Cat: there’s no way this one’s getting into the FRA calendar
Reviewing my running in 2018 in November was, on the whole, a satisfactory experience: decent weekly mileage? Check, with only a few slack weeks due to injury or work. Getting some worthwhile XC and cat A/B fell races in? Check, with a handful I’d never done before slipped in. Knocking a bit of time off previous PBs on a couple of races? Check once more. The only real holes in what was otherwise a good year were the failure to get across to any of the Lakeland Classics and the 2x ultra, Did Not Starts, the former (Calderdale Hike) due to a bout of man-flu that hit me the evening before and saw me find out what a temperature of c40c feels like (not great, would not recommend), the latter (Bradwell) as a result of a shift over-running to the point that I’d not left work by the time my train pulled out of Central Station. As a consequence, whilst on a bit of a high after taking 6 minutes off my Pendle PB, I looked at the ultra calendar for something, anything, that I could knock off early in the year to get some big miles in my legs. This essentially boiled down to a choice of two southern ultras, the Peddar’s Way in Norfolk and the Country to Capital Ultra, the latter eventually chosen as it was easier to get to and less likely to be snowed-off in the event of a ‘Beast from the East’ reprise. Once booked, I did the logical thing and promptly returned to training by both running up and down hills, and doing some road-based interval work, managing to rack up a single run in the intervening period of 20 miles (I think), but definitely getting faster over middle-distance – a core ultra skill.
Funnily enough given the above, I was not 100% confident when 12 Jan 19 came around that I had the necessary miles in my legs, and upon getting to Wendover early on the Saturday morning, had distinctly mixed feelings about what was about to transpire, repeating to myself the mantra ‘be like Anna (Seeley, the only ultra-runner I know who makes it look easy),’ as this was the only way I could see myself finishing – set a pace, stick to it, don’t think about going too fast etc; essentially, run metronomically for hour after hour after hour. Oh, and stop and take whatever food and drink is on offer, whenever it is on offer. With this plan, I registered, collected my EMIT tag and number, dropped my bag at the van that would take it to the finish, used the portable loos repeatedly and then set off in the middle of the 2-300 runners down Wendover High Street hoping to get to Paddington in around 7 hours or a little less.
The first mile was easy, and essentially a tour of a fairly pretty market/commuter town before mile 2 saw us hit the first, and biggest hill of the course, a pleasant walk up a wooded track, which would have been very runnable were it not for the facts that a) everyone else was walking and I was stuck b) there was still a VERY long way to go. We got to the top and I started running again, keeping a pace of 8:20 – 8:50 min/miles dependent upon terrain (largely wooded/farmland and rather pleasant), with a brief dip sub-8 on a nice long road descent, and hit CP1 at Chesham, 7.7m in for water, a bit of cake and the knowledge that the leader had gone through in around 53 minutes; I was impressed, though the occupants of this outpost of Betjeman’s Metroland appeared less-so, carrying on normal Saturday morning life as a stream of runners trickled through their town centre, through a nature reserve and past youth football training, en route to CP2, Horn Hill, 17.3 miles in and again, most of it nice-if-unremarkable green countryside with the occasional village to break up the greenery.
After leaving CP2 it was straight downhill through more fields to the M25, which I must confess to feeling slightly awed by, running high over it on a bridge that appears used largely by animals and tractors (judging by the underfoot matter) and feeling viscerally the speed and relentless roar of the many lanes of constant traffic underneath.
Straight after crossing I actually had to apply my brain a little, as several of us became temporarily confused by the correct route out of Maple Cross, eventually finding our way down to the A41, which we hand-railed for the next mile. This loose agglomeration of half a dozen of us was to last for a few miles, taking us off the main road and up a steep wooded embankment to skirt Denham aerodrome and cross a golf course, thankfully both holes crossed having people putting rather than giving it their all with their drivers. Into Denham itself, the railway station served as a convenient landmark (we had to run under it) as well as the halfway point and, also, a marker that the fun was nearly over. One of our remaining trio (two had dropped away and one other had picked up his pace) had reconnoitred the second half of the route, running from Paddington to Denham and taking the train back, and simply said ‘welcome to the Grand Union Canal, in its’ bleak majesty. It all looks a bit like this from now on.’ He was not wrong.
Before things became truly unpleasant there were highlights, however: CP3 was only a further 4-5 miles in, marking marathon distance (3:46hrs) and being equipped with water, mini-sausages and mini-beef-and-veg pasties, which hit the spot very nicely as I walked away (again, figuring that losing a bit of time was better than accidentally inhaling pastry and provoking a coughing/vomiting fit – it has been known).
Food taken, I trotted on, solo now for the rest of the race as my companions were looking to run in at 9-9:30 min/miles from here, whereas I was still feeling comfortable at c.8:30 or so and knew I had one more piece of navigation to accomplish, this being taking the Paddington canal branch at a white bridge 3 miles on, with a sign pointing and saying ‘Paddington’ on it. Backing myself to manage this, I followed the water, occasionally changing sides as the towpath switched at locks, urban London starting to intrude more as the greenery beside the canal became dotted with fly-tipping and the quiet of the countryside was disturbed by the hum of concrete plants, distribution warehouses, rakes of freight wagons on lines running parallel and over and then, finally, commuter and tube trains announcing we were definitely in the capital. Having passed through Southall, the highlight being a bouncy floating bridge carrying the towpath past a building site, CP4 came at 33 miles, then was followed a mere 4 miles later by CP5, the organisers bunching them closer to allow for the fact that later runners would be finishing in the dark, paired after 1500hrs. I was still at a pace that felt comfortable breathing-wise through both, but was starting to slow slightly after CP5 and both feet were beginning to get rather sore; if honest, whilst the backs of factories and warehouses are of interest in some ways, this was not the scenery I’m used to and the lack of reason to change pace or watch my foot placement was strangely hypnotic, the daydreams being disturbed only by occasional cheers from passers-by, the smell of skunk at fairly regular intervals and the odd grunted hello to a competitor as I ground past them. Truthfully, even a day later I can’t remember how many people I overtook in the last 10 miles of the race, but it was a handful and all appeared to be suffering a little, with just finishing clearly being the aim. Again, all I tried to do was maintain rhythm and pace, step-by-step, mile by mile, and the repression of my earlier instincts to run faster made this possible.
Finally, Little Venice arrived, the finish being hidden from view until 20 yards away by a bridge, and all the more wonderful for the surprise. EMIT handed in, confirmed that I’d managed 6:22, and was apparently 22nd overall, the winner having managed sub-5hrs. After that, tea, water, reclaim baggage and stroll to the tube with a couple of other finishers, doubtless smelling a bit ripe, before a quick wash in a pub toilet prior to getting the train back north.
Thoughts? Good event, though even stripping out the fatigue effect, the first half is much nicer running than the second. Well-organised, the pleasant-seeming organisers being ex-military, which is always a plus, and serious runners themselves, with the CPs being spaced sensibly and the cut-offs neither too tight nor too likely to lead to disaster.
Overall, despite this being some distance outside my comfort zone for pace, terrain or distance, I enjoyed this more than I expected. Indeed, I’d even recommend it to Anna, whose way of doing business essentially got me around, next time she wants some long-distance, canal-based fun.