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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Le Tour De Yorkshire

Saturday 17th December 2011 was the shortest Saturday of the year. Okay so maybe a pedant could argue that Saturday 24th was a nanosecond shorter but for some reason that date wasnt quite as practical for a nonsensical sporting challenge.

So what was the challenge and how did it come about?

The idea was to run all the 10 Yorkshire parkruns - Roundhay, Pontefract, Hull, Sewerby, Barnsley, Sheffield Hallam, Concord, Huddersfield, Bradford and Leeds in one day. But not just on any day, it was on one of the shortest days of the year with few daylight hours and a high probability of unfavourable weather conditions. It looks relatively straight forward until you start thinking it through. The 10 parkruns themselves add up to 31 miles but, together with the bits of running in between and warm up etc, the total running is nearer to 35 miles. On top of that comes the fact that Yorkshire is not exactly the smallest of counties, resulting in a total route length of about 280 miles.

I had been pondering a multiple parkrun event for a while since hearing about The Longest parkrun event involving 7 London parkruns in one day held on, or close to, the longest day of the year. Until recently there just hadnt been enough parkruns close enough together in Yorkshire to entertain something similar but now there was.

So, while enjoying post run coffees after one of the Leeds parkruns I mentioned that I was pondering such an event. The response from Tom Williams started with the words 'Funny you should mention that.......'. We had both been thinking of something similar but Tom's inspiration had come from both the London event and tales of a solo run on the shortest day of the year. And thus the idea was born.

My assumption had been that an event like this would encourage a bit more parkrun tourism and get more people to see some of the great venues that we get to run at. As such it seemed automatic to invite lots of people to join we did!

Biting Off More Than We Could Chew

The response was overwhelming so Tom, myself and Sam Dooley started getting stuck into the organisational practicalities of what would be involved. It took around two hours of concentrated thinking to come to the realisation that it just wasnt possible. That is, it wasnt possible to run 35 miles, cover 280 miles AND be involved in any sort of organising/coordination of a bigger event, much of it in the dark and possibly in poor weather. The prospect of bringing the parkrun brand into disrepute was just too great.

So we had to take the sensible option and put any sort of mass event on hold, perhaps until Summer. But we were still intrigued by the question of whether it was even possible to complete the task and it seemed only right that we should have a smaller scale trial to test out the practicalities.

An Early Start

Waking at 4:30am on Saturday 17th I looked out of the window and saw nothing but white! Boy, it looked cold. A quick look at the BBC weather site suggested it was currently about -5c and if we were lucky it might just reach 0c at some point around the middle of the day.

We certainly had a challenge on our hands now.

I drove over to Tom's house and had to be very careful not to slide into any of his neighbours' parked cars, it was that icy. Both Tom and Guy Willard, our ultra running fellow mad man, were looking remarkably awake and enthusiastic for 5:45am. I think I needed some more coffee........

This was going to be a long day, we were expecting it to take between 12-13 hours but with all the planning in the world this day was going to be full of unknowns. How does the body react to warming up and cooling down so many times over such a long period in sub zero temperatures, for instance?

To add a bit of interest to the challenge Tom had come up with the idea of a numerical sequence of completing the 10 courses in 29(:xx), 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20. This looked intriguing because, although the early events should be comfortable enough, those last few at 22, 21, 20 at the 30+ mile stage could become quite  arduous.

Roundhay (6:15 am)

Time to switch the head torches on and start tip toeing on the slippy tarmac of Roundhay Park.

All was going well for all of 400m until we hit the 2nd corner. All three of us almost failed to overcome centripetal forces on the glistening ice and nearly ended up carrying on in a straight line instead of turning to the left. This was going to be tricky. Even 29:xx was not going to be that easy when it was a struggle to stand up!

After the first lap we got into our stride, negotiating the icier parts with due care, and completed in one piece.

One down, nine to go....

9:58, 9:10, 9:10 (10:06) - 29:39

Pontefract (7:25am): A 35 minute drive to Pontefract and it was still dark. This one was going to need more care than Roundhay due to the rutted nature of the underfoot conditions. It is easy enough in the light because you can see where the tarmac strips are but in the dark it involves running while constantly looking down just in front of you.

Some light was starting to appear as we progressed around the racecourse and we were starting to warm up now but with the number of layers being worn it was time for a change of clothing by the time we completed this one. Quite appropriately we looked like steaming race horses on completion of the Grand National as we got changed in the car park.

Two down, eight to go.....

9:09, 9:09, 8:32 (9:09) - 28:10 

Hull (9:00am - Official parkrun):

The next journey from Pontefract to Hull had to be done in a timely manner as this was the official parkrun at 9am. Even though there were no problems with the journey it was still a bit tight as we arrived at the park gates at 8:57. At least you can drive round the park to the start area at Hull so we were okay in terms of getting there before it started.

However, I had really wanted to get here in time for a bit of a warm up because I was going to treat Hull differently and actually race it. The reason? Well, the previous week we had been having a chat with a chap at Barnsley who had just broken the V45 record at Hull by running 17:40. All well and good, except the previous holder with 17:43 was I wanted it back :p

There was absolutely no chance of running a 17:xx from the outset as Hull was a complete ice rink. But I had set my mind on having a good bash at this one so got stuck in anyway. Running one at a faster pace couldnt do any harm, right?

5:53, 6:12, 6:06 (5:53) - 18:50 

Tom and Guy ticked off a 27:xx to keep the overall sequence going.

Three down, seven to go...........

Now off to Bridlington.

Sewerby (10:40am) :

On the road to Hull, Tom had received calls from race directors asking for advice on whether or not to cancel their events. This included the RD at Sewerby so we were expecting a bit of a slippery challenge at the next venue. But at least we had breakfast at The Clock Tower in the grounds of Sewerby Hall to look forward to after we had completed it .

The scenery here was breathtaking with the white frosted landscape overlooking a completely calm and peaceful sea view.

As we got under way I noticed I was finding it harder to get the legs moving than Tom and Guy. I managed to convince myself that I was imagining it, otherwise I was going to have to accept that it was all downhill from here and I was going to be facing a long painful day. Maybe I just needed to work off the effects from running hard on ice at Hull?

It took maybe 2-300m to get in the swing of it, so not too bad, and then the rest of it was very enjoyable coming in on target and heading straight to The Clock Tower for refuelling on bacon baguettes and buckets of black coffee. :)

8:28, 8:27, 9:03 (8:46) - 26:55 

Four down, six to go....... 

A long 92 mile drive now before the next venue at Barnsley.

It was during this lengthy drive that the conversation at some point got around to how much we eat. It was during this conversation that I jokingly said that I must be able to run 20 miles on a raisin because if I ate much more than that I got fat! By the time of the next parkrun Show Tom had somehow renamed me Steve 'I could run 20 miles on a raisin' Darby. Hmmm, not exactly what I said but I thought I would mention it in case anyone wondered what the title of the blog was all about.

Barnsley (13:35pm): The unfortunate element of the scheduling, or maybe it was to add to the challenge, was that a big chunk of the daylight hours were spent travelling rather than running but as we arrived at Barnsley we still had a couple of hours left before we would be back to dealing with the darkness.

We knew that Barnsley had been cancelled earlier in the day so there was every chance that we were going to have a tricky challenge here. It was certainly iced up, in fact it was the first course that had any significant snow lying around.

The park itself was looking beautiful in the afternoon sun but I was really concerned about how this would pan out.We werent even half way through yet, it had been two and a half hours since the last run and there was now another 100ish miles of driving in the legs.

So with a total of a half marathon's worth of running and 200 miles of driving behind us we gingerly set off for our 5th parkrun of the day. It was a bit ouchey early doors, especially in the lower legs, but again comfortable running reappeared, this time after about half a mile or so.

Anyone who knows the Barnsley course will know that it is one of the toughest courses in the country but because the legs had loosened up before having to tackle the long uphill section it turned into an enjoyable run. In fact, we got a bit carried away and had to pull back on the throttle a bit on the third mile as we were in danger of undershooting our target of 25:xx!

7:59, 8:11, 8:28 (8:35) - 25:19 

Five down, five to go...........

HALFWAY - Yippee, we're still in one piece BUT we have been on the go over 8 hours to run around 17 miles. What will the second half bring?

Sheffield Hallam (14:35pm) : The park here was pretty busy for a cold December afternoon but not really a problem when you're 'just' trying to run a 24:xx 5K.

Because the gap since the previous venue was very short this time it seemed a lot easier to get the legs moving, they were stiff around the calves but nothing serious. 24:xx was the target and it seemed like a straightforward enough challenge or at least it did until Tom had mentioned that we were about 45 secs down on target before we'd even got to the first mile. That didnt seem right but I was quite up for a faster mile because we'd promised ourselves another coffee and some of Mrs Williams's home made carrot cake at the end! As it turned out, we had been pretty much on schedule throughout:

We sat down in the park cafe with very large mugs of coffee.  The coffee was pure nectar at this stage in the day. The only problem was that we didnt really want to take too long as we were already a good bit behind our 'theoretical schedule' and we also knew that the longer we sat down for the harder it would be to stand up again..... Nonetheless, very welcome refreshement.

7:50, 7:26, 7:51 (7:17) - 24:08 

Six down, four to go...........

Concord (16:10pm) :  It was now back to complete pitch blackness and this course has no lighting anywhere near it.

We were of the mindset that we were really going to enjoy this one, being the 7th, because we had a feeling that it was going to start getting much more serious from this point on. After completing this we would have covered 21.7 miles in actual parkruns and, realisticaly, closer to 24 miles in total, so anything could happen from here on in.And, of course, we still had to keep on getting quicker...........

We also decided that for this to be completed properly it had to be a 'double Beechers' affair. Anyone who has done Concord will know the log leaping that that entails on each of the two laps.

Because the start is downhill at Concord, the now inevitable routine of having to loosen up the calves was a lttle bit easier. In reality, we were now getting into the closing stages of a marathon in terms of miles covered so it was pleasing that some reasonable pace was still there even though it took some digging for. A last uphill mile in 7:15 wasnt particularly necessary but it felt quite exhilirating for some reason. Maybe a bit of delirium was now setting in?

7:41, 7:35, 7:15 (7:52) - 23:25

Seven down, three to go..........

Huddersfield (17:55pm):  A dark drive across the moors to Greenhead Park in Huddersfield which had been another cancelled event earlier in the day so could be on the 'close to impossible' side of challenging.

This was the point of  my first navigation hiccup of the day, although in my defence the back streets of Huddersfield do look rather samey in the dark. The fact that I mistook someone's garden entrance for park gates is a perfectly understandable mistake, isnt it? Can you imagine the embarrassement if we had ended up in a police cell after some poor householder rings in a report of three strange men running in circles around their garden with some funny lights on their heads?

We did eventually find the park at 17:55, this was fine except for two things. Firstly, was the park closing time posted on the park gates...6pm!! Secondly, our original theoretical schedule had us finishing the whole thing by 6pm and we had some way to go yet.

We took a gamble on the park closing time, reckoning we could deal with any consequences long as we got the run completed in 22:xx!

The course was treacherous, especially around the tight twistiness around the lake but, hey, we had a challenge to get on with. Before we started this one, Guy had already said that he wasnt going to be able to go any quicker from here on so was happy to do 23s for the last few. He had run a continuous 50K a few days earlier so no great surprise.

The first lap was a little too risky to be honest, we were hitting ice in the pitch black and just having to deal with it as best we could. It would have been simply mad to have run the actual event earlier in the day on this course. But we had to at least stay in touch with 22:xx pace. Of course, we didnt really need was complete nonsense, but by this point in the challenge the time sequence had become much tougher to achieve and, as a result, the motivation to achieve it had intensified beyond any rational explanation. I wonder how many people will understand this?

After the first lap we were then behind time but at least we had some idea of what the course was like for the next 2 laps. We managed to get the time in the end but I had a seriously close call along the way on one of the ice patches.

7:47, 6:57, 7:04 (6:58) - 22:49

Eight down, two to go.............

What was really surprising now was that instead of a sense of impending doom we were now getting into a mindset of 'bring it on'. This after something like 28 miles covered......

So now on to another cancelled event at Bradford...

Bradford (19:10pm) : I was now starting to find it harder to get going due to my calves feeling really, really tight. It could have been due to running Hull hard on ice earlier in the day or the combination of running and driving 280 miles or maybe it was just down to running 28 miles. Whatever it was due to, it wasnt really any great surprise.

We had a 21:xx to run  here but I just couldnt get moving. In fact, I found it hard enough just walking from the car to the start line! And that is no exaggeration....

As westarted, Tom was off at a speed that seemed blistering compared to my agonised hobble, Guy was in the groove for another 23-24 minute effort and I was losing distance hand over fist even before we had got up past the bandstand and around the hall for the first time.

I glanced down at the Garmin and it was showing an average pace of 9:28. We needed to average about 7:06 so this wasnt looking good. Come on calves, loosen up and lets get going. I managed to get going down the hill but Tom was way down the road. I dont think he was getting further away but I wasnt closing either since I could hardly see him.

Up the hill for the second time and finally I felt like I could actually run. Tom was now about 10 metres in front and the pace had just got up into the 6:xx region so, despite being barely able to walk at the beginning, a 21:xx was now looking okay. We ran the third lap together and got a 21:56 clocked up. Phew, that was close.

6:58, 7:04, 7:01 (7:13) - 21:56 

Nine down, one to go...........

Leeds (Hyde Park) (20:35pm):  So this was it. We'd decided for various reasons that, unlike for the other 9 events, we were going to have a proper warm up for this one. Even with 27.9 miles of parkrunning and 32 miles in total behind us we had to try to get the stiffness loosened up before trying to run at any sort of pace and on the basis of what had happened to me at Bradford I was going to need about a mile of warming up at the very least to get to anywhere near what might be described as a running action.

Guy set off on his own while Tom and myself did the warm up. 10 minutes of rather comical hobbling later and we stood on the start line, mentally ready to tear it to pieces but not having a clue what the legs were going to do.

Off we went and Tom shot off down the starting straight. Considering that he had been struggling a bit at Huddersfield this was a very impressive show of endurance. To put this in context, Tom was over the moon to run a 21:xx  single parkrun just 3 months ago and here he was trying to run a 20:xx after everything that had gone before.

My calves were just not loosening up again, despite the warm up. At least I had the knowledge of what had happened at Bradford to give some hope that they might just decide to play later. Alas, they didnt -I just had to run around at the pace they were allowing which was very slow. I was still really enjoying it but the splits will give an idea of the state of the calves:

7:30, 8:49, 9:35 (8:52) - 26:44

The question now was whether Tom had manged to get anywhere near the 20:xx target. I think the fact that I was able to turn off my head torch for the last 400m due to the park being lit up by a broad beaming smile gave the game away....20:42! A time that might not seem any great shakes in the normal run of things had morphed into a huge achievement by the end of the day.

In the very same moment achieving that time on the last run meant everything and meant nothing simultaneously. On the one hand, I was delighted for Tom and really wished that I'd been able to complete the final piece of the jigsaw as well but, on the other hand, the whole experience of the day was so much more than the times could tell.

But for the record, my stats for the day:
10 parkruns completed:
Roundhay 29:39
Pontefract 28:10
Hull 18:50
Sewerby 26:55
Barnsley 25:19
Sheffield Hallam 24:08
Concord 23:25
Huddersfield 22:49
Bradford 21:56
Leeds 26:44

Brilliant, brilliant day. :) :)

What was learnt?

1. It was quite right to keep it to a one car operation, any more would have resulted in the thing going haywire very quickly.

2. It seems tougher in hindsight than during or before the challenge. Knowing what was involved, the main advice to anyone else who was thinking about having a go would be not to take it lightly.

3. It is easier to run 35miles in one continuous effort as opposed to split into 5K segments over 15 hours.

4. Any sort of injection of speed speed should be left until the later stages when you know what the body has left. In that sense, the whole thing mirrored how you would treat a marathon.

5. Every parkrun in Yorkshire on one day is not for wimps! ;)


  1. Great memories of an amazing day :) Thanks for writing it up Steve :)

  2. Great Blog - As a regular Sheffield Hallam parkrunner it was good to read about the other courses - Well done

  3. Thanks, Sandi - you might like to keep 24th June free in your diary if you like the idea of seeing a few other courses!

  4. I also struggled when I first started to run. Motivation pushed me everyday. The motivation to stay fit and healthy. Once I got hooked there is no stopping.

    writer at pedometer reviews

  5. Have enjoyed following your blog Steve

    Interested to hear about your post-Chester injury-proofing and plans for the VLM


    Peter Crowder

  6. Enjoyed reading this. Up here in Scoltand we're planning a similar event in June - the parkathon - 10 parkruns. The distance is vast with a drive to Inverness and then make our way back down to the central belt with various freedom runs and 1 live parkrun. I'm glad that I read about your experience and will bear in mind your advice regarding speed. I'm with you on your point that it is probably easier to run the distance in 1 fell swoop as opposed to the stop / start element of the event, and we will take longer than 15hours due to the distance that we will cover.