From Dib Dab to Dibaba

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Roll up, roll up, for one man’s journey from Dib Dab to Dibaba. Over the next three months, in an occasional series, I will chronicle my friend Junior’s attempt to transform himself from a man sometimes seen munching through a six-pack of McCoys to the owner of an abdominal six-pack as he trains for the London Marathon. Continue reading “From Dib Dab to Dibaba”

Hackney Half- A Celebration

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Today, in the scorching sun, we ran, cheered and celebrated Hackney, my friends and I, in a celebration of community by community and through community. Hackney took me into its arms when I needed a new start in life. Years later, so did Run Dem Crew. So it was fitting I should run the first mass-participation race in Hackney surrounded by the family I’ve chosen. Continue reading “Hackney Half- A Celebration”

Cheer Dem Crew

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If you do not run then you must cheer. Such is the mantra at Run Dem Crew, a London family of creative heads who run marathons led by their mentor and crew-founder Charlie Dark. Last Sunday I spent the day cheering on runners in the Brighton Marathon, and with the Virgin London Marathon about to drop this weekend, I wanted to try to capture what Cheer Dem Crew is about for those who might be new to it.

Sunday April 6th was the date of the Brighton Marathon. It had been in my diary for some time, as several friends in Run Dem Crew were running it, raising money for good causes including the Teenage Cancer Trust. Paul Bains and Claire McGonegle had gone to great trouble to take care of the logistics of getting over 20 of us to and from Brighton, choosing the best spots to cheer from, and booking a pub for drinks and food afterwards.

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I was up before 7.00 and met the crew at St Pancras Station at 8.15. Paul had organised group-save tickets, so we paid just £5 each to travel to Brighton and back. It was good to see familiar faces and to meet some new ones. Two of the crew had hardly slept after big nights out, but you would never have known it from the enthusiasm they showed all day. The train journey was full of jokes, interspersed with checking the progress of our runners in Brighton and Paris on the race apps. Danny Wood was smashing it, coming through the first 10K in 41 minutes. All our runners looked strong, and we were eager to catch up with them in person.

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Once we reached Brighton, we had a fair walk to the first cheer spot. I was excited to be back in town as I lived there for 3 years while at the University of Sussex. As the seafront swung into view we could see the runners streaming past. Paul had identified a good cheer spot that the runners would pass at Mile 14 and then again at Mile 18, where things often start to get difficult. We’d brought with us four large Run Dem banners, and were quick to get them set up. Glancing at the app, we realised we’d missed Danny Wood through Mile 14, so some of use positioned ourselves on the other side of the road to make sure we caught him at Mile 18. We’d just gotten settled when suddenly Emily Ackner came through Mile 14 looking incredibly strong. At this point, Cheer Dem erupted in the first of many explosions of noise, high-fives, whoops and cheers. Emily’s face lit up and it was hugs and gunfinger celebrations all the way before she sped off. Next was Nathaniel, just a couple of minutes behind, and from then on in it was non-stop shouting and cheering. At Run Dem, we don’t just cheer our own runners. Anyone on the course gets a healthy dose of crewlove. To add to the voices, we had whistles, a cow-bell and high-fives.

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Soon Danny came powering through at Mile 18, looking like an absolute don, completely in control. Once Emily Ledbrooke and Deborah had come through Mile 14, all of the crew switched to the other side of the road to catch our runners at Mile 18. We stayed there till every crew-member had come through, as at Run Dem, no one is ever left behind.

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Our final cheer spot was just a short walk away on the seafront at Mile 24. At this point, many runners were reduced to walking, and cheering can really make a difference. One member of the crew was almost overcome with emotion when they passed through, and Paul Bains ran a little of the way with them to make sure they were ok. Some of the cheer crew were already beginning to lose their voices, but we continued shouting and cheering for all our worth. As Deborah from the crew approached, Jason and I decided to tunnel up on the course for her. This is a Tuesday night crew tradition: when we reach the mid-point of our runs, the first group to finish forms a human tunnel for the next group to run through, and so on, creating a tunnel of noise and good vibes. The course wasn’t too crowded at this point, so we hastily got one together for Debs to run through. This may be the first time this has ever happened during a race, and I hope we can continue it when the course isn’t too congested this Sunday at VLM. Finally, after almost three hours solid cheering, our work was done. We assembled for the traditional crew photo and headed off to get food at the North Laine pub.

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Props to Claire for organising an excellent post-run venue and meal. As each runner from the crew arrived, they were treated to a hero’s welcome, to the surprise of the other punters. The endorphins were flowing as freely as the ale while we shared photos taken on the course and hugged and congratulated our friends. A good non-running friend of mine who lives in Brighton came to join us for lunch, and she was so inspired by what she saw that she has bought a pair of trainers and signed up to do Parkrun this weekend.

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The journey back was full of weary fun. I really enjoyed getting to know some of the newer crew-members better, and eventually we rumbled back into St Pancras and Jason and I got the bus back to N16 together. Getting off the bus outside my home, I went into a shop and bought a Mars bar. When I opened the Mars bar I found out I’d won another Mars bar, which just about sums up an awesome day.

Supporting other people running marathons is one of the most rewarding things you can do. You get back what you put in tenfold. Words can’t express the transformation in a runner who has been broken and is walking, locked in their own internal mental struggle, when they hear you shouting their name. I lost count of the number of times on Sunday these lost, troubled souls looked up, made eye contact and were transformed by the strength of human warmth directed towards them from the crew. In today’s modern, fractured society, the sense of goodwill that is shared on a marathon course is increasingly rare and precious. Many people running marathons are doing so in memory of loved ones who have died and it’s all too easy to become caught up in the burden of feeling you are letting someone living or dead down if you’re struggling to complete your race. But that’s why the marathon is such an inspirational distance. It takes you beyond the limit of human endurance and then asks “What have you got?” Cheer Dem Crew is as much about making sure that no runner has to go through their struggle alone as it is about celebrating the triumphs of those smashing their way to PBs.

Big ups to all the crew who held it down in Brighton, Paris, Manchester and elsewhere on Sunday. Big ups to Cheer Dem for having our runners’ backs. Here, in the words of those who ran the races, is what it means to the runners:

“Having never experienced a Run Dem Race before, I’m beyond words and can’t wait to repay the cheer dem vibes next weekend. Thanks to everyone who cheered/hi 5ed and everything in between. Buzzing.” (Danny Wood, who finished in a PB of 3:20:00)

“The support at 24 miles was next level. Thank you SO much guys. I was really struggling to run at that point and from then I just got faster. Huge thanks to Paul Bains for your lovely words and excellent organisational skills!! You’re all the best.” (Michelle Allen)

“You guys were awesome, so grateful to see so many supportive smiling faces. Thank you cheerdem and bring on London!!” (Emily Ledbrooke)

“Total inability to get to sleep, still buzzing and can’t get over you guys’ efforts with all the support. So grateful, thank you. Next weekend’s gonna be immense.” (Emily Ackner who finished in a PB of 3:47:44)

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All of which brings me to the plans for this weekend. Cheer Dem Crew will be based at Mile 21 of the London Marathon course, cheering on Mo Farah in his bid to win the race, all of the crew, and every single runner that comes through. We base ourselves at Mile 21 because that is traditionally where runners hit the wall. There will be over a hundred of us bringing phenomenal vibes to that section of the course and I can’t wait. Check out mile21.co.uk to see what went down last year, and to follow remotely on the day if you can’t make it personally, as the feed will be updated in real-time.

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To get involved, come to housekeeping at Run Dem Crew tonight, or email Mile 21 mastermind Chevy at chevyrayrough@gmail.com

There will be a sign-making, fund-raising session taking place at Shutterbug in Shoreditch from noon this Saturday, so come down if you can to help prepare banners and personalised signs for our runners. Later on the Saturday Night Ninja Crew will be putting the signs up on the route pre-race. This has to be done late enough in the day that they won’t be taken down again.

Then on race day Cheer Dem Crew will convene at Docklands Tyres and Exhausts, 767 Commercial Road, E14 7HG. It’s just before Mile 21. Come early and be prepared to lose your voice, shed some tears and feel goosebumps as the adrenaline takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions almost intense as running the race itself.

Virgin London Marathon this week is gonna be insane, jubilant, emotional. It will be the ultimate manifestation of #crewlove in 2014. If you’re running, as Charlie says, you’ve done the hard work in training, so the race is going to be a celebration. For those not running, this is a great chance to give back a small portion of what we get from being in the crew. Bring it on.

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Photo credits: Ash Narod, Cara Conquest and Mark Fleming

FlatLine 10

Flat Line The FlatLine 10 is a race/ training event organised by EnergyLabBTS. It involves 10 suicidal laps of a one mile course up and down the steepest hill in London- Swains Lane. This beast of a course will tame even the most talented runner, but the sense of achievement on finishing is incredible.

The hill is well-known to cyclists but it is unusual for runners to make more than one ascent during a run. For those who understand the technical aspects, the maximum gradient is 18%, height gain is 63 metres and the distance we climbed during Saturday’s race was a third that of Mont Ventoux, one of the most gruelling climbs in the Tour de France. Doing this on bike would be difficult but running it is either heroic or foolhardy. 2014-02-01 09.17.29 As my alarm woke me early on race day, I had serious doubts about doing the run. I felt tired. It had been a stressful week, so I hadn’t been sleeping well. My quads felt tight after changing up my training plan, and I was tempted to crawl back under the duvet. I’d publicly committed to going, though, so I dragged myself out of bed and got ready.

As I headed to the top of Swains Lane on public transport, the day dawned crisp and bright. By now I felt glad to be alive and knew I’d made the right decision to race. I bumped into my friend Felix as we headed up the hill, and we noticed how our heart-rates quickened just from walking up. Barbara from EnergyLab gave out our race numbers and we did our best to keep warm while the other runners arrived.

This was a small event, with a maximum entry of 30. The road was open during the race so we had to be mindful of traffic and pedestrians. I was surprised to learn that Richard Keller, who had won the previous event, would not be running. I’d raced in that August edition, and Richard had set the tempo. There were other fast runners, but none of us had really considered this a race until it was declared one on the Facebook Event page. Still, we all knew we would be pushing each other when the first descent began and the adrenaline kicked in.

First and foremost, though, this event is about the sense of achievement you get from completing it. The camaraderie on this course is amazing. You run so many loops that you’re always making eye-contact with the other runners, and everyone is going through the same pain as you. We all support each other, and that helps get us through. Running is not about being better than someone else, it’s about being the best you can be and that includes helping others. 2014-02-02 16.18.27 As the race began, I settled in behind Manni and Felix, who went out hard on the first downhill- our pace was just over 5 minutes per mile on the descent, but it would be much slower on the way up. This race is notoriously difficult to pace because you are always climbing or descending but you can build up a head of steam on the descents, particularly in the middle where the drop is steepest. My strategy was to go as quickly as I could downhill each lap, and then climb steadily, taking smaller strides but maintaining a quick cadence on the up-hills. I told myself there would be no walking, no matter what.

As we passed Karl Marx’s tomb and reached the cone at the bottom of the hill, I was third. We began to climb, and my small steps took me into second place towards the crest of the hill. As we began the second descent, I swept past the leader, and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was at the front in a race. I was very surprised, but beyond a fleeting thought about what it would be like to run without someone pacing me, I didn’t have time to think about it. I concentrated on accelerating as quickly as I could through the descent, making sure I kept my footing over the speed bumps. I felt certain the runners behind me were on my shoulder, so as I began the next climb I was stunned to see I had built a gap between myself and second place. I knew my climbing skills were pretty good, so for the first time in a race ever, I dared to dream about winning.

The next few miles were a blur. Nods and cheers of encouragement from me to others and from them to me. Claudia yelling that I had a big lead. Concentrating on breathing, form, counting, looking at the top of the hill each time I had to climb. Trying to shake out the limbs and land on the forefoot each time I descended. Throwing my gloves and running hat on the ground at the top of the fourth mile. And the growing realisation that victory was possible. 2014-02-02 16.17.52 With that came nagging doubts. What if we had gone out too fast on that first mile? What if my body just refused to keep going? The only way was down, and to lose from this position would be hard to take. But this race is so challenging I couldn’t think those thoughts for long. I could feel my muscles working hard on the ascents, while the down-hills were equally demanding. Your body is constantly under assault. And that’s what makes this race so special. It’s comparable to completing a marathon. You cannot stay in your comfort zone when running the FlatLine 10. Because of that I salute everyone who takes it on.

As I hit the penultimate lap I had built up a lead of about half a mile. I called out to Richard, who was taking photographs, asking him to pace me on the final lap. The temptation to stop running and walk up the hill was getting very strong, and I knew Richard wouldn’t let me give in. He pushed me hard on the final descent, talking all the while about good form, encouraging me to beat his course record. I knew that was beyond me. My body was crying out and I just wanted to get over the finish line, but I’m grateful for his support. As we made the final ascent, he urged me to sprint, but my body wasn’t having any of it. At last, we reached the top and for the first time in my life I learnt what it feels like to win something. 2014-02-02 16.20.02 There was pain, sure, but there was a huge sense of happiness, no little pride and a new-found inner confidence. As I stretched out, I couldn’t help beaming. I thought about the injury I’d sustained in September, which had set my training back three months. I’d trained through December to catch up, preparing for the Berlin Half Marathon, but my body hadn’t been able to do what the training plans were asking. Then I hit January, and pow!- it just clicked back into shape. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction that when I’d been putting those miles in, I’d been laying the platform for the feelings I was having at the top of Swains Lane. Consistency of approach is what reaps rewards in running. I hope I can apply this lesson in other areas of my life, too.

Steve Layton was the next person over the finish line, meaning Spurs fans finished first and second. Sorrell was the Queen of the Hill, being first woman home. Over the next 45 minutes the rest of the runners completed their race. Everyone finished. There are so many inspirational and incredible stories. Chris Cannon was doing his first proper run of the year. Azra Zakir had spent large portions of 2013 unable to run due to ITB pain. Melissa has grown so strong since having a major health scare a few years ago. One runner tried to end her race at the top of the hill with three miles to go. Others gathered round, supported her and gave her the self-belief to finish, which she did in style. 2014-02-02 16.18.44 2014-02-02 16.18.38

Best of all, Claudia had baked cake for all of the finishers, and as we nursed our aches and pains, we made light work of eating it.

2014-02-02 16.19.51 FlatLine 10 is a superb event, in spite of the severe DOMS I’m experiencing as I write this. Full credit to Barbara and Claudia from EnergyLabBTS for their organisation, and to Richard for the photographs and slideshow. It’s the camaraderie that makes it special. Perhaps it will grow and become a sanctioned race. In the meantime, I urge you to come out of your comfort zone and test yourself next time it’s on. The Run Dem Crew mantra is “Go Hard Or Go Home”. You’ll have to go a long way to find a harder or more satisfying run than this one.

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Swim Dem Crew

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Whisper it quietly, but there’s a new fitness movement under way. It started a few months ago in London when Nathaniel Cole, Emily Deyn and Peigh Asante decided to take the ethos of the running crew they love so much and apply it to swimming. Swim Dem Crew was born.

Swim Dem Crew was born out of Run Dem Crew- a running family of creative heads all striving to better themselves through pounding pavement, track and trail. If you’re not familiar with them, check out my blog post on #crewlove.  As well as running together in London, the crew hook up with other running crews around the world several times a year to race marathons and party in international cities. I’m excited to see if Swim Dem Crew can branch out like this in time, perhaps with triathlons.

Nathaniel, Peigh and Emily are old-school members of the crew, and each have gone through their own personal transformations. They are exponents and examples of crewlove and brought boundless energy and enthusiasm to the opening Swim Dem session. Peigh only learnt to swim recently but can really move, while Nathaniel and Emily both look like fish in water.

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Last Saturday, at London Fields Lido, the first Swim Dem Crew open swimming session was held. I was nervous as I made my way across the park. I hadn’t been swimming with more than one other person since I was about 12 years old. Being of slight build, I was having doubts about the sanity of taking my top off and and swimming on a cold January day in an outdoor pool. I was also wondering how the family nature of the crew would translate to this setting. When you run with friends there’s lots of opportunity for chat, but with our heads in the water I was worried we would just be swimming endless lengths repetitively, barely talking to each other.

My swimming skills are pretty basic. They’re normally only dusted off when on holiday, but I had been swimming occasionally for the past couple of months as part of my rehab from a running injury. Thankfully, my fears soon evaporated like the steam rising from the heated pool in the crisp morning air. As I arrived I caught up with My-Ha and Luke, and before I knew it I was chatting away with Nathaniel.As we made our way out to store our things in the outdoor lockers the cold was biting, so we kept moving, showered and got into the pool as quickly as possible.

Nathaniel explained their would be three groups- Tadpoles, Dolphins and Sharks. All three groups would be swimming 20 laps of the 50 metre pool, so we’d be swimming 1 km in total. This was to be done in 100 metre bursts in separate lanes, one for each group. Tadpoles had 4 minutes to swim 100 metres. If you finished early, you had more time to recover and chat before the next 100 metres. Dolphins had 3 minutes for each 100 metres. Again, swimming quickly gives more rest time. Sharks had 2 minutes for each cycle. How you manage to rest and do that is beyond me.

I opted to swim with Tadpoles, and was looked after superbly by Peigh. We swam a warm-up lap, and then set off doing our first 100 metres. I found we were comfortably able to swim the distance in about 2 and a half minutes, so there was plenty of time to catch our breath and chat in between reps.

As I looked across at the Dolphins and Sharks moving gracefully through the water, I was inspired to develop my technique and move up groups soon. There were 16 of us swimming, mostly people from Run Dem Crew, but the age varied from as young as 7- Sacha- who was there with his Mum and crew member Sanchia- to (ahem) myself. It was great splashing about with Sacha in the shallow end each time we completed our reps.

I had a really great time. I don’t think I’ve been swimming with that many friends since a kids’ birthday party when I was 12. The different groups were well thought out and the balance was right between pushing to become a better swimmer and having a good time. The crew are really friendly and anyone is welcome, although tiny Speedos, as one male crew member found out, are not part of the uniform. I think this video gives a good indication of the vibe.

Swim Dem Crew is going to visit lots of different London venues over the coming months, so there’ll be a chance to get involved for anyone based in the capital. It’s happening every Saturday at 10am. I believe the next one is in London Fields again, and then after that there is talk of Crystal Palace. If you want to find out more about the crew, hit them up on Twitter or Instagram under the @swimdemcrew handle.

London Fields Lido is also well worth a visit. It’s quite spectacularly beautiful in the crisp morning air, and I can’t wait to see the seasons change as I swim under the trees that tower over the pool. The session cost £4.65 for adults and  £2.80 for children. The lockers are 20p.

So don’t let anything stop you from joining the fun. Get yourself down to the next Swim Dem Crew session and join a group of runners who love to swim. I’m proud to have been at the first open session, and I’m sure by the summer the numbers will have gone through the roof.

There aren’t many better ways to spend a Saturday morning. It would not surprise me in the slightest to see other swimming crews popping up in cities across the world. Bring on the first Swim Dem Crew Bridge the Gap.

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It’s Not The Destination, It’s The Journey That’s Important

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July 1st 2012 was the date of my first race since the 2007 London Marathon. A difficult recovery after an operation had given me a new found gratefulness for the fact that I am able to put one foot in front of another. I could not have seen then how running would transform my life. It has taken me to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bournemouth and soon Berlin, but the friendships I have made through running will last beyond memory.

Last Sunday, I went back to that Regents Park course and ran 10K 9 minutes faster than that day in 2012, but the first race will always be the most special to me. I keep the race number hanging on a wall in my flat.

In order to see how far you have come, you must remember where you came from.