Making A Home Gym

Age is hard to deny. For the last year or so I’ve realised that running alone won’t keep me in shape, and I need to cross train. If I wanted to join a gym they’re periodically closed. The onset of Covid has also made running in groups at times difficult, at other times illegal.

I’d purchased a treadmill at the start of lockdown as was fearful we’d be in the full house arrest mode of some countries like Italy. It was expensive. It was in the lounge as the garage was too full of junk and I had an optimistic goal of running on it whilst the family watched TV. The excessive noise meant this wasn’t really sensible. So it sat in the lounge for months, used a handful of times.

Seldom used and when it is the dog barks at it….

The problem was the garage. It was full of car. A kit car shared with mates that had not moved under it’s own power in about 8 years. I couldn’t get at it to work on it as there was too much junk. I started to clear it. Tips were shut so started with a skip. Then once lockdown eased much was sold, or taken to the tip.

This is mostly cleared. The before situation was so bad the kids refused to believe there was even a car in there

Flogging stuff – Facebook marketplace is amazing. It’s free, and key is it’s local. You may get less £ than ebay but you can get it immediately with no fees. Drag something out garage, take photo, state collection that day, gone by end of day. Some items seem to attract idiots though and you need to assume 50% of people are idiots who will never show.

Once the garage was cleared we could pull out and sell the car. The amount of stuff I had in the garage was alarming. I am a natural hoarder. I don’t normally do clickbait articles but this link HERE was brilliant. We’d moved into the house about 7 years ago so I knew much of what I was coming across I had not used since we moved. Seven years of keeping stuff ‘just in case’. So I got rid.

Now an emptier garage.

First step was sweep, sweep, sweep again and then paint the floor. Everyone in the UK seemed to have the same idea and garage floor paint, along with loo rolls sold out. I started to paint by mixing up all the odds and ends of gloss paint in the garage. It worked but wasn’t amazing. By luck someone locally donated a half tin of proper floor paint and I managed to get two full coats.

Keeping draughts and leaves out. I’m lucky to have a double garage. One door is always blocked by wheelie bins so I sealed that by gluing a length of plastic trunking under it, to seal water and dirt. For the other side that would open I went cheap and screwed a length of the flexible damp proof roll I had spare. This is doing a great job so far, especially given the proper seals are expensive and most involve a strip on the floor that would make wheeling stuff in and out harder.

For the crap I was keeping I gradually amassed Milton Keynes entire supply of filing cabinets. Went for these as they’re cheap (most were free), sturdy and lockable. Also look a little neater than open shelving of crap.

I’d had a gym at the old house and had used some industrial carpet tiles with rubber backing to keep the warmth in. We moved them (it appears I moved a load of crap) so put them down first.

Other lockdown project was sorting the daughters bedroom so a quick relocation of the pink carpet from her room on top and I had a double layer of sound and noise insulation.

I had a shed load of used race numbers so kids and I got stuck into the sticking and gluing of them to a panel of wood. This was to go behind the treadmill. The bib from my DNF at the Track 100 was placed front and centre.

All garages needs tunes so I dug an old amp and speakers out the loft and bodged a movable laptop arm that pivots and raises or lowers to match the height of the treadmill or rower. Speakers are slung up in the roof pointing down. I had a spare set of power line adapters to retransmit internet into the garage.

Rower – I’ve had a cheap rower before. They’re awful. I wanted the proper Concept 2. These are gym spec, and the manufacturers still make the parts for models as old as 20 years ago. Look after them and they will outlast you. After missing out on numerous auctions and Facebook marketplace ads I finally scored one for £350, a cost more than covered by the crap sold. It’s more than I’d like to spend but unlikely to lose money. The screen was broken but there’s a chap on eBay who can fix them for £45 – hence why missing in photo.

Spin bike – I wanted one as well but again kept missing out on the sales. Then good mate Neil offered me one. For free. It’s been around the running club and I’m now the 3rd or 4th keeper.

Gym coming along well. But what if I wanted to get buff?

Picked up a cheap weight bench from marketplace. It was £15. It was tatty. Given I wasn’t sure if the weightlifting would stick this was a good price point. I cleaned it up, sprayed it with some silver paint I had left from a car I owned about 10 years and recovered (badly but enough to work) with an old blind from the boys room.

Weights are going silly during lockdown. If you can manage to find any in the shops you can pretty much resell for a better margin than a Playstation 5. Through some lucky adverts I managed to score a bar and two 20kg weights – 40kg plus the weight of the bar is more than enough for weak runners arms. Also managed to score some cheap dumbbells and weights. A bit of elbow grease and paint and they started to look better. Had more weights than handles so made some DIY handles for these CLICKY.

Knocked up a dumbbell rack out of scrap wood and gym is pretty much there for now. Assuming my arms ever develop to more than that of a small child I may need some more weights. There’s a vague thought to get some Olympic weights and try some proper lifts but will wait for gyms to open and someone who knows what they’re doing to show me. For now I’ll stick to normal stuff.

It’s also been handy for the kids. When I use it myself I tend to stick a Youtube spin class video on and follow that as a warmup, then the rower, interspersed with some weights. Goal is no matter how busy I get, try and do at least 30min in the gym a day on the rest days from running. Had a few work days where I’ve left at 5am, got home at 8pm, and once kids in bed could blast out 30min spin so I wasn’t a complete coach potato all day.

Hopefully this has shown how you can manage to set up a reasonable home gym for a relatively affordable price. The running machine was the most expensive and to be honest the least used. Leave that out. Run outside. Keep the rest.

How to fix and clean a PonyCycle

OK completely not-running related, but hoping may be useful for parents out there.

The PonyCycle is a weird hybrid of rocking horse and bike, allowing kids to ride a horse (or Unicorn, zebra etc).

My daughter loved hers for years, but eventually grew out of the Unicorn so looked to sell on (trying to sell her toys on to give her income and to help her realize opportunity cost of items).

Her unicorn horse was looking a little grubby so thought I’d clean it.

The steering had also broken – this was just the two bolts holding the neck/steering section on having worked loose.

Problem – despite being covered in zips there was no advice online about how to do this.

So here goes.

The complete unit, not suspecting it was about to be skinned.

First step is easy, didn’t take photos sorry – but unzip back of the neck along the mane and there’s two bolts to loosen the neck from the body.

The head metal section with the two wooden handles will now come out (push a wooden handle through one side at a time).

You need to untie the legs. These have a wide string/small rope around each wheel housing.

If you lift the saddle there is another zip which will loosen the ‘skin’ and allow you to pull it down to reach the attachment point for the stirrups/pedals.

This is attached with two split pins. You should be able to bend the two loose ends back and pull the pin out from the rounded end.

The stirrup will then come off and the rest of the skin can be peeled off. It is easier if you remove the wheel for this, but can be done without.

The seat also had a zip, unzip this and unpeel as well. The saddle slides off if needed, which allow you to remove the polystyrene body and access the rest of the frame if needed.

The bare frame – handle bar mount/neck on left

You can then chuck the whole ‘skin’ in the washing machine.

The skin showing the zips

Reassembly is reverse. It is really tricky to get it to slid on the legs if you don’t undo the wheels.

Once you’ve pulled the skin back up enough, reattach the stirrups/pedals. You need to push the pins back through and splay the ends, then bend back as before.

Insert the handle/steering bar into the the head, ensure the bolts are to the front so they tightern on the flat edge of the neck to allow steering.

Reattach the saddle and seat/saddle section. 

The fur will likely be very matted so you’ll need to brush it.

Keep at it and you’ve got a perfect horse ready for the next owner.

2020 Review

The last couple of these have been well received so here goes for 2020
Jan – everyone complained it was too cold to run
Feb – everyone complained it was too wet to run
Mar – pandemic
Apr – pandemic
May – pandemic
Jun – pandemic
Jul – pandemic
Aug – pandemic
Sep – pandemic
Oct – London marathon. Just joking, pandemic
Nov – pandemic
Dec – pandemic

Making your own dumbbell handles from scrap

Slightly off topic, but given we’re back into an almost lockdown this may be useful for someone.

Exercise equipment is once again in short supply, commercial gyms are closed, and we’re forced to exercise as best we can at home.

I’ve been trying to get a home gym sorted on the cheap and ended up with lots of dumbbell weight plates and only two pairs of handles. Constantly swapping weights is boring. I looked at getting a full rack of dumbbells of varying weights instead but the prices are ridiculous in Covid times. Even a pair of 2kg dumbells is going for £10 or £20.

Given I have weak runners arms, I’m not in the position where I need 30kg dumbbells but did want a range of smaller weights. I looked at making some handles so I could have weights ready to go.

Looking around in the garage I managed to scrounge some materials.

Standard non-olympic weights are typically 1” holes. By chance I was changing the roller blinds in the kids bedroom and the interior tube was 1” diameter – perfect for the inner sleeve of the handle.

Looking through my stash of junk in the garage I found the interior tube from another blind, that was bigger and could slide over the interior tube and become the handle section. It would sleeve the inner section but be too large to pass through the weight plates so keep them apart.

I cut this down to 14cm, which matched the handle measurement of the dumbbells I had.

To hold it all together I used M10 threaded rod with a nut to help centre the rod in the inner sleeve, and a unistrut channel nut on the end. These are M10 and normally have a spring on them. I had a stash thrown out without the springs.They’re ideal as they’re a long rectangular nut that would grip the plate.

Tightening the two nuts together will lock them and they won’t shake loose.

Then put the plate on, slide the inner sleeve through the plate and slide the larger diameter outer sleeve up to this to form the handle and space the next plate off.

Then it’s repeat the smaller nut to help centre, and another unistrut nut on top. Tighten this up with waterpump pliers/spanners on both unistrut nuts and the whole assembly becomes rigid.

Because the double nuts at the bottom have formed a lock nut, only the top unistrut nut could come loose. If you’re worried about this then either apply glue or locktite to the threat, or a blob of weld if you’re able.

For me I’m confident then won’t move, and have a set of 5kg dumbbells ready to go. I made another set with two 1.5kg plates to give a 3kg pair as well. With the two pairs of proper dumbbell handles and 6 more 2.5kg plates I was able to create two heavier pairs to give a range of weights. For the homemade budget handle arrangement I probably wouldn’t go much further than 5kg on each end.


Advantages

Free

Only as long as needed to fit both weight plates, no risk of skewering your face with the extra length of a dumbbell handle

Can have a few pairs of weights ready to do 

Disadvantages

The handles weigh basically nothing so you don’t get the added benefit of the heavy handles

If you don’t have a garage full of junk you might need to buy them

Run to feel? Guessing a marathon pace.

2020 has been an odd year. I should be sat at mid-December on a (hopeful) PB at London Marathon in April, a triumphant return to Lakeland 100 in July and a blow-out November long weekend in New York for the marathon. There would have been the odd marathon and ultra in the mix, and it would be a successful year, a jump forward both in both marathon and ultra performance. A level up in ability and experience.

Then we had a pandemic.

London went, New York went, Lakeland 100 went.

The other thing that went was my legs. They’d been broken at Lakeland 100 in 2019 and it took expert attention by Rudi at The Treatment Lab and coaching by Katie at Clean Coach Katie at start of this year to get them back to the 3h30 marathon range. The 520 Mega May Miles undid this repair and I limped around Shires & Spires in summer and had a wet and cold fake London marathon in October, just under 4hrs.

It’s now December and I’m sat in the car, watching the rain come down. Sunday morning and my last marathon of the year and I’m not feeling it.

Enthusiasm

Given my watch is likely to end up buried somewhere up my sleeve I decide to try something I’ve never done before on a marathon – run to feel. The advantage of a small scale marathon in MK is there are no crowds, no packed start pens to drag you off too fast, and not even any clocks or mile markers to refer back and inadvertently measure your progress. It’s seven and a bit laps, so I just need to count laps. The position of the sun and how many podcasts I get through will be the only indication of how I’m getting on.

After setting off (staggered starts, it’s just me and two others for this slot) I make sure the watch is counting, pull my sleeve down and settle in. I will not look at my watch again until back in the car.
Most marathons if trying for a PB I have the screen on elapsed time and pace for each mile. Don’t worry about what mile you’re at, just that each is within a few seconds of your target pace. Today I won’t.

The race starts with a mini loop then the main seven loops. Running past the start I can grab my McDonalds coffee I didn’t get to finish at the start, and use it to wash down the breakfast roll from the same fine establishment. Yep I’m an athlete.

The laps click by, the rain comes down. The low numbers, staggered starts and lap format means I don’t see many people. I’m overtaken by a speedy bloke with a later start. He laps me towards my penultimate lap. You can tell he’s a proper runner as his feet come up so high he’s splattered mud the full length of this body. My ultra shuffle barely gets my calves muddy.

I’m alternating water and locuzade each lap, taking a walk break as I finish the bottle and lob in the bin. Start of lap 2 and 5 I have an Ella’s Kitchen fruit pouch. It’s baby food and tastes like mashed banana and strawberry.

I have a plan to start the penultimate lap and check my watch. Should be around 20 miles, so can make a guess of how I’ve got on. 3hrs and on target for 4hr? If not I could hustle and get it back.

Instead I decide to stick it out. Put my faith in my (stiffening) legs. I’m definitely slowing so wonder what this will do overall pace. Lack of runners means I can’t even judge from relative progress. Pretty sure I’ve missed the 4 so maybe a 4h15. I berate myself for the whole stupid idea. Sub4 doesn’t really matter but it feels like a step change. I don’t want to be over. I probably could have been under had I not done this stupid mystery marathon pace. Idiot.

Coming up to the finish I see Kerry has just finished. She started ahead of me so gives me little hint to where I am. I’m going to stop the watch and then unwrap my sleeve like a rubbish advent calendar. Except I don’t need to. Foxy times me over the line and announces 3h56.

Sub4 blind. Blinding.

Fixing a broken treadmill – Estleys M600+ Portable & Foldable Treadmill

Slightly off topic but hoping this may well help someone in future.

I saw a treadmill being sold cheap locally. Had little use but had developed an error and refused to work. There was nobody else interested so I stepped in and paid £50 for a nearly new Estleys M600+ treadmill.

Link here for sale!

These retail at £450-£600 new so I figured it was a worth a punt and at worse I could probably sell the working bits and recoup the cost.

Other option would be to strip the mechanicals off and make an unpowered, manual unit, possibly for use at my desk.

When I picked it up I was impressed by the unit. It’s well made, certainly light compared to a gym quality one but crucially does fold flat enough to slide under a bed or sofa. It runs up to 8mph so is fast enough for most runners. It’s an ideal lockdown tool!

First Step –

Turn it on. All lights up but as per the advert has ‘Err’ on the screen and makes a warning beep. Not the most helpful error code. No pressing of buttons will get it to do anything or show a better code. Manual suggests the Err code is a safety key issue.

Next page also suggests a safety key issue. It’s a magnetic key so I tried swapping it in and out, and replacing with a stronger magnet from the fridge. No change. So it could be a ‘change computer screen/display monitor’. Let’s hope not as probably an expensive part.

I took the cover off the motor area. There isn’t too much to these units so a limited number of things that can be wrong. Visually it all looks good and a diode on the main board lights up so it’s getting power at least.

NOTE – I’m playing with the unit open and at times live. There is 240V power there. It could make you jump. Don’t be an idiot with this and minimise any danger. Mine was connected via an RCD device to trip in event of any issues.

Motor Test

Starting with the basics, is the motor goosed?

Note – the motor on all treadmills is a DC unit (direct current – like a battery) not an AC (alternating current – like the mains power) so you can’t just wire the motor directly into your 240V supply as you’ll fry it.

The benefit of being DC is you can more safely test and almost any battery will make it move a little to test.

The video below shows how to do it using a small 12V battery. Other videos show using a tiny 9V battery from a smoke alarm.

I tested mine with a 12V car battery charger – pulled the motor cables from the main board and connected directly to the charger, then turned on (making sure no risk of short circuits or bare wires touching anything).

It had enough power to ‘flick’ the motor but not turn the belt. If I gave the belt a helpful push it then had enough to keep it moving. So motor was good.

Note – the polarity of the battery you use will affect the direction the motor spins, so don’t be surprised if it runs backwards, just make sure you connect the cables back to the main board in the correct polarity, likely terminals are marked “+” for the red/brown cable and “-“ for the black/blue wire.

If your motor won’t turn at all then you can try disconnecting the drive belt from the treadmill belt to reduce resistance and try again. If it still won’t it may well be faulty and there’s various checks you can make with a multimeter to measure winding resistance.

Main Board –

Not a lot to test on this for the home DIYer. With the unit turned off and unplugged you can make some basic checks.

  • Are the power cables connected from the mains socket?
  • Are there any inline fuses that could have blown (most don’t have them and rely on the plug top fuse)?
  • Are the cables to the motor connected?
  • Is the multiway plug to the controls and the display connected?
  • Do any wires look frayed or broken?
  • Any obvious discolouration from an overheating component on the board?

These boards are pretty specific to each make and model of treadmill so unless you happen to have a working identical treadmill to hand to swap the board over this is little else you can do to test.

Mine all looked good and as said above, it had a reassuring light on so was getting power. Of course the light could have meant an error, I had no way of knowing.

Cabling to controls and display –

Given everything in the base looked good, I opened up the rear of the display and control. This is connected by a small 5-way cable with a multiplug. They’re not especially well made so inspect the end of the cable where it connects to the main board in the base and the other where it connects to the control board. Given this is a treadmill that is often packed up and folded the cabling and joints are at risk of becoming trapped or kinking and breaking. I disconnected both ends and did a basic continuity test the length of the cable ensuring pin 1 on one end was connected to pin 1 on the other. If they’re all OK then you can repeat to ensure pin 1 is not connected to pin 2,3,4 or 5 indicating a likely split in the lead somewhere and cross linking. Mine all tested fine and cable had no visual faults.

Control Board & Buttons –

Once tested everything else so fault is likely in the control board, display or buttons. This is where people are prone to spilling drinks or sweating over the unit so did a quick check for any discolouration, suspicious stains or similar that might indicate a short. All looks good.

It’s worth noting on the M600+ the flip up screen plugs into the control board and has the buzzer inside to make the beep so without it connected you won’t know if the warning beep is still present.

There isn’t much else to check on this unit. The screen was lighting up and making the beeps so likely working despite the warning in the manual. The buttons each made a further warning beep is you pressed them so evidently worked and since they’re connected to the screen via the control board you can assume that is working.

Safety Key –

The only item left to check is the safety key device again.

There are two types, one uses a magnet as part of the key and if you lose it can be replaced with any magnet to form the circuit and make the machine usable, or you can buy replacements off eBay for as little as £5.

Others have an insertion key, a small piece of metal on a plastic holder that is inserted and completes the circuit to make the machine operate. These tend to be on higher end machines and are a bit more difficult to replace. Your manufacturer should sell them so check directly.

The M600+ has a magnetic key and I’d tried several other magnets to get it to work as a first check with no luck. The unit has a small safety circuit board with a basic reed switch activated by the magnet, located at the front of the machine and wired to the main control board with a simple two cable lead. It forms a loop in normal operation, completing a circuit from the control board, out to the safety board and back. Any break in this loop either from a missing key or a damaged cable etc would break the circuit and stop the machine.

Safety switch board with 2-pin connector

Easiest way to test is to disconnect the cable from the safety switch board and link across the two terminals to complete the loop. This remove the key and the safety board as issues.

Success – the machine when powered up beeped, but just the once to indicate it was on, and was ready to go. It ran up nicely to the max speed of 8mph.

So the issue is either the safety key or the safety board. The cable to it has been linked out at the board end so that’s been proven to be OK.

If you were happy to body it, you could just leave the cable linked out so it always runs, but you’d have no safety switch for emergency.

Time to investigate further.

First check is to connect a continuity meter on the two terminals of the board. It’s as simple as a circuit can get. When a magnet comes close to the unit it closes and completes the circuit. Or it should.

No matter how close I got the magnet I could not get a circuit from the pin connectors around and back.

I tested with the meter probes on the pins of the reed switch itself (you can see them in the photo two above) and success! The reed switch opened and closed as expected. So the fault is either on the board itself or the joints to the connector.

Some inspection showed a minor surface wear in the PCB track that was deep enough to prevent a current flow. How this happened inside a machine I don’t know since it allegedly did work originally. I rubbed the area down and ran some solder over the gap to close it and reassembled. Sadly I didn’t get a photo but appeared like below:

For advice on how to repair then check HERE

Treadmill now works perfectly and runs up well, safety key works exactly as it should.

Cockbain Events Track 100 – Did Not Finish. Not unexpectedly.

The Fast & The Furious – and that was just the pre-race Taco Bell

I entered the Track 100 on a whim a number of months back. It was evident we were going to be getting precious few races in for 2020 and at 35 miles my only ultra, the Shires & Spires, was whilst a great day out, not really worthy of the title of ‘my longest run of 2020’ given I’d run at least a 100 miler for the last three or four years. The Track 100 was local, it was flat, it was likely fast and crucially looked like it might go ahead. I entered figuring if I changed my mind the entry was transferable (a very fair policy from the race organiser Mark Cockbain) without lengthy forms or arbitrary transfer fees.

Then summer finished, Autumn arrived and far earlier than expected it was race time. My plans of building on summer mileage, and in particular the 540 mile month I ran as part of Mark Cockbain’s Accumulator challenge in May, had fizzled out through some minor and varied niggles that never allowed me much than a 2 week block of happy running. Some weeks the nearest I got to training were building flat packed furniture and taking stuff down the tip as we got stuck into some DIY projects.

I was hideously undertrained for a 100 miler and had missed the transfer window so resolved to treat it as a long training run. Part of me hoped that a good few years of ultras would have built some residual ability into my legs and I’d do better than I expected, finish and have a good day. A tiny part of me wondered if months of rest and low mileage would be the secret ingredient to an effortless 100 mile personal best. The realistic part of me was wondering what was a good distance to drop. It’s not the ideal mental approach to a race.

In the last few days before the race I also learnt that for obvious safety reasons there were no headphones allowed. For Covid reasons we would also be required to keep respectfully distanced. So it would just be the sound of our feet, some fleeting conversations and our own internal monolog. If you’re in top form, and strong mentally this would not be a huge issue. If you’re already wondering at what point you would drop, remembering you’ve barely run for the last two weeks, and that your recurring knee issue made 35 miles feel hard work a couple of months earlier, this is not ideal.  My mileage the previous week had been a heady 2. Yes 2. The bare minimum number of miles necessary to use the plural. It had been run with the boy as he started to take up running. It had been great to share the joy of the sport I love but was not even enough to stem the decline of my fitness.

Driving to the track on Saturday morning I was reminded of a mate from Uni who rather than study for exams would prepare himself mentally by going for a run and then cramming in a few brief minutes of text books with the inevitable resultant grades. Conversely rather than run, I’d spend much of the previous few months either talking about running whilst recording podcasts, or writing about running whilst finishing off the manuscript of my second book and hoping that I was getting fitter by some form of mental osmosis. A similar level of success beckoned.

For Covid reasons the event required runners to set up their own mini aid station at the side of the track and store their gear and food. It seemed ideal that you would be able to access your food every 400 metres rather than rely on sporadically placed aid stations with a mystery buffet of food that may not cater for everyone’s vegetarian, vegan, glutton, wheat or other food issue, real or imagined. The downside was you had to pack exactly what you needed. Whilst Mark had a basic aid table and water available to supplement there were to be no petrol stations or pubs to call in and top up supplies with at mile 37. I arrived, dumped my chair and box at the side and collect my bib from Karen, in charge of the registration whilst her better half Matt handed out the chips for Timing Monkey. Karen had also been a key figure at my first (and only) track marathon a number of years previously so it seemed fitting she’d be there.

After an amusing race brief by Mark (“Obviously we have safeguards in place as we’ve all got Covid. Hang on, I don’t mean we’ve got it, but it does exist. I do not have Covid!”) we milled about and I ambled to the rear intent on starting sensibly and steady. 

I’d been debating whether to use my Garmin for the race as they are notoriously inaccurate on a track and Timing Monkey website would give us lap splits throughout and be accessible by their web page or depending on how much you wanted to anger them, updated verbally on request. Ultimately I figured a watch would at least give me a gauge of how fast I was going and stop me doing anything stupid.

I borrowed this photo off someone. Don’t know who, sorry!

I made a pros and cons list as I often do at these times.

Pros – 

  • This would be my 7th go at 100 mile or greater and I had never failed in an attempt yet, even the arduous Lakeland 100.
  • I managed to finish the GUCR145 event, nearly 50% further and was even wearing the hoody to remind myself (and others) that I could once run.
  • I’ve only ever DNFd a race once, and that was through a knee issue so severe I couldn’t walk to the start line but tried anyway.
  • Any distance achieved today would be a decent long run.
  • I’d managed to secure a pair of the discontinued Adidas Supernova, my shoe of choice for many years, and had these strapped on and ready.
  • The surface would be flat and smooth – no tripping over roots or sudden inclines to tweak my niggles
  • My mileage for the last few months had been so low I was the most rested I had ever been. Probably since birth.
  • I’m never fast at ultras but I’m pretty good at sucking it up and pushing on.

Cons –

  • It was a track.
  • 400+ laps of a track.
  • I would see everything 400 times…..
  • I hadn’t run over 35 miles since July. July 2019 at the Lakeland 100. That seemed a long time ago.
  • I wasn’t sure I had packed enough food.
  • It was forecast to rain. I don’t like running in the rain.
  • As I’d packed the night before I couldn’t find my decent taped seam rain jacket, just a couple of cheaper ‘shower proof’ jackets.
  • No headphones, no podcasts, no zoning out.
  • No shelter. No trees. No inviting church hall every 10 miles.
  • My knee was still not fully back to normal and a couple of times a day would remind me that the physio exercises only work if you actually do them.
  • I’d had Taco Bell for dinner and my stomach was suggesting this may not be ideal.
  • I was driving so I couldn’t even get inebriated to dull the senses like I had on GUCR145.
  • I’d had the sort of work issues in the prior couple of days that make you want to run until you puke, not pace at a steady zen-like Buddhist level of self-control.

Mark started the race off and we jogged into the first corner. My knee felt amazing. My new shoes felt amazing. The track felt amazing. Running was actually amazing.

Have you seen the movie ‘Talladega Nights’ where Ricky Bobby, a Nascar racer often shouts “I want to go fast”? Yeah that was me. So I did. Passing a few runners it felt great to be moving like I used to be able to. I closed the gap and ‘won’ the first lap, much to the admonishment of Karen. It all felt so effortless on the smooth track.

The race instructions allowed for faster runners to keep to the inside so it was easier to keep running at this pace than slow and deal with lane changes so I just kept it up and clocked a sub 7 minute first mile. Perfect pacing if I was going for a sub12 hour 100 miler and see me close to the 100 mile track world record pace set by Zach Bitter. Even by my standards this is ‘ambitious’ pacing.

I did reign myself in. A little. 

5k came in 23m40s, I was leading everyone by 2 minutes. No need to stop yet, I’ll get something to drink later, just glide around.

10k came in 46m49s, I was leading everyone by 4 minutes. Maybe I should grab a water but it had been so long since I had a decent run where it all felt effortless that I didn’t want it to end.

At 8 miles my stomach lurched. 

At 9 miles it happened again and I felt bloated and pained. Something was coming.

At 10 miles I dived for the portaloo and the Taco Bell made a sudden and violent reappearance. Of the few running skills I have, a cast-iron stomach is one of them. A mid-run poop stop is something I’ve only done once, at mile 75 of the Lakeland 100. I have never needed to stop at mile 10. 

I emerged from the toilet feeling clammy but lighter, grabbed some drink and a protein bar (yes I’d washed my hands) and mentally told myself this was a one off and I shouldn’t draw parallels between Lakeland 100, my worst race performance and this one today. 

It sort of worked for a bit. I took a couple of walk breaks and chatted to a few people. The Half Marathon came in 1h47m12 even with the pit stop and breaks.

I was still leading everyone by 3 minutes but the tide (along with the Taco Bell) had already turned. My knee was complaining a little and the quad above was introducing itself to the mix. It all started to feel a bit stiff and awkward on one leg. Not painful and certainly something you’d run through for the final section of an ultra.

I was on course for 20 miles in 3 hours, to give a marathon of just over 4 hours which is what I typically do for the first 25/26 of a 100 miler. Eventually that passed in a little over 3 hours. Anyone looking to do the whole event had another 22 hours to go. Mentally I wasn’t including myself in that group.

The rain came in earlier than predicted and we all got a bit wet and a bit cold. I debated getting a rain coat but knowing both of mine was useless I left them in the box.

At this point I realised my biggest issue was boredom. Could I really handle another 80 miles of this? Or even another 20? I wasn’t panting for breath just yawning.

I resolved to push on for the marathon, probably the 50 miles and then make a decision.

Boredom led me to walk a bit more.

The face of sheer commitment.

I had a banana and contemplated the small fixing holes on the infield of the track where they bolt down the metal guard rail that denotes the inside of lane 1 and wondered what dictated whether these were or weren’t in place on any given day. Did 400 metre events have them and not 100 milers? Are they labelled to ensure they go back in the right place? Why take them off and risk losing them? Were they taken off for the winter to prevent corrosion? That wouldn’t be a problem if they were aluminium. When I’d seen them at the Milton Keynes athletic track they looking aluminium. They probably were aluminium as that would make lifting easier from a manual handling aspect. This is the level of monotony my mind was at already. I won’t bore you with my thoughts on adjustable height hurdles and possible improvements I was considering nor whether I judged the track to have adequate fall and drainage for heavy rain.

The timing set up beeped as I ambled over it, tucking into some sweets. That beep was the nearest I’d had to music or entertainment for some hours. It wasn’t hugely melodic.

My walk break extended as I couldn’t be bothered to run. At a normal ultra you run until a fixed point, or the next aid station, maybe just until you reach an incline. There was none of that. No reason to run and no reason to walk. Given my pace was dropping and my fitness was well off was there even a reason to be here? I was unlikely to secure a PB for any distance from here until the 100 mile finish. Did I want to spend the rest of the day in boredom with no real goal?

I’ve learnt not to make snap decisions so resolved to complete the marathon distance. At 23 miles I planned to run 3 decent miles, get the marathon in just over 4hrs, and have a break before I made any rash decision.

Even that didn’t work and I walked a lot. Occasionally breaking into weaving sections of running where I veered across the lanes like a Formula 1 car keeping it’s tyres warm except I was trying to keep my brain in the game. Grabbing my phone I checked the timing system and ambled in the official marathon distance and sat down.

This. For 25 hours.

The marathon had taken me 4h51m09s. The leader at that time, James Parsons passed the distance in 3h42m41s. So a mere hour and a bit ahead, all made up in the last 13 miles.

I tucked into a Greggs sausage roll and poured a coffee. This was my first big aid stop and I was going to do it like a Centurion event. Maybe I could visualise the four out and back legs of the Autumn 100? I’d done Little Wittenham and back. Next would be Swyncombe Farm on the Ridgeway, a beautiful leg with some picturesque views. Of course that would leave the awful Chain Hill and the depressing Reading legs. Maybe this wasn’t the best visualisation after all.

I’ll just eat this and go run another marathon. Or three. Maybe.

I watched the runners go past and most looked very ‘in the zone’, pounding away in pursuit of everything from a Spartathlon Qualifier, to a 100 mile PB or even a world record attempt. I was in the ‘I fancy going home zone’.

What tipped me over the edge was a runner who’d been sat at the side finally stand up, grab their box and walk off in the light sprinkle of rain that indicated an approaching storm. I realised I was more envious of them going home than I was of those on the track.  

Decision made. 

I jogged over the mat one last time, dropped my chip in the reject bucket and thanked Mark, Karen and Matt for the event. It was great it just wasn’t for me on this day.

I went home, had a shower and spent the evening with the family in front of the fire. The storm raged intermittently throughout the night and over half the field dropped all told, including many more capable runners than me. I felt no remorse as it wasn’t my day. It isn’t even my year based on my largely lacklustre performance and injury woes.

DNF, in the car going home!

This all sounds depressing doesn’t it? It’s a reflection on me not Mark or the rest of the team. The event was handled completely safely and professionally. It is ideal for first timers wanting to get 100 done in a safe environment, or anyone in good form looking to hit a time goal. For me, lacking in fitness, nursing niggles and with no huge pressing desire to notch off my 7th 100 mile finish it just wasn’t quite right. That being said, I’m already wondering if I should train properly for another go….

It’s worth noting the eventual winner Mike Bisson was 23 minutes behind the race leader at marathon distance and the gap stayed in the 20-30 minute range up until 100km (62mile) where after he activated his turbo boost to close the gap and eventually finish 35 minutes ahead. Taking an hour out of the leader in the final 38 miles and running 100 miles in 15h19m is quite frankly ridiculous. He was nowhere near world record pace for the first mile like I was though so it’s clear for everyone to see who did better. It was him obviously.

If you want to hear his story check out the podcast – https://runlikeduck.podbean.com/e/ep25-you-could-have-been-running-the-track-100-mike-did-and-won-it/

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Money for metal – selling my London Marathon 2020 medal & top

I’ve run quite a few races.

I can still remember the thrill of getting my first ever medal, for the Bupa London 10k back in 2011. That combined with wearing a race bib like a ‘proper runner’ made me feel immense pride. Being awful at sports and having attended school before the ‘everyone gets recognition’ approach they have now it was the first tangible item I’d earned for my physical performance. I was holding something my podgy and uncoordinated body had sweated and worked for. It was awesome.

I went home and hung up the medal over my door handle and proudly framed the bib.

As my interest in running grew I went through a variety of medal racks as my collection expanded. From my first marathon I had a secret desire to join the 100 Marathon Club but didn’t dare look to see what I needed to do (for fear of admitting my silly goal) so I neatly filed my race bibs along with a print out of the results in case it was ever needed (for anyone wondering, no it’s not, they just need a spreadsheet with the races on).

Over the years I’ve stuck to this anally retentive approach, with every medal and bib filed by chronological date, sub-divided by distance. Ask to see the medal from the Brighton marathon and I know I ran it in 2013, just after a local marathon by Enigma Running and before London, so there it is, nestling on the rack in the correct place. The bib will be in a folder in the same place, with my finishers cert as well.

If it’s a 10k you’re after then that’s a separate folder and a separate rack as I’ve outgrown the marathon one. Keeping the bib and medal was everything to me as I plugged away at 100 marathons.

Fast forward to this year and I’m on something like 140 marathons and ultras. It’s probably quite telling I don’t know the definite number any more. It’s not that I don’t love running, but the accumulation of lines on spreadsheets, bibs in folders and medals on racks is now less relevant.

With the issues of 2020 there haven’t been many medals but I’ve still struggled to muster the enthusiasm to hang them up. I’ve enjoyed every race (well except Watford Half where I fell apart and got overtaken by every runner I know) but the bibs and medals were in a pile on the floor awaiting attention. It was only this week whilst patiently waiting for my virtual London Marathon pack to arrive that I mustered the energy to hang the marathon and ultra medals from this year (shorter stuff still on the floor):

  • Milton Keynes reimagined marathon – first time running with an app to direct you on the course and continued my ever-present streak at the event
  • Shires & Spires – my mate Maff’s first ultra where he fell apart and we
    laughed at him
  • An Enigma marathon – my mate Neil’s 100th marathon
  • The Enigma marathon I ran on the date of the London Marathon in biblical rain, to earn my virtual London Marathon medal.

All of these are significant in their own way and it’s the memories I want to keep, not the lump of mass produced metal that comes with it.

Finally nearly three weeks after running the virtual London, my finishers pack hit the door mat. I opened it and felt largely nonplussed. The t-shirt looked decent quality but the design was pretty horrid and last time I checked I had over 100 running tops (I stopped counting at 100 as it seemed too excessive to admit). I had a top I wouldn’t wear and a medal I wasn’t sure what to do with as I already had one for the marathon I ran that day.

Remembering that there is often a market for London Marathon stuff I checked eBay and was shocked.

Some sellers were listing at as much as £600, although the average sale price seemed to be around the £80-£100 price. For a finishers pack from a race that cost £20 to enter (or £25 if you were international and needed it posted abroad). True it sold out, but took several weeks and anyone could have entered, opened the app, ridden the distance on a bike or horse if they so wished and claimed the finishers pack.

Selling

So after an afternoon of pondering I went for it. Added the race bibs for extra attraction and stuck the lot on eBay, starting at £30 with a buy it now of £80.

Listed at 7:34pm.

Sold for £80 plus the postage at 7:51pm.

Wow.

Maybe I undercharged? There were still auctions up running far lower, so maybe I hit the sweet spot of a buy it now just low enough to entice people who didn’t want to wait on an auction finishing.

Who buys medals?

Yeah I never really knew either. I guess for an event like London, a full set of finishers medals from every year would be a pretty neat display piece on your wall. If you lost your medal you might want a replacement but so close to the event sending them out I’d have been tempted to contact the organisers and claim it was lost in the post rather than pay £80 for one. Other than that I was at a loss.

So I asked the buyer.

Lets call him Bob just in case he wants anonymity. He was quick to respond and advised he had a charity spot for London (the April ‘real’ one) but due to admin problems between the organisers and the charity he didn’t get a place in the October virtual and it was presumably sold out before he could enter directly. Having heard some issues from previous years this is understandable. Charities aren’t always on top of these things on a normal year, never mind a Covid year with completely different key dates and procedures.

Bob decided to run the marathon distance on the 4th October (the date of the virtual one) anyway to raise money for charity and wanted to treat himself to the medal as it was his first marathon. We exchanged a few messages about how hard running your first one on your own would have been and he recounted how his wife and kids came out at intervals to support on his first go at the distance. He’s since got a spot for London 2022 so intends to run at least one more.

Did he sound genuine? Completely.

Could he be a trader looking to buy it and sell on? Could be. Although after paying £83 his margin would be relatively small unless he wanted to chance his arm at the £600 Buy-It-Now end which I hope NOBODY pays.

Are you sad you sold your medal? Nope.

Do you feel bad about the price? A bit. When it was selling to a faceless oddity who wanted to buy a medal for a race they didn’t do just for bragging rights it was a fun social experiment. Now I’ve put a name (not actually Bob) to the buyer and learnt he was running for charity it feels unsettling.

What are you going to do? Several things. I popped a signed copy of “Run Like Duck” in there to hopefully motivate him to keep running (or at least be used for kindling if the winter is cold) and I’ve asked for his Just Giving page.

More metal more cash?

Out of interest I did a quick eBay historical search for some of my other medals.

  • London Marathon 2012 – often unsold around the £5-£10 range but some have sold at £45
  • London Marathon 2013 – similar to above, you might get £3-£4, you could get lucky with a Buy It Now around £45
  • London Marathon 2015 – less for sale, and lots at £70 unsold. A couple sold around the £25 range
  • Chicago Marathon 2019 – None in UK but some in USA going for equivalent of £50 if you could be bothered with international postage

So clearly there is a market out there but it pays to make your mind up and sell quickly for the best return. You might well cover your entry cost, you might even raise enough for the next couple of races and I guess getting something you don’t want into the hands of someone who does is ultimately a fair exchange.

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.

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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.

Image
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.

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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.