If someone was to describe me, they would probably say that I was driven. That I got things done. That I was focused. This is partially correct in my mind. I like to achieve, that much is true. I am driven, but only inasmuch as I know I only have one life and need to do all I can whilst I can. I have a mememto mori coin with me at all times to remind me of this. I do get things done. The list of achievements grows. My To Do List pad is checked off daily and I feel like I am wasting my life away if I do not. It all seems very direct and focused. But there is a flip side.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, was an aeronautical engineer after being a soldier. He built seaplanes at Short Brothers, before joining Marconi Avionics and then British Aerospace, starting and heading up their apprenticeship programmes. True to form, as the oldest grandson, I followed in his footsteps, but not intentionally, and became an engineer.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school, let alone have a career of any sort. I was 17, I had just finished my A-levels and didn’t have a clue. My first interview was at Clinton Cards of all places. Probably because I passed it every day on the way to school. I did not get the job. Apparently, I would have been bored there. I then interviewed for two roles and took the first one offered to me, that of an Apprentice Engineer at a German company that built mechanical handling equipment for the brewing industry. At the time I accepted the offer, I could not remember what the role was, but thought it was best to grab the first opportunity offered to me with both hands. It was a case of nice being given an opportunity, rather than holding out for something elusive.
After 3 years there, finding my specialism, and completing all required qualifications, the company decided to move to Crawley (wherever that is). People were given the option to move or be made redundant. I was undecided. Friends and colleagues alike were on both sides of the fence.
Then a chance encounter with an apprentice a year ahead of me found me at his desk, flicking through the Nottingham Trent University prospectus. He had just been accepted based on his qualifications. Skimming the entry requirements, I already had more than enough and so, seeing this as a sign, catching a wave by chance rather than looking for one, I applied to half a dozen universities and got offers from all. And this, in turn, allowed me to accept redundancy, and start a university life that would span a bachelor’s degree, and two master’s degrees rather flush with money. The drinks, so to speak, were on me.
Coming out of university in the mid to late 90s I applied to a few roles without knowing what I really wanted to do. I interviewed for a position as a junior town planner. I think it would have been interesting. I picked up the MI6 recruitment disc containing psychometric tests with the aim of giving that a go. I can swim, ski, dive, drive, ride a horse, and shoot. I could be the next James Bond. Although I would have to be Jacob Bond to keep my Rabbi happy.
The next opportunity was at Lloyd’s of London, the insurance society of underwriters and brokers in the city. I had no preference, I just wanted a chance, and it was Lloyd’s who responded first with an offer, that I duly accepted before embarking on a career at the hub of specialised insurance and reinsurance. Again I wasn’t sure if this was the perfect role for me, but it was an opportunity, a chance and it shouldn’t be squandered. You never know when the next one will appear.
Four years later I was on the move again, and again I did not know what I wanted to do. An interview at France Telecom was followed by one at an investment banking consultancy that would, you guessed it, come back first, and for whom I would work for the next decade on projects in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Abu Dhabi before heading to New York and San Francisco.
I left investment banking and eyed up opportunities on the buy side in London on Curzon Street. I had a few interviews, as well as with a few other banks and brokers, before getting the opportunity to work for the British Government in the Treasury. If the buy side was the flip side of my investment banking career, then this was the big bang for the bonds market. Government bonds, Gilts, sold via auction and traded to keep the country running. Did I want this? I shrugged, and said sure, why not? I would be doing good for once in my career*, rather than just making rich people richer.
*Working for the engineering firm could be seen as “doing good” too, after all I was building the mechanical handling equipment used to brew Guinness and Bass beers.
I think what I am trying to convey is that the first choice isn’t the only choice and isn’t always the right choice in anything, but sometimes you need to make the most of what is on offer. Throughout my career I realised that I needed to be given the right opportunity rather than dedicate myself to one solitary path. The first marathon I signed up for was actually the Milan City Marathon after DNSing Berlin 2013. It wasn’t the right choice, and in the end I didn’t run it. And so to the point…
Running in the time of COVID
In 2020 my first marathon or above should have been Green Man 30, which I later changed to the 45 miler. That was a muddy fail. A SVN lap race next should have been easy but no, the VE Day race did not go ahead. Hamburg would have been my first group marathon of the year and first overseas trip. But it was pushed back to September. Ragnar Relay was postponed after a mutiny by the team captains, my Phoenix and Saturn running easy lap race calendars were lifted and dropped into 2021. Serpent Trail was moved from June to August. Zermatt was cancelled, and they only gave you a 30% discount on entry to 2021, and I did not fancy Ilford after all. Not that it mattered, as it was cancelled anyway. As was Chislehurst Common marathon the day after, a race that had been sent to me by Michael Avery and was out of my race calendar and cancelled barely a month after being pencilled in.
Midnight Sun in Tromso went next, and the dominoes kept falling. Reykjavik, Valencia, my beloved Serpent Trail. Sadly the majors went. After already being postponed from April to October London kept Lewis and other on tenterhooks. Boston organised a virtual race which I would not have taken part in. Tokyo only had elites. I was in for Chicago and New York, and it was the big apple race that was the first to pull the plug, offering all runners the option of a full refund, deferral to 2021, deferral to 2022, or a donation to the local NYRR charity. Chicago were not so nice. They let you cancel your entry, with the promise that you would have a guaranteed place in 2021, however, and this was disappointing, you would have to pay for the whole thing again. A couple of hundred dollar entry we would have to fork out in 2021.
I was getting disheartened. Lazarus Lake’s Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee will only sustain you for a little while. The t-shirt arrived, which was a minor miracle, and I was covering 200 miles a month, but it wasn’t racing. My end of year US marathon major double header had gone. And I needed a miracle. The question was not whether we would return to racing, it was how, when, and where. As some races got cancelled I kept signing up for more, later races. I signed up for Eilat Desert at the end of November, Valencia in December, from nowhere Athens, Loch Ness and Beachy Head, three races I had run before were added to the list. Where would I race first? The answer was unexpected.
From nowhere, and the week the majors had been pulled, first Matt Jones messaged me in Instagram to say he was the tail runner at the Round Reading Ultra. He said it was going ahead on the 1st August, small field, social distancing in place, 10 hour cut off. Game on!
And then Hamburg, who had always thumbed their nose at the German Federal Government, stated they would be going ahead with a whole raft of COVID-19 precautions in place. We would socially distance in the start area, wearing custom buffs with filters over the nose and mouth. We would go through the start in batches of 1000, the water tables would be socially distanced, and the finish area would have no family and friends, just marshals, and you would be required to wear the buff again.
But then Hamburg was sadly cancelled and so after five months of cancellations, and deferrals, the first race would be…
The Round Reading Ultra
In accordance with the government guidelines the size of the race was limited to a few hundred, the race HQ had social distancing enforced by asking runners to only arrive up to half an hour before their start time. The start times were for groups of 6 two minutes apart. Those groups would be in socially distanced pens and only move when the pen in front has moved. The checkpoints were again socially distanced, with all food in individual cellophane bags or, and I have never seen this before outside of the elites, you could drop off your own food and drink in bags and the organisers took it to the 5 check points for you. Coming into and going out of CPs you needed to sanitise your hands. The marshals wore face coverings. The route would have the minimal amount of pedestrians heading anti-clockwise around the extremities of Reading, starting and finishing at Sonning-on-Thames a quaint little village 20 minutes from central Reading.
And Matt was right, it was on. And so I shared this information with my running crowd and Lewis Clarke signed up too. Also on the 100 Marathon Club trail, but a lot faster than me we would book ourselves into the Bull Inn, a great hostelry only a few hundred yards from the start and then drink there for much of the previous day.
With a ten hour cut off, that was more like a 12 hour cut off as Matt, the tail runner, was heading out a couple of hours after me it would be a nice plod in the middle of a UK heatwave. My only concern, with Lewis starting in a wave about half an hour after mine, was the poor lad being stuck for hours at the end waiting for me to finish my bimble before he headed home.
And so to the start. After a terrible night, a lack of sleep thanks to the old inn having no air conditioning and it being sweltering, and having drunk since 2pm, we were not the happiest of bunnies at 6.30 as we met up, left via a fire exit, keeping our fingers crossed it didn’t set any alarms off and walked the few hundred yards up the road to the race HQ at the Berkshire County Sports Club.
There was no bag drop, instead we had to dump our bags in the sports club bar, and hope they were still there at the end. The organisers, who were superb, and kept us up to date with all the race detail stated that you should really keep your bags in your car, and only arrive half an hour before your start time slot. This limited the amount of people who were around the HQ at any one time.
There were 6 taped off pens at the start that were sent off every 2 minutes starting at 7am. You started in the back pen with 5 fellow runners, and then, when the first pen went over the start line, the second pen moved to the first, the third into the second and so on. It was all very well marshalled, and all numbers checked. There was no chance of pushing your way into an earlier wave. And the crowd was just so happy to be racing they would gladly accept all the additional controls.
I left Lewis to smoke the remainder of his pack, just so it didn’t get soggy in his new hydration pack, and before I knew it I had clambered from one pen to the next twice and was given the count down to start my first race since the global pandemic shut the world down.
And I think the photos really show that I was happy. I was smiling the whole way around as I left Sonning and the other members of my wave behind, and went down to the river, running along next to picturesque scenes, willow hanging close to the water, geese, rowers.
After a bridge or two we moved away from the river and onto farmland and dry dusty paths. The GPX file that the organisers had supplied us with was pointless. It only measured 43KM for a start because it was lazily created, and therefore had the most ridiculous “as the crow flies” directions. I mean look at it. It was useless.
The checkpoints were, as I said, socially distanced affairs, one way in, sanitize those hands, and one way out. People made use of the organiser’s offer to transport personal food bags to each of the 5 checkpoints along with small bags of peanuts, Bourbon biscuits, water and flat warm cola. They were at 9K, 18K, 24K, 35K, and marathon distance. And I used them as part of my game plan.
Lewis would be starting half an hour after me and my only real worry that day wasn’t the distance, the elevation or the heat, it was leaving my mate sitting around at the race HQ for hours knowing he had a long hike home afterwards. And so my aim was to keep moving and to get as far as I could before Mr Clarke came haring past. Worst case scenario in my opinion was that he would catch up with me some time between the first and second checkpoint and have to spend 3 hours at race HQ waiting for me. If I could get to half way before he did his best Roadrunner impression and meepmeeped by me then I would have done ok.
I made the first checkpoint by the river, greeted the marshals, who took my number down, and then I was off, not stopping. I had no need to. I hadn’t touched either water bottle yet, let alone dug into my pack for Shotbloks or Squashies.
I took photos at each 5K. River for the first, and the second at the 10K mark and a few selfies, farmland at 15K and another selfie that I posted online. Immediately people came back to me saying I looked happy, that I was smiling. And I was. I was so grateful to be running again, and it was going well too as I hit the second checkpoint in a recreation ground with no Lewis in sight.
Country lanes now, quiet ones, a Centurion Runner and I kept up with each other for a while. We made a B road and he went the wrong way before I shouted for him to follow me. A few new villages of show homes appeared from time to time. Reading is expanding into the green belt around it. And I hit the third checkpoint just before half way. Still no Lewis. I was updating our Whatsapp group with progress but he was not posting anything. I was a little worried that his Achilles was flaring up, but also could hear music in the distance in my mind. It was the Jaws theme and sooner or later Lewis would appear from nowhere and that would be that.
I was still moving at a decent clip (for me anyway) and had long since made half way, then 30K, then stopped at a small convenience store for an ice cold can of Cherry Coke and a disgusting mango Lucozade sport (that was a mistake as I hate mango) when he finally appeared on my shoulder. It was 34KM just before the 4th checkpoint. I knew he wasn’t sprinting along at his normal pace, he was taking it easy but I was proud to have gotten this far using my run/walk method before he came by.
We parted ways at the checkpoint and he went on ahead, eventually finishing 90 minutes ahead of me because I was now happy with myself, I had run the first 70% of the race and could ease back on the throttle as the route followed the motorway more, and more new builds as the sun baked us.
My Polar died again. I am pissed off with that as I still had 15K to go. So I shall be shopping for a new gadget once I post this. And the field, much like all other races, where you are twisting and turning and think you are alone in both directions, suddenly came together on the long straights alongside the motorway. I was part of a steady stream of runners, joggers and walkers making that last turn down to Sonning, past the Bull Inn, and then back up to the socially distanced finish, picking up our medals ourselves with me helping myself to a 50K PB by over half an hour before joining Lew at the bar for several ice cold pints.
Oh and the miles helped me complete the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee, my 1000KM virtual organised by Lazarus Lake and I look forward to the garish gold belt buckle with excited anticipation.
I am very grateful to Matt Jones, and the organisers of the Round Reading Ultra, putting on a race that adhered to government advice, as well as getting it signed off by the running authorities. They put in a lot of effort to make this race possible and the controls hardly hindered us at all. For the most part the route was lovely, maybe less so when we ran alongside motorways and new builds. And the support was there from fellow runners and marshals alike.
I have been waiting for 5 months to race again after the nightmare at GMU45, and to come back, run it with a mate, and PB somehow, well that was the cherry on top of the icing on the cake. 100 Marathon Club #46 finally chalked up, first one since Chicago last year. If I can get to 50 this year, then it won’t be a total write off. Fingers crossed for more sensible, well marshalled and policed events going forward. At the time of writing I still have an SVN, Chiltern 50, Beachy Head, Athens, Eilat and Hurtwood.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE ROUND READING ULTRA? – YES
WOULD I RUN THE ROUND READING ULTRA AGAIN? YES