To Bristol for the second edition of the Kennet and Avon Canal Race or "KACR", put on by the Canal Race team of Keith Godden, Dick Kearn and Wayne Simpson. I was buddying up with with good friend James Ellis again after our efforts last year where James finished in around 34 hours and I DNF'ed due to a combination of bad planning on the home front and completely screwing up nutrition.
Determined not to repeat mistakes, James had been cooking up batches of fantastic snacks from the book Feed Zone Portables in his Yorkshire kitchen. James is a qualified nutritionist (check him out at http://endurenutrition.co.uk/about-endure-nutition/) and i was really grateful to have him take care of this aspect of the race, thanks James!
Like all long ultras it's a bit of a nervous wait for things to start, so we were glad to get underway at 6am sharp on the last Friday of July. Around 40 runners set off from Bristol, heading east towards London Paddington some 145 miles away. We would take in 3 main sections of waterway - the Kennet and Avon Canal, the River Thames, and finally the Grand Union Canal.
James and I settled into a comfortable pace in around 10th place whilst a lead pack gradually pulled away. With runners of the quality of Fabio Rizzo Cascio (the eventual winner), Stu Wilkie (2nd here last year) and Matt Blackburn (recent winner of Endure 24 pairs with good friend and fellow Spartathlete Ian "Hammy" Hammett, who was crewing Matt today) setting the pace, we certainly weren't going to get sucked in.
Progress was good and we reached the first checkpoint at mile 13.5 in around 2 hours. We picked up our first bag of "portables" and quickly cracked on. By around 9am the temperature was rising and it was clear we were in for a long hot day. An enforced loo stop for me around the 25 mile mark slowed us by a few minutes but we still ticked off the marathon mark in around 4 hours and reached the second checkpoint at mile 27 comfortably on target.
On the subject of targets, the main one was just to finish. But lurking in my mind was the prospect of breaking 30 hours and the absolute dream of a Spartathlon auto-qualifier of 28:48 I had to admit had crossed my mind too.
The only hill of note comes around miles 37 and 38 where runners must climb up Devizes Locks. This is a series of locks that takes canal boats some 6 hours to navigate and it really is a sight to behold, a wonderful feat of Victorian engineering. Not too far beyond Devizes it became clear that James and I were a bit out of sync today and James encouraged me to push on. Feeling pretty guilty about it I decided to take a crack at it as at this point I was feeling very strong.
The next major distance milestone was 100 kilometres and I reached here still feeling pretty strong at a little over 11 hours. I was trying to keep to "Spartathlon splits" and the focus on this was working well so far. Things were getting fairly lonely at times as gaps between runners increased, so I was fortunate to be seeing Pete Summers and his crew fairly frequently as we played leapfrog. Pete was running stronger than me but also stopping more frequently which would allow me to catch back up. I didn't know Pete at all and I didn't even realise he is part of this year's British Spartathlon Team (https://britishspartathlonteam.org/pete-summers/), sorry Pete! We didn't really chat too much as we were both focusing at this stage, but I have to admit that I thought Pete was putting an awful lot of effort into his running, he seemed to be working really hard for it and I wondered if he would blow up at some point. In fact Pete just seemed to get stronger and stronger as the race went on, and somewhere later on (I think around 85 to 90 miles) he pulled away and ended up finishing 3rd! A fantastic performance Pete and one you can be very proud of. Thanks for the words of encouragement and to your crew for the very kind assistance at times.
I was also fortunate to share quite a few miles with GB 24 Euros bronze medallist Wendy Shaw, part of the famous Reading Joggers ultra team. It was great to chat with Wendy about the European Championships and congratulate her on the medal won with team-mates Ali Young and Tracy Dean. It was such a great achievement given there were only 3 runners in the team so they all had to count.
Checkpoint 6 the Cunning Man pub at mile 89 had more Reading ultra magic in the shape of Paul Ali and Alex Whearity. Paul was running the Checkpoint and him and his team were great at helping me get a few things sorted. Alex would be buddy running Wendy for the remainder of the race. It was great to have a bit of banter with them - at some of the checkpoints the volunteers write down quotes from the mangled runners to keep themselves amused. Alex was telling me to go and "smash some miles" and when I asked what the opposite of smash is we agreed on "caress". So with the target of sub 30 long gone, this was the new goal: "caress some miles and stay in the top 10".
I was closing in on another major distance milestone - 100 miles - but things were getting very tough. Wendy and Alex caught me up on a rough section of path that had really derailed me last year, and was threatening to do so again. I tried to stay with them for a bit but they were simply too strong for me.... I couldn't believe how strongly there were running over such rough ground. Whereas I was tripping over stones and tree roots, and rolling ankles on rutted, narrow sections, they were just gliding. Pretty soon I said to them to crack on and slowed to a walk to get through this section safely.
100 miles came and went in just over 20 hours, a time I was still pretty pleased with given I was unsupported and almost all the runners around me had help of some kind or another. I was also pretty solidly in the top 10, seeming to settle mostly in 7th place. But on the downside my running was getting less and less frequent and I became fairly resolved to the dreaded "death march", at least whilst it was still the dead of night.
Somewhere around Reading there was a shout from the path off to the right: "Dazza, is that you? Yes who's that. It's Hammy mate!"..... always great to see Mr Hammett and I was glad of a little chat but sadly the only reason Hammy was there was because Matt was having a hard time. He'd gone out at a decent pace and suffered some stomach issues. Matt was trying to recover but unfortunately ended up making the tough but correct decision to withdraw from the race, his first ever DNF. With Spartathlon coming up in September this was no time for pushing the body to breaking point and that can be saved for the Greek roads. Come back stronger Matt and see you in September.
CP7 was manned by great friends Sir Ian Thomas and Duncan Cornish who looked after me in true gentlemanly fashion. Although they did seem pretty nervous about using the microwave to make me a hot dog. Dunc doing his best Die Hard impression as he gingerly tapped the buttons, thinking the thing might explode any minute. I was glad Dunc didn't offer me a roll-up, I might have had one to take my mind off the pain. Thanks lads for looking after me.
Pretty soon we get into the heat of the second day and this was to prove an enduring factor for the remainder of the race. The final miles between the Thames and getting on to the Grand Union were on a cycle path that was brutally exposed to the sun. Barely any shade and very little breeze to take the edge off the heat made this section really tough going. And I had no idea Slough was so bloody big..... it felt like hours of tramping through the High Street to get onto the Grand Union turn off. In Slough i'd been passed by Helen Pike and David Betteridge who had teamed up quite early on and stuck together the whole race. Although we leapfrogged a couple of times after that I could see that they were much stronger than me and wasn't surprised when they pulled away.
So now down in 9th position and faced with the prospect of a fairly lonely 25 miles to the finish, there wasn't much else to do but get my head down and suffer. I stuck my iPod in and managed to get some bits of running going again. The Grand Union did have some shaded sections which helped a lot, and there was by now a pretty strong wind, which helped more. All in all it was just a case of grinding it out to the end. I did have a few "quit thoughts" as we got closer in to London. "I could just hop on the tube". "I could just get in a cab". "One press of the Uber button and this ends..." that kind of stuff. But I knew how much of a doughnut i'd feel if i let that happen, and was able to bat those thoughts away fairly easily.
I'd been spurred on by the sight of another runner, Chris Spurling, who I played leapfrog with a few times putting me down in 10th on occasions. Not knowing how far behind 11th was gave me a spur to get this thing finished and achieve the re-worked goal of a top 10 finish. Coming into Paddington i'd got my nose back in front of Chris but he was not far back at all and we teamed up and chatted for the final mile and finished together in joint 9th position. It was great to hear Chris' story of coming back to finish this one after pulling out of GUCR so close to the end earlier this year. Congratulations Chris!
In keeping with the rest of the race, the finish is pretty low-key, but that doesn't stop it feeling bloody good. Ok the dream time didn't happen but I was pleased to have travelled such a long way reasonably unsupported and a lot of it by myself. Although i've gone further in Spartathlon, i'd say in some ways this format is harder. There are just so many stretches where it's a lot of long lonely miles ahead and the prospect of any support is hours away. The surface of the paths is pretty tough on the body too.... my feet, ankles and knees were pretty mangled and it's taken a while to recover.
But recover we must, because Sparta is now just weeks away, and I can't wait for another crack.
Well done to James for the typically strong final 3rd and yet another big ultra finish.
Massive thanks to Keith, Dick and Wayne and all the volunteers for such a superb race. Congrats to all finishers and commiserations to those who didn't make it.