2020 – The Year No Plans Inadvertently Paid off!

If you read my last blog – thanks! If you didn’t – wise lifestyle choice you! In it I reviewed a long period of blogging inactivity and covered my running from August 2019 to March 2020. If you didn’t read it and you reeeeeeaaallllllly want to (which will be no-one) you can check it out first here:

Running in the Olden Days – August 2019 to March 2020

One thing I didn’t mention in the last blog was my running targets for 2020. I used to call them my resolutions but it always included things that I categorically failed to even try and do every single year, like:

  • eat more healthily,
  • work on core strength,
  • blog more often etc.

You get the futility of the idea. So my running plan/aim/target list – call it what you will – for 2020 was remarkably simple:

  • get some speed and fitness back,
  • short races only (for me, broadly 10 miles as the absolute max),
  • enjoy my running again.

Where did these ideas come from? Well, I was conscious of the sacrifices my family had made for me over the last few years, ever since 2015 when I first ran an ultra. Everything from that point was ultimately leading to the Lakeland 100. So the first thought was to reduce impact on our busy family life – to fit running around the family, rather than the other way round. Next, in those five years, there were an increasing amount of times when I was going out for training runs that I blatantly didn’t want to go on. Basically, I wanted to get back to running because I wanted to, not because I had to. Also, my actual fitness had fallen through the floor in 2019, so I really felt I needed to up the intensity of my effort and reduce the amount of ‘trotting around a bit’ that I had got very comfortable doing!

The upshot of that mindset was that, when I tweaked my calf (again) in February, I didn’t need to rush back and, as the pandemic situation quickly escalated in March, I may have been concerned about the actual virus but I wasn’t concerned about which of my races were going to be cancelled – I hadn’t entered any!

Covid Disclaimer

At this point it is probably worth pointing out that this is a running blog and, as such, I am going to do my utmost to completely avoid COVID talk. I am not dismissing it, ignoring it, glorifying it or celebrating the lifestyle change it affected in me. I am well aware of the desperate misery it has caused many people and count my blessings every day that I have not been one of those people. You have my heart-felt sympathy and this blog in no way attempts to minimise what you, dear reader, may have been through. But I’m not really going to touch on that at all – I’m just going to talk about running and assume that, if you would like to read about the doom, gloom, disaster, Governmental policy etc of COVID-times you will go to a different website for it.

Lucky Runners

In all walks of life and in all different social groups, there are good people and there are village idiots. Sure, in some circles, the percentage make-up in either direction will vary. Obviously, I like to think of runners as being predominantly good folk. Opinions on everything are so polarised these days; in fact, we are forced by social media, even certain news channels, to take a hardened stance on a view, plant our flag, and berate at great volume anyone who disagrees. It’s such an easy trap to fall into, and runners have been no different in these unprecedented (aahh, I said it!) times.

Runners were so quick to complain about tracks being shut down, social group runs being prohibited, training sessions lost. Some quite vocally disagreed with the Government policy. I understand the sentiment as much as anyone else but there seemed to be an awful lot of runners forgetting one thing: we were practically the only pastime/hobby who were allowed to continue at all!

If your hobby was going to the pub, going to the gym, going to the match; the cinema, a restaurant, a coffee shop – all these were gone, just like that. In fact, just about the only thing we were allowed to do (anyone, that is) was go out and exercise. All kinds of misunderstandings immediately rose to prominence: Was it just exercise once? Could you run, then take the kids for a walk later? Was it just one hour? Could I drive there? All this was inconvenient, annoying even, but the basic premise was still the same: if you were a runner, you could still run.

Heatwave!

I’m sure anyone who was in the country on the first day of the lockdown, Monday 23rd March, will recall that we were suddenly hit with a wave of absolutely wonderful weather. Stunning Spring day followed stunning Spring day. As I mentioned when I finished the last blog, I was nursing my way back from another calf niggle, so I alternated gentle run day with cross trainer initially. Everyone in education discovered pretty quickly that ‘schools are closed’ didn’t actually mean schools were closed, but the pace of work and the organisation of the day was suddenly very different. Buildings could not be entered until 8.30am and had to be vacated by 3.15pm to allow cleaners to safely enter and do their jobs. On top of that, Leanne and I decided to do our bit by keeping our children at home so, for the first time ever, the ‘pre-work run’ thing actually happened! Those first couple of weeks I enjoyed a string of quite beautiful sunrise runs, some of the pictures from which you can see above.

I am not trying to be holier-than-thou but I just felt it was important, as a fit and healthy runner, to try and get out running at a time of day when other, more vulnerable people, might not be out yet. I deliberately chose quiet routes and I deliberately made the effort to be out and back by 7.30am if possible.

There was a lot of ‘pedestrians whinge at runners,’ ‘runners whinge at pedestrians,’ ‘everyone whinges at cyclists!’ type of stuff going on at the time. I can totally appreciate how hard it must have been, and must continue to be, to find a quiet space to exercise if you live in a big city. (Pierce Morgan is still banging on about it, apparently.) But, for me, I found it was hard as a runner to whinge about anything – we could still go out and do it. My attitude from the start was, and continues to be, whether you are a COVID worrier or denier, it is absolutely crucial that you simply respect someone else’s opinion whether it is yours or not. There are people out there who are extremely worried and I, for one, was not going to go huffing and puffing right past them on busy pavements when I had a clear option to take my running somewhere quieter.

April & May – building a base/no need to rush!

The other important factor in April was – and this will seem like a distant memory to anyone who has recently been running in ankle deep mud – the footpaths and trails were unusually dry. By mid-April they were pretty hard-baked which was useful, as this opened up an even wider variety of quiet, pedestrian-free spaces, to run in. The paths were hard-baked because the temperatures were unreal for that time of year; going out for a run at 6.45am was pretty much essential anyway as it was hot to run if you left it much later!

The rough plan was to go out and do four or five miles most days. Nothing more really and initially, while I gained confidence in my calf, nothing fast either. Just get out, enjoy the warm, fresh air and try and look around at ‘normal’ things like nature and the seasons while the rest of our ‘normal’ life appeared to crumble before us. Rest days tended to be unplanned and more along the lines of ‘Oh damn, it is now after 10am, the temperature is ridiculous and there will be lots of other people out and about by now.’ I’d only managed 230 miles throughout January to the end of March but just the short-and-often philosophy of my April comeback garnered 123 miles and, when I added in a few 10+ mile trail runs and started to feel confident enough to run a few solo interval sessions, I wracked up 181 miles in May which, at the time, constituted a pretty big month for me, (my 4th highest ever, actually) at that point.

Local Trails for Local People/Unexpected Perks.

Everything around us was changing as we adapted to the ‘new normal.’ (Oh, bugger, I used that one as well!) It is incredible how quickly our mindset changes but, back in the Spring of 2020, no-one could quite believe that we weren’t supposed to really leave our houses and absolutely mustn’t travel anywhere. There were some unexpected perks though.

For me, I thought I had explored my local footpaths extensively but, what I found was, I had only used the footpaths near my house as a means to get to other places. Family walks became a daily thing and – guess what? – there were absolutely loads more paths right next to our houses than anyone ever realised! The nearest open space to us is ‘the horse field’ behind the local primary school. I had run through it many times on my way elsewhere – across to Elnup Woods or further afield. But I had never explored the paths in it and around it until our family walks in lockdown. And some of them were absolutely stunning. Without ever consciously planning it, my 5/6 mile trail runs were now all taking place within a mile of my house! It was still pretty hot to be out in the midday sun, but we were absolutely loving the time as a family, enjoying our evening strolls around the fields, something we never had time for before.

June & July – Civilisation: the Slight Return.

The Summer months remained predominantly baking. Aside from a bit of light drizzle on April 1st, I did not get rained on once in the entirety of lockdown 1 until June 27th! It was actually quite a pleasant relief to get absolutely soaked that morning! By now I was 100% confident in my calf and the extra time spent at home, as the pace of life slowed to a practical standstill, had revolutionised my weekly running schedule to heights of never-seen-before consistency. Pre-lockdown, I was always happy if I made it out for a run three or four times a week, now I was going out five or six times without too much effort, logging 187 miles in June and 212 in July – only the third time I had ever gone over 200 miles in a month.

Lockdown measures were slowly being reduced. The ‘Rule of Six’ for exercise outdoors came in sometime around here and sports clubs were allowed to start training in small, COVID secure groups. I actually met and ran with other real life humans for the first time in six months: I’m mentioning young Emma Bradley here and now so that when she is a famous athlete in a few years I can claim to be a personal friend, and it was great to pay a first visit of 2020 to Haigh Hall and be shown a couple of new paths by work mate and fellow Harrier Sarah McDonald.

The Sundae Runners are born!

Sunday 14th June marked another running milestone, although I/we didn’t realise it at the time! Another fellow Wigan Harrier, the Harrier responsible for making me a Harrier infact, Mike Harris, invited me up to his neck of the woods to show me round some of his local trails that he had never previously used but had been exploring through lockdown. Running up to Standish to meet him, and back afterwards, turned it into just short of an 18 mile morning, my longest run in a long time, and I was pretty whacked by the time I got home. But practically the entire route was on new paths and I was introduced to the beautiful Yarrow Valley which, to be honest, I always assumed was too far away to actually run to. It just goes to show that it is amazing where you can get to by your own power if you put your mind to it!

So why was this particular run a milestone? Well, a few of the other lads from Harriers noted the run on Strava and made noises about joining in sometime. (I use the term ‘lads’ loosely; we are all firmly in the Vet40 category and some in categories higher than that.) The next Sunday I didn’t join in, but Mike guided a few of the others around a similar route. Paul Platt, whose hangover was probably kicking in at this point, was particularly disappointed that Fredericks Ice Cream parlour wasn’t open for business as they passed, having been ‘promised’ refreshment on route. (This ‘promise’ has remained the subject of some conjecture ever since!) And so it was that The Sundae Runners were born. When restrictions permit, anything between three to six of us have met most weeks since. (A further halt was put to our impromptu club with the 2021 lockdown – but we will be back!)

The Sundae Runners – Old men having adventures: (in no particular order and not everyone on all the pictures) Mike, John, the other Mark, Stuart, Platty, Pete and Paul F.

Virtual Races – are you kidding?!

Seriously, if you had told any runner exactly 12 months ago that they would pay for a race and then run it by themselves from their front door, you would have been laughed out of town! But here we are; and virtual races are booming!

There is some spectacular charity work going on out there as Race Directors and companies put their unwanted spare time to good use. And there is an army of runners out there both wanting to support and help that charitable work, plus desperate for race motivation to get them out of the door. I have to mention Wayne Drinkwater at GB Ultras at this point; they have done a massive amount for local foodbanks and the homeless in the Manchester area.

I have to be honest at this point and tell you that I am absolutely not one of those virtual racers! As I said at the top, I wanted to run free from pressure last year and did just that. But I am in no way snobby or dismissive of virtual races. I think I am in a minority here – most runners are desperate to be given a motivational tool to get out and have found great support and friendship in a lonely time through the many Facebook and social media groups and chat boards. So well done to anyone who has pushed themselves to achieve a virtual race target or goal this year.

The cake photo in the gallery above was taken when Mike completed his virtual Lakeland 100. I’ve had many a chat with runners these last few months asking if I don’t do the virtual events because they are ‘easier’ than the real thing. Well, I’m not sure they are! The thought of being told that I HAVE TO run 15 miles every day for 7 days from my doorstep fills me with dread. I would think that is a really tough mental challenge and I’m not sure I could/would complete it. We have all got a bit bored of the routes from our own doorsteps this year; my number one reason for ultra running is the fact that it takes you to places you may not normally visit. It might be physically harder to do 105 miles in one go than spread over a week but, on the other hand, you tolerate pain in long ultras knowing it will be over in the not too distant future, not because you think you will have to do it all over again for the next few days!

Back to Wigan Harriers.

Technically I never left, but it had been at least three years or so since I had been able to attend training sessions on Tuesdays or Thursdays due to parent taxi duties. I’d nearly not renewed membership a couple of times; just cross-country season arriving at the right time got me to pay up! Obviously, when sessions began again after lockdown, it was very different to before. Gone was the big, massed group of 50/60+ runners pounding around the DW stadium, this time it was groups of 6 maximum. This put a tremendous strain on quite a number of people who deserve praise and thanks before I mention anything about my running.

Many regular runners who joined the running club for the structure or camaraderie but nothing more were suddenly being asked to step up to be group run leaders. You need a lot of volunteers to facilitate lots of small groups, never mind the poor sod who has to take pre-bookings and organise the groups! (This had never happened before. Previously anyone could turn up – or not – on any given Tuesday/Thursday.) This was a massive commitment for so many who volunteered to help out – so thanks from me to everyone who did volunteer before I go on!

Initially, June or July time when it was groups of 6 maximum, I still didn’t attend. I have always been quite happy running by myself and knew there would be many Harriers members out there for whom that would not be the case. I didn’t want to deny those people a space at sessions, so I left it. But in mid-August the permitted training number rose to 12, so then I started attending.

There are people who love running clubs and people who don’t but one fact is not in question: if you join a running club it WILL make you a better runner. The volunteers at the club had worked hard to make the groups ability-matched; not to be judgemental of anyone but, firstly, to make the job of the run leader easier by keeping the group closely matched in terms of pace and, secondly, to not intimidate anyone by having them fall off the back of a training group who were much faster than them.

I have to say that the effect on my running was pretty immediate. I know it isn’t quite the same when our Harriers family are split up and sent to train in different corners of Wigan, but I loved the intensity of the smaller training group full of people who are mostly faster than me forcing me to work hard to keep up. I think I said it in my last blog, I much prefer to do things like run with people who are better than me as it improves my own performance. There was the added incentive, if it were needed, that when I last attended Harriers consistently in late 2016/early 2017, I was faster than just about all the runners who I was now desperately chasing in the sessions!

I think I attended most of the sessions most of the weeks from August up until mid/late November, when Greater Manchester was put into stricter lockdown measures and club sessions had to stop again. As yet, they haven’t resumed but I think there is light at the end of the tunnel and there is at least a chance that Harriers sessions might resume by mid-March or Easter. I might leave the groups of 6 like I did last time for the same reasons but, as soon as it is groups of 12 again, I will be straight back – as long as Nancy’s gym schedule permits!

Finally, a big thanks to all the runners I trained with in those sessions. I have to say, I laughed through the warm-ups and cool-downs just as hard as we ran in the sessions! They really were a pleasure to attend. Hopefully I’ll see you all in a few weeks!

And so it goes to the end of the year…

I managed to keep up the consistency all the way to the end of the year with a couple of blips. I tweaked my knee a bit at the start of August so took about 10 days off to be safe and then did the same thing in October. I think both times I had overdone the hard running slightly and it was my body’s way of telling me to calm down. Schools opened as ‘normal’ in September so the mileage dropped slightly in September and October but, even then, I was attending Harriers twice a week and did 160+ miles in those two months, followed by 190 in November, so I was still running more miles and more consistently than ever before. December was the usual running graveyard although we broke up earlier, on the 18th, which gave me more time to ‘catch-up’ the miles. I only did 121 miles in December but nearly all of them were in the last 12 days!

I have got into quite a nice little habit now in all school holidays of putting a little running streak together. As I have said before, I am not a fan of long ‘streaks’ myself as I feel they do more harm than good, but if I start on the Friday night we break up, a week holiday has 10 days in it, which is just about right for me to get me back on track if the wheels have come off a bit at the end of a term.

Before I finish, in a year where nothing significant happened at all (in terms of running races I mean!) there are five more significant runs that I want to briefly record for posterity:

1 – The Return of RoboRob!

I don’t know what it’s been like where you live but, in Greater Manchester, we have spent pretty much the entire year on a higher level of lockdown than most of the country. Infact, without looking up the exact timescales, I think there was only about a three week window when friends or family were allowed to visit our house at all. Within that period, we had a flying visit from the Lister family who just happened to be collecting a new pet from a breeder in Wigan. This gave Rob and I the opportunity to get out for a short trot. And it had to be short, because Rob was only nine months on from a hip replacement operation. He said three miles were the limit but we managed four; it was the kind of pace that Rob would previously have only used to limp to the bathroom the day after an ultra! But we got out, and it is great to see him continuing to build his strength and fitness back up.

2 – home to Rivington Pike with Leanne (15 miles):

On a rare child-free morning, Leanne and I did what any couple would do when freed of parental responsibility – we got up early, dropped a car off at Rivington, drove back home, then ran back to collect the car! Thanks to Mike and his summer route making, I could take Leanne on the scenic long way round through Standish and Yarrow Valley before we emerged at Anglezark and then climbed up past the Pigeon Tower and onto the Pike itself. The weather was beautiful, the plan worked to perfection; we had a great morning.

3 – November triple-header part 1: Winter Hill & Rivington Pike from home and back (26 miles):

This is a run I have been lining up for years but have never got round to, mainly because I’d never got round to looking at the route. But thanks to lockdown all that was now taken care of. I didn’t want to do a boring out and back, so I used the ‘scenic’ Yarrow Valley route out to Anglezark before taking a left and heading up the between Great Hill and Winter Hill. I then picked up the ridge path and crossed the Sheephouse Road summit before taking a very exciting, steep path up onto Winter Hill – this made it feel much more like a proper hill than the rolling moor top it feels like from the other side. I then dropped down to Rivington Pike and returned home by picking up the canal in Adlington and taking some different paths from Red Rock back home. The mileage didn’t finish me off, but the five and a half hours nearly did! Obviously, this was my longest time on my feet in over a year.

4 – November triple-header part 2: Billinge Hill, Carr Mill Dam, Hough Wood, Dean Wood from home (24 miles):

A week later, another five hours on my feet! This time I decided to explore in a Southerly direction, something I had never done before. I took a usual route up Ashurst Beacon but then carried on, rather than heading back Northwards as I normally would. Every mile after, from mile 4 to mile 21 were on new paths to me which was fantastic. The mud was just starting to build back up again, but mostly there was a lot of stopping to look at new views or, even more often, stopping to check the map! There were several lovely surprises on the route; the area around Carr Mill Dam was much nicer than I expected and Dean Wood – like my local field, somewhere I have passed through on my way elsewhere – was absolutely stunning when I ran through all of it. A route I will definitely use again.

5 – November triple-header part 3: Great Hill, Sunnyhurst Wood, Darwin Tower, Darwin Moor, Winter Hill, Two Lads (23 miles):

The final instalment of the five hour outings came on a day of two halves; a lovely, bright autumnal morning running from Anglezark, up Great Hill, down through the Tockholes Plantations into Sunnyhurst Wood, then up to Darwin Tower – my main target for the day – before the weather changed in a second. The second half was a bleak, windswept, rain-driven, mud-slog across Darwin Moor to Belmont, before climbing into the clouds to Winter Hill and then tagging on Two Lads summit – mostly because I couldn’t face the bog path between Winter Hill and Rivington Pike! This run was classic evidence of why you should always pack prepared for all eventualities in Winter; I set off wearing a base layer t-shirt and thin long sleeve and ended the run wearing every piece of emergency clothing I had packed into my bag – clothes that it didn’t really look like I would need when I set off. Oh, and I managed to snap both my shoe laces on this run too?! That had never happened to me once before and would have been a mood-sapping disaster in a proper ultra race! All-in-all though, a great three weeks on a lot of brand new paths and nearly all from my doorstep. (I did drive to Anglezark for this last run.)

Onwards and (please?!) upwards into 2021!!!

So there you have 2020. Certainly a year none of us will ever forget. My running year ended on 1711 miles; 45 miles short of my record mileage but, in fact, was easily my most consistent year of running given that I did most of those miles in the final nine months! I genuinely think 2020 has changed my attitude to running for ever; it was truly a life-saver this year and I think I will always take this little-and-more-often attitude into future running. I don’t think I truly realised how little I ran before until I had time to actually stop and think about it this year. I have a very specific target and plan for 2021 – it includes a spreadsheet, for goodness sake! I will share that in the next blog in a week or two – really!

We have missed travelling to see our wider family and friends, but we have been so fortunate to have a house-full of five to keep us busy and entertained. Looking on the bright side (as I always try to do) I will forever cherish the extra family time that 2020 gave us. I have seen more of the children this year than I have in the rest of their lives combined. I am gutted they haven’t got to see grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins as we would like and also upset at the holidays they missed out on but, hopefully, we have learned to cherish the little things around us a little bit more. Our house is actually a home now, possibly for the first time ever, the garden isn’t a disaster and we know lots of little walks around us.

Hopefully we can combine all these things above and make 2021 a cracker. We know it is going to start worse but, surely, it will end better! Get out there and enjoy it -safely and responsibly – do it while you can!

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