The Glasgow to Edinburgh ultra was yet another event that has popped up in the past few years to meet the growing demand for long distance running in the UK. Around 100 were registered for 55 miles of canal that joins Scotland two biggest cities. There was a huge Serpentine contingent present, 9 to run, 4 to cycle and later and later on about another 10 to come and sing Happy Birthday to me at the finish. I turned 30 the previous day and was looking forward to celebrate becoming an old man by doing what I love most, running along canals.
I was really pleased just to make it to the start line. 4 weeks ago I stubbed my toe at the Pilgrims Challenge and the whole thing inflamed and was very painful. I could not tell whether it was just badly bruised and inflamed or whether it was broken. Dr Google suggested icing and that even if it was broken there is nothing to be done apart from resting for 6 weeks. I was very worried about my birthday race not even starting but in the last week I could at least run (though I still could not walk properly on it). I had taken a day off work to go to A&E to get it checked out but that was the morning I found out I got into Badwater. I was too excited that I forgot. On Wednesday the toenail fell off and my foot has felt perfect ever since. It was such a relief, my plan was to hobble as much as possible until the pain got too much, now I could run the whole thing. Perfect.
The usual Ultra running pre race shenanigans were taking place. Jumping up and down, doing a few hill strints, strapping feet, queuing for the one toilet and taking "before" photos. Mark Braley was still in his corduroys. Jen Bradley decided to test some 12 hour lipstick and sported the shiniest red lips I have ever seen at the start of a 50 odd mile race. I wonder if running an ultramarathon is covered in the "reasonable use" caveat on the 12 hour guarantee?
I started out too fast, which is inevitable when you try to keep up with Claire Imrie and Nick Copas. Setting quite a fast pace for the first few miles and getting very warm. It was about 10 degrees C and I felt really warm, this does not bode well for when I have to run much further in 55 degrees. My body felt a bit creaky from not doing much running in the past month. I was gutted to have missed a few more races in Feb and a lot of commuting running but was just happy to be out there. I had suffered shin splits and sore ankles like a new runner for the past few runs as I tried to get back into it, none of that was a problem though I suspected that this one was going to hurt more than a 55 miler normally does.
There is often a silly debate as to how far an ultra should be before it can be called an ultra. The point is moot to me since the "marathon" distance itself is based on a combination of fiction and the laziness of our King to stand and watch the finish of a 25 mile race. 50 miles is often regarded as where ultras start proper, they become very different from 26.2 mile races at that point. Claire, Nick and Jen were running further than they had done before today. All were making pretty easy work of it.
The first checkpoint was at 13 miles which we covered in around 1.40. 4 years ago on my birthday I ran the Berkhamstead half marathon in about 1.45 which was a pb at that time. I love remembering these times when I was even slower than I am now. That was before I had even heard about ultras. I feel like such an idiot, wasting a Birthday on a half marathon. I was however feeling a bit hungry and sick. I needed food but there was none at the checkpoints. It was later pointed out to me that this was made clear in the instructions, I really should start reading those some time. With only energy drink I was in for a struggle as I usually do these things on solid food.
I have been reading a lot more of the sciency stuff about eating and hydration recently. Articles that kind of suck the fun our of running my saying nasty things like you shouldn't stuff your face full of pizza and chips the day before the race. I normally give such articles a miss and head to the chip shop. Since reading more about Badwater, hydration and renal failure I have decided that I need to be a bit more textbook about eating and drinking if I am to get through the tough summer I have planned. That didn't stop my huge consumption of pizza and chips the night before though, making the 10th biggest mistake here, and now I was feeling both sick, hungry and very sleepy. I would have killed a red bull.
After about 18 miles I let Claire and Nick steam on ahead. I was already starting to crash a bit and the prospect of finishing this in daylight seemed distant. I strolled into checkpoint 2 which was 24ish miles and briefly chatted to Graeme who was wearing a Fetch top. I didn't even ask his name, I just knew it because he said he was running the Western States 100 this year and I knew the name of the only Irish person on that roster. I said my name and he immediately shouted "Spartathlon". Funny how we all know each other through our races.
This checkpoint was next to Falkirk Wheel. There is a visitors centre next to this weird looking metal thing that cartwheels boats vertically for 30 meters. I had not seen many locks on the canal up until now and it seems here they just make do with one big massive lock rather than lots of small ones. I stopped for quite a while at this point and stretched as my groin was very tight. This is a recurring problem that I need to deal with and will do through yoga in the coming months. I was suprised to see Nick jump out of the visitors centre after I had stopped for so long but he looked like he was slowing down a bit too. I was happy to run with him for a bit while I took some photos of some interesting parts of the canal.
Soon after that checkpoint there was a long tunnel which made quite an eery running experience. It was very dark and the floor didn't appear to be all there. It was cobbled and wet all along as water would come gushing down from the ceiling but sometimes I'd think I was about to step into the canal. It lasted about half a mile as was oddly pleasant.
The path was really good to run on and there were only a few puddled sections, road shoes were a good choice. I was a little disappointed by the lack of activity on the canal. There were very few boats and I only saw one actually moving. The Grand Union Canal "back home" is usually more alive with people on barges and pubs located on the waterfront. There weren't even any ducks or geese, not that I care about the latter. Maybe it's the recession, when times are hard the duck feeding is always the first to go.
Around 30 miles I had caught up with Nick who wanted to keep moving and left me behind to take photos. Mark Cockbain also jogged past me and also complained about the lack of food. It seems that the more ultras you do the less you read the instructions and sometimes it can be costly. I was still feeling quite weak and Nick told me that he was going to call it a day at the next checkpoint. It was sad to hear but had silver lining, he donated all of his food to me. He read the instructions and carried a load of cliff bars with him. I was more than happy to take them off him and stuffed one down like a fat man would who'd been stuck in a lift for 4 hours. The next checkpoint was at 34 miles. I was running for about a mile at a time and then stopping to stretch and empty my shoes. I had lots of stones in my shoes but could not get rid of the uncomfortable feeling on my feet. It turns out I was going to be visited by some old friends again.
At the third checkpoint I sat down for a while again and stretched. It was here I met Phil Owen who was looking out for some runners behind me. It was nice to chat and talk about some other races coming up. I felt a bit better for having eaten something and was ready to get moving again. I carried on with the intention of running for a couple of miles or so and then stretching. Until this point I was being a slave to my garmin, or rather it was reminding me of just how much slower I was getting. I had the display set on average pace which crept up from 7.40 early on in the race and was now heading towards 9. I knew I was now going much slower than that and was getting a bit frustrated with it going up all the time so I solved the problem the easiest way, I just switched it off. I felt a weight off as now all that was displayed was distance and the time of day. I was now only determined to finish not long after 6 so that I can get in before dark. I'm going to stop bothering with the garmin, it just spoils a good run, and writing about it makes for fucking boring reading.
I hit 40 miles feeling so much better than at 30. I felt in good form again and could run without feeling the need to stop much. There was no way I could fail to finish my Birthday race and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would feel better again. 20 miles is a long time to feel shit though. Still, I was just happy that I could even do the race and made quicker progress. Not long after the 4th checkpoint and a conversation with a random jogger about the highland fling which he and I are doing I was caught up by Jen Bradley. I was in two minds about whether to wait and run with her or carry on while I was on a roll. I decided to carry on, I had not stopped for about 8 miles and was hoping to keep it that way. I was curious about whether the lipstick was still working.
50 miles seemed to pass in no time and there were signs that I was heading into Edinburgh. I (think) I could see the castle and some buildings in the distance. I could also see more objects in the canal, such as a pink baby push cart thing. The people of Edinburgh obviously have too much and need to throw these things away. I also saw the start of the city's night life as the under age kids started assuming their drinking positions along the benches of the now tarmacked canal path. It was just before sunset and it was time to get the race finished.
I finished in 8.52, about an hour slower than I was hoping for but pleased for being able to run at all. 3 weeks off certainly makes you appreciate it more when your are running and the last 15 miles of today. Jen finished just behind me with lipstick and mascara in perfect condition. Diane was not far behind and managed to not even get lost once, amazing stuff. Ian, Claire, Oli and Mark C had been at the finish quite a while. Long enough to get stuck into the Guinness in the pub right at the end.
Overall I was pleased with how the race went. I had a rough patch in the middle third but managed to get through it and did much better than I feared at the beginning of the week when I was still not able to walk properly. I was really pleased to see so many people up there singing happy birthday as I finished. Thanks to all who showed up.