Last Sunday, it felt like Spring had finally arrived. After what’s seemed like a particularly grey, drab and chilly Winter, last weekend the wind dropped, sun came out and it even felt vaguely warm.
After my Texan swing of marathons and 5k races, and then spending three weekends taking part in three 10k races (the Chichester 10k, Valentines 10k in Chessington and Chilly 10k at Castle Combe, of which I’ll write more in the near-future), I was taking a welcome break from organised events. That left me free for a lovely Sunday afternoon run, beneath largely blue skies and with the sun shining. It was beautiful: Britain at it’s February finest.
And then… well, it didn’t last long.
That won’t be a surprise if you live in Britain, and experienced vast chunks of the country coming to a standstill as bitter Siberian cold (aka the Beast from the East) met a storm coming from the south, resulting in a fair dumping of snow all over Britain. It closed schools, stopped trains, blocked roads and generally caused havoc. And, on an admittedly far more local and less important level, threatened to play havoc with my running.
My week actually started with a work trip to the Czech Republic (or Czechia, as it’s apparently been ‘rebranded’) on Monday and Tuesday. Quite often, if the schedule allows, I’ll take my kit and squeeze in a run when I’m away. Often my work trips involve a lot of sitting around and plentiful food, leaving me desperate for exercise to compensate. Having checked the schedule there would have been time – and having checked my hotel, I discovered it had a decent running/walking trail on the grounds. Promising… and then I checked the Czech weather.
Now, I’ve run in cold, but that just seemed a bit silly. So I decided not to pack any kit, so that I couldn’t be tempted when I woke up on Tuesday morning. And, sure enough, I woke up on Tuesday morning to beautiful sunshine and a pang of desire to get out there and go running. With no kit, I settled for a post-breakfast walk… which was quickly shortened as I set foot outside the hotel and realised that, sunny as it was, -14C is still flipping cold. It would have been a lovely morning to go running, but I would have needed to pack an extra suitcase to fit in enough running layers.
The snow arrived in Britain while I was in the Czech Republic on Tuesday, but wasn’t too bad around London, and my flight was thankfully my flight home that night was unaffected. But, by the time I woke up on Wednesday morning everything was covered in a layer of snow. Thing is, after two particularly lethargic days I was desperate for a run – and I had a commitment that meant I couldn’t go on Wednesday evening. Well then, only one thing for it: layer it, and head out into the snow for an early morning run.
When, later that day, I told my work colleagues I’d done so, most thought I was mad. They were wrong. It was a beautiful time to be out running. The snow was fresh, soft and not at all slippery, and while cold, it was a clear, bright, sunny morning. It was genuinely invigorating.
Thursday was a bit different: the sun had gone, replaced with leaden skies and an icily cold wind. Bracing, I believe they call it. I put off a run on Thursday morning, and then chickened out of one that evening. But the wind had eased by Friday morning, and I was still feeling like I needed more exercise.
So out I went running again.
This wasn’t so pleasant: the snow had melted in places and refrozen a bit, so it was hard to judge grip, and with no sun to lift my spirits and give the illusion of warmth, it was a bit of a slog. Still, even when it’s not fun, I usually feel better for having run than not having run. And it was good prep for Saturday morning’s parkrun.
Of course, it then started snowing again. In fact, there was probably more snow around where I live on Friday than there had been earlier in the week. And, on Friday evening, the Kingston Parkrun organisers tweeted they’d have to inspect the course on Saturday morning before deciding if it could run.
My little corner of south west London didn’t even have it that bad compared to the rest of the country, as the parkrun website cancellations page demonstrated. From Aberystwyth to Yeovil Montecue, a huge number of parkruns were canned due to the weather. I felt particularly bad for Whinlatter Forest parkrun, which had already been cancelled because the forest was due to be used for the Malcolm Wilson Rally – an event that was, in turn, cancelled due to the snow (and which, in my past life of motorsport journalism, I might well have going to cover).
Things looked good when I woke up on Saturday morning: the snow was already beginning to melt.
And, sure enough, this popped up on Twitter while I was eating breakfast:
The course and been checked and we are a GO. Be careful out there.
— Kingston parkrun (@kingstonparkrun) March 3, 2018
Given I only live a kilometre or so from the start, I had no excuse not to get there, and joined a reduced field of 116 other enthusiastic/bold/foolhardy runners on the Thames towpath for 9am. From my run down there I knew it wasn’t going to be a day for quick times, but thankfully while many paths were still snow-covered, there was little ice – and the melt hadn’t set in properly, so it wasn’t even that muddy.
It was, against all expectations, actually quite enjoyable – and not even that cold. And the reduced field had another bonus: I finished fourth overall, eclipsing my previous Kingston parkrun-best finish of fifth. Which was pleasing, even if the secret to my success was, quite literally, turning up and then not falling down.
Amazingly, by around lunchtime on Saturday the temperature had climbed further, and most of the snow near my house had melted away. The Beast from the East was gone. And, much as it was fun to do some stubborn snow-based running through it, I’m hopeful that Spring will now properly arrive…
Waking up and drawing the curtains to find light skies and benign weather is normally a pretty good start to a day when you’re doing a race. Not this morning – because today it meant the bad weather hadn’t arrived yet.
Sure enough, 20 minutes after I’d first looked out the window, it actually began to get darker, as the bank of heavy rain that had been assuredly forecast closed in. By the time I left my house an hour later, bound for Wimbledon Common to take part in the Wimbledon 10k, it was raining hard.
You can’t control the weather, of course, and bad weather is an occupational hazard any time you enter a race in Britain (even if, as the forecasters harked on about this week, meteorological Spring has, erm, sprung). Still, it’s always a little off-putting when, the night before a run, you know that a nasty weather front is likely to be right over your head right about the time the start gun goes off.
Twenty minutes after leaving home I parked up near Wimbledon Common, and set off to collect my number from the race start. Wimbledon Common is, as you might expect, a pretty beautiful and well-kept place, but it loses it’s appeal somewhat when there’s a heavy wind, squally rain and mud underfoot. Still, that bracing wind did make it easy to spot the flags fluttering near the race start, largely by keeping them at quite the angle.
Having picked up my number, and braved a wobbly portable toilet (the wobble seemed to be partly the wind, and partly the fact it didn’t seem to be fixed to the ground properly. Either way, I was very careful while going, to avoid some unthinkable and unpleasant toppling toilet incident…), I retreated to the safety of my car until as late as humanly possible before the start. Oh, and added an extra long-sleeved running top, having realised my optimistic T-shirt set-up would clearly offer inadequate warmth.
Amazingly, come the time to decamp from my car and head to the start, the rain was beginning to ease. It was relatively light for the first few kilometres, and had actually stopped before half-distance. The wind and cold were more persistent challenges, but with the weather less of an issue I could focus a bit on what I figured the main challenge of the event: the hills.
Wimbledon Common is at the top of a hill: the race started with a plunge downhill, before then working it’s way back up through the residential streets of the not-coincidentally named Wimbledon Hill. When I decided to enter the event, it was partly because of the hills. So far this year, I’ve mostly done races this year on relatively flat courses, and I wanted to take in some races that would be charitably described as ‘undulating’ in order to force myself to push more on hills.
The challenge was pushing hard enough to make the most of the early downhill section, without using up all the energy for the subsequent uphill. I seemed to get my pacing sorted pretty well, although it was a bit humbling to watch some of the quick runners doing the simultaneously run Wimbledon Half Marathon pull away from me, despite knowing they’d have to do a second lap. But, once I’d completed most of the climbing, and was running along The Ridgway (so called, you’ll be amazed to know, because it’s a road that runs along a ridge), I discovered that the biggest challenge of the Wimbledon 10k wasn’t the weather, or the hills: it was the traffic.
Yes, the traffic – and both automotive and pedestrian. The Ridgway is a fairly major thoroughfare in South West London, and at just before 1000hrs on a Sunday morning plenty of people were setting off on Sunday morning jaunts. Which made it a bit of a challenge when the runners needed to cross from one side of the road to the other. The only tactic was to run along one pavement, trying to focus on your normal pace, while also keeping an eye out for a break in the traffic to make a crossing. It wasn’t easy, especially because some drivers – both on the main roads and those traversing the residential roads the event went down – seemed determined not to make any allowance for the runners.
It got more challenging too: the final kilometrres of the course ran directly up Wimbledon High Street, in the quite posh part of town known as Wimbledon Village. At one level, it’s a lovely place to run: there were lots of posh shops and cafes to admire, for one thing. Except, of course, those cafes were attracting plenty of people for a Sunday brunch, using the same pavements the runners were charging down. It wasn’t exactly an ideal combination, especially because a small minority of pedestrians strolling in Wimbledon Village seemed put out there was a run going on, and pointedly made no effort to create a bit of room.
Now, they’re shared roads and pavements, and it’s not like the runners had any particular priority or right of way over cars or pedestrians – something that was made clear in the pre-race notes. But still, a little bit of courtesy wouldn’t go amiss at times.
Again, this was only a small minority of people; several others took the time to clap or shout encouragement, which is always hugely welcome.
Thankfully, since the race field was relatively small, it was pretty spaced out as I ran the High Street section – but I imagine things might have been interesting for the half-marathoners on their second lap, when the shops would have been open as well as the cafes.
Nothing cost me too much time either, and if 41m 21s was the slowest of the five 10k races I’ve done so far this year, in the circumstances it felt like one of my stronger efforts.
Even better, in a fit of great timing, the sun was almost peeking through the clouds by the time I finished. Which made it a pleasant day to walk back to Wimbledon for a post-run coffee. And don’t worry: I gave the runners still gamely plugging on plenty of space – and plenty of encouragement as well…