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.