September 2015

Leed Liverpool Canal Race 130

I entered the Leeds Liverpool Canal Race (LLC) in early June, as a defence against post Thames Ring blues. My initial plan was the British Ultra Fest 24 hour track race, but that got cancelled due to lack of entries. I then toyed with the idea of the (flat and fast) Berlin 100, but fear of spending several hundred quid on a race I might not be recovered for stopped me hitting enter. And then I stumbled on the LLC, 130 miles along a single canal organised by Dick Kearn (the man behind GUCR) and Wayne Singleton. Long enough to be a serious challenge, but a new distance for me, so no pressure to aim for a particular time.

I recovered from the Thames Ring fairly quickly, but (thanks to a holiday, a family get-together and a migraine) I only had a couple of weeks to prepare for LLC. And I spent that time focussing on not coming last at the (not very long, but very hilly) Long Tour of Bradwell. Not ideal preparation for 130 flat canal miles. It should at least have meant I was going in fresh. But no, I tend to suffer from under-use injuries. The car head-rest induced niggle I got in the Spring came back, and my right achilles randomly start playing up. I could feel it niggle on short runs on the Mon and Tues beforehand, and then it ramped up to down-right sore on Thu’s short run and all day Fri. I’d never felt less ‘up’ for a race. But the other-half was off to South Korea for work, so I might as well give it a go, and if I had to drop I could help out on one of the checkpoints (something I don’t do often enough).

I headed over to Liverpool by train on Friday night and stayed in a former prison. The room was a bit small (even for me) but the thick walls did a good job of keeping out the noise of the nightlife. The race started at 6am, so I set my alarm for 4.30 and downed 2 caffeine tablets for breakfast before heading to the start.

photo: Ross Langton

We headed off just after dawn and through what looked to be some slightly down-at-heel parts of Liverpool. There was a bit of back-and-forthing, but I settled down into a 25:5 run:walk routine and my customary early position, close to the back. The caffeine tablet breakfast turned out to be a bad idea. My bowels grumbled lots, but I managed to hold it in until I was far enough out of the city for there to be a suitable bush.


shuffling, photo: Ross Langton

The first checkpoint came into view, sooner than I expected, as I rounded a bend in the midst of a walk break. I broke into a ‘run’ again and was complemented on my shuffle. 100 miles in that would be a good thing. 13 miles is too soon to be shuffling, but that’s what I was doing. My achilles had eased off, but I was having difficulty lifting my feet off the ground and they kept catching on things. I had plenty of snacks so apart from refilling my water bottles I went straight through the CP.

Not long after CP1 the route got rural, and the path very narrow and rocky. I overtook a handful of people though and arrived at CP2 in 28th place (out of 34 starters). I stopped here and restocked my snacks and nibbled on some of Gill’s excellent cakes. The next stage through Wigan felt like a long haul, and I was still dragging my feet (literally). Plus my stomach was being fussy earlier than usual and I regurgitated a Mule bar into a bush. I began to seriously consider dropping out at CP4 at ~50 miles (before a 20 mile stage) if I didn’t feel better. The highlight of this stage was passing Wigan Pier. [Embarrassing confession: as a teenager I thought Wigan was on the coast. Because it had a pier (I’d tried and failed to read ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, after enjoying ‘1984’), and you only get piers at the seaside...]

By CP3 I was feeling sufficiently better that I only stopped to refill my bottles. The next 10 mile stage went smoothly, and the route reminded me of the Chesterfield canal, one of my staple long flat training runs. I had a longer stop at CP4, ate some of my cold pizza, drank some coffee, changed my socks & relubed my feet and got my gear ready for the night.

The run through Blackburn and Burnley went fine, despite it being Saturday evening. The worst thing that happened was a bunch of middle-aged men slapping me on the back good-heartedly when they discovered what I was doing. I did get a bit fed-up of being told I ‘didn’t have far to go’ though. A gorgeous sun-set was followed by a full moon and the temperature didn’t plummet like it usually does at night by water. CP5 was busy (with several people looking the worst for wear) and I managed to do some over-taking by only stopping for a coffee and some fruit. (I was offered all sorts of other foods, but none of it appealed, and I felt embarrassingly princess-y turning it all down.)

I’d managed to stick to my 25:5 run:walk routine (with occasional variations to make the most of nice even sections of path). But my running pace on the narrow, rocky paths had become glacial, so I decided to switch down to 10:5, and focus on trying to run at a decent pace during the run sections. A couple of miles before CP6 there was a deviation away from the canal and I caught up with Pete J. He initially thought I was Roz and apologised profusely. But I was happy to be mistaken for somebody far taller and more runner-shaped (even if it was dark). We overshot the turn back onto the canal, but quickly realised we shouldn’t be running uphill to get back on it.

I had another coffee at CP6, but my stomach was (as usual) becoming a bit unhappy. During the next stage the route overlapped with the Pennine Way for a little while, which was a bit weird. As was seeing a head-torch going in the opposite a field away. At this point the canal was very wiggly, but in the dark the wiggles weren’t obvious. I eventually caught the head-torch on another deviation away from the canal. It was Roz who was struggling with badly blistered feet. We chatted for a bit before I pressed on, making the most of the nice smooth tarmac. I got a bit carried away though and missed the turn back onto the canal and ended up taking a detour through Gargrave (which triggered some Spine Race reminiscences).

At CP7 they were cooking bacon and egg sandwiches, which didn’t make my temperamental (veggie) stomach feel any better. Again I was offered all sorts of food, and again I felt embarrassed turning it all down. So I said yes to a chicken flavoured (but veggie...) pot noodle, and slowly ate most of it, which was a mistake. I felt sick for the next few miles and my stomach got even more fussy. Crisps were too greasy, Hula Hoops too dry and a blackberry gel made me gag (it took a whole hour to get it down). So the only things I had left I could eat were espressos gels and (surprisingly) Mars bars.

The Sun came up soon after and I passed Peter F settling down on a bench for a nap. I didn’t feel tired then, but not long after it hit me (the power of suggestion maybe?). I took a couple of caffeine tablets and an espresso gel, and resolved to gut-out the 45 minutes it would take them to kick in. However I couldn’t resit the lure of a bench and set my alarm for a 5 min nap. I’m not sure whether I nodded off or not, but I got cold and had to get up and start moving again before the alarm went off. Eventually the caffeine kicked in, but I was still a bit sluggish. First Peter F charged past me as if he was out for a short morning run and then I suffered the ignominy of being overtaken by a power walking little old lady.

Water taps are far less common on the LLC than on the Southern canals, so topping up where there was water was crucial. Up till now I’d managed to find the taps which were marked on the maps OK, but I messed up at the Bingley Five Rise locks. Just beforehand there were several cafes, but I thought it would be easier to just use the tap. There was no sign of it at the top so I crossed the canal and went down the 5 steep sets of steps, assuming it would be attached to the stone hut at the bottom. But it wasn’t, and I couldn’t face climbing back up to the cafes. I tried to eke out the rest of my water, but I couldn’t eat without water, and without my drip-feed of calories I’d grind to a halt. I contemplated going off route to look for a shop, or even asking random people for water, when I came across a teenage boy who’d set up a stall selling water and other stuff. I was extremely happy, and relieved, to buy some water and he seemed happy to have a customer.

I caught up with Peter F, and another runner who looked to be in a bit of a state, at CP8. I ate a couple of nectarines (which were heavenly) and a mint, which did a fantastic job of settling my stomach (in future I’ll put a packet in my rucksack). The path into Leeds was pretty good, but busy. The walkers and cyclists were better than on the Oxford canal and the GUCR into London. But I had a couple of ‘encounters’ with dog walkers. One of whom told me their big red dogs wouldn’t hurt me as they jumped around me, head-butted my bum, and stopped me running. And another who stood on one side of the path while his ‘status’ dog on an extendable lead stood on the other side. I don’t know if he expected me to hurdle the lead!?

Eventually I came to the final set of bridges. One of the ‘joys’ of canal running is the bridge numbers. The next landmark (a crossing or a CP) is bridge x. You’ve passed bridge x-1 and a bridge comes into view ahead. Is it bridge x? No. It’s bridge x-1 A. And then comes bridge x-1 B, and so on. Sometimes the letters go up to H. Over the course of the race I got good at guessing from a distance whether a bridge was old (and hence would have a number of its own) or new (and likely to have a suffix). The final set of bridges were close together however, and pretty soon the finish came into view where I was (to my surprise) presented with a shiny purple trophy for first female by Dick:


purple loving person receiving purple trophy, photo: Gill Elomari

When I entered I came up with 32 hours as a rough goal (by working backwards from my GUCR time and forwards from a flat 100 time). I actually finished in 32.22, which I’m satisfied with given that I didn’t really do any proper training after the Thames Ring and I never felt good on the day. Finishing 1st female was mainly luck, or more precisely other people’s bad luck (Roz’s blistered feet and Sharon’s injury). Overall I was 9th, but that placing is rather flattering. 8th was 2 hours in front of me, but 6 people (including Roz) came in in the hour and a half after me.

The most surprising thing is that over the past couple of years I’ve grown to enjoy canal running. I entered GUCR in 2013 simply because it was a box to be ticked. Running in the hills was my first love. Part of the change of heart is because it turns out I’m better at plodding on the flat. But the canal runs are far more interesting and enjoyable than I expected: the contrast between the urban and rural bits, the satisfaction of travelling on foot from one city to another, the engineering and (especially on LLC) a glimpse back into the 18th century. [Apologies for the pretentious twaddle...]