A report from the inaugural Woolpit parkrun

The volunteer team was small but very efficient and friendly, setting up the course, conducting the new runners’ briefing, and even finding time to help with the all-important selfie. Some of the equipment for the course seemed non-standard: apparently the official kit hadn’t arrived so some Kennel Club Rally equipment had been repurposed.

Ready by the start line, with parkrun tourist buffs

Fortunately for an inaugural with an inexperienced team, the turnout was manageably small. The course instructions given were a little vague, but one of the runners who is on the core team confidently declared that he’d run the course 57 times already during 10 years of planning for this event, so just to follow him.

The finish funnel – small, but adequate for the numbers taking part

There was a noticeable shortage of marshals out on the course, but route-finding wasn’t difficult and there was plenty of cheering and encouragement from the other runner.

Lucy climbs the only significant hill on the route, location of Stephen’s local hill repeats sessions
Stephen runs past the church

The timekeeper seemed distracted at the end and I reckon our official times when they arrive will be about nine seconds slower than we logged, but it’s all good fun – we’re grateful to the volunteers for being there.

Finish tokens 0001 and 0002

So, first and second – that hasn’t happened before, but I’ve always fancied a small parkrun to get a high finish position. Thanks to the team for putting on such a great event.

Lucy does post-event tear-down, with our results in the parkrun Virtual Volunteer app ready for uploading to parkrun HQ
The slightly dodgy timing results in the parkrun Virtual Volunteer app – the timekeeper had the phone in his running belt.

Keep on running

It was a week where the UK started to shut down properly as the coronavirus epidemic intensified (though with much more to come), and we staggered from one extraordinary government announcement to the next with barely time to take breath, and virtually no challenge or scrutiny.

But, returning to running for the moment, I opted to accept the default option for my postponed Boston Marathon of running it on 13 September 2020, and continued to hope that I would also be able to run a marathon distance on the original date of 19 April 2020, though as the week wore on that went from a confident expectation of a second-best option, to growing doubt that even that would be possible.

Week 12 of the 16-week marathon training plan meant that on Tuesday morning I did a warm up across and around the village, then 4 out-and-back fast miles along the Old Stowmarket Road with little recoveries, and a coll down back to the house, to make 10km in total.

Wednesday would once have been difficult to fit the run in, since I had a Board meeting in London, but we’d changed that to a videoconference which gave me more time. For reasons I now can’t remember, I still ended up swapping the planned runs for Wednesday and Thursday, doing the brisk and shorter 8km to Drinkstone and Woolpit Green on Wednesday, and then on Thursday taking Brindley to the King’s Forest for a slow 11km.

Brindley in the King’s Forest

Then came my error of judgement, but it’s remarkable the power of inertia. I’d long ago booked a long weekend in Cornwall, essentially as part of the marathon training plan, though with a view to a pleasant long weekend away. I was thinking partly of my objective to make the weekly long weekend runs fun and varied. Reading an article on cycle paths on old railway lines, I’d read about the Camel Trail in Cornwall which runs for almost 20 miles, in addition to the Bath-Bristol Railway path. I’d planned this weekend around the Camel Trail, plus a visit to the Eden Project parkrun and the Eden Project itself; and the Easter long weekend around the Bath-Bristol Railway Path, SS Great Britain, and other touristy things in Bristol.

But with the pandemic worsening, I found myself asking whether I really should go. In truth, the answer was “no”, but I persuaded myself that I could minimise risk to myself and everyone else, and thus that it was ok. I took food for four days so I didn’t need to visit any shops or to eat out – just as well as the day I arrived, government ordered all restaurants, pubs, cafes cinemas, theatres, and gyms to close, a dramatic step which was followed minutes later by the Chancellor committing to pay 80% of the wages of anyone “furloughed” by their employer as a result, plus other measures. He used the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times in his announcement, which I listened to as I walked around Pentire Point on the South West Coast Path, having travelled down on quiet roads but having to stop a number of times to help manage a letter to the Minister about the potential for action soon more drastic even than today’s. It all brought home to me the fact that I shouldn’t really be here, even if I was planning to spend my public time outdoors and trying to be very cautious. I drove on to the hotel, used hand sanitiser as I got out of the car, made sure I was more than two metres away from the receptionist at all times, and as soon as I reached my room, washed my hands, repeating the double-cleaning process each time I either left or arrived at the hotel.

With parkrun cancelled, I took Saturday off from running, saving my legs for Sunday. I started Sunday’s 31½km run at Wenfordbridge, and followed the delightful Camel Trail, mostly alongside the eponymous river which was initially little more than a stream and became a sizeable estuary by the end. I diverted up the former railway branch into Bodmin, both for completeness and to make sure the distance I ran was sufficiently high. As with my other long runs, I continued to target a little under 7 minutes per kilometre, usually achieved by running about 6:25/km for the first 850 metres or so, and then walking until the average reaches the right level, a formula that my knees are grateful for – remarkably, as the distances I’ve been running have gone up and up, my knees have complained less and less, though my left foot has become less happy in recent days. As I passed the 25km mark today, I started to feel a little weary, but I gained fresh energy as I approached 28 or 29 kilometres, and I found the running section of each of the last few kilometres actually getting faster without me trying to push the pace at all – very encouraging.

There were a few people about towards the Padstow end of the trail, but it was still pretty quiet, and there was little difficulty most of the time in ensuring a two-metre separation as we passed. The harbour looked lovely on a perfect day for running, and it was a shame to depart without enjoying the town, but I felt that I was now an unwelcome outsider who should have stayed at home.

Monday evening of week 13 of the training plan saw the UK enter a yet more extreme “lockdown” with the population instructed to stay at home except for shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible, for medical needs, for travelling to and from work if it absolutely cannot be done from home, and for one form of exercise a day. Additionally, all non-essential retail stores are closed; all other indoor gathering places are closed; all hotels, hostels, B&Bs, campsites, caravan parks, etc. are closed; all weddings, baptisms and the like are banned; and there are to be no public gatherings of more than two people. Everyone is instructed to keep two metres away from others when away from home. The fear of the impact of the disease increases, as does the fear of the impact on the economy of the UK and the world of a prolonged shutdown – how many will die in years to come because we can’t afford the health care and social care that is paid for by a growing economy?

But as this is supposed to be a running blog, I shall indulge myself with trying to keep a running focus. Running is of trivial importance in the face of a national and global emergency, even if it contributes significantly to my personal physical and mental wellbeing. But the idea that I’m going to be able to run my marathon distance on 19 April now looks a lot less likely. Even if the measures in place by then are no more severe than currently (and who knows where we might end up?) then 4½ hours on Felixstowe promenade on a Sunday doesn’t seem to be a viable option (unless, perhaps, it’s raining heavily!). I’ve a couple of ideas that might be viable, with two mile loops or a two-mile out-and-back, away from likely pedestrian traffic – but even then they don’t really fulfil the “stay at home” instruction, even if they meet the underlying objective of minimising interaction with people from outside of the household – a trip to Tesco, which is permitted, is a far riskier endeavour in reality.

For the moment, while outside exercise is allowed (it’s now banned in several European countries and which now require you to carry official paperwork justifying your trip whenever you leave the house, or to request and receive permission every time to leave home, or are subject to random police inspections of households to check everyone is at home), I shall continue with the training plan, albeit with a bigger focus on times and locations that keep me away from other pedestrians. I’m not quite ready to fully defer the whole effort to 13 September, though I may have to make my peace with that soon. Let’s keep the dream alive, for a little while at least, and keep on running.

Boston Marathon (UK) postponed

So the almost inevitable has happened, and the Boston UK marathon has been postponed, until 13 September (maintaining the link with Boston USA).

I will be contacted in due course, and offered one of three options:

1. Do nothing and thus transfer my entry to 13 September.
2. Request deferment to the 2021 Boston Marathon, on Sunday 18th April 2021.
3. Request withdrawal of my entry, with a refund of 90%.

Given that I currently plan to be running my own marathon distance on 19 April 2020, all three have some attraction – I will have to ponder. It would be good, in these difficult times, to have a fresh focus for my running. I shan’t be paying to enter any races for the time being, until the situation becomes much clearer, so having one ready prepared in September 2020 or April 2021 has something to commend it, and having set out to run Boston, it would be good to do so. But marathon training is quite a commitment – do I want to sign up for it, again? Should I return to somewhat shorter distances which put less strain on my body – or do I take the time to gain further improvements in my approach which have already significantly reduced the impact?

There will be a little while to think about it…

Coronovirus dominating thoughts

At the end of last week’s blog, I reported on my plans for my personal marathon on 19 April in the event that the Boston UK marathon is cancelled. By Tuesday morning, as the evolving situation worsened, I was suffering from a lack of motivation but I managed to get myself out of the door anyway and did my 10km run including three brisk 2km sessions within in.

Wednesday was difficult too, but I did my slow 10km. Thursday I did 13km to Hessett and back at target marathon pace, but not feeling the joy.

Friday at work was dominated by dealing with coronavirus issues, and so escaping from that on Saturday was a day of mixed emotions. With increasingly desperate actions being taken around the world to limit freedom of movement, and reports that Italy has effectively decided to let those over 80 with Covid-19 die because they don’t have the resources to treat everyone, the UK approach is standing out as rather different. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, despite the opinions of so many amateur epidemiologists, but by Saturday morning there were growing noises that the UK would impose limits on public gatherings soon as have many other countries.

So my journey to Harrow Lodge parkrun to meet with Catherine, Alex, and the Eltham gang is quite likely to be the last parkrun for some time – already parkrun is suspended in most countries around the world. Online, I’ve seen a number of people in Italy posting Strava links to their rooftops runs – 80+ laps of the apartment block rooftop for a 5km run, as the Italian government won’t allow people to go out for a run, on their own, even in the middle of night. Spain is banning its citizens from leaving their house except to buy food or medicines or travel to work. These are worrying times, and strange ones for liberal democracies.

Harrow Lodge Park is pleasant, even on a gloomy overcast day, with a delightful lake. The majority of the route is on grass, and parts were rather muddy and it was occasionally a struggle to stay upright. After I’d finished, I went to find the others and jogged round with them chatting with Catherine. When it came to scan my finish token, I found that it had no number on it, and the barcode was so degraded it wouldn’t scan. Fortunately I’d heard the timer calling to the person giving out finish tokens soon after I’d crossed the line that someone was 40th, so I reckoned I must be about 37th and they noted that down.

The risk from being outdoors with a couple of hundred people, mostly spread thinly around a park, has to be very small. Those small risks that there are, perhaps including handling the finish tokens, could be mitigated with practical measures, but political pressure in the UK is growing not only to act but to be seen to be acting. But the risks associated aren’t zero and there is logic to the view that the cumulative impact of lots of small reductions in risk collectively have a significant effect.

We went to the café and had second breakfast and a lot of chat – very convivial, though significantly riskier than the parkrun itself if thinking of CV – with my amateur expert hat on, it would seem that better than banning large open-air gatherings would be to close down all semi-public enclosed spaces such as cafés, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, clubs – and public transport.

In the café the results processing was taking place, with a bit of difficulty since in addition to my problem (easily resolved – it turns out I was 36th) someone had been scanned as 107th when there were only 105 finishers and one of the Australians present clearly was linked to a different parkrun than she’d claimed, and the results processor had ended up having to start all over again. He was also doing double duty for the café staff, calling out order numbers in his loud voice while the timid staff could barely be heard. A very good bacon baguette when it arrived – a parkrun to go back to one day with Lucy, in dry weather as I don’t think she’d have enjoyed today’s mud.

So, possibly for the last time for months, I departed parkrun, my 117th location on my 174th run. When will be 175th?

Meanwhile, the Boston UK marathon have stopped taking bookings (for the half and fun run; the full distance was already fully booked) and postponed a marshals meeting, pending news from the government on whether the event will go ahead.

With five weeks to go till marathon day, my long run on Sunday was to the seaside, to Walton-on-the-Naze and along the front past Frinton-on-Sea, Holland-on-Sea, and Clacton-on-Sea to the unhyphenated Jaywick, and then back.

It was rather breezy – my app said 22mph winds – but it was the right way around, being in my face on the outward leg and behind me on the return leg. In a few sections there was a lot of soft deep sand on the prom, but mostly it was without difficulties, and I managed to keep churning out the kilometres very consistently, all 30 of them between 6:50/km and 6:57/km.

It was definitely easier than a fortnight ago, hopefully because the training continues to have an effect, though perhaps that wind being behind in the second half today but in my face towards the end a fortnight ago was a small factor too.

Now I’m making my peace with the idea of long runs being deliberately slower than target race pace, with confidence given by the two quick races, it’s rather nice not to be pushing the pace, and relishing just being out and enjoying the views. Certainly the impact afterwards is so much more muted – I went straight back home, showered and changed, then went out to ring a quarter peal. Only mild tiredness, no sore toes or other body parts, no insatiable hunger which used to plague me after long runs. The running is looking good – if only other things in the world were looking as rosy.

Victoria Park half-marathon

I started the running week on Tuesday with 10km comprising a 1.5km warm-up, then 3 lots of 2km brisk with 500 metres recoveries, concluding with a 1.5km jog.

Wednesday saw me setting out before dawn from Whittlesford station for a 13km slow run along the cycle paths that head in all four directions from the A505/A1301 roundabout, before heading into London for some work meetings.

Dawn from the A505 on Wednesday

Thursday was a gentle 5km, starting a small taper before Saturday.

Saturday was my second one in a row with no parkrun, but having tried to enter the Cambridge Half-Marathon too late (it was full when I tried in December), I plumped for a Half in Victoria Park in east London which was on the Saturday, but worth a minor tweak to the marathon training plan, now 6 weeks from the big day.

I arrived at the park in good time, collected my number, and made use of the toilet facilities – no soap, only cold water, so I was glad I’d brought my own hand sanitiser. I pinned on my number and attached my timing chip to my shoe, and now still had 45 minutes before the start, with the challenge of keeping warm. As the morning was colder than I’d expected, and I would be running in t-shirt and shorts, I chose to keep my fleece on for as long as possible and so delayed handing in my bag. That made a warm-up jog less practical, so I compromised by walking part of the course – it was billed as 6.5 laps, meaning 7 times past the water station.

I went and found the water station, and from there walked what would be the rest of the route after passing the water station for the seventh time. I knew the last bit of the route would be rather twisty with a danger of brief confusion – the point to turn off the main laps was clear, and then there were several bold yellow arrows which matched my mental picture of the route, then apparently no signage just as my mental picture went fuzzy. This was exactly what I wanted to avoid in my 21st kilometre later on when my brain would have less access to blood supply. I walked on, slightly uncertainly, and found a black sign with a small arrow not visible from a distance (black for half-marathon), a major contrast to the several yellow arrows, at the end of the path. I then followed the rest of the route back to the start/finish area, well satisfied with my exploration.

Swedish Fit led the warm-up exercises.

I dropped off my bag and did some gentle warm-up exercises, then we were called to the start area in order of expected finish time. We were soon off, but I hadn’t gone more than a few hundred metres before I found myself in a new situation for me, being interviewed on mobile phone camera by a fellow runner, with a thick Italian accent. I struggled to understand her questions due to the accent, and then, while running, to come up with good answers to questions such as “What are you running from?”. That novel interlude didn’t last long, and then it was time to focus on my running.

And I’m off. It was a bit chilly and breezier than I’d expected. The buff lasted about 3km as a scarf before becoming a wrist band. The gloves lasted 5km before being tucked into my shorts.

My original training plan had said to aim for sub-2h03 today, as being broadly equivalent in effort to my 4h30 marathon objective. After the success of the race at Dorney Lake, I’d decided to aim for sub-1h57, to beat the Dorney Lake time of 13 days earlier by two minutes or so, making for a target pace today of about 5:32 per kilometre.

However, I found my legs naturally turned over a little faster than that, and I decided to see how it went. Each time I went past the water station, at about two-mile intervals, I slowed to a walk to drink properly, but otherwise ran throughout. The lapped course, and combination of half-marathon, 10km and 5km distances being run, meant that it was a little crowded in places, especially in the middle third, but generally I was able to run freely.

I reached 10km in 54:04, an average pace of 5:24. This was ahead of my target for today, but also ahead of my half-marathon PB pace. I felt good, though understandably I didn’t have the excess of energy that I’d had at Dorney Lake when I’d run the first half so much slower. Today I pushed the pace a little further after half way, but decided that “a little” was the most I could manage, but that was still exciting, knowing I was heading for a PB, and a significantly better PB too. Having run the first half at 5:24/km, I eventually managed the second half at 5:18/km. At Dorney Lake, I was almost flying at the end; today I was really working very hard for only the most marginal of accelerations. I crossed the line and the clock stopped for me at 1:52:03, knocking 3½ minutes off my PB, more than 6 minutes off Eton Dorney, and 23 minutes off Vienna, my pre-marathon Half from last year (when I was injured and under-trained) – amazing improvements.

I allowed myself briefly to collapse to the ground; two concerned onlookers dashed off to get me water, and a third and fourth helped me back to my feet after a few seconds of recovery.

The scene afterwards

I grabbed a banana and other goodies, then fetched my bag and drank my recovery drink, and began to wend my way home – with a mere five loo stops en route.

My legs were a little weary afterwards, but they didn’t stop me taking the dogs for an hour’s walk by the Orwell in the afternoon, and on Sunday Brindley and I had an 8km run in the King’s Forest.

Our four Crufts dogs, looking not quite show-ready but enjoying themselves thoroughly
Brindley out for a run in the King’s Forest

So, 1:52:03, eh? My Garmin measured my route at 20.93km, but I don’t give that huge credence – 1% accuracy on a wrist GPS device is still good, and there didn’t seem to be a predominance of other runners showing under-distance, with a number showing over distance, so I’m quite happy that it should “count” as a half-marathon. Even if one extrapolates to 21.0975km, the time would still have been a big PB.

For what it’s worth, my running calculator says that pace is equivalent effort to a 4:04:48 marathon, which adds to my confidence that I can get my 4:29 time. I will try hard not to go too fast for the first 30km – if I still feel I have scope to accelerate after over 3 hours, I might allow myself to speed up, but I’m not going to let excessive pace dreams spoil this marathon – “goal A” remains under 4h30.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic is growing, with cases in the UK and other European countries doubling every two or three days. Responses in respect of public gatherings seem to vary: Germany has now joined several other countries in banning large gatherings, and Italy has imposed a nominal (though so far extremely porous) quarantine on 16 million people. The UK response has been that banning large sporting events has minimal benefit, and that the decisions made elsewhere are political rather than scientific ones. Whether that will last six weeks, remains to be seen.

Sophie Raworth tweeted very aptly:

The Marathon des Sables is the latest high-profile running event to be cancelled, along with many major marathons on the Continent, following on from Tokyo being restricted to a couple of hundred elite runners rather than its normal mass-participation nature.

The Boston (UK) Marathon has filled up with a surge of runners anxious that big UK events such as Manchester, London and Brighton could be cancelled but Boston might survive. Meanwhile the Los Angeles Marathon went ahead on Sunday – with some bizarre advice from race officials that people keep 6 feet apart, advice that is utterly impractical in a mass-participation race. An article in Popular Mechanics calculates that the start line would have to be over 3 miles long to fit in everyone 6 feet apart, without addressing the narrowest pinch-point of the route, nor that if we adopt such packing techniques, no-one would be able to overtake because they’d need a gap 12 feet wide to go through.

In the meantime, training goes on, and fingers are kept crossed, but I’m mentally developing a plan for 19 April with Lucy as my crowd and water station, probably on the prom at Felixstowe. If she were just east of the pier, then there could be a 3km loop to the NE, refreshments, then a 3km loop to the SW, refreshments, etc, all 7 times. I think having a back-up plan will make it easier to cope with the disappointment if the race is cancelled/postponed, and to continue with the training anyway.

A week of running and Covid-19

So, what’s been in the news this week? Very little reporting of my running in week 9 of the 16-week training plan, but a fair bit on Covid-19. Let’s start with my running.

Tuesday saw me travelling to Bury for my favoured hill. I park so that I have a 1.5km warm-up run to the bottom of the hill, and today I ran at top speed for 90 seconds up the hill, jogged back down, and repeated nine times, for ten in all. “Top speed” should mean the maximum I can run consistently for the 10 ascents, making the first one a bit of a challenge to get right, but I think it was broadly correct, each being just under 5:15/km which is good going for me uphill. Then the 1.5km jog back to the car.

Wednesday I took Brindley to the King’s Forest, where we ran 11km. I had my running harness on, but let him run free. I wasn’t certain how this would go, as it was the first time I’d tried to run with him without a lead, and the one time I’d tried it a few years ago with one of the other dogs (Hetty, I think), she’d just sat down and refused to move any further. Brindley loved it though. As it was a slow run, only about 6:50/km, he walked or trotted a good deal, doing relatively little running, so although it was his furthest run by some way, it was shorter than his longest walk, and he didn’t seem remotely challenged by it, and was still full of energy when we got home. He found several deer during our outing, and adopted a very deer-like four legged high bound through the undergrowth as he briefly chased – a quite amusing gait which I’ve not seen before in a dog.

Brindley with a herd of deer in the distance

Thursday saw wet snow falling, and so I ran my 13km at 6:20/km (hopefully marathon pace) on the treadmill at the gym – not exciting, but effective in keeping me warm and dry. It was my last run in February but meant that I ran further than I’ve run before in a calendar month.

Saturday was my first non-parkrun day since mid-October, as I was on a bellringing outing, including calling 42-spliced doubles and an apt quarter of Leap Year Surprise Minor.

Sunday was long-run day, and for the fourth weekend in a row, the UK was being battered by a storm. On this occasion, East Anglia didn’t have it too bad, and Storm Jorge (named by the Spanish), was looking mainly to trouble me with winds. I took to the Cambridge guided busway – nice and simple, and though with a few roads to cross, largely traffic free, though with relatively little shelter from the moderate winds.

I’d expected the bridleway that runs alongside the busway to be closed by flooding as, astonishingly, it is expected to be for 66 days a year in the construction plans, so had planned a right turn at Swavesey to go to Over and back, but I managed to forge through and just about reached the spot on the busway that I’d once reached from St Ives. As a result the run was slightly further than originally planned in the spirit of exploration, and so my tally for the day was 30km, resulting in the longest distance I’ve yet run in a week.

The last 5km was quite tough, with facing a 20mph headwind combining with tiring legs, but I managed to maintain my pace at the expense of my heart-rate climbing from about 121 to 129. My knees grumbled a little bit, but I think I’m managing to avoid their niggles getting any worse. Not for the first time, my second toes on both feet suffered a little with their ends rubbing on my socks, despite having put lots of Bodyglide on them and deliberately pulling the socks down to give more room for my toes to move. I think I’m going to investigate some new socks before the big day.

The flooded track

The run wasn’t desperately hard but was not easy despite being a good deal slower than marathon target pace, and after last weekend’s success, leaves me a bit more anxious again about the ability to run 42.2km at the faster pace. It was my 3rd fastest 30km, faster than either of the two marathons, so there’s lot of positives to take away too.

Over Windmill, which dates from c. 1870, on the gentle climb away from the gravel pits, heading back towards Longstanton from Swavesey

And so to the second theme – Covid-19. It’s been a week where the news has been dominated by the spread of the disease. The number of cases in the UK has climbed proportionately very quickly (it’s up 50% in the last two days) but still very low numbers of detected cases, albeit with growing hints of community transmission suggesting that a wave of cases not associated with travel to China or Italy or other hotspots is coming soon. France has banned gatherings of more than 5000 people, and Switzerland has set the bar at 1000.

The UK government has so far set the balance point in a different place than some other countries between risk of disease spread and risk of significant social and economic impact from restrictions – and any such restrictions might have to last months. But with my marathon being still 7 weeks away, will large gatherings still be happening by then? Will a predominately outdoor event with a couple of thousand entrants (plus crowds) across the three distance be considered large enough to ban?

The truth is, no-one knows. Clearly the outbreak is going to get worse, but how much worse, and how quickly, is the great unknown. From a selfish perspective, I want family and friends to remain safe; there are potential restrictions I’d rather avoid on planned holidays, on running races, on the gym, on bellringing, on Lucy’s dog shows and concerts; work activities could be constrained. I hope in most ways that those people who are dismissive of the risk get proved right. The “realistic worst case scenario” of 70% of the population getting the disease and 1% dying (half a million people), is, by it’s nature of being “worst case”, unlikely to happen, but more likely is a prolonged moderate outbreak with some social restrictions to reduce the peak. Let’s hope it proves less bad than so many experts seem to fear.

In the meantime, purely from my running perspective, I keep my fingers crossed, and continue the training. Lucy and I have already talked about a private 42.2km run on 19 April if the event is cancelled or postponed, with Lucy as my water station and crowd support.