The Canalathon 50K 2016

After doing the London Marathon I’d started to think that doing an ultra marathon at the end of 2016 might be a good idea, eventually though I decided to go for one a little sooner – the 50K route of Canalathon in March 2016. Once my races for 2015 were over I started my training for the ultra marathon by going for another run streak for Advent Running. This time I managed just over 150 miles in 21 days, but due to feeling ill I didn’t quite make it to the end of the planned 24 days.

Training

My training plan was based around a training plan to get a better marathon time, but with an extra run, and turning the shorter of my weekend runs into a longer one. What this meant would be that I’d continue working on speed, but also getting an increasing number of miles in each week. As this plan evolved I soon found that to achieve what I wanted to, I would likely have had to have started a month earlier than I had done.

During the December of 2015 I tried advent running again and pushed hard to make sure I was getting 50 miles a week across my runs. Towards the end of the running streak though I had to cut it short due to getting stomach aches in the last couple of runs. In the New Year I resumed the normal aspect of training and soon set myself a new 10K PB whilst working on speed, and then again two weeks later. Before January was over I’d already done longer runs than I would have for this point of marathon training, but I hadn’t got in as many runs as planned.

I felt the reduction from 5 to 4 runs per week was beneficial though as it meant I could put more effort into the speed work (which would benefit the marathon I’d be doing 2 weeks after the ultra) and wouldn’t be as tired for the back-to-back long runs over the weekends. For the most part this training went as planned, though I changed plans as I went to suit how training was going and soon found that I was going faster than I needed to. At the start of February I found that I could run 16.5 miles in less than two hours, and then even with the planned long walking breaks was getting in reasonable times. I wasn’t going to push myself to complete this ultra marathon fast though.

The best pace is suicide pace, and today is a good day to die.

— Steve Prefontaine, Ultra marathon runner

At the end of February though I finally got to marathon distance in training and then decided to repeat that again two weeks later. I felt if I could run two marathons a fortnight apart then I’d be ready for the ultra, and for the marathons that follow it. In between those two weekends I also should have run Coventry’s Half Marathon – but unfortunately I caught a flu virus a few days before that had been going around the office. This took me out of training completely for almost a week and even a week later when I did the MK Festival of Running Half Marathon I was still feeling it’s effects. This left me questioning  how capable I was of running this race, and I postponed my second marathon distance run by a week to try and build some confidence back.

Once I did it though it exceeded expectations, bringing back confidence that I could still do Canalathon following being ill. After this I then spent the final 13 days doing little running, and even missed a tempo training session. Potentially though it may have had some positives in making sure they were not too worn out for race day. If you get maranoia for a marathon do you get ultra maranoia for an ultra marathon?

The Kit

This being my first Ultra Marathon, it was my first race that had a required kit list. Most of the kit seemed to be geared towards being ready for whatever conditions might be thrown at us on the day and to be as safe as possible. For this race, to cover the requirements I went with:Salomon Agile 7

  • Salomon Agile² 7 Backpack with whistle, and 2l reservoir
  • Technicals waterproof jacket
  • Peter Storm waterproof trousers
  • Unilite PS-H8 headtorch with new batteries
  • Hat and gloves
  • Spare top
  • Fully charged mobile phone with RO and ICE numbers
  • Emergency food – pretzels and jelly babies
  • SI Timing card

The entry notes detailed that failure to carry the above at all times would lead to disqualification. The backpack is one I left until almost a month before the race day, but it was still enough time to get used to it before race day on some 10+ mile runs. For those looking for a small light-weight backpack I do recommend the Salomon Agile² 7 as it’s incredibly comfortable and most of the time I didn’t really notice it. Be aware however that the reservoir is not included and has to be bought separately, and does not have a front-facing pouch for fuel.

 

Pre-race

The day before the race meant a long drive up to Halifax where I’d be staying the night before the race. Due to poor planning on my part I first needed to drive 2 hours south to Slough for a tour of the studio where they filmed Thunderbirds before driving just over 4 hours north. To manage this I was on the road by 07:00 and by the time I was checked into my hotel in Halifax I’d done about 6.5 hours of driving, and 2.5 hours of standing around during a tour.

There were a few people I know from #ukrunchat who were doing this race too so there was the possibility of meeting up for an evening meal. In the end there were four of us that went to Temujin, a Mongolian stir fry restaurant. As I’ll be in Mongolia in a couple of months time it almost felt like this was research for that, but I doubt what they eat there is actually the same. It was quite a filling meal and I’d possibly eaten too much by the time I was done – I’d had meatballs for a starter, two bowls of stir fry, and then a mini egg cheesecake. Not quite what I’d normally eat the night before a race.

Back at the hotel I decided on an early night as the shower there didn’t work, though that plan soon went out the window. It turned out that my room backed onto the pub and there was noise from that until about 01:00 and then noise from the septic tank’s pump frequently after that.

 

Race Day

The day of the ultra marathon had arrived.  I’d pre-paid for the bus to the start line so had to be at the Sowerby Bridge Leisure Centre between 06:30 and 07:10 to register and be on the bus. A downside to this though was it was the start of British Summer Time, so had put the clocks forward an hour. This on top of barely sleeping didn’t help.

I met up with @DavidNFLF1, @_jen_mo and @SamABaxter again and left my car parked outside their AirBNB place, walking with them to the registration at the leisure centre. Oddly they gave us the finishers tee and medal at the start! None of us had bags with us, but we were at least able to leave these at the leisure centre to collect later.

Once on the bus it then headed to the start in Manchester – what took an hour by coach we’d soon be running, following the Rochdale Canal to the finish in Sowerby Bridge.

Canalathon 50K 2016 course map

It was cold standing around waiting for the race to start but we had just enough time to get a group photo before we had to assemble in the car park at the start line.

At the start I soon realised I’d forgotten to turn my watch on ready, so I made sure I was pretty much the last person to cross the start matt. Whilst we were doing the lap of the car park I was desperately hoping it’d get a signal – which it did just before we reached a bottleneck at the entrance to the canal. On my way out of Manchester I wished @_jen_mo and @DavidNFLF1 luck as I left them, and started to settle into a comfortable pace – the sort of pace I’d be hoping to run the Greater Manchester Marathon in, and the same as what I’d been doing in training.

Before Canalathon 50K

By what I think was mile 4 I was almost at the front of the pack somehow, though the leaders soon changed when a mistake was made as it wasn’t clear we were going to leave the canal path and take a footbridge over the road to eventually rejoin the canal further down. By the time we hit the next mile I was running alongside the two guys in first place and second place. Though surprisingly the one in second place dashed off into the bushes moments later and I don’t think I saw him again after that.

The miles ticked by and as we passed groups of people on bridges we were getting massive cheers, possibly as we were the first runners through, though I hope those behind got just as enthusiastic cheers, if not more so! As we continued there were miles where I was in the lead, and miles where he was in the lead. It seemed easier to have someone in front of you to set the pace which is why I think we kept switching places.

At mile 10 the other guy stopped at the aid station so I left him behind for a few miles, but eventually he caught back up. At mile 12.5(ish) we saw our first runner in the opposite direction, heading to Manchester from Sowerby Bridge – the halfway point for the 100K runners.

Canalathon 27 March 2016

At mile 13 I paused briefly to get a stone out my shoe as it was rubbing against the side of my foot, but was then back running level with the guy I’d run so many miles with. At around mile 14.5 my stomach started to feel off – I needed the loo, but thought I could keep on going at a slower pace until I came across a pub or something. To try and settle it I dropped my pace still further and eventually started taking walking breaks due to the discomfort. By mile 16 it had felt like I’d walked the majority of a mile, but then it started to rain.

“The 10K is a race. The marathon is an experience. The ultra is an adventure.”

— Bryan Hacker

The rain started to get heavier and eventually became torrential – at that point I was already walking so decided to get my waterproof jacket from my backpack. If I’d still been in 2nd place by this point I would probably have kept going and ignored the rain, but as I wasn’t, and as I had it, I figured I may as well attempt to stay dry. By mile 18 I’d done so much walking, and had been overtaken a lot, but the marshal I saw around this time told me I was in 12th place. Didn’t seem too bad considering!

As the next few miles went on I walked for longer and longer breaks. At mile 20.5 the route left the canal behind for the start of a diversion, and the second of the aid stations. I asked one of the people manning the station if there was a public washroom nearby and was told there wasn’t. Resigned to struggle through the next 10 or so miles I carried on along Rochdale Road, and through the town of Todmorden. I saw a pub so crossed the road, but found it was closed. Back on the other side of the road I spotted a Morrisons, but that too was closed.

At a roundabout I then crossed the road and carried straight on as I couldn’t see any runners about. The route then started to go up hill and I questioned if I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere as we’d been told it was flat. Before I could figure it out though I spotted that the Wetherspoons I’d passed was open so nipped in and used their facilities. I took this as a short break to also check out the map online to see where I’d gone wrong and to tweet. Fortunately I hadn’t made that catastrophic a mistake – I’d just taken the wrong exit off that last roundabout. I did notice though that my watch had paused due to inactivity so as far as my splits were concerned I hadn’t lost time. I had however, beyond a doubt, lost a number of positions.

“You’ll be wistful for the “wall” of the marathon, when you hit the “death grip” of the ultra.”

— Bob Glover

After starting back I found it difficult to get going with any sort of rhythm again, the forced walking and stop had taken it from me. Though equally I did stop a few times to see where I was, and if I could see any other runners as the road I was on went on and on and seemed to never end. Eventually though I did come across the turning back onto the canal we’d been told about and all was good. The section had the Rochdale Canal on one side, and the River Calder on the other – a very picturesque area! I did stop for a few photographs over the next few miles, though I also took a lot of walking breaks as it felt like I’d just completely lost it. I didn’t know where I was placed at this point, and whilst I didn’t really care I couldn’t help but wonder.

Mile after mile passed by and it had become extremely rare to see another runner. However I did come across quite a few walkers that were covering the entire width of the path that I had to ask if I could pass them a few times. Eventually I got to mile 26.2 – the point that I’d been training to and knew that I’d got another 5 miles to go. There was however an aid station around here too and I stopped again to have a couple of cups of water.

My fuelling strategy had been to eat one jelly baby per mile from mile 8 onwards, though I’d missed quite a few of them out due to the stomach ache so was aware I’d been under-fuelling and had eaten some pretzels I’d got in my other pocket. This was a mistake – whilst I thought their saltiness would help I hadn’t thought about how dry they’d be and it meant I’d started using the very little water I’d got in my bladder at mile 21 which was earlier than intended.

Once I’d finished drinking at the aid station (I should probably have tried some of the food!) I then had to wait about a minute for the traffic to calm before I could cross over and continue along the canal. Before I knew it I’d hit mile 27 – I was now in unfamiliar territory and had run farther then I had ever done before (okay, with walking breaks, but still). Every step now was taking me closer to the finish and I was starting to feel confident that I could finish.

I tried to keep running for more bits than I had over the past 10 miles and it helped to make this time pass by quicker. I did get stopped twice though – once by some walkers asking where I’d run from and was running to, and then about a mile later by two cyclists looking for Mytholmroyd. When I got going again I noticed behind me I could see some runners in the distance and I used this to keep pushing me forward. I then noticed one of the old-fashioned stone mile markers saying there were only 2 miles to go to Sowerby Bridge. The end was nigh!

Although I was still taking walking breaks, I did try to push on as often as I could and eventually I saw a crowd of people ahead cheering. I thanked them as I passed and kept on going – and a few seconds later someone let me know I’d finished. I hadn’t spotted that this was the finish, so never got to have one last hard push at the end!

So that was it over, my first ultra marathon. Whilst only a 50K, it’d been tough and with challenges, but I’d done it. Whether I try another ultra marathon in the future is still to be determined but for now I’m happy that this one is over; now I can now look forward to the Greater Manchester Marathon, and Brighton Marathon in the coming weeks.

After the race I met up with @DavidNFLF1 who had finished 5 minutes after me. His race had gone according to plan – with walks and fuelling in the places he’d wanted. From there we took an easy walk back to the leisure centre to collect our medals and finishers tee, and spoke to other runners we knew before parting ways. Just in time before a heavy hailstorm and thunderstorm hit the area.

By the time I got home it was noticed that I had been in second place – sadly this wasn’t up-to-date and eventually changed to show that I had finished in 29th place (11th in age category) with a time of 4:45:59.4. I hadn’t lost as many places as it had felt, and I still managed to finish with what I guess wasn’t too bad a time.

MK Festival of Running Half Marathon 2016

I had planned to start the year with Coventry’s Half Marathon, but due to having the flu I didn’t manage to run it. Instead, at short notice, I decided to run the MK Half Marathon a week later. I knew it wouldn’t be a PB, and it’d be a case of just trying to get around as I still wasn’t 100%, but it was a good way to make sure I pushed myself back into ultra marathon training. As a test to see how my legs were doing I went for a 3.5 mile run the day before, but it wasn’t looking good.

On the day of the race I took my time getting ready, and even had to scrape the ice from my car windows before heading out. I’d not even planned ahead and got my race kit ready, or put air in my tyres, or got some petrol. It felt like I was doing this just to make sure I still could.

When I got there I found that I was able to park on the street and take a short walk to Xscape where the registration was. There were a lot of people about and not long after I got there the 20 mile race started. Once I’d picked up my race number I started to wander around and looked for some fellow #ukrunchat runners. Sadly I never did find any, and whilst standing around in the cold weather I found myself coughing. Oddly the start for each race was a slightly different place, even though the start times were different – it could be something to do with the routes they’d been able to use, but it was amusing to watch them rush to move the timing mats between race starts. For the half marathon there were enough running to warrant two waves – one wave for sub-2hrs, and one for those that would finish after this. I figured that even with me struggling to run I’d probably still be under 2 hours so queued up near the 100 minute pacer.

The gun was fired and the race began, and already I was feeling negative about the run. I decided the best thing I could do would be to not look at my watch and just run at whatever felt comfortable. If any point I started to feel ill I could drop back and take it easy. There was no pressure to do well, and I’d gone into this expecting it’d be difficult to just finish. After about 5 minutes I started to fall into a rhythm and all felt good – I just ran and didn’t really pay as much attention as I should to what was around me. I was aware of the other runners, and the route, but I was totally oblivious to where the route was taking us.

After a while I realised I was running alongside the 90 minute pacer, something I probably would have aimed to do had I been going for a PB. For a time I ran alongside him, but when we went through a village he either dropped back or I sped up. At this point I thought the pacer must be a little off his target time, so I looked at my watch and realised that I was actually going at the sort of pace I had when I set my most recent 10 mile PB. I did my best to ignore this and just kept on running and soon found that we were running across a gravel path through a park. I’m not keen on gravel, and I always feel that running on it expends energy quicker than a more solid surface would.

A little after this I started to cough and found myself unable to catch my breath – I had to slow to a walk to finish coughing, and was then hindered by a running nose as well. It was my legs that should have been running – not my nose! From this point on I found myself having to slow to a walk frequently to either blow my nose or cough – and I was only a little over 4 miles into the race!

The frequency of how often I was having to walk was starting to take it’s toll. It felt like I was never going to finish and I started to question whether or not I’d be able to do an ultra marathon in 3 weeks time. Though I was also questioning whether or not I’d be able to run a marathon next weekend for training, or even manage to hold my planned pace for the upcoming Greater Manchester Marathon. It was thinking of those targets that did make me keep going though, no matter how mentally challenging it was becoming.

The route eventually looped back to an earlier part of the course and continued along this same route for some time, going back over the gravel path in the park and under bridges until eventually the route veered back off onto a new part of the course. This included a hill – one which it was possible to see people running up from a distance and I thought to myself that hill looks so crazy it can’t be part of the course – it’s probably just a few people practising hill sprints. No. It was part of the course! I ran up half the hill, but then started walking – thinking to myself there was no point in pushing too hard as I’d already messed up the rest of the race anyway.

It was sometime around here where we had to cross the first cattle grid and I found it surprising that it wasn’t covered over. Every time I’ve encountered cattle grids on previous races they had been covered over with wood for safety. As I approached I saw other runners were slowing to a walk and carefully crossing them – something I’d have been annoyed at had I been going for a PB attempt. I followed the others and walked across it, but when I then encountered another shortly after I decided I’d run across it instead – surely it was just paranoia with the first one. However that was not the case – crossing this one I tripped, but somehow managed to avoid face-planting and kept on running.

Eventually a sign appeared that said 500 metres remaining! My thoughts turned to:

“500 metres? That’s not far – I could sprint that. No wait, that’s half a kilometre. Though that’s less than half a mile. Oh, I can’t think right now, just keep moving legs – you’ve failed me this far but not this last bit!”

I did keep running and managed a bit of speed to finish with, though the coughing fit afterwards probably indicated that wasn’t a brilliant idea. Looking at my watch though I had finished in 99:27. It was one of my worst ever times for a half, and I hadn’t even done it that slowly in training for quite some time. The only solace I could take from it was that I’d finished ahead of the 100 minute pacer, and I had actually finished.

Once the official results were out I found I’d finished with an official chip time of 1:39:25 placing me 243rd out of 1,556 finishers. I guess finishing in the first 16% of half marathon finishers isn’t really that bad going whist ill.

I went into this race “knowing” I’d do badly, and sure enough I had. Or at least in my mind I had, and for some reason I was still disappointed with myself despite that expectation. It did however make me determined that over the next week I’d push as hard as I can to try and have a strong finish to ultra marathon training. I feel I’ve got unfinished business here now and hope to be back in 2017 for a better attempt at the half marathon.