Category Archives: Health and Fitness

From local fun run to the world’s best half marathon

This year’s Great North Run is fast approaching. HELEN GILDERSLEEVE  finds out some interesting facts and regales her own experiences of the iconic North East event.

Great North Run
The Great North Run. Photo: © Chris Booth www.chrisbooth.photos/

It isn’t called the world’s most famous half marathon for no reason.

The run was originally devised by Tynesider and former Olympic 10,000 metre bronze medallist and BBC Sport commentator Brendan Foster. The first Great North Run which was advertised as a ‘local fun run’ began on 28 June 1981, when 12,000 runners participated.

Fast forward three decades and the number of participants had risen to 47,000 with this year’s event boasting a record 57,000 runners who will pound across the iconic Tyne Bridge to South Shields sea front.

Nothing quite prepares you for this event and it’s so much more than just ‘going for a run’. I’m about to (hopefully) complete my fifth this year and I can’t wait.

Standing at the start line and looking ahead at the sea of coloured tops and eccentric fancy dress is nothing short of amazing. How they get 57,000 people on the central motorway each year in an orderly fashion always astounds me.

Every single person has their own story for competing, and most are extremely touching. It’s hard not to get emotional seeing the huge variety of charity runners and signs on people’s vests emblazoning messages like ‘for you mum’ and ‘in memory of ….’. Each year sees millions of pounds being raised for hundreds of different charities. It’s a moment where people come as one and the atmosphere is simply magical.

Once the start gun goes off at 10.40am and the sea of runners ascend across the town flyover amidst chanting and the echoes of pounding feet, there’s no greater sight than the masses of people and shouts of support greeting you as you run across the Tyne Bridge with the Red Arrows flying overhead.

Great North Run and Tyne Bridge
Crossing the Tyne Bridge at the Great North Run. Photo: © Chris Booth www.chrisbooth.photos/

Throughout the 13.1 mile course the support from local people is astonishing; they come out in their thousands to give support and many give runners home baked goodies, biscuits and fruit to boost energy. One particularly warm year I got blasted by a child with a Super Soaker and I’ve never been more grateful.

Nothing is more welcome than the sight of the sea when you head into the last mile at South Shields, I’ve witnessed people limping, crawling, carrying one another and crying at this point.

As you bear left and run the final mile with the North Sea on your right, the finish line is in sight and all you want to do is stop/cry/collapse as you can’t feel your legs anymore, but the masses of people cheer you on and push you to the end. These people will never understand how much the runners appreciate them.

You FINALLY get to the end and as you sprint through that famous finish arch, the feeling cannot be explained. Nor can the taste of that first sip of a beer.

And it’s over for another year!

Great North Run
Running for fun and great causes too, The Great North Run. Photo: © Chris Booth www.chrisbooth.photos/

Five things you probably didn’t know about the Great North Run:

  • Previous runners include: former England and Newcastle United manager Sir Bobby Robson, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sting and Newcastle’s own TV presenters Ant & Dec.
  • In 2014 the 34th Great North Run had 57,000 participants and celebrated the 1 millionth runner to cross the finish line, and was the first to have a British man win in 29 years.
  • If all the Great North Runners stood head to toe, their combined height would be ten times the height of Mount Everest.
  • About 18 miles of cloth is used to make Great North Run souvenir T-shirts.
  • Paul Gascoigne once pushed a wheelchair athlete all the way round the Great North Run circuit.

The Great North Run 2017 Newcastle upon Tyne to South Shields, takes place on Sunday 10 September. Live coverage on BBC 1 from 9.30-13.30

Thanks to Chris Booth of www.chrisbooth.photos/ for the images of the Great North Run.

Cyclist’s Paradise:  Keeping fit and enjoying the region’s landscapes

DAVID SIMPSON shares his passion for cycling as he explores old railway routes and scenery across the North East from the saddle of his trusty mountain bike

Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson

Cycling and especially mountain biking is one of the best ways to see our region. Taking in the wonderful varied scenery of our beloved North East from the cyclist’s saddle is one of life’s great pleasures.  Travel from village to village, town to town and watch the delightful changes in the region’s rolling scenery mile by mile. Head along rural riverside routes into industrial heartlands, take in lovely country roads or try out the course of a former railway route at your own leisurely pace. Simply marvellous!

Sure, you can do some of these things from the comfort of your car but can you take a break without the headache of finding a parking space and can you go ‘off road’, away from all the traffic? Cycling is great because you always feel that you’re part of the outdoors, rather than just passing through within the confines of a wheeled metal box. That feeling of being part of the scenery is something that you never quite get from inside the car, even when the window is wound right down.

Scenery near Sunderland
Scenery from a recent Durham to Sunderland cycle ride. Photo: David Simpson.

Best of all though, cycling keeps you fit, in both mind and body. Mentally, I’m at my sharpest and happiest when I’ve been doing lots of cycling and it’s really invigorating. Walking, running or team sports might work for you but it’s cycling for me. It works well with my lifestyle and interests: my love for history, for taking photographs and a passion for the region’s varied landscapes makes cycling the perfect fit.

Now let’s be clear, I’m not one of the Lycra brigade. No, no, no, when I’m out cycling, I prefer skinny, stretchy jeans, old trainers, a long-sleeved shirt plus a jumper or fleece in the backpack just in case it gets too chilly. That’s more my scene. Purists might frown on this but that doesn’t bother me, though I should say a helmet is always a must. Taking something high-viz too if you’re going to be out in the twilight could also be wise and don’t forget a spare bottle of water or squash and a snack to keep you going if you feel peckish en route.

C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson
The C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson

No, it’s not about the streamlined look or the speed for me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the thrill of the racing bike fraternity whizzing through the blurry countryside constantly improving on their best times, clocking up mile after mile on twisty roads and climbing hills with endless motor cars for company. There’s plenty of great scope for that activity across the region and I am sure the exertion is exhilarating but it’s not really for me.

I’ll often ride more than thirty or forty miles a time on the mountain bike but sometimes I’ll just go for twenty or a modest ten or perhaps even six or seven miles just to get out of the house. The more miles you do though the easier the distances become. I don’t mind cycling on the road some of the time but more often than not I head off along one of those superb off-the-road cycle paths that crisscross our region.

Many of these routes are the legacy of Dr Beeching, the man who closed so many railways back in the sixties, but that was due to the burgeoning growth of the motorists. I don’t suppose Beeching ever envisaged the growth in popularity of cycling though many of the cycle ways he has unwittingly created, from old railway routes, provide ideal and relatively easy going paths that often stretch for many miles. It all makes sense: those routes were designed for steam locomotives that wanted to avoid steep hills and take the easiest routes. All good news for leisurely cyclists like me.

Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson
Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson

Old railway routes converted into long-distance paths are one of the great gems of our region’s countryside and are great ways to get out and about in the North East. In recent rides I’ve headed out in various directions using a village near Durham City as a base. The other week I cycled from Durham into Sunderland through lovely countryside with views of the sea along the way.

Surprisingly, much of the track through Sunderland itself encompasses fields, trees, parks and even a lake. Except for the occasional glimpse of a block of flats nearby, you barely notice you’re in an urban environment until you eventually emerge in the city centre and then after crossing a couple of main roads at pedestrian crossings you head over the Wearmouth Bridge and back into the countryside along the banks of the River Wear – though I took a brief diversion to the river mouth first just to see the sea.

Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

In County Durham there are pathway ‘hubs’ that provide good centres for exploring various walking and cycle routes where railways once ran. Broompark, just west of Durham City is one such hub. There’s parking there and a picnic area too, so you can take your bike along on the car then make your way by bike along a choice of three routes. I’ve tried all three. One heads along the pretty wooded valley of the little River Deerness to Esh Winning and on towards a place called Stanley Crook and another heads north along the Browney valley to Lanchester and then on towards Consett. The third heads south to Bishop Auckland culminating in a good view of the Bishop of Durham’s home town that can be reached across the Newton Cap Viaduct.

Perhaps the major hub for cyclists in the North East is Lydgetts Junction at Consett, arguably the central hub for all North East cycle paths. Here routes head out to Newcastle and Tynemouth, south into Durham, east to Sunderland and west all the way to Cumbria via the splendid Hownsgill viaduct.

Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson

It’s always good to combine parts of routes and even improvise with a bit of research beforehand. Recently, I headed out from my village base east of Durham City to join the Deerness route at Broompark but then left its course at Esh Winning to make the steep climb by local roads through Quebec and Cornsay Colliery to lovely Lanchester. There, joining the Lanchester Valley route to Consett I joined  the C2C route at Lydgetts Junction –  with its impressive art installation sculptures along the way – as I continued through Leadgate, Stanley, Beamish and Pelton where I improvised in a descent into Chester-le-Street on my way back to my village base completing about 44 miles.

Souter Lighthouse
Souter Lighthouse is one of the many beautiful features on the coastal route between the Tyne and Wear. Photo: David Simpson

Many routes link in with the longer-distance coast-to-coast cycle paths like the C2C (sea to sea) route I have mentioned. This route links the coastal Cumbrian towns of Whitehaven, Workington and St Bees to Sunderland, South Shields and Tynemouth. An alternative cross-Pennine route is the W2W (Walney to Wear) route linking Walney in southern Cumbria to Sunderland, part of which we followed on our recent ride from Durham to Sunderland.

The great thing is, you don’t have to stray far from the cities to enjoy great cycle rides. There are good cycle rides around Stockton and Hartlepool into the fringes of the County Durham countryside for example and in Tyne and Wear there’s a particularly enjoyable coastal ride from the mouth of the Tyne to the mouth of the Wear – and back.

You can cycle along the bank of the River Tyne all the way to Wylam and then back along the other side of the river and once you’re back at the beginning there’s no extra charge for taking cycles across the Shields ferry to reach the other side.

Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson
Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson

Superb cycling can be found in Northumberland too, often with the Cheviots serving as a wonderful backdrop with some routes taking in coastal areas and castles. A cycling friend of mine recently tried out a circular route from Wooler across to Holy Island which looks appealing.

In North Yorkshire the Vale of York and Vale of Mowbray around Thirsk and Northallerton offer relatively gentle cycling with gradual climbs into the Yorkshire Dales to the west or challenging cycling in the North York Moors to the east.

Sustrans provide a useful zoomable map of all the major cycle routes in the region (see the links below) but it’s also worth checking out the region’s woods and forests that can appeal to thrill-seekers or those who just want to take a cycling stroll. Hamsterley and Kielder for example have superb mountain biking trails to explore.

Out and about. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Out and about on the bike. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

Whatever kind of cycling you do, it’s always enjoyable to keep a record of your routes, speeds and distances mile by mile, to see how much you’ve ascended and descended and how many calories you’ve burned. It’s a satisfying way to round off a good cycle ride. You can post the details on social media too and it’s a good way to log your progress and share with others.

That’s all part of the fun and can be facilitated by downloading great route-tracking GPS apps like Endomondo, Strava or Mapmyride to your mobile phone. It’s always good to review your times and distances, when you get back to base, and to check your best and slowest lap, though often, I find, I’ve lost more than an hour or so stopping to take photos or admire the beautiful views along the way. I’m certainly not going to complain about that.

Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson
Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson

Update!

We’ve been out on the bike again (the day after this blog) this time from Consett to Newcastle and back (38 miles) taking in the Derwent valley and Tyne riverside with Lydgett’s junction as our starting base. Another lovely route. Check out our sunny day of cycling photos of the Derwent Valley here and of Newcastle-Gateshead here.

Useful links

Railway-paths in County Durham  (for cyclists, walkers, runners, horse riders and wheelchair users) with downloadable pdfs of maps and route features.

Sustrans C2C Cycle Route  and other routes throughout the North East of England.

Cycle Routes in Northumberland from Cycle Northumberland

Cycle friendly cafes: englandsnortheast.co.uk/2016/08/21/many-reasons-get-yer-bike/ a blog by Helen Gildersleeve

www.cycle-route.com Has an astonishing  choice of suggested cycle routes. Select by nation and county for an extensive list of routes with map details.

Kielder Forest Mountain Bike Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/OverviewA0panel.pdf/$file/OverviewA0panel.pdf

Hamsterley Forest Cycle Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf/$file/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf

Cyclists on the Shields ferry: www.nexus.org.uk/ferry/guide-ferry  Large groups of cyclists should contact the ferry in advance.

GPS Cycling apps

Endomondo: www.endomondo.com/

Strava: www.strava.com/

Mapmyride: www.mapmyride.com/app/

Charlie’s quest to lose a million pounds

DAVID SIMPSON speaks to former London marathon winner and Olympic medallist, Charlie Spedding about his big plan to tackle obesity and help the nation lose a million pounds in weight

Charlie Spedding
Charlie Spedding at home near Durham. Photo: David Simpson

A former North East Olympic marathon medallist has launched an ambitious online campaign to help thousands of people lose millions of pounds in weight.

Charlie Spedding, 64, is the owner of ‘Who Wants to Lose a Million Pounds’ a venture that hopes to tackle the nation’s escalating obesity problem, helping people become healthy without feeling hungry:

“I have this collective idea of a whole group of people losing a million pounds” says Charlie, one of the region’s most successful athletes, referring to losing the ‘lbs’ rather than the ‘£s’.

Born in Bishop Auckland and raised in Ferryhill, Charlie started running at school where cross country was compulsory:

“It was the first thing I was any good at” he recalls.

Charlie came second in the English School Championship for 1,500 metres in his final year at school and at 16, joined Gateshead Harriers, regularly taking a bus trip from Ferryhill to Gateshead just to train. Charlie proved not quite fast enough for the middle distances, but moved up to 5,000 and 10,000 metres before finally making his mark in the marathon.

CS_84
Winning the London Marathon in 1984

The pinnacle of his career came in 1984, when he won both the Houston and London marathons and claimed Bronze in the Los Angeles Olympics, narrowly missing out on silver to Irishman John Treacy by two seconds.

Considering the marathon’s central place in the Olympic story, Charlie can take particular pride in being the only Brit to have won an Olympic marathon medal in the last 52 years. Furthermore he is one of only six British athletes to have won the London Marathon since its inception in 1981 and is the third fastest British marathon runner of all time, after Steve Jones and Mo Farrah.

I met Charlie at his home in a village near Durham to talk about loseamillionpounds.com the website at the heart of his new business venture. First, though, I ask Charlie if he thinks he should be better remembered for his past achievements.

He’s somewhat philosophical and modestly recalls that there were some great gold medallists around at the time like Seb Coe and Daley Thompson but he proudly reflects on a prized photo of himself with Steve Cram and Mike Mcleod fresh on arrival back at Newcastle from Los Angeles in 1984.

By trade, Charlie is a pharmacist and has been for most of his life, training at Sunderland Polytechnic Pharmacy School, before starting his pharmacy career in Ferryhill. In more recent times he owned a pharmacy business in Wallsend and along with his athletics experience this gave him a sound knowledge of diet, nutrition and how the body works at the chemical and hormonal level.

In his work as a pharmacist he became acutely aware of the dietary problems that many people have: “I just noticed that most of the people I saw regularly had what you call metabolic diseases, not infections” he says “their internal metabolism had gone awry, it wasn’t working properly, they’d been taking medication for years and hardly any of them got any better”.

He concluded that medication was treating the symptom, not the cause of the problem and felt that it would do a lot more good to prevent the cause.

'Junk food' high in catboydrates
Sugary, high carbohydrate food is a big cause of obesity according to Charlie

“A lot of metabolic diseases are caused by lifestyle and the most important bit of lifestyle is diet” he says. “I know a lot of people would expect me as an Olympic marathon runner to say exercise, and exercise is very important for mental and physical health” but he quotes the words of influential NHS cardiologist, Dr Aseem Malhotra, who says “you can’t outrun a bad diet”, a point on which Charlie agrees.

Charlie notes we are told that one third of the UK has a BMI (Body Mass Index) of over 25 and that another quarter has a BMI of over 30. “It’s not good, but how do you visualise that?” he asks.

As part of the argument Charlie assumes a BMI of over 25 is about 2 stone overweight and a BMI of over 30 is 5 stone overweight. With roughly 60 million people in the country one third of the population is 20 million and one quarter is 15 million. Charlie equates this to a UK population that is a staggering 2,000 million pounds overweight. On this basis, the North East, which has one of the highest levels of obesity within its 2.5 million people, is around 85 million pounds overweight. Charlie thinks that if he can gather together a group of people on his site to collectively lose a million pounds it would be a great start in beating obesity.

Charlie’s particular dietary approach to tackling the problem will have its critics. He is an advocate of a LCHF based diet (Low Carbohydrate, High Fat). There are a number of eminent supporters of this approach but in the UK there are some major heavyweight opponents such as the NHS who are broadly opposed or at least very cautious and the British Heart Foundation who are a significant opponent. High fat diets are often associated in some minds with heart disease but Charlie refutes this research.

He acknowledges that his approach does not fit in with official guidelines and his website makes this clear. His opinion has been informed from extensive research and he encourages people to make their own decisions with their own research.

In truth, major aspects of Charlie’s campaign are hard to deny. Reducing sugar, present in so many processed foods (a particular bugbear for Charlie) and sugary drinks is a key part of Charlie’s campaign and certainly a key factor in tackling obesity. Charlie is a great believer in what he calls ‘real foods’ as opposed to processed foods and advocates the importance of cooking as opposed to ready meals.

realfood-300x200
‘Real foods’

Widespread processed foods, excessive carbohydrates and sugary drinks are a relatively recent feature of the human story and Charlie believes humans are not equipped to cope with this change. Foods with more fat content are in tune with the way we have evolved according to Charlie.

He feels the terminology of ‘fat’ is something of an issue. “The problem is we use the same word for dietary fat as being fat” he says. In fact scientists call the fats within our body ‘lipids’ but it is understandable that in the public mind it is hard not to associate ‘being fat’ with dietary fat.

“It’s carbohydrates that make you fat”, says Charlie.

He notes that fats of various kinds are an essential part of our body’s structure and that much of the body is made from fat. The brain for example is around 70% fat and our cells are encased in membranes made of fat while our nerves are encased in protective sheaths that are fat. Charlie notes that while the body is made up of proteins and fats, “no part of the body is made from carbohydrates” and advocates that fats are a perfectly good source of energy.

He argues that saturated fat as part of a diet became demonised, especially after 1977 when official US dietary guidelines encouraged a diet based on carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, pasta) and discouraged fats (butter, lard, cream, eggs, cheese). Much of the world followed suit, but Charlie highlights a graph on his website that shows a very sharp and continuing increase in obesity in the US since 1977 which he associates with the dietary changes.

Graph showing rise in obesity in the United States from Charlie's website
Graph showing rise in obesity in the United States from Charlie’s website

According to Charlie some researchers think a low fat diet and lack of correct nutrients increase health and mental health problems and he points to a theory that Alzheimer’s Disease may actually be type 3 diabetes.

It’s seemingly the excess glucose from carbohydrates that is the big problem. The liver turns extra glucose into fat and this makes you fat and the high levels of insulin that come from high blood sugar content prevent the burning of the fat.

Although LCHF diets have picked up a significant following in recent years there is a significant body of opinion that disagrees with Charlie’s approach. As with many issues in the modern world it is sometimes difficult to get to the truth.

Clearly, processed food manufacture is a multi-billion pound business and sugary drinks are amongst some of the world’s most powerful brands and Charlie is cautious of this: “Big business definitely affects some of the research” he says “when I see a scientific paper on nutrition, I always look to see who paid for it. In my opinion it’s nearly always funded by the sugar industry in some form or another”.

Charlie is clearly animated and excited by his new venture and is aiming for at least 20,000 subscribers in order to achieve the million pound weight loss. “I want people to join and learn more about what a healthy diet and lifestyle is” he says.

There are opportunities for family membership (£8.99 a month) so that families can work together for mutual support and individual membership is £5.99 a month. The site includes a personal page for each member to record their progress, calculating how much weight has been lost and plotting it on a chart. There are regular articles and updates on how to enjoy delicious foods that satisfy and nourish, video clips, recipes, meal suggestions, articles, ideas on exercise, information on childhood development and lots of regular blogs.

“I’m aware I’ve got an uphill struggle” says Charlie, using what might be seen as a runner’s metaphor but that seems unlikely to deter him given his proven track record for endurance.

Charlie Speding's wbesite at loseamillionpounds.com
Charlie Speding’s  site at loseamillionpounds.com

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Note: This article is not intended as an endorsement of loseamillionpounds.com or Charlie’s views by the England’s North East site. As with all diets, consult your doctor if you are not sure. The opinions  expressed on loseamillionpounds.com are based on intensive research however they are not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional.

Useful links