Life, Travel

Cycling to Malpas – and Back

Note to self: do more pelvic floor exercises, or ‘kegels’ as the Americans call it. That final section, back on the tow path to The Cheshire Cat, was bumpier than it had felt on the way out. But it was also nearly the end, and that was something I was ready for.

I didn’t have enough charge in my phone to take stats properly, but this is a close gestimate of the route.

Given that I had done around 38 miles on the bike and that I managed to keep up with the main group, after a year of no cycling, was a pretty good feeling. It was around this time last year, that I did the four day trip from Lincoln to Liverpool, and since then I had big intentions to keep the cycling going but ended up doing a whole sweet nothing.

Thinking back, I’m not sure how I managed to get in the saddle at all on day two of that trip. This time around, knowing that I had finally committed to a ride with PROBs, I pumped up the tyres the day before and cycled to the River Park where I volunteer. That was only two miles each way, but it was enough to give me some bruises in the undercarriage.

I didn’t realise until the following day when I clambered on my metal steed, to do the short mile to Port Sunlight station, that I was sore. I nearly gave up then, especially as it had started to rain, but I womaned up, and set off.

A few days prior, I’d put a post on the Facebook page for the group, that I was catching the 09:31 to Chester, mainly to let them know I was going, and also to see if anybody would be on the train too, but no-one had replied to the affirmative. Then, as I got into Chester station, the one person I’d spotted in a carriage further down, had nimbly lifted his bike up and down the steps of the footbridge and pedalled off ahead. I decided to still cycle to The Cheshire Cat, the official starting point, and figured I could at least have a cup of tea if no-one was there.

The towpath is really close to Chester Station but I managed to overshoot the entry and had to double back to find it. This section of the Shropshire Union Canal was built in the 1770s, joining the Dee estuary to Nantwich. Back in the day it must have been a busy thoroughfare carrying various goods from the port, inland on the barges, but today it’s a sleepy backdrop. There were a few, moored boats, and one or two put-putting along lazily, but there was more action on the towpath, as I weaved past dog walkers and a couple of buggies, and skilfully managed not to fall into the canal.

Rolling into the grounds of the pub, I needn’t have worried about being billy-no-mates, as there were about twenty bikes leaning on the garden furniture. A few guys were milling outside but the rest of the crew were inside having teas and coffees. I even spotted the guy on the train. He hadn’t seen my post and didn’t realise I was part of the group.

Lots of cyclists outside the back of The Cheshire Cat
The women aren’t visible here as they’re inside drinking coffees (or being late – Sue)

I think I’ve mentioned this in another blog but PROBs stands for Pensby Runners On Bikes. This offshoot group has been going quite a while and a few of them don’t run at all now but they meet most Thursdays for a day’s cycle ride, and for occasional longer excursions. They’re a varied bunch, made up of retirees or people who can work flexibly. And their cycling abilities range from very good to amazing.

From the pub, the official route was a circular 35 miles to Malpas and back, but some of the group had cycled from home. The ride leader, Mark, a retired Paediatrician, had cycled all the way from Wallasey (I think?) which would have added another 20+ miles on each way! And another guy who introduced himself, Ali, did a whopping 94 in total. That would have been seriously intimidating but luckily a lot of the group had put their bikes in the car and driven over. My route along the tow path added another 3 to the base total, so that was a little extra.

There is something wonderful about cycling in a group when you’re not a confident road cyclist. It feels so much safer, given how impatient English drivers tend to be, and I knew that if I had a puncture or anything, I wouldn’t be alone to fix it. It was all the more lovely yesterday, as the rain, after that first fall, held off, and the roads we went along were nearly empty. I was at the rear at the beginning where Janine gave me company, but as I warmed up, I was pleased that I wasn’t holding the rest back, and I was getting up some of those hills a lot better than I would have done a year or two ago.

Beeston Castle entrance. Two round towers connected by a walkway and a door beneath.
Entrance to Beeston Castle

Not long after passing Beeston Castle, we stopped for lunch at The Bickerton Poacher. I was peckish so only ordered a starter of garlic mushrooms and a chunk of posh bread and was heading to sit outside with Janine and Sue, when we saw Seta sitting on the floor being given some Coke to drink. Apparently she had fainted some moments before which was worrying. But within our party we had a retired doctor and a nurse, and by the end of the hour she was feeling well enough to carry on.

I was hoping that we had passed halfway by lunch time but as you can see from the map it wasn’t quite. It had been an hour and a half’s good riding to that point and I was feeling bushed already. But after lunch we had another two hours to get back, and our highest hilly bits as we headed into Malpas.

Malpas is a small and very pretty market village, existing before the Domesday book records of 1086. It has some lovely buildings and a mediaeval church, and once upon a time contained a castle to ward off those marauding Welsh. The first castles along the border were constructed quickly by the Norman conquerors of England, out of wood, and only some were converted to stone later. Malpas was not one of them.

We were travelling in one largish group of about ten and a couple of smaller, speedier groups. Run leader Mark was doing a brilliant job of whizzing off ahead to wait at the next junction so we didn’t get lost. Occasionally he would pootle along with some of us at the back. He seems a serious fellow, not one for idle nattering, but kind and attentive. I was explaining about my Creative Writing course to him and foolishly offered to send him my first chapter of a piece I’ll be developing in my second year. I’m not sure he’d like it, as it isn’t written in a serious vein, but I’ll give it to him anyway.

I had felt really sluggish when I had got on my bike after lunch but had gained a second wind for most of the journey back. However, by the time we passed through the village of Saighton (how is this pronounced?) I was seriously flagging. When I recognised the final section, and knew we were close to The Cheshire Cat I was relieved although I was in desperate need for another wee.

Sue, en route, had very kindly offered to give me a lift back home, and although I could have carried on the extra three miles to the station, once she’d asked I was psychologically done for the day. As the last few of us finished the occasion off with another round of teas and coffees, Seta looked very well I’m pleased to say, and everyone around the table had that nice post-exertion glow.

I really hope I get my act together to jump on to more of these Thursday rides as it was a terrific day. I was exhausted, but in a nice way, and although my buttocks are still very bruised, I just need to remember how quickly you forget the pain once you get going.


Birkenhead Park 5 Mile Race

In four days I’ve done three runs and they’ve all been amazing. On Tuesday evening, at various points, I wasn’t quite feeling the joy, but it was great to see the Finish clock show a time of just over 51 minutes.

The Birkenhead Park 5 Mile Race was celebrating its 50th anniversary and many people were feeling nervous about doing it on such a hot day. However, the temperature was noticeably lower than the day’s height, down to a tolerable 28 degrees (centigrade) according to the car’s temperature gauge.

Lots of runners standing chatting in Birkenhead Park
Milling around before the run

A lot of the race was actually in the shade which made it less difficult, but it certainly wasn’t easy. I have got into the habit, when I race, to have the app on my phone track my progress, and I only look at it at the end. I go on how I’m feeling and, this evening, I was feeling pretty bushed from the get go.

It wasn’t surprising really, as on Saturday I did Parkrun for the first time in years. And then on Sunday morning, early doors to beat the heat, I did a slow paced trail 10 miler with two Pensby friends. To be honest, I’d completely forgotten that I was doing this race when I did the long run, and was happily talking about the idea of cancelling Tuesday night’s regular club meeting because of the heat warnings.

Then I was reminded. Then I spent most of the day checking and rechecking the weather with a cold wet flannel wrapped around my neck. Then I couldn’t find my water bottle. Then I told myself: okay, just go already.

Fifty years ago, running as a sport for normal people was almost unheard of, and positively discouraged for women, in case their uteruses popped out. The first Birkenhead 5 mile race was an all-male affair with 60 competitors, all under the age of 40. It was set up by the secretary of Wirral Athletics Club, Peter Humphreys, and he’d been invited again, to see off the runners for the anniversary.

On Tuesday, there were 339 runners, of both sexes and a variety of ages and abilities. Indeed two of the guys, who had competed in 1972, were here to run this one too and they were still pretty nifty. The top three all came from Wirral AC, and the top woman was second overall with a superb time of 27:23.

As she lapped me with the other front runners, on the four loop course around the park, I was a bit in awe. She didn’t quite inspire me to run any faster, as my legs were feeling like jelly by this point, but I continued to jog a bit longer instead of walk.

Not that I feel bad about little stints of walking. I used to think it was a fail, but doing more off-road running has taught me that it’s par for the course. Whether to stop and take in the view, to gingerly clamber up and slide down precipitous sections, or to catch your breath. There’s definitely a different mentality to road running.

I did end up catching my breath for a couple of moments on this course but still, my time averaged to around a 10 minute mile pace, which, as a slow 11.5/12 minute plodder, was pretty great.

It wasn’t quite as good as my parkrun on Saturday which was a staggering 9 minute mile pace (28:42) over the 5K course. The last time I’d done Parkrun was Feb 2020, just the first lockdown, and I knocked nearly one and a half minutes off that time.

The reason I’m harping on about times and pace in this particular blog, is that I’m realising that, although I was feeling despondent about my Half Marathon time recently, the fact that I’ve been regularly running over twenty miles a week for a few months, has evidently made me stronger, and that’s certainly starting to show in the shorter distances.

This race was really well organised, with a live band that greeted you around each loop, a small army of water sprayers to keep us a tad cooler, and lots of volunteers looking after us. I think I may come back for its 51st anniversary.


Hilbre Island

Last night I lobbed my trainers over the back fence because they definitely couldn’t come in the house with that much sand and sea water on them. I shouldn’t treat them so flippantly after they helped me have a simply amazing evening but they’re filthy and I was surprisingly exhausted. It was only two miles out and back for the easy run, and with some of the runners’ children coming along too, the pace was very easy. But running on wet sand nearly all the way does give your legs an extra work out.

Evidence of a great evening.

This was Pensby Runners’ (now resumed) annual trip to the seaside.

The Hilbre Islands, off West Kirby in Wirral, are a mini archipelago in the Dee Estuary. There are three islands that you can walk (or run) to when the tide is out: the first tiny ‘Little Eye’ stands alone, just over half a mile from the shore; the ‘Middle Eye’ is out further to the right; and alongside this is the final main Hilbre Island. I think they missed a trick by not calling it the ‘Third Eye’ but never mind. There used to be a Life Guard station on there but all three islands are now a protected nature reserve.

The evening began a bit breezy, as we all assembled on the West Kirby prom. Nigel was taking the register of who was going out, just to try and make sure no-one was going to be left stranded out there. The sun was shining again though, on my second coastal excursion of the week, and as Ian blew his PE teacher whistle, sending off the runners doing a longer route, the remainder got ready for our run with the giddy excitement of school children.

Setting off to Little Eye

I had taken a small flannel in my belt to wipe my feet dry after the dip in the sea off the final island. Jo had laughed at me when I said that, and now I knew why.  It wasn’t just compact wet sand we were going on, but also the many, many puddles of seawater that still remained. After the first shoddy attempts to jump over or go around them, I resigned myself to having soggy feet and ploughed through.

The islands are beautiful, with an other-worldly feel where the water has rubbed away at the rocks. Even if you’re not a runner, they are a lovely place to walk and explore. There were a few walkers about yesterday evening, looking a bit bemused by the sight of so many people splashing past in trainers. Alongside our club, there were at least two other groups of runners that I spotted. Despite the popularity of the evening though, it never felt crowded. Our lot regrouped at the far end of the main island, for photos and the piece de resistance of the evening.

I’m not a very confident swimmer so I wasn’t sure about getting in the sea, but as nearly everyone else was peeling off their shoes, or just going in with their trainers on, I did too. It was gorgeous, not even cold, and there was a nice wide sandy shelf beneath my feet so I could just bob up and down in the waves. I felt like one of the local seals that are frequently spotted (just not this evening). Except I was just a bit flappier and less graceful. It was brilliant though, I loved it.

We also had a dog in our party.

My little flannel did come in use in the end, as it was marginally easier to pull a wet sock over a dry foot than a wet foot (I did perform an empirical experiment). And then we all set off at a trot back to the mainland. One of our member’s husband runs the Marigolds Fish and Chip shop, which is famous in West Kirby, and possibly all of Wirral. And nearly all of us had put in our orders earlier. We sat in a local park chomping on the food hungrily, as by this time I was famished, and we enjoyed the last of the rays of the evening sun.

It was the end of a perfect evening. Just need to clean those shoes now.


Macmillan Charity Walk

I’m just putting another pillow beneath my calves to try and raise them above my bum in the vain hope that this will reduce the ache. After our Half Marathon walk for Macmillan today, which turned out to be slightly more than the normal 13.1 – by over two miles – the soles of my feet are throbbing slightly less now but my calves are still burning.

I’ve just looked at the route trackers of both my big sister and my niece, and both of them are over fifteen miles. So it’s no wonder I’m suffering. It’s one thing to run a half marathon in two and a half hours, it’s another to be on your feet for over six, in the sun, on an ‘undulating’, with a capital ‘U’, course.

I did think, when I’d run/walked a half marathon in north Wales, which included Moel Famau, and several hills that were steeper than this, that I’d be well trained for this walk. That took less than four hours. I had put out a small, apologetic fundraising call on Facebook thinking that the whole escapade would be easier as it was walking, and wouldn’t be killing me.

I take it all back. It did nearly kill me.

I’m finishing this off now on Sunday morning because my blog writing got distracted by a glass or two of celebratory fizz, foot masks (big white socks filled with peppermint balm etc that you wrap around your feet, sit back and relax), and a general inability to keep my eyes open.

My sisters, my eldest niece and I were doing the walk yesterday as a way of remembering our dad, who’d died just over a year ago. And actually, to remember our mum too, who’d also died of cancer over fifteen years previously. Our sister-in-law was going to come too, but her six-month-old had other ideas, so it was just us.

Macmillan, whose nurses support cancer patients, had created a huge camp at the start, with portaloos, tents for teas and coffees, and food stations ready for the 26-miler walkers who were returning here later in the day. They had set off at around 7am, which hopefully gave them a cooler first few hours, and we rolled out around 10am.

Five of us wearing our green Macmillan tops on a grassy field with trees and a blue sky behind
Us, all fresh at the start

The first hours, for us, were a little overcast and breezy, thankfully. Still t-shirt temperature, but comfortable. I had decided to try an experiment of using a long-sleeved white sports top instead of a vest, to see if that would reflect the sun back and therefore keep me cooler. The others had their green, Macmillan Tees on, but we were all in shorts.

Our time group was one of the largest of the day, so the initial walking was slow, as we  collectively navigated some narrow woodland paths. Unlike a run, where you separate out quite quickly into small pockets, a green wavy line was visible all the way until around mile ten because nearly everyone was going at a steady pace.

The terrain was undulating, and mainly grassy or earthy underfoot. It made a lovely change from the miles of tarmac that I normally pound along each week. The start, at Penrice Castle, was a little way inland, but it only took a couple of miles to be able to spot the sea. Technically, that first section was the Bristol Channel I think, but it was still vast, and blue, and glistening in the sun, so we’ll call it the sea. Beyond the waters, the ghostly headlands of Devon and Cornwall kept us company for the majority of our walk.

The five of us on a sandy beach with sea and blue skies behind.
Clouds are disappearing at 4 miles. What I wanted to do was to stay on the beach. What I had to do was walk another 11 miles!

At around four miles, along the beach of Oxwich Bay, we made our first impromptu stop, as a walker ahead of us peeled off from his group towards the toilet blocks. We decided that that was a better idea than looking for a private bush, so followed him up. It was also a chance to break into the homemade cookies that my niece Maia had made with her mum. They were a tasty treat to keep us going, although at this stage we were all feeling pretty good. The clouds, however had disappeared, and this was only two hours in, so we needed to make sure we kept drinking, and periodically munching on salted crisps.

The vast majority of the route was very accessible but there were a few hairy points, especially on the downhills, where we were glad we had our walking poles, to create an extra leg for stability. We saw some of the walkers coming down those parts on their bums, just to reduce the fear of falling.

We had an official pit stop at mile 8 where there were lots of snacks and drinks laid on. It was tempting to spend longer than the fifteen minutes we sat here, but there were still about seven more miles to go so we pulled our packs on and headed off.

That second half was starting to feel harder than the first, and I could have done with a few more sit downs. I remember needing many more of those than my fellow walkers when I did the Coast to Coast walk several years ago. Some people can keep plodding on, hour after hour, but without frequent little breaks I can feel myself start to get grumpy. It’s not a good look.

For the last few miles, the ground had a few gentle rises and falls but was nice and soft to walk on. Maia and I started doing a bit of jogging on this bit, just so we could go ahead of the others and then have a break. At eighteen (nearly), Maia is the spriteliest of us all, especially as she’d done a recent hike (with tents on backs) and camp in Dartmoor. It was in preparation for an amazing sounding trip to the wild parts of Iceland. We had loaded her backpack with a few extra things (in order to help her training we said) but she had borne it all well. However, by now, even she was starting to flag.

I walked the last couple of miles into base camp with my eldest sister Shila while the others had run on ahead to the finish line. As we got closer to Rhossili, there were some very appealing looking benches for gentle amblers to admire the coastal view. Shila, however, was not for sitting until she’d reached the end, so I had to let my calves scream unheeded and keep walking to the final camp. Maia, her mum Hersha and my other sister Usha were there to meet us and walk over the line together. It was a blessed relief to finally sit down. My white t-shirt experiment, by the way, was a success as my body wasn’t overheated at all.

My calves took a long time to recover, and I think they were further hindered by Hersha’s hairbrained idea to get our legs up to the waist in the sea for ten minutes when we got back to our accommodation in Swansea. She told me it would be therapeutic and help me recover quicker. The walk to the beach wasn’t far but the tide was way out, and although we persevered through the muddy flats, we didn’t get much deeper than our shins, and that was only because some of the sand was sinking beneath our feet. I think that added a further mile on to our day’s tally. But the foot masks helped a little at the end, once we’d scrubbed the sand off our feet.

Several feet wrapped in white foot socks with a couple of glasses of fizz in the near ground
The fizz was as therapeutic as the foot masks

The organisation of the walk was superb. I’ve never done one this well arranged by a charity before, and I would definitely recommend  this one. We even got a full meal at the end.  It was, despite the exhaustion, an amazing way to experience the Gower Peninsula. The scenery was spectacular, and we had the chance to remember our dad, who was a keen daily walker, and our mum who had held Maia in her arms when she was a baby.

If you haven’t already donated and wanted to add to the coffers of a well deserving charity, then our Just Giving link is below.


Chester Zoo 10K

Well, I’ve just looked at my official results from today’s run. Not quite what I had hoped for but not all bad.

I should have known really. At about the 8k mark, the pacer for 60 minutes loped past me, easy as you like, while I puffed and panted, trying my best to squeeze out the last bits of energy out of my legs and my lungs.

I’m just wondering now, if I should have had more than an orange for breakfast in the morning before I set off. A bit of toast maybe, or some Weetabix. I normally save my porridge routine for the longer runs, and as this 10K was kicking off at 9 in the morning, I thought I could knock it out and then be home for brunch. Perhaps on a regular six miler that would have been fine. But when I started looking at my stats for the February 10k, while waiting for the warmup to begin, I got antsy and felt like I wanted to beat it, just to feel like I had made a little progress.

Warm up: It appears that runners are not the most co-ordinated bunch of people

You’d think I’d have a better thought out strategy for my races, but this one was a last minute affair. A club colleague couldn’t run it anymore and so I took her place only last week. I liked the idea of running past all the animals in the Zoo. Turns out, at that time, they were either still lounging in bed or having their breakfast, as all I caught was the sounds of a few non-native birds and a bunch of empty pens.

Runners running in Chester Zoo
Saw no komodo dragons, or elephants or giraffes

So, my last minute decision to give it some welly, on the back of a shrivelled orange that had been sitting at the bottom of the fruit bowl for an excessively long time, was perhaps not the best idea of the day, but I’d pumped myself up and there was no going back. After the collective warmup, the exuberant MC got us to line up in order of expected finish time. I sidled in at the back of the 1 hour lot, just so I could hedge my bets if things turned sour.

I’m not sure how the pacer had got behind me in the first place. Especially as I’d stopped to walk at the water station at 5K, to catch my breath back. But, as he cantered off ahead of me into the distance, my brain decided to have a little conversation with itself.

Me:                  Wow, I didn’t know we were still near the 60 minutes.
Also me:         Yes, but he’s gone now, we should ease down a gear.
Me:                  But we’re so close to the end.
Also me:         I’m so tired.
Me:                 C’mon, only a mile left, don’t let him disappear.
Also me:        Oh jeez, are we really going to do this?
Me:                 We’re doing this baby, pump those arms!

My inner voice often sounds like an American teenager, but ‘me’ got the upper hand over ‘also me’ and so off we, no sorry, ‘I’, raced to try and pull something back on 60 minute man.

I never quite caught up with him, but I gave it my all and managed to just keep him in sight. In the end I crossed the line in 1 hour and 19 seconds. A three minute improvement on February, so after the utterly disappointing Half recently, we’ll take that as a win. Both of me.