Winter Running – 5 Tips to make those chilly miles that little bit better.

It’s that time of year again. The weather is invariably freezing cold, the days aren’t as long and the nights are closing in, so that it’s getting dark by around 4pm. Add in the potential for rain, snow and high winds and this can be a challenging time in anyone’s calendar.

It’s also the time of year where all sorts of people make all sorts of vows about being better people in the future. Those resolutions, however, are never particularly binding and as we all probably know only too well, they’ll fall by the wayside with the least bit of encouragement.

Exercise at this time of year can be difficult. But unfortunately it’s also one of the things that people see as a good way of changing their lives. An easy win that, in Winter, can turn out not so easy after all. So, for runners and would be runners alike, I’ve written up what I think are some handy some tips for running at this time of year.

  1. Run early. Although Winter mornings can be ridiculously cold and utterly miserable, it’s always worth keeping an eye on the weather forecast. Every once in a while you’ll get an amazingly beautiful day; still, bright blue skies and a tolerable, bracing chill in the air. If you find one, set the alarm, roll out of bed, warm up and then get out and run. I think this type of morning is my favourite for running, especially in Winter. I’ll put on a base layer – maybe some running tights as well, if I think they’re needed – and after some warming up, sneak out of the house while everyone else sleeps and just run. It’ll be dark to start off with and as a result it can be quite an unnerving experience; the sight of anyone at all will put you on edge when it’s so dark. But the peace and quiet is just fantastic. Well worth the early start. It allows me just to focus on breathing, pace and whatever might be on my mind at the time. You’ll see the occasional dog walker or shift worker, but other than that, the world is your own. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll catch the sun rising. I can’t recommend an early morning Winter run enough!
  2. Hi Viz. If you’re running in Winter, chances are that it’ll be dark at some point. Even the middle of the afternoon can get dark at this time of year. So, be sensible. A high viz top or windproof jacket is well worth investing in. A neon yellow works well, particularly in late afternoon and if you can find something with reflective patches or stripes, then all the better to be seen in! Failing that, you can buy anything from trainers to socks that are reflective enough to make sure you’re seen at night. Not everybody can pull off the neon look. In actual fact, I’m not entirely sure anyone can, but safety must took presidence over fashion at this time of year! So even if you might be going out on a run looking like a road worker or a throwback to mid 90s rave culture, at least you improve your chances of getting round your route safely this way.
  3. Join a running club or get a running buddy. Now I’m afraid this is a classic case of the person giving the advice but flagrantly ignoring it at the same time. That doesn’t make it bad advice though. Personally, I prefer to run alone. In company I know I’d either feel guilty for being too slow or grumpy for the company being too slow. But, amongst other things, running is supposed to be fun. And in Winter, it’s just safer to run as part of a group. Another added plus here is that company can be encouraging and even give you a bit of a boost. I’m a far better runner in a race situation, where there are lots of other people to focus on and aim for, so to speak. But I can guarantee that in a race, if I’m flagging, someone will offer encouragement and support. Running clubs or groups are easy to find these days, as they’re only a Google search away and they’re ideal for beginners. I know that there are a few groups around my area where it’s all very informal, friendly and the emphasis is on gaining fitness with a bit of fun and friendship. So, if you made that resolution, joining a club with like minded and friendly people might well be the decision that helps to stick to your vow!
  4. Make sure to warm up and warm down properly. Whether it’s Winter or not, this is a good tip to follow. However, if you’re planning on going out running in freezing temperatures, then making sure that those muscles are fully stretched and warmed up is essential. The temperature alone should be the only shock that you get; you don’t want to have gone 100 metres and find that your body just doesn’t feel right. It’s Winter; you’ve got every excuse you need for turning round and heading back to that warm bed or front room with the fire on! At least if you’re fully warmed up, you’ll have a fighting chance of getting into a rhythm nice and quickly and after that, it’s all about just running! Warming up will help prevent those little niggling injuries that could mean you’re back on the sofa before you know it. Similarly, by warming down once you’ve finished, you’ll feel much, much better. I sometimes finish my run within a half mile of my house and then get home with a combination of light jogging and walking, just to make sure nothing seizes up. I always stretch again once I get back to the house and make sure that I take on plenty of water to rehydrate. It’s no fun when all you want to do is flop down on the bed, but it’s a lot better to have warmed down for ten minutes or so.
  5. Never underestimate the importance of rest. Winter running can be difficult. Motivating yourself to actually go out is tough when you already know how cold and miserable it is out there! So don’t put yourself under too much pressure. If you’ve scheduled a run, but you know your body’s just not right, then don’t go. Rest up instead. There’s always another day. And the same applies for days when it might just seem too cold or too windy. If you don’t feel like it, but know you’ll go another day; do that! Or the other alternative is to go out and maybe run a shorter distance than you’d had planned. I’ve done that a few times recently and spared myself a little bit, but have also been able to say I’d been out and kept my fitness up!

So there you have it. Hopefully a few handy tips that might just help you out a bit when running this Winter. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know if they’re of any use in the comments!

How to unravel at half term.

I didn’t realise how tired I was until the first Saturday of half term. As an early riser I’m normally fine with being out of bed and able to function at the very least. But not on that Saturday. I still dragged myself out of my warm bed, but in truth I could have stayed there for a few more hours at least.

I’ve spent the rest of the week, from that point onwards, slowly unravelling. It’s the following Friday and I can’t recall having felt more like my age than I do now! My knees ache, my shoulder is still sore – a now months old injury that still hasn’t quite healed – my back hurts and of course I’ve managed to develop the traditional teacher’s holiday cold on top of all of this! With a list of jobs to go at, it’s been just great to feel so terrible!

One of the jobs on our list was to have my daughter’s bedroom painted. It was something I’d started a few months ago, when she was away for the weekend doing her Duke of Edinburgh expedition. So, the hope was that finishing it off wouldn’t be too big a job. Turns out that hope was – and pardon my turn of phrase here, but in my defence it couldn’t be more accurate – a load of bollocks.

Years ago I’d vowed to just steer clear of my daughter’s room. It was, in short, a shit hole – again, the most accurate term I can find – and I just got to the point where asking her to sort it out or trying to do so myself was causing too much conflict, so I stepped back. I also vowed never to have a hand in decorating it either, such was my level of dissatisfaction. But, in a moment of weakness I stepped up to the plate and began the task. Now I needed to get it finished.

I’ve tried. And I’ll keep trying. But short of taking every last bit of furniture and tat out of said room and then just painting non stop for a good couple of days, it can’t be done. If you could see said room you’d understand my reluctance to move everything out as well. I have a genuine fear that I’ll reach to get something and be bitten by some kind of small animal. Or become trapped in a giant hair ball, ending up feeling physically sick, but with a great idea for a B-movie. So, let’s just say that progress has been slow. Slow in the sense of the movement of the glaciers as well, rather than just walking pace.

Stuff has got in the way as well. You know stuff, don’t you? Cleaning ,walks, trips to deliver things to charity shops or pick up prescriptions, that kind of stuff. Not to mention ridiculous shopping trips where you stand in a shop debating whether to buy a 6ft tall light up, inflatable snowman before leaving with no snowman but the bonus of three Christmas gonks and a mirror. I mean, we’ve all been there…

I must admit that my body and mind unravelling and shutting down has made ‘stuff’ unavoidable. So, as much as I’ve reminded myself that I need to finish decorating or I need to mark books or plan some lessons for Year 11, my aching shoulder or the fact that every time I get up I get shooting pains through one of my knees, makes shopping for Christmas gonks or family sized bags of crisps all the more appealing. And before you know it you’re 4 days into the week and nothing’s got done! But your Christmas gonk game is the envy of all of your friends, who are now frankly playing gonk catch up.

On Thursday we went to a theme park in a desperate attempt to inject some fun into our week. And it was fun…for three quarters of the family. However, it felt like purgatory for me. In short, I’d prefer to spend the day working in a Siberian salt mine than being at a theme park, but sometimes you’ve got to bite the bullet and go along to please the family. And I couldn’t get a flight out of Leeds/Bradford airport to Siberia at such short notice anyway.

I’ve never understood the thrill of theme park rides. To me it’s just a terrible feeling of being completely out of control and deliberately making yourself feel sick. There is no thrill. And if there is – and there isn’t – you have to stand in a massive queue for ages for the dubious pleasure. Add in that this was a theme park in North Yorkshire on a cold and windy October day and the fun was even more minimal than usual for me. I even wandered into the zoo section of the park at one point, while my family were queueing for yet more thrills and having wandered around for a good 10 minutes, I made my way back into the park having clapped eyes on not one solitary animal. Everything was sat inside where it was no doubt warmer than me. Meanwhile, my mind was unravelling, just like my body had been for the previous few days.

We did manage to order a cooker earlier in the week, so a major item was being ticked off a list there. But then we had to refuse delivery this morning when we discovered that new gas fitting regulations would mean that we couldn’t actually have it fitted! So just when it looked like we’d achieved something quite major, we had to reverse our decision at literally the last second, as the delivery men were unloading the cooker from the van! And as I stood explaining myself to them at the bottom of our drive it began to rain heavily.

All in all, it’s been a fairly forgettable week. Instead of a glass of wine at night, or a beer, I’ve sat in front of the telly more than once nursing a cold and flu drink. My daughter’s room still has work to do. And it’s still a shit hole, whatever the colour or state of the walls. We couldn’t replace the cooker but managed to waste a good 10 hours or so researching one and then buying it. And , of course we also had that day at a theme park which three of the family really enjoyed while the other member slowly froze while getting ever more bored and confused. But there were gonks…Christmas gonks. So you know, it’s swings and roundabouts isn’t it? Isn’t it?

As a kind of post script to this post and week, let me tell you about the latter part of my Friday afternoon. Determined to shake off the feeling that my body had been broken by 7 weeks at work, I went out for a run. It really hurt. Towards the end I could feel pain in my right ankle, my asthma was kicking in and making me wheeze a little bit and my hamstrings were beginning to cramp up. I was fine with this though as I had ran the furthest I’d ran since the middle of August when my shoulder injury kicked in and stopped me altogether. I was delighted. So delighted that I decided to cook a fresh pasta sauce for my tea in the spirit of health and fitness. Fresh garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, some sausage and some fresh chillies. The week was finally taking a turn for the better. And then, while chopping the chillies I managed to squirt quite a bit of it into my eye. So now that doesn’t work either…

It’s not been the week I expected.

Grassroots Grumbles – Busy, stressful, alarming…but still loads of fun!

While it’s just fantastic to be back involved in grassroots football without (much) Covid intervention, I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of grumbling to do.

I’ll level with you, dear reader; I hate losing. I’m not a bad loser; I don’t shout and bawl at my team, I don’t kick equipment across the field or jump up and down like some kind of demented kangaroo on the sidelines either. But I hate to lose. And we’ve been plunging headlong into losing of late!

In many ways it’s been a brilliant start to the season. We’ve got a lovely new kit – the players, not the coaches; we get very little! We actually won our first game, handsomely and for a short period of time were 2nd in the league. And this came after we’d got to less than 24 hours before the game and not been able to locate any nets for our goals! So I thought we were riding our luck pretty well really! The weather’s been great as well and for once I’ve not been soaked to the skin in either training or on the touchline during a game. And there’s just been a lovely sense of optimism about our club and our team.

But then came our second game of the season.

We’d been told we’d been placed into a cup competition with clubs from an entirely different league and while it turned out that we didn’t have to travel over far to play, we were drawn against a completely unknown quantity. We’d learn more soon enough.

By the time of the weekend of the game I’d been able to establish that our opponents were in a higher division than us; just not which one. By the end of the game not only had it been made clear in the performances, but I’d been told by their coach as well. It turned out that they were four divisions higher than us – the equivalent of a Premier League team playing a non league side – and thus we took a bit of a beating.

For a while it was actually quite a heartening performance. At half time we trailed 1-0 and were still talking about the fact that if we could get the ball forward quickly, we might just be able to nick a goal. Game on! It quickly went downhill and by the end we were beaten 8-0. For the last 15 minutes or so our lack of fitness had become all too apparent, we were repeating the same mistakes, over and over again, we looked a bit scared and some of our lads had simply given up.

So it was a Sunday afternoon of reflection. While not wanting to impinge on any of my lads’ enjoyment of training or matches, harsh words were going to be needed in order to re-focus people. I’d been a little perturbed by some of the silly behaviour at the previous training session and the messing about, chatting and not listening, the half paced attempts at drills. And I blame myself for that type of thing when I think about it. Was training interesting enough? Was that the right drill? It’s funny how you can beat yourself up for a result and performance where you didn’t actually set foot on the pitch.

The two subsequent training sessions were a bit of a mixed bag, but largely positive. We concentrated on drills with the ball and a longer game where we could stop play, ask questions and point out options in the first session. Then, for our last session we went with fitness work and a shorter game at the end. It seemed like everything had gone well and with a game against the second placed team to come at the weekend, I at least felt like we were ready.

As ever with grassroots football though, there would be a complication. As training ended on the Thursday, two of our best players – twins – told me that they wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday. Two out of four of a first choice midfield gone in an instant. And I couldn’t even feel too vexed as the reason they were unavailable was that they were off to St. James’ Park, home of my team Newcastle United, for a stadium tour. Us Geordies have got to stick together!

On the eve of the game I’d managed to scramble 13 players together and had an idea for a side and a system. But any optimism wouldn’t last as we turned up on the Sunday morning. The current petrol crisis made me a little late setting off, as I’d been queueing up to get much needed petrol. Must remember to thank the first petrol hoarding moron I see. Then when we got there we couldn’t find the pitch as it was part of a 15 pitch complex set up on a huge park in north Leeds. When we finally found our opposition I then had to run back to my car to retrieve the phone I’d left on the dashboard! This left me around 5 minutes to announce a team, talk through a system of playing and go through any last minute messages and reminders about how we try to play. A shambles, but not untypical at grassroots level! Certainly not for this coach anyway!

Despite making a good start, we still managed to come in at half time losing 2-1. We were clearly the better side and so we pointed out how we needed to be better in the second half. Less panicking on the ball, working harder, being braver with the ball. We ended up losing 7-1 and again, the confidence was shot once more.

I think we’re struggling a little bit because of the amount of new players we’ve taken on. At the end of the season, we lost 2 first team players, one of them our goalkeeper who had been excellent and vital to the team. We’ve since spent the whole of pre-season trying to replace him with players coming in and then deciding they don’t like being in goal after all within a few weeks. We’ve started with one of last season’s outfield players in goal and he’s brave, I’ll give him that. But to be playing in the huge 11-a-side goals when he’s not really a keeper is giving us a weakness that previously wasn’t there. As coaches we’re working hard on his game and his confidence, but he needs time and with a game every weekend he hasn’t really got any. The best thing is that his attitude is great and he’s working hard to improve too and relishing the chance to be in the team. So maybe we should expect results to take a bit of a hit while also being thankful that we found someone to play in goal!

A lot of the other players that have come in have had little or no experience of football. So it’s proving quite a step up for them. So far this season I’ve been asked ‘What’s offside?’ by a sub that I was just about to put on and also ‘How do I pass?’ by one of our new boys at the start of a drill. Call me naïve, but I hadn’t expected that. It means that we have to try to work on a one on one basis with some of them in training, which obviously takes time away from others. The result of this is that our work as a team can suffer as there are often not enough coaches to be bringing new players up to speed, offering a goalkeeper specialist drills and also working on team play with the players who we’ve had for years.

Making the transition from 9-a-side to 11-a-side isn’t easy either. The pitch is much bigger, as are the goals and the positions that players are asked to play will differ too. I suppose it’s a lot to get your head around when you’re 12, regardless of how much time you’ve spent playing football.

So while it’s been a bit of a disappointing start to our season and there’s lots to be grumpy about, there might just be enough positives in there to tell me that every one of our present clouds might well just have a silver lining. Let’s hope things get better this Sunday with our latest game – a second home match and the first chance we’ve had to wear our brand new kit!

The Uselessness of the Long Distance Runner (with apologies to Alan Sillitoe)

The date is Friday August 13th 2021 and it’s 7.12am. A ridiculous hour of the day, really. Our protagonist (me) is out running and over the course of the next 46 minutes he will run for 5.36 miles before feeling tired, getting confused and heading home. His confusion will haunt him moments after he drinks a chilled bottle of water in his kitchen. Why did he not run the extra 0.85 of a mile which would have led him to a distance of 6.21 miles, otherwise known as 10km? What an absolute knobhead! Never mind, in a few days he’ll go back out and run the full 10km.

Fast forward 22 days. It is Saturday 4th September and our protagonist hasn’t been on a run since the aforementioned Friday 13th August. He’s feeling frustrated. He’s feeling quite angry. He’s not enjoying this period of inactivity. He’s still a knobhead. And he feels useless.

On Friday 13th August, by about 7.15am I was regretting going out on my run. I had a sore shoulder brought on by a ridiculous combination of decorating my kitchen and a brainwave while coaching my Under 13 football team that told me, ‘Yes, Graham, go in goal for the shooting practice! Throw yourself around like a man possessed! Ignore your age and show these young whippersnappers how it’s done!’ Now, with every step taken, pain shudders right up my arm and through my sore shoulder. By the time I’ve registered a couple of miles I have pins and needles in my hand and my index finger has gone very cold. Ignoring the signs that this could be a stroke or the beginnings of a heart attack, I run on. I really am a knobh…well, you know the rest.

For anyone feeling worried, don’t. I didn’t have a stroke or a heart attack. But I did end my run in a lot of pain. But don’t worry, twenty days later I got some help. Between that time and the end of my run I googled the problem and settled on the fact that I’d managed to damage a nerve somewhere between my shoulder and my chest. Despite the intense pain, a bit of self diagnosis told me that it would heal itself and that in the meantime I should just take Ibuprofen. I also decided that continuing to decorate would help.

I realise now that I am still a good 8 years short of qualifying to be a doctor and that as a healer I make a good knobhead.

It has hurt me to have to avoid running and my reluctance to seek medical help – coupled with the amount of time it takes to actually get medical help post Covid and using our surgery’s new phone system – will subsequently cost me more time. I will lose fitness and my burgeoning belly will continue to burge. Or grow.

By the time I got medical help – two days ago at the time of writing – it turned out my diagnosis was right, but that I can’t get a physio appointment for another four days. And that will also be over the phone, so the physio’s healing hands will have to be very special indeed. In the meantime, I feel horrible.

I think I’ve made myself worse with comfort eating too. We went away to Scarborough for a few days and then Newcastle after that meaning five whole days of eating out and I didn’t even attempt to hold back and think healthily. ‘Are you having a pudding?’ quickly became not only a rhetorical question, but a stupid one too.

At home, what with it being the summer holidays, I’ve succumbed to a policy of ‘a beer a night’, which although that’s not heavy drinking, is a lot more than my usual. I’ve also relapsed in my dangerous crisps and chocolate addiction, making any trip to Home Bargains or B&Ms into an actual expedition. While I haven’t exactly piled the weight on – no surprise if you know me – this has still left me out of shape.

Having sought medical help and got my hands on some prescription pain killers and a telephone conversation with a physio, this morning brought another setback. Look away now if you’re young, fit and healthy. The ease with which this type of thing can happen in middle age might be a bit of a shock.

I was out in the supermarket, doing our weekly shop and had crouched down to scrutinise the very bottom row of school shirts. You’d be surprised at the rarity of sized 12-13 short sleeved white shirts in the George at Asda uniform section. Thus, I really had to peer deep and low to find what I wanted. But just before I located it I had an almighty spasm of pain through my lower back. I couldn’t move, was worried I might cry in front of some mums and toddlers – again – and it took my about 10 seconds to realise that I was holding my breath. When I straightened up to a standing position, the pain increased.

This will undoubtedly cost me more time away from running as I’ve struggled with my back for years. It once went completely as I arrived at work and put the handbrake on in the car! However, since getting fitter and stronger with the amount of exercise I got through in lockdown after lockdown after lockdown, it hadn’t been much of a problem at all.

Running has been an excellent help to my somewhat surprisingly fragile mental health over the last year or so. I’ve found this last year tough for a number of reasons, but whenever I’ve been able to go out running I’ve felt focused and free of any number of problems. I’ve also felt fitter and stronger and the distances run and the times achieved have been a real boost, mentally. Like I say, it has hurt not being able to run.

While I’m running I am almost forced to think things through. At my age, this is a good thing as it also allows me to take focus away from how much my body hurts! But it’s also an opportunity that I’m really pleased to be able to take. Other than traffic or people on pavements, I have little else to occupy my mind and I know that I can make decisions during this hour or so; I can solve problems.

Going out for a run means that I can think. I have time to think ‘things’ through, whatever they might be, and often by the time I’m back home I just feel a great deal lighter, so to speak. I head out, fresh faced and often feeling a bit weighed down by what life happens to be throwing at me and by the time I return I’m red-faced and sweaty, but visibly happier, even if I look like I might just be about to collapse.

Three weeks into my enforced rest, and only just back at work for a new academic year, and I’m really feeling tired and more than a little bit troubled by it all. Not being able to run is just horrible. Sometimes, I might allow myself to think that a rest might be nice, but 99% of the time I’ll force myself to get out and go for a run, setting a minimum target and then pushing really hard to eclipse it. I always feel better afterwards. Being injured like this has taken that away and it’s really not pleasant.

I’m hoping that within a fortnight at most I’ll be able to get back out again and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to run far enough and for long enough to have a good old think! In the meantime, I’m looking forward to my telephone physio appointment, which promises to be a whole new experience and hopefully the thing that starts putting stuff right!

The uselessness of the long distance runner is not a feeling I’m enjoying.

Forget medals at the Olympics, let’s Pontefract 10k!

Facebook memories rarely fail to raise a chuckle from me. Some, I will share, without fail, every year. Others, just gain a laugh and then get scrolled through. Recently, one came up that makes me smile every time. It was the third year anniversary of me and my kids completing a 5km fun run. It made me smile for a number of reasons; firstly because in the three years since it happened my children have grown up so much and secondly because we all look so very pleased with ourselves!

This year though, it made me smile all the more because it came up on the exact same day that I completed a 10km race; the Pontefract 10k. It was the progress that pleased me so much. Not that I was now able to run twice the distance, but because of what this shift represented to me personally. It’s around 3 and a half years since I had to go into hospital for heart surgery, so while completing the 5km fun run was a real boost, this latest run has really cemeneted the feeling that I’m a whole lot better, fitter and healthier these days.

I entered the race partly because it was a goal that I set myself and also because a friend from work invited me to give it a go. He probably won’t remember, but around 3 years ago he asked me if I fancied doing a different 10k and I had to turn him down because I knew there was no way I’d be able to do it; no way that my body would have got through 10 whole kilometres! I felt terrible – like I was just being anti-social and making excuses. But it nagged away at me and then at the turn of this year, with a fair few 10km training runs under my belt, I made it my business to enter an actual race. So thanks Shaun, for the inspiration!

In the run up to August 1st though, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to complete the race. My fitness had dropped due to a period of isolation when my son caught Covid and then a series of niggling injuries interrupted my running even more. Self doubt, my old lifelong friend crept in and installed himself on a shoulder so he could readily whisper in my ear. He was there as I walked around the supermarket, there whenever I trained and my legs felt a little tired and more to the point, there when I lined up at the start of the race.

My aforementioned friend actually passed us – me and my family – as we waited by the start. I deliberately stood under a tree and hid a bit, just to avoid having to talk about what the next 55 or so minutes might hold. I was ridiculously nervous. The whole time that we stood there I glanced furtively around, knowing that there were at least two other people I knew, knowing that I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Ridiculous really! As I stood and then stretched and checked that everything was just the way I wanted it to be, I grew more nervous and more grumpy with my family, who had very kindly got up at 6.30am on this particular Sunday in order to be with me at the start line for 9am.

And then, before I knew what to moan about next, we were on the road and the race was starting. A word about a word. When I say ‘race’ please understand that out of the over 800 people who entered the run, only some of us were racing. Probably a few hundred, maybe more. But I’m sure for a lot of people the object was just to get around having had a bit of fun along the way.

It surprised me how quickly my mood changed once I got into my running. The race started in a park, running down the driveway entrance before a sharp right turn took us up what looked like a steady, but never-ending hill. Within a few hundred metres I was running steadily and feeling strong. The run from the Facebook memory had been one of the the last times I’d ran in a field of other runners and it surprised me how quickly I felt comfortable after so many solitary – but never lonely – training runs.

Running up that first climb, with a friend’s description of the course as being ‘undulating’ now ringing in my ears, I felt good. The nerves had settled, the feeling of being some kind of imposter had disappeared and here I was fit, healthy and passing people. Others had the audacity to pass me, but it didn’t feel like it mattered. My plan was for a fast final mile or mile and a half and so I felt sure that my time would come.

I ran wearing a smart watch and also with my Strava app running on my phone and found myself glancing at Strava more than ever before. I think the fact that it informed me I was running at 7.30 per mile pace and at times below alarmed me a little – I’m usually up around 8.30 at this stage of a run – and so I ran while battling to focus on slowing down and not getting carried away and also checking the app to see my progress. I seemed incapable of slowing down for around the first 3km though and was sure that I’d grind to an almighty halt at about 7km! It didn’t get quite that bad though.

The undulating nature of the course would take its toll though. Through 4, 5 and 6 kms, I slowed. I’m aware that we did run down some hills, but it just seemed like the uphill sections kept appearing in front of me, relentlessly. I dug in, tried to relax and just kept running, but it wasn’t long before it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d passed anyone. Runners were passing me though. Not in their droves, but every so often one would glide past and despite my best efforts I just couldn’t keep up! But I wasn’t dropping too far though, so I stayed calm and just relied on the fact that I felt like I could summon some strength up and have a better final few kilometres.

My mind began to wander though and I started to think about my operation three years previously. I thought about being admitted initially and the loneliness of the night in hospital wondering if I might die. I thought about hugging my wife and kids the next day, once I’d finally got home. I thought about waiting to be called on to the ward about a month later when I was operated on and I thought about the operation itself. The last thing I thought about before I snapped myself back to the matter at hand was my cardiologist giving me the all clear about a year later. I began to feel quite emotional, but knew that I had to pull myself together and get back to focusing on the running. Imagine the horror of running past some red-faced, sweaty old bloke who was weeping quietly to himself, snot and tears streaming down his face! Clearly though, this run was more important to me than I’d imagined.

A couple of minutes later, with my legs not feeling too bad – despite my pace slowing – I concentrated on distracting myself and for a few minutes at least, tried to just spot things to look at, like a nice house or the view. I made sure to reply to everyone who was supporting from the side of the road, again in an attempt to stave off mental fatigue and would occasionally take a slog from the water I’d picked up at the last feeding station.

It didn’t take me too long to pull myself together and be able to focus again and when I did, I began looking ahead and trying to focus on people that I might be able to catch and overtake. My legs still felt like they had some life in them and by the time I’d got to the 8km mark I’d been able to progress through the field a little bit. I decided that once I’d got to 8 and a half km I would up my pace some more and that for the final mile I’d be trying to run at something like 7 and a half minute mile pace.

But the hills Just seemed to just keep on coming. I knew I was nearly done though and by this point I was just determined to have a strong finish.

Halfway down the final hill and running fairly strongly, something brilliant happened. As I looked down the road I spotted my wife and children. I think I spotted them before they spotted me and so I gave them a wave. Once they waved back, it was my cue to quicken the pace again. The bottle of water that I was carrying was by now getting on my nerves, so I positioned myself near the kerb and when I passed them made sure to hand it to my daughter. Their whooping and screaming and clapping was brilliant to hear though and really spurred me on. I knew that I was within a few hundred metres of the finish now.

At the bottom of the hill we turned left and were back on the drive of the park with a slightly uphill dash to go until the finish line. Despite a sudden feeling of nausea I began to sprint – as much as a nearly 50-year-old who’s ran almost 10km could sprint – and was soon passing people. I really didn’t feel strong at all and was pretty certain that I was going to be sick, but it was just a case of digging in and getting through it. To my left I could see my wife and kids cutting over the grass from where they’d been on the roadside so that they could get to the finish. My son called out, ‘Go on Dad!’ and coupled with just seeing them there, it was enough to push me over the last few yards.

Me, knackered, attempting to power my way to the finish!

Right on the line, while I was concentrating on not throwing up, two people passed me. I spotted them in my peripheral vision, but it was too late and I didn’t really have the strength to react. I wasn’t particularly bothered though; I’d done what I’d set out to do and when I glanced down at my phone in order to stop Strava, I was thrilled to see that I’d ran the course in a little over 51 minutes, which from memory was one of the best 10km times I’d ever ran.

As I collected my water, medal and t-shirt I was in a bit of a trance. The medal quickly went into a pocket and the t-shirt got draped over my shoulder while I downed the water. I felt exhausted, but thrilled to have finished at the same time.

Within a couple of minutes I’d located my family who greeted me like I was returning from climbing Everest! We stood and chatted for a short while, but then with rain looking absolutely certain, we decided to head for the car and get home. Time to relax, have something to eat and maybe scroll through my phone for Facebook memories!

Later that day I found out that I’d finished in 271st place out of 813 runners and I have to say I was really pleased with that. My official time was 51 minutes and 51 seconds, my second fastest 10km run, so despite my mid-run lull, I’d managed to keep going pretty well.

I’m looking for more races to enter now, although with the football season starting soon, I’ll have to avoid clashes. The race has definitely whetted my appetite for more and I’ll continue going out training and trying to improve both my times and my fitness. I’ll definitely be running the Pontefract 10k next year too!

Grassroots Football: End of Season reflections.

As the curtain falls on another year of grassroots football I thought I’d reflect on what has been an eventful season. The prevalence of Covid-19 has had a major bearing on how the season has run, but then when you factor in all of the usual ups and downs of running any kind of sporting team, it’s safe to say that things have been demanding in the extreme!

A little bit of background: regular readers will know this already, but I coach a football (soccer) team for under 12s. I’ve done it now for the past four years and it’s a source of great joy and satisfaction as well as fatigue! The highs are right up there, but the lows can be an absolute pain.

The global pandemic wrecked the previous season (2019-20), but you’d hope that this type of thing would prove to be a once in a lifetime event. Unless of course you are a Hollywood actor, or you live in the Bible. Sadly though, with wave after wave of the virus hitting, grassroots sport was paralysed again and we found ourselves back in lockdown and unable to train or play for large spells of season 20-21. In fact at one point it genuinely felt like the season would be abandoned and we’d be looking at waiting 7 or 8 months before a ball was kicked in anger again. And then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, the rules were relaxed as vaccinations took effect and we were able to get going again, albeit with tight restrictions in place.

So what are my reflections on the season gone by? Well, they’re a funny old mixture of satisfaction and extreme frustration. We finished 7th in a 10 team league. 7th in Division 7 of 8. So, it’s safe to say that our performance overall wasn’t what I’d hoped for. There have been times when we’ve played wonderful fast moving, flowing football, but there have also been times when we’ve played like a team of strangers, both to each other and to football! It’s the kind of inconsistency that leaves a lot more questions than answers and has also meant a lot of time spent trying to figure out what the problem was and how we could be more consistent as a team.

When I started coaching the team they were Under 8s. We were the 2nd team and even then there were a range of abilities. My goal – no pun intended – was always to coach my players so that they were comfortable with a ball at their feet. I’d like to think that with the majority of my players I’ve achieved that. I’ve always wanted to instill the importance of playing a quick passing game into my players. Pass to a team mate, move off the ball, look for space and look for angles; play the game on the grass, in the right way. I think that for a large proportion of the season we’ve got there with these goals, but a lot of the time physicality and focus have cost us.

So these are two areas that we need to work on with pre-season and next season in mind. I still feel like some of my lads are very immature and prone to just switching off in games and that’s when mistakes happen. Since we started playing again after lockdown in January we’ve been competitive in every game and only lost one by more than one goal. In all of these games we’ve had spells of playing wonderful football; we’ve been good to watch. And yet, there’s always the risk of a mistake.

Teaching the boys the value of a team ethic has been more important than ever this year. For a few years previous there had been a bit of a tendency for boys to mix with only the people from their primary school and it caused problems. The feeling that this was everyone’s team and that everyone was a team mate took a lot of getting through. And while I don’t think we’ve quite got the message through, we’ve definitely made great strides with it this season. You can hear it on the pitch with the encouragement that they give each other and the positivity. Rather than criticising a team mate who takes a bad touch or misses a chance, now we’re more likely to hear one of them shouting that it was “unlucky” or “just keep going, don’t let your head drop.” They’ve never been the loudest of teams, but we’ve improved vocally this year and it’s something I’m genuinely happy about.

The team ethic has come into play with our physicality too. While some teams have fielded several players that look like fully grown men this year, we’re still quite a small bunch. It’s meant that we’ve been bullied off the ball at times over the years and worse still, we’ve allowed it to happen and simply complained, rather than trying to be stronger. That changed a little in the period since around April this year. We’ve talked and talked about it in training and before, during and after games and the message seems to be getting through – don’t cheat, but fight for the right to keep the ball and win football matches. This is definitely something that we need to keep working on as well as carrying it forward for next season.

Next season will be a big step up for my team. They move from playing 9-a-side football to 11-a-side and that means playing on a bigger pitch with bigger goals. We’ll have to adapt to new positions and different formations and all of this presents a real challenge. I’m hoping that the size of the pitch will help us because we pass the ball well. However, I’m conscious that it should help others too who rely on how well their stronger players can run with the ball. With this in mind, part of our build up to the season will be spent working much more on fitness and trying to improve players strength, pace and stamina. If we can get closer to teams physically, the way we play the game might just give us an advantage.

At the moment though our main concern revolves around the recruitment of players. the 12-13 age range is a tricky time with junior footballers as lots of them start to explore new interests and the drop out rate is quite high. So far, having asked parents who’ll be signing up next season I’ve had only 11 positive replies, which basically means we haven’t got a squad yet. Our goalkeeper has decided to drop football, leaving us without anyone to fill what is a really key position, so we’re on the lookout for a new keeper! It promises to be a crucial next few weeks, with the simple fact being if we can’t get enough players then the team will have to fold. I’ve already heard whispers of other teams that are in the same position, so it’s going to be a case of putting out adverts, relying on word of mouth and crossing everything that’s crossable in the hope that we can attract bodies! If not, I’m going to have to find something else to fill my everyday thoughts and Sunday mornings!

The other thing that I need to think about now is sponsorship. Grassroots football clubs are not organisations that are awash with money. But the kids that populate them tend to grow fast. So when it comes to kit, my lads have grown out of what they’ve got and we are in dire need of a new home kit. The last time we got one we could only secure sponsorship to pay for just over half of what we got, meaning that the club had to stump up money to help out. I’d like to avoid that this time round.

That said, schmoozing potential sponsors is not my thing and that is yet another problem. My assistant coach is usually pretty good at that kind of thing though and as well as this, we have parents of some of our players that have tried to get sponsorship in the past. In fact, our last home kit sponsorship was achieved by one of said parents badgering a business owner who drinks in the same pub as him!

If we do get the money then we need to get the kit, which shouldn’t be a problem, but again is something that irks me. Our club committee insist on sticking with the same supplier for all teams and frankly, I don’t rate the supplier. Our home kit for the last two seasons has been plain, dull and unimaginative, so I’m hoping that this year there might be a bit of flexibility.

A couple of years ago I used an online kit designer to come up with some ideas from a different supplier. I then put the idea to the club. You would have thought I’d just arrived at the meeting riding a sea horse while holding hands with a mermaid. Suffice to say, we stuck with our usual way of doing things.

A year later however, we decided that we’d buy a training kit that could double up as an away kit because our home kit clashed with several other teams in our league. We went with a neon yellow and grey number and it blew a few minds. And then, a coach from one of our younger age groups got in touch to find out which kit it was, as he wanted to order it. Gradually more groups did the same and now several of our age groups wear the same snazzy kit that we introduced. So there’s hope for a quiet kit revolution yet!

Overall, it’s been a season of highs and lows and it’s left us with lots to work on. I think I have a team of players that are capable of a great deal more. I think their potential is a lot greater than they realise and happily, I think the penny might have dropped a little with this. I’ll be going into the season with some targets for them, both individually and as a team, but in short I’ll be looking for a much better league finish. This season we finished 7th out of 10 clubs. Next year I’ll be pushing my boys for a top three finish (if we get the players and actually still have a team, that is…) and if results in the final four or five games are anything to go by, we can achieve just that.

We lost to the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the league, but were competitive in both games, particularly against the 2nd team. We defeated teams that finished higher than us in those final games too, most notably against the team that won the league. In fact, we were the only team to beat them over the course of the entire season; the only team to take any points at all off them as they won every other game that they played. And it wasn’t just a win; we made them look very ordinary and dominated all but the final five minutes or so. If we can take that performance forward, then we’ll be OK.

So here’s to another year of football with all of the challenges it brings. Let’s just hope that the pandemic isn’t going to cause the chaos that it has for the last two seasons though!

Running Tips for Beginners and enthusiastic old people alike!

Let me start by pointing out that in no way am I any kind of expert on running. So I’m not claiming that what I write about in this blog is any kind of guarantee of success. There is no way on Earth that reading this blog is going to make you some kind of Olympian! However, as someone who’s ran on and off – more on than off, but a little stop start now and again – for most of his 49 years, I can certainly say that I speak from experience.

Running is something I’ve always loved. It was something that I started at school and success at junior school sports days whetted my appetite. I discovered very early on that I was in possession of a good turn of pace and despite my size, was capable of beating more or less anyone I raced. For a while at least. A heart problem put pay to that and once I recovered I found that I wasn’t the ‘athlete’* I’d once been.

*The term athlete is being used with quite an amount of creative license here by the way. I was a quick kid but that was about the size of it!

With my childhood heart problem taken care of I started running again, albeit not as well as before. But I really wanted to raise money for the heart unit where I’d had my operation and so, to cut a long story short, I started running more regularly and more seriously. I started to do sponsored fun runs and from there graduated to doing the Great North Run, a half marathon, raising money as I went. After that, I just kept on running either for fun or more competitively for clubs. In my time I’ve completed a number of half marathons, but mostly just ran for fun. That said, that’s a lot of running! And in the last few years, following more heart problems, I’ve started running much more regularly. It’s amazing what a health scare can do for you! So you never know, there might just be a bit of common sense in the tips that I can offer! So here we go…

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation! I can’t lie; there are far too many times that I go out having not prepared properly. If it’s an evening run I tend to make the excuse that I’ve been on my feet all day at work, so I’ll be fully warmed up anyway. But it’s never true and the proof is never more evident in those first couple of miles when I can’t get into my running or afterwards when everything seizes up! So, it’s a little bit of a case of doing what I say and not necessarily what I do here. Take time to warm up. Stretch thoroughly and perhaps even go as far as some running on the spot beforehand. Your body will thank you for it later! Stretching isn’t the only thing you can do though. I always make sure that I’ve had a blast on my inhaler – I’m asthmatic – as I don’t want to be too out of breath too soon. I’ve also started eating a handful of pine nuts and cashews before I head out, just in the hope of a bit of an energy burst. Pine nuts are good in terms of being heart healthy and contain things like iron and magnesium, which can boost energy. Don’t eat so many that you end up running with indigestion, but I always find they help me along the way. Cashew nuts contain healthy fats and again are heart healthy. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things dietary, but even if it’s as a placebo, I find that handfuls of things like this help me out.

The final thing that I make sure I do is to have a few jelly sweets in a pocket, ready for a quick sugar rush when I feel I might be flagging just a little bit too much. My personal choice are Mike and Ike’s, a nicely sugary coated import from America, available in B&Ms brilliant and strange American Confectionary section. Other jelly based confectionary, American or otherwise, is available. All over the place.

2. Clothing. Unless you’re into naked running, clothing is a vital part of your armour as a runner. Some would say it’s essential. From a personal point of view, having never tried naked running, I’d always go with clothing; no one repeat no one, needs to see me and my middle aged body charging down the road, in the nip as they say.

Silliness aside, good quality running gear is important. But there are levels here. I’m not someone who feels the need to splash ridiculous amounts of cash on what I’m sweating into, but I do want to feel comfortable and at least look the part without it being a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’.

The most important thing – in my humble opinion – is to get a good quality pair of trainers that you’re comfortable in. I used to run in Nike flats, but found that their very thin nature meant that they wore out relatively quickly. So eventually I went for a reasonably priced pair of New Balance 680 v6, which feature a nicely cushioned sole. Game changer! Suddenly I was running faster, going further and more importantly at my age, not suffering with aches and pains for days after. You could say that I’m a convert to cushioning. I’ve since bought a new pair of New Balance, but my 680s are hanging on in there and I’m out running in them regularly. I’ve found that some good quality running socks feel a lot better too.

In terms if what else I wear, I prefer 2in1 shorts, with an inner cycling short lining. I’m all for keeping those hamstrings warm! What I would also advise with running shorts is that you buy something with some kind of pocket. That way, anything light that you need to take can be stored away. My pockets always have a few jelly sweets and I find my door key handy for getting back into the house!

I’d also advise buying specialist running tops. I’m a t-shirt man myself. My build just doesn’t lend itself to vests and no one needs the sight of any more of my body! What I would say is that you should have something bright or even high viz, just for your own safety. It’s surprising how people many just don’t see you coming, so be as visible as possible, especially on more murky days or evenings. With this in mind, I was pleased when my wife bought me a couple of light up bands that I can wear around my upper arms in winter. If it gets too late and the light is cutting in, I just flick a switch and they light up, leaving me to focus on my running rather than whether or not I might get knocked over! They’re lightweight and comfortable too, which is ideal for people like me who hate running with anything annoying attached to me. You can see the kind of thing I mean below, although there are lots of variants on this particular accessory.

3. No excuses. Until the last 18 months or so I’ve always been brilliant at coming up with excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out for a run. And excuses as to why I should come in early from a run. Drizzle, too windy (weather, not me), a niggling and sometimes not real injury, not enough time, too close to lunch, not enough sleep, not in the right frame of mind, too windy (me this time), too sunny…I’ve gone through phases where anything I could tell myself would be enough to stay where I was and not head out for a run.

Don’t do it. Those endorphins won’t release themselves. However tired you think you feel, however bad your day at work was, get out for that run. Keep up the momentum. You’ll feel better for it. You’ll be pleased with yourself. You’ll have improved your fitness, just a little bit. But if you let that excuse keep you in then you’ll find another one the next time and even when you get back out again, you’ll excuse yourself some more, another time.

Once I stopped making excuses and just getting out there, I got fitter, stronger and faster. It’s taken me a long, long time, but nowadays the weather and the niggles don’t get in the way and I’m absolutely loving my running.

4. Plan a route (kind of). Personally, I don’t like to plan a very detailed route, but I like an idea of where I’m going, vaguely which set of streets I’ll be running along and more to the point, where I turn for home. I keep it vague for one reason: if I want to add a chunk of running in, I can and that means that I can feel good about myself once I get home. If I know that where I’m headed will take me say for 5km but I’m feeling good, then I might add a few extra streets in and before I know it I’ve covered an extra kilometre or two. And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Maybe it’s just a me thing, but I’d definitely recommend it. I suppose in a way it means I get to explore little bits of town, rather than just running another circuit of somewhere and I find my way a bit more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to keep my mind distracted from how my legs are doing and heading down a couple of new streets does just that!

5. Recovery. Over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that once I get back in after a run, my next hour or so is really important. I always used to make sure that I had a drink of water, but it was never anywhere near enough. And I’d never stretch.

Nowadays everything has changed. When I remember, I put a bottle of water into the freezer before I head out for my run. I’ll neck that as soon as I get in and then refill and drink slowly for a while. I might even refill again after that. I also make sure I eat a banana as soon as I get in. I might even have more cashews or pine nuts. If I have any pain I have a massage roller ball that I put in the freezer and then massage with when I get home and it works wonders! And I make sure I stretch again. This is usually done while lying or sitting down, touching my toes or painfully pulling my feet back behind my back. Before, I might well have just flopped down in a chair and watched television, then wondered why my muscles just stiffened up half an hour later. I’d wake up next morning and find it difficult to walk, such was the stiffness in my legs and back. And then lockdown happened.

During lockdown I read a lot of things about running and exercise. I also did online workouts and learnt the value of warming down and recovery from this. I can’t recommend it enough. The stretching helps to loosen and lengthen the muscles again and the fruit and snacking helps throw vitamins back into the body, which can only help. The water replaces fluid that you’ve lost while also refreshing you, obviously. It seems obvious now and why I totally ignored recovery for so many years is beyond me, but I would absolutely recommend that you take far better care of yourself after you’ve ran. You’ll feel so much better for it.

I hope these tips – some more obvious than others – will come in handy for you. Like I said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve found that these things have helped my running immeasurably. I’m faster and stronger, but more to the point, I enjoy my running much more than ever.

As usual, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Oh, and happy running!

Poetry Blog: ‘I ran’

This is a poem that’s been sat in my notebook for a long time. Months, not years, but a long time all the same. In truth, it’s one that I was a bit unsure of. I didn’t know what to do with it and as such it got a bit lost. Every so often I’d flick through said notebook looking for something else, only to re-discover this forgotten poem. Finally though, after a closer inspection, I’ve decided to give it an airing.

I think the good weather has helped. The poem is about a time when I could exercise a great deal more because for almost the whole time the weather was glorious. Looking out of the window as I write, it’s another glorious evening, much like those of last April and May.

It’s a poem about the pandemic. I don’t know quite when I wrote it, but I know that I took the whole thing deadly seriously once I realised the extent of the devastation that seemed to be going on. I was adamant that I was definitely sticking to lockdown, but determined to take advantage of our daily exercise allowance. And so I did.

The poem is about lockdown in general, but also the fact that I took the opportunity that lockdown presented as a chance to make some changes. I’d have said that I was reasonably fit or even kidded myself about being ‘naturally fit’ when it all started. But as I read more and more reports about coronavirus and took into account my own vulnerability to it, I decided that I was going to have to get much fitter. After all, there was little excuse; I wasn’t at work and all I really had was time. So, as the poem says, I ran.

I ran...

When the danger struck, I ran.
Not away from it, but straight at it,
maybe heroically, possibly naively, 
feigning bravery because I didn't know what else to do.
Such is my way with everything.
Don't think, don't plan, act on instinct, 3 in the morning thinking
and possibly a dash of Dutch courage.

And so, when the unseen, yet definitely alien villain headed our way,
sounding dangerously, almost laughably familiar,
I ran.
Decked out like a skinny, pound shop part time superhero,
I somewhat limped into action, exercising evangelically
in an attempt to out-cardio this beefed up cold.

But while others stockpiled toilet rolls and 
took another paracetamol from their selfish stash,
I got fitter, leaner, stronger.
My thirst for the fight meant I doused my fear in fresh fruit, 
nuts, seeds and an ever present bottle of water,
and I ran.

Thousands perished. Some sought solace in illegal road trips
or standing on doorsteps hypocritically acclaiming those who chose the Hypocratic.
I doused my guilt with physical torture, pushing myself to limits I'd not explored in years,
enjoying the isolation, getting evermore prepared to face what felt inevitable
and hoping that this wasn't all in vain.
I ran.

The effects of lockdown – or lockdowns, plural – can’t be underestimated. I think, more than anything, I benefitted from it, but it was still an awful, scary time. Running got me through the fear. In fact, running quite often dealt with the early mornings, while writing steered me through the late, sleepless nights. So my poem is both about what I did as well as being a direct result of what I did.

I’ve tried to inject a dark humour into parts of this poem. At first, I didn’t really believe the hype about coronavirus. It was the flu, it was a ‘beefed up cold’ and I wasn’t going to lose too much sleep about that. I soon realised the truth though! I’ve attempted a little more dark humour later in the poem too. Although I was fit, I probably didn’t really look it; hence the ‘skinny…superhero’ reference. And let’s face it, not many tall skinny fellas look good in lycra!

The whole pandemic scared me and the best way that I could think of to deal with that fear was just to throw myself into something. Exercise, fitness and in particular, running was that thing. Initially, my thinking was simply that if I was fit, the virus would stand less of a chance against me, so I was exercising in different ways every day. At first the whole family joined in and then, as the world righted itself and people went back to school and work it left me largely on my own in terms of exercising. And this was when the running went into overdrive. I’m guessing that when I wrote the poem I was feeling particularly evangelical about it all!

That’s certainly why there’s the reference to people stockpiling certain products. I think lockdown saw a lot of people showing their true colours and it angered me that while I was doing my best to stay safe there were others just making sure that they didn’t run out of anything, that they weren’t inconvenienced. I’d see social media posts from people about how they’d joined in the ‘Clap for Carers’ knowing that they’d been visiting friends or family when it just wasn’t allowed. The hypocrisy of that support for the NHS really bothered me when all it seemed to be for some people was a chance to pat themselves on the back and look good. And I watched in horror as various high profile people in the UK were caught out visiting family hundreds of miles from their homes, while I couldn’t head out to visit friends and family myself. In fact, at the time of writing, I still haven’t seen my parents, my sister and some of my best friends and it’s been well over a year.

So there you have it. A poem that may take people back in time a little bit, despite the fact that large parts of the world are still in lockdown and that even here in the UK we’re only just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. As ever, I’d love to hear what people think, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Back on the grass again…for an actual game! (Part 2 of 2)

So after two training sessions in a week, numerous messages over WhatsApp and several pep talks with my players, we were finally, properly back on the grass today. An actual game with points at stake. Some competition and the adrenalin of a serious game of football, albeit at Under 12 level.

Sunday 11th April marked our return to competitive football and the sun was smiling on the Garforth Junior Football League as teams re-started the season once again. We woke up to an absolutely glorious day, if a little chilly, and frankly perfect conditions for football.

As stated in the first part of this blog, my team restart their season with more than a few worries. We play in Division 7 of 8 and at present are third bottom of the league. It’s safe to say that wins have been hard to come by this season, Indeed one of our wins was actually expunged from the records as the team we beat decided to drop out of the division after lockdown. Not because we beat them, by the way. I think it was down to the availability of players, but it still cost us valuable points.

We were playing the team beneath us in the league and so the importance of the game had been stressed by myself all week. And as we arrived at the venue for the match, I felt confident that we’d give a decent showing of ourselves.

Speaking of the venue, it was the kind of place where I always feel my lads and me might look a bit out of place. We’re a team from Morley, a market town on the outskirts of Leeds and let’s just say that there are areas that we visit for away games where the locals are a bit more refined than ourselves. Sometimes, as we park up outside a row of enormous houses with Range Rovers and Aston Martins in the driveways, I feel like we might be in danger of having our collective collars felt by the local constabulary. It certainly makes me conscious of my Mazda and the scruffy bags that carry the team’s equipment!

Today was one of those days. The area was relatively rural, with some rather plush houses around. We were also playing at a quite splendid private school where they even had a steward to make sure you drove round the car park the right way! The pitches were like bowling greens and the facilities clearly nicer than ours, where only last week two teenagers drove a motorbike over our pitch at speed as we trained. So walking through the grounds of the place made me feel slightly inferior at the very least! We’re the kind of team that my dad would refer to as ‘Raggy Arse Rovers’ and it’s exactly how I felt today.

Once we’d found our pitch we warmed up and went over the basics once again; don’t panic on the ball, don’t just boot it downfield at every opportunity, try to pass and move, use the width of the pitch, take responsibility, encourage each other and anything else that sprung to mind as kick off approached. I was able to take a moment just to have a look around and for a few seconds was mesmerized by the sight before me; the bright green of the pitch and the contrast of those thick, untouched white lines painted in, the bustle of parents, the excitement of the kids taking part in three separate games on the sight and the distinct tension brought about by the fact that we all want a positive outcome this morning. And then, before we knew it we were lining up around the centre circle for a minute’s silence to mark the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. After that, it was over to the boys on the pitch.

It doesn’t take long to remember how helpless you can feel as a coach. In fact, I’d safely say that in the months of being away from football, it’s something that I’ve not missed at all.

We quickly took hold of the game and yet, for every mistake made or chance missed, my mind was ticking over with questions. Why has he done that? Who told him that was OK? What was he thinking there? As I say, as a coach you feel helpless. You’re screaming inside, yet still trying to find the balance between letting your team think and act for themselves and telling them what to do and what or who to look out for.

I don’t want to take you through each and every kick of the game. That’s not the point here. So, I’ll let you know that we lost in the end, because it helps with explaining the process that you slip into so easily despite the amount of time spent away from doing what you love.

We lost with virtually the last kick of the game, having came back from 3-1 down with about 5 minutes to go, to level it at 3-3. As our opposition re-started the game at 3-3 I was prompted to warn my team, “Don’t do anything silly now!” only to watch on in horror as a series of inexplicable mistakes happened across a timespan of about 10 seconds and we conceded the last goal. While it’s pointless playing the blame game, it was more than difficult to paint on a smile and talk to the ref, the opposition, their players and mine about what a great game it had been. Blame lockdown, blame a lack of fitness, blame me, blame whoever or whatever; we were poor. And yet we still should have won. It’s been like this for a large part of our season and again, it’s not something I feel deprived of by lockdown!

After wards we discussed the need to learn from mistakes and the need to stay calm on the ball. We have another important game next weekend and it’s crucial that we’re better. Talking to parents in the car park afterwards, I was adamant that I wouldn’t have time to put on an extra training session this week, partly due to work commitments and partly down to just feeling ridiculously unhappy with our result! Sometimes, even as an adult it’s hard to hide the disappointment and not react a bit like a child! However, as the afternoon wore on I found myself asking my wife if she’d be alright with me being out for another evening in the week so that I could run an extra session. She was just surprised that I hadn’t already sorted it out!

So, we’re back on the grass and living with all that it brings. The highs, the lows, the surprises and the disappointments. Nine more games to go, until barring further lockdown measures, we finish the season in early June. Already, it’s like we’ve never been away. Training sessions are coming thick and fast and we’ll be counting down the days until our next game this weekend. That love that I have for football is being rewarded once again and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Back on the grass again…for now (Part 1).

As grassroots football returns once again and my car becomes a magnet for mud, grass cuttings and various bits of kit, I thought it might be nice to write a couple of blogs about how things went on our return. I’m starting with this one about our first few training sessions and will write Part 2, about our first match, as soon as it happens! I hope you enjoy reading about it all.

Rightly or wrongly, football has always been one of the major loves of my life. Of course family comes first and of course, I see the sheer stupidity of being so obsessed by a game. But it’s a habit I can’t break…and believe me I’ve tried.

However, about four years ago I found myself cajoled into coaching my son’s team and my obsession grew. It’s a brilliant thing to do though and one I’ve written about before, but these last few months – and in fact the stop start nature of the whole of this season – have been a lot to cope with both for us coaches and our players, as well as parents..

At the end of March though, the government began relaxing their Covid restrictions and grassroots football made its latest comeback. Unlike a lot of teams we didn’t jump straight back in though. While other teams at our club were back training on March 29th, the day that the guidelines relaxed, we waited until April 1st until we held our first session.

I have to say that it felt like a bit of an error on my part as I watched those first teams training on the fields at the end of my street! I couldn’t wait to get back and knew – via our WhatsApp group – that parents and players felt the same.

Just being able to be out of the house, mixing with team mates and testing their ability and fitness was going to be one hell of a change from what had happened since January. We’d tried to keep our boys fit by forming a training group on the Strava app with the aim of getting everyone to run a collective 50 miles per week, but it proved to be a difficult thing to do. Initially the group were running the distance every week. In fact in that first week we ran over 110 miles between us. But in recent weeks it had tailed off and while some of the lads were still running and have kept them in good shape, four or five out of a 14 player squad isn’t all that great!

On Thursday 1st April we returned to our pitch and actual football training. It was smiles all round, but just not many of them. For that first session we only had 8 players and one coach as 6 players and my other coach were required to isolate after being in contact with someone who’d tested positive. I split the lads into two groups and while we ran a few drills and did some fitness work, ultimately, given the numbers, we kept it as simple as possible. In the end, we set up some makeshift goals on the pitch, coned an area off and had a game of four-a-side. It was brilliant! Just end to end stuff, lots of goals, a blur of bright orange bibs versus neon yellow shirts and everyone involved with smiles on their faces!

At one point as I looked back up the hill that houses our pitches, we had the local amateur team playing a friendly and everyone from our Under 7s to Under 11s running around on various pitches. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself, but it felt like life might be getting back to some kind of normality.

At the end of the session though, I was reminded of something I haven’t missed at all. Parents arrived to pick up their kids and after I’d got the kids to collect cones and poles, I was left entirely alone to first pack it all away and secondly, to haul it all up the hill to my car! As the kit bag full of cones repeatedly banged up against my thigh and I struggled to balance the huge bag of poles so that they wouldn’t tip forward and empty everything out through the hole that’s been worn through, I was vividly reminded of what a pain in the arse being a coach can be! I passed probably 30 or 40 people standing spectating on various sessions and not one asked if I needed a hand!

With a game coming up and having missed months of football, I had a brainwave. Why do one training session in the week leading up to the game when you could do two? I messaged parents just to gauge opinion and availability and was met with a resounding yes. My own son had missed the first session as he was isolating and although he’s made an effort to keep up his fitness (that’s a polite way of saying I’ve been dragging him out for runs with me whenever possible), he’d barely kicked a ball for months. It was the same for many of the squad. So an added training session would do them all the world of good. Or at least tire them out so that they wouldn’t bug their parents so much for a couple of evenings!

Another reason behind this decision was our league position. We’ve actually lost points over the break as a result of a team dropping out of the division we’re in. This has left us 3rd bottom of the division and in real danger of finishing bottom if we don’t do well. So we clearly need to put in the hard yards before we kick off.

The differences between the first session we had held and this second one are marked. Firstly, I’m almost late! It happens on a regular basis. With only myself to organise on the previous Thursday, I was there with lots of time to spare and could set up and be ready as the kids arrived. Tonight though, my son has done his usual trick of being nowehere near ready. He can’t find various items of kit, despite being told to get organised, he’s labouring with his tea, he hasn’t done his water, he can’t find a hat, etc, etc.

The other difference is that we have almost a full squad. We still have one player isolating, but in all there are 13 boys ready to train. Plus the elder brother of one of them, whose team have folded, leaving him at a loose end. He asks to take part and we welcome him and hopefully his calming influence with open arms!

Before the session we have a long chat with the lads about how we’d like to finish the season. We have 10 games still to play and, as I mentioned, the very real possibility of finishing last! I, for one, don’t want that. While I always want my team to enjoy playing and am more than happy to be inclusive and let everyone have their fair share of time on the pitch, regardless of ability, I can’t hide the fact that I’m competitive. So we talk about the idea of the team and backing each other up and about the need to give absolutely everything we have in these final games.

We keep the session relatively simple, dropping plans for a passing drill in favour of a longer game and once the warm ups, jogging and sprinting are complete we run through a drill with the ball before choosing teams, handing out bibs and letting them get on with a game. Again, smiles are the order of the day and there’s no whining and moaning about what’s fair and unfair or who fouled who; just the desire to have a game. They play for half an hour with only a 1-0 scoreline to show for it, so it’s clear that their shooting skills have filtered away over the break, but we can work on that next session. We’re edging closer and closer to a first game in months and hopefully we’ll get a result. But the approach has to be one of complete positivity and encouragement. We all need to be pulling in the same direction.

We return to training two days later for our second session of the week and third since we’ve been allowed back. This time we run through a few more drills with the ball as well as upping the ante with the running, in the hope of adding a little bit of an edge with stamina. We end with a game and this time the goals flow, but sadly that brings out the worst in one or two of our lads. My team are still very young and although the idea of working as a team has been drummed into them time and again, yet the moment things start to go wrong there are those that start blaming others, griping, sniping and failing to take responsibility. It’s something I find very frustrating and once again, something that will have to be addressed before we play on Sunday. It’s vital that we work together and if we can’t, then truthfully, I’d rather not bother.

As a side note, another frustration rears its head again tonight. We decide to set up our 9-a-side goals tonight, which means hauling them about a quarter of a mile down the hill to our pitch and then back again afterwards. These aren’t light and they’re cumbersome too. The hope was that our parents would offer a hand in putting them back. Some hope. My arms and shoulders still ache this morning after the sheer struggle of carrying the goals back up the hill, lifting them over a 7 foot fence and then maneuvering them through the car park, while all the while fighting strong winds. I feel like an old man this morning!

So there we have it. Football’s back and within just a few sessions we’ve had a microcosm of the highs, lows, joys and frustrations. Here’s to Sunday, the first game back and a chance to leave over three months of lockdown frustration on a pitch somewhere in West Yorkshire. I’ll let you know how that goes in Part 2 of this blog, which I can hopefully post on Monday. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think, so feel free to leave a comment.

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