An actual race. In real life. In person. With other people – registering in the same place, running on the same course, at the same time. A return to racing following the restrictions imposed on all of us, across the world, due to Covid-19.
Certainly a welcome return!
Initially I was expecting to run in January with a few of my running friends, one of whom I met at Country to Capital 2015 – we’ve been firm friends ever since. I’d signed up in October 2020 thinking all would be well and we weren’t going to end up in an almost 5 month lockdown. Alas, that’s what happened. I was really gutted at the time as I knew the race was not going to happen in January. So, when the options came through in mid-December for a refund or deferral to spring 2021 or January 2022 I allowed my secret optimist to go for the spring option. My friends opted for deferral to 2022 so it would just be me heading over to Wendover.
The option was there last year during a brief summer window to race before the winter lockdown came in to place, but I had already deferred entries or recieved a refund for those races that took place. As for the last few weeks, I didn’t feel mentally ready to be racing in the same place as other people and the options were at the shorter end of the racing spectrum (5 miles and 10km). Therefore, Country to Capital came along at the right time and was in the right place, and for me at the right end of the distance spectrum.
The last time I raced in person, in real life was February 2020 when I lined up for the Arc50 down in Cornwall. That one finished in a DNF and if I’d have known I wouldn’t get to redeem myself for 14 months, I probably would have kept on moving towards the finish line. Add this to the fact that the last time I lined up for Country to Capital in 2017 I also DNF’ed then this one had a bit more meaning behind it than just being my first race in the time of pandemic! I wrote in my TrainingPeaks log when I signed up:
Time Goal: 6:55
Other Goal(s): Set course PB (7:17:51, January 2015)
‘Plan to go out and see what I’ve got really. I’d like to hit the canal path feeling like I’ve got some pace to give over the last 20 miles…‘
As I did before Country to Capital 2015 and 2017 I chose to stay a short drive away from the start, saving me an hour drive on the morning of the race. I felt a mixture of excitment and nervousness booking the place as this has also now become a novelty thanks to Covid. The night before as I was preparing my post-race drop bag and my pre-race breakfast it all felt so, well, so normal and that was a welcome feeling. At times over the last 14 months so few things have felt normal and it was a pleasant experience that seemed to melt away any nerves I had about actually racing and being around so many other people for the first time in a long time!
The preceding 14 months have seen me do some pretty crazy running – a lot of loops in my backyard during the first lockdown (6, 12 and 24 hours on an 87m trail loop), training to run at a set pace to nail a marathon and 50km PB on one of the coldest days of the year (again, on a road loop, but this one was 1.67km) and then seeing what it would be like to run 4 miles, ever 4 hours for 48 hours (the answer, pretty good – very challenging). Can I say that this constitued the best training for Country to Capital, no I can’t! But what I can say is that it put enough miles in my legs and confidence in my head to think positively about running well on the day. From the backyard running I knew I had the mental strength to keep going during the grind of the canal path, from the road marathon/50km pace training I knew was able to hold a decent pace for a prolonged period and from the 4x4x48 I knew that I had the capacity to pick up my pace when I felt tired and battered. It all translated pretty well on the day.
I drove over to Wendover, parked my car and saw immediately the presence of many other runners just congregating, chatting and laughing. If it hadn’t have been for the masks I would have thought I’d gone back in time to 2019!
From the car park I strolled over to the new starting area for the race. Usually it begins at The Shoulder of Mutton pub but given the cramped confines it isn’t really a suitable venue at the moment. Instead we started at the Chiltern Way Academy which has a lot more space both inside and out to allow for social distancing. On arriving at the Academy I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of runners congregating, chatting, stretching and, of course, lining up to use the toilet. Clearly lockdowns have messed with my mind because I always used to get really stressed at seeing a long queue for the toilets pre-race!
It was great to see people from my local area, from my club and from other races and clubs I’ve been involved in over the years. The conversation flowed easily, like we’d all seen each other yesterday. Everyone talking about race day weather, this year’s upcoming races and challenges faced during lockdown. And, it being 2021, a bit of conversation around Covid-19 and vaccinations.
The start was really well managed. There was no real starting order per se, it was just a case of approaching the start line and being let out onto the course 3 seconds behind the person in front.
The ‘Country’ bit
The route is billed as ‘…a mix of country trails and canal towpath’, comprising ‘11.0 miles of cross country trails; 11.8 miles of roads and paths; and 20 miles of canal tow path’.
All of those cross country trails, roads and paths come at you in the first ‘Country’ bit of the race. I had forgotten much of the course given it was 4 years since I’d last been on it so I was pleasantly surprised with the mix. My recollections come from winter and they predominate around mud, wet and cold. Given it was a glorious spring day, and we had a week or more of warm weather and clear skies before the race, the mud and wet was gone and the trails were wonderfully runnable. I think the fact the trails were hard also meant the transition between road, path and trail was less noticable. It was certainly easier to find a rhythmn and stick with it.
In 2017 I decided I was going to race. I had a pace plan, I had an idea that I could run 6 hours and I wasn’t going to let my training, the course or the competition tell me otherwise. Needless to say, I set off too fast and blew up just after the marathon point. What I had failed to account for was the fact the course takes the vast majority of its ascent, and subsequently, descent in the first 21 miles and so my quads were smashed by the time I hit the canal path. At that point in my running career I didn’t quite have the mental fortitiude to just keep on slogging once a plan fell apart.
This time around I was aware of that but I was also armed with 4 more years of ultra running both in my mind and my body. I knew as long as I ran within myself and did my own thing over the first half I would be able to run a course PB. What remained to be seen was whether that would be a big PB or a marginal PB. I had no pace plan, I had no firm time goal and I just wanted to have a good day out enjoying the fact that racing in person had resumed. So as soon as I crossed the start line I found a steady rhythm as the course climbed and then once the climbs were done I hit a comfortable pace all the way to the canal.
I ran most of the first 30km on my own, in my own world and enjoying the sunshine. There was plenty of spring wildlife to look at which I find always helps. I had initially planned to listen to music the whole way as I find that helps with focus but I didn’t need it and decided to hold it in reserve, as a reward for reaching the marathon checkpoint on the canal in a (hopefully) not too battered state. So for the first part of the race I just kept an eye out and saw bluebells, birds of prey (one of which actually landed in a field about 50m from me, which was a real treat and surprise!), foals, lambs and other assorted ornithological and natural interests.
It was around 28km, coming out of one of the aid stations and approaching the beautiful M25 crossing that I joined up with James, a runner from Reading. We ran together for the next 12km – I had the route clearly mapped on my watch so I provided turn by turn when required and James provided the pacing. I hadn’t factored in the fact I wasn’t actually really running my own thing at this point – the company was good, the weather was fine and I felt great. I have a habit of running along with folks when the conversation is interesting and this usually results in me running a bit faster than I probably should be at times! As we approached Uxbridge, the start of the Grand Union Canal section, we began to talk about marathons (as you do) and it was at this point I learned that James has a PB of 2:40, has run 8 sub-3 marathons in the last 10 years or so and will be running the 5000m and Half Marathon at World Masters Championships next year. Oh dear, I thought. James is running very comfortably and this is why. Perhaps it was a mental thing but as we hit the canal I felt like I was starting to struggle a bit with the pace, the heat and eating. We ran together for a short while longer and when we came to the first canal bridge I decided to walk up it and off James went, a receding figure in the distance!
And so we come to the next part of the course.
The ‘Capital’ bit
Once I hit the canal path and found myself running solo again I decided to slow myself down for a much welcome walk, with a view to slowly taking on some water and eating some food which by this point was beginning to feel a bit like gravel with every chew. I laughed at myself because as I was strolling along I noticed I was in the exact same place I started to severely struggle with cramp in my legs in 2017. Oh, the irony. Well, that laugh and the smile that came with it seemed to do the trick and I resolved to run it in to the 42km checkpoint so I could refill my water and then take another walk break out of the aid station eating and drinking as I went.
It didn’t quite go that way and I ran/walked my way to that checkpoint – still smiling, still ruefully chuckling to myself and steeling myself for what I felt was probably going to be a long and arduous afternoon on a never ending, flat, lifeless canal path. But, that didn’t turn out to be the case either!
I arrived at the checkpoint and I was starting to feel much better. Less nauseuos and with my composure and self belief coming back. Just before arriving I had also put my music on which had a positive effect. I took some time to fill my bottles, eat a bit of my Nak’d bar and just as I was about to leave my friend Tim arrived into the CP looking very warm, but very happy. We had a brief chat and I set off on my way knowing he would shortly catch me. Thankfully, when he did, he ran up alongside and I asked how he was. I can’t remeber his exact words but it basically amounted to ‘I’m all good. You’re all good too. My plan is to run/walk it for the rest of the race.’ So it was that I shifted my mindset from forcing myself to regain composure and pace, punishing myself on each walk break to embracing that as a strategy that would likely see me achieve a course PB and maybe, quite possibly, even allow me to enjoy some or all of the next bit of the course. I ran/walked for 6 or 7km with Tim, chatting and laughing about our surroundings – it’s not quite the mountains and countryside we both enjoy running in usually!
We ran for a mile, walked for a minute and repeated until I decided that was me done for 1mi/1min as a strategy – this was as we approached the infamous turn on to the Paddington Arm of the canal which lets you know you’ve got a half marathon to go. Again, I opted to walk the bridge and Tim opted to keep on running quickly becoming yet another receding figure in the distance. Then I was on my own from there to the end.
Now, I know this section here doesn’t sound like fun. But I can honestly say that although I was suffering with calorie depletion, some nausea and creeping pain in my legs I actually had a strange sense of contentment. Running along the canal in spring I began to notice ducklings, moor hen chicks, robins fluttering in the branches next to me and other bits of flora and fauna alongside the cement factories, building sites, housing developments and the creeping urban setting as I got closer and closer to the finish. I made sure that I smiled at each aid station, absorbed the positive attitude of the volunteers and other runners and just kept moving forwards. I was pleased to see I spent an average of just under 2 minutes at each aid station throughout the day – in races past, when I’ve felt rough, I’ve been guilty of lingering and taking too much time out.
I was grateful to find a just about ripe banana waiting for me at the penultimate aid station which marks about 10 miles to go on the course. I managed to eat half of it on my walk out of the aid station and this seemed to revive my energy and my spirits a little. Shortly after I began to feel more confident to start nibbling on the Refresher chew bars I had picked up from aid stations along the way, as well as feeling more confident to drink more regularly – the nausea abated and my strength grew and my mind finally accepted I was on the home stretch. My run/walk strategy from the point I left Tim until around the last 5km was something like run 1 to 1.4km, walk 100-300m (depending on how rough I felt).
I managed to run the vast majority of the last 4km. At around this point I remembered something Ian Sharman wrote in a blog post many years ago, words to the effect of ‘The more you run, the quicker it’s done’.
Before the race I had made the concious decision to avoid looking at my watch too often. I didn’t want to be pressured by arbitrary time goals that I knew I would set myself if I paid too much attention to pace/distance/time elapsed. I had set off thinking 6:30 would be a great day out, but equally my initial goal on entering the race (6:55) would be just as fantastic. My watch has an app that shows me a predicted finish for races and I took a look at this for only the third time in the race. At around the 21km point early on it showed I was moving well for 6:20. At around 40km it showed 5:50. This time it showed that as long as I held it together I was on for 6:30. I was beyond happy with that – the sight literally made me smile broadly and I said out loud to myself ‘Right then – get moving! Tally Ho!’ and I burst into a laugh before picking up my walk into a run (God knows what passersby must have thought). I had been leapfrogging with 2 guys over the preceding 10km and it was at this point that I decided there would be no more leapfrogging. I said to myself I didn’t mind if I was passed by some late starting faster folk but I wouldn’t be passed by either of those guys on my way to the finish.
I gritted my teeth, then relaxed, smiled again and turned up my music. I could tell I was getting closer to Paddington as pedestrians become more frequent, the buildings were getting taller and more dense and it all became intoxicating which I think really helped me to keep moving at a run. One or two times I started to slow down and consider walking, then I’d remind myself of Ian Sharman or the two guys behind me or I’d make eye contact with someone walking the other way and I’d pick it up again.
I could see the finishing bridge approaching with about a kilometre to go and I decided to have one last look at the watch to give me that last boost of pace – it showed I was on for 6:32 and that did the trick. I hung on, kept my pace whilst dodging some folk and dipped under the bridge and the finish line in 6:33:59, 44th place.
Crossing a race finish line is usually an emotive experience for me and this was no different. I had given what I could over the last 4km and I was definitely feeling it but I was extremely happy. The RD gave me my medal, I told him I’d just improved my course PB by about 45 minutes and I was warmly congratulated. I looked up and there was a plethora of cold, fizzy drinks waiting. I had been fantasing about a cold and carbonated drink for about 3 hours and as I ascended the steps towards the bag drop, can of Coca Cola (and can of Lucozade) in hand, I was surprised and really happy to see the smiling faces of the aforementioned Tim, and my friends Sean and David who had come down to the finish line to hang out with and support other friends from their running club. It was a very welcome, very socialable end to a race that I had unknowingly been looking forward to for 14 months!
Here’s hoping that the return of racing and the return of the in-person social aspects of life remain over the coming months and long into the future.
Peace & Blessings x