Volunteering at the London Marathon

For many years I have watched the London Marathon on the television, marvelling at the images of seemingly ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing: running 26.2 miles and often raising incredible sums of money for charity. For a few years I worked as a charity events organiser, and in this role I had to organise post-marathon hospitality for those running to raise funds for the charity. Every year I would momentarily feel inspired and wonder if I could ever run a marathon, but the moment soon passed!

But in the last few years I have started running myself, starting with parkrun and then more recently through a running club, and so I have joined a community of runners many of whom are often training for or taking part in marathons in the UK and abroad. In the run up to this year’s London Marathon I found myself tracking friends who were taking part in marathons in Brighton, Manchester and Paris on the respective marathon’s app, and eagerly following their progress from the comfort of my sofa.

This year the London Marathon became even more special to me because as well as knowing a number of people who were running it I had a very small part to play behind the scenes in the organisation of the event. Along with a number of other volunteers from my local parkrun, Walthamstow, I helped out at the start of the marathon, with the large baggage trucks that transport the runners’ bags from the start to the end of the race.

Having volunteered some months ago, I began to question the wisdom of this decision when I discovered we were leaving the Walthamstow parkrun site at the unearthly time of 6am. But once on the bus with all the other volunteers, the mood was infectious with everyone in good spirits and excited to be taking part. On the bus we were given our instruction booklets, security passes and VLM2018 branded jackets, and we headed for the start at Blackheath, arriving long before any runners got there. There we were given a briefing, along with volunteers from other London parkruns. The guy giving the briefing mentioned that whenever runners talk about the London marathon, they often comment on how brilliantly run the baggage operation is – no pressure then!

We then headed for our respective baggage trucks. Walthamstow parkrun volunteers had been allocated the “Championship” baggage truck in the Blue start area – the championship runners are the very fast club runners, just one step behind the elite runners. The Championship runners had their own penned off area of the start area, which was eerily deserted as we were there so early. But it gave us time to have a very welcome cup of tea/coffee and get our bearings.

Just behind our truck was a warm up area used by some of the elite runners, including the Weirwolf himself, David Weir, so we spent some time watching them warm up. The day was extremely hot and sunny, even so early, and as the runners start to arrive in the area many of them tried to sit in the shade of the changing tents. We took up our positions, with 6 of us harnessed to the inside of the truck and the rest of us behind a crash barrier ready to take bags. Many of the Championship runners didn’t want to put their bags on the truck until the last minute, so for quite a long while we had nothing to do except dance to the music being played on the loud speakers, including doing all the actions to Y-M-C-A! Eventually the first runner handed in his bag, Bridget taking his bag and the rest of us cheering! A slow steady trickle of runners handing in their bags soon turned into a manic stampede as the start time grew near and for a good 15 minutes it was frantic and really hard work to try to get everyone’s bag on the truck in time. We had been instructed to ask the runners to tie the drawstrings of their bags so that nothing fell out, but this task seemed to be remarkably challenging to many of the runners! But soon all the bags were on the truck, and the area was back to being deserted with just a few stragglers queuing for the loos. As we were about to finish, a runner came up and asked where she should go. She pointed out her celebrity wristband and wondered if there was a separate area she needed to go to. I had no idea who she was, but discovered later she was Rochelle Humes, the singer from The Saturdays!

Having taken all the bags, and seen all the runners out of the area, our job was done and we were released and able to go and cheer the runners through the start line. It was an amazing atmosphere, with everyone really excited and anxious to get going. Because of the heat the organisers had suggested that people didn’t wear heavy fancy dress costumes, so there were fewer rhinos, giant cakes, and other assorted costumes than in previous years, although we did see a running dinosaur and a bottle of beer. I was amazed at how I was able to spot friends from my running club and from parkrun amongst the thousands of runners queuing for the start, which happened in waves. Cheering them on with cowbells, rattles and whistles we made quite a noise but it seemed to be appreciated by the runners!

A group of us went to a spot on the route where we could cheer our friends and family members who were running. I was glad I was able to get there just in time to see a friend who lives in Cornwall run past – I shouted his name – Paul – and he ran back to give me a hug. He later said that it gave him a real boost to see a friendly face at that point. There was a fantastic atmosphere, and the crowds were three or four people deep all along the crash barriers protecting the route. It was incredibly hot though, and we did see a number of people receiving help and suffering from heat exhaustion, and I later found out that it was at this spot that the Masterchef contestant Matt Campbell collapsed and later died. And so a week later I took part in the #finishformatt initiative and ran 3.7 miles and donated to the Brathay Trust in memory of Matt.

I then went to the finish where I was able to meet up with Paul who despite having been tripped up by another runner by the Cutty Sark, resulting in a huge graze to his hip and grazed knees and hands, had finished in an amazing 3:06:29 – and he managed to get from our cheering point at 22 miles to the finish faster than I managed it on the tube! I was amused to see a pub on Whitehall had put an inflatable finish arch around the entrance to the pub, but the thousands of people milling around the area needed no encouragement as it was so hot the pubs were doing a roaring trade.

I finished the day by going to meet up with friends from my running club in a pub back in East London – and was amazed to find three runners who had run the marathon already in the pub and looking far fresher than I did despite their having run for over 26 miles!

It was such an emotional and amazing day, and many of my parkrun and running club friends were talking about entering the ballot for a place for next year’s marathon. Carried away with the atmosphere and emotion of the day, I started to wonder whether I could do it. Could I? Despite one friend asserting that “everyone has at least one marathon in them”, I think I need to get a few half-marathons under my belt before I even start to think about running a full marathon. But maybe one day…? But I’ll definitely be back helping with the bags again next year if I’m free and get the chance. It was such a brilliant day, and definitely showed London off to its best – no wonder the event has a hashtag that sums it up: #SpiritofLondon.

 

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Wanstead Flats parkrun: the one with the mud!

Since the start of my parkrun journey, Wanstead Flats has been my NENYD (Nearest Event Not Yet Done). It’s almost exactly the same distance from my house to Wanstead Flats parkrun as it is to my home run of Walthamstow parkrun. But when I first heard about parkrun I googled “parkrun” + “Walthamstow” and of course Walthamstow parkrun came up so I made it my home run when I registered with parkrun, and went to Walthamstow for my first ever parkrun – to volunteer at first. And Walthamstow parkrun welcomed me into the parkrun family and encouraged me to start running, and through it I have made good friends. Walthamstow will always be the place I come “home” to after touristing at other parkruns which up until now I’ve only done when I’ve been away for the weekend and when I’m too far away from my home parkrun.

When I first discovered parkrun I mentioned it to people at work and discovered my then boss regularly attended Wanstead Flats parkrun, and he encouraged me to give it a go. Yet I never did. And even though I would sometimes run on Wanstead Flats during the week, when it came to Saturdays if I was at home I wanted to go to Walthamstow, to catch up with all my lovely friends in the parkrun family and to try for a PB. On Christmas Day this year Wanstead Flats was one of a few parkruns that held an event and a number of friends from my parkrun family and from my running club all went there and posted photos on Facebook and shared horror stories of the mud at WF. Ah yes, the mud. Every time a friend ran at Wanstead they  commented on the mud. So in my head I stored away that it was muddy and thought that one day I would try it out, but in the summer when the weather was better and the mud trails had dried out.

However, last year I joined a running club, Eton Manor AC. From time to time the club organises a “flash mob” at a local parkrun, and Saturday 20 January was designated to be a flash mob run at Wanstead Flats. Wary of slipping on the mud and injuring myself as a friend had done at Christmas, I decided to see what the weather was like and vowed that if it rained in the days prior to the run I would wimp out and not do it. And on the days prior to the run it did indeed rain – almost every day. On the morning itself it was grey and drizzly and I almost wimped out, but then suddenly my dad’s words came to mind. If we were out walking when we were kids and it started to rain he would counteract all complaints with “you’re not made of sugar”, and so I decided to go.

On arrival it seemed to tick all the boxes for a good parkrun. There was adequate parking, although the car park resembled a swimming pool in places with huge potholes filled with water – and a club house with loos; a pre-requisite in my books! Meeting up with the other Eton Manor runners we all exclaimed “whose crazy idea was this” as the weather was horrible, and the tower blocks near the start looked ominously on. Cold, miserable and grumbling we listened to the briefing and then made our way to the start, and then we were off.

The first part of the course is across playing fields which were waterlogged; I amused myself by watching how when the person in front of me stepped on the grass it set up a little spray of water from their shoe! Then the course moved into the woods, and that’s when the trail became really muddy. Sticky, claggy mud that bogged you down and made it really hard-going underfoot. I started off trying to pick my way through the mud by stepping on the side of the trail, wary of slipping and falling over. One guy trying to run past me did just that, ending up sitting in a mud pool. But then after a while I decided to give up trying to avoid the mud, and to give in to it and run right through the middle. And as the course progressed I found I was actually enjoying it. Because the trail was so muddy and sticky, it meant that I had to walk bits of it, and so I gave up all thoughts of getting a good time and just enjoyed being in the moment, running when I could and relaxed. It’s a two-lap course, so as it looped round there were places where you could see the faster runners ahead of you coming back, and also the slower runners, and so it became quite sociable, looking out for other Eton Manor runners and shouting the club cry of “Up the Manor” when I saw the tell-tale blue and white EM vests.

Before I knew it I was approaching the finish and the very organised barcode scanning station. Reaching for my parkrun wristband, I found that somehow it wasn’t on my wrist – I’ve no idea how it fell off as it’s quite tight. But no problem – at seeing my dismay one of the scanners asked my name, and then gave me my wristband which someone had found at the start and handed in!

After the run there was tea, coffee and biscuits for a small donation – bonus!  It was too cold to hang around for too long afterwards, but I can see that in the summer on a lovely day it would be great to socialise afterwards over a well-deserved cup of tea. Wanstead Flats – I will be back. But on a nicer day!

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Elford Scarecrow Festival

If you’re looking for something quintessentially British, quaint and ever so slightly bonkers to do, you couldn’t do any better than by going to the Elford Scarecrow Festival. Taking place in the village of Elford, Staffordshire on the August Bank Holiday weekend, the festival is now in its 8th year and has grown enormously from its inaugural year, when the residents of the village made simple scarecrows and put them on their drive or front garden for others to see. Over the years the scarecrows have become more complex and clever, with innovations being added in recent years such as animation and sound, and the introduction of entire tableaux of scarecrow characters. The competitive nature of village life is brought to the fore with villagers vying to outdo each other in order to be crowned the “people’s favourite” as voted for by the visitors to the festival. It all rather reminded me of when one person in a cul-de-sac puts up some Christmas lights and figures, and their neighbour then tries to go one better until the whole close is bedecked with enough lights to illuminate a football stadium.

When my friends who live in the village invited me and some other friends to visit for the weekend, and they mentioned that it was the weekend of the Scarecrow Festival, I had simply no idea of the scale and wackiness of the festival. Arriving in the normally quiet and peaceful village, I was slightly amazed to see traffic cones along all the streets. I soon realised that the event was bigger than I had imagined, with around 100 houses taking part and thousands of visitors from across the Midlands arriving in droves to walk around the village and vote for their favourite. In addition to the scarecrows, there are a number of traditional British fete-type activities to take part in, from tombola, games like Splat the Rat, Guess the Weight of the Sheep, and Guess How Many Balloons in the Car, through to cream teas, face painting and an art exhibition in the Village Hall. It was all very League of Gentlemen, in the nicest possible way! And it has its own website and facebook page, with notices by each scarecrow inviting you to take a Scarecrow Selfie and upload it to their facebook page. Despite this, it is far from being ‘corporate’ and has the air of an old-fashioned village fete, and is run by volunteers from the village. Costing only £2 for adults and £1 for children for entry and parking, the event raises thousands – over £20,000 this year – for local charities such as the village church, the village hall and a project supporting victims of domestic abuse.

There is no way that words could adequately describe the bizarre and inventive creations of the Scarecrow Festival, but a picture paints a thousand words, so I’ve grouped photos of some of my favourites from this year’s festival below into different categories.  Click on the picture/gallery to enlarge it and see it in all its glory!

Starting with the tableaux: the lengths that some people went to were incredible to make entire tableaux of scarecrows; some also included sound and animation that’s not always obvious from static photos – like the AA photo which had the “Rolling River” music playing on a loop as in the current AA television advert

Then, with some inevitable cross-over with the tableaux section, there were the entries that were based on films, TV programmes or books:

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There were some cracking puns:

Animals featured heavily this year, with an entire Elford Goes Wild section:

There were quite a lot of traditional scarecrows as well as the more unusual ones:

In the church there were a number of scarecrows, although apparently not as many as last year when they had an entire scarecrow wedding:

Some were quite strange, weird or frankly bizarre!

And some I just can’t categorise, but merely put in the ‘miscellaneous’ section:

Wandering around the village with my scoresheet tucked in my hand, I found it really difficult to choose my top three to vote for. I would find one that I really liked, and then around the corner would be one that was even better, and with so much variation it was like comparing apples with pears. But in reverse order, I voted for the following as my top three:

3rd: Gone With The Wind, which I liked for sheer invention

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2nd – tribute to Bruce Forsyth, including Play Your Cards right playing cards, the Strictly glitter ball and the Generation Game conveyor belt complete with cuddly toy!

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And my first place winner was the L.S. Lowry scarecrow, complete with Lowry paintings – I understand this was done by the Elford art group who also had an art exhibition of their own paintings in the village hall.

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But none of my top three, however, won the coveted Scarecrow Trophy, which went to the makers of the Gruffalo scarecrow which was, admittedly, very good:

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So if you’re looking for something to do next August Bank Holiday weekend, and can get along to Elford (which is just outside Tamworth in the Midlands) I urge you to do so. It’s good, clean, old-fashioned fun, and it’s all for charity so what’s not to like?

Just one final photo – the volunteers helping with the parking and traffic control were, of course, members of the ScareCrew!

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Festival website

Festival facebook page

 

 

 

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Maidenhead parkrun: the one with the Olympian and unexpected media presence!

When my friend Sarah invited me and another friend Jo to go on a wine tasting tour of an English vineyard near to her home in Maidenhead last Saturday, my first thought was: “Can I still do parkrun?” Before I started running parkrun, Saturday mornings would invariably involve a lie-in and the chance to nurse my hangover from the Friday night, but now Saturdays have been re-named parkrunday and I hate the thought of missing my regular parkrun fix even to do something interesting! I wasn’t sure I had time to do my home parkrun of Walthamstow in East London and get home, showered and over to Maidenhead in time for the tour, which took place in the early afternoon.

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But Sarah had the answer – arrive on the Friday night and stay over; then we could all go to Maidenhead parkrun in the morning; Jo and I to run and Sarah to volunteer. An added bonus would be that I would get an “M” for my alphabet challenge, and my 11th different parkrun so another notch towards my 20 parkrun cow cowl! (If this means nothing to you, read my previous blog post on parkrun tourism to find out!)

 

Saturday morning came around and we set off for Maidenhead parkrun which takes place in Braywick park. Fortunately with a local with us, we had no issues about finding out where to go/park etc., parking in the nearby Stafferton Lodge Toby Carvery where we were able to use the loos before the run.  Sarah went to get her hi-viz jacket and to receive her volunteers’ briefing, whilst Jo and I wandered around and chatted to the gathering parkrunners, including the friendly St John who turned out to be on the Maidenhead core team and was a mine of information, including the advice that if we showed our parkrun barcodes at the Toby Carvery afterwards when ordering breakfast they would give you free tea or coffee – bonus! #DFYB

As we chatted, we noticed that there seemed to be a reporter with a microphone talking to the event director – and then she thrust the microphone into Sarah’s face to ask her a question about volunteering for parkrun. It turned out that she was a reporter for Radio Berkshire, for the Andrew Peach show. They do a thing called Peach Quest which is a bit like the TV programme Treasure Hunt with Anneka Rice (yes, I’m aware that dates me!) where the reporter gathers clues to different destinations. It had been planned that the event director, Adam, would have the clue for her next destination which he read out live on air – all good publicity for parkrun.

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We then noticed that Radio Berkshire wasn’t the only media interest there that morning; there also seemed to be a lot of photographers and cameras around. Jo then spotted a familiar face who seemed to be getting a lot of media attention – none other than the UK’s most decorated female Olympian, Dame Katherine Grainger. She was there to promote a new initiative by parkrun and UK Sport, funded by the National Lottery, called #teamparkrun. On 19th August, a number of Team GB athletes will be taking part in parkrun at events across the country, not to run it but to bring up the rear and volunteer as tail walker.  Dame Katherine was launching this initiative by volunteering as tail walker at Maidenhead, her first ever parkrun. She was absolutely lovely, posing for photos with lots of people before donning her hi-viz and listening to the new-comers briefing which explained the route and other information about the run. I wonder which parkruns are going to get a teamparkrun athlete, and if we’ll get one at Walthamstow? I guess I’ll have to go along on the 19th to find out!

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And then, a little late but forgivable with all the media excitement, we were off! The route is a two-lap course around a nature reserve, mostly flat but with one steep but mercifully short hill which has to be tackled twice. There had been quite a lot of rain in the days before, resulting in lots of brambles and nettles along the route which made me regret my choice of running shorts over leggings, and the path was quite narrow at the beginning resulting in a fair bit of bunching up at the start. But the runners soon stretched out and I found myself with plenty of room on the long straight first leg of the lap – one of the advantages of being a slow runner! As I neared the end of that long straight I fell in running next to Katy, who shouted out a cheery ‘hello’ to Malcolm who was standing at the end of the straight holding a sign that said “Malcolm’s corner”! Katy told me that Malcolm was a bit of a legend at Maidstone parkrun; he was a veteran fast runner who had volunteered at nearly every single parkrun since its inception, and she thought that the one that he had missed was because he was volunteering somewhere else! I ran alongside Katy for a bit and we chatted about running and parkrun – she belonged to a group of women called the Running Sisters who were non-competitive but supportive of each other – sounded great!

I was trying out a new Garmin and found myself struggling a bit between what I thought was the distance between 2-3k, so was suddenly surprised to find myself approaching the steep hill for the second time, to be cheered on by the marshal at the top of the hill encouraging us up the hill and saying that the finish was just around the corner. It was only later that I realised that my Garmin was set to miles not kilometres!

And before I knew it the finish line approached, and I met up with Jo who was waiting for me, and re-met Katy who then introduced me to one of her running sisters who was running her first parkrun only 6 weeks after having a suspected heart attack. With such a spirited run, she was encouraged to ring the parkrun bell which was waiting by the finish line. Dame Katherine was also encouraged to ring it when she finished her first parkrun before all the volunteers posed for a final photo.

This was my 10th run as a parkrun tourist, and each parkrun is different with its own positives and negatives. There were so many positives at Maidenhead that I haven’t mentioned, like the smiley young barcode scanner and the child with his own space-themes hi-viz, that all added up to make me feel welcome and part of the parkrun family. Spirit of parkrun: Maidenhead has it in bucketloads!

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Seaton parkrun: the one with the pebbles

What crazy fool would set even part of a parkrun course on a pebble beach? This was my first thought on reading the course description for Seaton parkrun, and one that I came back to when I actually ran it! I was down on the South coast spending a weekend with friends in Lyme Regis and the first thing I did after booking accommodation was to look up to see where the nearest parkrun was. Seaton parkrun was a mere 6-7 miles away, and with pleasing synchronicity the weekend I was there was Seaton’s 35th parkrun and my 35th parkrun on any course. I mentioned to my friends that I was going to run and one friend agreed to join me to run her first ever parkrun.

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Initially on arrival in Seaton we had a bit of trouble finding where to park. The website gave the postcode for Orchard Short Stay car park, but this led to a dead end with no sign of a car park on my satnav! Fortunately we saw a woman walking along the road wearing a parkrun apricot vest so we stopped to ask her for directions. She turned out to be a tourist from Bushey parkrun, but she had run Seaton parkrun before and she directed us to the Co-op car park where you can park for free for two hours.

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As we approached the seafront I could see various runners and volunteers milling around and so we knew we were in the right place. One of the things I like about parkrun tourism is seeing the different little touches and innovations that each parkrun has. At Seaton they have some large plastic crates with lids where you can leave your belongings and which presumably kept them dry if it rained, which I thought was a great idea rather than just leaving them out on the floor like other parkruns. There were also toilets near the start which gets another tick in my book!

The seafront itself in Seaton is lovely, with pretty beach huts painted in pastel colours, and a lovely wildflower meadow planted in a raised bed which was a riot of colour. But there was no time to enjoy this as all the faffing with the car park meant we were a bit late, and I discovered that we had missed the new runners’ briefing. However, a friendly marshal said that we couldn’t get lost as it was just two straight laps running up and down on the promenade next to the sea! The route differs slightly to that shown on the course website which states that the run starts on the pavement and at the end the runners run down a ramp to end on the beach. I was told that in summer they switch the route and effectively reverse it so that it now starts on the beach, and everyone was walking down the ramp to the beach ready for the start.

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As we gathered on the beach I again wondered about the craziness of starting a run on a pebble beach. The pebbles were large and it was difficult to even walk along any section of the beach let alone run, as with every step I sank down into the pebbles. We had the usual pre-run briefing given by the event director using a megaphone which was necessary to be heard by the 141 runners over the sound of the sea crashing onto the pebbles. The event director asked if there were any tourists present and where we were from, and as people shouted out “Bushey Park”, “West London”, “Walthamstow”, one person in front of me remarked that there were more Londoners there than locals! On this occasion there was also a fabulous tail walker/runner who was wearing a tail particularly appropriate for this Jurassic coast run – love it!

 

And then we were off. The woman from Bushey who we had asked for directions had also warned us about the first section which is run along the beach, saying that although it was only about 100 metres she always feels like she’s going to die on this bit but you just have to grit your teeth and bear it. And she was right – I tried to run but found it almost impossible and was very relieved to get to the ramp which took us up to the promenade that runs along the seafront. Once on the Esplanade it was then just a straight run along the promenade to the end of the beach where – oh no – we had to run back onto the pebble beach again for 75 metres in order to turn around and run back along the seafront. At the other end there was another turn in front of the Hideaway cafe, before running back along the length of the promenade, turning again on the 75 metres along the beach, back along to the other end with the Hideaway turn before finally running back to the finish line which was half-way along.  One of the good things about this course was that as the runners spread out you are running on either side of the same pavement, and if you have friends running at a different speed to you, as they turn and run back along the other side of the pavement you can wave at them and also wave and encourage other runners with thumbs up etc.

There is something quite special about running along the seafront, even though there was quite a strong wind coming off the sea. The event was very well organised and well marshalled, with plenty of marshals along the route who were all really encouraging. I was wearing my Walthamstow parkrun apricot top and as I went past one marshal she shouted out “Well done, Walthamstow, nice to see you!”. The marshals at either end were great – one at the Hideaway café end was dancing perhaps to keep warm in the cold wind, and the other was shouting “no more beach” to everyone on the last lap! And they were friendly volunteer timekeepers and barcode scanners too.

After the finish, there is the chance to catch up with friends and enjoy a post-parkrun coffee in the appropriately named Pebbles café. I didn’t go on this occasion as I had friends waiting back in Lyme Regis, but if I was on my own I would have no hesitation in going for a coffee as everyone was so friendly. When the results came in I was amazed to find my time, considering the pebbles and the headwind, was only two minutes slower than my PB. In fact the first runner, Jake Smith, managed it in an incredibly fast 16:13 despite the pebbles!

So even though my first thought on discovering Seaton parkrun had sections run on pebbles was that this was crazy, it actually makes the run quite quirky and different, and doesn’t seem to affect times too much! Overall the event was really enjoyable, nice scenery, great to run by the sea, super-friendly and encouraging marshals, and just the right size (not too big, not too small). I may be back if I’m ever in the area again!

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ETM: Double Down by Dorrance Dance

ETM: Double Down by Dorrance Dance, currently at Sadler’s Wells, is jaw-droppingly brilliant. Quite literally – at times I was sitting open-mouthed and at risk of drooling. It is the most brilliant creative thing I’ve seen in a long time. And I’ve seen quite a few brilliant things already this year. Although described as “masters of tap”, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers they ain’t. It’s very difficult to find words to describe the performance but it’s a sort of tap meets hip-hop meets Tom Hanks playing floor piano in Big meets Vangelis meets Stomp meets the Kodo Drummers. And that in no way does it justice. With smoke, sampling machines, a Mo Farah look-alike bass player, the haunting voice of Aaron Marcellus, the amazing twisting rhythmic Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie (described in the programme as a New York City based b-girl: I have no idea what that means) spinning, twitching, tapping, body-slapping, clicking, percussion-playing dancers who looked at times as though a 10,000 volt electric shock had been delivered to their bodies yet who remained in supreme control, high octane-fuelled ultra energetic yet haunting; it most certainly got rhythm. Just go see it for yourself.

http://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/2017/dorrance-dance-etm-double-down/

(Photos by Christopher Duggan, Matthew Murphy and Hayim Heron and taken from the programme)

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Milonga

A few years ago, whilst on holiday with a friend in Argentina, I was lucky enough to visit a milonga in Buenos Aires. All the tourist information and guide books gave details of places where you could visit a tango show, and have tango lessons, but we wanted the real deal – a place where the locals danced tango and not just a show put on for the tourists. Then we found out about milongas. Wikipedia defines a milonga as “a place or an event where tango is danced… most milongas are held on a regular basis (usually weekly)… People who frequently go to milongas are sometimes called milongueros.” So this sounded like the real deal, but where to find one? As we walked around Buenos Aires I started to see notices stuck up on lampposts, advertising the next milonga, often with tear-off strips at the bottom giving the address. It seemed that often a milonga was not held in a dance-hall or club, but in a temporary space cleared for the purpose of holding a milonga, so maybe in a warehouse, anywhere where there was room. I asked at my hotel, which was a small boutique-style hotel in the San Telmo area, if there was a local milonga taking place that night, and with a bit of looking up on the internet, they gave me an address which was not far away.

We dressed up, went out for dinner and then after dinner made our way to the address we’d been given, which looked extremely inauspicious from the outside. It was an old building, several storeys high, and there was nothing on the outside to indicate that anything was going on inside at that time of night. There was, however, a little sticky label next to one of the doorbells saying merely “milonga”. I pressed the bell, and a voice answered in Spanish saying something that I didn’t understand, and the door buzzed and unlocked. We entered into a dingy staircase and walked up about five floors feeling a bit over-dressed until we reached our destination – outside one of the rooms in the building there was a table with a petty-cash tin on it, and a man and a woman standing by it. I asked if this was the milonga, and how much it was to enter, and was told that it was and the price of entry was pretty cheap – from memory it was about £5. We paid our entry fee, and walked through into a room that was pretty bare, but had a few café-style chairs and tables around the outside, and a counter with a few bottles on it that seemed to be the bar. We bought a bottle of wine from the bar and sat down at a table at the side of the room. When we arrived no-one was dancing, but shortly afterwards the music started and people took to the dance floor. The milongueros were all ages and of differing abilities but it didn’t matter – everyone was there to have a good time and enjoy the tango music and dancing.

Initially the music was recorded, but later in the evening a band appeared and set up in the corner and they were absolutely amazing. It was such a lovely evening and one of the highlights of my holiday.

Fast forward a few years to June 2017 and I found myself eagerly taking my seat at  Sadler’s Wells to watch a performance entitled “milonga”. The production was billed as “Tango for the 21st century” and was a collaboration between UK choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and an international cast including Argentinian Tango dancers alongside contemporary dancers, and all danced to a tango band on stage which also included Argentinian musicians.

For the next hour and 25 minutes I was treated to an amazing performance; it was more than a dance, it was a multi-media immersion into the streets of Buenos Aires and the world of tango and the milonga. A number of different vignettes merged seamlessly into each other; some took place in a dark set reminiscent of the milonga I attended a few years ago, others were danced in front of video screens playing scenes from the streets of San Telmo, from central Buenos Aires including Casa Rosada and Plaza de Mayo, and from the Recoleta area including a funeral scene from La Recoleta cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. The whole production could be used as a promotion for the Argentinian Tourist Board and I found myself reminiscing and watching the street scenes eagerly looking for places that I recognised. But however enticing the multi-media images were, they added to, rather than took away from, the incredible dancing. Although the programme labelled the cast members as either “tango dancers” or “contemporary dancers” it was not always easy to tell who was a tango dancer and who was a contemporary dancer. The choreography was superb; the dancers twisted and writhed seductively, sensuously and passionately throughout the piece, which included comedy and pathos alongside some stunning dancing. All the dancers were extremely accomplished, but I have to single out contemporary dancer Silvina Cortes who was mesmerising and seemed to have limbs made out of liquid mercury!

The current UK tour is now over, but it has been on tour since its premiere in 2013, and has visited 42 cities across 20 countries and 5 continents. If you get a chance to see it, snap up a ticket – you won’t regret it. And I will certainly be going again if it comes back to the UK – it’s a 5-star performance!

 

 

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