Friday 12 September 2014

Second Time Around, One in a Million - Great North Run 2014

The course was familiar, but the experience was different. Once again, the Great North Run was a great day out for participants and spectators alike. As with with each Greta North Run, there are many inspiring stories behind why participants take on the challenge and heart-warming stories about spectators coming out to cheer on family and friends as well as support the runners with cup of water and jelly babies. But in 2014, there was something extra special about it, not only was it won by a Briton for the first time in 29 years, but the event also saw its one millionth finisher cross the line.

From its relatively humble beginnings in 1981 through former Olympic Bronze medallist Brendan Foster's vision of encouraging public participation in running, when 12,000 runners competed in the first Great North Run, not only has it evolved beyond simply a local event to the world's biggest half-marathon as well as spawning a series of Great Run road races, but has also made huge differences to the lives of many, not just to participants who may have taken up the challenge in an attempt to benefit their health both physically and mentally but also the many charities that have benefited from the awareness and funds raised.

After having enjoyed the experience as a participant first time around in 2012 for the Daisy Chain Project, I was keen to do it again after I had summitted Kilimanjaro the year after for the same charity, feeling I needed an achievable challenge after such a feat to motivate me to keep up my physical fitness and mental well-being, after having learned in the past that it doesn't help to live in the past by picking out favourite times and moments, but rather by continuing to be active in a number of ways, in my case through reading, writing, mindfulness practice, physical activity, I find helps me to stay present in the moment by being with the experience as it unfolds, thus opening up to new and different experiences. 

Though as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, reflecting common descriptions of what many people with the condition, I do still find predictability and routine conducive to how I am but I do find variation every so often within routine and predictability stimulating. When applying mindfulness practice to doing an activity, task or physical exercise, including a set routine workout, it then becomes possible to open up to new experience by noticing the variations in sensations and bodily feeling. From such noticing, it then becomes possible to notice that each actual bodily experience of a regular activity, task or physical workout is unique, The routine and principal may be similar, but the experience, particularly at the sensory level, varies dramatically.
Then - approaching the last mile in 2012

And Now - Just after completing the run in 2014
As well as being motivated by previous enjoyment of participation in the event another of my goals of going in for it a second time was to be able to apply beginners mind to the experience, to see if I could still go the distance two years later as well as to provide a motivating factor for me to continue to practice and train. I felt I by getting touch with beginners mind regarding mindfulness practice during my ten-day silent Vipassana retreat helped me to open up to a different experience at Great North Run 2014 at a sensory level. During my first time, I felt that the encouragement from the crowd was the main factor for me being able to complete the 13.1 miles successfully, but second time round, while the crowd encouragement again helped as it undoubtedly did for the thousands of other runners, I felt it was more so personal confidence that I felt came within at the start once I got going, which I was able to maintain physically for the full 13.1 miles.

Though Mo Farrah finished first and did Britain proud, for me, the real winner at the Great North Run each year is the event itself. All the way from the elite runners, those going for a personal best time, those looking to just to complete the 13.1 miles and lets not forget those out for a bit of fun in fancy dress, the Great North Run is an event that participants can both experience and enjoy at their own physical level and as well as in respect of their individual circumstances. Each individual runner has a story to tell as to why they are going for it, including those doing it in memory of a friend or relative. It was therefore fitting that the one millionth finisher, Tracey Cramond from Darlington, was doing it to achieve the 13.1 miles for the Butterwick Hospice in memory of her late mother. 

Now let's sign off with a bit of local pride! First of all, the other winners at the Great North Run are the fantastic and very supportive crowds, who each year put the 'Great' in the Great North Run and secondly, the event has achieved one million finishers ahead of some rather illustrious places - London, New York and Sydney!

This year I managed to complete the run in two hours and eight minutes, two minutes faster than my first time in 2012. Running in aid of the National Autistic Society's Newcastle and Gateshead Branch, I have managed to raise over £150. A huge thank you to all who have donated, you are making a difference to many families affected by autism in the Newcastle and Gateshead area. Donations can still be made at 


Tuesday 2 September 2014

Trainspotting, Steam, the Settle and Carlisle and Eccles Cakes

The stereotype of Asperger's Syndrome and trainspotting is well-known, as is the stereotype of it being largely a male-dominated pastime, but chances are that until recently, very few will have known that one of the hobby's pioneers was an 18-year-old girl, Fanny Johnson, who recorded train numbers from a station in London back in 1861, in what was effectively one of the first trainspotting manuals. The National Railway Museum's latest special exhibition shows that trainspotting, or 'railway enthusiasm' with reference to some trainspotters, including myself, preferring to be described as railway enthusiasts*, goes back to the fascination many developed when modern railways began with the Stockton-Darlington (1825) and Liverpool-Manchester (1830), far from being the post-war fad it is often described as.  

As well as being described as an Aspergeric subject for its structure, symmetry of the tracks and sleepers, timetables, colour/imagery, trivia/facts and general detail associated with it, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome I also find train travel very conducive to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome, whereas I often find road travel on congested roads, particularly when I am driving myself, very stressful. Meanwhile, on a train, most of the time I can relax and on certain routes, watch and enjoy the scenery, something which I have recently had the privilege to enjoy on one of Britain's, and one of the world's, most spectacular railway journeys by steam, the Settle and Carlisle.

Taking on water at Appleby
Hauled by 60009 Union of South Africa, the Cumbrian Mountain Express started its journey from Carlisle before making a brief stop to take on water at Appleby before ascending towards Dent, England's highest mainline station at 350m above sea level and Garsdale, passing through some beautiful Cumbrian countryside and farmland. As readers of this blog may be familiar, 60009 Union of South Africa also hauled the Tynesider Special from Newcastle to London King's Cross last November. As with the East Coast Main Line route, I had previously travelled along the Settle and Carlisle route on modern rail traction. Again, though the route was vaguely familiar from
Beautiful Cumbrian Countryside
previous journeys, the experience of it by steam was different. Whereas with up-to-date suspension on modern rail traction, the traveller is largely oblivious to the gradient profile of the line, when travelling by steam, one can hear just how hard the locomotive has to work to ascend steep gradients, which is as for thrilling for passengers as the scenery. When ascending Ais Gill summit, the highest rail summit in England at 723m, one can almost hear the fireman's sigh of relief!

Crossing Ribblehead Viaduct
The highlight of the journey for me though, and many fellow passengers were in agreement, was crossing the celebrated Ribblehead Viaduct. Practically a pilgrimage spot for photographers and railway enthusiasts alike, one of the first sights that passengers on s steam-hauled journey along the route see in the valley below just before crossing the viaduct is numerous tents, pitched by those keen to get a sight of the steam train crossing the 440 yard long structure's 24 arches. More than simply a photographic icon or an engineering monument, Ribblehead Viaduct and its remote location between three peaks, Whernside to the north, Ingleborough to the south and Pen-y-Ghent to the east also has a poignant side regarding those who built it between 1870 and 1874. Subjected to harsh weather and dangerous working conditions, it was said that, on average, at least one life was lost per week working on the viaduct together with many other workers (navvies) succumbing to epidemics, including smallpox, that ran in the shanty towns that grew up around the construction site. Tributes are paid to the more than 200 people known to have died during the construction through a monument in St Leonard's Churchyard, in nearby Chapel-le-Dale.

Being able to enjoy spectacular natural scenery from the relaxed environment of a train is just one of many advantages of rail travel, more of which are becoming apparent with certain modern day conveniences. Christian Wolmar, railway historian and writer, in a talk at Morpeth Town Hall described railways as being well-placed to take advantage of current travel habits and preferences, including being able to access the internet via mobile devices while on the move. Wolmar also said that though an advantage railways also have in the UK all-party support from politicians, one of the main questions that politicians have regarding railways is will they pay for themselves? In reality, railways rarely pay for themselves financially, but they can potentially bring many social benefits that balance sheets can't measure, including reduced road congestion. Another social benefit that I personally railways can bring regarding travelling to work is through feeling less stressed when arriving at work unlike the stress one may face driving through rush hour travel. This can then also become a commercial benefit as lower level staff stress is likely to lead to higher productivity.

60009 Union of South Africa at Appleby
Another factor that has enabled the position that the UK's railways are in to accommodate changing travel preferences and habits is that certain routes, including the Settle and Carlisle, that could very easily have been closed have remained open to serve as important commuter routes as well as pleasure journey. Another example is the West Highland Line that runs from Glasgow to Mallaig, which includes the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct. Both routes have remained open partly due to steam-hauled tours, an old-fashioned form of railway traction that I personally feel still has a role for today's railways. Without these lines, places like Dent, Garsdale and Mallaig would be largely isolated.

Many thanks again to the Railway Touring Company for their hospitality on board the Cumbrian Mountain Express.  

Tea and Eccles Cake, the perfect snack for a steam-hauled journey!
*A reason why I prefer 'rail enthusiast' is because my personal interest in railways isn't just about the trains, but also the places they serve, railway architecture, their technology/innovation, and their history, including their social benefits such as enabling Eccles Cakes to be enjoyed beyond Eccles, Lancashire.