Virtual racing: the new normal?

As France prepares itself to ease its strict lockdown conditions tomorrow morning, I thought I’d use a rainy evening to write up some thoughts about the last 8 weeks of confinement and, obviously, running. I was even thinking I might write something about the Vaporfly shoes like every other person and their dog in 2020 but … I’ll wait for the summer for that.

As it stands, I’ll probably have time in the summer because I suspect that, by then, there’ll still be just as many races as there have been since the start of March: 0. There’ll equally be just as many opportunities to travel: 0.

It’s been strange, for sure. If you’d told me beforehand that I’d be spending two months not being allowed to go more than 1km from home, I might have had a panic attack. But, truth be told … it’s really not been that bad. Other than the joy of no longer doing any international travel, of not having to commute to work, of still being allowed (albeit in limited, once a day, one kilometre max, one hour max form) to do my hobby (I feel sorry for anyone whose sport is, say, tennis or football), of being able to spend more time with Pippa and the cats, of enjoying our garden and of still – thankfully – being able to do my work, it’s been quite a refreshing time which has given me time I don’t normally have to be both productive or, just as much, highly unproductive yet relaxed.

If I’m honest, despite all the noises about people realising that chasing a corporate ladder isn’t the be-all and end-all and that we should all go back to a simpler life, my cynical suspicion is that, once (hopefully) the virus is under control, that most people’ll sadly go back to their old ways. Maybe just without la bise quite so much in Paris.

Anyway, running!

Well, I can fairly safely say that I think I’ve now covered every square centimetre of roads within a 1km radius of my house. Granted, I had actually covered a very low percentage of them prior to the lockdown in hindsight, but I think I’m quite comfortable saying that I can now pinpoint all the best mansions, all the worst houses and all the cute dogs in the neighbourhood.

As per the screenshot below, with a bit of planning, you can have fun. It’s also surprisingly distracting to try to remember a pre-planned route from memory for an entire hour.

I realised afterwards that I’m missing one road. AARRGH

All the real races obviously got zapped: in hindsight, it was foolish of me to even think in March that it was worth spending an extra €50 or so on smaller races in the hope that they would be allowed to take place. But the benefit of hindsight is a lovely thing, as I’m sure a British Prime Minister might argue right now.

This said, though the French have been allergic to this concept to date, the Brits did have a fun trick up their sleeves: virtual races.

On the downside:

  • You’re all alone, so it’s hardly exciting. That said, once you’re off, many real races end up like that anyway
  • You hope that other people don’t cheat with the GPS recordings or pick a 15% downhill course
  • Failing that, you have to assume that other people’s GPS watches are accurate

On the plus side:

  • No toilet issues! (you didn’t think you’d get away without me mentioning it)
  • Great motivation to push yourself once every week or so when nothing else to race or train for
  • It allowed me to reconnect with a fair few of our old friends from Herne Hill Harriers whom we hadn’t “raced” with in ages

The apparent start of the virtual races saga actually stemmed from one of HHH’s club members, Angus, who tried to organise a 5km relay race against Belgrave Harriers, one of the other south London clubs. It was a fairly small affair, a 12 v 12 event where we each did our 5km rep by ourselves while maintaining social distancing rules and told him our time aaaand, we lost. As leg number 6, my time of 17:49 was inconsequential, but it was enough for me to make the team! The write-up was pretty funny (available here), it got picked up by Athletics Weekly aaand, the rest is history in terms of virtual racing: the next race had … 3,791 runners!

My first (and no doubt last) mention ever in Athletics Weekly!

Someone picked up on the idea and set up the National Road Relays: I think they expected a dozen or so clubs to sign up but everyone is clearly really missing parkruns. Once they’d got their servers upgraded to cope with the demand, the rules were simple: 5km, don’t cheat, no overly downhill courses, upload your Garmin/Strava time, they’ll add everything up and work out the winning team (12 runners for men, 6 for women).

Exciting route…

You had a few days to run, and it was (genuinely!) really interesting to see teams move up and down the rankings when a new runner popped up in their squad. The HHH men’s team was never anywhere near the top places (I barely scraped the B team in 17’34), but the HHH women’s team stormed to win the women’s race. Leeds, the winning men’s team, ended up with an average time for all 12 runners of under 15 minutes which … is fast.

Next up, because it never stops: the 26 per team HHH v Clapham Chasers 2.6 mile race on the weekend of the cancelled London Marathon. Many (thousands) of people ran the distance as (I think) a fundraising exercise, but we obviously made it a race. Once I’d converted 2.6 mi into a sensible distance (4.18km), we were off, going – again and again – around our personal racing track around the trainline. Mind-bogglingly boring, but relatively free of cars and mostly flat. Great things eventually happen to even the most mediocre people and … we won! We didn’t win anything, because it was a meaningless fun race between two clubs but WE BLOODY WON by 8 minutes. Clearly, I don’t win very often.

Because we were busy, there were still two races to go! The first one was the Batavieren Race, or at least a version of it. Normally, this is an overnight relay race of 25 legs, where we did surprisingly well last year in 5th despite not having a full team, in large part because we oldies knew how to drive/plan the route, whereas drunk students didn’t so much. This is also the run which was my last one for two whole months after a buggered Achilles Heel.

This year’s race was a bit easier: 5km, any time over the course of two days, upload it. Where’s the fun if you’re not sleep deprived?!

It turns out that students do, indeed, perform better if they can rest and aren’t drunk when running. We finished a reasonable 15th out of just over one hundred teams. Respectable!

Adding some variation to the 5k route…

And last but not least, a British Milers Club (BMC) mile this week. I obviously would never normally qualify for BMC races but hey, why not blast one and see what’s left. I blasted and holy crap has it been a while since I’ve raced something so short. I could barely breathe afterwards. I think my lungs were still burnt 2 days later! Still, 5’17 was alright ish and, for posterity, I was 442nd out of 1,191.

I could finish with something philosophical about how this is great and is making us reconnect with the real reason we’re running but … it’s been bullshit if I did. Like everyone, I’m missing the racing. Not because I’d ever win (though we did beat you Clapham Chasers. Up the Hill!). Not because I think my times are ever going to improve much. But it’s fun. Some people no doubt take it too seriously but, for most, it gives a fun reason to challenge oneself and have fun with friends. I don’t think we’ll be back to team racing for quite some time and quite possibly not before 2021.

On the plus side, now that we’ll be allowed out of our one-kilometre radius as of tomorrow, it at least means that we can go explore a little bit further. And who hasn’t dreamt as a young child of a summer exploring the Yvelines, Haut-de-Seine and Val d’Oise? Yay!

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