It didn’t rain every day

West to east, north to south

There wasn’t a real plan for our autumn trip in 2019. We could have gone south for sunshine and warmth. But we decided to head north. It was late September – what could possibly go wrong?

Camping La Chaumière

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A trip using the P&O Dover Calais ferry, remarkable only because it was largely trouble free – we were able to catch the ferry earlier than the one booked, but it left late, so we were travelling pretty well as scheduled.

Camping La Chaumière is a pleasant stop-off close to the channel ports. Not surprisingly, a lot of the campers are British. We ate dinner with people who live just a few miles from us and share common friends. They also also provided the musical entertainment for the evening. A nice way to start the holiday.

On the ferry
The restaurant at La Chaumière
Very civilised camping
It’s flat, but pleasantly rural

Bruges

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Last time we visited Bruges the aire was so crowded that we could scarcely squeeze between our van and the one next to us. It’s come on a bit since then, with a well-kept space, still pretty tight, but wonderfully located to walk through the park to the town. If the aire is full, or you’re claustrophobic, it’s possible to overflow into the bus parking area, but you then lose the electricity hookup. Bruges is very touristy but with good reason.

Ghent

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We’d never visited Ghent before. In many ways it has a similar feel to Bruges, but it was just a little less touristy. Camping Blaarmeersen is a friendly, well-appointed campsite situated in a leisure park just outside the city. It’s within cycling distance, but there is a free bus which leaves from just outside the site (and brought us back to the gate, because all the passengers were going that way).

Antwerp

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We had arranged to meet friends in Antwerp. We parked for free in a large car-park alongside the river, where the river cruisers moor. I found the car-park location on the Park4Night app which suggested we could have stayed there overnight. It looked as though that was legal, but we actually stayed overnight at our friends’ house.

There was one little complication that I discovered when I was exploring the options for the trip – Antwerp has its own low emissions zone. It’s free to apply and get approved, but how are tourists supposed to know these things?

Free parking by the river
Belgian humour
Sleeping on the street

Helmstedt

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We were now en-route for another meeting with friends in Berlin. This was one of those days when we set off in the right direction and decided on our overnight stop as the day progressed. This was another destination from Park4Night, and it was an excellent location for a free overnight stop, close to the town (with a walk through a park), plenty of horizontal parking space and even free WiFi. I knew nothing about Helmstedt, but it turns out that in the days of the Cold War it was the gateway to the road corridor to Berlin. It’s a pleasant town.

Berlin

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The drive from Helmstedt to Berlin was along the A2, which used to be the corridor to west Berlin. The Helmstedt-Marienborn checkpoint was Checkpoint Alpha in Cold-War times. The autobahn is still very much a corridor through the forest. We were driving to our destination in our friends’ garden. It was to be our longest stay of the holiday – with the added benefit of WiFi and shower facilities.

Cold-War history was becoming a theme. I suppose it’s to be expected in these parts. Our friends’ house is situated right on the line of the wall. There was a gate on their street which was used to allow West Berlin’s rubbish into the East! The 155km Berliner Mauerweg (Berlin Wall Trail) now passes right outside. I couldn’t help wondering about parallels in today’s political situation. While staying here we drove to Potsdam, and took a city boat cruise in Berlin.

Potsdam

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Our first stop near Potsdam was to the north-east on the Havel, parking near Wirtshaus Moorlake and walking along the river to Krughorn . We were yet again on the line of the Wall. At this time of year it was a deserted wooded area.

On the Havel
On the Havel

We then moved to see Sanssourci Palace and the surrounding gardens. The car park included space suitable for motorhomes.

The Orangery
Didn’t we have fun!
A modest little outbuilding
The Palace

We then moved back out into the countryside to Templiner See, where a walk and cycle path run alongside the railway across the lake.

Templiner See
Templiner See

Berlin City Tour

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We decided the best way of seeing the city in the weather conditions was by boat – a relaxing place to chill and be shown the sights. We then had the pleasure of a meal with our hosts.

Molecule Men – in grey
The museum quarter – a good day to be inside
The Wall
Oberbaum Bridge

Peenamünde

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I’m an engineer, so I was excited to see that Peenamünde was within easy reach. It turned out that we got more excitement than we intended before we got anywhere near our destination. We became the subject of what I can only interpret as a robbery attempt on the Autobahn as a pair of Mercedes cars tried to stop us and force us off the road. Twenty miles per hour is not very safe, but no-one ran into us, we didn’t stop, and we stayed on the road.

Peenamünde is where the German World War Two V2 rocket was developed. The museum presents a very well balanced perspective on this difficult subject, covering technical, political and human aspects. It’s one of the best museums I’ve visited. There are several other museums around the harbour and I enjoyed a visit to a Russian U-boat. We stayed overnight in the coach-park just outside the museum (pay and display).

Świnoujście

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We were now very close to the Polish border, and the route along the coast looked intriguing. In practice, while there were probably interesting and scenic locations along the route, the actual road was not terribly exciting. The border crossing was very congested, not helped by extensive roadworks, but we found our way to Camping Nr 44 Relax. This site has mixed reviews, but for a motorhome the pitch was pretty good. The facilities blocks were not the best, but the location is very convenient for the beach and the town. If you stay at Camping Nr 44 Relax and want a mains hook-up, then you will need a cable with a standard European domestic plug on it, not the normal blue hookup connector. I had left our adaptor at home, and after unsuccessfully searching the shops for suitable parts to make one, I ended up changing the plug on our hookup cable.

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We enjoyed a break in the rain, allowing a walk along the beach and a cycle ride to look at the ferry crossing. We could have enjoyed ourselves for longer than the two nights we stayed at Świnoujście , but we still wouldn’t be able to pronounce or spell the name.

Łagów Lake

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I had a bit of a surprise when I looked at the route out of Świnoujście – we had the choice of taking a ferry (which I had seen on my bike ride had long queues) or retracing our steps. It had to be the ferry – time shouldn’t be an issue on holiday. Having gained some understanding of the geography of the area on my bike ride the short ferry trip was very pleasant. It was free too.

Although we were now heading south, we wanted to stay in Poland rather crossing the border back into Germany. We were following a road that varied from good motorway to construction site. We didn’t have any particular target for the journey that day – we were heading for the Black Forest at a gentle pace, seeing what we might discover on the way. The Zacisze campsite at Łagów Lake was a delightful discovery. At first sight I thought it was closed for the winter – but a cheery greeting from the manager assured me that they were open for business, even if the weather had washed away part of the access road. We had the entire campsite (complete with electric hookup) to ourselves. My modification to the hookup cable for the previous site proved useful for this site too, but there was a further impediment. I had fitted a European plug which didn’t accommodate an earth pin in the the fixed socket. I was able to overcome this by using a European plug adaptor on my European plug – magic.

The lake was peaceful and beautiful, and in the evening it was host to a huge number of energetic fish leaping out of the water.

Dresden

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The day started in sunshine, with the trees steaming from the overnight rain. We were locked into the campsite, our hookup cable was locked into the electricity box and we had to drive uphill on a wet surface partly off the track due to earlier flood damage. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing at all, as it happened.

We were going back into Germany, and had decided that Dresden would be an interesting destination for the day, with all the ingredients for a city stopover – history, architecture and a big river. The Stellplatz didn’t let us down. I was surprised to see a spare place right in the corner, facing the historic town across the river. I was surprised that such a prime spot was free. It was only after I had explored a little more that I realised the other motorhomes were clustered around the electric hookup point – which made some sense given the chilly weather. However, we were comfortably installed with a great view, so we settled for an off-grid night. The ticket machine was an interesting intellectual challenge, but I guess it’s good to be surrounded by high IQ campers.

Like so many German cities, Dresden is both magnificent and sobering. It’s not as old as it looks – most of the city centre had to be rebuilt after the war. But that is a side effect of the killing of 25,000 people. So much of this journey has been a reminder of the devastation of war.

A pitch with a view

Bamberg

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When you park on a Stellplatz there’s often less pressure to get away early than on a campsite – you often pay for a full 24 hours. We left Dresden late in the morning, and then stopped off at a supermarket. But despite the late start this turned into a travelling day.

Campinginsel Bamberg is an excellent riverside site – the facilities block was probably the best I have seen anywhere. There was a very popular on site restaurant. The camping ground itself was looking a little tired – it was the end of the season.

Bus into Bamberg

Bamberg was an interesting town, easily accessible by bus from a stop right outside the campsite entrance. For some of the time we were walking in Bamberg it wasn’t raining – but those rivers need to be filled! The very smart town museum gave a good cultural orientation, and made us aware of the places to visit, as well as what we were missing by not wandering further.

Artwork in the facilities block
Rauchbier is a thing in Bamberg

Gaggenau

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We were making our approach to the northern part of the Black Forest. I was regarding Baden Baden as the landmark for the start of this phase of the trip – which is fine in principle, but where were we going to park? When my research showed that there was a Unimog museum https://www.unimog-museum.com/ in Gaggenau the decision was made.

The Stellplatz at Gaggenau is part of a car park just outside the town. It’s clean, well organised and free. There are electric hookup points and it would have been possible to get attached, but we were happier to choose a more spacious parking space and live off grid. The Stellpatz is alongside a park. A walk through the park takes you to the museum – and also gives access to other walks. We didn’t visit the town.

The museum didn’t disappoint. The static exhibits are relatively modest, but the real highlight is the opportunity to be driven around their demonstration track. For me a Unimog-based motorhome would be a dream.

Stellplatz Gaggenau
This one was a visitor, not an exhibit – nice

Titisee

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We were perfectly positioned to experience the iconic Schwarzwaldhochstraße, or Bundesstraße 500. Ideally we would savour this twisty steep scenic road and the places around – but it rained, a lot. The sights couldn’t be seen, the walks were flooded. We reluctantly decided to simply drive the road. All we needed was sunshine and a motorcycle.

And relax

We were heading for Camping Weiherhof, on the edge of Titisee. It didn’t disappoint. We had a lakeside pitch with a glorious view. Staying at the site gave us free public transport for the area. And the campsite boathouse restaurant was atmospheric and friendly.

Freiburg

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We had a free travel pass, so it would be rude not to make use of it. The go-to city from Titisee is Freiburg, and rightfully so.

We took a bus from near the site entrance to the train station, and thence to Freiburg. It’s always a bit of a shock when you emerge from a station looking for the city it serves, but we found the centre and got into the relaxed feeling – it’s definitely one of those places where sitting in a square and eating Black Forest Gateau is the thing to do. And it wasn’t raining!

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte

Blumberg

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We had heard about the Sauschwänzlebahn https://sauschwaenzlebahn.de/ when doing our preparation for visiting the Black Forest. It’s a rather spectacular stretch of railway that runs steam-hauled excursions for 25km from near Blumberg towards the Swiss border. It would have been an easy day trip from Titisee, but we had decided to check out and go on somewhere else after our train trip.

The first part of the mission was to obtain tickets. It was a Saturday, and the train was heavily booked, but we got seats – or more correctly, we got tickets with allocated seats. More on this later.

We had plenty of time to explore the museum and historic signal box before the arrival of our train. As you would expect in Germany it was easy to find our allocated seats – but they were already occupied by some German people who were part of a loud crowd of drunk people, who were not open to reasonable discussion. We retired to some vacant seats in a corner and awaited developments. Another group of Germans came along to claim their seats from another part of the loud crowd – problem solved.

The trip was indeed scenic and interesting, and the return journey was in the company of a delightful and friendly German family – such a contrast.

We decided not to travel far for our overnight stay. The weather was good, and it was nice to be able to take advantage of it at a Stellplatz a few minutes away.

Col de la Schlucht

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We had reached the point of the holiday when we were heading back, slowly, to Calais. We decided to travel through France – we feel at home there, but we’d be travelling through a part of France that we don’t know.

Before leaving Germany we stopped at Münstertal where horses and sports cars were being exercised.

We parked at a riverside Stellplatz at Breisach and took a walk along the Rhine. This was the border with France – we could have walked across the bridge. It was too early to stay for the night, and we were only a few miles from Freiburg, where we had been days previously.

The Rhine at Breisach – that’s France over there.

Our eventual overnight stopping point was at Col de la Schlucht. There is considerable development going on here, and it’s very much a work in progress at the moment. While this col is not one with magnificent views into the valleys below, it’s a pleasant stopping point and the starting point for a number of walks.

Lac de Madine

It was a day of lakes. We were in no great rush to leave Col de la Schlucht, and it was nearly time for lunch after we’d had a leisurely walk. It was a short drive to Lac de Longemer for lunch with a view.

Lac de Longemer

Lac de Madine is a large leisure area offering a range of motorhome camping facilities. We chose a simple grass pitch, which with heavy rain overnight and in the morning turned out not to have been the best choice. There are walks and bicycle routes, and I enjoyed a ride round the lake before the heavy rain set in.

A distant view of Butte de Montsec

Verdun

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There was a a strong World War One theme today. I had already had a sight of the Butte de Montsec on my cycle ride (see the picture above), so we decided to start our journey by visiting the monument. It turned out that the road journey was surprisingly long and when we got there the weather was particularly unfriendly, so we were left to imagine the magnificent views.

Lac de Madine in the murk
Butte de Montsec

Like so much of this trip we were seeing place names we recognised from history – but couldn’t remember why. Verdun is one such. Our visit gave us a sobering reminder of the magnitude of what had happened on this soil around 100 years ago – and the crazy idea that military force is a way to conduct world affairs. We stopped at Douaumont Ossuary, a bleak and forbidding building.

Douaumont Ossuary
How can killing 300,000 people be a good idea?

We moved on a short distance to the Verdun Memorial and Museum. The museum gave a human context to the horror of what had gone on, while also describing it at the strategic level. It’s a good museum, but it’s not a piece of history to be proud of.

Verdun Memorial Museum

It was another short drive to Fort de Douaumont, which had been captured by the Germans in the first few days of the Battle of Verdun. Somehow, the sight of the battered fort, the barbed wire and the European flag all felt somewhat ironic in our current political situation.

While I had been wandering the fort, we had been given a leaflet for a motorhome aire in the vicinity. We had no plans for our overnight stay, so we made the short drive to Village Gaulois (https://www.villagegaulois.com/), not knowing quite what to expect. It’s an idiosyncratic fairy-tale place, with hotel, restaurant and a motorhome park with all the facilities you could require. The restaurant was warm and friendly, and we ended our meal sharing a table with some American tourists.

An electric hookup point like no other
Fairy-tale restaurant
Just as cute from the outside

Bogny-sur-Meuse

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We were destined to continue along the Meuse. Our first stop was a very different war museum at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. In essence the message was that after the Europeans had been messing around with World War One for years, the Americans came along and sorted it. But that message is presented well, with due respect for the suffering on all sides.

A modern AMX 13 tank at Butte de Stonne

It was still raining. Our route was well off the beaten track. At one point was saw a tank, parked in a green area just off the road. It was marking Butte de Stonne, a viewpoint on a Roman tumulus, reputed to offer one of the best views in the Ardennes. It might be, but the weather was not helping. The village of Stonne was destroyed in a tank battle in 1940. This area has certainly taken a beating over the years.

360 panorama at Butte de Stonne

I climbed the viewing tower, looked at the clouds and rain all around – and then we continued on our journey. After about 90 minutes of driving we were beside the Meuse at Bogny. It was raining – but it stopped. There is a very impressive new riverside aire, just a short walk along the river into the the town centre. Off season it was deserted, and free, with WiFi. During the season there is a hut which will no doubt take parking fees, and there are electricity points all around. There is a full service point a few yards along the river. If you’re in the area, this is a good stop-off.

La Chévrerie des Sabotiers

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The journey continued. We had plenty of time, and no real itinerary. The fluidity of national boundaries in Europe was well illustrated when our road took us briefly into Belgium, and then back into France. The weather was changeable, which made it a good day to just travel. We normally try to get right off the road for lunch, but there were not so many opportunities here, and we stopped at a lay-by alongside a river, with nothing between us and the road. It was not ideal, but the road was very quiet.

Lunch in Belgium

And so we continued, just inside France, to the obscure village of Mecquignies where, tucked on a corner is La Chévrerie des Sabotiers. This is a wonderful old-fashioned goat farm offering a very warm welcome to motorhomes. The goats and the people are both very friendly, as indeed were the pigs, up to their knees in mud, but apparently very happy.

A motorhome would normally park in the orchard, but due to the weather they allowed us to tuck into a corner on a hard track. We had the opportunity to meet the goats coming in from pasture, to watch the milking, and to buy some of the fresh natural produce. You can see a little video about the farm at https://youtu.be/DydkrJ0_HCk.

Locked up

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At this point we were very close to Calais and had a day to spare. It had been a long holiday, and we’d travelled a long way, so we decided there was no point in trying to be clever in how we used our time. We thought it would be a good idea go back to Camping La Chaumière, where we had spent our first night, have a meal cooked for us, all the facilities we could need, and just chill. When we arrived at La Chaumière there was no-one to be seen, but it was lunchtime and off season, so no big surprise. The barriers were open, so we decided to park ourselves on a pitch and have lunch while we waited for the owners’ return.

I wandered around the site a few times, and there was still no-one to be seen. There was no-one else camping on the site, but that is not unusual so late in the year. Nothing at the site said it was closed – but nothing said it was open either. After lunchtime was well past, even by French standards, I was feeling a little uneasy. I decided that we should pack up again and go.

Locked in – but it wasn’t raining

We got as far as the front gate – the one we had driven through before lunch. It was now closed. In fact it was locked with a padlock. We had visions of being locked in until the spring. I tried all the contact methods – phone, email, website. No reply. I looked at videos on how to pick a lock – no success. We had plenty of time, and I told our story on Facebook. Amongst suggestions involving large hammers, a friend came back to tell me that the previous owner of the campsite still lived nearby. Eventually I was able to speak to him and explain my story. He said he would arrange something. We made sure we woke up early the next morning, and sure thing, the gate was unlocked. We drove out instantly, and I was just about to leave a thank-you note when a man appeared out of nowhere. He didn’t quite understand how I had got in – but it didn’t matter. We were free!

Wissant

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It was lucky that we did have a day to spare in the schedule. Our inadvertent imprisonment had prevented us doing the pre-ferry supermarket trip. Now we could go to the Aire at Wissant, where we knew we wouldn’t get locked in, via Cité Europe shopping centre near Calais.

Aire de camping car, Wissant

View the pictures of our trip at https://www.flickr.com/gp/21184532@N00/h951H8

I’m sure I won’t get in again

I was incredibly lucky to get into London Marathon 2019 via the ballot – and I survived (http://www.cliffdive.co.uk/the-first-20-miles-were-good-never-again/). As I went across the finishing line I said “never again”, but the next day ignored that and put my name into the ballot for 2020. After all, what are the chances of getting in two years running?

It turns out that whilst I’m certainly no great marathon runner, I am particularly good at getting into the event. While on holiday in October I received an email telling me I had been selected again. All I had to do was to pay my money and I was in. Moments like that give rise to a whole bunch of conflicting thoughts – rejoicing at success in getting in, apprehension at the thought of doing it all again.

And there was a whole lot of conflicting advice too. I’d shown I could complete a marathon, so what was the point of doing it again? I was incredibly lucky to get another opportunity, and I’d shown I could do it, so it would be easier second time around. I had been really lucky to have no real injury problems in training or on the run – I’m a year older and it might not go so well next time.

The decision was made worse by the fact that I’d done very little running since the marathon, initially because I thought I deserved a rest, and then because of recurring injury (possibly as a result of giving myself a rest). http://www.cliffdive.co.uk/and-six-months-on/

Never again I shouted as I went over the line

I’ve spent a few weeks agonising over all this, and reluctantly concluded that I really don’t want to do it all again. The actual event was tough on the day, but the training is much tougher, and I would be starting from a worse fitness baseline than last year. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be running over the winter. I’ve entered the Cambridge Half Marathon, as I have every year since 2012. Not so long ago I found the half marathon distance a daunting thought. After the full marathon, 13.1 miles sounds quite relaxing now.

Sorry to those who desperately wanted to take part but didn’t get through the ballot – I know I’ve let you down.

And six months on…

I look very small

A quick update on life six months after running my first marathon – and it’s a bit sad really.

In the build-up to the London Marathon I had been running 5 days and 70km a week. After the race I decided that it would be a good idea to just not run – at all. After months of running, both mentally and physically I’d had enough. On reflection I think that was a mistake.

Initially it felt good to have more time, and for my leg muscles not to be permanently tired. I had time away from home, and cycled. And when the time was right, I went back to Parkrun to meet my friends there. And that’s where my troubles began. Initially I was occasionally suffering cramps in my left calf, and just tried to ignore it. Then, one Parkrun morning as I was running along chatting to someone I had a sharp pain in my calf, and simply couldn’t run. As always at Parkrun people around were concerned and checked I was OK as I limped to the finish. The cycle home was a rather one-legged affair, and I was back to a regime of no running. After a week or so walking was not too painful.

Then a few weeks later as I was starting a long walk with friends, there was yet again a sharp pain. I was perhaps stupid to continue the walk, but I was back to painful walking and no running.

Since then I have decided that while completely giving up running after the marathon had been a bad idea, I’m now in a situation where I have to allow my leg to completely recover before returning to any sort of training regime. I have run for spells on a treadmill (which has the advantage that you can stop when you need to) and the muscles do seem to be recovering. I’m now missing the exercise and the time in nature. At least I’ve got back that appetite for training.

The first 20 miles were good – never again

For some odd reason a marathon is 26.2 miles. It was my first marathon at London on Sunday. The first 20 miles and the last 0.2 miles were good. The 6 miles in between don’t sound like much, but they determined the ultimate result.

I said in my previous blog “my sole objective for the Marathon is to finish as elegantly as possible”. I certainly did that – my finish (the last 0.2 miles) looked pretty sprightly. But it’s only when reality happens that you realise that perhaps the aim should have been more specific. I really wanted to run the whole way. Rather arrogantly I thought my training and a bit of discipline in pacing at the start would make me immune from “the wall”. It didn’t!

The discipline was working well at first. I started near the back of the blue start area, and must have been in the last few hundred runners of 42,000, but I watched my Fitbit, stuck to 7:30 kilometres and spent the first few miles chatting to a nice lady called Marie. At the first drink station she stopped and I jogged on gently. I was going too fast for her!

Before the 20 mile point – I’m smiling

At around the 20 mile mark I was feeling pretty tired (as I expected) but was also finding that maintaining any reasonable running pace was making me feel faint. The last thing I wanted was to keel over and get dragged off the course, and when my running speed was no longer any faster than others around me who were walking, I concluded that it made sense to save energy and join then. My pace up to that time would have brought me to the finish in around 5:30 – that had been my plan, and it had gone well to that point.

But now I was walking – I have never walked (in an event) before, so I had no idea of what my pace might be. Six miles of a marathon doesn’t sound a lot, but walking it could easily add 30 minutes or maybe even an hour to my time. And while I hadn’t admitted to a target time before the run, I had certainly said that I would finish in 5 hours something – not six hours! I was walking briskly, with a bit of a run now and then, especially on downhill sections. It was no time for slacking, and I was desperately doing mental arithmetic to realign my expectations. It looked as though I was now doing 10-minute kilometres, but still looked OK for less than 6 hours. I re-calibrated at every opportunity, and it continued to look good. There was a degree of uncertainty, because by this stage my Fitbit thought I had done 2 kilometres more than the course markers, so I continued with desperate calculations.

Gradually landmarks near the finish came into view. At last a sub 6-hour finish looked assured. I could plan strategically. By now I was feeling better, and could have run, but I decided to walk until I approached the right turn to the finish. I’m told Buckingham Palace was there. I didn’t see it – I was staring at the finishing line, and jogging quite comfortably. I was no longer flat footed and exhausted. I was overtaking people and enjoying it.

And then I was finished. A marshal did a high-five at the line, but the rest was a real anti-climax. No carnival atmosphere – people handed us the medal, we walked on to pick up the goody-bags (some ladies complaining there were no small size T-shirts left, which seems a bit of an oversight) and then a long long walk to get out. Nowhere to sit and chill, we just emerged into Trafalgar Square and then I had to push past thousands of unhelpful Weatherspoons drinkers to the meeting point in Whitehall. That was one long walk.

And that was it – apart from fainting on the Tube on the way back.

The time was 05:50:29, and I finished reasonably elegantly. Mission accomplished. Oh, and nice lady Marie, who I left behind in the early stages, beat me. Well done Marie!

Lessons learned

  • Even when training has gone well, a marathon is hard work
  • It’s very difficult to devise, test and execute a feeding strategy for a marathon
  • After finishing it’s a good idea to take time out to eat and drink before hitting the outside world
  • I’m sort of happy – but I could have done better
  • Never again? Well, I’ve signed up for the 2020 ballot, but I won’t get in!
  • I am a marathon runner

The final countdown

5 miles through the Suffolk countryside (click to enlarge)

I’m writing this on the Tuesday before the Marathon – 5 sleeps to go. I’m well into my taper now, and no issues so far. While I’m running a lot less than at the peak, I guess by the standards of most people (especially people of my age) I’ve still covered a fair distance in the last couple of weeks. I’m now talking in terms of my last long run being “just a half marathon”. Last week my daily runs stayed at 10.5 km, but I’ve been trying to run them gently. Yesterday, which would have been long run day, I went out in glorious sunshine intending to run 5 km, but couldn’t resist taking the scenic route and doing 8 km. I don’t feel too guilty about over-doing it, because I succeeded in keeping the pace down to a marathon shuffle, which feels ridiculously slow.

It’s not how fast I go, but the fact I can do it at all!

I’m beginning to understand my pace. If I just run without thinking about it I settle out at 6.5 minute kilometre pace until I get tired, which might be after 8 or 10 miles. If I focus my mind on a controlled push I can take the pace up to 6 minute kilometres for a distance of 10 km or so. With a disciplined focus on slow running the pace comes out at around 7.5 minute kilometres. I can maintain 5 minute kilometres for a mile – that’s an 8 minute mile, and my excuse for the mixed units. I’m sort of happy with that – I was never a great athlete, and the surprising thing now is not how fast I go, but the fact I can do it at all.

I intend just one more run before the event – another gentle run tomorrow. 5 km would be sensible, but if the weather’s nice it might turn out to be another 8 km. I will be focusing on marathon pace, trying to get used to running slower than comes naturally. My sole objective for the Marathon is to finish as elegantly as possible, and I know from running half the distance that the temptation to speed early on will be my enemy, however good it feels at the time.

I’m as ready as I’ll ever be – I’m just hoping above all else that I don’t injure anything or get ill in the next few days.

…and taper

Weather for London Marathon day

Just two weeks to go. I’m formally starting my taper from here, although last week (the first week of April) was also lighter than normal because we were in Wales in the motorhome. I managed three runs during that week. Two of them were on tracks in the Brecon Beacons where we were staying. It was very robust countryside and at times snowing too. I was reminded just how tough are the fell runners for whom this type of ground is normal. For me, accustomed to the gentle slopes of Suffolk, running uphill or down was challenging in the extreme. So the week was very different from the training of past months, and the variety was probably good in exercising some muscles that have had it easy when plodding along a tarmac road.

This week I was back to the old routine for just one more time – a long run of about 20 miles, three 6½ milers and a parkrun. I can’t say I’m sorry to have completed the last long run of the training programme – I’ve found them tough, and somewhat scary, with the prospect of having to complete a further 6 miles for the Marathon.

Next week my long run will be scaled back to a slow (marathon-pace) half-marathon distance on Monday, and I’ll probably taper the shorter runs down to 3 miles through the week, ending with a parkrun on Saturday. After that, I’ll have a week off (maybe the odd stretch) until Marathon day on 28th April. I just hope that my body can stay together for two more weeks and that it doesn’t rain on the day.

Running with Gareth

I’m a creature of habit, so I found it rather unsettling that real life got in the way of doing my long run on Monday – especially since the routine had been disturbed the week before by the taper for the Cambridge Half Marathon, and the event itself. But this week, shock horror, long run day was Tuesday. And after the half marathon break I was back to the 19.5 mile 3/4 marathon long run.

We’ve had remarkably good weather all through the winter, and that has really helped in getting out there for the training runs (which unlike previous years have been almost exclusively outside). But Tuesday was the day that storm Gareth arrived. We got up to find a cold and windy day. Somehow it takes longer to get out of the door when it’s like that. But eventually I was off, having prepared a bottle of plain water for the first of my three 6.5 mile laps, and a couple of Lucozade Sport bottles (acclimatising for the London Marathon) for drink stops as I passed home.

My target for the London Marathon is simply to finish, preferably reasonably elegantly and I’ve realised that, for such a distance, learning to start slowly is key to that. The aim for this run was to practice slow running. My parkrun a couple of days previously fitted in well with that – I had run round gently talking to a friend. For the long run there was no running partner to pace me, apart from Gareth the Gale.

Not only do I normally run alone, but I rarely meet anyone along the way – it’s mostly country lane and farm track. Today was different. First came the man who looked as though he’d just stepped out of All Creatures Great and Small (stories about a veterinary practice in the 1940s). He was in an old Land Rover, dressed in tweed from head to toe, and searching for the Suffolk Hunt Kennel. Conveniently he was very close and I was running that way, so I could put him right.

Then came the tree fellers – two of them, which might confuse an Irish reader. They had been called in to sort out some trees damaged by Gareth and wanted some local knowledge on whether the road was busy. It’s not!

Shortly after that I came upon the man planting a new hedge along a field edge. He was talking to another man in a very big shiny Audi SUV (he probably owns the whole village). I greeted them both and continued on my first lap, moving over shortly afterwards to allow the Audi to overtake as I struggled against the wind blowing across the open fields.

I completed the first lap, picked up a bottle of Lucozade and set off up the hill for lap two. This was less eventful but hedge-planting man was still at it. He greeted me as I panted past, and was somewhat surprised when I said I would be coming back one more time. At the end of lap two, half marathon distance, I was definitely feeling tired. I’d drunk less than half of my sports drink so I continued on to lap three without a stop.

Why does my lap start with an unrelenting kilometre of climbing? I’d been checking my Fitbit all the way to try to ensure that I kept a sensible pace, and trying to do mental arithmetic on my average pace. Battling with a gale, and feeling pretty tired I was convinced it was a slow run. It had started to drizzle on the third lap. By the time I met hedge-planting man for the third time, the rain was getting more insistent. We had a quick chat. I explained this was my third 6.5 mile lap. “One more lap and you’ve done a marathon,” he said perceptively.

One more lap and you’ve done a marathon!

“That’s the plan,” I said. Hedge-planting man had that air of unruffled calm that possibly comes from working outside. It was blowing a gale, and the rain was getting more insistent. But he kept going – no rush, one step at a time. That was a good model for me to follow.

By now I was definitely tired, but I could still plod on. The wind made it hard work, but I knew that would ease once I’d made it through the open fields. The rain wasn’t too bad…

…and then, a mile or so later, it was! I was again heading straight into the wind, with a slight slope helping me. But the rain was torrential – were those just big rain-drops or was it hail? I couldn’t open my eyes. In the middle of the road I turned my back on the wind and tried to clear my eyes. My waterproof jacket was by now clearly not waterproof – I was soaked to the skin. It was cold and windy. I resumed my homeward plod – lucky it was the last lap.

Things became better, the wind eased as I took the turning for the last couple of miles and the rain was past its worst. Keep going, one step at a time, no rush.

The end result? We ran the distance 5 minutes faster than last time – me and Gareth, despite all the stops. Keep going, one step at a time, no rush – hedge-planting man set a good example.

Cambridge Half – so far so good

The weather forecast was a bit gloomy for the 2019 Cambridge Half Marathon, especially in comparison to the February heatwave we were enjoying a few days earlier. The actuality was not so bad. The lack of sun made for good running conditions. There was a little drizzle, but not enough to be noticeable while running. And the earlier dry weather meant that the grass at the venue was in good condition – it has been ankle deep mud in the past.

I’ve done every Cambridge Half since it started in 2012. In the past it’s been my highlight event of the year. This year it’s forming a part of my training for the London Marathon, so it felt a little different, but I was still feeling pressure. It wasn’t so much fear of the distance, as it once was, but fear of screwing it up.

“If the Cambridge Half goes wrong, how will you feel about a full marathon a few weeks later?” said a niggling inner voice.

The Cambridge Half would provide a break from the strict training routine I had been following. I would taper, have a couple of days off, and the distance was less than my regular long run. It would also provide an opportunity to practice discipline in my pacing when surrounded by lots of people, as well as rehearsing the slightly surreal atmosphere of a big running event. I know I can survive a half marathon even if I do blow up after eight or ten miles due to an over-ambitious start. That would be more serious for a full marathon, and I know I’ve always felt pretty exhausted at the end of 13.1 miles. My training for the longer distance was suggesting that I had to work on going slowly at the beginning. So the objectives for the day were:

  • don’t break myself
  • run a controlled race
  • feel good at the end

I won’t describe the run in detail, mostly because I don’t remember the details. At the start I was focusing on taking it easy. It felt very easy, and people were overtaking, but my watch told me I was sensible. I then relaxed a bit and focused on staying comfortable. The record says that I was getting a little faster – I was now overtaking people. The halfway point is just after Grantchester, and not long after that we turn right at the roundabout and head back towards Cambridge along the A603 Barton Road. I’ve always enjoyed that part of the run. We’re on the way back, it’s slightly downhill, there’s lots of space – I just feel good.

Finishing straight

I was still restraining my pace – enjoy, but don’t push. It would be all too easy to get carried away, and I know from past experience that the run back through the City can still be very tough, even with all the encouragement from the lovely spectators. But this time it wasn’t. I think it was at the end of Silver Street that I almost tripped over as I tried to skip a little jig to accompany the bag-pipe player. And then with around 2 miles to go, I allowed myself to accelerate. It was less than a parkrun now, and I was still feeling good. I ran those last miles at around my normal parkrun speed, and still had energy for a decent sprint at the end. Unlike last year, my legs were still good, and I didn’t feel faint. I could enjoy the alcohol-free beer and my brain was still working as I unlocked my bike.

Riding back up the Milton Road to the car, there was a following wind. I was on a high and diced irresponsibly with dick-heads in cars as I sped along. I didn’t die.

All in all, it was a good day. The only mistake I made was to forget to stop my watch at the finishing line. It said exactly 2 hours 15 minutes when I did remember. The official time was 2:14:28. A new personal best just before my 66th birthday – and I wasn’t even trying for a time.

The inner hooligan escapes

With the Cambridge Half Marathon in 6 days time I decided to reduce my long run of the week from the three-quarter marathon of last week to half marathon distance. To make it part of my marathon training, I would run it at something like marathon pace rather than pressing on.

That was the theory. In practice, for the first lap (of two) I was rather faster than marathon pace, but quite comfortable. I picked up another water bottle(with added calories) at the end of the first lap, wasting a bit of time because my wife had locked me out of the front door! Perhaps it was the frustration of that, or knowing that unlike last week I had just one more lap to go, but all my good intentions were thrown aside in that second lap. It started briskly, and just got faster. As I saw the kilometre splits getting faster it spurred me on even more, and the middle 5 kms of that second lap were run in a similar time to my parkrun a couple of days earlier.

So much for plans and discipline – but actually a pretty good outcome. It shows that start slow/get faster can actually produce a decent time. I guess that a slightly faster start might have been faster overall but this was training, and finishing with so much energy shows that the distance training for the full marathon has put me in a comfortable position for running a half – always assuming I stay fit for the next six days.

Of course, the real test comes at the end of April.

It’s not a sprint…

Yesterday I ran the longest distance I’ve ever run (31.5 km or 19.5 miles), and for the longest time I’ve ever run (nearly 4 hours). It wasn’t fast, but I was very happy to complete three quarters of a marathon at a consistent pace. It was certainly a lot harder maintaining that pace at the end, but it does show the importance of not blowing all my energy in the first 10 miles.

And just a couple of days ago I surprised myself by running a new personal best time over 5 km at the local parkrun, so it counts as a good week.

The training plans tell me that I’ve now run as long a distance as I need to in training for a marathon, and I certainly feel happier now that if all goes well I do have a hope of finishing – something that didn’t seem so likely just a week ago when I struggled to finish 17 miles. However, the other thing the books say is that the last 6 miles are as hard as the previous 20, so no smug feelings yet. It’s rather tempting to try a run over the full marathon distance just to see what happens. If I made it comfortably (I use the word in relative terms here) it would do wonders for the confidence, but everyone says don’t do it. There’s a risk of breaking myself, and of course it would be very bad for the morale if I wasn’t able to go the distance.

I did the run as 3 laps of a 10.5 km route from home (so 4 laps would be a full marathon), which gave me a chance to pick up water – I find it a nuisance to carry more than half a litre, and that’s not enough for 4 hours of running, even in these relatively cool conditions. In practice I only did one water stop, after the first lap, so I survived on a litre, which is probably less than recommended. The first half litre was just water, the second contained an energy supplement. I didn’t feel particularly thirsty while running, but was certainly pretty dehydrated after I finished.

Learning points?

  • The run was a successful implementation of good pacing. The intention was to run at around marathon pace, and I was able to maintain that pace consistently and feel that I could have gone further
  • My feeding and drinking worked fine for that distance, but I think could have been a problem with another 80 minutes or so of running. It would be good to see the effect of another drinks stop