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Race Report on Country to Capital - UK

I’m not sure if this is the 3rd or 4th time I’ve run this race but it’s probably the first time I’ve run it on my own. I remember the first year I ran it I decided that 45 miles probably wasn’t hard enough in itself, so ran with a 14kg pack. Hmmm, how times have changed! Despite the challenges I undertook over the last 12 months, I figured it was better to ease myself back into things rather than fall at the first few hurdles! I also remember that each year I have done it, I’ve got lost at some point (by not looking at the map and following other people!), got very cold and muddy and found the last 20 miles along the canal, soul destroying and ultimately very boring. Given the number of races on canals I probably raise a point of contention, but I find running canals for hours at a time decidedly boring – it just never changes, water and path, turn a corner, water and path.  Although frequently in London they provide a great alternative to the streets and I’ve done a lot of my marathon training along the Lee Valley canal, the Grand Union canal in my limited experience does not inspire me! Although, I’m impressed by the guys who run 50miles + of just canal or worse 150 miles, it’s not just the distance which is hard, but the mind numbing repetitiveness. As you probably know I like running wild areas, for many reasons but the one being the constant change of terrain and scenery.

Usually when I’ve done this race, it’s been brutally cold, in fact I think it’s one of the times I’ve ever really got worried about frost bite. Perhaps a bit surprising given where I normally climb! I remember after spending a couple of hours of breaking ice covered puddles, my toes and feet had gone completely numb.  However, this year was to be much warmer, in fact the nicest day in a couple of months. The path heads out from Wendover to the Grand Union canal leading into Paddington. The first half is cross country, it’s not marked out and is a mash of small footpaths that finally join up to the canal, hence it’s notorious for getting lost. This was my first long distance race since UTMB and I thought it would be a good benchmark for the training I need to put in before London and my summer long distance season. Given how much the two 25 milers had hurt which I had done with Chris over the Chilterns, this I felt had the potential to be a long day out!

At the start...

We all lined up at Wendover and as usual I fought the urge to go off too fast. The one thing apart from the weather that had changed this year was the sheer volume of runners, I used to remember turning up to ultras with only 30 or so people with me, the world changes and this is now a big sport. The number of £150 lightweight packs being worn shows the dedication people now have for this sport, and how much manufacturers are tapping into the market. Ultras are not only increasing in the quantity of participants but also the quality. A elite band of runners now head out a full steam, in a win or DNF attitude, pushing the boundaries of speed at long distance. A new concept to the lowly world of hanging until death mentality, held holy just a few years ago. At the front this is now a sport of athletics and speed.

Full speed ahead...

Country to Capital is no UTMB but I knew my body was not quite ready for this. It wasn’t long before I’d got the map book out and had to verify I was on the right route. It’s not an event you want to be a sheep on (in the following sense!), not until the canal anyways. It was very muddy underfoot but the sun shone brightly and was soon warming me up. I was actually quite enjoying it. The 2 or 3 lead packs were now out of sight and with the twists and turns in the wood, I made sure I knew where I was on the map. Convinced we were taking a left, I was soon corrected by a guy running with a GPS, 30 seconds later it was obvious we were on the wrong route, we quickly back tracked, both of us more convinced maps still rule on English country footpaths. We now ran in a pack of about 6 or 7, I felt responsible as I shouted out directions. Finally nearing Chesham, I felt a bit more in known territory, only to hear a shout from another group of 5 runners behind our pack that we were heading the wrong way, I disagreed and so they continued on their 90 degree tangent to the proper route and a longer day out.

I started chatting with another runner called Rob. He had been living the last 5yrs in Australia and was visiting the UK. It was nice to have someone to share the run with. Out of the first check point and I relaxed thinking the "sheep" knew the way despite my earlier concern, the route sort of felt familiar! Needless to say we went wrong and after clambering over a few trees it was clear that this was not the right route. I turned around, scolding myself for not making my own decisions. I didn’t go wrong again.

The route started to undulate more, passing through fields, small villages and woods. The sun shone brightly and I was really enjoying the run. Rob and I caught up with other runners along the route, until finally we popped out onto the canal. Rob is an excellent runner and clearly could run the distance very comfortably. At the canal I wished everyone the best of luck including Rob, and urged them to go for the finish as I was going to hold them back. I suspected the last 20 miles would hurt.

The route:

Rob stayed with me and we soon got into a rhythm, we passed the others and it wasn’t long before we hit the next check point. We passed a few more runners who were limping along. The packs of runners who’d stayed together for fear of getting lost now scattered as everyone went into their own world of water and path, water and path. We chatted continuously which was a good distraction as my hip flexors were starting feel sore as well as the lower attachments of my abs. I just had to dig deep, keep fuelling and keep the pace, but I felt slow. The distance between the 4th and 5th checkpoint felt long and mentally I could feel myself slipping lower. The last check point helpers told us there were 13 miles left, more than I had estimated. Stuff like that hits you almost the same as a physical blow to the chest.  Just when I thought I’d urge Rob to carry on ahead, he shouted he could see the last checkpoint. We joked about how much that had changed my whole attitude, a light bulb came on and I knew we had the chance of breaking 6 hours. We went for it.

A few miles from the end and Rob made his move, he looked very relaxed, I was puffing. I hung in there though and took a couple more runners. I knew that the finish would suddenly creep up on me in those last miles, the total distance was more like 43 miles than 45 miles – I’d known that from the few times I’d done it. 5hrs and 54mins later I crossed over the line, elated that I’d broken 6hrs. It had been a great run and I was thankful to Rob for distracting me from the canal element of the run! Rob finished 4 places ahead of me in 8th place, great effort mate! The winner, Edward Catmur of 4hr 48mins, a new course record. I hobbled back to the train and the usual recovery meal of fish and chips.