Monday, 15 June 2015

Troughs, and peaks

After a 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 www.facebook.com/kilometrosySonrisas?fref=ts
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.


Friday, 3 April 2015

Here I go again!

TWELVE months ago I was full of anticipation as the big day approached. As I counted down the days to Rotterdam and my marathon in memory of Diane around the streets where she spent her happy childhood, I reflected on how far I had come. Just 12 months earlier, I had enrolled at Smithills gym, weighing in at just under 24 stone and looking to sort myself out following the loss of Diane.
She had shown such courage in her final weeks, I had to honour her life and her memory. I couldn’t do that by struggling to get up a flight of stairs and watching my life go down the pan. I had to turn things around and make her proud.
So there I was at my first gym session on Day 1 of the rest of my life, learning some home truths about just how bad I had become. But one thing I had on my side was Diane.
She had never left me, in truth. And she’s been with me in my heart and mind every day since. She was there when I turned my walk on the treadmill into a limping jog; she was there to see me break into a run. And she was there, prodding me, prompting me, urging me, when I decided to do my first 5K round Salford, where she was born. That was September 2013.
At the time I decided to do it, it seemed like an impossible dream but I managed it and loved it and couldn’t wait to do it again. This time 10K. And now, just over six months after that first 5K, here I was, full of anticipation ahead of heading off to Rotterdam to run a marathon in aid of Breast Cancer Care.
The support I had from friends, old and new – many of the new from the Burnden Road Runners club I was lucky enough to join in November 2013 – was amazing. The appeal for the charity, which does such amazing work on the “frontline” helping families living under the same cloud Diane and I did for six years, far exceeded expectations.
There are over 500,000 people – mostly women but many men, too – living with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Another 50,000-plus will learn they have the disease in the next 12 months. That bombshell is waiting to strike all their families. And it’s what makes the work of Breast Cancer Care not only essential, but never-ending.
For families affected by the disease, nothing will ever be the same again. the dark clouds come over and the future looks very bleak. But Breast Cancer Care's amazing team of experts, counsellors and volunteers help to brighten the skies a little. With them providing support, the clouds part and a few rays of sunshine manage to peek through. They give you hope where you thought there was none at all.
So here I was, musing on all these things. April 3 2013. Ten days later, devastation. I fell short on the day, a combination of many small things I did wrong which when they came together proved one big obstacle too great to overcome. I was pulled off the course after 20 miles because I was going too slowly to finish inside the 5hr30 cut-off time.
I made up for the disappointment a few weeks later at Liverpool, but in the back of my mind was Rotterdam. I knew I’d be back. I had to put things right.
Now here I am. In less than a week I am back in Rotterdam, preparing to take on the course again and hoping I have learnt my lessons from last year.
Because of the fuss I made 12 months ago when I ended up falling short, I decided a while back to go about this one quietly. I didn’t want to make too much of it. I just wanted to go over, have another go and see how it went without piling too much pressure on myself “to perform”.
Then Diane reminded me, this is not my decision to make. It’s not about me, it’s about raising awareness and funds for Breast Cancer Care and helping others who find themselves in the horrible position we did all those years ago when she was first diagnosed.
I'll go over next week, more prepared than last year but not necessarily any more confident!) and I'll have another go. And I'll do it for Diane and Breast Cancer Care. And if I come up short again, I'll be back in 2016 to give it another bash.
Because of everyone's generosity last year, I don't expect people to dig deep in their pockets again this time around. But in case you do have a couple of quid you won't miss, I've set up a fresh Virgin Money Giving page - it all goes to people making a huge difference to lives where right now the sky is quite dark all of the time. 
Time to let a little sun shine through.
uk.virginmoneygiving.com/rotterdam2015
Then click on the Rotterdam Marathon page.

For information about the work the charity Breast Cancer Care does, visit: www.breastcancercare.org.uk

Monday, 9 March 2015

The start line

Nice people need more encouragement. Modest, reserved folk who live their lives respecting others have a tendency to undervalue themselves in the process. How many times have you watched someone achieve something in their life and thought to yourself, ‘I could never do that’.
Well, stop. Consciously make yourself stop thinking that way. We are always underestimating what we are capable of and it’s the reason many of us never have the courage to get started in the first place. Banish those modest thoughts and when you see someone achieve something in their lives, say to yourself, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ Tell yourself, ‘I could do that’ and ask yourself, ‘If they can do that, why can’t I?’
I used to sit in awe of runners when I watched them competing. ‘I could never do that’ I used to say to myself. Then after discovering the joy of running my mind started to challenge my own preconceptions of what I was capable of. 
Now my target is a first Olympic distance triathlon. I stopped thinking ‘I can’t do that’ a long time ago. I watch the Brownlee brothers and I’m inspired. It doesn’t matter that I’ll never be in their league. That’s not the point. What matters is me having a go. 
Despite at the time not being able to swim a stroke or sit on a bike without falling off, I started to ask myself, ‘Why can’t I do that?’
I know I’ll be lucky to finish at all, never mind worry about what time I do it in but that doesn’t stop me being inspired by them to follow what they are doing. I’ll never be able to do it the way they do or as fast as they do it, but that’s missing the point. You’re not in it to win it, you’re in it because it’s a way of challenging yourself. Your competition is with yourself, not others.
Change your mindset and suddenly what you are capable of becomes an unknown. And that’s the exciting bit. When you stop saying ‘I can’t’ and start asking, ‘I wonder if...’ that’s the adventure there, in a nutshell. The shackles come off, your self-deprecation evaporates and you start to think of what might be.
Look up and not down, ahead and not behind. Don’t let how you are determine how you will be. You have no idea how far, how long or how high you can reach because you haven’t tried  to find out yet.
When you start to dream, simply start to imagine how much better you could be than you are today, that’s when you feel the irresistible urge to get off the sofa. And that’s when you know you’ve conquered the most difficult part of all. 
Reaching the start line.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Dark days and brighter tomorrows

THIS blog is about lots of things – loss, grief, rebirth, life-changing transformations, breaking boundaries, refusing to settle for less.
Hopefully, everyone will find some common ground, something that mirrors their experiences. If I can inspire one person to change their life for the better, convince one person all is not lost or show one person how to believe in a brighter future, I’ll be a very happy man.
This page is all about striving to make the most of every second of this precious life we’ve been blessed with. To fill each minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run.
It’s about challenging yourself to go places nobody thought you were capable of.
It’s about doing all this to honour a loved one. This Friday is the second anniversary of Diane’s passing and as you might expect, it’s a pretty dark time.
I still sit and talk to her in my head but when I look across at where she always sat, she’s still not there. I keep thinking she might suddenly reappear and everything will be OK again, but I know that’s not going to happen. Pain and grief aren’t the main emotions anymore, those are the shock reactions to loss which are the first to fade. I just feel sad, that’s all. There’s no better way to describe it. A little three-letter word which manages to sum up the mad whirl of emotions that are racing around my head in this, the most awful week of the year.
But with that sadness comes a determination to never let her go. She is still very much with me and she still guides me. Towards the end of last year, she went away for a while but in the last couple of weeks she has returned to steer me back on course. It shows how much I relied on her in life and how much I still depend on her to help me make the right choices.
She fills my heart and mind and I talk to her every day. So I’m lucky. Two years ago next week, we gathered to celebrate her life as we said our last goodbyes to her as we had known her. That’s what must be my focus now. Celebration. 20 glorious years with one of the kindest, most generous people you could ever meet. And that 20 years is hers and mine forever. I cherish every moment I spent with her and I continue to cherish every moment still. Even after all that has happened, we are still together.
She is running with me again, and when the days threaten to get scarily dark, she is there to light the way. Running With Diane – look up and not down, ahead and not behind. That’s what I promised her two years ago. And that’s what I must continue to do, for her.
We have such happy memories. But the miracle is that every day she creates new ones for me. What I have done so far in turning my life around has been done with her – we’ve created these moments together. I couldn't have done it without her guiding me. And whatever I achieve in the future, that will be us doing it, not just me.
So I promise you, Diane, that this year will be bigger and better than last year. And every year that follows will outdo the last. That’s my pledge. My way of honouring you.

Thanks for sticking with me still, and not giving up on me. Cancer tried to separate us. But it failed.   

Monday, 26 January 2015

Back on track

THESE are the darkest weeks. It’s coming up to two years since I lost my beloved Diane and the pain of being without someone so special doesn’t get any easier.
It seems to me the pain doesn’t diminish; it’s just the ability to deal with it and manage it which improves over time. I feel the sense of loss has increased, if anything. Every day that passes just confirms how she’s not coming back, how this is what life is now, a life without Diane to hold and, in a literal sense, lean on. The longer I am without her alongside me, the greater the sadness that this is how it will always be.
Of course, I lean on her still emotionally and she is as much a part of me in my heart and mind as she always was in life. But that warmth of her next to me, that sense of comfort you get from having someone there alongside you, that is still missing and the more it is missing, the more lonely you feel.
I’m lucky that I am surrounded by good people, friends who are supportive and who understand. I’m blessed to have my two beautiful doggies Cassie and Bonny looking after me, caring for me. And I’m extra blessed to have discovered running.
During the months after my first “fun” triathlon in Nantwich in September, I admit I lost my way a bit. It was difficult to get motivated and when I did run, it usually ended up in disappointment, a reminder that if you neglect to train, your body will go backwards. All that progress you made will be at risk. And yet you still can’t seem to convince yourself to knuckle down and get back on track.
The winter will always be difficult for me. November 28 is Diane’s birthday, and every year it marks the first of many sad anniversaries that go through Christmas and finish on Valentine’s Day, the day in 2013 when I said farewell to her at her funeral.
So we are in the thick of this dark period. But hope is never far away. We all need hope. It’s what drives us on and makes us strive to see what tomorrow will bring. No hope means no tomorrows.
Diane has reminded me this week of how much I have to look forward to, how much we have to do together this year. And I have started to get on with it. I have begun to feel re-motivated. The anniversary of her passing on February 6, 2013 is fast approaching and as it nears, in a perverse way, I feel her inspiring me again.
You’d think that would see me at my lowest. But strangely no. Yes, these are dark days filled with sad anniversaries. But they are also the days when I remember how courageous she was in those final weeks. How she fought, the dignity she showed.
I held her hand constantly in those final days and I remember now in the depths of this bleak time of the year, how that felt. And it’s the same feeling I have today. I still feel her hand in mine and always will. She is my inspiration and the power behind everything I do .
I’m writing this just as the sun comes up. Another dawn, another tomorrow filled with hope. And hand in hand, Diane and I will continue to strive to fill it. She is still making memories for me.
Selfishly, I have to now admit something. This blog entry is not for you today. It is for me. It is for me to read to myself over and over during the coming days to remind myself that Diane is still my whole life, my reason to do more today than I did yesterday, to aim higher than ever before. To honour her and do justice to her memory, I need to stop thinking ‘I can’t’ and make damned sure ‘I can’.
So she’s at it again. Inspiring me. I’m back on track, thanks to her. As usual, she is and has always been the force makes everything I do possible.
And in this dark, bleak time of remembrance, that fills me with renewed hope.


Monday, 22 September 2014

Crazy? You ain't seen nothing yet...


BOLTON HILL MARATHON 2015


I’m in! Who’s with me? Or should I say, who’s bringing up the rear with me and making the marshals curse about how late it’s getting “and there’s still a few out there”?

There are some things in life you just have to face up to and bite the bullet – and the famous hill marathon in my own back yard is one of them. Inspired by watching my fellow Burndeners tackle the gruelling event last year, I pledged to have a crack at it myself. Now I can’t wait.

If Diane thought that after 40 years as an avid couch potato I was mad to take up running at the age of 58, after ditching nine stones in a year, then she ain’t seen nothing yet.

It will certainly be the toughest thing I will have attempted in my brief life as a distance runner – but I’ve news for you, Diane – it’s not the craziest thing I have planned… Watch this space!