This ultramarathon has been on my list of races to do for some years, ever since I read about it in James Adam’s blog. It was the first ultra he ran and features the left turn at Bulls Bridge off the Grand Union Canal to Paddington which became so significant for him in later years when he ran in the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles from Birmingham to London – don’t think I’ll be entering that in a hurry).
After hanging up my wheels at the end of October I’d built my running and joined a Christmas advent running challenge, running at least 8km every day, to a total of 464km in December. Doing quite this much running was tiring, but it had all been just steady, with one hard session a week (a cross country race or orienteering event). I managed to keep the “dead leg” problem I’d had in the past under control, mostly with a lot of stretching in the evenings and wearing compression sleeves while out running. I was managing to get out for a long run most Wednesday mornings, something between 30 and 40km.
The day before the race Ralph Dadswell contacted me (I knew he was running the race too) to say he was heading out at 55min for the first 10km. He had been carrying a small adductor injury but hoped that it wouldn’t be a factor on the day. 5:30/km pace sounded about right for me and it would be good to have some company over the first half, at least. Ralph had been clocking some quick times over shorter distances lately so I wasn’t sure whether he’d outpace me, or whether my distance work would give me an advantage.
There was a short preamble from the race organiser outside the Shoulder of Mutton race HQ and then 300 of us were off down Wendover High Street for the first right turn at a gate at the bottom – traditionally a bit of a sprint for the faster racers but the rest of us were more circumspect. It was sub-zero, and I was wary of ice on the pavements although we didn’t cross any until much later in the day. The opening kilometres climbed up to the Ridgeway – we were soon powerwalking up the first long hill – but we were keen to keep a good pace on the flatter sections, to keep our average up. Although I had the map book we’d all been provided with in my hand it was good to have Ralph along as he knew the twists and turns. After some frosty views across the Chilterns we dropped down to the first checkpoint and there was a photographer to snap our progress. We were laughing because Ralph’s friend had sprinted off the front of our group to get a good photo.
A quick stop to make sure we’d been registered (my tracker failed though) and then we were off through Chesham and along the Chess Valley Walk. We had a good group here –six or more of us at times, ticking along quite nicely. The route takes a mixture of lanes and footpaths, and there are a few hills to break up the rhythm, now we were following the Chiltern Way. After the CP2 we started to split up a bit and then ran past Elstree Aerodrome. The route dropped down towards Denham and the Grand Union Canal and it was still very sunny, if a little cool.
Around here Ralph started to find the pace a little too much and he waved us on. I was left with a runner in an orange jacket who was metronomic in his pacing once we hit the towpath. I ran with him for about 5km but started to find it a bit much and shortly before CP3 dropped off the pace too. I stopped a bit longer here to re-fill my camelback (and made a bit of a mess of it to be honest), picking up some more GU gels (although I didn’t really like them much –they were a bit gloopy and didn’t seem very digestible).
The rest of the route was all along the canal towpath, very straightforward. I was picking off slower runners every so often, which was a confidence boost, but looking at my heart rate files in retrospect I was probably working a bit too hard here. When I got to the famous left turn at Bulls Bridge I was very relieved – only 13½ miles (22km) left to run. It didn’t seem too much but I was getting tired now and didn’t seem to be passing anyone. The guy in orange eventually disappeared out of sight on a long straight – he finished 17 minutes in front of me in the end but I later found out he ran 7500km last year so I don’t feel too bad about that!
I pulled into CP4, with only 17km left, feeling distinctly jaded. Ralph’s partner Lorraine was here with his two boys. He’d get a change of shoes, but I lingered only enough to dump old gel wrappers and pick up fresh supplies. The canal was getting monotonous now, and I was starting to find myself annoyed with fresh looking joggers out for their afternoon run, although a few of them offered words of encouragement. I was quite relieved to see the last checkpoint come into view. I didn’t really stop – although I’d already had a couple of short walk breaks I thought I’d seize up if I stayed for long, just wanting to get it over with. My quads were dead and my stomach was quite sore and I really needed to get some more energy inside me but it was all I could do to sip my drink. Despite the sunshine we were running on the shady side of the towpath and it was cold.
The last 9km featured quite a few walk breaks. I would manage to shuffle along for a kilometre or so and then be defeated by a shallow bridge over a tributary or a patch of rough ground. I caught and passed one more runner going even more slowly than me but I was in turn being passed by faster finishers. Finally, Paddington Basin came into view. I managed to raise my hands a bit for the camera and it was all over.
Ralph came in only 5 minutes behind me after a strong finish. We shook hands and I attempted to get changed into some clean kit for a shuffle to Marylebone station and the train back to my car in Wendover.
It looks like I got through the race relatively unscathed – a small blister and some stiff hamstrings. I’m expecting to be tired for a week or so and then I’ll crack on with training for London Marathon, 14 weeks away.
Full results HERE