I am done, finished.
I’ve have had enough with this race, and am just too tired to carry on. My feet hurt, I can’t keep my eyes open and I’m starting to get cold.
Such were the thoughts flashing through my mind at 3am on Sunday morning. I’d been running for 18 hours and had covered about 95 miles of the muddy and wet grand union canal towpath from Birmingham. Paddington basin, and the finish, were another 50 miles ahead.
It had started fast, way too fast.
With a belly full of instant porridge, bananas and coffee, I had joined the other 109 runners in the weak 6am sunshine as we charged off from Gas Street at a brisk 9 minute mile pace. It was so easy to get caught up in the crowd, swapping race stories and tales of how we came to be here.
The first 26 miles came at me hard. Stiff legs and a painful knee nagging reminders that I hadn’t recovered from the SIPR (albeit only half of it) the previous weekend.
If the first marathon of 6 feels like this, what chance do I have of getting to the end? The thought of bailing out and saving my body from unnecessary punishment became a serious proposition. It would have been a shame but there was no point in doing myself actual damage.
It’s hard to remember what changed my mind.
Perhaps it was doggedly sticking to my fuelling plan of a sandwich (peanut butter, nuttela and banana) or wrap (hummus, chicken, green pepper and cheese) between every checkpoint, supplemented by 2 or 3 cereal bars and an ellas kitchen pouch (baby food yes, but you can always get it down).
Perhaps the pouring rain turning the wet path into a lethal slippery streak of mud, one that threatened to kick me into the canal every time my concentration wandered, generated enough of a distraction from negative thoughts.
Perhaps it was because I slowed down a bit, let those running at a record breaking pace go on ahead, and settled into a comfortable rhythm. You could say I started running my own race.
Or maybe it was a pile of ducklings.
Whatever it was, the next 24 miles were a joy. My legs felt great, knee number two had given up trying to derail the adventure and the odd spell of sunshine lit up the bright yellow rapeseed fields and calm canal waters.
Trundling happily into the 50 mile checkpoint after 9 hours, to be greeted by part of the SIPR team (who also happen to be my uncle and aunt) made me even happier. Fully loaded on smoothies, bananas, shortcake, smiles, hugs and bemused encouragement, I was hefted back out onto the route, and bounced my way along to the 70 mile point.
It would be dark before the next checkpoint, so a great deal of faffing was in order. Change of top, shoes, socks. Tights on, headtorch in bag. Hot quiche and beans devoured.
I was sitting opposite a very fit looking fellow who had looked fairly settled before I arrived. We got chatting and happened to leave at the same time. The conversation continued and it became clear that our paces were exactly matched. We gently jogged into the darkness, talking of this and that, but not the enormity of the 75 miles still to go, we hadn’t quite hit half way.
At the 85 mile checkpoint, which was supposed to be drinks and snacks only, we were treated to hot soup, what a bonus! A couple of other runners looked in a pretty bad way, anguished heads held by swollen hands, shivering bodies swaddled in warm blankets. At least 20 people had dropped out already.
A definite team now, David Allen and I made our way onwards, breaking the run down into 5 mile stages. At an hour a pop this was about the biggest challenge we could face at any one time.
Lightheaded, confused and weak, bad news.
Skipping the last mid checkpoint sarnie was hardly a good idea, but it’s so easy to fall into the not eating trap. Your stomach isn’t fully functional (blood being sensibly diverted to more obviously useful muscles), saliva is a distant memory and anyway, you’re rocking along having a great time.
I’d broken my own rule, and it was made specifically for this situation. Luckily I was keeping a close mental eye on how I felt, and within minutes of necking a rocket fuel sandwich was back taking my turn to lead our little train ever closer to London.
Coming closer to the 100 mile checkpoint was when I slipped into the next low point. An hour before dawn is the hardest part of any overnight race, especially if you’ve been hammering away at it for nearly 24 hours already.
The spine challenger, and the dark dark moments in what felt like perpetual darkness was fresh and raw enough for me to spot this instantly. Recognising that my body and mind were fine, and that this was a mere distraction caused by circadian rhythms, I dismissed the “call it a night and go to bed” voice and carried merrily on.
“Merrily” may be overstating it somewhat, but covering 100 miles in about 21 hours gave us a good confidence boost.
This was the longest stop. It was going to be 20 miles to the next one (the longest gap in the whole race), we were cold, and it was going to get light soon. It made sense to eat as much of the fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, sausages and beans as was acceptable, and start the last 45 miles feeling as refreshed as possible.
I was hoping to see some friends and family in Tring and Berkhamsted on the way through, but had anticipated slowing down a lot more than I had. We shuffle/walk/ran through Tring at 5am, and somehow I didn’t think anyone would appreciate a phone call from a sweaty, muddy and sleep deprived canal creature. Even if he was accompanied by a Jean Paul Gaultier lookalike (I can’t remember who said it, but there is a definite likeness to David).
The scenery was lovely as we got closer to then passed the M25 (which felt like a very significant landmark), and did help a tiny bit to distract our minds from the now near constant pain in our feet.
I only picked up one tiny blister (hilly twin skin socks, you rock), though they had always been a big pain problem for me. This time it was just the soles of my feet that hurt. They really really really hurt.
I remember clearly when I thought I’d first become an “ultrarunner”. It was in the days and weeks after an overnight 50 mile race in the Peak District. The feeling was intoxicating, not dissimilar to landing a new, higher paid job or aceing exams at school. I basked in the satisfying knowledge that I’d joined the ranks of superhumans I’d been obsessively reading about for months.
Was this what it felt like to become a non-ultrarunner?
I texted my wife:
If I ever say I want to do this again, tell me I’m not allowed!
I wondered about the futility of the pursuit.
I didn’t question why I was here, that was easy. I’d got caught in the GUCR race report trap and became fixated on what many described as the hardest thing they’d ever done. Tales of 5 minute power naps, face down on the towpath, pushing through mental pain barriers and the huge drop out rate latched onto something deep in my head. Take that, add a few beers, throw in the internet and suddenly you have your name in the hat.
I honestly felt sick when my name was drawn out of that hat. Shit, I have to do it now.
The miles stood no chance against our metronomic pace, suddenly 125 had passed (I’d misread the map and expected it a mile further ahead, a delicious mistake).
Ditching our wet overnight kit felt liberating, clean socks and a fresh t-shirt rejuvenating. Stuffing our faces with snacks and tea, a quick hello to Paul Ali and Stouty and we were rolling through the sunshine to the penultimate checkpoint, just 13 miles away.
Evenly spaced bridges became our friends, walk to one, run to the next, walk, run, walk, run. They passed by quietly, the towpath got busier as Sunday joggers and cyclists passed with quizzical faces.
A famous badger said that anyone can run an ultra. In fact lots of people say this, and now I’m saying it. The crucial bit is wanting to.
Assuming you don’t succumb to something serious that involves you being physically taken off the course and put somewhere where it’s hard to rejoin, like a hospital, then it just comes down to how much you want to finish.
It really is nothing more than having the sheer bloody minded determination to carry on despite every part of your body and mind telling you to stop.
I’m not sure that’s really a skill.
Perhaps then there is something else to be gleaned from these runs, something other than the satisfaction of finishing and knowing you didn’t give in to the “weak” voices urging you to quit.
This wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done, that was the first few months of being a new father. Not to say this wasn’t a major challenge, it really was!
I suspect that there is a certain amount of conditioning that happens to your body over repeated long runs, and that this reduces the number of body parts screaming for a top spot on the pain register.
Still, pain seems to be an integral part of running a long way, even if you can reduce and contain it, something will hurt. This much is clear from the amateur race reports scattered across the internet and from books by elites such as Scott Jurek and Killian Jornet.
I didn’t know signposts could be beautiful, until I saw the 13.5 miles to Paddington one. A cheeky half marathon left and a handy checkpoint for a quick spot of refuelling.
I was happy enough to be this near to the finish, but a hug from Nici Griffin was a lovely gesture and lifted the spirits beautifully. James wasn’t dispensing hugs but cheerfully dumped a large bag of sweets and crisps onto the table, just the ticket.
Apparently there were two people just ahead of us, and Nici reckoned we were moving faster, so less dilly dallying and more racing please. Wolfing down a packet of crisps and half a can of coke each we left the station in record time, the competitive spirit was still running high. I suspected this was a ruse to keep is moving, but at this stage everything helps. Relentless Forward Motion was the team motto after all.
Guess what happens if you eat a load of sugar, salt and caffeine really quickly after running 133 miles? I don’t really know, but feeling more than a trifle peculiar I ground to a halt as I wondered what to do about this new situation.
Water laced with fresh lime juice luckily roused me from my stupor. Run a bit, walk a bit, run a bit, walk a bit, drink a bit, eat a bit, run a bit, walk a bit…
This way we soon caught up with Heike Bergman, suffering from shin splints. The 3rd lady at last years Spartathalon looked dismayed as we trotted past, we felt bad but of course carried on, there were 6 miles to go and this was still a race.
One reads about finding enlightenment through transcending pain and suffering. Robin Harvie touches on it, and I hear of people finding an inner peace once they’ve shut the pain into an ignorable mental compartment. Maybe. I do feel more aware of my body, and it’s limits, and there is definitely a sense of shared experience after races like this. You catch an eye and know that behind the brave smile, hurt was endured.
The ultrarunning community is a great one to be part of, people tend to be selfless, open and short of the same few screws as you. This race embodies so much of what I love about running. The low profile, feeling like part of a big family that encompasses the organisers, volunteers and other runners. It’s cheap too, like the best fell races. No fanfare, no fuss, and if you’re polite someone might make you a pot noodle.
Less than a mile to go and we started bearing down on the other runner Nici had hinted might be catchable. He was walking, but glanced over his shoulder, then he and his buddy started frantically tightening straps and making ready to run. We cruised by at a stonking 4 miles an hour, big smirks plastered across our faces.
No, No, No, No! I’ve just had the shittest two miles of my life, there is NO WAY you can overtake me now!
A couple of minutes later they came muttering and cursing by, shuffling ever so slightly faster than us.
We chuckled all the way to the finish. It was mean but funny. I’ve been overtaken with 100 yards to go and it’s horrible, I wasn’t about to inflict that on anyone else, but amusement is hard to come by after 144 miles.
Crossing the line was a lovely feeling, not nearly as big a sense of relief as I expected, but being able to sit down and not get straight back up again was heavenly.
I went from hot, sweaty and sunburnt to cold and shivering within a few minutes, a result of not eating or drinking that much during the final push. The wonderful volunteers sorted me out with a blanket and microwaved pasta pot, and I was able to watch someone fall into, and be rescued from, the canal from a comfortable position. Dick was very happy, he’d been waiting 20 years to see that. I’m just glad it wasn’t me, the canal was looking distinctly mucky.
I was sent on my way with more hugs and kisses (Dick did offer but we settled for a photo), this really was a nice race! Getting the tube was a bit tricky but home, my girls, food, a shower, wine and bed weren’t too far away. I managed to stay up until 8pm, quite an achievement!
As the memory of the final 11 hours of pain recedes, “never again” is slowly morphing into “I can do it faster”. Not next year though, unfinished business at SIPR and the Jura fell race are the big priorities for May 2015.
I will be back one day, it’s just too good a race to only do once.
(Yes, I really did carry an extra 300g just so I could post this on strava)
A few notes for prospective canal runners:
- The supplied maps are excellent. Totally water and bend proof, very clear directions on all tricky bits, mile markers, checkpoint details (drinks & snacks / hot food / bag availability). Just don’t stash them near anything that might leak ink when wet, mine went a bit blue from another bit of paper.
- Bags are available very regularly, roughly every 15 miles, so you don’t need a large pack as you can replenish stocks often. I used an inov-8 race ultra vest (which I love), but even that was bigger than I needed.
- I opted for two pairs of road shoes and changed half way. In retrospect the amount of rain before and during meant trail shoes would have been a lot better for the first half. The last 45 miles are almost entirely on hard packed path, so nicely cushioned road shoes are a must, unless you’re a compete masochist.
- Make sure you pack enough warm kit for the night section, it gets pretty cold even in May, as even the slightest breeze over the canal cools the air a surprising amount.
- Consider carrying a super lightweight wind proof jacket or smock. I had an inov-8 windshell and had it on and off about 5 times during the day on Saturday, it was just enough to keep me mostly dry and by keeping the wind off stopped me from getting cold. It was thin enough to dry out just hanging off the back of my pack. Incidentally this is my current favourite bit of kit, I use it often, yet it’s light enough to always take, just in case.
- Avoid staying in the travelodge if you can, it really is as noisy as Dick warns, apparently the Jury’s inn and premier inn are both much quieter. Listening to stag and hen parties lurching down broad street does not make for a restful night.
Thanks to Ross Langton for photos of me “running”.