Friday, 20 March 2020

A runner's thoughts on corona virus

Last winter, when I signed up for Hardmoors 55, I was feeling very low and vulnerable. My plan had been to speed train all winter to try and get a BQ for Boston marathon, but every time I thought about it I felt depressed. I saw this race and thought, “Screw Boston - I’d much rather go far than fast” and signed up on a whim. It was only later I realised this was the race that had been called off in 2018 during Beast from the East, with many runners getting hypothermia.
It was then I began to realise how much I’d bitten off. The race has a 16 hour cut off, which at first glance is fine, I’d done a 50 miler in 10.5 hours earlier in 2019. But that was flat. This one involves 2400m of ascent - here’s the elevation profile:
I was definitely going to have to do some hill training.  Over the last four months, I’ve been to Lancashire three times, the Lakes twice, Yorkshire twice and West Sussex once. I’ve run more hills than I’ve ever run in my life. It has been tough and I’ve made sacrifices in every other area of my life to accommodate it because I really, really wanted to do this. The cost of accommodation and travel has run into quite literally thousands of pounds. I have run through so much mud and in some insanely strong winds during the winter storms. I ran a few marathons that didn’t count towards my challenge just to get extra hills in. I ran when I was ill. I even DNF’d a race - I missed the cutoff and I cried - but I went out and did another loop anyway so I could get some extra hills in. All the pics below were taken on training runs in the last three months - this is the reality of winter ultra running.  It's brutal.  According to the Health app on my phone, I've run and walked a total of 1100 miles since December 1st. 

I was also nervous about self-navigating around the moors in the dark on my own (who wouldn’t be?!) and did a course with the legendary Joe Faulkner of Nav4 Adventure to improve my map reading.  I went to a recce to practice running 25 miles of the course at night. It was during Storm Dennis and the weather was truly horrific. I wanted to quit so many times - torrential rain and wind, ploughing through deep mud and icy puddles, in the dark. I dug deep that night, because I knew if I could endure that, I could use it to get me through the race. The next morning I got up early and ran another 23 miles to practice a different section of the course alone.

The race has extensive kit list requirements and many of these items I’d never needed before. Some of my gear needed upgrading - my best gloves had holes in, making them less than waterproof, for example. I went to the fabulous Let’s Run in Stokesley and spent £500 on kit. It would be worth it, I told myself, to finish this race. 

Last weekend, I was booked to go on a skiing holiday. All winter I’d worked through NHS winter pressures without any time off so I could conserve my annual leave for this holiday. It was hard but it would be worth it. Then corona virus happened.  On Saturday I packed with one hand whilst obsessively reading the news with the other until finally at 8pm the news came through that it was cancelled. I was due to set off for the airport at 3am the next morning.  Gutted, but never one to give up easily, I started planning a solo adventure. 

By Sunday lunchtime I was on a train to Hull with a tiny backpack to attempt three back-to-back self-supported marathons along the Yorkshire Wolds Way.  I finished yesterday. The total ascent was 2900m. I didn’t even need to do any stretches as I’ve become so accustomed to hills.

On Monday night it was announced that Hardmoors 55 would go ahead, albeit with major changes to the aid stations/start/finish. I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew other races would be cancelled - my April marathon  had already been pulled - but not Hardmoors. Hardmoors never cancels!

On Tuesday night, after 56 kilometres of running, I had an email to say that it was cancelled. More accurately, it’s being postponed to October, but it might as well be cancelled as I can’t put myself through this again. The expense, the sacrifice... I just can’t. Besides, I’ve got an expedition in August, then Iz is off to uni in September and I’m attending two weddings. I've said many times that this is the last winter ultra I’d ever do - the training crossed a line for me to the point where I really wasn’t having fun anymore. But my sheer determination and tenacity means I couldn’t give up until it was done. 

You’d think I’d be relieved but I’m not. I’m grieving.  Every time I think about it I get tearful all over again. I know Corona virus has been wreaking havoc with everyone’s plans, but most people haven’t spent ALL WINTER preparing for one day of pain and glory and triumph. Being out in the hills, the stunning views, the fresh air, fighting your demons and at the end receiving the chunk of metal that proves you defeated them. That’s what running means to me. 

Hardmoors 55 was due to be held on 28th March. I’ve got my last two days of annual leave booked (work have already said all future leave will be cancelled so this is my last time off for the foreseeable future). I’ve got sports massages booked for before and after. I’ve got two days accommodation (non refundable, because Hardmoors never cancels) in a very nice hotel in Helmsley. 

I totally understand that Race Directors are in an unenviable position. If I were them I would’ve cancelled too - they really had no other choice. I’m concerned for the livelihood of these people who do so much for our sport. My final glimmer of hope is that all I need to count this towards my challenge is a medal.  It doesn't have to be an official race - I just need to have a medal to show that I've completed it.  I've emailed the organisers to ask if I run it anyway, and send photos and a GPX file to prove it, would they possibly be able to let me have the medal?  My fingers are crossed waiting for an answer, but even if they say no, I won’t be taking up their offer of a refund. 

Obviously I do realise there are more important things in life than running.  I will get over this eventually. I still plan to run a hundred miler, one day.  But it will definitely be in summer...!

UPDATE:  The Race Directors said no.  They had to - if they'd let me run, they'd've had to let others, and it was all just too risky.  My hotel subsequently cancelled my booking and so did both my physios.  The government advice regarding non-essential travel became increasingly strict.  It was clear that this simply couldn't happen.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

West Sussex: Steyning Stinger marathon race recap

I'd been looking forward to this race for ages as I lived in West Sussex for nine years and this race is largely on the South Downs Way, which I ran last year.  It was going to be a glorious adventure!  But then Storm Jorge came along, and I knew from Iz's Scout hikes that the area was frequently a mud pit in March, especially after a fortnight of perpetual rain.  On the way down on the train, I saw this:
... basically saying "it's going to be horrific".  Oh deep joy.  Ian and I had booked a couple of nights at super-fancy hotel South Lodge first so we had a lovely meal, a good night's sleep in a comfy bed and a morning jaunt around the muddiest bit of Sussex as a precursor:
Later that day my lovely friend Cat came to visit and we drank wine, had facials and mooched around the spa.  That evening Mattgreen came for dinner in the pub and cocktails in the hotel lounge.  It was all gloriously civilised.
The next morning I got up early, reluctantly checked out and made my way to Steyning Grammar School.  Organisation was good and the event was sponsored by Clif bars, which I liked.   What I didn't like was the prospect of spending many hours running up and down hills in the mud in the rain.  Trying to fake enthusiasm:
The one upside was they had given me the absolute classic running number 118.  This both guaranteed I wouldn't forget it and also gave me ideas for cool photo opportunities, as shown:
(Many thanks to Iz Green for the photoshop skills!)

The race had a somewhat quirky start in that it didn't have an official start time.  You could basically rock up anytime between 07:30 and 09:00 and just start running. This was weird as it felt like you were running by yourself.  Also, normally during a race, you naturally end up with a group of people who are around your pace who you overtake/they overtake you all the way through the race.  This didn't happen, as there could be someone who was your exact pace but who started 20 minutes later than you and your paths wouldn't cross all day.

The day was much nicer than predicted and within the first mile or two there were already hints of Sussex countryside loveliness:
The weather forecast was much worse than the reality and I was a bit warm from the get go.  Blue skies and pretty countryside - I felt my mood lifting pretty early on.
Nevertheless Sussex never fails to deliver on the mud front.  I was wearing new waterproof socks to try them out for Hardmoors and despite being filthy and having splashed through many (deep) puddles, my feet felt surprisingly dry.  Especially as my shoes had holes in them!
This picture was the one time the weather clouded over.  It rained, briefly, but I was in the woods at the time, and by the time I came out it had blown over never to be seen again...
There were many long slow climbs like this one, followed by long slow stretches across fields like this one:
In the pre-race email it said, "Along with many other events we are looking to reduce our use of disposable cups. We would therefore encourage you to bring along your own reusable soft cup or water bottle to be filled at our water stations".

I took this at face value and duly brought along my cup.  To my surprise, when I arrived at the first aid station, I was very surprised that they had loads of plastic cups.  I was literally the only person I saw all day who'd brought a reusable cup.  I'm afraid I'm quite draconian on this one - there is no such thing as TRY to reduce plastic - you just have to DO it.  Tell racers there will be no cups and to bring their own.  Sell your own branded one at the start for anyone who forgets.  They'll remember next time.  The end.

This chap was probably regretting the decision to wear white shorts:
The race organisers had photographers out on the course who provided free photos, always a nice touch - thank you!  Here I am not looking too miserable as it was on a flat bit!
Somewhere around 18km, I saw in the distance the familiar shape of Chanctonbury Ring.  It was surprising how little I recognised about this route considering I'd run it before.
When I got closer I took this picture.  This is the 'wrong' side of the Ring - the other side looks out on glorious countryside and reminds me of the night Ian and I wild camped here without a tent and Ian woke up with a slug in his sleeping bag.  Also the time Ludo escaped here and disappeared over a hill beyond an electric fence whilst I shouted obsenities - ahh happy memories!
A bit later you do two small loops.  I overheard someone saying they were very muddy so I had that to look forward to.  I saw Ian at the start of the first and he asked if I wanted anything - I said COKE because there was nothing but water at the aid stations to drink.  He went off to search for it and I completed the loop and headed on to the next one.  Lo and behold, when I arrived he was there clutching a bottle of it.  Lucky me!
I ran some more.  Sussex was Sussex-y.  There were hills, but nothing too savage.

There was mud, but nothing unexpected.  In fact one chap told me he'd run a big chunk of this route 2 weeks ago and it was loads worse then.  Immediately after I took this picture I spotted a lady I'd been running with earlier, Sharon, who tripped on this mud and fell over.  We ran together for the next 10k or so.
Here we are coming into the aid station at the end of the second loop.  She was from Horsham and had grown up children also so we had plenty to chat about!
Here's another one of the race photos.  I had a hat at the start but it was too hot, so I took it off and then my hair kept getting in my face, so I used my buff to hold it back.  I do look a bit strange though...
Race conditions were ideal by now, this is around the 37k mark.  I was feeling strangely comfortable, I'd been taking it easy all day and was feeling fine and cheerful.
The last little bit goes through the woods and is quite pretty.  Here's Sharon and I (slightly blurry):

Probably about a mile from the end there is a horrifically muddy and totally impassable section without going straight through it.  Oh well!  Crack on! 
Here I am crossing the finish line.  Today's was a pretty slow, sluggish one, but with 991m of ascent and a significant amount of mud, plus having spent yesterday doing very little, I felt it was OK.
I waited for Sharon at the finish and clapped her in - when I saw the results later she actually finished 20 minutes before me as she'd started after me (!). Then I went straight to the showers, via the boot wash.  This turned out to be a lot of fun - look at the colour of my trainers under all that mud!
Another quirk of this race is it includes a free breakfast.  I chose the veggie option but still didn't much feel like eating it - I managed the bread roll and the baked beans and a cup of tea though.
Here I am with my medal - they weren't given out at the finish but instead in the room with the breakfasts, so I didn't collect it until I was clean and changed.  The medal was small and has a really short ribbon - looked quite funny on big strapping men!  Overall a nice race - well signposted, extremely well marshalled and friendly.  Enjoyed it.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Devon: Plym Trail Winter marathon race recap

Devon, as you may know, is very far from Liverpool.  Approximately 300 miles away in fact.  What I've noticed is as this challenge progresses is (unsurprisingly) I've gradually ticked off all the nearby counties leaving all the travel-intensive ones.  January is also not a good month for marathons generally - there's not many on.  So when I found this one, it was the double-whammy, gold star, perfect timing race that I couldn't possibly turn down.

On a more personal note, my boyfriend Ian and I recently got back together and he kindly offered to do all the driving.  This makes a huge difference - a marathon is easy, but a marathon combined with ~13 hours driving is another thing altogether.  So big thanks to Ian - it also made it a lot more fun.

The race started at an incredibly civilised 9:30am.  We were staying 5 minutes drive away which meant I got a pre-race lie in until 7am, a pre-race breakfast of porridge and a croissant at the hotel, and still had loads of time.  On arrival, the race start was in a picturesque little village.  It was cold but bright, with quite a lot of ice on the ground.  Not as bad as the start of Oulton Park though.  I'd somehow forgotten to pack a jacket - lucky it wasn't raining!

I was feeling strangely cheerful.  I'd just come off a couple of 'easy' weeks of training, I felt fresh and ready to go, it looked to be a beautiful course and it was two out-and-back half marathons with very little navigation required.  Some days I have to force myself to run marathons - this wasn't one of them.
There was a 5 minute race briefing - mostly comprising warnings about the ice - and we set off.  To my surprise we set off up the icy hill - I hadn't realised there was a small loop to do before starting the out-and-backs.  It was a bit skiddy but OK, and after the turnaround point I got my phone out to take a picture:
The chap behind me said something about instagram, and I explained I was taking pictures for my blog, and then he asked about my blog and we got chatting, so I asked what he was training for (nobody runs marathons in January as a one-off!) and he said he was planning 12 marathons in 12 months.  He was hoping to do a sub-4 hour one sometime during the year.  I gave him my usual spiel about taking it easy because the most important race is always your next race.  We ran back to the start and turned onto the 'Plym Trail' after which the marathon is named.  I found out his name was Shaun and we had a nice chat before I had to let him go as he was much faster than me.  He soon disappeared off into the distance.

Shortly afterwards I saw this tunnel appear.  Nobody had mentioned a tunnel in the race briefing and there was nothing in the notes either.  How exciting!  Love a good tunnel!  Turns out it was a pretty long tunnel, probably a couple of hundred metres long.  On googling it's called Leighbeer Tunnel, designed by the main man Isambard Kingdom Brunel and apparently it's haunted. 
It's pretty long and pretty dark and it goes round a corner.  It was lit but only dimly.  I thought of the Tunnel Ultra whilst I was in there - a race devised by the evil genius Mark Cockbain, which involves running back and forth through a 1 mile tunnel 200 times continuously.  No thank you!
I came out the other side into glorious sunshine.   Autumn leaves clustered on both sides of the path.  The trail reminded me of the Ralla in Liverpool, only with less litter, less motorbikes and significantly less weed being smoked. 
There were a couple of bridges around this point and some beautiful views of Dartmoor.  I stopped to take this picture - you can still see the frost in the valley.  The path was not very icy any more and it completely disappeared within the first hour or so. 
I soon came to the first checkpoint.  I didn't stop as I was only just getting warmed up, but I was a bit worried because I'd agreed to meet Ian at Bickleigh which was where the checkpoint was.  I ran on, fumbling with my phone to call him, when I came round a corner and saw him.  I stopped briefly to say hi and said I'd see him in another 12k or so.
Shortly after this, I overtook a woman who asked me where I'd got my leggings from.  I was wearing my new Lululemon ones that I'd got for Christmas so I enthusiastically extolled their praises and we got chatting.  Her name was Caroline and she was from Cornwall.  We ran together for the next 10k or so and during that time she helped me choose a suitable race for Cornwall (the Roseland August Trail aka The RAT) - sadly when I checked later the date for this year clashes with Mendip Marauder.  But 2021 - for sure.  She also gave me some top tips for driving home - don't stay on the M6, turn off towards Shrewsbury and cut through Wales.  In case you're reading - cheers Caroline, this tip was awesome and made for a much prettier and more relaxing drive home!

Caroline had done the Arc of Attrition and the Lakeland 50 and most of the 100.  She was a much better runner than me but patiently put up with all my questions.  She told me about her daughter and her job - as usual, these races are all about the people.

As we passed these gates for the first time, a man running by informed us that last year they had opened to let a train through and added a couple of minutes onto his time.  As a result I was a bit paranoid and got a wiggle on every time I approached them in the hope of beating any trains!  Also love the sky trails in this pic which I didn't even notice at the time!
We got to the checkpoint at the far end and I was very surprised to find they had fruit teacakes made into cheese sandwiches, apparently this is a Thing.  Caroline also told me about fruit cake and Wensleydale (I was highly suspicious!)  I lost Caroline somewhere on the return journey but continued to run well.  I hadn't put my headphones in as I was enjoying just being out in nature.  At one point there are high walls on both sides of the path.  I stopped suddenly to take a close up photo without paying much attention and a bike curved around me - I apologised but the girl didn't seem to mind.  Everyone I met was super-friendly and easy going.

I stopped at the checkpoint on the way back and commented on what a lovely selection they had.  Basically it was the perfect checkpoint:  squash, water, Coke.  Chocolate biscuits, jaffa cakes, jelly babies.  Crisps, peanuts, cheese-y fish crackers.  Everything you could ever really need!  

This is the view from another of the bridges I passed out over Dartmoor.  Beautiful.
I reached the start and turned around without really stopping at the checkpoint.  I checked my watch and I'd done a half marathon in about 2 hours 10 minutes.  This is pretty good going for me and if I managed the same thing again, I'd have beaten all my recent times by a considerable margin.

On 1st January this year I'd run a marathon in Liverpool (just for fun as I've already done Merseyside) in 4 hours 28 minutes, which was my quickest time since May 2019.  But I was on track to go a lot faster than that.  And I was feeling good!  As I turned around, I wondered if I might be in the top three women.  That would be quite an achievement, wouldn't it?!  I started paying attention.  The first lady came past me when I'd not long started the second loop - she was incredible - running at way faster than my 5k pace! I picked up the pace and overtook a few people including a lady who'd been ahead of me for most of the race so far.   The lady in second place passed me maybe 10 minutes before the turnaround point, and the third maybe 5 minutes before.  Oh well.  I would be fourth then.

I took a picture of this bit of path because I thought the flooded bit next to it was kind of cool, there were ducks on it a bit further down but it was only a couple of inches deep:
Shortly after this I reached the turnaround point.  To my surprise, Shaun was there.  I hadn't seen him since the very start of the race but he'd hit the wall.  He was stretching and trying to take on board food, I suggested more sugar as he'd had lots of gels.  Meanwhile the volunteer dug around in the boot of the car after telling me they'd run out of Coke.  This is always disappointing but miraculously she found another bottle (this never happens) and gave me some.  I felt amazing and raced off.  I had about 10k to go and I could see I was definitely going to get a good time as long as I kept pushing myself.  For someone who doesn't like racing, I can get extremely competitive (with myself) once I know I'm in with a chance and the switch just flipped.  From kilometre 29 onwards, every kilometre took less than 6 minutes.  I didn't stop at the checkpoint.  I didn't stop to talk to Ian.  

Ahead of me I saw the lady in third place - she was walking.  This was the incentive I needed and I stepped it up a gear.  At kilometre 39 I cracked out a 5:26!  By that point I was huffing and puffing.  There was a very unwelcome hill in the last kilometre that nearly killed me but I knew I was on for a good time and there was no way I was letting that go now.  Randoms walking past, alarmed by the sound of my breathing, said, "well done!" - you know you're working hard when that happens.  I crested the hill and bombed it back down the other side towards the finish.

I finished in an official time of 04:16:40, third lady, 10th overall.   My best time for almost two years.

I was chuffed to bits.  We stood around for a while chatting to the race director, who told us the winner had been the speedy girl who finished in 3:09 - inspiring stuff!

The goody bag had a banana in it which I ate, along with a cup of tea with sugar from the village hall which tasted fabulous. I reckon I'm getting faster because I'm building up my mileage for Hardmoors in March.  The last time I got anywhere near this pace was when I was building up my mileage for Convergence two years ago.  I can see I busted a gut from the heart rate data from my Garmin - my races NEVER look like this - I usually hang around in zone 2-3:
I knew I'd be sore so I did some stretches (rare for me!) and while I was there I bumped into a Scouser, what are the chances of that!  He'd lived in Devon for years but had been back to do Rock 'n Roll a couple of times so we had a good chat.  
It was both a beautiful day and a beautiful place and I was feeling fine so Ian and I decided to go for a bit of a hike on Dartmoor.  I'd planned a route for tomorrow morning but it was too lovely to wait so we went there straight after the marathon.  Unfortunately the route I'd planned went straight through a river (seriously ... this navigation course I'm doing can't come soon enough, lol).  We made a detour... then we made a detour from the detour... but it was all good.  Stunningly beautiful part of the world.
The next morning, Ian and I ran 8k of the route again so I could show him how pretty it was, then we drove back to Liverpool.  Pretty amazing weekend!

Edited to add: Do you remember Tim, the juggling runner from Rutland marathon?  Well he contacted me recently to report that his zombie running blog is up and running.  It is bloody brilliant and you should definitely read it: