A Welcome Return to the Round Norfolk Relay

There are some running events that you fall head over heels in love with. That you vow you will do again and again so long as the opportunity – and your body – allows. For me, the Round Norfolk Relay is one of those events.

I last ran the Round Norfolk Relay in person in 2017, which feels utterly impossible. In 2018 there was an admin error which meant we could only enter one team from my running club (and we decided to put forward the fastest team we possibly could – they won the open category!), and in 2019 I was injured. In 2020 the event unsurprisingly turned virtual so blink and you’ll miss it, here we are in 2021 and finally the event was happening in real life and I wasn’t injured. The stars – thankfully – aligned.

For those who don’t know, the Round Norfolk Relay is pretty much exactly as it sounds. It’s a 17-stage, 197 mile relay race around the outskirts of Norfolk with an actual baton and everything. The legs aren’t divided equally – the shortest is stage 16 which is 5.49 miles (from Downham Market to Stowbridge) and the longest is stage 12 which is 19.67 miles (from Scole to Thetford). In addition to the horrifically long legs, you also have the ones with what can only be described as an absurd terrain. Stage 5 is run on shingle, and stage 6 features a cliff with a climb of 75m. Stage 13 had a total climb of 100m over 13.25 miles.

The stage 4 to stage 5 handover – shingle!

So as you can imagine I felt extremely lucky to have been gifted with what I can only describe as “my” stage (not that I’m precious. Please don’t ever take it away from me. I’ll give you cake. Dammit I’ll give you money). It’s stage 14, from Feltwell to Wissington, and is a sociable 7.27 miles with just 25m of climb in total.

The only downside to this very pleasant run? I had to hit the road at around 4:30am.

When I ran it back in 2017, I travelled with one of my best buddies and regular GRL blog post star Pete. On that occasion, he ran the 10.59 mile leg after mine, which meant that based on the predicted pace of our team, we had to leave home around 5am to get me to Feltwell for my predicted start time. So plenty of time to get a good few hours of sleep in. This time however, Pete was running the 13.25 mile leg before mine, which meant a much, much earlier leaving time. Like, 3.5 hours earlier.

Yep, that’s right, after managing about 2 hours of fitful sleep, we were in the car by 1:30am, ready for Pete to hit the road at a predicted start time of 2:55am (20 minutes earlier than when we went to sleep thanks to Hannah absolutely beasting stage 11, but we had learned our lesson from the events of 2017 and given ourselves plenty of time to get there)! It’s fair to say that the two of us were slightly delirious on the drive over, raving to Kisstory (DJ Pied Piper and the Masters of Ceremonies being a real highlight) and marvelling at the extremely rural and really quite sinister route that Google Maps had taken us on. But before we knew it we were where we needed to be, anxiously waiting for our legs to start.

And honestly, that was one of the most stressful pre-race waits that I can remember having. I don’t know whether it was the lack of racing events in the last 18 months, the lack of sleep or the fact that the adrenaline had been building all day as we furiously kept up with our teammates via the WhatsApp group. It was probably all three. But as I nervously chatted to one of the brilliant marshals in an attempt to distract myself I was visibly shaking and my stomach was churning. It was really intense.

Spot the very calm runner.

Predictably, Pete absolutely bossed his stage, coming in at 1:39:00 on the nose, pretty much exactly at the pace he had predicted and before I knew it I was baton in hand, heading out into the darkness with no other runners in sight and just the noise of my support crew rumbling along in the van behind me, lighting my path, making sure I took the right turns and just calming me the eff down. And it worked. Within minutes I had found my groove and everything just felt meditative. There is something so eerily beautiful about running in the pitch black countryside in the wee small hours and the lack of sleep meant that the whole run took on this slightly dreamlike quality. It honestly seemed to pass within minutes, and before I knew it I was handing the baton to Jacob and wandering over to Pete in a bit of a daze. I had even managed to shave 3 seconds(!) off my 2017 time.

Now this is the time to talk about the support crew, because they are the real heroes in all of this. While yes, some of us were running on tough terrains or on little to no sleep, by the time they all got to me they had been up for 24 hours, and all bar one of them had run their own leg in surprisingly warm conditions for the time of year. And yet all they were worried about was me, making sure I was hydrated enough, making sure I wasn’t freaking out, and most importantly making sure I was safe. They had fostered the most incredible team atmosphere throughout the day, sending us all photos of our teammates on WhatsApp and bigging them up when they had beaten their predicted time or overtaken another runner. I felt like I was part of something really, really special, and this was all down to them. And this is just what happens on the day itself. The organisation behind the scenes for an event like this is HUGE, from arranging support cyclists and working out the start times for each runner based on the pace of the one before them (and making quick adjustments when someone drops out or gets injured), to making sure we all understood the rules around high vis and buying and giving every runner a lei to wear when they completed their stage. They were just incredible and I cannot thank them enough for giving me the chance to take part in this event that I LOVE. And a round of applause for their bladder control please.

The best of the best of the best.

As Pete and I drove home, Google Maps again decided to test us (or in our sleep-deprived state we missed a turning, far more likely) and we ended up taking a longer route which took us back on the leg I had just run. And here we witnessed this huge queue of runners which looked really spectacular as the sky slowly turned from black to inky blue. There had been hardly any runners on the road around us as Pete and I ran, but we had certainly found the majority of them as we drove home, all hurtling towards Wissington, the flashing lights from their support vehicles lighting up everything around us. We then continued to Ely and watched a misty sunrise, bleary eyed and looking forward to coffee. Those are the kind of memories that stick with you.

36 hours later I’m still on such a high from this event (but that might just be the lack of sleep really kicking in). There is nothing quite like it in the running calendar that creates such a sense of camaraderie and team spirit. While we might all do races for our club, wearing vests and earning points (in the races that do such a thing,) ultimately we are running for ourselves and perhaps chasing a PB. But in the RNR you are very much running for each other, and it’s an incredible feeling.

Same time next year folks?

Red. Sweaty. Delirious. Happy.

How I’ve Managed my Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar Fasciitis. Two words that send a shiver up the spine of any runner. As dirty a pair of words as shin splints. And exactly what I’ve been dealing with for the last few months.

I’m not going to lie. It’s been miserable, and painful, and I don’t have a quick-fix, miracle cure for you. And just because it worked for me, doesn’t mean it will work for you. But I thought I would share with you what I’ve done to try and get over this miserable affliction effectively, because if just one of these helps with your recovery, that’s got to be a good thing, right?

REST

First and foremost I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to lay off the running. But you knew that didn’t you? You just didn’t want to hear it. I feel you.

If there is pain, don’t run on it.

It doesn’t matter what races you’ve got planned or how long you’ve been training for them- I had to miss out on 6 different events from 5ks to half marathons whilst dealing with this injury – it’s better to take 3 months off now, then run on it and end up having to take double that off (or worse). There are other sports you can do instead. For me, that’s been spinning and swimming.

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GET DIAGNOSED

If you’ve got pain that is mostly in the heel, and it’s at its worst first thing in the morning when you get out of bed, chances are it’s plantar fasciitis. But the root cause of the PF could be due to tight calf muscles or any number of things, and it’s best to get a professional to take a look at you so that they can help with the best course of action. I worked with Megan from the FAST Clinic, and one of the best things she did for me – other than be endlessly patient and tell me that yes, I will get out running again – was tell me that it’s not enough to just rest tendons – they need to be strengthened as well.

STRENGTHENING

Once Megan and I had established that mobility and flexibility weren’t the issue for me, she gave me a few strengthening exercises to do at home. One was standing back from a wall and falling towards it with my hands out to catch myself whilst keeping my legs straight and my feet flat. But the ones that I feel made the greatest difference for me were adapted heel raises. Rather than just standing on a stair and going up and down on my toes (dropping the heel below the height of the step as far as I’m able), I was going up on both toes, but only down on the bad foot. I also had the toes of the bad foot stretched upwards on a rolled up towel as I did this. After a while, I started adding weights, first with a few plates (around 4kg worth) in a rucksack on my back before moving to kettlebells up to 10kg (you’ll need a hand free to hold on to a rail, otherwise you WILL stack it). Once my foot had become used to being loaded up again (when you run the force through your foot is considerably more than your body weight) it was time to think about running again.

REHAB

Most people who have had PF will tell you that you should roll out the fascia (essentially the mid foot area) on a tennis/golf/cricket ball, and I’ve found this to be great advice. My ball of choice is a lacrosse ball as it’s a good size but smooth on the skin, and I got mine off Amazon. You can also roll your foot on a small bottle of frozen water as ice can help with the inflammation.

I also went to see a sports massage therapist in Ely called Becky Case-Upton. I know Becky from my gym, and she has this infectious energy for life, and a serious appetite for learning about the human body, and after Justin from “You’re Running What” had raved about her I knew I had to see her, and I am so, so glad I did. Becky is a phenomenal therapist, and I feel like seeing her was the final missing puzzle piece in my recovery. I’ve been recommending her to everyone, which I may live to regret further down the line when I next need to see her and find she has a waiting list from hell, but if you’re struggling with an injury she should definitely be someone to consider seeing.

ADDITIONAL SUPPORT

I tried a few different other things to help with my PF including a boot to wear at night which I ditched after 3 attempts as I decided that even if it did help my PF, I still wouldn’t be able to run as I’d be too exhausted from waking up every time I rolled over when I wore the horrible thing. Others have found these to be useful though. Instead I’ve just been going to bed wearing a support sock on my foot. I’m not sure how much difference this has made to be honest, but it certainly hasn’t hurt.

I put innersoles or heel inserts into all of my shoes, and I was lucky enough to be gifted a pair of OOFOS recovery sandals that I have been wearing around my house non stop since they arrived around 5 weeks ago. Usually I potter around my house in flat slippers, but the general consensus with PF is to avoid being flat footed wherever possible. Although flip flops are generally frowned upon if you want to look after your feet, OOFOS are flip flops in looks only. They are so, so comfortable, and as their website says better than I can,  “their patented biomechanically engineered footbed helps to increase circulation and provides superior arch support”. I’m planning to get a pair of the rose gold ones to take on future travels.

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PATIENCE

I’m sorry, but with PF, you’re going to have to be patient. It’s not an easy injury to recover from, especially if you want to recover from it well, not just manage it enough so that you can keep running. I first started struggling with this in June, and now in mid September I’m finally getting out there again, starting with just a mile at a time.

I’l be honest – I’ve had some really down moments, none more than when I had to pass up my place in the Round Norfolk Relay – that was the one that caused tears. But I had more time to blog, I visited my local lido more, I supported my friends by acting as bike support on their long steady runs or cheering them on at races and I kept busy by trying new things. There are positives that can be found from being injured, including getting into good habits and being more aware of your body. And those last little runs I’ve done have been absolutely amazing.

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If you’re currently struggling with PF I really hope you find this post useful, and I hope my recovery will make you feel a bit more optimistic that you’ll get through it too. Let me know how you get on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aha! The Round Norfolk Relay – My Review

Ok, I’m three cups of coffee, one cup of tea, a load of sweets and a two hour power nap in.  I can do this.

This morning (or last night depending on your view of the world), I woke up at 4:10am to take part in the 198 mile Round Norfolk Relay for my awesome running club Ely Runners. For the uninitiated (as I was prior to my taking part in it) the RNR is a 17 stage mega relay that goes – yep, you guessed it – right the way round Norfolk, starting and ending at King’s Lynn. I was given stage 14, which is thankfully one of the shorter legs at 7.27 miles and goes from Feltwell to Wissington, and my faithful running buddy Pete took on the 10.59 mile stage 15 from Wissington to Downham Market, which meant that we could travel to the start together.

The thing with the RNR is that the organisation behind it is frankly insane. Our team of 5 must have worked their socks off working out everyone’s estimated start time based on the pace each runner thought they would run their leg in. And it’s so hard to know exactly how you’ll do on the day. if you end up being a bit slower than expected it’s not a disaster as the runner you’re handing the baton to should be there ready and waiting. However, if you run a blinder (as some of our runners did) and shave some time off, there’s a risk your runner might not be there waiting for you. It’s high stress stuff for those on the support crew, trying to make sure everything runs smoothly.

So at 4:15am, as I was putting my contact lenses in, I got a message saying my leg would be due to start no later than 5:30am. My previous start time had been 6:08am. And Pete and I had planned to be there 40 minutes in advance. So cue a somewhat, um, “energetic” rush round the house. Pete got to me at 4:48am, 12 minutes earlier than we’d originally planned, and we crossed our fingers and set off.

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Now we hadn’t planned for mega thick fog, which scuppered all chances of putting our foot down, and messages between us and the support crew were intermittent at best due to the ropey Fenland signal. And then we got to a mist-filled Feltwell it looked more like something out of a horror movie than a place where a hundred or so runners and crew would be gathered. Thankfully Pete had been organised and knew where in Feltwell we needed to be, so we finally parked up at around 5:25am, panicking ever so slightly that I needed to be kitted up and raring to go in 5 minutes. But as it turned out, the cheeky little sausages on the support team had been erring on the side of caution due to the previous runner arriving late for their handover, so in order to be sure I’d be there in time they’d told me to be there a tad earlier than necessary. I may not have been overly impressed as I stood in the freezing fog, but with hindsight it gave me bags of time to prepare myself, get hydrated, use the portaloo (3 times -standard) and grab the baton from John at a couple of minutes to 6:00am.

The fog was still super thick but it wasn’t too cold out once I got moving. It was also just starting to lighten up when I set off. It was a weird experience. I haven’t run for a while because of a grumpy foot (suspected tendonitis) and I am SO not a morning person. So the entire run seemed to pass super quickly in a bit of a blur, and I really didn’t take much in. I think I just went on autopilot. The sun came up when I was running but the fog was so thick I could barely see more than a few metres ahead of me. And it’s such a weird sensation to hear cars crawling along just a few metres behind you (every nighttime runner needs a support vehicle driving behind them). The Ely Runners crew (we were on the club’s B team) were just awesome, checking I was ok, and the human megaphone James knew me well enough to know that I’d respond well to some banter (by that I mean giving him the finger when he told me to hurry up). And before I knew it, I was being told I was 500 yards away but a cycling marshal (I resisted to urge to ask him how far that actually flipping meant as I haven’t a scoobie about yards) and then I was passing the baton to Pete, who had driven to his start point with Andy from the support crew.

After a few minutes to gather myself and to crow over the frankly RIDICULOUS medal Andy gave to me, we then hopped in the car and drove towards Downham Market to meet Pete, honking the horn and whooping at him as we overtook him a mile or so down the road.

The organisation that goes behind the RNR, both by the support crews and the overall organisers is unreal. This was its 31st year, and they had over 1000 runners taking part. They had marshals positioned 500 metres or so from the start of each checkpoint, who would shout team numbers over their walkie talkies to their colleagues waiting at the check point so that they could make sure the next runner was ready to go (provided they had turned up on time – apparently the chap in front of me had no one waiting for him at Wissington). On paper it looks like an absolute nightmare, but from my point of view it was seamless. The support crew even turned up with a coffee for me as I waited for Pete arrive in Downham Market (the van had switched to cycle support by then).

Pete roared in to Downham Market at around 8:07am, and handed over to Anne who was running the penultimate leg. We also managed to catch up with some members of the A team, who had made up enough time to overtake the B team during stage 16 (the idea is faster teams start later so every team taking part finishes in around a 45 minute window from 10:15am – 11am). Pete and I then hopped in to the car to drive the 25 minutes home (the beauty of our stage of the race is that it’s the closest part of Norfolk to Ely) and at 9:30am went to Arbuckle’s with Rachel, her and Pete’s daughter Ellie and somewhat randomly my parents, niece and nephew. A great end to a great event.

On paper the RNR seems wildly complex, and in some ways it really is. But it’s also SO well done, and it’s an incredible event to be part of. Some people are doing epic feats of endurance (some legs, including one that falls in the early hours, are 19 miles long) and the atmosphere is great. If you’re thinking of entering a team I can’t recommend it enough, if only to go home with a medal that doubles up as a cake plate. I really hope I’m lucky enough to take part again next year. Huge thanks to our organisers Sarah, Steve Caroline, Andy and James. We could not have done this without you depriving yourselves of sleep for 30+ hours, not to mention the hours of organising in the run up to the event. And after all this, I might even wear that flipping hoodie again!

Aha!