Great Northern & Southern Runs

I realised the other day that I have not written anything on here all year, and wondered whether it could be due to something I talked about a while ago, where the bulk of my winter training has been based on indoor classes. As much as I love doing them, the thing is you really don’t get much time to think, as you focus on following the instructor in time to music, and in my case make sure you don’t fall over! With longer distance training however, you have a lot more time to yourself and your own thoughts which, for me at least, is where I end up writing most of these.

But that is all about to change, as not only do I have something to talk about now, with my opening race of the season just a few days away, but I have managed to man-up and get out in the cold for a few decent runs recently.

Night

To be fair, things actually started a few weeks before Christmas when I was working down in Gatwick and managed to get in a few evening runs, which I wrote about in my last blog. Given that my job involves travelling around the UK and spending a fair bit of time in cities – some more interesting than others – I thought I would make more of an effort to do some exploring on foot and then write about the places I get to along the way.

First up for me this year was of course London, a place where I have to spend a lot of time, usually around the Docklands area. Whilst I have been for plenty of runs around the river and into Canary Wharf, it is not always the most exciting part of town, so rather than glamorous sights such as the Houses of Parliament and Tower of London, it tends to be the Flats of mid-week Commuters and Tower of HSBC.

Olympic Park

But this time I had something different planned, in that I had never been close to the 2012 Olympic Stadium, which is located in Stratford (not the Shakespeare one), a do-able distance from where I was staying. Knowing I would need a fair bit of time to get it done before work, I bit the bullet and set my alarm for a Rocky-esque 5.45 am.

By 6 I was on the road, and heading towards Canning Town high street, and having recently watched a documentary with Idris Elba talking about the fights he used to get into there, I was pretty glad I was going to be the only one about at that time. But I wasn’t, and whilst there was definitely no sign of trouble, I was amazed at how many people were up and about at that time in London, walking, bussing, DLR-ing and all sorts. I am pretty sure where I live it is a ghost town before 7!

Olympic Park 5

Following the rough map I had in my head from my research the night before, I carried on and tried to follow the signs for Stratford, although being designed more for drivers than runners, I had to ignore a lot when they tried to steer me back to the main road. Once I reached West Ham station I climbed up and onto Greenway, a well-lit footpath which looked like it would take me all the way to the stadium.

Actually, scratch the well-lit part, as within 30 seconds of leaving the station all the lights disappeared, leaving me in pitch black conditions to fend for myself. Fortunately I had not yet spoken to my colleague who lived nearby until after, as when  asked if he knew the area his response was along the lines of “oh yeah, I remember that guy got done for murder around there last year”. Another reason I prefer early morning runs! Still, it was actually really nice once I found my footing, to be in the centre of one of the biggest cities in the world, in near perfect darkness for some distance either side of me. I may have even been able to see a few stars, who knows…

Olympic Park 4

Once I got to the other side my target was firmly in my sights, and aside from having to zig-zag along a ridiculous road layout to get there, I finally reached the famous Olympic Park. I decided to run a Mo Farah style victory lap around the stadium, which sadly is now leased by West Ham United so full of their branding, but it did feel great and a decent reward for getting up at that time. Reaching the start I saw a few other laggards had dragged themselves out of bed too and were just reaching it, but by that time I was back on my way. Ok, I did also look into jumping the fence to get onto the adjacent running track for a quick lap around that too, but it was getting just that bit too light so I chickened out!

Olympic Park 2

Having taken part in plenty of straight line out and back races where the return holds no excitement, I always try to find a different way in my runs, so veered towards the city centre and tried to find a new route, which whilst slightly less exciting (that damn main road the signs were trying to take me to earlier) was also less eventful, and given I was starting to tire by then was probably for the best.

olympic stadium run

All in this was a 15.15 km run in 1 hour 40, not particularly fast by any standards, but given that firstly I had forgotten my water bottle (fortunately I had a single gel in my back pocket) and stop-started a load of times to take photos and get lost, was not too shabby and hopefully a good sign for my upcoming half-marathons.

Angel of North.jpg

My next trip was up to the far north of England, the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of Alan Shearer, the Angel of the North and of course Ant & Dec. It was a place I had never visited before given it is a fair way away, but I had always fancied it given a great running heritage thanks to the Great North Run, the World’s largest half-marathon. Whilst I did not quite have the time or inclination for a run of that distance, I did manage to get in three pretty decent efforts during my fortnight there.

First up was my explorer run, another early morning job (this time a lot quieter as I had expected before), where I made my way around the city centre at leisure, scoping out the Quayside, Chinatown, St James’ Park football ground and a few nice enough parks. Despite getting a bit lost towards the end and doing a couple of km longer than planned (the city is a labyrinth in parts) things turned out well, and I got to see a good proportion of the local sights as the sun gradually rose.

The next afternoon I tried a different tack, running alongside the north side of the river. Initially I headed East and towards South Shields, the finishing point for the GNR and more importantly into Byker (the Grove!) but it turned out not to be particularly well lit, so after a mile or so I turned back and tried the other way inland. This was a lot busier – there seems to be tons of running clubs up there, all going off around 6 pm – but again there was not a huge amount to see. A nice peaceful run is all well and good, but given the short time I was there I fancied seeing a bit more, so I turned it into a bridge run, covering the four major bridges across the Tyne in turn: The Millennium Bridge with its spectacular lights, the High Level Bridge for some spectacular views, the low-level Swing Bridge, and to finish things off the famous Tyne Bridge itself.

Amazingly it turned out when I got back that my run was almost identical to the one the morning before, which was not bad given how often I was stopping to take pictures and check my GPS!

Newcastle runs tomtom

The following week I though I would try something a bit different and keep on the Gateshead, southern side of the river where I was staying. The plan here was to make a parallel run up the river but turn off after a couple of miles to run past the office I had been working in.

Although the first section was well lit, things got a bit dodgier after a mile or so after I turned off and headed away from the river. Going back to earlier, part of the reason I prefer early morning runs is because you tend to have places to yourself. Now with all respect to Geordies who are some of the nicest people I have ever met, Newcastle is somewhere which has a reputation for being a tough place (especially amongst soft southerners), and the further away from the main track I ran the more I imagined meeting a group of ne’er-do-wells.

After deciding against running down the deserted canal path on my own, I skirted the main road instead, and after one particularly bad stretch where all I could imagine was meeting David Patrick Kelly’s character from the end of The Warriors, I rounded a corner and found the office. I can honestly say I have never been so glad to find an industrial park in my life.

That just left me with getting home, which was equally challenging, as the bus route I knew involved a massive hill, and for some reason I was desperate to find a park I had read about which looked like it had some sort of Disney castle (no joke, google it) which involved a bit of a detour. So another couple of miles later I found myself at Saltwell Park and immediately regretted it, as it was pitch black and all the entrances were padlocked. Probably for the best as all I could think about was that it looked more like the kind of abandoned amusement park Scooby Doo would hang out in than Fantasia.

Still, the one benefit of my ‘shortcut’ was that it would all be downhill from there, and a good thing too as by the time I finished I was over 14 km, well over what I had originally planned to do, and whilst it was a long way from The Shining (probably closer to the Jeremy Kyle graffiti above…) this run it did teach me a bit of a lesson about planning my routes a bit more in future.

Gateshead run

Despite all that, I have to say Newcastle is an amazing place, and I am looking forward to going back there some time (ideally in the summer as it really is cold!) for another round of city running. But in the meantime it is tapering time, as this weekend is time for my first proper race of the year, the Silverstone Half Marathon. More on that next time!

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