spine training

A tale of lockdown, hamstring injuries and cancelled races.

Let me take you back in time.  It’s September 2019, and the world hasn’t heard the words ‘Corona Virus’ yet, Boris took over running the country in July 2019 and we are all sick to death of Brexit.

I am slowly recovering from completing the Monarchs Way 615 mile,12 day ultra, the previous May (read the RACE REPORT here), and slowly getting back to running.  In fact, I am giving myself quite a hard time about how long it is taking to get my legs back.  In the month prior to Monarchs I ran about 300 miles, comfortably and enjoyably (& slowly) just getting a couple of hours in before work, or a long run on a Sunday.  It was easy and enjoyable, and set me up well for finishing Monarchs Way, albeit with a beaten and broken body (not to mention a mind turned to mush). 

By September, I could not understand why I was so tired when running, and why I had no pace even for short distances.  With the easy benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to diagnose terminal stupidity and complete lack of awareness of just how buggered I was even 3 months later.  So, true to form, I pushed quite hard on a little bit of speed work and felt a ping in my left hamstring (the main thigh muscle down the rear of your leg, under your bum).  Although I limped home, this did not prevent me from trying a 13 miler with my club the following day, but when by halfway I found myself scraping my left leg along the ground rather than lifting it cleanly I knew something more sinister was up.

No worries, I thought, I’ll rest it and be as good as knew in a few weeks.  Nope.  As I know now, but clearly did not then, the hamstring injury is a bugger to heal, takes ages and some real quality rehab to return it to where it had been.

I nursed it along for a while, found that while running was painful I could still hike (walk) with some pace, so focused on this while making preparations for a ‘chained’ 36 hour event with a good friend, Mark, in the ESCAPE FROM MERIDEN paired event.  Mark was very accommodating of my dodgy leg, and although we ran approximately the first 20 miles, we walked the rest, with me earning the nickname Millstone as I basically hung onto Marks rucksack so that I didn’t fall into the canal we were following.

In the end, we had a great time, won our particular category as we travelled the furthest distance in 36 hours, and my leg did not trouble me as much as I expected.

In January 2020 I volunteered at the Spine race, helping at Hawes, Alston, Bellingham, which was a real eye opener.  I was volunteering for two reasons: firstly I had the week booked off as holiday in order to complete the race, but completely bottled out of entering as it was far too intimidating, and secondly, it seemed wise to take a look at the race from the inside for future reference.

I have two vivid memories from my week volunteering.

Memory one; getting off the train in Hawes. I went from a nice warm bright train, to a freezing cold pitch black train platform, with horizontal rain and wind blowing a gale.  I simply could not believe that people were outside in this appalling weather, and would actually be making any progress.  It was awful.

Memory two was welcoming in the first runner I saw into Hawes, about 2 hours after the memory above.  The runner was about 5th position, so was at the ‘pointy’ end of the race and had clearly been pushing hard.  She was absolutely wet through, and visibly shivering uncontrollably, her hands shaking like a leaf.  She was not entirely with it, struggling to work out how to get her wet kit off due to numb hands and perhaps a little bit of shock.  Immediately, experienced volunteers moved in to sort her and get her wet kit off, while the call went out for medics to come and see what was needed.  Within a couple of minutes she was wrapped in dry blankets and positioned in front of a heater to get her temperature up.  30 minutes later she was eating and smiling and getting her kit ready to head back out into the black night. I was shocked and impressed in equal measure.  Very few of us have ever got that cold and wet and even fewer would be bouncing back within an hour. 

So I came away from volunteering with a much better idea of what to expect at the Spine race, but also a healthy fear (or possibly unhealthy terror) of what was involved and what would be required if I attempted it.

 I entered shortly afterwards, as you do, thinking that I’ve got a year to get myself in shape.  About the same time entered the Northern Traverse, a cheeky 190 miles coast to coast in April 2020 and the Montane Cheviot Goat in December2020, which I thought would be good training for all Spine things.

But then in late January 2020 the news started to mention a virus that was appearing in China, and then the world went to shit.

I work as a manager in large supermarkets, so at the start of the pandemic panic, when people were fighting over toilet rolls (remember that?) or were clearing the shelves of pasta and rice, that was directly related to me.  I’ve been retailing for 30 years, but my team and I had some of the toughest days and weeks that I can remember as the glorious public went mental.  Lockdown was introduced shortly after, and my wife (in healthcare) and I simply carried on in our jobs as normal watching the world retract behind closed doors in case of catching Covid.  Once again, I have massive respect for my whole team, who were well aware that they were coming into to contact with numerous members of the general public daily, putting themselves at risk of catching the ‘unknown’ virus, but kept turning up to work.  I’ll remind you that everything we knew about Corona in the early stages was that lots of people were being hospitalised with it, usually the older especially with any sort of respiratory problems.  Nowadays, we are much more blasé because of our knowledge and vaccinations but I will remember those months as some of the most stressful of my career.  Of course the NHS was rightly lauded for carrying on under hugely difficult circumstances, but my insight into the supermarket sector allows me to hold up these ‘ordinary retail workers’ as being some of the heroes that kept the country running through some challenging months.  

Summer 2020 was a funny time.  I was able to run (and did) but would start to get pain about mile 9 and generally did not go beyond 12 miles for fear of doing something more serious.  I was gently getting my mojo back and starting meeting up with a couple of running buddies for easy miles each week.  Despite this, I was limited to how far I could let myself go, and was complaining about this in July 2020 when my buddy Mark made the fateful comment that I needed to commit to sorting it out even if that meant stopping running for a while.

Of course he was right, it was never going to fix itself, so in July 2020 i stopped running, got onto YouTube for some stretches to do, and joined a gym to develop the muscles.  It may come as a surprise but I did not get fixed in a few weeks (as I fully expected) and in fact, by stopping running entirely my hamstring went from strong but painful to weak and painful in the space of three months.  I did not realise it at the time, but the only thing holding my buggered hamstring together was the workouts it was getting from the running.  When I stopped them (and didn’t replace them with the correct exercises) the muscle just withered.  I would try to run, and get about 30 steps before a very sharp and real pain stopped me.  This was far worse than before and was much more significant: I was limping lightly when I walked, I could feel the muscle struggling when I walked upstairs (for god’s sake!) 

Clearly this was getting a little serious, lockdown was being lifted through the summer and I had Cheviot Goat in December and the Spine in January to get ready for.  As part of my job I pay for private health insurance, so I went to a ‘proper’ Physio initially, who started off really optimistically and gave me loads of strengthening exercises and stretches, but by three months later was telling me time would heal it and not to rush.  I then went to a consultant who thought a steroid injection may help, but 2 weeks later it appeared to be back where we started.

So it’s November 2020, I’ve run 11 miles in the last 3 months and done 100 hours of exercise (I still tracked everything even though it was all rubbish).I was doing quite a bit of hiking, which I was enjoying, but wasn’t achieving the sort of fitness it was used to while running.

Thankfully the Cheviot Goat in December was cancelled, and I was doing a just a little hill training with heavy pack for the Spine 2021, but was totally unprepared if it had gone ahead.  The organisers were trying to work within the imposed restrictions  (masks, social distancing etc) and so were preparing racers for the likelihood of not being able to sleep at checkpoints and similar precautions.  I knew that my odds of finishing the Spine were negligible, even with all the luck in the world on my side. To make it all more difficult by making everyone sleep outside for a week would be a step too far for me.

Luckily (for me), the Spine was cancelled and I managed to get away with another year injured by not having any races.

Jan 2021 to July 2021 we are going to call the ‘fat months’.  I did little exercise (that made any sort of difference), I drank beer a lot and ate like I was running 50 miles per week.  I would get in the shower and run my hands sensuously over my pot belly, thinking “This is what an extra 10 lbs looks like”. 

This was the lockdown that everyone was setting up virtual events and running them on Facebook. As if to prove I could stlll hike, I took on a Cockbain challenge of a 10,20,30,40,50 mile run (or in my case walk) in a week.  Unfortunately I only had 5 days, so had to do them consecutively, but it was nice to have a challenge to get back into.

21stFeb 2021 – 30.1 miles, 7 hrs 23mins, 14.44m/m

22nd Feb 2021 – 50.1 miles, 13 hrs 38 mins, 16.2m/m

23rd Feb 2021 – 20.1 miles, 5hrs 7mins, 15.19m/m

24th Feb 2021 – 40.1 miles, 10 hrs 12 mins, 15.16m/m

25th  Feb 2021 – 10.1 miles, 2 hrs 27 mins, 14.33 m/m

What did I learn from this?  I can walk/hike a long way with little ill effects, and keep a pretty consistent pace with it too.  Also, it can be unbelievably boring and slow just going along for miles on end.  On the positive side, I did get out of the house for a bit!

On the back of this I entered a local looped 50 miler (the Kent 50 mile Challenge), with the plan of walking (fast) every step, and I managed it in about 11 hours.

17th April 2021, 50.27 miles, 11 hours2 mins, 13.08m/m

And I quite enjoyed it too!  It was great being part of an event again.  So I entered cheeky 100 mile event in the same location, again with the intention of walking every step, but the aim of getting it done in less than 24 hours which is a challenge for anyone whether running or walking.

22nd May 2021, 99.72 miles, 24 hrs 33 mins, 14.46m/m

A bit frustrating to lose a total of 30 minutes in vomiting (20 mins) and sleeping (10 mins) but there you have it.  It turns out that I can walk quite quickly for quite a long time.  My feet were slightly trashed by the end of this, but I was cheered by the fact that my hamstring was quiet through the whole event.

Yup, feet were perhaps a little ouchy after this one.

Despite the events above, I was doing very little other type of training, in fact my stats for the first few months of 2021 are pitiful:

Jan 2021 – 22 hours

Feb 2021 – 43 hours (but this included Cockbain challenge, so actual was 6 hours with this removed)

March 2021 – 12 hours

April 2021 – 26 hours(includes 11 hour50 miler)

May 2021- 59 hours (includes 24 hour 100 miler, and a couple of days out hiking)

June 2021 – 19 hours (quite a lot of cycling in the better weather)

I was fat, lazy, enjoying lie-ins to 10am, rather than my ususal 5am starts whether working that day or not.  It was a different way of life to my previous 8 years of running, and I was very aware how much I was enjoying it.  Perhaps, without being patronising, I was realising that this was how most people lived…not pushing themselves to achieve a certain goal (hours or miles) of exercise each week, not feeling that lying in bed all morning was a waste or being lazy.  Especially, because I wasn’t running at all, I was putting my body under considerably less stress and was not missing it at all.

I was meeting up with running friends for coffee, rather than running, bizarre but very pleasant.  But it couldn’t carry on.  Towards May & June the covid situation seemed to ease off due to the vaccinations and everyone seemed to be able to look to the future again.   I did the same, and told myself that would get myself back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) in July.  I would start training for Spine 2022 on July 1st 2021.

So now you have a choice….you can either go to a continuation of this long and rambling account of the training and lead up to the Spine 2022 HERE, or you skip straight to the start of the race HERE.