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.