It’s only just 2 weeks into the new year and my first Ultra of 2019 is ticked off. This is a great feeling. The year is looking just a little bit daunting, so to get it underway and emerge through the first finish line is pleasing.
Over Christmas I was worried. More than I’ve been since I started running. I’ve had a few niggles over the last year and you know what your body is feeling. This niggle felt a different, it concerned me. I know when it happened. I don’t know what happened or what it is though. During the night run a few weeks before Christmas the top of my foot hurt. It hurt as I stepped off the train, before we even started running. It felt like my laces were too tight but loosening didn’t help (neither did running the 24 miles, I know!). The pain intensified and persisted for a few days and a lump appeared. So I was concerned.
It woke me up for the first time and I swallowed my stubbornness and went and saw a physio. The prognosis was good, ankle movement was as expected and I was set some rehab and stability exercises and prescribed some rest. Always some rest. That is the difficult part right?! Over the Christmas period I continued to dwell on the pain and with the Trans Gran Canaria race looming in the distance I was thinking of pulling out of the Country to Capital. 70km felt like it could put my year at risk before I even began.
But, I didn’t. I’ve been stubborn as always and after a follow up with the physio and a check up with the GP (who confirmed the lump is a small Ganglion cyst, but nothing to worry about) I stuck by my original plan. So to the race I went.
This is quite a popular event. There aren’t that many ultras in the first few weeks of January, especially not ones so accessible from London. An ultra at the beginning of January is a test. A checkup if you like. To see where you are at and what your body is saying after Christmas. Many runners use this event as ‘tune up’ (as Alan describes it) for what is to come. So that became my aim too.
With an early start and a rush from the first train from London to Wendover, I decided to stay overnight in Stoke Mandeville. I’m glad I did. I woke relaxed and at eased and casually made my way to registration with plenty of time to do all the mandatory registration activities without any stress.
I met with Alan, Lenny and a few of their mates and the race Director sent us on our way. There was a mad dash at the start as the runners legged it down the high street to get the front line at the single track paths. And that there is where the majority of my memories of this event comes to an end. It is, as events go, pretty unspectacular. We cover a lot of ground (45 miles!), but it is mostly forgettable. True, the start near Wendover Woods is quite scenic, but as soon as you get inside the M25 it is a grotty run. 30 plus kilometres along the Grand Union Canal towpath, it sounds good, but it is ugly. Flat. Hard. Narrow. Covered in more litter and abandoned rubbish than you can imagine. I’m not talking about the odd bit of crap here and there, in places it was piled with bonfire sized heaps of rubbish. London has a problem here it needs to address! Such as historic part of the country in such a sad state.
Anyway, that’s off my chest. What do I remember?
A few rolling hills to start with provided some early morning treats to the eye. The first 15 or so miles were a breeze with some walking up the inclines and crowds of runners to chat away too and enjoy. Shortly after the second checkpoint, with conversations of the morning often revolving around the recent UTMB ballot results, I got chatting to Sophie. Sophie had quite a remarkable experience at UTMB this year which really puts all the preparation and stress of the events into perspective. There’s a lot of discussion around changes required to events as a result and hopefully we will see those much needed changes come sooner rather than later.
As we chatted, Sophie pointed out how fast we were running. What finish time this equated too. I knew I was ahead of the pace I’d set out for. I knew I’d gone off too quickly. I was feeling OK though so was rolling with it. Sophie gave me a reality check. I stuck with it and carried on, telling myself “as long as it feels good”.
I started to make deals with myself. First off, get to checkpoint 3. This would be roughly a marathon in, after which it was the towpath all the way to the finish. I’d have a moment at the checkpoint and update Alan and the others on my progress (we’d be meeting in the pub later in the day). Checkpoint 3 came about so quickly. Quicker than I expected. One of the volunteers did acknowledge it was now the afternoon, so I’d done the marathon in around 4 hours.
Onward along the canal we went. The field did start to spread out now and no doubt a lot of us were starting to feel the aches in the legs. The route had no signage or markings but I did have the GPX on my watch. I was on the towpath, I didn’t need it though right? Wrong! I was constantly following the runners in the distance and at one point, after heading after a runner I soon heard some screaming behind us. It took a moment but the caller was persistent. I’m so glad he was as we had missed a turning off the canal path onto another. If we had continued, we would have ended up in Brentford! Thankfully I was able to back track and recover and thank the runner. The could have been very costly!
I negotiated the next set of deals with myself. First off, get to the forth checkpoint. I was hopeful it wasn’t too far away. And it soon arrived. To my surprise the volunteers confirmed there were just 10 miles to go (I’d been estimating closer to 13 miles left) and the final checkpoint was only 4 miles away. This lifted me. I decided to walk for a moment and eat some more food, then I’d run what was left of the 4 miles. I could do that. That was a very process-able distance.
The next deal would be when I get to the final checkpoint I’d start a walk-run strategy. I’d been checking my average pace for the last few miles an I knew a strong finish (somewhere under 8 hours) was on the cards. I probable could have run the last 6 miles but there was nothing in it for me to do so. I came up with the plan to walk 0.25 miles, run 2 miles and repeat. This would make the last 6 miles so much more manageable and I felt I’d walked very little other than the few short inclines early on in the run.
After leaving the last checkpoint, a few miles from the finish I saw a familiar face. I recognised it smiling out at the runners. I couldn’t place it though. We had a Hi-five. Then it clicked. Rowan called out my name and it all made sense. We’ve known each other through Instagram yet never met, somehow avoiding each other in the 20 plus group that was out in Berlin together. Rowan snapped the only picture I have of the day, we had a hug and I was back on my way. The last few miles went down exactly as per the deal, I was blocking out the crap littered tow path until Little Venice came upon me so quickly.
The finish was an understatement. A subtle welcome, medal and a cuppa doesn’t do the brutality of the race justice. The Country to capital is not an easy run. I don’t think any flat runs are. It gives me great awe thinking about those runners who take on events like the Thames 100. It must be so hard on the body. Don’t go entering the Country to Capital because you think it is an easy race, it really isn’t!
It’s the day after the run and I feel surprisingly good. I’m thinking and checking over my body and I’m feeling very happy. There’s things I know I need to work on and things I need to improve, but after a tough run I expected to be in pain in a few places. The worst is my ribs and abs. I know I’ve run hard when they ache! The foot? The foot feels fine. Now back to those rehab and stability exercises.