“But you’ve done this before so you know what to expect. It should be a doddle this time?”
This is a line I heard from every other person I spoke to about this race this time. In some respects I was inclined to agree. I remember vividly some of the darkest moments of last year’s race and even more the euphoric ones. I have relived and retold my experiences time and time again to all that would listen. There was a part of me that nodded in agreement at the thought of this being routine. I've done it before, I've done a lot since, what could go wrong.
Then again, what can be routine about a 145 mile race? 30+ hours, 500000 steps, 15000 calories, sleep deprivation, hallucinations, exhaustion and pain. Anything can happen in that time. Many people succeed several times then don’t make it. Many more just don’t make it. Each year this race indiscriminately eliminates 60% of all those turn up at the start line.
I could not decide which one I wanted to be true. An easy 145 jog back home leaving half of the sunny bank holiday left over to enjoy beer and lounging like everyone else seemed appealing. However if I really wanted that then I wouldn't have bothered turning up for this?
I felt a lot less sick in the morning than I did last year. I was getting a lift down to the start with Nick and Drew and Nick's girlfriend Amy who had signed up to support him all by herself. That was going to be a tough job. I couldn't imagine staying awake that long unless I was running. I didn't get much sleep the last night. The sickness soon came though as soon as I scoffed 2 Mcdonalds breakfast meals. The guys and the drive in seemed a bit confused that we were walking through the Drive-Thru.
I recognised a lot more people at the start this time and had done in the pub the night before. It seemed a bit like a family reunion. I got at least one "J-Lo" comment. Dick Kearn had sent my race report of last year to all entrants and insisted they read it beforehand. It was nice to hear so many people enjoyed reading it. They would know exactly why I am back here again a year later and the number of others here to run this again was staggering. You may think this was the sort of race that people would finish and say "never again". It's not like that at all, the second I crossed the line last year I wanted to do it again. Not right away mind, a years rest was needed. There were 85 people on the start, the maths here tends to be quite uniform. About 40% of these guys will make it to the finish line, 60% won't. Some will have the run of their lives, others will battle to the finish, others will chance upon bad luck and suffer the agony of dropping out. Some just wont be ready to finish this. Last year I was in the first category, but that was no guarantee that this year I would avoid being in the last.
I looked ahead waiting for Dick to sound his horn, recalling fondly the low bridge straight ahead that you have to duck under and can get a bit crowded with 85 people heading for it. Off it went and so did we. It's amazing that I've only been here once before yet every bridge seemed familiar. Not so familiar that I didn't go wrong within the first mile again, only slightly though and this time 6 people followed me. I did warn everyone not to follow me and most of them obliged, running off ahead.
This'll be a doddle
The first few miles of long distance races are usually a collection of brief conversations with people you don't really know until you run out of niceties and then want to speed up/slow down into your own run. There is plenty of time. The running order of questions is always the same too. Have you done this before? That's great, when did you do it? Wow, how did you do? Cool, what was it like? Oh my God, and yet you are back here doing it again? Brilliant, my name's Dave by the way, what's yours? Kind of like a cliched chatting up conversation, Do you come here often? Oh, so what do you normally do then? WOW I find [boring thing she just said] really interesting, how did you get into that? Oh excellent I find [thing she just said but can't quite remember because you weren't really listening] is really tough on the elbows, what do you do about that? I prefer the ultrarunning conversations though, I rarely get slapped in them.
The first checkpoint is as busy a melee of runners and helpers as I will see for the rest of the race. Only 10.7 miles into the run the field has not broken up too much by choice. There is a glue that holds runners together in races that dissolves when exposed to youthful exuberance and competition. The competition does not start for at least another 24 hours, if at all. The exuberance is subdued by apprehension. As for the youth, I'll leave that one alone...
I stopped to fill my barely depleted water pack up, eat some cheesy biscuits and move on. As I did I noticed water dripping down my back. I took my bag off and made sure the cap was on the water then carried on but it still dripped. I took it off again and gave it a closer look to find a large but neat gash in the top of it. My water pack was now useless and I had to run back to the checkpoint, passing everyone as they left. I had a hard time explaining to all those that I passed in 0.8 seconds or less what was wrong. I laughed it off and said my bladder had burst, people were genuinely worried that something bad had happened. I got back to the checkpoint and asked Dick if he had any water bottles spare. There were none so instead he emptied a bottle of lemonade and filled that with water. A flimsy 2 litre bottle was to be my water carrying device for the rest of the race. I am very greatful to Dick though, there was aat least 15p worth of lemonade in that bottle.
The complete loss of my hydration systems was a good cause to panic. From now on it was going to be an inconvenience to have to unload my bag every time I wanted a drink but I was really quite good at keeping it under control. I was very aware of how easily little hic-cups can snowball into huge mental neuroses and then potentially ending the race. I just laughed it off. 10 miles in and my race could be fucked already, he he he.
I was now way back in the field and chatting to people as I passed. Last year I saw no one between 10 and 60 miles. I was now right in the middle of it all and enjoying it. I spoke to a chap called Andy who was doing this for the 4thtime. I mentioned wanting to do the Spartathlon later in the year and his one piece of advise for me on that is not to do what every other Brit does and run the Ridgeway 85 four weeks before. Damn it, that was exactly what I was going to do.
Hatton Locks appeared in about 4 hours. The marshals at the checkpoint nearly threw away my battered Sainsbury's lemonade bottle and were surprised to hear that it was going to get me along the entire canal. I explained that my bladder had broke at the previous checkpoint so that they didn't accuse me of being under prepared.
The sun picked up as I started out again towards the third checkpoint which was another 13 miles away. I started to feel a bit knackered and hot and had forgotten to put some sun cream on when I had my bag at the checkpoint.
Supported vs Unsupported?
Last year I managed to recruit four friends who were silly enough to endure this adventure with me. I decided not to be supported this year as I wanted this to be a different experience. There are pros and cons of both.
Being supported means that you have people carrying your stuff near you all the time. Rather than checkpoints with 15 mile gaps they can bring you things whenever you need them. 15 miles is a long way to go at slow pace and you may need more things than is comfortable to carry.
However there is something to be said for being unsupported. This year I was using all the checkpoints and eating the food there and as a result felt more a part of the race. Last time I barely stopped and didn't really take in the opportunity to enjoy the checkpoint experience.
That said, I know that if I had a support crew this year they would have made me put on sun cream, now.
I spent the next few miles running close to Nick Lewis. I think he was following a run/walk strategy, as does Pat Robbins each time he smashes the course record. Typically it's 25 minutes at 9 minute miles and then 5 minutes walking. It seems like a slow way to do it but the times Pat gets and the time Nick got this year certainly prove it is possible to get a good time doing this. I doubt I'll ever have the discipline to do that. Run till you can't run. walk till you can't walk, crawl till you can't crawl, sleep and the try running again.
I couldn't remember many of my spli times from last year. My “Plan” was to get to 100 in 19 hours like last year and then not fall apart in the last 45. It became clear even before 40 that I was not going to achieve this. I recall from last year that there was a hill after about 44 miles which I ran up with ease. I was told by my team that I looked in a better way than those ahead and I felt that I had not even got started yet. This time it was the opposite. I staggered up this time and someone overtook me looking very fresh. That was me last year. I continued down back onto the canal had had to come to terms with the fact that I was not even a third of the way into the race and I was already exhausted.
I'd been running for nearly 10 hours. Chances are I'd have at least 24 hours to go if I wanted to finish. I tried to completely detach myself from this being a race now as 24 hour more exertion is something I could not come to terms with. I didn't even try the good old “chunking” method of breaking everything down into smaller pieces because I would never be able to forget just how many pieces there were.
Ultrarunning over the past few years I think has allowed me to distance myself from the panic button, not just in running but in other situations too. Not many things get me worked up nowadays and I have events like this to thank for that. In years gone by the bladder incident at mile 10 would have been still on my mind and grating through my brain but instead it was almost forgotten. I knew I felt bad right now but knew in time I could forget about it. I just needed to keep running and it would sort itself out. Don't Panic.
The sun was merciless, hanging in the middle of the sky unobscured by clouds and bearing down on a canal that also had no cover. The humidity was high next to the water and it was really taking it's toll. I would frequently overheat as I ran in the sun and would stop frequently to guzzle water. I would explode in sweat regularly and have to stop to cool down. I felt like I couldn't breathe properly, like I was trying to run with a sock stuffed in my mouth. I spoke to a guy who suggested that I ran all the sunny sections and walked in the shade to cool down. This seemed crazy to me at the time. Why would you put more effort in the sun? I was the perfectly sensible thing to do and I tried it. There were stages where I could not run more than half a mile without having to stop and drink/cool down. I'd forgotten the sun cream again.
On the plus side the sun meant that the canal became a carnival all the way down. Everyone was out enjoying the weather, drinking, BBQing and walking. I get comments all the time about the boredom of canals but this was great. Every now and then I'd get a comment asking what I was doing. Typical conversation goes something like
Boatman - “Hey, are you in a race?”
Boatman “Where did you start?”
Boatman “F**king hell, where are you running to?”
Boatman “Jesus. Where abouts do you sleep?”
Me “I don't”
Boatman – *Falls off boat.*
At about 62 miles the canal goes underground into Blissworth Tunnel. At this point you get to enjoy a nice 2 mile stretch of road and take your chances against the boy racers who tear up and down it. I’d been running for over 13 hours and was really starting to feel exhausted. It was 7 pm and the sun was still beating down on my head. I passed lots of very nice houses with very nice gardens and all I could think about was sleeping in them. The lawns looked fantastic and I just wanted to lie down on one.
I was running and walking at this stage, stopping frequently to drink out of my lemonade bottle and trying to force myself to stay awake. I’d never felt like this in a race before, it was actually an effort to stay awake. Sometimes I’d drift into the centre of the road and have to force myself back and walk a bit to regain my composure. I was not even half way in and I needed to go to bed. How on earth was I going to make it through the night? And then run on the next day? I tried not to think about it, which was easy to do since my brain was falling asleep and was thinking of those random abstract things you think about just before nodding off.
I arrived at the Grand Junction Arms, the 70 mile checkpoint just as night was falling. Last year I was here about 2 hours before and I didn’t stop. As soon as I got onto the bridge I slumped into a chair and held my head back and closed my eyes. I could have stayed there all night.
There are not many rules in the Grand Union Canal Race. That’s what I like about it, it’s all about the running and not the admin. The only rules are that you have to stick to the route, always have your number on the front and that you are not allowed to stop for more than 40 minutes at a checkpoint.
That last rule was going to be hard for me to follow. I was ready to go to sleep. I could probably have just napped for 3 hours and then been right as rain. I wasn’t sure why I was so tired, I suppose I didn’t get enough sleep the week before. I was about to fall into a deep slumber when I received a prod from an organiser.
“You want some hot food?” He asked as I was scanning the scene, not quite sure where I was.
“What are the options?” I said. I had beans and mashed potato followed by a fruit salad and a cup of tea. I was in no rush to get up or to wolf the food down, I just took my time, updated my Facebook status and checked my messages.
Of all the moments in both of the years I have done this race I think this was the point where I was closest to quitting. I was not even half way and I could barely open my eyes. It was very different from last year. I thought about how I got out of the chair at Springwell Locks (120 miles) last year. Back then my body was broken, this time it was fine. Nothing hurt I just could not stay awake. When I was prodded a few moments before I was half expecting to be on the tube at Heathrow Airport or West Ruislip or some other place I ended up because I drunkenly missed my stop.
I fumbled around in my bag for some red bull and all of a sudden up popped Miffy. I had spent the previous week joking about taking this cute little rabbit toy on the canal with me and here she was hiding behind some Pringles. She really does like salty snacks.
I laughed out loud as I saw this and forgot for a while that I was in dire need of sleep. I sent a message to Katie who had obviously put the mischievous rodent into my bag and said it really cheered me up. It did, I was ready to get out of the chair again and do some running. And that I did.
I was looking forward to passing the half way mark, even though I wouldn’t really know where it was. For a while I forgot to be tired and started running along again at quite a pace. During the next 10 miles I overtook 5 people who looked like they were suffering going into the night. I was bouncing. Boing boing boing boing
The etiquette on overtaking runners differs according to the race. Normal mass road races I would just ignore anyone who I overtook or who overtook me unless they were a member of my club. With trail marathons and ultras I tend to be a bit more friendly and say a few words at least. Often I’ll run for a few minutes with someone and then let then go ahead/fall behind. This is easy when there are not too many runners in the event.
I’d always maintain that this is unlike any other “race” that I’ve done in that the competitors are not really “racing” each other. It would be disastrous to try and run someone else’s run in an event like this, to try and keep up with someone who is going a bit faster than you. However it is very similar to a race in that you have an effect on other runners as they do on you.
I was aware of the potentially destructive consequences of just bounding past someone like I wasn’t even trying. I was enjoying a rare moment of free running as we were heading into what many find the hardest part, the sunset. It can certainly have an effect on someone when they see another runner looking in much better shape. I know it does on me sometimes.
I didn’t want to appear rude as I went past people but nor did I want to lose any momentum as I knew this wouldn’t last forever. These moments are among the best in running, when you find reserves you didn't know you had and can really get moving. I overtook them without really saying much. I was fairly certain I was not chanting “boing boing boing boing”.
It got darker and I started to recognise some parts of the canal that I thought were quite nice from last year. I stopped to ask someone how far I was from Milton Keynes and he surprised me by saying I was already in Milton Keynes. I’d run 7 miles in no time at all. I was past half way and almost at the 3 marathons stage and feeling quite good. I got to 80 miles and saw another runner's support crew on top of a bridge. I said hello and carried on, by this point almost into complete darkness. I was putting off wearing my headtorch, but now I had to, otherwise I’d be falling over.
I put on the torch and couldn’t quite believe what I saw. The light was reflecting off moisture coming off the canal that almost blinded me. It was as if the canal was on fire and I could not see for more than 5 meters. The sun had long since stopped beating down on my neck but its presence was still here in the dark. Not only was it giving me a hard time from above but it had also had been drowning me from below. I just couldn’t believe how much moisture there was in the air, there must have been even more earlier in the day. That would explain the sock in my mouth, I could take it out soon.
Before the race I thought quite a lot about the possibility of running through the night on my own. 2 concerns mainly, falling into the canal and meeting some unsavoury youths. I thought the latter was going to happen, there was a lot of activity on the canal even after night fell. While heading towards Leighton Buzzard I was startled briefly by a pit bull charging at me out of a crowd of bewildered kids. The dog just seemed friendly though as did the girl (can of Carling in one hand, plastic glass of wine in the other) who asked “are you running this for charity?” No I said, I’m running for me and carried on.
As night fell I started to feel sleepy again and slowed right down. Fighting through the mist I just focused on getting to the next checkpoint at about 87 miles. When I got there I was ready to go sleep but Henk (one of the marshals and organiser of the Caesars Camp 100) would not let me. I sat in the chair and chatted for what seemed like 5 minutes but was soon to be declared half an hour. Time moves fast when you are sat down it seems. I chatted a bit to Phillip who I had just passed. He suggested it may have been a mistake doing the Marlborough Downs 33 miler the week before. He is a silly boy.
I left the checkpoint almost against my will and was thrown back into the darkness, still wanting to fall asleep. At this stage everything looked like a bed. The benches outside the pubs and in the parks, the grass at the side of the towpath, I would even look at spaces in the bushes. I was not concerned at all with getting wet, bitten or hypothermia from lying down on the floor but I prevent myself from doing so because I was worried someone would see me and think I was dead. After only a couple more miles I just sat down on a pub bench and set the alarm on my phone for 15 minutes then collapsed into my hands.
I’m not sure what I was thinking here. What difference would 15 minutes make? At least in the MDS I had the option of sleeping as long as I’d liked so long as I made the finish before the cut off. Potentially I could fall asleep for hours and get pulled out of the race. I guess I just needed to get the fact that I was tired out of my mind. It was stressing me and probably making me more sleepy and slower. I was woken up by Nick M catching up again before the 15 minutes were up.
Nick was still looking amazingly well, he was run walking 5 on and 5 off. I walked for a bit and let him run on.
The Tesco in Leighton Buzzard is a landmark for me. It is probably a landmark for hundreds of the residents in Leighton Buzzard too but for completely different reasons. I vividly recall this being the place where my support crew met and fed me a burger last year, it was also the point where Pat Robbins flew past me like he wasn’t even making an effort and it was the first point in the race where I felt like I was struggling.
This year was very different. I’d been struggling for 50 miles. Pat was probably nearly finished and I was hoping to be many more miles further than I was. I saw Nick M again and he was waiting for Amy to come and feed him. I decided not to stick around and carried on.
Running ultramarathons gives you a weird sense of romance for places that are otherwise shit. I was not running through Maccu Pichu, looking at the Great Pyramids or taking in historic sections of the Great Wall of China. I was not in the wilderness, on a glacier or in the middle of a jungle, no I was in a Tesco car park in Leighton Buzzard. The Tesco wasn't even open. This was the place last year when I realised that I was struggling. About 90 miles in I was starting to feel the damage and about to start on the night section. This time I was already well into the night and had been struggling for a long time. This place has become a reference point for me marking the stark difference between the two races. I'm sure some of the residents of Leighton Buzzard have sense of romance about this place too, I suspect many a young boy has put his hands somewhere where that hadn't been before in this car park. Probably with a girl called "Shazzernay". Probably in a car made by Fiat
I was enjoying the deserted A-road underpasses and bridges of the canal when I heard a guy from the other side of the canal shout for me. He looked lost but then said that he was meeting a friend of his to run through the night with and asked if I had seen him. I said no and ran on, he headed back in the opposite direction. Then, would you believe I bumped into the guy who he was trying to find, sat down on the grass. I said I just passed his friend and he ran the opposite way. This guy then started running in the opposite direction and I had to stop him. "There is no point adding miles to this" I said and offered to run with him for a while. We did and soon his buddy caught up and they both legged it off into the distance. I felt a bit bad again, only one of those guys has an excuse for being fresh.
Hallucinations are a very normal thing to happen in this kind of event and I don't get freaked out by them anymore. In fact they happen to me quite a lot when I wake up in the dark. You get presented with objects that you don't instantly recognise and your brain organises them into what seems to be the most logical thing at the time. For example I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and see some shapes in the corner. My brain usually resolve these into living things like someone watching over me or a dog. After (sometimes a few minutes) I gain my focus and see the objects for what they are, which might be a guitar with a coat hung on it. At this stage I've woken enough to realise that I was silly to think it was someone in the first place. The exact same thing happened here as it did in Canada. I'd see things along the canal and think they were something else, I saw flowers that turned into Umper-Lumpas and I'd pass lamp posts that I thought were other runners. My headlight would reflect on the water in a way that made it look like a cavernous drop. I'd get a bit worried that if I fell in that I'd plummet 30 meters rather than hit the water.
Hallucinating is different from completely disconnecting with reality, which is something I often do while sleeping. I sometimes enjoy short moments when I know I'm dreaming and then use that to get away with things that I wouldn't normally get away with. Usually jumping off tall buildings or killing sprees. I have yet to suffer that kind of lapse while awake, and running...
The days second sunrise started. I got rid of the light as soon as I could and felt more awake as the sun appeared. I had been cursing the sun all of the previous day and spent the night wanting it to return. I didn’t really recognise where I was and was trying to compare what I was running in daylight to what I ran last time in the night. All I remembered from last time was spending ages trying to get to Tring. I tried not to think about it. Sure enough Tring came, 99.5 miles in 23 hours.
I arrived at Tring in good spirits and terrible pain. I’d made a schoolboy error of not putting enough Vaseline on and stride by stride I was grating parts of my anatomy off. I had to run in a waddling style so it hurt less. Every now and then I’d feel 10000 volts shoot up right through me, I’d never had anything like this happen before, the pain was incredible and random. A constant grazing which depended on how fast I was moving and the occasional shock which knocked me sideways then stopped me each time.
I took my time at the checkpoint again and enjoyed a bacon sandwich. I knew that I had hours and miles to go and I knew that I was in for a hell of a lot of pain but I didn’t let that get to me at all, I let go of any idea of finishing this well, I just wanted to finish. I wanted another medal so I could use the 2 as dumbbells.
The marshals at this point commented on me being quite chirpy in comparison to all the other miserable gits who had been in so far. I felt quite good about that. Despite the sleepless night, sun stroked head and shredded bollocks I was still keeping a still upper lip. I ate a bacon sandwich and then saw the marshal was taking a call about who not to expect at the checkpoint as they had retired. I asked after Drew, Carl and Gavin and heard that they had all retired. This saddened me but I was still really pleased that Nick was still going strong. He was about 3 miles behind and we were exchanging messages quite frequently.
I asked whether there was a toilet around and the lady there said there was but that I’d have to use the disabled toilet. I said that I would have anyway, I was pretty disabled by that point. Without wanting to go into too much detail I discovered as I was finishing off in the toilet that I was bleeding quite a lot.
I plodded on and felt at home as soon as I passed the 100 mile point proper. I was now running on canal that I’d done lots of times before. Berkhamstead and Hemel seemed to pass a bit quicker than they did last year. I laughed again at the point where I remember Ben trying to feed me some warm salad pitta thing. I don’t think I found it funny at the time but was laughing now.
I was struggling without a support crew, that much was certain. Though it is impossible to say how much. While running the net 20 miles however it was like I had a ghost support crew. I’d remember certain points from last year, such as the salad pitta incident. I remembered chatting to Campbell before getting to Tring and the buildings that looked like scary robots as well as the 2 sharp uphill paths by the locks and some very steep downhill bridges. I remembered being sssshed as we stopped outside someones house for a food break. I remembered the exact bridge where I came off the canal last year to look at a road sign to see if we were out of Hemel yet and then being disappointed I remembered blaming it on Ben.
Many of the people I knew were doing the Green Belt Relay this weekend which involves running 6-13 miles on Saturday and then something similar on Sunday. They would all just be getting up now and probably complaining about having to run again, poor things. I was hoping to have this finished before many of them started their run. I fact I would finish after their second run having started before their first. I saw some early morning walkers and dogs. Another day was about to start. I’d been on my feet now (mostly) for 24 hours and still had at least 12 left. At least I didn’t feel sleepy anymore.
For the next 40 miles I was running just ahead or just behind a guy called Jan. I didn’t mind when he went on ahead but he didn’t seem to want to let me go, it was like he was worried about getting lost. When I walked so did he and when I ran so did he. We didn’t speak that much, I did let him go ahead and then about half an hour later passed him when he was sat down on the grass with his eyes closed. I decided against prodding him, I was pretty sure he was not dead.
The sun came out and continued what it started the day before. By this point I was drinking lots. Every half a mile I’d stop and take my bag off to access my water bottle. The distance between Tring and Springwell locks was 20 miles and I had 3 litres of water. It wasn’t enough and I had to ask a man on a boat to fill my bottle back up. It wouldn’t have been a big problem, I could always have stopped in a café and got water, and maybe an ice cream.
It’s funny how simple maths can feel quite difficult when you are exhausted. I remember back in the days when I cared about what pace I was running marathons in the difficulty of extrapolating pace into times. “I’ve done 16 miles in 2 hours and want to break 3.20 then the remaining 10 I need to do in, ermmm 8 minute miles, oh but shit there is that stupid 0.2 at the end”. Simple maths like that is hard.
It was the same here except I was using distance measures to work out how far I had gone. Braunstone Locks is about 44 miles into the race. From then on there are distance markers saying how many miles it is to Braunstone. So, it’s pretty easy to know how far you have gone? 44 plus whatever you read equals total distance. It would seem easy, except for when the numbers are over 66, or are odd.
There were a few times when I thought I was 10 miles behind of where I was because I forgot to carry the 1. Only for a second though. 44+59=93? No wait, I’ve just passed 100 that can’t be right.
Finally I arrived at Springwell Locks and had another sit down. Jan had overtaken me earlier and was already there. It was approaching noon and I was thinking about being in the pub later that evening. This was the moment last year where I discovered my hideous blisters, this year there were none. I had a cup of tea, all very civilised and probably stayed there for about half an hour. I was feeling close to home now, which made it easier on the mind if not the body.
I used the mile markers to try and figure out my pace. I was running something like 11 minute miles while I was running but I was stopping a lot, getting water out or being electrocuted from underneath. From Tring there are a lot of small downhill slopes that are agony to get down, I had to go down them sideways. I ran under another mental landmark (the M25) and carried on towards home. I was still in contact with Nick and he told be he was still moving but had hurt his ankle and was struggling. He was about 3 miles behind me.
I’ve known Nick for about a year and a half. I met him not long after he ran his first marathon. It was almost 2 years ago to the day that he would have been nearing the end of the Edinburgh marathon, now he was 120 odd miles into a run that he started 30 hours ago. Not many people progress that fast.
I feel responsible for getting Nick into this, I’d been going on about it so much since last year and said to him that he could do it. Not only was I certain that he could do it I also thought he’d get more out of doing it than anyone else I knew. Last year really changed me and made me feel great about myself, now he was experiencing the highs and lows that I did last year (and this year) and was well on the way to the final high.
There is no skill to finishing a race like this, no natural talent or tactical mastery required. All I think are needed are a genuine love of running combined with a lack of fear. Nick has both of these in spades. There are many runners I know who chose to be afraid of everything they can. Worryingly there are “runners” I know who fail the first thing too.
I spoke to Nick lots before this race and it got me really excited about it. I’m certainly not the authority on ultra running but felt like I could give advice on how to run this race which I hope he found helpful. I thought about how much joy he’d get from finishing this and that gave me a lift.
I managed to get through this race with no major emotional moments like last year. It was much harder this time but I felt in total control (most) of the time. This was a great validation of my own resilience in dealing with the problems that I had but in a way I wanted to break down in some way. The race felt a bit sterile, I knew I was hurting and knew what the problems were but I also knew how to deal with everything.
Nick was a few miles behind, perhaps he would finish a few hours after I did. I was looking forward to sitting on the wall in Little Venice with a pint in my hand and waiting for him to cross the line. If it meant as much to him as it did to me last year then that was a moment I wouldn’t miss for the world, even if it happened at 3am. I looked like I was going to escape my race without any emotional moments, and I decided that if I was to have such an episode then it would have been when watching Nick run under the finishing banner.
This thought lifted me a bit more and I continued to slowly chip away at the miles. I was 125 miles into 145 but knew that more had been added due to a diversion around Southall. Whether it was 20 or 23 didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things but it is something to think about. After over 30 hours of sleep deprived movement you are limited in the sophistication as to what you can think about. When basic addition eludes you I would suggest that now is not the time to be asking yourself “Should I go long on basic fixed income derivative hedge funds?” or “Is all this stupid running some latent manifestation of suffering earlier in my life than I subconsciously want to repeat?”.
Instead you allow yourself the luxury of thinking about things that really don’t matter, such as “how often to canal boats crash and is there canal rage?” or “Why does the circle line have only 1 stop with disabled access?” Trying to guess the extra distance I’d be running through Southall was a pointless exercise but a low level distraction.
I was just ambling along the canal, enjoying my car crash of a race but looking forward to getting it over with. Jan was always just in front or just behind me, looking absolutely knackered. I still didn’t chat too much unless another passer by asked what I was doing. I was keen on making them fall over. Continuing to dwell on the things that really don’t matter I decided to get my phone out to bore the world via facebook on how I was doing and check my messages. I opened a message from Nick saying “I’m done”.
This knocked the wind out of my sails, or not so much a wind but a barely recognisable breeze. Whatever it was it felt like it had just been turned the other way. I stopped, sat down and tried to call him but there was no response. I walked on for a few minutes and called again but again no response. I was devastated for him, and for me too, I was looking forward to his finish so much.
I don’t know what I would have said if he had picked up the phone. He was probably in a state when anything anyone said would have just sounded patronising. I imagine he wanted to just curl up into a ball and for no one to look at him or speak to him. I could have said “well done” and “you got further than most” and “you were really unlucky”. The fact is that none of those would have made any difference, if it were me I’d want to just be on my own for a while. Nick finishing became one of the things I was really looking forward to and really spuring me on and that had now been taken away. I decided to wait till he wanted to talk to me and just get on with my race in the meantime.
I caught the sight of a London Bus. A red double decker crossing a bridge somewhere near Uxbridge. This was a lovely sight and was another sign that I was headed home. Somehow is it a psychological lift to know that if I dropped out of the race right now I can get home by using my Oyster card. (Assuming there was enough credit on it).
One of the best bits (if not the best bit) about this race is the left turn at Bulls Bridge Junction (132 miles). I don’t think anyone has made it this far and has not continued to Little Venice. On crossing this bridge and then running under it you feel like you are a quantifiable distance from the finish. At no other point in the race can you begin to imagine how far you still have to go. After this left turn you feel like you are on the home straight.
Unfortunately this year part of the towpath had collapsed near Southall and we had to follow a diversion through the town. It was everything I expected from Southall on a warm afternoon, the choking smell of exhaust, crowded streets and a guy begging me for bus fare. I explained that I had no money and that I was in a race but he didn’t seem to get it. I ran/hobbled on and ignored him. I had loads of money on me but wasn’t going to take my bag off my back for a crack head.
Jan and I navigated Southall together. It seemed like a long way round but there were signs in the streets pointing out the official diversion. After what seemed like forever we were back on the canal and could see the next checkpoint. The final checkpoint.
I got to the checkpoint and looked behind to see Jan sat down with his feet in the water. The sunstroke may have made him mad, even at that stage I wouldn’t have touched the water in the canal. The final checkpoint is just under a bridge and I saw Henk again, the guy who kept prodding me to stay awake in the middle of the night. He was equally helpful this time, telling me to “F**K off out of his checkpoint”. He had a point, there was no use waiting around here when I was so close to the end.
I ran on and Jan ran ahead again. He didn’t leave my side for about 50 miles, it was like having a pet Scandinavian. It was nice having someone to run near and at the same time not feeling obliged to talk much.
Around now is a good time to think about what I had done today (and yesterday). I came here much less nervous than last year, much less afraid and with as good a chance of winning a race as I would ever likely to have. I’d been stung badly by lack of preparation and some bad luck. Now I was paying for it, every step was still painful. I was hoping to have been finished long ago but I still had 10 miles to go and they were going to take up to 3 hours.
I started to think about how I’d “sum up” this experience to anyone who asked but was short of time. For this I’d usually reference some inspirational quotes from historical figures or other runners. This time I thought about 2 quotes from one of my favourite films – Apollo 13.
Gene Krantz (played by Ed Harris) is the head of operations for the Apollo 13 mission and is being grilled by his superior about this” failed” mission whilst the astronauts are still up there and in danger. He yells how does he expect to deal with the biggest disaster that NASA have ever faces to which Gene replies “With all due respect sir, I think this will be our finest hour”.
And this is what it felt like now. Lots of things had been thrown at me to get me off of this canal, some my fault, others not. It wasn’t going to look as polished as last time and it was a hell of a lot slower, but getting to the end of this was going to be my finest hour (or 37). I wasn’t going to accept that crossing the finish line was a failure of any kind.
It was turning into another glorious day and people were out on the canal in force. I felt like I was getting in the way of toddlers wanting to bound around on their bikes. I started to get messages from Lou who was going to meet up with me with Gavin. I was looking forward to that, she promised ice-cream. I was trying to explain to Lou where I was on the canal. I said about 4 miles from bulls bridge junction. This meant nothing to her. For the first time in the race I got my map out to try and find where I was so Lou could find me, then I took a photo of a sign and sent that.
It was about 5pm and it was getting a bit cooler. Lou popped up as promised on her bike with Gavin and a load of goodies. sausage rolls, a really stodgy cake and a kit kat ice cream. The ice cream was very welcome and Lou and Gavin were even more. I suggested they took my bag off me and cycle up about a mile and I would run to them. Taking the bag off my back felt so good and was ready to run again. I run to Lou like a toddler running to Mummy, each time being rewarded with water and stodge. The last few miles felt like we were on the canal path for a sunday walk. At some point I nearly forgot that I was very near the end of a race. I snapped back into it and keen to finish, more to stop these guys getting bored than anything else.
Crossing the North Circular was another romance in a shit hole. Everything about the whole scene is wrong, however I started to appreciate the unique sound of London. I'd spent nearly 2 days running through the unfamiliar and now I was almost home, literally as my house was about 2 miles away. I passed Jan again and another chap who had been walking since 2 AM. There is not really much you can say here, it won't matter as he was so close to the finish. I just said "we are sooooo close to the finish". We were, I passed a bar that I went to for a friends birthday drinks where I spent the night talking about how much I loved this canal. I then ran along the road that the car was parked in last year, I new I was about 100m from the finish. There it was again, less of a suprise than last year but no less welcome. I didn't speed up for a sprint finish, I just plodded through. It seemed fitting to the whole race.
Shaking Dick's hand at the end of this run and having him hang a huge slab of metal around your neck is worth every minute of the pain and suffering. The mass of the medal is probably equal to the amount of flesh I discarded along the way. I wouldn't for a second suggest that he was Shylock, quite the opposite, the man is a Saint as were all those who helped make this event possible, even Henk who made sure I got up and finished this.
I faired much better in the post race drinking this time, I managed 2 pints of Guinness without feeling sleepy. Last year half a pint put me in a coma. I'd lost the need to sleep which was great, when you are feeling this good the last thing you want to do is fall into your subconcious. There are times for that during a race but certainly not afterwards.
As so it ended quite unlike how I expected. I thought long and hard about how this matched up to expectations and that got me thinking about the guys in the spaceship again.There is another scene in Apollo 13 where the media are treating the whole exercise with indifference. It’s not really headline news. One of the journalists asks Jim Lovell (Played by Tom Hanks) “Isn’t this all a bit routine now?” Jim replies “There is nothing routine about space travel”.Here I was trying to rate my race based on expectations and then I realised that expectations mean nothing in a race like this. It’s so big and over so long that each time I do this is a new experience.For that I am glad. I see myself doing this run another dozen times in my life, it’s incredible. I don’t want any time to be the same as the last, regardless of times and positions so long as each time throws up something new and I still finish I’ll regard that as a success.
I got bored of road running for a number of reasons, one of which is the repetitive nature of it. Whether it’s a 26 mile road through Paris, Berlin, Deptford or Luton it’s still the same. You can compare races all around the world directly with each other. Here you can’t even compare the same route I ran only 1 year apart with itself.
I loved the disorder and unpredictability of this year. I can’t get that elsewhere. Running performance is increasingly getting broken down into systems of equations. These equations can then be optimised and used to churn out a training programme which can be followed exactly by soulless robots to achieve a pre-defined target. All very predictable, all very prescribed. I don’t want to be part of this.
I was so pleased that the race had so much more in it this time than last time. The extra 7 hours, the sun induced delirium, the night time hallucinations and narcoleptic moments. The crippling pain in sensitive areas and constant thirst and dehydration. Feeling drained, hot and bursting out in sweat while nearly wondering into oncoming cars. Yes this year was a lot more difficult with a lot of bad things thrown in, but it could have been much much worse. It could have been a doddle.