The Arf of two Arfs - by Nicola Lingley-Heath

Sporting Stories writes: we've had a number of projects running in the Stoke-on-Trent area through 2016, one of which was to produce a book of the City's iconic half marathon, the Potters 'Arf.  We've had some great stories from the event, from runners, marshals, volunteers, organisers, sponsors and others. You can see more on the project page here, but we wanted to share one of our favourites on the Sporting Stories site. Thanks to Nicola for allowing us to share her story more widely - it's a real lesson in battling through difficulties and not giving up.


Running has never come naturally to me, despite my will to try. My attempts started as a kid during Primary School, where I had a go at joining the after school cross country club. I turned up, nervous, in my little black pumps, shiny blue shorts and White t shirt. I felt ready. Cross country was slower than sprinting, so surely I'd be ok at this. How wrong could I be?! It seemed all the sporty people were also good at this and I immediately fell to the back of the group. I was embarrassed and made to feel upset and rubbish at all the other kids jibes at the 'fat kid having a go'. I never went back! That after school cross country session was a defining moment for me that put me off PE for the rest of my schooling years. I alternated between a verruca and being on my period every week, for the whole 5 years of high school. Embarrassed about taking part in athletics in front of the lads, nervous about being put on and being the let down in the 'good' team in rounders! I couldn't stand the thought of it, so avoided it like the plague.

Over the years, my weight increased bit by bit. By 2011, I saw a photo of myself and realised something had to change. After a couple of years of trying out various exercise classes, I had a moment of madness in 2013, when I signed up to the Greater Manchester 10k. Having never tried running again, since that after school club disappointment, I was taking major step. I completed a couch to 5k on the treadmill. To cut a long story short (there is more detail of this on my blog), it wasn't until 2015 that I completed my beginners course and joined Warrington Running Club. Over the past 16 months, I have gone from being a non-runner, unable to do a mile without stopping, to someone having done five half marathons, numerous 10 and 5k's and about to take on the challenge of a marathon.

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Potters ‘Arf half marathon. The event I have been wishing for three whole years. After doing my beginners course in February 2015, I’ve spent every day following that working towards being able to do this race! I wanted to go ‘home’ and show all the people who laughed at the fat kid that I can do it, I have guts and determination, and can run a half marathon. For the whole week running up to the race, I prepared as well as I could have, ate well and drank plenty of water. I was so excited and looking forward to showing my mum and dad what I could do. Being potters themselves and only living in Burslem, they were coming to see me off at the start line and wait around for me to cross the finish.

Arriving in Hanley early Sunday morning, I was filled with the feeling of familiarity. I haven’t lived in Stoke for over 10 years but, despite a few changes in shop names, the town centre still looked the same. Having had my usual pre-race breakfast of porridge and bananas, I threw in some unconventionality, heading to the oatcake truck outside boots! When in Stoke, you’ve got to have oatcakes, regardless of whether you’re about to run 13.1 miles or not.

I was feeling so ready for this! I first considered the Potters ‘Arf marathon after dabbling in running and completing the Manchester 10k in 2013. I struggled through that 10k using a run/walk method, and spent the whole time wishing I could be a ‘proper’ runner. I vowed to train harder for the following year and go back to run the race from start to finish. In 2014, I returned but sadly, I walked even more of the 10k than I had the previous year. After trying all sorts of exercise classes and bootcamps, I finally found a solution in February 2015. I enrolled myself on a beginners running course! From the very first session, which saw me take tentative steps and barely manage a 1-mile loop, I vowed that I’d work towards returning ‘home’ to do the Potters ‘Arf!

Now here I was, 16 months and four half marathons later, stood on the start line with determination flowing through my veins. I was ready for this. I had my running buddies with me from my club back in Warrington (aka WRC) and felt like my head was completely in the zone. Even the rain hadn’t put me off!

A couple of the guys from WRC had told me that the Potters Arf course was a toughie, with hills after hills and nowhere near as many downs as ups. Being a Stokie and growing up in the potteries, I was fully aware of how hilly it is. Or so I thought!!

Pretty much as soon as we started there was a hill, and I realised I’d set off too fast to be able to maintain the pace for the whole distance, especially to combat the hills on route! For the time being, I went with the flow. It felt weird following the road round into the city centre. The route the 6a Bus went when I used to go ‘up ‘anley duck’ as a teenager. Approaching the blue clock, an old school friend spotted me and shouted from the roadside, offering cheers and support. It set a whole bunch of butterflies floating round my belly with excitement and nerves about what I was about to take on.

My head was in the game, my mind set was strong, I just hoped my body wouldn’t let me down. The crowd lined town centre was buzzing with claps and cheers from family, friends and passers-by as we ran past. Out of nowhere, I spotted my wife, mum and dad stood on the other side of the fence, cheering me on. It was just what I needed as the course seemed to open up before us and the Potters ‘Arf really got going!

I felt good on my feet, distracted by the surroundings of my younger years. Passing Argos, where I used to spend many a weekend in the run up to Christmas, spending pocket money on gifts for my family. I was transported back to my youth, heading to the bus station after a hard day shopping in MarkOne and New Look. The only difference now is the bus station was on the opposite side of the road! It felt so strange, but oddly comforting. I started to settle into my stride, as we headed out towards Fenton. Having been a student at Fenton sixth form, I knew there was a steady incline ahead. Memories flooded back to early mornings, having been on two bus journeys just to get to college, never mind starting the day. I thought back to how I dropped out after six months, never achieving my A Levels, at a loss as to where my life was heading; and then back to the present day, running past as a qualified nurse, having worked hard to get to this fantastic point in my life.

It gave me a boost and I plodded on up the hill. Almost immediately, I felt the burn in my calves, the tingle in my quads that comes with working the legs hard uphill and decided that, once I’d ran past Brian Dale (the photographer I recognised from Newcastle 10k), I’d have a little walk break to regain the feeling in my legs. I hadn’t expected anything less knowing how friendly Stokies are, but I began to feel overwhelmed at all the car drivers shouting encouragement from their car windows; ‘go on duck, keep going’… ‘Well done duck, you’re doing great’… It made me smile! They didn’t seem phased at the fact that they were stuck In a huge queue of traffic because of runners, like I’ve experienced many times in the past.

As I was catching my breath, my fellow WRCer Karen ‘overtook’ me. It was strange that we weren’t running together, having spent all of our other races dragging each other round. This time, Karen knew I needed to do this race for myself, and she was quite happy with that. I was happy that she continued off in front of me too. It gave me something to chase and to focus on. I started up the plod again. I was shocked to see that I was still running ahead of my normal pace for a 10k let alone a half marathon. I was also shocked that I hadn’t been passed by the pacer car…yet!

I could see the stream of bobbing heads up in front as we headed towards Longton. I still had my eye on Karen and felt comfy. As I was settling into the run, around 4-5 miles in, the pacer car came past me. It didn’t perturb me as much as I thought it would and I just saw it as something else to chase. I managed to keep an eye on it in the distance but it seemed to edge further and further away as I headed up, what seemed like, a vertical road, to the top of a massively steep hill! It was actually quite tough to walk up it let alone run, but again the cheers and encouragement from spectators managed to pull me through the burning in my legs. By the time I reached the top, the pacer car had driven off into the distance, along with the other runners. I felt like I was running my own race, but still, the residents of the houses and the drivers in the cars continued to offer support.

Up to this point, around half way, I’d been having a fantastic run. I was running at a steady pace and was looking at a PB. How good would that have been…. A half marathon back on home turf and a PB to boot. Heading out of the estate of just ran through, I struggled to identify which way I should have been going. All the other runners were out of site and I couldn’t see any marshals anywhere. I spotted an arrow on a lamppost which pointed to the left, directing me up another big hill. Going with the theme of the day, I plodded up the hill, feeling that something wasn’t quite right but going with the flow. Further up the road (about half a mile according to my watch), two ladies pointed out to me that I was going the wrong way and needed to head back the way I’d come from. My heart sank! I could see the PB ticking away before my eyes…
In a bid to hold on to it, I upped the pace trying to catch up and regain my position back in the race. Knowing this could be the wrong thing to do, I took the chance.

Unfortunately, it turned out as I expected, and the impact of me speeding up downhill to catch up, irritated a dormant injury that I’ve been trying to get over. My hips became niggly and I could feel muscles tightening up with every step. I had to revert to a run-walk to be able to continue. My chances at the PB were well and truly slipping away, along with my enthusiasm. My head was still in the game, but my body was letting me down. I’d prayed for a good run, knowing that my mum and dad were waiting for me at the end. I was so disappointed that i was now walking alone, miles away from the finish line. By mile 9, the tightness in my muscles had become so painful that I could barely walk let alone run. I considered ringing someone to come and collect me, but my determination and pride got the better of me. I’d got all the way to mile 9… Even if I walked the rest of the way, there was no way I was getting a DNF! I couldn’t face the embarrassment! The Potters ‘Arf 2016 was a relatively big deal to me and my family, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.

I got my head down and tried to walk as fast as I could! Nothing was going to stop me reaching that finish line. Looking up to take a peek at whereabouts I was, I realised that Carmountside Crematorium was across the road. The wave of determination washed over me again, knowing that my great Auntie was over there. I whispered under my breath, ‘this one’s for you Auntie Helen’… Hoping she’d be watching over and give me a boost to the finish. I tried again to run a tree, walk a tree, but it was no good and the running had to give way to hobbling now.

Aside from the challenge of taking every step, the next thing big task upon me was that of ‘heartbreak hill’. The warning 200m before the ascent would indicate to anyone that they should turn around and head in the opposite direction, but I had no choice but to plod on if I wanted to get to the finish line. A group of StokeFit people were stood at the bottom of the hill cheering as loud as they could. I recognised Claire, a college friend of a fellow Stokie member of WRC – Nicola, and felt a huge amount of support from her and the rest of her squad of cheerers. I realised that Nic had caught up with me and was only a few strides behind. Although I’d vowed that this was a race I wanted to do for myself, I have to admit it was nice to have some company up the almost vertical climb, as Nic and I walked up the hill together.

Once at the top, another StokeFit member ran with Nic to encourage her on to the finish, I cheered her on as she went off ahead. I wondered how well Antony, another WRC friend of mine had got on chasing a PB, and whether he’d managed to get it, knowing how tough the course had been. I then wondered how Karen had got on. My closest running buddy in terms of pace. I hoped she’d managed a good time and I wondered whether she’d have finished yet. My thoughts then turned to my family. I knew I only had just over a mile to go. I wondered if they thought I’d done rubbish, whether I’d been really slow and whether I shouldn’t have bothered doing the race at all.

Nearing Hanley Forest Park, I knew the end was in touching distance, and I tried to focus on getting there, wincing through the pain of every step. I tried to keep myself together, focusing on the last 3 quarters of a mile. I fought back tears as every step got me closer to the finish line. I felt disappointed in my efforts of the second half of the race. As I approached the potteries centre, I knew the finish line was only a few hundred meters away, and I just tried to focus on moving my feet to get me across that line. Out of nowhere, I heard a familiar voice shout, ‘you alright stokie?’….it was my good mate Dave, Karen’s other half, who’d driven all the way from Warrington just to support the gang! Stokie is my nick name amongst some of the members of our club and hearing the endearment behind the name unleashed the emotions of been trying so hard to hold back, flowing like a tidal wave! Tears rolled down my cheeks and I sobbed through broken sentences, explaining to Dave how much pain I was in and about not wanting to get a DNF, and how I felt I’d let everyone down. He took my hand and walked with me back into the town centre, past the remaining spectators clapping my efforts, past the blue clock, and into the last few meters of the course. The other WRCers had finished and were all cheering me on with my wife, and stood next to them was my mum and dad. I saw, through tear clouded eyes, that they looked emotional too.

I couldn’t have been going any slower if I tried but I was in touching distance of the finish line. Nicola had just finished and was on the other side of the fence. She threw a load of encouragement at me and we exchanged a huge hug just before I edged towards the line. Dave had gone back to the cheer squad, Nic had gone to her family and I was alone, riding solo over that finish line! I’d done it! I’d done the Potters ‘Arf marathon. I’d walked the last 4 miles, getting slower and slower, and my finishing photos weren’t going to be pretty, but I’d done it.

The past 3 hours had been a test of my strength, my ability and my determination. It had been filled with ups and downs, and not just the hills. Three hours of memories of my life flashing before me, three hours of reflection on the person I’ve become and three hours of belly burning fire, getting me round the hardest race I’ve ever done, and to the finish line! I cried hard into my dad’s shoulder, as he hugged me and cried too – with pride! Mum came along and we cried together too. To see them so proud of me for finishing a race is something I’ll never forget. I was so overcome with emotion – relief, pride, happiness, pain! I wiped away the tears and hobbled through the finish funnel to my family and friends! I was in so much pain, but every step had been worth it.

At various points of the course, I’d thought to myself that I was going to give up running. Questioned whether I even enjoyed it. Now that it was all over, I knew that I’d be signing up to Potters ‘Arf 2017. I might have finished this year, but I now have a massive score to settle with this course! I returned to my hometown to prove a point. That, I have done! Next year, I’ll be back to smash that ‘point’ to pieces, to make my mum and dad proud all over again.