I came and I conquered!

A giant wall nearly 30 feet high stretching 5,000 miles through Northern China built in the Ming Dynasty to keep invaders out and now a UNESCO site, many parts are through tough, rugged mountainous terrain….perfect for a marathon right?  With 20,000+ steps traversing the Gubeikou and Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall on both older unrestored and newly restored sections meandering through secluded & rarely visited sections offering up breath taking panoramic views and memories to last a lifetime.  It is the Conquer the Wall Marathon.

Running on the Great Wall is a bucket list item for many runners and intrepid adventurers with good reason.  There’s a number of races that now take part on the Great Wall but this is the one and only that actually spends over 85% of the race on the actual wall, which in turn makes it all the more challenging.  With a variety of distances, Conquer the Wall Marathon offers a 5km, 10km, half and full marathon so there’s something for everyone. 

With direct flights to Beijing from most international airports it’s a straightforward trip  with the race organisers taking away the stress of logistics organising transfers and accommodation packages, all you need to do is ensure you get your visa before you travel.  Having been to China before I didn’t take advantage of the cultural tours on offer but opted for a Chinese cooking course to brush up on my skills.  The day before the race a group of us went to The Beijing Cooking School and spent a few hours making dumplings from scratch before feasting on them together over a late lunch. 

Making dumplings.

With the race starting at 6am that meant a 3:30am rendezvous in the hotel lobby for all the runners to board the buses to the start.  Breakfast bags filled with a bagel, juice and bread were available and my coffee sensor quickly worked out the 7-Eleven opposite the hotel was doing Costa Coffees to go.  The 2 hour bus trip gave the option for some light napping before people began to stir in anticipation as The Wall came into view.  The scale of what we were about to tackle suddenly became very real.  This legendary wall is even more incredible than anyone expects the first time you see it.  The Wall extends as far as the eye can see with gatehouses and watchtowers forcing breaks in this seemingly never ending dragons tail.

Nervous anticipation ran through the start area like an electric current and we were all keen to be let loose into the wall.  The marathon starts first with the other distances starting at intervals after that, which is great as the first section is an out and back so it was a welcome distraction to see the other runners after the turn around point and be able to both give and receive shouts of encouragement.  The race starts straight up a fairly gentle hill and as you can imagine a number of people set off way too fast.  I held myself back and tried to remain consistent not letting the fact that most of the field were pushing on ahead of me already, I knew I was in for a long day, Little did I know truly how long!  The first half of the marathon is most certainly the easier half, run partly on trails beside the wall due to the dilapidated condition of sections and nowhere near as steep, not to mention on fresh legs.  I remained consistent and promptly started passing a number of runners that had gone out too quick and found myself as leading lady and in the top 10 overall.  

Start line action (Photo: http://www.runningshots.sg )

After the halfway point the course becomes steeper and trickier in all aspects and knowing that you have to traverse this out and back section twice means you really have to be completely motivated and keep your head in the game.

A mid point ice cream to help keep my head in the game!

The Wall is in varying states of condition with some areas that have been restored and in good condition to other sections where the path crumbled away, some steps were only an inch or two difference in height whereas as other steps required both hands to pull you up they were so high.  Other areas were smooth stone that your feet slipped on regardless of grip and in the end I could be seen holding onto the wall as I inched my way down.  A couple of sections became nearly vertical requiring all fours to traverse, at one point climbing these steps I looked down at my watch to see I was currently pacing at 50min/mile!  There is no section of this wall that is truly flat, you are always either ascending or descending which is all part of the challenge.

Up and up (on all fours sometimes) (Photo: http://www.runningshots.sg )

Most of The Wall is completely exposed to the elements, although I was glad it was the sun beating down on me rather than rain, there was no respite from the heat.  The only respite came in the watchtowers for a few brief seconds where local vendors were hawking their wares, of which I purchased 2 ice cold cokes and a fruity icy pole over the course of the second half of the marathon which were life savers.  There are a number of manned checkpoints from the race along the route allowing you the opportunity to refuel and restock your water and electrolytes along the route but nothing beats an ice cold coke in that heat.

Enjoying a bit of hydration on The Wall (Photo: http://www.runnershots.sg )

By the time I hit my 2nd lap of the section it was truly a battle to survive.  The effects of the never ending steps were taking a toll on my body combined with the heat zapping the remnants of energy in my body but I’d come here to finish this race and finish I would.  Looking around me I was inspired by the sheer greatness of The Wall, here I was running along one of the greatest wonders of the world; a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history that stretches back some 2,700 years.  What an amazing feat of engineering and architecture to build a series of walls and fortifications that stretches some 13,000 miles, and I felt an overwhelming sense of motivation and positivity as I soaked up the outstanding views around me.

Simply breathtaking

I had done it!  2nd lady and 16th overall in a time of 10h 34 mins out of 22 finishers.  I’m unsure how many started as the results move people into different categories with unofficial finishers for alternative distances as people who were unable to finish the distances they’d set out to do but were able to finish in another way which I think is a great touch from the race as it truly is a massive undertaking which is quite easily under estimated from afar.

Crossing the finish line (Photo: http://www.runnershots.sg )

Conquer The Wall Marathon website warns you that ‘This is going to hurt.’  It does! It hurts during and it certainly hurt for quite a few days after.  My calf muscles were so tight that even attempting to get a massage 3 days later was impossible as I was still unable to take human touch.  Let that be a learning for anyone that wants to conquer the wall, and for myself should I be luck enough to return one day, that some serious step/stair training is a must to avoid this level of DOMS.  Through suffering comes an amazing feeling of accomplishment and pride, leaving China as a warrior that has conquered The Wall is a prize in itself and I hope that many more will venture forth and tackle this beast.

Proud as punch to win 2nd female

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Race entry starts at $350 and participant perks include:

•Free round-trip transportation to the Conquer the Wall Marathon start line from Beijing hotels

•Official Conquer The Wall Marathon technical running shirt

•Official finisher certificate

•Collectible finisher medal

•Official swag bag

•Runner breakfast, Juice, and bagels

•Scenic course highlighting of the Great Wall of China famous sites

•Course support

•Finish line water, juice and sandwiches

•Optional local city tours

I have seen the brick wall

face to face

the ancient hollowblocks sprawled

against an embankment

with roof blown open

for enemies watchful rivalry eye

for paid spectator’s sight seeing

your dynasty dividing the world

into half literally

a concrete – walled serpent

cutting the outer crust margin

wherever I look at your spine

I see you are wrapped in old centuries 

fashion cloth

dressed with moss and chinese

character algae medicines

cunning and boastful

you shield your grandfather

warrior’s glorious times

preserving against evil invaders

with your symbolic incense in your unfold shoulders

with fun shui ritual in your rooted feet

your face remains as calendar cover

with 12 month full pages hunging in the wall

as great as the entire 2009th year 

Rommel Mark Dominguez Marchan

Pioneering the Wilderness of Outer Mongolia

Mongolia is a rugged, land locked country nestled between China and Russia made up of vast eco regions and deserts and is truly one of the world’s last undiscovered travel destinations. When the opportunity presented itself to join in on an expedition to Outer Mongolia to experience not only the culture of a vastly different country but to also run the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon in temperatures reaching -40 degrees celsius along the frozen Tuul river, I couldn’t resist.

Mongolian Horseman

Mongolian Horseman

Stepping off the plane and driving into Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, is like going back to the 1920’s of the soviet regime.  The cars and the buildings combined with the stark white snowy landscape and heavy clouds of frozen pollution feels like entering a bygone era.  As I leave the taxi my skin immediately pulls away at the bone chilling cold that -40 degrees feels like and my nostril hairs freeze solid instantly which feels like someone is waxing the inside of your nostrils.  It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could survive in these conditions, let alone live a lifestyle.  Dark figures walk the streets with their faces unrecognisable under all the layers of hats, scarves and face coverings adorned with various types of real fur creating an eerie atmosphere.

Ulaanbaatar Architechture

Ulaanbaatar Architechture

Mongolia has surprisingly managed to this day to remain relatively unscathed from the usual mass tourism influx and general westernisation even whilst offering an unparalleled opportunity to experience it’s harsh and brutal environment that is pristine and evocative at the same time. Mongolian people are renowned for having a tough exterior to match the weather but spend a little longer getting to know them and you find people with the warmest of hearts that love nothing better than sharing their food, ger (traditional round shaped dwelling used as a shelter by the Mongolian nomads) and local vodka with you.

Traditional Ger

Traditional Ger

Leaving the capital city and saying goodbye to all the mod cons life was however about to become even more extreme as we headed into The Gorkhi-Terelj National Park in Northern Mongolia. Such extreme cold brings with it a range of dangers, at 40 degrees below you feel the cold in your lungs, you feel it touching your blood, it’s hard to take deep breaths of air this cold without reflexively coughing and it doesn’t take long for any exposed tissue including ears and eyeballs to freeze, dangerously freeze!

Stunning landscapes

Stunning landscapes

Relief from the cold is found inside the gers, heated internally by wood stove fires that burn 24/7 to create an environment that is delightfully warm and cosy.  In fact all aspects of life are carried out in the gers where we slept up to 10 people at a time; dressed, ate, drunk, sang and danced.  Life is basic with no electricity, running water, bathroom facilities or wifi which resulted in conversations fuelled by the purest of vodka long into the nights as the Mongolians won’t take no for an answer and consider it an insult if you turn down their non-stop offerings of it.

David & Tumerol cracking open our first of many bottles of vodka

David & Tumerol cracking open our first of many bottles of vodka

With nightfall came the magic of star gazing, being so uninhabited and with no light distortion the stars shine proudly in the sky with the Milky Way providing a light show you can never tire of.

Mongolian night sky

Mongolian night sky (Photo-Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

A simple diet of bread, cheese, meat and root vegetables is the staple usually served in the form of either soup or casserole type dishes with local goat featuring heavily. In tough conditions there was understandably a noticeable lack of fresh fruit and leafy greens compared to what we would normally eat but cold weather calls for stodgy warming food.  Traditional dumplings quickly became my firm favourite along with the warm milky tea to warm you up when you came in from the cold.

Milk anyone?

Milk anyone?

The stillness of the isolation is broken regularly by the barking and howling of husky dogs that are eager to get to work pulling a sled along transporting people and goods over the frozen river ways and trails. The ger camps are protected by another breed of dog known as “Bankhar” dogs which thankfully keep the wild wolves at bay by their scent which apparently is enough to keep them away, hard to imagine when these dogs are some of the sweetest, friendliest dogs I’ve come across.  Whilst we didn’t encounter any wolves face to face we heard them in the distance and noted the tracks near our camps daily.

Husky sledding

Husky sledding

It’s phenomenal to watch the huskies being prepared for a journey and then taking control of your own team of 6-8 dogs pulling you along in a sled in a frenzy of energy and excitement.  The dogs are super competitive with each team constantly trying to overtake the next, taking shortcuts and cutting each other off whilst hurtling you along at speeds of up to 15km/hr.  The experience of husky sledding was the experience of a lifetime with a tick firmly placed against the bucket list after a magical ride gliding along the ice and watching the landscape whizz by.  A whole new meaning to the word picnic was created as we were treated to a delicious hot lunch of traditional dumplings, vegetables and hot tea, keeping ourselves warm with a fire directly on the frozen river whilst the dogs enjoyed a rest rolling around on the ice to cool down.

Picnic on the ice river

Picnic on the ice river

Myself and 9 other runners make up part of the 20 strong team that travelled to Mongolia to run the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon along the frozen Tuul River, for many of us our first ever experience of such arctic conditions. Acclimatisation prior to the race came in the form of wild golf where each contestant is given two shots to get their ball closest to the hole.  Beginners luck meant that I won this competition much to the dismay of the avid golfers in the group.

Snow Ninja's, who is who (Marina, Lucja and Lenka)

Snow Ninja’s, who is who? (Marina, Lucja and Lenka)

An initial little 3 mile run to test our running kit near the camp was interesting to try with most runners commenting that the breathing element was quite difficult and we wondered how we would fare over the full 26.2 miles in a couple of days.  We were now keen and ready for the challenge we had all travelled so far to do, the ice marathon.

Mongolia Ice Marathon Starting Group (Photo - Johnny Graham - Digitalpict Photography)

Mongolia Ice Marathon Starting Group (Photo – Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

The weather conditions were near perfect for race day with clear skies and only a touch of wind with the temperature at the start recorded at -34 degrees.  To keep the competitors as safe as possible the route started and finished at our nomadic camp following trails before turning onto the ice river surrounded by mountains on either side.

Mid run photo!

Mid run photo!

The surroundings were pristine and I felt like an explorer off into the unknown with the ice singing under my feet and echoing musically in the trees.  The initial sounds were unsettling hearing the ice shifting and moving underneath you with the occasional crack of ice where my foot would drop down an inch, just enough to bring my attention back to full focus, with my Due North ice grips over my Brooks Pure Grit shoes working their magic to keep me gripped firmly to the slippery surface of the frozen river. It was magical to weave along the path of the frozen river passing the occasional local on horseback or small herds of cattle that were somehow grazing on goodness knows what in all that ice.  I don’t know who stared more at each other whether me at the locals in their interesting fur costumes or them at me in my X-Bionic snow outfit.  I was always conscious of the threat of wolves in the area but the comforting sounds of husky teams barking and howling in the area alleviated that.

Action shot (Photo by Johnny Graham - Digitalpict Photography)

Action shot (Photo by Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

It was a great satisfaction and relief to finish the race with no issues from the cold but even better to cross the line as 1st female in 4h19, 4th overall behind Doc Andrew Murray 1st in 3h07, Doug Wilson 2nd in 3h42 and Paul Dunstan in 4h12.  More great results followed with all except one completing the event safely with all fingers and toes still intact with only a minor case of frostbite affecting 2 of the runners.  There were a few hours of concern when one of the competitors was unaccounted for but was thankfully found safe and sound shortly after nightfall.  That situation resonated within me and no doubt all the runners as we contemplated how challenging these events are and the threat is ever present of things going wrong, making you think of loved ones at home that your heart ached for.

Frozen face post marathon

Frozen face post marathon

Surprisingly the temperatures were not the hindrance I initially thought they would be, especially in relation to my fingers which stayed toasty the entire race but it was the 1500m of altitude we were running at mixed with the frozen vapour and nose secretions that made breathing very difficult.  The biggest surprise came the following days where all the runners felt none of the usual aches pains commonly known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), particularly after running on a hard impact surface such as ice, which I put down to the cold temperatures preventing the muscles from inflaming.

Coming across a local enroute

Coming across a local enroute

The race is more than an event it’s an entire adventure, put on by seasoned expedition leader Dave Scott of Sandbaggers (who is also the Honorary Scottish Consul for Mongolia) and his local support crew, in a vast and rugged landscape which brings a special and unique feeling of solidarity and camaraderie with the entire team of runners and supporters alike that have developed into strong bonds. It’s an experience to challenge your mind and body and be rewarded with everlasting memories of a beautiful country.

Friendships to last a lifetime

Friendships to last a lifetime

Just hanging about in the snow

Just hanging about in the snow with new and old friends

I am an Ultra Runner! And so is Dion!

After a false start on 19th January when I was supposed to be running the Endurance Life www.endurancelife.com Coastal Trail Series Anglesey Ultra, but this got cancelled due to the snow, I finally made it to the start line of my first Ultra with hubby in tow.  34 miles around the North York Moors.  Of course there was the option of running a 10k, half marathon or the marathon, but not for me!

We made a weekend of it by heading off Friday afternoon from Manchester and stayed at a fabulous B&B in Whitby, http://bensonsofwhitby.com/ who were superb in organising our porridge breakfast for the ungodly hour of 6am without hesitation.

To the start line, it was a 7am registration, after running big name marathons this in itself was a shock to the system by the simplicity of the whole registration and start.  It was a refreshing change though.  There were 39 of us that started, even one with a dog!  The Marathon got underway at 9am, half marathon at 10.30am and the 10k at 11.30am.

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The first section was a gorgeous run along the cliff tops of a 6.9 mile loop that we would revisit again as our last stage.  We were all flying along there, not even noticing the stairway to hell (more on that later!), even with me stopping for an impromptu toilet stop in the bushes courtesy of my pre-race nerves.  I remembered to down a Clif Espresso Shot gel at about 5 miles, just after CP1 at 4.8miles and just before 3 others & I (including hubby) took a wrong turn having to run an additional ½ mile and losing about 15mins in faffing around trying to figure out where to go.  At least we figured out where to go, some poor runner ended up in Scarborough and needless to say did not finish the race, probably just had Fish & Chips and a taxi back to Ravenscar!  We found out afterwards that some local funsters had pinched the directional signage 3 times already, little nutters, lets make them run 34 miles and see how funny it is!  Anyway back on track and having to overtake a big group of runners that we had all just passed 1/2hr previously was pretty demoralising and mentally draining to say the least.  This loop took us back past the start where the half marathon and 10k runners were all milling about waiting to start, so that gave us all a bit of a push from their cheers and encouragement.

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The course then took us north up through Robin Hood’s Bay and the views were absolutely stunning and the hills unrelenting, particularly through Boggle Hole.  I tried eating again at 10miles with 2 bites of a Clif bar, which was all my stomach could manage, I must get better at this eating whilst running business.  Being such a great weather day there were a lot of walkers out giving out lots of encouragement and keeping well out of the way.  CP2 was just at the edge of Robin Hood’s Bay at 13.3miles which we passed again after a ‘quick’ loop around up a rather unforgiving hill!  I did try eating again up this hill, taking advantage of walking, with a cheese & ham roll, again I managed 2 or 3 bites before giving this to the seagulls to finish off!

Just under 5 miles later I was at CP3, which was listed as 18miles in, however my Garmin was showing 20, this worried me as I didn’t think we had gone that far off course earlier, but now started to think this was going to end up a 36mile race which was not a positive thought!  Chatting to another runner, his watch was half a mile less than mine, so I was pleased to see that.  By this stage the marathon and halfers were scattered amongst us all which provided some more conversation and helped kick me along.  I got chatting to one half marathoner who was already in agony stating he was pleased it was only 4 miles to go!  I just agreed and plodded along until he asked me what distance I was running.  He was then in awe and asked if he could run with me until the finish to pace him, I agreed but said I’d be lucky to keep up with him!  However I dropped him along the moors and didn’t see him again.

The run along the moors was beautiful but tough, my energy was waning and it was a walking shuffle jog, is that a technical description?  I thought I had better try eating something again and managed half a salami stick, which tasted surprisingly good!  It actually gave me an energy boost too, I’ll be using that again, they are so light too so easy to carry.  I’m glad I had my next energy wind as I then passed hubby at the marathon finish line, who’d pulled out after the marathon as he had been sick across the moors and it just wasn’t going well.  I agreed to keep going and would see him soon I hoped!

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It was back on the loop now for the last 6 odd miles to go through.  This was an up and down loop emotionally as well as physically, the stairway to hell I mentioned earlier was nearly the end for me, I was in so much pain for them I had to go down them sideways one step at a time leaning on the bannister and the uphill back out the other side of hell wasn’t much easier!  I was also worried about taking the wrong way again, but needn’t have worried as this time CP 5 was located there.  What a saviour!  Managed some water there and half a bourbon biscuit and back on the disused railway line for the last 2 miles to the finish.  I caught up with number 325, Iain Denby, at CP5 and we walked/ran the last bit home.  Hubby had recovered enough by then to meet us about a mile from the finish and walked/ran back with us as well which was great.

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Gone were the adoring crowds of the finish line, but I clocked out and got my finishers dog tag and were were off!

I can’t believe how well I pulled up the next day, felt much better than after Manchester Marathon 6 days prior.  I was even walking down stairs the right way, and 2 days after the race was back on the bike, and running on the 3rd day!  I think this was down to 2 reasons, trail running is much softer on your joints and muscles, although some different ones in my ankles & calves ached from the uneven terrain, and of course you run differently, its not as fast and there is some walking (in my case at least…..as well as for many others).

I was stunned by the scenery and loved the whole run, the experience and the fact I am now an Ultra Runner.  Look out North York Moors, I will be back! 

Now this run was a test for both of us, and after much debating, we have decided to really challenge ourselves to complete the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon www.extrememarathons.com .  Our challenge is to run (walk or crawl) 250km (155 miles) through the Kalahari National Park (think sand, rocks, gravel, hills, mountains and then some) in temperatures ranging from 40 degrees during the day to 5 degrees at night, over 6 stages taking place over 7 days.  With set distances each day ranging from 28km (17mi) to 75km (46mi).  It is a fully self sufficient race, so we have to carry all my own supplies to survive, including all our own food & compulsory survival kit.  So stay tuned, there will be many a training run between now and then!

Boston Qualifying Time!

Dubbed as the flattest marathon in the UK, and being in my home city, I entered this marathon with the dream of qualifying for Boston.  For my age group this means a sub 3:35, or possibly 3:40 as I go up to the 35-39 age group for next years Boston.  Given the recent disturbing events at Boston, this felt even more important to achieve now.

Race day dawned and it was perfect running conditions, a cool 6 degrees, maxing out at 11 degrees, with just a slight breeze.  Fuelled up on carbs and plenty of fluids the last 3 days I got to the start line in plenty time to find my place in start area B next to the 3:30 Brooks pacers.  We had a 26 second silence followed by 26 seconds of applause for the Boston Marathon which pulled at the heartstrings.

And then we were off.  I set off at a blistering pace out of Old Trafford at 7:40/7:45 which worried me that I might have set off too quickly, but I thought stick with it, you’ve got to give it your all.  I passed the 3:30 pacers and settled into my pace which was feeling surprisingly comfortable.  Keen to reach mile 8 in Sale, where hubby & a friend would be, I kept the pace up and was soaking up the great atmosphere from all the supporters.  Hubby was super pleased to see me so soon and ran alongside me for some quick words of encouragement and an offer of half a flapjack which I declined.

Headed out through Brooklands & Altrincham, then back through Brooklands where hubby was again at mile 16 for a strategic bottle swap, and again some words of encouragement and a running hug!

The next 4 miles went past quickly, still holding my strong pace out past Carrington, where Manchester United train,until I hit mile 21….that’s when the pain started, my right quad was screaming pain, but I just kept thinking its only 5 miles to go, its not even your run commute to work, don’t let this awesome pace go now.  Things did slow down, I had another friend out at mile 23 in Urmston which gave me a boost, but still 3 miles to go.  I checked my watch and I could see a sub 3:30 slipping away, I needed to keep 8 min miles, but at this stage I was on 9 minute miles, this gave me a kick and I managed to keep my speed in the 8:30/8:45 to see me home.  It was an amazing sight to see the majestic Theatre of Dreams up ahead and the last 200 yards down to the finish were in a world of hurt, I couldn’t see or hear the crowds, it was just me & that finish line!  3:33!!! I could hardly believe it myself, there were tears and plenty of smiles & hugs too.  Absolutely elated!  I even rang my Mum in Australia and got her out of bed to share my news.

The support along the way from all the Mancunians that come out was immense, if you are looking for a fast, flat marathon with great support then sign up for next year!

ImageBefore the start, looking fresh & happy.

ImageMile 8, looking fresh & happy with my progress.

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Mile 16, looking pretty happy still, but pain about to kick in!

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After! Looking very pleased with myself, my medal, my PB of 3:33 and a qualifying time for Boston.

 

 

 

Colourful new shoes – Day 22 Janathon

Was definitely feeling it from yesterdays efforts, particularly the weighted squats, DOMS in inner thighs……that’s a good thing in my book by the way!

7 mile cycle to work got the blood flowing again.  It wasn’t too icy either which was nice.  I did double glove and double sock just to make sure though!

A package arrived for me today……new shoes!!  I love getting new running shoes, I have been wanting to get these since I saw them last year (just after I had bought my last pair!) so had to wait until I ‘earned’ them!  They are perfect for me, in orange, the Dutch colour!  So now Running Dutchie is complete.  Image

Keen to try them out, I ran home in them, took a different route through Manchester Centre City, so that added a mile on as well, so a nice 8 miles home.  That was more than enough as could just feel my feet getting a tad sore, as they always are on run number 1.  Then they will be aok from here on in.

I did actually get around to printing my Runners World Smart Coach Marathon plan, considering I have signed up for Manchester Marathon at the end of april, I thought I had better get some structure going, though I will no doubt blast the mileage out of the water!  Thats the plan anyway!!!!