A Thunder Run disaster

20 July 2019

The rain held off for parkrun but, by the time we got back to Catton Park it looked as if the clouds were gathering. This was not good news for the Thunder Runners or for Kim and I who’d been planning to walk a couple of laps of the course for our Clarendon training.

It was still dry when midday came around and the twenty four hours of running began but the sky told us the rain would fall sooner or later. Rob and Commando set off in good spirits all the same. They were still adamant they weren’t going to take things too seriously this year. They swore there would be no back to back laps and no running all through the night. Kim and I weren’t convinced, we’d heard it all before. Once they got going we were sure they’d get caught up in the atmosphere and just keep going.

We saw them pass by at the beginning of their first lap looking happy and confident. We cheered them until they were out of sight then we sat in the gazebo and looked at the sky. We were both itching to get out on the course ourselves and start walking our two laps but, as were weren’t official Thunder Runners, we knew we’d have to wait until the fanfare of the first lap was over.

We expected them back within the hour but one o’clock came and there was no sign of them. Time passed and we began to get a little concerned. By ten past one we were standing at the barrier scanning the runners in the distance trying to spot them. Almost ten minutes later they finally appeared. Rob looked as if he was limping and Commando looked quite pale under his tan.

After they limped back into the camp and sat down they told us the whole sorry tale. They hadn’t got very far when Commando started having stomach issues. In fact, he said his stomach hadn’t felt right when he set off but he thought it was just the usual runners nerves and would settle once he started running. Then, somewhere up in the woods on the technical part of the course, Rob turned his ankle and bruised his foot. Between his foot and Commando’s stomach, they’d ended up walk running the rest of the course.

After we’d got them drinks we left them sitting feeling sorry for themselves and went off to do our laps. Of course, as unofficial participants, we couldn’t actually start from the start line and we knew there were parts of the course we wouldn’t be able to walk but we set off with purpose and were both quite looking forward to it. The first part of the course was fairly easy, although the weather was very muggy with the distinct feel of thunder to it. We passed through the campsite and then would up towards the trees.

When we started to climb things began to get tougher. The ground was muddy because of the rain and the first lap of runners had churned it up badly in places. The trail was narrow, steep in places and there were roots and pot holes to negotiate. This wouldn’t have been too bad if we hadn’t had to keep moving to the side to let runners come past. There were several trips and a couple of near misses when one or other of us almost fell. Suddenly two laps didn’t seem like such a good plan, especially as it was only going to get muddier and more churned up.

The views from the top were worth the climb but maybe not a broken ankle. For a while we walked beside fields on fairly flat high ground. It was easier going, at least until we got to the woods where I saw the ghostly mist last year. There were no ghosts this time but the trail narrowed again and we were back to the problem of passing runners and the feeling that we were going to get thrown off the course at any moment.

It was quite a relief to come out the other side and onto a wider track with no need to keep ducking to the side every few minutes. Now we could relax a bit more and enjoy the walk. We even found a dragonfly in the long grass.

We’d managed to get round a fair bit of the course before our nerve went. When it came to going through the gate and around the lake though, we chickened out. There were just too many runners and too many marshals. To make up the miles we headed across the road towards the car park field where I took so many quiet walks last year.

It might have been quite nice with the river and the swans but the rain chose that moment to start falling. This was no light shower. The heavens opened and within moments Kim and I were both soaked to the skin. My fingers were so wet I couldn’t even open my phone to take photos. We just put our heads down and headed back towards the tent as fast as we could. We fully expected to find that Commando and Rob had gone out on another lap but we found them sitting in the gazebo where we’d left them.

The rain continued for the rest of the day and into the night. None of us moved from the gazebo except to use the portaloos. Rob could barely put any weight on his foot and Commando didn’t want to move to far from the camp loos. It wasn’t the Thunder Run we’d planned but at least we had good company and we made the best of a bad job.

There were no night runs and, even though things had brightened up by morning, the ground was now so churned up none of us felt like going out to try another lap. In the end we just packed up our tents, took our rubbish to the bins and went for one last walk around the stalls. Once Commando and Rob had collected their medals it was time for the long drive home.

At the start Kim and I had been convinced The boys would get carried away and end up running lots of laps, just like they always do. Maybe they would have but this year the fates had different ideas. It may not have gone to plan but it was certainly an adventure and I’m sure we will laugh about it often in years to come.

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A parkrun far far away

20 July 2019

Sleeping in a tent in the rain isn’t easy. This year though, we’d dispensed with the, frankly, useless air beds that never seem to stay inflated for more than an hour or two and bought proper camp beds with us. They looked narrow and uncomfortable but were surprisingly good to sleep on. Because of the rain and the fading light we’d gone to bed quite early and I woke equally early. Commando was still sleeping but I sneaked out of the tent and went off for a wander. It was just after five in the morning.

As expected, there was a fair bit of mud but the rain had stopped. The sky told me this was probably just a brief interlude but everything looked beautifully green and fresh. Briefly I thought about walking the 10k course but then I remembered the ghostly mist in the woods last year and decided against it.

Much later, when everyone else was awake, there was talk of going off to the local parkrun. There are two parkruns nearby, Conkers and Rosliston but, in past years, we’ve visited neither because the men have been saving their legs for Thunder Run. The fact they were now discussing which parkrun to go to suggested they really did intend to take it easy this year. Kim and I were both shocked.

In the end they plumped for Rosliston, mostly because Rob had already been to Conkers years ago. So we got in the car and headed off into the unknown. We passed through the tiny village of Rosliston and, with no major mishaps, managed to find the Rosliston Forestry Centre.  The forestry centre is part of some two hundred square miles of trees planted in the 1990’s from Leicester to Burton upon Trent to create a new National Forest. Rosliston Manor, once called Redlauseton, once belonged to Earl Algar. He was the son of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva, the one who rode naked through Coventry to try to persuade her husband to stop taxing the poor. 

Usually, Rosliston parkrun has around one hundred and eighty runners. Today, thanks to Thunder Runners, their numbers were swelled to three hundred and twenty seven. Kim was not amongst them because, not believing for one minute that the boys would really take it easy this year, she hadn’t brought her barcode with her to Thunder Run.

Together we watched everyone head for the start line. The sky looked heavy with rain as the runners set off and we looked gratefully towards the visitor centre with its nice dry cafe.

Once the last runners had passed us we headed towards the cafe but got slightly distracted by an interesting looking gate into a small sensory garden. It wasn’t actually raining so we went to have a look. This turned out to be a brilliant move. The garden was filled with interesting sculptures and scented plants.

Beside something that looked like an old stone fireplace we found a beacon, similar to the ones in Hatch Grange and on Netley Common. This, it turned out, was built to commemorate the queen’s diamond jubilee. There was a small stone pagoda commemorating the twinning link between South Derbyshire and Toyota City, a lovely sun dial dedicated to the local Women’s Institute, and a beautiful area of mosaic paving.

We wandered along the paths, crushing a leaf here and there trying to identify each scent and plant. We stumbled upon a mini beast lair under a trap door but there were no beasts, mini or otherwise, at home. A little further along we thought we’d found a beehive but it turned out to be a compost bin in disguise.

There were flowers everywhere, lavender, rosemary, chamomile, curry plant, mint, lemon balm, comfrey, evening primrose and many I couldn’t identify for sure. They brightened the dull day with their flowers and enchanted us with their scents. Not far from the false beehive we found a real one, safely behind a locked gate. If there were bees in it they were all asleep though, or maybe out foraging amongst all the flowers.

The little garden was filled with so many curiosities we hardly knew where to look. These included a whole array of interesting benches, mostly memorials to local folk. One looked just like an old leather sofa until we got closer and discovered it was carved from a large block of wood.

The rain held off and, with so much to see, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the garden. In the end though, we knew we needed to head back to the parkrun course and try to spot our runners.

Rather than go back to the finish line, we followed the course for a while, looking for a good spot to take photos. The woodland trail was beautiful and there were more curiosities along the way. We found a chainsaw sculpture of a badger, a wooden bench carved with a giant oak leaf and some kind of giant sundial we couldn’t quite work out. Maybe if there’d actually been some sun…

Then the runners began to come past, a trickle at first, then more and more of them. Rob was the first one we recognised and we both got our phones out and began to snap away as he ran up the hill we’d just walked down.

Commando wasn’t far behind. He powered up the hill, overtaking a couple of other runners as he went. Once he’d passed, Kim and I took a more sedate walk back up the hill and headed for the finish line to look for our runners.

The finish line volunteers did a great job considering there were nearly twice as many runners as they usually had to deal with. Once both barcodes had been scanned we finally went to the cafe for a coffee and a sit down.

If Rosliston parkrun was closer to home it might become a favourite for some parkrun tourism. The boys said the course was interesting and not too taxing and Kim and I thoroughly enjoyed the sensory garden. Sadly, it’s not likely we will be back anytime soon though as a drive of a hundred and fifty odd miles seems a bit excessive for a Saturday morning run.

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Burton Upon Trent, beer, marmite and rain

19 July 2019

Summer came late this year but, when it hit, it hit hard with weeks of high temperatures and high humidity. The thought of a little camping at Thunder Run in mid July was a bright spot on the horizon. Both Rob and Commando said they were going to take things easy this year, do a few laps but also relax a little. We didn’t really believe them but I still imagined Kim and I chilling in the gazebo in the sun, sipping cool drinks and walking a lap or two ourselves.

The last thing I expected to see when I checked the weather for this weekend was wall to wall rain. Rain and camping really don’t go together very well. There were a few hasty changes to the packing list, including my stout boots and our dry robes plus the removal of unnecessary skimpy t-shirts and sandals. It seemed this camping trip was not going to be nearly as much fun as we’d expected.

Yesterday, as we drove up the M3 towards Burton upon Trent in our hired van, the rain seemed to be following us. After more than a year driving an automatic car, the gearbox and clutch came as a bit of a shock to Commando but, thankfully, the windscreen wipers worked a treat. Sitting in the van for most of the day meant I didn’t get nearly enough steps in, even with a few very damp evening laps of our first night hotel.

This morning it was still mostly raining. Kim and I made the most of the hotel facilities, including hot showers and a lovely breakfast, while Rob and Commando went off to bag a good pitch in the solo area and put the tents up. Somehow I think we got the better deal.

Our next task was to drive into Burton and get supplies for the next two days. This was accomplished fairly quickly. As the rain was falling steadily and sitting in a wet tent was fairly unappealing, we decided to spend a little time exploring Burton before heading off to the camp site. Two previous very brief visits to Burton upon Trent had given me a tantalising glimpse of wonderful old industrial buildings and lots of history I’d love to have explored so I was quite excited by this prospect.

The little market town is the administrative centre for East Staffordshire and is known chiefly for brewing. Burton boasts eight breweries and is also the place where  Marmite is produced. For those who don’t know about Marmite, it’s a thick, vitamin rich, brown black spread used on sandwiches and toast in the main. People either love it or hate it. In our house CJ and I love it and Commando hates it. Anyhow, it was invented in the late nineteenth century by Justus Von Liebig, a German scientist, who discovered brewer’s yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten. The Marmite Food Extract Company was formed in Burton upon Trent in 1902. The yeast used to make it was a by product from the local brewery. 

Unfortunately, heavy rain cut our outdoor exploring short almost before it had begun. Luckily, before we got too wet, Commando and I discovered the Cooper’s Square shopping centre and ducked inside. Originally called Burton Shopping Centre, this indoor mall was opened in 1970 by Princess Alexandra, with a roof being added in the mid 1990’s when the name was changed.  We weren’t really in the mood for shopping but we were in the mood for staying dry so we wandered around window shopping and took advantage of the toilets while we were there.

In the middle of the shopping centre we stumbled upon a really beautiful bronze sculpture of a cooper making a barrel by James Walter Butler. The Burton Cooper was commissioned in 1977 and originally stood opposite the town market. When the Cooper’s Square shopping centre was refurbished in 1994, the sculpture was moved to its present position, despite quite a bit of local protest. I was very taken with the Burton Cooper, especially the expression of concentration on his face.

Eventually there was no avoiding going back outside, it was still raining and, as we’d come out of a different door to the one we’d entered, we weren’t quite sure where we were. Trying to find our way back to the place we’d started we walked around the outside of the building and stumbled upon another sculpture. This, I later discovered, was called the Malt Shovel and was by Andy Hazell. It was unveiled in 2001 and is a rather quirky thirty foot high stainless steel shovel with a human sized beer bottle cut out in the blade.

The wet paving stones below the sculpture were equally interesting. They were imprinted with miniature beer bottles and the chemical formula for the fermentation process. Unfortunately, there was a little too much H2O around for my liking.

Around the corner we were soon back on the High Street and things began to look familiar again. Then we stumbled upon Market Place running off to our right. Standing side by side with the modern buildings were some of the beautiful old red brick buildings I’d so admired on previous visits. There was also a small market selling lots of interesting plants. Of course we were too far from home for me to buy any but looking at them kept me amused. 

Behind the market was an interesting looking clock tower. A closer look told us this was the tower of St Modwen’s, the mother church of Burton. This rather angular red sandstone church was built on the site of Burton Abbey in 1719. The church was designed by brothers Richard and William Smith of Tattenhall but both brothers died before it was finished and the work was completed by their younger brother Francis Smith. 

Surrounded by greenery it looked like an interesting place to visit but the door was closed. Besides, we really needed to get back to the High Street and try to find Kim and Rob. In the end, although we did explore a little bit of Burton on Trent, and I did take a few wet photos of the lovely Victorian architecture, the weather and time meant I didn’t see nearly as much as I’d have liked.

We found Kim and Rob not long after we left the church. By now the rain was getting heavier and heavier so we decided to cut our losses and head back to the cars.

Our eight or so mile journey to Catton Park, Walton on Trent, where out tents were waiting took us right past the Marmite factory. I looked at it longingly through the wet window of the van, wondering if they did tours and, if so, whether they might give out samples? It rained all the way there, which made negotiating the very narrow bridge just outside the tiny town of Walton on Trent a little more tricky than it might have been, especially in an unfamiliar hired van. In the end we had to fold the mirrors in to get through.

It carried on raining all afternoon. We spent a great deal of it huddled in the middle of the rather windy and damp gazebo, trying not to get wet. The rain finally stopped just as the sun was going down. We went to bed wondering what on Earth the Thunder Run course was going to be like after so much rain?

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Time to kill at Wyvern

14 July 2019

As we set off for the Wyvern 10k this morning I felt unusually light of heart. Previous versions of this event have felt a little like hell on Earth, standing in blistering heat, camera in hand, desperately trying to get photos of runners crossing the finish line. They had to be good photos too, no funny faces or wobbly flesh, just flying feet and smiles. There was never any time to go wandering, just an aching back, arms and legs from standing still for so long and maybe a bit of sunburn.

Today though, I didn’t even have the fancy pants camera with me and there was just one runner to take a photo of. Ok, two if you count Tony, who we stumbled upon when we arrived. The three of us lounged about chatting until it was time for the race to start then Commando and Tony went one way and I went the other. While I was cheering the runners out of the gate I did take a couple of pictures. Then my job was more or less done and I could go for a walk.

The whole thing reminded me a little of the days when Commando first started running. He wasn’t in a club and only knew a handful of other runners. All I had to do was go along, carry his stuff while he ran and try to get a picture of him finishing. The time between start and finish was my own back then, just like today really.

Behind Wyvern College, where the race starts and ends, there are playing fields and woods with interesting trails. Years ago, when I only knew one runner and that was Commando, I explored them a little while he was running this race. Today I finally had the chance to revisit them.

On the far side of the playing field I found the entrance to the trail, half concealed behind a large blackberry bush. If you didn’t know it was there it would be easy to miss. The sun was quite strong, even though it was still early in the day so I was glad to step onto the path and into the shade.

Quite a bit of the trail is actually a boardwalk. The ground here gets boggy because streams run through the woods and there are several small ponds. The largest of these is called Quobleigh Pond and the woodland I was walking through used to be part of the estate of Fair Oak Lodge. Once it covered a hundred and twenty acres and the pond itself covered seven acres. Fair Oak Lodge was originally a convent, built in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century it was extended and now houses The Kings School. Sadly much of the estate has now been built on and I wasn’t sure exactly where the lake was. Maybe with a few hours I might have found it?

Walking along the creaky boardwalk through tunnels of trees was more than enough to keep me smiling. After a while I came to a small wooden bridge, barely distinguishable from the boardwalk at first. Looking over the side I saw a narrow stream. Following it might have led me to the pond but I was stuck on the boardwalk. At least there I couldn’t really get lost.

When I came to a fork in the path I decided to go left, mostly because it took me off the boardwalk and, by this time, I was beginning to feel a little hemmed in. The dirt path took me upwards briefly, then out into a field.

Vague memories of the last time I walked here told me there was a permissive path on the other side of the field somewhere and an orchard. For a moment or two I dithered, thinking about trying to find the path and the orchard again. Part of me wasn’t too keen though. Something about permissive paths always makes me feel uneasy, besides, the path I hadn’t taken in the woods might lead me to the lake.

Right when I’d decided to turn back, I noticed a sign to my right. It had an arrow pointing towards a gap in the hedge. A closer look showed it led to trail running alongside a field of wheat, or maybe barley, some kind of grain anyway.

Of course I went through the hedge. How could I resist? The corner of the field nearest me was filled with chamomile and something with strappy leaves I couldn’t identify. Beyond this, the crop stretched into the distance, a mass of swaying gold.

The footpath ran along the edge of the field. It was narrow and ran between the crop and a line of rough grass bordered by trees. At first I was fascinated by the golden field, stopping every few steps to take photographs from different angles. When the sun peeked out from behind a cloud the field seemed to glow. Whatever the crop was it looked almost ready to harvest.

On the far side of the field the path swung round to my left. There was more hesitation while I decided whether to keep following it. Fascinating as it was, walking round the edge of a field was going to get boring fairly quickly. Then a woman with a dog appeared through another gap in the hedge.

The lady said good morning to me, then she and her dog walked the way I’d just come. Obviously I couldn’t resist going to see what lay on the other side of the hedge. The first thing I discovered was a style. Styles are not my favourite things. My legs are short and I’m not, as Commando often reminds me, a mountain goat.

Luckily there was no one to see my rather inelegant style climbing. On the other side there was another field, just rough grass and not especially interesting. There may have been another footpath leading into the trees somewhere there but I couldn’t see it. The dog walker must have come from somewhere but I didn’t fancy a wild goose chase that might have led me nowhere at all.

In the end I climbed back over the style into the first field and retraced my steps. Although I had far more time and freedom than I’d have had if I was being a running photographer I still needed to be back before Commando finished the race so getting hopelessly lost wasn’t a good idea.

Back on the woodland trail I dithered a little. Did I go back the way I’d come, knowing I’d get back to the field in plenty of time or did I risk the other fork in the trail? In the end I plumped for the latter, hoping it wouldn’t be a terrible mistake.

The boardwalk led me deep into the wood and was, in places, quite overgrown. From time to time I had to dodge nettles and brambles. Obviously not many people used this trail. After a while I began to wonder if I’d made the wrong choice but I kept going forwards, hoping the path would take me somewhere interesting eventually. Then the boards ran out and I found myself in a small clearing. The canopy of green and the cool light was rather beautiful and the ground was surprisingly firm. A tiny clump of pink Himalayan balsam told me the water wasn’t far away but I couldn’t actually see it.

So I kept following the trail, still thinking I might find the pond, but the trees got less and less dense and soon I was walking beside a wire fence. When I came to a gap in the greenery I could see the playing fields and the finish line on the other side. Somehow I’d gone around in a big circle to the opposite side of the playing fields where my journey had begun.

At this point I didn’t know if I’d be able to get off the trail and onto the fields but still I kept going forward. Before very long the path opened up and there were marshals ahead of me. The runners were just about to start coming past. The kindly marshal directed me right, through the entrance to the top of the college playing field. I ducked under the tape and found myself a spot at the edge of the course. Moments later the first runner whizzed past. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

By sheer chance I’d found the perfect spot to watch the end of the race and I even had soft dry grass to sit on. It wasn’t quite the finish line but it was the last stretch of the race and one of the toughest parts of the course. As the hot and tired runners came though the gate they had to face a final hill and I was there at the top cheering them on. Tony spitted me and gave me the thumbs up as he passed.

A little while later I spotted Steve, the chairman of Lordshill Road Runners. He saw me too and gave me a smile. Just after he passed Tony appeared by my side. He’d crossed the finish line and dashed up the hill to cheer Commando on for those last few yards.

This was his first race since the disaster of the marathon. He wasn’t on his best form so it was never going to be a PB kind of race. He looked hot but still strong as he powered up the hill and, once he’d passed, Tony and I ran down the hill to meet him at the finish.

In the same way my walk on the boardwalk had brought me full circle, it felt this race had closed a circle of another kind. The days of standing on hot fields squinting at every running shirt finger poised over the shutter release button are over and it feels surprisingly good.

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Happy Birthday Southampton Parkrun

6 July 2019

This Saturday was Southampton Parkrun’s seventh birthday. As there was a music event going on on the flats where parkrun usually starts and finishes, the run was moved to the alternative course, beginning and ending close to the Cowherd’s Pub. Of course, this meant a bit of a longer walk for us to the start but, as that also meant more steps in the bag for me, I wasn’t complaining.

Commando and I parked in the Bellemoor car park, crossed the road and began to head across the Common, we hadn’t got very far before we met Rob. This morning he had his Event Directors hat on and he commandeered Commando to go off to Holly Lodge and help him with some equipment. This left me to walk to the start on my own.

Walking alone along the diagonal path from Bellemoor Corner to the crossroads wasn’t a hardship. It was a lovely morning, dappled morning light, no one else about, birds singing, just my kind of walk. So there I was strolling along swinging my arms and probably grinning like an idiot, when I heard a loud rustling in the undergrowth beside the path. The little bridge across Rollsbrook Stream was up ahead and I’d been looking forward to stopping and taking a photo of it. This rustling, almost crashing about, was too loud to be a bird or a squirrel though and it sounded quite disconcerting. There were no trails nearby and peering into the trees I couldn’t see anything but I was worried. Whatever it was, it was very large. As this is Southampton, not Canada, I told myself it was probably a large dog. This might be less scary than a bear but, in my opinion, only slightly.

Feeling quite nervous by now, I hurried on. The crashing and rustling continued and, just before I was spooked enough to break into a run, a man and a very large dog burst out of the bushes just ahead of me. What they’d been doing I couldn’t tell but I didn’t like the look of either of them so, keeping my eyes on the ground, I rushed on. Once I felt I’d put some distance between us I stopped and, on the pretext of taking a photo of the stream, looked back. Thankfully they were going the opposite way.

Just for the record, I’m not usually a scaredy-cat, but men and dogs clambering loudly through the undergrowth nowhere near a path seems like odd behaviour to me. Usually I like walking alone but this made me feel very vulnerable and I silently cursed Commando for leaving me. The Common always strikes me as one of those places you have to be on your guard. It’s very public, with lots of people coming and going but, because it’s so big, you can often find you’re self completely alone. Add to that lots of places where you could be dragged off into the trees and shrubs and it feels a little like a muggers paradise at times.

Still feeling very jumpy, I hurried on to the crossroads. There was still no one about so, on the pretext of taking a photograph of another part of the stream, I stopped again and checked the man and his big scary, leadless dog had not turned around and followed me. They hadn’t, which was something of a relief.

Now I was heading towards the parkrun start and, fairly soon, I could see the volunteers setting up the finish funnel. Because it was parkrun’s birthday almost everyone was in fancy dress. The main theme today was red and white, the Southampton football team colours.

Eventually Rob and Commando arrived, both in their Saints shirts. The RD’s today were Luis and Milz, giving the occasion an international flavour. More and more people were beginning to arrive so I hung around for a while taking photos. When Rob got up on the bench with the megaphone to give a speech thanking the volunteers who made everything possible, I sloped off for a walk. No offence to Rob but I really needed to get the steps in.

Being on the opposite side of the Common to normal meant I didn’t really have time a for a walk in the Old Cemetery. Instead, I decided to go and have a look at the Beyond Graffiti tunnel. Before the runners began streaming up the path I dashed off along the trail a little way up from the start. It would get me off the path, out of the way of the runners and, eventually, take me out near the tunnel.

It was pleasantly shady and I strode along thinking how lucky we are to have such a wonderful place to walk and explore in the centre of the city. There were huge white bindweed flowers twined through the undergrowth here. They get short shrift when they try to invade my garden but here, in the wildness of the Common, they’re quite beautiful.

The trail curves gently before crossing a stream, possibly part of the Rollsbrook Stream although I can’t be sure. There are some thick planks, like railway sleepers, forming a crossing point. Today I noticed one was was broken, making the crossing slightly more treacherous than normal.

On the other side of the stream the trail emerges opposite the Showground, where the Southampton show used to be held. When I was about nine or ten my mother entered a beret I’d crocheted into the show and I won a prize. I barely remember anything about the day but I remember the beret very well. It was bright yellow and I hated it, even though I’d made it.

As I walked towards the Beyond Graffiti tunnel I heard the unmistakeable thunder of feet behind me. The parkrunners were coming. I turned, thinking I might see Commando, but I was too far away so I took a photo and then carried on.

As always, there were a few new pieces of graffiti to make me smile. I wandered through, stopping every now and then to take photos. In one place there seemed to be a Star Wars theme going on. Further on there was a thought provoking monologue and, at the far end, some tag style pieces I couldn’t decide if I liked or not. By the steps leading up to the Avenue, I was pleased to see the little mushrooms I’ve been admiring for the best part of a year, maybe more, are still there.

There was still quite a bit of time before I needed to get back to the parkrun so I decided to take a loop of the far side of the Common. For some reason I’ve never actually walked the circular trail on this more or less triangular section of Common between the Avenue and Highfield Lane. Today was the day to do it.

By this time the sun was getting higher in the sky and the morning cool had turned to a hot mugginess. The trail, once I got a little way along it, was mostly shady. This suited me just fine. It was a pleasant walk, looking at the contorted shapes of the trees, the patterns of the shadows and the changing light.

The trail took me full circle, back to the tunnel. Now it was time to go back to parkrun. The runners were beginning to cross the finish line when I arrived and I was soon lost in cheering them in, watching all the while for Commando. Pretty soon Southampton parkrun’s seventh birthday was over and we were all heading off to the Bellemoor for some celebratory cake.

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Parkrun tourism, a return to Lee-on-Solent

22 June 2019

As the Race For Life was being held on Southampton Common this weekend we had to find another parkrun. There was a great deal of discussion about which one, with suggestions of various events we haven’t been to before. In the end though, we settled on a return to Lee-on-Solent, mostly because it was fairly close to home and didn’t involve getting up at silly o’clock. At least not for Commando and I.

The last time we visited this parkrun was May 2016. We were with a large group from the old running club. Much has changed since then though, mainly for the better. Today there were just two of us in the car. Commando and I planned to meet Rob at the start line. Hoping to get some training miles in for Thunder Run in July, he was running the fifteen miles or so there and then running the parkrun. We would be taking him home in our car. At least he hoped we would. As a plan it sounded slightly mad and, in the end, it didn’t quite work out.

We spotted him somewhere around Titchfield I think. My eyes were barely open at this point and I hadn’t had a coffee so my memory is hazy. Wherever it was, he was just about to run up a very large hill and Commando, looking at his watch, didn’t think he was going to make the parkrun on time. We pulled over and offered him a lift. He was reluctant but also slightly lost so got into the car. It was a good job because the route he would have taken would have added lots of extra miles and he’d have completely missed the parkrun. As we drove on a compromise was worked out. We took him up the hill and back on track to make the start, then we dropped him off again. If it sounds completely bonkers that’s probably because it is.

Obviously, we arrived first. While we waited for our nutty friend to join us we had a stroll along the shore. It was a beautiful sunny morning with barely a whisper of breeze. Perfect for running, or walking come to that. We passed the set up team drawing a chalk start line including a few motivational words. Then I headed up to the little walled area where I’d taken photos of the runners last time. The shots I got, with flowers in the foreground and runners in the background were some of my favourites and I was thinking of trying something similar today.

Last time the little wall was topped with low mounds of pink daisies. Now there were red geraniums, very pretty, but too tall for my purposes. While I was looking around for another likely spot, I heard someone call my name. By chance John and Rachel had decided on the same alternative parkrun as us. As Rachel is still recovering from her surgery, this meant I had some company on the finish line too.

Rob appeared at more or less the same time and, while the boys chatted, Rachel and I found a good vantage point on the grassy shingle just off the path. Moments later everyone began gathering for the start.

Pretty soon hundreds of feet were thundering past us. Somehow I found John, Rob and a slightly trailing Commando in the crowd. Lee-on-Solent is a fast flat course, great for PB’s if it isn’t windy and wet. Today though, was just about the joy of running. The three friends weren’t really bothered about record breaking and Rachel and I were so busy chatting we almost missed them as they came back along the shore to the finish.

Luckily, we did spot them and I even managed to get some pictures. With the running all done we went off to get a coffee. The only problem being choosing from the huge number of cafes close to the finish. Then it was time to head back to the car, with a little joking about Rob enjoying his run home of course. For some reason he didn’t find this very funny. So, with three in the car instead of the two who’d set out, we headed back to Southampton.

If you’re a runner looking to do a little parkrun tourism, you could do worse than Lee-on-Solent. You’d be wise to check the weather forecast first though. On a wet or windy day, five kilometres up and down the seafront there can feel more like ten. If you’re looking for a PB course, this might just be it but beware, it can get quite congested for middle of the pack runners. The big bonus is the number of cafes around the finish line for your post parkrun treat.

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Moors Valley parkrun revisited

25 May 2019

Our normal Saturday usually begins with a quick drive to Southampton Common followed by parkrun. This morning though, a whole group of us were heading for Moors Valley parkrun instead so we had an earlier start than normal. At least we didn’t have any worries about getting lost. This was our third visit, although, for Kim, it would be a first. In fact, Kim was the main reason we’d chosen Moors Valley as she missed out last time due to work.

There were quite a few of us, most proudly wearing green 250 parkrun shirts. Those who haven’t yet reached such a lofty milestone were in their new Hamwic Harriers shirts. We also had a first time parkrunner with us. Sam’s girlfriend, Danielle, had been cajoled into running her first ever 5k. Commando kept prodding me in the hopes I would follow suit. We all know that’s not going to happen but he keeps on trying just the same.

Once all the runners had disappeared over the start line I wandered off towards the finish. It’s a beautiful setting, a large field with picnic benches to sit on, a lovely lake to look at and even a little train that goes round and round the park. The one thing missing was a finish funnel. Unlike Southampton parkrun, where the set up volunteers arrive at around eight o’clock to start getting everything ready, the Moors Valley volunteers just saunter slowly over from the start and set up while everyone is already running. Of course, with an average of just 366 runners, rather than the thousand or so at Southampton, their finish funnel is a much smaller, less complex affair.

The last two times I’ve been here I haven’t gone much further than the finish field. Today I decided to have a little look at the course, or at least the last part of it. Although I knew I’d only have fifteen to twenty minutes before the first runners appeared I walked past the giant dragonfly sculpture on the lake and began to walk the course in reverse. There was a vague worry about being trampled by runners or ending up in the water but I hoped I’d be able to find a good spot to take photos of the runners before that happened.

This part of the course is a fairly narrow path, mostly nice firm tarmac, with the lake on one side and fenced off fields on the other. Thankfully there were narrow grass verges where I thought I could escape the runners if I needed to. At least it wasn’t likely to be quite the mass stampede I’m used to in Southampton.

The views across the lake we stunning, meaning progress was slower than I’d hoped. Every few steps I got a different view of trees, clouds and blue sky reflected in the still, clear water. The wildlife I’d half expected to see was absent but there were lots of lily pads and a few real dragonflies, although none that wanted their photo taken.

While the view over the lake captured most of my attention, the other side of the path was not without its charm. Spikes of foxgloves made me stop yet again and I noticed a narrow, more or less dried up, stream on the far side of a broken wooden fence. This, it turned out, was the Moors River.

Mere trickle it may be but the Moors River is quite unusual. It begins it’s flow somewhere in Cranbourne as the River Crane, runs through Verwood then, just after it passes the northern most lake in Moors Valley Country Park, it changes it’s name to Moors River. It is also the last place in Britain where the orange spotted emerald dragonfly has been seen. If I saw any today though I didn’t realise and they certainly didn’t stay still long enough for photos.

A little further on a saw a small brick bridge. Right next to it was a parkrun marshal. After checking with him that the runners weren’t about to come zooming over the bridge, I realised this might be a hardly place to stand to get photos. A look at my watch told me it wouldn’t be long before the first runners appeared.

Finding the bridge didn’t happen a moment too soon. Seconds after I thought about the first runner appearing, there he was speeding by me. The first of our group, the very speedy Andy, was a little way behind him. He didn’t even notice me, despite all my shouts and cheers.

Adam came next. Even though he was flying so fast his feet barely touched the ground he saw me and gave me a grin and thumbs up.

Helen was next, then John and Rob. If I’d had to guess their finishing order this would have been exactly as predicted. Barring accidents or injuries, I was almost certain Commando would be next.

As soon as I thought about him he seemed to appear, galloping around the corner, thumbs up because he’d spotted me.

Now all the speedy runners had come past I knew things were about to get quite crowded on the path so I decided to make my way back to the start while there was still a chance of getting there. Without all the stops for photos it didn’t take very long. Commando was there waiting for me.

Sam and Danielle were the next of our group to cross the finish line. For a first ever parkrun, Danielle did brilliantly and hardly looked tired at all. Right behind them were Rachel, still recovering from major surgery and run walking, and Kim, who was keeping her company.

Once they’d crossed the line and got their barcodes scanned it was time to head back to our cars. Moors Valley parkrun is a bit of a journey but the venue is so beautiful it’s well worth getting up early for. Maybe next time I’ll actually walk the whole course?

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Southampton marathon

5 May 2019

After months of training, hundreds of miles run in all weathers, nutrition plans, hydration plans and lots more, Southampton marathon day had arrived. Commando, Rob and Mark had all run marathons before but this one was meant to be special, not least because it was in their home city. The training had gone well, they were all set for a record breaking run. Well they were until the bike ride in the last two weeks, during their tapering.

In hindsight, going for a ‘nice easy’ bike ride with Mr G, who is a cycling legend, was probably not the best of ideas. Mr G doesn’t know the meaning of nice and easy. There were lots of miles and lots of hills. Male pride meant they tried to keep up. They came home broken. Even a sports massage from the amazing Paul Bartlett at The Running School didn’t fix things completely. This race would be run on determination, with teeth gutted against pain.

At least the weather was nice, although it looked like it might turn out to be a bit too warm for running 26.2 miles. Commando and Rob’s new running group, Hamwic Harriers, looked marvellous in their new shirts. Some were pacing, which is what Commando and Rob usually do, some were running the 10k, some the half marathon and a few the full marathon. As usual, not everyone made it to the team photo. There is always one!

With the team photoshoot of the way, we hung around in the VIP changing room for a while. All the pacers were there and Sammy Saint, (A.K.A Matt Dennis) the Saints mascot who was running the 10k. The amazing Saints legend Francis Benali was in the room next door getting ready for the final marathon of his seven iron man’s in seven days to raise money for cancer research. We saw him and his family but didn’t disturb them. The last thing he needed was people asking for his autograph or wanting a photo at this stage. Knowing Franny, he’d have been all too obliging but he needed all the rest he could get.

Other than the team photo, I had one really important job to do. I was in charge of Commando’s own mini water station just before the end of the first lap on London Road. There were two small bottles of water in my rucksack ready to swap for the ones in his water belt. When the runners had all headed off to the start pen I was left with quite a bit of time on my hands.

On a normal marathon day I’d have some kind of planned walk, a kind of whistle stop tour of the city. As this city was Southampton though, and I could see it any day uncluttered by thousands of runners, I just wandered through the crowds. With so many people watching, there was no chance of seeing Commando cross the start line, although I did see Kim and Vicky, the half marathon tailwalkers, waiting to set off.

There was a bit of strolling through the parks, a coffee stop in the London Road Starbucks and lots of chatting to friends, marshalling this part of the route. It seemed no time at all before the first runner came zooming past. After that I had to be on my toes trying to spot the Hamwic Harriers and keeping an eye out for Commando.

Steve and Ian, both pacers for the half marathon, were the first Harriers I saw. Not far behind them was Rob, looking set for the time he wanted despite still being broken from the bike ride.

Next up was pacer Luis, closely followed by Helen and Andy. Then there was Arron, heading for the 10k finish line and Sean at the end of his half marathon.

It was something of a relief to see Commando and Mark, not least because I could finally get rid of the water bottles. They were bang on their target time for the first half which was quite a surprise given that Commando had been limping from the outset. Unfortunately, the water bottle exchange meant I didn’t get any good photos of them.

After that there was a lot more waiting around, a coffee with my friend Kylie and some chatting until the next Harriers appeared. As it happened, Ian was the first I spotted heading for the marathon finish. He’d run the first lap as a pacer, then quickly changed into his Harriers shirt to run the second half alone and earn his marathon finisher’s medal. Only Ian could get away with such shenanigans, but race organiser Nikki Rees had agreed to it so he did get his medal.

Not long after Kate and Ian, the Harriers cheer squad, came past with their bikes, I spotted Rob heading for the finish line with Massi. The second half of his race hadn’t gone nearly as well as the first but he’d finished, even if he didn’t get a PB.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, Commando and Mark were still on their second pass of the Itchen Bridge at this point and not enjoying themselves in the slightest, even if they were waving for the cameras.

Once I’d seen Rob come past I headed down to Above Bar, hoping I’d get to see Commando cross the finish line. Helen and Andy came past, then Kim and Vicky, but there was no sign of Commando or Mark.

Pretty soon there was a little crowd of us waiting for Commando and Mark. Rob had got changed and joined me, along with Ian and Kim and a few other Harriers. Of course, as time went past I started to worry. He’d finished the first half so well, despite being injured, I began to imagine all sorts of horrible things. It was now clear a PB was out of the question, but I was getting worried about him finishing at all.

Eventually, just as my panic was rising to maximum level, Commando and Mark limped across the finish line. They were smiling, but that was mainly because they could finally stop running.

Later, in the VIP changing room, Commando told me the second pass of the Itchen Bridge had been where the wheels fell off his race. His hip had been hurting on and off since the bike ride, now it finally gave out. He kept going and, to his great credit, Mark stayed with him and gave up his chance for a good time, The rest of the race was a painful run walk affair, made worse by knowing this would be the slowest marathon ever. Most people would have given up but, of course, Commando is made of sterner stuff.

It had been a very long, painful day but there was still one thing left to do. Rob and Kim’s granddaughter, Emilia, was entered into the children’s mile race. Sammy Saint was there, victorious after running the 10k and the mascots race and still looking full of energy. Rob looked less than enthusiastic about running another mile but Emilia had enough energy for both of them.

It had been a long, tough day for two slightly broken runners. The only records they’d broken in the end were for their personal worst marathon times. On the long limp back up the Avenue to our car Rob and Commando both agreed this would be their last marathon. Of course, I’ve heard that before so I’m not entirely sure I believe them…

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