on the, er, tin! The journey from Criccieth finally gave us a glimpse of the winding, multi gradient, Snowdonia roads. A spectacular cruise which ended in a sun trap valley, at the foot of a mountain which had been used as a copper mine. After donning hard hats we left the hot, sunny atmosphere and entered a subterranean world of cool, dank tunnels with uneven footways and low ceilings. I was certainly glad of my protective headgear, my clumsy nature and liw ceilingsare not happybedfellows! The working lives of the miners must have been pretty miserable, the dampness and claustrophobic conditions were oppressive, it was enough just to spend an hour underground. The last half an hour or so on my own as the rest of our party didn’t fancy the upper levels which included a 186 step climb over three separate galleries. Emerging into the daylight, greeted by the wonderful view of a valley and mountains, the heat hit me again and the sweat poured out! The interior climb had brought me out half way up the mountain and meant that I had a fair trek back to the visitors centre to find the family!
My personal main wish for the day was to visit the grave of Gelert, a giant hound of legend. The story of the hero hound slain by his Princely master in a fit if mistaken revenge has always fascinated me and a visit to the grave site in 1981 piqued my interest. Another visit in 2011 merely added to the interest, but numbers one and two were too young to appreciate it themselves. Now I wanted to introduce number three to the story. They all lapped it up, I hope that they will bring their children in the future, hopefully with a doting Gran and Grandad…!
The journey back to the cottage finally gave us the opportunity to experience the mountain roads. The road from Rhyd-Ddu, just North of Beddgelert, to Talysarn heads through the valley between the mountain Mynydd Mawr and the Nantlle ridge. Narrow in places and very steep with wonderful views of the beautiful scenery. Nervy at times but great fun!
Back at our temporary home we relaxed with a few drinks and a buffet style tea. A short walk up the path behind the building gave us the bonus of playing with a couple of horses and capturing photos of the moon peaking over the mountains!
Day Three – Monday 8th August – Penryhn, Bangor, Llanfairfechan
Up and about relatively early and, after demolishing a mountain of toast, we left the cottage and continued with the theme of short haul journeys, today’s trek took us 19 miles to Penryhn Castle on the outskirts of the City of Bangor.
The Castle is set in a stunning location amongst the trees of a large wood, mountains adding a spectacular backdrop to open fields which lead down to a sandy beached cove.
The building itself is a neo-Norman castle, built in 1816 over an older building. The interior is really along the lines of a stately home and as such has hosted Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and Queen Elizabeth II. All of the rooms show signs of the opulent lifestyle of the owners, large in scale, over the top at times but impressive. Well looked after and run by the National Trust, as you would expect. A railway museum occupies a courtyard, this pays homage to the local slate mining industry, now long since defunct.
After a wander around the walled gardens with its newt ponds and giant rhubarb plants, we had a picnic in the castle car park then headed into the City of Bangor.
Father in law was on a mission to purchase something for Mother in law. Without that mission being put into action we would never have experienced what Bangor has to offer. Bangor has precisely NOTHING to offer. If it ever had life then that was squeezed out of it years ago, it’s like Great Yarmouth but with the glamorous parts taken out…
That’s a period of my life which I’ll never get back so onwards and away!
Our final port of call for the day was the seaside town of Llanfairfechan and a reunion with my brother in law. It has been over 6 years since our last meeting at his and the Wife’s grandma’s 80th birthday party. At lot of water has passed under the bridge since that snowy January night in Bolton. He was waiting for us with his partner, lots of smiles, lots of hugs and a couple of hours of chatting in a cafe over ice creams and tea, then by the seawall with cans of coke.
Sunday mornings usually begin for me with my longest run of the week. Being on holiday didn’t change my routine, just the location and so I hit the roads on an exploration mission. After a mile or so I arrived at the abandoned Dorothea slate quarry, now a slate heritage site of North West Wales. A number of colour coded routes are available to explore so, as the area was unknown to me, I plumped for the shortest, yellow coded, path. The views of the lake, the cliffs around it, the abandoned buildings, the floral and fauna were stunning. My run quickly became truncated with photo stops, something I was grateful for given the steeper than usual gradients!
The rest of my run, a hot and sweaty effort, took me back into Talysarn, around the back of the village, up steep roads, into Pen-Y-Groes and eventually back to the Cottage. An 8.5km jaunt and a worthwhile recce mission!
The main focus of the day was to be a trip to Caernarfon Castle, a short drive to the North West from Ty Cape. My last trip to this World heritage site monument was way back in 1981 when I was the same age as my son is now. A large portion of the building was closed to the public, including the main entrance, whilst building and renovation work is undertaken. However, the rest of the site is a magnificent example of fortress building, Edward the First, the hammer of the Scots, was certainly keen to keep the Welch under control too!
After 4 hours or so we left the castle for a short wander around the town before heading back.
The evening rounded off playing Dominoes and sinking a beer or two!
Day One – Saturday 6th August – Worlingham to Talysarn
Unusually for us we departed Worlingham at 9am. Unusual as we tend to agree upon a time then miss it by, on average, 20 minutes or so. There is always something forgotten, one of the kiddies can’t find a shoe or one of the cats has hidden in one of the bedrooms etc etc.
For once we’re organised and away. The plan included meeting the in-laws in a lay-by near Harleston, passing child number one to their car and then driving in convoy all the way to North Wales. Simple as that hey?
Well, yeah, it was! After a twenty minute delay waiting for the in-laws to arrive it was all systems go on a trouble free journey. In the three years since I had last tackled the Bury St Edmunds end of the A143 and the A14 from BSE, much had changed. The seemingly endless road works programme had been completed and has changed the journey dramatically. Gone are the junctions and roundabouts, the standard nightmare jams at Huntingdon and the intersections of the A1 and M11. Now its a smooth journey through to the M6, and thence to Corley services. With the Catthorpe interchange having been redesigned a few years ago, the journey from the East is now far less painful!
150 miles and 200 minutes from home came the first of two scheduled breaks. Corley services (on the M6 near Coventry) is a generic over priced service area with franchise outlets and profiteer priced fuel. The only really useful areas are the toilet block and the large car park. After emptying we refilled in our cars with a packed lunch and hit the M6 again, the music abandoned in favour of the Talksport 2 commentary of Norwich City v Wigan Athletic. I was still moaning about the 1-1 draw when I missed the turn for Chester services on the M56 and thus the second scheduled stop was cancelled!
After an excellent journey through the spine of England our first taste of a traffic jam for the holiday arrived over the border in Flintshire. Not a major one by any stretch but still a tad irritating!
The change in scenery was spectacular. From non-descript flat grey ribbons of tarmac with no external views to twisting roads of varying gradients with spectacular hill and coastal views. The further West the more spectacular the sights. Eventually the focus of the journey turned to the finer details of locating the cottage which would form our residence until the 13th. Again, the road system had been upgraded and led to a smooth transition into the area we needed to get to.
The village of Talysarn sits a mile or so East of Pen-Y-Groes, 8 miles South East of Caernarfon. Its a former slate quarrying area, and bears the hallmarks of that bygone era. More of that in later posts.
After 6 hours 15 minutes and 335 miles, The cottage was located quickly, and once we’d worked out where to park, where the entrance was and steadied our legs for the steep path to get to it, we located the keys and explored.
Ty Capel, A large comfortable property, well appointed for seven people to share for a week, with a large multi levelled rear garden. The kids loved the idea of a spiral staircase to their bedroom though our youngest decided that it wasn’t for her initially and stayed with us on night one!
The standard shopping delivery from Tesco arrived in good time (6:15pm) which was perfect as after a long day on the road a scrubby meal of pizza and chips (from frozen) washed down with ale and wine was definitely welcome!
2:15pm Sunday 15th May 2022, somewhere between East and West Runton, North Norfolk.
Why the hell did I ever believe this was even achievable? 23 miles of torture. My thighs have given up the ghost, my knee hurts, I’ve got blisters on both big toes. I’m on my own, there is nobody in sight in front or behind. I hope an ambulance appears soon; I’ll be thumbing a lift…
Before I get into the story ‘proper’ I’ll give you a get out clause. Obviously if you’re reading this then I’m assuming that you must have a slight amount of interest in what I’m writing about but just in case you have a low boredom threshold the race section is coming up in chapter 4 (!!!)! It has sentences including sweaty bodies, tight fitting clothes, sticky fingers and breathless low voices…**
The more observant amongst you will have noticed that the Bond style ending of part 4 boldly stated that part 5 would arrive in May 2021. No, I didn’t get writer’s block for a year, the North Norfolk Mammoth marathon was, frustratingly, postponed for a second time and thus rendered my confident statement redundant. Ironically the last word of the previous sentence was the catalyst for a series of events which finally got me to the start line for the toughest challenge of my life.
As was the case throughout much of the World, the UK effectively shut down for much of the year 2020. The national lockdown declared on March 23rd 2020 led to the cancellation of all public activity barring essential services and their associated supply chains. Although my company was considered to be part of the latter, they still felt it necessary to furlough 75% of the staff, yours truly included. Mind you I was already off when the furlough was imposed, my daughters were off school with coughs, that was enough for the paranoia amongst the management to kick in and so I was sent home on the morning of March 24th.
So, what to do? Running was out of the question except for brief solo localised sessions, Parkrun was suspended, and all of the mass participation events were cancelled, the Deep History Coast Mammoth Marathon amongst the casualties. My training had been going well, I was 50% of my way through it and beginning to prepare myself mentally for the long-haul distances over the coming weeks but that was now out of the question. A week before lockdown a new craze hit YouTube. Fitness Guru Joe Wicks began a short daily Hiit training session aimed at school children to help them keep fit whilst they were at home, PE with Joe became an obsession for many people, not least myself. Over the course of the late spring, all through the summer and into the Autumn I, along with the boy and occasionally a daughter, dedicated the weekday 9am spot to exercise sessions. Once Mr Wicks stopped his daily sessions, I carried on with other more adult orientated hiit routines.
At the end of October my, almost, 32-year association with my employer was ended, I had been ‘restructured’. I was fortunate to find a new position almost immediately, starting my new adventure at the beginning of December. Naturally my daily morning exercise routine stopped, however the hiit sessions were replaced with a work role which allowed me to be constantly on the move, I was on my feet for most of my working day with a good amount of lifting reasonably heavy products thrown into the mix.
With my work life back on track, my fitness at levels hitherto unheard of and my mental health returning to a much better place I just needed to get back to a good running routine with some structured training.
My training schedule for the original race date had been going well until the pandemic-imposed lockdown killed it in its tracks. So, I decided to do the same thing for 2022 but with a few tweaks. 4 runs a week with varying disciplines, distances, routes, paces. Pre-pandemic I was up with the larks and ran on a Tuesday and Thursday at 5am, then Parkrun on a Saturday and a long distance slower paced run on a Sunday. After 7 months of furlough in 2020 I was made redundant but was fortunate enough to get a new job immediately. The earlier start time, 7am, meant that I now had to run in the evenings on a Tuesday and a Thursday, but this had an unexpected added bonus. During lockdown a new running group was set up in Worlingham, it coincided with my interest in joining a running club, but my standard procrastination had meant that I hadn’t done anything other than downloading club application forms. This one appeared to me to be informal and looked fun which appealed to me so I joined the Worlingham Roadrunnerz Facebook group and became a stalker! A number of the members were also on the Strava app, so I stalked them too!
Once my work life schedule had settled down, I was able to get involved with the group properly and the regular training on offer. The tips and advice, mixed session types such as intervals and hills (bloody hills!), proper stretching and general fun nature of the group energised me and gave me new ideas on how to organise myself and what areas I needed to concentrate on to improve my chances of success in the marathon. Throughout 2021 my running confidence and ability improved at a hitherto unimagined rate. Personal best times at every discipline except at Half Marathon distance (2nd though!) were achieved and subsequently I was awarded the Most Improved Male Runner award for 2021 by the WRR! Something I’m supremely proud of!
In late January 2022 I began my training in earnest. The same schedule as before but with timing and distance tweaks to consider based upon the experience I had gained over the past 2 years. By mid-March I was making excellent progress and embarking upon the longer distance runs though in truth it was the time on my feet I was interested in. 3 plus hours in anticipation of a massively long stint in mid-May. The worst cold I’ve experienced in a number of years hit me like a tonne of bricks. 2 days off work but more importantly for this narrative my training stopped dead for 2 weeks, my chest was in bits and my energy deserted me. I tested everyday but had managed to avoid Covid-19, to this day I still haven’t had it.
Those 2 weeks were a big loss in my training. Once I resumed it took me a week to get back to fitness but rather than panic and bypass the sessions I had missed, I resumed at the point at which I had stopped. Ultimately the furthest I ran was 27 and a half kilometres, I had missed the repeat 27,5km and a scheduled 30km, which meant that I had just under 15 km extra to work at on the big day but the time on my feet was valuable.
With training completed I was confident that the run itself would be a blast, was it?
My race number arrived just over a week before race day, BIB number 190, and, despite months of physical preparation and a couple of years of mental preparation, nerves hit me! Daft I know but the realisation that other people knew that I was doing this, and it wasn’t a figment of my imagination, made me feel slightly off kilter for a day or two! The thoughtful folks had even added a hole punched hole in each corner which was ideal for the BIB securing tabs I’d ordered on Amazon so that I didn’t have to have another anger filled breakdown over dodgy safety pins!
My usual Parkrun was jettisoned to conserve my energy, but I still went along in a volunteer capacity, those guys are pure gold and it was a pleasure to help out. A relaxing afternoon watching my cricket club at Great Yarmouth was followed by my pre-race evening meal of a giant portion of chip shop chips, now that’s what I call carb loading!! Early to bed and we’re almost there…
Alarm clocks at 6 on a Sunday morning would usually be considered anathema. This particular alarm, checked the night before, re-checked, re-checked again, switched off to make sure it had been set properly, switched on again and re-checked, on Sunday 15th May 2022 was greeted with a slight smile, well by me and not by the wife! I had, surprisingly enough, had an unbroken night’s sleep and woken up without having to panic about missing my alarm and the race. Excited as I was, I hadn’t allowed it to overwhelm me and so I remained relaxed and calm.
Apart from the usual morning routine I had only to prepare my post-race recovery drink and fill the water for my backpack. Once I had double checked that everything was packed and all of my devices were fully charged, we were good to go, leaving the house shortly after 7am for the 75-minute journey to Sea Palling and the start of the great adventure.
I’m always thorough in my preparations for every journey for an event. Naturally I had planned the route to Sea Palling and equally naturally we managed to take a number of wrong turns on the way. Our standard procedure is to just laugh about it and wing it, no screaming tantrums in our car! We still managed to arrive at the car park within 10 minutes of my planned arrival time. The sight of cars disgorging lycra clad creatures of various shapes, sizes and ages hit me on the top of the head. Bloody hell, this is now VERY real. In just over an hour two and a half years of thinking of little else would exist in the here and now.
Time for more irrational nonsense. I opened the boot of the car to get my gear, a moment of panic. We had driven through a Twin Peaks style reality blip on the journey and my running shoes and energy gels had disappeared into another dimension. Disaster, all of my plans ruined by a ludicrous moment of misfortune. Ah, no! There they were at the bottom of my bag.
Boy oh boy it was cold. Cold temperatures and extra fluid intake are not happy bedfellows, magnified by an hour plus criss crossing the East Norfolk countryside. It goes without saying that for an expected field of 400 or so runners there were only 4 portaloos. The queue was approximately 2 miles long (I think 25 people equates to 2 miles anyway) and, with the cold air, there was a lot of hopping from 1 leg to the other. Now suitably empty, kitted out, instructions listened to and warmed up the last 15 minutes before the off was spent chatting and taking pictures.
With a countdown from 5 and a loud blast of a klaxon my brain suddenly, from a previously unmined area, clicked into marathon mode. An all-consuming feeling of concentration based on months of training and thinking of little else for the best part of two and a half years. There would be no deviation, all would go as per my plan. Less than a mile in and I was plodding along nicely in a small group of people who I assumed were of a similar mindset. I, as I’m sure the readers who know me will, er, know, am a bit of a sucker for a chat and when a couple of ladies got into chat mode I joined in with gusto. Cheryl from Peterborough and Alice from the Gorleston area immediately got me rabbiting about anything and everything. Before long it felt like we were old pals out on a gentle run around the North Norfolk coast, totally at ease with each other. It’s definitely a running thing, my first half marathon in 2019 included a long distance chat-a-thon with Lisa from Beccles, Parkrun has got me some good pals, the super-hot Norwich half marathon in 2021 included a top fella named Nathan pretty much dragging me over the line, this was one of those occasions which you don’t anticipate but you’re bloody glad when it does, great for morale and takes your mind off the job at hand. Swapping running experiences and general life stories was fun and when we arrived at Happisburgh, approximately 10 kilometres into the run, I was in full flow. The Happisburgh lighthouse is famously candy striped red and white in appearance, a focal point of the North Norfolk coast and something of a legend when it comes to my family tales. Holidays in the early 1970s were spent at a static caravan near to the cliffs, coastal erosion has meant that the site is now, almost, part of the beach, and the journey there along the twisting country lanes gave the illusion to a 4- or 5-year-old boy’s mind that the lighthouse was hopping from side to side. From those days up to the present, Hoppity, is the absolute icon of my childhood and so it was no surprise to Cheryl and Alice that I announced that I had to stop for a ‘selfie’ with my old pal and immediately WhatsApp it to my Mother!
As is, seemingly, always the case with me and big events the pace was much faster than I had trained for, 40 seconds a kilometre faster, which should have got the alarm bells ringing, but felt comfortable (more about the folly of this later…). Sadly, for Alice, it was a bit too much and she dropped behind shortly after the impromptu lighthouse photo session and apart from the odd glance backwards I didn’t see her again until the finishers village.
When preparing for a long run there is one thing which I have ALWAYS done. It’s a small (well not always!!!) thing but vitally important. For some inexplicable reason on this, the longest run of my life, I hadn’t done it and approaching Bacton I was increasingly conscious of the fact that a faster than anticipated pace wasn’t going to be my only nightmare on this event. 10 yards ahead of me Cheryl called over her shoulder that a toilet block was around the corner, she was grateful for it and would I wait for her? 5 minutes later I heard her call of “are you still in there?”. “Yeah, be there shortly” …
The halfway point was at the Ship Inn at Mundesley, the same location was used for the starting point of the half marathon, I can only sympathise with those who believed that the half would be easy compared with the full distance event! At a water station not far from half distance I checked my phone and stared in disbelief at a Facebook post by North Norfolk Mammoth Marathon announcing the winner of the marathon! 2 hours 38 minutes for the winner and I was still just under 13 miles away! Boy oh by there are some running machines out there. Anyway, that wasn’t my race so I just mumbled one or two things about people with scaffolding poles for legs and no life which I won’t elaborate upon in this tale and got back to it!
I knew that the pace was unsustainable for me. I was pleased with how the run was progressing but also becoming increasingly aware that I was approaching unchartered territory in terms of distance, my training had taken me to just over 17 miles, an illness had robbed me of 2 weeks of activity so I had to readjust my schedule, unfortunately my 19 and 21 mile runs were jettisoned. When I announced to Cheryl that I was now at my training maximum distance she suggested that we take a new approach to things. In the early 1970s an American Olympic athlete, Jeff Galloway, devised a new coaching technique which suggested that running for a certain amount of time then walking for the same amount of time would put less stress on the body over long distances. We decided to run/walk at 45 second intervals and the results were a revelation. I had tried a bit of ‘Jeffing’ before but without the constant clock watching. My training had been based on a short distance of walking, approximately 150 metres, then making up the rest of the kilometre in running. From the outset it worked well and progress was good but the hills started to take their toll on me and approaching Sidestrand and Overstrand I started to lose touch with Cheryl, by the time I got to Cromer, around 21 miles into the event, I had lost sight and was now in the familiar territory of running solo.
I’ve always enjoyed a trip to Cromer. Normally it would involve a car journey, a stroll along the pier, chips, ice cream, beer (if I’m not the driver of course) and some time on the beach. This particular trip involved none of those pleasures. Just a tired and sweaty bloke, breathing heavily, staggering around the streets in tight fitting lycra* with bemused pedestrians politely making way and muttering well done.
*Not the image I alluded to in 2(!) is it?!
The route was a little confusing at this point but fortunately the highways agency lads were on hand with their stop/go signs and, spotting me 100 metres or so away, immediately stopped all of the traffic (there was a LOT of it) and voluminously encouraged me to take a right towards the seafront. The looks on the faces of the car drivers and passengers was, almost without exception, one of (er, how to put this politely…) resigned acceptance…
The advertised route promised a wonderful view of Cromer pier before heading off along the coast road for the final stretch of the race. I turned my head and strained my eyes; the pier was nowhere in view. Slightly disappointed with that I headed off on my way for what would be the hardest, yet greatest 5 miles of my running life.
Cromer and West Runton are only about 2 and a half miles apart but after 4 hours or so of running and with the majority (in my mind at least) of it uphill it felt more like 10. 90% of the distance running discipline is in the head. Mind games can destroy your confidence and ruin what should be an enjoyable experience, this section of the race seriously tested my mental toughness and ultimately the eventual success or failure of my adventure, even at this advanced stage.
The wall is a metaphorical construct defining that moment in a marathon when you feel that all of your physical and mental reserves have been exhausted and you don’t feel able to continue. You feel as if a great immovable barrier has blocked your way and your mind won’t allow you to work out a way of getting over or around it. My wall arrived between West Runton and Beeston Regis, to be precise at a road sign, a triangle warning sign for a school. For those of you who know the area it’s near Beeston Hall School and West Runton Scout group (I went camping there with the scouts in the early 1980s and came close to causing the early demise of the Chief Scout, that’s another story for another day!). After a considerable period of time on my own and with my body breaking down, I came to a sudden stop. The final straw was my total failure in opening an energy gel packet, my sweaty hands slid across the tear point, made the slightest opening and the pressure of my grip meant that the gel popped out all over my hand leading to horrible sticky fingers (see the earlier now increasingly misleading statement!). I’ll leave a gap here for you to scrub your filthy gutter dwelling minds and carry on…
My thighs felt like slabs of granite, my right knee felt as though it wanted to be elsewhere, and both of my big toes had developed blisters. I’m not prone to blisters so this was a surprise and a most unwelcome one. I held the post for the sign and stretched my quads, right leg – OUCH, left leg – OUCH, hamstrings – see quads, calf muscles – ditto. Only 3 miles to go (Parkun distance) and that appeared to be that. I looked back towards West Runton hoping to spy a race marshal in a car, a kindly old lady/gent with a bicycle or, most desirable of all, an ambulance. I turned my gaze to the sky, no helicopters or spaceships and then to the front, nobody in sight, not even a cat or a squirrel. This is a nightmare, what should I do?
Well, the conversation I had with myself was quite brief and involved a number of expletives and a well-deserved bollocking. There is a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill where Uma Thurman’s character, Beatrice, after emerging from years in a coma drags herself into the back of a pickup truck and orders herself to wiggle her toes. No mean feat with atrophied leg muscles but she eventually did it and went on to wreak havoc on the people who put her in the coma. Now I’m no martial arts master or skilled in the use of weapons, nor do I have a vendetta to wage against anyone in particular but I’m sure that you all get the drift and so I moved onwards towards the end game of this adventure.
It’s true to say that my body was in bits and every passing minute was a new kind of torture but with my rediscovered determination allowing my frame to lurch forwards I conjured up an inner strength hitherto unknown to me. However, I hadn’t reckoned on the pure terror which presented itself to me as I entered Sheringham and turned the sharp left into Common Lane. The Facebook page for this race had held a competition to name this section of the event, a one-mile hill of a steepness which makes an East Anglian cry but anyone from the North, Wales or Scotland smirk and launch into paroxysms of laughter at our collective patheticness. My suggestion of ‘The why are you doing this to us now you evil gits mile’ was rejected in favour of The Mammoth Mile which, I have to say, is probably more appropriate! My training had prepared me for Common Lane but under the assumption that I wouldn’t have the myriad of physical and mental issues which were evident when the real version appeared in front of me rather than the Google Street View version. The previous 8 miles or so had been following the ‘Jeffing’ idea, this section was along those lines but with far less running! My enthusiasm for tackling hills had long since left me so I opted for survival mode and walked approximately 80% of the hill and began running again at the summit.
The 25-mile marker was a real treat to see and thoroughly cheered me up, I now felt that even if my feet fell off, I was going to get over that line one way or another. Despite the excruciating pain in my legs, I was outwardly showing my usual cheery personality and chatting to marshals and members of the public as I negotiated the end part of the course.
With less than a mile left, the realisation of what I was about to achieve finally dawned on me. After a brief exchange with a group of marshals and highways agency folks at the entrance to Uplands Park in Sheringham I found myself alone again but with, yet another, rediscovered sense of determination. Rounding a bend, I spotted a seated marshal at a junction. I knew from the route map that the only junctions left from that point were onto Holt Road and then into Sheringham High School and the finish line. I don’t know who the marshal was but the sight of her made me cry out with choked up joy and my eyes welled up. In my whole life I hadn’t dreamt of such a moment and it’s almost impossible to describe the feeling. Thoughts of the hard work, dedication and determination physically and mentally, the support of my family, friends, work mates and running club, the sacrifices made. So much came to mind and it was overwhelming. Wishing my Dad was there to see me cross the line as he was when I scored my first century at cricket and won my first trophy at darts almost took me over the edge but with my usual belligerence the mind shutters came down again and I turned the corner and there it was, the marker stating 26 miles, only 385 yards to go.
The last stretch felt like a dream. Entering the finishing straight, on a grass field in front of the school, the only soft ground on the entire course, the first person I spotted was Cheryl, standing against a barrier with her husband and waving enthusiastically. I smiled and blew a kiss which was happily reciprocated. The finish line was in sight, a man with a microphone was hailing my arrival and providing running commentary on my progress, lots of people were lining the barriers on both sides and shouting encouragement, I acknowledged them all with calls of grateful thanks and waving at them, but my attention had been grabbed by a small group of people next to the finish line, one of whom had broken ranks and was running towards me. I choked up again and welled up, er, again. With 100 yards to go I moved towards the barrier and high fived my son, Giles. Moving back to the centre of the course I headed to the line and waved at my wife and daughters, raised my arms and crossed the line.
The first person to greet me ‘post-race’ was a very nice lady from the ambulance service who handed me a bottle of water, made sure that I was ok and pointed me towards a tent where I could collect my medal and goody bag. I’ve got a few medals, I’m proud of all of them but, until I grabbed this one, the best one I’ve ever received arrived in the post in 2020. While I was on furlough during that time of great upheaval, the postman arrived with a mysterious letter. A letter in child’s writing and a home-made paper medal with ribbon attached. My old school pal Mal had seen my social media post mentioning the cancellation of the 2020 Mammoth Marathon, had mentioned it to his son who immediately made me a medal in a bid to help me to get over my disappointment! It hangs on my medal rack with all of my others to this day. Anyway, the metal medal in the shape of a Mammoth was cool, the ‘goody bag’ of a peanut recovery bar and a few flyers was, frankly, absolute crap!
Well, the time wasn’t important was it right? RIGHT?! Well, the first thing any runner does when crossing a finishing line is to press a little button on their chosen time piece, that’s the definitive time right? RIGHT?! After a short wait they get the official result according to the time chip which resides on the back of the shirt worn race number. That’s generally ignored if its slower than what your time piece said or accepted if its faster. This particular chip was pretty accurate though I did amend it to suit my own agenda (obviously!). I had an auto pause function set up so that whenever I had to stop then my time wouldn’t be affected. That doesn’t work well for official time chip races so my toilet break, water stop chats and sign-post wall crisis were paused on my watch but not on the official timer. My ‘moving time’ was 5 hours 33 minutes and 41 seconds (not including the toilet stop, chatting at water stations and the sign post stretch stop) my chip time was 5 hours 43 minutes and 58 seconds (included the previous stuff!!), 210th out of 217 who finished the race. Whatever spin is put on it is irrelevant. The simple fact is that I have a finishers medal and an official time!
Standing by the tent with my family, I proudly displayed the medal and posed for a picture whilst holding a giant cardboard photo frame with the legend ‘I conquered the mammoth marathon’. Sipping my water, I got a tap on the shoulder and there was Alice. The next finisher after me and just under 5 minutes behind. The last of our little gang standing there with a big grin and proudly sporting her medal and happily chatting about our shared experience.
Not being Eliud Kipchoge has its disadvantages of course, one of which being that I had arrived at the finisher’s village too late to take advantage of the much-needed free sports massage. The providers were packing up their gear and couldn’t squeeze me in, “Sorry mate, remember to keep stretching and drink plenty of water…”. The recovery drink I’d prepared certainly helped as did the flask of hot sugary tea, strangely I found it difficult eating the small chia seed bar I’d brought and only ate half of it!
Fortunately, I didn’t really feel any major adverse effects despite the punishment I’d put my frame through over the previous few hours. The walk to the car was a tad laboured and I shifted and fidgeted in the passenger seat on the way home as small cramps grabbed my calf and hamstring muscles but not on the scale that I had been expecting. Once home I performed my usual stretching routine, showered and settled in for an evening of pizza, chips and beer!
A mile away from home is an industrial estate with a fantastic café named Posh Pigs. Two days of holiday from work, one for Marathon rest and recovery purposes, one for a tattoo session, allowed me the opportunity to break the self-imposed shackles and get a giant full English fry up into my system and so I ambled my way there at a leisurely pace, filled up with a cholesterol packed plateful and ambled home at a much more leisurely pace.
The walk from the car park to the tattoo studio on the Tuesday morning was one of the oddest experiences in my recent memory with my gait resembling that of a toddler or one of the walking dead. The session on was a continuation of a long-term left arm sleeve project but I added the number 26.2 to the inside of my left elbow to mirror the 13.1 on my right. They might look a bit out of place considering the other designs and subject matters but every time I see them, I smile and think about the meaning and achievement behind them.
Over the next few days my muscles recovered well, I kept up with light stretching, fluid intake and walked at a reasonably slow pace but by Saturday I felt ready to return to running and so I made my regular journey to Lowestoft for Parkrun. My pace was steady, I had no real intention to try anything out of the ordinary and managed a decent, if unspectacular, time.
After months of training and years of anticipation, I felt an all-consuming feeling of contentment and carried myself around displaying the silly grin of a person who realised that they had achieved something that not that many people had achieved, and that life would never be quite the same again.
It’s difficult to truly explain what the marathon experience is like to somebody who hasn’t taken part in one. It’s a personal challenge which tests your physical and mental strength to the max but the feelings and emotions I experienced as I approached and crossed the finishing line are something which I wish I could bottle up and carry with me.
That epic adventure is unlikely to be repeated. I’ll continue with half marathons and 10km races from time to time and, of course, I’ll continue my Parkrun odyssey, training with the awesome Worlingham Roadrunnerz and general running for fun and fitness. Once the running bug bites it’s in your blood and it’s there to stay…
The conclusion of this series of blogs coincides with the 5th anniversary of my completion of the Couch to 5k programme. The journey I embarked upon all those years ago has taken many unexpected turns but ultimately has resulted in a happier, fitter, healthier and more contented person. Everybody is different, everybody will do their own thing and follow their own path. It’s tough at times and won’t always go to plan but in the end if you’re determined and dedicated enough then success is certain.
You get one chance at life; don’t regret the choices you make and remember this…
The piece below was written during the week leading up to my 50th birthday just before Christmas in 2019. It was originally published on Facebook as a thought provoking article for my family and friends as a plea, of sorts, to be thankful for what you have, be gracious, humble and not to take anything, or anyone, for granted. This ‘plea’ has become more urgent in the short period of time which has elapsed since my fingers danced around my keyboard in mid/late December 2019.
A well-known comic book character stated that “with great power comes great responsibility”.
As I approach my 50th birthday I have had occasion to reflect on that phrase. The power arises from the knowledge I have acquired in dealing with the experiences of my life and how I use it. The responsibility is an extension of the previous statement with added weight from the role of a husband and parent. The point of that little paragraph will be explained shortly.
In recent times my mind has taken to recalling some of the less pleasant aspects of life. Not direct consequences of anything that I have been involved in, rather the memories of what happened to other people I was acquainted with in my childhood. Two examples cause me to struggle to keep my emotions in check because I know what I would feel, as a parent, if this happened to me.
In late August 2007 I played a cricket match for Norwich Union CC away at Tacolneston, a village in South Norfolk a few miles along the B1113 from Mulbarton, the village I grew up in. Fielding in the deep I watched a thunderous shot by a home team batsman fly off into the hedge at the far end of the ground from my position. It became clear that the ball was comfortable in it’s hiding place so, whilst it was being searched for, I wandered over to a bench for a rest. The bench had been especially commissioned as a memorial, the brass plaque read ‘In loving memory of Paul (Surname Withheld) 1970-1981”, I knew that name and it took my breath away. I hadn’t thought of it for years; however, its discovery has haunted my thoughts ever since. The memory of Mulbarton Middle school playground on a late January morning in 1981 came back with a thump. The frenetic childish talk about something which had apparently happened the day before to Paul was confirmed in a tearful assembly address by the Headmaster. After getting off the school bus in Bunwell (if memory serves…)* Paul ran around the front of it and was promptly mown down by a car and killed. Just like that. 10 years old and everything was taken away in a second.
In the spring of 1981, a girl in the village, Teresa (again I know her second name but won’t write it here) died at the age of 13. I remember her as being very tall for her age, and my memory tells me that this almost abnormal growth had put an enormous strain on her heart and that ultimately brought about her early demise. At that time Mum was the village contact for births, marriages and deaths notices for the local press and was visited by Teresa’s mother to get the wording sorted for notice of death to be printed in the paper. Although I was quickly sent from the room when it became apparent what was about to be discussed I had already noticed the distress.
At the time of both events my eleven-year-old brain wasn’t mature enough to deal with the emotions of what had happened. Paul and Teresa were not close friends, in fact I would suggest that they were barely even acquaintances. It is only with the chasm of 38 years that I have started to feel the importance of their short lives. The first paragraph of this article mentions responsibility and it is to these two children that I owe a debt of responsibility, that being to take my chance(s) in life, to not waste the wonderful opportunity that have been given. They never had the opportunities that I have been privileged to have had. They never finished school, had a job or had a family, got drunk and fallen off a wall, broken a toe after kicking a door…
I sit with my children and watch them grow, I am constantly terrified; my boy is almost at Paul’s age; my eldest daughter is almost at Teresa’s age. Life is precious, we are duty bound to use it wisely.
Some people never had the chance to live a life, don’t waste your chance.
Respectfully dedicated to Paul & Teresa.
Andrew Huggins – December 2019
I’ve been told recently that the bus was in Tacolneston
I still get emotional thinking about the events of 40 years ago. The collective shared memories of my old school mates D,T,N & M have certainly helped, I am determined to not waste the opportunities afforded to me which Paul and Teresa did not get.