I had never planned for KACR to be on my race calendar this year, the aim had always just been to complete Grand Union Canal and banish the demons from 2018, however after finishing GUCR there was an itch still to scratch….. In truth I had been bitten by the racing bug and felt that I could improve on my performance. My recovery after the race had been so good that within days my thoughts turned to the possibility of running the KACR and whether it would be sensible, or even plausible to give it a go.
Suffice to say that after checking some logistics and being granted the holiday at work I put my name in the hat, and now only 7 weeks later I was stood on the start line of yet another 145 mile race. Keith had asked me the night before at registration what my plans were for the race, and my answer had been one that I always tend to give.. ‘My plan is to get to the finish (Bristol) in one piece.’
Despite expectations this is always my first mantra, and has been throughout my ultra career. In fact in the build up to KACR and even while standing waiting for Dick to start the race I was wondering if I should even be here and wasn’t sure I’d make it to Bristol. The omens prior to the race hadn’t been good, with so many signs that perhaps this was a stupid idea. The final sign was when the trains were cancelled due to extreme heat on Wednesday before the race, I was convinced someone was trying to tell me this was a bad and I should just stay at home in Cumbria and have a run on the fells.
With that all being said I was determined to make a good fist of this and run my own race. I also had another mantra in my head.. ‘Run Happy’, I’m sure those of you reading this know some ultra runners who use this mantra and it’s one that I so often forget myself, but a good friend reminded me of it in the build up to this race and I am very grateful to her for that. Run with a smile on your face Ian and enjoy every moment of it I told myself. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy every moment, but what the hell, anything has to be worth a try, right?
So at 6 am we were off and jogging out of central London on what turned out to be an extremely busy towpath. When we left Birmingham at the start of GUCR we hardly saw a soul, but this stretch of the canal was like the M25, with cyclists and pedestrians on their way to work. I’m not sure who was more surprised, them or us.. although when any did ask us where we were going, you can imagine the response when we said Bristol. I shared some early miles with James Bennett, James Williams and Ellis Rust, before James B disappeared off into the distance. He usually likes to start these races relatively quickly and I was happy to watch him disappear along with Justin Montague. Spencer Millbery (of centurion running fame) popped up along the towpath in those early miles to wish us all good luck and it was good to have a brief chat with him. I almost didn’t recognise him without his white sunglasses on, so it was a good job he was rocking the centurion T-shirt.
Another familiar face in Graeme Boxall (mentioned you this time GB!) was at CP1, which ironically is the same place he’d been at GUCR, because this doubles as the last CP in that race. There was a nice symmetry to this, although if I wasn’t friends with him on FB I would have just thought he’d been here assisting people on the canal since early June. He’s a top bloke like that and it was good to see him. I shouted to him that I would tell his favourite Hammett (Papa H) that he said ‘hi’ when I got to the end.
After that first 13 miles I was settling into a nice steady rhythm and as I left the checkpoint I found myself on my own. Justin and James were some way ahead and I had left my other fellow runners who were unsupported at the checkpoint. I was lucky that my good friend Mark Westbrook had been available to crew me for the race and it was now down to us to get to 70 miles, where another good friend and ultra runner Chris Caimino was waiting to buddy run with me as far as he could.
Mark has looked after me during both Spartathlon’s and is vastly experienced in crewing me so I knew I was in safe hands and the early crew stops went like clockwork. I think at times Mark thought that I had gone off too fast, but he was happy to let me just settle into the race and trusted me not to overcook it early. Subsequently I found out a few people were concerned that I had gone off too fast and was chasing the early leaders too early. I would just like to take this opportunity to assure all of you that I was running well within myself and feeling great, so you didn’t need to worry.
That being said by Slough I had caught up with Justin and we ended up sharing a few miles along the picturesque Jubilee River. The heat was really starting to build now and there seemed to be little or no sign of the showers that we had been promised. The humidity was also high and given that it wasn’t even mid morning I knew it was going to be a hot one. Justin dived into a bush (not literally) for a comfort stop and I was on my own again heading towards Maidenhead.
The next twenty miles or so were very familiar to me as we joined the Thames Path to head to Reading. I had fond memories from these miles in 2019, so I felt comfortable. I caught James Bennett just as I reached Maidenhead, but then had a scheduled crew stop with Mark so he pulled away again. I took my time at the stop, ensuring that I was hydrating and eating well before heading off in restrained pursuit. 28 miles was too early to be in the lead and I didn’t want that sort of pressure just yet. Justin wasn’t far behind either and we all seemed very evenly matched for pace over that first thirty miles.
It wasn’t long until I caught James, and he appeared to be struggling a little in the heat. To be fair to him the temperature was hotter than expected and I had even asked Mark if he could pick up some ice lollies for the next crew stop around 35 miles. I chatted to James for while as we shared some miles and then without warning we stumbled across Mark sat by the river. We had arrived in completely the opposite direction from which he expected. Thankfully he had Calippos… which were like a frozen nectar of loveliness… I had two and gave James B one, we also topped up his water as he was unsupported and it was a fair trek to the next aid station. Justin ran past us as we were stood there and I said to James he didn’t have to wait for me, as I just wanted to make sure everything was topped up before leaving. With what was to unfold over the next few miles it was a good job that I did.
Its weird how something as simple as an ice lolly can give you a boost and on a hot day it was godsend. I did get major brain freeze though whilst eating it so quickly. It was just what I needed and as we were about to face the first drama of the day it couldn’t of come at a better time.
Mark was due to meet me at 46 miles as the next crew stop, so I knew that I had 10 miles of running without him. That was fine as I was feeling good and coping with the heat ok. Thankfully despite the rumours, I hadn’t quite lost all my heat tolerance from my move up north and still liked to be warm. I caught and passed James soon after, I checked he was ok, but he said he was and waved me on. I enjoyed the next few miles on the familiar path. I could see Justin up ahead and knew that I could relax in my running. He would be stopping at the next CP anyway, and sure enough as I reached that checkpoint he was just leaving. I quickly topped up my water (thankfully) and left. Justin had forgotten something so headed back to the CP quickly and all of a sudden it was 41 miles and I was in the lead.
I was ok with that though as I thought Justin might catch me when I stopped to see Mark next. I really enjoyed the next five mile stint along the Thames and into Henley. I felt I was running really well and I kept expecting Mark to pop up as I didn’t really know where the crew point was. No matter I would see him soon…. I pushed on and seemed to open up a gap on Justin. Through Henley I was now on my way to Shiplake and Sonning and still I hadn’t seen Mark… I came across a Pub and decided to duck in and use the loo. If there is one thing I learnt at GUCR it was not to hold something in, go when you gotta go.. so I did. I also took the opportunity to freshen up and wash my hands and face. This was something that James Williams and I had joked with Ellis about in the early miles, but I have to hand it to Ellis he was spot on… washing your hands and face made you feel like a new man! Thanks Ellis.
Refreshed I left the pub thinking that Mark must be close… so kept on pushing forwards. I felt even better now after my refresh and the miles began to tick away. I started to realise that I must have missed Mark somewhere, maybe he had been held up, and I just hoped he was ok. It was so unlike him to not be where he was needed. No matter, I had enough food and drink to get me to Reading and I was convinced he would meet me at the Oracle for a refuel. Reading wasn’t far and I knew I could make it. That being said I started rationing my fluids just in case. I was helped by the fact that it had also cooled down a bit and we had even had a rain shower. I think if it had been really hot I would of been in trouble.
Reaching Reading I was confident of seeing Mark… but as I made my way through the town and out the other side he still wasn’t there. For the first time ever in a race I got my phone out and rang him to see where he was. Somehow we had missed each other at the 46 mile crew point (ironically it turns out this was the aforementioned pub that I took a comfort stop in) and then Mark had realised that the traffic was too heavy for him to get into Reading in time to see me… so he made the tough decision of trying to get ahead of me, so he could meet me close to CP4 at 57 miles. He knew that this meant he wouldn’t have seen me for 22 miles but was confident I had been fueling well enough and had enough food to make it.
When he told me he was at 57 miles.. my heart sank a little. I had another 5km to run and had literally about 100ml of fluids and no food. I backed off my pace slightly so as to conserve energy and focused on reaching Mark. I kept my eye out for someone who might be able to offer me water, but typically I seemed to be on the most deserted bit of canal possible. There weren’t even any barges along the banks. After a while I spotted a guy wandering up the path looking like he was returning to a boat with his shopping… I was all prepped to ask him for water when he stopped and put everything on the ground as I approached. I suddenly realised it was Mark… He had carried all the stuff towards me down the canal path after asking at the CP if that was ok, I can honestly say I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy to see my buddy than I was at that time.
I was worried though about dehydration and the fact that I had had to limit my intake over those miles. Hopefully it wouldn’t bite me later in the race. However crisis one was negotiated and we were back on track. In 13 miles I would be meeting Chris and then I would have some company for the rest of the day and hopefully through the night. The next crew stop was more comical as I arrived to find a young child tucking into my punnet of strawberries whilst Mark topped up my bottles and grabbed me another calippo from the nearby shop. This I immediately put down the back of my neck to cool off whilst I refueled on anything else other than strawberries. This child’s mum apologised that he was eating my food, and commented that I wasn’t even out of breath… as you can imagine I found this all a little surreal after 100km of running so just went with it. Roll on 70 miles… I needed some company.
Coming up to 70 miles and meeting Chris was a good marker for me. It was about this time at GUCR that the wheels started to fall off, but I knew that I was in good shape as Chris joined me and we started making our way through Newbury. Chris had kindly agreed to buddy run for as long as he could, in his words ‘I’ll run with you until I think I have become a hinderance rather than a help.’ and boy did he put a shift in. The week before the race I had put out a request on social media to see if anyone could help buddy run with me for a few miles, but sadly had had no luck, with people either being busy or thinking they were too slow to keep up with me. The latter made me chuckle because people must think I am superhuman or something, as with 112km in my legs we were running 10 minute miles at most. No matter it was what it was and we would make do.
Chris proved to be valuable company through the rest of the evening and into the night and we made steady progress towards the 100 mile mark. I was pleased with how I was feeling. I was eating and drinking well and the energy levels were still pretty high. The terrain was starting to become a little more difficult in places and as the light start to fade the canal side foliage seemed to get bigger. This was making progress a little slower, but I was still happy with my overall pacing. At 94 miles it was time for the night gear and headtorch. It had just got dark and luckily Chris had his head torch in his pack which he gave to me so we could cover the last mile or so to the crew stop without issue as the light faded.
The next ten miles were to prove to be the toughest of the whole race. We passed through the 100 mile in a little over 17hrs which was good, although earlier in the day I had thought we’d be closer to 16hrs. Not that it mattered, it had just been a small goal in my brain. It is always nice to tick off the major milestones in a big race, although I seem to remember mumbling to Chris that I wouldn’t be upset if they had moved the finish line to 100 miles. The foliage was continuing to grow as we passed 100 miles and it wasn’t long before we were immersed in some of the most overgrown paths I have ever been on. To make matters worse there had obviously been a downpour and all the plants were soaked, meaning that all my fresh night clothes (that sounds like i put pyjamas on!) were now soaked through.
I was beginning to think we were in an episode of Honey I shrunk the kids, or maybe that we had been teleported into some immense tropical rain forest as frankly the plants were huge. Some were taller than Chris by a good couple of feet and he’s the size of a fully grown human.. unlike little old me! I am not sure what is on the canal banks before Devizes but the jungle we had to fight our way through was ridiculous. It wouldn’t have been amiss to add a machete to the mandatory kit list for this particular section. In fact it took Chris and I, 75 minutes to cover approx 3 miles to the next crew stop at 104 miles, which was quite demoralising. As we approached the crew stop, Mark shouted down from the bridge asking if we needed to come up or if he should come down to the path, I said ‘we’d come up’ as I needed him to look at my head that I had bashed on a low hanging tree in the midst of the jungle….
How did I headbutt a tree I hear you ask, well if I knew that then I would have avoided it wouldn’t I?! as it was I obviously didn’t duck enough and wham… branch hit head. I thought it won’t matter as I had a hat on, however I didn’t have a hat on, just a buff (other head wear available) and my headtorch. So as I reached up to my head it was covered in blood… those bald folk among you know that we lack the protective layer which hair affords our heads and when we bang them, boy do they bleed. To be honest I thought I probably had a concussion and a four inch cut on my head. We patched it up with my arm warmers and spare multipurpose head wear (this wasn’t an official buff) and then Mark gave it a clean at the crew stop. It had made me feel a little fuzzy, but I was ok, I asked Mark if I needed a plaster and his response said it all….. ‘I don’t think we need one mate, it’s the tiniest cut’… So with just my pride dented and no need for a hospital visit Chris and I left 104 miles hoping for no more jungles, bushwhacking or low hanging trees.. I mean as if these races aren’t hard enough.
In complete contrast to the previous miles, the next 9 miles were pure running joy as Chris and I seemed to fly along. We were cranking our the km’s like a metronome, there was little chat other than me just telling Chris each km split. I felt that we were making big progress and I said to Chris I really wanted to get 120 miles before sunrise. We pushed and pushed hard, reaching 113 miles in pretty quick time and having to wake Mark up in the van on our arrival, poor chap had only been able to grab about 40 mins sleep if that.
Quick pit stop and we were on our way towards Avonmouth Aqueduct and 120 miles. Chris had now covered 43 miles with me and he began to mention he didn’t know how much further he could do, but he would give it his all. Mark was also struggling as he had been crewing on his own for the whole race which can be very stressful at times, and he had had limited sleep. These two guys were going above and beyond to help me and I was so grateful. I owed it to them to push as hard as I could and get this race done. Thankfully Dad was going to be waiting for us in Bath at 130 miles and then Mark was due to run with me until the end so that Chris could rest…. Those best laid plans were about to go amiss though. Before that we passed through CP8 and I had the most amazing hug from Dimi Booth who was volunteering there. Hugs make the world go round and this one truly came at a time when I needed it.
We reached the Aqueduct (which is beautiful) just before sunrise and Chris wasn’t sure he could make it to 130 miles. He had just covered 50 at a decent pace and was doing an awesome job keeping up with me, Mark needed sleep and said that he’d need to miss the next crew stop and drive ahead to 130 miles to rest. We were all tired and this is one of the problems of operating with a skeleton crew, they don’t want to let the runner down, but sometimes end up not looking after themselves. Chris said he would try and carry on with me, but in hindsight he should of jumped in the van there and then. He owed me nothing and had given me everything, but still he didn’t want to stop. In hindsight we were all too tired to make good decisions at that point and 3 miles into the next stint it was apparent that I was going to have to leave Chris and head towards Bath on my own.
To add to this, Chris’s phone had stopped working as he had dropped it and smashed the screen in the dark. For only the second time ever in a race (both in this race) I had to get my phone out and make a phone call. I rang Mark and asked him to pick up Chris and then told him to just go to a later crew stop and I would make do. Chris told me he would be ok and not to worry about him, so I ran off heading for Bath and headlong into the second crisis of the race.
I knew that Dad was at 130 miles, and that there was the last Checkpoint so I could refill my bottles and then make a push for the finish if Mark and Chris didn’t make it there. Things were going well until I reached Bath. I remembered that the gpx file had been a little wrong compared to this years race maps, but at the time I remember thinking I won’t be on my own so will be fine. In truth I was fine, until I somehow hallucinated that the canal path was blocked off and that I couldn’t get through… This caused me to run back and forth along the canal, trying to follow a gps that was wrong and then hunting for a way to get around the ‘blockage’.
I was also starting to panic that whoever was in second place was now catching up with me… I didn’t know how to get to the checkpoint and I felt like I was trapped in Bath. How the hell was I going to get to Bristol. I spent 15 minutes looking for a way to get past, finally finding my way back to the canal, only to look to my left and see the place I had been stood, realising that if I had just kept moving for a few hundred metres more along the riverside I would have found my way through the tunnel under the road which wasn’t blocked. What an idiot…..
This really affected me mentally and when I reached CP9 I was a bit broken. Keith was there and asked how it was going to which I responded with ‘Don’t ask’…. After the race Keith told me it was the first time he hadn’t seen me smile at a race, and the CP sheet comment stated ‘ A bit grumpy’ which I think was an understatement. Keith then said my Dad and buddy runner were here… Which confused me as I didn’t expect anyone other than Dad. Mark suddenly popped up round the corner and managed to convince me to come to the crew car to get supplies. Dad was there, and even he realised this was not the time for pictures as I was not in a good place. I tried to explain what had just happened but I couldn’t. I expect I just sounded like a babbling idiot. Mark and Dad did a great job of calming me down and we set off for the final 13 miles, which everyone had told me was now the glory leg.
One of the hardest things about these canal races is when you are in the lead you have absolutely no idea of what is going on behind you. I didn’t know how close 2nd and 3rd were, and we were getting conflicting reports. Everyone was telling me I had plenty of time, but I was anxious anyway. I didn’t believe them and knew that I wasn’t quite mentally as in the game as I had been. Thankfully the next 6 miles were on very runnable track towards Bristol and we made some good progress to where Dad popped up again to replenish supplies before the push to the finish. At this stop a random member of the public asked me if I was here for the fishing. I’m not sure how early morning fishermen usually dress but in my absence of camo gear and or fishing equipment it seemed an odd question. When I replied I was in the middle of a run he just apologised to me. It was very surreal.
Now it was all about making it to the finish and I was starting to accept that I might actually win the race. We had one last overgrown section to negotiate, before it was tarmac and hard gravel path all the way to the end. As we neared the end I asked Mark what had happened to Chris, and it turns out none of us knew.. he had missed Mark at the pick up point and had no phone to call. Mark made the decision to come and help me as he had all the supplies and we had to hope that Chris had managed to walk into Bath and find the checkpoint (which unbeknownst to us he had and was on his way to the finish in the van).
For that last 13 miles I couldn’t stop checking behind me, expecting to see Justin, or James closing in on me. The field for KACR had been stacked with great runners and I was sure one of them was going to catch me. Thankfully after what seemed forever the finish appeared in front of me before anyone appeared behind me.. one last push and we were there, crossing the line in 26:30:01 for the third fastest time ever. I bent over and put my hands on my knees and just asked everyone ‘Please tell me we are in Bristol?’, thank goodness there was a positive response…
At one point during the race I had really felt like I could break Paul Beechey’s course record (which I believe was set from Bristol to London) but in the end after my little meltdown in Bath and the Bushwhacking jungle section it wasn’t to be. However I was super happy with the time and I’d hit my target of running quicker than at GUCR.
So that is two out of three Canalslam races complete, one first place, and one second place (1st Male), and there is one race to go….. I haven’t entered LLCR yet, but maybe I should to try and complete the slam, after all that was my ultimate goal in 2018 when I DNF’d GUCR…….. I have until 31st July to decide… What do you think?
Finally I want to say a huge thank you to both Mark and Chris for everything they did to support me to achieve this win. I truly couldn’t of done it without them and I am forever grateful for the help they gave me. I also want to say a huge thanks to Keith, Dick and all the lovely volunteers, and to apologise to those lovely volunteers at CP9 who I didn’t thank on the day. You all did an amazing job.
Finally a huge thanks to Papa H for supporting me at the end, it means a lot to be able to share my success with you at the finish line, and an apology to my mother for running too quickly so that you couldn’t join Dad in Bristol and Bath as a 3:30am start was just too ridiculous.
Now I am left with the decision…. LLCR or not?! watch this space to find out………
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LLCR do it!