Running your virtual London Marathon?

It’s three weeks to go before the big day.

If this was a normal London Marathon you’d be double checking you have enough gels, ensuring your trainers are nicely broken in but not too worn, and trying to work out what idiot to send to the expo to get your bib (they’re pretty awful in person).

But it’s not a normal London Marathon is it?

Unless your training has gone so well you’ve moved into the elites category allowing you to run around Regents Park on the 4th October you will instead be doing your London Marathon back home, past bemused shoppers and dog walkers on a Sunday morning in October.
This may seem daunting so here’s some random advice to help you plan and undertake your very own London.

Route if you’re super fast –
If you’re good enough to be thinking you may get a Good For Age or Championship time then make sure you pick a fast route. In pre-pandemic times these could only be achieved in events on measured courses fulfilling criteria for a maximum level of net downhill and maximum distance between the start and finish to avoid constant tailwinds. This was to stop you running 26.2 miles straight down Ben Nevis in a hurricane. If you’re running the virtual London Marathon in 2020 there is no restriction other than running the event within the 24 hour period so find something with a following wind, downhill, in an arrow straight 26.2 miles and you’re laughing.

Route for normal people –
If your aspirations are more not to die, then your criteria will be slightly different.

Aid stations – there aren’t any so plan to run past your house or car at intervals to replenish supplies. Shops would also work but likely to take longer and you need to remember a mask.

It’s likely you’ll be able to refuel less often than the every mile approach of London so you may want to think about a handheld bottle, hydration bladder or a race vest to carry some of it with.

Some runners may choose to complete multiple loops as short as a mile with bottles of drink left on a park wall, carefully labelled that they aren’t dumped and to please leave alone. If you can handle the risk of taking a refreshing mouthful of drunk’s piss then this is a viable option. You may be better to have a loved one/mate that owes you a favour on a park bench with a cool bag. As it’s your race you can fuel entirely on Port & Stilton if it takes your fancy.

Medical assistance – there won’t be St Johns Ambulance every 2 miles so don’t be an idiot. If you’re diabetic or need any medication then take it with you. Plan a route that isn’t too rural or remote should you need assistance.

Company – I ran a ‘fake London’ and a ‘fake Milton Keynes’ marathon in April and May during the height of lockdown where running with someone not a blood relative was punishable by death on social media. This is now more relaxed and you can run in groups of 6 so make the most of it. You may not find 5 mates with the same pace goal but even a spread of paces will allow you to stagger starts to at least keep an eye on each other as you pass (at the government measured 2m) or have a mate meet you at mile 20 to get your focused and encourage/belittle you as required to finish.

If you are running with mates then it might be a good idea to let them know of any medical issues so they can administer your Epipen as you go into anaphylaxis shock after a bee sting without you having to mime it due to a closed throat.

Safety –
Yes it’s dull but nobody likes being murdered or found dead. As with route and company, try to plan with your own safety in mind. Even experienced marathoners can occasionally have issues. It’s worth considering an ID bracelet or similar with details of emergency contacts and medical issues so if hit by a car and dragged to a hospital you’re not pumped full of drugs you have a deadly reaction too.

You can use various apps to allow loved ones and mates to track you as well. The official virtual London Marathon requires an app so you’ll have your phone with you anyway.

Pace –
There won’t be pacers like the real event so you will need to run your own race. Even the cheapest running watch will display pace to aid your efforts or use an app on your phone. Many even call out mile splits in a really annoying robot voice which is awful but effective.

Be realistic with your goals and accept that this is not a real event and for most of us, not worth risking injury for. If your training has gone well you’ll likely make 18/20 miles on target and then feel the effort levels required start to build. In a race you’d feed off the crowd support, dig in and push to get the time you deserve. This may be harder to achieve in a virtual event so you could instead back off a little and enjoy the final few miles without your lungs and lunch making a break for freedom from your throat.

Time of day –
Every spring there are countless runners shocked that over the course of the marathon the midday temps are higher than morning temps and complain bitterly on social media. For once the start time is entirely within your grasp in the 24 hour window. Want to run when it’s cold? Go out at 4am. Or given sunrise on 4th October will be at 7:09am maybe go then instead.

App –
Yes many of us run to escape technology and the black mirror of the iPhone that slowly steals your soul, but for virtual London you need the app to log and submit your miles for the medal and tee. It’s not released at time of writing but check HERE for updates. Given you need your phone you’ll also need to consider where to hold it so plan ahead.

The Finish –
Finishing on the mall is amazing. Finishing in dog-poop park just behind the public loos is less so. Accept it will be less special and personalise it instead. Run into the arms of your waiting spouse with a cold champagne on ice. Or a can of Special Brew and a bag of chips. You do you.

Putting it all into practice for the Re-imagined Milton Keynes Marathon

Unlike London, MK had a two week window to undertake their events, and with an app to guide you on a new route around the town. For the marathon this was two identical laps.

Due to rubbish diary and rescheduled events, I raced the first two weekends and had a further marathon on the Sunday of the third, so if I wanted a weekend MK marathon it would need to be a double marathon weekend which I’m not really fit enough for currently.

Start ‘line’

Instead it was a nice 4am start for a mid-week, pre-work marathon. Yay.

It was dark. I ran with a race vest with two 500ml bottles of water, some Cliff shot blocks, and a few Caffeine Bullets. Given I was starting early I simply couldn’t be bothered to get up in time for a breakfast so grabbed a slice of toast on way to car.

For the aid station I parked my car at the end of the lap so I would get to it at about 13.5 miles. Inside was spare water bottles ready to go, some extra snacks if I needed them and a can of cold coke.

Starting – The app gives clear voice prompts either through headphones or phone speaker. As with London, your official time is the app time, so I elected to start my watch first, then the app as I set off. Using the watch as my main pacing aid means it was slightly ahead of the official time so as long as I crossed the line under my target time by Garmin I would be a few more seconds under by the app.

Running – Given this was a fixed route I relied on a combination of the app directions and markings for the course. If running your own route for London and it’s not one you’re familiar with, consider how you’ll follow it.

Halway. Still dark.

I had hopes of something around 3h45 but given my still slightly stiff knee I completed the first lap in closer to 1h50/1h55 then stopped at the car to switch bottles and drink the coke. Even the swiftest changeover will add a few minutes to your plan, as will a fizzy coke and I adjusted my plan.

Once I settled on 4hrs I checked my watch at regular intervals, ensuring most miles were under 9 min and doing rough calcs at 16.22 miles etc (10 miles left, if I do exactly 9 min pace that’s 90 minutes remaining etc). Passed 20 miles at bang on 3hrs so then felt confident enough not to check so regularly and just run it in for 3h56ish.

Stopping – The MK route is marked so there is a clear finish line, and the app also counts down to the finish. It’s not known if the London app will automatically stop at 26.22 miles but the MK one didn’t, so you needed to pull your phone out as you approach the finish, unlock the phone (not easy with sweaty hands) and have the app ready to stop. It’s not a huge issue but if trying to shave a final few seconds off your time may need some consideration or potentially store your phone in a ziplock back to keep sweat free.

Of course if London stops automatically at the marathon distance you can instead concentrate on running like a man/woman possessed until it tells you to stop.


Ultra-Tantrum – Shires & Spires

As I emerge from the shop with two Callippo I pop open the can of cider and down the ice cold goodness in a couple of quick swigs whilst walking to the aid station, much to the amusement of the marshals. I’ve covered around 29 miles and on the home stretch. Despite being September the sun has made an appearance for most of the day and I’ve been craving something other than luke warm water. Double checking my watch and it looks like I might have a chance of a sub 6 for the event. Certainly not a great time for a 35 mile course but given I’ve been nursing a dodgy knee since Wednesday and completion was doubtful I’m pleased with the overall progress. What matters more than the pace and the time is running an actual event, and where I belong, at an ultra, in the countryside, and mildly drunk. This is ultra-running and I’ve missed it.

One of your five a day.

Being an ultra I have (as legally required it seems) bumped into my running mate Jonathan. It’s been over 2 years since he carried me for the last half of the Thames Path and persuaded his good wife to drive me home at the end (my designated driver having retired due to early signs of renal failure because ultras are so much fun you risk organ damage) and we bump into each other regularly at events. I’ve not raced over a marathon distance since Lakeland 100 over a year previously. For 2020 my longest races have been half marathons so to be back at an ultra and hear him shout my name is a welcome breath of normality in what has been an unusual year.

The Plan

2020 was going to be a stellar year. With a running coach and sports massage package, along with fancy 3D gait analysis I was going to smash London Marathon in April. Surfing the wave of training gains I was finally going to run the Shires and Spires 35 mile ultra which has been on my to-do list for some years but never quite lined up with commitments. After a short recovery I’d ramp up the training again and go back to the Lake District to teach the Lakeland 100 a lesson to make up for the previous pitiful stumbling performance. The year would finish off with a bucket list marathon at New York with the wife and kids before we looked forward to Christmas and the festive parkruns. An excellent year of running was forecast. Nothing short of a global pandemic could stand in my way.

The Actual

Covid 19 happened and the world in general fell apart. London marathon was postponed (and finally cancelled when they admitted the impossibility of having 40k people in one race), Shires & Spires, Lakeland 100 and NYC also deferred or cancelled and running any event seemed a dream.

Return to Racing

With the relatively small numbers at trail events they began to make a tentative return in August. Centurion Running held a socially distant, Covid secure 100 miler at the North Downs way and everything was reported to go well.

Go Beyond managed to secure a new date for the Shires & Spires on 6th September and all signs looked good. I was finally going to race!

As luck would have it many of my mates had entered the re-arranged Spires event and we’d put ourselves forward for the team award as a mixed group of five. I was initially hesitant about being the weak link but after some up and downs months of training and minor niggles I put together two or three decent weeks of running including a respectable performance at the Ultra 5k (5k every hour for 5 hours).

The week before the race I manage my best Tuesday tempo session of the year and started one of my faster runs at the Wednesday 9 mile loop. Confidence grows. I feel good. Maybe I’ll have the experience and the fitness for this ultra. Towards the end of the run Maff comments on how well I’m doing and finally injury free. He curses me. Half a mile from the end of the run my knee feels a bit off and reminiscent of the issue I had post LL100 where I could barely walk for 2 weeks. Bugger. Thanks Maff.

Three days of no running and it seems a little better. Liberal application of deep heat and a knee brace mirrors my Chicago Marathon race preparation that saw me get around. Maybe this will be OK? Nothing else for it but to strap on our race vests and assemble in the car park in a quaint Northampton village ready for the start. Or at least three of us are ready. Jen and Ellie are still in the toilet queue and they emerge to see the runners set off. Quickly dumping jackets in the car they join Matt, Maff and I and we set off after the main pack with clubmate Stephen in tow. My knee is not sore but definitely a little stiff and I wonder if this hectic pace to catch the main pack is entirely the best idea.

Much of the first 8 miles is on quiet country roads. Excitement for the first race of the year is evident and everyone seems to be running far too quickly for an ultra. 35 miles is certainly not a long ultra but as our group records another successive sub 8min/mile I’m confident we’re going to regret them. As we pass other clubmates Neil and Jon we’re moving through the pack far too quickly.

Stephen wisely drops back and somewhere around mile 7 I decide the effort level in the gradual rising temps is too high at the pace and not helping my knee so let them drift ahead. I joke with some runners from nearby Buckingham that given it’s Maff’s first ultra I might well see them again further along the course. They’re visible on the horizon until around mile 10 before a sharp turn into some fields and they’re gone for good. Thoughts of catching them up are now laughable. Whatever Maff may lack in experience he evidently makes up for in fitness, and with guidance from the other three to make up for his inexperience this event is just too short to level the field. I resolve to keep a steady pace and hopefully not pull down the team position too far with a hobbling performance.

I’m not normally one for pain relief in a race, I’d rather know if something hurts but in this instance I already know it’s my knee so take a paracetamol to dull the throbbing and pass a half marathon in a respectable 2 hours wishing I’d packed some headphones to enjoy some music as I’m basically on my own.

Races are better if you chunk them down. Nobody runs 100 miles. You run 10 miles to the next aid station, 5 miles until you’re a third done, or 7 more miles until you only have a marathon left. For me I’m aiming for halfway. Using the GPX track on my watch I’m expecting 34.6 miles so 17.3 miles is the next target I focus on as an irregular stream of runners come past. There’s at least four mates behind me I can try and latch onto as they pass so can plod on and enjoy being outside running. In a real life actual race – none of that virtual nonsense here.

The course is probably one of the most picturesque I’ve done. Beautiful rolling farmland interspersed with villages so neat and pretty they could almost be movie sets. If you were looking to show an American ultra-runner a quintessential Britain this would be the route to pick, winding though nonchalant sheep and curious heifers before cutting past a stone cottage with leaded windows and a thatched roof.

Somewhere around halfway I stop at an aid station and douse myself liberally in hand sanitiser as it comes out with such ferocity I accidentally sanitise most of Northamptonshire. As I turn to leave Jon and his mate Ray arrives having inevitably closed the early gap and we run together much of the rest of the race, gradually surging and dropping back as we ride the waves of ups and downs that make ultra-running what it is. Marathons are a science, ultras are an extended car crash.

Munching down a banana and paracetamol I wonder how the other teammates are getting on. I have a history of under fuelling on ultras so make an effort to eat and drink regularly and often. It’s not food, it’s fuel. The negative effects of forgetting to eat are felt long after the mistake and can be difficult to resolve. With Covid concerns the aid stations are a little more sparse than what you’d be used to with just bagged sweets and bananas so limited on options. Fortunately my teammates had a veritable picnic in their race vests so should be no such issue. Mostly for me I’m craving a cold drink.

At the aid station at Long Buckby I manage to miss the village shop and we run on with the tepid water refills again. 24 miles down and on course for around a 4.5hr marathon which seems about right for current fitness and only one working knee which is making the 359th stile of the event a little tricky to clamber over. Mostly we talk the usual running nonsense and press on, pausing for the occasional navigational check. One field has no clear path across and we stomp over freshly ploughed dusty soil looking for an exit. A few fields later they’ve cut the silage down and let it sit in heaps including over the path and we wade through calf deep grass. When your knee is not great what you really need is a bit more dead weight to drag forward with each step.

As checkpoint 5 comes into view I’m just catching back up to Jon again when I spot the corner shop and dive in (remember a mask for shops kids!). There’s only one customer so I grab the lollies and cider whilst he concludes a long chat with the staff on whether they kept any copies of yesterday’s Daily Mail. The delivery of all of Murdoch’s Saturday papers was interrupted by an Extinction Rebellion protest at the printers and he’s clearly missing his regular dose of Brexit propaganda. Finally he leaves disappointed, forced to make up his own narrative of how the EU are trying to make our great PM look like a floppy haired fool and I can pay and get out the shop. Final aid station done and six miles left. The cold cider has done it’s job and I pick up the pace feeling refreshed and mildly drunk. Nothing can stop me now and I resolve to catch Jon and bring in that sub 6 hour. I had no real game plan when entering the race but it’s been good to have something to focus on.

The plan works and I’m closing down on the group ahead including Jon. I reach the back of the pack just at a farm with barely four miles left, using my specially honed skills of eating Callipo mid-run without spilling any as I’m a god damn ultra-runner and riding the rollercoaster of energy and emotions well.

Up ahead is a group of runners with one laying on the floor. Someone’s overcooked it. As we get closer I’m torn between disappointment and relief to see it’s my team. I bid Jon farewell and amble over. Maff is laying down admiring the sky whilst the rest are assembled around him. From the body language it’s clear there is no urgent medical issue. Their stance is more one of increasing annoyance and frustration than a panicked need to learn CPR via a Youtube video or call in mountain rescue.

Evidently Maff has decided to get the full ultra-experience on his first outing and has subjected all to a full on ultra-tantrum due to lack of fuelling and an ambitious pace. If only a wise and experienced ultra-runner had told them sub 8s was too fast. If only anybody listened to me. Schadenfreude is a wonderful thing. I know the trough of ultra-despair well and he’s deep in it. In his best impersonation of a made for TV war movie he implores us to “go on without me, I’m done for, save yourselves, I don’t want to be a burden”. Evidently I missed the previous game of ‘poke food in his mouth and hope he doesn’t spit it out at you’ which has tested their patience.

I’m a little annoyed at the rest of the team. Not for failing to look after him, but If only they’d have rolled him into a ditch and kept going I could have run past his contorting body in complete ignorance and got that sub 6. Now I’m going to have to help and give up my spare Callippo.

Fate obviously wants him to finish though. His phone has locked out so he can’t even ring anyone for a lift. He has to finish. Jen and Matt pick him up as I clearly wasn’t going to. They broke him after all.

We set off on a slow walk. Every runner that passes asks us if we need assistance. Some offer salt tablets or water but none have a can of ‘get over yourself you big idiot’ that we really need. Gradually Jen coaxes him into a run and I recall several years previously when she endured my own ultra-tantrum for a full 25 miles of the Autumn 100 and goaded me forward with regular suggestions to “try for a little jog”. Ultra-running is great isn’t it? Like normal running but more painful.

With two miles to go we find a pub and dive in to administer a half of Guinness which completes the restoration and he sets off at a pace that I’m not sure I can match. If he beats me after this I’m going to have my own tantrum. We’re joined by Jon who is surprised we stopped mid-race for a pint. It’s like he’s never met me before.

Finally 6h30 after setting off we cross the line and manage to secure third place in the team event. A mere pub stop and half hour tantrum away from first place. Although tired Maff seems pleased to have finished. He’s certainly earned the medal more than the rest of us and doubtless a few beers. He probably hasn’t yet realised that is his first, but certainly not his only ultra.

Afterwards in the pub Maff has made a full recovery whilst I shuffle around like a man with one working leg.

Extending the life of shoes – Hoka resoled!

e148723b-9cf7-4dcf-adb1-0815175f75fbAs you might have noticed on here I’m a big fan of the Hoka Rincon. A really lightweight and comfy road shoe that I was recommended after a full 3D gait analysis at Up & Running Milton Keynes.

At circa £105 they’re reasonable compared to some of the fancy  stuff out there but certainly not what you’d call cheap (recently the old stock has been dropped to circa £85-90 for any remaining sizes as the new Rincon 2 is now out).

I got my first pair in January (bottom) and as of early August was just starting on my third pair (middle, red). This may sound a lot but given I’m on 1700 miles for the year and most have been done on these two trainers (with exception of some trail runs) it’s a good mileage for a lightweight shoe being used by a heavy heel striker (I fluctuate between 82-86kg so I’m no Mo Farah).

Some very worn Adidas Supernova of mine

I’m conscious that as runners the trainers we buy are one of the most problematic environmentally. They are very hard to recycle and can take up to 1000 years to break down (for more information on this check out Rerun Clothing )  I try to run in mine as long as possible before they start the demotion to dog walking then gardening shoes but there are only so many pairs I need for these so was considering getting some resoled.

Resoling shoes is relatively common in Europe, but less so in the UK.  Below is a stall I saw during a Spanish race. The general concept seems to be that shoes can go several times through this before meeting their final end.img_2771

By chance the super fast runner Richard McDowell (CFTB) had some of his super fast Nike 4% thingummy-bobs resoled by Chesire Shoe Repairs with some off road Vibram soles as below.

Photo borrowed from Richard McDowell

The Nike are a similar ‘fat’ sole with a lot of rubber so far removed from the minimal sole trail shoes I’d often seen have the entire foot plate replaced and effectively just the ‘sock’ restitched to a new base. The company had shaved off the bottom layer, including the various black grip sections, and either filled or cut below the cavity sections to produce a smooth surface for the new sole.

Original Nike sole – Photo from Running Shoes Guru

This got me thinking about the options for my Hoka with the similar sole construction. I emailed them photos and we discussed either trail soles as above, or road soles.

My first pair of Rincon were less worn than the second which I probably let go too far to be useful for road shoes as above (I’d literally worn the soles off).


Instead I posted off my first pair for some white road soles “Vibram Carbon Road Soles” for £34. Return postage is included, my postage to them was £2.90 via Hermes.

The wear on the set I posted was mostly just the black grip sections as below. The uppers were all sound and had lots of life yet. If this all worked I’d have a rejuvenated pair of £105 shoes for £36.90.

As these are lightweight I thought it worth checking the weight before and after. They left me at 432g. For comparison my third pair, with only approx 150 miles on them were 459g so looks like I wore at least 27g off them during use. The listed weight on website (for an unspecified size) is 218g each or 436g for the pair.

So once posted it was a case of waiting. They promise 5 day turnaround (once received) and Hermes took a few days as expected. I posted Wednesday and it was received at their place on Friday.

Saturday morning I get a call from them that the chosen sole in white only comes in a single width (the black version comes in three widths) that is too narrow for my fat Hoka so we agree on an alternative – namely a SVIG road sole in white for same price.

True to their word, the shoes arrived back on Thursday (so 8 days from posting, two of which were used by Hermes on the delivery to them and a day or two on the return delivery) and I was impressed.

The sole has a bit more raised section than the one I picked which for me is ideal as I’ve got something decent for road but that will cope with some trail sections as well.

The workmanship looks good, with a decent attachment of the sole. There are some minor voids near the front at the sides where I presume they balanced cutting more of the original sole away for a truly flat surface versus the loss of the cushioning.

So what’s the weight? Given the original Rincon are super light with only a partial wear surface I was expecting some weight gain from going with a full length and width sole. They came in at 772g against 432g as they left me, or 459g for an almost new pair. That’s a gain of 313g from almost new. It’s a substantial gain compared to original but they don’t feel heavy, more like a normal road shoe.

I plan on using these over the next few days and will update with how I got on. I’ve got Shires and Spires booked for Sunday which is a mixed road/trail ultra which depending on the level of rain may well be a perfect test of these.

Update –

Update on my resoled Hoka. Did 35 mile mixed terrain ultra. Coped great on the road and the muddy paths.
For just over £35 I’ve take a knackered pair of road shoes & got a perfect trail hybrid, extending their life and keeping them out the bin.