An ultra distance London trail adventure?

Long run

It’s 4am and I’m scaling yet another 6 foot fence somewhere in South East London.  I land gently on the pavement and look up into the wide eyed stare of two lads sitting in a parked car.  We all silently contemplate the unlikely situation, before I turn, run over the road,  climb the padlocked gate into the next park and run into a dark forest.  Laughing.

This is the longest training run I’ve ever embarked on.  It wasn’t planned to be a solo effort but I wasn’t going to squander the opportunity.

taking a break in highgate woods

The full Capital Ring is around 77 miles.  A (mostly) signposted route that links together various trails and paths, encompassing inner and central London.  It was first discussed in 1990 by the London Walking Forum, and was completed in 2005 (wikipedia).

I first noticed bits of the route on an easy run along the Greenchain Walk one weekend.  I kept seeing the distinctive signs alongside the Greenchain ones, and after a bit of research found the idea both daunting and strangely compelling.

The usual way to complete the full route is over two days or more.  TFL (Transport for London) have an excellent guide with printable maps and directions to and from local trains and tubes.

someone has a sense of humour

Taking a map is a good idea, some boroughs take signage more importantly than others, Harrow and Richmond being very thorough, while Newham was distinctly lacking.

My training plan had called for a 12 hour run, but I couldn’t find a weekend free in the family calendar, so I took the completely logical step of getting up at 1am on a Saturday morning.  An hour to wake up and fill myself with food and coffee, 12 hours of running, with a 2 hour buffer for food and faffage.

I had to be home before 5pm to have enough time to de-grime myself, put the child to bed and help prepare for supper guests arriving at 8.

Apparently that isn’t normal person behaviour, but I’m so far into this long distance running malarkey, that my reality filter is completely twisted.

Actually you don’t need to look too hard or far to find similar examples of how people fit lots of running into an already full life.

I’m not comparing myself to Ricky Lightfoot, but he’s a great example of juggling a full time job, family and huge amounts of training.

Debbie Martin-Consani is another person to aspire to, there was a great quote in a recent trail running magazine:

…to improve your running stamina, you need to run.  As they say you can’t plant potatoes and harvest carrots!

From a practical perspective, doing the whole route in one go is feasible, as long as you don’t mind jumping over lots of fences (or finding the long way round) in the dark.  Having said that I did this in early December when it’s dark nearly all the time.  A more reasonable early start in the summer would probably get you round before parks start being locked.


I reckon that 70% of the route is on trail, which is pretty amazing for inner London!  There are a few opportunities to buy food and water, but not that many.  I spotted a 24 hour shop on Prince Regent Lane (the greenway crosses this on the way to Stratford) where I filled up my water bottles, but this was the first one I’d seen since starting 25 miles ago.

There are other shops, probably just enough to get you round.  The highlight was a little coffee van just outside East Finchley station.  The coffee man even had a few croissants warmed up, what a treat.

DIY aid station

Do take a map though, or at least a readily accessible GPS unit to keep you on track.  There are sections with hardly any signs, some have fallen over, others twisted 90 degrees sending you in completely the wrong direction.

I’d relied on having the route on my watch, but had forgotten how much that drains the battery.  In the end I managed to get google maps working on my phone and just ran with it in my hand.  Annoying, but not as annoying as constantly backtracking.

I got as far as the A3 by Richmond Park before running out of time and getting a cab.  70 miles with 12 hours of moving time wasn’t too bad, but shows how much faffing around I’d done.

Ok, so I’m not so bonkers to suggest that everyone should lace up their shoes up and set off on a 75 mile run around London, but the fact that you don’t need to plan a whole weekend away, or even to travel at all, to see a different side to something otherwise familiar is something worth thinking about.

Maybe you don’t live near the Capital Ring, but I bet there are some local trails or walks that can be joined up and made into a loop, or maybe hop on a train after work and run home along a canal?

If you look hard enough, there is adventure just round the corner.

Oh and the dinner party went well, I even managed to stay awake until after pudding.

Of course it’s on strava

Tooting 24h 2014 – or – How not to run your first 24 hour track race


As usual it’s taken me far too long to get this written down, but with the Crawley 12 hour race in a few weeks I thought this was the perfect time to remember what I did wrong.  It would be nice to have a list of things I did right, but sadly, no. I still managed to cover about 107 miles, which isn’t bad but falls short of what I think I should be capable of (although past performance isn’t nessesarily an indicator of the future!). The race itself is very simple (how many times can you run round a 400m track?), and is a perfect example of everything I love in an event. It’s small, extremely well organised by incredibly friendly and approachable people. The low key approach engenders a great atmosphere and the motley collection of runners were packed with interesting stories and enthusiasm. Being able to run shoulder to shoulder with a 80+ year old on course to complete 100 miles, and a trio of superhuman ladies who smashed records and crushed the entry level for team GB Ultra was both humbling and inspirational. This is a true, and (mostly) serious list of tips for running your first 24 hour track race. Some, if not all of the points are totally obvious, and normal people really shouldn’t need the advice.

I'm no elite

I’m no elite

Make sure you actually have a place in the race

Yes, yes, obvious. The thing is, I sent my application off and promptly got stuck into training and planning. As the  weeks went on, and I languished on the waiting list, the mental focus that an imminent race gives you just wasn’t there. This meant that training was half hearted at best, and I figured that I’d pretty much wing the planning part: running in circles for ages: I’d just done the GUCR, how hard could it be?

If you don’t have a confirmed place, then at least pretend you have and train accordingly. Finding out two days before doesn’t give you nearly enough time.

One chap even turned up on the day and snagged a last minute place, though he crashed out in a bent-double vomiting state after a short few hours. Another arrow in the back of the last minute race entrant.

Don’t start the day with a massive hangover

Again, not something that should really need to be spelled out. However, the lack of concentration and general over confidence given #1, plus having heavy drinking friends round the night before culminated in a very not-ready head and body come race morning.

It’s hard to say whether this is the biggest mistake I made, quite possibly though, as it led to most of the others.

Work out your target pace sensibly, based on reality

Final results

Final results

For an elite athlete, calculating your goal distance using last year’s winner is a very good strategy, particular if you’re also aiming to secure a place in Team GB.

If, on the other hand, you are not an elite, and last year’s winner was other worldly Marco Consani, who covered 154 miles, then your sights have more than likely been set far outside the range of your physical capabilities.

In practice this means that you’re constantly berating yourself for going too slow, when in fact you’re going about twice as fast as you should be.

I would say to pick a comfortable marathon pace, then drop that by about 25%, probably more.

Don’t set off too fast

Lack of planning, large hangover and ridiculous ambitions and yes, you’re already going way too fast. I did the first marathon in under 4 hours, was near the top of the score board and felt great.

Obviously it didn’t last and my pace halved very soon after.

Having a bleary eyed notion of “go out as hard as possible and hang on as long as you can” is just daft, glycogen gets instantly depleted leaving you running on fumes way too soon.

If you’ve lapped James Elson, you’re going too quickly


Say no more!

To be fair to James, he looked to be suffering from an injury and pulled out before the end. Plus I was clearly going to blow up.

Don’t try new food on the day, as lovely as it might look and taste


Hangover to blame again. I remember thinking how delicious the melon and grapes on the food station were. They were cool, refreshing and gave me a nice little boost.

Fast forward 10 hours and I’d pretty much set up camp in the men’s room, and when I wasn’t  there I was painfully dragging my sore and bloated belly back as fast as I could hobble.

Not a good idea.

Do try and remember your lap counters name

More generally, be nice to your lap counter, they’ve got a long gruelling night ahead of them, and sense of humour failures don’t make for a pleasant atmosphere.

Chances are they are looking after a few runners, and when a lap only takes a couple of minutes they’re hard at work.

On the odd occasion when they are distracted, being able to call our their name will save you valuable seconds, and is a whole lot polite than yelling “Did you get me? Luke here, hello?! HELLO!”

Having support really… helps

My wife and child stuck around for the first half hour, but when my 3 year old daughter had seen me run round in circles and not win or even finish, she soon got bored. Not before entertaining everyone with happy shouts of “daddy!” every time I passed her.

They also rocked up again for the  last hour, and that alone kept my spirits up for at least 4 hours.

Other people had whole families camped out all night, feeding and watering their runners regularly. Not sure how I’ll persuade mine to do the same, but I think it would give a massive psychological boost, especially in those famously miserable hours just before dawn.

Don’t underestimate the mental aspect


I honestly hadn’t given much thought to what it would actually be like running for 24 hours within such a confined area.

All the big races I’d done in the past were huge loops or “epic adventure” point to point routes.

The key difference, which was obviously clear to every person who commented on my upcoming loop fest, is that every step forward, every second spent moving, takes you one tiny sliver closer to the end.

When it finally dawned on me that I could just sit down and the race would still end at midday, regardless of whether I did any sort of moving or not, was a revelation.

A revelation that took a lot of willpower (and two 30 minute snoozes in the back of Hughs car) to purge and get back into any kind of constant forward motion.

In summary

It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, deserved more respect than I gave it, and was absolutely bloody brilliant.

I’ve got a confirmed place for September, so that’s one item ticked off the list already!

Geoff, the legend

Geoff, the legend

GUCR 2014


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.

Calm the night before

Calm the night before

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.

Ready to rock

Ready to rock

A gentle trot

It felt faster than it looks!

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.

Nap time for some

Nap time for some

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.

A glimmer of not rain

A glimmer of not rain

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.

Sunny Sunday

Sunny Sunday

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.

Grinding it out

Grinding it out

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 could've kissed it

I could’ve kissed it

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.

Massive team effort, to the last

Massive team effort, to the last

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.

Tired and happy

Tired and happy

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!

Me and the Main Man

Me and the Main Man

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”.

Not running

Not running