Monday, 14 November 2016

Rising to your challenges

THERE’S something very magical about Rivington Pike. On a good day you can stand beside it and it feels like you can see forever. On a bad day, the mist gives it an eerie ethereal feel. Up there, you get a real sense of the power of nature, good and fearsome.
The wind rises at the top at times threatening to blow you off your feet, the temperature drops and it feels like you’re in a very dark, foreboding place. Yet there is always – clear skies or misty gloom --an unmistakable majesty about it. It is where the earth touches the heavens. 
Challenging it to a one-on-one battle six times a day, five days on the trot, is always going to be a contest heavily stacked in its favour. It is not for the faint-hearted. But then, no challenge worth its salt is ever achieved with a faint heart.
The sense of achievement should you rise to the challenge and defeat this hell of a hill for even just one day let alone five consecutive days, is life-changing. Five-in-five runners conquer this mystical peak 30 times to achieve victory, to stand at the top of this great hill as a conqueror.
Welcome to the Hell of a Hill Marathon.
Twelve months ago, after I had completed one day of it, the thought came to me to go for all five. I have rarely believed between then and last week that I could do all five, certainly not at the first attempt, but the thinking behind it was simple. I would start on the Wednesday and see how far I got. I might not be able to do one this time round – I had no idea. I only wanted to do my best, whatever that turned out to be.
Not knowing what your best is, that’s what makes us set ourselves challenges. Then when we achieve them, or as in my case this year, go further than I ever imagined myself capable of going, we grow as people; we build our character..
That’s the magic of the Pike. It not only brings out the best in you – it shows you a best that you never thought could exist. 
I was privileged to share this challenge with - and run every day alongside - some of the most incredible runners I have ever met. People of various shapes and sizes, but all sharing two things – an iron will not to be defeated and a physical strength to withstand the pain the Pike can inflict when you challenge it again and again, day after day. Awesome athletes, yes. But awesome characters, too. Every one an inspiration.
This was my first attempt. I must get better if I’m to have another chance. All I can hope is that every time I attempt it, I manage a little more than last time. 
But that has always been the way. It is not just a lesson for gritty endurance runners.
In April 2013, at over 24 stone, I lasted no more than a minute walking on a treadmill on my first visit to the gym. I had no idea then what I could achieve, what would be my “best” that day. I had no dreams to climb a Pike. All I wanted on the next visit to the gym was to try to walk on the treadmill for two minutes. Then three, then four… 
Just as I had no idea what I would manage as I stood at the start line in Wilcocks Caravan Park in Rivington that cold Wednesday morning last week, so I had no idea when I stepped on the treadmill three and a half years ago whether I would be able to walk on it for a minute more than I'd done the day before.
We all have our own challenges and our own agendas. If we constantly strive to do the best we can, our best will continue to surprise us.
So my first attempt is broken down like this: Five days, started every day. Two marathons, two 18-mile runs and one 9.5-mile run. A total of 98 miles. 22 laps of the Pike. 18,300ft of climb.
All because I dreamed three and a half years ago that I’d be able to walk for more than a minute on the treadmill. And wasn’t prepared to let it stop at that.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Good days, bad days... and how to cope with both

Some days are good, some not so much. I guess that is pretty much the same for everyone to varying degrees. But when you lose someone to cancer, the two become more starkly contrasting. It seems almost disrespectful to have a good day when you’ve lost such an important person in your life so cruelly.
But good days and bad days have nothing to do with emptiness and loneliness. They have nothing to do with the actual loss. That gaping hole in your life that is left will always be there. It’s right that it should always be there. You learn to live with the emptiness, that’s your duty. But the emptiness will never go away, how could it? How could someone that important in your life go and it not make a difference to the rest of your life?
My life changed the moment Diane went. It will never be the same again, even if I wanted to fill that gap, I wouldn’t be able to.
There is no need to fill the gap. My life is poorer for not having Diane physically here to share the highs and lows of it with. But I must simply accept it. I must learn to live with this black hole of emptiness.
But don’t confuse emptiness with loneliness. The emptiness becomes a part of your daily life. It is just something that exists, like a sudden, unforeseen disability. You learn how to cope with it. Eventually it becomes part of that which identifies you as who you are.
Loneliness is quite different. Whether you’re lonely or not is entirely up to you. The future is the only thing in your control. Not the past, that’s gone and cannot be altered. Surround yourself with friends, spend as much time as you can with family, fill your life with people. People are the cure for loneliness and eventually, if you’re lucky, one of those people will emerge as the one you want to share all your life with, not just some of it. If you’re lucky. I hope I will be.
For now, I have more good days than bad. I can ask for no more.
Even during the darkest times of Diane’s illness there were good days.
The day we got Bonny, the little King Charles Cavalier Diane had always wanted and who became her constant companion through it all. That was one.
The day we thought we’d beaten the terrible disease. That was a very good day.
The day I realised we hadn’t beaten it was one of the worst. One of many very bad days.
When you start having good days, there is a sense of guilt, a worry that you’re starting to forget her, to cope without her. Then you realise those are two very different things.
I will never forget her. The effect she had on my life, the joy she brought, the happiness she gave me just by being there. I’ll never forget any of that. But coping without her? That’s different. You learn to cope with the hole in your life that she left. But that hole never gets any smaller.
Now, nearly four years on, I realise I will always have that emptiness but It is possible to have fun, to enjoy life and to feel positive about the future while still having this emptiness in your life. And I will not feel guilty about having days when I feel like a million dollars. I know there’ll be days when I feel the exact opposite so I’ll take the good stuff whenever I can.
The emptiness reminds me what I lost and it is why I will never forget the woman who was so much a part of my life.
I’ve been reminded of all this by a magazine article out today, Thursday October 13 in all good, right-thinking supermarkets. Love It! magazine are dedicating this issue to the fight against breast cancer and a portion of the cover price will go to Breast Cancer Care, the charity closest to my heart.
The work they do to raise awareness of the disease and to help the 50,000 women and men newly diagnosed with it each year is incredible. We must never stop supporting them. I will never stop, thanks to Diane.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Set your dreams free

Never put a ceiling on what you can achieve. Never put a limit on what you believe you are capable of. Never say never.
It’s something I keep banging on about but it’s so frustrating when people convince themselves they’ve done all they can, that they’ve no more to give. Trust me, you haven’t done all you’re capable of and you have much more to give.
You are assuming you can go no further, but in truth you have no idea. As a rule of thumb, remember this: Your body is capable of far more than you give it credit for and much of your inner strength lies undetected until you go looking for it. You don’t even realise it’s there until you dig deep and discover it.
That’s why when I was massively overweight I had no idea how I could turn my life around and survive the loss of Diane. But I looked in the mirror and we decided I’d try.
When I joined Smithills gym, I had no idea whether I would be able to get fit, but I wanted to see if I could. The point is, when I looked in that mirror and when I signed up to the gym, the only thing I knew about what would happen next was that... I didn’t know. All I knew was that the future was a mystery, unwritten. And I have spent my life looking at blank pieces of paper and dreaming up stories. Time to see what story I myself was capable of.
So when on a sunny September morning in Salford Quays I lined up with hundreds of other runners for my first ever 5K I was terrified. I had no idea whether I’d be able to do it. But no-one was going to tell me I couldn’t. I had to find that out for myself.
I had no idea as I took those first few tentative steps outside the Lowry that just over two years later I’d be standing in a caravan park in Rivington on my 60th birthday staring along the lane towards those daunting hills leading up to the Pike and about to see if I could tackle one of the toughest marathons in the country.
Time to dig a little deeper and see if there was anything left in that uncharted well of determination inside. I had the inner belief. Did I have anything left to back it up? As 9am and the start of the run approached I had no idea. That’s where the adventure begins, that’s the buzz you get from testing yourself in ways you never believed possible and still aren’t sure if they are!
Luckily, there was still enough left in me, even if it took a long time and the company of wonderful friends to get me through it.
Now comes the next motto: If I can do it, anyone can. There’s nothing special about me, there’s nothing I have that you don’t. I’m just not prepared to accept that I can’t do something until I prove it to myself by falling flat on my face attempting it. I’m sure at some point in the future that will happen, that I will bite off more than I can chew and take on a challenge I can’t rise to. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone else decide when and what that is. I’m in charge of finding that out.
Your dreams need room to take flight, they need the freedom to  take you places you never imagined. Don’t put them in a cage and just stare at them now and then, like watching a proud wild animal in a zoo.
Unlock the cage and let your dreams out. Like those animals in the zoo, they are much better off in the wild, running free.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A reason for everything

Two years ago this weekend I ran my first 5K, round Salford where Diane was born. Every year I'll do it because it has that special connection though there's no 5K any more, just the 10K. 
This year I'd hoped to get close to an hour but was disappointed to end up at 1:05, a minute slower than last year. The heat was pretty bad and got to me at 7K. 
Then by chance, something special happened. 
Heading back towards the Lowry after the run, I was stopped by another runner who was coming back towards the race area. He introduced himself as Rob Jackson from Horwich RMI Harriers (a fine runner, it turns out, as he had finished in 36 minutes!). He had read my blog and Bolton News articles and it turns out we shared some painful memories as he explained that he had lost his mum to cancer last year.
I felt very humble that he had recognised me and took the time to stop and chat. It was a pleasure to meet him. It also gave me a good kick up the wotsit (thanks, Di, I know you were behind it all) - you can obsess over times and ups and downs all you like. I was reminded by this chance encounter that that's not why I run. I run to meet people like Rob. 
And if I hadn't run 1:05 today, our paths might never have crossed.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

We are ALL capable of far more than we imagine...

One of the biggest tragedies in life today is the number of people who fail to realise just what they are capable of.
It is constantly frustrating to me to see people set their personal bars so low, not imagining they are able to do any better, be any greater. They are all, almost certainly, wrong. 
No-one, not one of us, not even the likes of Mo Farah, Chris Froome or the Brownlee Brothers, have any idea of what our limits are. These elite athletes have no clue as to how much further they can go, how much faster, how much higher. That’s what still drives them on.
And that’s the difference between them and us. They refuse to stop dreaming while so many of the rest of us sell ourselves short and settle for where we are now.
It doesn’t matter where you start from either. Here is my experience – a lot of it will be familiar to many people and I apologise in advance if I’m repeating myself too much but if one person reads this for the first time and then decides to see just how far they can go – like I am doing – then it will be worthwhile.
When I started at the gym just over two years ago I couldn’t get up a flight of stairs without a struggle. On the induction session with one of the gym’s personal trainers, I was introduced to the treadmill and could only walk on it for a minute before having to switch it off and catch my breath. At 24 stone, I was clearly in a bad way.
I looked enormous in the gym mirror. It didn’t lie. Around me on the various exercise machines were fellow gym members of varying abilities. But even the ones struggling were nowhere near as bad as me. And the good ones were just too good to even concern myself with. The guy on the treadmill next to me was one of the fitter ones and was clearly an accomplished runner. He was belting along at a blistering rate and showing no signs of letting up.
Many people might have been intimidated by him but I wasn’t and you mustn’t let yourself be either. My head was still filled with grief over Diane and my own situation – improving my health wasn’t a fad, a phase I was going through, a whim that would be blown off course the minute I saw someone far better than me in the gym. I needed to get fit or… well, at best, I would end up with mobility problems and in a wheelchair in a few years’ time; at worst, I’d be dead because of my weight mushrooming out of control.
So the guy next to me on the treadmill could pound away for all he was worth, I didn’t care. He was not my problem. I was. And that’s the attitude everyone must start with. You are not competing with anyone except yourself. Only you can stop yourself improving yourself. No-one else has the power to stop you getting better, fitter, healthier. Only you.
So it follows that only you can stop you realising your dreams and goals. Those dreams and goals will be modest at first. But as you start to take small steps to improvement your goals will grow and grow. You will want to push yourself to your next target.
And be warned. It will never stop. Once you see yourself making progress and realise how good it makes you feel, it becomes impossible not to want to get even better, to feel even more alive. Every goal reached is replaced with a new one. That’s not to be feared, though, that’s what is so great about improving your life. You never tire of that feeling of accomplishment.
So when I stood next to this man with the machine legs pounding away on the treadmill next to me while I could only walk on mine for a minute before stopping, my goal was not to be like him. My goal was to do a minute and a half on my machine. That was all I was planning.
I wasn’t expecting to feel any great elation when I did that minute and a half. But when I did manage it, I was surprised by how thrilled I was. It sounds silly, but if you’ve ever been in the position of being massively overweight and desperate to turn your life around, you’ll know what I mean. Just by doing more that day than I had been able to the time before made me realise how rewarding it can be when you push yourself harder than you have been able to push yourself before.
So when one and a half minutes became two and then three, I was hooked. I had begun to lose weight already – it’s true that you lose more at a quicker rate in the early stages which helps to inspire you further – so the combination of these modest achievements and the early weight loss made me immediately feel tons better.
Within a few weeks, the length of time I could walk on the treadmill had increased. I had upped the walking speed as much as I could, but then came the day when I walked for three minutes and lightly jogged for a minute, then walked for another three minutes. Jogging! Who’d have imagined that just a few weeks earlier.
The even better news was that all areas of my life were improving. For starters, I was able to get up the stairs a lot more easily now and I was sleeping better. I could see the difference in my general shape with the early weight loss in the mirror and I started to like what I was looking at for a change.
Running was still not on my radar, though. Initially all this was about was losing weight, getting more in shape and feeling better. That was already starting to happen and I was delighted with the small improvements I was making. Luckily, I had no aspirations at that stage to run a marathon. That could easily have deflected me and derailed my efforts. Thinking too far ahead and too big could risk you thinking it could never happen and it could risk de-motivating you. Keep those targets modest and attainable at first. Don’t look too far ahead. Just aim to be better today than you were yesterday and after a few weeks you can assess how far you’ve come – and you’ll astonish yourself.
Having said that, you’re allowed to have dreams. Just keep them to yourself as much as possible. If you let a dream become public, you will feel you HAVE to achieve it so as not to lose face with the people you told.
Dreams are private. Goals and targets can be talked about. When you are starting from scratch, your goals and targets will be small, modest steps. But your dreams can be as wild as you like. When you reach a certain level through your hard work and training where a series of goals have been met, you will find that a dream you’ve been harbouring will now become a goal. You will have progressed enough for that particular first dream to cease to be a flight of fancy and it will become an achievable aim. Gradually, one by one, your dreams, through a succession of smaller targets met, will enter the realms of possibility.
A lack of dreams, of seemingly unattainable ambitions, means you have set a ceiling on what you can achieve. And you must never do that. Not even you have any idea of what you are capable of. Never give up discovering more about yourself and you will live life not only to the full but also crossing boundaries you never thought you would.

The greatest challenge we face is to understand we are capable of far more than we imagined possible.  

Monday, 15 June 2015

Troughs, and peaks

After the dramatic and traumatic year after Diane passed away, the 12 months that followed were a lot more settled race-wise and culminated in success at last in Rotterdam. But after that, I was conscious of not making the kind of progress I was expecting to.
I made such a huge change in my life in those first 12 months that I suppose at some point I had to get a feeling of anti-climax when the progress slowed. The weight fell off so quickly to begin with that I fell into the trap of thinking that’s how it would always be.
But my times barely improved in the second 12 months of my odyssey and that made me question myself in a way I wasn’t expecting to. The weight even started to fluctuate again and is only now really coming back under control. I look in better shape and I feel better than ever, it just doesn’t seem to be translating into performance in the way I had hoped.
It is 12 months since my first swimming lesson and I believed by now I would be open water swimming to a sufficient level to have a crack at a full distance triathlon this year. That’s unlikely to happen now. The disappointment of realising how little progress I have made hit me hard when I tried to do 500m at my first sprint triathlon in Nantwich a month ago.
I was embarrassingly hopeless and took an age to do the 16 lengths of the 30-metre outdoor brine pool. I told myself I should be better than this after 12 months and it is frustrating me that I’m not. I completed the sprint distance eventually and for the record I wasn’t the slowest on the bike for the 20k and I certainly wasn’t the slowest when it came to the 5K run to finish off but the swimming performance left me feeling a bit of an impostor, if I’m honest. I feel I had no right to be there and that stays with me for a good while after the event.
Maybe I’m just being foolish. At my age, starting from scratch after never having swum or ridden a bike and not having run for 40 years since leaving school, did I seriously think I’d be conquering full distance triathlons by now?
Well, yes is the short answer. And now I know I was being too ambitious. But I am only prepared to concede that it will take longer than I anticipated. I refuse to accept that I will not at some point reach my goals.
I need to work harder, I need to get more power in my legs and I need to improve my endurance. Bit by bit, I need to chip away at these things. I started off wanting to walk longer than a minute on the treadmill but now I have allowed myself to get carried away with everything I have achieved. I need to rein in my expectations and be more realistic. Target one is to get under an hour for a 10K, closer to 2 hours for a half marathon and inside 5 hours for a marathon.
As for swimming, I need to make a decision to concentrate less on the principle that ‘practice makes perfect’ and ease up on just doing length after length poorly in the hope that one day it might all click magically into place and start doing some drills instead.
I need to stop thinking about open water swimming. I need to master the pool first. The wetsuit is hanging in the wardrobe anxious to be tried out, but it will have to be patient. Its time will come. When I’m ready and not before.


June 6, 2015. 5.10am. No need for an alarm clock. I’m up already. Bonny and Cassie aren’t quite sure why they’re up so early but neither is complaining. An early snoop around the garden as the dawn chorus is still playing suits them fine.
As for me, I have begun the final countdown to the Bolton Hill Marathon, a ‘testing’ 26 miles-plus over the trails of the West Pennine Moors. It’s billed as a toughie and I’m ready for a long day. I’m nervous but can’t wait to get started.
Nervous in no small measure because it is seven weeks since Rotterdam and six days after the sprint triathlon disappointment in Nantwich. So while I’d been concentrating on the pool in an attempt – sadly a vain attempt – to perform OK in the pool, my running had gone by the board. I had done one 10K, one parkrun and one training run of nearly 20 miles over parts of the hill marathon course with Julie Bower. She had been focussing on the hill marathon for a lot longer than I had and she was in much better shape for it than me.
But with a generous cut-off time of 8 hours, I was determined to do it by hook or by crook. Make that by run or by walk. I would do my best to run the hills where I could but I also knew I had to respect the distance and make sure I left enough in the tank to finish. So no mad heroics early on just to see myself run out of steam before the end.
Everyone knows how tough it is but tough doesn't really come close. Certainly for a first-timer of my standard, anyway. Brutal is better, especially the sharp rise from Rivington near Horwich back up the Roman road. After 21 miles, it’s hard enough to walk up let alone run up. I could not believe anyone could run up that section, but of course lots of the front runners did. They must have robot legs, machines from the waist down. Did anyone check them for this at the end?
I make it home, though, and cross the finish line in a couple of minutes over 7 hours. My legs are complaining heavily, but I feel elated to have done it. Even though my time is four hours slower than the winner.
Strangely, it restored my faith in what I can achieve. I felt good out there. Slow, but good. I walked quite a few of the steeper hills but not all of them and I managed to run unbroken for the last two miles or so to the finish. I felt remarkably strong at the end, considering. I felt fitter. It sounds odd to say it, given I was an hour and a half slower than in Rotterdam. But this was a real demanding course – even though Steven Snape the winner dismissed it to me as “not really that tough”. He should try running it for 7 hours see how he feels then! (To be fair he did say he had huge respect for anyone who stuck it out for so long to reach the end - felt I had to balance that up)
No, as far as I was concerned, I found it tough but I handled it. And it made me feel very positive about what lies ahead. Maybe not in the pool, but certainly on the roads and trails that lie ahead of me. I am sure now that I have a lot more in my tank. A lot more potential in my running. I need another marathon. And soon. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

The day that I had dreamed about...

My head has cleared (a bit) and my emotions have calmed down (slightly) - enough anyway, I think, to start to tell of how the greatest weekend of my life unfolded.
I feel ready to tell how wonderful things happened even as I stood at the start, music pumping, adrenaline rising, atmosphere building. Amid the thousands of runners lining up with me, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a fellow runner introduced himself. He had seen my story on the marathon website and had recognised me by my Running With Diane/Breast Cancer Care vest.
We shared our stories and two people who clearly would never have met each other had it not been for running and not been for Rotterdam joined hands across an ocean. It was a pleasure to meet Luis Tapia Soto, my new-found friend from Mexico who has his own cancer charity initiative back home and is doing fantastic work around the world, running and raising the profile of his cause, Kilometros y Sonrisas (Miles for Smiles). Learn more at
Then, we were off. The mission had begun. And ahead of me lay a defining 42K. The first few steps were full of nerves, but soon everyone settled into their rhythm and as the giant Erasmusbrug came into view at the end of the first kilometre, we were all just glad to be on our way at last.
There was something in the back of my mind even then, though. Something which had been bugging me for 12 months. I knew, somewhere up ahead, was a stretch of the route which ran through a particularly vocal, raucous and ultra-supportive section of the crowd, a stretch on which I was first told last year that I would not finish the race in time and that I should withdraw.
The crowd here are amazing, no question about that. It’s hardly surprising. The stretch is home to some of the city’s most popular bars and the guys started “cheering” runners a good few hours before I approached.
It’s one of the best sections of the route – but sadly for me it was as far as I got in 2014. That part of the route had been playing on mind the whole week. I could see it in my mind’s eye, I could hear the marshal’s car approaching and easing up alongside me and I could still hear the marshal’s voice explaining that I should stop.
Only one thing would banish that awful memory and that terrible feeling, that moment when my heart sank – it was to make sure I gave them no opportunity to do the same thing again.
So when I hit it over 30 minutes sooner than last year, I allowed myself a relieved smile. I squeezed between the cheering hordes who had now narrowed the space available to run through to a single file. High fives, slaps on the back and mine and other runners’ names chanted in encouragement – an incredible feeling when everything is going right.
And at that stage, everything was going right. I had taken it easy (as instructed!) early on, sticking to a metronomic pace for the first third of the race. I knew my legs were stronger but I hadn’t expected to go quite this smoothly. I had underperformed at Trimpell three weeks earlier by going off too quickly and blowing up after 17 miles, struggling to complete the last three. Now I had passed 17 at Rotterdam with plenty left in the tank. Just by taking it smoothly and gently.
I knew there would come a point where the wheels would start to creak and wobble and look as if they were about to come off but it wasn’t happening yet. I was over 20 minutes inside my Trimpell time when I hit 20 miles in Rotterdam.
At 21, I started to feel it, then worse at 22 and 23 before I steadied the ship. I thought at one stage (20 miles) that I would finish well within the time limit. At 23, I wasn’t so sure and at 24 and 25, it looked increasingly unlikely. I know I had the consolation that I had already ensured that I would be allowed to finish. However long it now took me to reach that line, I knew I would receive a medal and official time - even if I was over the cut-off mark. But that would have been settling for less - after all, I had set my heart on coming in under five-and-a-half hours and I was desperate to do it..
Then Diane stepped in. She must have decided I needed a lift for the last mile because suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, two members of the volunteer support crew, a young woman and a man, ran out and greeted me, asking me if I’d let them run with me to the finish. 
Miraculously the pace stepped up – as shown in the pace chart analysis of the whole race. Steady for 30K, gradually slower for the next 10K and then up again for the last 2K.
These two wonderful young people – it is now my mission to put names to these faces and get back in touch to thank them both properly – were my saviours. Sent, I have no doubt, by Diane to get me home inside the closing time.
My legs felt lighter for them being there and it was a joy to have them running alongside.
They shared with me the mile of the race I had lived over and over again in my head for nigh on 18 months. A slow right turn onto a main strip called Blaak and then the famous sharp right onto the legendary Coolsingel for the last 600 metres to the finish in front of the Stadhuis (City Hall).
I had dreamt this moment a thousand times and now here I was. With Diane filling every thought and matching every step, I ran through the banks of crowds still there at the finish - still cheering every runner after over five hours. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life.
When someone asks you why Rotterdam, just tell them about the buzz, the atmosphere, the crowds. The entire city comes out to celebrate you running and to give you support every step of the way. Nothing else happens in Rotterdam for those magical hours. Every single person in the city joins in. Even the last few runners home are treated to a hero’s welcome from them, nearly three and a half hours since they cheered the winner over the same line.
When someone asks me why Rotterdam, I only need to mention one name. My inspiration, my guide, the love of my life, my driving force. My Diane.