In theory, after A100 I was looking forward to a bit of downtime, a rest from races until the fun started again in April with Centurion’s South Downs Way 50. Well, the devil makes work for idle runners, as the saying doesn’t quite go. Flopped out on the sofa for a couple of weeks post-race, not running, I spotted a race in early January, an ultra no less. A mere 43 miles, surely a survivor of a 100 mile race can manage 43 miles? I booked it, a nice way to start the year, thought I.

Around the back end of October, I ran a bit, then started up with a new coach towards the end of November. We had about 5 weeks of useful training to go till the race on 8th January, on legs still a bit tired from the 100. I got some decent long muddy runs in, but I probably didn’t have enough time to get properly ready for it. Certainly I didn’t feel as well prepared as I did for A100.

Logistics were easy for me for this race, I got a lift to the start in Wendover from Colin and the finish is a 5 minute shuffle from Paddington for a fast train back home.

Registration was in a pub. Not having been out much recently, it felt a bit odd to be in a fairly small space with lots of other people, but the process was straightforward – collect race number and tracker then mill about getting pre-race admin sorted.

The weather forecast for the day was a bit pants, lots of rain on ground already quite soupy from wet weather in the run up to the event. There was a stiff breeze too, so it felt quite cold hanging about outside the pub. It was nice to be in a mass start though, I’d got used to rolling starts of one kind or another. Those in the know sprinted off down the high street to avoid getting caught up in the bottleneck at the first gate just a couple of hundreds yards in. The rest of us got caught in the bottleneck, and then the muddy gloopy fun began.

The first half, roughly, of this race is predominantly on trails in woods or across farm land, with the second half on canal towpath with reasonably good surface throughout. It was a bit of a dilemma from a shoe perspective. Ideally I would have worn more robust trail shoes to better handle the mud, then change to road shoes once the going got good. Some people did do this, I gather, but it wasn’t worth the crew hassle for me and I certainly didn’t want to carry shoes all day. In the end I wore Inov8 Trailfly G300 as a compromise. They have 4mm lugs, so weren’t a lot of help in the mud but probably better than skating around in road shoes, and were fairly comfortable to run in on the towpath.

I had a pace plan for the race which allowed for slower going in the muddy, hilly first half. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, of course, so that went out the window fairly early on. Whilst there are uphill sections, some quite long, there are also some really nice, runnable downhill sections where even in the mud it was possible to go at a half-decent pace. For the 12km to CP1 I had planned on 7:30 km pace, I managed 6:45, and for the next 15km to CP2 I allowed 7:30 in the plan but managed 6:35.

So far so good then. Things slowed down a bit from here, however. 15-odd miles of mud and hills was taking its toll. The extra muscle work involved in staying upright and extracting feet from the gloop with each step is just very tiring after a while.

The course is not marked. The organiser provides a decent GPX file and a paper map book so it’s fairly easy to stay on track. I had the route on my watch. There was really only one place where the route was ambiguous. I was running among a group of about 10 runners, fairly strung out along 100m of trail. The first of the group went off down a left fork, the rest of us followed. I spotted almost straightaway that this wasn’t the route and headed back to the junction. After some debate, those behind me elected to follow the confident-but-wrong group, I went off alone on the actual route. Whilst they did all find their way back to the correct route when the paths met again later, the correct route was more direct so I got the jump on all 10 of them. Smug!

By the time I reached the canal I was feeling pretty done in. My fuelling was good and I think I was keeping on top of hydration, but I was worried that I had overdone it in the first half. I had planned to run:walk on an 8:2 ratio once I got to the canal, but from early on I was nibbling away at the 8 minute run segments, just 30 seconds here, a minute there, but they all add up. I was wet through by this stage too, my supposedly impregnable 30k waterproof seemingly anything but. I was wearing a long sleeve base layer underneath and that was soaking wet, although I suppose this might have soaked upwards from my damp shorts. Was I experiencing one of those ultramarathon lows, a dark period of doom and despair? Probably not that bad, to be honest, but I definitely wasn’t enjoying it very much!

I battled on, my shoes feeling heavy and waterlogged, my Sealskinz socks sodden at least on the outside. The post-industrial canalscape of graffiti-adorned bridges, fly tipping, shopping trolleys and knackered old barges didn’t exactly lift the spirits either! I began to wonder idly how long it would take me to finish. Mistress Garmin was telling me I could finish in under 8 hours, just, but this was based mostly on my faster early pace. Her predictions began to slip a little at a time as my slower plod began to affect the averages. It never got more than 2 minutes above the 8 hr mark, so I started to wonder if I could sneak in under 8. Funny how arbitrary round numbers can have that effect. I got more disciplined with the 8 minutes running, more or less sticking to that through to the finish. The canal splits at one point, with a friendly sign telling us all that there was only a half marathon to go if we took the correct spur off to the left. This cheered me up a little, I mean come on, a half marathon? Piece of cake. I think the rain stopped here too for a while, and the surface was now pretty good. No excuses!

I plodded onwards, leapfrogging the same small group of runners repeatedly. Banter was limited to a thumbs up or grunted greeting, the conditions didn’t seem conducive to friendly chit chat. On and on and on. Mistress Garmin was giving me hope, I might actually scrape in under 8 hours after all. I coaxed a little more pace out of my weary legs and yes, my ETA finally said 4:45pm, or exactly 8 hours after the start. Then the gpx ran out, I’d completed the route! Where was the finish!? I got a little paranoid that I might have gone wrong somewhere, but a few hundred metres down the canal I reached the rather low-key finish line. My official time was 8:00:28, so close but no cigar as far as the arbitrary goal goes. Firmly mid-pack, I finished 133rd out of 275 finishers.

I passed on the cider offered and had a cup of tea before getting changed nearby and heading off wearily to the station.

I’m pleased I did it, pleased to finish the race in a respectable time, but would I do it again? Probably not, the canal section was a bit relentlessly flat and not terribly scenic. I expect the weather didn’t help, I might feel differently if I’d run it on a crisp, sunny winter’s day. It was good though to remind myself what it takes to get one of these done. Preparation, yes, but a bit of grit and mental toughness too. Something for me to work on. As that bonkers mountaineer says, sometimes you think you’re fucked, but really you’re only about 45% fucked!

I’ll be back soon.