City of Sport's community events, Summer 2017

Brendan Harvey with his parents at Central Forest Park - and a great drawing of Peter Crouch!

Brendan Harvey with his parents at Central Forest Park - and a great drawing of Peter Crouch!

This Saturday (8th October) saw the last of the season’s Community Events run by the City Council’s City of Sport team.  Scheduled from May through to October, and mostly in local parks across the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent, these were great events for local communities to come and have fun and try out the City of Sport adventure activities – variously (depending on the venue) climbing, kayaking, football, zorb ball, bouncy assault courses, and more.

Having had great success at a few events last year with our friends Emma Dawson Verughese and Charlie Walker – at the Middleport Park community fair; the Street Games festival at Northwood Stadium; and the Paralympic Carnival in Hanley – we decided to gear up for our own writing workshops and invested earlier this year in a Sporting Stories gazebo, picnic tables and chairs, stacks of writing and drawing paper and a mountain of pens, pencils and colouring crayons.

The weather wasn’t always conducive to a workshop – the wind is our greatest enemy with so much paper out on the tables, followed closely by the rain with so many works of art, stories and books lying around – but we had a great summer collecting art and writing on sport. Because the events we attended were pitched very much at families and children the average age of our contributors was probably around seven or eight. With parents very often sitting in and encouraging their children’s efforts, there was a real family feel to the workshops.

We couldn’t get to every City of Sport event, and one or two fell victim to the weather, but we also managed to fit in a couple of other events: Dragon Boat Racing in aid of the local Sailability group on Rudyard Lake; and Stanley Head Outdoor Education Centre’s 50th anniversary celebrations.  Here are a few of our favourite images of authors, artists and their contributions from the events we did get to (and watch out for their work in our next volume of Sporting Stories!):

Maisie and Elliott Mills hard at work in an idyllic #sportingstories location at Rudyard Lake

Maisie and Elliott Mills hard at work in an idyllic #sportingstories location at Rudyard Lake

Charlotte Basen and mum Laura at Central Forest Park - Stoke players always a popular subject!

Charlotte Basen and mum Laura at Central Forest Park - Stoke players always a popular subject!

A hat-trick of artwork - from Kane, Archie and Lola Hughes at the Middleport Park event

A hat-trick of artwork - from Kane, Archie and Lola Hughes at the Middleport Park event

At Hanford Park - and a surprise visit from our 2016 authors Lucie and Gemma Woodward!

At Hanford Park - and a surprise visit from our 2016 authors Lucie and Gemma Woodward!

A good sport! PCSO Knight from Longton Police Station joining in the fun at Hanford Park

A good sport! PCSO Knight from Longton Police Station joining in the fun at Hanford Park

A star visitor - Paige Flinn-Smith, a national-standard gymnast from Johannesberg visiting relatives in Burslem, drops in to the Middleport Park event

A star visitor - Paige Flinn-Smith, a national-standard gymnast from Johannesberg visiting relatives in Burslem, drops in to the Middleport Park event

And another star turn - local poet Gabriella Gay showing off our favourite artwork and promoting Stoke-on-Trent's cultural identity and the SoT2021 City of Culture bid #sport #poetry #artwork

And another star turn - local poet Gabriella Gay showing off our favourite artwork and promoting Stoke-on-Trent's cultural identity and the SoT2021 City of Culture bid #sport #poetry #artwork

Just a Face in the Crowd - a star-studded book launch!

Cox Bank Publishing’s mission is very much to get people who don’t think of themselves as writers to write; and people who don’t think of themselves as active or sporty to change their perception, and try out a new activity or exercise more (and then write about it!).  For most of our authors, this means a short story or poem about their experiences, with the occasional longer contribution – two of our favourites are Nicola Lingley-Heath’s account of her epic Potters ‘Arf, and Matt Wilcox’s tale of an equally testing but very different challenge on a bike: see them both here

The author at work

The author at work

But every so often we come across an individual who has a bigger story to tell – either a really substantial piece of writing about a big challenge they’ve undertaken, or something more autobiographical about their life in sport.  Fitting very much into this latter category is Roger Horwood, a seventy-five-year-old life-long Stoke City fan who we met at the start of this year at the Sir Stanley Matthews Coaching Foundation gala dinner.

Roger is a mine of stories about his memories and experiences of supporting Stoke across seven decades, and over the course of the spring and early summer he emailed us dozens of short accounts of the matches he had attended and the personalities he had watched on the pitch.  Not only football, but cricket too, since Roger is a great supporter of that game across the Three Counties (local parlance for North Staffordshire, South Cheshire and North Shropshire).  We selected our favourite football memories from Roger and the result is our first single author book: Just a Face in the Crowd.

 

Roger’s book – as with all our books – is graced with cover artwork courtesy of Foley Creative – and as you might be able to see from the cover image below, we’ve tried to capture the essence of a football stand. But a crowd sprinkled with some of Roger’s heroes: Sir Stan, Denis Smith, Terry Conroy, Gordon Banks, George Best, Tony Waddington and more.

Just a Face in the Crowd cover artwork.jpg

With Just a Face in the Crowd being Roger’s first book – and our first single-author book – we put on a special book launch in September to celebrate the event.  The 25th September was the official publication date and so, as befits a book celebrating Stoke City, we hired the Gordon Banks Suite at the bet365 stadium and invited a small but select group including Roger’s friends and family; representatives of the Sir Stanley Matthews Coaching Foundation (for whom Roger is an ambassador); and through the good services of Angela Smith (chair of the Stoke City Supporters Council), any Stoke old boys who wanted to share memories of matches with Roger.

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And what a turn out.  Along with Roger’s friends and family, guests included Jean and Bob Gough (Sir Stan’s daughter and son-in-law); Angela Smith; stadium announcer and BBC Radio Stoke presenter Nigel Johnson; and local legends Denis Smith (Stoke City 1968-1982); Terry Conroy (Stoke City 1967-1979)) and John Ruggerio (1974-1977). Plus Gaz Williams and Keith Martin of Foley Pottery, good friends of Cox Bank Publishing and suppliers of our cover artwork. Roger was over the moon to meet his heroes and gave a very moving speech about the background to the book, overcome at times by some of the memories.

(l-r) Roger Horwood, John Ruggerio, Gaz Williams, Terry Conroy, Jean Gough, Nigel Johnson and Denis Smith, with the original painting fro the cover artwork.

(l-r) Roger Horwood, John Ruggerio, Gaz Williams, Terry Conroy, Jean Gough, Nigel Johnson and Denis Smith, with the original painting fro the cover artwork.

Just a Face in the Crowd can be ordered at any good bookshop and is available at local outlets including Waterstones in Hanley, Stoke City FC’s main store, the News Kiosk in Trentham Shopping Village, Nantwich Bookshop and H&H Spalding Books in Barton-under-Needwood. It’s also available on Amazon or order direct from us here.

Denis Smith and Roger Horwood in conversation, in front of paintings of Sir Stanley Matthews by local artist Muriel Valentine

Denis Smith and Roger Horwood in conversation, in front of paintings of Sir Stanley Matthews by local artist Muriel Valentine

Meet the Author

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One of my favourite ‘virtual offices’ (local cafes, libraries or other spaces I drop into to catch up on emails, notes, writing or just thinking) is Panaro’s Restaurant in Newcastle-under-Lyme. It’s recently moved from one end of the High Street to larger premises in a more central position on the same street, next to the market hall.  The owner, Tony Panaro, is a serial entrepreneur, cyclist, published author and chef – and very enthused by the Sporting Stories project.  So Panaro’s seemed the perfect location for the first of what I hope will be a series of ‘Meet the Author’ events, where we invite our contributors to an informal social gathering to eat, drink, swap stories and meet old and new friends.

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With generous support secured from Panaro’s, who provided the venue and canapes, we sent invitations out to over 100 contributors (and for our younger authors, their parents as well) and were delighted when nearly 40 turned up on the evening. With hindsight, picking the first Thursday of the summer holidays may not have been the best date to get everyone along – we had a lot of apologies from people dashing off on holiday – but as a test run it was a fantastic evening.  We were blessed with some local ‘sporting royalty’ – Jean Gough, Sir Stanley Matthew’s daughter, and her husband Bob; Jenny Booth, Paralympian swimmer, gold medallist and world record holder; and Angela Smith, former world squash champion and chair of Stoke City Supporters Council. But as importantly, we had local club runners, cyclists, cricketers, life-long football fans, a top-end sports photographer, poets, artists, cartoonists and more. Even a former winner of the Isle of Man TT. Exactly the mix I’d hoped for!

There was no agenda for the evening, no speeches, no formal business at all. Just delicious food, plenty of prosecco and good company.  For me it felt a bit like a wedding reception – you know, where you’re chatting for the whole evening but don’t feel like you’ve properly caught up with everyone you wanted to.  But if these become regular social evenings (I was thinking quarterly perhaps) then there’s plenty of time to catch up with lots of authors, contributors, artists and the rest, over the year.

The wonderful Jenny Booth holding court at the end of the evening

The wonderful Jenny Booth holding court at the end of the evening

Possibly my favourite bit of the day was right at the end of the evening, with just a few of us left, having a laugh about my ability to swim in circles and getting priceless advice from Jenny Booth on why.

Roll on the next one…

 

All photos courtesy of Beki Hooper
 

Stanley Head Outdoor Education Centre's 50th Anniversary party

Artwork by Ben of Moorland Scouts

Artwork by Ben of Moorland Scouts

Stanley Head Outdoor Education Centre is a stunningly situated activity centre on the edge of Stoke-on-Trent – less than 20 minutes from Hanley, the city centre, but feeling like it's in the middle of nowhere. Or rather, in the middle of beautiful countryside a million miles away from any urban conurbations.

Being near the Roaches and the Peak District certainly helps with the range of adventure activities they put on. Owned by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, the Centre provides outdoor education to schools and last year (2016) we had a fantastic set of stories on the back of Hillside Primary School’s visit to Stanley Head.

Ben with his fabulous sign!

Ben with his fabulous sign!

Today we’re here to run a writing and drawing workshop on the theme of adventure, as part of an open day to celebrate 50 years of SHOEC. The forecast isn’t brilliant and in fact it’s drizzling off and on as I arrive: but this being an outdoor activities centre no-one is fazed and there are loads of different activities being set up for the start of the day. Given a choice of where to set up the Cox Bank Publishing gazebo I plump for the middle of the field next to a football pitch and a scout tent – the Moorlands Scouts in fact. This proves an inspired choice later on in the day…

With the helping hands of the City of Sport team I’m soon established and open for business.  I have the services of Ben, a Moorland Scout, to do some sign-writing for me and he does a great job.  And soon enough I’ve got every seat filled with family groups busy writing and drawing.

 

What’s great about taking the writing workshop to events like this is the range of activities that people – mostly kids of course – want to write about.  Here we’ve got zorb football, climbing, huntin’, shootin’ & fishin’ (well, shooting and fishing anyway), more climbing, canoeing, archery, climbing again and – a bit left-field this one, but maybe one for Stanley Head to consider – dinosaur hunting. So we did get some huntin’ too.

Glyn and family hard at work!

Glyn and family hard at work!


Zorb footballing art...

Zorb footballing art...


Paige's fabulous climbing wall

Paige's fabulous climbing wall


The afternoon passes in a blur and soon the field is emptying as the event comes to an end. But before the crowds completely vanish, the skies darken again and it starts proper raining. With our central position and waterproof gazebo, the workshop suddenly becomes alarmingly popular as everyone heads for cover.  If we weren’t packed like sardines around the tables, I’d have got a wealth of additional writing and drawing, but there’s hardly space to move let alone safely field a pencil or crayon!

The rain passes, the workshop empties again and I contemplate trying to single-handedly pack the gazebo away – until I remember the trusty Moorlands Scouts. If in doubt, ask a scout – and within seconds, rather embarrassingly, I’m standing watching as five gazebo-taking-down experts sort out the rather damp chore for me.  Good on you, Moorland Scouts!

Adventure stories galore!

Adventure stories galore!

Tumbling Trampoliners!

What a success story this club is! Rachel Tonge set up Tumbling Trampoliners two years ago, and in that time the club has grown from one trampoline to seven – which is a bit of a squeeze for the dance studios they operate out of at the YMCA in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent.

I went along to have a chat with the members about Sporting Stories - and I think I might have found the most productive 'writing club' yet. I spent over four hours with them, through three back-to-back sessions, and ended up with nine really nice bits of writing – and a wealth of trampoline art (which looks like becoming a genre in its own right) from the younger members or their even younger siblings. What was striking was the number of mums who had brought their kids along to the club and ended up joining it in their own right. For some of them the trampoline, as so often with sport, was their way of getting away from the stresses and demands of everyday life.

A happy trampolinist!

A happy trampolinist!

One of the unusual aspects of the club is that every one of the seven trampolines is different – and each has its own name and character.  They are stored away between sessions so there is a lot of physical work to be done at the start and end of each day in getting the kit set up or taken down. The day I went I had arrived early so I quickly got roped in the help get the trampolines set up. Everybody seemed to wade in and help in getting the very heavy frames out and put up: it was fascinating to see how even the more slightly built club members threw themselves into the carefully choreographed routine, with four per trampoline.

 

 

 

With all seven trampolines out there isn’t a huge amount of room left in the dance studio – but luckily just enough to get my little workshop area of table and seats set up for the younger club members – and then they all start arriving. Rachel says a little bit about why I’m there and very quickly I’ve got a horde of younger club members scribbling away and producing art and poetry for me. What catches me by surprise is the number of mums who volunteer their stories too, some of them incredibly moving, some short, some long – and many singing the praises of Rachel and what she has done for them and their children through Tumbling Trampoliners.
 

Hard at work in the trampolining writing workshop...

Hard at work in the trampolining writing workshop...

A Special Day

A Special Day

29th April and as so often happens at weekends, I’m double-booked and juggling priorities.  Weekends are when most sporting events take place and the end of April and the first half of May this year are proving busy! Not helped by the 2017 calendar which on three consecutive weekends drops in our annual Bank Holiday reunion with university friends, my wife’s birthday and our wedding anniversary into a heady mix of great sporting events going on locally.

This school loves... swimming!

Some of our favourite stories and artwork in our recent Sporting Stories book came from local schools in Stoke-on-Trent: gymnastics from Summerbank Primary; outdoor adventures from Hillside Primary; and a veritable torrent on sports of all descriptions from St Joseph's College - we chose five stories for the book from a mountain of 250 submissions to a Sporting Stories competition the school ran.

What really struck us was the energy and enthusiasm for writing in schools, so we've been having conversations with a number of primary schools this year about a new series of books we're planning: This School Loves...Sport.

Detail from This School Loves... Swimming! cover. Art by Gaz Williams

Detail from This School Loves... Swimming! cover. Art by Gaz Williams

First up will be a book of poetry about swimming, which we've been working on with Hillside Primary in Baddeley Green. We're in the final stages of putting the book together, featuring work from every class in the school from Nursery to Year 6. The artwork by the children is fabulous, complemented by a stunning cover which we've commissioned from local artist Gaz Williams. Plus we've got specially written poems from the wonderful Emma Purshouse, local writer Angela James and - best of all - from Jenny Booth, world record holder and gold-medal winning paralympic swimmer. And poet.

Swimmer. Mosaic by Noah, Hillside Primary School

Swimmer. Mosaic by Noah, Hillside Primary School

We've got six books in the series, each with a different primary school and each featuring a different sport. This School Loves... Swimming will be published in May and will be available to pre-order from our webstore shortly.

 

Putting something back

Earlier this month we were delighted to be able to make our first donation from the sales of our Sporting Stories and Potters 'Arf books to the Sir Stanley Matthews Coaching Foundation. The Foundation supports the training of coaches across a wide range of sports, and we are pleased to report that Jean Gough, partron of the charity and daughter of Sir Stan, has chosen to use our donation to support the training of coaches in rebound therapy.

It was a real privilege to be invited by Jean to join her and a range of local dignatories to see rebound therapy in action at Kemball School in Stoke-on-Trent.  Two specialist coaches went through a range of physiotherapy techniques with some profoundly disabled chiildren at the special needs school - with the key to the technique being the use of a trampoline to allow the children to exercise muscles in a very supported way. And they clearly loved it! It was fantastic to see the kids having fun and getting so much enjoyment from exercises outside their wheelchairs.

Peter Hooper handing over the cheque to Jean Gough, with (left to right): Stoke-on-Trent's Lord Mayor Anthony Munday; Lisa Hughes, headteacher at Kemball School; and Lady Mayoress Paula Munday

Peter Hooper handing over the cheque to Jean Gough, with (left to right): Stoke-on-Trent's Lord Mayor Anthony Munday; Lisa Hughes, headteacher at Kemball School; and Lady Mayoress Paula Munday

As a social enterprise, we're keen to put something back into sport and other good causes, so a proportion of the sales of each of our books go to an appropriate charity. The Sir Stanley Matthews Coaching Foundation is the beneficiary of our Sporting Stories Stoke-on-Trent 2016 book. Along with two local charities, the Dougie Mac and the Donna Louise Trust, it also benefits from sales of our Potters 'Arf 2016 book.

 

Tales from the Potters 'Arf

Right at the end of last year - on the 23rd December to be precise - we published our very first book, a collection of stories from the 2016 Potters 'Arf, Stoke-on-Trent's very own half marathon. We sold quite a few on Christmas Eve to Hanley parkrunners as last minute stocking fillers, and it's sold well since to local runners.  Even though we say it ourselves, it is a lovely little book!  As with most of our books, it's an anthology of writing from people participating in sport or exercise. The writing in this case includes some lovely poems too - one of which will be featuring on the 2017 race T-shirt!

The stories (over 20 of them) are from every perspective of the race - the runners (and walkers) of course, but also the race director, the race secretary, marshals, volunteers, and others. And plenty of photos too, plus the wonderful cover image, commissioned especially for the book from local artist Gaz Williams.  Gaz is our go-to artist for book covers - he also did the cover for Sporting Stories Stoke-on-Trent and we're currently sitting on a small stack of artwork ready for our forthcoming books on the 2016 Cat & Fiddle Cycle Challenge and a book of swimming poetry.

But back to the Potters Arf. It was great to be able to do the 2016 book and to have the support of the race organiser, sponsors and charities. So much so that we''re doing it all over again for the 2017 race!  See more here.  We'll be commissioning a new cover, featuring the female winner, and looking for a whole new set of stories and poems of the race.

You can buy your own copy of the Potters 'Arf 2016 book here.

 

 

The best evening ever...

Peter enjoying a joke with Anthony Munday, the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent (and contributor to Sporting Stories 2016) at the January launch of the new book

Peter enjoying a joke with Anthony Munday, the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent (and contributor to Sporting Stories 2016) at the January launch of the new book

One of the joys of this job (publishing writing about sport) is that I'm constantly bombarded with stories from all directions, depending on the individual projects I'm working on at any particular time. In the latter part of 2016 that list of projects included Sporting Stories, our main project about Stoke-on-Trent European City of Sport; the Potters 'Arf, our book on the 2016 race; a forthcoming book on the Cat & Fiddle cycle challenge; a Sporting Futures schools project with St Joseph's College in Trent Vale, Stoke; and a nascent swimming poetry book with Hillside Primary School in Baddelely Green, Stoke-on-Trent. So I hope you'll forgive the hiatus in blog posts here!

I made several New Year resolutions this year, principal of which was to never again be publishing two books simultaneously over the Christmas and New Year period - which is exactly what I managed to do a few weeks back. Our Potters 'Arf book came out on 23rd December (and I sold the first dozen at a Christmas Eve run!) and the Sporting Stories book went to the printers on 10th January and appeared just (literally just) in time for its major launch event, which we put on in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery with the help of the City of Sport team at Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

The guest of honour at the launch was the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Anthony Munday, who gave a lovely speech about sport in the city and how the Sporting Stories book was making an important contribution by capturing and publishing inspiring stories that might not otherwise be heard.  With about 120 guests in the Museum, including nearly 40 contributors to the book, it was a wonderful occasion.  The thing that made it really special for me was the sight of so many people going round the room collecting signatures of authors for their copy of the book. With over 80 authors in total in Sporting Stories that may be a labour of love, but what a great way for people to meet and chat with our sporting heroes, be they world record holders or someone who just loves their chosen sport. I hope the pictures below give an idea of just what a great evening it was.

Now the work starts on this year's collection of stories!

The book itself! Buy it here...

The book itself! Buy it here...


An agglomeration of authors in the Spitfire Gallery! Roughly half of the contributors to Sporting Stories, including (back row second from left) Gaz Williams, who created the beautiful cover artwork

An agglomeration of authors in the Spitfire Gallery! Roughly half of the contributors to Sporting Stories, including (back row second from left) Gaz Williams, who created the beautiful cover artwork


Nicola (Potters 'Arf half marathon finisher) and Mo (GB international, wheelchair basketball) sharing stories. Just behind Nicola are Liz (ultrarunner and Hanley parkrun organiser), chatting to Jenny Booth (paralympian gold medallist swimmer and world record holder). That's what the room was like - heroes everywhere you looked!

Nicola (Potters 'Arf half marathon finisher) and Mo (GB international, wheelchair basketball) sharing stories. Just behind Nicola are Liz (ultrarunner and Hanley parkrun organiser), chatting to Jenny Booth (paralympian gold medallist swimmer and world record holder). That's what the room was like - heroes everywhere you looked!


Gianni, rising triathlon star, and his story

Gianni, rising triathlon star, and his story


With Jean Gough, daughter of Sir Stanley Matthews and contributor of a lovely story about growing up with a world famous dad. Behind Jean is Ant Bunn, editor of DUCK magazine and contributor of one of the book's most moving stories, about his father's love for Stoke City FC

With Jean Gough, daughter of Sir Stanley Matthews and contributor of a lovely story about growing up with a world famous dad. Behind Jean is Ant Bunn, editor of DUCK magazine and contributor of one of the book's most moving stories, about his father's love for Stoke City FC


Ron, lifelong Stoke City fan, with a copy of his photo from the book

Ron, lifelong Stoke City fan, with a copy of his photo from the book


Zoe, sea-kayaker, and friend (the guy in the canoe in the image from the book!)

Zoe, sea-kayaker, and friend (the guy in the canoe in the image from the book!)


Craig, StokeFIT runner, Vale supporter and author, with a great Potteries medal collection!

Craig, StokeFIT runner, Vale supporter and author, with a great Potteries medal collection!


Zara, an inspirational triathlete and author of a great sporting story, with her own greatest hero - her mum!

Zara, an inspirational triathlete and author of a great sporting story, with her own greatest hero - her mum!


Sharing a joke with Simon, a local cartoonist whose work features in the book

Sharing a joke with Simon, a local cartoonist whose work features in the book

Glenn and family - all stars of his story about the 2012 Olympic flame

Glenn and family - all stars of his story about the 2012 Olympic flame


Meg and her wonderful poem about dance

Meg and her wonderful poem about dance

And Meg again, on the autograph trail with the Lord Mayor!

And Meg again, on the autograph trail with the Lord Mayor!


Two of our work experience students, experts in copy typing and editing! Natalia from Newcastle-under-Lyme College (L) and Katie, Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College (R)

Two of our work experience students, experts in copy typing and editing! Natalia from Newcastle-under-Lyme College (L) and Katie, Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College (R)


Erin (on right) - rising cycling star, Cat & Fiddle Challenge completer and author - with her family (cyclists all!)

Erin (on right) - rising cycling star, Cat & Fiddle Challenge completer and author - with her family (cyclists all!)


Gemma, ice-skating contributor, with daughter Lucie - pictured with her friend Sienna-Ray at our Middleport workshop in the summer

Gemma, ice-skating contributor, with daughter Lucie - pictured with her friend Sienna-Ray at our Middleport workshop in the summer

Cycling: Tour of the Potteries Sportive

A new cycling event has hit Stoke-on-Trent’s sporting calendar – the Tour of the Potteries Sportive, sponsored by Fuchs Lubricants, who are headquartered in Hanley, just down the road from Cox Bank Publishing’s offices.  The inaugural ride took place last month (September) and I went along to try it out.

The start and finish were at Fuchs’ site in Hanley, with a variety of routes on offer, some sticking close to the city and longer ones extending out to cover a fair swathe of the Peak District.  I’d opted for the 100km route. There was a 100-mile route option, but I’ve learnt the hard way that 100 Peak District miles on the back of inadequate training is a miserable experience. You’ll only do it once!

There were a couple of familiar faces at registration – Norman from Lyme Racing Club and Peter Holdcroft of Stoke FIT.  Peter and I know each other as runners so good to have a chat about our cycling lives. Norman, I discover later, had a big hand in designing the Stoke section of the Tour of the Potteries route.

We set off just after 9.00, on schedule and in a very light drizzle. I’d put my rain jacket on at the start and then took it off again, undecided as to how damp it was going to get but knowing that after five minutes I’d be ‘boil-in-a-bag’ in the jacket.  Good choice in the end – although it drizzled off and on through the morning, it was never quite wet enough to need it.

The route took us up Hope Street, past Intu and then out of the city via Birches Head, Bagnell and Stanley. It’s a stunning route out that very quickly delivers some seriously testing hills (Bagnall Bank and beyond) and Staffordshire Moorlands countryside that arrives so soon it feels as if it’s still part of the City. All I can remember of the next twenty or miles as we head out through Cheddleton is that it is hill after hill after hill after hill - and this is before the Peak District proper has arrived. I start to worry that even the 100km route is going to be beyond me.  Even more so when an unexpected ‘kick’ near the top of yet another hill turns my legs into unresponsive jelly. This is a first for me – I had the gears to get up it, just not the juice in the tank. I don’t mind running out of gears and having to put a foot down, but my legs refusing to play is a new one. I walk the 50 yards to the top, sparking a few “alright mate?” and “everything OK?” from other cyclists as they spin past.

Back in the saddle, I struggle on, hoping that the feed station isn’t too far ahead.

We’re on the high ground east of Leek now, and for what feels like the next hour every signpost says “Longnor 3 miles”, but in a different direction each time. I think the route grazes the Manifold Valley at one point and I begin to wish I’d paid more attention to it before I’d set off. Where’s that feed station?  Every road sign seems to have ‘Bank’ or ‘Edge’ or ‘Hill’ in the place names, and route certainly seems to veer towards (and up) every one of them.

Another long struggle up a minor road to the A53 at Flash, after a big stint pushing hard in cross-winds on the moors, and there’s the Flash café, with a small mountain of bikes stacked outside. Only a couple of them have Tour of the Potteries sportive numbers on though. A rider steps out of the café and I ask him where the feed station is. “Oh, it’s at Gun Hill”.  “What, the bottom? I ask, while I try to work out how many miles it is to Gun Hill. “No, it’s at the top”. Between Flash and Meerbrook, where Gun Hill starts, is I reckon at least five miles away.  It’s the Flash café for me.

Quarter of an hour later, a gallon of tea, several flapjacks, some crisps and chocolate to the better, I set off again on stiff legs.  100 yards down the A53 towards Leek, turn right to pick up the road to Flash village, and 50 yards on there’s a big sign at a community centre saying “Feed Station”. Whoops. The perils of misinformation. I stop again for more cups of tea and flapjack, grab some gels and I’m on my way.  Two feed stations in twenty minutes and I’m flying – too quickly as it happens for the next turn, which I don’t spot until too late. I brake hard to turn left but my back wheel isn’t having any of it and carries on, so I steer with it, just avoid a stone wall and a drop into a valley and just about stay on the road. Entertaining stuff…

The next section around the Roaches is lovely but I’m waiting now for the fuel from the two food stops to kick in.  Down the next hill and around a few more corners is Meerbrook, and that spells the start of the infamous Gun Hill, beloved of Tour of Britain route planners.  If my legs gave out on a small hill at around mile 20 then I’m going to really struggle here.  But it’s a result – a long, slow, gritty struggle to get up, but get up I do. And thankfully that must be (I think) the worst hill behind me now as the route skirts west of Leek, forever seeking out minor roads and avoiding as far as possible anything remotely like a main road.

A tail wind makes life even better and I start to enjoy the odd hill. But then the route drops down towards Rudyard Lake and up the other side of the valley towards Biddulph Moor.  This hill goes on and on, and then on and on some more, longer than Gun Hill and steeper too.  This is a real battle.  Up ahead I can see the road steepen and wind into a tight left hand bend.  I’m not going to be able to get up the inside of the bend, so my only hope is to crab across the road (I’m already zig-zagging) and get round it on the right.  Luckily it’s a really quiet road so I can hear if anything is coming – and just at that point, I hear a car coming up behind me.  I’m practically stationary on the pedals willing it to come past before the bend so I can pull across the road behind it. Luckily the driver makes the right choice and goes round me before the bend, which means I am now doubly sure nothing is coming round the corner from the other direction.  And I just make it round, legs screaming and threatening to turn to jelly on me again.  The hill goes on for ages yet but that was the crux point and I top out on Top Lane with magnificent views all round.

Top Lane - looking back towards the Peak District

Top Lane - looking back towards the Peak District

Out to the west, Mow Cop stick out as a familiar landmark.   A few miles further and Mow Cop comes into view again, closer this time. I start to worry.  The route planner has found every possible hill he could across Stoke and the Moorlands – surely they wouldn’t throw in Mow Cop at the end?

Thankfully Mow Cop never comes, but the route now heads into Knypersley before yet again diving down a minor minor road  and up another seemingly vertical hill (Greenway Bank). I’m aware of another cyclist coming up behind me and when he catches me on the hill – not difficult – we have a bit of a chat about our respective rides. He’s retired and on a Sunday outing.  When I say where the finish of my ride is he proceeds to list all the hills left for me to do.  All the hills! Optimistically I’d thought maybe this latest never-ending hill was the last, but no.  As we head into Brown Edge we pass his house and he invites me in for a cuppa. It feels really rude to decline, but I’m only a few miles from the finish now and despite the detailed description that he’s just given of every hill still left to do, I know that however tempting it is to stop,  if I do now then I’m going to really struggle to get going.  I’m also worried that as best as I can tell, there’s probably only three or four riders still out on the route behind me and there’s a serious risk of me being last in.  Not that it’s a race, but I’d really rather not be last!  So I decline the invitation as gracefully as I can and push on.  The remaining hills come and go, there’s one more unexpected diversion down minor roads near the finish - I instantly assume to go and find a hill somewhere - but the hill never appears and instead there’s one final turn into the Fuchs site and the hugely welcome sight of the finish arch – and even a few spectators to cheer me in.

I chat to the race director at the finish and say what a great route and without hesitation confirm that I’ll certainly do it again next year.  Which I will. But with a few more miles training in my legs perhaps, and a few more gels stuffed in my pockets for those bad moments.

An event marshal gets me a cup of tea and while I’m chatting to her another rider hobbles past, clearly in some discomfort. I ask if she’s OK (despite hardly being able to stand upright myself) and she say “Yes, I got knocked off my bike by a car and I’m quite sore but nothing broken…” Amazing.  I feel a total wimp.  Turns out she was on the short route and got dumped off her bike and into a privet bush, from which a couple of passers-by extracted her. She got back on her bike but her hip was hurting and then a bit of shock set in, so another rider stopped and helped her, rang his wife and she came and gave her a lift back to the race start, where she waited for her husband to finish the medium route. Amazing.  They’re a tough breed these Stokies.  I’d have been straight off to A&E, lightweight that I am…

#IAmTeamGB

Saturday 27th August was a day of celebrations – a day to celebrate our 2016 Rio Olympic successes under the nationwide banner of #IAmTeamGB. Sports clubs, sports centres, community groups, parkruns and others all got in on the act, all across the country.  Cox Bank Publishing headed out on the day, sporting a brand new TeamGB T-shirt, to sample what was on offer in the local area.

Lord Mayor Anthony Munday supporting TeamGB, with help from Hanley parkrunners

Lord Mayor Anthony Munday supporting TeamGB, with help from Hanley parkrunners

Stoke on Trent, as a European City of Sport, had pulled out all the stops and had a host of Olympic sport-themed activities taking place through the day.  My plan was to try and do as many of them as I could in the course of the day. Planning was made simple by the excellent IAmTeamGB website (http://iamteamgb.com/) which listed all the registered events on the day, searchable by location.  Stacks on locally, so I split the day into hour-long slots and set off early for my 9.00 kick-off in Hanley Park with the Hanley parkrun.  This is my local parkrun so good to catch up with fellow-runners, former work colleagues and a sprinkling of contributors to Sporting Stories. Quite a few folk there sporting TeamGB kit.  Lined up next to me at the start is a lady wrapped in a Union Jack flag – on a warm and humid morning not the coolest of choices but certainly a ‘Cool Britannia’ look!  I get chatting her: she’s Margaret Taylor and a relative newcomer to parkrun, but getting faster each time so PBs on each outing. Not today though – she’s going to take it easier and enjoy flying the flag for TeamGB.

Margaret flying the flag for TeamGB

Margaret flying the flag for TeamGB

Knowing that I’ve got a long day of sport ahead of me I start near the back vowing to take it easy but of course after 1k and the first hill that goes out of the window and Mr Competitive kicks in so I end doing a semi-respectable (for an old person) 22:53, 51st place and 2nd VM55-59. Not that it’s a race…

I find ace race photographer Mick Hall at the finish and ask for a copy of any shots he’s got of Margaret and her flag – and here she is, ‘in the zone’ on the hill.

Next up for 10.00 is table tennis but the Ping table in the park is minus its bats and balls so I head over to Trentham Gardens and a spot of Nordic walking with my mate Jake and an event he’s organised under the guise of his social enterprise Human-Nature Escapes (link). There’s half a dozen of us there and we spend a pleasant, if wet, 30 minutes doing warm up drills with the walking poles - not your ordinary poles but serious bits of carbon fibre sporting hardware – and then Nordic walk across a field or two before the rain defeats us. Great exercise though, and gentle on the knees which is good, they’re feeling the effects of the hilly 5k earlier.

Soggy, but enthusiasm undampened, I head next for Nuffield Health’s #IAmTeamGB event.  The swimming pool looks pretty tempting so I dive in there first and knock out a few lengths of front crawl and breast stroke before heading up to the gym where I have half an hour’s fun trying out the various weights equipment and a couple of bikes.  I set the second bike up for ‘undulating terrain’ and whizz through a few miles of virtual hills – which will count as minimal preparation for next the next weekend’s Tour of the Potteries ride in Stoke…

Time for a cup of tea and a spot of social media (link?) in the café there and then on to Northwood Stadium to see what’s on there for #IAmTeamGB.

There’s some badminton going on inside, and a couple of families trying out the table tennis tables. I haven’t ticked off a racquet sport yet, so ask one of the mums if I can take on her young son.  He loves it and we’re soon joined by a slightly older lad from the other table wanting to play.  This is Henry and he’s a serious competitor so we end up in a keenly fought match of ‘Henry’s rules’ table tennis in which Henry comes out the 10-9 victor.

Next up the athletics track: again a couple of families here trying it out and some long-jumping going on too.  I can’t resist testing my 400m form (1:29.96 – bit of work needed there!) and get a real buzz from sprinting around the track.  I wander over to watch the long jumpers and recognise Neil Gilson, our local Olympic Ambassador and leading sports coach.  He’s coaching a couple of girls in the long jump – no doubt future Jaz Sawyers, with Neil’s expert input. The girls’ dad is helping with the rake and tape measure. I chat to Neil and feel privileged to watch him in action – he’s been coaching locally for 50 years – 2016 is actually his half century anniversary which surely deserves some kind of reward or honour? If ever there was a deserving case it’s Neil, who has coached hundreds of juniors in rowing and athletics through the school and club system and on to regional and national honours and record-breaking performances. It’s also nice to discover that the dad is Richard Dawson, ex-professional footballer and coach to Leek United U-12 girls team. Georgia, his older daughter is competing at the national long jump championships in a few days, so the fact that both she and her sister pop PBs as I watch augurs well.

I stay longer at Northwood than I’d intended, but it’s so inspiring chatting to Neil and so in keeping with the spirit of #IAmTeamGB to see him coaching the next generation of future Olympians – watch out for the Dawson girls in 2024…

Next stop is Stoke Staffs Boxing Club.  It’s late pm now and I’ve missed the earlier crowds – they were really busy earlier in the day – but Liz, one of the coaches, takes time to open up the club especially for me and gives me a tour. It feels exactly like a boxing club should be: down a little backstreet, in a side door, up a flight of steps and into a set of three rooms, one almost completely filled by a boxing ring, another kitted out with punch-bags and the third with gym equipment.  All run on a shoestring by Liz and her partner, but producing their own little crop of national champions – the latest being Stoke on Trent’s Junior Sports Personality of the Year, Barney Stokes. Barney won both the England and Great Britain titles in his age group in 2015.  He’s not at the gym today because he’s on a week-long training camp with the GB squad -  #IAmTeamGB Olympian hopeful for 2020.

Last up is a judo club on the way home from Stoke, but I can’t find the venue.  The sports centre I turn up at is however hosting a crunch league match between Market Drayton and Newport Town cricket clubs, first and second in the table. So I end the day watching a local derby (albeit not an Olympic sport) and thinking that sport locally is in pretty good shape. Roll on #IAmTeamGB next year – surely this should be an annual celebration of all things Olympics?

Postscript

The icing on the cake: a couple of days later I get a tweet from #IAmTeamGB thanking me for my participation on the day. If I had to pick an Olympian to celebrate with then a triathlete is spot-on!

Guest blog: Exercising and creativity are just 'human-nature' - by Nick Dutton

This guest blog is written by Nick Dutton, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist.  It's about a subject close to my heart, the value of exercise and the outdoors in well-being - not just in being healthier physically, but in overall well-being, physical and mental.  The article documents the creation of a new social enterprise, Human-Nature Escapes CIC, with which Cox Bank Publishing collaborates closely in areas of common interest. I'm proud to be the Be Active advocate for Human Nature Escapes.

 

Recovery journey inspires new social enterprise promoting well-being

It is estimated that, in any one year, one in four of us will be suffering from some kind of mental health problem, from mild conditions which will settle given time to severe problems which require prolonged intervention and treatment.  Help with such problems may be as simple as a listening ear from a friend or at the other end of the scale may require medication and psychotherapy.  The ‘one in four’ figure tells that no one is immune from the risk of mental illness; indeed those of us who believe that we are somehow invulnerable to such things are often riding for the greatest fall of all.

All this means that it is wise for all of us to consider looking after our mental health to be a priority.  Sometimes, though, the stresses of life can be so great that illness can strike no matter how well prepared we think we are.  At such times the emphasis is on the process of recovery and ultimately of working out effective ways to stay as well as possible in future.
In my career as a mental health professional I have come across many inspiring stories of recovery, and occasionally of people being motivated by their own experiences to want to help others in similar situations.  One such story is that of Bradwell resident Jake (Jeremy) Cliffe, who suffered with a stress-related illness.

Inspired by Nature

Jake’s recovery was aided enormously by having a loving family to support him, particularly his wife Joanne.  Over time they realised that the most effective therapy for Jake was a combination of exercise and appreciating the natural world around him.  The purchase of Dalmatian pup Lola was a crucial moment in Jake’s recovery as this got him out of the house and gaining exercise.  Jake also immersed himself in local nature sites, regularly visiting green spaces like Trentham Gardens and Westport Lake, walking and cycling and recording everything as he went, through his new hobby of photography.

Jake has now captured his journey to recovery in an electronic picture book, Everything, Without Everything Within, mainly consisting of the photos he has taken of the natural world (often from unique angles and alternative perspectives), but also with thoughtful text explanations of his experience of recovery and (with permission from songwriter Tony Clarkin) lyrics from Jake’s favourite rock band Magnum, whose music also helped inspire his recovery.


In addition to the ebook (available to view for free on the website http://human-nature.org.uk/ebook/ ), on the back of the strength of his own recovery journey, Jake has now decided to change his whole career direction.  He’s founded a new community interest company called Human-Nature Escapes to promote well-being within the local community. 
He’s trained and now qualified as a Nordic walking instructor, finishing 3rd in his first ever 5k challenge event held at Wollaton Park in Nottingham earlier this summer, and also gained qualifications to lead mountain bike rides.  It’s proof that sometimes people can and do bounce back from health adversity and can make good (and even full) recoveries.

Green your Exercise & Exercise your Creativity

With the social enterprise the intention is to engage people in health promoting physical activities (such as community gardening, nature conservation, Nordic walking, and greenway cycling) in high quality natural environments, with all the activities being graded to suit the needs of the individual.  The appreciation and participation in nature and landscape related art is another major feature of the project.  Jake has now linked in with a number of local artists, conservation specialists, business partners, therapists and counsellors to shape the project.  
“What we aim to do” says Jake, “is to take people closer to nature, and to bring nature closer to home.  We’ll encourage them to look after mind and body through green exercise, helping them get the most out of the wonderful parks and green spaces available to them.

We’ll also help them to tap into their own individual creative talents, with nature inspired art activities like therapeutic photography, pottery making and decorating using nature printing techniques, wildlife habitat making and garden art /design.  Overall we’ll be giving people the opportunity to demonstrate care not only for themselves and other people, but also the environment and planet as a whole.  

We’re specifically aiming to support people in recovery to maintain resilience from common emotional wellbeing conditions like workplace stress, depression and anxiety.  We won’t discriminate though – our activities will be equally open to the wider healthy population for their general health and wellbeing too.  We aim to make both recovery and maintaining good health a ‘pleisure’ – a nurturing leisure experience for everyone to enjoy.”

Human-Nature’s unique artists’ collaboration ‘thescapeartists’, (some of whom themselves have ‘lived experience’ of health recovery using art, green exercise and nature), will be launching activities, workshops and programmes from some of the nicest venues and most therapeutic local landscapes - places like Keele and Trentham Gardens.  All activities will be based around their unique spin on the evidence based ‘ways to wellbeing’; Connect (People), Be Active (Body), Take Notice (Place), Keep Learning (Mind), Give (Spirit), to which they’ve uniquely added two extra ways - Care (Planet) and Be Creative (Self).

Human-Nature Escapes CIC is a ‘profit for purpose’ social enterprise, and was formally launched earlier this month (August) at a special event at Keele University Sustainability Hub.
For further information see their new website: www.human-nature.org.uk  or their social media.

 

Guest blog: Becky Latham, work experience student

Becky is a student at Stoke on Trent Sixth Form College and spent a busy week with Cox Bank Publishing, with a packed diary!

My week spent at Cox Bank Publishing has been exciting, memorable and an invaluable experience. I’ve been lucky to have landed a week with so many meetings and events, especially because the weather has been lovely so escaping the office for an hour was well appreciated by Peter and myself, and I have met a broad range of interesting people with much to offer.

On Monday I was greeted at the Dudson Centre, Hanley, by a very welcoming group of VAST staff members who have been helpful and approachable all week. My day began by being introduced to the Cox bank Publishing office and I was happy to be given some time to read through recently received Sporting Stories for the website. That gave me a very good insight into the kinds of inspirational stories I would be hearing and reading about all week, such as Andy Baggaley’s which I enjoyed reading very much. This has given me a much greater appreciation for sport considering dance has been my only ever link to the sporting community, as I lack the appropriate strength and stamina to be any other kind of athlete. I was also enthused to read through the ‘comic strips’ a primary school class had contributed illustrating their first lessons learning to do gymnastics. Some took a bit of translation but the fabulous drawings bought their enthusiasm for learning to life, which was exceptionally rewarding to witness.

Throughout the rest of the week we have been busy darting round to various meetings with people from the council, to primary schools, to local artists to a group of teenagers completing their National Citizenship volunteering qualification. One of the most memorable experiences, however, was the visit to the Karvan, a colourfully decorated caravan on the edge of the city.  See more about the Karvan here.

The beautiful KARVAN (c)

The beautiful KARVAN (c)

It was lovely to meet Emma Dawson Varughese, who owns the vehicle and takes it around to various festivals and schools for people to explore literature. As an English Literature student myself, and hoping to study it at university next year, I found her method of teaching and dedication to the encouragement of reading particularly influential. Stepping into the Karvan was an experience in itself. The floor was covered in plastic grass and I was dazzled by the array of colours from the flags, walls, posters and cushions which represented many cultures and countries. Bells hung from the ceiling and there were exotic ornaments dotted around the room. It is easy to understand why she manages to capture attention and interest from all her visitors because it is so easy to become absorbed in such a beautiful place. I especially liked the Urdu and Arabic lettering when she explained it “lets people associate that culture and religion in a positive way” because of everything happening in the world right now, and particularly helps groups from ethnic minority backgrounds be in a comfortable place which unites all communities.

and the lovely interior of the KARVAN (c)

and the lovely interior of the KARVAN (c)

We discussed how the Karvan could have multipurpose in benefiting Cox Bank Publishing as well if we rented the space to be used at sporting events to encourage athletes to come and tell their stories.

Another useful meeting was with the local entrepreneur and artist, Andy Cooke, who we met to discuss a range of opportunities including creating the primary school comic strips I mentioned earlier into real life publications. As creative as the original drawings were, we thought they may need some neatening up by an artist to combine all the ideas and create an overview.

En route to 'Entrepreneur' - Andy and Becky by his City of Sport mural off Cheapside

En route to 'Entrepreneur' - Andy and Becky by his City of Sport mural off Cheapside

Halfway through the meeting we decided to visit his shop around the corner and explored the gallery space he owns on the first floor, with all walls covered in modern, urban art. He revealed the space was open for rental which produced another opportunity for Cox Bank Publishing as possibility for a launch venue for the next book or collect city centre sporting stories. Meetings like this held throughout the week showed to me how important it is to make links with people because there is no limit to the opportunities and possibilities it opens up.

Today, the final day, we met up again with the teenagers doing NCS. To complete the NCS programme, they need to do a week’s planning of a volunteering event followed by a week completing the volunteering activity which they worked in partnership with Stoke City Community Trust and Cox Bank Publishing. Their focus was on sporting within the community and have decided to go into places such as care homes, disability centres and every day sporting centres like Fenton manor to teach, coach and chat to the groups about sport through their lives. Through these interviews, they will be taking notes and providing the sporting stories to Cox Bank Publishing if the individual would like to share it with us, which can benefit the business by providing us with many more sporting stories to share and inspire, as well as giving the NCS group guidance with their project. Today was an example of that. We organised it as a practise run to give an insight as to what their activities next week may be like. For a part of this I held a mock interview with an employee from Go Outdoors, called Tom, which was good practise for myself to try a new skill and also benefited the group because they learnt how to take down brief notes from fast chunks of information.

NCS 1.jpg

 

Overall the week has been extremely rewarding and exciting. I have learnt how publishing works; how professional meetings can not only solve the situation at hand but lead you in many directions you may not have considered, as well as skills such as drafting emails, website page editing and how to lead a successful interview. I am very grateful for Peter Hooper for giving me the opportunity to work at Cox bank Publishing for the week and will definitely keep checking up on the website and keep in touch to watch this project excel as I’m sure it will do extremely well and keep on growing.

Guest Blog: Katie Pickering, work experience student

Katie Pickering, a student at Stoke on Trent Sixth Form College currently studying A Levels including English Literature and Media Studies, is one of a number of students doing work experience with Cox Bank Publishing this summer. During her week with us Katie visited Bentilee Volunteers to chat to the community groups there.

 

It was a fascinating day in Bentilee collecting sporting stories from community groups at Bentilee Volunteers, where there was an instant welcoming atmosphere. Prior to our visit, Janet Mason, a volunteer at the centre, had spoken to the members about what to expect and whether they had any sporting experiences, to help direct us towards some of the individuals with intriguing stories to tell.

Once members were approached and prompted to relate any outstanding memories of sports - that they either participated in or simply enjoyed watching - the stories rapidly appeared. Although not all were relevant to sport - there were very detailed explanations as to why some of the women enjoyed knitting or baking - within the stories there were the obviously cherished and memorable experiences of sport, whether dating back to their childhood years or just the previous week watching Wimbledon or the Euros. It seemed that the people that you would least expect to hold such interesting stories were the ones that delivered the most entertaining tales, and without encouragement to delve back into these memories, they might easily have never been told.

Engaging conversations...

Engaging conversations...

From the individuals who I spoke to, the majority of whom were elderly women, I got the sense that sport did not appear to have a great impact on their lives. The most common response that I was given was that in the days that they were at school, they had never been exposed to sport or given the opportunities that children now are provided with. Many thought that if they had had that same access when they were young, sport may have played a more prominent role in their lives.

Some revealed that they did not have the access to sports equipment and therefore would resort to making their own entertainment such as hopscotch or playing marbles. Others had more personal reasons for not participating in sport, including one woman who said that as a child she had very thin legs and was given the nickname ‘Olive Oil’, so she hated playing sports due to self-consciousness.

Within the group, I managed to find a couple of sports-related interests that they had, from watching ice-skating on TV to having pursued a hobby in cycling, riding from Stoke to Wolverhampton. Another aspect of the day revolved around encouraging those with stories to tell to develop a piece of writing to contribute to Sporting Stories, and advising them on how to write it in order to capture the importance of sport for them. 

Moving on from the centre, we then went on to the other volunteer centre and charity shop in the hope of more stories. Although there weren't as many people, every effort was made by Janet to encourage and point people with a history in sport in our direction. In the end, various sporting stories were collected from this outing, ranging from existing pieces of writing, to fantastic quotes pulled from the stories that were told, or a general insight into the impact that sport had on someone's life. 

The Potteries Marathon

Hard on the heels of the Potters ‘Arf in the running calendar comes the Potteries Marathon.  With only three weeks between the two, and with a sore foot and very tired legs from running the ‘Arf, my training strategy for the full marathon – reputedly the seventh hilliest in the world and the hilliest outside North America – was a week’s recovery (no running), a week’s rest (no running) and a week’s taper (no running).  At least my foot had stopped hurting after a few days and - a good sign – I was itching to run come 3rd July.

I had a sense of how tough the race was going to be from the Potters ‘Arf course, which included some very challenging hills, including the dreaded Heartbreak Hill, and very little flat.  But great crowds and a huge sense of achievement from completing the course.  Clearly the full marathon is going to be the same but with bells on, although thank goodness Heartbreak Hill isn’t on the full course. I tried to blank out the fact that it was over ten years since my last marathon and I’d done precious little training – my only race target was to finish.  Time and style immaterial, just get me to the finish line.

The start is at the Britannia Stadium (I’m pretty sure it was still the Brit in July – it’s now the BET365 of course).  Great location and good to see Ken Rushton and other familiar and friendly faces at the start.  Loads of Stoke FIT runners as usual, and as you’d expect some big turnouts from other local clubs.

Unlike the Potters ‘Arf, it’s a beautiful day, if anything a bit warm and sunny for a marathon.  My strategy is to try and stick to sub-9 minute miling and try for a sub-four finish, but to stop at each water station and make sure I take on plenty of fluids.

The route of the marathon is a lesson in urban geography and industrial heritage, taking in so much of the conurbation of Stoke on Trent: Hem Heath, Dresden, Florence, Adderley Green, Bentilee, Abbey Hulton, Milton, Cobridge, Burslem, Middleport, Porthill, Wolstanton, Newcastle, Westlands, Clayton, Penkhull and Trent Vale. It is also remarkably green, as is the city.  It has, of course, its own killer hill (well, lots of them) but the crème de la crème has to be Porthill Bank – at about 15 miles in, steep and sapping – and as is always the case on the most challenging sections, completely rammed with spectators.  I think I manage to run up it, although brain fade was setting in at that point.

My foot, which had been gently reminding me of the Potters ‘Arf since about mile three, really doesn’t like this hill or the more level subsequent section through Wolstanton, so by Newcastle and mile 18, just past a lovely friendly marshal manning the A34 underpass, I have to call it a day and grind to a walk. Or a hobble.  My foot is really, really painful by now, hard to walk on it let along run, and a lot of miles left to go.  I walk as far as Clayton (three miles by my count) but a word of encouragement from Frank Murphy, the founder of Stoke FIT, at a water station at around mile 21 gets me going again.  That and a rough calculation that unless I start running again I am going to take about five and a half hours to get to the finish.

Baling out had entered my mind as I hobbled along Newcastle’s Iron Market, to the pitying gaze of passers-by, but I’ve never had a DNF (apart from shin splints at mile 32 of a 100-mile challenge – that did do for me).   Maybe I’ve got tougher (or more obstinate, or just plain more stupid) over the past ten years, but I grit out the last three miles, hoping for a sub-5 and preferably a sub-4.45 (my time in my first London Marathon).  Penkhull, Trent Vale and the back end of the Michelin are a complete blur of run-walk, passing, being passed by and re-passing a select group of fellow stragglers. Ray from Stoke Fit with his trade mark red flat-cap is on about the same pace at me but mostly because he seems to be stopping to chat to half the spectators. He certainly has the energy to pull away in the last mile or so.  Finally, with half a mile to go I realise that if I put in one last effort I might break 4 hrs 30 – and I even manage what feels like a sprint in the final finishing straight (uphill of course), with the clock ticking past 4:29:50 as I push for the line.  Job done.

Postscript

My foot was sore enough the next day for me to break the habit of a life-time and go and see my GP about a running related injury.  In the surgery I discovered that both the student doctor who did the initial examination, and the GP when she came to check on the student’s diagnosis (suspected stress fracture) were former runners, both unable to run any more after serious running-related injuries.  Not stuff I wanted to hear.  The next day the X-ray man gave me better news – no fracture, so ‘just’ soft tissue injury, and by then I was virtually pain-free again. So rest, then run again.

Let’s see how it holds up in the Leek Half Marathon in early August – that can’t be too hilly, surely?

Bearing up at Leek... 

Bearing up at Leek... 

And then sub-four in next year’s Potteries marathon…

 

The Potters 'Arf

I’m not sure when the idea came to me: it emerged fully formed sometime in the latter half of May this year.  Why not do a Sporting Stories book about a single event? And why not pilot the idea at the Potters ‘Arf – it’s an iconic Stoke on Trent race, a really popular half marathon, incredibly well-supported. And runners more than most sports people love to write. It chimed perfectly with the Sporting Stories project that Cox Bank Publishing is doing to celebrate the City being a European City of Sport.

I’d already had the idea of creating a bit of a flurry of stories for the event, speaking to local writing groups, writers and poets to get them engaged and I had invited a well-known West Midlands poet, Giovanni Esposito - Spoz for short – to come along and support some creative writing on the day.  The great thing – well, one of many, many great things – about the Potters ‘Arf is that it starts and finishes smack in the city centre, and there is a brilliant atmosphere and big crowds.

As the idea gelled I started thinking about the stories I would need – obviously plenty from the runners themselves, but also from others associated with the race.  Fortunately, I had already had a couple of contributions to the sporting stories project from some key individuals associated with the race: Ken Rushton, one of the original founders of the ‘Arf and still very closely involved with its organisation; and Don Shelley, one of the founders of the Potteries Marathon, from which the ‘Arf grew.

So I contacted Ken and with his blessing dropped an email to him and David Lowndes (from the Hanley Economic Building Society, the race’s main sponsor) with an outline of the concept. They both loved the idea and offered whatever support they could to the project.  Ken invited me to the next meeting of the race organising committee, where I made my pitch.

I’ve assisted at plenty of sporting events, running and cycling, mostly as a marshal, sometime as a lead car driver, but attending the Potters ‘Arf Race Organising Committee was the first time I’d really seen what it’s like behind the scenes at a big event.  All the sponsors were there, the marshalling coordinator, the race director, the race founder, the car hire company, the beneficiary charities, the town centre manager – a room full of people, all dedicating significant amounts of their time to make the event work for participants, spectators and the City alike.  So when I made my pitch for the book idea – which ideally needed all of them to contribute a bit of writing about their perspective of the race – I was slightly nervous.  I needn’t have worried – 100% buy-in!

The next bonus was the realisation that the day of the Potters ‘Arf was on the same weekend of Stoke on Trent’s big annual literary event, the Hot Air Festival.  With a race poet lined up and hopefully some great creative writing to come, I was delighted when the Hot Air organisers approved my request for the race to be an official fringe event to the main literacy festival.  I think that might be a first – an official literary half marathon!

It was all coming together.  The next step was to have somewhere where I could base the writing workshop, and here the City Council very kindly stepped in with the loan of one of their big ‘European City of Sport’ vans, complete with awning and banners - and the unexpected bonus of Lotta joining us for the day. I added a table and chairs to the mix and we had a base to work from on the day.

Ready for the off...

Ready for the off...

At last, the day of the race arrived – 12th May - and I headed ‘up Hanley’ bright and early with a car full of flyers, banners, table and chairs.  Once I’d dropped them in the vicinity of the race start – already a hive of activity – I headed down to Hope Street to leave my car at the office and to meet up with Spoz.  Bang on cue Spoz rang my mobile to say he was in the city and “just walking down to the Dudson Centre with your wife”.  This surprised me, because as far as I knew my wife was at home. Perhaps she’d decided to come and spectate at the last moment? I wandered up Hope Street and could see Spoz in the distance strolling down towards me hand-in-hand with someone. This is worrying…  I wonder how I’m going to explain to friends and family that my wife has left me for a poet (and Birmingham City supporter to boot). Turns out I should have gone to Specsavers for a sight and hearing test because Spoz arrives and introduces me to his wife. Not Mrs H.  Bit of a relief…

Back at the van Emma Dawson Varughese of WorldLits, another local writer, had appeared to do some survey work for me, asking spectators what had brought them to the event, who they were supporting, who they were fund-raising for etc.  She had a sheaf of forms - and an umbrella as it had just started raining.

We wandered up to the start area and I caught up with Ken and a few others, and then took Spoz along to the Hanley Economic branch to introduce him to David Webster (then CEO of the Hanley, now CEO of the Dougie Mac) and Councillor Anthony Munday, the Lord Mayor.  Ten back to the van but by this stage the heavens had opened, so my vision of spectators and runners sat around in glorious sunshine writing down their stories was not looking good.  A few runners sheltered under our awning but with the race rapidly approaching it was not a good time to distract them.

With about five minutes to go I remembered that I was supposed to be actually running the race so hurriedly made my way to the start, a long way back in the start pen.  The rain eased off a little bit, and seconds later we were off!  The race itself was all that I expected from what people had told me - a great course, some big hills (including the aptly named Heartbreak Hill) and fantastic crowds everywhere.  And mostly dry-ish. As we ran through the various towns and villages that make up the city there were spectators three or four deep – crowds which wouldn’t put the London Marathon to shame!  By the end of the race I was struggling badly with a sore foot but still with a big smile on my face and within my target time of a sub-two hour finish – really pleased with that given how little time I’d had to train. And the fact that I’d spent two hours pre-race dashing around Hanley trying to get a writing workshop set up.  So I should say a big thank you to Ray with the red flat cap from the Stoke FIT running club, who was the pace-maker for sub-two hour pace – great job Ray and always a friendly word.

Being held upright by Spoz - not sure my legs were working at this stage. But I've got my medal!

Being held upright by Spoz - not sure my legs were working at this stage. But I've got my medal!

The aftermath

Back at the finish, Spoz had turned the workshop into a poetry takeaway, which given the weather (it started pouring again at the end of the race) was an inspired choice – so rather than getting people to write, he chatted to them and then ‘cooked up’ a poem for them.  We ended up with some lovely pieces which people really cherished.
And then the real work began – of getting as many contributions for the book as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to create race book before the autumn.

 

The Joy of Collaboration...

The Joy of Collaboration...

Something which never ceases to amaze me in developing projects for the company is the power of collaboration.  Many of the organisations I work with are social enterprises or businesses with an ethos of 'profit for social purpose', but key partners in nearly everything I do are sports organisations, voluntary organisations, local writers' and artists' groups and increasingly schools. Without exception, when I meet these different entities, they are happy to share ideas and to talk about how to support joint projects.