The ‘Canalslam’, 3 races comprising of GUCR 145, KACR 145 and the last leg, the LLCR 130. Having successfully completed the first two legs I would have been mad not to sign up, to try and complete the triple crown. As many friends told me….. ‘it was a no brainer’.
What those friends and I didn’t realise was the toll that the first two races had taken on me both physically and mentally. Following the euphoria of winning KACR, my attention quickly turned to LLCR and the possibility of finishing what I had accidentally started…. In 2018 it had been my intention to conquer the slam, then I had fallen at the first hurdle, and 2022 had only been about completing the GUCR. In fact I had planned to run Ultra Tour of Skiddaw on the BH weekend, but I soon shelved plans for that and put my name in the hat for LLCR.
With 3 weeks to go until LLCR I was suddenly beginning to realise the challenge that lay ahead of me, and was having serious doubts about my physical and mental ability to cope with another long race. Anyone who has tried to tackle a slam before knows the demands it places on the body and as well as being fatigued, those general niggles weren’t disappearing. Getting out for even a short jog was a challenge, both mentally and physically and as the raced neared I just felt more and more tired.
Being Bank holiday weekend I was also struggling to get crew, all the usual suspects were busy and I was beginning to wonder if I would even make the start line. I had this exact same feeling before KACR though, and that turned out relatively well so I just had to trust the process. Luckily a random text from a friend (Lorna) two weeks before the event saved the day, and she offered to crew me for the whole race. I don’t think Lorna knew at the time what she was letting herself in for, but I was hugely grateful. My good buddy Chris also offered to buddy run with me again, as he had at KACR, and I knew that this would make all the difference to me.
One thing I was struggling to deal with in the build up was the pressure of expectation, not my own, but that of others. Mentally I was questioning if I could make the end and complete the slam, but in other peoples opinions I was a dead cert for the win. Whilst it is a massive compliment for people to have such faith in you, that faith can add huge pressure, and alongside the general fatigue and malaise I was feeling it was difficult at times to deal with. I didn’t want to let anyone down, and wanted to live up to their expectations, but running 130 miles is no simple task, let alone doing it after completing two 145 mile races already. There was even a deal at work that if I somehow managed to break the course record (and subsequently the slam record) then James would bake me some cake….. This was big pressure, one because James rarely bakes and two because the rehab team at Jubilee House love cake!
Despite the build up I was relieved to finally arrive in Liverpool two days before the race so that I could relax and just have some of my own head space. I wandered around the docks, took in some of the culture and basically just chilled out ahead of what was sure to be a challenging race. The entry list was once again filled with some very competitive runners and I knew that I was going to have to perform really well to finish let alone be in with a chance of winning. In all honesty I expected Mark Denby to win at a canter and that I would maybe be challenging for the podium alongside James Bennett, and Brian Robb (Warwickshire Ring Winner). There could easily have been others in that list as well who may have been tackling a challenge such as this for the first time.
Lorna arrived in Liverpool the night before the race, and when I was talking her through my kit and what I needed, was saying things like ‘Oh god if you don’t win, it’ll all be my fault.’ and ‘So this is the difference between those who compete and those who just blag it’. I reassured her that it wouldn’t be her fault if I didn’t win, and that I was just hugely grateful for her help. I also reminded her that there was no pressure, just turn up when you can and make sure that she got some sleep if needed.
The next morning we all gathered on Old Hall Street and listened to a rousing speech from Dick Kearn, who reminded us to look after ourselves and not kill ourselves out there. Good luck hugs between crews and runners were exchanged and then without further ado we were off and running. This route promised to be the most scenic of the three, and leaving Liverpool was a big improvement on the departure from both Birmingham and London.
I shared some early miles with Nick Gkikas, and we chatted away about how our years had been and life in general. Nick kept telling me I could speed up if I wanted but I was happy to just tick along and take my mind off some of the niggles that were still lurking in the background. Mark Denby, James Bennett and Brian Robb had disappeared off into the distance along with one other runner whom I didn’t know. This had been exactly what I was expecting to happen and should of made me feel comfortable, but something was nagging away at me. Should I speed up? was I letting them get too far in front? These were ridiculous thoughts to be having at mile 10, but perhaps it showed my state of mind.
I pushed these thoughts away and just told myself to relax, but as Nick and I were joined by another runner (Luke Carter) I subconsciously began to just pull away. To my surprise Luke came with me, and we chatted about mutual ultra runners that we knew, whilst jogging along at 8min/mile pace. I did make a comment that we were moving quite quickly, but Luke seemed comfortable enough. Just before the first checkpoint my GPS tried to get me to turn off the canal path (plotter error) and so I found myself doubling back and checking with Luke that we were still going the right way. Thankfully we were, but I didn’t want to second guess my GPS after what happened at KACR. Luckily it was early in the race and I was still thinking clearly, thankfully we were soon arrived into the first Checkpoint.
There Lorna and I set the tone for all the future crew stops, quick bottle change, restock and then straight out without any fuss. Lorna told me there were 4 people in front and that I’d see her in another 10 miles or so and then I was gone and running on my own. Nick and Luke had dropped back and I was left to trundle along and try and settle into the race. My head still wasn’t wholly in the race and I was struggling to relax and just let the miles tick by. My foot was hurting, my quad was twinging and I just felt that things were harder than they should of been.
The next crew stop came and went at just under the marathon distance and I had gone through pretty swiftly compared to the previous two races, maybe that’s why things were feeling tougher. One of the leading group was sat in the checkpoint perhaps indicating that the initial pace of the race had been a little ambitious. It still always surprises me the speed that people go off in these long races, but everybody has a different plan and different strengths. I guess sometimes you just have to be brave, have faith in your ability and just go for it, especially if you want to put in a statement performance.
Lorna was due to meet me at around 35 miles and I had requested an emergency calippo if possible. The temperature was starting to increase significantly and I knew that ice lollies worked well to cool me down, little did we know a ‘sat nav’ intervention was going to mean I didn’t see Lorna until 40 (ish miles). Shortly before the canal reached Wigan I started to catch Brian. This should of given me a boost, but strangely my legs felt really heavy, and it seemed to take me ages to pull up alongside him. He probably thought I was being annoying for a while as I always seemed to be about 5 metres behind him.
It was weird, usually catching people gives me a boost, but here it seemed to sap my energy and I was struggling to keep up with him. We chatted briefly about races as we made our way through Wigan and as I checked my watch I realised that we had passed through 35 miles. I must have missed Lorna… not to worry, the same thing had happened at KACR with Mark and I knew not to panic. I had plenty of fuel and the checkpoint was only 3-4 miles away. As Brian and I left Wigan and tackled the first climb, passing numerous locks we caught James Bennett who was having a walking break. That was probably a sensible plan on the climb, as whilst it wasn’t steep it was tiring on the legs. Shortly after turning left at Wigan top lock to head towards Chorley, I stopped to check my phone and text Lorna to tell her I think we’d missed each other. To be honest at the time it was a good move mentally as I was still feeling heavy legged and thought it best to let Brian head off into the distance. I saw a message from Lorna that said the sat nav had taken her to the wrong place but ‘she would haul ass and meet me as soon as she could’, I couldn’t help but hope she had a calippo!
Lorna made the 40 mile checkpoint, just in time, alas without a calippo, but with plenty of supplies to top me up again and get me on my way. Brian had disappeared and I was back to running on my own, and now up to third overall. This was a positive considering I wasn’t feeling great physically or mentally. Next stop was Chorley and then it was on towards Blackburn.
Sometimes in Ultra races things just click and shortly after 50 miles things began to click for me. I knew that I wasn’t going to be seeing Lorna for 11 miles having met her at 49, so I put in my headphones, got my head down and just started ticking off the miles. Maybe it was the water that I tipped over my head to cool off which woke me up a bit and it wasn’t long until I saw a runner in front, although it was a surprise when I realised it was Mark Denby (the early leader), Brian who was still running strongly had obviously overtaken him and it lifted my spirits to know I had caught up as well. I must apologise to Mark as I made him jump when I said hello as I passed him. I think we must have been in Blackburn at the time, as I have read subsequent reports of a rave that runners had to navigate through, and it wasn’t long after I went past Mark that I had to weave through what appeared to be the early stages of what might prove to be quite a party. God knows what the revelers thought of me running through them, but there were a few curious looks. I’m sure those behind me in the race experienced livelier scenes when they arrived later in the day.
No time for dancing though as today was all about running and it wasn’t long before I started to catch glimpses of Brian in the distance. This is one of the beauties of running along a canal, when you are chasing people you can see them from a long way off. I was catching him pretty quickly but wasn’t keen to take the lead just yet, so I stopped for a quick comfort break to allow the gap to grow again. It wouldn’t be long until I saw Lorna again at 60 miles.
Shortly before reaching the crew stop I did pass Brian although I didn’t pull very far away. As I stopped with Lorna, Brian asked if he could have some water. He was an unsupported runner so only had the luxury of the official checkpoints, and supported runners and their crews are asked to assist other runners if needed. We were happy to help out, and he thanked us before heading off. I was in no hurry to follow. I knew that I was moving well and feeling good so it was important to take the time to ensure I had enough fuel/fluid for the next ten mile stint. Sadly there had been no calippo’s appearing but dousing my hat in water had helped getting through the heat of the day. It was my own fault as I could have stopped at a little ice cream shop on the canal side (not that I can remember where it was) and bought myself one.
The next ten miles flew past, I was running well and feeling good. The heavy leg feeling had disappeared and I was looking forward to buddy running with Chris from 70 miles. The banging tunes on the playlist were kicking in and it wasn’t long before I caught and passed Brian to take the lead. He had run a very strong 60+ miles and I knew that I had now gone from being the hunter to being the hunted. It turns out that by the 70 mile checkpoint I had already built a 10 minute lead, not over Brian, but over James Bennett who had moved up through the field and was obviously moving well.
Chris joined me at 70 miles to buddy run and it was nice to have his company from Burnley. I was a little ahead of my predicted race schedule and had arrived at the 70 mile mark by 17:15. We safely negotiated the navigation required at Gannow Tunnel and I was pleased to have got through here in the light. We settled into a nice rhythm together and with the path being wide enough it was nice to run side by side. Unlike much of the previous canal races where the tracks were narrow and lumpy, the LLCR route provided much nicer pedestrian friendly paths for the most part. This meant for faster running even on tired legs.
It was great to catch up with Chris, and he kept reminding me to eat and drink as we moved. We were seeing Lorna every 6-7 miles now until around 94 miles when we hoped she would be able to get some sleep as the stints were longer. We had left the big cities on the route now and were treated to some beautiful views across to the Pennine’s. The sun was starting to wane in the sky and the peacefulness of the canal route, coupled with the easy terrain made for some tranquil miles. We negotiated the final stretch that led away from the canal at Foulridge Tunnel before it got dark and it was quite nice to have a stretch without any water just for a change. Unlike KACR we had timed the headtorch collection to perfection so we were prepared for the light to start to disappear, although as the light began to fade so did Chris.
Sadly Chris just wasn’t feeling himself and as we neared 90 miles he was starting to struggle. As always he didn’t want to let me down and kept saying he would see how he felt, and try to carry on, but shortly before we were due to meet Lorna at 95 miles he began feeling very sick and it became apparent that he couldn’t carry on. I stressed to him that his health was all that mattered and this was just a run, which in the grand scheme of things wasn’t that important. Thankfully he heeded my words and stopped when we reached Lorna at Holme lock. Even then Chris was saying do the next 9 miles and I’ll see how I feel, but I knew inside that he wasn’t going to be able to continue to buddy run with me and I was fine with that. I thought back to Dick’s words at the briefing and couldn’t have agreed more, whilst these events are important and we want to perform well, we should never put our own or our friends health at risk to complete them, and I was adamant that Chris looked after himself rather than worry about me
So the last 50km of the canalslam was down to me. I put the headphones back in and off I went. I was still moving well and although tired I was still on to hit my target of 21 and a half hours. Just before reaching Skipton the path did become a little tricky, it was rooty and rocky and I had to be careful not to trip over. Thankfully it soon returned to a more runnable state, and I was pleased not to have come across any jungle sections like in KACR. I arrived at Checkpoint 7 (100.4 miles) in 16:34 and had a great hug from Andrew (Dimi Booth’s other half), before he told me that I’d arrived 25 minutes before the checkpoint was due open, but he’d been here in plenty of time in any case. This gave me a big boost and it wouldn’t be long until I saw Lorna and Chris again. I am always a fan of a good hug, and it is always nice to see familiar faces at Checkpoints along the route. Volunteers are the glue that hold these events together and I want to express my thanks to each and every one of them who helped at this years races.
In the back of my head I had been thinking about Pat Robbins 2014 course record of 20:03, and knew that if I wanted to break Alex Whearity’s canal slam record I would have to run the course record here. That was always going to be a huge ask after two 145 mile races, and I now had 3hrs 29 mins to run 26.6 miles. There was also cake riding on the next marathon due to the earlier work bet.
I wasn’t looking at my watch, I was just running and not long after I left CP7 my headtorch started to flash and switched to low power mode to save battery. This was not what I needed. I pushed the pace as I didn’t want the light to run out, otherwise I would have been stuffed as my back up torch is pretty rubbish. Strangely my headtorch when fully charged lasts through the night easily, so I wondered if it had switched on in my crew bag… no matter now, I just had to get to the next crew stop as quick as possible so that I could change torches. I even took to switching off the torch in well lit sections just in case.
Thankfully I arrived at the crew point and swapped torches before the battery failed. Chris unsurprisingly didn’t jump back in and now I had a ten mile stretch to the last Checkpoint at 114 miles. This section would take me through Bingley and towards more populated areas, and there was part of me that was a little worried about coming across any weekend revelers on my own around midnight/ 1:00 am. I need not have worried though because the only lunatic out on the canal side at this time was me.
I was working hard and tiring but still digging deep and pushing forwards. Just like at KACR I had no idea what was happening behind me and without a buddy runner beside me to bounce my thoughts off of, I was just working myself up into a state wondering if anyone was catching me. Mark, James and Brian were all excellent runners and could easily of been closing the gap. Solitude was now my enemy and I just wanted someone to tell me they were 2 hours behind so I could relax.
Reaching the final checkpoint, I finally found out that at Checkpoint 6 – 84.1 miles, I had had a lead of 45 minutes, and I was now stood at 114.6 miles still thinking that wasn’t much. Lorna smirked at me when I said that, and Chris just told me I had was fine, I didn’t believe either of them. I was tired and not thinking straight. Lorna told me there was 12 miles to go, and they would see me in 8.9 and then the finish. ‘8.9??’ I exclaimed… ‘that’s ages’, the truth is it wasn’t ages, but at that stage I felt I needed to see them sooner. Lorna said they would try and find somewhere to see me earlier if they could and I was grateful for that, yet in hindsight that was an error I wish I hadn’t made.
The course record and the slam record were gone, but I knew that I could still run the second fastest time on the course which spurred me on. Leaving Checkpoint 8 I went into full beast mode and put the hammer down. I lost myself in my music and just put one foot in front of the other as fast as I could. The miles were ticking past, and each step was taking me closer to the finish. I kept checking the watch to see how far I had to go and wondering where Chris and Lorna might pop up. It turns out that I was moving too quickly for them though and they had gone 5 miles down the canal and missed me as I was moving too fast. At the time I didn’t know this and just kept plodding on, I just told myself that they must have gone to the original crew point, and then as I passed 9 miles I thought they must have just gone to the end. That didn’t panic me though, I just wanted to get to the end and had enough supplies to get me there. In fact not stopping saved me more time and got me to the finish quicker.
With 2 miles to go my headphones battery ran out, so the home stretch was without music. I usually run without music in any case but during this race I had used it more than ever before and it had really helped. I was now on the outskirts of Leeds and praying for the finish to arrive. The watch ticked down and my pace picked up. I was sure that second place wasn’t far behind me and I was running scared. I didn’t want to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and even into the last 500m I was checking behind me and wondering if I could see a runner. The fatigue was making me paranoid.
Finally the finish appeared and I knew I had made it. Dick quickly held up a bit of hazard tape for me to run through and as I crossed the line I realised that my crew weren’t there. Hence my first words ‘Has anyone seen my crew?’. Dick hadn’t and said that they were not expecting me so soon as my crew hadn’t arrived. I had crossed the line at 3:03am, finishing in 21:03 minutes just an hour outside the course record and 1hr and 20 minutes ahead of the second fastest time on the course. Thankfully LLCR, and the Slam were done.
Dick gave me a hug and put the medal around my neck before I slumped in a chair and then wrapped a blanket around me. I called my crew and they were 6 minutes away, having waited for me at both stops before realising they’d missed me. It was a huge shame that they weren’t there as I crossed the line as this result was as much down to them as it was to me, but no matter as they had both done a fantastic job and I was hugely grateful to them.
It was a surreal feeling, I should have been ecstatic to have completed the slam and overwhelmed by the performance as it was one of my best yet, however I just felt a little empty. I hadn’t been able to enjoy any of those last miles due to the fear of being caught, and yet it turns out that Mark Denby who took second place didn’t finish for almost another 4 hours. The irony is that I’d wanted a 2 hour buffer and I had had one all along.
Even as I sit here and write this blog now, I don’t think the achievement has sunk in. I never planned on doing the slam, and the effort it has taken to complete it was huge. I owe a huge thanks to everyone that has supported me along the way, and a huge thank you to Dick, Keith and the Canal race family for putting on three such fantastic events. I now plan to have a good rest before competing again, goodness knows that my body and mind both need it….
And for those wondering…… my colleagues James and Katie at Jubilee House both made me cakes for work (even though I didn’t break the record), so whilst going back to work two days after was a monumental effort the cake eased the pain.
Finally here are my 2022 Canal Slam stats
Canalslam – 1st place in 75:21 – 3rd Fastest of all time
GUCR – 27:48:00 – 2nd place overall, 1st Male
KACR – 26:30:00 – 1st place overall, 3rd fastest time ever
LLCR – 21:03:00 – 1st place overall, 2nd fastest time ever
Huge thanks go to the following people for crewing, buddy running and supporting me through my Canalslam journey.
GUCR – Oliver Jones, Kirsty Jones, and Matthew Blackburn
KACR – Mark Westbrook, Chris Caimino and cameo appearance from Papa H
LLCR – Lorna Rand and Chris Caimino