Thursday 16 January 2014

Race report: Country to Capital 2014 [That was pretty amazing!]

Country to Capital; a 45 mile run from Wendover to Little Venice, mainly on trails and about half following the Grand Union Canal into London.

Having read the race guidance, which is pretty minimal, the suggestion was that it'd be a fairly normal trail run with the potential for some puddles and then the rest on canal tow-path.  The profile was a long slow up for a few km, long slow down for a few km, then mainly flat along the canal to the end.

With the distance, weather, terrain, mandatory kit and profile in mind I had my kit list dialled in:-
  •  Salomon S-Lab Hydro 5 backpack
  •  Skinfit Aero, long sleeved shirt
  •  Pelle, short sleeved t-shirt
  •  Icebreaker Merino, 200 1/4 zip top (spare warm layer)
  •  Icebreaker Merino neck funnel
  •  Skinfit Aero, long tights
  •  Saucony Ignite, tight shorts
  •  Bridgedale Woolfusion, trail socks
  •  Bridgedale Woolfusion, trekking socks (spare socks)
  •  Apple iPhone
  •  Garmin 800 (GPS bike computer for navigation)
  •  Power Walker 5000mAh battery pack
  •  Clif Double Espresso gel (in case of emergency)
  •  PrĂȘt A Manger yogurt coated cranberries (x2)
  • 2x M&S mini pork pies
  • 1x Clif White Chocolate and Macadamia Nut bar
  • 1x mini medical kit
  • 2x 500ml soft-gel water bottles
  • 4x H2Pro 250 electrolyte tablets
  • Brooks Pure Cadence running shoes (with elasticated laces)
This all needed to be packed up two days before along with clothes etc. as I planned an overnight stay the night before close to the race start.  So once it was packed and taken in to work, there was no going back on the choices.  I did have a pair of Salomon trail shoes to wear for casual with me as they were unproven over anything longer than 5km and quite loose at the heel; too risky to run in with no option to change out of them at any point in the race.

I had dinner in the pub at the race start and got a taxi to the hotel (exorbitant! £20 for 5.2 miles!) which was full of some sort of party and I was glad I’d eaten at the pub as there was no food on between 7pm at 10pm.  Hey ho, I was fed and had a warm (single) bed to sleep in and a bath to help warm me up to go to sleep.  No mobile coverage in the hotel meant no call with my coach or MrTOTKat and I listened to a Kinetic Revolution podcast to lull me to sleep with the alarm set for 6am the next morning.

With the hotel refusing to provide -any- sort of breakfast before 8am (not even a bowl of cornflakes and a jug of milk left out the night before!) I was prepared with a twin pack of mushroom and goats cheese frittata from M&S for my breakfast with a mug of tea made in my room.  I forced down 1.5 of the frittata before running out of room.  Thanks to the hotel receptionist negotiation the night before, my 7am taxi to the start was “only” £15 and this time I didn’t have to look up the route for the driver.

Guidance from the race organiser said that if you weren’t on the train up from London in the morning to register as early as possible to allow for processing a train-load of runners at 8am when that train got in.  So I was numbered, chipped and ready by 07:15, sipping my £2.20 cup of tea and chatting to very many far more experienced runners than myself and trying not to get wound up about it all.  I got to meet @UltraBoyRuns, which was nice, but then lost him from that point to the finish.

The night before, I’d worked out what was the minimum average pace I needed to hit to make the cut off times at the check points and overall.  That way I’d know how much time I had in hand if/when I got tired and felt the need to slow down, walk, take a break etc., but the plan was to spend as little time as possible at check points (as I’d lost 90 minutes at Rotherham through stoppage time).  The worst-case pace I needed to average was 09:22/km (in Imperial, that’s 15 minute miles).  If you run shorter distances than this and have never run further than a marathon, this looks really really slow.  But there are a few things to remember here: it’s a bloody long way, most of it is not on tarmac/pavement, there is a bit of elevation gained and lost overall, there is navigation to be done (no race route marking -at all-), you will need to stop and refill water containers at the very least at check points and probably eat something even if you’re relying 100% on fat for fuel (you simply get an empty stomach at some point and you want to eat rather than need to and if you’re pushing into any carb burning zones you’ll need to top that up at some point too).

I’d also loaded up the GPX file provided by the race organiser onto my Garmin 800 bike computer and set that to give me 1km lap splits to keep an eye on pace without obsessively checking a watch.  The GPX plot seemed short, but it turned out that it simply deviated from the national trails we were supposed to follow a few times and did things like following the central navigation course of the canal rather than the tow path so it was short of the actual route by about 4km in total.

Having chatted with one of the check point marshals about pork pies, he'd promised there were some at CP3, so I unloaded them from my pack.  And the Clif bar.  And the medical kit.  This made quite a difference to the weight of my pack and made me feel quite a bit better about that.

08:15 came and went, the planned time for the race briefing, and no briefing was forthcoming.  It seems that the train from London was a bit late and then the huge influx of competitors simply took time to process through registration.  The hooter for the race start went off a few minutes later than planned at around 08:37 and I’d started my Garmin and Polar a minute or two early to save faffing at the start.

We were off!  320ish runners thundering down the street in Wendover to the beginning of the trail and immediately grinding to a halt at a gate that narrowed the available space to 1-2 abreast instead of taking up the whole road.  We all squeezed through the gate and off onto the trail.

Within the first few moments it was clear that the ground was really very wet as well as the forecast low temperature coming to fruition.  Tracks, fields and paths along the sides of fields for the next 50km were quite taxing.  The first field we came across, my feet were skating sideways more than going forwards and it was all I could do to stay upright.  The next one, I lost my left shoe in a sticky bit of mud and ended up with a really wet left sock.  Someone was pretty disparaging about both my shoes and the fact I had elasticated laces on; to be honest the laces were a silly forgetful mistake but the shoes… most of the really slippery mud would have been too much for almost any “proper” trail shoe so I doubt it would have made much difference had I been able to wear any.

That first hour was really disheartening.  I was increasingly convinced that the huge amount of extra effort wasted in slipping sideways and staying upright was going to tire me out early and I perhaps wouldn’t be able to finish the full route due to sheer exhaustion.  It wasn’t the nicest thought, but I kept going anyway.  A group I was running with had a guy with Vibrams on and we discussed that and the fact he’d run this event last year in a time of 09:30.  He was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen today, but we were all quite impressed with that time (I think).

Within the second hour, I lost my right shoe to sticky mud and got myself a wet right foot.  From here on and to the finish, my feet were wet.  Credit to my sock and shoe choice I didn’t get a single blister from it and my feet were only cold while I was actually running in water or really runny mud.

Checkpoint 1 came up reasonably quickly after a bit of a hilly path down the side of a fence, up a hill, down it and then to a table with water, jelly babies, electrolyte tablets and fruit cake on it.  Most of the checkpoints were stocked this way, only CP3 had anything in addition to that food.  This wasn’t so great, mainly for the marshals as it was pretty bloody cold to be standing around for hours and there be no hot drinks at least.  Anyway, there was then a small section through Chesham town and then back onto trails for lots more km of mud, wet trail, mud and more mud.

I spent a good section by myself before CP3 and that was nice.  Having had brief chats with a few people, most notably a chap called Iain at CP2 who dropped back to wait for friends, it was nice to be by myself.  It’s one of the reasons I like running long, the time you get with your own mind and the countryside.  I did meet up with a couple more runners shortly before CP3 and we weren’t quite sure whether that was supposed to come before or after the most notable bit of navigation - hitting the canal.  Once you hit the canal there is only one turning to make before the finish, which is a relief after missing a couple of turnings into hedges earlier on.

CP3 was in fact on the canal, @abradypus (thanks for the photos too!) surprised me at a bridge just before the checkpoint and shouted encouragement (and direction on how far on CP3 was from there). A table under a bridge appeared shortly, with water, electrolyte tablets, jelly babies, cake and.. the promised mini pork pies! (and sausage rolls and vegetarian Scotch eggs - yuck!)  Up to this point, I’d only looked at my printed out cutoff times card once, at this check point and it looked to me like I was only just on track to hit those times with a target of 14:15 to be leaving CP3 and I was off down the road a bit before I’d validated a time of 14:22.  That was where the maths started to really fail and I began to worry I’d not make it under 11 hours in total.  I was also worried about the mandatory pairing with another runner from, in my case probably CP4 onwards.  I’m quite good at even pacing throughout these events and most other people slow down towards the end.  My biggest worry was being paired up with someone and they couldn’t keep up sufficient pace to hit the goals.

At CP4 I almost forgot about the potential need for head torch and then the mandatory pairing.  It didn’t happen.  I think I’d made the checkpoint minutes before the time that was going to be enforced and that was a very good thing at the time.  Maintaining a reasonable pace and moving to - run for 5 minutes, walk for 1 minute as a tactic to get to the end feeling relatively OK - I motored on to CP5 pretty much alone.  CP5 came and having overtaken quite a few people between CP3 and CP5, I got there at the same time as a pair of Americans and there were others hanging around.  Pairing was being mandated and, with great relief to me, Iain was there and asked to pair with me. I could not have wished for a better pair-up.  The Americans, we left behind at the checkpoint and they were convinced they wouldn’t make it in under 10 hours now and I agreed (with my terrible maths failure at this point, I was now hoping for around 10 and half hours).

Iain was nothing short of amazing - interesting to talk to (as I suspected, in the armed forces), bright, full of energy and practicality in good measures, happy to follow the run/walk tactic and selflessly encouraging.  Handily my head torch was pretty good so he didn’t need one and I managed not to look him in the face and blind him with it at any point.  We tried to work out whether we’d make it under 10 hours.  Many many calculations later we still weren’t sure, but agreed it might be nice if it did happen.  We were also neither sure exactly how far it was to the finish so were a bit surprised when we heard clapping and thought we’d better put on a show and actually run it in regardless of where we were in the run/walk phases.  It turned out that although that was race-related support, it wasn’t quite the finish so we had to run a bit further to the end.  Slightly mis-communicating at the end, I did try to make sure we crossed the line together to share a finish time we’d worked on as a team for that last stretch.  It turned out it was the electronic dibber that gave the finish time in the end, so Iain was registered as 1 second faster in the end.

@abradypus  was there, there was tea, more cake (which I wasn’t interested in) but MrTOTKat was only just pulling in to Kings Cross (having been at Scunthorpe parkrun that morning).  I eventually remembered to stop my Garmin and Polar watches and spent a while being very confused that they showed 09:03 and 09:04.  I was convinced I must have paused them at some point by accident, but then thought through that that was very unlikely that they’d both get accidentally paused and un-paused for exactly the same length of time.  I chatted with @abradypus and sat with my tea, worked out a pub to go to for food and a sit down (and to change into dry socks and shoes at the very least) and we rounded up @UltraBoyRuns, the Americans and @abradypus to sit, eat, drink and meet with MrTOTKat.

We found a pub, I changed my shoes and socks and put on warm clothes (and reeked a bit), we ate, drank, chatted and had a generally good time then went home.

@abradypus , god bless her again, discovered something really rather amazing later on and posted it on Twitter.  Provisional results were up and my finish time was 08:59:00!  Not only had I finished, and I’d hit the goal of 10:30, but I’d smashed it to smithereens!  I’m absolutely ecstatic about the time.  It was way better than I could have hoped for.  Having “wasted” 90 minutes at check points at Rotherham, I was sure that ploughing on through was a better tactic and, by god, I was right!

Oh.  And I did a negative split by over 6 minutes - 04:30:28 for the first 34km 04:24:06 for the next 34km.  BOOOOM!

11th W40+ - 2 hours 10 mins behind the 1st W40+
Thanks to @abradypus for cheering and being supportive and finding a pub at the end.  Thanks to Iain for being the best pairing I could have hoped for in that final section.  And thanks to @ultraboyruns for making me feel better about my pack weight before the race.


  1. That is absolutely amazing, and I just love the big cheesy grin at the end - absolute delight :-)

  2. You were incredible! Well done times lots.

  3. You just continue to amaze me. I wonder if there is ever an ultra in the future for me...

  4. @MrsB If you want there to be, there's not a lot can stop you. You've got the drive and the fitness already :o)