‘A Cooling Breeze to the Midriff’
‘That’s your title right there – A Cooling Breeze to the Midriff’, was the instant email response from Publicity Officer Ed when I offered to write one of these articles, and as usual he was spot-on. Not just because I’d told him it’s what I most remember about the mesh-panelled Bolton School running vests of the mid-1980s, but because the photo I’d sent him brings back so many memories. And yes, that is one J.R.Walsh in the middle as team captain. Not that we were a very good cross-country team; it was more of a football school. But it’s where my running story started, and I’m glad it did.
Bolton School, Boys’ Division (there was a separate school for the girls) was (and is) a fine institution with strong traditions, one of which was the annual inter-house cross-country race – participation compulsory. Usually I would finish around 15 th or 16 th out of the 130 or so boys in the year. Not bad, but that all changed in the fifth form, when I stopped playing football, at which I was OK but not great, and starting running every week instead.
I must have got fitter and faster, because 200 yards into that year’s race I was amazed to find myself leading the field. I remember thinking, as we turned out of the school gates onto Chorley New Road, ‘If I carry on like this, I’m going to win’, and that’s exactly what happened. I won the race in the following two years as well - titanic battles on both occasions with my friend and rival Chris Bannister. The truth is that Chris was a better runner than me. He used to beat me every week in Saturday morning fixtures against Bury Grammar, Cheadle Hulme or Manchester Grammar School. But I always raised my game once a year for the House cross-country, as it was the only race of which the non-runners (i.e. 98% of the school) took any notice.
I stopped doing sport completely at university. Without the routine of Mr Gottard (Master in charge of cross-country, and a man to whom I owe a lot) geeing us up for training or driving us in the decrepit school bus to the next Saturday fixture, it never really occurred to me to get involved in the University athletics scene. Looking back, that is a real regret, as there was time to do it and, I’m sure, great facilities to enjoy, but I let it pass me by.
Fast-forward 14 years to 2001 and my friends Rachel and Colin were running the London Marathon. That set me thinking – not that I should run a marathon too, but more ‘Hmmm – I used to be a runner. If Rachel and Colin can do the marathon, perhaps I could do some running again’.
I remember going to Run and Become in Westminster and telling the very helpful staff that I wanted some running shoes, not for anything serious, just for running around the local park.
For a while that’s what I did – running around Wimbledon Park and sometimes doing what I considered a ‘long run’ with a loop past the All-England Club. It must have been about 3 miles in total.
I moved to Letchworth in 2004 and continued running solo. After a while I read something about the Standalone 10k and thought that would be a good challenge, but it was still some months away, so I looked around and entered the Flitwick 10k – my first race since school. I remember getting to about 7k and thinking ‘Wow – I’m going to finish this!’. It was the furthest I had ever run and I was pretty pleased with the achievement.
I ran Standalone later than year, then Flitwick again, then a work colleague talked me into the Watford Half-marathon and then I did Grunty Fen Half and then Watford again and then – well you all know how where this leads. Sure enough, a few years after telling the Run and Become lady that I just wanted to run around the park, I found myself lining up on the Champs Élysées for the start of the 2008 Paris Marathon. As I hobbled back to the hotel in the post-race drizzle, a concerned-looking van driver wound down his window: ‘Monsieur – vous avez fini le Marathon?’ ‘Oui’, I grinned / grimaced back - ‘J’ai fini le Marathon’. ‘Bravo, Monsieur! Bravo!’ he shouted as he drove off. Wow – I was a marathon runner.
A few months earlier I had plucked up the courage to go along to North Herts Road Runners, after a year or more of stalking on the Club’s Forum. I immediately wished I had joined earlier, as everyone was so friendly and positive. After a year’s interruption when living and working in Leeds, I started to get more involved, turning out regularly for training and races. NHRR had become part of my life.
I completed two more marathons – Barcelona in 2009 and London in 2010 - and was pretty happy to get my time down to 3.08.26, but by then I had proved to myself that I was better at the shorter races – especially cross-country, so that is where I have focused my running. I’ve clocked up plenty of 5ks (17.39 PB), 10ks (37.26), Midweek League and XC races for the Club. Highlights have included running in the National Cross-country Championships – an epic event that I’m glad I’ve done three times - and being part of teams that have won the County XC Champs and the National Masters 10k title. None of this would have been possible without the brilliant coaching and encouragement we get at NHRR.
There have even been some individual successes, such as winning the Swavesey 5-mile race, though all the serious runners were doing the accompanying half-marathon the same day. Another small-scale success that I particularly enjoyed was winning the Isles of Scilly 10k in 2008 and being interviewed on Radio Scilly – one of the UK’s smallest radio stations. It was startling to hear my post-race comments being replayed over the PA system in the Co-Op the next day.
The most rewarding things I have done in running have involved sharing my own enthusiasm with other people and seeing them get joy and satisfaction from their own efforts. NHRR is really good at this and we see it in spades at the events we organise. Away from running I am a very keen birder and our annual Bird Run, where a sizeable group of us jog around Oughtonhead Common and take in the local birdlife, has become an offbeat but enjoyable fixture in our Club calendar. I’m still trying to work out whether it’s my pointing out of the local wildlife or Astrid’s post-run home-baking that is the main attraction.
I’ve even managed to make a 5k social run an ‘official’ part of the pensions conference I help to organise in my day-job and it’s great to see how many delegates turn out for it. Men and women in suits come up to me throughout the year and ask ‘James – is the run on again at this year’s
conference?’. Of course it is! Every conference should have one!
Undoubtedly the best thing I have done with NHRR was helping to lead a Beginners Group through the ‘Couch-to-5k’ programme. It was uplifting to see so many people get so much satisfaction from becoming fitter and healthier through running with NHRR. Many of them are now stalwarts of our Club. It’s something we should definitely repeat when the time is right. (No doubt someone on the Committee will collar me about it when they read this….)
Anyway, back to the running story. By 2015 I was pretty heavily involved in the Club, but even so I was surprised when our President, Richard Harbon, asked whether I would consider becoming Chairman. I wasn’t even on the Committee, so I guess they must have been pretty desperate! I did two years in the role – a lot of hard work but hugely rewarding, capped off by us winning the Club of the Year title in the Comet Sports Awards. It’s been fantastic to see the Club go on to flourish even more under Astrid’s brilliant leadership.
I have been pleased to serve for a couple of years as Publicity Secretary and to help on the Race Committee, though I have stepped back a little over the last year due to work demands.
As for my own running, I’ve had quite a lot of niggly injuries over the last 3 or 4 years and haven’t been able to run at anything like the level I would like. There have been too many races where I have been taking photos rather than running. I’ve had to accept that I am a bit older, a little slower and certainly more injury-prone, but I still love being involved with NHRR. It’s the most positive and ‘can do’ organisation I’ve ever known.
Our Club is a fantastic force for good in the local community, whether it's raising money for charity, putting on superb events or helping people get fitter and healthier. We can all be very proud to be members of North Herts Road Runners. I certainly am.
One last comment on that 1980s school running kit, and again it’s from Ed’s emails: ‘Those vests are cool’. Really? I’m not so sure about that. Perhaps he was joking, but who cares? It’s where my running story started, and it’s been a good one for me.
My running, like most people, started at school and I was one of the strange kids that actually enjoyed cross country and joined the Norton school running club. I remember watching the early London Marathons and being in awe and thinking only proper athletes did that. I was never any good, but I enjoyed it.
Well, again like lots of people, when I finished school the running stopped and for me alcohol and motorbikes became much more interesting, and at the age of 25 I started motorcycle racing. Not long after I started I realised that I needed to get myself fit again, so along with cycling I started jogging again. It was slow and probably no more than a couple of miles (no Garmin then). It definitely helped though, and after about 7 or 8 years of it and a few 2nd 3rd and 4th places in national club championships, and of course meeting my now wife Jo - I like to tell her she’s the best trophy I ever won! Well, it all went a bit wrong with a 120 mph crash at Cadwell Park and a shattered hand/wrist/arm and nearly 4 months off work!!! So with a mortgage to pay we decided maybe it was time to pack it in and be sensible - although I’m still thinking of having another go!!!
So over the next few years again running dropped out of my life and with career changes that eventually took me to lorry driving for Sainsburys my fitness dropped and my weight rocketed, so I took up golf and after seeing a photo of a charity golf day that my wife took and seeing 6 or 7 typical rather round truck drivers I was horrified that I was the one in the middle (getting close to 18 stone). So it was off to GL14 gym (now Bannatynes) and having improved my fitness a bit I spotted a poster for Standalone 10k (2008 I think) and my gym instructor challenged me to do it, so I started running to the gym and back very slowly with a workout in the middle and then realised I enjoyed the running much more than the gym. Well Standalone arrived and I was so pleased/surprised to finish in 59 minutes that I was hooked so I carried on doing more running and my next 2 Standalone’s got slower by a minute each time!!! So my neighbour convinced me to join the Road Runners as they were doing a beginners group. Well what a difference training and encouragement made: 2011 Standalone was done in 54 minutes (I think).
More 10ks followed, getting down to 50 minutes and 10 mile races and half marathons, my first being St Albans, and I remember finishing in about 2 hours 30 and saying “I am never doing anything like that again”. Well later that day I was entering another one!!!
And then I just thought I’d put in for the London Marathon because I won’t get in.........well you guessed it: Got in first time! Again, with help/advice and great encouragement from the fantastic club, I was so pleased - not to say amazed - to finish in 4h 23 and ran all the way. I’ve now done 5 marathons which I would have said was impossible as that 18 stone trucker.
I have to thank the wonderful members and coaches for all the help, encouragement and fun over the years, and I feel I have made some great friends at the club too. Recently, I have been struggling with my running mojo, but I’m still getting great encouraging messages from club friends that are getting me to put those trainers on and get out there. And like the kid at school, I’m still never going to be any good, but I enjoy it.
Running? This was just not part of my upbringing. So, bear with me when I am trying to set the scene to my running story. Dad cycled and played squash, and mum played and watched tennis. And for me, at an early age, I stumbled (literally, as I was not very talented) into gymnastics. My younger sister followed suit but turned out to be a natural, quickly progressing to the competition squad. One day a member of my sister’s team was missing for a key competition and for the lack of a better alternative, I was summoned to make up the numbers. After that, I remained in the competition squad. Still not talented, but very determined (stubborn one could say), I slowly earned my place in that squad. I never acquired the grace needed for a beautifully looking beam routine, but I learned that with blood (yes, my hands often), sweat (no comments) and tears (well I was a teenage girl after all), one can achieve a lot and my vault, bars and tumbling routines became pretty decent.
From about 15, I started coaching gymnastics, and by the time I was about 20, while still actively competing, I was a member of the coaching team, sat on my clubs and regional competition committee (no surprise there), coached other coaches and delivered strength and conditioning sessions for the local swimming/triathlon club.
Fast forward to 1998, an opportunity arose to move to England for work. I naturally joined the closest gymnastics club (Marriotts) but discovered that the club’s and regional set up at that time didn’t help with establishing my new UK-based social life (I won the 3 counties over 14’s competition at the age of 27, and on a hangover – say no more). A chronic shoulder inflammation and sampling too many English puddings convinced me that I had to try something else. The work gym was the choice but was mostly boring (I say mostly, as I met my husband Steve there). I joined a Taekwondo club and my flexibility put me at an advantage but didn’t have the desired weight loss effect. So, I started running on the treadmill….
While I had considered myself quite fit, there had never previously been a need for me to run more than 22.25 meters (my run-up to vault) so this wasn’t easy. I persevered, and after a few months, work hosted a 5 mile race that some work friends had entered. Thinking ‘how bad could it be?’, I entered too …. Well, the first mile or so was OK, and then my laces came undone. I stopped to tie them and then sprinted to catch my friends. That sprint happened to be the steep hill in Ware (for those of you who know, will know) and the damage was done. I barely made it to the finish, in pain I had never experienced before. I didn’t run again for at least 2 or 3 weeks after that.
Once the pain (or humiliation) was forgotten, I started running more regularly at lunchtimes and it didn’t take long before some work NHRR folks asked me to join them: Paula Adam, Nick Smithers and Ian Owens to name a few. The perseverance I learned from my gymnastics days certainly helped when they took me along to do hill reps in Knebworth Park or the infamous ‘eight ploughed fields’ loop.
Not too long after, I did my first Standalone 10k and signed up to become a member of NHRR straight after the race. I started training at the club (Wednesdays only) and I still remember my first race for NHRR, the XC in Wootton with everyone calling me Ingrid (some people still do). Despite the name faux pas, I was taken by the inclusiveness and tolerance of the club: it didn’t matter where you came from and what you did, there was no judging. This felt like a family, just like the one I left behind with my gymnastics club.
Now, nearly 20 years later, I could not imagine not being a squirrel. I have met so many amazing people and had so many opportunities, not just running-wise but also by getting involved in club matters. I have learned things about myself that possibly not many other sports could have taught me. But most importantly, I have made many good friends and even more good memories for life.
Thank you NHRR