Ale work and no play… The Harrogate Beer Festival at the Overlook… Sorry, Crown Hotel (not the Overlook Hotel)

Having given up food for lent (not true, but with my new sylph-like profile, you’d think it to be the case), I’ve had to seriously increase my liquid nutrient intake… or beer as it is also known (believe me, it is getting harder and harder to find new ways of justifying the dietary virtues of ale – take it as read, it’s better for you than all processed meat, Findus lasagnes and S Todd pies), so beer festivals are like all you can eat buffets to me… only it’s all you can drink. Sort of. Actually, the analogy completely falls down. Let’s just get on with it, shall we?

The Round Table Beer Festival is now in its 23rd year, hosted by The Crown Hotel, a curious and convoluted collection of conference rooms, dance halls, exhibition halls and carpeted corridors along which spectral twins walk hand in hand pursued by tsunamis of blood… no, sorry, scratch that last thing. What I meant to say was they have various bands and acts playing throughout (I especially liked the non-ironic performance of ‘Common People’ and the young lad playing covers of alternative rock classics – can’t precisely remember what he played, but I’m sure he bunged some slayer in there to mix it up). There is a strong presence from the middle weight breweries Daleside and Theakstons but also brews from the likes of Thornbridge, Roosters, Black Sheep, Kirkstall and Saltaire – not a bad range, to be honest. They also have a selection of ciders and perries to keep those tipplers with a sweeter tooth satisfied. And lager for the philistines – only kidding, lager has its place; elsewhere.

Right, I’d better crack on before I descend into beer snobbery. First off, I liked the array of beers on offer, a good mix of pale and dark, served in the complimentary half pint, allowing you to savour the flavours without having to commit to a beer which might be charming to start with, but becoming more unpleasant as you progress – sort of like being cornered by a psychopath at a party, without the inevitable stalking/murder situation. This is a great way to do the IPAs such as Thornbridge’s Kipling (hoppy and sharp with citrus undertones) and Leeds Brewery New Moon (a dark IPA with that peaty expresso taste that simultaneously wakes you up and clubs you into submission) and the Saltaire Rasberry Blonde (malty and raspberry, very nice thank you very much), though none of the beers are particularly strong (that said, yes, I did get wobbly – false sense of security and all that). The venue itself is a bit of a maze though, and with beers running out fairly quickly on the evening, it becomes a bit of a hunt to find a beer that is still on… frustrating if you are getting the wobbly side of not sober. Perhaps it would be better to have all the beers in one place rather than intersperse bars with food stands (you could have a food hall, like M & S… this is Harrogate, after all…). You also get the feeling that there are too many cooks, as it were – there are almost as many folk behind the bars as there are in front of them. But could you really blame them for wanting to get involved.

I suppose my criticisms are a bit churlish because despite and sometimes because of these flaws it is a lot of fun – beer, pies, music – you can’t go wrong really. Sure, it is a bit haphazard and accident prone (the gents toilets flood at about half nine and almost all the beer is gone by 10.45) but it has that well meaning volunteer feel… it is for charity after all. So keep on rolling, round table – don’t tweak it too hard, just… massage it a bit.

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Brown and Out in Amsterdam…

De Waag Nieuwmarkt
Who would have thought they’d have given the likes of me a passport, but they (and by ‘they’ I mean those powers that be) have, so it’s off to Holland for a day trip to the lovely city of Amsterdam, a city juxtaposed between fame and infamy like a huge boulder balanced precariously on thin spire of rock. Still doesn’t detract from its loveliness.

Anyway, for whatever reason you go to Amsterdam, it is unlikely that you will be going there for the eats… though depending on why you go to Amsterdam, you may find yourself eating a lot. There are however quite a lot of interesting places to eat and drink in the ‘dam as it is a farily cosmopolitan place, with a lively indonesian, thai and malayan presence, a sizeable chinatown, loads of friteries and a Favourite Chicken and Ribs. There are also a lot of what are called ‘brown cafes’… no, not those, these are the old old cafes scattered throughout Amsterdam, brown from the endless cigarettes and pipes smoked within their hallowed halls, serving jenever gin and ‘continental’ beer to visitors and locals alike. How magnanimous. Seriously, they do feel very local, very… authentic? I’m not overly fond of the term but it will have to do. You can also pick up some fairly decent if basic food in pleasantly European as opposed to tourist trappy  surroundings.

We found a nice little brown cafe just up from Nieuwmarkt, called T’Ljoose, written in curving elegant art deco letters on the expansive windows of the place. Even though the climate was on the turn, it was a nice enough day to sit outside rather than in the small but well lit nicotine -stained interior. We also had a nice view of the Nieuwmarkt building and the canal. Pretty idyllic.

Beers on offer ranged from bog standard lager to the more exotic krieks and lambic ales – I had a Mors Subbito, a sharp and refreshing Lambic fruit beer, whilst the good lady wife had a sweeter cherry kriek – if my dutvch was a bit better, I might have been able to work out that they had some locally brewed beers on offer too but… another time. The waitress is friendly, efficient and abrupt – I think the Dutch keep their reputation for being laid back by not having any time for nonsense – and in a way she reminds me of Sabine from ‘Fresh Meat’, whihc is no bad thing as far as I am concerned. We order some sandwiches and sip our beers in the stiff breeze blowing down the canal.

My wife’s chicken club sandwich arrives promptly and is quite a creation, with ham, chicken, melted cheese and french toast; no nonsense filling fare. My pastrami ciabata is a little delayed due to a mix up, but is well received once it arrives. Actually, it’s very good indeed for a simple bohemian lunch. The mustard is more of a hint, the saurkraut is tasty and wholesome, but the outstanding flavour is the dill of the dill pickle which has soaked into the spongey warm ciabatta. Very tasty it is too, perhaps a bit overwhelming, but its sweetness works nicely with the salty beef and the crsipness of the beer. All very pleasant, nonsense free and just hte thing to fill you up between museums and.. that sort of thing. If you’re in Amsterdam, give it a try, or at least have a stray from the beaten track and try out a brown cafe before you hit the coffee shops… for a nice cup of coffee. Ahem.

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The Hastings Half

It’s a bit of a run. Most of it the horrible bit, but some nice stuff and a fairly good indication of how far I’ve come and how far I have to go.

Weather: perfect. Ish. The sun was just starting to give it a proper go but there was still enough cloud cover to keep the majority of the heat off.

Turn-out: Pretty good, but less than I expected. About three thousand. No, really, I expected a lot more. Perhaps it’s the wrong time of year.

Terrain: Ah. Now this is the kicker. Up and downy doesn’t cover it. For the first mile it is the veritable roller coaster – steep rises and falls. Not too bad. Then you hit the slope – two or three miles of steady uphill climb that doesn’t seem to end. Once you get to the top it gets a bit easier and it’s a steady downhill slope until you get to the last three miles which are a flat run to the finish.

The Run: Pre run hot dog goes down a treat as no-one can do 13.1 miles on two slices of toast. The resident DJ starts going on about a moments silence for all the bad stuff in the world, where people aren’t free to run. A bit mad and out there. Some people just have to find an agenda.

We are given the go ahead and within a couple of strides Tim, a friend of my sister and… yeah, me too, drops a cog and sets up a pace that neither her or I can keep up with. I get my head down and concentrate on keeping up with my sister.

The first few rises and falls are easily digestible, but I’m glad I went for shorts over trackies. It’s getting hot quick and a thick layer of sweat is gathering under the band of my running hat.

Two miles in and my legs are starting to become comfortable with the pace. We’re making good progress and dodging between runners, bearing down on a dalmation pushing a pram with music blaring out of its hidden speakers.

Then we hit the slope.

Sarah is ready for this. I thought I was, but running up Tong Hill in the dark is no comparison to this daylight monster. For one and a half miles I keep pace with my sister, pounding the ground rhythmically, pushing away from the earth with determination at every step. About one and a half miles ahead there’s a bend – I can surely make it to that. My right leg is starting to feel it a bit, so I try to swap emphasis for a while, just until we make the bend.

The bend comes… but the summit doesn’t. A similar looking stretch of road looms up before me, a tarmac strip of hurt. My sister doesn’t look like she’s feeling it, but I am having real pain issues. I stumble, lose pace and slow to a walk, telling her to go on without me like some kind of D-Day hero. All those who I’d passed before cruised slowly past me. I’d overstretched myself, trying to prove that I could keep to someone else’s pace and paid the price.

After about a mile I felt recovered enough to break into a gentle jog. Water couldn’t be far off and though I wasn’t going to break any best time records I could at least put in a decent show. As I approached the top of the hill, a  chruch group were out singing ‘Walk in the light of the Lord’ with the word ‘Run’ substituted for ‘Walk’. Always nice to have encouragement.

In fact, that’s something I should mention: the encouragement on the Hastings Half is first class – people stand and cheer outside churches, pubs, their front doors – it’s a real event for the town. Bystanders rush forward with bowls of oranges or jelly babies (yes, someone could have poisoned them but for goodness sake have a little faith in human nature) and kids stand at the side of the road, hands extended for a running high five. It keeps you going.

At the water stop I completely muff two cups of water and only manage to grab the third by sheer luck. Half of it goes down my neck; the other half goes over my head. I scream as it is unexpectedly refreshing. The sun is just starting to make itslef known and I am overheating fairly regularly, like an old transit with a busted radiator. I’m behind a couple of Heart Foundation runners and a girl who can’t carry on but is making a good attempt at it. I’m about half way and have completely lost Tim and Sarah.

The next three miles are steady and hypnotic. I am beginning to wish I had my mp3 player with me, but such is life. My breathing is fairly ragged, but I’m keping it going. Hills are greeted with groans, but not one of the steep slopes is as bad as THAT slope.

Another water stop, another scream. We’re approaching the old harbour now and the early doors lot are enjoying their first pints of the day. I’m wondering if I can get away with grabbing one en passant, but am quite aware that I am not ready to sprint from an unhappy punter just yet. Must remember to do booze run before Medoc.

At the old harbour the course doubles back on itself. I keep an eye out for sis, hoping that my sporadic down hill runs have made back any time. She is however long gone. At the end of the turnaround, an old man is dressed as Popeye. Perhaps he is Popeye. Perhaps I am tripping out. Perhaps the jelly babies were spiked.

As we enter the last three miles, my right leg is proving to be pretty useless and I develop a lope. I can just about keep going, but it’s hardly an heroic stride. One man succumbs to the pressure in his knee by the pier, despite my encouragement. We’re starting to meet those who’ve already completed the race making their way back home. The locals are no longer so pleased to see us – it’s getting to the point where we’ve outstayed our welcome.

Freindly faces! My mother, wife and two sons cheer from the side of the course. I give them a wave and a smile and put on an added burst of speed. The line is just in sight, if I can just give it a little push…

… I’m within sprinting distance of the line, but I’ve got so little left to give. There is cheering all around me, but i have the feeling it is for the man dressed as a sumo wrestler who is gaining on me fast. To add insult to injury, he pips me on the line. I cross, slow to a walk and desperately look for something to drink…

Time: 2 hours 10 minutes 13 seconds. Not bad for a first effort, needs improvement.

Conclusion: Small and challenging, but plenty of local support. Hill training necessary.

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The Art of Pain – A Self Help Guide

It has been a grand total of four days since my first half marathon, the gruelling Hastings Half, 13.1 miles of slopes and slides and a treacherous 3 mile long up hill stretch. My time? 2 hours, 10 minutes and 13 seconds.

Something to work with, but could do better.

Of course I am proud, but some lessons were learned that day.

1) You can’t keep up with your sister… yet. She’s younger, fitter and smaller than you, and taking that three mile hill at the pace she was in your condition (I am not pregnant, I am just old, unhealthy and tall) is a recipe for a nice rest… cardiac ar-rest that is.

2) You run better on your own. Sure, it’s nice to have a running budy for conversation but… you really should be running, not chatting. Well, not keeping up a running commentary. Ha! Running commentary…

3) Churches are lovely. They hand out oranges, sing hymns, cheer, play vuvuzelas and ask for nothing in return. Dawkins, where were you and your kind when I needed you? Probably hanging at the back of the pack, waiting to pick off the weak and infirm…

(PS I’m not a creationist – I just don’t like Dawkins…)

4) I’m hooked – and I recover real quick. Well, fairly quick. That and there are half marathons EVERY WHERE… though at £22 a pop it might turn into an expensive habit. Of course, there’s nothing to stop me doing it on my own.

I shall pen a blow by blowish account over the next few days as I am tired and require gin and tonic… right now.

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Further embarassments of the long distance runner…

Okay, if I remember rightly, last time I talked about not being able to see my balls over my gut. Carrying on the theme of self-effacement and genital obsession, now is the time to reveal my major revelation gained from my eleven mile run (only two miles to go until I have the half marathon distance nailed… I’ll wing it on the day): my scrotum goes like leather. True. My testicles get sucked into my body and my sack shrinks and hardens like an old boot.

Quite exciting really. Explained the lack of chaffeing.

I haven’t actually experienced serious chaffeing, just the occasional salt rash – my beard becomes even hoarier than usual as it becomes a salt sieve – and ball waxing experience. My nipples remain unbled, my feet unblistered. There are advantages to having gnarled flat feet.

Today’s run felt unsatisfactory during the running but very pleasant once complete – running into a gale force wind through mud isn’t exactly pleasurable but does build up the muscles. Half the time it felt like running to stand still, the rest of the time it felt like pain was dry bumming me into submission but… it’s a nice spot to run, even with the mud slicks and shit smells emanating from the sewage works. Next week a rest is required. Big run on Sunday next week – thirteen miles of pain. Fantastic!

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Insanity Clause is Coming to Town

Why do it? Why risk the shin splints, the dodgy knees, the fallen arches falling even further? Why should a man with no interest in sport (doing or watching) suddenly develop the desire to punish himself on the road?

I wish I could say it was something noble like I really wanted to save pandas or cure cancer or cure cancer in pandas, but my reasons for starting the big run were two fold:

1. I missed my ball bag.

One morning I woke up, strode into the bathroom (to be honest, stumbled, coughing and spitting and reeking of sleep), stripped down, stood naked as the day I was born and realised that, just like the day I was born, I could no longer see my ball bag from above. In fact, I could barely see my nob. I’ve never considered myself particularly blessed (fairly mediocre package but with a significant kink where it counts) but now my growing belly was obscuring the meat and two. A life time of walking and buses had now been replaced by driving, so my legs, stumpy as they were, had become redundant. What was I to do to lose this cock-blocker? There were plenty of roads around, so I thought why not go running because

2. It’s a very cheap sport.

On the outset, yes. All I needed was a pair of trainers, some loose fitting trousers and some form of top to get started, all of which I had already. I hate parting with money, especially when it comes to parting with money to exercise – smacks too much of masochism – so this seemed to be an ideal solution. Of course, nothing lasts forever, but that’s a different story.

My first run took me down the road about a quarter of a mile and back again. Hard work? You bet. It all felt wrong; my flat feet felt wrong; my legs felt wrong; my back felt wrong. All wrong. I didn’t even feel invigorated. BUT it had got me out of the house and, believe me, for a recent parent, this was an achievement. It was a start… a modest one, but definitely a start.

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Down the line…

My face is blazing; my clenched hands are hot enough to fuse uranium rods; my calves are packing up and I’m shifting to using just my thigh muscles to keep me moving. Close to the ground, I can feel one of my shin bones screaming under the pressure of each heavy footfall. I’ve got three, so I can afford to lose a couple.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The solid rhythm of the road matches my pulse. I can’t stop or I’ll stop. So far the way has been flat, the going easy, but I can see three locks ahead, one atop the other, creating a steep slope connecting the towpaths. I slow my pace, lengthen my stride and keep the same rhythm, thump thump thump.

As I reach the crest, my reserves start to slacken. Pain reaches up from my calves into my thighs, my knees grind and the slightest hint of wobble throws me for just a second. I shunt it across into dead space and forget about it. Keep going. Down the line. On the flat.

Tree line. Curve. Thousand yard stare. I don’t see the five locks until it’s too late. Must take this in my stride. I hear myself say ‘you must be shitting me…’ and step up the pace, a boost from somewhere pushes me up the hill, up beyond the point of pain, further, further…

I’ve left them all behind. I’m above it all. This is the place.

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What to do with a midlife crisis…

I am sittinghere not really watching television, thinking I should be reading something, writing something else or finishing off something else. I keep busy just thinking about things to keep me busy. But at least I’m keeping busy.

I’ve decided to start a blog because it seems the done thing nowadays and I want to work out for myself, in public, why a 38 year old man who has successfully avoided most physical activity for 38 years suddenly decides that long distance running is a good idea.

What on earth possessed me?

I think I can trace it back to a point about four or five years ago when I started running up a fly tip strewn path to a patch of ragged greenery beside a horse field where I could do some press ups and sit ups without being sat on by a small child (the small child is not so small anymore and knows not to sit on dad when he does exercise… but this still does not stop him doing it for kicks) – it was a pretty half arsed effort that got me up to 10k eventually but then… another small child came along and I lost the impetus.

Children tire you out – they suck the energy through your eyes, reduce your attention span to nothing, put you on constant twitch mode. You need to get out sometimes, no matter how much you love them, just to get some headspace.

Long distance running is all about headspace. I used to think too much when I ran. Now I don’t think at all.

It is absolute heaven. That is why I run.

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Hello world!

I’m not going to write anything yet – it took me ages to get this far…

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