I ran my first marathon (Abingdon) in Oct 2008 as a training run for my first ultra (Thames Path Ultra) in Jan 2009 and it has taken nearly 10 years to reach the landmark of 100 marathons/ultras. I consider myself more of an ultra-runner than a marathon runner and my breakdown of the hundred includes only 38 marathons and 62 ultras (22 which have been 100+ milers and half of those have been 145+ milers) so I’ve logged a fair few miles to get to this point.
The Liverpool Leeds Canal Race was due to be event number 100 which was a nice milestone to achieve, it was also the last in the Canal Slam series of races which had gone ok so far. Despite my quickest GUCR finish to date (31-32 hrs) it wasn’t the result I wanted or thought I could potentially achieve and a 9 hour death-march at the end with feet in poor condition wasn’t a great finish. Due to the condition of my feet and a few niggles, I decided to drop the Thames Ring and get fit for the next race, the Kennet & Avon Canal Race which was unusual for me. 3 years ago, I would probably have run the Thames Ring and death-marched it to a finish in a very unconvincing time. 2 years ago, I would probably have run the Thames Ring and then given up and DNF’d and 1 year ago I would probably have tried to run it and then DNF due to a knee injury… so this change of approach was unusual and quite sensible!
I had a great 8 week period between the GUCR and KACR and after about 5 weeks, I started to feel recovered, fit and strong. The Kennet & Avon Canal Race went a little better with a 29 hour finish and podium position but there was a good 30 mile section of the race which I marched in a sleep deprived state which was only saved by a really strong last leg and another race with a fairly respectable result for me but not quite achieving my potential.
With only 4 weeks between the KACR and LLCR training was condensed into a short block with just under a week’s rest, two weeks running and then a week’s taper. I could have done with another couple of weeks to be honest as the legs didn’t quite feel right, a feeling which was shared with fellow Canal Slammer Paul Beechey as we discussed this on one of our commute runs home from work. A minor ITB niggle a week before the race was a minor worry but some stretching exercises and pre-race taping meant this wasn’t much of an issue on the day.
I was in the same position as each of the other Canal Slammers and in a better position than John Stocker who not only was attempting the Canal Slam but was also completing the Centurion Grand Slam and had also run the Thames Ring and was achieving good results in each race including a new Course Record at the Thames Ring. Incredible effort John, well done.
I travelled up the day before, met up with Beechey and registered early. As there was no planned pub meet we headed back to his hotel for a couple of drinks before getting an early night. I was staying at the Radisson Blu hotel which was situated about 10 yards from the start which meant I could try and maximise my sleep time. I managed to drop off around 10pm, woke up for half an hour during the night and then drifted back to sleep awaking at 5.15am just before the alarm was due to go off… that was nearly a normal night’s sleep, result! As I looked out of my window, it was still dark and a bit gloomy as the sun was still rising but I could see competitors and crew outside at the start already. I got ready, checked out and headed down to the star at 5.45am the latest I had ever arrived and caught up with various people before attending the pre-race briefing.
Men of Steel * Budumtush * (Photo by Shirley Steele)
I met up with Beechey who had a bit of mild panic early on when he left his maps in the hotel room but thankfully Keith/Dick had a spare set he could use.
The LLCR field was smaller (approximately 50 people) than the other Canal races and we set off at 6am from the start in the light and in cool conditions and headed through the built up area towards Eldonian Village Hall to the start of the Canal itself. I am told the route had been revised from last year to add on a bit of extra distance and possibly to due closer proximity to hotels.
I settled into a small group with Paul Beechey, Ian Thomas and Kevin? at the front. Beechey and I had debated our plans the night before and my dream result was to achieve a 23.12 finish time which (on current rules) would be a Spartathlon Auto-Qualifying time. In order to do that I needed to hit a 100 mile time of about 17 hours which would then leave me with 6 hours to cover the last 30 miles through the night. I also needed to be brief through Checkpoints which was dependent upon the state of my feet but after two races run in Hoka Speedgoats which had resulted in blistering on both occasions, I switched to my Hoka Conquests which also afforded a bit more cushioning aswell. With the majority of the route on good quality towpath or track then both road or trail shoes could have been used.
Dick with the pre-race briefing at the race start (Photo by Keith Godden)
After a few miles, Beechey, Ian and I were ahead of the rest of the pack although I suspect Beechey was then starting to put in a few faster miles (relative to a long distance event) and when we clocked a sub 8m/m despite the good company it was time to back off to my own planned pace of around 8.30 – 9m/m so a quick ‘comfort’ break was a good opportunity to back off although I did consciously have to slow myself down until they were out of sight. It was far too early to ‘chase’ when we weren’t even at Checkpoint 1!
The result of this leg was spent by myself, the weather was lovely and clear and feeling fairly warm as I passed through the first Checkpoint at Bells Swing Bridge quickly grabbing a pie from my drop bag and walking for a hundred yards or so as I ate this before once again settling into a trot. Just as I exited the Checkpoint, I could hear the applause from the supporters as someone else had arrived just behind me.
The second leg was spent by myself in sunny and warm conditions. The only incident of note was when I rolled my ankle through one of these lumpy grassy sections with a narrow track which was not quite wide enough for both feet. As soon as I did it I thought ‘just keep running’ as I didn’t want the ankle to stiffen up, a few miles later it wasn’t much of a concern.
I arrived at Checkpoint 2 to see Ian Thomas & Beechey still at the Checkpoint. I topped up my bottles, grabbed another pie from my drop bag and marched out whilst eating my food whilst joking to myself that I was now in the lead. Beechey caught up with me a couple of minutes later and informed me that Ian had pulled something in his leg just towards the end of the last section and they had walked into the Checkpoint and it was looking doubtful whether he would continue. Ian did make the sensible decision and retire at this point and I hope he recovers in time for Spartathlon in 4 week’s time.
Took this photo early on just to say I was ‘winning’ at one point. (The hat is looking pristine)
Beechey and I ran together, the weather was warm when the sun was out and we were both feeling ok as we continued along the canal route spotting the crews of other runners from time to time (and thanks to Leanne Stocker for the ice creams at one point which were very much appreciated). It was quite early on that we had sort of agreed to see out as much of the race together as long as both of us were still running (which really meant I wouldn’t have a problem if he dropped me when I fell asleep at night) although if anyone caught us up then it would be fair game for everyone.
We reached Checkpoint 3 at Bridge 63 (Red Rock Bridge 40 miles) in just under 6 hours. I swapped my pie for a container of pear slices, topped up my bottles and once again marched eating the food. Beechey took a minute or two longer at the Checkpoint but jogged out so we were back together shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, he left his maps at the Checkpoint and so we relied on mine for the rest of the race although overall the navigation on this race was pretty straightforward with few crossings and long sections of the race on the same side of the canal.
Reading Joggers Ultra Team (Photo by Keith Godden)
The next Checkpoint 4 was another 15 miles ahead at 55 miles and so the distances between Checkpoints at this race were all fairly even. The only tiny navigation issue we had was near Chorley where we had to cross the footbridge and stay on the main channel, this section arrived sooner than we had anticipated and we headed about 100 yards down the off-shoot before realising our mistake and heading back, no big deal.
I use Tailwind in addition to real foods on races but find that Tailwind doesn’t quench my thirst at all and I increasingly found myself just enjoying the refreshing feel of pure cold water and would take the opportunity to drink a bit extra water at the occasional tap we spotted.
We went through the 50 mile point in about 7hrs 30mins and were still running pretty well and occupied ourselves with conversations about running and how Game of Thrones (I totally called the Littlefinger bait and switch). The only minor complaint we had was that some of track path on the lumpy grassy sections was quite narrow which felt a little awkward when running.
We arrived at Checkpoint 4 at the Navigation Pub and once again were in and out fairly briefly and continued on running. From this leg onwards, we didn’t see any other crews and suspected that we had a bit of a gap on the following runners by now but by how much we weren’t really sure. All we could do was carry on running and sticking to our own plan. In actual fact, we were sticking closely to my plan and there were a handful of occasions when Beechey started to increase the pace which I was a little resistant to (“8.20’s Beechey, 8.20’s!”) as I wanted to try and maintain the running as long as I could. I suspect part of this was a stride length issue (he’s 8 foot tall and I’m 5 foot nothing) but we were ok with the pacing as having a successful race was more about keeping a good average pace throughout the race rather than running a few seconds quicker earlier on.
We arrived at Checkpoint 5 at Bridge 126, Business First Car Park at just over 70 miles around 11 hours into the race and bang on target for me so far maybe just a little ahead. It’s not too difficult to be on target for the first half of the race when you’re fit, fresh and comfortable the difficulty is keeping it going in the second half. Once again, I grabbed what I needed, topped up bottles and ate on the march as Beechey sorted himself out and then jogged to catch me up. I think it was this Checkpoint that he forgot to eat some food and complained to me that I was rushing him out of Checkpoints. We had been working well as a team both taking it in turns to lead the pace for a few miles before swapping over and letting the other person lead.
The next section had the two major points of navigation. Sandra (Tullet!) had kindly lent me her navigation notes (pretty comprehensive) and Russ Bestley had added a few helpful navigation tips aswell as my online ( Google Earth) research a few days before. I was pretty comfortable with the Foulridge part but less so with the Gannow Tunnel area directions. In actual fact both were pretty straightforward as we followed the Towpath East signs and got back onto the Canal for the first section and then followed the route off the Canal and back onto it near Foulridge. We also covered this section in the light which also helped. (Tip, you can Google Earth and pretty much look at the exact route for the Foulridge section on the road).
The next section to the 83-84 mile Checkpoint and the one after were the critical ones for me. It’s probably around this point in a race that I start to slow and the walking break start to become more prevalent. Knowing this, I just got my head down and ran. We didn’t speak much this section as I spent the entire section counting from 1-10 in my head to keep the mind occupied but we continued to run with the occasional 30 second walk break. This felt like a stronger section for me where I did a bit more of the leading but I was happy to get a bit of credit in the bank knowing Mr Sleepy-head was due a visit at some stage.
As we approach a Checkpoint I have a habit of going through a mental checklist of what I need to do so when I arrive I can focus on the task at hand and minimise time hanging around and I made a particular point of asking Beechey what he needed to do so he didn’t forget anything else this time.
We arrived at the next Checkpoint in the light around 13 ½ hours in and ahead of where I have ever been in a race. Unfortunately, we had arrived before the Checkpoint was set up but a couple of marshals were present and thankfully they had both our drop bags which contained our own supplies and a bit of water so we were able to grab some food. Fi kindly went and bought us a couple of fresh drinks from the pub and I accompanied her so I could take advantage of the toilets and we improvised by using the van as a bit of shelter. This was our longest stop and despite it still being light and early evening, I started to get cold as my core temperature dropped. I put on my base layer for the night leg and then added my waterproof jacket as an extra layer for warmth and put my gloves on as we set out. I was started to shiver as I sat around despite some people still walking along the path in T-shirt and the longer stop didn’t help with the stiffness in the legs at all and it took me a little while longer to move from a march to a run at first but a few miles later I had warmed up sufficiently to remove my jacket and carry on in just a base-layer and T-shirt.
I felt pretty sleepy around this point despite it being only 8pm but this was not unusual for a race with an early start coupled with the ‘extra’ effort as I was still running at this point. I took a couple of pro-plus early which seemed to take affect after another mile or so.
It wasn’t too long until it descended to darkness and we had a brief stop midway to get our headtorches ready. Beechey faffed around for a bit here as I marched on still trying to navigate by the natural light to let my eyes adjust to the darkness until I stumbled over a couple of times and was forced to switch the headtorch on. Quite a lot of the night section passed through stony ground, tree roots or grassy track with lots of depressions so you had to take care during the night. I’ve been known to take the odd tumble (an occupational hazard for a night time trail runner) had a couple of wobbles as did Beechey from time to time.My quads and feet were starting to become a little uncomfortable. My feet were a little sore from the constant pounding as expected and I could feel a couple of toe blisters but I could ignore these. However, the pounding on the quads was more problematic and I started to employ the ‘Morton-stetch’ link here periodically to loosen the quads by using a post, squatting three times and then holding each one for a few seconds. The first was always a bit painful, the second uncomfortable and the third more tolerable but it seemed to keep my legs in good enough shape to keep running.
We continued in pitch darkness, navigating by the light of our head torches and picking our way along the slightly varied terrain along the canal path. The temperature was dropping and we passed through pockets of cold air from time to time but as we were still running I wasn’t too cold and settled into sleeves rolled up to keep my cool but with gloves and cap on to keep the extremities warm and minimise the heat loss from these areas. I tend to ration my water supply between Checkpoints drinking an even proportion through the leg (i.e. making sure I have 50% supplies left at the half way point) and then consume extra if we stumble across a top but Beechey goes through more and was constantly looking for the taps. Unfortunately, in the dark we missed one we were looking for which raised a slight question over his limited supplies. It wasn’t really going to be a major issue and but a few miles later we unexpectedly bumped into my brother, Peter who had been tracking my progress and had kindly popped out along the Canal Path (he lives near the finish) to give me some morale support and he had some bottles of water and Lucozade in his car. “Race Saving Supplies” was Beechey’s quote which perhaps was a touch exaggerated but he did appreciate the timeliness of the unexpected meeting.
One thing I had focussed on was the 100 mile goal and I was keen to try and get there as close to 17 hrs as possible and I was pretty happy when we worked out that we had reached the 100 mile point in just under 17 hours (16.50 maybe?) which would have been a new PB for the distance.
At the 100m Checkpoint (Photo by Peter Ali)
It didn’t take us long to arrive at the next Checkpoint where we met up with Wayne who told us that a car had been dumped and had exploded on the Canal Path 20-30 miles back which was causing an issues for runners who couldn’t divert around it when the Canal Path was closed. I later learned Pete Foxall in the Meat Wagon ferried a few runners around it so they could continue their races so I don’t believe this caused as much disruption as first feared when news broke.
With 100 miles complete and being in a great position, a dream result was now potentially achieveable. We hadn’t seen any runners or crews for miles so assumed we had a bit of a gap, I was still on for a sub 23 time and we were still running. I asked for something warm to put over me to avoid getting too cold even just for the few minutes we stopped as I dived into my kit bag to swap Garmin, grab snacks, top up bottles and get some spare batteries for my head-torch.
Peter walked with us a few yards down the path after the Checkpoint until we started to run and then met us once more a couple of miles further ahead for a final bit of morale support before he headed home. We jogged the next section with the odd 30 second walk break which we both occasionally called and I periodically continued with the Morton stretch from time to time. I took a couple of more Pro-Plus around here which would be enough to see me through the rest of the race as I could feel some traces of tiredness just starting to creep back in.
Surprisingly, I was still able to run at this stage in the race which was unusual for me. Sure, I had all the usual aches and pains at this point but I wasn’t too sleepy (it wasn’t the early hours yet and had already taken some pro-plus) and the feet were a bit sore but still ok to run. The quads were probably the sorest point and from time to time there were some short slopes near locks which were far too uncomfortable for the very limited gradient and I eased down these each gingerly time.
We arrived at the last Checkpoint before the finish a bit under 3 hours later still maintaining a fairly consistent 10-11 minute miling pace and met with Keith and Cathy here. Knowing, I was likely to stiffen up and get cold if we stopped I was keen to march through and paused just long enough to grab a drink of squash and a bag of grapes which I ate as I marched out of the Checkpoint. Beechey, took a minute or two longer and then jogged to catch me up and we carried on together. Keith had asked Beechey what the plan was between us and he confirmed our intention to see the race out together.
The last leg was mentally more of a struggle than any of the others for me and I did lean on Beechey a bit on this leg to be fair. I did have a genuine break when I needed to find a suitable point for a.. er ‘sit down’ and Beechey marched slowly on until I jogged and caught up but there were a few times when I started looking for excuses to have a walk break and called a few more 30 second walk breaks than I had done on previous legs. Despite perhaps mentally waning, I was still capable of physically running and the average pace was still around 11+ish minute miling.
We started to see signs that we were reaching the centre of the City from the lights ahead and increasing amount of buildings. The miles were ticking away very slowly for me and I tried to avoid looking at the watch and failed. Why weren’t the miles moving? Beechey was trying to raise the spirits and talking about all the positive points about the race (and neatly avoiding his minor indiscetions i.e. losing his maps twice, forgetting to eat, forgetting to top us his water, various stumbles etc).
Despite being in an excellent position, with probably a career best result I was thinking of the relief of it all being over rather than any thoughts of glory. This wasn’t an adrenaline fueled surge for a podium place like the last 10 miles of the KACR, this was just about keeping the legs turning over for the final section of the race.
We used the marker posts to keep us motivated running from one to another as each quarter of a mile was ticked off. Mentally, I went back to counting just to keep my mind wandering and we continued to make progress to the finishing gradually ticking off mile after mile and soon the distance fell from Half Marathon to 10k to Park Run which put this into manageable running terms.
As we approached the last couple of miles Beechey text his wife Hannah who had travelled up to the finish and was going to meet us near the end and as we approached the street lights overlooking the canal which could switch our head torches off. We spotted Hannah no more than a few hundred yards from the finish, Beechey questioned her closely about the distance (How far to the finish? Are you sure? * hard stare *) and we realised we were going to finish under 22 ½ hours.
We continued with the run not wanting to stop now and then I could see the chimney stack ahead which I knew was near the finish and then we spotted the first sign of the finishing area and marquee. I was feeling a little emotional as I headed towards the finish (relief rather than joy) and I finally allowed the thought of this ‘dream result’ settle in.
Finishing a long ultra is a source of some bemusement for me personally particularly when results have improved over the years. I still recall the days of completing a sub 24 hour hundred miler lying in the ground declaring “I’m broken” when the reality is I’ve only ran 50 miles and probably walked the other 50 miles to achieve that time. There has been the odd strong finish when you cross the line full of adrenaline, cock-a-hoop with fist clenched in the air and the reality is I may run the last mile but walked about 20 miles before that. Even on my second Sparta finish in 32 1/2 hours, I ran past Stouty at the finish and my first words were “I should have done better”. Perhaps minutes, hours or a day or two after each race, there has always been the realisation that there was always a bit more to give and I’ve always felt like I ‘could have done better’ each time.
I’m pleased to say not on this occasion as we crossed the finish line together joint winners in 22hrs 24mins. I was genuinely pleased with how the race went. It was a brilliant race result for me (and a decent result overall) which betters anything else I’ve done largely down to the fact that I pretty much ran the entire race (the odd 30 second walk break aside) in the company of a good mate. I would like to thank Paul Beechey who was sound company the entire race and whilst we worked well as a team throughout the race I was particularly glad of his company over the last section where I was just starting to look for excuses and so having him by my side to chat/motivate/distract the mind did help keep me going those last few miles, cheers mate! I should also say that Beechey has had a fantastic Canal Slam series finishing 2nd at the GUCR, 1st at the KACR and now joint 1st at the LLCR. His overall Canal Slam time was 8 hours better than the next competitor (which was me). Rest up Beechey and I look forward to seeing a strong result in Sparta to top off an exceptional year.
Dream result! (Photo by Keith Godden)
..Chicken Dinner (Photo by Keith Godden)
Not only had I completed my 100th marathon/ultra, I had finished joint 1st and spent 95% of the race running with a good running mate who was fine company, I had achieved a Spartathlon Auto Qualifier for next year (please don’t change the qualifying timings), I had gone through 100 miles in personal best time, I had managed to keep my feet reasonably blister free, I had kept the the sleep demons at bay (probably a first) and best of all had run pretty much the entire length of the 130 mile course without setting stuck into a night march. Sure the legs ache, the feet ache and the quads were really sore but these physical symptoms were always going to be part and parcel of the event of this distance nothing is ever going to be comfortable. However, mentally I was much stronger and undoubtedly this was my finest ultra run and I’m absolutely delighted with the result… unfortunately this means that any mediocre efforts in the future are less likely to be tolerated by myself as well as everyone else! (My fellow RJ Ultra team members especially).
Thanks to Maisy for the bonus cake for completing the 100 marathons/ultras (Photo by Keith Godden)
A final thanks to all the members of the Canal Race family from the organisers and all of the volunteers for giving up their time and effort to allow a few privileged runners take part in these sort of challenges. Well done to everyone else who completed the race and the other runners who also completed the inaugural Canal Slam of races.
As Dick kindly presented us with our finishing medals I said to him “Dick, when I finished the GUCR in 2010 in about 44 hours.. did you ever expect to see me finish near the front of a race?”. He laughed.
Strava Activity can be found here