The food shopping was done. The kit packed. The preparations made. We were sat in the car ready to make the journey up north. This was no trip to the coast for bank holiday weekend, but a trip up north to run the Liverpool to Leeds Canal race.
I even had some rules for my crew!
It is 130 miles of canal that wends its way from one city centre to another. While it has some elevation gain (hey – that is why there are locks on canals) it is not too much to deal with and actually feels like a respite from flat towpath.
It kind of felt like some weekend away
I was travelling with:
Susie – my wife – (who would be aid station crew, and buddy runner for me from around 100 miles)
Paul Commons (who would provide some light entertainment and crew/buddy run with me from 70 miles).
Karen Grieves (driver and all round amazing egg who would look after us all weekend)
Lee Kelly – fellow runner – He has done quite a few ultras – including silly length ones – quite a few 100s and made it to about 115 miles on the Grand Union Canal race back in May.
So off we went down the M20 in Kent heading towards my parents house in Widnes. I love these journeys. Full of nervous chatter, discussing race tactics, equipment, races we have done, and inevitably blisters and injuries…. then the words that strike terror into the hearts of any traveller…..
“Oh shit……… oh no…….. I can’t believe this…….. oh my god….. I have forgotten my running shoes”
All too easy to do. Lee had forgotten to pick them up. And when you are running 130 miles it’s not really possible to pick up some random pair from the shop and wear them instead. So back we went, and then after picking up said shoes, we were off. Take two!
We just made it in time for breakfast at McDonalds. We were at Thurrock – Lakeside. Double Sausage and Egg McMuffin Meal is indeed the food of champions.
We stopped by Decathlon (a huge sports superstore) on the way to pick up some random running kit. Not for the race, but just because we were passing. It’s a marvellous place and they often have sales on. I won’t bore you with the details – but let’s just say that it is a bloody good job I don’t live right next door to one!
We took plenty of opportunity on the trip to stuff our faces (the journey took about 7 hours with some terrible traffic!)
After what seemed like half a day (no exaggeration) we arrived at my parents place in Widnes. Just the welcome we needed and the comfortable environment just before a race. We were superbly mollycoddled…… spaghetti bolognese, chocolate cake, lemon drizzle cake and cheese. I think the last time that I was at my parents before a race was the Liverpool marathon back 5 years ago!
We got an early sleep and we were soon up at around 4 am – ready to leave 30 mins later to get to the start line. Eldonian Village Hall in central Liverpool. The traffic was easy and the place was fairly easy to find.
I found myself stressing early on. I was surrounded by proper ultra runner types. I have been injured for months with one thing and another, and haven’t done much running. So I was hoping that I would remember how it was done.
I stressed over every last detail – most of which didn’t matter – but helped divert my brain away from the race itself. List of things that don’t matter but seemed to matter a lot at the time.
- My arm sleeves. I didn’t want the black ones. The peacock ones were too tight. I wanted the other ones. “No… I don’t know where they are!!!!!!”
- How do I put my number on……. It seemed to attach to both sides of my waist pack before it was done up. Argh – this is a pain in the arse.
- I’ve got my handheld water bottle…… yes it has electrolyte in it – but I was too polite to mention that I wanted the berry flavour and not the lime.
- My shoes….. not those…. they are the size 10.5….. I want the size 11 ones….. argh! Yes – they are both black….. yes they are both the same make and model…. argh!
I tried to hold it together. I knew I was being entirely unreasonable and I was trying so hard to be a good boy. I don’t know if anyone noticed I was already being an idiot. But while I am a billion times grateful I am not sure how I came across. Hopefully everyone will forgive me. I also spotted Fi (Fiona McNellis) who is great fun – and I hoped that I would spot her during the race. I also had a brief chat with Andrew – who like me – says he just turns up to races without doing any training and just does it.
I already had a stone in my shoe. Gaitors off. Shoe off.
“Phil – everyone is walking to the start!”
Shoe emptied. Back on. Adjusted and quickly made my way to the legendary briefing from the king of the canal race series – Dick Kearn.
I was trying to take it in but all my mind processed with all the excitement and nervousness about the race ahead was……
“blah blah……. who is doing both GUCR and LLCR?…………. it’s only a race……. don’t over-do painkillers – they can be dangerous…….. good luck…… blah blah – and go!”
And with that we were off. We queued through the gate to get onto the canal (in the middle of a housing estate. I was too close to the front, but I wanted to go slow, so I tried to stay to the side, and my aim was initially to run a few mins and then to hike a minute. We soon spread out and I wondered how long it would take me to settle into my pace.
It was already getting light. I thought I might have felt cold (others were wearing jackets) but I soon warmed up and got into my stride. My plan was to cover the first 14 miles in around 2h45mins – sensibly keeping the pace down. I had planned to slow down further on each of the sections so that I could be sensible about pacing and to keep going to the end.
I soon found myself near the back. I wondered if others knew better than me but quickly reminded myself that I know what I am capable of, and I know how slow I will end up later on if I blast out at the start. So slow and steady was my plan and that was what I would do.
I monitored my current mile pacing on my GPS watch…. as it crept towards 11 min/mile I slowed it so it would be closer to 12 min/mile by walking. I gradually eased into a pattern of jog/walk which helped the miles pass by quickly.
0 – 0.10 mile – hike, 0.10 – 0.25 mile – jog, 0.25 – 0.30 mile – hike, 0.30 – 0.50 mile – jog, 0.50 – 0.60 mile – hike, 0.60 – 0.75 mile – jog, 0.75 – 0.80 mile – hike, 0.80 – 1.00 mile – jog.
That seemed to equate to 12 min/mile. Though it did mean I had to keep an eye on my watch (which is not what I normally do) and it ran the risk of me tripping into the canal.
Soon I felt a bit of a sensation down below. Dammit. I need some vaseline.
So I texted ahead to Susie who was at the first aid station with my crew. I also remembered about suncream. While I was wearing my sahara hat (and looking like a dick!) I didn’t want to bake in the heat of the day.
Checkpoint 1 – Soon enough, and almost unexpectedly I made it to the first checkpoint. It was 8:40am. My plan was for 8:51am – so I was 11 minutes ahead of plan. So, with a little break, and slightly slower pace I should be back on track. 13.7 miles in 2h40mins. Susie hadn’t got my message and then realised her notifications were turned off. After some liberal application of product, refill of water, and some random selection of goodies, I was off again. I was pretty much on track on my pacing. I felt comfortable. The heat was starting to rise but it was no real trouble. I said that I would see them at the next checkpoint at around 25 miles. I was running on only a 500ml bottle of electrolyte stored in my Ultimate Direction waist pack.
Checkpoint 2 – Soon enough I was at the next checkpoint. It was CP2 – 24.9 miles – Lathom. I arrived at 11:05am against my plan of 11:11am. So 25 miles in 5h05m. So I was pretty much spot on. Still a little faster than planned, but with a break at the aid station to refuel, I would be fine. I pushed on. Decent progress but not too fast.
Meeting point D – 35 miles – Next up was the run to around 35 miles – where I would meet my crew again. It was hot so I knew that 10 miles was the most I could do with only 500 ml of water. Running along I took a suck of my bottle and discovered electrolyte. Yuck! I am sure I said “please fill with water”. I couldn’t be grumpy about it, but I was surprised not to have water as my mind had prepared itself for cool water and the end of sickly sweet electrolyte berry drink.
Checkpoint 3 – Soon I was at checkpoint 3 (39.4 miles) – Red Rock Lane, Haigh. My target was 2:19pm, and I had dropped half an hour behind my pace. I arrived at 2:49pm. I didn’t know that at the time and I am glad I didn’t because I may have sped up. So I had completed almost 40 miles in 8 hr 19 mins. Decent pace for me. Particularly since I was taking it easy.
From this point I decided to meet my crew at each meeting point. The next one was just over 5 miles away and then another 4.3 miles and I would be at checkpoint 4. I found that each point would come up sooner than expected. I think this was because I wasn’t looking at the mileage on my watch so I didn’t know when to expect the checkpoint, and I wasn’t counting the number of times my watch was buzzing to announce the arrival of each mile marker.
Me and Lee seemed to be leapfrogging each other. We were close together. We weren’t racing. Just executing our own plans.
Checkpoint 4 – 54.3 miles. I arrived at 6:51 pm. So that made 12h 51mins into the race. My watch was buzzing with low battery (which seemed a little early – but I later realised it was down to 20% battery, so I would have had another couple of hours to go. I got my battery charger connected.
I headed off now. I walked for a mile or so out of the aid station and soon happened on the crew of Roger. They were marvellous. They were so friendly, and I had have a bit of a chat with them each time I had come across them. I gathered that Roger was somewhere behind and going well. I love the friendliness of these low key events. I took advantage of the sweets on offer, and left a half eaten Ham wrap with them that I had grown bored of.
I soon found that the canal path ahead was blocked and I had to follow the diversion. I stumbled through a car park and finally found the route. Not so hard. But I realised that this wasn’t the diversion that the organisers had warned us about – so I still had that to come. I then came to another blocked way ahead. There was a group of teenagers.
“Are you doing a marathon?”
“No….. further. I have run from Liverpool”.
“See…… ” said the girl to her friends ” I FUCKING TOLD YOU – these guys are NUTS!”
I asked them about the diversion because I could only see a large yellow sign (which seemed designed for cars to follow), and I heard
“ahead, left, right, left right, ahead, left right, blah blah….”
Ok. So that wasn’t helpful…. so I headed for the sign… and then after that saw nothing. I was soon on the phone to Susie. I was keen to avoid getting lost and adding extra mileage. Unfortunately she couldn’t help, but mentioned that everyone had been taking diversion maps with them. Oops… I forgot to pick one up. As I headed up a hill, I shouted towards a family getting into a car and they confirmed, thankfully that I was going the right way and that the canal was just to my left. Phew! Crisis averted.
Meeting point G (60 miles). It was 8:54pm – so 14hrs 54 minutes in. I had made decent pace and I was happy with my progress. I reached here just as it was getting dark. So, I hoovered up some chips and part of a meat pie, strapped my head torch on and headed off. I was still without jacket, I was wearing a short sleeve top (albeit with arm sleeves on) and I had my road shoes on (I had swapped earlier from my trail shoes because there was more tarmac than expected).
Half a mile down the canal, I felt cold.
Yikes. I was starting to rue not putting my jacket on.
Anyway, I pressed on. It started to rain. Soon, I was slipping on the path. and with almost 10 miles to go I was starting to feel irritable.
The heavens opened. The path – which had turned to rutted grass and mud was giving me hassle, and I opted to hike on rather than to attempt running because I was only slipping and risking injury. I came across a chap with a dog. He warned me that “some lads” had failed to cross the canal at this bridge and that I shouldn’t make that mistake. I checked my map and I realised that I had missed this instruction – and would have also made that mistake if it had not been for this chap.
I had to keep stopping under bridges – for a bit of a rest from the rain, but also to stretch my back out – it was agony!
After what seemed like an age – and getting pretty soaked – I spotted some lights in the distance and the checkpoint ahead.
Checkpoint 5 (69.8 miles). I know that I had lost some time according to my plan. I wanted to arrive at 9:40pm and instead I arrived at 11:05pm. So I was an hour and twenty minutes later. This was due to the hike. I swapped my shoes back from road to trail and after a break and change of top I was able to head off with Paul Commons. My first buddy runner for the race.
The next stretch would be around 5 miles, but we had to navigate around the tunnel. That wasn’t too bad, but neither of us could really remember the instructions that we had been given. So, some debate and we tentatively pressed on. Eventually finding our way back to the canal for the next section. I was doing a fair bit of walking at this stage. I could tell that Paul was keen to press on so I got back up to pace and we tiptoed around the path which was pock marked with puddles. I had rolled my ankle doing the same on a race a few years ago so I was being super careful.
Meeting point H (74.7 miles). We made it here at 1:44am. So I had been running for 18h 44 minutes. That’s pretty decent for me. So I was fairly happy. This was the dreaded overnight section and I think we walked most of the way. There was some ascent. It was cold. Dark and we were trying to find the meeting point. This was also the section which would be most tricky. We had to navigate around the Foulridge tunnel and back onto the next stretch of canal. My back was really hurting and during several bits during the night I had to stop and lie down on the towpath to give my back some rest. I had never had this before on a race. My stops were getting more frequent.
We rose away from the canal followed the instructions but couldn’t find where to go. We were rising away from the canal and it went against every instinct. We got on the phone to susie to see if they could help with directions. Eventually I got our location on my phone and I realised that we were off the route.
Then it struck….. bloody monsoon! The heavens opened completely. It was seconds before we were soaked to the skin.
We sheltered for several minutes in a bus shelter and enjoyed the brief respite.
Soon we got on the move. Braving the elements. Not really being able to see as the rain was so heavy that our head torches were reflecting light back to us from the sheets of rain coming down. We tried to side step puddles but found ourselves running up hill through steady streams of raging water (ok – a slight exaggeration but it was pretty deep – certainly above our ankles). With some relief we found the next section of canal.
It must have been the rain but I was able to get quite a move on during this section. After what seemed like an age, bend after bend, and so long that we thought that we had missed the checkpoint. I rather over did it on this section, and felt a few twinges in my legs. So I walked the last mile or so of this stretch. We arrived at the Checkpoint 6 near the Anchor Pub.
Checkpoint 6 – 83 miles. I was aware that we had gone pretty slowly and getting lost had not helped much either. The plan was to get here at 3:11am and it was now 5:13am. So I had been on the move for almost 23h 13 minutes. I stopped at this check point for around 20 minutes. Quite a long time really but I had a little sleep.
By the time we left, it was getting light and I realised that I should have left my head torch with my crew. We soon set off, and with 16 miles to do and 6h 25 minutes to do it in – this was entirely possible. We had an age. We cranked out a few decent miles. I know that when the sun rises it gives an extra prompt to get moving. We were soon coming out onto the pennines – which proved to be beautiful.
Unfortunately I was struggling. A lot.
I was dragging my feet increasingly often. My back was really hurting. REALLY HURTING.
The pain intensified and I increasingly had to stop and stretch it out. Either lying on the tow path or leaning against a wall of a bridge. It was affecting my legs as well. My feet felt great, but my legs and buttocks had shooting pains going up and down them in a cycle. All I could imagine was my spine compressing and shooting off signals down my nerves. I pressed on….. clocking something like 25 minutes a mile….. barely moving…..
We came to a British Waterways toilet. Paul popped in and I took advantage of a brief rest to sit down on some concrete plinth.
Next thing I knew was that Paul was towering over me and pulling me to my feet. I had fallen asleep and I was lying down.
Everything hurt. I increasingly found it difficult to move in a straight line and I was fearful of plopping into the canal. I was sure to keep Paul on the canal side to act as a first line of defence against my weaving around.
I don’t remember much of the next bit except for being totally wowed by the beauty of the Pennines. It seemed strange that we had started in Liverpool and wended our way through some northern towns and ended up in this beauty. I checked my watch – we were 90 miles in. Paul told me I could do this….. I pressed on… but at some point I couldn’t move anymore. This was the end. No more.
After a bit of discussion and Paul doing his best to motivate me on, and me explaining how painful my situation was, we called for the crew – Karen and Susie who came to pick us up.
Susie said “Are you sure you want this?”
I was very aware what “this” was….. it was a DNF (did not finish). RTC (Refuse to continue). A drop.
I felt disappointed that I couldn’t go further and wondered whether I should have rested a while. But I was glad in the end to get into the car and rest. That was my canal race over. My progress had slowed to a barely perceptible crawl and I completed 90 miles of jogging in just short of 25 hours. I could feel happy with that – even though I was disappointed at not finishing. We went to pick up Lee at the next checkpoint – he was dropped too a bit earlier at around 85 miles.
I found later found out that of 41 starters, only 21 runners finished. Yikes. That is almost a 50% DNF rate.
That, I think showed how brutal this race is, particularly since it doesn’t tend to attract new people to ultra running who are there just to give it a go.
I found the energy to stop my race drone GPS tracker. Put a brief message on Facebook (I knew that friends, family and members of the Facebook group “Running the Distance” had been tracking my progress and sending messages (my notifications on Facebook numbered in the hundreds!).
Next thing – we were at the Travelodge in Wakefield. I don’t remember the journey. We had booked this hotel on the M1 close to the finish line. Paul was able to get us checked in early.
I slowly made my way with Susie to the hotel reception. It took quite some time. My left foot was in agony! What? Why wasn’t my back hurting as much as it did? Where did my foot injury come from. Turns out I have a huge bruise along the side of my foot and it is completely swollen all over – including a bit fat ankle. No idea where that came from!
I didn’t understand anything. My brain was mushed. Eventually she gave Susie a key and uttered those words that no runner wants to hear.
“Yeah, so your room is 200, and it is on the top floor. There is no lift. The stairs are there. Sorry – I know you can’t walk very well”.
And with that a long sleep waking up sometime in the afternoon, and then enjoying a huge king sized belly busting Toby Carvery nearby. I DNFed that too – I left one of the two yorkshire puddings. It was great to talk war stories about the race with Lee and share moments with my amazing crew. I felt a bit of a fraud eating a big sunday dinner despite a DNF at 90 miles.
Obviously I had not got a medal – because I didn’t finish. I had got a cotton t-shirt and hoody for taking part in this amazing race (thankfully they don’t say finisher on them – so I can absolutely wear them with pride).
It was then that I got the most amazing surprise.
Paul and karen passed me a plastic wrapped package. I opened it up. It was a metal unicorn belt buckle. Amazing. I loved it. I beamed from ear to ear.
Somehow this was even better than getting the finisher medal.
We arrived back to the hotel room to an almighty stench. Like a dead animal. Yuck. It was my kit!
So that’s that for now. I will definitely go back. DNFing was just one of those things. It didn’t come together for me on the day, but I was proud of what I achieved – a decent pace for most of the way, and a great time with friends and family.
Most of all, I left with a desire to go back and finish this thing next time.
That, hopefully, will be 2018. In 2017 I will be doing the Centurion Grand Slam (4 x 100 mile races over the period of 5.5 months – North Downs way, South Downs Way, Autumn 100, and Thames Path 100). The journey back down to Kent was less than 4 hours! Well done Karen!
I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to my crew and everyone who was part of my race.
My parents for looking after us and providing some much appreciated comfort the night before the race.
Karen for doing her very own “Ultradriving” – taking us up there and ferrying around and acting as a mobile aid station – aided and abetted by…..
my wife Susie (who did a great job of feeding me, filling my bottles and giving me cuddles), and
Paul for running with me (sorry you only got to do 20 miles with me! You did a great job of keeping me company during the night and getting me to 90 miles).
Lee – for giving me a much needed can of cold pepsi at a pub at around 30 odd miles and being great company for parts of the race.
Roger’s Crew who chit chatted and gave me encouragement along the way and gave me sweeties!
Dick, Keith and the other organisers and volunteers who made the race possible!