16 things that perfectly sum up summer holidays in the nineties

As I sit here on 31 August wrapped in my blanket on the sofa (why is it so cold?), mourning what feels like the last day of summer, I started reminiscing about what an amazing summer it's been. Yes, the weather hasn't been ideal, but so much else has. I went on a dream holiday to South Africa for two weeks, drank lots of gin and prosecco, got to march in the parade at Manchester Pride and just had a thoroughly lovely time.

I then started to remember how awesome summer holidays were as a kid in the nineties, which presumably contributed to that dreaded back to school feeling that used to consume me at this time of year. And I really liked school! So in homage to those halcyon summer days may I present...16 things that perfectly sum up summer holidays in the nineties.




  1. Water fights with water bombs made from poor quality balloons bought from the corner shop and paddling pools so green they put the 2016 Rio Olympics diving pool to shame.
  2. Slip n' slide competitions and grass burn when you went flying off the end. Ouch.
  3. Running full-pelt at the sound of the Ice-cream van (usually The Teddy Bears' Picnic) to be the first in the queue to agonise over whether you wanted a 99 with a flake (they're at least £2 now, bloody inflation) or a Screwball because they had bubblegum at the bottom.
  4. Mistakenly settling on a Calippo that shot out of the cardboard after only four mouthfuls and ended up on the floor to melt into a puddle of sickly-sweet orange sadness. Devastating.
  5. Daisy Chains.
  6. Multicoloured sun cream (your parents' attempt to make lathering yourself in sun cream fun) arranged in tribal stripes across your face in homage to Pocohontas. This lead to interesting tan lines. Or burns if you were me.
  7. Upgraded military-style water fights when someone got a Supersoaker from Toys 'R' Us.
  8. Rope swings, dens and planning to "run away" with your friends to live in the field behind your house. Your parents would never find you there.
  9. Making tie-dye shirts.
  10. Hot and sticky summer rides in the back of a car, pre-air conditioning, head sticking out of the window like an overheated dog.
  11. Trying to be cool by standing up through the sun roof like Tom Hanks did in Big before getting bollocked by your parents who tell you you'd be decapitated (and die, go figure) if they had to stop or had a crash. Sobering, but scare tactics work.
  12. Staying out super-late because of long, light summer nights.
  13. Cycling EVERYWHERE on your super-cool BMX bike you could give people "backies" on or one with suspension, the point of which was completely wasted on you.
  14. Begging your parents to let you camp out in the back garden so you could sleep under the stars. Giving up a about 9pm because it's too cold and actually sleeping outside is kind of scary with all the unrecognisable noises and the bugs.
  15. Wishing you could go on on holiday somewhere amazing instead of "rubbish Centerparcs" (ungrateful much) like the Olsen Twins  did. Passport to Paris or When In Rome anyone?
  16. Getting so sick of spending all that time with your siblings that you actually couldn't wait to go back to school.
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A Brilliant August Bank Holiday Weekend

I love August Bank Holiday Weekend. 

I'm not sure whether this is because it feels like the last "free" day off work until Christmas (read: not coming out of your pot of annual leave), or if it's because it also feels like one of the last days of summer and everyone is in high spirits; determined to make the most of it come rain or shine. 

Either way, we were lucky on 2016's August Bank Holiday weekend as the sun did indeed shine. A lot - it was perfect. In fact, my weekend was full of all the P's: productivity, partying, Pride, piercings, peace and parks.

Friday night was spent meeting my cousin who was over in Manchester for work and having several drinks at some West Didsbury’s finest drinking establishments (The Met, Folk, Volta, Hula) as well as a delicious curry at Namaste Nepal on Burton Road. I love that place, but I did warn him that their curries tend to be on the spicy side My cousin ploughed on regardless and I think his Chicken Madras took him by surprise judging by the speed he got through his beer.

On Saturday morning, I dragged my fragile head out of bed and went to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while – got my belly button re-pierced. I can hear some of you sneering already probably thinking I’m too old but I should emphasise I was getting it done having first gotten it done when I was 15. It was fine for a few years, but then I think me following the trend for dangly belly bars (Playboy bunnies for fifteen year old girls are totes appropriate, obviously) messes it up a bit and it got stretched so I had to take it out. Unfortunately I was left with a  bit of a scar that I've been super-paranoid about. So five years later and four stone lighter - now seemed like the perfect time to get it done again. I was very brave.

Newly pierced, I headed into Manchester for what was a real highlight of the summer - being part of Manchester Pride. It's such a phenomenal event and it was an absolute privilege to be ale to be part of it after spectating for so many years. It gets bigger and better every year and it makes me super-proud of my home city.



After a few post-parade pints with a friend from university, I headed back to get ready for the evening's entertainment - a Ratpack night ("dress to impress" at The Albert Club, West Didsbury. Much prosecco was consume whilst eating scrummy food and listening to the old-style crooner. W even tried our hand at the "casino" tables but sadly - and inevitably - came away empty-handed.

I popped over to Nottinghamshire with my Dad to see my Grandma on Sunday. Her name is Iris, she's 95 in October and is absolutely amazing - honestly if I can be anything like her when I'm that age I'll be a very happy girl. #PrayingForThoseGenetics 



 Monday morning was extremely productive for me - I'd recently put up a load of clothes on eBay so my flat resembled a production line with me packaging and labelling over twenty parcels. You can imagine I was not popular with Royal Mail at The Post Office on Tuesday, but it feels so good to de-clutter and make a bit of money on the side to pay off South Africa.



We then headed to Bem Brazil in Altrincham for a rather heavy late lunch before walking some of it off at Chorlton Water Park in the sunshine. A perfect end to the weekend.

15 thoughts everyone has on results day

A short caveat about this post: it has been a long time since I got my GCSE results. It *could* be over 10 years in fact. What? Oh, you don’t look like you could be anywhere near that old, Alex! Thanks! (I wish).

Regardless, this post is not just relevant to GCSE’s, but to A Levels, Degree results *remembers actually being violently sick the morning of getting her results for her first degree*, heck, any sort of similar results you’ve had to agonisingly wait a few weeks, or even days for. STI test results, anyone? (Lol. Sorry to any family reading this) #sorrynotsorry.




The nausea, the heart beating so fast and so hard that you feel it’s going to burst out of your chest at any moment and leave a right old mess on the walls before the vultures and carrion start to circle. The heart-wrenching anguish. The dread. All applicable to multiple result-related situations, these are 15 thoughts everyone has on results day…

  1. Whatever I get is going to determine my ENTIRE future. I’m only 16. That’s not fair. Why should the rest of my life depend on a few hours spent in exam halls? (Note to 16-year old self: Chill. All will be fine).
  2. I’m not going to get into sixth form/college. I’ll have to drop out and get a random job that I will be terrible at whilst my friends get to have free periods and play pool in the common room.
  3. Oh god. The teachers already know what we’ve got. Why are they looking at me like that? WHAT DO THEY KNOW? HOW BAD IS IT?
  4. Ha. Well If I don’t do well it reflects badly on them doesn’t it. Ha. Now who’s smug. Hint: still them
  5. Everyone keeps saying GCSE’s are getting easier. Great now I’m going to feel even more stupid when I don’t get all A*s. My cat could probably do better.
  6. But the grade boundaries online DO NOT reflect this at all. They’re as high as my pulse rate and blood pressure.Thanks for nothing AQA / Edexcel / OCR.
  7. Great. It’s raining. If this is some form of pathetic fallacy (I deserve an A* in English Lit) then it does not bode well. At All.
  8. Man this walk from the door to the table with all the envelopes sealing people’s fates is the longest in the world. It’s like walking The Green Mile. And we know that never ends well. Is that thunder?
  9. Maybe I’ll actually do really well and I’ll be really happy. I’ll be one of those kids in the local paper  jumping high into the air, jubilantly high-fiving.
  10. Ha. Who are you kidding. You’ll be sitting on Google instead searching things like “How to retake exams”, “How to deal with failure”, “How to become a remote sheep farmer”.
  11. I’m going to avoid eye contact with anyone until I’ve opened it. Especially smiling people who already have their results; displaying them brazenly in their hands. Yes that includes you,best friend of five years. *Runs away*
  12. OK, this is it. Take yourself to that quiet corner and open that envelope with your trembling hands. LET’S DO THIS.
  13. OMG I’m so stressed I can’t understand what any of this says. Where are the grades goddammit? I just want to see the grades.
  14. Oh. That was actually OK. I’m no child genius but I’ve actually done pretty well all things considered. Now breathe. I shall get into sixth form. I shall be with all my friends. I shall go to the (leavers’) ball.
  15. Glad that’s over. Where are we going to celebrate?


Disclaimer: However you did, be proud of the work you put in and what you achieved. It's had not to judge yourself against friends, siblings etc. but everyone is different and everyone's personal goals are different.

Review: Sunny Afternoon, Manchester Opera House

On last Friday’s rainy evening we braced the inclement weather to watch Sunny Afternoon – the Olivier award-winning musical based on the music of The Kinks.

Most of you know I’m a bit of a musical theatre fanatic and have recently returned to the stage myself, so unsurprisingly I was really looking forward to it.

Unusual for a Friday, it was actually the opening night of its national UK tour  at Manchester Opera House and it certainly did not disappoint.

The show charts the band’s turbulent rise to fame from their humble beginnings in Muswell Hill, London and had heavy involvement from The Kinks frontman Ray Davies. Exploring the themes of sibling rivalry, management/ relationship problems and the socio-economic issues of the time, the musical is brimming with many of the band’s favourite hits (over 25) including You Really Got Me, Waterloo Sunset and of course, the title song - Sunny Afternoon.


All about the music

I can safely say it is not like other shows – it was more like going to a gig than watching a musical. Set amongst the sex, drugs and rock and roll of the Swinging Sixties, Sunny Afternoon provided all three in abundance.

The music speaks for itself, drug and alcohol use are explored primarily through the substance abuse of lead guitarist Dave Davies (played by Mark Newnhan) and the sex comes in the form of the miniskirt-clad GoGo dancers. Though the on-stage charisma of lead singer Ray Davies (played by Ryan O'Donnell) also gets a thoroughly deserved mention in this regard.

From Dave’s life changing addition of the power chord  thanks to a decimated amplifier to You Really Got Me (each set of chords getting increasingly amplified in response to enthusiastic shouts of “louder” from the audience), to the constant feeling of being in the throngs of a crowd at a concert, this show really is all about the music. And it shouldn’t be any other way.

Everyone’s in the band

Strong vocals and appropriate rock star attitude aside, the cast playing members of The Kinks all also have to play their own relevant instruments, which they did extremely proficiently. Consistent on drums was Andrew Gallo playing Mick Avory, conquering the bassline was Garmon Rhys playing Peter Quaife and excellent rhythm guitar and lead vocals came from Donnell's  incarnation of Ray Davies . But the real (guitar) hero was Newnham's Dave Davies who’s mastered the art of exceptional lead guitar whilst at the same time making sure his character appeared appropriately under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Sensational.

Let us not forget the traditional “orchestra” for this musical – one keyboard player and guitarist on stage throughout to provide cover at strategic points during the show, as well as contribute to the overall richness of the sound. They did a sterling job, as did Lisa Wright as Rasa (Ray’s girlfriend-turned-wife) .

But the instrumental participation did not stop there. At some point during the musical, I’m pretty sure almost every member of the 20-strong cast had their hands on an instrument at one point, whether it was the comically choreographed trombone playing from “posh” managers Larry Page and Grenville Collins, to strumming a washing board or banging a metal bin Stomp-style, they fully embraced the spirit of the band and their music.

Setting the scene

The majority of scenes (unsurprisingly) take place in various music studios or concert halls, so the basic set was three walls covered in amplifiers and speakers (add stars and stripes for US-based scenes) with props and set to resemble hotel rooms, bedrooms and more mundane locations moved in on automatic scenery wagons.

There was also a catwalk apron jutting out part way into the audience. I had mixed feelings about its effectiveness –  it worked for some of the choreography and “concert” scenes but at other times it felt slightly forced, like it was being used just because it was there rather than being needed for the overall effectiveness of the set.  

The costumes were absolutely fabulous and have turned me into a dedicated follower of sixties fashion.  I wanted to add several of the more vintage items to my wardrobe – though I’d better get working on my squats if I want to wear the miniskirts.

Standout songs

The real standout musical numbers for me include the effective setting of London’s sixties music scene in Denmark Street and the extravagance, fun and frivolity of Dedicated Follower of Fashion. But my absolute favourite (and favourite The Kinks song) was the finale – Lola.

Now I was starting to become slightly concerned as we neared the end of the show and there was no sign of this song. Whilst I was a bit disappointed there was no scene set in a club down in Old Soho, where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola, it was definitely the perfect crowd-pleasing finale song and had every member of the mostly grey-haired audience up on their feet reliving their youth; our transformation from theatre goers to gig attendees complete.

Adaptable for amateur productions?

Being in musicals myself, I always watch them with a hint of my “professional” amateur (that’s an oxymoron) theatre head on, working out how it could be staged and who could play the principal roles. So is Sunny Afternoon suitable for amateur theatre?

Well, I know a lot of extremely talented people in Manchester’s amateur theatre world and whilst a few who are also talented musicians would certainly fit the bill, I feel this is one way in which it may be a struggle. Sure, you could certainly teach a couple of members of the chorus to be able to produce some half-decent basic notes on a trombone, but the musicality required of the band members would certainly be a challenge in this regard. That said, we always love a challenge and proving people wrong in am dram, so watch this space when the rights are released.

In summary, a new favourite musical of mine and a thoroughly enjoyable, high-octane night out. Go see it!


Sunny Afternoon is playing at Manchester Opera House until 27 August 2016, touring nationally until 11 March 2017.

My Friend Rob: Guinness World Record Holder and Inspiration

I'd originally started to write a piece on the people who inspire me as I was feeling particularly philosophical one afternoon watching the Olympics. It was going to feature the likes of my favourite performers, sportspeople etc.

And as I was trying to compile my list, it hit me. To hell with "famous" people who inspire me. What's the point in writing about them when so many people I know in real life inspire me on a day-to-day basis?


And this is where my friend Rob comes in. As I sat on the sofa, he was becoming a Guinness World Record Holder by becoming the heaviest man to complete a a centurion running event ( North Downs Way: 102.9 miles in 28 hours 40 minutes, weighing in at 105kg). Wow.




Rob's no stranger to running events -  he's already completed several marathons, but this event was rather special. Like him. He is one of the most driven and inspirational people  I have ever met. And to top it off he's incredibly intelligent, funny and talented. Infuriating really. But a man I am incredibly proud to call my friend.


But that's enough from me. Communicating the amazingness of this achievement in his own words, much better than I ever could, I have the absolute pleasure of introducing you to Rob...


Rob Cowlin: Guiness World Record Holder

My journey started long before I knew what running a mile felt like, when I was 6 years younger and rocking a solid 25 stone body. I was hardly ashamed… I was actually pretty active for my size and almost revelled in being – quite literally – larger than life.

That was right up until I got a place in the London marathon, for which my training was to jog twice around a football pitch, play football with my friends, eat a Chinese takeaway (with one whole bottle of white wine) and then basically eat an entire packet of Nurofen for breakfast, because it turns out I broke two toes playing football that day (the day before the London marathon).

I finished that London marathon in all of about 7 hours. How/why/wtf? Because somebody – and it isn’t important who anymore – said I couldn’t do it. Nonetheless, I had to be watched on the sofa all night as I vomited up anything and everything we tried to re-hydrate me with, and I scared the living daylights out of my whole family laying on the sofa with blisters larger than Japan on each foot (because I bought shoes at the expo and wore them the day after… for the London marathon).

My name is Rob Cowlin, and I am a stubborn idiot.

However, I like to think I’ve come a long way since then. I am a trim 17 stones (it’s all muscle, honestly…) and I’ve bagged 29 marathon/ultras to date, all at a pretty steady pace, but without a single DNF to my name... And now I’ve got all the bells and whistles, including a classic, ridiculous vest with my name/nickname on the front, and some concept of what hydration and nutrition are. I sometimes even train for events now (it would be wrong for me to refer to anything as a ‘race’) – life had just about got back on track for a guy who almost lost himself…

And then I lost my Dad. Almost exactly one year ago today I had to say goodbye to him. The strongest, most generous and kind person who would do anything for anyone and was everything to me. I couldn’t pretend for a second to be religious or particularly spiritual on any level, but I would be lying if I didn’t feel his presence, and shed tears at the swells of happy memories that flooded my weary head, as the sun fell and then rose again. All of that was pushing me forward on the hardest run of my life, to try and accomplish something unbelievable, as I attempted to do him proud along the North Downs Way 100.

Preparing


My preparations were well-intentioned, but started belatedly in April, ticking off 30-50 miles per week including a marathon/ultra event every Sunday. That was until having been called by some old friends to do the South Downs half (and insisting on the marathon instead, because I’m petulant) I managed to cause myself the worst back injury ever. For 2 solid weeks I could not run, and could barely scrape myself out of bed to go to work. It was a genuine disaster, and I immediately had to cancel my entries for the Picnic marathon and Race to the Stones (which were big parts of my plan leading to the Centurion itself…

It was then that I had to fly out to Chicago for a week and do some training with work. Thankfully, my good friend Max (who had offered to pace for me) was there too, and being the pillar or chill and calm that he is, talked me down from a ledge in many respects. We even went out for a few very mild training runs to get my confidence back. By the end of the week I fully ditched a half day of training in some spreadsheet nonsense to just run around a massive lake somewhere in Illinois. An excellent decision I feel… We had elected to spend one more week doing an unscripted road-trip through Colorado and New Mexico, which with some kick back in my legs and my back pains fading, we hiked aplenty. Between the altitude, the summer heat and the peaks, these hikes were invaluable preparation. I even bought a Leadville bandana, and hiked a fourteener, just to feel badass again!


Race Rules


I issued my (growing) crew their notes and sat down to eat with them and explain what we were going to do. This boiled down to my 6/7/8/9 hour strategy, these being my required marathon splits to get home in time for a chunk of glorious metal. I thought it might be worth sharing my ‘rules’ though, for others who want to run this race and adopt similar approaches:

“I’ve got a few golden rules for the race itself, my well-being and success depend upon you all enforcing these as best you can. They are important to me:


  1.  Constant forward progress – I am a ‘momentum runner’ and my best chance of success is to keep a rhythm whenever I have the physical ability to do so. I must not risk that by having to stop due to getting lost, chatting with people at aid stations or to ‘have a sit down’. Only kit changes, bathroom breaks or health issues should need a stop or I’ll ruin my rhythm and chances
  2.  Positive pacing and guidance – Every race report I’ve read tells me I need my good friends pacing me to keep spirits high, which means having some good stories/conversation for when the running is hard, trying not to unload any negativity on (and stop me being too negative if I’m in pain!) but almost more than anything to keep the path in front lit and ensure we’re going the right way. Getting lost with over 50 miles gone is not an option and I need you guys to lead the way with absolute certainty
  3. Drugs are for emergencies – It’s essential to avoid taxing my body unnecessarily with ibuprofen or other drugs. I will have some things in my bag left with you guys, but will ask pacers to carry this for emergencies/late stage support only when it’s absolutely needed/of most benefit
  4. Pulling out – I left this to last as it’s basically not an option, but there are a few no-brainer criteria that are ‘acceptable’ medical reasons for retiring from the race (as follows):

      a. Blood in the urine (indicative of kidney failure and a medical emergency)
      b. Inability to take on water (ie. significant prolonged vomiting without fluid replacement)
      c. Physical immobility (serious injuries such as limb breakages, severe trauma etc.)”

I’m a horribly intense weirdo right? But that’s fine – I’ll own it… So what about that run?! Well here goes...

And they're off: first marathon


I arrived in Farnham with plenty of time having taken a half day Friday. I had a fever and dodgy stomach, but assumed it was mainly nerves (my first mistake) and after registering (my first meet with the lovely Centurion folk, who were already willing me to succeed) I ate most of a big pizza and some olives, because that’s what I felt like! I couldn’t finish the pizza, which implied something wasn’t 100% right… but I got my head down and slept pretty easy between 10 and 4 when my alarm went off. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, after all. For once I wasn’t certain of victory…

I shared a cab with a nice guy called Andy and some others, the surreal motions of race day in full swing as I swigged porridge and apricots at 5am and tried to neck some coffee. We got to the briefing hall to discover a very different energy from yesterday, with a clear split between buzzing, quiet confidence and focused trepidation amongst the other runners. I honestly didn’t know what to think, and I believe the feeling was mutual. Not to bang on about it, but as a bigger guy I get a lot of attention. It wasn’t that anyone made me feel uncomfortable, but I noticed a few raised eyebrows that I read as “wow, really?” I’m sure it wasn’t the case, but sometimes a guy like me needs to feel a bit like someone doubts him… If I didn’t have enough reasons already to succeed, now I definitely did. I deserved to be here, and I wanted to show it.

We set off and I managed my pace quite well along some beautiful trails. The first section up to and including Box Hill was the only bit I’d recce’d with my friend Max, which made it vaguely familiar. I took the chance to try and meet some of my fellow back-of-packers – since 95% of the field took off so fast they were out of sight inside 10 minutes of the last stile… I could’ve started to feel out of my depth if it weren’t for a nice chap called Hideo and a lady named Kate (whose bright pink getup made me wish I hadn’t saved my pink compression socks for the second half) who – with their significant experience in ultras (far beyond mine) - made me feel I was probably in the right place, especially considering my original plans. I had to run my own race, regardless of what happened with everyone else.

Unfortunately my stomach was genuinely playing up, and at least 4/5 times I had to stop and attempt to relieve that pain by asking some nice people who owned a farm/asking in a village shop/looking for a concealed space in the forest to try and go to the loo, desperately messaging my crew to bring Imodium to the summit of Box Hill if I could last. As it happens I got to the top of Box Hill in one piece and faster than expected, spurred by the adrenaline of potential failure I think, where my crew did a rather comically over-enthused pit-stop where they (1) managed to spill my entire (full) soft bottle over me, which I had just filled (2) slap so much sun cream on me that it dripped into my mouth because I looked like Mrs. Doubtfire when she slams her face in a cake and (3) distracted me so we all walked merrily into a forest trail that had a total dead end, spurring me to come back hollering ‘WTF?!’ but at least I had my Imodium, and a serious lift from seeing my fantastic friends. We found the right way and off I went, into the woods…

First marathon done in c 5 hours 45 mins – 15 mins ahead of schedule!

Second marathon


Having spent 3 months in South America and literally running most of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, hills weren’t a huge issue for me. My Incan descendent guide had advise me to use different muscle groups, as his ancestors did, and walking up at a diagonal/sideways motion or ‘chopping’ from side to side. This really helped once I hit Reigate hill, which seemed a miserable eternity of steps (which were fine) and rocky/rooty path (which was not fine), but I trudged through it, yo-yoing places with lovely Kate who was in high spirits and still taking what must be an amazing set of snaps. Goodness me that girl is lightning down hills…

If I’m honest the early aid stations were very much a blur. In my serious dedication to finishing I was only permitting myself the time to fill my bottles, scoff a handful, pocket more, neck a coke, say “thanks very much!” and trundle off. This routine carried on in the loneliest patch of the race, where I was starting to feel some strain and having to massage/thump my limbs as some kind of moving massage - but it kept me ticking over. I’d also heeded some great advice/observed other contenders hiking over the technical grounding, and did the same to avoid any risk of rolling my ankle. I got chatting to a lovely Cornish lady who was also on her maiden Centurion, and it took my mind off of the difficulty of the uneven footing in fields as we galloped on toward Knockholt pound, which I kept thinking sounded like some sort of maximum security prison.

On arriving at Knockholt I was pleased to see a nice ‘village hall’ style stop (and not a horrible prison), but I saw my Mum, stepdad and good friends lingering at the end of the road and went straight past the stop once my number was taken. I’d already confirmed ahead what I wanted, but my good pal Robin asked me “they’ve got hot food – what do you want?”… “Soup!?” I replied in a confused daze, but felt like I didn’t want to impose… “It isn’t a bloody restaurant!!” I smiled for the first time in about 3 hours as I trundled into Knockholt, gave my mum a big hug and asked her apologetically if she could peel off my injiji socks. I then slapped a new coat of bodyglide all over and opted for my abrasive pink compression socks – hoping they’d nurture my calves through the night to come. I didn’t get any soup, but I did dip some maltloaf slices in butter and ran off with a bag of salted peanuts and my first pacer Manol.

Second marathon done in c. 7 hours – still 15 mins ahead of schedule!

Third marathon


I took off with Manol who was due to do a 21 mile shift - through the town we went as I was re-briefing him on the plan and telling him (1) please don’t get me lost and (2) I’m feeling surprisingly strong and if we nail this marathon we’ve got it in the bag. Ironically the first thing we did was get utterly lost, so focused on our banter we were… and I HATE getting lost. I had a bit of a whinge, then we bickered as we do about almost everything, before cracking on to the next crew stop and a further 10 miles to the aid station. While he is an amazing runner, he (probably not thinking I’d ever make it far enough to need his services) didn’t have everything in the way of kit and food. Nonetheless, we were powering on, and I left the aid station so fast – with the usual hit-and-run policy – that he told me off for not eating enough. “I’ve got plenty of fat stores to keep me going, I’m more worried about you!” I yelled that at him, but knew he was actually speaking sense (for once) and downed some pretzels I’d grabbed from the crew van to eat as we went.

Being a strong runner who often dances over the alps and over mad terrain, and boasts a 2 hour something marathon PB, he found time to take some great photos and educate me on downhill running, which I tried to be well-humoured about, because it’s not the same doing that carrying the additional weight of an average adult around your body… Nonetheless I was credited with having a “not bad downhill running cadence” – whatever the Hell that means. When we found a pile of cows at the bottom of said hill, I got my chance to educate Manol in dealing with them, raising my arms over my head and letting out a gentle “RAWWWWWRRRR” before accelerating through the nearby gate, because I was way more scared than I let on… Not quite as scared as he was when an enormous dog leapt so high at a gate he almost jumped over a hedge, because we were apparently about to be “savaged and eaten”, but that only made me smile for the rest of our time together.

We kept up the pace as the sun went down, passing a few other runners and having a brief chat. Of course I wasn’t utilising the genuine running skill of my pacer, but he is a guy I’ve known a few years, and while he sits in an elite pace category, it was genuinely a huge lift to hear him having some positive things to say about my endurance and determination. He’d been one of the doubters (though badly wanted me to succeed) and was starting to believe this ridiculous attempt was possible. I was less impressed that he decided my spirit animal was a “Yak!” because it “looked massive and unwieldy, and you wouldn’t expect it to keep on going, but it does.” Charming. Still, getting down to 7/8 mins per km (I don’t do miles, because they’re nonsense) for a sustained period was genuinely “nailing it” as my excitable pacer put it, and we sustained that until the motorway bit (I obviously know the course well…..). At this point my friend Max took over the job of ‘pacing’ (read: running butler) for me.

I annoyed my crew of concerned family/friends by starting to fade a little at this point. I was still smiling for photos and pushing hard, but when I refused my warm pasta-in-a-bag I’d always planned to eat, they seemed worried. I wish I’d had time to explain to them what was to come, the anticipation of extreme pain and fatigue that I was going to endure… but I honestly had no earthly idea. And in my mind, I didn’t have the time. Sure I had a plan, I knew I was ahead of it, but you never know the extreme misfortune that can strike, and I was just in a state of utter refusal to sit down or stop for a second longer than I had to. In my mind it was healthy to drive on while I had anything left to give.

It was refreshing to get Max and talk him through some of the stories so far to ease the creeping pains in the muscles and bones. I forced down some lukewarm, bleak pasta and then we kept a fairly solid pace heading towards Bluebell Hill, passing some genuinely weary runners on the way and checking they were OK. It sounds silly, but I’m always in two minds about this, since I’d think it quite an affront – were I a fairly strong and athletic person to be passed by and checked upon by the likes of me, but I always do because I know that’s actually very silly! Max was doing an exceptional job of finding the tape now I was tiring and took my mind off some of navigation, which was amazing, and I still felt really strong as we chugged in to the aid station past the glowsticks (which was a very cool touch).

Third marathon done in c. 6 hours 30 minutes – 1 hour 45 mins ahead of schedule!!!


Final marathon: digging deep


Out again and just as quickly we made our way to the infamous Detling aid station and entered what would become a defining moment in the journey. I had talked the timings through with Max as we entered “my last bloody marathon of this race”, which was a stupid thing to have to say aloud. I was becoming hideously focused, almost greedy on banking more and more time. Whenever my crew would refer back to my plan I would say – and I paraphrase – “screw the plan – the plan is dead to me. I want to finish this thing ASAP.” I had admittedly gone a touch mental at this juncture.

Realistically, I had around 10 hours to finish a marathon at this stage, but a combination of my addled brain, the sheer emotions of doing something that was (for me) so ridiculous and improbable and the fear of it somehow slipping away after months of hard work and focus was starting to get the better of me. I was well warned about Detling from all the race reports I had read, the last few aid stations where it had been discussed and from all the recces other people had done. I think before those steps, those endless, ridiculous trailing steps and hills of ups and downs and thorns and agony was the last time that trail saw me smile…

Max went ahead of me and guided the way with perfection, but I was really struggling. My legs were shot by 82 miles of carrying me and the slowness had washed away my endorphins, which had been acting as a natural painkiller at this point. My back, my feet, my quads were all screaming at me in a chorus of pain. I took a judgement call to take a small dose of painkillers at this stage and consciously took on extra food and water as I slowed down to offset any risk. The mechanical part of my mind – for movement, pacing and observation – was still ticking over. However, as the pain soared, rational thought began to evaporate along with my sense of humour I had been revelling in for the first part of this adventure. When we ended what I was told was “the hard part” by my mum and Robin (who was essentially my crew captain) I grabbed a metal railing, plunged down on my quads and wildly shouted about how it was all so, so hard and that I was “broken inside”. It must’ve been rather dramatic and unpleasant to watch as I shook the railing violently and wept fiercely until my mum put her arm around me and re-assured me: “I know it’s really hard, but you can do this.”

My tears of pain immediately dried and I was on my feet in seconds. I started to trundle from the stop and looked up at the sky thinking about my other parent – my Dad – who had spent months succumbing to a Cancer that ate him alive. That titan and inspiration to me, so brave and stoic, never complained once. I was stronger and better than this. It wasn’t quick, nor was it pretty, but I just kept lifting my left and right legs as far as I could drag them before gravity defeated me. And then I did the same again, again and again. Just as I was disappearing down another trail I heard all I needed to from AC, who belted out "Rob you are a few miles from your dream, and you are going to make it" and I continued to walk tall, crying happier tears as I went...

I didn’t even feel like I was a physical embodiment anymore. Maybe this was the ‘zen’ moment many ultra runners refer to, as the physical drifts away, because I felt powered by nothing worldly… I was fixed on memories of walking through the woods with my Dad and brother as kids and how happy it made me, as my good friend Max and I hiked through stony paths in endless cornfields and winding country lanes. I didn’t feel tired for a second now, I just felt utterly overwhelmed by the probability that I could and would do this, against even my own ridiculously stubborn expectations of myself.

I even allowed myself a sit down at the Dunn Street aid station (for a strict 3 minutes, which I timed, making about 15 minutes total sitting for the entire run) and shared a joke with the lovely guys running it, because I knew I could do it. And as those 3 minutes ran out, I hauled myself up and actually jogged out of that aid station munching a cookie, black coffee and congratulating (with crumbs spraying) the 5 or so people who were just heading in to it before disappearing towards Ashford. At this point something else took over, which must simply be a universal function of adrenaline, as my body began to feel weightless again upon my powerful but decimated legs. My strides grew longer, I danced across the roads with great awareness and heightening pace and could almost smell the running track, the finish line and victory. Even being hit by a speeding car at this point would not stop me from pencil-rolling to my dream.

Success


Even before I turned the corner into the Julie Rose stadium, I heard above all the din of cars and crowd my mother crying emphatically “come on Robert!!” She will always be my biggest fan, whatever I do… My friends who had been so integral in getting me here, were wide awake and all around me, smiling harder than I’ve ever seen. As I lifted my stumpy little legs and drove around the bend as the noise grew around me - I had no idea what anyone was saying, but I could hear a ripple of applause and responded by thrusting my arms to force every ounce of pace to try and get in under 28:45. Utterly arbitrary, but it’s important to keep refining our goals, even as we’re in sight of the finish line… I crossed in 28:43:32, arms pointed skyward and cried as Nici congratulated and hugged my ruined body, espousing kindness I could hardly reciprocate…

Fourth marathon done in c. 9 hours – 1 hour 18 minutes and 27 seconds ahead of schedule…

“What are you made of?” my mum said grabbing me tightly and crying with joy that I’d come home safely… “I did this for Dad and I did this for you. You are everything to me, and I am nothing without you.” I could have dropped dead a happy and accomplished man right there and then.

My name is Rob Cowlin, and I am a Centurion runner.

Where have I been: going AWOL and losing my blogging mojo

I had a little shock today when I visited my blog. It has been well over a year since I last blogged! 15 months to be exact. Whilst I knew it had been a while, it completely took me by surprise just how long it had actually been. How did this happen? Where have I been?


Well, a lot as changed in my life in the past 15 months and it all coincides with around the time I last posted. So for a quick life update (elevator pitch-style): I finally got back into one of my long-standing hobbies and passions (musical theatre), I split with my boyfriend of almost five years, moved out of the house we own together, started renting a tiny one bedroom flat on my own in West Didsbury and changed jobs (avec promotion :D). And I've lost a lot of weight (about 4 stone).

Phew. Just writing that has made me feel tired and slightly stressed, but it goes some way to explaining why I've gone AWOL. Most of the changes have been for the better, but all of them have made me grow as a person (eww, cliched jargon alert) and, to be honest, just grow up. I've been super busy with my new life and the changes kind of took it out of me; completely taking my blogging mojo with them.

Lucky for you all, I'm back. Expect a full, boring life update on each of the above things in turn (sorry!) as well as travel reviews from last year including: Cyprus, New York, Boston and The Algarve.

And as for this year. I only went and ticked off a huge bucket list destination - South Africa. So expect lots on that. As well as info on my return to the stage and as how I managed the weight loss.

So brace yourselves. This is my comeback - and it's going to be good. Peace out.