Friday 9th May, roughly 1:52pm
A group of young men and women boarded the train at Preston station. They were carrying baggage, crates of beer, tins of cider and the odd bottle of gin, sharing porkpies and Hobnob biscuits, and wearing curiously sloganed t-shirts. One fine chap who sat next to my wife and kids got talking to us. I shall know him as ‘Speedbump #2′: Ramming All Night Long‘ as his t-shirt stated below a picture of said ram’s head. Anyway, it turned out they were heading to the Young Farmer’s AGM in Blackpool. I’d never heard of this before. He explained there was no meeting, just a lot of drinking. The conversation eventually got onto the purpose of my family’s holiday – my upcoming race. He was genuinely interested. He was if I’d done a marathon before, what distances I did, if I’d done triathlon, and had a good discussion explaining the different aspects of triathlon distances and indeed what it’s like to be a runner. Not long before we got off the train at Blackpool South, he said they were going to come down to my race on Sunday, and meet me at the finish line with a beer. They didn’t turn up, but what an amusing aside that would have been.
Let’s not deflect too much from the main order of business here, though. This holiday was effectively planned around the Blackpool Beach 10K Run, my fourth race of the year and my third since committing my entries to raising funds again for the MND Association. It is a race I signed up for at Christmas, and later planned a sub-40 minute 10K training regime around which I achieved in Bradford eight Sundays prior to this race, with the Huddersfield Half Marathon then treated as a priority as I stepped in for my friend, and went on to finish fourth in what can only described as ‘chaotic’ circumstances. That is not to say I underestimated Blackpool Beach – having trained a few times on the sands of Ingoldmells and Skegness I knew this was going to be a battle of the mind and body. Little did I know it would feel like a war when the challenge itself became apparent.
The Saturday presented a chance to get on the beach for one last training run. Or so I thought. I hadn’t reckoned on the Irish Sea tide being in, so I was forced to remain on dry land. It was a blustery run down to the end of New South Promenade and then back to the hotel. I stopped to take a picture or two and it was proving to be quite difficult. Anyway, all felt fine and we as a family had a fun morning at the Sea Life Centre and later got a huge drenching from a massive rain shower.
On the fundraising side, my donations increased to £50 up to the night before the race, taking the total received since beginning fundraising for the charity last year to over £1200 in memory of my late mother Julie. That milestone in itself was a nice positive boost to have before the race, and it’s great to see my campaign is generating such generosity and awareness.
Sunday May 11th, 07:25am
It was now race day. I woke up and got a shave, a shower, and exited with both kids and wife now awake. The attention turned to the most important pre-race meal – breakfast. Only with an afternoon start, deciding how exactly to fuel for this race on the hotel’s ‘Continental’ buffet was a perplexer. I couldn’t just overload with porridge – though the one bowl I had with honey went down a treat. I had just the one slice of granary toast with jam, and a natural yogurt too. As well as some apple juice and a cup of tea. All in all there wasn’t much more I could do there. I avoided the temptation of croissants and mini muffins, and made do with the lack of fresh, whole fruit. Good thing I bought some bananas from the nearby supermarket, a trusty ally. Post-breakfast, we nipped to the Promenade to take the kids to the beach. Only the tide was still in, and thus we divided our time between letting the kids clamber the rides inside the South Pier arcade, and occasionally watching the waves. My mother-in-law turned up, arriving for a day trip and to assist my wife with the kids while I galavanted off to the race. It took her 15 minutes to cross over to the South Pier though, owing to hordes of runners jogging up and down the Promenade in the annual Beaverbrooks 10K Fun Run – an event I swear I hadn’t heard of, until now. After a game of human Frogger, she made it across. The kids had ice cream and the tide subsided just about enough to deliver our promise of taking the kids to the beach. Eventually the wind picked up and then some and it wa time to get back to the hotel.
With the kids asleep and having chowed on a banana already, I headed off to the Solaris Centre, snaffling another banana en route, having decided just to skip lunch and fuel on fruit. Upon arrival I entered the registration area and was immediately asked by one lady ‘Are you Peter Clegg?‘ ‘Yes I am. Am I famous?!‘ I asked. This was a lady called Tia who runs the organisers’ (Fylde Coast Running) social media pages. She had recognised me from Facebook and had read a bit about my fundraising. It was a brilliant way to be introduced to Fylde Coast Running, an immediate positive impression. I got my race number attached, got kitted up (gradually losing the hat, then the jacket) as I decided I would brave the Irish Sea winds in just shorts and vest. The threat of rain had receded from heavy to light to barely anything by the time the race started.
A pistol got everyone’s attention and we gathered by the start line. After the rigmarol of Huddersfield, it felt good to be in the middle of the pack and not leading off. Not that it would be a problem – the course was clearly marked, and we could already see how challenging it was going to be.
Off we went, off the Promenade, down the slop and over a stream in the sand, steeplechase style, around some markers, through an unavoidable large puddle, and on towards St. Anne’s-on-the-Sea for the first 5K. The terrain was proving to be difficult – the tide had left behind pools between hard sand dunes with runners caught between ploughing through or tiptoing around the puddles. After navigating that section, the race began to unfold, being pushed along by a swirling, if not direct tailwind. I noticed I was in touch with the leading pack around 2km in. One by one, I started to overtake. I was soon up into sixth. I carried on at my early pace and moved into fifth. The other four runners appeared closely packed, but one dropped back gradually, and I reeled him in too. Fourth. Crikey, this was getting serious. The sand was now soft and a bit rugged, but it was allowing me to put in a bit of a stretch. I slowly but surely hauled in the second and third placed runners, and around 4km, passed them on the left and moved into second. My word, this was going well. Not that I gave it too much thought. I was maintaining a breathing rhythm not unlike a heavy rock band, keeping up my cadence, and staying in touch with the leader. We arrived at halfway, near St. Anne’s Pier, and I was only about five seconds behind.
Of course though, a tailwind one way means as soon as you turn around – SLAP! A furious headwind coming in from the Irish Sea. I did get a water bottle but hardly got anything out of it as I nearly choked on the stuff, and as I struggled to adjust, I could hear someone behind me. The guy I overtook for second was back, and he just passed by easily enough. Still third though. I briefly looked over my shoulder, but stopped myself from owling it. ‘Don’t look back’, I told myself. The game was on. That first 5K told me this was a challenge and even more so now. Thinking back it was like running a real Arabian Derby, only on foot rather than horse (or camel) back, on reckless terrain, running over sands with barely anyone around, over a vast expanse of powdery sand with just the sea and sheer cliffs for company. This was running, oh yes. Behind the pained expression and heavy breathing, I was loving this.
I continued on and watched the first and second place guys stretch out their lead, but I was sitting in third fairly comfortably. My pace had slowed a little but not drastically. But I really wanted to see the line. The competitive edge inside of me had returned, and I didn’t want to let it slip. This time, my performance was entirely in my hands. The corner of New South Promenade, from which a few spectators cheered everyone on, felt like it was near the finish. Instead this was about 7.5km. There was still a way to go. I tried to follow the tracks of the leaders who were well into the distance by now, but still within sight. By now I just wanted to see the dunes and sand pools again. I felt if I could still be in third beyond that point I could hang on. But there was still work to do. I had to get across these dunes first. Again I plotted around the area of most land, feeling hitting the puddles would slow me up. It was dangerous going, but I made it through. The cones marking the start and finish were now in sight. At this point I could hear the man behind me in fourth. He was obviously gaining. I steeled myself. This time, straight through the large puddle without a second thought. I then upped the pace and dug in for grip around the corner. I made a dash for the solitary ascent. I wondered if I was going to hit a wall here. But no. Clenched teeth, I powered up the hill, got onto the Promenade, and with the finish in sight, I sprinted for the line.
I had done it! Third place! I briefly raised my arms at the line and then, exhausted, slumped over a sea wall and briefly gasped for air. That hurt. But I turned around after that short breather, and there was the guy in fourth. We shook hands and acknowledged each other’s efforts. I collected my medal, bottle of water, and the FCR-famous reward of a Wagon Wheel biscuit. A jammy one at that. And then it was off for my race photo. Pleased as much I posed, and then briefly got talking to the top two. It turned out they finished together – a dead heat! Wow. I could only admire their efforts, that was a hard slog out there and it felt great to be in their company in the top three. I phoned my wife – I told her I was going to have to stay behind!
After staying outside, carrying out some stretches, and talking to other runners, I crossed back over to the Solaris Centre, got back into my jeans and t-shirt, and packed my race number away for safe keeping. I did some more chatting and gratefully received a sheet detailing the top 100 finishers. My time was 37:49, 1:07 behind the top two. Only 34 seconds off my PB for the distance on land! Indeed, seeing my name so high on the top left of the page was something. It was then into what was the registration office for the presentation, presented by the head of FCR, Ron McAndrew. The first I’d attended since the Bradford City Run in 2012, which was purely to experience what a race event was like (I was 54th that day). It started with confirmation that the course was 100-150 metres shorter owing to ‘horrendous’ conditions at St. Anne’s Pier. Understandable, but for me negligible, and nobody complained. Only one of the joint winners had turned up, and he had graciously stepped aside to allow the other to claim the first place prize. Then my name was read out, and I stepped up to receive a bag and a choice of red or white wine. My wife prefers white, so white it was! And when I got back I checked the contents of the bag. Two pairs of Slazenger sports socks! Some might prefer a trophy, but I would get some use out of this prize! Excellent.
The remaining prizes were given out for the top females and the top of age categories, and that was it. I shook Tia’s hand, promising I would return one day and thanked the team again for the experience. I headed out of the door, and decided to walk back along the Promenade, gazing out at the course, now devoid of markers, and indeed the very surface which had become the making of me as a truly competitive runner. Blackpool, once the joyful town of my childhood, now a fully captivating place in my heart as a runner. It wouldn’t be long before my Facebook and Twitter profiles were going crazy again too with congrats from family, friends, my fellow friends and runners from Running the World, the MND Association) – it was almost as huge as the reaction that greeted me after completing the Great North Run last year.
Looking back at this race, I find it slightly hard to explain where that pace came from – I did the first 5K in around 19 minutes, a pace I was never anywhere near in Skegness in tough, but arguably less severe conditions. I don’t think it was tiredness. It could just have been that I had just returned from an injury, though I was equally cautious in the run-up to this race owing to a strain in my left foot that won’t budge. It didn’t factor in this race thankfully. What I have learned though, from the Huddersfield race and most certainly this race, is that there is a competitive edge, indeed a bulldog spirit inside of me. The first 5K went supremely well and that was the best I’ve done at progressing through the field. Twice now I’ve been required to defend my position in a race, and here it was initially after being passed for 2nd, but moreso about 400 metres from the end. Haw de haw. But seriously, there something about hearing the breath of a fellow competitor, their footsteps pounding behind you, that provides an impetus I hadn’t realised until up to two weeks ago. I was oblivious to being fourth in Huddersfield, but I knew exactly where I was here and when I went through that puddle, I dropped the hammer and went for it like never before. I worked all race to get into that position and, with respect to the man in fourth, who ran just as hard, I think I would have been truly gutted if I had lost it. It didn’t bear thinking about. And I didn’t. I kept a cool head and seeing those markers made me aware it was within reach. It was such a tough race and running up that hill was the one thing left that could have derailed me. I gritted my teeth hard at that moment and the sprint finish I’ve so often gone for in training didn’t let me down when it properly mattered. That’s what makes this third place so special, because I truly worked for that. I will never forget it, that’s how much it means.
And at the same time I’m well aware I’m not the quickest, but I do seem to thrive in a smaller field and where there’s a challenge – fourth in a horrendously hilly Huddersfield, and now third on tricky terrain and effectively the first trail race of any sort since I seriously took up running. I wouldn’t pick and choose my events purely on the basis of a challenge or in anticipation of tricky conditions, but it seems I’m doing well in them. But even if I was never to finish third again, it wouldn’t matter. I achieved a third place finish in this race, in the town of so many good times for me, and nothing can ever change that, and that will never be taken from me.
And will I do this race again? Oh yes. One day, I certainly will. Even if not next year (owing to marathon plans), it will remain in my conscience. And would I recommend this race to everyone? Absolutely. Running on sand is an adrenaline rush and it makes you feel a bit small. As in, you’re running in an area where few people are about, on this vast expanse of sand, varying between the hard solid stuff and the soft stuff, the dry and the wet, flat surfaces and duned surfaces. It is a battle of wits and it seems far removed from the relative close surroundings of the road. Hence if you wish to succeed you’ve got to have that will and determination to get to the finish. All 124 of us who raced did, and I’m surprised more people don’t take it up. It’s a phenomenal event, run by arguably the finest race organisers in the country, and I assure you if you do it once, you’ll find it hard to resist going back for another shot at it.
So that is that. A brilliant family ‘racecation’ that became that little bit more special because I finished top three for the first time ever. I’ll never ever forget this. Once again, thank you to Ron, Tia and the FCR team for hosting pretty much a perfect event (go sign up for one of their many races), to everyone who supported me in the build up, particularly anyone who donated to my MND Association fund, the MND Association themselves, and the many members of Running the World. And of course, thank you to all who congratulated me upon the news of my result. A summer ‘break’ from races now awaits, but I’ll be back soon enough and ready to test myself once more. Cheerio!