Archive for June, 2011

Or: How to run 50 miles for no good reason.


Chapter 1: 19 May 2011. Inception Day

Some days you agree to things, nay, propose things even, that you then wonder whether you actually wanted to do.

I’m blaming Gracie on this one. You see it all started with him taking part in a 3-day fund-raising bicycle ride across England. The route is 170 miles and is well-known to cyclists. It is called the “Way of the Roses”. Gracie completed it with ease of course; his marathon background standing him in good stead.

But it got me thinking (as all these cycle challenges do), could it be completed by running and not cycling? I posed the question to Gracie who promptly answered “yes” (he is like that). So began a conversation relating to how many days it should take. I felt five would be ideal (34 miles per day) but that four was acceptable albeit at the upper limit of what we could manage (42 miles per day). Gracie responded, “Well, the real challenge would be to do it in three days, like we did on the bikes.” Naturally.

That works out to 56 miles per day. Essentially a Comrades Marathon each day. At this point alarm bells were ringing. But luckily I have long since learned how to ignore pesky alarm bells.

So it was that we then agreed that a “practice run” of 50 miles was required. And that is how we find ourselves in our current position. In just under two weeks from today, Gracie and I will be attempting to run 50 miles along the Stratford Canal.

The timing couldn’t have been better, with the Comrades Marathon taking place on 29 May. All the build-up around that (especially this year as the MarathonTalk guys were running it and so had lots of Comrades talk in their podcasts) would get us in the mood for own little slice of ultra-running.

The Stratford canal links Birmingham and, yes, Stratford. The canal is a regular haunt for our 20 mile weekend runs. Familiar territory, but potentially in a very unfamiliar set of circumstances.


Chapter 2:  Thursday 2 June 2011. Race Day

Not true really as it wasn’t a “race”. “Run Day” just didn’t sound right.

I got up around 6am and had as much peanut butter toast as I could stomach, washed down with a strong coffee. Then I headed off to Gracie’s place. His flat overlooks the starting point of the canal we were setting off on, so it was a perfect base.

After a bit of pfaffing (what? Didn’t you know there was silent p…?) we got ourselves out the door and onto our makeshift start line. We met up with Niceguy Eddie who was joining us on the first couple of miles. We waited for our borrowed GPS watch (thanks Chris!) to locate satellites, or planets, or black holes. Once it was done, we counted down and off we went.

The first few miles passed by uneventfully. We spoke a lot of nonsense as we normally do, when the three of us try to run together. Gracie announced the odd mile split here and there, which were generally in the low-9’s. We purposefully had not set ourselves a target pace or target finish time. We wanted the run to be purely whatever it turned out to be, although for sorting drinks stops and where we thought we would be at various points we had needed some guide and for this we had used 10-minute miles.

Niceguy turned back after about 5 miles or so, and thereafter Gracie and I were on our own. It was a lovely sunny morning, and at this point I would guess the temperature was around mid-to-late teens. The towpath was in full bloom and together with the overhanging trees and the water, painted a beautiful backdrop to the run. Our first scheduled stop came after 13 miles, at a bakery called Wedges. Our split was 2hr03.

Our refuelling plan revolved around breaking the run into 4 sections (about 2 hours each), 13 miles, 25 miles, 37 miles, 50 miles. Stopping after each section. So three stops in total.

Due to not having access to drinks at any other points we needed to load up, camel-style at each stop. So, at Wedges we each got stuck into (roughly), 500ml of Coke, 500ml of juice, 2 jam-filled doughnuts, and another 500ml drink to carry with us for the next 2 hour stint. I opted for juice, Gracie chose coke, which as it turns out didn’t take kindly to being poured into a drinks bottle, and then shaken up.

The next stretch, the second leg, was the first step into unknown territory, towpath-wise. We had run up to Wedges before and turned back, on our regular 20+ mile training runs, but never further. So this was an exciting chance to see some new countryside, but also a bit worrying as the actual path alongside the canal can get very iffy on less-used routes, and more and more uneven underfoot – more on that later.

The scenery just got better and better. Picturesque little villages and houses dotted on either side of the canal. Lots of boats out on the water. The further we got away from built-up areas, the busier the water seemed to get. It felt like everyone was out on a boat today. I guess the weather being what it was, along with the schools being on half-term break, there was more than usual out. We had some good banter with people on the boats, everyone was in good spirits.

We accidentally went down the wrong towpath for a few hundred yards, after encountering a fork in the canal, that both of us agreed had definitely NOT been on the Google Maps Satellite shots, when we scoped the route out. Faced with this choice, I confidently announced which route to take, and confidently turned back a hundred yards further on when we saw a sign saying “Grand Union Canal”. We got back onto the “Stratford Canal” without too much fuss and trotted on.

From this point up to the halfway point I went through a tough spell. (In hindsight it would turn out to be by far my toughest spell of the run). Gracie was a few yards ahead and I was starting to feel the fatigue in my legs, having got 22 or 23 miles already under the belt, but also knowing that every step was STILL taking us further away from the finish line.

A word on the paths. There are great benefits to towpath running. No traffic (expect on foot or on bicycles), less pounding than road or concrete pavement, no real hills to speak of. The idea that a towpath is flat is not entirely correct as there are locks which raise or lower the water level of the canal depending on the terrain so you can end up climbing at a gentle incline or dropping and climbing as your run alongside the canal. But what I actually wanted to say on the paths was related to footing. It is a lot trickier than road running. Near the city centre, or on very well-used towpaths, the path is generally wide, and flat, either dirt or gravel or woodchip underfoot, and there are no problems. However when you start getting to less used towpaths, away from busy high-traffic areas, the paths become more and more overgrown, and narrower and narrower. You have to watch carefully where you place each foot every single step and spend a lot of time weaving around tree roots, rocks, and general undergrowth. It is a lot harder to maintain any pace when compared to running on a road. Add in some extremely tired legs on a run this long, and it gets harder and harder to lift your feet to clear obstacles, in addition to just lifting them to put one in front of the other…!

Anyway, that’s my defence for hitting the deck hard, twice. I tripped on a root at about 29 miles, and again at about 35 miles for good measure. This ensured that I left the day with at least some scars (and blood) on my knees and elbows, to show the work we had put in.

The last few miles to the turn-around point had this sort of minimal path, and the going was slow. We got to 25 miles eventually and around this point left the canal and headed into the local village (Wootton Wawen) to find a shop. We found one, and proceeded to load up more or less in the same way as at Wedges, although this time, probably because of the increasing heat, neither of us fancied eating anything and just focussed on getting fluids on board. The time on the watch read 3hr57.

Suitably refuelled (or so we thought) we kicked off leg three and began retracing our steps back along the towpath, in the right direction, the direction home J. I was feeling good now, and we dropped into a zone, neither of us saying much, just getting on with it. I was in front and after about 4 or 5 miles Gracie mentioned that we were running low-8’s which might not be sensible given how far we still had to go. I reined it in, unaware that it had been that quick, it must have been the scent for home or something… We settled into a better pace and carried on like that.

Each leg, as mentioned earlier, works out to more or less two hours of running, so I was aware that the 500ml of Lucozade I was carrying needed to last two hours. The problem was that we had only been going 30-40 minutes so far and I was feeling quite thirsty. I allowed myself a few sips, not as much as I wanted, but all I dared taking this soon. Shortly before the 1-hour mark (since halfway), I noticed Gracie had drank almost his entire bottle. I thought perhaps I had been too cautious with mine, and ended up drinking it all over the next 20 minutes. It would mean I had to go the final 40 minutes back to Wedges surviving on whatever I had in my body. Gracie was in the same position except that he had finished his drink 20 minutes before me. This was to prove a crucial 20 minutes, as Gracie really started wobbling about 15 minutes before we were due to stop. I was slightly in front at this point and suddenly noticed I couldn’t hear his footsteps anymore, I looked back and couldn’t even see him. (The canal is quite twisty at this point so I couldn’t see that far behind me anyway). I decided to kill two birds, and stopped for a loo break, while waiting for him. He appeared about a minute later looking markedly different to only half an hour earlier. His face was pale, his running had become a weaving shuffle/walk combination. He was not in a good way. Dehydration, even in its early stages, is so debilitating and this was a clear example. We shuffled our way to Wedges, now less than a mile away. We got there and absolutely filled our boots with as much as we dared to take on without bringing it all up. I had been thirsty for the last few miles but I think I had (just) escaped the effects that had hit Gracie. With fluid and sugar, we both perked up. Wedges doesn’t sell any isotonic drinks, so we decided (Gracie’s stroke of genius) to buy a few bags of salted crisps and eat those in addition to all the sugary fluids we were taking on board. A bag of crisps has never tasted so good! The running time was now at 5hr49.

We set off on the fourth a final leg of the journey, 13 miles to get home. Ten-minute miling would have seen us possibly sneaking in, in under 8 hours. Within a few minutes it became evident that this was not really on the cards. Gracie was suffering with some stomach problems, and needed to find a toilet (not just a tree to stand behind) pronto. We found a suitable location. I took the opportunity to phone Bec and let her know how we were getting on.

We shuffled on, but Gracie’s stomach would not give him any peace. We tried walking a stretch, which helped I think. But shortly after that we needed to find a pub, not for a beer (yet) but for a toilet. After this I think his issues became more manageable. He was carrying on for as long as he could on each running section and then we would break it up with a short walk, before setting off at a jog again. I was feeling ok at this point. There was obviously a lot of latent fatigue in my legs, but I was feeling better and stronger than I had at halfway. The human body can be an amazing thing. I was looking at my watch and the numbers just seemed surreal. 5hr20, 5hr50, 6hr00 etc. It just seemed bizarre to my tired brain that I could have been running for this long and not be struggling, when 2 or 3 hours earlier I had felt very tired.

We started hitting recognisable landmarks as we were now on towpath territory we covered on an almost weekly basis. Once we got to about 5 miles to go, Gracie was an absolute legend and just toughed it out from there to the finish line with no more walking breaks. Considering that this was his first ever run of over 30 miles, he was handling it amazingly well. The Garmin beeped at us, marking each mile, counting us in. With less than a mile to go we bumped into a club mate (Tim) out on a training run  and he ran the last three-quarters of a mile or so with us, which provided a great diversion from the internal slog we had been mired in for the last few hours.

We crossed the finish line 8 hours 15 minutes and 22 seconds after we set off.

FIFTY MILES. Cheesy high-fives, man-hugs, all the usual geeky runner stuff.

We did it. The immense satisfaction and sense of achievement on crossing the line is difficult to describe; so I won’t ruin it by trying to. It was an awesome day, an awesome adventure, with an awesome mate.

Thanks Gracie, I will remember this for a long long time.

We spent the evening drinking champagne (courtesy of NiceGuy and Stephanie), drinking beer, and eating chicken. I mean, what more could you ask for?



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