So, in less than two weeks time – 11 days to be precise – I will be stepping up to the start line on the banks of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in Kirkstall, near Leeds, race vest equipped, drinks and nutrition packed, mentally zoned in, ready to run further, and for longer, than ever before. I will be stepping up, along with 140 others to take on the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter on March 11, taking on it’s longest distance option – 32 miles. It marks my first step into the world of ultramarathon, and the latest barometer in terms of how far I feel prepared to run competitively, or how high I’m willing to set the bar.

Given over the last few years I’ve covered my progression from charity runner, to marathoner and now beyond, regular readers here may wonder why, having covered the Manchester, London and Snowdonia marathon training blocks in depth, I haven’t done the same for my first ultra marathon. There’s a couple of reasons. The first being I wasn’t certain of my entry until the turn of the year, and I’d already begun my training. How foolish would I have looked to announce my week by week training, only to find out I couldn’t afford, or that the race had sold out? Furthermore, as the training has progressed, I’ve found it hasn’t varied too much from preparing for a marathon. The long runs are still long runs, the midweek sessions slightly longer, but all in all, it feels like the jump to going beyond 50km isn’t as large as I first imagined. That being the day I measured out the distance of 16 miles along the towpath before turning back and hearing an audible ‘gulp’ in my throat, as if to say ‘what have you done now?!

I settled on the Canal Canter after originally entering and withdrawing from the Canalathon 50km. Its an ideal first ultra for a number of reasons. As its on a canal towpath, you can only really go forwards or backwards. Therefore, no navigational skills or aids are required, unlike many ultramarathons where a map and compass are deemed mandatory. Its also local, requiring no more than a train, another train (or a bus) and maybe a short walk to the race HQ, saving on accommodation. Race entry was £36 all in, no extras for medals nourishment, etc, so all in all, a bargain. And, save you a few rising locks, the course profile will be relatively flat, which will ensure the 32 miles won’t be as harsh on my body as some of the hillier courses I’ve run on recently. Not to mention, its a beautiful place – I experienced some of its sights during the Sir Titus Trot and during the 401 Challenge with Ben Smith. Therefore its allure is second to none.

Up until the week before the Sir Titus Trot, around four weeks ago now, things were going swimmingly. I began training in earnest from late November onwards, and although I missed a couple of long runs around Christmas, I was able to make up the mileage and found myself in a pretty good spot, having cracked 18 miles and about to move onto 20 plus. Then, as I mentioned in my race report, I fell over on a night out with family and banged my knee pretty hard. And from then on, it feels like I’ve been playing catch up again. The night after that fall, I managed 15 miles but stopped on the grounds of it being too late to continue. The knee withstood the schedule right up to the Sir Titus Trot half marathon, which I finished third in, but my recovery from that took seemingly longer than normal due to the long time it was taking for my knee to calm down. In the end, I sacrificed six days of running and worked on fitness techniques, hot/cold therapy and the odd ibuprofen here and there, to get the knee in shape for the long Saturday run. 21 miles taking in Emley Moor, a site I long hoped to run (or cycle) to, before dropping back through Upper Hopton and via Bradley before returning home. The knee came through that run remarkably well, but the hilly nature of the course took its toll – I got a lot of tightness in my right calf muscle and worse, a horrid, burning like sensation just below my left ankle that presented itself just as my run that day came to an end.

Emley Moor Tower, 21/01/2017

I know what you might be thinking – was I being a bit impatient? I did wonder this myself, but I felt behind my decision to drop the weekday runs was an underlying desire to give myself the best possible chance of doing the long run that Saturday. I didn’t just go for this on a whim. I was to retain this approach going forward, with a focus on trying to help my ankle recover with painkillers (initially), exercises, stretching (later) and sufficient rest. Because I still felt I could give myself the best chance of making the start line on March 11 if I at least keep up the long runs.

I did get to test my ankle out on the treadmill, and it came through roughly 40 minutes of running pretty much unscathed. I felt as though this was the green light to go ahead with my plans. Now I had to decide where I was going to run. I didn’t want a hilly route, certainly nothing as demanding as the 21 miles I undertook the week before. I decided the only thing would be to take the flattest route I know out of Brighouse and head out, along the Calder-Hebble Navigation (my favourite running spot), onto the Rochdale Canal and onwards, towards Hebden Bridge, before turning back. All in all, I measured my run to be 23.5 miles, with the turning point a little outside Hebden Bridge itself. The trick, as the week before, would be to effectively teach myself to take proper walk breaks, and to stop to eat or drink now and again. Effectively, things I already do, but trying to alter my mindset so that when I race, it will hopefully feel somewhat normal come race day.

The gateway into Hebden Bridge. You see this if driving along Burnley Road, or if you cross over from one side of the canal to the other.

Amazingly, the whole thing came together. The run along the Calder-Hebble took place in darkness, but it receded as dawn arrived, by which time I was over six miles in as I arrived in Sowerby Bridge. I had the reassurance of bus and train options on the route had I needed them, but it was absolutely a near perfect long distance training run in nearly all respects. I did have a slight hiccup arriving in Luddenden Foot to find a section of towpath closed, meaning I had to join the main road until reaching the village of Brearley, but I continued onward and for the first time since my failed attempt to cross the Pennine Way towards Littleborough, I was moving beyond Mytholmroyd and onwards to Hebden Bridge. I turned back at Bridge 15 on the towpath, just outside the town centre, put my rain jacket back on (it was raining heavily at this point) and began the journey back home. I won’t deny, it got a bit tough later on, but that’s because I put a few strides in around mile 16 which perhaps I should have saved. In any event, I made it to 23.4 miles and all in all, I’d successfully come through the run and thanks, partly to the power of paracetamol, felt no bother in my ankle – although the mild discomfort remained thereafter.

With that settled, it was time to prepare for the big one. A 26 mile training run. Except, it was going to be that distance, but for a few familiar voices egging me on to add the 0.2 miles to make it marathon distance. So I yielded, and again ran just once that week – a speedy run commute which I sub-8 minute miled all the way back – and rested until Saturday, when I would wake up, into my usual pre-long run routine, before departing once more, back towards Hebden Bridge, to go farther along the canal than ever before.

I took the run nice and steady, once again in morning darkness to begin with. As I approached the tunnel at Salterhebble Locks, morning began to rise. I was around nine minute pace up to this point but upped it very slightly and had reached Sowerby Bridge and the Rochdale Canal, around one hour and seven miles in. Here I took a walk break, eating an energy bar and taking a good gulp of water before ambling back into my action. Once the eighth mile was logged, I resumed my normal pace, hovering around 8:40/mile. Reaching the sign for Hebden Bridge felt like an impetus to push on – seemingly buoyed I got closer to 8 minute mile pace, and though I had to leave the towpath at one point, I got back on as the halfway point approached. The 13 miles came up at a slightly awkward time – I had come across a short section which had a stone floor, but a very narrow, rickety bridge that allowing a drier alternative to putting my foot in what was essentially an overflow for the canal. Shortly after this point, I reached, 13.05 miles, and opted to pause briefly to take in my surroundings, and to just think for a minute how far I’d come. If I was completely free to keep going, I might just have tried to follow the canal all the way to Manchester, if nothing but for the adventure and the love of the nation’s waterways. What to be, to be the lonely long distance runner?

The Rochdale Canal, just past Hebden Bridge, facing roughly south towards Todmorden and Littleborough.

The 14th mile was very stop start, counting as a walk break, thanks partly to the rickety bridge and a blistering sensation on my little toes. Luckily, I’d thought to bring my trusty thick Thorlos with me, so got them changed and started to chow on a few clementine segments. Then it was back into my running.
I kept it nice and simple all the way up to mile 19. I decided to pick up the pace a little and clocked a 7:36. The fastest so far. Time for the final walk break. What did I take on board this time? That’s right. A Snickers bar (or Marathon, depending on your place in the world)! I once ate on halfway through what had been a tired run commute and it seemed to wake me up somewhat. I felt inclined to try it on a longer run. I also took a caffeine gel for the first time shortly afterwards. I normally like mine caffeine free, but my recent fixation on caffeine abstinence and the stimulant properties of caffeine, it definitely felt like something to try. Now I reached the end of the Rochdale Canal, and I had 6.2 miles left to run. Effectively a 10K. So I just imagined my remaining distance as a 10K run. I was now running closer to 8 minute mile pace, and maintaining it as I reached Elland Bridge, 3.2 miles from the end. I injected a little more pace, and clocked the last three miles at 7:43, 7:42 and 7:41. I finished the run in 3:48:13. The best part?

I could have kept going.

I felt I had plenty of energy in reserve – my body didn’t ever feel it was on the limit, and the way I finished that run was the best I’d ever felt running the marathon distance. Admittedly, I wasn’t pushing it like I usually do, but I ran this pretty much the way I want to run the race. For the first time, I have a genuinely great feeling that I can do this. I’ve struck on a comfortable target race pace, a run-walk strategy and I know roughly what I’m going to fuel myself on.

Mile splits from my marathon training run (from top left)

More to the point, my post-run recovery went amazing too. I foam rolled the morning after and the day after that, I was walking up and around Ilkley Moor. If that didn’t feel like a personal statement of fitness, I’m not sure what does. I still have a bit of tenderness in my ankle – much less severe than it first seemed but enough to warrant paracetamol on some of these training runs as a precaution. I’m reasonably hopeful that it won’t present much of an issue come race day.

There’s still a few unknowns I will have to encounter. For starters, the exact course for the race hasn’t been published yet. And how will my body feel as it goes beyond 26.2? When, if at all, do I put the hammer down? And most importantly, will my Garmin Forerunner 10’s battery hold out for the duration of the race?!

The taper phase is truly locked in now, and that includes my now customary caffeine abstinence from two weeks prior to the race. While suffering from withdrawals from the lack of tea and chocolate in my life, I guarantee I hold no such feelings similar to those of nervous regret when originally sizing up the challenge. I’m absolutely ready and capable of doing this, and just want Saturday March 11 to arrive as soon as possible. Its not been the smoothest ride – but since when has long distance training ever been? The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever gone into any race, not even Snowdonia, with such a level of experience and preparation that those extra 5.8 miles suddenly don’t seem so daunting. If I rest well, eat well, and execute my race plan exactly as I’ve trained, then I can be every bit confident of completing this race and giving it good as I’ve got.

Yes. I am ready.