I was first introduced to the idea of Canalathon in summer 2015 by various UKRunChat friends. At the time, my long-term plan was to focus on marathons in 2016 and shift up to ultras in 2017.
Canalathon was intriguing because of the various distance options – 50k, 75k and 100k – and that it was along canal towpaths, which would make it fairly flat. No running up bonkers mountains or across deserts. The 50k (thirty-one miles) option would make an ideal first ultra.
There were a lot of UKRunChat entries going in, and a great sense of excitement. I tweeted a degree of interest, and was met with a flurry of “Do it!” responses. So I did, I entered.
At thirty-one miles, Canalathon would only be roughly five miles longer than a marathon. Thus there was no need to find and follow some sort of ultra training plan; I could simply extend what I do for marathon training a little further. With a backpack.
Therefore every training run I did for various races and marathons was also training for Canalathon. I had every intention of running the full thirty-one miles at some point but although I ran several full marathon distances I never quite made it. Thirty-one miles didn’t happen.
Something else that also didn’t happen – at least, not until very late (February 2016) – was buying a backpack. And waterproof clothing (part of the kit list). Largely out of a complete disinterest in running in a backpack and carrying waterproof clothing. By this time I’d begun to realise I prefer road-running and speedwork to trails and easy pace, and had begun to question the idea of shifting up to ultras.
The lack of a thirty-one mile run convinced me I needed to drag my running down to a new low and incorporate walk-breaks to get round. I’d also need to eat on the go to refuel.
On top of this, three or four weeks out from Canalathon I caught flu badly. I felt dreadful. Not only did I miss two weeks of training, I was severely curtailed afterwards. Two weeks before Canalathon I could only manage ten miles. I had a severe case of revising my long-term goals, cursing the idea of ultras, cursing Canalathon, and most particularly cursing the idea of running with a backpack. And waterproof clothing. And spare food. Was I going running, or going camping? This would be, I vowed, my first and last ultra.
A week prior to the race, however, I loaded up the backpack with everything on the kit list, planned my walk-breaks and refuelling, and set off for a full marathon distance ‘dress rehearsal’. It went perfectly, and my sagging spirits soared, I regained my enthusiasm, and set my sights on the weekend to come.
I didn’t really have a set goal for the race. I expected to finish in five to five-and-a-half hours… which naturally meant I was going for sub-5. The closer we got, the more I wanted this. I love a target and a bit of pressure.
Ah, one of my favourite things – the excitement and adventure of going on the road.
I drove up to Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire, the ‘home’ of the race, via the M6, M60 and M62. Some of the northern moorland scenery, even from the motorway, was spectacular – bleak, but spectacular. Rishworth Moor in particular, on the A58 as I neared my hotel, was simply stunning.
Having checked in, I headed back out again into town, meeting UKRunChat running buddies David, Jenni and Sam. Seeing friends like this the night before helps turn a race – already exciting enough – into something even more special, extending it into an experience that lasts the weekend.
We ate a fantastic meal in a Mongolian restaurant – a first for me – selecting stir-fry ingredients from a buffet-style arrangement, then taking it to the open kitchen area to be fried in flaming woks right in front of us.
We made plans to meet early the following morning at the AirBnB house that Jenni and Sam were both staying at. This was particularly helpful for David and I because we would be able to park there. The bus to the 50k start in Manchester was to leave from the Sowerby Bridge leisure centre, where there’s no car park.
This was complicated by the clocks going forward to British Summer Time that night, so we lost an hour’s sleep. After catching up with lots of good luck messages on Twitter I got my head down around 22:00, and got up at 05:00 the next morning – the equivalent of 04:00 taking into account the lost hour.
Too early for my hotel breakfast, the day before I’d bought slices of lovely soft fresh-baked wholemeal bread and a long-life protein shake to substitute for my usual pre-run toast and milk (it worked so well I’m going to do this in future too). I drove back into town and met up with the others at 06:45.
There was the usual gamble of what to wear. I only ever run in a single layer otherwise I’d overheat, but walking down to the leisure centre in long-sleeve tee and shorts was freezing. I knew I’d thank myself later though (and I did).
Arriving at race registration at the leisure centre, we were all surprised to be presented with not only our race numbers but also our finishers’ tee and medals. There was some consternation about quite what to do with these – everyone’s backpacks were straining at the seams already. Fortunately there were rooms for baggage storage. I deliberately didn’t look at mine. I wanted to save the delicious moment of unveiling the medal and tee until after the race, when I’d actually earned it.
Other UKRunChat folk arrived – we met Kelly and Gemma – and with other runners milling around there was a sense of excitement and the sound of nervous chatter in the air. I felt calm and confident as we boarded the yellow double-decker bus to Manchester on what was now a cold, bright morning.
The race start in Manchester was in the car park of an inauspicious retail centre. We met Nicola and were an excited little crowd, chattering away. I did find that one of my hydrapaks from my Inov8 backpack was leaking, though. I considered tweeting that I would be running with a leaking bladder, but thought better of it.
After the obligatory tweets and selfies we were called to the start and were off. We did a bizarre lap of the car park (I was later to find these few hundred yards absolutely crucial to getting my mileage up to thirty-one exactly) and then headed down onto the canal.
I spent the first couple of miles establishing and consolidating my position, settling into the right pace group. Deliberately slower than my 08:00 minute miling target marathon pace, I was running 08:25-08:35s. I was still towards the front, though.
David caught up with me and we chatted briefly before he headed off into the distance, absolutely flying as far as I could make out.
From the steps at each of the locks – we were always heading up them, not down – we seemed to be ascending slightly. Also, on a couple of occasions the route headed away from the canal; necessary to cross roads or where there were, presumably, no towpaths under bridges. Given that the small field of roughly 230 runners was quite strung out, I did wonder whether I’d have wandered off-route if I hadn’t been able to spot people a hundred yards or so ahead. At the race briefing they explained that they’d done the best job they could of spray-painting yellow arrows to follow. I didn’t always see them.
The only other hazard was the geese, of which there were quite a few at first. I’ve been attacked by geese in the past. I don’t like geese.
My plan for the walk breaks, which had worked so well in rehearsal, was to walk a half-mile at quarter-distance, half-distance, and twice in the last ten miles. So at 7.5 miles I duly stopped, retrieved my first energy bar and salt tablet from my backpack, moved to one side on the towpath, and ate and drank.
Oh, how foolish I felt doing this so early. Almost every runner who passed me asked whether I was okay. Which was lovely of them, and I’m sure they’d have helped if I wasn’t, but I wanted to explain that I wasn’t some bozo who’d underestimated the whole thing and hit the wall already, it was all planned.
As well as refuelling, the break allowed me to take photos and check Twitter. From the previous evening the UKRunChat support I’d received had been phenomenal. My phone had been buzzing and tinkling with notifications all morning. Truly wonderful support.
By eleven or twelve miles we were still running through patches of urban sprawl of what I guessed was still Manchester. There was occasional support though, with groups of people at the side of the towpaths, or on bridges, applauding and giving encouragement. I also exchanged a resounding high-five with a local runner going in the opposite direction.
Soon after we were out into gorgeous countryside, following the railway line. I was calculating time all the way – the sub-5 was still on.
My next walk break came up quickly, and at 15.5 miles I stopped again for more refuelling. I tweeted that I’d done fifteen miles and had sixteen to go, plus a photo, and once again my phone sprang into life with notifications. Each one gave me such a boost; I knew there was someone out there wishing me luck and urging me on, and it really, really helped. I love the running community.
However, I had also tweeted that the weather was good. I might as well have set up a barbecue, mown the lawn or washed the car because at that very moment the skies darkened and we were subjected to a horrendous downpour. At this point I was running past a drained and dried-out section of the canal. The irony was not lost on me.
It cleared quickly though, and the warm sunshine that returned was a relief. It made the countryside look beautiful. Having settled into an easy pace at the start of the race I was ticking off steady mile after steady mile, and sustained by the rest periods and refuelling, I felt great. This was a happy, happy run.
At mile twenty my walk break was shorter because there was a photographer. I wasn’t about to be photographed walking, whether it was planned or not.
Shortly after this we were diverted off the canal at the next checkpoint because a section of it was closed for repairs. The group of runners I’d been around all stopped at the checkpoint and suddenly I was running on my own.
There then followed a tense few miles through the town of Todmorden. There were route signs but they were few and far between, highlighting my concern from earlier about taking a wrong turn. I took a slight diversion to check the canal and, during the time I lost, the runners who’d stopped at the checkpoint caught up and I re-joined them.
That was how I got through Todmorden, by following runners ahead of me. The trouble was that my road-running background kicked in. Roads – this is what I’m good at! I kept passing the people I was using to guide my way ahead of me. Eventually, after a few nervy episodes questioning whether I’d lost the route again, I was back to the canal.
I took my final walk break at twenty-five miles, then pushed on. Back on the towpaths, dodging puddles and walkers, the going was easier. Time was tight, but I was still on for sub-5. And passing my previous distance PB at twenty-seven miles was emotional.
I passed many people in those final three or four miles; some shuffling with rounded shoulders and flailing arms, some walking. Some, I felt sure, were people who’d passed me during that first walk break at 7.5 miles. My plan had worked perfectly; I’d never felt this strong so far into a run.
Passing thirty miles felt like an incredible milestone, but my pace had dropped to nine-minute miling. I could see I was heading back into Sowerby Bridge and finally the route opened out. There was a crowd of people ahead in about the right place for the finish but no actual finish line. No arch, no gantry, no sign, no balloons. Was this the finish?
It was. But there was no way of actually telling.
So I finished with the immortal words, “Is that it? Have I finished?”
And then – oh the horror! I looked down at my Garmin and it showed 30.99 miles!
There was no way I could leave this 0.01 miles short of thirty-one. But the towpath ahead was blocked with spectators, what could I do? Luckily, as I turned round to try to figure out a way to keep going it ticked over to 31.00 and that really was it – I’d finally finished.
My Garmin gave me 04:46:19. Sub-5, I’d done it. I was absolutely delighted. And with my training run the previous week I’d now run a marathon and an ultra on consecutive weekends. I felt just a little bit epic.
David came over and found me, and we exchanged congratulations and stories of our runs. I tweeted a picture of us and was staggered, simply staggered, at the amount of congratulations I received. Thank you so much to everyone.
We made our way back to the leisure centre, picked up our medals and tees, tweeted lots, and headed back to our cars. We met Nicola on the way, who’d just finished, and then Sam.
I headed back to my hotel, had a lovely hot bath, and caught up with the wonderful barrage of tweets. Sadly David had to head back home ready for work the next day, but as I was staying until Monday, the weekend ended extremely pleasantly with another meal out with Jenni and Sam.
So, having had a hissy-fit about running with a backpack and taking walk breaks, and having revised my long-term goals, was this really my first and last ultra?
Having run it I’m not so sure it was my last ever.
Let’s be clear, I have no interest whatsoever in running four minutes per mile slower than marathon pace up hills in the middle of bleeding nowhere. In a backpack. Carrying waterproof clothing. And spare food. Nor do I have any aspiration and intention towards MdS, Comrades and the like any more.
But I would do Canalathon again quite happily. It was lovely and I thoroughly enjoyed it.