The Final Countdown – Running with Champions in Cardiff

Cardiff is always a great place to run, with its gorgeous parks, riverside runs and a superb running community, but it’s an even more interesting place to explore this week.

A massive Gareth Bale banner towers over “Stadiwm Stadium”

A floating football pitch, flags, banners, a massive blue dragon on the castle wall and Gareth Bale looking out at you from pretty much everywhere, you can’t miss the fact that the Champions League is in town.

The city is used to hosting big sporting events, but this is on an epic scale (or scales if you are talking about the dragon).

The word on the street (“y gair ar y stryd” in Welsh) is that this is the biggest event that Cardiff has hosted, and it certainly feels that way when you get out and about.

Make no mistake, it is going to cause traffic chaos all week due to a series of huge road closures and it sounds like everything is going to be disrupted – even the Cardiff parkrun will be on an alternative, alternative course as the usual route and its back-up are both affected.

Cardiff Bus or Paris Saint Germain?

But it’s here and it’s happening and, partly because I didn’t want to drive, I set out on an early morning run to clock up more pre-work miles than I usually would.

Running towards town, the first thing you might spot are the banners on the main roads.

The Women’s CL Final is taking place on Thursday night between Lyon and Paris Saint Germain, and then the Men’s CL Final is on Saturday night between Juventus and Real Madrid.

All four teams are named on the flags on the lamp-posts, along with a healthy sprinkling of red dragons.

The next thing you’ll probably spot are the start of the security measures. With an event of this size and especially in the current climate, these measures are extensive, and the “Ring of Steel” that appeared for the visit of Barack Obama in 2016 is out again.

The blue dragon is protecting the trophy on the castle wall

As you near the centre, you will see some of the fences, barricades and concrete slabs already up and the roadblocks ready to be moved into place too. It’s imposing, it feels unusual and it’s sad that it’s necessary, but hopefully it will help the week pass safely.

Running past the Sophia Gardens cricket ground and into Coopers Field, there are more things to see, with big corporate tents with accompanying fancy toilet blocks and catering facilities settled opposite the Eisteddfod stones.

From there, it’s a short circuit around the castle to see the big blue dragon sitting atop the wall, fiercely protecting the trophy.

Below the dragon, all the teams in this year’s competition are represented on the row of banners, with the faces of Aaron Ramsey, Jamie Vardy, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero among the stars featured.

Representing Real Madrid, the chosen star is, of course, Gareth Bale, who grew up just up the road in Whitchurch and is already a Welsh legend and all-round hero.

The Juventus and Real Madrid logos are on the stadium

Rather fittingly, his banner is over the road from where his new sports bar Elevens has opened just in time to do a roaring trade this week.

Jogging a few steps round the corner, here is Gareth again, with a huge poster adorning the side of the BT Tower next to the Stadium (usually called the Principality Stadium after a local building society, but naming rights were clearly not part of the Champions League package and it temporarily seems to be called “Stadiwm Stadium”).

By now, you are in the heart of Cardiff so you are paying attention to the traffic, and it’s easy to miss lots of the other signs and banners welcoming the eyes of the football world to the city.

It’s worth a quick stop at the stadium itself which is, as ever, a striking sight, especially from the banks of the river, which flows down towards Cardiff Bay. And that’s where I head next.

(As an aside for any non-Cardiffians reading this, the Bay and its barrage is a perfect loop for a marathon training run (as long as you don’t get held up for too long by boats going in and out to the channel), and it’s also a key part of the excellent Cardiff Half each October which is well worth a look).

The floating pitch is just in front of Pierhead and the Senedd

I am getting to the half-way point of my run as I reach the Bay and in Roald Dahl Plass, aka the Oval Basin, to see that the sponsors are really going for it with huge stands/stalls for PS4, Mastercard, BT Sport and more to entertain crowds with netfuls of football-based activity and excitement.

“Get your photo taken in a team line-up”, “Recreate the world’s most famous goals” and “Show how much of a dedicated fan you are”….it’s all a bit bonkers, to be honest, but the kids (and plenty of adults) are going to love it.

The highlight is the floating pitch and it looks brilliant – drifting just off the shore by the Pierhead building and the Senedd (home of the Welsh Assembly), but sadly I cannot stop for a kickabout (and I don’t think the security man would have allowed it either).

There are activities aplenty down in the Bay

I turn and head back into the city, nodding at the Big Gareth poster again on the way.

Then it’s into Bute Park and along the always-pleasant Taff trail, and there are more tents (and teepees!) in Pontcanna Fields – not the corporate ones this time but rows and rows of canvas for a village of people to stay in.

These tents are probably one of the key reasons why parkrun is moving this week, and that’s just one of the smaller details in the mayhem that will come.

The Women’s final is taking place on Thursday night

We have had multiple warnings about how busy everywhere is going to be as Saturday draws closer, and safety and security are the big issues now.

And there endeth the run – I am heading home at the end of nearly nine miles which have flown by because of all the distractions, and I have work to do.

Personally, I am looking forward to going to the Women’s Final on Thursday night and I am bravely predicting a French win in that.

Then let’s see if Gareth Bale is fit to play on Saturday (he’s been injured). It’s his city, and it’s got fairytale written all over it…

Midnight Ramadan Football? Why not!

I like playing football and I knew I wasn’t busy at midnight…

It was a chance to play on a nice big pitch

Recently, I saw an advert for Midnight Ramadan Football, organised by BME Sport Cymru to encourage Muslims to keep active during the holy month of Ramadan, which started on Saturday.

As Ramadan means fasting all through the day, including not drinking water (which is quite handy during exercise), the game is an opportunity to take part in sport during the break in the fast.

BME Sport Cymru aims to make a difference to the inclusion of BME (black and minority ethnic) communities in sport, and this is the first time they have organised the sessions in Cardiff, after seeing it was a popular idea elsewhere in the UK.

On Friday, I got in touch to check that non-Muslims were able to play and Simon at BME Sport Cymru replied straight away. He confirmed that it was absolutely fine and that they had spaces, so I signed up.

Turning up at the House of Sport centre at midnight, I was welcomed by Simon and some of the players. We started warming up and we all got chatting.

Communities from all across the city were represented, including Somali, Congolese, Senegalese, Bangladeshi, Sudanese, Pakistani, Eritrean, Guinean, Yemeni and Chinese, and it was interesting to hear more about how observing Ramadan impacts exercise and  work routines through the month.

But we weren’t there to chat. The warm-up showed that there was plenty of talent on show and piledriving shots were flying in from everywhere – this was going to be a proper game.

We kicked off and, although the others may have just eaten a big meal to break their fast, there was no holding back. It was fast and frantic, and there was no time to be worrying about sleep.

These days, I am used to playing five-a-side on small pitches which stops when the ball goes over head-high, so it was a great change to play nine-a-side on the bigger pitch.

I put some tackles in, chased long balls over the top, got beaten by some ridiculous skills and basically just tried to keep up.

The session flew by and it was thoroughly enjoyable (apart from when I blazed my best chance over the bar), and it was 2am before I knew it. There was food afterwards (watermelon and biryani on offer to all) as the fast started again at 3am.

The sessions are happening again at weekends for the next month, and if you were interested in getting involved, Simon would be delighted to hear from you.

Marathon-training permitting, I hope to get along again – partly because I strongly believe it is so important for communities to interact and sport is a great unifier, but also because I am gutted I missed that chance in front of goal and I would like to put that right.

Thanks to BME Sport Cymru and all the players for the game. Da iawn pawb.

More information and contact details on Twitter at @SportsBme

(I know this post isn’t about running as such, but I did do a lot of running on the pitch)

 

Running and fundraising – 10 things I have learnt

If you are doing an event to raise money for charity, you might be facing a fundraising target that feels as daunting as the race itself.

This might be for a Golden Bond place (around £2,000 for a coveted London marathon spot) or because you just want to raise as much money as possible for your cause.

A supermarket bucket collection is so easy that a child can do it.

Either way, it can be a lot to consider when you are also trying to put in the training miles too.

I have found it really motivating to see the training and the fundraising as two halves of the same challenge, with each giving momentum to the other.

When I am running, I try to use the time to think about plans for the next event, or people to contact/ideas to follow up as it is always good to keep thinking of new things.

If it’s your first event, you might get a great wave of support and donations from friends and family, but after that, charity/donation fatigue becomes a very real concern.

GET STARTED

It’s so awkward to just keep asking the same people for money and if you do more events regularly, people quickly realise that this is something you obviously like doing.

So if you can offer something in return for a donation, then it’s easier for everyone.

I am sure there are loads of great fundraising ideas out there (and please add yours in the comments below), but here are 10 thoughts which might help:

  1. Get an online page set up as soon as possible. If someone asks if you are fundraising, it can be really frustrating if you don’t have something to send it straightaway. On the page, you should explain why the cause is important to you too – the more people understand why you are doing it, the more they are likely to support you.
  2. Think about lots of ways you can fundraise. I find that little and often is good. Taking cakes to the office may only raise £20/25 a time, but if you do it a few times over a few months, it adds up and people will occasionally stick a tenner in the box. Also, cakes can be expensive to make, but you can approach local supermarkets to explain what you are doing and speak to the manager, they might be able to give you £20/£30 of ingredients – really handy to get a stock of flour/butter/sugar in.
  3. Sticking with the supermarkets, another great idea is to approach your local stores if you can come along with a fundraising bucket on a Saturday – for a few hours’ work, you can raise loads even if you are on your own (you may need a letter from the charity to do this). Last time I did this, I got one slot in the coming weeks, and another a few months later just before the event and it really helped.
  4. Start early – if you are thinking about doing an event next year, why not start with some smaller events now. Even if you are planning one big event like a gala dinner, it is great to have the ball rolling and the totaliser started to make you feel more positive. And the more friends you involve, the more people who might be able to help in other ways too (such as helping with your big/other events)
  5. For big events, there are ways of making things easier. My current event of choice is a curry/quiz night where you charge £20/25 for a night out at a local restaurant (charging £11 per head) then also doing a quiz at the end of the night. It’s a chance to see friends for a nice evening, you don’t get stressed about food and everyone enjoys competing to win a box of chocolates.
    All you have to do is write some questions, and you can add a raffle or a heads/tails game (everyone gives a £1 coin and keeps guessing heads/tails to try to match your coin until only one is left) to add a bit more too.
  6. Look at things you enjoy and keep it simple. If you bake cakes, organise a bake off competition or a coffee morning. If you play netball or five-a-side football, organise a tournament. I have done a few football tournaments – most centres have a charity event package already costed and you can opt to have referees etc. One quick word about tournaments – it can be hard to get teams to commit so if you can get them to pay a deposit, you can help prevent teams dropping out on the day.
  7. Keep asking for raffle prizes and don’t take it personally if people aren’t able to help. If you are out for a meal, why not ask the manager if they ever do vouchers as prizes – there is no harm in asking and you might get some nice surprises of really generous gifts. And what about unwanted/unused Christmas gifts too? If you are fundraising for a spring marathon, you might already have a good range of prizes suitable for your raffle/quiz night already sitting on your shelves.
  8. If there is a big sporting event at some point during your fundraising, a sweepstake is a quick and easy option too. Get in there early, make clear it’s for charity and charge £5 or £10 to enter. The prize doesn’t have to be much, and I have recently done a couple where I sent regular emails round to participants each time people got knocked out, mentioning each person by name in a poem so that they got a bit more out of it (when I say poem, it was along the lines of “Sweden got sent packing by Spain, so that saw Dave crash out of the game”)
  9. Spread the word. Your local paper might well be interested in your efforts- either in the run itself or your fundraising events. It can help get support, but it’s worth saying that an article, or even a frenzied social media campaign to get lots of retweets from celebrities to a sponsorship page is not always going to bring in money on its own – people will give if they feel a connection. And if you can give people other ways to help like attending an event, that might be more effective than a direct ask for money.
  10. Make a film. A few years ago, I decided I needed something to send out with fundraising links. Turns out it is a really good way to engage with people and led to some great donations and interactions. Here’s the one for Paris/London:

And here’s the one for Barcelona:

What fundraising tips do you have? Please get in touch below.

PS In case you are wondering, my current page is here. You may notice it is not prolific which is because I was worried about my first ultra and was nervous to talk about it beforehand.

Quiz marathon: Can you complete the challenge and get the medal?

Quiz marathon: Can you complete the challenge and get the medal?

Running is the theme, but this quiz is for everyone. How far can you get along the quiz marathon course? Answer the 26 questions to find out...

Over the fence – a cheerer’s perspective

Taking part in events is obviously excellent and something I fully endorse, but running cheering points can be pretty excellent too.

For the last few years, I have been organising the Cancer Research UK cheering point for the Cardiff half marathon each October.

I work for the charity but it’s a great chance to volunteer and, rather than running the same event each year, I enjoy seeing everything from the other side of the fence.

Rain or shine, we have a hardy gang of regulars who turn up to shout each year, so it’s great to catch up with them and make a lot of noise together.

The more energy the better when it comes to cheering

In the weeks beforehand, it’s particularly handy to be able to tell friends who are running exactly where you will be, and that their supporters can come along to be part of somewhere easily recognisable too.

I always know that I will see some of my friends who I haven’t seen for a while on the day and, as it’s my local event, there are usually lots of other people I didn’t know were running too.

From a runner’s perspective, I find that using the established cheering points rather than making up your own arrangements can make it easier for both the cheerers and the cheered.

It’s good to have something to aim at and, when you are running, it’s much less confusing to look out for the big flags than “I’ll be at the second lamppost after the Costa”.

From the supporters’ perspective, anything that makes the day easier is very welcome – it’s a tiring business scurrying on the outskirts of an event trying to get to certain places by the deadline and there’s plenty of scope for misunderstanding!

Early start

Over the years we have had a few different locations for our CRUK point, but we are currently to be found just before the eight-mile marker. It’s far enough along for cheering to be needed and gives boost before those tough last few miles kick in.

On the day, we are up as early as the runners to get close to the cheering point and set it up, and you get to see some of the crowds pass on their way into town.

It takes about exactly a year to forget how we set it up the year before

As we are trying to remember how we put the flags and banners up last year, it’s a chance to wish good luck to everyone, sharing the pre-race excitement while also being able to eat a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea.

Then those runners disappear and it’s back to more preparations as our cheering gang arrive and cable ties are applied to make sure everything is in place and not likely to topple over in a gust of wind.

There’s usually a helicopter filming the start, so you can look out for that, and then you forget and realise that the race actually started 10 minutes ago.

You keep doing the maths to work out when the first runners might arrive. Eight miles of their rapid pace seems to take no time at all and the outriders are suddenly upon you.

It’s easy to spot people to cheer at first and fast friends glide through in single file at exactly the pace they had predicted so you can be sure of seeing them.

Then the crowds start to swell and it’s more of a lottery. It’s hard to know if people started in the right pens and even seeing the pacers is no guarantee of if people got held up at the start.

You’re sure to miss seeing some of your friends in the throng, of course, but you are busy cheering everyone else anyway.

As it’s a CRUK point, the CRUK runners get a big shout as the call of “CRUK runner” goes up from our advance scouts at the front, but everyone else gets cheers too – BHF, Macmillan, Tenovus, Teenage Cancer Trust, Vegan Runners, Les Croups, Penarth & Dinas, San Dom, Swansea Harriers…everyone!

And regardless of charity or club, if you have a name on your vest, your chances of getting a shout are multiplied a thousand-fold.

For that next 60 minutes, it’s a blur with so many smiles and laughs and so much energy being passed from crowd to runner and back again.

A big hand for all our wonderful volunteers

The loudhailer cuts through the masses and runners waving back and high-fiving get everyone smiling.

After that hour, the ranks start to thin and it gets easier to see individuals again to give encouragement – by this point you can often have a full-on conversation with some runners too.

There is always a tricky balance later on as some of our cheerers have to head off to meet their runners, and families have to think about food, parking and getting home.

We always do our best to stay in position for as long as we can to see the last runners. These are the people who might appreciate the cheers and enjoy the support the most.

And then it’s time to go back to the car. The flags and banners are reunited with their corresponding bags and, with all the snacks and bottles of water gone, the boxes are significantly easier to carry on the return journey.

We’re usually starving by then. Obviously the runners deservedly get their medals for their morning’s work but I think we have earned some dinner too!

Come and join us at Cardiff on Sunday 1st October 2017, or check out if there’s a CRUK cheering point at an event near you here. Other excellent charity cheering points are also available!

A love letter to parkrun

I may only be on my second post, but I could not go any further without a quick love letter to parkrun.

I feel I might be preaching to the converted here, but I am a big fan of parkrun for its inclusivity, atmosphere, positivity…and all the options it offers.

Most Saturday mornings are spent here…

parkrun is flexible and it’s totally personal – you can go whenever you want, wherever you want and take it as seriously as you want.

Once I realised that meeting friends and/or having a cup of tea afterwards was as important as the run, it all clicked.

When I first went along, I never thought I would get to 100, and was delighted when I passed that landmark last year.

With the 250 milestone a long way off now, I have been enjoying finding some other things to aim at for 2017.

These are:

  • 25 volunteering shifts – I don’t quite know why, but I never got round to ordering the 50 or 100 parkrun t-shirts. I thought I would order them as soon as I could, but then I didn’t and now it seems too late. But the 25 purple volunteer t-shirt is one that I definitely do want.
    Volunteering at parkrun is always a pleasure and makes you feel so much more a part of the community. And it’s not just for the injured or those with an event on the Sunday. I am currently on 15 but hope to get to 25 by the end of the year. The future is purple.
  • 100 parkruns at my local run – I am currently on 96 runs for Cardiff Blackweir (@cardiffparkrun) and am looking forward to reaching the century.
    It’s the volunteers who make parkrun possible

    I might even have got there already if I hadn’t forgotten my barcode a couple of times. Or, on a couple of occasions, I had not wanted to record my time in case it messed up my average (this was in the very, very early days when I took it far too seriously).

  • 20 different locations – parkrun tourism is another of the great things about parkrun. I am currently on 15 locations and I love getting to different events to see what their course is like, meeting the organisers and volunteers, and trying a different café.
    There is a little group of four of us who have a whatsapp group where we plan our next adventures to explore, or if I am away somewhere new, I am always working out if I can fit in a parkrun to start the day.
    Barry Island, Conwy, Guildford, Cheltenham, Reigate and Aberystwyth are a few of the ones I have got to so far, and I look forward to getting to lots more in the future.
  • I hesitate to put this on here, but my final secret ambition is to get back under 20 minutes again.
    I really don’t think times are very important any more, but I used to be able to do it…and maybe I could again? It has been a good few years since I had a proper go at this, and I know it’s a tall order and will take quite a bit of training.

    Glorious views across the estuary at the RSPB reserve which hosts the Conwy course

    Admittedly, running with a buggy for probably around 50 or 60 runs has not helped in the speed stakes, so it all depends on how much time I get.

Whether I reach these targets or not, I can’t thank the parkrun teams around the country enough – from everyone at head office to each volunteer who makes this amazing movement possible.

It has to be the most accessible community out there for runners, and it’s there week after week after week…for free.

I am sure to mention parkrun again in this blog soon, and I am looking forward to getting more familiar with junior parkrun once my boy reaches four next year.

Let me know what you think, and any great parkruns I should be aiming to visit!

Lessons from Mile 17

Back in 2007, I collapsed mid-stride while running the London marathon.

Rather than being tucked up with my medal in a fancy hotel near the finish line, I spent the night in a hospital outside the M25.

From my bed on the ward, I wrote about the experience here.

When I ran London again in 2010, I stopped at Mile 17 to take a photo of where I collapsed. Not sure why.

After recovering, I went on to complete a marathon a few months later, but for several years, I had lots of awkward conversations with the people who had sponsored me for London (I had been doing lots of fundraising and had asked everyone I knew).

I had plenty of time to reflect on what went wrong, and I still think about the lessons that I learnt that day.

These are some of my thoughts:

  • Starting too fast – I was running with a friend at the start and tried to keep up with him for too long when I knew it was too quick for me.
  • Racing Scooby Doo – somewhere in early stages, I saw a man in a Scooby Doo costume and decided that I should be going faster than him. Foolish.
  • Not having any concept of not finishing the race. I had never thought of any other outcome other than completing it, which was a big mistake. I remember thinking “the faster I go, the faster I finish”. As it turns out, this wasn’t true.
  • The heat – last time I checked, 2007 was still the hottest on record (which I am strangely pleased about) but I did not really factor this in.
  • Not stopping for water – obviously linked to the heat, but I ran through at least one stop in 2007 thinking it would slow me down. At every race now, I make sure I slow down to properly take on water at every stop.
  • The crowds – the shouts and the encouragement at any event are truly amazing – but these people aren’t your coach and they don’t really know how you are doing. I remember people shouting my name and I felt I had to go faster or keep running for them. You can take in their shouts as motivation, but if you need to take it easy or walk, then you should. The crowds have forgotten you as soon as you pass and they don’t have to deal with the rest of the race. You do.

    Relieved to have finally got a London medal in 2010
  • Bad decisions – when you are tired, it is like being drunk – you start making bad decisions. Recognise that you are tired and use that to make better decisions – like stopping at water stops or having gels/Shot Bloks when you said you would.
  • Not recognising the signs – I do remember thinking “if I just close my eyes for a bit, I will have covered 10m without looking”. I think I started doing this before I passed out – I must have been quite delirious by this point already. When I ran London again in 2010, I did not recognise a thing after Tower Bridge. I must have been in a daze for about four miles in 2007.
  • It’s all about the medal – times and PBs are great targets, but finishing the event safely is the only important thing.
  • You don’t have to tell everyone about your events. On one hand, telling people can ensure that you are committed to doing it, but on the other, it can bring more pressure. It’s a tricky balance, especially if you are fundraising, so I haven’t quite worked the answer to this one yet!
  • Setbacks can be ok – a few months after my failed attempt, I snuck up to Anglesey and completed the marathon there. A barn at Mona showground may have been a long way from the glamour of the Mall, but it was just fine for me.

I am sure there are more, and I like to think I made a lot of mistakes in one go. Having done so, I don’t want to forget them, as I would rather it didn’t happen again.

It’s now a decade since this experience, but I still think about it a lot during events and this definitely helps me make sensible decisions.

I hope it helps others too – let me know what you think.