The Colonial city lives

The Colonial city lives
Williamsburg, VA

Williamsburg, VA

Williamsburg is a curiosity. Some time ago the decision was made to preserve and rebuild (mostly the latter) the original colonial buildings as a living, breathing museum of the colonial town. Actors play the part of tour guides and gatekeepers, but are also there to add colour, sure to nod a hello as you cross the street and with regular reenactments of things that may or may not have happened. I had been warned off the latter.

Union Jack outside wooden building
Check out the flag.

The most interesting thing about having a town preserved in that state is that it predates America, a reminder that this part of European America dates from the 17th century. The Union Jack flies throughout, and William and Mary college was founded in 1693, second only to Harvard. That isn’t that old by European standards, of course, but it felt really old to me in context, which must be because all and any talk of American history starts in the late 18th century.

Long grassy area bordered by trees, on the approach to the Governor's Palace
Governor’s palace.

I’ll admit that I managed to circumnavigate the historic buildings at first. I’d walked what looked like the most direct route to my motel, down a road which ran out of pavement, taking me through a college and across the grounds of a new housing development. The motel was billed as Super 8, historic area, but I walked some way before I found the visitors’ centre. In part that was because I was trying to avoid the visitors’ centre; you only need a ticket to go inside buildings, and having been warned off the performances by Martin I figured the only other thing a ticket might give me was the chance to watch old furniture (copyright, my brother, 1980), and that was something I could happily miss out on.

High street, Capitol at the end
High street, Capitol at the end.

So I walked an extra mile or two, realised I was walking at the edge of town and turned in. No sooner had I found the visitors’ centre than I turned my back on it, spotting a sign to the historic buildings. The place is beautiful – quaint probably sums it up perfectly, with old wooden and brick houses, shops with their old signs and gravelled pavements. Which they probably called pavements, back then. I wandered the streets happily, diverted briefly by the bull lowing in a field – and wondering how strong the fence design from 16xx was – before checking out the sheep in people’s gardens and enjoying the atmosphere in the central thoroughfare. About half the people there seemed to have tickets. You can tell, because they are worn like name badges, on the outside, so paying visitors look like they are part of a conference, freed from a keynote speech and exploring. Frankly, it’s enchanting, and that despite it being quite cold. I had luckily flicked through TV channels in the motel, and caught the prediction of rain for later. Sure enough, around 3 the rain started, and my tour of the university was cut a bit short. The Kimball theatre is on the area set aside for ‘modern shops’ – all built in old style brick so as to be in keeping with the rest of the surroundings – and I dived in there for a 4.00 film before sheltering in the warmth of my room for the evening.

Screenshot of weather, showing 8 degrees on Monday, 7 on Wednesday, 22 on Friday
Temperature fluctuations. Just how it is this Spring-each week it warms hugely for the weekend

Bright Days in Durham

Bright Days in Durham
Keysville, VA

Keysville, VA

Durham has had a month of crazy weather, and it isn’t changing. I was there for two 20 degree days of delicious sunshine, perfect and unexpected after the heat of Phoenix, when I thought I’d be heading to British conditions. But it’s due to plunge to near freezing by tuesday. Tom at parkrun said they’d had 15 degree shifts within a day, which reminded me of Perth, though admittedly the temperature plunge there just took it from unbelievably hot to ‘hot if I were at home’.

I got into town on Friday afternoon, bleary eyed from travelling through the night but happy to see sunshine. US towns, with out of town malls housing the shopping areas, often don’t have a recognisable centre, and from the station I couldn’t spot an obvious direction for the action. I followed signs to Bright Leaf square, a quaint street of shops and restaurants, all red brick and pedestrian only. After lunch I explored, and the ex industrial nature of town was obvious. I was very pleased to spot a CSi truck as I wandered round town, before I found a grassy spot for a snooze.

After an hour in the library, my host, Julie, sent me a message that she was done with work and would pick me up, so I had a tour of the city as we rode out to pick up numbers for the 25k the next day. Her and Martin’s house is within walking distance of the city, though I only realised that on Saturday when we actually did the walk. Durham is nicely revitalised, with old warehouses and factories that were never knocked down turned into bars and restaurants. A couple of people expressed the sentiment that they liked the ‘edgy’ nature of Durham’s reputation; it’s not really true any more, but it keeps the socially aspirant locals in Raleigh. My hosts treated me to dinner in a local, fabulously busy, bar, with American craft beers by the handful to try. Throwing a jumper on was enough for us to sit outside as the sun set, and I got a quick preview of the hill that awaited them both in the final few hundred metres of their Saturday race. Cruel and unusual, it seemed to me.

Post parkrun, on Saturday, Tom the photographer gave me a lift into town and set himself up to take photos of the action. Julie and Martin were surprised I hadn’t been treated to talk of Tom’s old running club in Alabama, though we had got onto his work overseas for an oil company, and visits to US cities, so just ran out of time for more. The atmosphere after the 25k-and its cruel hill-was fabulous, helped by the fact that the finish area was surrounded by bars. Id was needed to get a certified ‘old enough to drink’ wristband, but Martin was right in suggesting ‘you might get away with it with the accent’, so I had a lovely feeling of being with ‘my people’ while polishing off a stout in the sun.

We even managed to fit a walk home, shower and trip back into town for lunch before my coach out of town to Richmond; a tight fit, but it worked, and I left with a wave and full stomach.

That coach trip was my longest Greyhound trip, but an uneventful 5 hours, arriving in the city around 7, and then I had the joy of resting for the night round the corner from the terminal, in a motel which had itself entered a terminal state. Dingy and dank, the bathroom door had at some point been kicked in and the bathroom was stained. The remnants of the swimming pool were decaying out back, while the reception area slept, dreaming of better days, days before her windows were cracked. Downtown was altogether more lively, though I only saw it from a brief walk for dinner, before I headed back to sleep. Just a stop over, I was on the bus again at 9.30 the following morning.

Durham, NC parkrun

Durham, NC parkrun
Durham, NC

Durham, NC

Durham NC parkrun route
Durham NC parkrun route. Start at top right.

A parkrun on a new continent for me, in North Carolina, in the middle of the three existing parkruns.

My hosts were running the Merge 25k, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the record label, Merge Records, by running from Chapel Hill to Durham. They had to leave early to catch a bus for a 7.30 start, so I had the VIP treatment, with Eric coming to pick me up and whizz me to the start and then photographer Tom carrying me back downtown for the race finish.

Two yellow bollards mark a path through autumnal trees, with orange leaves on the tree and the grass beside the path
Sun just coming through the trees. Shows the sort of thing you’ll get here, possible wildlife includes hawks and deer (not pictured)

Durham is big on runners, which surprised me. There are a couple of universities, which helps, but the population has plenty of runners in any case, I’d seen several in town during the day and roundabout whilst travelling. Despite that, the record attendance is 46, and they’ve not had more than 20 since the end of November. Today, with the race taking the attention of many of the city’s runners, we had 7 runners, smaller even than Concord when I ran it with 12 others. Yet those 7 represented a broader spread of parkrun participants than some bigger events would have seen.

One was a parkrun first-timer, new but we hope now hooked. Three people with a pb (pr as they here, which is a phrase that jarred with me, but makes perfect sense when I think about it – world record, continental record, personal record…) to aim for, one new pb, on a cool and still day, perfect for running.

Two runners on the path
First timer Maria and Ron (not that one) Hill.

Book-ending the field were not one but two 100 club members; both of us also appear on the global most events list. I ran my 142nd different parkrun, while Ron (not the) Hill ran his 43rd. I’ve noticed his name before – it’s one that would stand out to any UK runner – and reminds me of my friend Guy’s words on being told he was shaking hands with Winston Churchill, “that’s a name to conjure with”. He and his wife used to live in Slough, which gave him a good base to explore the south west parkruns and he got to his 100 just before they moved out to the US, with a gap before they moved near enough to run Clermont regularly.

The run itself is a two-lap scenic course. Durham is blessed in many ways. The city was too poor to pull down the old tobacco firm warehouses but they have now been renovated to eateries around open urban parkland, while old autoworks form bars and restaurants in another part of town. With a new bridge over the interstate, The Tobacco Trail runs for over 30 miles, forming an area where pedestrians rule in the land of the car.

Me, on the run
Me.

There’s a small loop near the car park and parkrun starts within that, running half the loop, out along the path then under the road, out over three footbridges before looping back, over the same course, right to complete the loop and back on the same ground again. The opening mile has a long gentle downhill to let you find your stride, and you pay for that at the end of each lap, with a climb that is gentle but tough. There’s probably a slight net drop, with the finish short of the start, thought I’m not in good enough shape to tell how fast the course is. Pretty quick, I should think, with a good surface, though in summer it will be hot and when the lower area floods the course changes to a three lapper, climbing the uphill sections one more time. Another lovely event, one where everyone ‘gets’ parkrun and most can spot any new faces and greet them. It deserves a larger audience, but will doubtlessly find one over time. It only occurred to me afterwards that I now have a Durham/Durham international run double to go with Newy/Newcastle.

Results from Durham NC parkrun, event 39, 22/3/14.

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