Saturday 11th March, 2017
Whether its a sign of ever advancing years, booking my place only fourteen weeks before race day, or simply looking forward to it, the date of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Canter seemed to arrive suddenly. It really didn’t matter how prepared I was, how well I’d slept, or how calm I felt. Waking up on this day – I knew exactly what day itself, and what I was about to get myself into. And yet, on this, my twentieth race (yes, I keep count), I felt a near effortless calm. I knew I had to stretch my feet, get a shower, pack the remainder of my hydration pack, eat my porridge, get dressed, teeth brushed, and ready to exit the house. I was effectively preparing for a commute. Something I do every day as part of my job.
And just like Monday to Friday, anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Upon setting off I learned my train was 13 minutes late due to ‘waiting for a train crew member’. I was almost alone on the edge of the town centre, ranting and raving about this ‘fucking typical’ development. By 7:15am, it had grown to 18 minutes late. Whoever this member of the crew was hopefully had some explaining to do, because its bad enough when its you, as a work commuter, having to explain Northern Rail’s inability to run their service punctually. And they were supposed to be striking the Monday after! Thank goodness for the MCard, a monthly pass that allows travel within certain rail zones and all countywide buses. I got an alternative train to Mirfield and from there, got a service into Leeds for 8:05am. Still leaving enough time to go break my own strike (caffeine), get some cash out, and go find my train to Headingley.
I’ve never been to Headingley before, and it felt odd as I left the station to drop down into Kirkstall. I checked the map afterwards – its roughly halfway between the cricket ground and Kirkstall itself. The race HQ was the Leeds Postal Sports Association club, on Beecroft Street. Upon finding it, it seemed all it served was to sort out what I was carrying and to go for a quick pitstop. The collection of race numbers was actually down on the towpath.I got down there, got my number and quickly pinned it to my vest. I was ready to warm up.
I had a quick jog westward along the canal, as far as the next bridge, and back again. I gathered along with the numerous runners, all running different distances, for the race briefing. The start of the race was a little confusing. 5K and ultra runners were going east towards Leeds, the rest from the other side of the nearby canal bridge on the 10K, half and full marathon routes. There was a bit of a delay while the race starter made their way to the top of Kirkstall Bridge. The westward runners seemed slightly organised, but the 5K and the ultra runners weren’t really in any sort of pack. I was stood there chatting with the other ultra runners, when after a few minutes there was a countdown and a horn to set runners off. I thought this was just for the runners heading west, but I turned around to see my fellow ultra competitors setting off. I quickly got my act together and was away.
I was quickly into second place, the lead runner around 15 seconds ahead. It was tempting to try and chase him down, but this was going to be a long day. Better to just focus on my own race. I found myself clocking 7:35 mile pace early on. This was a lot quicker than I had plotted in training. I felt I needed to slow down, but it was difficult. I didn’t even feel I was pushing that hard. It seemed effortless. Clearly I was on race pace, as race day preparation will seem to do for you, and I resolved just to stick to the plan of walk breaks every hour, nutrition every half hour.
I declined water at the first aid station, three miles into the run at its furthest point east, near Granary Wharf in Leeds. I turned back and kept on with my current pace. It had settled more at 7:45-7:50, which still seemed quick, but I was comfortable. Four miles was the first swig of High5 Zero drink. After just over six miles I was back past the start/finish area in Kirkstall, and heading onwards towards perhaps the most scenic part of the course, between Bramley and Esholt. I reached the hour mark somewhere just after Bramley, if memory serves me right. I had a SiS energy bar and some more energy drink. I walked for two and a half minutes, and my eighth mile went for 8:38. I did up my pace prior to walking, but even so, that’s a quick mile for spending a fifth, maybe slightly less, at a much slower pace. A marathon runner overtook me at this point, but I was past them again having resumed my rhythm. I was now running along the path where I’d run with Ben Smith and the Horsforth Harriers during his 401 Challenge. Part of the race’s appeal lies here for me – the countryside surrounding the canal, and the neighbouring River Aire, is really at its most stunning – green fields, waterfalls, wide open space – it is quite something to behold.
I reached 13.1 miles in around 1:35, and by the time I reached my second walk, I’d reached around 15 miles. I didn’t feel to be far off sub-4 hour pace for the distance, which would really be something. The walk breaks would likely put paid to that, but the time really wasn’t any concern to me. I just wanted to make sure I got to the end. By now I was tucking into oranges, and narrowly avoiding a rather angry, hissing goose as the race moved towards Saltaire. The lead runner was on his way back into the second half of the run. By the time I reached the aid station in Saltaire, I estimated I was about five minutes behind. I sensed he might be tiring, so this gave me a bit of impetus to put a bit more effort in. I wasn’t expecting to catch him, but I could certainly consolidate my position.
In the end, I wasn’t running any faster – just running confidently and consistently well each mile. Each of my miles between 16 and 23 went for sub-8, and I really felt like things were going to plan. The malt loaf at 2:30:00 kept me going, I was cooling off with water at aid stations, and though I hadn’t seemed to gain any real ground, I felt I was putting in some distance on those behind me.
I should mention, at this point, that it was great to receive a lot of compliments from runners coming the opposite way, and likewise, it was great to give some encouragement back. I even got a high five before halfway from one of the marathon runners, who was going at a fair oldprice pace. I was particularly heartened to see a ‘joggler’ out on course – that being to run while juggling. Of course. All while wearing a tiger mask. Civility is brilliant!
The three hour mark brought a slightly extended walk break of three minutes. I’ll be honest, that shift I put in did take some out of my quads. I took on a couple of caffeine gels, and then around twenty minutes later, took on an electrolyte gel. I felt tired below the waist, but I felt slightly energised and crucially, alert and focused. It was on towards Kirkstall again, to bring up the 26.2. ‘Congratulations‘, I thought to myself. ‘You’re now an ultra runner‘. One lady near the start/finish line was clapping my effort.I joked to her ‘the real race starts now!‘. And in one way, I suppose it did. Because the six miles that remained were going to determine whether I had the stamina to try and catch the leader. It would turn out I didn’t – I had to stop and walk once or twice to take on a bit of water, but I would get back into my running. I was a little slower on the climbs, and now clocking 8:25 mile pace. One foot in front of the other, that’s what was needed. At this point though, Leeds felt so far away. Its easy to just want something to appear, like you’re desperate to see the end. I had to stay positive.
Coming into Leeds, the leader passed me again. He was still looking good. By the time I’d reached the turning point, grabbing a segment of chocolate orange and a few sweets, I estimated I was about three to four minutes behind. A slight gain, but I really didn’t feel I had it in me to chase him down. And so it would prove. I was starting to walk on the climbs, trying to conserve energy to reach the end. I did see the third place runner, and by now I was heading back through Armley. That must have meant I was a considerable distance ahead, but I refused to rest on my laurels and by no means did I decide it was job done. Mile 31 went for 9:16 – my slowest of the entire race. But that was largely due to saving myself on the hills. I still had running in my legs on the flat.
I was a mix of sheer awe at the fact I was still running, and tired impatience at not being able to see the gazebo to signify the finish line as I turned each corner. Mile 32 came up at 8:46 – a sub-9 mile. Absolutely super at this stage. Finally, about a quarter of a mile later, I turned the corner and saw the finish line in the distance. I pumped my fist in the air and suddenly I felt a renewed wave of energy in my lower limbs. I powered towards the line and finished strongly. I absolutely knew it, and it would be confirmed.
Second place, second male, at the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Canter ultra! My official time: 4:21:45.
I can’t say I was surprised, purely because I knew what position I was in the whole time. But without question, I had achieved the best result of my running career, eclipsing the third place finishes at Blackpool Beach 10K Run in 2014, and the Sir Titus Trot half marathon just six weeks prior. If I wasn’t feeling absolutely physically destroyed, I’d have said I couldn’t quite believe how well my 2017 was turning out results wise.
I stuck around for a bit afterwards and got talking to the winner of the ultra. We shook hands and it was great to talk. He was also doing his first ultra and he thought I was going to catch him. I honestly told him when I saw him on the way back from Leeds I just had nothing left to chase. The feeling of mutual respect was great and we could both agree we’d taken part in a great race. I got talking to a few other competitors too, all while looking longingly at the amazing homemade cakes, all of which I felt too queasy from all the sweet stuff I’d eaten during the race to actually muster. I felt like I had pins and needles all over for a short time, and I was ever so careful trying to stretch my muscles. Nothing could take away from what a brilliant day I’d had though.
A lot of complimentary congratulations came my way on social media – it seems to go that way every time I excel myself. Its just amazing to be part of a community online that gives that kind of support and to be able to celebrate others’ achievements as well. My own Facebook wall was going pretty crazy too, and even into Monday I was still getting congrats from fellow runners, family, friends and work colleagues.
Where does this leave me now? Well, I absolutely want to run another ultra marathon, but it won’t be immediately and perhaps not even this year. My spring/summer seems to be lined up with a mix of potential trail and fell races, as well as The Drop (the race with no navigational aids or GPS allowed whatsoever), and potentially a 10K race in London. I do have desires to run a half marathon somewhere though and I readily have my eye on another Its Grim Up North Running event – the Kirkstall Trail Running Festival in November, where I intend to run the marathon. Quite simply, I want to race a little more this year and I’ve now got plenty options locally to look ahead to.
For now though, I’m taking a well-earned break for at least a couple of weeks and I’m going to try and let my body recover. I have a sneaky feeling of undiagnosed tendinitis below my left ankle which flared up five weeks before this race. Its not been severe at all, but to keep on track this year I’m going to want to make sure I absolutely time my comeback carefully and do the necessary work to nurse it back to full fitness. I want to run without thinking I’m going to need paracetamol to get through, or ibuprofen or heat rub to take the shine off afterwards.
All in all though, the biggest takeaway about my body from this race is just how well prepared I seemed to get myself. To actually still have the energy to run 32 miles shows I struck a good nutritional balance, paced myself well, learned when to hold back and when to push. My body absolutely came through for me on the day, and that gives me all the confidence I need to say that, if I’m healthy, why not take on another ultra? Why not try and run further? Why not see if you can go one better?
Once again, a big thanks to Cath and Di at Its Grim Up North Running for putting on a great event, set on a canal steeped in rich countryside and industrial heritage. A huge thank you to all the volunteers and a big well done to everyone who took part across all five distances. The race itself is an ideal first ultra for anyone looking to make the step up, and if you’re interested in this race, you don’t have to wait too long – a summer edition is also open for entry, apparently – though I can’t find the link right now. Did I mention free homemade cake?
And as for 2017. Wow, where to next?!