George Stainsby, who recently became the 13th member to complete the TBH parkrun Challenge, writes this splendid report of his tour of North-East parkrun events. Is the NE tourism board reading?
Saturday 23rd December saw me complete a challenge I had embarked on 10 months earlier, and it wasn’t washing the car. This was the Tyne Bridge Harriers parkrun Challenge. To promote a bit of local tourism, the challenge lapped the region, with lakes, rivers, seaside starts and flat finishes, hills, and above all else, cafés. My events were completed in the tropical heat of Chester-le-Street, and on the frozen tundra of South Shields. There were runs at places I wouldn’t have otherwise visited; Druridge Bay was a bit of a trek but certainly worth it, and my drive to Sunderland was the first I have ever made there without getting hopelessly lost. My little stories all began with a granola bar, a glass of milk, and trying not to wake up everyone in the house.
Newcastle – Town Moor
Honestly, I was always going to come back to give Newcastle parkrun the 5k run of my life… but I didn’t. On the day I set my fastest time at my home run, I was absolutely, 100%, undoubtedly certain, that within a few weeks I would be faster than my little legs had ever carried me before. I was going to call in the offer of being paced by Charlie, a cracking lad who reckoned I could go sub 18 minutes.
I couldn’t. The bizarre series of events that resulted in me cracking my head on the side of our bath, knocking myself out, then a helping of Norovirus, followed by the two blasts of throat shredding tonsillitis that followed… well, we won’t know until the spring of 2018 whether or not my pins can turn over that quickly.
So I can’t remember much about this run as it blends into the fifty-odd I’ve enjoyed here before. It’s a flat course with a deceptive section from 3-4k that seems to go gently uphill, and then turn into what the run’s statistician Paul (Davison) christened ‘Hurricane Geordie’ – and this appears when you could really do without it. You can also see all the way around the paths from just about any point on the route, which makes it psychologically harder, if not physically. I will be back.
Whitley Bay – The Promenade (or tiddly-om-pom-prom, if you’re getting carried away)
This February trip to the seaside included the kids, with the promise of hot chocolate, and a catch up with our friend Lindsay for Helen. My first trip to a local Parkrun that wasn’t Newcastle, there were a couple of very short hills, and a narrow path that made it difficult to overtake. The start line was much wider than the Newcastle start, and together, we looked like the villagers in Asterix the Gaul comic books, about to fight the Romans.
By the end, my eyes were bulging, my mouth was agape, and I was a bit gutted that I couldn’t drag one more second out of myself to go sub-20 minutes. But the challenge was underway, and the friendly atmosphere had me looking forward to coming back to have words with that one second. Alas, due to a summer of lurgy, I never did.
The kids thought the hot chocolate at the café made standing around in the cold, cheering their dad, all the more worthwhile. Hmm, they thought… watching dad run equals hot chocolate… “When’s the next one, dad?!”
Rising Sun – Wallsend
Playing the guitar and being from Newcastle meant that, pulling into the nearby Asda car park, there was only one song in my head. The Animals’ version of House of the Rising Sun is one of those songs that every guitarist learns to play. But it’s too slow to run to, so I settled for blasting Enter Sandman by Metallica before heading off to the ruin of many a poor leg.
My legs, however, set off a little slowly. As this was a new run to me, and quite early in the challenge, I felt a little bit shy of starting on the first couple of rows. At least I didn’t set off too quickly, and, moving through the gears, I settled into a rhythm I could hold on to. I said hello to the deer who thinks he’s a horse, remembered to go the right way at the end of the second lap, and held on to a level of lung-searing suffering that was giving me ideas that I might be running into some fitness.
Later that afternoon, we came back with the kids, and found a farm with baby rabbits. The kids love rabbits. This challenge lark was beginning to open opportunities for some places to go that we might otherwise have missed. *House of the Rising Sun is not about baby rabbits.
Gibside – Hill, with a capital ‘H’.
Heading away from Newcastle, along the Derwent Valley, Gibside is a National Trust site with an amazing play park for the kids, gorgeous walks, and a great place to go and see Santa in December. What it also is, is hilly.
I like hills, but they’re your fitness friend who treats you like you’ve just eaten the last of the chocolate Hob-Nobs. And at Gibside parkrun, hills are a defining feature. Following a fairly flat start, then a plummet of a descent, the path kicks into the woods, trailing between trees, ironing your lungs and legs. This was what I got into running to do.
That’s not because I find hills easy. Crivvens, no. I just find them very rewarding. At the turnaround point, three of us were finding the top of the hill so satisfying that the expressions on our faces were contortions of joy and splendour. “This is joyous and splendid,” I spluttered to myself, “And I will be very bereft when this one mile long hill is over!” The descent created a different race for the three of us, and while the fitness of my fellow runners had me dangling off the back of them on the ascent, I could feel the extra core and strength work I had been working on at home kicking in on the way back down. That, and turning off my brain, I threw myself down the hill, and finished feeling almost euphoric.
I’m looking forward to this one again next year.
Prudhoe – What are Spetchels?
This was the day I knew the fitness was pouring into my legs and lungs. The start was low key, with visitors from Cambridge given a welcoming round of applause, and the shortest countdown to any of the runs on the challenge: “So that’s it for the briefing. Go!” And I did, with a spring in my step that hadn’t been there a couple of months earlier.
A two lap run, the first lap had a gentle rise to it with a steep drop to the beginning of the second lap. The second lap seemed to have a vicious mountain with a vertical jump to the finish. This was my joint highest ever finish placing, and even though the second lap was tough, I could keep the pace roughly where I wanted it to be.
Even better, I knew this was somewhere we could come back for a walk with the kids. When we did, they loved being next to the Tyne, running on ahead, and the utter peace. I’m looking forward to doing this one again next year. I’ve even built it into my long run by simply running there instead of driving. On the way there and back, the route crosses the bridge at Wylam. I would never have sussed this route without this parkrun. A gem.
Druridge Bay – Coast v Countryside
I hadn’t been very well during the week before this family outing, but we were meeting up with my runner mate and former work colleague Ed, and I had been looking forward to seeing him for weeks. Ed is a triathlete, so he is very fit, and one of the best I know at running to a pace. He also likes a café stop after a run, so not running wasn’t an option.
Another run on laps, Druridge Bay takes in the country park and it is a tranquil place to be. It’s also a heat trap, and apart from a brief section by the lake, the wind doesn’t seem to get through the trees or sand dunes. Not long after the start, one of the young ‘uns from Morpeth Harriers went past me in a blur; it’s great to see young talent taking every opportunity to train and develop their talent. I didn’t see him take this opportunity to train and develop his talent for very long; around the next turn at a hedge, he was out of sight.
On the final lap, the summer cold I’d nursed all week punched me in the legs, and I struggled to maintain the pace. I was pleased enough with my run, but I knew that I wasn’t going to come back up; the early start was hard work on a Saturday. Mind, the kids loved sitting on the grass outside the café, eating muffins, and playing football with some other kids, so it might be a two-time visit next year.
Riverside Chester le Street – Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Ah; on the kind of summer’s day to inspire a Shakespeare sonnet, had he lived just off the A167, Phil Scott smashed his 5k PB to record 18.01. I tried to keep up with him for the first kilometre. I paid for this on the second lap, but this run was the speed highlight of my parkrun year, going within three seconds of equalling my PB. I thought it would come a few weeks later, with some specific training, but it wasn’t to be. There’ll be a family day out at the run next year, with a trip to the park.
The bit by the river is gorgeous; even the swans – and let’s be honest, swans are pretentious beaky freaks – were relatively friendly. It might rain next time, but I think this might be the PB run. We’ll see.
Blackhill – Gibside’s big hill big brother.
Well, what goes up in the lower part of the Derwent Valley at Gibside, must go even, err, upper by the time you arrive in Consett. My drive through Shotley Bridge and then into Consett had me wondering just how up this run was going to be. Wondering, and a bit nervous.
After a friendly welcome and a warm up on the hill we would cover on the first lap, we lined up. This start would prove to be one of those humbling experiences, as one of the runners was fresh from the Invictus Games. Respect among runners is something that has always impressed me, but this was something else.
The run itself follows a clockwise loop, then two more loops of a slightly different circuit. The hills on the second two loops aren’t that steep, but they are long enough to create a messy heap of jellified runner if you’re not careful with the pacing. The hill on the first lap is tough and takes some thought as to how to tackle it, depending on your fitness.
Interestingly, though, it is the screaming descent past the bandstand that hammers your legs, allowing just enough recovery to ignite a fresh burn in the lungs as you swing out and back up the hill. It’s this mixture of slamming recovery and smouldering lungs that make this a tough run. I couldn’t decide whether or not it was tougher than Gibside, and it’s perhaps the false sense of completion and recovery before a new barrage against your muscles or breathing, that tips this over its 5k friend from lower in the valley. The changing rhythm of this run meant it was difficult to develop a feeling of flow.
That might be why I loved it. Another one I ‘m looking forward to next year.
Gateshead – Saltwell Park
Ducks are funny. Sleeping, they look like feathery rugby balls. Awake, they are that daft lad at school who eats the glue sticks, and everyone loves them. And running past them with your eyes hanging out of your face because there’s a little hill, I’m sure the ducks in Saltwell Park are really laughing at us.
Saltwell Park on a Saturday morning is a hidden oasis of calm, despite the A1 in the distance, and Low Fell waking up behind it. Some of the much faster lads from Tyne Bridge Harriers were running today, and the start was quicker than any other run I had completed in the challenge. I wasn’t even disheartened when I realised that the ‘jogging around’ pace of Dave Wright is my ‘escaping the zombie apocalypse’ pace. But, clearly going flat out, the small hill on each lap shredded my lungs. After a few months of wondering if pushing myself was now out of the question, today, my legs and lungs told my uncertain brain to jolly well pull itself together. But not in those words.
As one of the runs near enough that it didn’t need an anti-social alarm call, the family support team came along. Never underestimate how much it can mean to your head to have a nine year old and a twelve year old yelling cat poster positives. They injected the final pace my lactic acid gushing legs needed to sprint up the hill and onto the flat final fifty metres. My lungs had unshredded by the time we met Sarah in the café for a creamy hot chocolate. Cafés: where twenty minutes of intense exercise is willingly undone in about three. Yum.
South Shields – Steve Cram wasn’t commentating.
Winter was most certainly setting in when I arrived at the Leas for my penultimate parkrun of the challenge. Two of the runners were getting married, and the support for them was a romantic reminder that parkrun isn’t just about battering yourself senseless on a Saturday morning. Parkrun is friendly; inclusive; supportive.
And South Shields was cold. Some of the puddles were plated with ice, which shone like the white horses reflecting on the sea. If anything, this course plodged nearer to the sea than even Whitley Bay, and the stony dragging of the waves over the beach was louder than at The Spanish City.
This connected me to the race in a way I had not expected. I simply enjoyed moving, even though it was cold, and the final mile tacked into a headwind. After a difficult week at work, I couldn’t really get going as I usually would, but my pacing was good, and the zen-like link between the weather, the route, my lungs and the relief of running, immersed me in the moment.
So that was canny.
Sunderland – at last.
My final run in the challenge, I started this run ever so slightly emotional because of it. I had been the week before, but the run had been cancelled just after I left the house, and with my phone on silent, I hadn’t heard the calls from Helen to tell me this. At least I knew the way, and wouldn’t spend hours driving around the town centre.
Heeding warnings of the hill at the end from Simon Kirkley, and by the guy at the car park who showed me where the start was, I knew the last hundred metres or so of the challenge were going to be tough. The mild weather the week before Christmas meant that there was no frost or ice, and the rapid run down the hill on the way out made me all the more jittery about my lungs exploding into bits at the finish.
Now, this was the only run in which I had no real idea of the route. The consequence of this was that I had to keep the runners just ahead of me in sight, and as we began the second lap while others began the first, I had to really concentrate on the girl in the grey top, and the guy in the red top.
Coming up to the finishing hill, I managed to catch Miss Grey Top, but Mr Red Top stayed a frustrating few seconds ahead. Still, a great run, very friendly, and even though it’s not on the list for next year, I think it’s a good training run, what with the short hill at the end.
The North East is beautiful, and I have been to places that I thought the family might enjoy. We’ve been back, and tried out every flavour of muffin available (not including courgette. That’s not a muffin, people; it’s a horrible trick). Curiously, I have been able to map my running year according to how I was feeling on any given Saturday morning. The car has even been washed, albeit not by me.
And what have I learnt? For running, I have developed much better pacing, and a bit of a finishing kick. But most of all, I have looked forward to somewhere different, knowing that there are constants on our Saturday mornings. Volunteers are amazing; parkrunners are helpful and friendly; and it is OK to give your kids cake at 9.30am, as long as they have been screaming support.