Monday, 20 September 2021

The dream is over.

The rollercoaster journey to get to the start line of the Boston Marathon is over.  I'd been putting off cancelling flights and hotel rooms in the hope that suddenly, miraculously the USA would open up its borders and allow UK citizens to enter the country in October,  but today's news finally means that any glimmer of hope is over.  

I suppose I should be proud that I qualified with a fast enough time to deserve a place two years running.  For someone who spent the first 39 years of her life avoiding running anything other than a bath that has to count for something.  When I started running the very idea of running a marathon, 26.2 miles, seemed utterly unthinkable, and the idea of qualifying for the iconic Boston Marathon was beyond my wildest dreams.  

But, at the moment, I just feel deflated. 

People keep telling me that, if I qualified once, I can qualify again.  I'm not so sure.  To say that qualifying the first time round was hard work would be an understatement.  It was considerably easier when there were lots of races happening that helped to focus my training.  I'm also less than impressed with the communications from Boston Athletic Association.  Up until today the message, when I have emailed BAA,  has been you can transfer to the virtual 'at no additional cost' (virtual is $70, actual race is about $290) without any indication of the date that the decision needs to be made.  At last, today, an email has been sent to all entrants saying that the difference in price will be refunded and that the decision needs to be made by Friday.  So at least there is come clarity. 

I think I have fallen a little bit out of love with the whole idea of the Boston Marathon. I know that the the friend I was travelling over to Boston with has a qualifying time (with a huge buffer) for the 2022 race, and my other running buddy will qualify easily.  The chances of me qualifying within the window available are about as good as a snowball's on Venus and, while I wish them well, I am a little bit envious of them.   So maybe I do still want to do Boston?  

For now I have the 'consolation prize' of running London in two weeks time instead of Boston in three.  TI had my head so deep in the sand about Boston being cancelled that my training, such as it was, was focussed on 11th October not 3rd October, so my taper will be slightly shorter than is ideal, and I won't do justice to my good for age place.  There is also the small matter of having to run 26.2 miles the following weekend to qualify for my 'virtual Boston' medal. That was about as much fun as having root canal surgery last year.  

On the plus side, there is a two day course I need to do for work which clashed with the Monday and Tuesday that my head had very kindly given me off work for the marathon.  I'm sure a course, via Zoom, will be more than enough to take my mind off the missing all the fun in Boston. 

Monday, 6 September 2021

A weekend in Paris!

 What a fantastic few days!  This summer has been...different.  I spent too much time in school, a week away on a course and never really felt I'd had a break from work.  So the few days we'd planned away were just what I needed.  

We decided, way back in January/February when it looked as though all travel restrictions would be over, that we would travel to Paris to run the Semi-Marathon.  There were five runners and one supporter in our group, and we followed the ups and downs of the Covid travel restrictions carefully over the following months.  We planned as much as we could and had the inevitable mad scramble to sort out tests and certificates and, eventually, early on Thursday morning we were on our way.   Paris was warm and sunny when we arrived at lunchtime, we did touristy stuff that was great fun but not really the subject of this blog, went out for dinner, drank red wine - all that good stuff.  

Friday morning was BEAUTIFUL so, of course, we went for a run - a 5 mile gentle sight seeing trot and photo shoot.  There may have been a little grumbling about 'food babies' and slightly sore heads but the run certainly sorted us out and we headed back to the hotel for a hearty breakfast.

Saturday is parkrun day.  I'd already run the parkrun in Bois de Boulogne prior to the 2019 Paris Marathon so I was keen to go somewhere new.  And if I am totally honest I am not 100% convinced that I could have found the start of that one again - which would have been embarrassing when travelling with friends.  Luckily there is another Paris parkrun: parkrun de Montsouris and after some research we realised that there was a bus route that took us right from our hotel to the park. 

We arrived at the park in good time, which is just as well as we weren't quite sure where the start was, luckily it was near to the toilets that we were also looking for.  parkrun in France is a lot more low key than parkrun in England so it is sometimes a little unnerving to be standing in the middle of a park at 8.45am, wondering if you are in the right place, tentatively approaching a stranger and starting a conversation in school girl French, often the stranger will be a fellow Bri (either expat or tourist) who is also looking for the start.  Then at about 8.55am parkrun appears by magic!  

The welcome from the event team was warm, the course was explained to us and we walked to the start.  I'd arranged to meet up with an old friend of mine who lives in Paris and to run with him - Covid has meant that we haven't seen each other for a very long time.   I chattered away as we ran around the park three and a bit times.  There was a short (quarter mile) uphill section on each lap but the rest was down hill all the way.  And the park is gorgeous.  If you had dropped me into the park and told me I was in Kew Gardens or RHS Wisley I would have believed you.  We also went over and under a railway track  - which the boys loved!  There was so much to look at as we trotted round, interesting buildings, pretty plantings and attractive vistas, unsurprisingly the park was being well used by locals - lots of other runners, yoga, boot camps, children playing, dog walking etc.   It was so very different to my expectations of an urban park - probably the prettiest park I have ever seen.

After the run we went to Chin Chin cafe.  I've been to lots of post parkrun coffees, but I have never felt so welcome as I did on Saturday, it was great to talk to the team and to other runners - results were processed so speedily we were able to thank the volunteer before we left. One of our group got a parkrun PB so we were all in high spirits for the journey back to the hotel.

Of course, the main reason we were in Paris on this particular weekend was to run a half marathon and I'd be lying if I said that the fact that the French call a half marathon a 'semi' didn't elicit some childish sniggering!  When we booked the race we had no idea of what mass races in a Covid era would look like.  We'd put in accurate time predictions for finish times and not thought too much about it.  The final race instructions put us into something of a panic.  The start times were spread out over much longer than we had anticipated, While four of us were due to start at 9.18am one of our group was not timetabled to set off until 11.05am.   We had a 5.15pm train to catch and we'd all quite like to be able to shower first.  Another consideration was the heat, Paris was, in comparison to Hampshire, roasting hot!  The thought of having to run from 11am until 1pm didn't appeal.  We began to consider how we could smuggle  our friend into our starting pen with us but, just on the off chance I thought I would ask at the expo.  I was amazed at how easy it was - I just explained that we were worried about missing our train and asked if a change of starting pen was possible 'Mais bien sur!' was the answer much to our relief.  Trying to change t-shirt sizes was a whole different story!

We arrived at Place de la Bastille on Sunday morning to a seething mass of runners.  Paris races don't seem to have an army of volunteer marshals, so it can be a little daunting trying to work out where you need to go! We showed out blue armbands that proved that we had been vaccinated so that we could get to the baggage drop, some of us braved the portaloos and are forever scarred by the experience, and made our way to the start.  There didn't seem to be any designated pens - we all sort of wandered towards the start line and were released in waves - I think we crossed the line at about 9.35am.  

The route was, very roughly, the first half of the Paris marathon but in reverse.  Shade was at a premium as the sun beat down.  I ran the first 5k with Husbando before we went out separate ways.  I wanted to run this as a 'teensy bit faster than marathon pace' run - but I am useless at pacing so just ran.  I looked forward to the shade of the Bois de Vincennes - forgetting that the roads were so wide that there was barely any shade. 

I'd forgotten that there is so little 'crowd control' on races in Paris.  In London races the the whole route is pretty much lined with volunteer marshals, often with loads of railings to stop pedestrians wandering into the route of the runners and crossing points would be manned.  On Sunday we often had to avoid people darting across the road (with or without children in tow), cyclists and electric scooters on the route.  I think these were slightly less dangerous when they were coming towards the runners as we could see them approach - when they tried to overtake us it was terrifying!  One lady, very smartly dressed, got quite upset at the runners trying to pass her as she stood in the middle of the road with her five, large, German Shepherd type dogs - one of whom was relieving himself in the middle of the road! 

Music and cheerleaders along the route provided entertainment, and I spent most of my time doing the mental maths needed to convert kilometres in to miles.  The maths gets harder the further I run.  I even forgot that a half marathon is 21(and a bit)k - I managed to convince myself for a while that it was 22k, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that people were shouting that there was 1k to go as we got to 20k!  It was really hot by now, and I don't think I have ever seen so many people in trouble at a race before.  At one point one of the race photographers stopped taking photos to help someone.  With so few marshals on the route it really was down to everyone to look out for everyone else.  

The last 500m seemed never ending.  It went on for miles as we ran around the monument in the Place de la Bastille, but suddenly the end was in sight.  And our one woman support crew was there to cheer me on!  I knew three of my friends were ahead of me - turns out we finished at roughly two minute intervals.  I was pretty please with being 21st in my age category, until the first finisher in our group announced that not only did he get a PB but he was also 3rd in his age category! 

I dashed off back to our hotel rather than hanging around - I wasn't braving those portaloos again - and I swear that the 450m walk to the Metro station took me far less time to walk than it took me to run the last 500m of the race!  

It was a fabulous weekend!  Great friends, great food and great to be running abroad again (even if we seem to have spent hours doing covid tests and completing forms).  I enjoyed the race, loved my post race hydration and was thrilled to be able to run a half, have a fabulous lunch and be back home in Hampshire by 9pm that evening all ready for the start of a new term on Monday. 

Sunday, 22 August 2021

The Vitality Big Half

I'm supposed to be following a training plan for the Boston marathon.  Last Sunday I was supposed to run 15 miles, I got to 5miles and had a 'phone call that meant I needed to go home meaning that I only ran 10 miles.  To make up for this I went out and ran 15 miles on Monday.  I then carried on 'as per the plan' until yesterday when I arrived at Stratford Upon Avon parkrun with every intention of taking it easy...until it started raining and I just wanted to get it done so I could go somewhere warm and dry.  

Today the plan called for a 10k race.  Brilliant. Nice and easy.  Until I realised I was signed up for the Vitality Big Half.  Race communications were a little hit and miss, but Husbando and I were both signed up, so really we had no choice but to turn up and run.  The timings looked a little tight - we were given a 10 minute window to arrive and check our bags, a similar time to enter our start pen but we needn't have worried.  The start area was on the chaotic side of casual, we were in wave B, went to the start at the time we had been told, and ended up setting off with the A wave!  

We started on Tower Hill, running out towards Canary Wharf, and through a very long underpass.  I loved the fact that all the mile markers (apart from one) had the elapsed time on them.  It meant that I could keep a rough eye on pace despite the disparity between the distance my Garmin thought we had run and how far we had actually run.  There was a long underpass just after mile one.  It was really long, but it was still a surprise to see a 2 mile marker (no time clock on this one) just 6 minutes after I had passed the 1 mile marker!  At the pace I was running (and according to Garmin) we were only at 1.75miles!  

Something very odd happened with my Garmin in Canary Wharf.  I appear to have run a very convoluted route and done a little swimming!  I managed to add a fictitious 3/4 of a mile to the route somehow - and all before we got to the 5 mile point.  Just before the 5 mile point one of the marshals shouted  'You are halfway there!  Keep going!'  I wanted to strangle that marshal.  I was not having a fun time. I had never enjoyed a race less (too many miles in the few days before, not enough sleep and poor diet were taking their toll) - I felt so awful that I convinced myself that I had covid(*) - and I was very aware that we were no where near bloody half way!  

Husbando was still running with me.  I told him that I was going to get to 10k and then walk the rest.  We ploughed on.  There were cobbles.  Quite a lot of cobbles.  I was looking forward to my walk at this point!  As soon as we passed the 10k marker I said goodbye to Husbando and started walking.  I ate a mini malt loaf, drank some water and then realised that walking 12k would take far too long.  I decided to run/walk the rest of the way and adopted a 9min run/1min walk strategy.  Luckily there weren't too many spectators to tell me to run!  My overall pace didn't drop too much and I pootled along to the finish.  

It was not the most interesting of routes.  The marshals, with the one exception noted above, were wonderful, very friendly and supportive, but there were very few supporters on the course and none of the atmosphere that was a key feature of the London Landmarks Half a few weeks ago.  As we approached the finish this did improve - with the last 600m having lots of supporters, but all in all I was just relieved to have finished.  

I caught a quick glimpse of the Cutty Sark as I crossed the finish line, collected my medal (I do like it when a medal matches the colour scheme I am wearing!) and followed the trail of runners to the baggage collection in the grounds of the Royal Naval College.  This was the best bit of the race!  Despite having been born in QE Military Hospital and having run a couple of 10ks in Greenwich Park (very hilly -  the views from the top are stunning!) I haven't spent much time in Greenwich.  The College is stunning.  

Bag collection was a dream.  I'd been a bit worried as all our bags were thrown onto vans on Tower Hill that it would be a bun fight - but the baggage crew had sorted them all beautifully!  I suspect that this was a task that went on and on, as people were still making their way to the start line I was at about 8miles in to the race.  

Husbando texted me to tell me where he was so we could meet up.  There's always one person who has to lower the tone, and if it isn't me it will be him!  As we made our way back into London I discovered that a group of my friends had been running the race today - one of them got a PB - wish I had been better organised as we could have met up for a drink afterwards!

I am going to put my feet up for a few hours now and resume the training plan on Tuesday!  I have another half marathon at beginning of next month - so long as we can get to France and back.  Hopefully I will remember to take it easy at parkrun the day before - but who knows?  

* I do not have Covid!  One of the many joys of being a teacher is having ready access far more LFTs than anyone could ever need.

Monday, 2 August 2021

The return of parkrun and city centre races!

 I missed the last parkrun before the global pause.  I decided to go to a yoga and brunch thing with a friend, it was lovely, I came away feeling relaxed - that may have had something to do with drinking Bucks Fizz with brunch.  I was on 389 parkruns at 99 different venues, and had big plans to run my 100th different venue the following week.  I'd told lots of friends and I was rather excited about reaching this milestone.  Obviously my plans changed.  There have been several glimmers of hope for a restart since last October, and earlier easing of rules meant that we could meet up in small groups to run, but it wasn't the same as parkrun.  There is something about parkrun that elevates it from just 'a 5k run in a nice place' to a real force for social good.  

When I learnt that parkrun would return on 24th July I had a dilemma.  I wanted get my 100th run out of the way.  We were due to go to London (more of that later) so could started to look around for a suitable parkrun that didn't make us stray too far from our route.  I didn't want to make a big deal of it though for a couple of reasons: it wouldn't  be fair to the event team if the crowd that turned up for my 250th descended on a parkrun, and I didn't want people to feel that they ought to come and support me when they really weren't happy about travelling or mixing with people unnecessarily.  So I told the group I ran with regularly on Saturday morning and baked a cake.  

We arrived at Blackpark parkrun with plenty of time to spare, parked and made our way to the starting area.  What amazed me was how utterly normal and thoroughly wonderful it felt at the same time.  I may have forgotten (it's my age!) that we weren't supposed to hug people - but there were friends there I hadn't seen for however long this damned pandemic has been going on!  It was also a lovely treat to run a single lap parkrun.  The run brief was short and to the point, just enough to welcome us all back, remind us of the basic rules and to get us on our way.  The parkrun weather fairies worked their magic and it didn't start to rain until we had finished our teas, coffees and cakes and were on our way and I'd finally, in the company of the people who had helped me hold on to the last remains of sanity during lockdown,  done my Cowell Club run and we were on our way up to London.  

After checking into the hotel, having a quick shower and a bite to eat it was time for a little retail therapy before dinner and a movie and an early(ish) night because I had a race, a real, live actual race in the centre of that there London Town.  The race was the ASICS London 10k.  I had totally forgotten that I had entered the race (probably way back in 2019) until an envelope with a race number inside it arrived.  There was information about the time I would need to arrive, but no date on the envelope - even when I had worked out what the race was it had taken me a while to find the date on the organiser's website!  It only dawned on me as I walked to the start, thankfully very close to our hotel, and witnessed the somewhat shambolic organisation, that this was a rebranding of the old British 10k - a race I think I said I would never do again.  

After not taking it terribly easy at parkrun on the Saturday I was a little concerned about a 10k, but decided to just enjoy it.  It felt good to be lining up with a lot of other runners and a slight downhill start made for a speedy start despite the warm and humid conditions.  The route was a short, sharp dash around the West End and Parliament Square which ended with us running up Whitehall.  As we left Parliament Square there was a sign that said '0.1 to go' which I naturally assumed meant 0.1km to go.  A mere 100metres!  I picked up the pace - only to turn the corner and see that the finish gantry was all the way up Whitehall!  

I finished in 48mins 28secs - about 2 minutes slower than my PB, but much faster than I thought I would run after such a long break from races.  The race photos and videos were free, which is lovely, but the video did reveal that I needed to upgrade my sports bras!  A tech t shirt  (that actually fits) in a canvas goody bag was a nice upgrade from the cotton t-shirt that could double as a tent in plastic carrier bag that I'd been given at the old version of this race.

The following week was busy, one night in Manchester, catching up with our two oldest children, two nights in Leeds while Husbando did a book fair and I mainly sat in cafes and read books to try to avoid the rain! We knew we wanted to do a parkrun, but were unsure where we would end up.  In the end we discounted parkruns that would involve getting the car out of the hotel carpark and walked to Cross Flatts parkrun, it was an interesting walk through Holbeck - who knew that sex workers plied their trade at 8.30am on a Saturday morning?  The parkrun was one of the most welcoming ones I have ever been to. Lots of interesting chats with other runners, including one girl who had moved to the area just before the lockdown, her home was so close that she could see the start of parkrun from her window but she had never run parkrun here before (she was in Wales last week) and is moving this week so this is her one chance to run it!  The parkrun is not flat!  And the long uphill section is particularly sapping - especially on the second lap.   The hill isn't terribly steep - but it just goes on and on... Thankfully there was an enthusiastic marshal half way up the hill!

Saturday evening saw us back in London.  We had the London Landmarks Half Marathon to look forward to.  On a whim, having not got a place in the ballot, I applied for places that were released on a first come first served basis a couple of months ago and got them.  I seem to remember it was not cheap.  I'd put down a predicted pace a little slower than my PB, and so Husbando and I found ourselves in the first 'Lightening' wave.  Our hotel was close to the start, so we didn't need to leave a bag on the baggage busses  just turning up 'race ready.'  I bumped into a headteacher I know from Twitter - nice to put a face to a name, and we had a lovely conversation with twins Debs and Linda who have raised huge amounts of money for Cancer Research running in memory of their brother.  I showed Debs the 'rabbit ears' technique for tying her laces (and I am claiming that this was instrumental in her subsequent PB!)

The atmosphere at the start was amazing.  Again I had no idea how this race would pan out.  We decided that it should be a 'training run with a medal' and then I set off far faster than I would like - just the excitement of being with so many other runners!  The route took us on a really bendy route through the West End and the City, we went over Waterloo Bridge - a bridge I have walked over so many times without knowing that it used to be referred to as the 'Ladies' Bridge' because it was built by women in WW2.  We overtook Bagpuss on the bridge - and had a chat with other runners about whether it could be the real Bagpuss as running is far too energetic for a saggy, baggy cat - even if Emily does love him!  We also overtook a 'guide dog' - I am really hoping that there were several people in guide dog outfits, otherwise I overtook the same person three times.  

Despite going off a bit too fast we managed to maintain the pace fairly well until about 9 or 10 miles.  In common with lots of races in built up areas, my Garmin was wildly out of sync with the mile markers, by 9 miles it was about three quarters of a mile out, and I lost the plot a bit.  I was trying to work out how far I had left to run, what pace I was actually running (as opposed to what pace my watch said I was running) and I really couldn't do the maths!  I'd also not taken any nutrition with me (no mini malt loaf in my pocket that day) and there was only water available - so my energy levels were beginning to drop.  I wouldn't normally take anything with me on a training run - but I also wouldn't run as fast.  My pace dropped and I told Husbando to go on without me.  I changed down a gear, gave myself a bit of a talking too and settled into a slightly slower pace. As we passed the 13 mile marker my Garmin was reading just sort of 14 miles, but I didn't care - I was on target for a sub 1.50 finish - way off my PB but not bad for a training run, and I didn't feel too tired at the end.  (Official finish time 1.48.37).

The support on the course was amazing! It did feel as though I was on a running tour of all the places I used to work in (Chancery Lane, Holborn, Poultry, Cheapside, to name but a few) and we were very lucky with the weather, it was warm and humid but the rain held off until later in the day.  I really do think that this is the best city half marathon I have ever taken part in - all the best bits of the London Marathon (atomsphere, supporters and sights) without the boring bits!   I'll definitely try to get a place again next year.  


Friday, 7 May 2021

Every second counts.

 In the great scheme of things that have happened over the last 14 crazy months one specific race being cancelled is not a big deal.  Or shouldn’t be a big deal, not to a normal, well adjusted adult.  But I am obviously not a normal, well adjusted adult.  When the 124th Boston Marathon was postponed and then transformed to a ‘virtual marathon’ I was far more upset than I should have been. Maybe I am not as normal and well adjusted as I like to believe!

When I started running, back in 2010/2011, the idea of running a marathon was incredible.  I did not believe that it was something I was capable of achieving, I'd always been remarkably adept at avoiding physical activity while growing up and hated 'games' at school.  Even when I had got my head around the idea of running 26.2 miles all in one go I remember saying to a friend ‘Oh, to run Boston would be a dream – but there is no way I will ever be a good enough runner to do that!’  Their reply was quite simple; ‘Not with that attitude you won’t!’ And that was it, a seed was planted, I had a goal - to qualify to run a marathon in my favourite American city.  

As I ran more marathons my time seemed to be settling at around the four hour mark, but annoyingly it was just the wrong side of the four hours.  Midway through 2018 I set myself a goal of running a sub 4hr marathon before my 50thbirthday.  I had no set event in mind, and managed to run my first sub 4 at a low key marathon with Phoenix on the banks of the Thames in February.  I hadn't set out to run fast - it was just one of those days where, with the support of friends, everything just worked out for the best. The pressure was now off as far as I was concerned.  We still joked about the possibility of running a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, but the gap between 3hrs 58mins and 50 seconds and the sub 3hrs 50mins needed (I was in the 45-49 category then) seemed insurmountable.  

Then, in April, we had a trip to Paris to eat steak frites, drink red wine and run a marathon.  It was an 'interesting trip' that resulted in me smashing through the 3hr50min barrier and getting a BQ time. Another important thing happened -  I got older or, and this sounds much nicer, I 'aged up!'  Meaning that despite running as a 49 year old, the race I was entering would happen when I was 50 - which put me into a higher age category giving me a 5 minute slower target time.  My Paris time of 3.47.12 was 7mins and 48 seconds faster than I needed.  Happy days!  I registered for Boston, waited a couple of weeks, was told my time was fast enough, booked hotel and aeroplane tickets and looked forward to April 2020 and the 124th Boston Marathon.

Then Covid happened.  Along with every other race, Boston was postponed and then transformed into a virtual event.  I ran it on the same course with the same people as I ran my first sub 4 and I hated every minute of it.  And there were a lot of minutes of it!  But, I got the job done and have the medal to prove it. The only silver lining was that the Boston Athletic Association changed the dates for qualifying marathons so that my Paris marathon would still count for the 2021 marathon. But, and it is a huge but, the field size was cut by a third.  I applied anyway, encouraged my very fast friend to apply too so we could have a nice jolly trip, and waited.  Normally a buffer of 7mins 48seconds would mean I was sure of a place, the buffer for 2020 had been 1min 39, this year the speculation was rife that at least 10 minutes would be needed.  I was trying to prepare my 'happy face' so that when my friend got in and I didn't I could at least not disgrace myself by screaming and crying in public.  

On Tuesday 4th May social media posts kept popping up - runners saying 'I'm in with a buffer of 20mins' - I didn't see a single post with a buffer of less than 10 minutes.  I began to despair.  But I couldn't stop scrolling through the feeds.  And then I saw it.  A post on the official BAA instagram site announcing that the buffer was 7mins 47 seconds.  I ran from the bedroom to the kitchen, threw the phone and the piece of paper with my Paris time on it at Husbando and squeaked at him incomprehensibly.  Was it true? Had I read the numbers properly?  My heart was pounding.  I checked, he checked, we called one of the boys in to check too.  It seemed I might be in - but I wouldn't believe it until the email arrived. The one that had this heading:

I may well have checked my email every half hour overnight waiting for that! 

I can't believe I got into the Boston Marathon with just one second to spare - if I'd slowed down to talk to a friend I'd passed in Paris I wouldn't be going to Boston in October. The heart ache that must be felt by those who were one second the other side of the cut off must be huge.  In any other year they would have been safely into the race. 

Husbando has booked flights and a hotel room, I've spoken to my head teacher, who seems thrilled at the prospect of getting rid of me for a few days so now I just have the small matter of nursing my dodgy knee back to good health and getting my tired old 'aged up' body back into marathon shape! Oh, and planning just how much merchandise I will buy.


Thursday, 25 February 2021

Grade inflation, or why teachers always get the blame.

Sorry for a non running post on a normally running related blog, but this is too long for a Tweet of a Facebook status update, and I haven't exactly been jetting around the world running exciting races.  

Picture the scene, or rather the markbook.  If there was a fire at school I reckon every single teacher would risk life, limb and the lovely new set of pens that they treated themselves to last week in order to dash back in and grab their markbook - that is if they had been foolish enough to become separated from it in the first place.  Yes, the data is all recorded on the school system - unless it crashed as every teacher tried to meet the deadline for inputting half term test - but the system records raw numbers.  It doesn't have any of the squiggles and annotations that serve to put our results into context (e.g. 'J got 75% despite missing out a q because the pages stuck together' or 'C struggled as just moved to school and hadn't covered this topic fully' or 'D's gran was rushed to hospital last night').   Over the course of a student's school career we get to know these young people really well.  We went into teaching because we wanted to work with young people. We are interested in them, invested in their future and we work really hard to make sure that they have the best possible chance of doing as well as they possibly can.  

So now we are faced with the situation, for a second year running, that we get to 'decide' (according to the media) what grades our students will get at GCSE and A'level.  And we are being told, again according to the media, that this will result in grade inflation.  We'll just ignore the fact that the thorny topic of grade inflation has reared its head every August for as long as I have been teaching - i.e. even when there have been externally set exams.  

This is what will probably happen, and I will concentrate on two groups of students here to illustrate my point.  

The first is a group of really hardworking students who have been hitting grade 9 (old A*) throughout the year, with the odd wobble down to a B if they have had a bad day/their cat has died/their romantic life has gone off the rails.  Let's say I've got six of them in one of my classes working pretty consistently at that level, they all got 9s or very high 8s in the mock - which was an previously unseen past paper, and every topic test and homework supports the fact that these are bright, hard working children who could each and every one of them go on to get a 9 in their GCSE.  But, and it is a BIG BUT, I know from years of experience that one of them will come out of the exam hall in floods of tears and sob 'But, Miss, I had a total 'mare! I messed it up totally because (insert reason here.'  I will feel utterly helpless and murmur soothing words.  On results day five of my six students with a grade 9 target will be celebrating and one will be sobbing.  What should I do with my centre assessed grades (CAGs)?  All six of them are capable of the top grade, but I know there is a good chance one will 'mess up' (in their mind) and get an 8 or even a 7, but I have no way of knowing which one.  Do I role a dice to choose?  Of course not, I award them all the grade that every assessed piece of work they have done throughout the two year course informs me that they are capable of achieving.  Hence the grades will appear to be 'inflated.'

The second group are on what used to be known as the C/D borderline.  These are the students we want to get from D up to C (and not just because that looks far better on school league tables).  In 'new money' we are looking at a 4 being roughly where the C used to be.  Note the word 'roughly' - I know it isn't exactly the same but it is, for the purposes of this blog, close enough.  Imagine I have five or six students working at this level.  Some of them will be working hard, but still struggling.  Others, despite me using every trick in my tool box, just haven't managed to fall in love with Physics (yet), and the rest will be, for the want of a better phrase, a little bit lazy - no amount of Haribo bribes or detentions for incomplete work have motivated them to hand in homework on time.  In the mocks, they all got a 3 (a D in old money).  Some didn't care, let's say half of them didn't care.  They are never going to do Physics again and to be honest can't wait until the day that they can leave my lab safe in the knowledge that they will never have to listen to me bang on about electromagnetic induction and Fleming's Left Hand Rule ever again.  The other half of the group react differently.  They may realise that they are so close to the magical 4 that they put in a bit of work and manage to get that 4 in the actual GCSE exam, in doing so one of them will realise that actually, with a bit of consistent work and practice, Physics is really quite straightforward and, shh, don't tell anyone, they actually quite enjoy it.  They work hard and bump up their eventual grade from a 3 (in the mock) to a 5 or even a 6 in the actual exam.  

The problem is that every member of this second group has the potential to surprise me, pull out the stops, work their socks off during study leave, and leave me grinning from ear to ear on results day as we fist bump the air in celebration.  But they are a much more difficult, less homogenous group that the first group of quiet, hardworking students.  It could be anyone of them.  It is, despite having done this for years, still difficult to predict which student/s will end up covered in glory. Awarding all of this group a high CAG is obviously not the way to go, but awarding them all a 3 doesn't sit well with my experience of what happens in real life.  In a normal year, out of this group of six I would expect four to get a 4, one to get a 3 and the final one to get a 5 or better.  But how to decide which ones?  I suspect, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that most teachers would play it safe and award a 4.  Again, it looks like grade inflation, but it is actually just an attempt to be fair. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Virtual races... why bother?

I had always been somewhat sceptical about the concept of 'virtual races.'  It seemed to me to be a bit of a con, pay over your hard earned cash, go out for a run that you were very likely going to do anyway, send your Strave/Garmin evidence to the organiser and receive a tacky medal in return.  I have enough bloody medals as it is without adding more to the pile just for the hell of it

And then Covid-19 happened.  I saw race after race that I was due to complete this year cancelled/postponed (did I mention that I qualified for Boston and London this year?) I know that there are much bigger disasters than a middle aged woman not being able to run around a city with a few thousand other people and then blog about it afterwards but I, like many others, had worked hard, planned hard and saved up the air fare for these races and they left a huge hole in my calendar.  Almost worse though was the lack of a fixed date in the future to aim for, I'm all for running for the sake of running - but it is lovely to be able to have an event that looms large that everything is building towards.

And I missed people!  I missed the sound of thousands of pairs of trainers pounding the streets, I missed listening to snatches of conversations (and making up the rest in my head) and the bizarre conversations with strangers - some of whom I would never see again and others who, via the magic of social media, would become friends who I would see again on line and at races over the years to come.

As the implications of Covid-19 became apparent the number of virtual race opportunities hitting my in box grew.  I ignored them.  For quite a long time.  Then a couple of races I was running with Phoenix Running offered me the opportunity to 'go virtual' and I thought, what the hell!  The medals are awesome, the race organiser is an utter legend (google Rik Vercoe) who really goes the extra mile for his runners and there is an excellent online community that has sprung up around his races.  Oh - and the inclusion of a Freddo or packet of Haribos with every medal has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with my desire to run his virtual events.  It still felt a bit odd to be claiming a medal for what was essentially a training run... but the chocolate Freddos are delicious!

Then a friend sent me a link about 'The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee' - a four month long, 635 mile challenge to run, virtually, across Tennessee.  And yes, I know that it is not the same as being in Tennessee (it is flatter out there than it is where I live for one thing), but I have learnt a lot about Tennessee from people posting details in the Facebook page, runners from all around the world have shared pictures and stories about the places they live.  The basic run across Tennessee involves averaging 5 miles a day for 4 months, something that, when I started seemed manageable.  As the days went by and I logged my miles I realised that I could, if I applied myself run back across Tennessee too.  I finished my 635miles at the weekend and have started making my way back to the virtual start to look for my car in the car park, high fiving all the other runners on the way back (and there are a lot of them, over 19,000 runners entered this event, far more than Laz Lake of Barclay Marathons fame ever anticipated when he first proposed this event).

At the same time as I was finishing my trek across Tennessee I was taking part in Phoenix Running's 'P24 Longest Day' virtual event. The format was deceptively simple.  Go for a run of at least one mile on Saturday at 8am, repeat every hour on the hour for 24 hours.  This was a virtual event that felt a lot more 'real' than most.  We had a pre race briefing (in the comfort of my kitchen) via Facebook live, virtual marshals who posted messages throughout the 24 hours to keep us motivated, and runners posted updates and photos as they finished their miles.  It almost made waking up to run at 2am in the rain bearable!  

I sneakily used the miles from P24 to complete the Hampshire Hoppit marathon - normally a small, low key, trail marathon with plenty of hills!  I signed up for this one purely because I wanted to support a local business - one that would have paid out significant expenses prior to the cancellation being announced.  I think that is a pretty good reason to run a virtual too.

That said, I'm not hugely looking forward to running Boston as a virtual marathon...