Thursday, 11 January 2018

Challenge Complete - 50 Half Marathons before my 50th Birthday with a full 5 days to spare

A long time ago, back on the 22nd June 2010 to be exact,  after a few too many glasses of wine I decided to enter a half marathon in the Arctic Circle. At the time I was not a runner at all. That was the start of an initial challenge to try and run 10 half marathons in 8 months in 10 different countries. That completed it proved not to be the end of it. Now 7½ years later it only seemed fitting to finish the challenge (for now) running the most northlery and probably toughest half marathon yet again. So it is back to Tromso in the very North of Norway, in the middle of winter to run 13.1 miles in the dark on a course of snow and ice.

Prior to 2010 I had managed a couple of Great North Runs, but since then I have completed numerous half marathons each year, making this run my 50th half marathon, on the week of my 50th birthday.

This has not by any means been an easy challenge, since I start training for the first challenge, back in 2010,  I have logged over 7000 miles of running, ran in 23 countries on 3 continents. I have ran a half marathon in every country in western Europe. I have ran in blistering heat, pouring rain, snow, hailstones, flooding and even lightning. Since 1st January 2011, I have never ran less than 10 miles in a week, which, by creating a challenge within a challenge, kept to the training program and kept me  motivated to run when I simply couldn’t be bothered. This has raised further challenges, I have had to run on boats, treadmills, beaches and even ski slopes, all to cover that minimum training requirement. Almost 30 pairs of trainers have been worn out and a small fortune spent on kit, entries and travel, but almost £30,000 has been raised for Willow Burn Hospice and amazingly I carried the Olympic Torch in the 2012.
So the 50th run (note I am not referring to it as the last), The Polar Nights Half Marathon, Tromso Norway, latitude 69 degrees north (The arctic circle starts at latitude 66 degrees north). Starting 3pm Saturday 6th January in the middle of the polar winter. The polar winter runs for 3 months from the start of November to the end of January, during that time the sun never rises above the horizon. For a few hours, late morning dawn and dusk quickly merge, by 3pm it is the UK equivalent of late evening, by the time I finish the race it will be pitch black.
It snowed heavily the morning of the race which made the route look very picturesque, but also challenging. I collected my number on the morning of the race and a nice little touch by the organisers in that they allocated me the race number 50.
Along with about 1000 other runners I set off along Tromso main street at 3pm in a nice -6 degree temperature. The first half of the race was fairly steady, running around the island towards the airport with a slight tail wind (given my complete lack of aerodynamics this does help). The course was a mixture of compacted snow and occasional sections of ice, but slow and steady pace meant no disasters. Runners from 55 different countries took part and this for many was the ultimate “bucket list” run, so the conversation was great with the wind on our backs.
At the half way point the course does a 180 degree turn and you pretty much retrace your steps back to Tromso City centre. It was about this time that the slight tail wind turned into a heavy head wind, which not only made running difficult, but also blew waves of snow from the fields across the track directly at me. In addition, due to wind chill, the temperature dropped dramatically. I began to notice that everything had to started to freeze, including my clothes, hat and every body extremity. At the drinks station at 8 miles the water in the drinking cups had frozen, the change in temperature had been so severe. I also managed to pick up an injury to my left knee, every time it hit the ground it was equally matched by a shot of pain. To make things even worse, given the amount of traffic on the route, more and more of it was now polished ice, which made the ground harder (more painful on the knee), and more treacherous.
However, I did make it, freezing cold and in a lot of pain, I have never been so glad to see the finishing straight. It took me a full 2 hours after the race, wrapped in blankets with the heating on full in the hotel room, to finally get my body to stop shivering and with the help of pain killers eventually get to the bar and have a well-earned celebratory beer.
So as I write this, I have finally warmed back up, but a day later I am still hobbling, so I may need to finally listen to my body (and Victoria) and have a (short) rest from running.
All of this, plus riding the coast to coast and climbing 50 Wainwright peaks this year with Victoria has been done to raise money for Willow Burn Hospice. For those that have already supported, thank you very much, if you haven’t the Justgiving link is below, every little helps. The madness now ends and I (currently) don’t have any other life changing challenges committed to, but life is short and there may be time for one or two more yet!
Thanks for reading the updates and all of the support I have received. (p.s. I am crap at selfies)

Wednesday, 1 November 2017


After 10 months of serious hiking on, Saturday we completed the 3rd part of the 50th year challenge on the top of Castle Crag, just South of Keswick, in the wonderful English Lakes.
This part of the challenge was to climb 50 Wainwright Peaks in the Lake District during the year. We started back on 22nd January climbing Ullock Pike and then up to last week we had managed to climb a further 45 peaks, leaving 4 to complete the 50 target. The issue was the weather was getting worse, and the days shorter, so we set off early Saturday morning with a daring plan to climb the last 4 Wainwright in one day, even though none of Victoria’s several weather apps showed favourable conditions.
The weather in the lakes looked not too bad at on the journey across but it was only when we parked at the foot of Cat Bells that we looked up and could see nothing but thick mist and no mountain tops. It was now Victoria said, and I quote “failure is not an option”, words she would later regret.
The one thing we have learned after many days in the lakes is you must be prepared for ever changing weather. Our standard kit includes food, water, hats, gloves, coats, map, compass, mobile phones and GPS. As we climbed steeply the weather worsened, the wind grew stronger, the rain started and visibility started to reduce. An hour later we reached our first Wainwright peak of the day – Cat Bells (1480ft)

Wainwright number 47 of 2017 - Cat Bells - slightly limited visibility
After Cat Bells, we set off for peak number 2, the weather continued to close in and if it wasn’t for the “failure is not an option” attitude, we would have headed straight for the pub, but onwards we went and eventually with the help of our trusty GPS we reached Wainwright number 2 of the day – Maiden Moor (1816ft)
Wainwright 48 of 2017 - Maiden Moor - starting to get wetter and less visibility
2 down and off we set for the 3rd peak of the day, the weather was now terrible, gale force winds, torrential rain and next to zero visibility, but onwards and upwards we climbed to reach the highest peak of the day – High Spy (2142ft). This is when my fundamental error and lack if preparation became apparent, our trusty GPS flashed up with the low battery sign, someone (i.e. me) had forgot to charge it. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem as being a boy scout a map and compass will navigate you to safety. The issue however was with zero visibility it is impossible to see any features to navigate by map and we were over 2000ft up a mountain.
Wainwright Number 49 of 2017 - High Spy - Now Soaked to the skin and can barely se a hand in front of us. (Even the dog looks sick)
Two options – retrace our steps and head back on the route we knew, but “Failure is not an option” so map in hand we headed off to try and find the last Wainwright peak, GPS now completely dead. The route required us to take a sharp left turn off the faint track we had been following for the last hour or so. The map showed a Tarn situated a short distance after the turn, we soon reached the tarn meaning one thing; we had missed the left turn. So, we retraced our steps and still could not find the route. “Failure could now very much be an option”. Reading the map, the Tarn had a stream flowing from it, which due to gravity will always head downhill, looking at the map a faint track followed the stream to the valley below. We decided for safety we needed to take the safe option and head down the mountain.
Victoria trying to put on a brave face
Downhearted we headed down to reach the valley floor and started the 4-mile trek around the mountains we had just climbed back to the car. 49 Wainwrights completed we would need to try and fit another one in, which would mean another trip to the Lakes. Then the conversation went something like this: What time did it get dark? What time had we arranged to be in the pub? Could we possibly? We needed to be in the car home by 5pm? Shall we go for it? Remember “failure is not an option”. So, the pace was increased, arriving back to the car (now complete with a bloody parking ticket). A 20-minute drive later we arrived at the opposite side of the mountains we had just come down from and set off on another more defined track back up the hills to try and complete the challenge of climbing 50 Wainwrights in a year. So, tired, windswept and soaked to the skin we reached the peak of Castle Crag. An eventful day, and an eventful challenge. A quick glass of Prosecco to celebrate, a speedy descent, in the car by 5:01pm, home 6:50pm, Pub at 7:25pm, bad head by Sunday morning.
50th Wainwright of the year - Castle Crag - A tough but enjoyable challenge
So for the record this year we have climbed: Ullock Pike, Long Side, Carl Side, Dodd, Stoney Cove Pike, Hartsop Dodd, Thornwaite Crag, Gray Crag, Nab Scar, Heron Pike, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Hart Crag, Dove Crag, High Pike, Low Pike, Tarn Crag, Sergeant Man, Sour Howes, Swallows, Yoke, Ill Bell, Froswick, Troutbeck Tongue, Clough Head, Great Dodd, Arthur Pike, Bonscale Pike, Loadpot Hill, Whether Hill, Steel Knotts, Burnbank Fell, Blake Fell, Gavel Fell, Hen Comb, Barf, Lords Seat, Broom Fell, Graystones, Whinlatter, Dow Crag, Old Man of Conniston, Brimfell, Swirl How, Great Carrs, Grey Friar, Cat Bells, Maiden Moor, High Spy and Castle Crag in 2017.
66½ hours of walking over 14 days. Every possible weather from sun to hailstones, often all on the same day. 3 days when we started and had to turn back because the weather closed in – always be prepared and finally always charge your GPS

So, 1st November, now training changes to half marathon preparation. Final and biggest part of the challenge is 21km/13.1 miles of running in the middle of winter, 250 miles north of the arctic circle, in the dark, on ice at between -10 and -25 degrees.

Next update will be in January if and when I make it back from the extremes of the North, please remember this is all been done to raise valuable funds for the wonderful Willow Burn Hospice

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Western Europe Finally Conquered - But Not Without a Battle

The one piece of advice everyone gives you when you are injured is to rest as time is the best healer. When you have told everyone you know that you are going to run 50 half marathons and you are doing it for charity, this advice isn’t on the option list. For the past few months my right leg has decided that it doesn’t want to be a team player and even with a small fortune spent on sports massages, greatly reduced training it was not showing any signs of talking to the rest of my body. I had also paid a rather expensive race entry as well as flights and a hotel. So failure was not an option and off to Copenhagen we flew (we being me and Victoria aka wife, “coach” and rubbish meteorologist).
If you ever watch the London Marathon or the Great North Run you will see that the elite athletes don’t wear numbers they have their name in big letters instead, other elite runners, not famous enough for this are usually allocated the low numbers. For some reason, Copenhagen thought it would be funny to put even more pressure on this runner by 1) printing my name in big letters and 2) allocating me number 701 (in a field of 23000), which was printed under the giant name in smaller numerals. This could be the nearest I get to being an elite athlete!!
The reason I question Victoria’s weather forecasting skills, is that her logic normally involves checking several on-line sites until she finds a one that she likes and that is then the official weather forecast for the day. I now probably more accurately forecast that I will suffer great pain for this paragraph when she reads it. Anyway, the forecast by Mrs C required sun glasses and a hat to protect against the blazing sun. To be fair that was 100% accurate for the start of the race.
So, after two great days sightseeing in Copenhagen I joined 20,000 plus other runners at the start of the race. The Copenhagen Half was really casual, each runners number was colour coded to show their estimated finish time and rather than forced into a pen like you are in races such as the Great North Run, you could join any group you wanted to. In the UK, this would mean 50,000 people fighting to stand in front of Mo Farah, but in Denmark, the vast majority of people actually started in their recommended position. This created a really friendly atmosphere of runners of similar abilities and once the race started no issues with big speed variances and congestion.
At around 11:15 Sunday morning the elite runners left, I finally reached the start line some 20 minutes later. The course was through the city centre, with crowds lining route almost all of the 13.1 miles. I made the decision to not run to a target time, but instead run to a pace I felt comfortable with, all was going well and the sun was shining for the first 4 miles. Then it got interesting…

The first sign of the weather changing was a few spots of rain. Then the sky got increasingly darker, closely followed by thunder, lightning and then torrential rain. I don’t mind running in the rain, but to have to do so with forks of lightning all around was a little frightening. Then the fun really started…
The rain slowly started to change to hailstones, which got steadily larger in size and heavier in quantity. At around 7 miles I had one of the most surreal running experiences I have ever had. The majority of the 20,000 runners started to take cover in doorways and anywhere else they could escape the storm. Being a stupid northerner, I saw this as an opportunity to improve my already rubbish position, so onwards I persevered. I ran on with another Danish runner and we pretty much had the course to ourselves. It is difficult to accurately explain the intensity of the storm, other than to use a childhood expression which sums it up “It bloody knacked”. I didn’t realise how bad it was until I got to the end of the race and discovered both arms covered in tiny bruises from the hailstone impacts. It may have only lasted 5 or 10 minutes but is was one of the funniest running experience I have ever had.
As the storm subsided the soft runners came back out of the shadows and with 5 or so miles to the finish the sun again came out. This caused the next running problem, when you add bright sunlight to a route white with frozen water, flash floods appear. For some reason, most of the runners, already soaked to the skin from the earlier rain, thought they needed to tiptoe around the puddles. Sod that. I was already so wet, I had had dryer baths in the past, my option was route one, straight through the puddles regardless. This is not somethings the Danes embraced and when the rest of the field went in single file around the lakes that covered the majority of the roads, one Geordie bull-dozed straight through the middle (I use the word bull-dozed as skipping over the surface is not something that describes my running style), and again made up a few more places and valuable seconds.
Given the extreme conditions, I crossed the line in just over 2hrs 15minutes, far better than I had ever thought, and amazingly the weather had completely taken my mind of my painful right leg. Crossing the line, as is the norm, I was given a medal and immediately received a text confirming my time, job done. There then came an announcement on the PA system to say that the race was now cancelled with immediate effect. Running through the storms had got me in just in time. I later discovered the reason for the race being stopped was due to 2 runners being struck by lightning, fortunately not to seriously I believe.
So, by the skin of my teeth (and some of the skin of my arms), Half Marathon number 49 was completed and along with it the challenge to run a half marathon in every country in Western Europe. Denmark completed a list that includes England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Portugal, Czech Republic, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, Austria, Germany and Luxembourg.
So only 2 more challenges left
  • Coast to Coast – COMPLETED
  • Half Marathon in every Western European Country - COMPLETED
  • 50 Wainwright Peaks (35 completed for far)
  • 50th Half Marathon – Artic Circle flights booked for January
Thanks, everyone for your kind sponsorship so far. Still a lot of climbing and training to do between now and the beginning of next year.