Adam Bird


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Thursday, 23 June 2022

Great Lines parkrun - various

Great Lines parkrun

My parkrun journey started with the Great Lines event on the 19th July 2014, it was the 41st event that the venue had held. Since then I've ran the course a further 13 times over the past 8 years, across three different iterations of the layout.

I wrote my first retrospective last week when I covered the Bear Creek Greenbelt parkrun, but it was a close one between that and where the story began chronologically, in Gillingham, Kent and the Great Lines event.

Mum and Dad had been introduced to parkrun by their friends Glyn and Shona and had been along to the Great Lines on a couple of occasions. On my first event I finished a respectable 163rd out of 188 runners with a time of 33:49. This was sandwiched between Glyn and Shona who were miles up the field and shortly ahead of Mum and Dad. Dad had run slower to keep mum company, he was still in relatively good shape back then!

The run was on the original course which isn't too dissimilar to its current iteration. The start was to the right of the footpath next to the football pitches as you face the Black Lion sports centre to the north. The start has subsequently been displaced slightly, moving fractionaly further back due south. Either way, runners head gently downhill towards the exit of the park and turn left following the line of trees to the side of the football pitch. This is followed all the way along the touchline before turning left again 90 degrees and returning south.

Running along the football pitches you are on grass, which is partly banked and can be diverted slightly if you want to take the marginally more indirect route. Once you reach another line of trees you turn left before turning right off the grass and onto a hard stone path shortly after. This path takes you further south and runs up the long main drag towards the war memorial which looms in the distance.

The change in surface was always notable to me, I have never really enjoyed running on grass as it feels more effort is required. But the psychological boost is soon replaced with the mental battle of running up the hill to the war memorial which teases you slightly with a short leveling off around half way up before increasing again. This part of the course is wide open to the elements and can be made even tougher by strong headwinds.

At the top you take a fork in the path to the right and head towards the war memorial which is large and imposing in its prominent position looking over Chatham, Rochester and beyond. It's worth making the effort to walk back up after the event to take a look around. It's a great piece of local history and architecture and should be appreciated. After the war memorial the path dips sharply downwards before turning 90 degrees left again shortly after. This turn should be taken with relative caution as it can catch you by surprise.

On Christmas Day, 2021 I ran the alternative, post COVID course which carried on down this path instead of taking the sharp left turn. The path got ever steeper, which was good fun running down, but at the bottom it turned sharply left again and runners faced a vertical wall of a path that brought you all the way back up to the opposite side of the war memorial. 

As the course is a two lapper this hill was very hard work, especially second time around. But the original course and the variation of it that is run today misses this out (phew!). As mentioned above, runners take a left shortly after running downhill to the right of the war memorial. This path then heads east before zigzagging upwards back upon itself and brings you back to the top of the course via a more gentle, drawn out approach.

At this point, at the top of the course is where the major changes occur. The first iteration of the course rejoined the main path that brought you up the hill but in reverse. This meant than runners would be running by one another as the faster runners were completing their laps as other were half way around their own.

I loved this path! Again psychology being key. Once you reached the top for the second time you knew that the rest was a long downhill sprint and you could pick up a bit of pace for a grandstand finish. But after COVID, to ensure that the course was run in the safest possible way they diverted runners away from the path and onto the grass that sits alongside it to the right. This does give the figure of eight course a more rounded look to it, but it changes the overall speed and characteristics by doubling the grass surface area runners have to use.

Following the fence of the neighbouring school runners run downhill, back towards the second line of trees before a quick left and a right following the path that sits alongside the start. On the second lap, runners keep going and following the route again as per the first lap.

The most recent iteration of the course has another slight tweak to the hill on the opposite side of the course as you head back up past the war memorial. Instead of taking the zigzagging path runners take a short-cut half way along that is a smaller sharp upward climb. The aim of the shortcut is to reduce the course length back down to mandatory distance, as the moving of the downward section that follows the school fence is a slightly longer route than following the favoured path.

Whether they eventually revert the course back to its original spec, time will tell - variety being the spice of life and all that. Plus it's a nice discussion point when talking about the course as we'll all have different feelings about each course, good and bad.

After my first event in 2014 I returned another six times that year and set an eventual PB of 29:39. Five further visits in 2016 never got me anywhere close to that time. Nor did the Christmas Day visit five years later. It wasn't until my most recent visit in April of this year, to celebrate Shona's 250th event that I managed to set a new PB for the course which stands now at 28:28.

I always enjoy running the Great Lines course, for sentimental reasons. I consider the Cyclopark event my home event, but the Great Lines course is my spiritual home as that's where it all started.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Mote Park parkrun - event 3

Mote Park parkrun On the 18th June 2022 I ran the Mote Park parkun which was the 3rd event held at the venue, my 83rd parkrun and 18th different course I'd attended.

I use the massively helpful 5K Achievements App for keeping record of my parkrun activities, planning future visits and accessing course event page information to understand more about various routes and how to get to the event. This resource is usually updated once a week, bringing enhancements to the app and updating the library of courses. On a recent update to the app a new purple icon appeared on the map feature and a new parkrun for Kent was born.

Mote Park by all accounts had been attempting to start a parkrun for a number of years without much success. I'm not entirely sure what had changed, nor why. But I was enthused to see that a new event was coming to Kent and I was keen to attend as soon as possible. What wasn't clear however was when the inaugural event would take place. I suspected that it would start on Jubilee weekend, which as it transpires was entirely accurate. But according to conversation on the parkrun tourism group on Facebook inaugural events aren't heavily publicised in order not to inundate a brand new event team, which made rational sense.

After some careful consideration and a review of my existing plan, I realised that I still needed to tick off the event number 3 which is one of the numbers required to complete the Fibonacci challenge. When I started writing this series of blog posts a few weeks ago I said that I'd learnt a whole new vocabulary. Indeed this was one of those words and phrases I referred to. For those of the equally curious mind here's a link to the Fibonacci numbers Wikipedia page.

As the event was new there was no real information to go on as to regarding the course. The event page contains the usual map, but the accompanying description doesn't give much away. From what I could see the course was an out and back with a loop the loop in the middle. But I couldn't tell what order the course components happened, specifically whether the two loop part was taken on the way out, the way back or in which direction (clockwise/anti-clockwise).

It wasn't until the first event had taken place and a fellow parkrunner named Steven Stockwell updated his blog with a review of the event that details started to emerge. In fact, it's Steven's blog that inspired my recent blogging renaissance. His posts cover a fully comprehensive log of all his parkrun exploits and covers not only details of the events, but of the history of the area in which they take place. Please do stop by and have a read! 

In Steven's blog post he described the event as 'undulating' and said that this continued for the entire 5km length of the course. He certainly was not wrong! But this clue and the accompanying fly by clip certainly built up a healthy mental picture of what to expect and shattered my mistaken perception that the course would be flat on account of starting and following part of the lake.

I was therefore expecting a tough event which was made even more so by two external factors. First, the weather which was beyond my control. The second, alcohol which was very much within my own.

The week leading up to the event had been the hottest part of the UK summer so far, and was expected to be in the early 20's at 9am on the Saturday morning. Hayden had his football presentation evening which was supposed to be on Saturday 18th of June. It was in fact neither, an administrative error got the date wrong and so instead of being on the Saturday night as expected, the organisers had to compromise and lead with the Friday night (the 17th) instead. I normally try to avoid drinking on a Friday night and save any boozing for a Saturday, so opted for a night of moderation. I didn't drink a huge amount, but had more than I was expecting!

We eventually got home after midnight minus Stephanie who had gone to the unofficial after party. She crawled home at 3:30am and woke me up in the process. Being hot and sticky all night I didn't get the best night's sleep but still set off as planned in the morning, slightly dehydrated, bleary eyed and regretting my obsessive nature.

I used to work at Turkey Mill in Maidstone which backs onto Mote Park and I am ashamed to say that I never took a walk in the park for as long as I worked there. I missed out on a lot as the park is beautiful. Once I'd parked and walked around, noting that the play area included an inclusive space where children in wheelchairs can play safely and inclusively which I thought was amazing and wished every park offered the same level of facilities. I made my way down some steps towards the lake where on the north side where a gaggle of parkrunners were preparing to start.

From the start area, you can't really see the course. You can see the road that you will take, which heads upwards running parallel to the lake. But it disappears into the trees which are abundant and give almost a forest like appearance. 

The pre-race briefing was busy, as with a new event lots of people were looking to experience it for the first time. The lady providing the information discussed the course in detail, explaining the out and back nature of the first part, with two loops opposite the house before heading back to the start to complete the 5km distance. To help runners orientate themselves they are encouraged to take note of the number of times that they pass the house at the top part of the course. Runners should pass the house four times, any more than that they've run too far and any less they've not run for long enough!

As we stood at the start, I felt fairly comfortable. It was indeed very hot, so I had planned mentally to start gently and not try to force myself off too quickly. This approach paid dividends for the most part, as the course was pretty much an upward slog along the road aside the lake. It dipped down briefly half way up before rising again sharply and bearing around right towards the aforementioned house.

The first pass of the house arrived sooner than I was expecting, where the path dips down again and bears left where it continues undulating as per Steven's description. In fact I don't believe there is a single flat part of this course, it certainly felt that way! You are either running upwards or you are running down, there's no respite in-between. Fortunately there's plenty of tree cover so there was plenty of shade which came as a much needed relief.

After a short while you reach the end of the out and back. The turnaround is wide, so you can keep up momentum and the marshall here was great, offering everyone encouragement and support. The path is comfortably wide enough to accommodate people running in either direction with space for overtaking if necessary. As per course etiquette, please do keep left.

The path rises again, passes the house for the second time and dips back down towards the left. At the bottom of this dip runners take a left onto the first of two laps. This path shares the same characteristics as the rest of the course, undulating up and down before coming back out on the bottom of the hill at the other side of the house. Up you go again for the third pass and back around again to complete the second lap..

On completion of my second lap I struggled with the last major hill and had to stop running and walk. Normally I run wearing a pair of running tights to help combat 'chub rub', chaffing in other words. But with the heat I left them behind on this occasion and was in a little bit of difficulty trying to manage the irritation that was being caused as well as the exhaustion caused by the heat, poor preparation and the tough course. But after the fourth pass of the house, I got a psychological boost and started picking up the pace again. After the dip on the way back down towards the lake is a nice downward home stretch which was great for a bit of a sprint finish. In cooler times this will provide some grandstand finishes, but for now I was felt lucky to have reached the end still alive!

I had finished in 116th place out of a field of 195 runners in a time of 30:18. On the one hand I was disappointed at not getting a sub-30. It would have certainly been on the cards had I not walked the last hill. But with all of the things perceived to be going against me I'd have taken that time if you'd have offered it to me ahead of the event! (I would also do well to remember it's not about the time!)

Ultimately Mote Park parkrun is a great addition to the Kent parkrun portfolio and one I'll definitely look to go back to as it offers a great challenge as well as being in a beautiful location for a run,.which is exactly why I've been touristing in the first place. You'd never know of these places iff you didn't go looking for them.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Bear Creek Greenbelt parkrun - event 63

Bear Creek Greenbelt parkrun

On the 26th March 2022 I ran the Bear Creek Greenbelt parkun which was the 63rd event held at the venue, my 71st parkrun and 9th different course I'd attended. It was also the first event that I had ran overseas.

When looking back at the other venues that I had ran at the time of writing this, there was only really one place to start when looking to write a retrospective. 

In 2020, I had a milestone birthday and as a gift Mum and Dad offered to take Stephanie and I to Texas so that we could watch the US Grand Prix in Austin. The original plan was to base ourselves out of San Antonio and drive up to the circuit on qualifying and race day.

However, the global pandemic put pay to that idea and despite attempts to reschedule we wasn't able to go in 2021 either. Due to the booking conditions of our accommodation in San Antonio we had to rebook by April 2022, so we did. Instead of a week of sporting tourism, we had a Texas roadtrip to look forward to instead.

As the itinerary changed and plans evolved we decided to head north for a few days to take in the sites of Dallas and Fort Worth. I'd already done a little bit of research. From San Antonio the two closest parkruns are Houston and Dallas, both in excess of four hours away. So seeing as we were planning to visit Dallas we simply had to take in the parkrun event hadn't we?

After five nights in San Antonio we drove up bright and early on the Friday morning (parkrun eve). It was an early start, hitting the road at 6am for the journey north. We arrived into Dallas by midday and took in the sights of Dealey Plaza where the American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. For the record, it was a strange experience walking around a location that has been part of so many books, film and documentaries growing up. Stephanie found the experience rather macabre, why would people visit a place where a man lost his life?

The main purpose of our drive north was to visit Fort Worth and the old cowboy town. Our accommodation was conveniently located for this purpose but for also getting to parkrun in the morning.

Our intention was to spend the afternoon and evening in Fort Worth, before meeting a long distance family relation in the evening. After a late lunch/early dinner we found a cocktail bar with live music where time accelerated and the effects of alcohol helped fuel a memorable evening.

As we hadn't made formal plans as such with our relation, plans were made very much on the fly. We headed for Billy Bob's Honky Tonk which lays claim to be the world's largest of its kind. Indeed it was a lot bigger than I anticipated and I'd recommend anyone visiting Fort Worth to make it part of your itinerary, even if your not a fan of the musical genre.

With the night getting ever later, our relation hadn't arrived yet. We hadn't quite realised, but she didn't finish work until late, and then had to drive an hour from Dallas to make her way across to us. So by the time she eventually did arrive it was knocking on 11:30pm and we were all ready to flop.

Not wanting to waste the journey our nearly introduced cousin had made, we decided to make the most of the night we had left. We had a night bus taking us back to the accommodation at 1:30am, so the last few hours were spent making new acquaintances and learning that peanut butter flavour whiskey is a new favourite.

So all in all a very long day. We ended up back in bed at 2am after getting up at 6am the day before. As parkrun starts at 8am in Dallas (due to the heat) we needed to leave for 7 o'clock to head to the venue and get ourselves ready for the run. Originally we had planned to all go, with Mum and I running and Dad and Stephanie either volunteering or cheering us on. As it was, we lost the two ladies to alcohol. They succumbed to the nights excesses and left me, the obsessive chaperoned by Dad who I am almost certain would have preferred to have stayed in bed!

We arrived at what we believed to be the venue in very good time, a whole 40 minutes prior to the start of the event. I don't mind this, it's always good to get to a new event earlier and scout the course and get a feel for the place. We walked around the park, saw plenty of runners, plenty of activity was taking place but we couldn't identify anything relating to parkrun. We asked a few people who pointed at a registration desk in the car park. It soon became clear that there was a whole other run event of some kind taking place, but it almost certainly wasn't parkrun. Those 40 minutes went by in an ever increasingly frustrating manner. We were evidently in the wrong place but due to a lack of easily accessible internet we couldn't get the digital assistance we needed. Eventually we found a carpark marshall and asked her if she was able to help. She suggested we travel west further along the road we had come. We got in the car at 8am in an all or nothing attempt to find the start of the Bear Creek Greenbelt parkun. Hoping desperately that we would reach it and it wouldn't be too far gone for me to try and run and catch-up.

As we sat at a set of traffic lights further up the road we had come, we saw activity on the side of another carpark ahead of us. We saw the parkrun flag and a gaggle of runners who looked poised to start. It was a huge relief! The lights went green at the intersection and Dad pulled into the carpark. I got out of the car, walked over to join the group and got my phone ready to start Runkeeper in order to track my run. No sooner had the app initiated the parkrun timekeeper shouted 'Go' and off we went! Talk about cutting it fine!

As always with parkrun events, I had done my prior research so was well acquainted with the course. It consists of an out and back to the east before following another out and back to the west. Both out and backs follow a tarmac path, are reasonably flat but very wavy, like a succession of 's'es. From the top-down view of the course on the event webpage you can see that the course is run through trees which is brought into reality on the ground. As it's Texas, the trees and and soil are fairly dry and leafless, not like the blooming greens of the UK.

I reached the first turnaround point very quickly, so much so that mentally I was already confused. If the other turnaround point was the same distance in the other direction this was going to be a very short parkrun! I followed the runners ahead of me, but wasn't able to keep up for as long as I would have liked. It was only a small field of runners, but the further west I ran the more I was expecting to see the front runners coming back towards me, but they never came.

Eventually the path ended and took a right hand turn into another area that was aside a main road. There was a path that meandered upwards onto the main road where arrows on the ground indicated I should follow. By this time I was in no man's land. There wasn't any runners in distance either ahead or behind me so I had to place my faith in the arrows drawn in chalk on the paths and hope that I didn't miss one and  get myself lost.

I ran across a bridge and viewed what I assumed was Bear Creek, the body of water where the area got it's name. Residential buildings passed by and I admired the peace and serenity that these homeowners lived in. All the while my growing anxiety on the route change, which I assumed had taken place due to the event that was taking place further up the road continued to unnerve me. Had we been on time and made the first timers briefing I would have been fully aware of the course change and been able to run fully assured.

Eventually I spotted another arrow, the path swung left, towards a lake and the path meandered around it, undulating gently as it did. I spotted Dad on the other side of the lake, and sighed a massive breath of relief! He took photos of me as I ran by alongside another lady who was also shouting encouragement and taking pictures which I'm glad to say I've not seen!

After I'd successively circumnavigated the lake the path took us back through the trees and the finish line was just ahead back alongside the carpark in which it had started.

I managed a half-hearted sprint finish but it had been a tough run. Hungover from too much peanut butter whiskey, a lack of energy from eating too early the following day as well as the emotional trauma and frustration of nearly missing the event entirely. Least of all the anxiety of getting lost and confusion of the unfamiliar route.

Just as I exited the finish funnel and been provided with my barcode (I had finished 26th in a time of 29:05) a lady stopped me and asked if I was the guy from England. She was very tall, slim and dare I say, very attractive. I was very much the guy from England and was very much happy to answer anything she might ask! 

I had known that the local mayor was attending the event as it was advertised on the events Facebook page. The lady who had accosted me was in fact the mayor's wife and was looking to introduce me to him. Dad had evidently gotten into conversation with people whilst I was out on the course and introduced us as the English parkrun tourists. I was introduced to the mayor who wasn't what I was expecting. I don't know why, but I was expecting an old white haired chap, not the young athletic looking guy I was introduced to. We had our photographs taken and we had a short conversation about the popularity of parkrun in the UK and how it compared to the US equivalent.

It was barely 8:30 in the morning and we'd already had a full days adventure. We set off back to hotel as we had to check out and faced a four hour drive down to Austin on the next leg of our Texas roadtrip.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

Greenwich parkrun - event 584

Greenwich parkrun

On the 11th June 2022 I ran the Greenwich parkun which was the 584th event held at the venue, my 82nd parkrun and 17th different course I'd attended.

The biggest impediment to my parkrun tourist ambitions is lack of access to a car. So I've devised a list of venues that I can access by train should a car be out of reach. I've come to a sort of agreement whereby on Friday evenings we borrow the in-laws second car and then we drop it straight back on a Saturday morning after parkrun. But with them enjoying another well earned cruise I wasn't sure whether this arrangement would work this week. So I planned to go by train to New Eltham from Gravesend and walk the short distance to Avery Hill park where the Greenwich event is held. As it worked out in the end, the prior arrangement stuck and I was left with a dilemma of sticking to my plan or choosing an alternative venue and saving Greenwich for a rainy day when no access to a car was definite. To make life easier for myself I stuck with plan A, but drove the short distance up the A2 instead.

I am probably not alone in being slightly disappointed that the event isn't held in Greenwich park which is a firm family favourite and may well have caused some confusion to some people. Doing research before you attend any event is crucial. But it was an opportunity to visit another new park which I had not been to before and one that's not a million miles away from home.

The course itself is three laps, the only other 3-lap event that I can remember running is Shorne Woods and for some strange reason any course that is more than two laps causes me a level of minor anxiety wondering if I'll forget how many laps I've done or I'll lose count and do an extra lap by mistake. A bit of a nonsense worry to be honest as it's never happened and would be fairly unlikely bunched up in the middle of the field where you just follow the person in front, you can't go possibly wrong!

On arrival at the park, I took a little bit of an exploratory walk. The word 'hill' in the place name filled me with a little bit of dread, so arriving for the first time gave me an opportunity to see how severe or not the definition of the word might be. I was fairly relieved to see that whilst yes, it certainly wasn't flat, it wasn't anything to fear. Gentle undulations, or gradual long minor elevation changes might be a better way to describe it.

As per ambition, I arrived in plenty of time. I enjoyed walking around the park which was looking particularly pretty and had lots of trees and various types of grasses making it feel a long way from the major urban space which surrounded it. The weather was bright, sunny and very warm so there wasn't going to be any possibility of a lightning fast time from me.

The first timer briefing was informative and helpful, talking through the course which you could see the majority of from the finish line where everyone meets. From here we walked a short way up a slight incline towards the hard surface sports court where we assembled to the right of for the start.

The first part of the course is alongside the sports court, on grass. We headed off before turning left behind a line of trees and downhill on a grass path. I had a bit of a flashback to last week's Queen Elizabeth parkrun, but the downhill was nowhere as intense and nowhere as long. At the bottom, we turned left again - the route follows an anti-clockwise loop and transitions onto a hard resin path.

Volunteers are vital at parkrun, without them the events simply could not take place. Where possible I always like to say a thank you as I run by. On the first corner of the last lap as we were just about to take the downhill turn I said thank you to the Marshall who stood there. He'd just seen (I assume) his wife and was blowing her a series of kisses as she ran by. So he's blowing kisses, I'm saying thank you and his laughing at me saying 'not you!' These little macro interactions take place up and down the country week in, week out and really are what make the events what they are. So if you've not taken part in a parkrun event yet, why not volunteer first and test the water?

Anyhow, back to the course and after the transition onto the resin path, we reach the back leg of the loop, which I found quite fun, it weaves gently through a series of esses and very gradually undulates. It's almost imperceptible the first lap, but laps two and three it certainly becomes more noticeable. The path continues on before turning left where the ascent back to the top of the park begins.

This is the first real challenge of the lap which becomes harder with each revisit. It's not particularly steep, or long for that matter which lures you into a false sense of security so you have to try and not go too hard too soon. At the top as the course has already taken you left again you transition back onto the grass from the path following a row of cones that takes you back towards the following lap and finish.

Heading towards the start/finish area is the highlight of the course, a sharp dip down and a gradual climb back up to the start. The dip allows you to accelerate and use your forward momentum to give you a psychological boost ahead of the next lap or in the case of the last lap a shot of adrenaline towards the finish funnel which I attacked with gusto.

As the course is a multi-lap affair, slower participants are likely to be lapped. I was lapped by a couple of the fastest finishers and I in turn lapped some of the tail walkers so the etiquette as always is to keep left and be aware of others around you. It also gives you an opportunity to offer your support and encouragement to others as you go by.

I finished 80th in a field of 163 people who all ran, jogged and walked the course. My time was 28:51.

Friday, 10 June 2022

Queen Elizabeth parkrun - event 407

Queen Elizabeth parkrun

On Saturday 4th June 2022 I ran the Queen Elizabeth parkrun, which was the 407th time that this particular event had been held. It was also my 81st parkrun at my 16th different event and was by far my most enjoyable. I enjoyed the event so much that I've found my way back to my blog to write all about it!

Since I last wrote a blog post, a whole load of everything has changed. The global pandemic caused a seismic shift in how we live and go about our lives that recounting everything would take more than a blog or two. I should probably take a few minutes and re-read what I wrote back then and to see how much of it resonates. But I digress, this post is about my parkrun journey and a new obsession which I want to document for safe-keeping.

My first parkrun was back in July 2014 when I ran the Great Lines event. Over the subsequent years I had run occasionally at the Great Lines and even did some touristing at Hastings and Bexley, but it wasn't until the Cyclopark event came to Gravesend that I started taking it seriously. Since parkrun resumed after the pandemic enforced break the parkrun obsession has turned up a notch and I've found myself becoming a fully fledged parkrunning tourist with a whole new vocabulary.

One of those new words is 'Alphabeteer', which means parkrunners who have run at events beginning with every letter (except X as no event exists for that letter). This type of challenge appeals directly to me, what with my football fan ground-hopping experience and general appetite to visit new places.

I'm planning on writing blog retrospectives for the other events, whilst making no promises! But this is how we ended up at Queen Elizabeth country park last Saturday. I needed a Q as part of my attempt to complete the parkrun alphabet and what better time to do it than on the Queen's jubilee weekend? There is actually a Jubilee parkrun which would arguably be more appropriate (plus there's not many J's) but Spennymoor in the North East was a bit too far for a one off!

I like to do my research of events before I attend, aside from the usual how to get there basics. There is plenty of YouTube content and bloggers who write reviews of different events and what to expect, so I knew this one was likely to be hilly. I had actually driven past the park earlier in the year on the way to watch Gillingham play Portsmouth and was actually quite terrified to realise that 'hilly' did mean hills, like proper ones! I'm used to running (and moaning) about the hill at Cyclopark, which I promise never to again. So I was full of trepidation about the upcoming course.

Upon arrival, accompanied by Steph, Hayden and Phoebe (Oliver was in France on a football trip) we realised today's parkrun was going to a rather unique affair with lots of people in costume celebrating the Queen's jubilee. One participant even came dressed up as her majesty with a wig and long flowing white dress (which was caked brown with mud by the end!).

We parked in the main carpark, but there are closer carparks to the start, keep driving down the hill past the main carpark, the road will swing around to the left and the alternative car park is on the right with the start not far behind.

After customary photographs of the purple event sign we made our way to the start of the course and stared up at the looming hill. The incline is a lot steeper than I had anticipated and Steph said that I was mad for contemplating running up it. The welcome meeting was delivered by a gentleman who had obviously done this many times before. It was well rehearsed, humourous and contained all of the vital information a tourist would expect to need on a first time course attendance. Before we set off further up the hill for the start line we had time for a quick photo opportunity and a film recording for our contemporary's at the Queen Elizabeth, Casino parkrun in Australia who were celebrating the Jubilee as well. A virtual greeting was exchanged and we headed off upwards 400 meters roughly to the start.

As the start was a good way up the hill the first part of the course wasn't as daunting as I'd imagined. The course begins with an upward climb of 200 meters or so before swinging around to the right where it flattens off. The path changes from wide shingle to single trail with wide grass verges offering plenty of space for overtaking. The path soon starts to descend and the fun really begins to start. There's something about running downhill that brings out the child in me, but gravity definitely helps! Aided by physics any pace lost at the start is quickly made up as the at first gentle downward slope becomes quite steep and I found myself putting the brakes on through concern of falling over. At the bottom of the hill the course takes another right turn as you head back towards the starting point. The trail path here undulates up and down like a rollercoaster which offers short bursts of exertion and elation in equal measure. 

Soon enough you begin to approach the turnaround point which leads you back up the hill via a sharp hairpin. As you do, you go past the group of volunteers as they prepare the finishing funnel. Steph, Hayden and Phoebe were part of this group as Stephanie had volunteered for the first time as a barcode scanner. As I ran past Phoebe I high-fived her and Hayden in quick succession. I held out my hand for Steph to join in and she completely ignored me. She obviously wasn't looking as my high-five turned into a cheeky 'up yours' as I ran by.

Be careful at the hairpin, there's a fair amount of loose stone which is called out in the pre-event briefing. But turning around the corner you are faced with the daunting climb ahead of you which I was determined to run as far up as I could. In fact I surprised myself and made it past the start line before I slowed to a walk. It's reassuring being with a group of like minded people who are all of similar ability and so I wasn't the only participant who had started to walk. Up past the start the hill starts to level out a little bit so I started to run again and continue the gentler climb. A little further on and the hill regains some of its gradient so I gave it another fair attempt before stopping to walk once again. I didn't actually mind at that point because the surroundings were so calm and peaceful it was an opportunity to take everything in. The path was in the forest surrounded by tall trees and the sun was trying to break through the cloudy start to the day. In some places the trees cleared and you could see tantalising glimpses of the valley out across the South Downs offering some wonderful views.

The top of the hill came sooner than I anticipated and just as the first loop, the course turned right onto a trail path with wide grass verges. The second loop shares all of the same characteristics, but on steroids. The downward section was longer, windier and such good fun! I had a smile on my face the whole way down as I windmilled my arms and managed to overtake a few people. It felt almost on the verge of dangerous and I loved it. I was wearing road shoes and there were a couple of instances where I slipped in the mid slightly and for the first time seriously regretted not owning any trail shoes.

After the exhilaration of the downward leg of the second loop the path rejoins the bottom part of the first loop and it's over the series of rollercoaster undulations back to the finish.

I thought I was home and dry after the long hill had been conquered, but one of the last undulations had a sting in its tail and beat me - a short walk cost me a vital few seconds and was my only frustration of the day. Either way, my final time at the finish was 31:23 and if you'd offered that to me the night before I'd have bitten your arm off! My barcode token read 108th, but the official time later in the day said 107th out of a field of 188 participants. I'm not quite sure why there was a discrepancy, but at least I know who to blame! 

As Stephanie was scanning and the kids assisting by collecting the barcode tokens it was an opportunity for me to take stock. I stood mostly smiling at myself and half contemplating attempting another go at that second loop. I had enjoyed it that much! Instead I offered support to the remaining finishers and admire one particular chap who had run the course with a buggy. His biggest challenge wasn't necessarily pushing the buggy up the 1.2km hill, but trying to fight the forces of gravity on the way back down.

We had been up since 6am in order to travel to the event and as we had travelled all that way we had decided to make the day of it. So as the event ended we walked back to the car and head further south through Portsmouth and into Southsea where we met the coast and found breakfast at a cafe on the beach which was the start of a whole other adventure.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

In Unprecedented Times


At the end of every year when the clock strikes midnight, a thousand hopes and dreams nestle in the heart as you look forward to the forthcoming twelve months. Holidays, birthdays, plans, milestones and expectations that the year ahead matches the desires that have been joyously painted in the imagination. But as Big Ben struck midnight at the end of 2019, who on earth would have imagined the reality of what the new year had in store, not just for me, but for every person on this earth?

This blog was always intended to be a kind of digital keepsake of things that we had done as a family as well as a creative outlet for my writing. But as the years have gone by the habit has worn off and the blog posts have dried up. Appearing less frequently as social media has grown and memories are shared easier and quicker as single snapshots of moments rather than long drawn out waffle of words. But with the world undergoing a global pandemic, this post is an opportunity to record a small personal snapshot of events for posterity.

I grew up with anecdotal tales of the second world war and have been to visit the Great War battlefields of France and Belgium, witnessing the aftermath of what I consider to be ‘history’, Our lives have been fortunate in that we’ve generally lived outside of anything of true global historical importance. Events of September 11th 2001 are probably the closest we got, but we sat and watched as voyeurs rather than active participants. Events in-between; wars, disasters, recessions and even Brexit appear insignificant when measured against the truly historical events on a global scale.

Working for a tour operator that runs escorted tour holidays to the Far East and specialises in trips to China thanks to the origins of the business owner, the Covid-19 virus started impacting on my day-to-day much earlier than most.

Strangely, looking back, it may well have been even earlier than that, albeit under a different name. When I was in China at the back-end of last year, my sister sent me a message jokingly warning me not to get the plague after reading a headline in the Times newspaper. The headline was an eerie foresight of what was yet to come.

As January ended, the development team and office in China had been locked-down and staff forced to isolate themselves through fear of spreading what was now clearly a highly contagious and dangerous disease. A promising start to the year for the business took a nose-dive as the scale of the issues unfolded and China started to put measures in place to close down and isolate. A colleague of mine from the Xi’an office had travelled half-way across China to spend time with his wife's family at Chinese New Year and was locked-down unable to leave and forced to spend fourteen weeks in self-isolation with his mother-in-law. No matter how bad things were going to get here, I knew that there was always someone worse off.

There was an alarming sense of inevitability that the virus would reach our shores and as it reached Italy it was always a case of not if, but when. Days started to take on a surreal feel as the morning trains got quieter and the daily stand-up bulletins in the office grew sombre and plans put into place for how the business was to remain operational under lock-down conditions.

We were divided into two teams; team A and team B. One team would work out of the office whilst the other team would work from home, alternating until told otherwise. As it happened, myself included, team B only worked out of the office for a day before Boris Johnson came on the television and changed our normal for the foreseeable future.

There was something about watching Boris that felt otherworldly. LIke watching an apocalyptic disaster movie from Hollywood as day after day things we knew, civil liberties we enjoyed were taken away one by one. Criticisms grew about things that were put in place, or things that weren’t put into place. Watching Italy close down caused alarm and dissenting voices, “why weren’t we doing the same things?”. But Boris and his team of clever looking scientists told us via simple graphical illustrations and layman scientific terms that we had to ‘flatten the curve’ and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. Our time would come, now was not the time. The days passed quickly and so did the information we were given.

Despite all of the advice and all of the preparation the general public, instead of lockdown went into meltdown. Supermarkets were emptied and the great toilet roll emergency unravelled. Australia’s unique supply problem went viral and it became our problem not theirs. Online booking slots for food deliveries sold out and mild panic/hysteria ensued causing another round of memes across the internet which was struggling to cope with the number of meme worthy subjects which was accelerating faster than people could keep up and read them.

I was quite looking forward to working from home. I don’t normally like working from home as I get bored and am too close to the fridge for my liking. But having Stephanie at home conjured thoughts of office romances and making the most of the kids being at school, but that fantasy was short lived as news of the dreaded school closures came once again from Downing Street and ashen faced parents across the country shared my horror, a collective slow-motioned W... T... F... as the reality and terror slowly dawned upon us.

But as the schools began to close and we worried ourselves with how we’d simultaneously home school our children and work from home full-time my office threw me a lifeline. I was offered the opportunity to take three months leave or redundancy. Which, yeah would have solved our childcare issues, but at the same time caused a hell of a panic financially. This news was delivered to us on the same day as the Chancellor's expected announcement to help businesses through this crisis. So not only was this news not great, it was not great timing as it meant a change of policy the following Monday. Instead of the previous two options on the table, we’d all be furloughed instead, adding yet another word to the lexicon of recent words that none of us will forget in a hurry; unprecedented, furlough, self-isolation, social-distancing to name but a few.

As March turned into April, I faced the reality of a minimum of four weeks leave that was expected to last eight, but might be as long as twelve. Whilst the financial institutions put into place allowances for the unprecedented nature of the economy, there still lie so many unanswered questions as to how the furlough scheme would work in reality. But rather than worry too much about it, I took the positives out of a bad situation. Decided that this would instead be a unique opportunity to spend time with the children, homeschool them and spend quality time with them that otherwise we’d never have been afforded. I signed-up and volunteered for the GoodSAM scheme and wrote to the local MP volunteering for the local government initiatives, wanting to try and give something back to the government who had done everything to support workers like me who had been furloughed for the duration.

We had two days left of term and after the first day I was exhausted, feeling like I’d taught Hayden and Phoebe everything I had ever learnt myself and wondering just what the hell we’d do after the Easter break. The office came to the rescue once again, I received a call only half-way through the second day of furlough, which was unexpected to say the least. I was told to come back to work and my furlough period had been temporarily terminated.

All the financial worries had been eased for a month, as there is every possibility that they could furlough me as quickly as they pulled me out. But all the planning for the children has been thrown into disarray as we’ve now got to go back to the original question of how we both work full-time whilst simultaneously home-schooling three children. I had accepted the fact that I would be out of work and relished it, but now it is back to the original plan of grinning and bearing it, doing what we can without expecting miracles. All thoughts of volunteering will need to be shelved until such time as I can make myself available again.

I can’t complain though, not really. Okay so the situation hasn’t exactly been handled in the best possible way, but I’ve got to remain fortunate in that I am able to work when there are hundreds of thousands of people with uncertain futures. A record of events for the purpose of historical context is allowed to contain truths and cannot be polished over - irrespective whether people like it or not. But issues of work weren't the sole purpose of writing this, the purpose of this post was to celebrate family and record how we’ve coped in times of unprecedented historical upheaval.

It is important to count our blessings at times like these, especially when the health of ourselves and loved ones is under such jeopardy. The stories we’ve heard, first-hand or via the media of loss and the pain of people unable to grief or communicate with those that have been hospitalised. It puts everything into context. We have counted our blessings and pray that we continue to do so.

The children, we’ve got to give them so much credit. It is easy to focus on the minutiae of our day-to-day. Moaning because the house is in a mess, or the children have got toys out and not put them away. But the children have had their routines taken from beneath them. The dancing clubs, the swimming lessons, rugby and football, friends and school friends. You wouldn’t really know it though with how the children have been. Whilst us parents have been reaching for the beer or the wine and making time somehow go quicker, the children have been keeping themselves amused for the most part and dealing with it all much better than us!

It is still incredibly early days, three weeks in lock-down conditions more or less with the prospect of at least another four at the very least. It may well get worse before it can get better with people still not quite understanding the concept of social-isolation who knows what the future holds. A future that is preserved for us by a breed of hero that has always been there, but just never appreciated in the same way as they’ve been these past few weeks - our amazing NHS.

We were in tears during the first week of isolation, when standing on our doorstep, the neighbours out on theirs and clapping in support of the greatest health service in the world. Steph and the kids could hear the fog-horns from the ships on the River Thames and the outpouring of thanks was visible as all up our road as people stood clapping and making a racket in support.Which ultimately, is the real thing we need to remember when all of this is over. Whilst at times we’ve never been so alone, we’ve also never been so united. By doing as we are told by those who are running our country, we are collectively coming together for the greater good. To defeat an invisible enemy and to support those who are on the front-line fighting on our behalf.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Remembering George Garth Bird

George Garth Bird

I knew that my Grandfather was special from a very young age. Everyone at school had a Grandad, whereas I had a Gramps.

He was the man with the cheeky laugh and smile who used to give us satsumas whenever we visited. I can't peel an orange, or smell the peel without being transported back to Nan and Gramps's house and their dimly lit front room.

After the free fruit it was rock cakes. Depending on how high the oven was turned up depended how much your teeth hurt as you bit into one of his sultana filled surprises.

Gramps was always generously giving out something or another. Food, bottles of pop or one of his endless supplies of knick-knacks he'd obtained from Readers Digest. In fact Gramps had everything stashed away somewhere. "What do you want one of them for?" He'd say, "I've got one of them". Before disappearing and coming back with whatever it was you'd been talking about. Invariably the item would be brand new, 40 years old, but brand new and still in the box. I'd leave the house with a sense of guilty shame trying to leave and 'forgetting' one of these hesitantly received gifts.

It wouldn't be right talking about Gramps and not mentioning the number one passion in his life - Stamps.

Gramps and stamps go hand in hand, there is not one without the other. A day time visit you could guarantee that he'd be sat at his table with his glasses or magnifying glass in hand or in moments of excitement, both. Studying one of his recently acquired specimens and consulting his Stanley Gibbons journal.

His love affair with stamp collecting began from a young age and was a truly life-long obsession. He'd show me a stamp he was filing and supply me details of its origins and consult his Stanley Gibbons bible on its approximate value. I'd marvel at the price of this small, sticky piece of paper and sit gobsmacked at watching him place it in the thick, heavy file on a page that had another twenty or so of the same stamp. My head would hurt trying to do the maths whilst scanning the room filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling with endless books and files of stamps.

Before each holiday he'd remind us 'dont forget the stamps'. Which meant running around foreign destinations looking for a post office. It had its benefits though. I can ask for the post office in about six different languages now.

Although whatever we did bring back, he probably had it in duplicate, no doubt sourced from his own travels in the navy. "Where are you going?" He'd ask. And almost without exception he'd been there, seen it and drank the bar dry many years ago.

It was a sense of pride listening to his stories, of bars, drinking and high jinx's in a time I never knew or would not recognise. His stories were well rehearsed and retold over the years and ended with his face screwed up in laughter and amusement.

I was fortunate enough to travel with him and Dad as guests of cousin Ross when HMS Illustrious was docked at Greenwich. Gramps came alive as we toured the ship and he bantered with the crew and felt at home amongst the military. I half expected him to start giving orders or taking the ship for a leisurely cruise along the Thames.

He definitely was a man of character, that there is no doubt. His cheeky side was his most endearing and dare I say it, sometimes embarrassing.

Nan was in hospital in East Grinstead in a plastic surgery ward having her wedding finger removed. I was sat one side of the bed and Gramps the other. Gramps pointed at the women opposite and said 'shes having a breast reduction', and pointing at the women in the bed next to him 'shes having a breast enlargement, all that money going to waste, they should just swap em around'. Cue cries of 'Geeeeoooorge!' from my nan and cackles of laughter from everyone on the ward. I just went bright red and didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

He certainly had his perspective on the world that's for sure!

In recent years conversations would generally start with, or end with 'what people don't realise...'.

Gramps had a wide and varied repertoire of grieviences with the modern world. People, politics, business, pharmaceuticals anything and everything. In mostly all cases he would have a point, except the point didn't stack up in modern society. His arguments both for and against things contrasted with recent ideas and innovations - or they'd already been invented by Gramps himself in some cases! Which made him come across as stubborn and cantankerous.

But I'd defend Gramps all day long and for me I never saw the stubbornness in him. I saw a man who lived through nine decades, in a world that has changed considerably across that time. Of a man who was my last connection with the devastation of war and carried trains of thoughts that were embedded, scared and deeply engrained. He stayed true to himself and never changed who he was as the world changed around him.

I believe that there is a certain honour in that.

There's nothing wrong with looking back and feeling nostalgic. We do it on Facebook, recalling haircuts we had a year ago and sharing other similarly mundane things. But we only have a window as wide as our digital memories go back.

Which is why we should treasure the memories and stories Gramps told. Keep saying 'pigs arses and rice pudding' when anyone asks what's for tea just as he did. Remember a story he once told and retell it onwards, and drink a whiskey and dry every now and then, as I've still never met anyone else who does that.

Sleep well Gramps x
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