Country to Capital

Do your homework. Always do your homework.


Read race reports. Find out about marking. Find what aid stations provide. Understand the route details and where you might need to memorise parts.
I didn't do any of those. This is not like me - but I had run the "non-canal" part of the course the week before, and I've run the Grand Union sections before, and it's only a short race so, just "winging it" seems like a good plan. Yeah?

I'd heard a bit about this race and seen many comments about what a lovely race it was... so decided it was time to take a look. This seemed like a good opportunity to test "where I was at" now after a bit of a setback at the end of the year. It's a nice short manageable distance, so my plan was to hit it hard (ish) and see how I manage, see how the legs are, see how I'm feeling.

I'd had a few ups and downs with my head injury over Christmas... but the Mince Pi run had been great (on the day, less so the week after) and for the two days before the race I had felt absolutely amazing. This is good. I'm cured... I'M BACK!!! (ahem).

I was a little worried about getting to the start since I was going to catch the train, I didn't fancy trying to drive up early, and staying over would mean leaving my car in the wrong place.... staying up in London and travelling out by train in the morning looked like a winner. I'd caught the train out on my recce run and it had worked beautifully.
Only when I checked actual *weekend* times did I spot that the train arrived at 8:15... for an 8:30 race start. ah.

However,  there was an email from the race director beforehand saying that lots of people would be catching this train and that the start would be organised to cater for this but "arrive ready to run". easy.

So after an average nights sleep in Marylebone on a "quiet floor" - there are other types?? I want to know where the party floor is. 8.15 train... up from 5am. sigh. loads of time to chill and saunter over to the train.
The train is full of ultra runners. It is a surreal sight, and awesome.

I sit near the loo, and plan on nipping in en-route... I don't need to go yet, but hopefully the station coffee will kick in before getting to Wendover. As the train rolls on there's a steady flow of runners up-to the toilets... and just as I decide ok now I'll go, a long queue forms.
Sitting back down, I get "race ready", de-thermal and organise my kit and bag.

At this point I hear someone chatting about their technique to "race to the gate".

Eh? What? Hmm.


In Wendover, there's again an awesome vision of luminous race-ready runners heading from the station to the start, as we reach the pub I can't believe how many people there are, it's heaving.
In for my number and back to the car park for bag drop. The race briefing is supposed to be now, but can't really hear clearly with lots of chattering. I catch the odd word, I try to move forward from the bag drop... just as I hear the shout "GO".
I had thought (like so many other races) we would be "walked to the start", but now having recee-d this bit I totally understand the "race to the gate" comment.
Er. Ok. Ah, turning on my watch would have been good, I juggle with it as we all move out, then I see that we have a lot of people going rather quickly down the high street.

Alright then. Don't really feel like queuing for ages to get through the pinch point, I engage afterburners and sprint down the street moving from right at the back to, well pretty much up at the front. Nice.

and so it begins.

I wrangle my watch into life, although I will have missed my epic start sprint (and later I will spend considerable time fighting to get the data uploaded)

Now. I *had* recce'd the first 20 miles, so it should have been auto-pilot time, and off the start I'm running with a fair few people in front and behind.

A bit lost

But after a few miles, I notice and realise that there is no course marking at all, I'd sort of assumed that there would be at least the occasional tape, marker or arrow where there was a confusing turn. But no. Ah. OK. Well... just make sure to keep someone in front in sight.

Most of the way is familiar, and I feel smug on a couple of occasions where I'm the one that remembers the way and decisively points the way to someone who's looking uncertain.

On the way I've seen many familiar faces from Centurion events and said hi, I bump into and chat to John Melbourne who I've only ever encountered on Strava before. We run together for a bit, but I realise that I've been paying no attention to where we are and we hit a road at which point we can't see the runners we were following anywhere. I thought we were following the marked trail, but that points ahead, just then the runner behind points right and so we turn. John motors off up the next climb so I ease off. A few miles later and we'll hit the diversion that instructions had been emailed out about, I have the instructions in my bag, but I want to keep the runners in sight so I'm not flying solo. I did read and remember them, a bit.

Smiffy is a grass

I hit the "Smiffy is a grass" graffiti with another runner and we jointly conclude that we remembered it saying turn left. Hmm, no sight of anyone else. I pull out the book, ah, turn right, *then* immediately left at the graffiti.....  oops.

Heading back the right way, I keep the book in my hand and yell to a group in front who have missed a turn, they turn and run on in front of us as I keep yelling out the directions for everyone around us.
After the diversion and we're back on the route I remember as everyone runs on and I find myself on my own for a bit.

As I get towards the end of the section I had run before when I'd recced it, it had *looked* like it just joined the Grand Union at this point in a straight line, but as I run on and on, I start to worry..... ok, dig out the map book. aaand. um. I have no idea where I am on the map, this makes no sense, I just can't see it at all.

I stop at another road, just as a runner I passed a few minutes ago catches up, she says it's "definitely left here. I think. probably. I'm sure we run past an airfield"
Well that sounds confident so I head on that way, but I can't see any airfield on my maps. anywhere. at all. :(

A moment later there's the airfield... still nothing on the map, but a road name. OK I can see that, right,  sorted. A couple of minor wobbles on the way, and at one point see another runner running in onto the path I (and several others) are on now from a different trail. 😀 Looks like a few are having the same trouble.


Finally. Canal.

Er. Yay.

and at this point, after all that countryside and pushing hard, suddenly hitting the flat my legs die. I potter on a little and hook up with Centurion runner Drew we walk and chat for a little while. (I shouldn't say this, but he looks awful, I wonder if I look the same!) A bit later I'm feeling ok again, and bid farewell, as we part I say I'll see you again when you pass me. He chuckles, but indeed he does, he has a superb comeback and a good finish, during my later crumble.

Aid stations.

I've been spoiled. I'm used to Centurion events and the epic aid stations (and marking).
Whilst everyone here is really friendly, lovely and helpful there's a lack of "salty" stuff and a lack of coke. The choices are water or energy drink. I never take energy drink, it doesn't agree with me.... but after 20 odd miles I'm desperately in need of something sweet to drink, I had been hoping to catch sight of a high street or garage or cafe or something at some point, but no joy and I didn't fancy trying to locate myself and take a diversion.... so I thought I'd give the energy drink a try at checkpoint 4, ~27 miles. It'll be fine?

Nope. Very much no. I'm sick, and feeling rough.... made even worse by a section of "temporary" tow path a little later, it's floating sections of plastic that bounce as you run or walk on them.

I walk. Holding onto the fence. My balance has gone. I'm sick again. Feeling a bit better on solid path and after that I alternate between walking and running for a bit. Around this time Drew cruises past looking brilliant, nice one.

But not long now.

Checkpoint 5. Kendal mint cake! I grab and inhale a handful. I have a stern word with myself.
I can do this, six miles to go and I wind it back up. The mint cake was the pick-me-up I needed, I'm feeling great now and the pace is back down to sub 9 minute miles. Now where's that finish? I see Hugo has come back to meet me, and run in over the line.

Done.  7 hours 0 minutes 45 seconds. (The Strava)


Is that it

and I feel. underwhelmed. 😞 It's a lovely medal and everything. but. for some reason. that's a let down.

I enjoyed the first 20 miles. I love trail running. But I still can't "love" canal running. The event was well run and everyone was really friendly and helpful. It was a pleasure to say hello to lots of familiar faces. The only issues I had were entirely my fault, I should have been better prepared.

I had hoped this race would tell me for certain "how I was" now and what I should attempt next, but that's still a bit of an unknown. I still have bad days. More good days than bad.

But. I still feel lucky. Very lucky. Every day. I had a close call and often I'll reflect just how lucky I am when I'm out running. I have an amazing wife, I'll be on support duties as she races her first ultra this year (NDW50).
I have two awesome sons. Hugo is a teenager, but hopefully he's moving on from that phase now, he is an amazing runner and is desperate to go long. Oliver is just starting to move into his "teenager phase", I had hoped he'd see his brother as a warning and decide he didn't want to end up like that, but...


What now? A few winter 10k's, a day at a running track... then the "Canal" thing.
Oh and Brian Drought has produced a very interesting "all the Centurions" track that looks very tempting. Perhaps. perhaps.


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