Henry, Henry and Henry

I’m sitting on the sofa, with my legs raised up higher than my bum, and making a mental note not to use a crop top as a sports bra for a long run again.

Chafing is not pleasant, and I would always recommend getting good kit for anything longer than an hour, but I was too lazy to dig my normal long-run sports bra out of the unsorted, clean washing pile. I was actually not going to talk about running at all today but I needed to get that off my chest. Literally.

We just got back, yesterday evening, from three days in Stratford, enjoying back-to-back Shakespeare evenings. The RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) were putting on a slightly squashed down version of Henry VI. There are three parts to this play normally, but they’ve squeezed it into two three-hour episodes called Rebellion and War of the Roses.

My knowledge of this section of English history is really hazy. I get the gist of how Henry V wins most of France after his odds-defying victory at Agincourt, and my history A-level comes back to me after Henry VII battles his way to the throne, but the stuff in between is all a bit complicated. Which kind of explains why Shakespeare needed to write three full plays just to explain one king’s reign.

What I should have done was try and dig out the Spark notes and figure out who all these dukes of Somerset and Warwick and Gloucester, etc. were and what their beefs were with each other. What I actually did was get out and about the lovely town with Anne to enjoy the multitude of swans a-swimming down the river Avon, and the fine food and wine that could be savoured.

The days were chilly but dry, and because we were there mid-week and out of season, the place wasn’t crawling with other tourists. We had a nose around what was left of the house that Shakespeare had built after he made it. There was nothing left of ‘New Place’ as he called it, rather uninventively, apart from the footprint and the gardens, but they were nice gardens and there were an interesting set of sculptures displayed about the place.

The small town of Stratford-upon-Avon is brimming with all things Shakespeare, as you might expect, but it is very pretty as well, and worth a trip if you’re kicking about the Cotswolds or the Midlands area.

There are lots of places to eat and drink, including a wonderful, not-for-profit Portuguese cafe, that we visited twice, and a Michelin-starred restaurant, Salt. We were lucky to get a lunch at Salt on our final day as they’d just reopened after a refurbishment. I recommend the 4-course tasting menu because, not only are there some really beautifully arranged and sumptuous plates, they also generously add some divine amuse-bouche and an extra sweet if you finish off with teas and coffees.

So, as you see, revising Henry VI was not up there on my to-do list, and although I did ask Anne, every now and then, as to which lord was which, I managed to follow the proceedings pretty well. We made it a bit difficult for ourselves by watching the two plays back to front, but still, I got the story. The acting was terrific, particularly the guy playing Richard, who will later become Richard III. He’s the bloke that is shockingly denigrated by Shakespeare, because his patrons needed to justify their positions on the throne. So Elizabeth I’s grandad, Henry VII, needed to look like a hero to Richard’s demon. We are coming back in July to watch Richard III and the same man is playing him, so I’m really looking forward to it.

As to these plays, the basic plot is this:

Henry 6 was a baby when his dad, Henry 5 died, so the country’s been ruled by some dukes until he came of age. However, because Henry’s grandad, Henry 4, came to the throne a bit dubiously, and because Henry 6 isn’t all that capable of being King even though he’s now old enough, and because his arranged marriage to Margaret of Anjou has lost a big chunk of France, there is some jockeying for power amongst all these dukes, several of whom have pretty decent claims to the thrones themselves, owing to being part of large families and a bit of in-breeding.

The strongest of these claims is with the Duke of York, Richard (Richard III’s dad), and many of the nobles want him to be Regent and then King in his own right when Henry 6 pops it. However, Henry’s got a son, Edward, and Margaret is rather unhappy that Edward’s been kicked off the podium. So she raises an army to reinstate him. There are a whole bunch of battles, one of which kills off Richard, but his sons then get stuck in, eventually win the day, and another Edward (Richard III’s elder brother), is crowned King. Easy really!

These are not plays that you can easily fall asleep in with the amount of warring going on. But besides the action, there is an interesting exploration of power and kingship, and what it means to be a good ruler. We thoroughly enjoyed it all, and it’s made me want to go and read up on this section of history a little more.

I’m going to start by reading ‘Cecily’, a novel by Annie Garthwaite. It looks at all the events above, from the perspective of the wife of the Duke of York. Anne’s read it and loved it, so I’ll crack on with that, perhaps while I’m waiting for these sore bits to calm down.


Running up that hill

I’m sitting on the bed, propping my legs up on pillows in the vain hope that that will help them recover faster. To be fair it’s a wonder that I can walk at all given what I’ve put them through this morning.

On this anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death day ( I wonder how many people actually do die on their birthdays?) I decided that I hadn’t had enough hills last week in the Calder Vale 10 miler. I decided I wanted to triple the climb and run a few miles further.

Actually, I didn’t decide any of those things, but when Jeff posted on our club page, that he was running the route of the Excalibur Half Marathon, and wondered if anybody wanted to join him, I stupidly said yes.

Jeff, inspecting another probable casualty of the winds at the beginning of the year. Still alive enough to blossom though.

I was planning to go around 13 miles this weekend anyway, in my (making it up as I go along) training plan so it seemed like a good idea. I knew it would be a bit hilly, but I hadn’t really looked at the route before I volunteered. The final hill was Moel Famau which is about 1820 ft high.

Stats for route: 3.45 hrs; 13.36 miles; 2794 ft ascent
Map for route including slow and fast sections - mainly slow
Not many fast sections!

My stats have been borrowed from Jeff as my Runkeeper app threw a wobbler. Granted it looks like almost walking pace but that could only be achieved with some running thrown in, and I did do a fair bit of running, albeit steadily.

We were in two groups, as Becky, who drove us down, and Mark, set off at a faster pace with two other guys who had met us there. They’re all good runners and I was glad not to hold them back. Jeff, who knows these hills like the back of his hands (although we did go off track for just a hundred yards or so) was happy to do a little light coaching for me and have time on his feet.

It was a lovely, although slightly hardcore, introduction to fell running, and I really appreciated Jeff taking the time to patiently run with me, and give me a few pointers. I didn’t have a rucksack, but learned that it’s pretty essential kit, to hold your food and water, and the layers that you may take off and put on again over the course of a run. Today it remained dry, but the sunshine we had on the Wirral didn’t quite appear on the Welsh hills, and the easterly winds, as we rose higher, nearly took my legs out once or twice. Jeff carried a spare waterproof jacket for me, as well as a whistle, map, and compass, even though he knew where he was going. He also had some solid nut and choc bars, which I normally wouldn’t have while running. But on a steep uphill that I could barely walk up, I scoffed one of them down happily.

For every up, there were downs, and some of them were grassy strips of heaven where I felt like a gambolling goat. I did my best Phoebe (from Friends) impression, flailing my arms around wildly, feeling the exhilaration of the descent. Some stretches, however, were so steep, it was all I could do to stay upright and keep from falling. By the end of them my calves were burning and I was longing for an uphill again!

All in all it was a pretty amazing, and knackering Saturday adventure, and I think that I’d like to do it all again. Not yet, but perhaps in a couple of months, just to see how my fitness levels compare, and take in the same terrain in summer. I’ll have to see if Jeff’s available.


Calder Vale Good Friday 10 Miler

Well I didn’t want to do this.

Not when I realised there were less than 200 people running it, and it was hilly, and it was an hour and a half’s drive away, and no other Pensby Runner was doing such a crazy thing on a Good Friday Bank Holiday.

Did I mention it was hilly?

A view of part of the village across the river and the hills around it.
Rolling green hills everywhere you look

You’d think I would have been wise to that fact with the word ‘Vale’ in the place name. A nice poetic name for a valley. I was actually scrabbling around, earlier in the week, trying to find a way to contact the race organisers in order to see if there was a cut-off time to complete it in, and whether the marshals would hang around long enough for me.

This morning finally came around and I spent a lovely early hour, sitting in the back garden with Anne, drinking tea and listening to birdsong. It would have been nice to sit there just a little bit longer but my kit was laid out and my porridge was cooking. Whatever happens, I thought, I am just going to enjoy it.

The journey up was happily uneventful, except that I saw an increasing number of cars and lorries on the Southbound side, coming to a standstill. I later found out that a big section of the motorway was closed while an overturned lorry was being retrieved. Luckily no-one was badly hurt but it’s not what you want when you set off for a long weekend break.

Google Maps took me along some scenic country lanes before I landed in the village. Plenty of runners were milling around, or getting ready for the 4 mile ‘fun’ run, and I was able to ask some people what the race was like.

            It’s great. You’ll love it.
Is it hilly?
Err, yes, very.
Will the marshals wait for me.
Absolutely! No need to worry about the marshals – Just worry about the hills.

To be fair, everyone I chatted to seemed really friendly and welcoming, or it could have just been the Lancashire accent, which always sounds friendly. There was no cut-off time, and there was an enormous variety of cakes at the village hall. I just hoped they’d still be there when I got back.

As I was milling around at the start, some guy, who looked very serious, started talking about a 4.5. I think it was an indication of difficulty, and from his animation I think that meant this run was very difficult, but I actually had no idea what he was talking about. Having consulted Google, I still don’t!

It was an understated beginning. Even though I’d ensconced myself at the back, there were not that many people between me and the start line; no gun or hooter. Just a quiet ‘GO’ and we were off. The small huddle of people quickly stretched away into a long snake in front of me, and then within a few minutes, that snake disappeared. There were a handful of people behind me and I could sometimes see a few people out in front, but for long stretches I was by myself, which I didn’t mind. I used that time to enjoy the views and try to get my breathing to a regular level. Even though I wasn’t pushing it, the constant undulations made it difficult to get into a rhythm.

I kept running though, all the way to around mile 6 where there was an incline that seemed to go on forever, and I had to walk for a bit. That was close to when I started chatting to Denise. I’d caught her, and a few other people, up at this point but I was no match for her on this hill. She wasn’t fast but she kept going all the way without walking, which was amazing. We kept each other company most of the rest of the way, which I appreciated because I was starting to feel it by then. That is a lovely thing about running, especially running toward the back, you meet nice people who are happy to chat. Turns out Denise and her two friends all work in the NHS, so it was doubly lovely to have kept them company.

The final mile or two were good downhills with only a few tiny bumps. Everything felt like a bump after having got up mile 6. I managed it all in just under 2 hours according to my Runkeeper. That’s quite reasonable considering I do that time in training on a much flatter route, so I’m pleased. I managed to secure one of the last slices of scrummy chocolate brownie too, a nice icing on the cake. I was the last Pensby across the finishing line, but also the first, and as I’m a glass half full kind of person, that will do.


Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

The front cover of the original book

I first read this book years ago when I lived in Liverpool and was in a book group. It was a great group, and most of the people actually read the books beforehand so the discussions were always interesting. This one got a general thumbs up, as I recall, because who doesn’t like a post-apocalyptic dystopian drama?

The author’s name came up in a recent article I was reading because she has a new book out, and in there, I found out that Station Eleven had climbed back up the book charts during the Pandemic, and now it’s a TV series too, so I couldn’t help but re-read it.

When something huge and life-altering happens to me, that’s a little bit scary and unknown, I don’t think I go out of my way to find books or films etc., that give me some more scary stuff to try and deal with it. But there are people who find films like Contagion or books like Station Eleven and ‘enjoy’ them. Maybe it’s a case of finding something that’s like real life but worse, so that what is happening to us doesn’t feel that bad after all? I’ve only picked it up now because I think (I hope) that the worst is past us. And the book does have a little possibility of hope at the end.

It opens with a play. A performance of King Lear where the leading man, Arthur Leander, keels over and dies on the stage with a heart attack. In a separate part of town, patient zero, infected with a virus that will spread and kill almost all the people in the country, has flown in. The whole continent and probably the whole world have been similarly affected.

We fast-forward twenty years, when the few remaining people are living an almost mediaeval lifestyle. A group of performers, The Travelling Symphony, whose motto is ‘Because survival is insufficient’, move from settlement to settlement with a musical and theatrical repertoire to lift and entertain the residents. It’s a precarious existence as there are bandits and other nefarious characters around, and the troupe has to be on its guard. One of them, Kirsten, has two inked daggers on her arm to denote the number of times she’s had to kill someone. It’s a different life from her former world, where she was a child-actor playing opposite Leander on the stage that night.

It’s a strange contrivance to have a central figure of a book die in the first chapter, but the irony is that he dies of something tragic but completely normal, at the same time as people are starting to die of the virus. The story flips back and forth in time, giving Arthur’s back story, and the patchwork of people linked to him, to this future, where an encounter with a gun-wielding prophet in a small outpost, leads the Symphony to make a perilous escape.

You have to suspend your disbelief a little to accommodate the fact that, given the poor odds of the rest of humanity, just how many of this patchwork of people survive. However, reading some of the comments on Goodreads about the technical implausibility of some of the plot, it appears I’m good at that.

I really enjoyed the book. The geek in me loved the references to Star Trek. Along with the motto for the Symphony (a quote from Voyager), there is that sense of them being a lonely star-ship travelling from planet to planet. The book’s title comes from a graphic novel created by Leander’s first wife, of a space station that looks like a broken world, floating in the cosmos, so giving us another internal metaphor.

There is a nice bit of drama that leads to an exciting denouement and the characters are well drawn out. So now that most of us have survived this Pandemic, it might be a good time to check this one out.


Down Time

I’ve just come back from a shorter long run this morning, a steady eight miles. Because last week I finally got over the ten-mile barrier that had seemed so elusive, it gave me an easy mathematical calculation to dial back to 80% for my ‘down’ week.

Magnolia tree with half the petals on the ground
Already the magnolia is losing its petals

If you have pored over as many training plans as I have, you’ll know they recommend one of those every three or four weeks. It apparently reduces injuries and lets your body rest and consolidate the previous weeks’ work before you push on to the next section. Think of it like climbing a very high mountain. You do a chunk, rest up, and then climb higher.

When I occasionally do get into a regular habit of training, I look forward to these weeks, as firstly, I’m naturally lazy, and secondly, it’s kind of good for the ego to know that, whereas a few weeks ago, eight miles felt like hard work, it now feels quite comfortable. I usually time it around when I have my period, which currently seems to have sped up to a 25 day cycle for some reason. My energy levels naturally take a dive then so it works out well.

This week I’m also starting to feel the sad loss of my usual masseur, which is ironic as when I did use to visit her once a month, she’d normally leave me crying. But she has magic hands that sorted out all the tight spots before they built up too much. My last appointment with her was back in January, and then she left to give birth. I may have to explore other options while she’s on Mat. leave but it’s a difficult thing to allow yourself to be prodded and pummelled by a complete stranger. Perhaps, what I actually need is to double-down on the yoga and the foam rolling until she comes back. We’ll see.

Logo for Wirral Seaside Runs
Last Wednesday of the month for the next 5 months, at 7pm

My down week also coincided with a downturn in the weather which was fortunate. As instead of getting spray-gunned by hailstones and pushed back by a driving wind during the first of this year’s (fully live and non-virtual) Wirral Seaside Runs, I put on a woolly hat, two layers of gloves, four layers of clothing plus a big fat winter coat and marshalled.

I’ve written about these runs before in a blog, but as I’m part of the ‘putting-it-together’ squad now, this first one was a learning curve. Nigel had a big carload of gear, like signs, fold up tables, gazebos etc, that needed setting up, at the beginning, along the course and at the end. 

Then, of course, there were the people required to dish out the numbers and pins, register late-comers (although to be fair, I don’t think anybody had any last minute thoughts along that line with this weather) and get them started. There were marshals to keep them on track, the people making sure they all pass the blue mats that register the chips, the person dishing out water and the first-aid person.

And before all of that, you need someone to drum up the interest by getting all the advertising done in the weeks before hand.

All this for a 5K run! 

I was just there to help get the equipment up at the start and finish, so I still don’t know the full extent of the effort required, but what I do know is, that these races, however small, need people. To organise, to help out, to be part of the team that makes it happen. And if there are no volunteers, the runs just won’t run.

This first Wirral Seaside Run did happen, even though the weather was shocking, and we spent half the time pushing the final 10-metre funnel posts back in, that the wind flung out. The winner rocked up in 18:13, and the final person clocked 40:14. Both of those, and all the nearly two hundred people in between, braved the elements to help make a local race successful. 

Five more to go this year, and fingers crossed, the weather will be kinder. I’m hoping to run in at least one or two of them myself, but I was happy this week to clap them in, just so I could get the feeling back into my fingers.