Race #4 – Henley

And so after 10 months of thinking about it and the last month of running, the last race was upon us. Notice how I called this one a ‘race’. Despite the miles already put in – there was a sense of determination amongst Team Awesome, as I now refer to them. Everyone was tired, but everyone wanted to keep striving to knock off a few seconds off their personal bests and go for broke – right until the end.

Saturday night involved texting who could eat the biggest pizza. I’m fairly certain I won – because I struggled to get up the stairs that night – I felt a little like Augustus Gloop and needed rolling into bed. But I didn’t care – it was my last night of guilt free eating for a while.

Our final challenge had an air of notoriety about it. Mainly due to something called Henley Hill. The profile had been circulating on email for a while. It didn’t look pretty. Turned out that was the truth. We liked the flat bits – but not so the steep climb and the run/gallop/hobble down the other side.

So the alarm went at 6.30 and it was the first wake up call in the dark. Porridge was made and consumed and the sun still hadn’t shown its face. Turns out the temperature at that point was 1.3 degrees centigrade. Ouch.

After picking up ‘Gels’ Johnson as he’s become affectionately known to the team, my wonderful family made their last pilgrimage to watch me run, with the aim of high fiving as many runners as they could and for Matthew to hand over my bottle of Lucozade at the desired moment – just like an elite athlete…

It was a beautiful morning by the river in Henley – fog and blue skies and lots of VERY fit looking people in serious running gear set the tone for the day.

I was looking forward to meeting a couple of additional runners in the club house – joining the Awesome Team on our final endeavour. One of whom has recently cleaned out the NHS in operations, drugs and physio on his legs over the years. He was welcomed with open arms into the team and a liberal amount of strapping applied.

As we entered the Henley Rugby Club clubhouse, imagine my surprise when I spotted some other familiar looking faces.

To cut a very long story short, 8 of my oldest friends had been secretly ‘training’ for the last 3 months and had decided to join the team on our last outing (although Jim had completed the Sydney half marathon on the day of our first run – he had a good excuse not being there). At first as I spotted them I thought they were there to support. I was wrong – they were going to run it with us. It’s not often I’m overwhelmed and speechless. Today I was.

After much man hugging, the grand total of 16 of us were going to be running together. Brand new branded “Spud-based” shirts (don’t ask) and newly printed existing shirts were donned, and I made do with my felt tip penned scrawl.

The gun went and we were off. What with the commotion, warming up was somewhat of an after thought. Mr Carpenter my awesome pacemaker was at my side again, Mr Lycra and the Machine had taken their celebrity start positions and Gels Johnson and the Honorary Lad, Mrs Carpenter settled into their pace, with Henley Hill very much in mind.

The course was tricky – cross country at times, with little room for manoeuvrings. The Thames looked stunning and the small, occasional crowd mainly drunk tea. I was forced at one point to ask for a cheer, and made another man wave his union jack slightly more vigorously. It was Henley after all.

After a loop, we were back into town for much support, and Matthew handed over my Lucozade perfectly. We were then to be faced with the hill from hell. Less said about it the better. It was steep and winding and never ending. As I got near the top, I spotted two of our new team members – C Fink and L Fink and we ran down the hill together on the other side like a cross between a wounded gazelle and and a malfunctioning robot. There’s no right way to run 0.5 of a mile downhill quickly. However you do it, it hurts.

Chris and Lucy turned into my new pacemakers for the last 4 miles. I’d taken a look at the watch and decided another PB wasn’t on the cards. That wasn’t going to stop me trying and to say I was pleased when I looked at my watch after I’d crossed the line, was an understatement. I was knackered and somehow had indeed managed another personal best time.

It was then time to cheer the remainder home. Pricey and Simon The Machine lead the pack, with Harvey Lycra and Mr Murray next. With myself and Mr and Mrs Fink next – we then had the great pleasure of cheering home (in no particular order) Wilco, Fairchamp, Gorzy, Lord Jones, Jockey, Godba, Mr and Mrs Carpenter, and with yet another PB, the legend that is Gels Johnson.

Truly amazing – everyone did themselves proud. A lot of DNA swapping ensued through sweaty man (and woman) hugging for the next hour.

Whilst this was all going on, it’s sometimes easy to forget why we were doing it. A quick look at the Just Giving website reminded me – our total was around the £10,100 mark.

My idyllic afternoon of buying the Sunday Times for the first time this year and putting my feet up was then thoroughly spoilt by the surprise hosting of 54 people for carb replacement chilli (and an occasional beer).

I didn’t mind.

It was a day I will never forget.

 

Race #3 – Windsor

So, it doesn’t get much closer for us – Windsor is a stone’s throw from base – so you’d think we’d get there on time, there’d be no queues and it would all be nice and smooth?

Not so much – the traffic wasn’t great and the mile walk to the start? Well – let’s call it a good warm up.

The awesome team (TM) joined 4,00o others for a lunchtime ‘kickoff’ this time. Porridge had to be postponed. Routines were confused. Some had had double breakfast or early lunch. Some had brought extra gels in their activity belts.

I felt nervous. This was always going to be the hardest psychologically. The third one – hot off the heels of the second one. People were tired. Fortunately, no one knew the profile of the course, or I suspect few (including me) would have turned up!

Windsor (apparently) is notorious. Basically, you know flat bits? well, Windsor doesn’t have any. Flat wasn’t part of the plans for the Great Park, when they errrr built it 100’s of years ago. They thought it would be funny to put loads of long hills in. So they did. Unknown to us.

The start line was great – lots of crowds lining the Great Walk. When I managed to get a few of them cheering and being ‘non-Windsor’ like – it was even better. It starts with a run up to the Copper Horse at the very top of the hill. From there, it’s a couple of circuits of the beautiful (but did I mention, hilly?) Great Park.

My pacemaker Mr Carpenter had agreed not to be quite as ‘ambitious’ as the previous race and we started together, a little slower. The Lycra one and the Machine were ahead. Mr Gel Johnson and Mrs Carpenter were in our rear view mirrors – but battling.

The hills hurt. A lot. I’m not quite sure how, but I managed to overcome them – I felt good and I was making the most of it. I even managed to get the crowd ‘whooping’ a couple more times, which felt good for confidence. Scrawling “MARK” on the front of my running top was also a big help. People like to cheer on people with real names so it seems.

Once again, family and friends were out in support. Children were high fiving and they’ll never know how much it means – we got to see and hear them twice – which was great.

The race finishes down that hill from the Copper Horse. You can see the finish – it’s literally in front of you. But – you can’t touch it… and basically, it doesn’t get any closer, despite running as fast as you can for about 12 minutes. I set another new personal best – and was literally over the moon. I was so focused, I didn’t even see or hear Simon, The Machine cheering me down the last 400m. (He’d finished a couple of hours earlier ;-)).

Once again, everyone did themselves proud. Mr Johnson excelled himself by overcoming the hills, (how about that for an awesome photo?!) and in one of the highlights of this challenge, various children (who we own) accompanied him down the hill to the finish for the last mile – giving him the lift he needed. Superb.

Three quarters of the way there… one to go – Henley. Next Sunday.

What a month.

The Kayak half marathon

Mr Birchmore joined us in the pub on that ‘fateful’ day back in November 2011, where I pitched this ridiculous Autumn challenge to the team.

He’d signed up for the Great North Run – got his place, but after weeks of training (ahem) his knees just stopped working and he had to admit defeat. Running was never going to happen.

Not one to give up, he decided to contribute to the challenge, without much use of his legs – and go with the arms only tactic instead.

On Saturday, the day before Race #3, Windsor, Steve decided to paddle up (and down) the Thames, in his kayak and do a half marathon on the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those of you thinking that’s straight forward. It’s not. When the current is flowing at 5 mph one way, and you want to head upstream, guess what? You need to paddle at 5mph to stay still. You know where I’m coming from I’m sure…

Steve completed his half marathon in twice the time the rest of us do our walking ones -in 3 hours, 58 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another legend to add to our hall of fame.

Race #2 – Bristol

So, not quite as far for us all to go this time… The Great North Run really was quite a long way to go, just to run between two places.

Bristol is my old university town, with a lot of fond memories. To run round it, for me was very special.

The Awesome Team (TM) assembled on College Green on Sunday morning – Bristol seemed quite relaxed. 10,000 others assembled around us, and before we knew it, the Machine and the one with Lycra on bounded off to their celebrity start line (towards the front of the pack). The rest of us mere mortals joined the throng, near the back.

There were no red arrows this time, but no rain either – confidence was high, having had a full 14 days’ rest! My pace maker, Mr Carpenter and I therefore decided it would be a great idea to head off at sub-8 minute miles. A plan I quickly ducked out of and let him go on his way.

The first 7 miles head out along the Avon, under the Clifton suspension bridge… and back again. Few crowds, but as flat as it gets. It also means you get to see the fast guys coming back on the other side of the road, which meant high fives, various, across the central reservation as team members went past. Nice.

The course then heads back into Bristol City Centre, where the crowds are waiting, including our very own support – awesome families with boundless energy, who’ll never really know what it feels like to hear and see their support when you’re struggling at 10 miles.

Bristol threw in a curve ball with some small, but rather annoying hills between miles 9 and 13. They hurt, Bristol – it wasn’t really what we had signed up for. Cobbles too made for an interesting end to the race.

Everyone did incredibly well. I somehow managed a new personal best, fresh off the previous race’s personal best and the legend that is Mr P Johnson smashed 5 mins off his best time too. Most of his arms and legs remained strapped to him too and his gels activity belt did the job.

I’m afraid to say there were a few tears at the end – these things do get a bit emotional, especially when Mrs Carpenter gives you a hug. It’s my feminine side – I just can’t help it. It makes you realise how special the people are, who are doing this with me.

2 down. 2 to go – but the next one’s in 7 days and as I write this on the Monday, I still am avoiding stairs.

Gulp.

The Maidenhead Advertiser features our challenge

Click on the image to read the full article.

The story – featured on BBC1

Moments after I finished the Great North Run, the BBC played out the piece about the story and our challenge. I didn’t actually see it for about 24 hours – but thought I’d capture it for prosperity.

My son, Matthew was rather pleased to see himself on TV – even if he was only a day old!

Race #1 – The Great North Run

A weekend to remember

I’m embarrassed to say that despite making it to the ripe old age of 40, Friday was my very first trip to the North East of the UK.

After picking up the children from school, 3 of the challenger families hit the road and convoyed to Durham. Some of us stopping at a rather splendid American Diner, somewhere on the A1 to begin the process of carb loading, without feeling guilty. Even then, we were surrounded by tables of runners and families – the scale of the event began to hit us.

The Saturday was spent in Newcastle, under blue skies with hundreds watching the Great North mini-run. My son Matthew making his debut at the 1.5km distance along with dozens of other children – some being chased by ‘accompanying adults’, whilst some were some way ahead, leaving their so-called ‘accompanying adult’ for dust.

Matthew, Amelia, Dominic and Jessica from our team all did a fantastic job and enjoyed their receiving their medals.

It was then onto the pasta party. The lengths us Brits will go to for a free bowl of pasta is amazing. Fortunately the 30min queue wasn’t 30 mins – and the process of carb loading for the next day continued. The sky remained blue as one of the older children, Lewis entered the 4.5km in the afternoon, shortly after the legend Mo Farrah competed in the City Games – also being held on the quayside.

Our first experience of Newcastle was a good one. Today we were standing under the Tyne Bridge spectating. Tomorrow we would be running across it on the way to our first half marathon.

The challenger team continued to join via train throughout the day and even more carb loading took place in Durham in the evening at the very accommodating Zizzis.

After debating whether beer contained carbs, we all agreed one wouldn’t hurt (like any group of elite athletes). Simon “The Machine” Hodgkinson opted for a second, to much tutting. It turned out he knew what he was doing.

Sunday started earlier than planned with an unscheduled 5.25 alarm call (sorry again Paul). One day I’ll learn how to use my iPhone. At 6.30, we got up and can I just give a massive thanks to the Premier Inn, Durham – they started breakfast early for us runners. I would imagine the Quaker Oats factory had been working overtime that night – a lot of porridge was consumed, not to mention a handful of cheeky fry ups – Mo Farrah would have been proud.

Without any form of plan b, we then took the very last possible train to Newcastle. The weather was perfect from a running perspective – not so from a crowd perspective. We were early to the start line and only then did it dawn on us all the scale of the Great North Run. 55,000 runners is a lot of runners and a lot of baggage and a lot of water bottles and a lot of toilet queues!

The magnificent team were now assembled….

  • Carol was walking – she was injured and had planned to revise for her interview on Monday by studying postcards on the way round.
  • Paul was heavily loaded with gels – carefully positioned around his activity belt.
  • Simon downed a litre of Castrol GTX shortly before putting his baggage in the bus.
  • Murray mainly worried about whether there was enough time to get changed and get his kit on the bus.
  • Harvey wore far too much lycra, mainly obscuring the cause we were running for.
  • Jonathan was lucky enough to be selected by me as my pacemaker.
  • I continued to maintain I wasn’t interested in running a good time. I was there just for the fun. I lied.

The start line was amazing – the Red Arrows, the warm up and the Mexican Wave will remain with me for a long time.

At 10:40 the gun went. At 10:59 it started raining. At 11:00 we went over the start line!

Before we did though, I was lucky enough to ‘high five’ the legend that is Mo Farrah who held the starting gun. His hands must have been seriously sore by the end.

The rain came down, the crowds came out and the first 5 miles literally flew by. We were running a good pace.

We were helped at 4 miles by the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research team bus – much cheering and support from our families from a very wet top deck.

At around 6 miles, I had to stop for a rather special experience with Denise Lewis:

The remainder of the race got harder and hillier. Murray was a legend – he took over as ‘my pacemaker’ – and really forced the pace.

The last mile was pretty special – not only did it feel like it lasted 3 miles, the crowds grew, we were finally on the flat by the beach and we could taste the Powerade and chocolate miniroll cocktail we were about to enjoy.

Massive respect to Simon The Machine, who finished in an incredible 1’32.

Huge respect to everyone else too – everyone did great times. Particularly Carol, who obviously did run, despite being injured and Paul who by his own admission hates running and will be hanging up his trainers when this is all over. That’s what makes all of these people very special in my eyes.

We were all greeted at the charity tent by our families who had covered almost as many miles as us around the course. The children had been fantastic – on ferries, trains, buses and on foot.

Wind forward a mere 10.5 hours and we were all home safely in Bray.

We were happy. We were exhausted. We were slightly achy, but we were ready for the next half marathon in Bristol.

And the total kept climbing…

Denise Lewis to interview Mark half way round!

I was absolutely thrilled to get a call from the BBC this week and find out Denise Lewis, the gold medal winning legend is going to be interviewing me half way round the Great North Run. Somehow, at the half way point, I need to stop, say something sensible, not dribble in front of a celebrity sports star and then carry on for another 6.5 miles!!

With a bit of luck, they’ll then show it at some point during the broadcast on BBC1 on Sunday morning.

To inflate my ego even more, Denise sent me a nice little message…

Alastair Campbell backs our cause

In another scoop retweet, Alastair Campbell, Chairman of fundraising for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research backs our challenge:

Sir Ian Botham gives his seal of approval

Always rather special when a celebrity gets in touch. When it’s a knight of the realm and a sporting legend to boot – it makes me very proud.

Here it is – fresh off the Twittersphere. Click for full screen.