This weekend saw some blistering efforts for the virtual road relays and in this Fast10 blog Alex Bampton has pondered why. 

It’s been a few weeks now since government guidance advised social distancing and once a day outings for exercises and, with the exception of a few rogue individuals, these new rulings have largely been accepted and embraced by the distance running community.

That said, the, all-be-it inevitable, cancellation of the regional and national 6 & 12-stage road relays was a bitter blow for many runners up and down the country.

For many clubs, the spring relays are the athletic pinnacle of the year, an opportunity to showcase not only the best athletes in the squad but also the depth of talent that is essential to be successful in a race contested over a 4-5 hour period (in the case of the 12-stage).

The virtual relays

The ingenious idea of moving the relays to a virtual platform belonged to Mark Hookway and Massi Dendani, inspired by the success of the Belgrave vs Herne Hill Harriers virtual relay match.

Former University of Birmingham athlete James McCrae stepped up to direct the event assisted by UoB stat man-come Countdown reality tv star Jonny Currie. Within two-weeks, the inaugural virtual national road relay championships (VNRRC) had amassed over 5000 entries, a testament to the team’s fast work and strong PR.

The rules are simple, competitors upload a GPS-measured 5k effort that must be completed solo within a 5-day window. If that wasn’t already brilliant enough, the organisers saw the opportunity to promote the NHS Charities Together which, at the time of writing, has accumulated nearly £3000 in donations. [It’s now a brilliant £5000 –  Ed.]

This isn’t a detailed results summary, that is to come. This is an article based on one obvious observation – people are running seriously bloody fast.

When this was written, just two days into the upload-qualification period, the women’s race has seen 5 sub-17 and 11 sub-18 performances while the men’s race has seen 1 sub-14, 35 sub-35 and 135 sub-16 performances with much more to come.

Even in the context of a normal race, these runs are FAST. In the whole of 2019 which included some of the fastest ever times at Armagh and Ipswich among others, 38 men went sub 14:10 on the roads. Five athletes have just ran under this time with, in theory, thousands more left to attempt the time trial.

Similarly five women have currently stopped the clock below 16:42 a time that would have gotten all five women into the 45 of the 5k UK rankings in 2019.

This is as of Sunday (5th April) and I expect much more is to come. So what is going on?

Limitations of GPS and dodgy choice of course

Yes, let’s get this out the way. Some of these runs are obviously a bit dodgy.

Net-downhills, and potentially strong tail-winds (for point-to-point routes), the latter being particularly difficult to police, will be a contributing factor to a subset of fast runs. GPS is also not an adequate substitute for a measuring wheel, as we know from the track, courses consisting of multiple small (<1 mile) loops are especially likely to be over-measured by our watches.

These factors, whether deliberate or innocent will have artificially enhanced some times and that’s not taking into account more minor infractions such as rolling-starts. 

But even without the statistics, it’s clear to see something else is going on here. How are people able to run so close or even (unofficially) breaking their PB’s in a solo, time-trial situation in a time when we aren’t even able to train normally? Here’s a few suggestions: 

Maybe time-trials aren’t so bad?

How many world records have you seen within a ferociously competitive race, all battling for the front, pushing each other right for the line with the victor edging their competitors by a fraction of a second? Not many.

Yes, they often still have the roaring crowds and the race-day adrenaline but the point is even some of the fastest runs ever are done largely alone. At the more amateur level, this might also be of some relevance.

You can run the race exactly how you want to, no worries about whether to ‘go with it’ and potentially getting sucked into too faster pace with energy-depleting surges for the front. Or, if you’re like me with a long gangly stride and slow cadence – you just like your own space!

Are we better rested?

Speaking to popular club runner Dave Norman, he felt some athletes working from home may finally be getting the bed (and general) rest that many of us so often neglect.

How many runners work 40+ hour weeks with an additional hour long commute each way, get home, train, shovel in some food and then stay up for a few hours (because otherwise what’s the bloody point) knowing full-well you aren’t going to get those magical 7+ hours sleep before it all starts again?

This is quite possibly the biggest advantage professional athletes have on amateur runners and maybe some runners for whom sleep deprivation is a consistent problem, are finally starting to see why. 

At this point, I would like to state that this will certainly not be the case for everyone. Many are struggling. Within our community we have people ill, key workers on the front line working god-knows what hours in extremely stressful conditions, we have bereaved friends and family members or those with sickening levels of anxiety and stress about what the next day brings for their isolated loved ones.

For some, keeping fit is very low down on the priority list, others may struggle to motivate themselves to jog much more than once or twice a week. And that’s okay. Running and hard training will be there for us when we want it.

Switching to singles

Also suggested by Norman, who ran 15:00 flat around a SportCity car park he admitted was maybe worth a few seconds, is the idea that some people may be benefitting purely by a switch to pure singles. It’s something I’ve felt could make a difference myself.

As I discuss in my ‘Stop copying and start personalising’ article, it is unlikely that every single runner will equally benefit from a traditional schedule of 2-3 midweek doubles on session days. Maybe some of us would gain more from longer aerobic runs instead and some of us would gain more from a bit of extra sleep. [Managing fuelling around double days could also be a factor – Ed.]

Photos of Matt Holt’s vest (Salford) and Gavin Hill (Sale) provided by Dave Norman.

Race flexibility

This one is more of a technicality but it still fits into the theme of training and racing personalisation.

Like, the INEOS 1:59 challenge, the VNRRC bestows on us the unique flexibility of choosing when to put in our effort. This has advantages that extend beyond the obvious meteorological ones.

If you’re a lark you can put all that energy into an early morning effort or if the mere thought of a 9 AM parkrun makes you nauseous then you can wait until the evening for your 5k smash-up. Also, it means that you have a contingency plan in case that Jalfrezi comes back to haunt you.

Remember it’s a bit of fun too

The VNRRC were set up predominantly as a bit of fun mixed with some competitive spirit and should be treated as such.

Yes, there will always be some who flout the rules or at least push the boundaries, but generally the event is succeeding in being a fun, innovative distraction to runners all over the country in amongst so much chaos and uncertainty.

We didn’t expect so many runners to be able to post such fast times in such strange, isolated conditions. But maybe if we start to think about some of the possible reasons for why this might be, we might be to make changes for the better in our training going forwards.  

There is still time to donate so here’s the link. We went on to check to see what the total was and it was £5000, so 100% of the target. Well done to all involved.