Moving the Race from the Road to the Back Garden


Why would anyone run a 10k in their back garden or climb 9,000 metres worth of stairs in their flat block? Phil Bradburn investigates.

With the lockdown lots of people were running and doing athletics in unexpected places. I thought it might be fun to interview these people. For example, Tamara Lopez did a 10k in her tiny back garden and Matthew Hearne virtually climbed Mount Everest on his stairs. Liz Ayres has been running around her house to raise money for the Indoor Relay, and as for me… more on that later.

At the time of writing it seems like we are day 77,462 into a 21-day lockdown. I think this is a common feeling among many as the days morph into each other and all sense of time seems to disappear. It is almost as if we are in that twixtmas period where no one really knows what day it is anymore. While there has been a range of reactions and emotions from various folks which range from the hectoring to the motivational, from thinly-disguised-disdain to innovative, it is a truism that people have had different experiences of this unusual period. Hopefully we have taken away more positives than negatives. Lockdown has been an interesting time, for sure.

Many of us had been training for races that started to get cancelled during the spring. I for one had been chugging around an athletics track in March in preparation for a 24 hour track race in Crawley. I had found my groove and transferred my already well-developed ability to deal with mundanity in running for well over a day at a time to running around my local 400 metre track in Ashford and noticing ever more interesting details in its surface.

I had to find some way of keeping my motivation, having a goal to train towards, and developing a renewed sense of purpose with my running. What did I do? Well I found a certain international virtual race in the US and one organised by a well-known ultra company in the UK to keep me interested – more of that later! It was around that time, that I was badgered by a fellow Serpie and someone who makes regular appearances in these pages – the whirlwind who is Liz Ayres – who bent my arm up my back (at a distance of 2 metres of course) to run some leg of something called the Indoor Relay. I agreed to it, naturally – who can say no to Liz?

In any case, back to this article. Perhaps partly due to enjoying writing previous articles for this on-line mag, and the feeling that I would have oodles of time to spend doing something different during lockdown when I would not be spending 20 hours a week commuting to London, I decided to put my hand up to write an article about races during lockdown. It was at least 35% more appealing because I think it is a historic event we will all remember, no doubt with increasing positivity as the bad stuff, disappointment and harrowing memories fade.

When planning this article in mid-May some things had already happened, we were past the worst, and restrictions were easing. I personally had been happily using a lot of the time I had cleaved back from commuting for running. I was able to do this near where I live on the outskirts of a small village in Kent, obeying the law, observing the guidance, but above all using my common sense and putting in some high mileage weeks. Peoples’ experiences as a runner of course depended on the circumstances and environment with those having a great time (I confess!) praising their incredible foresight and judgment and those having a miserable time putting their experience down to damned bad luck. We all know that’s not really the truth.

It was only when it got to the day of my participation in the Indoor Relay that I realised that I had to run inside the house, or around my garden (which was overgrown despite my good intentions of being a rival for the Chelsea Garden Show “Garden of the Year” award!). So…. Inside the house it was destined to be, on the hellish torture device otherwise known as a treadmill. Urgh!

Now, I hate the treadmill. Time feels like it stands still when I am on a treadmill. The distance increases in a mockingly slow way, and it feels approximately 367% harder to run than outside. Still. I was committed now, and had to put up with Liz telling everyone who was listening some of my stories about tantrums while running, and other things I’ve said. Highly amusing I’m sure. Particularly when I asked if I had been running for an hour yet and told that I was only 25 minutes into the 1 hour that I signed up for. Still – without lockdown there is no way I would have put myself through that torture – and in a way – it was good that I was able to take away from that experience that I can do the treadmill after all!

Liz Ayres participating in the Indoor Relay.

Anyway, that’s enough about my treadmill trauma. Serpies is full of a great range of members who were doing some fantastically interesting and frankly, bonkers stuff. Which brings me to my first victim Liz Ayres.

Liz has played a massive part in the Indoor Relay, which was set up to raise money for charities who would probably lose out due because of races not being run, and participants of those races not being able to raise money from family and friends for their exploits. So, Liz ended up running several of the indoor relay legs equalling about 21 miles, and switched things up to do some crazy things to raise money for the cause. What were these things you ask? Tottering around in some towering peep-toes while miraculously avoiding doing some damage to her body! Donning a Burlesque Betty (no, me neither!) outfit for the promo video, and a unicorn inflatable outfit too. Blimey! She really knows how to create a visual spectacle and combine it with running.

Anyone who knows Liz knows that she is partial to cake. And one of the tortures she put herself through in the name of raising funds was to have “three cakes smashed into [her] face” and what was worse was that it was “chocolate cake and yep, wasn’t allowed to eat any!”. That is a real ordeal. All told the outcome of these escapades was that she raised money for a range of charities and she took away from the experience several things…. Achy calves after running around her house, that her Garmin only recorded about 15 steps for one hour of running, and that most of all “No matter what, there’s no excuse not to exercise in any form. Lockdown may not be ideal, but runners definitely got the better deal out of a bad situation”.

Matthew Hearne after conquering a Mount Everest's worth of stairs.

Talking about making a better deal out of a bad situation, I wondered what Matthew Hearne – ultrarunner and mountain runner – would say about his experience. I think Matthew has been to the Alps for running more times than most of us have bought running shoes! So, I was curious, with the various mountain races in the Alps being cancelled, how he was getting his vertical fix.

It turns out that Matthew decided on the spur of the moment a few weeks into lockdown that he would go up and down the communal stairs in his block of flats for hours on end for some kind of type II fun (the kind of fun that I imagine is only fun afterwards and in hindsight!), while raising money for charity. I was keen to find out what on earth made him do this maddening thing, and to hear more about his experience and what he took from the event.

A key motivation for him was to raise money for charity, and he had thought he might not be able to raise much “when people know you run marathons for fun, it is a hard ask!”, and I think that is something many of us can relate to. An added complexity was the logistics that went into providing both accountability and encouraging people to put their hands in their wallets to make donations to the NHS charities which were starting to become a real focal point for peoples’ desire to show solidarity and thank the wonderful doctors and nurses working on the frontline to deliver us from the pestilence.

One thing I found surprising was that during the 28 hours that he spent climbing up and down these steps going the equivalent of up and down Everest (almost 9,000 metres!), he had to put significant work into thinking through changes of clothes, shoes, food and drink, and rest. It somehow didn’t occur to me given he wasn’t stepping a foot outside. Matthew told me he climbed 55,512 stairs!

The added complexity was working out how many times he would have to climb these steps and keep track of that when his brain would inevitably find thinking difficult. He put in place a laptop with a button to press every time he passed and which would automatically calculate the height and percentage progress he had made. It made me think somewhat of the red button and the code in that interminable TV series Lost! He explained that he had set out a number of goals to motivate him along including – the Eiffel tower, Ben Nevis, Mont Blanc and Everest.

The other thing he discovered was that Facebook livestream only runs up to an 8-hour limit so, while providing some accountability for this endeavour it was also important in terms of keeping people engaged and raising money that people could see Matthew suffer and would engage with him. He had purposely tried to keep things on the down-low-bro with others in his flat block so that he could keep within the rules during lockdown, not put people at risk by inadvertently encouraging them put their heads outside of their doors as he was passing. In the event towards the end people did start to do that as a way of offering encouragement.

So, with Matthew’s summer race being cancelled, what was the takeaway and learning that he took from this experience? Well he seemed surprised that after resisting calls from Sophie Power to do a 100-mile athletics track race because it might be too mundane, he is now starting to reconsider his view. If, in his words, he “could do this then I could certainly have a crack at the track race because it sounded way less boring!” And for a lockdown event that he puts on a par with completing the TDS mountain ultra, albeit with a different set of challenges – it seems he has already done the hard stuff.

Tamara Lopez gets some support while running a 10k in her back garden.

Which brings me neatly on to our wonderful Tamara Lopez. I think she was one of the first out of the blocks during lockdown. Tamara was again, in common with everyone in this article, raising money for charity. It wasn’t to replace an actual race. I was keen to discover what were the high and low points, and importantly, whether she was able to eat ice cream on demand as she ran 10k around her garden!

For her, a high point was that her kids could get involved. They could watch throughout and also join in for some laps, as well as getting involved with some complex counting system which included animal and flower Duplo to remember how many of the 455 laps of her garden she still had to do!

It made me tired and achy just thinking about the number of twists and turns she had to do. Her hips were the casualty – and knees felt a bit wobbly by the end. I am not surprised – all that twisty stuff must have been tough. She tells me her effort was far from a PB and did something like 11km in 1 hour 20 minutes.

What did Tamara take away? Well… as with many people, “I need to stretch more!” and interestingly she said she would be keen to do it all over again even without lockdown restrictions but naturally she is looking forward to getting out a bit more in the future. She did find it fun and “didn’t have time to get bored!”

For my part during lockdown, I have taken part in the Centurion Running One Community virtual race (100 miles in a week) – and it took me the best part of the week in elapsed time (I don’t know how on earth I have run that distance in one sitting before!). The last 10 miles of that were almost literally a death march.

The other race, organised in the US, is the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee (and back) – for which I have to complete just over 2,000km before the end of August. This is organised by Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake of Barkley Marathons fame. What attracted me was the opportunity to participate in a race that I would be unlikely to be able to do in real life and at the same time given that it is in stages, the only edition that wouldn’t leave me in a heap of mess at the side of a trail crying for my mum!

All I have to do is keep an average of 70ish miles a week for four months. Will I do it? What will I learn? That’s the subject of a future article!

What have you taken from Lockdown racing and training?

Have you learned new things and discovered new mental or physical strength?

It would be great to hear your experiences and to carry on these conversations on the Serpie Facebook page.

Phil Bradburn is a long time Serpie member who lives in Kent. Usually found bimbling along canals, long distance trails, eating cake and calippos.