I’m not sure when the idea came to me: it emerged fully formed sometime towards the end of May this year (2016). 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 it seems, love to write. It also chimed perfectly with the Sporting Stories project that Cox Bank Publishing is doing to celebrate the City being 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 had invited a well-known West Midlands poet – Spoz – 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 already had 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, sometimes 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 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 – a 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. I added a table and chairs to the mix and we had a base to work from on the day.
At last 12th June, the day of the race, arrived 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 (the Dudson Centre) 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). 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 (CEO of the Hanley) and Anthony Munday, the Lord Mayor. By this stage the heavens had opened, so my vision of spectators and runners sat around by the van 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 myself 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 felt as big as those at the London Marathon! By the end of the race I was struggling badly with a sore foot but with a big smile on my face still 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. 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 and always a friendly word.
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 for the autumn.