Grand Union Canal Race – GUCR145 – Beer fuelled ultras

Sunday night and I’m running along a canal approaching Little Venice, swigging a beer whilst maintaining a decent pace. Just behind is my mate Eoin who’s buddying me for this section having been lucky enough to pull a double shift of ‘not pacing’ me. Just behind him is a big fella, drunk, and struggling to keep up. He’d been with his mates enjoying a few (too many) beers in the warm afternoon whilst watching a sporadic stream of shuffling runners come past on the Grand Union. He held the beer out to me as I approached. I warned him I would take it. He kept it out. I took it. He seemed shocked. Then realising he may have massively underestimated me and assumed I was a serious runner decided to give chase for his can of Desperado. It tastes so good.

The temperature has crept steadily throughout the day and is now approximating the seventh circle of hell so this icy cold beer is pretty much heaven in a can. I’m sorely tempted to keep it. He is just about maintaining pace. I reckon I could outrun him. I’m less sure Eoin can having already run more miles in the course of his not pacing duties than he’s ever covered before. It probably wouldn’t be the done thing to thank your ‘not pacer’ by letting him get thumped by a drunk for a beer you stole so I slow a little and pass it back to a red faced lager lout and push on, leaving him bent double, holding a well shaken beer and wondering what sort of runner drinks during a sprint finish. As experiences go this sums up the GUCR more than anything else.

This race is an epic, both in terms of distance and the experience. Previous runners and crew will wax lyrical about the old school feel of the event, a shared experience where everyone becomes family. I had no interest in running it, as in truth I’d never heard of it. I had no interest in running ultras really. I preferred marathons. Turns out they’re a gateway drug. I was talked into a 50 miler and then a 100 miler by running mate Jen. Keen to get some long runs in, ideally in the dark so I didn’t die on the South Downs, I agreed to help buddy clubmate Chris on his attempt to run some awful sounding canal race from Birmingham to London. So somewhere around Slapton Lock (wherever that is) I picked up a slightly soiled Chris and we made our way onwards. Just as (actual) pacing him on the Autumn 100 previously had planted a seed that lead eventually to me running it, so did this bout of buddying. Between Slapton Lock and when I handed him over to Lennie around Watford I was evidently infected by the bug which saw me enter the ballot for 2018 race, mostly hoping I didn’t win. A combination of luck in the ballot and bad planning saw me scheduled to run the Thames Path 100, the Milton Keynes marathon the following day, and the GUCR145 just 3 weeks later. Three races for 2018. All in May.

Although I finished the TP100 it was at times an awful experience. A chance buddying up with a great bloke called Jon stopped me dropping mid-race or from whipping out my phone and emailing the GUCR145 to advise of my intended withdrawal from the race. 100 flat miles in searing heat was killing me. What business did I have even contemplating nearly 50% further with just 3 weeks gap? Even the jubilation of finishing didn’t little to re-awaken my enthusiasm. Far better runners than me were advising it was stupid to do both. My race instruction letter was left unopened on the side table at home from fear of even seeing the maps. As the days passed the pendulum swung from ‘I’ll email to drop out tomorrow’ towards ‘let’s do this!’. I even did a brief detour of my usual training loop to take in a whole one mile stretch of the canal. That’s the route recce covered then. The pendulum never made the full swing but with a week to go it was hovering around ‘yeah maybe I should see how far I can get’. I’d managed the marathon the day after TP100 at a respectable 5h15 as official pacer. 126 miles in three days was a bloody good go at training for 145 and assuming I ever got lucky in the GUCR ballot again I would unlikely be as well trained (if a little under-recovered).  I hastily assembled some buddy runners, opened the maps on Wednesday, purchased food on Thursday and packed bag on Friday.

The Event

It’s Saturday and after an awful nights sleep in the Birmingham Travelodge (it really is as noisy as they warn you, three beers is recommended to get some sleep) I’m stood with a lot of actual ultra runners in a side street by the canal wondering why my ankle is aching already and can’t bend. Then I realise I’ve done my shoes up too tight. This doesn’t help the feeling of being an amateur.

Although I don’t have a crew I have buddies set up for much of the race and Cloë is due to pop up in places to assist and helping to mastermind the logistics. I’ve also got the added bonus of mates Karen and Lou, both crewing for other runners, who I can fall back on if needed.

With a heart-felt and low key speech we set off on a run which for most of us will take the majority of two days. If an employer demanded the same of its staff with a maximum 40 minute break they’d be prosecuted. We’ve chosen to do this. Fortunately it’s a cool misty morning and I just concentrate on avoiding tripping on the many raised sections of path and keeping the pace down. My ‘schedule’ I hastily assembled from the Facebook group is based on my TP100 timings as a best case and 1 minute per mile slower for a more realistic target. This gives 36 and 38hrs and crucially means the ever-supportive wife will still be in London visiting family and able to give me a lift home in the event I finish. I try not to dwell on the fact I forgot to fill my soft bottles before starting so the run to the first aid station is fuelled on some leftover Lucozade I happened to have from the walk to the start. It’s stuff like this that remind me I’m an idiot at times.

The first section of the race pass quickly. A bit too quickly. I have to make a conscious effort to slow. I don’t want any miles that start in single digits. Much of the first few stations after the trip hazard route from Birmingham are very runnable. Checkpoint 1 comes and I fill up bottles. The group I’ve been running with since the start seem to disband after the checkpoint and I’m mostly on my own so stick the iPod on to help the miles pass, head on to checkpoint 2 after clambering through a fallen tree, thankful it’s here and not at mile 78 when I doubt I’d have the mobility to do much more than stare at it waiting for rot and nature to take it’s course.

I borrowed this photo from someone, but I can’t remember who, if you then please advise for a credit!

Just before checkpoint 2 is a café and I dive in, down an icy cold coke in the queue and select what I presume is a Calippo and a strong coffee. I’m tempted by the fry-up but service seems slow and when I witness staff reheating a fried egg in a microwave I get the impression this would be a breakfast that would take some chewing. Darting into the check point for some nibbles I’m marginally behind best case schedule which is about where I want to be.

A photographer on route gets some awesome photos of keen runners storming down the towpath and one of me wandering along with a coffee looking like I’m out for a stroll. Excellent.

Photo thanks to Ross Langton

After keeping the ‘Calippo’ for as long as I can I give in and eat it. It’s awful. It’s actually a Robinson Fruit Shoot lolly. You might ask how bad a lolly can be. The answer is very. It’s a frigging abomination and doesn’t deserve to even be in the same freezer as a Calippo never mind the same shaped tube. Disguntled I plod on, completely unrefreshed.

At around marathon distance I hit Royal Leamington Spa, site of my second year of University. I was probably 20 when I was last here. Back then I couldn’t have run a bath and the only sport I got was winding up our more unbalanced housemate. One time we stole his bedroom door whilst he was in the shower and denied all knowledge of the act. He slept in the cupboard that night to guilt us into returning it. We didn’t until morning.

All along the course we’re asked by passers by where we’re running to or how far we’re going. Two dog walkers are enjoying their Starbucks on a beautiful Saturday morning. When hearing we’re on route to London running 145 miles, one lady full on spits her mouthful of coffee out in shock. I’ve only seen it done in low budget comedy films but apparently it can happen in the real world as well. I’m cautious for the next few miles, checking for discarded banana skins, workmen swinging long ladders and glaziers carrying sheets of glass across my path just in case I’ve passed into some alternative comedy dimension.

Mile 32 – Fosse Road Bridge and I’m 10 minutes up on best case, an excuse to stop for a Mars bar and mess about on Facebook. I’m finding my stupid video updates are going down well with those sat at home enjoying their weekend.

Coming up to checkpoint 3 I realise I’m getting increasingly ahead of best case schedule and need to find a better way to slow and use my time productively. My main regret of TP100 was not stopping in one of the packed pubs lining the route. I’ve promised myself I will redress this today and finally stumble on a pub that’s open. Sipping an ice cold beer at the Two Boats (very reasonable prices, staff don’t complain if you smell like a badger) and a fellow competitor is a little taken aback at my choice compared to his coke. Once again I may be ruining my reputation as a pro-athlete.

Up ahead lies danger. A swan the size of a small family car is blocking the towpath, protecting her brood of cygnets. A passing runner coming towards me manages to sprint past, followed by hissing and much anger from the mummy swan. I’m less able to turn a decent speed so reach a stand off, staring at the foul tempered fowl. Another runner out for a Saturday session approaches from the other side. The swam alternates, giving each of us her death stare in turn. Whilst attention is diverted we alternate creeping closer in a high risk game of ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’. Eventually I’m close enough to leg it, awaiting inevitable pecks on my legs. Fortunately she’s too slow and I make it past and can carry on with my gentle plod to checkpoint 3 and some hot food to keep me going.

Braunston Turn comes up at 44 miles and the sun is relentless. There’s a couple of ways of navigating this turn, the best is to cross the two iron bridges 93 and 94 as just between is this sign and a worthy photo moment. I’m joined by a couple of other runners, also increasingly baked and we manage to find a waterways tap and soak ourselves liberally. If running this event again in hot conditions I’d definitely go for more than 1 litre of fluid capacity.

Somewhere around Blisworth tunnel I’m met by clubmate Warren. In what will become a familiar theme this weekend he’s turned up with Calippo lollies. Lots and lots of Calippo lollies. I’m amazingly pleased to see the lollies. I mean Warren. We chat as I demolish four and down ice cold water. I feel pretty good still but the temperature is climbing and the cool misty morning in Birmingham seems a distant memory. For marketing executives reading this, Calippo are the daddy of ice lollies and essential for runners in the summer.

50 miles passes bang on 10 hours. I’m pretty much on best case timings still and feeling strong. I force myself from the mental path of realising I have ‘just 95 miles’ left as that’s barely shorter than my longest run before. Instead I concentrate on some vintage iPod tracks and enjoy a blast from the past as Alanis Morissette sings ‘Ironic’, once again proving she knows as much about irony as I do about clean eating as a I force down some Reese’s pieces.

55 miles comes in 11.5 hrs. I’ve passed the aid station which came up a lot further than I was expecting. The food is a little disappointing so I break into an emergency Super Noodle I packed and eat that on the walk out.

Stopping to admire some cute baby ducks at 61 miles and I’m picking up extra distance so now close to half an hour behind best case schedule. I’ve not got lost (yet) so the extra distance is either Garmin error or a very approximated route. Not a huge issue but when the aid station is advertised precisely as 53.1m and you’re at nearly 55, out of water and hanging out your arse it’s a little hard to focus and I suffer a bad patch where I can’t really be arsed with all this running lark.

Right on cue I get a message from Lou, she’s tended to the needs of her runner and is waiting for me at bridge 48 with a cold can of beer. I’m at bridge 45. I can either continue to walk like a girl and get a warm beer, or run and get a cold one. No contest. Trying not to worry what it says about my motivation that only a beer can get me moving I lay down the fastest miles of the day as I race towards refreshment and alcohol. It’s still cold. An ice cold can of Brewdog, with some sort of fruit twist that hits just where needed. This photo is genuinely not posed but I’ve managed to get the can perfectly orientated to show the logo. I hope Brewdog are reading this next time they need a brand ambassador.

Running on from the beer and my legs are seemingly loving this change of pace and I’m carried all the way to the uphill road as we pass over the Blisworth Tunnel. Cold beer is ace. Warm sports drink is not. Coming into Stoke Brueme expecting to see Eoin to take up ‘not pacer’ duties and instead get snapped by Mick and wife, out enjoying a late afternoon pint. I’m envious.

I find Eoin who’s been waiting a while as my pace has been dropping off. I start (I hope) well but soon enter another pretty glum patch. The poor guy is spending his Saturday evening with the running equivalent of Eeyore. My mood isn’t helped by the never appearing check point. Many, many hours later the Navigation Bridge arrives and I’m in a lull even the hot food and seeing the friendly faces of Sheila and Russell Rose can’t lift. Food has to help so I force down boiling soup whilst mentally preparing to strip off and put on night time layers. Having been caught out at the TP100 by the surprise cold I’m going for base layer, long sleeved and hooded top with vest over top. I shove a spare tee in the bag as a precaution and pull on a beanie hat and torch. Time to run. Or at least walk.

Eoin only has another 5 miles to endure with me before changeover. Cloë and my next ‘not pacer’ are waiting for me at the Black Horse pub. They’re aiming to get there about 10:40pm. I’m likely to be late so push as best I can. The night is still warm and I know from living around here that after passing the scary iron aqueduct (I don’t like crossing it in daylight, in the dark you feel rather than see the massive drop to one side and the certain death below) there’s an annoying kink in the canal before the pub where you run away from your destination for seemingly no reason. Passing several lads smoking unusual cigarettes on route to a party in the woods (they’ve not seen the weather forecast) we hear two girls up ahead on a bench in the dark. Expecting another instance of the finest youths of Milton Keynes, smashed out their faces on cheap cider and Buckfast it’s a welcome shock to see club mates Susie and Emma huddled in the dark waiting to support the stupid endeavour.

Shocked again at the pub to see not just next buddy Neil and Cloë, but also school chum John (who I forget to berate for the awful train journey to Birmingham the day before – he works at Network Rail so all train issues are his fault) and club mate Andy. Cheesy photo and hugs all around follow. I do my best impersonation of a man who hasn’t already run 75 miles and I’m handed from Eoin to Neil like a slightly smelly pass-the-parcel.

Neil has the makings of a substantial picnic in his bag, with the main ingredient being beer. Necking a Yazoo milkshake first to line the stomach we set off into the night accompanied by the ‘psst’ of beer cans. Part of me was dreading this section through Milton Keynes. I’m basically only halfway but been running for what seems like an entire day. The route is seldom further than a 5 minute taxi or 10 minute walk from my house. It would be so easy to drop. With a fast taxi I could be whisked to the aid station at Fenny Stratford to collect my bags and back home inside 15 minutes. Instead of dropping and with company of Neil we drink beer and talk rubbish. It’s just like a night in a pub except we’re walking at the same time with the odd jog when the beer burps subside. Getting quietly drunk is exactly what I need about now.

As we pass Woolstone there’s some flashing lights ahead. Probably car headlights or a night club. They seem very bright though. Getting nearer it’s clear they’re lightning but with no thunder or rain. This is the localised storms we were warned of. Thankfully they seem very localised so we’ll probably miss them. Minutes later it’s clear we’re not going to as the sky falls. Neil makes the very sensible suggestion to run to the next aid station at Bridge 99 so we finish off the beers and make haste to cover. Running mate Glyn, local ultra legend, is manning the aid station but I fail to recognise him in the downpour. I wolf down a hot dog and join the other runners staring into the alternating gloom and blinding flashes hoping the storm will pass. Eventually it’s clear that’s wishful thinking so on with rain coats and off we go. The rain has somewhat dampened our romantic wander through the night. The thunder and lightning is indeed very, very frightening and Neil makes repeated attempts to grasp my hand which he pretends are accidental and something to do with me being unable to run in a straight line. His original plan was to leave me at Leighton Buzzard, mile 90, but he resolves to stick with me to 100 before handing over to Stephen.

We cover ground well for a while, only making one minor error at a bridge crossing but by mile 93 I’m having a dark spell again and struggling to manage much more than a shuffle. Neil unfortunately needs to get back to civilisation and nice smelling people so bids me farewell somewhere on a tow path towards Slapton Lock. I whip out my DAB radio for company only to find it’s gone dead or broken with the rain so it’s just me and my thoughts now.

It’s early morning and I’m struggling. The dawn didn’t bring the relief I expected. No singing at geese and talking to cows like the Autumn 100. Probably a mixture of exhaustion and the last of the beer wearing off. The mild niggle in my shoe that I ignored has got progressively worse and at some point I give in, sit on a lock gate and pull my shoe off. Big blister. Huge blister. The biggest. If only Trump was there to tweet about it. I clean up my foot as best I can, apply some tape and clear out my shoes. Most of the towpath falls out and a sweet wrapper. I’ve never worn gaiters before to keep stones out. Now I wish I had.

Eventually I reach Slapton Lock. It’s broad daylight. It was also broad daylight last year when I took on buddy duties for Chris. That’s because it was still Saturday evening. I’m here Sunday morning. Not even the same bloody day he got here. I think the key difference is food thickness. Chris was very particular at this crew point on only eating watermelon of a certain thickness. I’ve foolishly eaten food of all thickness, widths and depths. That’s why I’m slower, nothing to do with the 4 stone weight disadvantage and lack of training.

I’m coming up to 100 miles on the course (more on my watch) and just need to make it to the next aid station as Stephen is due to join me. Having covered this race twice and run up to 250 miles on the Thames Ring he is Mr Miyagi and I am the student. I have no idea what to do after 100 miles and precious little idea what to do before that so I feast on a breakfast of Lucozade borrowed from Neil as a parting gift and Reese’s pieces, and trudge on waiting to find sensei Stephen. Seeing photos of me hitting the Grand Junction aid station I now realise how monumentally fudged I was. I later learn the checkpoint timing sheet had some pretty unflattering (but accurate) comments attached to my name.

Lou was waiting with her runner and once again took pity on me, forced food at my face, and even helped change shoes. Gradually with some coffee, cold quiche and ketchup life came back and Stephen walked in right on cue. He’d been woken by the baby at an ungodly hour so had decided to jog down to see me, a distance of many miles, rather than take public transport. In training for forthcoming races with long kit lists he also carried all his worldly possessions in his backpack. Sadly there wasn’t enough room left for me to fit in so I’d have to run. I still had on my three tops and sensei politely advised I may want to strip down to one as it was getting warm. Yep I’ve reached the point I need help to know what to wear.

With a strong coffee in my travel mug (seriously bin the stupid ‘race cups’ people and get a big sturdy insulated mug with a lid) we set off. It was morning. I was over 100 miles. There was just 45 miles left.

15 miles with Stephen passes fairly quickly. He’s full of stories of much harder races to take my mind off this one. The blister I left too late to attend to now feels like most of my foot. It’s swelling and certain steps feel like I’m trying to stand on a gel-filled cool pack. Not ideal for stable balance. Painfully ambling somewhere between Berkhampstead and Watford, Steve tries to motivate me to try a little run again. Oddly the change of foot strike makes my blister more bearable. I notice that if I can knock out another five miles I will have less than a marathon to finish. A marathon is a manageable chunk. I’ve run 100 odd. I can do that. I am one of those people stupid enough to say ‘It’s just a marathon’. I hear a croaky voice mutter ‘fuck it’ and speed up. I realise it’s me. My legs have done little in way of speed since running for a beer at Blisworth and they’re surprisingly willing so I go with it. At one point I check the watch and I’m (briefly) doing six minute mile pace. Best slow down a little as that’s 5k PB pace.

We pass the 115 mile point I handed over a slightly broken Chris to clubmate Lennie the previous year and the visual image of a mighty runner huddled in blankets on a picnic chair whilst people poke brownie and watermelon at him comes to mind. Chris is a proper runner. He does strength and conditioning training, has key focused races where he aims to podium if not outright win. He knows the names of muscles and ligaments and how to optimise his performance. I tend to bounce from one race to another, drink too much and thought Gluteus Maximus was that bloke out of the Gladiator who’d never quite got over his family being slaughtered. All these doubts are bouncing in my head as I reach the point he finally had to DNF (I still maintain Lennie broke him, he claims Chris was like that when he got him and blamed the previous keeper). Although I’m many, many hours after he’d reached this point, I was now running further than Chris, admittedly he was fighting some sort of bug and picked up a knee injury on route so it’s not really a fair comparison. Still, a mixture of elation and outright fear hit me.

I run until we’re a mile short of the aid station and recovered much of the delay and nearly back on ‘best case’ timings. Knackered but happy to walk in the final mile. Which is a little longer. A lot longer. Several miles later we’re still not there and much of the recovered time has been stolen by mystery miles in baking sunshine. Stephen runs off route for Callipo from Tesco. The only thing better than seeing him return with a cool lolly is when he pulls out a box full and we demolish three each before finally rolling into Springwell Lock aid station and navigating the treacherous lock crossing to the hot food. I’m told I’m in 25th place which sounds plainly wrong and I wonder who messed up the timings for me to be placed so highly. The crew are amazing and rustle up an enticing fry-up that sadly I struggle to eat. Stephen obliges rather than see it go to waste. In the background he and Cloë have been messaging back and forth and sorted out my buddy duties on route. He’ll stick with me for a few more miles before heading off to enjoy his Sunday with someone less stinky, leaving me a couple of miles on my own before Eoin steps up again for his second bout of keeping me out the canal and enduring my roller coaster of emotions.

The miles pass with the usual leap frogging of the same handful of runners as we each vary from death march to some approximation of running until a friendly face pops up with an ice cold Coke. Eoin and I are re-united like a bad cop film. I’m obviously the broken, gristled, world-weary detective on his final days to retirement. Eoin is the up and coming recruit, likely to be tainted by my bad habits and soon to be found pushing suspects down staircases (or just signing up to ultra races).

With one last aid station to go it’s just about keeping forward motion going. Run when able, walk when you can’t, bounce alarmingly when you’re forced off the towpath due to construction works and have to negotiate a big b&stard bouncy jetty pontoon on the canal instead. Then swear a bit when you’re diverted through Tesco car park and witness people doing normal Sunday bank holiday activities like shopping for a relaxed BBQ party.

Passing along an increasingly grim stretch of canal (let’s just pretend that’s a massive dog poo as the alternative mammal is a bit too gross to consider) I’m desperate for the turning at Bulls Bridge Junction. The elation is slightly dampened by some collapsed safety fencing. Rather than protecting people on the tow path from the building site it’s now completely blocked the path and everyone has to painfully clamber into the dangerous building site to avoid the fence. Hey Alanis Morrisette, that is actually irony.

The heat is somehow still building and taking a toll as runners start to slow and bunch up. Earlier in the race it was hard to tell from a distance which was runner and which was buddy, now it’s clearly evident as the walking dead shuffle onwards at alarming angles, each accompanied by an owner just hoping to finish this thing without getting sicked on or needing to fish their mate out the canal that is now mostly goose poo and cholera.

Finally we reach a water tap just in front of the aid point and I soak everything and fill bottles before taking a final sit down. We’re joined by the various zombies we’ve been switching places with. It’s evident that if this was the Grand National the volunteers would be erecting screens and reaching for the bolt gun. Instead we dose up on coke and press on. We’re all going to make it. The platitudes we share with other runners are now statements of fact “I WILL see you at the finish line.”

Grandmaster Stephen said to think of this final stretch as a half marathon. That’s all that’s left. Mileage is coming up increasingly long. I’m looking at 153 and ‘a smidge’ for the finish line. I have no idea how long a smidge is. Or what it is. But I know I hate it. So we just push on and try a jog. I decide to run until I record 145 miles on the Garmin. Some sums see me realise that with effort I could actually reach 145 miles in 36 hours and at least partly achieve my ‘best case’ goal time. Eoin points out that distance would also see him break his longest run to date. We run. It’s close. Somewhere around 144 miles he’s hit his goal. The press-ganged HM runner has done back to back runs and beaten his longest run today along the Sahara stretch of the Grand Union, dodging dead fish, stoned locals and unspeakable filth on the way. Let’s get the double. Passing some other runners again I’m pushing full out, trying one more ‘fuck it’, feeling like the home stretch of a parkrun (that’s a far more sensible distance to run), checking my watch seemingly every ten feet. With a mouth full of sick and a body temperature sufficient to cook eggs I clock 145 miles with seconds to spare from 36 hours. A gloriously pointless way to get the miles done but immensely satisfying to (sort of) get my optimistic time target.

So that just leaves eight and a smidge (bloody smidge) miles left. Eoin soaks my hat from his bladder (his race vest one, not his biological one) and updates the people on social media. My plan is walk a mile, run a mile until 150 then just run it in. I’m gradually cooling down and think there’s one last burst of ‘fuck it’ left in the tank. More sums mean I might just be able to get 38 hours if I can keep to 15 minutes miles average. The mile of walking ends sooner than I’d like. The mile of running I can’t sustain and slow to a walk. A very slow walk. Six and a smidge miles left. A 10k. It’s so close to being possible but also so far. Why do all my races come down to the wire to achieve arbitrary times? Why am I such an arse?

My walking pace is now so slow I can’t really afford not to run so we try a jog. Some of me is definitely jogging. The bottom part is walking. I look like a messed up kids book where you flip the pages to make amusing people “Look children, the head of a red-faced sunburnt man, the body of a jogger and the legs of an old fella with rickets, isn’t that funny!”. I realise that my foot doesn’t hurt as much anymore. Wise sensei Stephen had foretold that the bouncy blister would burst at some point and whilst I may never be able to remove my sock due to puss I can bear weight a lot better so I try and speed up. I’m feeling better. The weather is finally cooling a little and the tow path has some shade at last.

We click past 150 miles and I start to think the 38hrs could be possible. A parkrun left and bigger buildings on the horizon. I’m just waiting for the time to use the final ‘fuck it’. Too soon and I’ll end up walking it in, too late and I’ll kick myself.

152.5 miles and it’s time to see what is left. It’s end of the night at the student pub time. Empty your pockets onto the bar and see what you’ve got in shrapnel as your notes are long since spent. Hopefully you have enough for a final pint. It’s with that thought in mind that I accept the beer from the (initially) friendly drunk and take a long cool swig of the rapidly foaming drink, handing back with reluctance and self-preservation, slowing just enough for a safe handover like in-flight refuelling of war planes. Garmin later confirms that drunk men can briefly keep up 10 minute miles when in pursuit of their beer and hot idiots can down half a can at the same pace.

We’re definitely in London now and the path is crowded. Doing my best to be polite I’m picking out hazards ahead (or ‘people’ as they might want to be called) and requesting clearance, “Fat sweaty runner on your left, coming through please!”. There’s a seemingly mountainous bridge ahead and Eoin does everything he can to convince me it’s just a sloped bridge when I can clearly see clouds at the top. Up and over, suffering the effects of altitude sickness I do my best to keep some pace. Towpath works ahead see us need to leave the path, ascend and cross a road. Eoin seems keen to observe the green cross code, I’m less bothered but need his help to find the way back down to the canal. Thankfully he finds it but can’t help asking if maybe I’ve pushed on a little too early. I might have.

153 miles. Just the absolute b&stard of the smidge to go and I’m rapidly coming to the end of my last ‘fuck it’. I’ve seen the iconic photos. The finish is by the canal, with some railings. There’s plastic sheeting on the railings with times written on. It’s probably the least impressive finish line in the world but that’s what I need to see. Successive railings are empty save for the usual adverts for dodgy home working jobs and church fetes. Finally I think I see something in the distance. It looks like the finish. It has to be the finish or I’m done. I may have lost Eoin somewhere. The poor guy has managed a monster distance weekend and been asked to do speed work at the end without the benefit of lunacy, beer or caffeine. My soft flasks are long since emptied and my delightful duck run sees one fly out my vest for someone else to recover. 7 minute miles may not seem like speedwork on a good day but right now it’s all I can manage and I cross the line to be recorded dead-on 38h00m. I’ve bloody done it.

The assembled supporters including Cloë were too shocked to even record my momentous sprint finish so it will live on in my mind as a finish worthy of Sir Roger Banister breaking the 4 minute mile. Other people may have a different view and witnessed something akin to a cheap wardrobe falling downhill. They’re obviously wrong and can’t prove otherwise.

Collapsing under the weight of the medal I sit on a chair and try to compose myself whilst drinking gallons of water. As well as Cloë I also have Steve and his mate Dave who have come out again to witness the climax of a journey that started seemingly several days ago in a different county where I didn’t ache everywhere, have a puss-filled sock, sunburnt neck or want to vomit. Happy times. I think Cloë is mostly pleased I’m not dead and haven’t been found face down in the canal.

Some hard races it can take several days for the jubilation, relief and gratification to come and wipe away the agony and pain. This isn’t one of those. I’ve been up for 39 hours but I loved this race beyond all reason. It’s stupid, pointless and ridiculously low key. It should not be this good but somehow is.

Biggest thanks to Cloë and my supporters and buddy runners. It was a long way and would have felt even longer without assistance.

Race Tally –

  • Beers – 5 and a stolen half (not enough)
  • Callipo – 7 and one dodgy knock-off Fruit Shoot that wasn’t a patch (about right)
  • Blisters – 1 the size of my foot. Basically my left foot is mostly blister.
  • Number of socks that I can take off – 1
  • Race starters – 98
  • Race finishers – 54
  • Finish position – 22 (yeah I actually gained positions between the final aid stations, almost like I know what I’m doing)
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Grand Union Canal 145 – Pacing Chart!

Stuck here as much for reference on the day as anything else, here is a rough plan of when I might be hitting points on the run as I jog the mere 145 miles from Birmingham to London.

I have ‘buddies’ (not allowed to call them pacers) for much of it. You can only have buddies, one at a time from 65 miles in and must stay beside or behind you. In front makes them a pacer and is against the rules.

  • Eoin from 65 – 75 miles.
  • Neil from 75 – 90 miles.
  • Stephen from approx. 105-145 miles, the poor idiot.
  • So remaining buddy spot if anyone has insomnia from 90-105 miles at approx. 2/3am until 6/7:30am.

Crew are allowed to attend at checkpoints, keeping to the colour match of the aid stations to aid crowding. I’m Green (G):

Ref Location Chk Dist Totl Dist Fast Pace (m/m) Est Pace (m/m) Early Arrival (Time) Est Arrival (Time) Fast Elapsed Time Est Elapsed Time Chkpt Rest.
Start Gas Street Basin (B1 2JT) 0 0 0 0 06:00 06:00 00:00 00:00 ALL
A Elmdon Heath (B92 0QD) 9.7 9.7 10 11 07:37 07:46 01:37 01:46 Y
1 Catherine De Barnes Br. 78 (B91 2TJ) 1 10.7 10 11 07:47 07:57 01:47 01:57 G
B Knowle Locks (B93 OJJ) 3.7 13.7 10 11 08:29 08:42 02:29 02:42 Y
C A4141 Bridge 70 (B93 0EE) 0.8 14.5 10 11 08:37 08:50 02:37 02:50 G
D Kingswood Br.65 (B94 6NA) 2.7 17.2 10 11 09:04 09:19 03:04 03:19 Y
E Turners Green Br. 63 (CV35 7DH) 0.9 18.1 11 12 09:13 09:29 03:13 03:29 G
2 Hatton Locks Top (CV35 7JL) 4.4 22.5 11 12 10:01 10:21 04:01 04:21 Y
F Hatton Locks Bottom Br. 27 (CV35 7DU) 1.5 24 12 13 10:29 10:50 04:29 04:50 G
G Op. Ford Plant, Off A425 Br. 42 (CV31 3NU) 3.4 27.4 12 13 11:09 11:34 05:09 05:34 Y
H Butt Br.34, Radford Semele (CV31 1TW) 2.6 30 12 13 11:40 12:07 05:40 06:07 G
I Fosse Road Br. 32 (CV33 9BQ) 1 31 12 13 11:52 12:20 05:52 06:20 Y
J Cuttle Br. 25, Long Itchington (CV47 9QZ) 3.6 34.6 12 13 12:35 13:06 06:35 07:06 G
K Stockton Bridge 23 (CV47 8LD) 0.5 35.1 12 13 12:41 13:12 06:41 07:12 Y
3 Birdingbury Bridge (CV23 8HQ) 0.8 35.9 12 13 12:50 13:22 06:50 07:22 G
L Jacksons Br.105 (NN11 6DY) 4.2 40.1 12 13 13:55 14:31 07:55 08:31 Y
M Flecknow Rd. Bridge No.102 (CV23 8AZ) 1.3 41.4 12 13 14:10 14:47 08:10 08:47 G
N Braunston Marina (NN11 7AL) 2.6 44 12 13 14:41 15:20 08:41 09:20 Y
O Braunston Locks (Admiral Nelson) (NN11 7HJ) 0.6 44.6 13 14 14:48 15:28 08:48 09:28 G
P Buckby Top Lock (NN6 7PW) 3.9 48.5 13 14 15:38 16:22 09:38 10:22 ALL
4 The Heart of England Pub, Weedon (NN7 4QD) 4.6 53.1 13 14 16:37 17:26 10:37 11:26 ALL
Q High House Br.29 (NN7 3LG) 1.9 55 13 14 17:16 18:07 11:16 12:07 Y
R Bugbrooke Br.36 (NN7 3QB) 2.4 57.4 13 14 17:47 18:40 11:47 12:40 G
S Gayton Junction Br’s.47+48 (NN7 3EF) 3.2 60.6 13 14 18:28 19:24 12:28 13:24 Y
T North end Blisworth Tunnel (NN7 3DA) 1.9 62.5 14 15 18:54 19:52 12:54 13:52 G
U Stoke Brueme Br’s. 54+55 (NN12 7SW) – Eoin 2.5 65 14 15 19:29 20:29 13:29 14:29 ALL
5 Navigation Bridge (MK19 7BE) – Eoin 5.5 70.5 14 15 20:46 21:51 14:46 15:51 NONE
V Galleon Bridge 68 (MK12 5PW) – Eoin 1.8 72.3 14 15 21:26 22:33 15:26 16:33 ALL
W New Bradwell Br.72 (MK13 0EL) – Eoin 1.9 74.2 14 15 21:52 23:01 15:52 17:01 ALL
X Proud Perch (Black Horse) Br.76 (MK14 5AJ)   Neil 1.6 75.8 14 15 22:14 23:25 16:14 17:25 ALL
Y Peartree Br.88 (MK6 3PB) Neil 4.6 80.4 14 15 23:18 00:34 17:18 18:34 ALL
6 Bridge 99, South of Milton Keynes, (MK2 3NZ) Neil 4.1 84.5 15 16 00:19 01:39 18:19 19:39 ALL
Z Soulbury Three Locks (LU7 0DS) Neil 2.5 87 15 16 01:11 02:34 19:11 20:34 ALL
AA Tesco Leighton Buzzard (LU7 1ER) Neil 3.5 90.5 15 16 02:03 03:30 20:03 21:30 ALL
BB Slapton Lock Br.120 (LU7 9DD) 3.7 94.2 15 16 02:58 04:29 20:58 22:29 ALL
CC Ivinghoe Br.123 (LU7 9DY) 1.8 96 15 16 03:25 04:57 21:25 22:57 ALL
7 The Grand Junction Arms (HP23 5QE) 3.8 99.8 16 17 04:25 06:01 22:25 24:01 ALL
DD Cowroast Lock Br.137 (HP23 5RE) 2.7 103 16 17 05:23 07:01 23:23 25:01 ALL
EE Berkhamsted Br.140 (HP4 1DP) Steve 1.8 104 16 17 05:51 07:31 23:51 25:31 ALL
FF Boxmoor Br.149 (HP1 1NA) Steve 4.2 109 16 17 06:58 08:42 24:58 26:42 ALL
GG Br. 165 (West Watford) (WD17 3TT) Steve 6.5 115 16 17 08:42 10:32 26:42 28:32 ALL
8 Springwell Lock (WD3 8UF) Steve 5.3 120 17 18 10:12 12:07 28:12 30:07 ALL
HH Wide Water Lock Br.180 (UB9 6NS) Steve 2.7 123 17 18 11:07 13:05 29:07 31:05 ALL
II Cowley Lock Br.188 (UB8 2JG) Steve 4.5 128 17 18 12:23 14:26 30:23 32:26 ALL
JJ Tesco’s, Yiewsley (UB7 7SX) Steve 1 129 17 18 12:40 14:44 30:40 32:44 ALL
9 The Hamborough Tavern (UB1 1NQ) Steve 4.5 133 18 19 14:01 16:09 32:01 34:09 ALL
KK Piggery Br.12 (HA0 1PJ) or (B&Q Alperton) Steve 6 139 18 19 15:54 18:08 33:54 36:08 ALL
Fin Little Venice, London (W2 6ND) Steve 6 145 19 20 17:48 20:08 35:48 38:08 ALL

Running is meant to be fun. Remember that.

Looking back on the previous weekend including my own death march at the TP100 and pacing at the MK Marathon and what sticks in my head is how much more I enjoyed the marathon.  Not just bits.  The whole bloody thing.  It was probably the longest period of sustained fun I’ve had since going to Disney World.  And with less queuing.  And nobody charged me $6 for a tepid cola. Although it was that hot I probably would have paid double.

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Looking at the various race photos I’m beaming  away despite running in an oven. I’m having a whale of a time. Everyone around me looks miserable as sin, like they’ve been asked by the boss to pull a weekend shift and missed a night of debauchery at the Playboy mansion. Why? It’s not just because I’m running within myself.  Although that helped, the 100 mile warm up the day before and dodgy calf means it wasn’t the effort-free glide it might have been. In truth there is no such thing as an easy marathon. 26.2 miles is a long way.

I’m happy because I’ve binned the bullshit and just enjoying the run. Before during and after the race I’ve done whatever made it enjoyable. It was an amazing change. Breakfast was cold pizza, some sausage rolls and I stood on the start line eating some crisps as I fancied some crisps. On route I fancied a beer so I had one. Afterwards I had cake and more beer. At no point did I consume or undertake something I didn’t want to.  I am having a great time.

As evidenced by the photos, many of those around me aren’t having a great time. Or even a good time. It’s because we’re not meant to.  Advice columns, magazines, blogs and motivational videos strip the joy from what should be the simplest form of exercise, and one that for all but 99.9% of people on the start line is meant to be a hobby, one we’ve paid to undertake by choice. It’s in the same bucket as going to the cinema or reading the newspaper. We do those things because they are enjoyable. Not so with running.

We’re told running shouldn’t be fun. Not only that, the misery should start before and end well after the exercise. Like a slice of anguish sandwiched between discomfort and suffering.

Welcome to the grind. Welcome to getting up two hours before your run to eat some prescribed protein breakfast that tastes the same going down as coming back up. Welcome to long runs in the cold when your legs scream because you’re too manly to wear leggings. Welcome to running the same bloody route from your house for the 87th time as it’s the only flat circuit available and your plan says you must run exactly 8.75 miles at 8min30s pace or else the entire week is ruined and your training is for nothing. Welcome to returning from a run and drinking a smoothie the exact taste, consistency and flavour as the contents of an old man’s hanky. Welcome to abstaining from beer, from sex, from pizza and late nights because any one of these would derail your training to cover an arbitrary distance in a self-imposed arbitrary time that is somehow vital for self-worth. The sum total of all your achievements in life to date are as nothing compared to your marathon time. Imagine if you had a glass of wine the night before a big race and finished the marathon in 4h15 rather than 4h14. Literally world-ending. It’s doubtful if you’d still have a job come Monday morning.

It seems running must be hard or is it isn’t worth it. Every facet of it must be arduous. The more horrendous the better. Don’t ever look like you enjoy it. If you suspect you might have accidentally had fun on a run go sign up to an obstacle course race. Wade through ice cold water, contract a lung infection from a cow shit infested stream crossing and get electrocuted by a sadistic failed PE teacher. Now you’re tough. Now it’s working. No smiling now or you have to do another lap.

Bollocks. Every other hobby is about fun. If watching the new blockbuster film required months of 6am screenings of French silent movies you’d give it a miss. Nobody listens to the angry frog on repeat for hours to better make them appreciate their favourite band on tour. I’ve yet to meet a dabbler in home cooking who’d spend four hours every Sunday chopping veg just to get the perfect peeling technique to shave 15 seconds off the Christmas dinner preparation or chug a gag-inducing liquidised bag of Haribo every 20 minutes to keep their energy up for the carving. No they’re having a glass of wine, laughing with the kids and enjoying the process as much as the end result.

Running should be the same. Yes there will be times when it is tough and where effort needs to be applied to improve but remember why you’re there in the first place. It’s a hobby. It’s ultimately pointless. Completely bloody pointless. Several hours after you leave you’re back to where you started only now you have a blister and smell like roadkill. If it’s not enjoyable it won’t stick and you’ll go back to binge eating twiglets on the sofa watching Celebrity Dancing Factor On Ice Jump Island or some such mind-numbing tedium.

I ran with a lot of first time marathoners at MK. Many recounted the horrors of training and of the race day ritual itself. Like almost all first timers (including me) they assumed it was all some rite of passage that must be undergone in order to earn the medal. With the average marathon training programme being 16 weeks and with a minimum of 6 hours per week they’ve likely spend 100 hours in abject misery with probably the same amount before and after in preparation and recovery torment, trussed up in recovery compression tights and bashing themselves with foam rollers based on a Youtube video of some untrained hunk they wish to be. All of this so they can wake in the dark and shovel ‘fuel’ down their necks to go spend a further five hours in a state ranging from discomfort to agony. What an awesome hobby. Sign me up today.

Stop stripping out the fun.

Want to go to the pub with your mates? Go. Get so drunk you wake up in a bush, happy but disorientated.

Pre-race meal says pasta but you fancying eating half a cow in a decent restaurant with the wife? Eat it. Add some blue cheese sauce.

Want to run in the woods with clubmates and dogs, laughing like kids and stopping for ice cream at the end? Have a 99 and enjoy it.

Training plan says to do 400 metre reps until you revisit your breakfast but you’d rather jog around the lake with Bob and chat shit about your boss? Dish away. Your boss probably is an arse. Statistically most are.

Want a greasy fry up on race day morning? Dig in. That cold porridge can be flung out on the lawn for the neighbours cat to eat and bring back up.

Rather run like the Devil himself is chasing you for 5 miles than slog 10 miles at mind-numbing tedium? Go do it.

Think a Mars bar might be preferable as a running snack compared to an energy ball dangerous reminiscent of something you saw a goat deposit on the floor at the petting zoo? Have one.  Have the whole family pack.

Prefer a beer at mile 18 rather than a sugary diabetes drink?  Then I hope you have enough to share.

Seriously the marathon will hurt like hell. Training will make it hurt less but training is running. It is not subjecting yourself to torture even Guantanamo Bay guards would flinch at in some form of masochistic pre and post race ritual of self denial, with the intervening miles a dangerous stomach based Buckaroo as you pummel gel after gel into your engorged gut wondering which end they’ll finally make a high velocity exit from.

Run fast.  Run slow.  But run happy.  At least once.

Thames Path 100 – Brutal Battle!

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MK marathon went here.All looks peaceful waiting for the start

I’m actually trying to cut down on races this year.  I’ve got my 100th marathon done. I managed a GFA marathon for London (for a whole month before they moved the goal posts). Plan was a few races and some fun stuff.  I signed up for TP100 having enjoyed the SDW100 and A100 last year and wanting to work towards the set of four buckles without the pressure of a grand slam year. Then I got ‘lucky’ in the ballot for the Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR145). Adding in the MK Marathon that I’ve run every year and I’ve expertly managed to book all my keys races in one single month in May.

I reasoned the TP100 and the MK marathon the day after would actually be great training for GUCR145. Then the sensible voice pointed out I was referring to a 100 miler as a training run. I am not Killian Jornet. I’m a duck-footed plodder.

Race day comes and I’m checked in and ready to go. Nerves are slightly reduced by friendly faces at the start. Seems I know a lot of idiots who think running 100 miles on what is predicted to be the hottest Bank Holiday ever is a great idea.  The great crew from Bad Boy Running are there for mutual support/piss taking.

After the usual debate I’ve binned off the idea of trail shoes and have Adidas Supernova on. They’re my favourite go-to trainer. Cushioned for a fat lad and never given foot issues. They may lack grip for the odd mile of the course but for the remaining 100 will look after me. I hope.

Plan A – Last week I had an ambitious plan to go sub20 hrs. I’d managed 22h22m at SDW on a hot day over a hilly course as my first 100 miler, including getting lost. On a flat course in typical May weather (so cool and cold) I thought this target was an ask but not impossible. Stood on the side of the Thames sweating in the shade this plan was soon binned off.

Plan B – Keep effort low in the heat, come the cooler night sections I would unleash my inner beast and tear up the course. Let’s ignore that I death march from halfway and hadn’t run over 28 miles in training. Also I suck in the heat.

One runner makes a great point – this is a beautiful day, the sun is out, the route along the Thames is gorgeous. We’re lucky to be out running today. Let’s hold that focus, time to start.

I’m holding back but pass 10k in under an hour. My first ever 10k race was slower. Look how far I’ve come. Happy thoughts. That probably means I’ve gone too fast. Sad thoughts.

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First of many many pubs I passed!

11 miles comes just as we hit Walton-On-Thames. I know this section from Phoenix Running events. It’s all runnable. Aid station at 12 and Dan from BBR is on the aid station to refill bottles. The first few aid stations are very spread on the course so really make sure you start with full bottles.

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All three of these fulfil mandatory kit rules. Only one is actually of use as a cup. It’s also about £1 from Deacthlon.

HOT DAY RACE TIP 1 – I took the last minute decision to bin off my stupid collapsible race cup and clip a £1 camping mug on instead. The weight difference of several gram is unlikely to be an issue at my size and being able to drink real sized refreshment is worth it. Also a handy size to fill with food and eat on the walk back out.

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Mile 18 is ice cream time. Guy doesn’t have much change so forced to buy a callipo as well.

HOT DAY RACE TIP 2 – Bring cash and card. If you get hot stop and buy whatever will get you through the day. A Callipo ice cream shoved in the bottle pocket of the race vest cools you, the water bottles and once slushy can be drunk.

Mile 21 and I score another ice lolly (third of the day), am reminded by the wonderful Lorna from BBR to actually take some salt tablets rather than just carry them, and get some ice as well. In my excitement I miss the bridge crossing so have to backtrack a few metres after being shouted at by a fellow runner.

HOT DAY RACE TIP 3 -Get some ice or cold water in a ziplock bag, stick under your hat.  It’s awesome. Mine had a slight leak so a cooling tricky of water ran down my back.

Mile 30 I pass Windsor Castle and seemingly the millionth pub. The queues at the bar look massive. I debate begging or borrowing a pint from one of the patrons.  25 miles passed somewhere around 5hrs, nearly 1hr slower than planned. Given the heat this seems a sensible reduction of pace.

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Mile 38 at Cookham and amazing Dan is on aid duties again. Coke, fruit and a slightly melted lolly (4th of the day).

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Maidenhead comes at 41 miles. Plan is to hit halfway aid station and be out on the path inside 10 hours, in the end I hit the 51 mile point at just over 10hrs and Lorna is there waiting to pace BBR host Jodie on the second half so fusses over me as I force down pasta. Opening up the drop box I neck the sports drink, can of Monster and pack some food in bag. My ipod is waiting too. Need some company for the later stages so been looking forward to this. Only it’s gone flat in the box. So now I have to carry a dead ipod with me. Great.

Sat on the chair in the evening sun by the river is lovely.  I could stay here. I could drop. I certainly wouldn’t be the first. Spending 10hrs running for nothing would be stupid though. Plus I have my secret inner beast to unleash once it cools. Even though I need help to get out the chair. Still running in just one tee I stash the dry one from the box in the bag and push on.

Whether real or imagined a lovely lady gives me ice somewhere in a forest which I add to the ziplock head cooler. Or maybe I don’t….

58 miles is the familiar site of the Watersports centre at Reading and the steps of death to the aid station. This is the turn around point on the final section of the A100. For the SDW100 I only ever sat at an aid station once. Today I need chairs more regularly than even ice creams so I drink coffee and take the load off, hoping the guy laying on the floor with the medic is going to be alright. I recognise one of the aid station volunteers from somewhere but baked brain is struggling to remember where from.  They seem lovely though.

Descending the steps in a controlled fall I join with another runner Jon and we run through Reading together. Both having done the A100 we’re aware how bleak this section is so push on. Just before Wallingford he wisely suggest we stick on some layers. It’s not cold yet but everyone warns about the night chills along the Thames. In the curious way of runners we chat about everything from past races to family. He’s down for the double slam this year (4×50 milers and 4×100 milers) so is clearly mental although he feels the same about my plans to run a marathon on Monday.

We’re chipping along well and the horrible section through Reading seems almost pleasant with company and without 90 miles in the legs when run on the A100. Occasionally I check pace and see we’re making 12min/miles easily. Race pace for Monday when I pace the 5h15 runners. Seems achievable.

We stick together through Wallingford and to Streatley aid station for drop box 2. Beans and cheese necked, extra top, gloves, hat and buff on and he’s ready to go. I’m staring wistfully at the can of Brew Dog beer I’ve been looking forward to all day but now is as appealing as drinking actual dog pee, resolving to leave with volunteers for any thirsty runners following. Jon is keen to get going and I’m just behind but never catch him. The cold as you leave the aid station is striking and I’m shivering in three tops, debating going back to the warmth and dropping. I could run to warm up. Except my legs don’t want to play anymore. Maybe the marathon isn’t going to be OK after all. Time to march.

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Photo courtesy of Kamil Pelikan.

HOT DAY RACE TIP 4 – everyone says it gets cold along the Thames even on a hot day. Laugh at them.  Fools. Pack two extra tops just to humour them. Then be thankful as hell because they weren’t fibbing.

The march takes me to Wallingford at 77 miles and a cute aid station in a rowing club. The volunteer on duty is amazing and berates anyone for staying too long. One runner is refusing to leave and he employs all skills to get the guy out. With 7hrs left for the sub24 and 11 in total we both have time but need to get moving. The next aid station is 6.5miles away. A training run you wouldn’t even notice. Today it seems like an eternity. Why the hell am I doing this again. Ultra running is stupid. The ultimate in delayed satisfaction. With a deep breath I ascend the humongous steps out the aid station and get going.

Dimly I’m aware my right calf has been feeling awful for a while and I can’t really bring my leg forward. As with most ultras I’m wearing calf guards, as much to protect from undergrowth as any medical benefit. Should I take it off? It really feels like it’s squashing my calf. But it could be the only thing holding it together. If I take it off then I might not get back the perfect sock/shoe fit I appear to have. Many experienced runners have told me never to mess with shoes on a race if they’re doing OK so I keep it all on.

Trudging the next 6.5m miles is grim. Think misty fog, dodgy ground to run on making any attempt at a ‘run’ seem futile. The route leaves the river to aid station at Clifton Hampden. It’s up a MASSIVE hill from the river. In and out quick and it’s starting to warm. 6am and already the heat is coming. 15 miles left. Lets get this done before it gets even hotter.

Just along the trail I spy a familiar face, Jon has stopped for a phone call and I’ve caught him up. It’s great to have the company again but even better to learn he’s sorted my transport issues back to Milton Keynes. He lives in Bedford so has re-arranged breakfast plans to drop me home on his journey saving me a massive taxi bill after my lift fell through, which has been weighing on my mind. We’re now 15 miles and an hours drive from home and bed.  The sooner I can get home the sooner I can rest and recover for tomorrows marathon.  Get it done.

Jon is a wonder of motivation and keep me running through to Abingdon. The flatness of the course is mentally hard. In the early stages you force in walk breaks, in the later you force in run breaks as there is little downhill to make it come naturally.  BBR Lou is on the aid station and the “Fuck You Buddy” is as glorious as the motivational half-truths “you look well, keep going”. Coffee and orange segments for me and Jon downs milk supplied by his wife who’s doubtless still reeling having met the sweaty stranger she’s been convinced into giving a lift to.

Time to go. Two five mile sections left. We could walk it and get under the 24hrs for the buckle. There’s an outside chance of sub23 depending on course length (everything has been coming up long so far).  One day I dream of enough pace to get 10 miles done in an hour. Today I’ll settle for more like three hours.

I’m flagging far worse than Jon and he thankfully bullies me around to the next aid station whilst I dream of how nice my bed will feel. I also wonder what moron decided 145 miles would be a good race to enter when this thing has nearly broken me. The heat is building and I’m back to tipping water over my head at aid stations. It’s still early morning. I pity anyone with big miles still to come, battered by another relentless sun.

Walking out the aid station ahead of Jon I can’t really run anymore so need a headstart. I presume he scored some quality illicit drugs as he catches me and goes past. I can’t keep up anymore. He needs to get his sub23. I’m just aiming for the sub24.  5 miles left and 2h15 to break the 24hr. Lets ignore the calf that screams at me and go.

As the miles pass the confusing series of distances the last marshal gave are playing in my head. 2km to a lock, then was it 1.5km to a bridge? After that it was 1800 to the finish.  1800 what?  1800 swans?  1800 steps? 1800 yards? How many feet in a yard? (depends how many people are standing in it would have been my Dad’s answer). Probably he meant metres, so a bit over a mile. A mile from the bridge. Here’s a bridge. One mile to go. I could just about go sub 23hr.  A nice trio of sub 23hr results. Here’s another bridge. Is it one mile from here of the last one? Or the next one? WHY ARE THERE SO MANY BLOODY BRIDGES!!!!

All to my left is empty fields. To the right is the Thames and Oxford (and lots of bridges). Where is the finish?!  Finally I see a group on the tow path ahead and see the welcome inflatable arch through the trees. It’s over, 22h51m. Sub 23hr again but to still be 61st finisher out of 314 shows how brutal the race has been.

Cheered over the line I’m congratulated by Stuart who I first met at SDW50 and handed the buckle. After numerous attempts at phrasing the simple question of “What size t-shirt” I realised what he’s on about and collapse in a chair next to Jon and roll down my calf sleeve.  It feels solid and inflamed and sore to the touch. When I walk to the car I realise I can’t really put weight on it as the foot won’t straighten out. I suspect I’ve properly buggered my calf and will be supporting from the sidelines tomorrow.  25 hours is not enough time to grow a new leg. Read how the MK marathon went here.

Final timings against the laughable plan.  Pleased to have held a consistent rank throughout.

Walton on Thames (12) Cookham (38) Henley (51) Streatley (71) Clifton Hampden (85) Oxford (100)
Time 01:54:31 07:06:01 10:03:43 15:13:03 19:16:57 22:51:42
RANK: 68 RANK:75 RANK: 73 RANK: 61 RANK: 62 RANK: 61
Planned 01:39:00 06:09:00 08:45:00 12:58:00 16:00:00 19:58:00
Behind 00:15:31 00:57:01 01:18:43 02:15:03 03:16:57 02:53:42
Pace (min/mile) 00:09:33 00:11:13 00:11:50 00:12:52 00:13:37 00:13:43

MK Marathon 2018 – It Ain’t Half Hot Mum!

I’ve run MK marathon every year so had to keep the streak going (there’s a hardened club of ever-presents all fighting it out to be the last one standing, Highlander style but with less beheading). Unfortunately I also wanted to run the Thames Path 100 miler which is always the same weekend. Could I manage to bang out a 100 mile race, rest for 24hrs then make my way around a marathon? Only one way to find out.

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All set!

Original plan was to use the full 6h30 allowed for a finish and just get around. Then I was offered a last minute pacer spot due to someone dropping out. I’ve always fancied a go at pacing and wanted to help out my local marathon. Would 5h15 be possible on trashed legs? Only one way to find out.

TP100 went well and I finished under 23hrs (read here for the full account). By 11am Sunday I was back home, showered and in bed. I had to crawl upstairs. My right calf was so knotted I couldn’t put my foot down. It looked doubtful I could even walk the distance. Sometime in the afternoon I realised for the first time in my life I might have to suffer a DNS (Did Not Start) and would be letting down the runners.  With liberal application of deep heat and some painkillers I walked up the shops to get food.  It wasn’t pretty but I could walk.  Rest of day was spent rehydrating and dozing on sofa.  I ordered a massive pizza for dinner. I ate two slices and fell asleep.

Monday 6am I awoke as body had caught up on sleep. Laying in bed I stretched out legs and they all seemed present and correct. So I tried to stand. Everything from the chest up ached. I’d spent a day getting out of bed or off the sofa by basically throwing my head and hoping the body would follow since my legs couldn’t manage without assistance. Now I was paying the price. Running kit (slowly) put on, I took dogface for a long walk in the comparative cool and tried some light running. It wasn’t too bad so grabbed some cold pizza for breakfast and jumped in the car with Dave Lewis to make the start and pick up my pace gear.

The legendary Steve Edwards was pacing and running in just the pacers bib to keep cooler. An inspired idea I copied and was thankful for as the temps rapidly rose from ‘mmm lovely spring sunshine’ to ‘oh my God has the route been diverted to the Sahara desert?’.

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An expertly trained and motivated group of runners. Only one is likely to fuel with beer and let the side down.

After congregating for a group photo we assembled in start pens for the runners to find. As the green wave set off (about 20mins after the first pen) I had half a dozen with me. Let’s try not to let them down now legs. I’ve asked a lot of you yesterday but let’s manage a recovery run. Thoughts flitted from “5h15 is nearly 2hrs slower than my normal pace, this’ll be easy” to “My knees don’t seem to bend and I needed help to get out the chair earlier. My first marathon was barely quicker than this. How was this ever a good idea?!”

The first few miles were an effort to run and constantly check pace. 5h15 is 12 minutes miles so the numbers were easy but getting the pace bang on was tricky and took some time to settle in. I was about 25 secs ahead by mile 5, trying to adjust pace for the inclines. Having been left for dust by the pacer at a recent half marathon, I was conscious that 5 seconds a mile faster than planned may be too much for the runners with me so I worked hard to drop back down, aiming to hit each mile marker closer.

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Started with iced water. Water!

Gradually the gap narrowed but I still lost people to the heat. Today was not a day for PBs and it became a cycle of picking up runners, trying to motivate them to stay but inevitably losing them again. Most runners have gold, silver and bronze targets for races. Doubtless many I passed had 4h45 as the main goal, 5h as the fall back and 5h15 as the absolute must beat target so often my bouncing balloon heading past was greeted with muffled curse words.  I bumped into Dave again and we ran together through Woolstone and he relayed the detailed refreshment strategy he had of his better half Laura waiting for him on course with beer.  It sounded good.  My wife and kids were away for the weekend. How would I secure some beer?

For many miles I ran with local runner Tom, running his first marathon and he looked strong before a loo break and stop to greet his girlfriend just before halfway held him up. I went through the time for the HM on 2h36, a minute ahead of pace so took the opportunity of some spare time at mile 14 to relieve club-mate Chris of half a cider as we passed the Ship Ashore at Willen. It tasted amazing.

The back half of the race was much of the same, passing many runners and offering advice, encouragement or support where able. The locals were out with their hoses and orange segments and it was great to see the community spirit and real difference they were making.

At mile 21 I spied Laura and managed to beg one of Dave’s ice cold beers (thanks for driving this morning, I’ve stolen one of your beers) which spurred me on to the finish, trying my best to drag as many people with me as possible. One guy in a wolf costume was doing an amazing pace considering those comparatively naked were struggling to match him in the heat.

Again people came and went, pulling up at the small inclines with agonising grimaces. Offers of salt tablets to help with the cramp were refused though. I’d make a rubbish drug dealer if I can’t even give stuff away.

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Lost my balloon, lost my runners. Looking for my next beer.

At mile 24 I was basically on my own again and left to keep the pace going to finish 5h14m.

Well done to anyone that finished the marathon or half, conditions were tough and even some of the pacers running well within themselves struggled to get their target times. If like many I chatted to this was your first, then enjoy the medal and come back next year, they’re not all this hot!

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Done, found a beer!

10 minutes after finishing I was refreshing with another beer before joining club mates Neil and Jon in the terrace bar to watch the rest of the runners and drink some more. Then went home to dinner of cold pizza. Basically I’ve eaten pizza for three straight meals. I may be undermining my image as a pro athlete.

Back again next year for number 8!

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And some more beer.

April – Time to train for TP100

March was an odd month as recounted here. I should have been ramping up the mileage but was enjoying some newly discovered speed and managed to follow my February HM PB with a marathon PB and briefly get a GFA for London.  It seemed worth sacrificing a bit of endurance training to net that GFA. Then London went and moved the goalposts which resulted in my grumbling on this topic, and my most views of the site ever.  Seems people like to listen to me whine.  I must tell the wife.

Come April and I need to take the forthcoming Thames Path 100 mile race seriously. Unfortunately I was on holiday in Florida so for the first week of it I barely broke 6 miles in the heat and humidity.  My longest run was “Earth Day 12k” race on my final morning in the States. A flat 12k loop of the local lake. I surprised myself by coming 4th, winning my age category and an average pace of 6:49min/mile. Good for ego coming straight after a parkrun PB in Florida as well, but bad for the ultra training.

Getting back left me with 4 weeks before TP100 and only 40 miles for the first week of April. Time for intense training.

T-4 weeks – 79 miles – Despite goal of big miles I couldn’t resist trying the 6:40 session with Redway and managed 6:45 average for 4 miles. After that it was run at every opportunity and keep the legs tired so they could get used to operating when achey.  Managed a parkrun with the dog who went from ‘so keen to run she broke the harness’ to ‘let’s sniff every bloody tree’ and finished Sunday with a nice round 20 miler for the week.

T-3 weeks – 90 Miles – Probably my highest mileage training week ever, finished with a final long run of 22.6 miles in the heat of the early Sunday morning in Milton Keynes. This was London Marathon day and for once I was glad to be pootling around the local paths rather than racing for a time in the heat of London. Turns out it was the hottest London Marathon ever and even hardened clubmates saw their finish times anything up to 30 minutes adrift of their goal. It wasn’t just the heat, but that most UK runners had been training in sub-zero weather with countless 20 mile and HM snowed off to interrupt training further.  The less seasoned runners were pitifully underprepared and twitter seemed to be awash with people laying their kit out the night before, resplendent with jackets, hats and gloves.

For me the week was about getting miles in where able. 9pm, 10pm solo runs to tire legs before longer efforts the next day and make up for lack of opportunity for longer runs. Mostly 11-14 miles with the final 22.6 to round up.  Legs felt fine except when I tried to get some pace on at the MK parkrun midway through an 11 miler and they politely told me to do one and I jogged it around.

T-2 weeks – 50 miles – Start of a taper of sorts. Booked onto the Big Bear Events 6hr trail run at Salcey Forest on Tuesday. A newly set up race organiser they made a very slick job of the whole operation. I figured a solid 6hr run would be a good final shakedown of kit and food. Plan was to take as much of the 6hrs as able and run it as planned for the 100 miler, so hit marathon a little over 4hrs and then see how much further I could run, all whilst taking time to eat and drink from the aid stations. The reality was I set off too fast and lead the first lap, before reigning myself in. Headphones went flat after a couple of hours so I started to get bored. Then watch warned of low battery despite charging all night. Add in the knackered legs from a big week and these seemed like signs to call it a day earlier than planned. The course was coming up a little long so had to push on the final two laps to finish the marathon (at 27.7miles) in 3h55m. Going home with beer and medal I resolved to run the Bow Brickhill session on Wednesday morning on ‘marathon fresh’ legs to make up for the lack of miles. It wasn’t pretty. Rest of the week I kept it fairly light as start of taper and Sunday was spent undergoing my Leader in Running Fitness course so I can go shout at runners at the club and they have to do what I say!

T-1 week – Proper taper week. About 10 miles.

Three run of just over 30mins, two slow, one was a slight effort at the 6:40 session. I even for the first time since I started in two years, skipped the Bow Brickhill session.

It’s now Saturday and I’m on the train into London. In a little over 3hrs I shall be on the start line of Thames Path 100 on what is expected to be one of the hottest days of the year.