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COVID-19

The end of January is almost upon us and for the majority none of us will have raced for quite some time.

Now in the context of the pandemic this is a very minor thing but with glimmer of light in the distance and much hard work being done by so many to return humanity to a more traditional lifestyle, I am led to wonder about running races again.

For me the last race I did was Ultra North in September 2020, nestled between what many of us thought was the beginning of the end for COVID 19 and the ramping up of restrictions as the pandemic worsened across the globe.

2020 races, as of April, all got cancelled, some were moved on a number of occasions in an effort for events to happen but most simply didn’t take place. This means that those event organisers who have thankfully survived have moved their events to this year (2021) and this is where we can then only speculate. Is there a value in speculation? Perhaps not but I feel it helps me to write down how I’m feeling about this in order to remain focused in getting ready for the races I am aiming for.

Sadly a few days back I received my first postponement email telling me that the Pennine Bridleway has sensibly been moved from April to September. On top of that I’ve made the decision to pull out of the Quebec Mega Trail in July because I’m convinced my trip to Canada will not happen and therefore I have cancelled the flights and aim to go in 2022. It’s all starting to feel a bit 2020.

That said I’m one of the fortunate ones – I’ve got a lot of races booked in and therefore my racing agenda is set and all I can do is wait. For organisers, participants and those involved in the running events supply chain there are stresses, frustrations and disappointments coming from all directions and you can’t help but feel for everyone.

The 2020 that should have been
My 2020 had been billed, by myself, as the year of the comeback. I’ve spent a lot of time treading water and running events at the back of the pack but I had assured myself that now I was settled in Scotland I could finally focus on running again and so even entered my first ultra marathon grand slam. So with that in mind my 2020 looked pretty good, with lots of variety, interesting routes and ball breakers, take a look below;

  • Tyndrum 24 / January (Completed)
  • Vogrie Park 5km / January (Completed)
  • Falkirk Trail 8hr Ultta / February (Completed)
  • F50K / March(DNS)
  • Skull Trail Race / March (Completed)
  • Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
  • Bonnie Prince Ultra / April (Postponed)
  • To the Pike & Back Again / April (Postponed)
  • Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May (Postponed)
  • Ultra Scotland 50 / May (Postponed)
  • Loch Ness 360 / May (Postponed)
  • John Lucas Memorial / June (Postponed)
  • Quebec Mega Trail / July (Postponed)
  • Run the Blades / July (Postponed)
  • Ultra North / September(Completed)
  • Yorkshire Three Peaks / October (Postponed)
  • Dark Peaks / November (Postponed)
  • White Peaks / November (Postponed)
  • Cheviot Goat / December (Postponed)

I had loaded my 2020 calendar for the year end when I had assumed I would be fittest and more ready for the challenges that awaited me and to be fair by the time October and November had arrived I was much fitter than I had been when I raced at the Tyndrum 24. Who knew that I wouldn’t be getting to showcase my new found fitness! I think that most of us hoped that by the time December and therefore The Cheviot Goat had come around that the opportunity to race would have been restored.

As we all know though 2020 would end without the resumption of running events.

It couldn’t be helped and I was very much of a mind that I would rather have tighter restrictions for a significant period to allow all governments globally to get the pandemic under control rather than the half hearted restricting and easing that had been par for the course in the previous 6 months.

Feelings?
The running community seems to have been sympathetic to the plight of race organisers, especially the smaller, more intimate events that have gone over and above to do their best for the wannabee participants.

I know there have been exceptions to the above statement and that some events have been found wanting in terms of communication, etc but organisers must have been dealing with enormous logistical, financial and commitment issues and so hopefully there can be some level of forgiveness if communication, rearrangements and the like were not as swift as it could have been.

Virtual
Many runners have taken to engaging with the virtual events that almost every organiser has put on and this will presumably help in a small way to recover costs the organisers incurred in amongst other things venue rental, insurances and the production of 2020 materials such as medals and shirts.

Sadly, I fell out of love with virtual events some years ago and therefore found myself less inclined to do virtual runs. The only one I took part in was the ‘To the Pike & Back’ half marathon but this was because I was in the area on race day and was able to run the route at the time the event was supposed to take place.

Had I been running this at home in Scotland rather than in Bolton I would have felt like I had cheated the race and wouldn’t have been able to put the medal with my collection. Odd isn’t it? Maybe it is a little like a t-shirt I have from an event I DNS’d some years back (shirt was posted out pre-event) I don’t ever wear that shirt but I keep it as a reminder of being a knobhead and to stop doing stupid runs the day before a race.

Refunds, rearrangements and re-entry
When I received the medal and the shirt a few weeks later it wasn’t with any real elation and this was perhaps the confirmation I needed to say that I would instead focus on training over virtual events. This may seem a little selfish, being unwilling to spend money on the virtual events to help keep organisers going -especially given the amount of benefit I’ve had from racing over the years, but having already spent nearly £1,000 on events and a lot more on extras I was keen not to spend money on things that I had little interest in.

However, I also had no interest in trying to recover any of the money from the events that were being cancelled and postponed because I want these businesses to survive, racing is an important part of my life and I remain happy to participate whenever racing returns. To this end where refunds have been offered and if I couldn’t do the rearranged date I simply donated my entry fee because the money was already used and I had moved on from it.

For example I donated my fee to the Quebec Mega Trail because my Canadian trip had been cancelled, when I rebooked the trip for 2021 I simply re-entered the QMT and now even though my trip has been cancelled again I will not be asking for a refund. Most importantly when we rebook our trip for 2022 I will then enter the QMT again and pay a third entrance fee.

I will continue to support events in my own way.

2021
The other reason I don’t feel particularly guilty for not doing the virtual events is that the moment there were 2021 races to enter – I started entering them. I had wanted to run the Moray Trail Series but given the hold overs from 2020 I could only run the long form of the Speyside Way, I entered within seconds of the event opening. I am hopeful that other opportunities will arise, not perhaps in ultra marathons (I’m pretty much fully booked for that) but in other smaller more community led events – 5 & 10km races, maybe the odd half marathon (to give myself a real challenge). I will happily enter as many of those as my old body will allow.

2020 was a tough year for everyone and 2021 looks like being little better as it stands but there are glimmers of hope, what I remain confident about is that most of us would like race organisers to survive this difficult time and bring racing back (whatever your distance preference).

How and when do I believe they will return?
Well nobody has a crystal ball but you’ve got to remain optimistic and believe that during the second half of the year that some level of conventionality will have reached us but nothing is guaranteed, 2020 most certainly taught us that.

What I do believe though is that for a while racing will feel different, if my experience at Ultra North is anything to go by I think that events both running and non-running will be a little more nervous and perhaps lacking some of the confidence that is exuded from a great race environment. I also feel that the mass participation events will perhaps still struggle to operate – think of the amount of people that are involved in the major events, not just the runners, but everyone and you have to wonder if it is perhaps a risk that organisers, supporters and even the runners will be unwilling to stomach.

As for what 2021 should look like? Well my calendar is below and you can see that there are no real mass participation events, I’d say that some of these events would be as low as 50 participants while most will be in the low hundreds taking part. I live in hope that most of these events will go ahead but as I said earlier the first has already been postponed from April to September and one I’ll definitely be DNS’ing the QMT because I’ve now cancelled my flights to Canada.

My Calendar
So, my race calendar looks a lot like last year;

  • Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
  • Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May
  • Bonnie Prince Ultra / April
  • Ultra Scotland 50 / May
  • Loch Ness 360 / May
  • John Lucas Memorial / June
  • Quebec Mega Trail / July (DNS)
  • Run the Blades / July
  • Speyside Way / August
  • Yorkshire Three Peaks / October
  • Dark Peaks / November
  • White Peaks / November
  • Cheviot Goat / December

Going forward
What would I like to see going forward, well that’s easy, I want to see rewarding running events that are safe (from COVID) but not safe from danger. I would like to see runners returning in big numbers to events that have brought them joy year on year.

I would love to see the return of the little events that litter the running calendar each year that draw the community together and often involve little old ladies handing out race numbers and giving you a little twinkle of their eyes to suggest that they still hold the course record.

I’d like to see event organisers having the confidence to put on new events to replace the ones that will inevitably have been lost and I’d like to see the running community supporting them.

Perhaps a positive of the various lockdowns and the pandemic is that we’ve seen a greater uptake in activity of all types and we’ve been exploring our local routes. What would be awesome is if some of those who have taken up running during the pandemic joined in with these wonderful racing celebrations of running. Races and the race experience cannot be replicated by a virtual events or even (in my opinion) by wonderful things like Parkrun, both of these do serve a very real need in the running community but they don’t do what racing does.

I’d like to think I’d even consider starting my own race or race series, though having seen the struggle of race directors during the good times to organise and fill an event, I’m not sure I’m ready to join their ranks just yet (if ever). But it is something I have been considering for quite a while and also something I feel that my natural organisational skills would be well suited to.

What have I been missing?
Before I sign off I want to try and remind both you and myself about what racing does for me and maybe you’ll recognise some of this yourself.

Racing brings me nerves and anticipation, that anticipation leads to a dry mouth, clammy hands and sometimes sweaty nuts. Mostly it leads to a case of the epic shits (something I have detailed many times).

As I approach a start line I can feel the hairs on my arm standing up awaiting the order to race and as I barge into the throngs of runners ahead of me, trying to edge forward in the pack even before the race has started, I feel excited.

As I set off and my legs feel tense and yet like jelly I’ll find a rhythm and I’ll push as hard as my body will allow. I can hear the pounding of my feet on the floor, I can hear the sound of the different terrains, crunching through the leaves, sloshing through the rain and drumming deeply on the pavement. I can feel and hear the wind, it makes teeth chatter, it makes eyes narrow and it whistles across my face drying the sweat into salt that will later melt into my eyes.

But what I’ve missed most is seeing a Neil MacRitchie, Fiona Kirkaldy or Michael Hrabe, a face I know ahead of me and that feeling in my gut that is so desperate to catch them and overtake them that I feel the blood pulsing around my body and giving me that one final injection of speed. I never do catch them of course, I’m old, fat and ruined but I cross that finish line with aplomb and a little flourish.

No amount of lovely training and lovely muddy, hilly or wet running can replace that.

Let’s hope for racing this year.

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I’ve been locked down for a few days now – unable to leave the house, never mind go running. I mean I could have visited the treadmill but I don’t have a good relationship with the treadmill – we treat each other with disdain.

I’ve also been having a huge amount of fun eating toblerone and eating toblerone requires concentration and so you can’t run. When I haven’t been working, I’ve been eating and vice versa. Life is a super exciting rollercoaster at the moment.

Yesterday though I said to ASK would you like to go running in the garden?

She replied, ‘yes please, can we have a race’ and I told her that if she ran 100 laps of the garden I’d give her the virtual medal she hadn’t quite earned from her March running, and that yes we could race it. 100 laps of the garden would be enough to cover the last couple of miles she needed and she seemed happy to try it. I told her that I’d carry on and do maybe 200 laps and she seemed pretty happy about the arrangement.

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The trouble is that the layout of our garden is not very conducive to running for a number of reasons;

  1. It’s on multiple levels
  2. It’s multi-surfaced
  3. The runnable bit isn’t very big

Regardless I managed to devise a route that would take in the bulk of the paths of the garden, a rock jump and some steps – all this in under 50 metres. Had I been smarter I could have used the front garden too and the two side passages wither side of the house which would have made it more like a 200 metre loop but I figured the pain of torment of such a small loop would at the very least test our mental strength.

I told ASK that we must move at slow and steady pace and that the garden was full of opportunities to injure ourselves and so we must be careful. Anyway ASK was off like a rocket  and calling out to me to hurry up – I was choosing to run just behind her incase any of the garden obstacle proved the undoing of my rather slight five year old. 

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I had instructed both of us to put a layer on and also a buff to help keep us warm but as the laps started falling we found that both of us were wildly overdressed and quickly disposed of our layers. ASK was quick round the course, racing up the steps and then bounding down the narrow path down and making jolly good fun of the rock leap at the bottom of the narrow path.

She refused to let me pass and lead the way – even when we had water stops she would say, ‘dad are you ready?’ and then immediately step out infant of me to get a bit of a head start. As we hit 50 laps she started to slow a little bit – not on the downhill but on the steps and the climb back up to the top of the garden. I offered words of encouragement and gave her regular updates as to how many laps we had completed and more importantly, how many were left to go. 

Thankfully her mid-run lull lasted about 10 laps and then she had some fire in her belly as I said there were barely 30 laps left. With all the energy she could muster I could see the pumping of her arms driving her ever forward. 10 laps to go and I called out to her that there were about 20 laps still left, because clearly she wasn’t keeping count, and as the entered the last 3 laps I finally revealed we were nearly there. She shot off but I called out to her that there were still 3 laps left – and thankfully she slowed a little bit, allowing me to catch her up.

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As she passed the ‘checkpoint’ for the final time I called out to her that this was the last lap and that I was going to win. With gusto I started tailgating her around the lap, making her call out to, ‘stop it dad!’ to which I replied, ‘well go faster!’

She did.

The last 20 metres were quick as lightning and she crossed the line with a little jump in the air and a big slurp of water in the late afternoon sunshine. A very happy young lady was soon awarded the virtual medal she had now finally earned – that makes it about medal number 26 that she’s achieved and this one was in very special circumstances.

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There is a really weird sensation about rolling up the start line of a race and being the only person there, I suppose this would make me the both first and last finisher in the race I was runningbut the Pike and Back (Virtual) Half Marathon had much more meaning than just a run, this was a run that filled with history, emotion and of course mud.

I left my home in Scotland at about 7am with the aim to start running around lunchtime and hopefully avoid those who might be considering running the virtual race on the course at the original designated time – it’s about a four and half hour journey and I broke this up with a swift stop at a McDonalds for a ‘nourishing’ breakfast.

I was driving the little car as it was just me travelling and as the sun beat down on the car I thought it was going to be a scorcher for the run, something I had not counted on when I had been packing my kit (I was all waterproofs and survival blankets). I arrived bang on time despite a couple of little mis-steps in my directions.

The man in the car next me glared as I pulled up next to him he tossed his cigarette out of the car and wound his window up – presumably because he believved I had arrived to lick COVID 19 all over him which couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Anyway I had a Tesco pastry and a bit of chocolate milkshake to make sure I was fully energisted and then quickly got changed into my kit. I had vague memories of Moss Bank from my childhood, although I’m not from Bolton I do know the area quite well from visits as a child and Winter Hill is a well known landmark but I couldn’t remember ever being allowd to go up it (we were not a very active family). We also used to come here when I was child to a restaurant called Smithhills – it was a dickensian themed place and for our birthdays my grandparents would take us there as a treat. This event, virtual or not was loaded with memories for me and on the day before I led the funeral to my grandmother  this was rather a poignant thing I was doing (you could read about this in a separate blog post here).

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I set up the navigation on my Suunto and started to amble around aimlessly looking for the start (this did not bode well for following the route). Eventually after a few minutes of groping around the park I came to a small opening in the bushes which looked like the kind of place that a race might begin – Suunto agreed and so, after a couple of pictures, we set off.

Now lets be fair Suunto and the breadcrumb trail is at best, ‘not bad’ so as I ambled up the hill towards what I considered to be the route I figured quickly that I had made a mistake – what gave this away was that I found myself launching my poor, knackered body off a wall and onto the street below and then around a few narrow winding streets and then some steps where I finally picked up what was probably the route. There were clues that this might be the route, the first was the winding river and the trail in the distance, the second was that my watch finally looked like it was going in the right direction and thirdly two fellow virtual half marathiners came thundering past me.

Aha I thought I have found my way.

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Now I really hadn’t done that much research about the race or route, I’d left it to the rose tinted specs to assume that this would be something I’d like to do. I’d glanced at the elevation profile which looked like there were two small hills at about the mid-point of the route and the rest of it was pretty flat. It was only as I was about 600 metres in that I realised I had rather misjudged the situation and I had rather misjudged the route. Effectively the route was made actually made up of two tough climbs on a variety of surfaces and then in reverse it was made of a couple of hanrd going downhills and one really tough as old boots uphill that really sapped every last bit of energy you had!

The first three and bit kilometres of the route were mainly tarmac, quiet roads (or they should have been given the COVID-19 trouble), the elevation felt really tough. The toughness wasn’t just the route, this was very much a combination of a long drive from Scotland and a lack of training in recent weeks, my lack of training has been in part to COVID-19 but mainly due to the stress of work and my grandmother dying and having to do all the arrangements from this and now I was feeling it.

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The road seemed never ending and I did for a moment wonder if this was a trail half marathon but then glinting in the distance I saw the outline of a gate and a route on to the rolling trails around Winter Hill and Rivington Pike. I crossed the gate and bade the cyclists a good morning as I passed by them and then continued onward and most importantly upward. At this point we had moved from the tarmac to hard packed and stoney trail. I bimbled along, stopping only to allow past me, faster moving traffic and to take pictures of the truly spectacular surroundings. In the distance I now had clear sight of the Winter Hill transmission mast and realised that I despite having been here many times before I had probably only ever seen this at a distance.

I pressed on across the rocks, the mud and the water, the route had now gone from a bit of a slog to being genuinely fun and I was finally enjoying the route – especially as the sun was shining but also lovely and cool, a perfect running day. My feet for the first time that day felt free to unleash a little bit of pace inspite of the uphill – this is why I run I thought. I found myself feeling rather jaunty depsite the situation we all find ourselves in and I could simply revel in the reason I was here – to pay a small tribute to my departed (but much unloved) granny.

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I skipped down the stony path and alongside the transmittor and marvelled at the scale of the structure that had once (and may well still) send out things like the signal for Granada Television, I felt like a young boy in the back seat of grandfathers car as a ran beside the mast, the only thing missing was the twinkling red lights that adorn it as the lights go down.

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I assumed that Rivington Pike could not be that far from the mast and in the distance I could see a small structure which I asssumed was the destination and turnaround point. I therefore joined a narrow piece of tarmac and wended my way downwards and started arching away from the small structure, that was not Rivington Pike – oh dear. In the distance I could see a flurry of people around what looked like a small fortification or castle – that was Rivington Pike and I was what looked like several miles away from it. Thankfully this was now downhill but my knees don’t much like tarmac and they were feeling the stress of the pounding they were taking and although my Lone Peak 4.0 are well built they aren’t suited for sustained running on tarmac.

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I ran down and down, and down and down and then weirdly what felt like more down and down, yet, and this was the strange thing – Rivington Pike was up – totally in opposition to my descent.

However, eventually my downward spiral stopped and I returned to hard packed trails – here it felt very busy, lots of people travelling up to the Rivington Pike and dusty hard packed trails gave the illusion that everybody had a dry and dusty cough. It was rather interesting to watch as people covered up their faces as they walked past you or as I ran past them. I mean yes I was breathing more heavily than most of the people there but then I was exerting more pressure on my poor old body. I was mostly being sensible and passing people at a distance but one couple, who were wearing face masks, moved away from me at 90 degrees and zipped up their heavy duty winter jackets to fully cover their mouth – which I felt was a little excessive given that I was never closer than about 20ft away.

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Anyway I hurled myself on to the final climb of Rivington Pike and chatted (at a safe social distance) to a local cyclist, both of us wondering why the hell we were here. I waved at him as I left him behind and continued my climb to the top which was awash with people. I stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and then made a swift sprint down the front of the Pike knowing that an absolute shit of a hill was waiting for me.

I’ll be perfectly honest, not a lot of running was done back up the hill, my legs were absolutely cream crackered and all I wanted was to be back at the car and maybe stop at the ice cream van who was awaiting customers in the park. I was also very keen to relieve my bladder of its contents but given the throngs of people that were festooned around the route and the lack of any cover meant that I really had to tie a knot in it and hold on. It was here that I noted I had probably made a routing error on the way out and added several hundred metres to my journey as my beloved Suunto insisted that I head across the wet boggy trail. Of course this was music to my ears – get off the tarmac, get back in touch with nature and as cold mud sprayed up the back of me and my feet found themselves submerged I thought, ‘bliss’. I came across a father and son who were clearly not geared for this kind of trail and looking rather unhappy at the prospect of having to continue through this but they managed a cheery smile as I ran by them.

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Soon though I was back on the path and facing the Winter Hill mast, I waved goodbye to it as I turned away from it and pushed on as fast as I could knowing that it was mostly downhill all the way home. However, as I’ve indicated the route was hard going and even in a downhill situation if you’re undertrained and exhausted then it is ging to be hard. But with the wind on my back and surprising cheeriness in my heart I ran happily off the hill and back to road which seemed so long ago now.

When I arrived back to the gate it felt like I had really achieved something and I gently ran down the road, attemptin not to punish my old nears any more than I needed to. I was so close now and in the distance I could see the park where all of this had started. Down, down, down I went – bit like a first date that has gone too well – and as I arrived back to the point I met the earlier virtual runners I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes I’d been slow but I’d had good reason not to rush this one – I had time and I wanted time to be able to reflect on everything that is currently going on both personally and globally. I crossed the finish line to the sound of silence, or rather the sound of nature and actually rather enjoyed it.

I’d completed the Pike and Back Half Marathon and I was pleased to have done it.

Distance: Half Marathon
Type: Virtual (due to COVID-19)
Ascent: Bloody Hell
Date: March 2020
Location: Bolton
Terrain: Very mixed
Tough Rating: 3/5

Conclusions
I would traditionally write a full breakdown of the event but that is impossible given the nature of this one in its virtual format. What I will say is that full credit goes to the team of Time2Run Events for allowing runners to complete the event virtually – they could simply have said ‘cancelled’ but as many Race Directors have done they have looked for alternatives and we should be grateful for that.

The route was really tough, the elevation was challenging, the mixed terrain meant that shoe choice was a nightmare and if you really weren’t prepared for this then you were going to have your arse handed to you and mine was handed to me gift wrapped.

Had I not been attending my grannies funeral, and referencing the race in the eulogy I had written for the following day, then I probably wouldn’t have come down for the race I would have transferred my entry to next year, done the training and actually run much better but there was something special about this, about doing it alone, abour forcing myself to push on. I’m an ultra runner really and the half marathon distance is my least favourite race length so to come here and really enjoy myself is really quite wonderful.

There was also something joyous about finishing the ‘race’ first and last – that’ll make me laugh for the rest of my days and I feel like this is a medal I have really earned. I will looking forward to receiving the medal knowing that whenever I look at it with all the others at the top of my staircase that it will bring back a smorgasbord of feelings and that is the sign of a great thing.

The one thing I did notice was how friendly people were in comparison to the Scottish races I run, up here almost all the runners, hikers, walkers, etc have time to smile or have a laugh and a joke with you but despite smiling and saying hello to everyone I went past there was something of a lack of response. Now some of it I’ll put down to COVID-19 but I was rather surprised that the north of England, famed for its friendliness, was a little less than I’ve gotten used to in Scotland. That said, those people that did wave back or say hello or smile back at me were warm and wonderful, I was just surprised by how many people simply didn’t bother.

If you’ve never run this race before then can I urge you to look up Time2Run Events and sign up to this most wonderful of race – even if like me you have to travel down from Scotland to do it, I will certainly be considering entering again for next year.

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