2017 saw the inaugural running of the Kennet & Avon Canal Race, the second event in the “Canal Slam” series put on by the Canal Race CIC (but you will know them as Keith, Dick and Wayne).

I had completed the Grand Union Canal Race 8 weeks earlier in an “ok” time (not quite what I had trained/aimed for but my quickest time out of the 6 finishes to date) but had suffered some blistering of the feet and a few minor niggles post race which saw me take an early decision to bail on the Thames Ring (apologies to Lindley.. but I did show a face and helped out for a little bit on the weekend) and focus on recovering and building up for the Kennet & Avon. Yep, that doesn’t sound like me at all… but I really didn’t fancy just turning up and death marching the Thames Ring… again!

This gave me an almost two month period to get ready for the KACR with no other events planned and the opportunity to recce the route part of which is on my doorstep. My local running buddies Paul Beechey and Alex Whearity were both running the event and along with thanks to Adrian Lee for recce support, I covered pretty much all of the route in advance with some company with the exception of the last 13 miles which I knew pretty well from the ‘odd’ GUCR run.. and no-one gets the most famous left hand turn in ultra running wrong do they? (Chris?).

The first 60 odd miles were new to me but were very straightforward and I was very familiar with the next leg towards the end of the KACR and onto the Thames Path. The only uncertainty was the turn off from the Thames Path into Slough and onto the Slough Arm of the GUCR so I ran this with Alex a couple of weeks before the race so it was fresh in my mind. The recce also gave us the opportunity to note down/check water stops, toilet stops and most importantly any potential ice cream stops.

I was all set to go after a few weeks of reasonable running, I headed down Thursday evening afterwork but didn’t arrive in time to meet everyone in the pub and headed to my hotel to organise my gear for the morning and try and get a good nights sleep. I got my gear together but didn’t sleep very well in unfamiliar surroundings as usual and not helped by the constant and very loud seagulls flying about. Invest in some earplugs as the Travelodge windows aren’t that soundproof for anyone thinking of staying there in the future. It was a bit of a downer, feeling tired at the start and knowing I was going to have a rough time later that night.

Pre-race photo by Jess Hall. Pete looks scared!

I met up with everyone in the morning and registered before we made our way to the start outside Bristol Temple Meads at 6am. Having looked at my GUCR performance, I wanted to make sure I got to the half-way point quicker, try and keep some momentum going during the night, not fall asleep and tumble into a bush and minimise the amount of time I spent at Checkpoints patching up my feet! Dream result would have been under 28.48 (current Spartathlon Auto-Qualifer time) and a good result would have been under 30 hours.. something which I’ve not achieved at my previous GUCR efforts (admittedly I was a total rookie and not much of a runner at my earliest efforts). Looking at the starting list Top 10 was also pretty do-able but it was more about time than position.

The Reading Joggers Ultra Team (minus Wendy & Barry)

After a short speech by Dick we set off from the clock tower at Bristol Temple Meads and I headed out near the front with a group of approximately 10 guys. Alex and I ran together for the first 20 miles or so and we were running a comfortable 8.30 – 9.00 m/m pace. As Alex dropped off for a walk break I carried on and largely ran by myself occasionally leap-frogging a Danish runner called Thomas from time to time.

The KACR route took us from Bristol to Bath, Bradford upon Avon and to Devizes. I should add that one part of the ‘race route’ followed the cycle path out of Bristol and not the canal. The reasoning here was to get all the runners to use the shortest route otherwise there was a risk that people could (mistakenly) take short cuts and this mitigated that risk. The fact that the KACR is one about 85-90 miles and they added on another 50+ miles or so to get us to the end in London meant this change was immaterial.

The weather was pretty good early on, it felt fairly warm and there was a bit of a cross-breeze and things were pretty comfortable early on as I ran through the mental checklist at each station and everything was feeling ok. The benefit of having completed a recce was that I knew where there was a proper toilet about 20 miles in near the pub and cafe by the aqueduct and I made sure I took advantage of good facilities at that time.

The 20 – 40 mile section was run around 8.30 – 9.30m/m pace so just a tad slower. My feet were feeling ok so although a lot of the ground was decent paths and even runnable in road shoes. I had taken onboard Keith Godden tip about cutting a hole in the side of my shoe to give my little toe a bit more ‘wriggle’ room but the rest of my foot must have been compensating as I was getting a few hot spots and did stop and a couple of aid stations to add a bit of extra tape to these areas which cost me a few minutes but could save me hours later.

The 40 – 60 mile section was a tad slower (I blame all the gates I had to open) but I was still running reasonably well. I was also eating real foods pretty well, so much so that I needed to use the facilities and once again the pre-course recce meant I knew there was a small toilet block at Kintbury Station which was open till 5pm I think. My arrival time at 4.55pm was particularly pleasing…

After a little bit of a slower section in the 50’s, I got back to sub 10m/m in the 60’s and 70’s as I arrived at the halfway point in just over 12 hours, exactly where I wanted to be. The pre-race weather forecast had predicted rain for the late afternoon, evening and into the night but it was still reasonably warm and the rain was just about holding off although I could see the skies getting grey in the distance.

I arrived at the Newbury stop with Thomas and we were in 4th/5th place at this point with Paul Beechey and Stu Wilkie about 45 mins up on us and one runner accidentally running past the Checkpoint (The Newbury Checkpoint is about a dozen yards after a bridge you cross and you have to double back on yourself when exiting the Checkpoint) half a dozen people within an hour behind us. I had a slightly longer stop at the halfway point (about 20 mins) to have some hot food, re-tape my feet (starting to become more of a nuisance now) and to fire off a couple of texts to a couple of mates who lived locally and were going to meet me briefly and buddy run a few miles (at different times I hasten to add).

The section from Reading to Newbury is familiar and I didn’t need my maps. I met up with my mate Matt near Thatcham and we ran/walked this section to Theale where he said his goodbye’s and headed home (thanks Matt). It had also started to rain now not heavily but a constant drizzle and time to put on the waterproof jacket as I didn’t want to get wet/cold going into the night.

I was starting to feel a little weary in the legs now and marched the next mile or so to the Checkpoint at the Cunning Man Pub. I crossed the bridge to see Danish Thomas with his buddy runner who had paused to check his directions and I waved him on the correct way. This was probably the closest point to my house in Reading which was no more than 1 mile away.. time for a quick cup of tea and then return to the route perhaps? No. obviously not but it was a nice thought.

I arrived at the Cunning Man Pub around 9.30pm with this section having taken longer than I wanted really but I was meeting Tim Grant here who was going to run a few miles with me to Sonning Lock before heading home so the company was appreciated. I also had a pleasant surprise of seeing Sally-anne and Annabelle here aswell as a handful of local runners who had popped out to see me with a surprise visit which was great to see some familiar faces, thanks guys.

Pictured at the 85m mark

Tim and I headed out and ran/walked the next section which again was very familiar as we covered the next 10 miles before Tim headed off (thanks of the company). I crossed the bridge at Sonning and followed the muddy path through the wooded area and fields towards Shiplake, this section was very wet and slippy and I pretty much hiked this section.

This was the point where I took my foot off the gas and suddenly slipped into ‘marching mode’ whether it due to was lack of energy (a touch), sore feet (a factor), sleep deprivation kicking in (possibly) or a level of ‘Can’t Be Arsed’ (definitely) I wasn’t in charge at that point. This resulted in a poor 30 mile section where I stumbled and marched (at a reasonable 4mph ish pace) but I couldn’t quite bring myself together to run as my feet were too sore or I was feeling too tired. I wasn’t even getting annoyed with myself but at some level I knew my dream result had slipped away and I couldn’t be bothered to do much about it. Realistically, I knew that I would have the odd ‘marching’ section from time to time but about 20 miles in a row (so far with more to come) was most disappointing.

I arrived at the 100 mile Checkpoint had some food, changed socks and re-taped feet which were a real annoyance now and then set out just as John Stocker arrived just behind me. Unfortunately, it sounds as if Thomas had got lost between here and the last Checkpoint as he hadn’t arrived yet and his crew were waiting for him.

I set out for the next section and it was time to try and distract my mind, I took some Pro-Plus and then put on the iPod and listened to a few podcasts I had been saving up (I did appreciate listening to Messrs Elson and Lawson and James mentioning he hates the night sections of races just as I was experiencing the drowsiness first hand.. nice timing there). I pretty much marched through this entire section, once caught myself snoring as I was marching so must have dropped off for a brief moment and then was feeling so low that I started contemplating the easiest way of DNF’ing the race where I could save face (answer: Car Accident) but I didn’t have many options along a trail path and stumbled on. Mitch Hardie accompanied by Russ overtook me somewhere on this leg and I think they may have taken a slight wrong turn as I saw the again before they changed buddy runners with Sandra taking over and passing me one again. The one thing in my favour was familiarity with the route and I don’t recall making any navigational errors at all.

I started getting light as I arrived at the 116m Checkpoint at Bray still walking, still carrying that resigned look of I’m death marching this in now.

I took some food at the Checkpoint as John Stocker came in and out and had a quick chat with Rod Palmer who was crewing here. Rod is a GUCR veteran (1997 & 1998 winner) and he mentioned that he tried the GUCR again a couple of years ago to see if he could be the first 70 year old to finish. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to finish the race but he said he gave it a go and had no regrets. I also changed my shoes into my Hoka Road Shoes which had more cushioning which helped a touch with the sore feet.

I thanked the guys and left the Checkpoint pondering on that conversation as I marched on for several more miles. Once again I was on that edge of being determined enough to march reasonably quickly but not quite determined enough to step over that comfort line zone and force a run, the feet were probably going to be sore regardless of whether I ran or not.

I continued along the Thames Path until the bridge with the face murals and then came off the Thames Path and followed the route through Eton then Slough and onto the Slough Arm of the GUCR.

There was still something in that last conversation which was resonating with me, Rod hadn’t succeeded a couple of years ago but at least he had tried… and that’s exactly what I wasn’t doing at the moment (or had been doing for the past 30 miles).

The result was a few little jog efforts and then a few more and then by the time I was a couple of miles from the Checkpoint I was jogging and could see John Stocker ahead. I was glad to have run into the last Checkpoint as Lindley would probably have taken the piss out of me if I had been stumbling about. By this time it was early morning, sunny, warm.. the weather was glorious and I had already stripped down to just my T-Shirt. I didn’t hang around at this Checkpoint, my feet were sore but another 20 minutes patching them up wasn’t going to get me to the finish any quicker and I set off at a slow trot.

I jogged more than I walked to the famous  left hand turn at Bulls Bridge (seriously.. no one misses this, right Chris?) and worked out that if I could average 12 m/m ish for the last 17 miles I could make sub 30. Each mile then became a game, run most of it, take a 100 steps, go again, how much time did I just save? The micro-managing of each mile was helping as was my eclectic mix of random songs. (My first six songs from my playlist are Led Zeppelin, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, White Stripes, Gala and Tina Turner). My mind was now being occupied and the body was responding.

As I crossed the the Bridge and took the last turn ahead of me I could see Mitch who was running in 3rd place being accompanied by Sandra. Mitch was run/walking and I was gradually catching up with them. Suddenly even more elements were being introduced into the race including a bit of competitive motivation. I really didn’t want to get into a cat and mouse game for the last 13 miles to the end with another runner and be constantly looking over my shoulder and if I could run then I would have to make a decisive move.

I passed Mitch and Sandra, wished them well and ran on and didn’t stop for several miles. I put in about 10 x sub 10m/m miles at that point which required a lot of mental discipline and effort 130+ miles into the race especially when I had given up several hours earlier. I must have been feeling ‘race adrenaline’ as I couldn’t feel the soreness in my feet at all.

From being at a pretty low point, the race result was looking a little more rosy, sub 30 was almost definitely there along with a podium position. If you had offered that to me before the race I would have taken it like a shot.

I kept up with the effort for as long as I could but then started taking 100 yard walk breaks and going again which meant a few 10-10.30m/m’s for the last 5 miles. I judged I had done enough to build a gap by now. I finally arrived over the couple of hump backed bridges, past the GUCR finish and then around the corner to the new finish at Paddington Station to see a few people there. I had finished in 29.08 in 3rd place overall.

Done. No, I’m done.

I had to sit down immediately, as my feet were throbbing and the effort of the last leg had caught up with me as Keith congratulated me and Stu Wilkie (who finished 2nd in 28.30) did the honours in presenting the medal.

I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt at the time, I certainly wasn’t cock-a-hoop at the finish and wanted to unload all the bad parts of the race in (hopefully) a humorous manner and I was pretty disappointed with a shoddy night leg which blew my chances of the dream result which was tantalisingly close in the end but required a massive effort on the last leg to get it to be so close.

Once again, I’m probably looking at the negatives more than the positives and expecting a perfect race. To put this into context, I was 2.5 hours quicker than the GUCR 8 weeks ago so it’s probably ok overall. However, I am getting a bit hacked off with battling the sleep monsters and sore feet every time I do a long race, that is something I don’t look forward to enduring each time I go beyond 100 miles.

Pictured with Stu Wilkie.

The final standings.

I should also report on how the Reading Joggers boys (Messrs Whearity and Beechey) performed. You will all be aware that Paul Beechey had a storming run coming first in a time of 25.48 which was no surprise to me at all, he’s on great form at the moment and will no doubt perform well at Liverpool Leeds and Spartathlon later in the year, well done mate!

After DNF’ing the GUCR and suffering 8 weeks of mickey-taking from myself and Beechey (sorry I meant “motivational tips”) Alex Whearity completed the KACR in a time of 33.40. I’ve yet to hear the full account of his efforts (we’re saving that for the pub meet on Wednesday) but from an exchange of messages it sounds like there were plenty of ups and downs and I’m immensely proud that he’s put a bad result behind him and finished what is a long and enduring course. A mention to fellow RJ Ultra Runner Wendy for buddy running the last 60 miles with him… I’d like to hear both accounts of the race separately 🙂

Personally, I liked the course and found it to be just as good (if not better) than the GUCR in terms of runnability and course enjoyment. I’m familiar with the Reading/Shiplake/Thames Path (i.e. the dark/night) sections but there were a few stories of people taking the odd detour so looking at this area of the course for a recce may be wise to prospective runners. In addition, I rather liked the ‘new’ finish outside Paddington which offers a bit more room (and only a few hundred yards to the train station home). The only very slight downside is that you don’t have a good view of runners coming as you come around a bend.

Well done to everyone else who took part and commiserations to those who didn’t finish. Finally, a huge thank you to all the organisers, supporters and marshals who helped out at the race and made it a success. I am sure this event will be regarded as a ‘classic’ much like the GUCR is in years to come and it was great to have taken apart in the first edition.

As the Cunning Man is so close to me, I will probably help out here at future races if I’m not running it again myself.