I was on the side of the canal. I had just rounded the corner at Napton Turn at almost 80 miles into the 111 mile Warwickshire Ring canal race. I was exhausted, stumbling, weaving along the canal. I said to Susie and Vanessa – my crew at this point, “I need to close my eyes – I’m whacked!”. They took me to the car and I snuggled under a blanket with the instructions “Wake me in ten minutes”. I closed my eyes. After what felt like hours, the car door opened and I felt the rush of cold air cut to the bone. It was time to get myself moving if I was to get this race done and to make sure this race didn’t end up being the next one on my “Couldn’t be bothered to finish” list.
It was 2021, scrolling through social media I spotted that the fantastic team at Canalrace CIC were organising a ‘one-off’ canal race starting in Coventry. I’ve completed their other races – Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles from Birmingham to London), Kennet and Avon Canal Race (145 miles between Bristol and London), and Liverpool Leeds Canal Race (130 miles). How could I let a canal race happen and NOT enter it? I’ve been trying to rediscover what I love about running after the frustrations of several DNFs starting in 2019 and stretching through the pandemic, and if a canal race wasn’t it – then I don’t know what would be the secret sauce to jolt me out of this bad track I was on.
I’ve suffered for years with issues – let’s call them piriformis related – which mean that I end up frequently with terrible pain around my sciatic nerve. It affects training – and my motivation to run, it slows me down, it causes pain and it is a reason to DNF races. And anyone who does long races knows that having a ready made reason to quit is NOT a good thing.
Having entered the canal race I promptly forgot about it. I was focused on Crawley 24 hour track race – deferred from 2021 – and that was coming up in April 2022. Training was terrible – I would put in some 50+ mile weeks, and others I would barely manage 15 miles. Up and down, pain and poor motivation. The inevitable happened at Crawley – I made it about 20+ miles on the race before it all came crashing down with terrible pain down my right leg and up my back. And I quit that race. My wife of course did finish the 12 hour version and came away with a 3rd place trophy.
After realising that running track races were not my thing – (3 fails!), I then started to focus on the canal race. I instantly felt more excited about a race than for many years (it was 2018 I last ran the Canal slam). But my arse was still being a problem. Lots of pain on and off during the weeks and it was making me slow, fat and grumpy.
A few weeks out from the Canal race I was starting to worry about whether I really had the training in me and the motivation to battle through the pain. I had considered throwing in the towel and came close to that at times. But I decided that if I could bring myself to do some training, to work up a pacing plan for the race and to assemble a crew then that was a good enough sign.
So after planning discussions (over coffee and cake of course), I had my crew organised, a clear plan, and some idea of how I would tackle the inevitable challenges that would come up during the race.
Race weekend arrives
A friend – Bet – drove me and Susie up to Coventry. We stayed in the premier inn near the start and registered. Lovely to bump into some old canal friends again. After pizza express we retired to bed. It was beautiful knowing that the race started at 8am and I could have an extra couple of hours in bed compared with the usual earlier canal race starts. It was lovely to catch up with Dawn Gardner in the morning too – we’d been chatting excitedly about the race for weeks beforehand.
We made our way to the start and milled around. Dick did a race briefing. A chap from the Canal and River Trust set us off with a 3……. 2………. 1….. and we were off.
Soon I settled into my pace, occasionally sharing a few snippet of conversation with other runners, but generally chilling out and making sure to not go out too hard and suffer later.
I soon found Michele Whiffen was running next to me. We ‘knew’ each other from twitter but hadn’t really chatted before. We were soon in deep conversation veering from one issue to another for around an hour. Really enjoyed chatting and in general I avoid it during races – but I enjoyed it. It was funny too because her watch after four miles buzzed and told her to go home! She was pleased that someone else had witnessed her crazy ass watch do this to her! Soon she peeled off to use the facilities and I carried on. I soon bumped into her crew.
If you were expected a blow-by-blow account of the race, you’ll be either pleased that this isn’t going to happen, or disappointed. The fact is that aside from my few hours with Michele, I actually remember very little about the race itself and so I am instead going to focus on the good points and the challenges.
I enjoyed the race, there were points that were tough and tested me hard….. but it was lovely to get back to a race and get it finished and mostly enjoy every moment of it (even if I can’t remember the details!).
I was pleased to cross the line after 30 hours and 45 minutes. This race wasn’t about the time, it was about finishing – and given that it is four years since I have run more than 100 miles in one sitting, I was delighted to get that done! It’s a reminder that canals are my thing and that there will always be challenges and sometimes we can tackle them head on.
What was great?
My crew – I was a very lucky boy. I had my wife Susie plus three other women to look after me. Alzbeta – who drove us up there and back and did the majority of the driving and crew on Saturday with my wife. Vanessa who took over crewing overnight and into the Sunday – along with my wife. And Sarah who turned up with lovely snacks, smiles and stories on Saturday night. Everyone was so wonderful. Crewing is hard and I could genuinely just turn off because they know me and I know them.
Crew points – I looked forward to every single crew point. Totally slick operation. I would get to my crew points. Do the stretching I had planned to do (to ward off issues with my piriformis), and swap out my bottles and gels. All quite a slick operation – for which I thank my wonderful crew. All planned out. No stress. No bother. Just as planned. Occasionally they would turn up with nice treats (in the heat of the afternoon – calippo, Pot Noodle for the evening, Mcdonalds breakfast muffin for the morning). Going for ten miles between crew points worked well for me early on.
Energy – I had used gels for the first time during a race in years. I found they had moved on and were quite good for getting energy in. I was using a selection of Torq, Hammer and some shotblok chews. I found that Hammer were too sticky on my lips (like glue!) and after a while the gels were too sweet and I found myself tempted more by savoury snacks. I would definitely repeat gels for early on in the race though. I found later on I was eating crisps – they were going down well and my crew were chucking packets at me as much as they could. I also enjoyed some lovely ginger chocolate sweets that Sarah brought along when she saw me at Hatton Lock (about 60 ish miles in).
Drink – I had one bottle of water and one bottle of Activeroot ginger drink (I found it easy to drink, may have helped settle my stomach a little, and was nice to have a choice of that and water). I also had a coffee at one point (lovely!) and some fruity drinks (oasis and some kind of frootshoot!).
Being on the canal – reminded me of everything I love about the race and the canals. Everything is so chilled out. The race team and volunteers so friendly – and it’s just so beautiful. I love being on the canal. The vibe is so great.
My own little world – I found that during the race I was incredibly focused and retreated into my own world. Nothing outside of me mattered. Just me and my plan and the moment I was in. I have rarely experienced this kind of focus before and I just completely in my zone.
Planning – I planned my race so well that all I had to do was execute it. I had a perfect pace plan, and a “please try to go faster if you can” plan. I had recognised that I would start off easy enough and that I would naturally slow during the race. I planned in stretching. I planned in when I would stop longer. It all led to a more relaxed race and meant that me and my crew could chill out without worrying about anything. It also meant that I didn’t feel bad about slowing down – because I planned it in.
Kind strangers – I was lusting after the idea of a lolly or ice cream and literally minutes later I ran under a bridge and a member of the public handed me a choc ice! Amazing!!!!
Friends – I’m going to miss people out here – but it was so lovely to bump into so many friends. Friends made on the canal are friends for life.
There were some challenges during the race.
Brambles – on the overgrown section of the Oxford canal were ripping at my left arm, while I was focusing on not stumbling into holes on the side of the canal with my right foot. Not pleasant and it really caught me at my lowest point – it was cold and I was tired. I was so slow during this section that I think I worried my crew about my pace so much that they told me to get a move on!
Almost getting lost – In Birmingham, there was a confusion of paths and bridges. I was lucky that Dimi Booth called me and another chap back from going the wrong way. I dread to think of the miles extra I could have added. Thanks Dimi!
Piriformis issues – around 20 miles into the race, my piriformis started giving me hassles. So I resorted to more frequent stretching, whacking it with my fist, and massaging it on various wooden posts and fences on the side of the canal. I’m pleased to say the problem lasted until around 30 miles and then went away. Phew!
Poo issues – as with most journeys in life, once one problem disappears another worry comes along. In this case, like clockwork the overwhelming need to poo swept over me. Luckily I was prepared with toilet paper and forearmed with the experience to know that I’d have to go three times and if I took an Imodium tablet the problem would be solved.
Muscle aches – I found my quads and calves very very tight from about 50 miles in to the race. It made running painful – but I did my best, but inevitably during the closing sections of the race there was more walking than running going on. The culprit here is lack of training, and probably poor core and glute strength perhaps?
Acid indigestion – suffered big time with this. I was having to stuff in food and energy and then immediately suck rennies! I’ve never experienced that so bad during a race. Might be weight related as I had a few extra pounds on at the moment. One thing that really did help was a milkshake around noon on Sunday with about 10 miles to go. That was lush – thanks Bet.
Mostly I’m happy to have the medal to put next to my canal slam display and to have finally finished a race of more than 100 miles for a very long time! Thanks so much to my crew, the amazing volunteers and the team at Canalrace CIC for the race. I hope it becomes a regular race in the calendar.