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The Country to Capital Ultra Marathon

As I mentioned in another post about the build-up to the Comrades Marathon, I thought I'd get what will likely be my longest training run out of the way early.  Typically this would be more like April/May time but as I want to go well in London April was out and I've a strong suspicion I'd have trouble getting out the door for something like this straight after a fast marathon.

I'm a total novice when it comes to Ultras and this was my debut assuming you don't count what I think was around a 30-mile training run I did years back. So I had no idea what to expect though I've run some of the second part of the course along the Grand Union Canal a fair few times.  I used to work in Ealing and the 14-mile run home from there to where I'd left my bike at Slough train station was a nice mid-weeker in the Summer.  Sadly the job was the shittest sack of toss and to cut a long story short (not that long come to think of it) I no longer have any need to run from Ealing along the Grand Union Canal.
country to capital ultra race photo
This race carries a 1 point counter towards the UTMB which is one of those races I'd love to do one day but is another level or three of difficulty on top of where I'm at right now.  Actually you need 7 points to qualify for the UTMB over two years but from just 3 races so if you're counting this one, you've got to go for a couple of severe testers to get your 7 total.

The Country to Capital Ultra runs from Wendover to Little Venice (London Paddington Station) over the Chilterns for the first half and then pretty much pancake flat along the canal for the second.

There aren't many marshals about and you have to navigate your way around - hardly a challenge in part two, you're either on the right track or swimming, but not straightforward over the first part.  Of course you can follow the herd but as there are only about 250 runners in this, the herd soon becomes spread out and you're separated from the rest of them like that elephant in Attenborough's Planet Earth.  Though the water situation was less acute. 

You meet up in the Shoulder of Mutton in Wendover which was already crammed full of runners with all manner of flash kit by the time I got there.  They give you a map book (8 pages long!!) and a radio tag so you can be checked in at check points of which there are 5 spread out fairly evenly along the 44 mile route.  Curiously the said Shoulder of Mutton was dishing out bacon butties which wouldn't be my first choice of pre-race food but they were disappearing at a rapid rate.  They also had Doombar on tap which normally would have me covering the distance from the front door to the bar in a time you'd need to sort of kit Cern have at their disposal to measure accurately.  But of course, no drink today. Well, not yet.

The pub was considerably warmer than the slate-grey driekiness that was the car park but the sleet/rain actually stopped and didn't bother kicking off again the whole way so it was almost pleasant.  I met up with Mike Baldock of Apex Sports before the off.  He does these things for fun having run the Comrades and the MdS several times and as I write this he's plodding along the Thames Path in the TT50 from Oxford to erm.. 50 miles away from Oxford. If you're into the long stuff or indeed running at all, that shop is highly recommended by the way. Ryan can also be found in there and he's run the full Grand Union Canal (145 miles!) in a single hit which just staggers me.

So we're sent on our way down what passes for a high street in Wendover, waved off by the odd passer by, their dogs and a few in the pub who looked suspiciously like they'd been less restrained over the Doombar than I had.

First challenge is pacing the race.  If you're running 50% further than ever before and the terrain is lumpy and muddy and you're on your feet for 6 and a half hours, going off too fast is disastrous so I settled into a very easy pace and didn't really deviate from it all race.  I find this always happens actually. You have two paces once you've started, what you started at and stop.  Pros may have one or two more I accept.

I took my first look at the map before we hit the first gradients and it was immediately apparent it was next to useless.  While it may well have shown the whole course, the actual route was microscopic and to add confusion, the same colour as the A road that ran alongside a fair part of it. I decided it was for emergencies only.  Perhaps to be exchanged for food with a passing obsessive cartophile.

There's a lot of pleasant running I've decided during an ultra. You're going along at a pace that feels ridiculously easy, everyone's chatting, the sun nearly came out and you're in the middle of nature.  Of course it's actually a slow and steady descent into hell, but you'd never know that from the start.  I also discovered you immediately forget how tough it was by that evening. There was quite a lot of nature as it goes.  The cows had converted most of the fields into a shin-deep mud bath which clagged to your shoes and rendered any grip useless.  Not that I had any; I decided on my Saucony Ride road shoes, the soles of which, had they been heat resistant, would give Teflon a run for its money.

I found myself in with a good group of about 8 and the miles passed by steadily as I shamelessly left the navigation entirely to someone in the group who'd run it before.  I noticed that walking is the done thing whenever there's any sort of major gradient.  No-one makes any attempt to run up it.  It's just not worth the expense of energy given the length of the race.  As you get past about 20 miles these little respites are pure heaven however and a wave of relief washes over you as you take a guilt-free walk briefly.  I also noticed that everyone was always asking everyone else how they were doing and that no-one ever said 'actually this is dreadful and I'm about to vomit up my bacon butty and pint of Doombar'.  It's clearly not the done thing.  Like you'd say 'how are you?' in real life and you're not expecting any bad news and would be quite irritated if you got anything more than a couple of positive words in return.

I think the mud must have taken it out of me, and I had almost zero sleep that week come to think of it but I was finding it a bit of a slog from the 18M point.  Not that I'd have noticed in the marathon, just the remaining distance being front of mind magnified the problem.  But you press on regardless. 

The checkpoints are an increasingly welcome relief for a couple of minutes to regain your scattered forces and put away some cake - I don't know what the cake was but it was just the best stuff I've ever tasted - water and, if you were so inclined, a sausage roll or two! Up there with the bacon butties as ill-advised race food in my view but what do I know?

There was a checkpoint just before the marathon distance - by now we were over the Chilterns and onto the towpath - and that was when it started to get tough.  Obviously a piece of my brain, used to running marathons, was organising a protest having realised we were still going.  There were 18 miles left and this is where one of the key rules of Ultrarunning kicks in - you don't think about the remaining distance, just small targets a short distance ahead of you. 

I'm pretty sore by now but a general soreness rather than anything specific chucking in the towel so pressed on through it.  The 8-strong group completely imploded somewhere around the checkpoint. I really don't know where they went but by 27 miles I could see one of them ahead in the distance but no sign of the rest.  The route was familiar now as I've run it many times; parallel to the Slough to Paddington mainline railway and some pretty unspectacular scenery. 

You turn towards Paddington at the junction on the canal at Bulls Bridge - the only point in the second half where you can go wrong - where there's a sign that helpfully points out Paddington is 13.5 miles away.  Again, you must try and blot that out.  It's still a half marathon.

I caught up with my group member and we ran on together. He announced he was using a strategy of walking a minute then running the rest of the mile from then on. I thought that sounded like a good plan and any chance of a walk..  It's incredible how fast your walking minutes go versus the yawning eternity that the remaining 0.85 miles takes.  You're praying for the watch to bleep to make it stop.  That said, next time I think I'd try and resist doing that as it's so hard starting again I'm not sure it was worth the minute off.

We were overtaking people now but this is overtaking like treacle and very slightly less sticky treacle might pass each other down the side of a school dinner pudding.  Several times we postponed the walk until we were well past them so they wouldn't overtake us back, and then us overtake them again when we restarted.  Competitive bloke this guy! 

There was a stiff wind blowing against us and it was all but freezing point and I'd not recommend that stretch of the canal for sights so this was a mental battle as we ticked down the remaining miles.  It seemed to take an eternity.  My GPS watch had packed up - we were out so long the battery had died - and though there were signposts to Paddington we weren't sure where the finish was in relation.  We had long conversations about 'we were sure Little Venice was nearer than the Paddington the signs referred to' ad infinitum.  I remember at one point the tow path rises over a sluice or something like that and it was all I could do to get over the gradient at any pace. It's extraordinary how it wears you down.

Eventually signs of civilisation started appearing and we knew there wasn't far to go.  We were about to take our last walk break when one of the organisers ran up to us (he'd not done the whole thing I surmised!) urging us on as the finish line was 'just under that blue bridge'.  I couldn't actually see a blue bridge.  Or indeed a bridge. But we of course had to set off again. 

The finish was basically a couple of flag banners and a small tent on the towpath.  What a massive relief to have completed it!  But a huge wave of euphoria hit and the endorphins kicked in, and there was plenty more of that cake and suddenly all was right with the world. 
finish line of the country to capital ultra
I could hardly walk and the cold really got to me then, even with 4 layers of clothing on the wind was still biting.  I managed to somehow change shoes despite being too numb to use my fingers, swallowed a couple of ibuprofen and started staggering towards the station to catch the train home.  Of course I spotted the Starbucks and ended up disappearing into there for a massive coffee and a ton of food.  Not a big fan of the place normally but they had heat.  And coffee. And food.

What surprised me was the rapidity of the recovery.  That evening I was walking pretty much normally and was running again in a couple of days.  I think actually I'm still getting over the damage and I've yet to get into proper marathon training but that surprised me. I had expected to lose up to a week.

What a fantastic experience.  It really is completely different to running a marathon and I think you should give one a try just to see what you can do. I always go into these things with a 'of course I can do it' attitude no matter what 'it' is and it's always paid off for me so far.  You just need to think positive and you can achieve anything.

The result wasn't of great concern to me as it was a training run but nevertheless I was very happy with 20th and 6:27 (the leader came in just over an hour faster).  It's slower than the pace I need for the much longer Comrades though so that was tempered with a realisation there is much to do.

Race Website: Country to Capital

2015 Race Route with Checkpoints (KML)
2015 Race Route with Checkpoints (GPX)
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This writing style is enjoyable to read for a race recap. The imagery is compelling. CtC is a race I'm considering for January, because i have ten days off from work and flights to London are pretty cheap then. But running through mud sounds frustrating, and i generally don't function well in cold weather conditions. The question is how crucial these factors are to the overall race experience.