2020 has been a rollercoaster for all of us, but not one where you know the ride. You are expecting a twist to the left, or a slow climb before a scream inducing descent and it did the opposite before coming to a grinding halt leaving us all unexpectedly up in the air and hanging upside down.
Given that the year was pretty much cancelled in March by COVID I didn’t have a race booked for this weekend, I wasn’t looking this far ahead. You just couldn’t. But then Hamburg, originally pencilled in for April did the hokey cokey, with them being on but with a lot of restrictions, then being off if you listened to the federal government, then being on if you listened to the race organisers before, almost inevitably, being off again, because the city couldn’t handle the volume of support safely.
We had moved out flights from April to September, cancelled one hotel booking, made another, and then both of those had to be cancelled too. Well, I cancelled them so did Jenni, and Dasen and Keith. Lew and Baz went anyway for St Pauli merchandise and numerous steins. I kinda wish I had gone, but I couldn’t justify the expense for a non-race weekend.
I felt like my 100 marathon quest was taking too much of a hit. Having been a slacker after Chicago, and arsing up Green Man 45, I hadn’t raced at all. 10 months of racing and potentially 10 marathons lost. So the quest was taking a hit. But then I saw that the same weekend that Hamburg had moved to, was also the date of the Vilnius Marathon. I had never been to Lithuania and so I booked flights, and a hotel and signed up for the race, only for the Lithuanian government to decide last minute that all UK citizens had to quarantine for 14 days at that end, destroying any chance I had to racing there.
One of the races I was signed up for that had been cancelled or the Spring, or at least deferred until 2021 was a Phoenix race. But Rik had restarted the furnaces a few weeks earlier, creating a socially distanced race HQ, no bib collection, you wrote your number on your arm in Sharpie, medals left in the plastic, mandatory buff worn if you get close to people, and before all that a two phase temperature check including a thermal imaging camera that took your temperature and showed you red and orange. Or red and red if you were angry about the way your race year had gone.
And so I asked if I could use my race credit, Rik said of course, and I found myself ensconced in the Weir pub and inn at Walton on Thames on a lovely, almost perfect, sunny weekend in September. Outdoor seating, friendly staff, four poster bed, a balcony room overlooking the Thames as boats, and canoeists and paddle boarders went messing about on the river. And I was ready for my 3rd marathon in 6 post-lockdown weeks or…
#48 Party Train 2 13th September 2019
I had sworn off lap races, especially after 16 crossings of the M2 motorway bridge in Gravesend but this was lovely. And I had been here before, for the Phoenix Winter Run, the race that completed my first 12 in 12 back in 2017. It was along the tow path, shared by walkers and cyclist, as boats went up and down the Thames via a lock.
In the winter it was pretty grim, muddy in places and bitingly cold. But here it was ideal, maybe a bit too hot. But the race HQ was 10 yards from the pub, and it was open all day.
There were several people there I knew, Paul and Carmen from Twitter, Kyla was supposed to be there but her lurgy hadn’t subsided and she didn’t want to risk it. And who can blame her in the time of COVID. And it would be one of those races where you have to work out how to greet or acknowledge people that you see again and again and again on the course.
It would be 8 there and back laps, so 16 chances of seeing the same person again and again. Along from the HQ, by the pub, you have a split then to take a slightly longer route along a nicely paved cycle path, or a narrow, stony footpath that both bring you out at the lock. There are two gates, either side of the lock that can become a bit of log jam, cyclists are told to dismount, but they don’t, dog walkers are told to keep their pooches on the lead, which they don’t.
There is water treatment plant which if anything had nice spongy mud by it to save the feet a little bit, and then a long straight to the turnaround sign. You are never more than fifteen feet from the water, and there boats, as I said, canoeists, fishermen making the most of a lovely day and particularly clean part of the Thames.
There was a staggered start, with the first group of 5 or 6, going out at 7. I was pencilled in for 7.45 and, given I was staying right there, I didn’t even climb out of the four poster bed until 7. I didn’t use the bag drop either, and christened my Orange Mud double quiver race pack with its high positioning on your back and two large bottles, filling the right breast pocket with individual bags of Squashies, and a roll of Shotbloks, and the left pocket with my phone, as I used by Bluetooth Jaybird headphones of this, along with a playlist made up of the compilation albums of my youth, a playlist affectionately titled, Now that’s what I call a playlist.
After having my temperature checked (37.1 in case you are interested), and standing on a blue circle on the ground, socially distanced from the other half blue circles of my start wave, we were off. And I was off to a flyer,
Taking the footpath rather than the cycle route, and up to the locks whilst this part of the world was sleeping, we had no pedestrians or cyclists to avoid, and made good time, waving to the earlier wave who were on their way back from the turnaround point, and bouncing along to Nick Kershaw, Yazz and Bow Wow Wow and before too long another lap was done… I was getting it done. It was just tough.
The etiquette of saying hi, or not, to fellow runners you see on the way is tricky, especially when you get grumpy, or tired, or just don’t like the person you are passing, or really do like the person you are passing, Lisa Freeman were there and I am always happy to see her on these races.
So what do you do? Well, it is easy to overthink it. You can just ignore everyone. But where is the camaraderie in that? You could do the same smile, or thumbs up, or wave. You can mirror what the other person does, say well done, or keep going. Or count down the laps. Only 7 to go. Or is it six?
There was a guy in a Centurion runner TP100 tshirt, and he and I just did a thumbs up, single thumb, a Fonzie as its know, as opposed to two thumbs, aka a double Fonzie. But that makes you look like you are trying too hard. I nodded to some, said hi to Lisa, and asked how she was on the first passing. Before I found myself at the turnaround again two hours into the run.
This was going well. Running up and down a gorgeous stretch of the river is infinitely better than a cyclopark in Gravesend. I think Rik has the luck of geography coming from the next village even as the path started getting busier with Sunday walkers out for a stroll, cyclists and groups and families enjoying the day. Didn’t stop me though.
Much like Gravesend I bashed out the first half comfortably. I haven’t been running much in training and have instead embarked on a pretty hardcore programme on the Peloton, the powerzone endurance programme designed to, well duh, up your endurance by working for longer, up to an hour, at lower cadence but with more resistance. They say things like, this is the zone you could probably stay in all day if you had to, or , this is the pace you could manage for an hour and you could still hold a conversation when pressed, but you won’t want to.
It did mean that I felt strong, and could handle the day, but only after getting over the initial hump. I hate the first hour of any run, the first 6 miles are always achy and painful, and your body naturally stretches and relaxes, and your mind is always doubting yourself. But inevitably you do warm up, and you relax and my legs felt great, all the way up to the end of the next lap, taking the slightly longer cycle route to break up the monotony.
It was here that I was treated to an ice cold pint of Pepsi at the Weir. Carmen has finished her section already, and Lisa was running fewer laps. Carmen and Jenni were in the pub and I was happy to take a few swigs of the pepsi, before putting the rest in one of my two bottles and heading out for lap 6, adopting a run/walk to break up the run, and happy to be way under the cut off.
It was about now the single and double Fonzie thumbs up to fellow runners, or waves, or even a smiles or a nod seemed to lessen. Head down, it was tough as it was hot, and people were feeling it, weaving in and out of the crowds past that water treatment plant, through the lock, making use of the cold water tap that came as welcome relief, and then back again. Slowing down. Breaking the race down from one race, to 8 laps of 3 and a bit miles, to 16 there and backs of a mile and a half. As you come up to the half way turn around point you are thinking, 3/16ths to go. You got this.
Rik was sitting on a deck chair enjoying the sun with the crew at the race HQ. We shouted our race numbers to him as I turned for the last time and headed out for a marching lap so as not to destroy myself before a great afternoon of drinking and Sunday pub lunch. Game on. Maybe my race year was turning around after all.
And that was it. I didn’t want to do anymore lap races after Gravesend, but needs must and all that. Hamburg caved in to the federal government. Lithuania chose to protect its borders from outsiders. But Rik was happy to let us race with the controls in place, and I am glad that he did.
It is part of a 3 race medal, with the other parts the engine and the caboose. This is the middle part of the medal, the passenger car.
Scores on the doors
I had a great weekend. It is hard to think that Walton on Thames, with its river and weirs and pubs on the water, barges and boats, and so much greenery is 25 minutes from Waterloo. I could have travelled down on the day, but staying at the Weir and enjoying a lay in, as well as decent food and drink for two days made this so much easier. If you are racing with Phoenix I do recommend it.
I did find it tough going in the end, that is 3 in 6 weeks now, and it was hot. But I am getting back into it. I think you do slow down when doing lap races, as opposed to running a regular point to point race. And I am hoping to see an improvement next time out.
Out of all the lap races this is probably the nicest venue, certainly better than the last one.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE PHOENIX WALTHAM RACES? If you need a comfy lap mara for your confidence sure.
WOULD I RUN ONE AGAIN? Unlikely.