Country to Capital 45 mile Ultra marathon

Of all of the events on the Growlerthon list for this year, the Ultra Marathon was the one I was most excited and nervous about. I was pretty confident that I could do the others but 45 miles was significantly further than any distance I had ever run before. It all seemed like a good idea last summer when I was talking to my friend, Mat, at a summer party, about his recent successful first Ultra. The next day I had signed up for “Country to Capital”, a 45 mile run from Wendover in the Chilterns to Little Venice in London.

Two days before the race I was wondering if the complete lack of long distance training was going to be a real problem or not. I was having dreams that week about “ultra disasters” such as getting off-course and lost in London or arriving to the start without running shoes and socks, and having to run in borrowed hiking boots.

Other than the lack of training, I felt pretty good on the morning of the event. I was halfway into “Dry January” so I had 2 weeks off alcohol as well as a week of carbing-up and some early nights. I stopped looking at the weather forecast days ago as it was only getting worse as the weekend got nearer.

Arriving at the start at a pub in Wendover I was relieved that the forecasted snow hadn’t happened. About a second after I posted an update about it on Facebook the snow started.

The pub was fairly chaotic, packed with scarily fit people checking-in, getting changed and filling up on bacon rolls. Everyone I spoke to was on top form and eager to share stories and advice about the run. Worryingly everyone I spoke to had done several Ultras before and no-one else appeared to be doing it for the first time.

Despite the warnings of my anxiety dreams I had a near miss when I accidentally checked my hat and gloves into the kit-van, which was going to be driven to the finish. Luckily I was able to fish them out before it was too late, much to the amusement of the organisers.

The best piece of advice came from a veteran Ultra runner at the start line: “Stick to your game plan” he said. “If you’ve planned a pace, don’t get overexcited or distracted by other runners. Just do what you planned for”. His other advice, echoed by several others during the day, was that these events would get addictive. One girl at the start told me she had done her first the previous summer and this was now her 4th. Given my obsessive nature with these kind of events I already had a feeling I would be back for others.

At 08:30 the clock started and 350 runners filled Wendover high-street. The pack soon thinned as the course headed along paths and tracks out of town and into the Chilterns. The first section from Wendover to Chesham was beautiful. The small villages and woodland were now more like Christmas card scenes with the snow settling due to a mini-blizzard at mile 2.

My plan, carefully worked out on a spreadsheet, was to run sets of 3 x 10 minute miles followed by a 15 minute fast-walk mile and a 15 minute rest at each check-point. At Checkpoint 1 at Chesham this was working well.

This second stage was both hillier and harder to navigate. There were no direction makers on the course, so we were all given maps to follow. For the first stage I kept at least 5 runners ahead of me in sight leaving the navigation up to those in front. By the second stage the group was thinning out a lot more and there were larger gaps between runners. There were several occasions where I arrived at a junction and a group of runners were returning back to the route having taken a wrong turn. I was pretty lucky to have kept on the right path throughout.

Just outside of Chesham the route went through a large playing field. This became quite disorientating for the group splitting it into 3 streams, one going down each side and one through the middle to find the path at the other end. The actual path then crossed a fast flowing stream passable only by slippery and wobbly logs laid out as stepping stones. Many slipped and got one foot soaked with at least one runner going all the way in.

The second stage, Chesham to Chalfont via Chorleywood, was trickier overall but the plan was still working and I made it bang on time to Checkpoint 2, where my support crew (Timi and Mum) were waiting.

By Stage 3, Chalfont to Cowley, I was on home turf and navigation was easy as I’d ran and cycled every path around there in the last few years. By the time I hit the Grand Union Canal at Denham I had lost some time due to some really muddy hills after Checkpoint 2. The game plan that worked so well for the first half was proving too optimistic for the second and each mile was getting somewhat slower.

Timi and Mum were waiting for me at Checkpoint 3 just like at all of the following ones. This was a big morale boost and made a great day even more special. Timi had become my official social network agent for the day, posting my progress on Facebook throughout. Seeing the supportive likes and comments at each Checkpoint was another great motivator. By now I was 25 miles in, just under a full marathon and feeling good, despite slowing down.

From here to the finish the navigation was easy: just follow the Canal and don’t forget to take the Paddington arm at Bulls Bridge. The group had really thinned out by now and for most of the time I could only see 1 other runner ahead in the distance and 1 behind me. This was the point where the iPod had become essential kit and I was ploughing through the Podcasts.

At Checkpoint 4, 31 miles in, it started to get dark and the marshalls made sure we had our head-torches on. We also got paired up with other runners for safety. This already seemed like a good idea as the canal becomes a magnet at night for groups of shifty looking people roaming around smoking and drinking. The frequent “missing person” notices stuck to trees and bridges weren’t a confidence booster either.

Julian, a friendly guy from Milton Keynes, became my running partner for the next 3 hours. He’d completed a few Ultras before and would probably have been faster than me but was suffering badly from stomach problems. He put it down to using the free carb gels they were giving out at each checkpoint rather than the ones he’d trained with. Whatever the reason, I was glad to have someone running at the same pace. I’m always concerned about running with someone either too fast or too slow, both not wanting to hold anyone back or feeling compelled to go faster than my own pace.

The final 10 miles was all about finishing, as a fast time at this stage was neither possible or wanted. We had slowed down to 16 minute miles of fast walking, finding a pace that was comfortable as long as we didn’t stop. At the last 2 Checkpoints we stayed only for a few minutes to get more food and water, fearful that if we stopped for longer we wouldn’t start again.

As the end got closer the route become darker and surroundings more industrial. I love cycling and running the canals as you get a diverse mix of country and industry. This part of London had little in the way of pleasant scenery, so the lack of light was mostly a blessing. The head-torch was now the essential kit, keeping us on the path and out of the canal.

Eventually the tall buildings of the new development at Paddington came into sight and the end was near. Checkpoint 6, the Finish at Little Venice finally came after just under 10 hours since the start. A massage and an ice-bath would probably have been the right thing but a warm-bath and a long sleep was really the only thing that I wanted.

One week on and things are mostly back to normal with only an ache in my left knee as a physical reminder. The 2 days following the race were tricky with a point on the following day I thought I had permanently damaged myself. By the 3rd day I was able walk upright again and able to tackle stairs without sitting on them.

A lot of friends asked why I did it and other events like these. The normal answers of the “challenge” and “achievement” are true but its not really that. The simple truth is that I just love the outdoors. The routes these adventures take me on are amazing and there’s no better way to experience them than to travel under your own power. I also love the organised events as there’s always a buzz from so many people with the same goal, often doing so for good causes. In a society where inactivity and obesity are rising I find it highly motivating to spend a day with people on the other end of the health spectrum.

The 2 bits of advice from the runner at the start-line both turned out to be true: stick to your game plan and expect it to be addictive. I may need a few weeks off but this won’t be my last Ultra.

Thanks you very much to everyone who supported me, from Mat who gave me the idea, to the “likers” and “commenters” on Facebook, those who sponsored me for the Growlerthon course and especially to Timi and my Mum as my amazing support crew for the day.

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Richard gowerComment