I joined Darwen Dashers at the back end of November in 2014. I had toyed with the idea for a few months but wanted to have a crack at playing football at a higher level than I had done previously. My expectations of it seemed much higher than I found and my interest in playing the game was fading fast. I just didn't have the drive or motivation to play the way I used to on a regular basis. It wasn't anything to do with the team/manager or anything like that, just on a personal level, I felt like I didn't have the same desire anymore. Even when I scored, I didn't feel that same buzz and I had dabbled with 2 or 3 runs per week for a couple of months, only 10 miles max in total to be honest.
When I joined the Dashers, I heard about a trophy that was given to the runner who'd done the most races over a season. I knew about the club championships on the roads & fells, but being so fresh to the running scene (knocking on a 20 year absence), I knew I was going to be nowhere near fast enough to win either of those, so, my mind was made up. If I put the effort in to compete in the most races, I would also improve a lot because I knew I would have to train hard to feel like I was capable of even doing anything half decent in a race and not embarrassing myself!
I started off with a bit of training, I turned up at the Sunnyhurst to run with the Dashers a few times, sacrificing my Tuesday & Thursday football sessions, something I'd never done for anything/anyone else before, so something had to give. I felt a bit stronger so in December 2014, I put myself in for a race or two, competing on 4 occasions. The Hurst Green Turkey Trot was a good laugh and a great route, followed by the Rudolf 5 miler in Blackpool the week after. My times were, and are, nothing spectacular, but my improvement has been rapid in this first season. I ran the Whinberry Naze on boxing day, in a fleece, snowman onesie, I might add (I'll never do that again!!! - the onesie, I mean) and then to round off 2014, I ran the Ribble Valley 10k, in icy conditions.
January followed a similar route. Another 4 races on the list, starting on New Years Day with the Billy Knox 5k in Whitworth, one of many Andy O'Sullivan organised races that I would rack up on my tally for the season. Another 10k to follow, Garstang 10k, and my first experience of a Dashers championship race. Ebony & Gold out in force and a decent time for me, finished in 48:52, so little training was beginning to work as my time had dropped from 54 minutes around 11 months earlier, and 55 minutes I ran at Accrington 10k in October 2014! After a few chats with my mate and regular training/racing partner, Brian Morris, I came to the conclusion that it was time to make a decision; football or running! It had to be one or the other. Running did benefit my football fitness but football didn't benefit my running and if I wanted to seriously improve myself for distance running, something had to give. I made the choice and I had totally dropped playing football by February 2015, something I never thought I would do but times change.
To finish off January, I ran at Ashurst Beacon and the Welcome Tavern 10k, which turned out to be 6.6 miles in the end for one reason or another. February started some of the racing "madness". A 5k on the Saturday for Andy O'Sullivan's birthday (and Sidney's!), followed by the Blackburn Winter Warmer 10k the day after. Here I had a race to compare myself with, the first time it had happened. I ran it in 54:24 in 2014 and then in 2015, 45:37. I'd absolutely smashed my time to bits and I really didn't expect to run it in that time but my decision to drop football and train more was obviously working. I did my longest & toughest fell race so far at Windy Hill where I bumped in to my now good friend, Ben Mounsey. I was chasing one of his club mates for a couple of miles and Ben was running him back to the finish as the fast lads sometimes do, it made me push more, both physically and mentally, as I tried to jump a stile, Ben had to give me a decent shove as I slipped on the wet wood. I wasn't even aware of what was really going on as my mind was in the race so much, I'd just totally zoned out and I'd taken my first proper race fall on this race too, resulting in a gashed knee, but via Twitter, I later found out who it was & now we keep in touch regularly, and as it happens, both went on to have a successful running year, albeit on totally different scales!
Windy Hill was swiftly followed by Mr Sparkle's Dark 'Un (famous night fell race, get your entries in for 2016 now!), Bleasedale Circle fell race & the Lostock 6 (3 races in 3 days - Friday night, Saturday morning & Sunday morning). Tally now up to 14 races. In March I was back to 4 races for the month, the Trotters 5 (another I did last year but the course had been altered this time), Stan Bradshaw's Pendle round, which is still one of my favourite fell races, the Roddlesworth Roller and the Ron Hill 10k. Tally now at 18 races as I pass in to my birthday month. Pendle hill & Wardle Skyline on the fells, with Lancaster three bridges, Bolton 10k and my first half marathon, the Valiants half, on the road. 23 races and counting and I was still feeling good, although I had to turn down a free bacon butty after the Valiants as my stomach was in bits. I'd never even ran 13 miles before but I felt that strong from all my racing and my increased mileage, I just gave it a go and my plan worked. I wanted to stick to 7:30 min/miles for the race and did that for the whole 13.1 miles, finishing in 1:38.
May, June & July were the busy months, 27 races between the 3 of them, the time when the mid-week, Summer fell races really kick in, I did 17 in those 27 races, including Pen-y-Ghent (accompanied by 50 odd mph winds!), Great Hill, Aggies Staircase, Foe Edge, Mearley Clough (one of my worst run outs), Kentmere Horseshoe (one of, if not my best, performances and my 1st Lakeland fell race) and mine & Brian's infamous Fishwicking of July 4th - Heptonstall Festival in the morning followed by the drive to Oakworth for the Oakworth Haul in the afternoon! My best finish to date in a fell race, 12th place at the Oakworth Haul (only because there was only 20 runners in it, ha ha!). Another few worth a mention are Henderson's end, which is around Rivington Pike, great weather on the night and one of my favourite routes, I also did the Radcliffe challenge which was 3 races in 3 days, including Bull Hill fell race and the Stoke half marathon too (tarmac, unfortunately, ha ha!).
If you're still following this then you're doing quite well. Now in to August 2015, I've just started the Rossendale mid-week fell series, which opened with the Lee Mill fell race at the end of July and was swiftly followed by Whittle Pike, Pilgrim's Cross & the Golf Ball. Me & Mark Walsh seemed to be permanent fixtures at these, with Mark winning his age category over the whole series and he threw in some good performances at the sharp end of the race throughout, well done mate!
August 22nd was the Pendle 3 peaks, probably one of the toughest I've done so far, brutal climbs, although I love the Pendle races so it makes it a bit easier, or should I say less painful, to manage. I was on Pendle again for Pendleton fell race on August 29th, probably my worst run of the season though. About 1 1/2 miles in I rolled my ankle badly and basically limped my way around the race to avoid the dreaded DNF next to my name, I think I finished about 20 from the back, not a good day, but an experience all the same. To start September I was on 57 races, a couple of half marathon's in 24 hours added 2 more to that tally and Scafell pike added another, although my legs felt like it deserved another 10!! Me & Simon Taylor were getting in some crackers and had some decent plans for the fells in the next couple of months, also me & Jim Taylor raced another couple of Andy O'Sullivan's 5k's, including Ron Hill's birthday race, top bloke!
October was another fell month to be honest, only the Accrington 10k was on the road. I ran in the British fell relays in October, although they don't count towards my tally, but the experience gained is far more valuable than adding another race to my total. Oh, and the picture captured of me has turned in to a bit of a classic. I just hope I don't pull these faces on a regular basis or there will be some poor marshals around with terrible images etched in their minds...
In to the final month of the trophy race count now, I've already been told by many club mates for months that the trophy has my name on and at this point I already know this but as I've done for months, I'm just enjoying racing and running in general, so I'm not going to stop...I'd felt fit enough and strong enough to prepare for the Tour of Pendle this month, although sore hamstring tendons (one of very few niggles I have had), prevented me from getting my long runs in. The weather was terrible leading up to it, that never puts me off but the route was altered to the "bad weather Tour" and thus taking out the descent/ascent of Mearley and Big End. I was disappointed but the reasoning behind it was perfectly acceptable and by the time I had finished my legs were relieved it was cut short, to be honest. To round off my cracking year, I finished with our clubs own David Staff memorial fell race, which greeted us all with equally bad weather, mainly high winds towards Darwen Tower. I do better than my usual placing at the "home" races, as I train there anyway so I pick much better lines and my pacing is obviously more efficient.
I have tried to write it without sounding like I should be on a "year in their life" TV show but as I committed myself to so many hours and days of running, I guess it's pretty difficult to cut down. Hopefully you have managed to get through the post anyway. It's been a good season and at the Dashers end of season celebrations I was presented with the trophy I'd aimed for from the start. The only other club runners who knew about this from the beginning were Brian Morris & Simon Fox, but, eventually it became obvious that I was going to be the only one taking it home!
My expectations for 2016 are realistic, in my opinion. I know I will not improve in the same manner but small improvements are equally satisfying and as I was told by several people at the Dashers do, I'm apparently an inspiration...If I can continue to do that, no matter how much I improve or race, then I will be a happy lad! I have plenty of thanks to hand out but that's something to be done in person so the relevant people already know, and are probably queueing up at the bar awaiting their pints ;-)
I'll no doubt see some of you around in 2016, maybe on Ben Nevis, Snowdon or the Three Peaks (hints at my 2016 aims there) and again, thanks to all who I've met in this fantastic year. Below is Maureen Roberts presenting me with her trophy last night. I'm aiming to post a "picture board" blog later in the week, just listing each race with plenty of pictures and much less writing, so keep an eye out for that one...