Running in Covid Times

At the beginning of the month we wrote about what we’d been up to running-wise during lockdown. With no events to run we kept going in a makeshift way. Our time was taken up with finding safe places to train and taking part in virtual events. We thought that the changes were temporary. 

However in the last few weeks, seeing the races we’d entered as far off as November being cancelled one after another, it was starting to dawn on us that it would be a long time before we returned to our pre-Covid running life.

It was time for a rethink. The race calendar needed to be cleared of cancelled events. We wouldn’t be going to run in Boston, Chicago or New York this year. We wouldn’t be pacing Liverpool, Milton Keynes or Limassol. There would be no visits to our beloved South Africa. This was all sounding a bit negative. That’s not our way. How were we going to turn it around?

We decided to look at what we could do that would motivate us and give a sense of purpose to our running.  Running established trails was one idea that came up. The routes were already there – traffic-free and marked out. In the past few years we had been concentrating on road marathons so the idea of running on trails again was fresh and appealing. Where to start?

Why not the Vanguard Way – the trail that runs from ‘the suburbs to the sea’ and the scene of the  marathon Jacquie declared ‘the worst ever”? Maybe we could even lay a few demons to rest.

The Vanguard Way

The Vanguard Way (VGW) is a long distance footpath 107 kilometres in length which starts in East Croydon and travels down to Newhaven on the south coast. After leaving the city behind, the path which is (mostly) well marked passes over the North Downs and through two areas of outstanding natural beauty (the Surrey Hills and the High Weald), before crossing the South Downs and finally arriving at the Sussex Heritage Coast.

We won’t go into too much detail here about the route because there is an excellent website The Vanguard Way long-distance walking trail which is well worth a visit. Splitting the path into ten sections, it contains detailed directions and maps, points of interest, transport links and information about other services you may need along the way. It also contains a guide to the flora and fauna you are likely to encounter.

At 107K in length it is obviously possible to run the Vanguard Way in one go but, with something like 1,880m of ascent, for us it would be a tough ask. We were out for a much more leisurely day of walk/running and had no idea at the start what we would be able to achieve. We thought maybe half-way.

The following post is a brief account of how we got on.

Leaving London behind and looking forward to a change of scenery

Be prepared

We readily accept that navigation, especially map reading, is not our greatest skill (see post). We printed directions and maps, we downloaded the route on Viewranger (an excellent phone app that bleeps when you go off course) and we studied the route in advance. We fully charged our phones and power packs and we even packed a compass.

It was a hot day. We carried water and some nutrition and arranged for Martin to meet us on route with extra supplies. Taking all the usual trail kit – what could possibly go wrong?

Stage 1: Croydon to Chelsham Common  (11K)

We decided on an early start, arriving at East Croydon at 6:45 am. Ok, so then it took us 38 minutes wandering around the empty streets and Lloyd Park before we found the first sign of the VGW. And this only after asking a local dog walker for directions. Not a very promising start. We blamed ‘false memories’ of the marathon route from 2014 – still coming back to haunt us.

Once we got underway it was brilliant. Very quickly we swapped the grey, concrete urban environment for the vibrant greens of the countryside. We were estatic every time we came across a marker post pointing the way forward. It was a gloriously sunny day and we soon found ourselves in the Selsdon Wood Nature Reserve, comforted by the occasional beeping of the phone when we strayed a few metres from the correct course. Earlier frustrations disappeared. Maybe this was going to be easier than we thought.

We passed the little hamlet of Farleigh – so small as to be unnoticeable – and soon found ourselves in Chelsham Common. Hmm… unfortunately we missed the main sight of stage 1 – the Norman Church of St Mary the Virgin built in 1083! How did we manage that?

All set for an early start in East Croydon

38 minutes later we find the first VGW way marker!!

Stage 2: Chelsham Common to Limpsfield Chart (12.8k)

This is one of the toughest sections of the whole route. The path takes you over the highest point on the VGW as it crosses the North Downs, climbing to 262m. This is part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It also passes by the ‘mystical’ Nore Hill Chalk Pinnacle (see photo) and a plaque marking the Greenwich Meridian where you stand at 0’0’0” longitude.

Unfortunately we couldn’t see the Pinnacle in the undergrowth and we missed the Meridian plaque. We did, however, see the bull in the field of cows! We eventually made it down Whistlers Steep and across the M25 motorway only to climb again past the impressive Moorhouse Sandpits up to the Greensand Ridge.

It was on this section of the route that we noticed the GPS on our phone conflicted, briefly, with the way markings on the route. It should have been a warning to us of trouble ahead but we continued oblivious. The views on this section of the route were stunning and just as we were wondering how much further it could be to Limpsfield we saw Martin coming towards us down the path.

The short stop with cold drinks and sandwiches was very welcome. It has to be said we were disappointed with our progress but feeling refreshed we set off on the next stage of the route.

This sounds interesting…

Let’s take a look…


Why do hills never look as steep on photographs?

Took some time convincing Cam that this sign was just there to keep walkers off farmer’s land. It wasn’t until we’d almost crossed the field that we saw the bull sitting near the exit!

Stage 3: Limpsfield Chart to Edenbridge (6.3k)

A short section and an arrangement to meet Martin ‘in about an hour’! Plenty of time we thought!

On this part of the route we were promised a brief trip into Kent, a Roman Road and a sacred maze. Needless to say we didn’t actually notice these things though we did spot the picturesque temple on the island in the lake at Trevereux manor and some magnificent houses in the area around Crockham Hill.

We lost time crossing the Kent and Surrey Golf Club where the golfers were out in force. A few bleeps from the phone  were heard as we, literally, went out of our way to avoid flying golf balls and upsetting players taking shots.

Two and a half hours later we found Martin, who had been taking coffee in the club house, and after replenishing our supplies set off for the next meeting point towards the end of the next section.


Lots of stiles and wooden bridges on route

Stage 4: Edenbridge to Forest Row (16.5K)

This was to be our last section of the day. The going had been much slower than we anticipated and we wanted to be home in time for a certain football match and presentation. We decided that marathon distance was a reasonable mileage to aim for so worked out the nearest point to this where Martin could easily meet us in the car. It would be a bit further than 42k when the path came to a suitable road crossing but we were feeling quite confident with the navigation by now – only having had a few occasions of needing to retrace our steps. And as we were mostly walking at this point we were less likely to go wrong! Ha!

We are still trying to work this one out. Looking back, there was mention in the instructions about a new route in this section due to increased traffic on once quiet country roads. What we didn’t realise until we were well and truly lost was that our GPS signal was almost certainly following the old route. We were getting very confused by the conflicting directions while trying to follow the way markers.

The section started off on the flat, crossed farmlands and an airfield before climbing up rolling hills. The problems started quite early on. We did make our way to the airfields but possibly entered through the wrong gate. The GPS on the phone did not like our route and was bleeping away like crazy. Nothing made sense and we spent a considerable length of time of trying to work out from the map and written instructions where we were (all the airfields looked the same). Finally, exhausted from being out in the open countryside in the full glare of the sun, we resorted to Google maps to find our next meeting point. We were led down country roads, some busier than others, occasionally passing random VGW markers that according to us shouldn’t have been there – but what did we know?

Finally after completing 42 kilometres we found our way back on to the route and phoned Martin to come and pick us up.

It was a disappointing end to our journey but we had learnt a valuable lesson. The routes on Viewranger can be uploaded by anyone and don’t necessarily do what they say they are doing. The path we were following was mostly the Vanguard Way but sometimes veered off. It wouldn’t have been a problem if we had stuck to either the written directions or to the GPS route. We tried to do both.

So our day finished at Moor House cottages just before the path headed off into the Ashdown Forest. We were very impressed with the route so far. It had taken us through some lovely, ever-changing countryside with stunning views and lots of points of interest. The weather had been glorious and the way ahead looked inviting.

Everything seems better after a glass of wine. We will certainly return one day soon to finish the rest of the Vanguard Way. And undaunted we will definitely be looking out for our next trail to run.

Ever changing scenery