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Running into 2007 and running out of the year
10:37pm Tuesday 1st January 2008 in Your Say
THANK heavens for that. After 365 days of running, my single-minded challenge to run around the British Isles came to an end at 12.05am on New Year's Day.
As climaxes go, the finish to my fund-raiser was a huge anti-climax with a capital A. Just a handful of folk had congregated outside a social club in Milford, Derbyshire, to witness the finish of the Bryan Clifton Memorial 5km race.
Among them was my dad who has been a huge supporter of the challenge. He's been to quite a few races to encourage me, including the London Marathon where he was on hand at the 19-mile mark to dole out Kendal Mint Cake and jelly babies.
The contrast between that sweltering hot day last April, and a dark sidestreet in the heart of the Derwent Valley couldn't have been greater. But this, after all, was the place where the challenge began on December 31st, 2006, so having run into 2007 at Milford, it was only appropriate to run out of it.
New Year's Eve had been quite a day, though. It began with a quick radio interview on BBC Radio Solent with Jon Cuthill live on air, before dashing off to South Wales. The destination was Mountain Ash in the Rhondda Valley for Nos Galan - an annual 5km race through the streets of this Welsh town which takes place every New Year's Eve.
The race commemorates the legend that is Guto Nyth Bran, a man who could catch a bird in flight, chase and capture a hare in the field, and run from Porth to Pontypridd and back in the time it took to boil a kettle!
Guto was the Linford Christie of his day, a man who worked on a farm, tending sheep, but who became famous in the Valleys for his running prowess. He would regularly compete in races winning convincingly, and as the challengers became fewer and fewer, Guto chose to go into early retirement. That was until a few years later when, at the age of 37, a new challengers persuaded Guto for a head-to-head race from Bedwas to Newport - a distance of 12 miles. Guto won the race in a remarkable time of 53 minutes (the current half marathon record is just under 59 minutes). However, in the celebrations which followed, Guto colapsed and died in the arms of his loved one, Sian-O'-Shop. He was carried to his final resting place at Llanwonno Church.
Guto's life is celebrated every year in Mountain Ash when a representative of the current sporting elite visits Guto's grave to lay a wreath in recognition of his superhuman achievements before the start of the Nos Galan races. Among those who have carried out the task are Ron Jones, David Hemery, Steve Jones, Kirsty Wade, Nicole Cooke, Neil Jenkins and Iwan Thomas. That sporting hero this year was a rugby player from the Ospreys who I hadn't heard of, who ran into Mountain Ash with a flaming torch to light the beacon.
It is a major event in Mountain Ash, with the whole town closed off for the evening. There is a fun fair, street entertainers, and children's races, as well as the main adults races. A spectacular firework display is one of the highlights of the event.
This was clearly a race I had to take part in if my journey around the British Isles was to be fullsome. The difficulty was that I had to be in Derbyshire, some 160 miles away, by 11.57pm for the 80th and final race.
At Nos Galan, there are two races, one for the elite athletes and then the general adult run. To qualify for the elite race which sets off at 7pm, you have to be able to run 20 minutes for 5km, a feat I have achieved just once. I tend to run around 21/22 minutes for the distance. The trouble was, I needed to get away sharp from Mountain Ash to reach Derbyshire in time, and with the main adult race beginning half an hour later, I decided months ago to enter the elite race.
Warming-up in the streets beforehand, I was bricking myself and beginning to regret the decision to line up with the whippets. The announcer was telling the crowds how the winning runners would take 15 minutes, with a couple of internationals in the field, and the slower runners 18 to 20 minutes. Little did he know about the Stubbington Green snail warming up in the distance. This was going to be such a public humiliation on a three-lap course around tightly-packed streets. For the first time I ever I was going to come last.
The fireworks display and the prize-giving held up our start. As the delay lengthened so my anxiety heightened. There was no friendly banter among the elite runners, no smiles exchanged. I was crusing for a bruising. When we did get going I was caught by the suddeness of the start, and it took me a good minute to settle.
Boy was the pace fast. I knew I was going to have to run out of my skin to be competitive. I ran hard, I ran fast, trying to not be disspirited by the runners passing me.
Half way round the first lap you looped back on yourself so you could see the field behind you. I was comforted by the sight of nine or ten runners behind me. There was no way they were going to pass me, my target was to draw in those in front. The crowd support was huge. It was like a city centre race. We passed the finish funnel at the end of the first lap. I was trying my guts out. No-one did overtake me after that initial burst, and I passed a couple of runners by finishing strongly to cross the line in a time of 20min 20sec. I was happy with the time, wishing it could have been 21 seconds faster, but delighted to have survived and not disgraced myself.
It was then a dash to the car waiting on a side road and the drive to Derbyshire. Fortunately the roads were quiet on New Year's Eve and I made smart progress to Birmingham and then on to Derbyshire. It took just two-and-a-half hours to get to Milford where my dad was waiting.
We made our way to the social club in the village which was the base for the race. The wallpaper had changed but the atmosphere was the same. Organiser David Denton was there in the corner taking race entries. I wasn't expecting a fanfare or any great announcement, but there was no mention about this being my 80th race. A year ago, David had made an announcement before the race about what I was doing. This year he seemed strangely offhand about it all.
I changed and stripped off for the race. We assembled at 11.50pm on the road outside the social club, David gave a few brief instructions, and with a whistle we were off at 11.57pm. I was feeling slightly tired from the 5km earlier in the evening, but got into a good pace as we headed up the main road towards Duffield.
At midnight, fireworks blazed into the air. The air was warm and the night still. I was chasing a family of three who had overtaken me, including a young whipper snapper who couldn't have been more than 10-years-old, followed by mum and dad. We turned by a cone at Duffield at the 1km mark and headed back to Milford.
Suddenly, the realisation that this adventure was almost over, dawned on me. This was it. My last ever race of the 80. The end of a year-long voyage of discovery. It was now 2008 and I was about to complete what I had set out to do.
A final uphill stretch to the social club awaited. There was my dad, camera in hand, to photograph my finish. A timekeeper called out my time - 8 minutes 30 seconds, for ninth place, and that was it.
Such an anti-climax. No champagne, no party poppers, no brass band. Wearily, I headed into the social club where David announced that toast was available to those who wanted it. No presentation, no announcement, no speeches. That was it as I put my head in my hands, exhaustion passing over me like a wave.
I changed clothes, picked up my belongings, and without so much as a goodbye, I walked out of the social club in Milford and into the night air of 2008. Over and out!