Saturday, 19 July 2014

The awesome Ironmen

It's Ironman weekend in Bolton, when men become supermen. It's a weekend they will never forget, when they rise to be, quite simply, legends. They are doing something beyond the capability of billions of people. They define the word elite and they deserve every accolade they receive. They are simply awesome.
It is their spirit and drive which has inspired me to want to learn to swim and ride a bike so I can compete in a junior triathlon. After that, who knows? One thing I've learnt over the past 18 months is that you should never say never. Never say enough is enough because whatever you have achieved, there's always more.
No-one can ever stop and say they've done it all. No human in the history of mankind has ever been able to. No matter how much they achieved, there was still more to strive for. That's what should drive us on every day. We should always aim high, and then higher and never stop testing ourselves. 
There is no such thing as failure if you try to achieve something. 
The only failure is if you don't try. If you limit yourself to what you think you can do, instead of saying to yourself: 'I wonder how much I can do', then you have let yourself down. 
Realise your full potential.
Don't tell yourself you can't run lose weight and get fit, ask yourself: 'I wonder if I can lose weight and get fit'. Don't shrug your shoulders and say you'll never be able to run a 5K, ask yourself: 'I wonder if I can run a 5K'. Then when you achieve what you didn't think you could, you suddenly wonder just how far you can take all this.
A 10K, a 10-miler, a half, a full marathon... and then, maybe, just maybe, have a crack at even more.
Diane's courage in her six and a half year battle against breast cancer has inspired me to reach for stuff I never dreamed possible. With her to guide me, I went from someone who said ‘I could never do that’ to someone who wondered if he could.
If you’d told me at the start of 2013 when I weighed 24 stone and struggled up a flight of stairs that I could run 50 yards if I put my mind to it, I'd have laughed at you. If I'd had the breath to.
But losing Diane changed everything. I realised how precious every second of life is, how it’s so foolish to waste a single moment wondering.
Better to fill that moment trying.
So my dream to lose weight became my dream to run a 5K and then a 10K. And that became a dream to run a half marathon and then a full one. Now that has become a dream to learn to swim and cycle to have a go at a triathlon. And if that works out, who knows?
Nobody knows. That’s the answer. Nobody knows. Least of all you until you have a go and see for yourself.
Never say never. Always reach for what you think is impossible and even if you come up short you’ll be amazed how far you travelled just attempting it.
That’s what I learned in Rotterdam. I was devastated. I thought I’d failed. Then I realised how far I’d come and that this was just another lesson along the way.
I might never get to a sufficiently high standard to do an Ironman. I still swim like I'm in an invisible diving suit and have yet to summon up the courage to ride a bike in traffic, but I swim better than I did three weeks ago and today I rode a bike for the first time with something bordering on confidence. It’s coming.
So as Ironmen test themselves to their own limit, this weekend has seen me take a giant leap forward too.
I might never be able to attempt an Ironman but don't tell me I can't.
If I am not able to, it will because I tried and didn't make it. That's something entirely different.
The amazing athletes competing in the gruelling event this weekend didn’t get to the start line because they knew they could. They got there because they wouldn’t let anyone tell them they couldn’t. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014


Can't swim or ride a bike? I know what I'll do...

A FEW weeks ago, I had another of those moments. One very similar to the one that last September after completing (eventually) my first 5K run EVER around Salford’s shiny new Quays. I loved it, and that was when I decided I wanted to go for a marathon.
At the time, as I plodded up the slight rise to the finish line outside the Lowry Theatre, it seemed outrageous to even contemplate the idea of doing 26.2 miles.
Trouble is, I couldn’t see why not. I knew it would be the biggest challenge of my life but I saw no reason why not. If I could do 5K I could do 10, surely. And when I’d done 10, wouldn’t I be able to try that seven-miler at Longridge where you get a Christmas pudding? Why not? Then, after that, why not a half? And so on, and so on, until in April in Rotterdam I found myself lining up for my first marathon attempt.
That day, it wasn’t to be (see earlier posts for the unfortunate reasons) but my weekend’s experience in the city where Diane spent her childhood taught me a valuable lesson – you just don’t turn up and run a marathon. You have to earn every step.
And so at Liverpool six weeks later, after I had knuckled down and put more minutes on my legs, I managed it. So I proved that with the inspiration of someone special, someone who was my whole life for more than 20 years, I wasn’t mad when I dared to dream.
And I’m not mad today when I come out of the triathlon closet and reveal that I am now in training to complete my first three-discipline event as the latest chapter in the Running With Diane story in aid of the support charity Breast Cancer Care.
When I say “in training”, what I really mean is “in learning”. 
Two weeks ago I had never sat on a bike in my life, even as a child. Just never had one. Don’t know why but it never happened – never entered my head to ask for one and never crossed my mum and dad’s minds to get me one. Also, two weeks ago, I swam like a ship’s anchor.
I don’t quite know why I’m doing this, but I am. It’s kind of happened by accident. 
After the marathon, I had to come up with something even more crazy to do for the charity. Then someone happened to say triathlon and I was hooked on the idea.

This was Lesson 1. Lesson 2 seemed a long way off...

Now, after taking my first tentative steps at both swimming and riding a bike, I can report that I can swim half a length of the local pool breaststroke. Well, it’s a start. If this amazing transformation in me has taught me one thing it’s that small steps bring big changes.
For example, I can pedal a bike now. I still look like I’m cycling through an earthquake, but I’m definitely pedalling and definitely improving. Once I feel in control of the damned thing, I’m sure I’ll feel a lot better. So will the bike.
I like to go for things people think I’ve no chance of achieving. Every day, I want to prove someone wrong about me. I want to surprise somebody all the time. Diane is still my driving force and I know she’ll be with me every moment – just like she has been so far. This is for her again, because I know if I promise to do it for her, I won’t allow myself to waver in my efforts.
The target is a “fun” triathlon at Nantwich in September, then a sprint version before the end of the year and a full Olympic one in the new year.
Yes, September. Yes, this year. Now you think I really have lost the plot, I suppose. You could be right. We’ll see.
If I manage to hit that target, it will be just 15 months since I joined the gym at Smithills, 13 months since running for the first time on a road and 10 months since joining the Burnden Road Runners club.
If I complete my first full triathlon early in 2015, it will be less than two years since, with my weight at 24 stones and suffering from diabetes, I struggled to even get up a flight of stairs.
It will also be just under two years since the death of Diane, whose courage and bravery during her battle against breast cancer has been my inspiration for turning my life around.
Breast Cancer Care does incredible work to help families across the UK living every day under the cloud of cancer, just as we did. There are more than 500,000 such families, and more than 50,000 women and men will discover in the next 12 months that they have the disease.
Nothing prepares you for that day when the bombshell diagnosis is given. The fall-out is terrible and your world becomes dark and desolate. But Breast Cancer Care is there to pick you up and help you through. Miracles do happen. For some, the clouds do disappear.
Sadly, too often – as in Diane’s case – they don’t. But the fight goes on and we won’t stop until we beat this terrible disease.
So what’s a bit of swimming, cycling and running – with Diane helping me every inch of the way – compared to what these families are going through every moment of their lives and compared to what Diane had to suffer.
Can’t swim, can’t ride a bike, can’t run too well? Sounds like the perfect challenge for the two of us... How about it, Di?

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Now what have we here ..?

Countdown Clocks

A dream finish

I had crossed that finish line a thousand times. Maybe more. First of all in the weeks leading up to my first marathon attempt in Rotterdam, then, over the last month, I dreamed about the final few strides of the Liverpool Rock N Roll Marathon instead.
This time it happened for real. I crossed it with my head filled with thoughts of Diane. I could feel her hand in mine and hear her voice in my ear, encouraging me and giving me a reason to believe I could do it.
She was there the whole 26.2 miles of the city where I spent my teenage years. I recognised many places I had not been to for decades and on this special day they became unforgettable landmarks on the route of a journey which began just over a year ago.
A journey that started with a promise Diane made me make. During the years of her battle against breast cancer, she would occasionally speak about how I would cope without her. It was never a conversation that lasted very long as I refused to even contemplate such an empty world and talk of death was off the table.
She was worried about my health. Typical of her spirit of generosity. She was fighting cancer and she was worried about me. But I couldn’t talk about it. I might have been 24 stone, suffering mobility problems with my weight and having Type 2 diabetes, but I didn’t have cancer. How could I harp on about my health while she was courageously fighting her life-or-death battle. What I was suffering paled into insignificance next to her struggle.
Yet still she worried about me.
I would be fine, we would be fine, everything would be fine, I said, once this terrible disease was driven out of our lives. Everything would be all right, just wait and see. Then we can worry about me. Not before.
There was no need for her to worry, I told her, no need to discuss it. She was not dying. She was not going anywhere. There would never be a time when I was without her. There would never be a time when I had to go to bed alone, to wake alone, to live life alone.
At least, that’s what I told myself. It’s called hope, and it is the bedrock of the human spirit. It lives in all of us and it’s what drives us on when times are tough.
If Diane thought I could calmly sit there and rationally, logically, almost coldly, plan a life without her, she was wrong. I couldn’t even imagine such an existence, a life without the woman with whom I had shared the happiest 21 years of my life, so no, no, no. No need to discuss this because we will be fine.
For her to be brave enough even to mention what would happen if cancer took her life shows the kind of selfless person she was. And why she was such an inspiration to me from the moment I first met her.
Then, in February 2013, cancer consumed her body and our lives changed forever. But wait. Cancer didn’t win. It didn’t take her from me. There hasn’t been a moment since then when we haven’t been together. Our relationship is simply different now, but not less strong. She is still always here. Just not in the way she used to be.
It was her idea for me to look up and not down, ahead and not behind. She didn’t tell me this during those conversations about life without her. Like I said, I couldn’t, wouldn’t sit and talk about losing her like that. No, she told me later, after cancer thought it had won.
She told me in the unspoken way soul-mates instinctively know what the other is thinking or wants. She didn’t tell me to go to the gym. I just one day got the notion to. A notion she put there without me realising at the time. From there she kept prompting me further.
Why else would I take up running after 40 years of not doing a tap, decades of being the poster boy for couch potatoes everywhere? Why else would I take up running when the furthest I ever ran was for a bus?
Not only that, but why, after years of being the least driven and competitive person you could wish to meet, did I suddenly become energised with some steely determination to do anything that people told me I couldn’t
Because Diane wanted me to. She did it as her side of The Promise. So she was the one who got me to the start line in Liverpool last week and she was the one who held me tight as I crossed the finish line.
And she wants me to do it all over again. And soon. And more besides. She hasn’t finished on her promise to me yet.

One special member of the Running With Diane story

There are many people to whom I owe a great debt to for getting me to that finish line. I’m not going to fall into the trap of naming them all individually – partly because I might accidentally forget to include someone and partly because there isn’t enough room on this computer’s memory to list them all anyway.
But I cannot go without mentioning Bev Walker. She has asked to stay in the background in all this, but I can’t allow that. She was the person who got me round on the day in under five-and-a-half hours, that magical target which was the Rotterdam cutoff time.
Maybe I could have dragged myself round but not in that time. She was simply awesome.
Her offer to run in Liverpool with me lifted my spirits enormously at a time when the doubts were creeping in and with her managing my race, I knew my chances of success had suddenly shot up.
She has a special place in the Running With Diane story now. And she has my undying thanks for making it happen the way it did.

And to see my running pals Dave Pearson and Lesley Fisher at the finish line – as well as my closest and most treasured friend in the world Pam McVitie - to cheer me home was the icing on a very wonderful cake.

Hang on. Did I say cake, Maria?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

My turn, Diane

NOW it’s my turn to show Diane round the streets where I grew up.
The Liverpool Rock N Roll Marathon promises to be another hugely emotional experience for the two if us. This time, I hope we cross that finish line together, hand in hand, like I’ve dreamt it and lived it over and over in my head.
As I write this, there are just three days to go. Three days until the day I write the closing lines of Chapter One in the story of this life-changing experience.
I’ve tried to keep a low profile and avoid making rash predictions, like the ones I made as my first attempt in Rotterdam approached last month. I've learnt my lesson there. But I’m getting just a little bit excited as the next big day draws near, so I can’t keep quiet any longer.
After all, this is not about whether I do this or not on Sunday, it’s about honouring the life of a very special woman, whose bravery as she stared death in the face was extraordinary. My Diane.
It’s also about raising awareness of the charity Breast Cancer Care and the incredible work its staff and supporters do for families going through the same day-to-day hell that we did.
Since I started running last August, around 30,000 more women have discovered they have breast cancer. They – like the already 500,000-plus families in the UK living their everyday lives under the cloud of this terrible disease - endured that moment, that single moment when it is confirmed, when your worst fears are realised and your hopes are dashed. The moment which changes your life forever.
The moment you uncross your fingers, and stop believing in miracles.
Breast Cancer Care is there for all these families right where it matters, helping to rebuild lives shattered by this one moment. Miracles still do happen, and gradually you restore the belief that one of them could actually happen to you. For some it will, for others – like Diane – sadly not.
I run with Diane for all of them, whether or not a miracle is on their way.
That’s why this Sunday is so important. Perhaps even more important than Rotterdam. I need to honour my pledge to the many wonderful people who have supported the Running With Diane appeal, for all the heroes who work for Breast Cancer Care and for every person going through what we did. Whatever the future holds for them.
Diane and I did our best in Rotterdam but I guess we just weren’t quite ready. Now I feel the time might be right. And Liverpool still holds a deeply personal meaning for us both.
She showed me her beloved Rotterdam where she spent her happy childhood. Now it’s my turn to show her where I grew up, places she never got to see when she was alive.
I never got to show her, but I wish now I had, where we lived just outside Woolton Village on the way to Hunt’s Cross. Where I went to school at Liverpool College in Mossley Hill. I wanted to show her Penny Lane Records round the corner from school where I snuck to one day to buy the single Roundabout by Yes the Monday it came out in 1972. You weren’t allowed out of the school gates during school hours in those days but I decided to risk it that lunchtime. I made it back without being spotted. Just.
Sadly the marathon route doesn’t quite reach that far south, but it does course through streets I’ve trodden many times and there’ll be plenty of memories for me to share with her.
I would have wanted to take her on a No72 bus out of the Pier Head homeward bound for Hunt’s Cross, just as I had caught the last one home so many times way back then, after another good night with great friends, a belly full of Higsons and Bass and a smile as wide as the Mersey.
One night, the driver of the last bus home hadn’t bothered to scroll round his destination so as he headed past Lime Street on his way out of town the front of the bus still said “Pier Head”.
A man put his arm out up ahead and the bus pulled up. After three attempts to focus on where the floor of the bus beside the driver was, the man asked to go to the Pier Head.
“I’m not going to the Pier Head,” said the driver. “I’m going to Hunt’s Cross.”
“I want to go to Pier Head,” said the man, “it says Pier Head on the front.”
 “It says India on the ****ing tyres, I’m not going there either,” said the driver. And the man retreated and headed back off into the night.
It’s made me smile then and it still does over 40 years later. I think they call it rapier wit.
A little further on, the driver’s radio played Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. It was the first time I’d heard it.  This week, I’ve had another of his songs in my head. Get It Right Next Time.

No use complainin’, don’t you worry, don’t you whine
Cause if you get it wrong, you’ll get it right next time.

I got it wrong in Rotterdam but can't complain. And though I worried, I promised myself I certainly wouldn’t whine. There would a chance soon to get it right next time.
And here we are.
Back at the foot of another mountain, looking up, saying “Bring it on.”
The race starts at the Albert Dock. When I was living in Liverpool back in the 70s that was all it was. A dock called Albert. Grim, unloved, an eyesore. Now it is transformed, home to galleries, the Tate, cafes, craft shops, designer outlets, the Beatles Story, quayside apartments and sailing clubs.
Ah, The Beatles. More song titles spring to mind. Help! would probably have to be the first, if I’m honest. Then maybe The Long and Winding Road? Or how about Run For Your Life
In the end, only one sums out how I got here, how I made it to the start line and how it became possible to even dream this moment, let alone achieve it.
With a Little (it ought to say ‘a lot of’) Help From My Friends.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Diane works her magic again

MORE than a week has passed since the devastating disappointment of my marathon debut in Rotterdam. And it’s been a time of soul-searching and reflection.
It has been time well spent.
I needed to process what had happened and what was to happen next. I had already decided only minutes after failing to finish what was to happen immediately after. I knew there and then I had to find another marathon quickly to prove I could do the distance and to honour my commitment to the many generous people who had supported the Running With Diane appeal for the cancer support charity Breast Cancer Care.
So in less than five weeks, I take on the Liverpool marathon and it is hoped that the first part of this journey will come to its conclusion round the streets where I grew up instead of Plan A which was to do it round the streets of Rotterdam where Diane spent her childhood.
I still feel disappointed, still feel like I blew it on the day it mattered most. But that is because of the reason I was running it and the reason why I was running it in Rotterdam.
I knew it would be an emotional day. But I expected that emotion to be elation, not despair.
Back at the hotel, as I gazed out at Diane's beloved Rotterdam, I also made another promise – to her mainly. I will return next April to tackle it again - and every year until I conquer it. And every year after that, if truth be told, because this weekend will become an annual tribute to the woman who still guides me every step of the way despite losing her to breast cancer in February last year.
It will be a kind of pilgrimage, I guess. And when my legs won’t carry me round anymore, I shall go just to 

watch, to be a part of it, to cheer on the runners – including the ones who, like me now, will be trying to achieve what they never dreamed possible.
As I had predicted, Diane was with me every step of the 20 miles I was allowed to run. And she was with me afterwards helping to console me.
As were my friends. The messages of support I got from my fellow Burnden Roadrunners, relatives, friends and work colleagues were staggering. I felt I didn’t deserve such kindness at the time, but they convinced me otherwise. I couldn’t have got this far without their support and encouragement. And they still have their work cut out to get over that finish line at the Pier Head!
The first thing Diane told me as I sloped back to the start/finish area in Rotterdam, head bowed and feeling defeated, was that no-one said it would be easy. Nothing worth having is ever easy.
That’s why when I do eventually conquer Rotterdam, it will mean so much more.
People have reminded me where I was a year ago and how far I have come. That’s true, but the problem is I can’t let myself look back to a year ago until I have finished my first marathon. I will not shrug my shoulders and say I have done my best. I will not accept that I have come as far as I can. I will not let myself come up short. I have loads more to achieve. More adventures.
Hopefully, the streets of Liverpool will now be where I will finally reach the finish line. Then, and only then, will I look back and see how far I’ve come.
I will never pause and pat myself on the back while I am still short of where I want to be. Diane knows that, although she’s as bemused as I am where this mean streak in me has suddenly appeared from.
Wherever I was a year ago doesn’t alter the fact that I wasn’t where I wanted to be that Sunday in Rotterdam.
Don’t get me wrong. I am now grateful for what happened in Rotterdam. I perhaps needed to be reminded that I had come a long way, but still have a long way to go. It reminded me that it’s a journey that will go on for many years.
I had a magical weekend in the company of some wonderful friends and I saw loads more of this fantastic city than I did on my first visit at the beginning of the year. The crowds were awesome, the occasion was wonderful and I took away far more happy memories than that one sad one.
I have learned a lot from this. A lot about running. And a lot about myself. I know now this wasn’t failure. It was just another twist in the story. It was the marathon gods telling me I wasn't yet ready to earn that finish line elation.
Hopefully, they will smile on me in Liverpool.
I have emerged stronger from this setback. I am more focused, more determined and, most importantly, wiser. I feel a better runner for it. And, most importantly, it has given me fresh goals in life.
And it has made me a better person because I know more about myself now than I did when I lined up with the other 13,500 runners at the start line.
Diane has worked her magic again.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

My unique and beautiful Rotterdam medal

I might not have earned a finisher's medal, but I have one more special than all those handed out.
My medal is unique. No-one else went away from Rotterdam with one of these except me.
It was given to me by my closest friend. It reminds me that this weekend was about Diane and not about me.
It was about enduring love and her incredible courage. It was about how one person can make a difference.
Diane showed me 20 miles of this beautiful city and it left me wanting more.
Zo dank je wel voor mijn mooie medaille, Els. Het is erg lief, en ik ben zeer gelukkig om je als een vriend.

Now I must honour my commitment to the many people who have donated to the appeal, who have coached me, run with me, supported me and encouraged me. To Burnden Roadrunners, to all at Smithills Sports Centre in Bolton, Lancs. They still have their work cut out.
I promised to run a marathon in memory of Diane in aid of the charity Breast Cancer Care and is important I do that quickly.
So I am off to Liverpool to run the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon to complete the task I couldn't manage in Rotterdam.
From the streets where Diane grew up to the streets where I spent my teenage years.
And the good news is I'll still be Running With Diane.