Running, Life & Adventure in 2020 (Part One)

“If I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it – keep going, keep going come what may.”Vincent Van Gogh

It is a strange world at the best of times, but it is safe to say that 2020 could not in any way be described as the best of times! Of course, I am referring to the Covid-19 pandemic, the global scourge that only really came to the fore of public life in the UK sometime in the middle of March. The pandemic turned everyone’s life upside down but as this is predominantly a blog about endurance, adventure and running I am going to focus on how running in 2020 has changed.

2020 was supposed to be the year I focused on preparing for a Bob Graham Round attempt in Spring of 2021. It became apparent as Covid rampaged across the world that this was not going to happen. We watched on television in England as Italy and Spain were ravaged – mass deaths, mass graves and lockdowns with ever increasing restrictions – hoping and wishing that Covid-19 wouldn’t make the jump to our shores. It turns out that it had already arrived, and likely sometime in late December or January. It is pretty clear that the UK Government knew this and had decided to unwisely pursue a ‘herd immunity’ strategy, debunked as nonsense across the globe, but followed nonetheless by our government (and then denied when it was clearly failing). As March ground on it was obvious that we would soon be in some form of lockdown or another and then, just like that, there it was – no shopping, no gatherings, outside exercise once a day only and everyone was furloughed, laid off or had to begin working from home. My wife and I were lucky. We were both able to work from home (and we still are) and we have a reasonable garden in which we could exercise and also take breaks in during the working day.

2020 has turned into the year during which I, along with many others, have found ways to adjust and face uncertainty. I am not going to lie, when a global pandemic was declared I was scared – scared of becoming physically unwell but also scared of spiralling into depression and crippling anxiety. I know I wasn’t alone and I think that helped to stave off any spiral at all – it was tough early on with the ever increasing death toll, the terror of the news cycle and the pressure of being in a leadership position at work and having to adjust all of our mental health support operations from face to face, community based support and intervention to 100% remote provision. But I faced all of that with positivity, creativity, hard work and by doing what I could for my local community and for my running community.

I’ve decided the best way I can break down the year so far is to publish this post in 2 parts. This post will be the first part and will cover January to May. The next part that will published sometime in the next few weeks will cover June to September. The second post will include tentative plans for 2021, as we all know the only plans any of us can make at this point are tentative ones!

January

After a successful end to 2019 at the Cheviot Goat I began January in high spirits, feeling fit and healthy ready to take on 2020’s goals with dedication and focus.

January 2020 - looking ahead

January is usually the time when I put together my A goal training plan outlines for the year ahead and look around at races to supplement my training. My summer A-goal was going to be Lakeland 50 – my third time and with a goal of running as close to 10 hours as possible. Then for winter I had almost settled on a goal of either the Hardwolds 80 or Sunrise 83 with a view to running my first 100 in 2021 as part of my ten year ‘runniversary’ celebration.

Supplementary goals were to improve my navigation by doing a course, reading more books and maps themselves and looking at trying to fit in some orienteering style races and LDWA events which would in turn give me a lot more confidence for the Bob Graham Round but also for other similar adventures and races.

January seems like a very, very long time ago and almost another world entirely!

February

I was entered into the Arc 50 which was originally part of my 2019-20 ‘Winter Triple’ – White Rose 30 in November, Cheviot Goat in December, culminating with the Arc in February. Looking back I think the excitement for this one had fizzled out after great performances at White Rose and Goat. My training in December and January lacked the drive and focus of the previous months and I think I was mentally drained and more than likely needed a break. I think it is safe to say that most people who run marathons and ultras regularly find themselves in this position from time to time…and most just push on through thinking it’ll be alright on the day just like I did!

Arc50 - at the start

Alas, the Arc 50 was a DNF. Sitting here writing this I am as annoyed about it as I am still about my 2016 TDS DNF. Both of these races will haunt me until I return to cross the finish line and I do intend to do that at some point.

Back in February I wrote:

The Arc of Attrition 50 did not go at all to plan. I was excited for it until the day itself arrived and then I just was not feeling it at all. I arrived at registration and immediately felt uneasy – I can’t pinpoint what or why but I put my headphones in (with no music playing) just to dull the noise around me. They stayed in until about the 10km point and went back in around 35km so I could listen to Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ on my way to dropping out at St. Ives.

I got stuck at the start so headed out a lot more slowly than I wanted to. This didn’t do much for my mindset as I was feeling crowded and trying to fight off anxiety. I managed to break away at about 8km with a couple of guys and we started reeling people in – this was probably my favourite part of the day but another curve ball soon came our way around 12km when we took a wrong path and ended up in a field of cows. It took a while for us to find our way back onto the coastal path and we were back to where we started – we lost the places we gained, and more.

Arc50 - wrong turn.

Eventually we moved up to about 16th/17th place…and then took a disastrous wrong turn which put us on a gorse covered sea cliff. The path was razor thin and we’d taken a few people with us – my companion at that point opted for the thin path and I made the stupid decision to direct line and climb up. I cut up my legs and hands pretty badly; slowed to a crawl and nearly slipped off large rocks a few times. My mind was completely shot by the time I got back on track. I started to run solo at this point to where I dropped at 46km.

I could run well, a lot of the course was runnable; I was fuelling correctly and not feeling tired or sick. I just didn’t want it enough. I even stopped enjoying the wonderful and beautiful seascapes! I think I felt trapped having miles of single-track in front and behind, and hemmed in by the sea – I much prefer the expanse of mountain, moor and inland rural trails.

Every cloud has a silver lining – I got to spend the rest of the day with the wife, and I can run on Dartmoor tomorrow!

Every cloud...

The two weeks after the race were not pleasant, I was carrying the DNF blues and feeling a bit forlorn mentally and then I developed a really bad cold. Looking back at my training log and what I wrote at the time (and how I remember feeling) it’s quite possible I was experiencing Covid-like symptoms – I won’t say that I had Covid-19 because there was no testing to be available to make a definitive statement, and there have been no lasting effects, but it is definitely the worst cold I can remember having – fever, all over body aches, lethargy and fatigue, debilitating headaches, a deep and persistent cough – it is one of the only times I’ve taken time off work due to feeling so unwell.

March

March 2020 will be forever remembered by the English, Welsh, Scots and Irish as the month everything started to stop. If anybody listened to the radio or watched the television with any regularity they would have been able to see that Covid-19 was rapidly making its way through Spanish, French and particularly Italian society and was more than likely beginning its full frontal assault on our own.

But with that said, the first two weekends of the month were probably the last ‘normal’ weeks that I remember. These were the weeks immediately prior to daily press briefings, daily death counts, tightening lockdown measures, awful scenes of selfish panic buying and the introduction of mask wearing.

The first weekend of the month I was delighted to take part in my first LDWA (Long Distance Walkers Association) event with my wife, Sarah. In December Sarah said that she would be keen to do something like this together after she enjoyed a 28km walk on our honeymoon in Turkey in September 2019, so we opted for this pretty easy and mostly flat short course route about an hour from home. The event was really enjoyable – low key, great brews, brilliant narrative route description and spot on GPX (for reassurance). My goal was to avoid using anything but the route description and I’m pleased to say I only checked the watch three times where the route really wasn’t obvious.

It was an interesting experience watching the Runner division set off with us – there was an early urge to pick up the pace but then I settled into a good hiking rhythm and forgot about running as they disappeared into the distance. We made really good progress to the half way CP and stopped for our early lunch for 10 minutes before getting underway again. Over the next few kilometres we broke away from two couples who were around us from the start and then we were pretty much on our own until we caught another couple towards the end. The last 4km were tough for both Sarah and I – the Long and Medium courses join here and thoughts of running returned as we both just wanted it to be done by then – we definitely had a hankering for a brew and a sit down!

The weekend after the Hannington Hike I headed up to Church Stretton for a Nav4 Adventure navigation course. It was fantastic fun and I learned a lot. The course was led by Sean Bolland who won the OMM Elite Class in 2007 alongside his brother – Sean was a font of knowledge and full of energy! The course was great as it was just Sea, me and another runner called Rich. My focus was learning how to route select for mountain marathons and with half a mind on the BGR whilst Rich, my training companion for the day, was focused on navigation for the Welsh 1000 sea to summit event. The day started with 3 hours of conversation and tutoring, poring over various maps and talking through various route choices on a Harvey Karrimor Mountain Marathon Elite Course map as well as learning how to use the compass efficiently and correctly.

After light lunch we headed out in the hills. We ran up to the start point of an orienteering race and used the Blue Course map to get around, taking it in turns between Rich and I to navigate between controls. When we reached the final control we switched to a 1:25,000 map and Sean selected random points on the map for us to navigate to, using the best route for speed. I have learned that I need to keep my head in the map once I start moving having taken a bearing or selected a route – many times I drifted off course just because I was so focused on moving forwards. I’d highly recommend a Nav4 Adventure course if you’re looking to improve your confidence with map, compass and route finding. I know I’ll feel much more comfortable when the clag comes down now, or if I find myself a bit lost.

I had hoped that I might be able to secure the learning of this course through experience by entering some Blue and Black course orienteering races and by focusing more on navigation than racing during the Great Lakeland 3 Day but as I mentioned above – March saw all plans for 2020 become null and void and adaptability and resilience became the key words.

The situation started to really turn dire around March 9th and I turned my attention away from running and endurance and towards plans to keep me and Sarah safe and well during the lockdown. My work began to become a lot more stressful than it usually is and that also took my focus and attention away from anything other than getting through each day as it came. I spent the rest of March emergency planning at work and putting together mutual aid resources and networks in my local community after work. On March 23rd it was announced that everybody in the country could only work from home and those that could not would be part of a furlough scheme. Other restrictions were implemented that meant you could only exercise outdoors once a day and I decided then that in the interests of my health and the safety of my wife I would only run for around an hour on local trails each day.

April

Only running the same local loops each day had its drawbacks and this was further compounded when pretty much in one go all of my 2020 races and events were either cancelled or moved to 2021. I know a lot of people found this and have found this aspect of 2020 really difficult to deal with. I had made peace with the idea that this was likely to happen and that I was going to respect the decision of any race organiser who decided to take either option with no argument, no ire and no stress. There are more important things to life than running races. I think this was a major factor in keeping my mental health and wellbeing solid throughout 2020 so far – acceptance of change, and then creativity in the face of that change.

With no races I knew that personally I was going to need to put some physical (and mental) challenges in my endurance calendar and that I would need to create these myself with the resources and space I had available. So I created ‘The Lockdown Loop’ – an 87m circuit of my yard. This came about when I decided one lunch time at work (working from home) that I just needed a walk and some fresh air – a bit of a quandary at the time as I didn’t want to use my daily allowance of outside exercise. I had been using the yard space each morning to do strength exercises and shuttle sprints before work and as I stepped outside I couldn’t see how I could make more of the space. But I took a bit of time walking around the perimeter of the yard and my house, and it became apparent that with some creative gardening and moving of garden furniture (and cars) I could make a workable and runnable loop so I set to doing just that.

By the first weekend in April the loop was trod in from lunch time walking circuits and some heavy duty gardening and so I decided I would set myself the challenge of running a 50km on Good Friday, April 10th. To add a little extra motivation I publicised my idea on Facebook and set-up a fundraising page for Médecins Sans Frontières. Initially I wanted to raise £250 but by the time I’d completed the run I had raised over £500. I felt humbled that so many people donated and actually watched the live feed of me running around in circles in my backyard. The monotony, pain and discomfort quickly faded and before I really knew what was happening I found myself on the Lockdown Loop the following weekend as part of a 12 hour virtual race and continuing to raise funds for Médecins Sans Frontières After both of these events I had raised almost £1000 and on April 19th I thought I had covered 50km and 80km on the loop in 6 and 12 hours respectively.

I say I thought I had covered this because I became aware, through Mark Cockbain’s ‘The Hard Stuff’ Facebook group that other people were also running long in their backyards. I took a look at how they were doing and saw people were actually manually measuring their laps and then manually counting each completed lap to get an accurate distance. Genius! Originally I had been relying only on GPS data and I quickly realised that I had robbed myself of distance – because my loop is so small, and also partially covered by trees the GPS reading would not be accurate. I took multiple measurements with the GPS and it seemed to read about 73m for the loop but when I took a string and tape measure out onto the loop the actual distance turned out to be 87m. With this being the case I locked myself away for a few hours one day and came up with a calculation to account for this variation so I could more accurately estimate the actual distance covered during my 6 and 12 hour lockdown loop outings. So, my 50km actually became 62.22km and my 80km became 90.33km! On reflection it made absolute sense because both of the runs at that point had felt much more difficult than any previous 50 or 80km I’d ever done. The 90.33km I logged in 12 hours was in fact the furthest I had run at that point and that spurred me on to think I could do more…

May

I spent a lot of time in my garden at the end of April perfecting ‘The Lockdown Loop’ and planning a 24 hour run. Initially I set the date for this at May 23rd but during the first week of May I decided I was feeling really fit and really motivated to get it done. So, on May 6th I committed to getting it done that weekend and at 0900hrs on May 8th I found myself taking my first step on what was to be (and still is) my longest ‘time on feet’ adventure.

24 Hours on 'The Lockdown Loop' = 1725 Laps.

When I set off I had in mind a goal of 100 miles in 24 hours, given my previous runs on the loop and my fitness I thought this would be achievable and I was very much on track for this until about 85 miles in when the wheels well and truly fell off! I made regular posts and videos throughout the 24 hours on Facebook as people seemed to take a real interest in what I was up to. I thought I would share those posts here as they are a pretty good telling of the tale.

  • Aid Station Shed set-up [Video]
  • Lap 534 [Video]
  • 666 laps done – “Time to put on some Iron Maiden! Walked the last 46 laps so I could properly digest some food…”
  • 10hr2mins [Video] – “50 miles done and I’m very happy about it!”
  • 1000 laps done – “…The temperature has dropped and it’s allowed me to eat without feeling crap and to move a bit faster…”
  • 100km done – “12 hours, 52 minutes. Having a break for a brew and a bit of cake.”
  • 70 miles [Video] – “…14hrs56min. Enjoying the night!”
  • Lap 1324 – “Second proper rough patch of the day…Onwards into Hour 16…”
  • Lap 1412 [Video] – “Kettle is on. Sufferfest is well underway. Battling the sleep monster since about 0100hrs. Legs just don’t seem to want to move in more than a walking shuffle. Zombie!”
  • 80 miles – “…I’ve found my second, maybe third, wind…”
  • 85 miles – “…time for the strangest breakfast I’ve had in many years. I think the last time I had a Pot Noodle at 0540hrs on a Saturday morning I’d just got back from a rave!”
  • 22 hours [Video] – “Home stretch. Final 2 hours. Feeling absolutely shattered and keep falling asleep while moving! Having to take regular breaks…”
  • 90 miles – “…Can’t wait to take my shoes off!”
  • 24 hours – “All done at 24 Hours. 93.25mi / 150.07km…”
  • Thank you to all who donated, and how the money will be used by Médecins Sans Frontières.

I thoroughly enjoyed pushing myself on each of ‘The Lockdown Loop’ outings. I literally found the edge of my abilities the 24 hours and managed to find a way to push that edge a little further. I am now really excited at the prospect of racing a 100 miler in the near future and running on the loop opened my eyes to the fun and challenge of self-supported longer challenges.

Towards the end of May lockdown restrictions were starting to roll back and the country was gradually opening up again. I viewed this with cautious optimism and Sarah and I began looking to arrange some staycations. I also began looking at the possibility of potentially running a blind Bob Graham Round with a friend who had completed the circuit before and who has a lot of experience supporting others on the route…but that will be covered in Part Two of this post which will be coming to a screen near you in the next few weeks.

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