At 8:30am on the 4th October, waved off by her 3-year-old daughter, Lynne Cox stepped out of her front door and ran a marathon in the pouring rain on her own, finishing around 5 hours later. Why? Looking at how some athletes coped with the lockdown summer may give us an insight.
When the government imposed the national lockdown on 23 March 2020, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, athletes were initially allowed one period of exercise a day. That was fine for a while but soon people were needing challenges – both for motivation and satisfaction. My athletic club (Barnet & District AC) started a weekly series of virtual time trials. These varied from popular training routes, 1-mile timed efforts, or a self-measured 5km, and even one that stipulated that you had to achieve as much height gain as possible in 30 minutes running. These all satisfied a small core of club athletes.
Soon bigger initiatives were started. One of the best was the Virtual National Road Relay Championships. It was setup by James McCrae, with the hope that it would encourage some keen competition for runners. It ran from Saturday April 4 to Wednesday April 8. Athletes were to run a 5km leg in their local area, measured by their GPS watch. This was uploaded to the central results platform, which updated over the five days, allowing athletes and team managers to compare performances. The event strictly enforced a ‘run solo’ rule, as well as discouraging athletes from running in busy areas, to comply with the government restrictions in place.
My club publicised it internally and we had 14 men and 13 women entered by the closing date. Over 8,000 athletes entered altogether. The individual times recorded by our runners are not especially relevant here, more pertinent being how they reacted to it. Two random comments were that “it brought us together as a team”, and that it “gave me the impetus to continue with my training”.
Alex Lepretre (of Highgate Harriers) gave a longer reflection when I spoke to him soon after the event. (photo: Brian Graves)
One of the most obvious differences about a virtual 5k is that there’s not one standardised course, so the first question for me was where to run it. North London (especially the Highgate area) isn’t blessed with the flattest of terrain so options were limited. I opted for Regent’s Park. One loop of the Outer Circle is 2.75m so it would be just over one lap. It was a bit of an odd feeling walking up to the (virtual) start line as even though no one else who was about would have known I was there for a race, I still felt a bit of pressure knowing my time would be going up online for everyone to see and compare against. I think the nerves took their toll a bit as I went out a bit quick, clocking a 2:45 first km and 4:28 first mile, and from there it was just a matter of holding on. I quite enjoyed the format of the competition and with the race being held over a few days, team positions changed throughout the course of the event, and it certainly added to the excitement. I’m definitely looking forward to when races resume again and you can race side-by-side with your friends and then grab a beer with them afterwards, either in celebration or commiseration.
As an observer (online), I enjoyed the build-up, the banter, watching people recce routes (via Strava), and the times as they gradually popped up on the results page. This obviously met a lot of people’s needs at the time.
By August some races were being organised again, as the new restrictions allowed. One of the most successful ones was the NoblePro MK 5km PB Special, held on the byways of Milton Keynes. Karen Murphy, a leading Vet with Barnet and District AC, ran in both the events on 21 August and 27 September. She recently reflected on the experience. (photo: Brian Graves)
On the start line we were like a bunch of kids. There was a huge adrenaline rush, and I am thinking to myself ‘I really want to be here, racing’. I had been measuring myself against my Garmin, but there are always doubts about exact distances. So, I had a target time in mind, based on achieving a virtual sub-19 5km. I was happy with the results. Overall, there was a complete buzz about the event, which was brilliantly organised. I even got to see a friend coming in and was able to cheer them on.
Co-organiser of the events, Elliot Hind (Milton Keynes AC), worked countless hours within a team (Mick Bromilow, Paul Mizon and himself) to put on those events and give fellow club athletes the chance to race. There were 28 waves of 12 similar ability runners to push each other to fast times, which worked brilliantly and feedback was overwhelmingly positive, resulting in them running the second one a month later.
It was such a joy to see friends old and new for the first time in months and all doing what we love. As well as so many great friends, it was incredible to be able to attract fields of top-class athletes with the stars of the show Australian Olympians Ryan and Gen Gregson winning our A races during our second event. What an absolute pleasure!
In September Barnet and District AC started a monthly Safe and Simple Time Trial Series. It was cross country, but not as we know it. Forty-five club members competed in waves of half a dozen over a 7.6km course in Trent Park, with 16 running a shorter course option as well. Will Morris was in the fastest wave at the first event and commented:
I was very motivated as it was a great measure of improvement versus myself and others each month. Like a lot of people I was relatively unfit at the start of the winter due to lack of training in lockdown. Having said that, it wasn’t the same though. I love cross country for the team element as you are usually racing for something more than just yourself.
Race organiser Pete Ellis comments:
By using a reverse handicap, with staggered groups of runners of similar ability, we can ‘race’ whilst maintaining social distancing on a familiar course, meaning organisation and marking out of the course is kept to a minimum. Numbers are pre-allocated for the race series so after our first race we have been able to race at the push of a button.
This may well be an idea that other clubs could use.
On 4 October thousands ran the virtual London Marathon, including Barnet’s Lynne Cox, whom we met at the top of this article. Looking for competition, she was booked to do an obstacle course race called Nuclear Rush on Saturday 3 October, so thought that Virtual London the following day could be a focus for that weekend if Rush was cancelled for Covid reasons. However, as the weekend drew closer, it became clear to those close to her (even if she didn’t necessarily admit it herself) that she actually wanted to do both races, if she possibly could! Rush went ahead (8 miles of obstacles and a lot of mud, on what turned out to be the wettest day for UK-wide rainfall since records began in 1891) and she had tremendous fun doing it.
Lynne takes up the story.
On the morning of the marathon I woke up with legs that felt tired but not broken, so decided to at least give the marathon a try. I pinned the London Marathon number to my rucksack, donned my rain jacket and headed out early into more pouring rain. My feet were drenched within a mile, and when I was running through calf-deep flooding at 2.5 miles I seriously began to question my decision! Having the number pinned to my back meant that I got a lot of support, both from other runners also clearly out doing Virtual London and from other runners, walkers, cyclists and even people in cars. I’d planned my route to include a pit-stop at the home of my best friend, which I reached at 16.5 miles. After being plied with fluids and chocolate I reluctantly set out again to run the final section. The last few miles were really hard, and not having the support of the London crowd made them even harder! However, once I finished (in 5 hours and 9 minutes, including the 15-minute stop), I felt a massive sense of satisfaction for running a marathon, on my own, in horrendous conditions. Not necessarily an experience I’d hurry to repeat, but something I’m genuinely proud of myself for.
I know that Alex, Karen, Will and Lynne had managed in their own way to keep a good level of training up through the difficulties that lockdown presented, but that they all needed something extra – that intangible feeling of competition and also the satisfaction of pushing themselves through that competition. But I also know that we should all be grateful for the work and time that folk that James, Elliot and Pete put in to enable us to challenge ourselves in running events in these difficult times.
Pete wanted to publish this book before he passed away, but his cancer was far more advanced than he ever wanted to accept. It has been my wish to do it for him at some stage, but had I not had a chance meeting with Steve in November 2019, followed by the announcement of lockdown in March, I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened for quite some time. Denise Park
The meeting was because I was looking for a couple of photos for my fourth book (‘All or Nothing at All: the life of Billy Bland’). I travelled up to Clitheroe and looked through part of Pete’s huge archive of photos, finding a couple that fit the bill, which Denise was happy for me to include. Just talking casually afterwards Denise mentioned Pete’s book idea. Somehow we came away from our first ever meeting having agreed to collaborate on the book.
Steve agreed to select the images for the book, but before Steve received his ‘digital selection’, I searched though approximately 60,000 images which were on a variety of hard drives, cd’s, memory sticks, slides, negatives, computers and boxes of printed images! Whilst Pete had them all catalogued in his head – I’m sure you will appreciate the enormity of the task.
We soon agreed on some chapter headings and Denise started sending files over by Dropbox in the New Year. To cut a long story short, Covid-19 changed everyone’s situation and we both had a bit of time to work on it. I pitched the idea to a couple of publishers, but neither were interested, thinking it ‘not a seller’. So, we decided to self-publish, and tried a couple of printers for quotes. The second were excellent, and very helpful. They are based in The Lakes, and have the print job set to run in the EU, giving a slightly better lead time.
As I was making decisions about which photos to include I was also writing some contexualising text, and tweaking the captions (mostly from Pete’s file data). I was also working up a rough layout plan to see how many pages it would be for print quote purposes. Having finalised the content and draft layout with Denise, and having had someone proof-read the draft, it is now being laid out professionally by a graphic designer who is also in The Lakes.
We have set up a system for taking pre-orders, as there is a strong possibility of it not being delivered from the printers prior to Christmas. This will allow people to still be able to gift the book.
Once pre-ordered, digital gift vouchers will be made available so you can still give that ideal Christmas present.
The book is hardback, full colour and 200 pages. It is available to pre-order for £25 by emailing your details to: firstname.lastname@example.org