My 2020 Race Season Review

(well, that didn’t go quite as planned, did it?)

In January 2020, the race calendar for the year ahead was looking great. The 50 Slam of Centurion events, with a few others thrown in. A good number of races, spread over a good number of months.

I was looking forward to running some events I’d not done before, and returning to a few, to see how I could improve on what I’d done before…

  • April SDW50
  • May NDW50
  • June SDW100
  • Aug NDW100
  • Sept CW50
  • Oct Beachy Head Marathon
  • Nov WW50
  • (plus volunteering duties at TP100 in May, A100 in Oct, aiming to secure entries for a Grand Slam attempt in 2021)

Of course looking back to January, almost seems like a different world now, as if there’s a massive wall that suddenly appeared in March and prevents us from clearing looking back to how life looked and felt beforehand.

In the end, I managed to run 3 races (4 including a virtual WW50) and volunteer at 2, from a total of 9 planned… and I’ve got to be very grateful for even getting that done.

Early February (I think, hard to remember exactly) the distant rumblings from the Far East started to get closer to home. Then in March the televised addresses to the nation began, and within just a few days we’d gone from being told that the elderly should avoid going on cruises, to pubs closing, to schools closing, and then to a full lockdown. The pace of change was staggering. At work every day we had to re-assess what we were doing. March was the longest month ever.

SDW50 was planned for early April. Just towards the end of the training block, about 3 weeks out from race day if I remember correctly, an email dropped into my inbox from Centurion to say that the race had been postponed due to the Covid situation. SDW50 was moved back to October from April, NDW50 to July from May, and SDW100 to October from June also. This meant that SDW100 was now just a week before WW50. Seeing as the main objective for the year had been then 50 slam, I cancelled by SDW100 place as I didn’t want to be running a 50 just 7 days after a 100.

Time rumbled on slowly as the nation washed its hands to the tune of happy birthday (twice) clapped on a Thursday (a novelty at first, less so after a few weeks), did Joe Wicks workouts (for a bit), juggled home schooling with working at home (neither particularly successfully), and took our daily government approved exercise.

Every cloud though… Due to having to travel less for work, I found more time to run. I actually lost a little weight in lockdown, and in April I ran PBs in training for everything from 5k to marathon. I surprised myself by taking nearly 20 mins off my time in a lone lockdown marathon, and setting a new PB of 03:26. I’d trained so well in the spring that smashing my marathon felt fairly effortless, and on finishing I’d still got plenty left in the tank, leaving me with the feeling I could have shaved a few more minutes.

Before long, NDW50 moved back again, to November as it became clear that a July race wasn’t going to happen, so training continued well, and in June I set my PB for my 30 mile long run, at 04:12, over an hour quicker than I was doing it a year ago on the same loop around Sherwood Forest.

And then… NDW100 actually happened in Aug as Covid restrictions were loosened, we were encouraged to eat out to help out, and the country seemed to be getting to near normal. It was the first large ultra to take place since March, and you can read all about here if you’re interested. It certainly didn’t go to plan due to the small matter of a bitch of a heatwave, causing dehydration and the inability to eat for about about 60 miles, but I got it done, finishing in just over 25 hours in race with a 45% completion rate. Tough, and the slowest 100 mile finish time for me so far, but a result of which I am very proud. I managed to raise £700 for Alzheimers Society along the way too.

CW50 was next up, what would normally the 3rd race of the 50s, but this year was the first. I was gunning for a 50 mile PB, and felt pretty confident of getting it done in less than 9 hours, which would represent a 30 minute improvement on my current PB. I’d not done this race before, so when I arrived at Goring on race morning I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than the usual Centurion experience of supportive volunteers, efficient organisation and thorough course marking.

I enjoyed this race, the course is a good mix of all kinds of trail: fields, forest and tracks, with some good hills. Standout sections for me were Stonor Park, Grim’s Ditch and the windmill hill. Some weird bits involved running through someone’s garden and across (right across!) a golf course. The day was warm for mid Sept, and I certainly started to notice the heat and flag in the last 10 miles, but I got back to Goring in 08:55, so a solid start to the 50 slam.

As SDW50 approached, so did the dreaded 2nd wave of Covid, and the tier system of regional restrictions was put in place. My local area of Nottingham suddenly became the Covid hotpot of the UK, due in a large part to a big influx of students to the city’s 2 universities, and it seemed pretty inevitable we’d be moved to Tier 3, which ‘advised’ against travel out of the area. If this happened then I’d not be able to race the SDW50, sure I could go against the advice, but that would feel irresponsible to me, and not something that I was going to do. As it happened the local government held off temporarily, and SDW50 was go…

Full report for SDW50 is here, in a nutshell, I surprised myself and ran better than I’d hoped, smashing the 50 mile PB again by quite some margin to finish in 08:10. It’s not the time or the place in the results that’s the most satisfying, it’s the personal progress and the payoff of the training and planning. I’d learned from previous efforts, trained differently (mainly by adding in a weekly 2 hour session of hill repeats) and managed my effort better on the day.

Shortly after SDW50 it was announced that Notts was moving to Tier 3, so this was an abrupt end to my race season, but I took some solace in knowing that even though I wasn’t going to be able to complete the season, and the 50 slam, at least others would. But then it was only a few more days until the November ‘lockdown’ was announced and the entire season was over for everyone.

A virtual option was offered to entrants of WW50, and I decided to take it up as at least it would give me something to do, and I wanted to really test out the effect of the hill training. The criteria for the virtual event were that the course you chose had to mirror the distance and elevation of the real event, 50 miles with 10k feet of ascent and descent. Now as it happened, my regular hill training session was just over a quarter of that, so it seemed pretty simple to do that same session nearly 4 times. It’s little over a mile from my house to bottom of the hill, just under a half a mile up the hill (Winchester Street in Sherwood, Nottingham), so I worked out that somewhere around 45-48 repeats, with 3 trips back home for replenishing supplies etc would do the trick.

I could have looked for a more scenic way of doing it, rather than running up and down the same hill, on road, in suburban Nottingham nearly 50 times, but there was some perverse desire to also test out the mental aspect of the challenge: could I handle the sheer repetition of the same hill so many times, so the plan was set. It was also logistically going to be the easiest way to do it. I could set up an aid station on the dining room table and return home every 12-13ish miles to stock up on drinks and snacks and use the loo etc (no handy bushes on Winchester Street!).

I also took the opportunity to raise a little money for the mental health charity Mind as part of this challenge, and managed to get a couple of hundred quid raised. Not an earth shattering amount by any means, but if it’s enough to help Mind make a difference to just one person, then it’s more than enough for me.

03:15am on Sat 14 Nov my alarm went off and I started a few minutes before 4am. I’d planned to start early as I felt that by getting a good chunk of it done before daylight, I’d feel like I was making progress, and also by doing some of the run in dark, and some in the light, at least I’d have some variety. Repeating the same hill nearly 50 times was always going to be monotonous, so any way to introduce a little variety could only be a good thing.

As I set out, it was raining lightly, and forecast to be wet on and off throughout the day, but light winds and mild temperatures would work in my advantage. As I started the first ascent I did question whether I’d be able to face doing it so many times, but as is normal for an ultra, I put the finish out of my mind, and just focussed on each hill. Do it once, do it right, then do it again.

There were none of the usual distractions of beautiful scenery, forests, hills or valleys. None of the usual supportive chat from other runners or volunteers. No medal, t shirt, or crowd of volunteers cheering you at the end. So in many respects it was utterly pointless, other than the question of: can I do it?

I was on my own, and this was a new element to the challenge, it was in quite a large part an experiment to test myself: what could I do when all the usual niceties of an ultra were stripped away?

Due to the monotony, it’s a all a bit of a blur, but a few bits that stand out for both good and bad reasons (pretty evident which is which!), in no particular order:

  • Some stomach pain for overdoing it on the vegan tacos the night before, leading to a quicker than is sensible mile on the first visit to the home checkpoint due to a needing to outrun a turd! (I won. Just.)
  • Wife and son popping up on the route a couple times as they were out for a walk, a work colleague too.
  • Random dude in van beeping at me and asking what I was doing, then giving me fiver towards my sponsorship
  • About 35 miles in, a song I’d listened to at least few hundred times over the last 30 years came on my playlist (Play for Today by The Cure), but I couldn’t work out from the intro what it was, which served to remind me that I needed to eat more
  • About 5 miles in, realising that my right calf didn’t feel right, and wondering if this may be a showstopper, but it stayed at the same level of minor soreness throughout (until the following day, more on this later…)
  • Knowing throughout that I was always on track to meet the pretty arbitrary 10 hour target I’d set myself
  • A few funny looks from people I’d seen earlier in the day, when they realised that I was still running up and down the same goddamn hill.
  • Getting to the top that last time, listening to some great tunes (Orbital live at Glastonbury) and buzzing due to a regular intake of dark chocolate covered coffee beans.

So after 45 and a half times up and down the same hill, 50.3 miles and 10065 feet of ascent, I made it back home in 09:49:41. Job done.

On reflection, the mental aspect of it was easier than I’d thought it would be. I’d broken it up with a couple of podcasts, an hour or 2 of an Alan Partridge audiobook (inspiring to hear about the man’s harrowing struggles with Toblerone addiction, gives my petty struggles some perspective), and a varied playlist of music. The physical aspect was pretty much as expected, easy enough for the first 35 miles or so, then progressively harder, with the last couple of ascents the slowest and toughest of the day. I’d ran the uphills earlier, mixed run/walk in the middle, and by the end was walking virtually all of the ups, pretty typical for a 50 miler.

The following morning I knew something wasn’t right, and my left foot and ankle were massive and could hardly bear any weight, so a day in bed watching netflix was on the cards. It took a few days for it to return to its usual size, with plenty of regular icing. And 2 weeks on I’m still resting it, with some longer walks, but no running yet.

On reflection, Covid fucked a large apart of the racing season, as it did everything else for the year for the world. And obviously the impact on racing is miniscule compared to the wider societal and economic aspects, and racing utterly pales into insignificance compared to loss of so many lives worldwide, the effects on those who have lost loved ones, and to those struggling with the ongoing long term health impacts of long Covid.

So in a sense, running and racing really means fuck all, and yet in another sense, it’s far more than that. It’s something that we can cling onto, something that gives a small personal sense of progress and satisfaction amongst all the chaos of the year. Something that we can have some control over, when much of the world is out of control. I don’t underestimate the importance of running in keeping me relatively sane this year, and every other year for that matter. And I can’t prove it, but I’m fairly certain that the experience of running ultras makes me more resilient, and helps give a perspective that nothing is permanent ‘this too shall pass’ or is it the other way round, who knows?

I only got to run 3 of the planned 7 races, but each was a fantastic experience, and I’m particularly proud of NDW100, not only surviving the heat, but in persisting despite many hours nausea and being unable to eat, and getting round in a decent time all things considered. And of SDW50, a massive 50 mile PB, and a good example of a well managed effort on the day. I also appear to have won the virtual WW50, though there were only a few who took part, and it’s in no way a real win at a real event; but it’s going to be the only time I’ll ever be at the top of a Centurion leaderboard, so I’ll enjoy it anyway…

In many ways, my race season is a microcosm of the year. You could look at it either way, glass half full, or glass half empty. It’s a long way from what it looked like a million years ago at the start of 2020, but I got on with it, looked for positives rather than dwelled on negatives, and was grateful for the fact that I got through the year relatively unscathed, unlike so many others who suffered long or short term impacts to their physical or mental health, suffered financially, or lost loved ones.

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