Manchester Marathon – The Big Day

As the day of my first ever marathon approached, what I found the most peculiar was that I wasn’t really all that worried. As I saw it, I had followed the sixteen-week training plan and was feeling in excellent physical shape. It was likely to be hard work, but I enjoy the experience of running – and if I got into unexpected trouble, I could always walk. And as it was my first event and my main goal was just to finish, there was no particular pressure. Yes, there were some butterflies in my stomach the night before, but the prospects were looking good. On Sunday morning, laden down with the necessary supplies – energy gels, electrolyte tablets, and a few Jelly Babies – I headed into Manchester.

What followed was a very…interesting experience, unlike any running event I’ve ever done before. Certainly no previous event gave me so many things to think about; at a parkrun, 10K or half marathon, you just go and run, but the marathon is rather more complicated. I learned one lesson before even starting the race: leave plenty of time for your last pre-race toilet visit, and it’s best to keep some hand sanitiser on your person because there’s no guarantee the toilet will be stocked up.

As my wave began, I was determined to go no faster than my intended pace of 9:30 per mile; going too fast early on is a frequent rookie mistake with marathon runners. I behaved myself, and was even able to socialise a bit: I got chatting with a veteran runner who was jet-lagged from flying in from Canada the previous day. It was around Deansgate that we got the first big crowds of enthusiastic spectators, holding such supportive signs as “If you collapse, I’ll pause your Strava,” “You run better than the government”, “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 26.2” and the ever-popular “Tap here for a boost.” The spectators were lovely all the way around the course, yet the quieter sections provided a nice break from the noise too.

It was around Mile 7 that I encountered my first real obstacle, as I was hit by a stitch, something that had never happened in my training runs. Pressing my side didn’t seem to help, so over the next few miles, I had to walk a couple of times, much earlier in the race than I had hoped. Fortunately, the stitch eventually went away, and I was able to return to my previous pace, heading south down to Altrincham.

The water stations were positioned every three or four miles, and I made sure to drink something at each of them, but it was only by the third one that I was really grateful for the drink. By the halfway point, I was feeling properly tired; as the race continued, the soreness crept upwards from the soles of my feet, through my legs, up to my hips. My third and fourth energy gels seemed far less tasty than the first two. By Miles 18 to 20, I was exhausted, having to will myself to keep going, and feeling quite certain that I could never do this again.

Looking at the comments on the Facebook group after the race, a lot of people found the last six miles to be the most difficult, which I was expecting – but instead, things picked up for me around the 20-mile mark, perhaps because the finish seemed well within reach now. I began treating walking breaks as rewards for running a certain distance, and surprised myself at how far I was still able to go at a stretch. Once I had walked for a bit, I would start running again at an easy pace; then, once I had worked some of the stiffness out of my legs, I found I could get closer to a steady run. When I passed the 25-mile mark, I reckoned I could run the rest of the way. When we turned a corner and the finish line came into view, it looked horribly far away, but I still had enough energy left for a sprint finish. I crossed the line 4 hours, 26 minutes and 31 seconds after I had started, which was within my hoped-for window of 4 to 4.5 hours.

So, I finally have a marathon under my belt. It’s an experience you can’t fully grasp until you’ve done it for yourself – even with my training, I certainly underestimated just how physically and mentally challenging it was going to be. But that just made the achievement all the more rewarding.

As I was heading to collect my bag, the pain in my legs was already subsiding. A woman close to me said, “Literally, never again!” I replied jokingly, “You’ll be signing up for another one by next week.” She was adamant that she wouldn’t, but it took me surprisingly little time to feel that I’d be up for applying my newfound experience to another marathon – once I’ve fully recovered, at least.

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Manchester Marathon – 5 Weeks To Go

I’m well settled into my marathon training plan now, and for the most part, I’m continuing to enjoy it. One slight downside is that I can’t run at parkrun as often as I’d like, since I don’t want to risk getting tired or injured before the long Sunday runs; however, I’ve still been attending as a volunteer, so it’s all good. As I’m still being cautious with pushing myself outside of interval sessions, it’s hard to tell how much my aerobic performance has improved – but in my last interval session, I was able to do two sets of ten one-minute sprints at around my fastest 5K pace and feel OK doing it, so that’s a good sign.

The last two Sundays saw perhaps the most challenging and exciting parts of the training plan: running 24km at easy pace, then (the following weekend) running 30km at a mix of paces. These would be longer than any runs I’d done before, and were perfect opportunities to test out my special equipment: vest, water bag, energy gels and electrolyte tablets. One of the most frequently heard tips for running a marathon is “nothing new on Marathon Day”. I’d already tried taking one energy gel on a half-marathon run and my stomach seemed fine with it; and while I probably won’t need a water bag at the actual event due to the aid stations available, I could get used to wearing the vest.

I decided to use the 24km run to do something I’d meant to try for some time: running all the way to Blackpool Tower. I opted for extra layers as it was very cold when I set out – running at easy pace meant that I didn’t become uncomfortably warm. Curiously, I felt more comfortable in the second half than the first; perhaps it was the motivational effect about halfway through of seeing the Tower off in the distance, and then of seeing on the stone road markers that I was getting closer. By the time I reached the Blackpool Promenade and could enjoy the satisfaction of having reached the sea entirely on foot, I was feeling physically better than I had expected, certainly as if I could have kept going.

For the 30km run, I chose to follow most of the Preston Guild Wheel (the whole thing is 21 miles, or nearly 34 kilometres). This proved to be more of a physical and mental challenge. The weather was warmer, but I had a strong wind blowing into my face in the sections that followed the River Ribble. Descending the hill at Brockholes Nature Reserve proved nerve-wracking, as it was very muddy and slippery. By the 20km mark, despite taking my gels and tablets and drinking from my bag, I was feeling more achy than I had during the 24km run and needed a little willpower to keep going. Eventually, I found myself in a headspace very similar to when I was first running half-marathons, where I could barely remember a time before I started running, and all that mattered was continue with the motions.

By the time I reached my stopping point, I had covered just over 31km (19.3 miles) in 3 hours and 10 minutes. Next time I run that far again, it’ll be Marathon Day – and I can’t be sure how those last seven miles will feel. I suppose I’ll have more energy due to tapering in my plan, and the crowd will provide extra motivation. But things are progressing well, and the final goal certainly feels achievable.

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Back to Titanic

Last year, Top Gun: Maverick became the first film that I’d ever watched three times in the cinema. As of this weekend, James Cameron’s Titanic is the second – though, obviously, with much bigger gaps between viewings. I first saw the film in the summer of 1998 when it was still fresh as a cultural phenomenon; the second time was for its 3-D re-release in 2012, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the disaster itself. The latter experience made such an impression on me – and helped me to accept that Titanic really is my favourite film, after several years when liking it was considered uncool – that when I heard the film was going to be re-released again this February for its 25th anniversary, I was very excited to re-live that again.

And even though I’ve watched the film countless times at home and am familiar with every scene, this third cinema experience didn’t disappoint. I was a bit worried when a large family group came in just as the film was starting, but they were all well-behaved; one child was bouncing excitedly in his seat at the third-class dance scene. While the 3-D loses its novelty after a while, it doesn’t detract from anything either. It’s the surround sound that makes the real difference, making you aware of every subtle musical cue and background dialogue that you might overlook watching at home; it serves to make the final stages of the sinking especially intense.

Most of all, I was simply happy to just sit down in a movie theatre for three hours and let my favourite film fully absorb my attention. We all have that film that’s made a particular impact on us. Titanic had a big influence on my interest in history – an interest which has led me on quite a few journeys I wouldn’t have taken otherwise; it was also the first real epic I can remember seeing, and it was a great demonstration of the power of cinema. The magnificent historical spectacle, and the engaging love story and emotional journey playing out within it, still draw me in after nearly twenty-five years. Seeing Titanic again the way it was meant to be seen, was wonderful. I even stayed through the end credits to listen to ‘My Heart Will Go On’ – and someone else sitting behind me did too.

Incidentally, my interview episode on the podcast Titanic Talkline was released a few weeks ago; I had an enjoyable discussion with host Aleksia Thirumalai about various Titanic media and a few other things. Aleksia has a wide range of guests on her podcast, all interested in Titanic in different ways, so it’s definitely worth checking out. I also recommend the podcast Unsinkable by L.A. Beadles, which explores both Titanic media and history, like telling the stories of notable passengers.

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Manchester Marathon – 11 Weeks to Go

Since the end of last year, my main focus running-wise has been on preparing for the Manchester Marathon event in mid-April. As I love The Running Channel and tend to trust their advice, I’ve been following the 16-week training plan from their website, and am currently at the start of Week 6. This has involved trying new running exercises that I hadn’t had particular reason to do before, like intervals and strides – but so far, in these early stages, everything I’ve been required to do has been well within my existing capabilities.

Ironically, perhaps the most difficult part so far has been the ‘easy’ runs. One of the running lessons I picked up last year is that you don’t need to push yourself to the limit in every training run; in fact, you should aim to do them at a slower pace in order to recover better and adapt your muscles. So I had gotten into the habit of running in Heart Rate Zone 3 (based on my Garmin app) for many of my usual runs. Yet, when I delved deeper into easy running as part of the training plan, I found that Zone 3 could still be considered too fast; that really, an ‘easy’ run should be in Zone 2.

In terms of form, running deliberately slowly didn’t feel all that comfortable as I started out – and even more frustratingly, my heart rate would sometimes refuse to stay within Zone 2 unless I was practically shuffling. To add to the confusion, I found that there are actually different ways to define your heart rate zones anyway: either as a percentage of your estimated maximum heart rate (220 minus your age), or as a percentage of the difference between your resting and maximum heart rate.

Finally, I turned to The Running Channel again, and from their videos, I decided that the best approach was to judge my runs by exertion rather than monitoring my heart rate too keenly – an easy run at 3/10, a steady one at 5/10. This morning, I set out on a 30-minute easy run, still feeling a little creaky from having run a steady 10 miles on Sunday, and didn’t bother to check my heart rate at all until after I was finished. Maybe it was from being at a certain point in the plan, but for the first time, I felt properly grateful for the easy run, and that it was serving its purpose of recovery. And when I did check the stats, I found my heart rate had been in Zone 2 all the way.

Most of the time, the Manchester Marathon still feels a long way away. I’m looking forward to when I get to push myself further and take on some really long runs in the plan; that’s when I’m planning to test out energy supplements like gels, to see what suits me best for Race Day. For now, I’m just continuing to trust the plan.

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Parkrun Adventures

If your New Year’s Resolutions involve getting more outdoor exercise, parkrun is an excellent opportunity for it. Since it happens every Saturday morning, it can be factored into your routine; there are plenty of other people there to keep you motivated; and you can run or walk as fast as you like without feeling under pressure. With hundreds of different parkruns around the UK, it’s also likely that there’s more than one within easy reach of you (see here for a map) so why not also be adventurous and head beyond your local event for some parkrun tourism?

Having now been to twenty different parkruns myself, I thought I’d give a summary of my experiences.

Preston – first run 24/11/2018
This is my nearest parkrun, located at Avenham Park by the River Ribble. It’s a three-lap course with a steep hill – challenging, but it certainly helps build and monitor your endurance!

Lytham Hall – 19/01/2019
Still being a relative newbie when I ran this one, I was struck by how much flatter and easier it was than Preston – in spite of the winter mud – and I ran it considerably faster than I had done at Preston up to that point. I’ll have to run this one again soon.

Peel – 06/11/2021
This parkrun is located a short walk from Salford Crescent railway station – I was coming to Manchester to see astronaut Tim Peake at the Lowry and thought I might as well get in a new parkrun at the same time. This one was easier than Preston as well; I set a new PB.

Lancaster – 11/12/2021
Located in Williamson Park, this was a challenging one, particularly with it being winter; lots of uphill sections, and a great deal of unavoidable mud to contend with. I’d like to see what it’s like in dry weather.

Blackpool – 15/01/2022
Another flat and relatively easy one; Stanley Park is lovely and I definitely intend to come back at some point.

Witton – 22/01/2022
The woods here are very scenic, but there’s a lot of rough terrain going both up and downhill, so you have to be careful. It may be best not to get the train to or from Cherry Tree station: my train home was cancelled, forcing me to take a bus into Blackburn to get the train from there.

Warrington – 26/02/2022
This parkrun at Victoria Park features Lake Victoria, a ten-metre section of path that floods after enough rain. You can either try to go around it in the damp grass, or say “The hell with it” and run straight through. I did the latter, twice; luckily my running shoes dried out quickly.

Morecambe Prom – 05/03/2022
If you’re looking for a PB, it doesn’t get much better than Morecambe. The promenade is flat, and wide enough to allow plenty of room; plus the scenery is lovely. It may just be a bit windy and cold.

Haigh Woodland – 09/04/2022
The start of this parkrun featured background music coming from a nearby cafe. Another scenic woodland run, though there was hard uphill work in the second half.

Hyndburn – 16/04/2022
In spite of the uphill sections, it was very pleasant to be running through woodland just as the day was starting to warm up. Plus there was cake at the end!

Clitheroe Castle – 25/06/2022
This one was harder than it looked at first glance, with no less than five laps; not only did the uphill sections become progressively more draining, but with lapping people so many times, it was very difficult to tell what position I was in until the end – when I found out that I had finished third!

Fleetwood Promenade – 09/07/2022
This one is very similar to Morecambe: flat, scenic, well suited for fast running, and so windy that I decided not to risk putting my cap on.

Ormskirk – 23/07/2022
Taking place on the campus of Edge Hill University, this one was one of my favourites. There’s a mixture of scenery: you start by running along paths with bushes on either side, before going twice around a nice open field. The volunteers were especially friendly: the run director actually did a poetry reading before the start. Feeling highly motivated that day, I ended this run sprinting for the finish, in an epic duel with another one to claim 24th place.

Kew Woods – 13/08/2022
I ran this one on a very hot day. The route was pleasant enough, but as well as the heat, narrow trail paths and having to dodge dog-walkers made things difficult.

Bushy Park – 20/08/2022
The place where parkrun was founded in 2004 is considered a pilgrimage site for parkrunners, so I thought I’d better get there myself. After a long period of dry weather, the park was looking rather parched, but there were still several red deer roaming around. From my position, I was only able to appreciate just how many people were there when the run began and a whole bunch came thundering in from the left of me. There were over 1,100 of them in total, and the crowding made for a slow start, but I was able to make up time later on.

Blyth Links – 10/09/2022
Having gone all the way to the North East for the Great North Run, I thought it would be a waste not to do a new parkrun at the same time. With the half-marathon coming up the following day, I was sensible and didn’t go too fast; despite being damp and windy, it was very nice to run beside the sea.

Southport – 17/09/2022
I counted three other runners with Great North Run T-shirts at this event. Hesketh Park is a lovely place to run; there are lots of little corners around the lake which need to be navigated, but it’s otherwise a flat and speedy course. I finished in a time of 21:07, my fastest parkrun yet; my smartwatch recorded a distance less than 5km, but apparently that often happens on this course due to the trees interfering with the GPS.

Bolton – 15/10/2022
This is not an event for going particularly fast. The narrow muddy trails slowed me down, though I was able to make up time on a flat tarmac section later. There are also a few hills, including a particularly long and steep one named Cruella which you have to go up twice.

Alexandra, Moss Side – 22/10/2022
This Manchester-based parkrun, about two miles from Oxford Road station, takes place in a small and open park where you can see a lot of the course from the start line. Relatively flat and simple.

St Helens – 31/12/2022
Despite the weather being wet and gloomy, this was still another pleasant place to run, only about a mile from the railway station. As with Preston, you have to go up a hill three times – but it’s considerably less steep!

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Looking Back on 2022

Even with the issue of Covid-19 being scaled back (though far from eliminated), 2022 has been a tough year all around: the cost of living going up, the war in Ukraine, extreme weather, disruptive strikes, and the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II. As far as my own life goes, I’m remembering to be grateful for what I have, and focussing on the things I have control over.

In terms of my running, 2022 has been a year with plenty of achievements. This year, I’ve run 32 parkruns (I’m planning to get one more in on New Year’s Eve), three 10Ks, and four half-marathons, including the Great North Run – and I’ve set new PBs in all three distances! (21:07 for the 5K, 44:12 for the 10K, and 1:43:39 for the half-marathon.) I’ve reached an overall milestone of 50 parkruns, and a total of 19 different parkrun events – again, with the intention of going to number 20 on New Year’s Eve.

It’s not all been about running at these events, though: I’ve really gotten into volunteering at parkrun, which I now try to do at least once a month. It’s a lot of fun: there are many different roles to try out, and unlike a lot of face-to-face roles I have previous experience of, just about everyone is happy to be there.

In May, I finally made it to Costa Rica, a wildlife-watching trip that was supposed to take place in 2020 but was delayed for obvious reasons. We went to several different places in the country, and compared to other tropical excursions I’ve been on, it was almost too easy to see wildlife: snakes (including Bothrops asper, which I was disappointed not to see in Guatemala), lizards, frogs, an American crocodile, parrots, toucans, coatis, peccaries, sloths, monkeys, and a tapir. I did have some issues with the trip, however: at some points, it was hard to snatch a moment of downtime or privacy, and I spent a lot of time waiting for other people to be ready as deadlines were almost never strictly adhered to. As brilliant as all the wildlife was, and as friendly as the other members of the group were, I just wasn’t suited to the other aspects – particularly as an autistic person – and it reinforced my desire to go on a solo holiday next year.

Later in the summer, I took some time to head down south for a brief staycation, as I’ve done the past two years. In London, I ran Bushy parkrun (Bushy Park is where parkrun first started, in 2004), visited Hampton Court and had a run along the Thames Embankment, but my biggest reason for going was to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford. Just about everyone I’d spoken to who had been to this place recommended it, and they weren’t wrong; I think every Harry Potter fan should go at least once. Seeing all the familiar sets, props and costumes, as well as explanations of how scenes were filmed, was wonderful; easily the highlight was the magnificent scale model of Hogwarts at the end.

And there were a few other things too:

  • After watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and then Pinocchio, on Disney Plus, I felt inspired by Rachel Wagner and Stanford Clark’s Talking Disney Classics podcast and thought, “Well, I might as well keep this going.” I ended up watching or re-watching every Disney Animation Studios film and producing a full ranking, which was a very enjoyable project.
  • I wasn’t sure I would reach my Goodreads reading challenge target of 80 books, as I’ve had some slumps through the year – particularly when I was on holiday – but I just about managed it.

My Favourite Films of 2022

6. The Batman
Easily one of the better Batman films, certainly on par with Batman Begins. Robert Pattinson pulls off Batman beautifully and I look forward to seeing him expand on the role in future films.

5. Belle
This is technically a 2021 release but was only released in the UK this year. This film boasts absolutely gorgeous animation combined with a deeply emotional story that provides a unique and engaging Internet-based take on the classic Beauty and the Beast tale, with a few homages to the Disney film thrown in.

4. Avatar: The Way of Water
Clearly James Cameron has a talent for making sequels better than the first film. The filmmakers were simply trying to make a satisfying, entertaining cinema experience, and that’s what it is. There’s an engaging family dynamic between the main characters, as well as great world building: the film makes full use of its aquatic environment, with fantastic visuals and the more peaceful scenes in the second act being very comforting.

3. Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
With the same low-key, slice-of-life style as previous Richard Linklater films, this film paints an intimate picture of suburban life in 1960s Houston, combined with a boy’s fantasy of walking on the Moon that feels pretty familiar for someone like me who was a space nerd at a young age (albeit one who wasn’t around to watch the Apollo landings).

2. Everything Everywhere All at Once
This is a really brilliant film – it has a great, complex story, is extremely creative, and manages to both be crazy and make sense at the same time.

  1. Top Gun: Maverick
    The sequel we didn’t know we needed; it exceeded my expectations, and is now the only film I’ve ever watched three times in the cinema. The story, the aerial sequences, the music, the performances of Tom Cruise and everyone around him – everything comes together into a practically perfect piece of entertainment.

Favourite Fiction Read in 2022

7. Titanic Voyage by Julie Bihn
I very much enjoyed this unique Titanic-themed story. It succeeded in drawing me in and making me wonder what was going to happen next; I liked the main character’s emotional journey; and I found the logistics involved in trying to change history interesting.

6. Super Powereds: Year 4 by Drew Hayes
A fantastic and satisfying conclusion to the Super Powereds series, with loose ends tied up, all of the characters getting their moment to shine, and a suitably epic climax.

5. Winter of the World by Ken Follett
Another great historical novel from Follett that, like the ones I’ve previously read, serves as much as a history lesson as a good story. With characters based in Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States, Follett is able to give a comprehensive rundown of the political forces driving events before, during and after World War II, while often having his characters directly witnessing important events like the attack on Pearl Harbour. The real horrors of the war, not least under the Nazi regime, are included in painful detail. Holding it all together are a number of well-woven plots with plenty of romantic drama.

4. The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice
This is closer to a traditional story than the first two autobiographically-styled Vampire Chronicles books, though still not quite traditional, since a good chunk of it is backstory. I liked pretty much everything about it: from the delicious prose, to the fascinating cast of characters, to the exploration of the philosophy and psychology of vampires.

3. Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
I liked this second book in the First Law series even more than the first one. War, questing, political intrigue, unlikely companions, stories of mysterious magic, and no thread less interesting than the others – this has got it all for a fantasy fan.

2. The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith
Like the previous Cormoran Strike novel, this one is long and takes its time, but I hardly minded: I enjoyed seeing what the characters were getting up to, and the complex, fascinating mystery exploring Internet trolls and a toxic entitled fandom.

  1. The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
    I enjoyed this series even more than the original Percy Jackson series that came before it. There’s some brilliant world-building with the introduction of the Roman demigods and Camp Jupiter; and the mixture of third-person narrators keeps things fresh. Once the old and new characters come together, it makes for an engaging group dynamic where everybody gets their time to shine. And each book works very well as both its own adventure and as one chapter in the central story. I fully intend to keep going with Riordan’s other works.

Favourite Non-Fiction Read in 2022
(Honourable mentions: Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton; The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones; How To Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford)

10. The Snake Charmer by Jamie James
This book combines a biography of the herpetologist Joe Slowinski – culminating in a detailed account of the expedition to Burma where he received a fatal snakebite – with facts about snakes, and observations on scientists and what drives them. Both sides are very interesting: Slowinski was certainly a fascinating person, a deeply passionate scientist but with a reckless and even thoughtless side as well.

9. Beyond by Stephen Walker
This book is the story of the first manned space flight, Vostok 1, and everything leading up to it; from what I knew of the book before reading, I was expecting it to be focussed on Yuri Gagarin, but in fact it includes a lot from the American side of things too. It provides a lot of details I wasn’t previously aware of, delivered in an enthralling style; the author demonstrates that he dug very deep for his research.

8. Bitch: The Female of the Species by Lucy Cooke
A fascinating and enlightening biological book which details how female animals drive evolutionary change rather than simply existing to be fought over and mated with, as well as how biological sex actually defies easy categorisation; it certainly emphasises the fact that the natural world is a complicated place. At the same time, it reveals a lot about how many scientific “truths” actually result from conservative outlooks and bias toward ideas like male animals being more evolutionarily active. I really like Lucy Cooke’s writing style, which is emotionally engaging as well as informative.

7. Locked in Time by Dean Lomax
I find the inference of extinct animal behaviour from fossils to be one of the most interesting parts of palaeontology, so this is pretty much the perfect book, with a long list of fascinating fossils showing evidence of different behaviours, with descriptions of how those conclusions were reached. I really liked Dr Lomax’s writing style, engaging and informative without ever wasting words.

6. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Anyone who likes running should find something worthwhile in this short book. It contains a number of relatable observations about running, and food for thought about the inevitability of getting older and less physically fit; I particularly liked the author’s comparisons between running and novel writing.

5. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
This book is not only an interesting examination of how geography has historically shaped the development of the countries we recognise today, but for someone like me who has a limited understanding of global politics, it gives a useful basic guide of how things stand between different countries and where they are likely to go in the future.

4. Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster by Steven Biel
This is a really fascinating book that examines the Titanic disaster from a sociological perspective: from how the events were interpreted at the time from different standpoints such as religion and feminism, to how these perspectives have altered in the following decades. It definitely encourages more analysis of Titanic-related media, and thought about how much validity the themes and metaphors familiar to Titanic enthusiasts really have; ultimately, the bigger meaning of the Titanic disaster depends on who’s talking about it and stems from our need to attribute a meaning to everything.

3. Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker
This book about mathematical errors throughout history, in fields ranging from engineering to computer programming, also has a lot to teach about things like systems, the underlying operation of computers and why Excel shouldn’t really be used as a database – I found it extremely useful and thought-provoking.

2. Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane
Mike Mullane’s story of his time as a NASA astronaut has plenty to recommend it. Unlike most astronaut autobiographies, he gets into the ‘space stuff’ relatively quickly, covering most of his pre-NASA life at relevant points throughout rather than keeping it strictly chronological. This is also a lot cruder than the typical astronaut memoir – which is where a great deal of the humour comes from – and Mullane is brutally honest about such subjects as the deficiencies in NASA management or the chauvinist attitudes of himself and his fellow military astronauts. There are lots of interesting details about astronaut work and Space Shuttle missions, and some deeply affecting moments such as Mullane’s descriptions of viewing the Earth from space, and his friendship with Judy Resnik, who would die in the Challenger disaster.

  1. Falling to Earth by Al Worden
    This is an excellent astronaut autobiography on multiple levels. On the one hand, it’s very frank: Al Worden is honest about his own shortcomings – such as with his family life – and has quite a few stories about the poor behaviour of people he worked with, though without naming and shaming. He goes into detail about the Apollo 15 postal cover scandal, and his anger and bitterness – at himself and others – about the whole thing are very clear. On the other hand, the parts of the book regarding space flight are more positive and beautifully delivered. I enjoyed the little details that Worden provides about Apollo 15 itself and the preparation for it – his background as an engineer certainly comes across in his style here – as well as his personal thoughts during the flight. He makes the job of a command module pilot, the Apollo crew member who didn’t get to walk on the Moon, sound much more appealing than it does at first glance.

My big resolution for next year is to run my first marathon, which I’ve already started training for. Beyond that, I’d like to do the Great North Run again if I can get in; I’m making plans for my next holiday; and I need to figure out how to apply the same resolution behind my running targets to my writing targets.

Here’s hoping for good things in 2023.

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Short Story: Voyage Interrupted

I wrote this historical short story back in October, before NaNoWriMo. Thought I’d put it on here.

Voyage Interrupted

As Muriel Stockley registered that she was awake, she hoped that this time, it would be at a decent hour; a sign that she had finally gotten accustomed to the shipboard routine, a few days after setting out across the Atlantic. But when she opened her eyes, she knew that she was out of luck; there was no sign of sunlight from behind the porthole curtain, and Ben was still slumbering beside her.

Groping blindly at the dresser to retrieve her pocket watch, she realised that the cabin wasn’t quite as dark as it ought to have been. There was a sliver of light poking from under the door. Not only that, but she could hear footsteps in the corridor outside. The lights in the corridors were always turned off at night, so perhaps it actually was morning, though clearly very early morning.

Muriel peered at her watch, but there wasn’t quite enough light for her aging eyes to make out the time. She reached for the light on the dresser and flicked the switch, intending to check the time as quickly as possible before turning it off, to avoid disturbing Ben. But when the light came on, the watch made her pause in bewilderment; it said half past one. It wouldn’t be the same as the ship’s clocks, which were changed at midnight every night, but the difference should always be less than an hour so it hardly mattered in this case.

What on earth was anyone doing in the corridor at this time of night?

She was still considering the matter when she registered movement next to her; the light had roused Ben. Bleary-eyed, he looked at her and grunted, ‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m not doing anything,’ said Muriel. ‘But somebody’s up to something out there.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Half past one.’

Ben groaned. ‘Then it’s no concern of ours. Turn off the light and go back to sleep.’

Somebody else went past the cabin door – and from the sound of their footsteps, they were positively hurrying.

‘Well, I’m going to take a look, if you won’t,’ said Muriel.

When she pulled the cover off and got out of bed, she was struck by something else: the cabin was freezing cold. Muriel practically leapt toward the heater, and found that it was like stone under her fingers. Tentatively, she turned the knob. There was no trace of heat, no sound to indicate that the heater was even trying to work.

‘It’s broken,’ she said.

‘Well, this ship is hardly the pinnacle of the fleet,’ said Ben. ‘If you didn’t want any hiccups, we should have booked the Mauretania. Come back to bed if you’re so cold.’

‘For goodness sake, Ben, think about it,’ Muriel whispered. ‘It’s the middle of the night, the lights are still on, people are running around, the heater’s not working…something must be wrong with the ship! In fact…’  She paused and concentrated, considering the vibration through the cabin; then she placed a hand on the mattress, just to be certain. ‘I’m sure the engines are rattling more than they have been before.’

Ben now summoned the energy to sit up in bed and look at her. ‘They do seem to be going a little harder, now that I…’

Before he could say anymore, Muriel resolutely snatched her dressing gown, put it on, and opened the cabin door. She peered into the corridor, and almost immediately saw someone heading in the opposite direction. It was a crewman, laden down with blankets.

‘Excuse me!’ Muriel called after him. ‘What on earth is going on?’

The crewman didn’t even glance at her; he just disappeared down the corridor before she could call again.

Muriel went back into the cabin and saw Ben getting out of bed, shivering as he crossed the room toward her. ‘Someone is out there, then?’

‘A crewman went marching past and he completely ignored me,’ said Muriel. ‘Ben, something’s wrong. You can’t deny it.’

‘Very well, something out of the ordinary seems to be afoot, but the crew would let us know if there was a serious problem.’

‘Would they? What if they just don’t want to cause a panic?’

‘It’s their job to take care of us, Muriel,’ said Ben, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘Try not to be so highly strung, dear – we’re supposed to be going on vacation, remember?’

But that was just it. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen on vacation. It was supposed to just be a nice, simple voyage to the warmth and jolly comfort of Naples; the sort of thing you could afford to do when you were getting on in years and the children had all left home. When you got on an ocean liner, you were supposed to simply relax and leave everything in the crew’s capable hands – but now, with the shipboard routine being interrupted without explanation, Muriel couldn’t relax at all.

Her mind filled with unpleasant possibilities. Suppose there had been some sort of malfunction down below – that might explain the abnormal sound of the engines – and the ship would have to turn around and go back to New York? What were they supposed to do about the vacation then? Could they get their money back?

And what if it was more than just a malfunction? The cold brought a more frightening possibility to mind.

‘Ben…aren’t there supposed to be icebergs at this time of year?’

‘If we’d hit an iceberg, we would feel it, Muriel,’ Ben sighed.

‘Would we? What if we hit one, and now they’re trying to get to another ship or something before we sink? What if all those blankets the sailor was carrying are to plug a hole down below? I’m sure I remember a story about a ship where they had to do something like that….one of those Collins Line ships from years ago, don’t you remember?’

Ben now had both hands resting on her shoulders. ‘Muriel, stop panicking.’

Suddenly, every sound around them seemed ominous. Muriel thought she could make out urgent voices, muffled by distance and the cabin door. There was a sudden clunk from above them – was there activity up on deck? She now felt more aware than ever that they were on a precarious ship in the middle of the dark ocean, and if that ship wasn’t going to stay afloat, and no help was nearby…

‘Why hasn’t someone told us what’s happening?’ she cried.

‘Possibly because they’re busy,’ said Ben, his voice soothing.

‘I’m going back out there. Maybe there’s another crewman who’ll actually bother to speak to us.’

‘In that case, I’ll accompany you.’

A moment later, the two of them stepped back into the lit corridor in their dressing gowns. Actually taking action made Muriel feel slightly better, just as it always had – and this time, there was indeed another crewman standing at the end of the corridor: a uniformed steward, this time. Before he noticed them, his face was looking grim, which only seemed to confirm Muriel’s suspicions.

Finally, he heard their footsteps and turned, putting on a more courteous expression. ‘Is there anything you need? I’m afraid the captain has asked for all passengers to remain in their cabins at this time.’

‘Then there is something going on!’ Muriel exclaimed. ‘Now please give me a straight answer: are we in danger?’

‘Madam,’ said the steward, ‘you don’t have to worry. There’s nothing wrong with this ship.’

‘But then why are all the crew rushing about? And the engines don’t sound right…’

The steward looked grim once again. ‘Right now, every bit of steam we have is going into those engines. Full speed.’

‘Full speed toward what, exactly?’ Ben asked.

‘All I know is that we received a distress call over the wireless. Another ship is sinking out there – struck an iceberg, apparently. We’re heading for their position to do what we can.’


 When dawn broke, the engines were no longer running.

Muriel and Ben, along with the other passengers, had finally been allowed out on deck. The cold was biting, but Muriel had been compelled to witness this – the aftermath of the night’s events, happening not so far away, right when she had first woken.

Not so far away….and yet still too far.

There were the lifeboats, so small on the vastness of the sea, all seeking security in their direction. A few had already pulled up alongside, and their occupants were either climbing or being lifted aboard.

And there, off in the distance, were the icebergs, glistening in the sunlight, regarding them all imperiously.

Something floated close to the hull; for one horrible moment, Muriel thought that it was a body – but it was an empty life preserver, which was almost as bad. The bodies were undoubtedly out there, though; the ghost-like, horror-struck faces of those coming aboard testified to that. Every now and then, the quiet murmuring on the deck below was broken by the sound of a sob.

‘What do you think’s going to happen now?’ she asked quietly.

‘No idea,’ said Ben. ‘I can’t imagine we’re taking them all the way to Europe with us. Maybe we can put them on another ship, or maybe we’ll turn around and take them to New York ourselves. That’s where they were supposed to be headed, after all.’

An abandoned vacation suddenly seemed very unimportant. Muriel felt a powerful urge to see her children’s faces again as soon as possible.

‘Ben,’ she said, ‘let’s see if we can make any room in our cabin. Perhaps we can put someone up for a little while. Those poor souls need all the help they can get.’

Ben nodded, and they turned away, departing the sombre deck of the Carpathia.

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National Novel Writing Month – Year 14

Yesterday, I finished National Novel Writing Month for the fourteenth year in a row! This year’s story was titled An Englishwoman in Hollywood, and was the fifth instalment in my historical fiction series which began with the Titanic in 1912, and went on to cover the Lusitania, the Russian Revolution, and some adventuring in Egypt in the 1920s. With the 1930s being the natural next step, it seemed a perfect opportunity to write a story set in Golden Age Hollywood – plus, if I set it in 1937, I could throw in the Hindenburg disaster as well.

Before November started, somebody in the NaNoWriMo group on Facebook commented on how they had completed NaNoWriMo so many times that they needed some way to spice things up and make it less straightforward. Well, other people may see it differently, but even after so many years, despite having a good idea of what works and doesn’t work for me, I’ve never found NaNoWriMo to be easy. Finding the time isn’t necessarily difficult if November is going smoothly, but keeping up so much writing for 30 days takes effort and forward planning. And as it turned out, this November didn’t go particularly smoothly. I caught a bad cold; I had some real-life commitments to deal with; I had a couple of days where I was so stressed that any creative function in my brain temporarily shut down. Then, in the last weekend of the month when I was planning to make a big push and finish before Monday, I strained my shoulder, which made it very uncomfortable just to sit at a computer and type.

On top of that, I was struggling to maintain consistent enthusiasm for my story. Beforehand, as well as the historical aspect, I was interested in how my protagonist, Sylvia, was going to develop this time round; with her now being in her forties, I had her experiencing a mid-life crisis, combined with various family and professional woes. For instance, her daughter Sophie, a sweet little girl in the previous story, is now a moody, opinionated teenager. My feelings about writing such character development scenes tended to vary: sometimes they were interesting, but other times it all felt a bit gloomy. The middle of the story sometimes felt unclear to me as well, and I ended up skipping back and forth a lot between individual scenes I felt like writing on a particular day.

In the end, it was a crawl over the finish line – but I crossed the line regardless.

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The Great North Run – 2022

In the days leading up to the Great North Run, I had two targets. The first was to try and at least get a time similar to my half marathon PB (1:43:39, set last month), even if I couldn’t be precise given that the GNR would present a very different environment. The second was to soak in the experience and enjoy it as much as possible.

On Sunday morning, I joined my sister and some of her running friends in taking the bus into Newcastle. It was when we stepped onto the gathering point on the Town Moor that the sheer scale of the event hit home; sixty thousand people were gathering to run, and it was a job to keep track of each other when moving through the throng. In spite of this, dropping off the baggage and making a final toilet stop proceeded smoothly, and then we split up and headed to our respective start zones.

Leaving the Town Moor and heading onto the A167, it felt like a very long way past the start line to my zone. Naturally, the pre-start buildup was rather more sombre than it might have been, with the passing of the Queen earlier that week, an event that had made it uncertain for a time whether the run would go ahead at all. There was a minute’s silence, a rendition of the national anthem – now God Save The King – and then, far ahead of me, the race began. At that point, it was a matter of waiting and slowly drifting forward, my autistic side feeling decidedly uncomfortable amongst the packed crowd of strangers and with the uncertainty of what lay ahead.

Then, finally, my wave reached a point where we could start running – and instantly, just as at previous events, the running was all that mattered.

I was pleased to find that I had room to run at my intended pace right from the start. Spectators were lining the route to cheer everyone on, and would continue to be present for almost the entire distance, along with several music stations; they certainly served as great motivation. For the first half, I was doing so well that I wondered if I might not snatch another PB after all.

In the second half, however, it became rather more gruelling. It wasn’t an easy course; there seemed to be one uphill section after another. The need to constantly seek out gaps to pass other runners in the crowd, or slow down when another runner would suddenly cut in front of me, was also draining. The fact that it was a surprisingly warm day probably took its toll, although I was less conscious of that.

With around two miles to go, we came to a particularly long uphill stretch in South Shields, and I just had to pull over to the side and walk, finally taking advantage of the spectators’ generous offerings by accepting a welcome slice of orange. I still find it difficult to accept when I don’t have enough energy to run continuously during an event – but at least I didn’t have to walk for as long as I did at previous half marathons before I was able to start running again, at a slower pace.

Knowing that there would definitely be no PB that day took away some of the mental pressure, and when passing the next water station, I slowed to a walk again for a leisurely drink. A few moments later, the North Sea finally came into sight; driven on by the sound of kind strangers calling my name (from my running number), I kept running, and even managed one last little sprint over the finish line.

My time was 1:48:17 – not quite what I’d hoped for, but out of the five official half marathons I’ve now run, it was still the second best. (I still seem to be alternating between running a very smooth half marathon and what feels like a more challenging one.) Aside from a sore back, which quickly got better when I was able to sit down on the metro, I didn’t feel too bad either. The Great North Run was certainly very challenging, but I enjoyed the majority of the experience, and I would like to give it at least one more go to see how I deal with the less comfortable aspects with better anticipation.

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A New Half Marathon PB!

This September, I’ll be taking part in the Great North Run, one of the biggest half marathon events in the world. I’ve never been to a running event of that size before, and as I don’t know when I’ll get the chance again – standard entrants are selected by ballot due to the numbers involved – I intend to make the most of it. That, among other things, means being able to run the distance as well as I can.

With my half marathon events so far, there’s definitely been a lot of learning involved. Following a virtual HM just after lockdown in 2020, my first official event was in November 2021; running in freezing conditions, I set off too fast, and finished the course barely able to speak, feeling a bit sick, and unable to properly appreciate my time of 1:49:39. For my second HM event in January, I was able to keep a better eye on my pacing thanks to the smartwatch I got for Christmas; I finished slower at 1:52:02, but feeling a lot happier. Then things went downhill again at my third event in Morecambe, where everything seemed to be going against me: it started raining (after a week of fine weather, naturally), I got cramp early on, and we had to run on sand at one point. Reduced to walking by the end, I was surprised to finish in 1:52:05.

In the last few months, however, I’ve gotten into a different place with my running, through a combination of regular push-ups and dietary recalibrations. I’ve been setting some great parkrun times, and before taking on the GNR, I wanted to know I could run an HM where I set a time in line with my current abilities without totally exhausting myself. So I signed up for the Windmill Half Marathon in Lytham, setting a personal target of 1:45, roughly eight minutes per mile. Based on my more over-enthusiastic training runs, I might have been able to go faster, but taking things gradually is another lesson I’m currently taking onboard.

If everything seemed to be wrong at Morecambe, then everything at Lytham looked perfect from the get-go. There were no problems with getting there or parking, and the weather was clear and bright, with an excellent view of Southport across the Ribble Estuary. Setting off, I quickly settled into my chosen pace and felt fairly comfortable. The route was mostly flat, and with plenty of spectators cheering everyone on. The main difficulty was having to run into the wind for about half of the course, which required a significant effort on the second lap of the two-lap course. Yet even this wasn’t all bad; the wind kept me cool in the sunshine, and also happened to be behind us following the turn-around point – you could both feel and hear the difference.

By Mile 10, I felt like I was cruising steadily. By Mile 12, I was definitely wanting to finish, but wasn’t feeling so bad that I had to slow to a walk. The sorest part of my body was my feet; I wouldn’t want to be feeling that way at the halfway point of a full marathon, so I can only hope that the necessary training will toughen them up. (Plus, I suppose, I won’t be going quite as fast.) The final quarter-mile was mental agony, as it was a straight stretch toward the finish line, which was looking very far away. Following some advice I’d recently received on finishing the GNR, I tried not to look at the finish as I ran the final section.

In the end, I accomplished exactly what I wanted: my chip time was 1:43:39, better than I expected and well beyond my previous PB – and while I certainly felt very tired by the end, it wasn’t to the point of feeling like I was dying. It was a great run, one which has definitely boosted my confidence leading up to the GNR. In the meantime, I have more parkrun tourism planned – including a visit to Bushy Park, the location of the very first parkrun – before the fun in September!

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