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Mark Armstrong: Reflections on the life of a runner and a frustrated home schooler

Mark Armstrong on his way to victory at one of the 800m races put on as part of the Joe Skipper Track Challenge. Picture: Baz Hipwell

Mark Armstrong on his way to victory at one of the 800m races put on as part of the Joe Skipper Track Challenge. Picture: Baz Hipwell

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Running editor Mark Armstrong catches up with that he’s been doing over the last few months

Lockdown life: Mark Armstrong trying to get some strength training in being 'helped' by son, Logan, with a sandwich. Picture: Alison ArmstrongLockdown life: Mark Armstrong trying to get some strength training in being 'helped' by son, Logan, with a sandwich. Picture: Alison Armstrong

How have I put myself in this position?

I’m coming round the final bend of the athletics track at the Sportspark, UEA and somehow, I’m at the front.

There’s just over 100m to go of the 800m race that is part of the Joe Skipper Track Challenge. I can feel the pack of runners behind me hunting me down and my body feels like it’s on fire!

The second-placed competitor Bhaskar Kumar (one of the nicest guys you could wish to meet) surges to make a move past me. Somehow, I respond by doing likewise. I manage to override everything in my body that’s telling me to stop trying to run so fast (relatively). There’s no way I’m giving up the inside line of the track – anyone who wants to win is going to have to run around me. It’s not a nice thing to do, but it’s racing and my goodness it feels good.

As we come into the last 60m I can feel the pressure decrease slightly and I know I’m about to claim the first, and possibly last, ‘victory’ of my running career.

We will gloss over the fact that in almost every other race on the night my time of 2:25 would have been last due to the seeded nature of all the races put on... a win’s a win!

These races that have been put on over the last month have all been building towards this evening’s series of 5K races which will see the crème de la crème of Norfolk runners competing in the main race... I’m several races before that fortunately!

It has been one of the many enterprising, fun events that have been staged during the last six months when it’s been so vital for people to focus on something away from the coronavirus pandemic.

I’ve got to admit I was struggling at the start of lockdown – I had lost my way. I was speaking to Neil Featherby about what might lie in store due to the coronavirus when the subject turned to my running.

Neil lent a sympathetic ear to my protestations that I just didn’t have time to think about running at the moment – it all seemed to much.

Neil then of course proceeded to gently drop a truth bomb smack bang in the middle of my conscience.

“Well, you’ve just been talking to me for 20 minutes – you could have got a run done in that time.”

Two things will strike you about this...

1. He was right

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2. If you think Neil can limit a conversation to 20 minutes then you don’t know him very well

The points stood though.

The truth is I just felt overwhelmed by all that was going on and the uncertainty of the situation. My friends and family’s health, a different work environment, home schooling children... it all contributed to running dropping to the bottom of the priority list as I know it does for so many of us... right at the time when it needs to be closer to the top for our mental and physical wellbeing.

I resolved to get back to running without putting any pressure on myself initially. Some runs lasted less than 15 minutes – it didn’t matter – I just needed a break from trying to teach my six-year-old daughter Lara about phonics and maths (poorly).

Of course, once you start properly again you wonder why on earth you stopped. Within a month I felt back and ready to focus on the goal I set myself after breaking my ankle last year – to break 20 minutes for 5K again. Handily it also gave me a break from digraphs and number lines...

Obviously, no actual events were on offer at the time but virtual racing was fast taking on a life of its own and I signed up for the Virtual Wroxham 5K organised by Norwich Road Runners.

I know some of you will be astonished that I managed to increase the pace in training without getting injured. I stuck to a stretching routine every evening (check out Yoga for Runners on Facebook) whilst watching the latest craze on Netflix (it seems so long ago now that I was hooked on the Tiger King), and it has helped hugely.

I set my route to replicate the Wroxham course with even a little downhill finish in my new surroundings after recently moving house (just to add a bit more angst into our lives). I knew before the run that I would break 20 minutes again – I had put in the hard work and this was just about cashing that in. I clocked in at 19:41 – a new personal best (does it count though?...perhaps an idea for another column).

A couple of days later and my wife/fellow home schooler, Alison, had lured me into the Race from Your Place event the Norfolk Gazelles staged in the absence of the Alex Moore Relay. I was part of a Wymondham AC team and this really was one of the highlights of the lockdown period – there was so much of a buzz around as people carried all kinds of weird and wonderful batons around for their legs as you had to run as far as you could in an hour.

MORE: Love running? Join the Run Anglia Facebook group here

I was one of the lucky ones that got to get their leg in quite early on a scorching hot day and I was fairly pleased to get through just over eight miles with a snowdog in my pocket...

It was a cracking event and served to remind so many of us of the wonderful running community that has been built up in Norfolk – I’m already looking forward to next year’s event... although let’s hope we’ve also got some actual racing to look forward to.

It had all been fairly quiet on the running front for me after that and I was merely content to keep up the running regime for mental as well as physical wellbeing.

But then Neil and Joe Skipper came up with the Track Challenge as mentioned above whereby a series of races... or time trials technically... were staged at the Sportspark.

I’ve since competed in the 1500m (5:08) and 800m (2:25) races and it all culminates in the 5K this evening.

Competing on the track has been hugely out of my comfort zone – there is nowhere to hide. If you’ve paced it poorly then everyone is well aware as you saunter home long after everyone else. In much the same way I’ve got huge respect for anyone that steps into a boxing ring, I think anyone that competes on an athletics track deserves similar praise.

It has definitely scratched the competitive itch for the time being and I only hope the experience will serve me well when proper races return.

Fortunately, I’ve learned that I’m marginally better at running than I am at teaching. Just ask Lara.


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