Sunday 12 December 2021

Hertfordshire: Band of Runners (Rocking Around The Christmas Track) race recap

I was meant to do Hertfordshire two weeks after A100, but for the first time ever withdrew due to injury.  I had a bit of a snoop around first to make sure there was a suitable replacement race in Hertfordshire and came across this one.  105.5 loops of a track might not be everyone's cup of tea, but...

a) I'd never done a track race before - in fact I'm not sure I've ever been on a running track at all
b) It was conveniently in December, traditionally "off season" and gets Hertfordshire ticked off
c) It was run by ZigZag Running (I did their race in Cambridgeshire and it was great)
d) Every now and then I think about doing Transcendence and this would be a good trial run 

I spoke to a few runners about it beforehand and was surprised at the lack of enthusiasm, even from people who had done track races themselves.  Hmm.  All of them said that aiming for a PB was absolutely hideous but as a social event it was just about bearable.  I was never planning to race it but even so...  A couple of people said that the relentless same-ness of the surface was not great on your legs.  Hmmm.

Ben had kindly offered to come with me so we dragged ourselves out of bed early and headed off to Ware.  We arrived with only about 15 minutes to spare before the race started.  I dumped my bag by the side of the track and was about to pick up my bib when I realised my Garmin had died - WTF?  It was fully charged last night?!  This also happened at my last marathon but I thought it was a one off and re-charged it on the way there in the car.  This time there was no time for that.  I swapped it for my Apple watch - notoriously unreliable and also not famed for their great battery life - and whined to Ben that if it died, I'd have to do Hertfordshire again.  Sigh.

By this time I had to get a hustle on and ran over to listen to the race briefing which was pretty straightforward.  As the race director said: "You can't get lost... can you?!"

The marathon, half marathon and ultra/6 hour all started at different points around the track so that they all finished at the same place.  It had been drizzling on the way there in the car but as the race started the sun came out and it was glorious.

I was the last to cross the start line as I was frantically fiddling about starting Strava on my Apple watch.  Almost immediately I realised it had auto-pause switched on, which was going to mess up my results, but it was too late to do anything about it.  I thought dark thoughts about Garmin (again) and focused on how the track felt under my feet.  Not like tarmac, but definitely not like trail either.  I was slightly unsettled. 

Ben was watching and taking photos from the side of the track.  I felt a bit sorry for him as this must be literally the most boring race to watch ever, but he seemed happy enough taking photos of me from every possible angle!

At one point he climbed up the referee's ladder and took some pictures from above.  I love these, I look like a badass.  And the red of the track makes my outfit look good, haha.

I ran alone for a long time, maybe 90 minutes.  I stopped a lot: to eat snacks from the aid station (it's pretty awesome having an aid station every 400m, to say hello to Ben, to pop to the loo or to cast off an item of clothing into my bag at the side of the track.  Eventually, I got chatting to a nice lady called Teresa.  She had run some insane number of marathons... 200?  500?  I don't recall but it was a lot.  She knew everyone and told me about the speedy chap in the orange vest (Ray) who was aiming for a sub-3 hour marathon today, she told me a race director from another race company (Phoenix Running) was there and she pointed out her twin sister, Julie, who was also running.  Every time Ray overtook us, she said a few words of encouragement and I joined in with the occasional "go on Ray!"

Eventually I lost Teresa because I had to stop for a snack (having been coached, I really can't help eating at every possible opportunity when I run now.  I feel guilty if I hang on more than 45 minutes without a snack.  Gone are the days where I could do 2 or 3 hours without so much as a jelly baby...)  I look back on the nutrition disaster that was M2L and think 'never again'.

I was running behind this lady when I overheard the bloke with her say that she was over halfway now.  I couldn't believe it, surely not! The time had flown.  I looked at my watch and realised not only was I more than halfway, I was going really quickly too.  That's well below 4 hour marathon time.  Eek!  I decided I should maybe make a bit more effort and cracked up the pace.

Sadly it didn't last long.  My calves and hips started to ache from the repetitive movements and it felt like my right shoelace had got really tight.  I knew that couldn't be the case but I stopped to loosen it anyway.  I think it was just because my right foot was on the inside, it started to take more of the impact.  It felt like my inside leg was getting shorter.  How do people DO this for 24 hours?  I knew we were changing direction at 3 hours and I was counting down the minutes.

Ben had gone off to get a coffee by now and the weather was a bit cooler and cloudier.  The race noodled on, endlessly the same.  The same people overtook you; you overtook the same people; even the food at the aid station started to look a bit same-y. 
There are only so many photos you can take on a track because essentially all the pictures are the same picture.   At some point around now, I saw a girl on the sidelines doing a crossword.  She shouted out to her boyfriend, "there are two American states that begin with the letter S, tell me what they are on the next loop".  I thought about this for a lot of loops, but only ever came up with South Carolina*.  I spent a happy few laps trying to remember the names of as many states as I could though.
Finally the three hour point arrived and it was very exciting.  For the first time this race, runners started coming towards me.  As I approached the turnaround, the race director stood in the middle of the track and you had to physically run around him and then back the other way.


After the turnaround it was even weirder to see people coming toward you.  It felt like everything had inverted:  I was so used to keeping to the inside that I had to stop myself veering into the path of oncoming runners, whilst also feeling like I was going the wrong way.  Luckily it was quite short lived, because within 1/2 track length, everyone had turned, and the race continued exactly as before but in the opposite direction.

My hips and calves were very grateful and I felt myself uncoiling as I continued.  By this point, I had totally lost count of how many laps I'd done and spent a lot of time trying to figure out when was the optimal time to ask.  They'd said at the beginning you could ask "any time" and I figured now was good.  So I asked, and they said, you're just starting lap 79.  Still 26 laps to go... which means there's no way I'm going to finish in under 4 hours.  Checking my watch again, it was apparent it was not keeping accurate records.  I wasn't surprised - Apple Watch isn't really up to the job, and repeating the same loop that many times would've been a hard ask even for my Garmin.  I gave up on attempts to achieve anything impressive and just plodded on.  

Ray finished - in 3 hours 8 minutes - not quite a PB for him but still a very impressive showing, especially as he had a nasty bout of cramp mid-race. I chatted to a few more nice people as time went on, discovering that almost everyone here had done an awful lot of track races/marathons/ultras.  I heard rumours one guy was well into the thousands.  One guy overtook me and said, "good running", I said "you look speedy" and he said "looks can be deceiving".  I laughed.  They were not deceiving.  He put in a shift that day.

Normally in these kinds of races, the fast runners disappear off into the distance in the first three minutes, never to be seen again (by me).  What was amazing (and inspirational) was that I got to watch them consistently, lap after lap, mile after mile, just casually steaming past me every lap or two looking as comfortable as if they were doing a 5k.  It was seriously impressive.  

Not long after the turnaround, Ben reappeared and I saw him chatting with the race volunteers and clapping me every lap.  Here I am stopping for a hug a few laps before the end.

Once I felt I only had a few laps left, I asked how many more I had to go and was told I was just starting lap 99.  Sigh! I thought I was on lap 103 or so, but it's incredibly easy to lose count.  On my last few laps, I ran with a guy who was so worried about this that he refused to ask.  Despite being the same speed as me, he said he would stay with me until I finished and then ask, as he'd rather do too many than not enough.  I was NOT interested in doing too many!  A couple of laps later I finished.

I got a medal and a cup of coffee and a mince pie.  I saw the first lady finish the 50k ultra - she looked strong the whole way.  Then we drove back to London.

Later, when I went to put my time into my spreadsheet of marathons (I know, I know, what a saddo) I discovered I finished this race and my previous marathon (Tissington Trail) in the exact same number of hours, minutes and seconds.  Cool huh?  That's never happened before!

It also took my total kilometres for the year over the 3000 mark, meaning this year has been my highest mileage EVER and it's not even the end of the year yet...

Apple Watch managed not to die, but it did think I'd done 45 kilometers by the time I'd finished and screwed with all my records by saying it was my second fastest marathon when it really wasn't due to auto-pause and general inaccuracy.  Sigh.  This is all lies:

After the race, the race director sent out an email saying that loads of the course records had been smashed.  The absolute machine in the Camino Ultra shirt turned out to be called Kallum Pritchard, I know this because HE followed ME on Strava afterwards.  I'm still wondering why!  He did 50 miles in 6 hours, 203 laps (!) pretty much two back-to-back sub-3 hour marathons.  Un-fucking-believable.

Anyway it led me to looking up Camino Ultra (I thought it was a race, but it turned out to be a race company, and they run an awesome-sounding Convergence-esque race called Centre of the Universe which I can't stop thinking about and therefore am very likely to run in 2022.

Ben and I also spent a happy hour googling all the other people who finished near the top and found a surprising number of GB athletes/people who've done Spartathlon (brutal)/proper serious hardcore ultrarunners well out of my league.  What a privilege for little me to get to run with the big boys.  At first I was worried that I would hate it, but I came out of it feeling utterly inspired and I would (almost, maybe) do it again.  But definitely NOT Transcendance!  24 hours is 20 too many!  

* I googled it after the race as it had annoyed me for hours.  The other is South Dakota. 

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