About aquavista

Age 45.

It’s nearly Nepal time!

I’ve just discovered something which has absolutely staggered me, and that takes a lot usually I can tell you. And that is, it has been almost 11 years since I wrote a blog post about Everest Base Camp! It seems so ridiculous that I don’t even believe it myself, and so if someone wants to correct me then please do so, as I can’t find one! Sure I will have mentioned it more than once I am very sure, but I haven’t actually blogged about a trip there in all that time. And why might I drag this up you might say? Well I am going there next week (again) that’s why!

In fact if I were to write a soliloquy here and now about my life, and in fact this is probably part of just that, it would have to include the words Nepal, Kathmandu and Everest Base Camp.

Let me rewind. I first went to EBC in 2011, and to say I loved it would be the understatement of all understatements. In fact the first time I was fortunate enough to stand at the foot of the world’s tallest mountain I blubbed, unashamedly, like a baby. There are no words, still, that I can find to describe that feeling, and I have been back twice more too!

For me, to be fortunate enough to be able to go on an adventure which takes you to this place, is just the best thing that you can do. Phrases like ‘living my best life’ and ‘the adventure of a lifetime’ are almost entirely inadequate. I think I wrote first time round, that amongst other things, for those who like high mountains and beautiful age defying scenery, the place has nothing close in terms of a parallel. As just one statistic, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas, which is Aconcagua in the Andes , is 6,962m, or 22,840ft. In the Himalayas there are over 100 mountains above this height. You stand in awe, lost for superlatives, at the momentous and staggering beauty of it all. And that’s just for starters!

My first appearance (2011) in front of Everest, which is in the centre of the picture in the background.

My first trip to EBC was as part of of an unsuccessful attempt to climb Island Peak. I wasn’t ready, had no idea what I was doing, and that contributed to some altitude sickness. My mind was made up very firmly by the time I reached Kala Pattar (where the above photo was taken, which is THE vantage point for Everest) that I would be heading down next. And for those who don’t know, at Everest Base Camp you cannot see Everest at all. At Kala Pattar (about 400m higher than base camp) you get the best view – not bad is it?

Amongst so many other things that I learned on that trip, it was probably the reverence with which the local communities and indigenous people, (the Sherpas), hold Everest, that stuck the most. Just the name, Chomolungma (“Mother Goddess of the Universe”) tells you enough. But you also learn along the way that from children to the very old, these mountains are sacred in every way. Indeed many peaks in the Himalaya (I love just using the singular term for them) remain unclimbed as respect for the Gods who look over them and the people who live, breathe and respect their holy shadows.

The trip left an indelible imprint on me. Thrilled me, inspired me, and led me to do many other adventures in the mountains far and wide, from South America (twice), to Russia (of all places) to many trips to the Alps. This having already been to the roof of Africa, Kilimanjaro, too. So much so that in 2017, when having decided that I would never have the physiological capacity or ability to stand on the very summit of Everest, I had to go back. It was a magical trip. I’ve no idea why I didn’t blog about it, but it was fabulous.

The magic of that first trip, was, if anything ever better second time. I had a better understanding, a better appreciation of the culture, the landscape, the history, and the people. The first time I was in a daze almost (literally in fact, at times). When you are there the first time it goes by in a flash, and you are concentrating on your objective. The second time you understand why you are there. Everyone will have their own reasons. For me it wasn’t even one thing (to be at the foot of the greatest/tallest/most majestic thing on planet earth), but so many others. I loved Kathmandu alone for example, before I even got to the Himalayas. So much so that I booked an extra two days there just to hang out in the streets and shops and suck it all in.

I also loved the prayer flags, to the extent that my every house since that first trip has had some prayer flags flapping away in whatever garden I have had. I love the prayer wheels, the mantras, the gompas, the stupas, the whole ‘om mani padme hum’ thing, the food (dal bhat and Sherpa stew anyone?), and the people. The Nepalese people I have in fact found to be the most humble, welcoming and friendly people of anywhere I have ever been. They are so ridiculously proud (and rightly so) of their traditions, music and culture. They exude this from every pore. It is palpable, beautiful and infectious.

Durbar Square Kathmandu – no good if you don’t like birds, or cows!

And so in 2018, I did it again. Same trip, just different travel company. 2017 was Ian Taylor Trekking, and 2018 was Exodus. For me, the difference between the two was huge. With Ian Taylor Trekking the whole time was incredible. Our guide, Ang Kami, was incredible, as were the rest of the team. The tea houses were great, and it was just a brilliant and amazing adventure, where your enjoyment and experience was always first. It was also educational, and exhilarating, even more so than the first time. With Exodus in 2018, although the trip and experience was as good as ever, I found that Exodus scrimped on money to every extent they could (and I’m being kind!), and it took away from the overall enjoyment a bit.

In 2017 I finally got to actually sleep, in a tent, at EBC!
And here is the shot at the entrance to EBC itself, a picture which hangs on my wall at home and always will.

In 2019 I was determined to go again. Although I may have waxed lyrical above about the whole thing, I don’t think I could ever put into words on a page just what it feels like for me to be there. I’m often asked in fact, given what a big world it is out there, why I would keep going back. The answer is really simple – I love it beyond compare to any place I have ever been to. I can go on my own and feel utterly fulfilled in every one of my senses, and more.

In 2019 though, with my then partner Mel, we had none other than the New York Marathon (my first ever) in the November to get through, and that was such an incredible highlight on its own that I didn’t even miss Nepal! I did however, or we both did, book to go Nepal in March 2020. It would have been my first time to do the spring (climbers, pre-monsoon) trek to EBC. However, the world would sadly close its doors of course to foreign travel that very month. Bags were packed, and it was I think 6 or 7 days from getting to the airport when Covid would have other ideas for us and of course the rest of humanity.

So since March 2020, if I said here that I’ve been somewhere between itching and desperate (much closer to the latter) to repeat the whole thing, then it would be a huge understatement. It is my first proper trip post pandemic, apart from the Berlin Marathon. I’ve booked myself two days each side of the actual trek so I can take in again all of the sights and sounds and smells of Kathmandu. Ian Taylor Trekking will be my guides. Although I have to say that (despite the fact that I’m very happy to be going with them) I could indeed guide myself these days :).

A tiny bit of Thamel, in the centre of Kathmandu.

So, given the fact that I didn’t blog the trip with Sheree, Al, Pip and many others in 2017, or Mark, Emily, Em, Ali and others in 2018, this one is getting the full treatment! Every trip is wonderful, and the people are always special regardless.

So roll on Thursday, and a flight to Kathmandu via Doha will start the adventure off.


The Berlin Marathon 2022 – what a day!

The phrase “it’s finally here” just seems like the biggest and most ridiculous understatement of all time at this precise moment. I am stood, well sat actually, between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column on one of the most famous avenues in the world, the Strasse des 17 Juni, amidst a crowd of 45,000 runners, and many many times more spectators. I’ve walked up past Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer Platz, then assembled at the very steps of the German Reichstag, the seat of power of probably the most famous and indeed infamous ruling parties in all of history. Indeed Hitler’s Bunker is close by too, as is a square mile memorial dedicated to the Holocaust. Within a few hours I’ll have run past der Mauer, the Berlin Wall, and many more iconic places in this most incredible city. Oh and Eliud Kipchoge is here as well, amongst many other legends. This, is the 2022 Berlin Marathon. 

For me it is the culmination of a lot of effort to get here. All of my own making, as I’m a stickler for following a training schedule, and managed to pick a very thorough and hard one! I’ve run 6 days a week since May, and if there’s one thing I know full well, then that’s no matter how today goes I will not be putting either of my feet in a pair of trainers next week! 

It’s funny also (or not funny in this case!) how little things can threaten to almost derail your plans, even at the last minute. For example, despite some rather meticulous preparation to make sure I got myself here with everything I needed, yesterday two small happenings both caused consternation. 

Firstly my watch strap on my Garmin broke. “First world problem” I hear you say! But as someone who has his face literally glued to his watch on every run I do, then I literally couldn’t run a race like this without it. Both pace per mile and heart rate are crucial to whether I speed up or slow down, and probably even finish at all. Thankfully I found a shop in Berlin who stocked spare straps, and so that little hiccup was solved almost straight away. I’m just relieved it didn’t happen on the way to the start! And then potentially worse, yesterday I found myself running to the loo after breakfast with a dose of the trots.

If there’s one thing you don’t want for a marathon it is to be without energy/nutrients and also dehydrated. Thankfully it passed as quickly as it seemed to start, and after some crisps and a coke it seemed to subside. Phew! I did end up drinking rather a lot of water to make up for it, and hopefully I’ve now got rid of it all!!

Right – so I’ll update this after the run……..

So here I am, at Brandenburg Airport the following day. And overall it went great, in that I got a PB and beat my target time (whoop whoop!!) but not without some little trials and tribulations!

So firstly I just never really felt comfortable at all. I must have overdone the liquids beforehand, as despite peeing about 10 mins before the run, and not drinking after that, I felt like I needed the loo from the off! Only for a pee thankfully (I’d managed to otherwise “go” successfully beforehand for a number two, and I bet you really needed to know that!!!) but the feeling just wasn’t going to go away. I was determined not to have to stop, trying hard for a time of under 3hrs 40mins, which I knew would be tight. Every second counts! I figured then that I’d just run off the need, as perspiration and respiration took care of any excess fluids, but nope, it wasn’t going away. By mile 10 I could think of nothing else, and it wasn’t until about mile 16 that I found somewhere to go, thankfully finding some portaloos when I was fearing that I was going to have to duck into an alleyway and then get arrested by the German police! 

And then my flipbelt was just too tight. I’d swapped between two flipbelts in the weeks before the marathon (the ethos always being ‘never try anything for the first time on the day’), but I was between sizes. The medium was a tiny bit slack, and it caused a bit of bouncing and chafing when full of gels and phone etc. and chafing can be at best a terrible distraction, so I bought a small one. It was tight! I did wear it for the Great North Run, and whilst I was aware of it the whole time it was never uncomfortable. So I went with it here. I think that maybe because my bladder wasn’t empty properly it just exacerbated the tightness. I just wanted to rip the thing off, and at one point I pulled my phone out and carried it in my hand, but that was just another distraction, and I didn’t want to drop it either.  

Oh and also my shoes started to bother me at about mile 12! I wore the Vaporfly in the end, and despite these having been worn many times before, they ended up hurting my toes. I felt like I was getting a blister on my left toes early on, and then my right big toe starting aggravating me. You just don’t need or expect these things when you are doing a marathon! My toe has literally turned black afterwards, and having only lost one big toenail in my life, and heading off to Everest Base Camp in three weeks time, I really hope this one doesn’t go the same way.

I think that all of the above ultimately led to a bit more stress than I needed, and that culminated in an elevated heart rate. More of that below!

So on the plus side, despite what was a crazy long walk to the start, the rest went well! The hotel where I stayed was about two miles to the start, and I chose to walk (along with the rest of the group who were in the same hotel), so by the time I’d got through all of the backwards and forwards to get to the correct wave, I’d done almost 10,000 steps already!

I managed to pace things exactly as I wanted though. I’d set myself the target of trying to get just under 8 mins 18 seconds per mile overall, as that would beat my target of 3hrs 40mins. I knew I musn’t go off too fast, and so I’d told myself to do 8min 30s miles for the first two, and then to just very gradually make that up later on. In the end I did 8:28 and 8:21, and was pleased with that and settled into my stride. The weather was ok early on too, at about 12 degrees, and pretty much perfect conditions. I was in Wave E, so set off about half an hour or so after the fast runners.

Most of the first half of the run was pretty much straightforward, and I went through the half marathon in 1:49:18, which was pretty much exactly where I wanted to be. My heart rate up to then was at around 160 to 162, and whereas I’d preferred it lower, that was all fine and manageable. But the pressure of needing to pee, and the tight flipblet, and the sore feet, and then it started getting hot (to was 18 degrees at there end, too hot for me!) just led to escalating heart rate after that. I ended up averaging 183 over the last few miles, and touching 190, which is (obviously) just way way too high. I actually stopped twice to walk, to calm it down (it didn’t), and that just should never happen. I also had to stop for that pee! At about mile 18 it was all too much really!

So the last few miles were all really a bit too much hard work. I didn’t really bonk, but I was just hanging on for actually most of the last 10 miles. I really don’t want this to sound like a big gripefest, but I can only tell it how it is. Despite my fighting against myself, I did so much enjoy running under the Brandenburg Gate – it was all I could do to contain emotions, and the headrush was extreme.

I remember also thinking to myself on so many occasions towards the end that I was leaving everything that I had in me on the streets of Berlin. There would be no wondering about whether I could have run faster, or should have done things differently. I had given it my best, my all, and that’s all I had on the day. And that’s all I can ever ask for really.

It has been a long road to get here, and I am so glad that I did it. Marathons (for me anyway!) just take all that you have got. They take a lot of planning, of sacrifice, of dedication and motivation, and of drive and desire. I put all that I had out there, and 3 hrs 37 mins and 58 seconds later I had (and have for all time) a beautiful medal and some amazing memories to show for it.

Me producing a smile as the finish line is in sight – the Brandenburg Gate in the background.
This is pretty great too of the Brandenburg Gate – I’m in there somewhere…… 🙂
And it is finally done!!
The anticipation of 45,000 runners at the start..
…to the exultation that it is all over!
The medal in closeup, it is heavy and great quality, and Eliud Kipchoge is on the reverse side!
And here is my Garmin at the end!

So the first thing I heard as I got into the finish area in front of the German Reichstag and got to sip a (sadly non alcoholic!) beer was that Eliud Kipchoge had broken the world record – I was (albeit an infintessimally small part) of history!! His time was a completely remarkable 2:01:09, and he’d gone through the half way point in 59 min and 51 seconds apparently! That legitimate 2 hour mark remains tantalisingly close – and it is so incredible and amazing to have been there as part of (albeit a very long way behind!!!) the day that history was made for all time.

For the final records, I was apparently 392nd (out of how many I don’t know, it might have been 392!!) in the over 55s category, and 8,108th overall out of the 45,000 who started. Not that those numbers mean anything at all. The only person I was competing against after all was me, and I did all that I hoped I would, and am ultimately over the moon with the result.

Berlin is a fabulous place, and incredible marathon, and was an utterly incredible experience, which I will remember for the rest of my days. Whether I will ever do another one is a subject for another day – my immediate thoughts afterwards were “that’s it, I have nothing left to prove to anyone”.

And in any case, I have Nepal to think about now. It is coming up, I am very happy to say, very soon indeed………

Final Blog Post before the big day….. :)

And so the VERY big day is rapidly approaching now. Indeed in just two days time I will be in Berlin (or I hope I will anyway :O) getting nervously ready for the big day on Sunday. It has been a long road for sure…..

It feels a bit incredible now that I started my training plan for this event in May. Especially as we sit here now with much cooler days, the nights drawing in, and yes, I saw Christmas decorations and mince pies in the supermarket yesterday – ridiculous but true!! Since then I’ve covered approximately 700 miles, gone through two pairs of trainers (they tell you they last 350 miles and I’m a stickler for the rules!) and countless energy drinks, tabs, gels and the like.

I’ve also bought several new running vests (it is going to be about 17 degrees in Berlin and that demands being as cool as I can get), new shorts, some fancy Alphafly shoes that I may well not even wear (more on that below), and had the flight cancelled that I was supposed to be going on. But no matter, I’ll get there, by hook or by crook, and give it my best shot.

Speaking of best shots, I’ll put it down here now – I will as things stand be (only a little bit) disappointed if I don’t/can’t break (but just!) 3hrs 40 mins. That’s the target, and I’m going to everything I can to get to it. 3 hrs 39 mins and 59.9 seconds will do – that’ll have me cheering/doing metaphorical cartwheels. When I started my training, using Hanson’s Marathon Method (great book, but VERY detailed :O), I wanted to get to 3 hrs 45mins, and so that’s what I’ve trained for. That is 8m 35s miles. To put that into perspective for me, my only marathon was in New York, 3 years ago, and I did 3hrs 54mins, and I was delighted with that.

I’ve found though that as the training has gone on, despite the odd hiccup (like having to go for a colonoscopy in week 15 for example!) I’ve got generally stronger in terms of how relaxed it has all been. That doesn’t mean faster, but in terms of heartbeat. I ran today for example, for 5 miles, at an overall average of 9mins 2 secs, and my heartbeat averaged 133bpm. I think at the start of this programme that would have been about 20 beats higher. So that doesn’t necessarily mean I can do much better in terms of outcome of course, it just hopefully means I have a greater aerobic capacity to get through it. According to my Garmin watch too, my VO2 max predictor has gone up from 48 to 52 over the programme. Again, it doesn’t mean diddly squat when it comes to the day necessarily, but hopefully it at least brings confidence. After all, a lot of running is in the head too.

But what it has translated to is a faster pace per mile in training on tempo runs without getting over-exerted. My tempo (marathon pace) has gradually slightly been lowered (by me, based only on ‘feel’) to around 8 mins 20 seconds a mile, and that would equate to 3hrs 38mins and 20 seconds (precisely!). So let’s see if I can sustain 8:20 pace for 26.2 miles, and see what happens!

So the schedule is to get to Berlin (early) on Friday morning, go to the Expo (which is mandatory as you have to collect your bib etc there) in the afternoon, and then just chill as much as I can. There is a ‘shakeout’ run scheduled on the Saturday morning which I may do too though. In fact there are a couple of those – one with Sports Tours International (the company with whom I’ve booked the trip), and one with Ben Parkes and his followers. Ben is a 2:25 marathoner and esteemed YouTuber, who I follow too https://www.youtube.com/c/BenParkes – he’s a bit geeky but also entertaining and informative. He unsuccessfully attempted the UTMB a few weeks ago, and I found myself absolutely crying with him even on the starting line he was that emotional.

Interestingly, in Ben’s very latest post he was deliberating on choice of shoes. He can’t decide between three different pairs, and you’d think that someone who is a 2:25 marathoner would have it nailed down with three days to go, but apparently not! That makes me feel slightly better as I can’t decide between two pairs. I have loved Nike Vaporfly since I bought them before New York, but I bought some Nike Alphafly this year, intending them for this very race. However, the Alphafly are a bit heavier and clunkier (I wore them for the Great North Run two weeks ago), as opposed to lighter and more nimble for the Vaporfly. But, most of the serious athletes (including none other than the GOAT Eliud Kipchoge who I noticed arrived in Berlin today (not that I’m stalking him or anything :O)) choose the Alphafly, and quite honestly I’ll take all of the artificial advantages I can possibly get my hands on!

I’ll take both pairs to Berlin and it might be a toss up in the morning of the run as two which go on my feet, but the Vaporfly are favourites at this point in time, probably :D. First world problems indeed!

So the run itself begins at 9:15 on Sunday morning. I will have to try very very hard to contain emotions of just being by the Brandenburg Gate, where it also finishes. The Brandenburg Gate is just such an iconic monument in history. When I saw it last time (I’ve only been to Berlin once and was fortunate enough to have a little run through it too) it was almost overwhelming then, so what it will be like with the excitement of the event I can only imagine.

When I did New York I was very lucky to have Dan and Sadi come and cheer me on and meet up at the end. And the picture below was during the post race beer (or two) we all had in some bar afterwards. I love this photo so have put it here for at least my own posterity! Unfortunately they can’t be with me this time, but they’ll be tracking me (or watching Eliud Kipchoge on TV anyway, hopefully breaking the world record, as is rumoured….). I am so thankful for all the support and cheers that I’ve got along the journey from various other people too.

Wish me luck, as I badly need it, and see you on the other side……….

In some basement bar in Manhattan, post race of course (!) 3rd November 2019.

The one and only Great North Run 2022

The masses gather for as far as the eye can see at the start of the 41st Great North Run…

This is the DAY. This morning is THE Great North Run. As I write this I’m (literally) sat on the starting line, having arrived very early with over an hour to go, and am beyond excitement, anticipation, joy, appreciation, and also remembrance. 

Excitement that I am taking part in the 41st Great North Run in the first place. The journey home from Newcastle to South Shields, the place of my upbringing and all of my formative years. And I’ll tell you how excited this gets me. On my way up here first thing this morning from South Shields (an approximately 13.1 mile journey by Metro train, as it is a ‘point to point’ course) I stood in the queue for a ticket along with many other runners, and when I got to press the buttons on the machine I just clicked ‘return journey’ – it had somehow bypassed my befuddled braincells that I would be heading back under my own steam!!

Anticipation for the unbridled rush of emotions that this event always brings. It is a run through the places of my life, and all of my family’s lives. Every year that I have taken part (I think this is my 8th one now, but it might be 7, as I said, I’m excited 🙂 ) it doesn’t take long for me to get a total head rush. I have to bring myself out of it every time or I would literally have to stop and be properly overcome. It is generally about mile 1 when it happens, and you go though the tunnels before Tyne Bridge. There will be choruses of “oggy oggy oggy…..” and it overwhelms me every time. It actually contributes to my heart rate going through the roof, and me running too fast at the start. Happens every time and will probably happen today too. Just can’t help myself!

Joy and happiness to be together as part of the weekend with old friends, some who put me up last night (thanks Kate and Mark!) and others whom I met yesterday (fab to see you as always JB and Janine – it’s becoming a ritual 🙂 ). Joy also to be able to see the places and things that did indeed shape who I am. The beach at South Shields, the streets where I spent time with my grandparents when I was a kid, the baths where I learnt to swim, the technical college where my Dad used to teach pottery classes, my school, and the shops and sights and smells of the place of my birth are all, simply amazing. I am so grateful to be able to be in the midst of them once again. Yesterday I went down to the beach, as I always do when I am here, to just drink it all in. The word ‘sentimental’ doesn’t even begin to get close.

And my appreciation to all of those things and people extends very far and wide. To the founder of this race, the iconic and humble Sir Brendan Foster. He almost single handedly created an institution, from which so many people benefit. The charities and their beneficiaries who today alone will be some £25m better off because of it, the local communities and hospitality trade in the North East who have struggled over the last few years due to the pandemic.

And also to and on behalf of all the people of the area to whom this event alone brings in a lot of money in terms of hospitality revenues, they are all I know very grateful. There are 60,000 runners, mostly from out of the immediate area, and their families and friends, who are all spending money, on top of the half a million or so people who will be lining the route to cheer us on. Yes ‘us’, I’m one of the 60,000!

And so to remembrance. This weekend of course is very poignant for the whole country due to the death of the Queen. The event nearly didn’t take place because of it, and I’m just so glad that it is on. Many millions of people will be paying their respects over the next week or so, and this event will play its part in that. But remembrance for me, in the main, as it is every year, is for my Mam and Dad. The course will run past the street I grew up in, and where my Dad used to stand on the corner every year to cheer on the runners. He used to enthuse so much about it, and as I run past the corner of The Nook (about mile 10 1/2 on the course) it will bring every ounce of love and emotion out of my body. It’s probably even more special a place for me than the crematorium where their ashes are scattered, which incidentally we also run right past about a mile before that.

And so this week will end week 16 of the 18 weeks of the training schedule for Berlin. Another 50 or so miles – 57 I think including today. I won’t run hard, it wouldn’t be good. I am supposed (according to my religiously observed training schedule) to be doing a 10 mile run at a slow pace today. I won’t be able to run slow either, but hopefully I can just pace it well and come out at the end without injury. That’s really the most important thing. Actually writing that, I’m wrong, 100% wrong. The most important thing is all of the above things – to enjoy the very reasons why I am here, and why I will ALWAYS be here.

Come what may, this is the event of my life. The time, the weather, how quick or slow I run, anything and everything else in fact, don’t matter. This is more than special, and what I look forward to all year. This, is THE Great North Run 🙂

And it’s all done! This was shortly after the finish, and a 1:43 run, so not too fast, and not too slow either 🙂

If this helps just one person then it is worth it….

This is an almost impossible post to write, and one I probably shouldn’t even attempt. As I start it now, I am envisaging that by the time (or possibly well before) I finish it, it will be consigned to the delete bin. But I’m writing it not for me, but maybe for just one other person reading this, almost certainly that I will never know about. Here’s why:

Yesterday I went for a colonoscopy. To detect for bowel cancer. It was horrible, and frankly traumatic, but thankfully they didn’t detect any cancer. Now I might well get knocked down by a bus on my way home this evening, or die later this month from something else unknown at this point in time. After all, we are all going to die at some point. But, for this week or this month and hopefully a few years still, bowel cancer can fuck right off. I make no apologies at all for the language.

Cancer killed both my parents before their time was (or should have been) up. And it was bowel cancer that got my Mam. She was in her 50s at the time (when she got the bowel cancer, although she died a few years later from secondary cancer), and that is why it is so hard, and painful, and still (she died 22 years ago now) so very raw.

Bowel cancer is the 3rd most prevalent cancer in men, 4th in women, and about 1 person in 20 will get it in their lifetime. Caught early, you have an 84% chance of living for 10 years. Caught late, then 47% of people will die within a year or so. Shocking, appalling, and very sad. But bowel cancer is treatable, and you can if you are lucky carry on a normal life.

So why the story? Well, about a month or so ago, I started having some (actually quite a bit) rectal bleeding (I told you this was a hard post to write, but there’s no way of dressing this up really). Also I had a bit of bloating and some uncomfortable feelings ‘down there’. Now haemorrhoids cause blood, but this to me didn’t feel like that (as I’ve had piles before).

Now I’m a typical bloke I guess, and I said to myself that I should get checked out. But I was busy at work, and trying to sort my house out, and maybe the cat needed feeding too. There’s always an easy excuse for not ‘bothering’ your GP. There has after all been a big strain on the NHS for way too long now, and other people are (definitely) more important than me. Bollocks.

But eventually, a few weeks later, I picked up the phone to my GP, and the process of getting checked out started.

The NHS were absolutely magnificent from start to finish. No judgement, no fuss, no stress. Just efficiency, brilliance, compassion. They were focussed on me from start to finish. I was I should say fortunate in being fast tracked, due to family history, and also due to this having also happened to me (rectal bleeding and a resultant anal fissure) about 7 years ago. 

The week of the procedure isn’t pleasant, I can tell you. You have five days of a (very) low fibre diet, which is harder than it sounds (for me anyway), as the list of prohibited substances is massive (fruit, vegetables, red meat, brown bread, cereal, nuts, crisps, chips….the list goes on). Then you have a day of fasting, whilst you drink two lots of bowel emptying laxative. You can’t even leave the house, as you will go to the loo about 47 times in this 24 hour period, and probably almost run out of toilet rolls like I did.

Then there’s the anxiety. I did ask when they phoned me to make the final preparations for the colonoscopy, as to how soon they would give me the results. They told me that they would know there and then if there was ‘an issue’, and then at that time they would take a biopsy which would need to be evaluated. Any nasty looking polyps would be removed at the time if possible.

So you basically go into this knowing it is very binary. You’re either clear, or you’re not. No pressure! When they took my blood pressure in the ante room before the procedure the top reading was above 140, and whilst this isn’t exactly life threatening, mine is never above 120, other than after/during exercise. I test it regularly at home, an old habit from mountain/high altitude training. I was a bit of a basket case really. 

You also are given the choice for the procedure of sedation, in which case you need someone to look after you for 24 hours, or gas & air (Entonox). As I live on my own and have no family anywhere near I didn’t have a choice but to go for the gas and air. I say this as a bit of a wimp when it comes to pain! 

During the procedure they basically inflate the bowel with air all the way around to where your appendix is/was, and the combined camera/polyp removing tube does the rest. It’s a bit painful at times, and I was sucking on the gas and air like some gasping smoker who’d been given their last ever cigarette to make the most of. You’re in the theatre for about an hour all told, so let’s call it ‘thorough’.

I’ll dwell no more on the gory bits. Suffice to say that as they finished and the consultant told me that I was ‘clear’, I got very emotional. Then when I was taken into the ‘recovery’ room and given a cup of tea and a biscuit (I had sugar in my tea, which normally would be anathema to me, but I just needed anything I could get at that point) I got very emotional too. It was a release, a relief. I spoke with two of the most wonderful nurses on this planet, one called Vickie, and the other Sheree. They looked after me like I was the most important and precariously poised patient on the planet. I spoke with Sheree about how her Mum had died from cancer too. Relating to other people’s sad experiences really brings home just how prevalent this disease really is.

It makes it all so incredibly real too when you are sitting there imagining if the result had gone the other way. But with bowel cancer you don’t know unless you get tested. The call it ‘the silent killer’, as there are generally no symptoms at all.

After I got home I was on the phone to a very good friend of mine. I told him about my procedure. He mentioned that he’d had a test through the post a little while ago, but hadn’t done it. A ‘stool test’ they call them, and I think that now everyone over the age of 55 should get them. I told him to do it, straight away, and I hope he has done so. I’m making a note now to call him again and nag him to do so.

So, I am one of the lucky ones, so far. I feel very grateful to have all that I have in life. Cancer can hit you at any time, and so of course can many other illnesses and diseases. Listen to your body, and if you feel there is something wrong, then call your GP, please! I’m not preaching, I’m just talking as someone who feels grateful and lucky. You get one life. Live it, but also look after it.

Love to all.

So will I be there or not???

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in all of my 58 years that is not to take anything for granted. Or anyone for that matter, probably even more importantly. And so also liking to be prepared (whenever I can be) I took the opportunity many months back when booking for Berlin to also book the travel over there. 

The starting line for Berlin

The package I bought to Berlin (through an International Tour Operator, practically the only way to get in and guarantee doing so) covers the hotel and the event only, so I had to make sure I got flights to coincide. So not wanting to end up being frazzled with the stress, hassle and seemingly-impossible-to-fathom baggage allowances of the budget airlines, I went for British Airways. They are ‘reassuringly expensive’, especially when you treat yourself to Business Class for the return journey!

And so fast forward to the here and now, which is week 15 of the 18 week programme, and I am in the final throes (hopefully!) of my preparations for the event on the 25th of this month. And then I get an email from British Airways, which I very nearly didn’t open as I thought it was just a general mailer. It said that due to the capacity problems at Heathrow that a number of flights had had to be cancelled, and that mine was one. They gave me a refund, thankfully, but that isn’t the issue. The issue quickly became how to find another flight!

After an extensive search, it quickly became clear that two things were true. Firstly I wasn’t going to be able to get a BA flight out of practically anywhere to Berlin. Boo boo I hear you say. But worse, every budget airline seemed to be booked too, or just not to coincide with the trip as they had multiple connections and took about 20 hours to get there, via strange and far flung places. Berlin is no doubt a popular destination (anyway) and with the marathon and also Oktoberfest in Munich seemingly taking most of the airlines’ capacity for late September, I was almost fearing I would have to drive, which from the Lake District would no doubt take two days! 

Cut a long story short I did eventually find a flight with EasyJet. It have to go to Scotland to get it, but at least it gets me there. Cost me more than BA too in the end, but by that time I didn’t care, I was glad to get a flight at all. Hopefully they don’t cancel on me too, as we are now a matter of 22 days away!!

So onto the running then. Well this week should be the highest weekly mileage of them all (58), before tapering starts. Tomorrow should be a 16 miler following a number of long runs (two 12s at pace so far for example). However my running hasn’t been good, or my heart rate hasn’t. The last two runs have seen a significantly elevated heart rate of over 13bpm more than equivalent runs the week before. Runs which should be easy have been at threshold, and that is counterproductive. A friend noticed and put onto my Strava feed “maybe you should take a rest”. Resting is however the last thing the training programme demands at this critical stage. 

So we will see. I’ll see how the day goes (more of that for another reason in another post…..) and then see what I can do tomorrow. 

My various social media feeds meanwhile fill with lots of tantalising things about the Berlin Marathon. Everyone is in the same boat as far as final running and travel preparations, getting ready for the expo, making plans for final kit. I went and bought myself a new running vest (temperatures look warm for the day as it stands), new shorts, a flipbelt and a bunch of fancy (read expensive!) gels this week – why not!!

Amongst other things this last week or so I also watched with significant and excited interest the live stream of the UTMB, the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon. It is over 170km long and has over 33,000 feet of climbing. And no, I’ll never ever be worthy of even dreaming about taking part! The race was won in a staggering 19 hours and 49 minutes, by the greatest endurance athlete of all time, Kilian Jornet. One of the athletes that I follow very closely on You Tube, Ben Parkes, himself a 2:25 marathoner and very experienced ultramarathoner too, was hoping with great excitement to finish his very first UTMB in around 40 hours, but had a bad fall and hurt his knee in the first 20 miles and had to withdraw. He was so upset after literally years of preparation and no doubt vast expense. Bummer!

The UTMB in Chamonix – one of my favourite places on the planet to!

I think I ran over 200 miles in August alone. If I can just get through the last few weeks and also have no more travel or other disruptions, then fingers crossed I’ll be at least on the starting line. 

But take nothing, anything, for granted. Just ask Ben Parkes! More next week, including hopefully of course, the Great North Run! 8 exciting days to go…….

19 days to go…..

…..until the Great North Run! I’m dedicating this post to that very occasion therefore. It’s after all the occasion in terms of any event I have ever done, or ever will do, that means the most to me. It is the first time since 2019 (and because of the pandemic) that arguably the North East’s very greatest asset and occasion will be winding its way on its full route to the seaside.

So I’ll explain here as to why it is so very special….

Can’t wait to be here – “Sea” you in September!

Well firstly (although I should say that this is in no particular order) it is the World’s biggest half marathon. Each year (and this one certainly no exception) some 60,000 eager runners take on the 13.1 miles from Newcastle to South Shields. And that’s good for me because I love the buzz. Moreover, although it is impossible to count, spectator numbers that line the route are estimated between 1/4 to 1/2 a million people, which is simply incredible. There is nothing to beat the excitement from start to finish, and it is something that I absolutely love.

Secondly it is a veritable homecoming for me. I grew up and went to school in South Shields, and although I left home now some 40 years ago now (that’s a very scary thought in itself!) – it is a true pilgrimage of the purest order. My parents still lived there until they died (My Dad the last, 8 years ago, more of that below) and so I went to see family and good friends several times a year and have done my whole life.

Then the route of the GNR itself almost follows a storyboard of my early life. It begins very close (within about 400m in fact) to where I finished my schooling, in Jesmond, Newcastle. Then goes through Gateshead and Felling, where my Dad took me to learn to swim. Then it is on to Hebburn, formerly home of one set of my grandparents, and where my Mam and Dad met. Then it is Jarrow, where I was born, and home to my other set of grandparents. And then onto South Shields itself, which was my home and where my heart still beats the most vibrantly. It literally finishes just off the beach where I would spend as much time as I could as a kid.

An overview of the route to the seaside…

The most emotional thing about the Great North Run though is that it literally passes the top of the road where I was brought up, Mitford Road. The Great North Run has been on TV since its inception (over 40 years now), and every year wherever I happened to be, my Dad would phone me up on the day of the race. He’d tell me he was going to stand on the corner of the road by the roundabout, and ‘wave at the camera’. I’d never see him of course, but did always have a look. It excited him a lot, and like so many people (and also being a former sportsman and runner himself) loved everything that it brought to the North East.

After my Dad died, and in subsequent Great North Runs which I have taken part in, I can’t help my eyes wandering to the crowds at the roundabout at the corner when I run past. I know that my Dad is there somewhere, waving at me and cheering me on.

And finally, The Great North Run is just massive for the North East. It is a weekend long party, bringing money to the hoteliers, pubs and restaurants. It also brings the Red Arrows, and a massive amount of money in donations to charities (second annually only to the London marathon I believe in terms of sponsorship monies raised). I could go on (and should, so I will) to say that this year alone we have none other than Kenenisa Bekele, Joseph Cheptegai, Selemon Barega and Jacob Kiplimo taking part. Kiplimo is the world record holder and the other three have run four of the fastest half marathons in history. That’s all a tribute to Sir Brendan Foster, champion and founder of the event, and my boyhood (and indeed adulthood) hero.

And so onto the running then, well last week I did 55.1 miles. And all thankfully passed without incident. I have to say though that it is all really hard work both mentally and physically, and I wish I hadn’t taken on such an intensive training programme now. But I’m at week 14 of 18, and am not going to stop or slow down now – plus if things like the Great North Run don’t inspire me, or indeed the thought of being in Berlin (despite BA this week cancelling my flight, more of that next time), then nothing will.

My running progression for the last 12 weeks – 55 for the week just ended!

And so finally, to end where I started (and if you thought I’d finished waxing on about the Great North Run then you’ll be disappointed, because I never will!) – my final thoughts on the GNR are this: It brings people like me home, and families together, and hope, excitement and entertainment to so many. I’ll be there every year as long as my legs will carry me. Long may that last!

Can you hear my heartbeat…..

So I said in my last blog post that I’d talk about running shoes and also heart rate next time around, and here we are. The reason for raising both is that I really hadn’t realised that they are related – oh yes! Let me explain….

Well firstly I’ve always suffered from a pretty high heart rate, under anything less than resting conditions. Tachycardia I think is the medical name. It doesn’t take even the slightest bit of angst and my heart can pound almost out of control. It gets bad when running too – if I look at any of my previous half marathon attempts, or a hard run of any significant distance (in fact even a Park Run) and my heart can average 180bpm. 

That’s not good really. And especially when the formula of ‘don’t let your heart rate go above ‘210-your age’ would have my max heart rate at 152! I have had alerts before when doing a run to say my heart rate is up at nearly 190, which is actually pretty terrifying. So the very interesting thing when doing a prolonged bout of training for a run like a marathon is the effect on your heart rate, and also shoes matter here too, and here’s what I understand of it, scientifically, as it were:

So basically our bodies have a ‘fight or flight’ reaction in many situations – it is what is called the sympathetic nervous system, something I find fascinating. An(y) increase in intensity basically produces an adrenaline surge, which means blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate all increase.

Over time however, like a period of sustained training (which I am very much in, obviously), your body adapts to it, which decreases the burden on your cardiovascular system. As your muscles, and your heart, get stronger, they do a better job of extracting oxygen from your blood, so your heart itself doesn’t need to pump as fast to drive blood around the system. It’s all about the oxygen in the blood, which is why the key measure of fitness for example is called Vo2 max. This is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise, and the higher the measure the fitter you are basically. 

So this all manifests itself in various ways – your heart rate gets lower for the same amount of strain (or length of run at the same pace), and also the spikes get lower too, as your heart doesn’t react so badly to that fight or flight thing. There is a key to the running too though – in that the majority of it needs to be done aerobically, at a slow and easy pace. If you did lots of running but just thrashed yourself every time then you wouldn’t improve, in short. That’s how I understand it anyway – and if anyone realises that I’ve got this all wrong then please let me know!!

And the tie in with shoes is very interesting too. So again as I understand it, the more your shoes have the likes of ‘rebound foam’, or as is the case with some shoes a carbon plate, then the less energy you need to expend for a given pace or intensity. The shoes are basically helping return some of the energy expended as downforce and basically not letting you waste it by letting you have it back. It’s a bit like being on a trampoline. This also means that for a longer distance you get less tired, and your heart has to work less. Now the differences aren’t staggering – maybe about 3 or 4bpm according to the advertising materials for the Nike Vaporfly Next% or the Alphafly, but every little helps as far as I’m concerned.

For me (and I have both of the above pairs) I think I do actually notice the difference, particularly over longer distances. In my only marathon, where I wore the Vaporfly Next%, I did my fastest mile in the last mile for example. Now adrenaline and excitement I am sure played most of the part in that, but the fact that I had enough left in my legs to do it was the main thing for me. I’ve bought a pair of Alphafly for Berlin – after all if they work for Eliud Kipchoge then who am I to say otherwise? So far I’ve taken them out on just two (slowish) runs, and the jury is still out overall as to how I like them compared to the Vaporfly (they feel a bit heavier and ‘flappier/noisier’ to me so far). I’ll keep going with them on the faster training runs and decide nearer the time whether they get the vote.

Alphafly or Vaporfly Next% – what’s a boy to wear?

And so here we are then at the end of week 12 (of 18). This week was 47 miles, a slight reduction on last week thankfully, but it was still very hard work as it has been brutally hot here – not a phrase normally heard in the Lake District! At the end of week 12 I’ve done just over 400 miles on the programme so far, and it feels every inch of it. I have four weeks of hard training to go, harder than I’ve done yet, and then two weeks of tapering towards Berlin. Having said that, both of the last two weeks are around 50 miles too, albeit at less intensity. One of those weeks includes the Great North Run, which I will be itching to run ‘properly’, but I know I can’t/shouldn’t, as it’ll take too much out of me. I’ll enjoy it nonetheless (and that’s an understatement of all time) – and I’ll talk more about the anticipation of that next time.

Oh and I’m also dreaming a bit of being in the Himalayas in the autumn (in fact I’m just dreaming of not having to run anywhere at all!). Everest Base Camp of course. That needs a lot more thought and planning too, but where there’s a will there’s a way…..

Countdown to Berlin – 42 days. Countdown to the Great North (training) Run – 28 days. Come on!!!!

The road to Berlin goes on, and on……

A long time ago, I went skiing to Andorra. I remember it quite vividly. It was all cheap bars and cheap food, lively music, and short but fairly decent ski runs. It had the sort of ski runs that if it is your first ever ski holiday they would be almost overwhelming, but if you’ve been on two or three you would avoid as being not worth the effort of getting back on the ski lift so quickly again. The reason I mention all of this is that there was a guy on the holiday who I used to work with, and let’s call him Simon (because that was actually his name). 

It was Simon’s first ever ski holiday (first time on skis full stop in fact), and despite suggestions and indeed firm instruction from those around him to book into ski school, he refused. “I’ll be alright” he said, and took the gondola up with the rest of us and decided to just ‘wing it’ back down somehow. Being of a nervous disposition, and frankly not wanting to see him hurt himself or worse, I stayed well out of the way. His closest friend Steve, who could ski well, chaperoned him to the point where he was stood, somewhat Bambi-like at first, with skis pointed vaguely at the direction of the slopes. 

“Which way do I go” was all Simon wanted to know. With a bit of a directional steer from Steve, all of a sudden Simon was off, hurtling downhill, all arms and legs, and the biggest grin on his face I’d ever seen. He crashed of course, albeit into a bit of a bank of soft snow, but got up, dusted himself down, and off he hurtled again. He hadn’t a care in the world. By the end of the week he was skiing runs that I was unsure about even for myself, and I think this was my tenth time skiing. I think that it has been said before that skiing is about 20% ability and 80% confidence – well in Simon’s case it was more like 5% of one and 95% of the other. Go Simon!

And onto the running then. Last week was the biggest week so far – 54 miles on the schedule in six runs, culminating in a 16 miler on the Sunday. That would be the longest run I had done since running the TCS New York Marathon in 2019. It’s fair to say there was a degree of trepidation on my part, not just because my last two long runs had ended slightly short. The first, a 10 miler, I stopped after 9. It was too hot. The second, a 15 miler, I stopped after 14 – I had some fairly uncomfortable chafing. With the second one, if I’m very truthful (and why shouldn’t I be, I am after all really just talking to myself here :D) I could have stopped anywhere between about 10 and 12. There’s always a reason to stop, right? 

So this week I was just determined to get to the end and see it through. All of my midweek runs have so far been going pretty much ok. The easy runs are of course, well, easy (thankfully :O) , and the intervals have been ok, if much harder work (7:30 pace in the main which is basically my top speed). It is the tempo runs which are now the test. The tempo runs are at race pace (8:30 for the marathon) and should be the real benchmark. They started in week 3 at about 4 miles and are now up to 8, plus a mile each side of warming up and cooling down. This week I did this in Nottingham as I was privileged to be asked to look after my gorgeous granddaughter Jessie, whilst my son and his partner played in the European Touch Rugby Championships. 

So the Thursday tempo run also followed a Tuesday interval run at my lowest heart rate so far (I’ll talk about heart rate and also shoes in a subsequent blog post). I was therefore confident, and set off with gusto along the banks of the Trent, a route I know well. After about two miles I knew it wasn’t good. My heart rate was pounding, up at over 160. Now 160 is ok if I’m flat out (and so is 170), but not for the start of a ten mile tempo run – it is only going to get worse from there.

And get worse it did – after mile three and four my breathing was more laboured, the effort too high. After 5 miles I stopped, drained. I did sort of jog another mile to see if I could get to a six mile total out of the intended 10. All that did was add another mile to my Strava count – it did me no good whatsoever. I was very deflated. I’m still 7 weeks from Berlin, with all of the big and toughest weeks ahead of me. Take nothing for granted, I told myself, amongst other things.

On Friday I had a shortish 6 mile easy run when I got home from Nottingham. On the Saturday it was 8 miles, again easy. Thankfully both passed without incident, and I braced myself for Sunday’s big one. A moderate (for me!!) alcohol intake on the Saturday evening gave me a decent sleep, even if I did wake early on the Sunday. I drove for my long run to Ambleside (to get some flattish ground as there is literally none by me bar a running track), my favourite place, some four miles away from where I now live, and set off with a determined air. I am very happy, and also relieved, to say that the 16 miles got ticked off without heat exhaustion, chafing, or other (reasonable or unreasonable) excuse. The week thus finished with around 50 miles completed, which I have to be pleased with. There are probably only two or three weeks in my life when I have run that far, and this programme is a test of both physical and mental resolve.

Another week over then. I don’t know how many miles I’ve run so far – it’s just been a lot. This week is 50 again, next week 56, then 54, then 57 I think – it’s a long August that’s for sure. But after that it is September – and on the 11th is the first proper Great North Run since this horrible pandemic took over (and so much worse for so many) so many lives. I can’t wait until the Great North Run – the phrase “it’ll be emotional” is the understatement of the century. More of that anticipation and excitement next time. I’m going to be blogging weekly again now. 

And so for now I will continue to believe, that Berlin will happen, and that I can do it. I’ll never have Simon’s gusto or confidence, but I am nothing if not lacking in determination. I also found out recently that none other than Eliud Kipchoge, undoubtedly the greatest distance runner of all time, and world record holder for the marathon (set in Berlin four years ago) will be running too. If I said that he’s a hero of mine that would be significantly understating my admiration for all that he has achieved in running and in life. And if that doesn’t get me motivated to ‘go like Simon’ then nothing ever will.

The one and only Eliud Kipchoge leading the way home through the Brandenburg Gate.

Oh and as more than a little footnote to all of the above, both my Son and his partner’s teams won their respective finals of the European Chamionships, and I am so very proud of them both – happy days 🙂

Week 9 already – how did that happen?

So no updates from me for a while, but that’s just because I’ve been busy with life. Very busy. In fact as I dwell and reflect on life in general, it occurred to me that I have done very little recently of the very thing that I moved to the Lake District for just over a year ago, and that is go out and walk/enjoy the fells.

I have actually only done two walks in fact since May, one a short one around my local (very small) hills, and a nice big ultra walk of 50km for an ultrachallenge, with around 4,500 feet of climbing. The latter (about a month ago now) was great fun with friends Kev and Fiona, ably supported by Helen who got us there and back again, and we were lucky with the weather for sure, as there had been a lot of rain forecast, but we escaped it all.

Nice shirt Kev!

Since then I’ve been working a lot, something I hadn’t planned really, but an interim assignment came up in Nottingham, and I said yes rather too willingly. I find myself staying away from home for half of the week, and the weekends have been made up of trying to get my home ready to become a holiday let, so there has been a lot to do. Oh yes, and there’s been some running too!

It is true that the mind seems to blank out pain from the memory bank when deciding to do something again. I won’t use the ‘like childbirth’ analogy here, as obviously being a man I haven’t experienced it (before 50% of the population shout at me!), but it is true that when doing my first marathon training there were moments ranging from “this is crazy hard and taking over my whole life” to “never again”. And here I am now at the end of Week 9 of the programme (and there is therefore the vast majority of the really hard work to come) and I am absolutely beat!

Not helped by a combination of early mornings and warmer than usual weather (and also Hanson’s Marathon Plan, which is full on to say the least), it is the case that this week’s 46 miles of running has been a killer for me. Negotiating last week’s 40 degree heat (ok well only 35 in the Lake District, but still!) was hard work logistically, involving either early morning or late evening stints was tough too. And then today was the longest run yet, of 15 miles. I managed 14.3, and stopped early as a.) I was knackered, and b.) I had some chafing in at least two uncomfortable places!

The runs are now also in full flow as far as intensity and variety. Most of the first few weeks of the programme were all about easy runs, to build up both distance and aerobic capacity. Now however there are always at least three ‘SOS’ runs each week. SOS stands for ‘something of substance’, so a specific purpose and at faster than easy run pace. Tuesdays are speed/intervals (for example 6 lots of 800m at 7:30 pace), Thursdays are tempo sessions (this week 8 miles at marathon (8:34/minute) pace, and Sunday is a ‘long’ run of (like today) 15 miles at 9:18 pace. There are then three days where I just run at easy pace, but the distance for these is increasing all the time, which gives basically no recovery time at all.

Of course the increasing intensity and distance is what marathon training is all about, and this programme is very much about cumulative fatigue. I’ll be up to close on 60 miles a week in three weeks time, with the Sunday sessions up to 16 miles too, so lets hope the weather is a bit cooler that week!

I shouldn’t admit to this but I’m already looking forward to September 26th very much, which will be the start of the week following Berlin, when I can guarantee that I will not be running at all!! Fingers crossed most of all that I stay injury free and just get there. With all that is going on still in the world right now it is nice to just have something to look forward to.

Happy running one and all!