Saturday 4 December 2021

Moonrakers and Sunseekers 300km Audax

A ride into the unknown


“You’re mad! I don’t see how any of that can be fun.”

This is my wife’s reaction to my suggestion that I’d like to take part in a 309km (192 mile) audax, overnight, after a week at work, in November. To be fair, it’s the same reaction I get from everyone I mention it to (except for Col who I completed the Dirty Reiver with a couple of years ago, so he gets it). When it becomes clear this will be everyone’s reaction, I just stop mentioning it.

The run up to the event

Prep for the ride goes smoothly: the bike is running well apart from a slightly heavy action to the front derailleur; I’ll be running Komoot through my phone for navigation and all evidence suggests one powerbank will be more than enough to keep it running for the duration (I take two) and the same goes for the battery for my light (I take a spare of those as well).

Despite doubling up on the batteries, I’m determined not to overpack for this ride as I have done on previous rides and ultramarathons. The forecast for the ride is unseasonably warm and dry so I opt not to run my full 14l Restrap saddlebag and purchase a 2.5l from Decathlon. I had thought I might need a full change of kit, but the forecast doesn’t change at all (if anything it gets milder the closer I get to the ride) so I decide to only take liner gloves, a spare base layer, my waterproof (the good one – see my previous blog for context) and a couple of inner tubes. All of which fit into the smaller saddlebag with room to spare.

The day arrives

Of course, the week leading up to the ride is rubbish: issues at home and work (nothing major but enough to have an effect) and I get to Friday morning having had way less sleep than I would have liked. However, I have been off the alcohol and caffeine for the last two weeks so feel healthy and alert despite the lack of sleep.

I make it through the day at work eating pretty much everything I can get my hands on and keeping myself hydrated with plenty of water and hydration tablets. I had expected the day to drag but it passes both quickly and uneventfully and I’m soon on my way home.

A tea of beige food carb-loading (pasta and garlic bread) and then off for a quick nap. I’m in bed for a couple of hours; I think one of them is spent asleep which is better than nothing and more than I had expected to get.

Packing the car takes no time at all (everything final checked and laid out the night before) and I’m on the road to Bristol at 8pm.

In the car, I admit to myself that I am scared of this ride. I honestly have no idea how this is going to play out; I’ve never ridden overnight before, and I’ve never ridden anywhere near this distance. I have absolutely no frame of reference for what could happen. ‘Fortunately’, the drive to Bristol is two hours of dark, narrow B roads so it takes my mind off the ‘what ifs’.

Bristol to Devizes (0 – 51km)

I arrive at the venue at 10pm, find somewhere nearby to park, get kitted up and ride over to the start. It’s weird to see so many people and bikes getting ready to ride at this time of night. There are bikes and set ups of all different types but what does stick out to me is that I seem to be riding a far more pared down rig in comparison to a lot of people. My one front light, small top tube bag (full of flapjack), medium frame bag (batteries and tools), smallish saddlebag and single rear light seems almost TdF-style next to the full Carradice bags and lighting arrays that would put Blackpool in the shade. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

Brevet card collected and stamped, and my wave is off at 22.35. We quickly make our way out of the venue and into night-time Bristol. A fast-moving bunch forms and I grab on to the back of it hoping to be pulled along for as far as I can manage. We weave through the town, the outskirts and on to Bath at a fair clip and by Bath we are already passing riders from the previous wave.

As we navigate through Bath’s Friday night revellers, I find I have a stupid grin on my face, and it takes me a while to figure out why. I feel naughty – mischievous. I feel the same way I did when I was a kid playing out after dark with my torch and it’s great.

The group works well together through to the far side of Bath, but we splinter on the Cat 4 slopes of Bathford Hill. Other than the chap powering ahead on his fixie, I distance the rest of the group and then I’m riding alone all the way to CP1 at Devizes. The roads are fast and undulating, there is a gentle tailwind and I feel great. Before long, I pull into the car park at the Moonrakers Pub and the first leg is done – 00.40 and 2hrs 5mins.

Devizes to Salisbury (51–91km)

I am Billy-No-Mates. I’m not riding with anyone else, and I’ve never got my head around the concept of the ‘café ride’. If I’m out for a ride, I’m out for a ride not a coffee and a cake. As such, I’m through CP1 pretty quickly – just there long enough for the fantastic volunteers stamping cards and handing out flapjack to laugh at the irony of me driving all the way from Bournemouth to Bristol just to ride back to Bournemouth and then to Bristol.

The ‘Billy-No-Mates’ thing continues all the way from Devizes to Salisbury. It’s a beautiful night; warm with easy-riding roads and my head is a pleasant place to be. Eventually, there is a slight drizzle, but it doesn’t put a dampener on my spirits (pardon the pun) and the kilometres just disappear beneath my wheels. Even at 80km, when that heavy action on the front derailleur goes one step further and stops shunting into the big ring, I can be philosophical about it: 1, at least it’s not Di2 so I’m not stuck in the big ring and 2, it’s God’s way of telling me to coast on the descents.

I hit the Salisbury checkpoint still feeling surprisingly fresh, riding like a little kid with my jacket wide open – 02.28 and 3hrs 53mins.

Salisbury to Poole (91–153km)

Again, I’m through the checkpoint quickly then I’m onto roads I know well. I stop at the 24 hour garage on the edge of the city to refill the flapjacks in my top tube bag and top up on water. I can’t believe the fact I’ve been up over 20 hours and still haven’t had a bout of ‘the dozies’ but I want to be prepared so grab a can of full fat Red Bull and slip it into my jacket pocket.

In the light, the Salisbury to Ringwood A338 is one of the most boring roads going, but in the dark and slight drizzle I disappear inside my head so it comes as something as a surprise when I look up to see the Ringwood town sign appear in front of me.

Stopping in Ringwood to wipe off my glasses, I’m subsumed by a fast-moving group and again I jump on the back hoping to be pulled along for some easy miles.

The group works well together, maintaining a steady pace and we’re soon though the country roads on the main drag to Christchurch. There is some confusion about the information control at 133km: we’re looking for the sign immediately after the Dorset County sign. The actual sign seems a strange choice, but we note it down then spend the next 50 or so km asking anyone and everyone if they got the same answer. They have, so we plough on.

For no discernible reason the group splinters as we get to the cliff road at Southbourne and I end up riding past work on my own. Down the road at Boscombe pier and it’s the run along the promenade all the way to Sandbanks. This early in the morning, the only other people on the prom are the guys in the JCBs grooming the sands so I’m able to clip along at a decent pace. I fall in with a solo female rider (sorry, I didn’t catch her name – I am so rubbish at small talk) and we cruise to the next checkpoint together. She’s not certain when I dive down a tiny, unmade side road so I can sense her relief when we turn into a driveway and there’s the Lilliput Sea Scout Hut all lit up, warm and welcoming and thronging with riders – 05.19 and 6hrs 44mins.

Poole to Podimore Services (153-223km)

The breakfast and welcome at the Sea Scout hut are excellent. Baked potato, sausages and beans goes down a treat. The hut is light and warm, and I can easily see how time could be lost at this stop: the halfway point and a good place to regroup if you set out with friends. I don’t have that consideration, so I eat, fill my bottles, check the battery life on my lights and phone (loads left) and set off once more. Only 23 minutes spent at this CP – bonus.

The rain comes on quite heavily as I make my way through the suburbs of Poole and for the first time in the ride my head starts to feel tired. Legs are fine but the lack of sleep is just starting to niggle at the back of my brain. This coincides with the start of what constitutes the hilly section of the route. On a descent in the half-light of the early sunrise I nearly miss a bend, lock up my back wheel on the slick road and slide unnervingly towards the very solid-looking trees lining the verge. Fortunately, I slow enough to make the turn and gingerly pick my way down the rest of the descent.

At 7am with the sun up, and my legs starting to wane slightly, I pull off the road and drink the Red Bull I’ve been nursing since Salisbury (90km ago). The two weeks off caffeine has worked and the jolt to my brain is pretty much instantaneous. Immediate mood change, and I’m raring to go.

Real life tends not to do pathetic fallacy, but the sky is clear, the sun is out, and my legs are full of energy as I climb the hills around Milton Abbey School. The colours are glorious and, once again, my jacket is open and I’m grinning like a little kid on Christmas Day. Over 190km done and it’s still Type 1 fun.

The ride is so much fun, the kilometres disappear again, and Podimore Services soon hove into sight – 09.04 and 10hrs 29mins.

Podimore to Yatton Railway Station (223-280km)

This is the longest I spend at any of the checkpoints (31 minutes to be precise). It’s an opportunity to eat real food (6 inch chicken and bacon Sub) and completely restock my bottles and top tube bag. At the table next to me is YouTube audax luminary, Richard Lake, which is a surprise as he left Poole before me, but his video will later tell a tale of punctures and slowly deflating tyres.

In the petrol station, I’m surprised when the chap on the checkout asks if I want my receipt (my proof of attendance for my brevet card) stamped with an earlier time. Apparently, other riders had actually asked for that. I’m not sure how that works because your end time is your end time so surely interim times are meaningless? Anyway, I stock up on flapjack and water and grab another can of RedBull (just in case) and then I’m off.

The next section of the ride is pretty much pan flat. Komoot tells me there was a climb just after the stop, but I have no memory of it. I’m through some long, straight country roads without any drama and then I hit the Strawberry Line cyclepath.

Blogs and vlogs had warned me this would be gravelly and muddy and slow-going in places. However, it’s been dry all week with only some light rain overnight so my 32mm Panaracer Gravelking slicks cope with the path admirably. It is thick with fallen leaves so their slippery nature has to be given due care and attention but other than that it is nice to be off the roads for once. The only thing really slowing me down is the popularity of the path for walkers and their dogs but it’s a shared path and I’m not racing so I’m happy to slow down as and when it’s needed.

Eventually, I roll into Yatton Station at 280km, still smiling and still surprised at how strong my legs are. I won’t be winning a signpost sprint anytime soon but neither am I chewing my handlebars - 11.58 and 13hrs 23mins.

Yatton Station – Arrivee (280-309km)

As a break from all the flapjack, I grab a bag of cheese and onion crisps at the café where I get my brevet card stamped. They are quickly downed, and I have one final check before the last push of 29km – bottles have plenty of water and the powerbank feeding my mobile phone still has well over 40% left. The weather is still fine and warm and it’s a great day to be riding but my brain knows the end is in sight. As much as I have enjoyed the ride and am still enjoying the ride, it’s time for it to be done.

I’d like to say the final few kilometres are spent savouring my achievement but that would be a lie. From the outskirts of the city, the route winds its way through Bristol’s rat’s nest of cycle lanes and paths and I spend every moment checking and rechecking my GPS. When you’ve cycled 300km, you really don’t want to add any undue distance.

And with that, I start to recognise roads from my drive in the night before and then I’m done: arrivee at 309km, 13.42 and 15hrs 7mins.


I check in with my brevet card and sit down for a plate of vegan daal and rice. It’s a nice way to end the ride and just another example of the fantastic job Will Pomeroy and his army of volunteers do to make this experience as brilliant as has it been. Of course, me being me, I don’t hang around for long and I’m soon packed up, in the car and on my way to my accommodation for a much-needed shower and nap. My wife is the sensible one and has booked me a room for the night so I’m not driving home having not slept in over 32 hours.


As reflections go, this one isn’t the learning experience you might expect. Bearing in mind it was my first 300km and my first overnighter, everything went as well as I could have hoped:

  • Other than my front derailleur giving up the ghost, the bike worked perfectly
  • My lights, phone and powerbanks worked without fault
  • I kept myself fed and watered all the way round even when I didn’t feel like it so never bonked
  • Clothing was spot on, if a little warm at times but perfect when it was drizzling and a bit cold out of Poole

So, if you fancy a 300km audax, I can highly recommend the Moonrakers and Sunseekers 300km. It’s brilliantly organised, incredibly friendly, relatively flat for such a long route and riding through the night makes way more sense than you might think. I might even go back again next year.

The Stats

Distance: 309km

Elevation: 2136m

Moving Time: 13hrs 8mins

Total Time: 15hrs 7mins

Average Power: 124w

Normalized Power: 155w

Calories: 6208cal


Saturday 27 November 2021

Cycling the Leeds-Liverpool Canal: When Bike-touring Goes A Bit Wrong


I appear in lycra at the living room door.

Scott (9): Have you been for a ride?

Me: Yup.

Scott: Was it the big ride?

Me: No. Not yet. That’s next week when we go to Nana and Grandad’s. Why did you think it was?

Scott: You’ve been going on about it for long enough.

Me: …

Out of the mouths of babes…


The idea for this trip came about in the summer of 2019. I was back in Leeds visiting friends and we took a ride out along the Leeds-Liverpool canal for an easy gravel ride and café stop. It was a sunny day in August, there was a brisk but not unpleasant headwind and somewhere just outside Silsden I turned to Col and suggested that riding the full length of the canal would probably be a fun thing to do. He agreed and the idea was born.

The Plan

Fast forward two years, a global pandemic and Col dropping out due to focusing on running so not being bike fit and I was in the final stages of prepping for the “big ride” that I’d been “going about… for long enough.”

The plan was to head up to my parents’ in Howden for the first week of the school summer holidays, get my boys settled in with the grandparents and then take the Wednesday and Thursday (July 28th and 29th) for my first ever bike tour. I’d ride on the road from Howden to Liverpool; stay at a hotel that night (no camping for me thanks) and then, the next day, ride with the prevailing wind for the entire 127 miles of the Leeds-Liverpool canal.

Day one would be 176km on the road with 1640m of climbing over the Pennines from East Yorkshire to Lancashire. Day two would be 219km with 500m of elevation. So, not really taking it steady for my first go at this bike touring stuff.

Still, I was confident that I had pretty much everything covered: the bike was in good working order; I was in good working order; I had all the kit I thought I’d need, and I felt comfortable with the route Komoot had planned for me. I just needed the unknown variables, like the weather, to come together for me and it would be a trip to remember.


Day One: Howden to Liverpool

Howden-Kippax (0-42km)

The weather forecast didn’t look too bad. Although Britain had been battered by storms earlier in the month, the worst seemed to be behind us and the forecasts for my two days of riding suggested it would be warm (good) with showers (not terrible) and strong westerly winds on the ride home (yippee, a back wind for 127 miles).

After a hearty breakfast of bacon sandwiches (even at 46 years old Dad’s still making sure I’m properly fed), a final check of the bike, a hug with Dad (I’m not too old) and it’s a pleasant 7.08am start to what I expect will be a long day in the saddle.

Even on 40mm gravel tyres, the bike pootles along at a decent clip and I’m soon passing the red brick farmhouses of East Yorkshire’s agricultural countryside without a care in the world and thoroughly enjoying my ‘me time’. These are the sights and smells of my childhood: Drax power station dominating the skyline and the pungent aroma of Selby’s flour mills filling my nostrils making me smile with nostalgia. I’m not even that bothered when I take my first drink of the day and the nozzle of my bidon breaks off and is lost to the hedgerow. It just means that bottle will have to stay upright in the seat tube cage from now on.

East Yorkshire is flat which makes for easy riding when it’s not windy. On this day it was windy. Not unexpected when you’re riding east to west in Britain, but it was a stiffer breeze than forecast and although the fields were rolling by, they weren’t rolling by with quite the speed or ease I had hoped for. Still, there was no hurry so I adjusted my expectations accordingly and trundled on.

Kippax-Huddersfield (42-82km)

East Yorkshire gives way to West Yorkshire; red brick gives way to white stone; warm and dry gives way to warm and showery; rolling roads give way to undulating give to way “Oh bloody hell, I’d forgotten it could be like this.”

Skirting south of Leeds and north of Wakefield, I pass through towns I know well from when I lived in Leeds (Rothwell, Tingley, Batley – Fox’s biscuits head office factory shop closed for obvious reasons) but I had forgotten how they are all built on steep, punchy hills. I’m thankful for my 30-34 bottom gear and happily winch my way through the industrial north. Despite the rain, which is light but becoming more frequent I’m in a good frame of mind and it is still very much Type 1 fun.

A quick Tesco stop on the edge of Heckmondwike (got to love northern town names) for some dirty road food – a Ginsters chicken and mushroom slice and bottle of Lucozade if you must know – and I drop down towards Huddersfield looking for the Birkby Bradley Greenway. A little bit of research when scanning the route had shown this is a nine mile stretch of cycle path following a disused rail line and is popular with families and bike commuters and, after the incredibly busy town centres I had been through, I’m looking forward to something a little less hectic. And it is… for all of the 2-3 miles I am on it. Still, it’s a relief to be off the roads for a while and I can see why Kirklees Council are looking to extend the path further.

The Greenway drops me at the northern edge of Huddersfield and I make my way through the suburbs to Crosland Moor south-east of the town.

Crosland Moor-Oldham (82-110km)

With over 1600m of elevation on the day’s route, it can’t be called flat but the course profile on Komoot told me there were only 3 major climbs for the day. The climb out of Crosland Moor was the first of the three.

Although not technically the Pennines, it definitely felt like the landscape was building up to something big. Back down into 30-34 and a steady 3km winch out of town and up into the wilds of the West Yorkshire countryside. The view from the top is magnificent, sublime; the kind of view poets wax lyrical about, and walkers clad themselves head to foot in Berghaus in order to see, and it’s worth every watt of power I expend to get there. This is where, once again, I rue my lack of photography skills. No matter what I watch on YouTube, no matter how many people say, “Just do this…” and show me how to “do that”, my photography skills are crap and I know it. I take the kind of photos that Boots used to send back with that sticker on them that warned of ruined exposures which was just a nice way of saying the photographer is an incompetent idiot. But still, I stop at the side of the road, treat myself to a Mars and snap away with my phone in the hope that some of them might come out as half decent.

I also start to feel out of my comfort zone. I live in on the border of Dorset and Hampshire and as lovely as they are, they can only be described as ‘pretty’ with the occasional foray into ‘chocolate box’. Where I am now isn’t that; it’s vast, powerful, raw and the sky on the horizon, my horizon, is dark and tempestuous. This is Heathcliffe, Cathy and Wuthering bloody Heights and I’m riding into it. I’ll be honest, I’m properly intimidated.

I take a moment, clip in, set off and I soon settle down. The road undulates with some brief descents followed by longer climbs and then a long descent into the town of Marsden at the foot of the Pennines. The foot of climb number two. The foot of the longest and steepest climb of the route right on to the top of Saddleworth Moor (why is that name familiar?)

The weather has drawn in by now, it’s drizzling and the clouds above me are black. I’m in my ancient Castelli shower jacket which is offering no protection from anything and once again old faithful 30-34 is taking me slowly up out the town, past the park rangers (who seem to know something I don’t and are taking refuge in their trucks), past the fully waterproofed hikers who are heading down off the hills and finally out onto the moor itself.

Then the heavens open.

But this is not just rain. This is a hailstorm. The hailstones are massive; they’re bouncing off the road; they’re bouncing off me and they bloody hurt. They’re so big they are literally ringing the bell on my bike. Down the road I can see what looks like a pub out in the middle of the moor so I put the hammer down and head for it.

By the time I reach the pub, my arms are stinging from the hailstones and the hail has turned to torrential rain and I’m soaked through. As I pull into the car park to find the pub is sort of abandoned - there are cars parked so someone clearly lives there but the pub bit is boarded up – I can already feel my feet squelching in my shoes and I’m freezing cold.

While I shelter in the lee of the pub, I take stock of my surroundings and situation and two things occur to me: 1, The pub and its wild, isolated location reminds me of the Slaughtered Lamb from ‘An American Werewolf in London’ which makes me smile, “Just stick to the road and you’ll be safe”; 2, I remember what Saddleworth Moor is (in)famous for and the smile is immediately wiped from my face. It’s still hammering it down but I don’t want to be here anymore and figure that if I can drop down the side of the hill the weather might be better lower down the other side.

I get out onto the road, crest the hill and begin the descent into Diggle (I kid you not). It’s like riding down a waterfall: the road is steep and narrow, the rain water is flowing freely and I’m glad of my hydraulic brakes. I make it gingerly to the bottom of the hill and the rain does ease off but I feel very sorry for myself and for the first time that day I seriously consider a, whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew and b, should I can the ride?

Out through Diggle and Dobcross and up the third main climb on the route. It’s a steady and steep climb but the rain has abated and I’ve only done 100km so I’m still fresh. At the top, I stop and treat myself to a packet of crisps and a couple of scotch eggs my Dad had suggested I take – they were a good idea. I sit on a wall and enjoy the view. Komoot says there’s about 75km left to go. It’s about 1.30pm at this point and I’ve been in the saddle for over 6 hours but the rest of the route is flattish and, although I’m soaked and cold, if the weather holds off, I’m confident I can make it to Liverpool in about 4-5 hours.

But the weather doesn’t hold off. What happens next goes beyond torrential. The rain that hits me as I drop down towards Oldham can only be described as biblical. Gravel bike? Sod that! I need a bloody ark.

I know the old adage that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing and I know that I left at home an excellent OMM waterproof jacket that I save for ‘special occasions’ (and if this isn’t a special occasion, what is?) but I have never, ever been out on a bike in rain like this. The deluge is so immense the road immediately floods so that it’s like riding through a stream. I am utterly, utterly drenched and need to find shelter quickly. I see a OneStop with an overhang outside and head for it.

As I stand outside the OneStop and question my life choices, I realise this is not fun anymore. It’s definitely not Type 1 and I suspect it won’t even be Type 2 after the fact. Even in it’s Quad Lock rain poncho, my phone is so wet I can’t make the screen work to check my options for pulling the plug on this ride. I lock up the bike and head into the OneStop to buy Kleenex and a massive Costa hot chocolate from the machine.

Back outside, I drink my hot chocolate and set to work with the Kleenex drying my hands and then my phone. It’s still rain cats and dogs and the rest of the entire animal kingdom but I’m sheltered enough to be able to work. As far as I can see it, I have two options: 1, a 10km ride to Manchester Piccadilly railway station and the train home or 2, a 10km ride to Manchester Victoria and the train to Liverpool.

I’m pretty certain what happens next is a short-circuit in the brain that most cyclists suffer from but without really considering the consequences I choose option 2.

Oldham-Manchester-Liverpool (110-120ish km)

The ride into Manchester is horrific. The rain gets worse and all the old jokes about Manchester and rain play out in my head as I navigate the busy roads and hideous weather. I’m thankful for every cycle path Komoot takes me on away from the manic car drivers and massive lorries passing way too close for comfort but I eventually make it to the station.

Ticket bought and I’m on the train, freezing cold despite the warm temperature. It’s only a short journey to Liverpool but it’s long enough for me to calm myself down, eat a Double Decker and drink a full fat Coke. By the time we reach our destination I’m feeling a bit better about myself and I step off the train to greeted by warm sunshine.

It’s a very short ride to the Albert Dock Premier Inn and I’m soon in my room and hanging up my soaking clothes. It takes a full 40 minutes of sitting in the bath, constantly topping it up with steaming hot water, to finally get my core body temp back up to a point where I’m not shivering. Thank God, I didn’t consider making this a camping trip.

The rest of the evening is uneventful: dinner for one at Pizza Express, a walk along the historic waterfront, a quick provision run for tomorrow’s breakfast and ride then some downtime in front of the TV.

The plan is a 5am alarm for a 6am start so it’s lights out at 10pm. I check weather forecast one last time; it’s still going to be a very strong back wind (up to 20mph – yippee) but it’s definitely going to rain for at least most of the morning (boo hiss).

My only thought as I drift off to sleep is that today was just supposed to be a transfer day.

Day One: Howden-Liverpool

Distance: 120km (by bike)

Elevation: 1500m

Ride time: 6hrs 20mins

Total time: 7hrs 55 mins


Day Two: Liverpool to Leeds

Liverpool to Burscough Bridge (0-43km)

Morning arrives and I’m already up and about when my alarm goes off at 5am. Fortunately, overnight, three things have happened to make it a good start to the day: I’ve slept well, I don’t have any aches, pains or soreness and all my kit is completely dry. Bonus.

A quick breakfast of Tesco sandwiches, get dressed, packed up and I’m out on the road by 5.45am. The very strong winds that were promised have properly arrived and are blowing a hoolie across the Mersey. But that’s why I’m riding the canal west to east and this is the tailwind I’d been hoping for. The sky is dark and overcast but it’s dry so I can work with that.

A quick photo with The Beatles, some faffing around in an industrial estate and I find the canal. It’s the not the very start of the canal so, being a completist, I ride the 500m or so to the start to get the obligatory photo. If I’m doing this, then I’m doing this.

The towpath is a mix of either pavement or hardpack gravel and at this time in the morning there are few commuters using it so I make good time heading north out of the city. However, as I hit the outskirts it begins to drizzle which quickly turns to rain which quickly turns to downpour and once again my ancient rain jacket is soaked through and me with it.

I get off the towpath at Burscough Bridge and take refuge in the Tescos there. I treat myself to some pecan plaits and a bottle of Lucozade. I have a bright idea: maybe I can get a cheap waterproof from their clothing department, but I’m scuppered by them only having summer season clothes available – insert your own jokes here about British summer clothing including waterproofs.

As I stand in the shelter of the bikepark and watch the rain bounce off the ground, I have my first low point of the day. A little over 2 hours in and I’m already wondering if it was worth the effort.

The rain finally eases (but doesn’t stop) so I gird myself and get back out onto the towpath.

Burscough Bridge to Blackburn (43-98km)

Once I’m riding again, I have a word with myself. It might be throwing it down but it’s warm(ish), I’ve got a strong tailwind and I’m under no time pressures whatsoever, so I ease off, look up and start to enjoy the scenery and the ride.

Passing the DW Stadium at Wigan, the towpath becomes perfect block paving that gives the impression it’s hovering just above the long grass either side of it. It’s flat and wide and with the tailwind I’m soon racing along at 30kmph for very little effort, but it doesn’t last. The block paving begins to break up and soon the towpath is little more than mud single track at the side of the canal.

This mixture of terrain becomes the norm as I head north to Blackburn with gravel towpath frequently giving way to single track of which some is decidedly broken and a bit of a challenge in the wet even on my 40mm tyres. I’ve been on the go for nearly 6 hours when I pass Ewood Park Stadium and I’m tired and drenched and cold. Both the weather and the challenging terrain have taken their toll, but I’ve realised something else by now: there might not be much climbing along a towpath but that also means there are no downhills either. I’ve been pedalling non-stop for the entire time like some kind of off-road time trial.

I pull off the path at Blackburn and take refuge in Costa. It’s warm and dry and the enormous latte I order goes some way to thawing me out. My mood has dipped again: I’m going slower than expected and the ride has been quite a bit harder than I’d given it credit for. But I also recognise that most of the issues with my mood are from a lack of sugar in my fuel – I’ve been eating mainly sandwiches and crisps and, although the carbs and salt have stood me in good stead, they’ve done nothing to bolster sugar levels. When I hit the Asda next door for more provisions, I make sure to fill my top tube bag with Mars and Double Deckers.

Blackburn to Barnoldswick (98-152km)

Out of Blackburn the miraculous happens: the clouds part, the sun shines and I’m able to shed my jacket for the first time all day. I quickly dry out and my mood brightens no end. The towpath weaves its way through the suburbs of Blackburn, the going is easy and I actually begin to enjoy the riding properly for the first time all day.

And just outside Blackburn I hit the halfway marker: Liverpool 63.5 miles/Leeds 63.5 miles. It’s weird how such a small thing can have such an enormous impact on a person’s mentality. A quick stop for a photo and my brain does that weird thing of completely readjusting its expectations. A little voice in my mind pipes up, “Just a short 63 mile ride to go and it’s the ride home.” My brain has clearly chosen to ignore that it’s taken the best part of 7 hours to get here. Anyway, back on the bike and off we go. 

As I leave the town of Clayton-le-Moors behind me, the countryside opens up and I begin to see just how high the canal has climbed. The fields around are stunning in the broken sunlight and the towpath reflects the wilder surroundings as it becomes a narrow, rutted singletrack that is slow going and rough on the hands and arms.

I come to a sign that says the towpath is closed further on for works. I know I should have checked if this would happen before I set off but I’d hoped it wouldn’t be an issue. I don’t fancy retracing my route along that broken track so opt to push on hoping I might be able to sneak past the works. My luck is definitely not in.

2km further up the towpath and the route is completely blocked by fencing and big signs making it clear that ‘sneaking past’ is not an option. I’m thankful I’m running my phone and Komoot for navigation because the size of the screen makes it easy to find a road route around the problem. I retrace my route back to the first sign and head out onto a busy main road before turning off back to the canal. It’s a 3k detour to circumvent 500m of closed path. I treat myself to a Double Decker to help put it behind me.

From there it’s an easy run into Burnley and I tick off my third and final football stadium of the day – Turf Moor. These were not the sights I’d expected to see on the journey, but it’s been a funny old day and there’s been something strangely satisfying about seeing them.

The towpath skirts the border of the Forest of Bowland and when the canal breaks out from its treelines the open fields and rolling hills a truly magnificent to behold. I try to take some photos with my phone and hope that some will come out to do the views justice. However, as the views become wilder and more stunning so the path becomes more rutted and narrow and again I have to concentrate way more on the riding than I had expected. I slow down considerably and wind my way to Barnoldswick.

Barnoldswick to Skipton (152-172km)

After a brief foray into Barnoldswick for food and drink, I’m on my way again. The sun is properly out now (of course it is now that we’re on the right side of the Pennines) and it has got much warmer but is still the nice side of pleasant. But I’m mentally and physically knackered and this is the toughest section of the path. Most of the time I’m out of the saddle to navigate the wet singletrack along the narrow bank and there are a couple of moments when my front wheel loses traction and I have to quickly unclip to save myself. Just the other side of Gargrave the inevitable happens.

Just at a spot where the bank has fallen away, my front tyre slips in the mud, goes straight off the side of the bank and into the canal. I unclip in that same instant and get both feet down hoping the water won’t be deep and for the first time today my luck is in. Mother Nature comes to my rescue. The reeds are particularly thick in this bank indentation, and I find myself standing up to my knees in water, front wheel fully submerged, with the bike and I being held out of the main waterway by the verdant canal flora.

Careful not to break my precarious perch, I lift the bike onto the path and climb up after it. I’m about to jump back on the bike when I have yet another word with myself. Perhaps I need a timeout. I plonk my backside on the grass and break out a Mars bar. Then from somewhere deep inside me a fit of giggles rises up and I let it all go. God knows what I must look like; a middle-aged man covered in mud up to his knees, sitting on his arse on a wet canalside laughing like an utter loon. Whatever I do like look like, I feel all the better afterwards for getting it out of my system.

The rest of the ride into Skipton is no less treacherous but much more enjoyable and the sign telling me I’ve reached the highest point on the canal really just tells me that it’s all downhill from here.

Skipton to Leeds (172-219km)

Through Skipton I’m running low on water and food I know I should stop to resupply but the truth is I just can’t be bothered. I’m onto the part of the canal I know well from when I lived in Leeds and I know I can restock at any one of the towns I’ll be passing through at regular intervals from now. I am briefly tempted to just get on the main road knowing it’s pretty much downhill all the way to Leeds but with the end in sight I ignore the temptation.

At Silsden, I come to a set of gates that seem familiar and oddly significant. As I manhandle the bike through them it comes to me; this was the turnaround point for our ride two years ago; this was where the idea for this ride was born. I take a minute to appreciate that fact, take a couple of photos and enjoy the realisation that the end is (almost literally) in sight.

From here on it’s a tour of towns from my old road riding days in and around Leeds: Silsden, Keighley, Bingley 5 Locks (where Col and I contemplated this idea over coffee and cake) and Saltaire. At Saltaire, I pass between the converted mills either side of the canal and know that I’m even closer to the end because this was part of my old running routes. The towpath is excellent along these stretches and even though I’m completely out of water and food by now I just keep on pedalling.

Shipley is next and then it’s no more than 7km to my next waypoint: the bridge across the canal at Apperley Bridge. Reaching here is a milestone. This is the turn off to my old house and it feels good to be on such happy and familiar ground. Not only that but about another kilometre along the way I meet Col coming the other way to meet me. We were supposed to meet to ride in together then go for something to eat but I’m way behind schedule and he only has a short time before he has to be somewhere else. Still, it’s great to see him and his boundless Kiwi enthusiasm keeps me buoyed for the 9km we can ride together.

A quick hug and a photo and Col peels off leaving me with about 6km to the end. It’s an easy ride and I’m in no rush so back off what little pace I have left and take the time to soak in what I’ve achieved. I’ve ridden across East and West Yorkshire and over the Pennines on a fully-loaded bike. I’ve ridden the entire length of the Leeds-Liverpool canal. Along the way, I’ve seen the Pennines in all their glory; I’ve had The Beatles hold my bike for me; passed three major football stadiums; I’ve ridden through thunder and hailstorms; I’ve gone front wheel first into the canal and I’ve waved to both the first and second houses I ever owned. It’s been quite a ride.

And, after all that, it’s just as ignominious an end to the ride as it was the start. Somewhere by Granary Wharf the canal just ends and morphs into one of the other many waterways that feed into the River Aire. Once again, I park the bike and get a quick photo before getting my bearings and riding on to the station to catch the train back to Howden. Job done

Day Two: Liverpool-Leeds

Distance: 219km

Elevation: 497m

Ride time: 11hrs 40mins

Total time: 13hrs 11mins


Having had a time to reflect on the ride and everything that went with it, there are lessons to be learnt - most of which are obvious from reading what has gone before:

  • don't leave perfectly good gear at home - use it
  • if the weather doesn't look like it will play ball, leave it. There'll be another day for the ride in the future
  • have a better look at the route before you set off - make sure you know exactly what you're getting yourself into
  • don't underestimate 'flat' rides
However, beyond all this, I did have an adventure and that was the point. Maybe next time i'll just try to make it a little less adventurous.




Saturday 17 February 2018

The Thames Trot 2018


Writing this two weeks after the race has given me time to properly reflect on the experience and move through all the accompanying and conflicting emotions. Anything less and this post would have needed a Parental Advisory Explicit Language sticker.

Plot spoiler - I DNFed at 27.5 miles.


Going into the Thames Trot I hadn't really known what to expect: it was going to be my longest ultra at 48 miles and it would be the first time I had done two ultras in (relatively) quick succession with only three weeks since the Country to Capital. As such I wasn't really sure how to train between the races so the first week after the C2C was spent recovering; the second week had some light, low mileage runs; and the third week was spent tapering with very little in the way of exercise. This was not what I had planned but work threw up three of the toughest weeks I've had as a teacher so any semblance of a normal life went out the window.

By the time I was packing for the trip to Oxford, I didn't feel physically or mentally ready for what was supposed to be my longest ever run. My head space was a very dark place and just the faff of packing up made me irritable. Not how wanted to go into the race but I was hoping the run itself might clear my head and let me get some perspective.

Race morning

After a pretty decent night's sleep at Oxford YHA, I trundled out to the train station to catch the minibuses ferrying runners from the railway to the start line. It was dark and cold and raining. Chat in the minibus on the way to the venue was the usual mix of pre-race banter, nerves and references to individuals' race/injury history but one thing was clear - although none of us minded running in the rain once we got going, we felt it was bad form to have to start in the rain.

Registration was slick as usual thanks to Go Beyond Ultra's years of experience making sure everything ran like clockwork. It was nice to be able to stay in the hotel's function room right up until race start and the coffee provided was more than welcome. With race bags loaded into the vans for the finish line and a final trip to the loos it was out into the cold for the start.

Race start to CP1 - Mud!

As this was the 10th anniversary of the race there was a brief speech then the countdown and we were off.

Down the lane, across the lock bridges and out onto the Thames path. Path!? That's a laugh. Thames sodden, ploughed field would be a more suitable name. Now, I'm not naïve. I might not have run the race before but I had done my due diligence of watching the vlogs, reading the blogs and speaking to people (OK, person) who had run it before so I knew there would be mud. In the Venn diagram of all these research materials, mud was the one factor where they all over-lapped. Along with being pan-flat, it's the course's defining feature so I had been expecting there to be mud. But this wasn't the mud I had expected.

From the moment we crossed those lock gates and hit the 'path' the mud was thick and slick. It was almost impossible to run with any kind of rhythm; every footstep had to be planned with infinitesimal precision to minimise the inevitable slip. My mind was in overdrive watching other runners pick their line through the mud, deciding moment to moment whether to follow their line or go my own way. My core was working overtime to keep my legs beneath me and maintain forward momentum. It was running but not any kind of running I had experienced before.

There were some breaks from the mud when the path actually became a path of sorts or it wound itself across riverside fields when you could go 'full fell-runner' and just cut your own route but it was never enough. If you stepped off the path then you were running cross-country and the ground beneath your feet was uneven, slippy and a nightmare for your ankles. If you stayed on the path it was still slick and, if it had been firm underfoot for the frontrunners, by the time I hit it, the path was rapidly becoming a quagmire.

This continued for 10 miles.

CP1 to CP2 - The darkness sets in

Despite the going underfoot being horrendous leading to a ridiculously slow pace and a disproportionately high heart rate my mental state was still pretty positive. It was early in the race, although cold, the rain had abated and I had managed to enjoy some of the scenery on the few sections of path that had let me lift my view for a few seconds from picking my line. And so I hit CP1 feeling pretty good.

Following the same strategy as the C2C, I went through the checkpoint with minimal stoppage time and ploughed on with the next section. And 'ploughed' is probably the most appropriate word. The mud just carried on and on and on.

There were breaks from that relentless enemy but they were few, far between and never long enough to reach that mental state you go to when running for long distances. I never got to a point where I wasn't aware that I was running - where my body just kept on going without the need for conscious thought. Remember, I had been hoping this run would help clear my head of all that work fluff that had got in the way for the last few weeks but it didn't. I was always present, always aware, always conscious of the mud, the physical and mental effort the run needed and I was acutely aware that my mental endurance was much closer than my physical endurance to its limits.

Then the course pulled a fast one.

With a mile or so to go before CP2, the ground firmed up, it even became a gravel path in places and the running got so much easier. The mud cleared from my trainers and my core got a respite from the burning agony of pulling my legs back into line every footstep. My body got a break and so did my head... meaning I hit CP2 feeling quite happy with myself.

CP2 to CP3 - The fat lady sings

And because I was quite happy going into CP2 it meant I was quite happy to leave the 19 mile marker with a view to finishing the race. As the course wound its way between houses and down ginnels along some lovely tarmac, I was lulled into a false sense of security and began to enjoy the run. Neither the tarmac nor the enjoyment lasted long.

I won't go on any more about the mud suffice to say I was soon back in it and it was a bad as any of the previous sections. By the time I got to Oxford Brookes University's boathouse I'd had enough.

I love running and I love the sense of achievement I get from completing these events but mostly I run them for the following reasons:
  • along with training, they are a break from the stress of real life
  • they give me a chance to see parts of the countryside I wouldn't usually get to see
  • they are fun.
The problem was this race wasn't ticking any of those boxes:
  • there was no break from mental stress because I couldn't get to a point where my head was clear enough to assess, evaluate and therefore deal with the stress of real life
  • at no point could I look up long enough to enjoy the scenery. Even now I can't recollect anything of any interest from the course
  • it was not fun.
I'd come to run and this wasn't running so at the boathouse I got out the course maps and my phone, triangulated my position and figured out where would be the best place to drop out. It seemed CP3 would be ideal - there would be marshals so I could officially DNF and it was in a town so there would be transport links to the finish line.

That was it. I made my decision and set off to complete my final few miles of mud-bound hell.

CP3 - A very public DNF

Coming into CP3 at just over 27 miles there was no doubt in mind that I was going to DNF. Three weeks earlier, 44.5km over a hilly course had taken me 4hrs 29mins. Today, on a completely flat course, it had taken me 5hrs 15mins. I couldn't face another 4-5 hours of slog like that. I just had to get up the courage to DNF in such a public place.

Bear in mind that as you arrive at any checkpoint you will be met by marshals welcoming you in, volunteers congratulating you on making it so far and spectators cheering you on. To DNF in that kind atmosphere when you have no real reason to quit - no medical or mechanical that can't be fixed - takes a lot of nerve. I never hesitated.

Of course, I hadn't expected there to be any recriminations. Nobody involved in any aspect of this kind of event would ever question someone's reasons for dropping out. Those of us who run know how hard these events and those that support us running know how hard we train for them. If we're dropping out we have a good reason even if it is 'I'm just not feeling it today' as it was for me.

With my name given and my timing chip handed in that was me done. It was then a matter of planes, trains and automobiles to get to the finish line at Henley to pick up my drop bag (with my clean clothes and car keys) then back to Oxford to pick up my car before making the 80-odd mile drive back home.

I was still home before the last finisher made it to Henley.


As I reflect on the race, from this safe distance of two weeks later, there's a lot to be taken from the experience.

1, I have not felt any need to beat myself up about DNFing. It was my first non-medical, non-mechanical DNF but I don't regret it. Had I pushed on to the end or even just to the next checkpoint I might have seriously soured my love of running (at least for a bit) but I haven't. I still look forward to getting my trainers on and getting out for a run.

2, I don't feel like the course beat me. I have no need to sign up for next year's race to prove something to myself. Nothing is going to change. It will still be the Thames 'Path', it will still be in rainy February and it will still be a mud-bath. That's not going to change so my experience of it won't. Everyone who finished the race thoroughly deserved their finisher's medal but I don't miss having one in my collection. Plus, I got changed at the end with the guys who came in 3rd, 4th and 5th and they all said it was by far the toughest flat race they'd ever done so it's not like I wussed out of an easy race.

3, I've never underestimated the importance of having a strong, mental endurance to complete these events but I have been surprised at how important it is to start with your head in the right place. My head was definitely not where it needed to be and that impacted on me throughout. Not, as it usually does, in the back half of the race where a caffeine gel gives me the shot I need to perk up and keep going.

4, If I do any ultra events so close to each other again then I need a very clear plan of what to do in the intervening weeks to keep myself where I need to be.

Now I just have to figure out which ultra to do next. I quite fancy the Albion Running Hilly 50 Miler. At least in May it will be warmer and drier... hopefully.

So that's it: no finisher's photo; no shot of my time checks; just the obligatory links and stats.

Stats and stuff

Age: 43
Height: 117.8cm
Weight: 79kg
Trainers: Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3
Pack: Nathan VaporAir
Nutrition: SiS Go gels

Monday 22 January 2018

Country to Capital 2018

Go Beyond Ultra - Country to Capital 2018


So, this year was my second attempt at the Country to Capital ultra from Wendover to Little Venice in London and I was hoping for a significant improvement over last year's under-trained, painful struggle.

C2C 2017 had been my first real ultra and although I'd put in plenty of long runs in the build up, those mid-week runs that build the real conditioning had been missing and that became obvious in the second half of the race.

Up to CP3, at nearly 26 miles, everything had been going pretty well and I was keeping to my target heart rate of sub-135bpm but no more than a mile or so later I hit the wall and the next 15 miles were a hellish mix of run/walk/hobble/try not to cry. I eventually dragged my sorry carcass across the line in 8hrs 22mins. If you want see just how bad I looked by the end then enjoy the vlog I made for sixth formers at school.

Anyway, I knew 8.22 was a time that only represented my inexperience and lack of training. This year, I planned (hoped) to do a fair bit better.


1. Finish
2. Finish sub-8.22
3. Finish sub-8.00

Race morning

I'd had a bit of a bonus on the hotel front, managing to find a cheap guest house in High Wycombe that had a fridge, sink and microwave in the room which meant I could have a proper breakfast of my own making. Previously, breakfast had been catered for by petrol station sandwiches so a bowl of porridge with a large splodge of golden syrup was most welcome.

I arrived at registration about 7.30am (an hour before race start) which gave me plenty of time to get booked in and go through all the pre-race faff runners are so good at: apply race number with safety pins; stand up to discover the number's too tight/loose; re-pin the number; pack race bag; look at the size of other runners' packs; figure you're carrying too much/little; get paranoid; unpack and re-pack race bag; check your clothing choices against other competitors; get paranoid again; go back to the car and change; double-check drop bag for end of race; hand drop bag to the man in the van and immediately wonder if you've forgotten something essential. Phew! It's a surprise we have any energy left to run after all that. All I can say is that the level of paranoia I feel at running races is nothing compared to the way I used to feel packing for triathlons. So much kit!

By the time I'd got through all that it was 8.20am and time to head out into the pub car-park (a most civilised starting venue) ready for the 8.30 start.

Race start to CP1 - a bit of a blur

To be honest, this first section is a bit of blur. There was the usual nervous chit-chat amongst friends (not me, I'm Billy No-Mates at races) as we waited for the start to commence in the positively balmy 5C air temp. The race director gave a short speech as this was the 10th anniversary running of the event and then we were off for the mad dash down Wendover high street to the one-at-a-time cut-through at the bottom of the road and out onto the paths and trails leading away from the town.

The chatting continued for the first mile or so but it's at that point we hit the first major climb of the day and the chatter subsided as we naturally fell into a single-file power-trek up that first hill. After that, it was steady jog up and down the hills to CP1 with very little to report. My legs took a couple of kilometres to properly warm up and feel like they had some running in them and I could remember the track pretty well so knew which hills could be jogged up without damaging me for later in the race and the hills that needed walking up were obvious - they were dead steep and everyone else was walking as well.

Last year I had been trying the MAF technique and a high fat/low carb diet so had religiously stuck to a max heart rate of 135bpm. This had resulted in an average pace of about 6.10-20/km early in the race. This year, I jettisoned all that malarkey and was running by feel with a flat terrain pace of about 5.40/km and a heart rate of about 140-145bpm. As such, I was earlier into CP1 than last year - a trend that was to continue.

CP1 to CP2 - feeling good

CP1 was well-stocked with Go Beyond Ultra's famous fruitcake along with water and jelly-babies. I stopped briefly to re-tie my laces. I don't like tight shoes but the mud was threatening to suck my trainers off my feet so it was a necessary compromise. I still had plenty of water in my bladder so there was no need for a refill and I was able to stick to one of my key targets - don't waste time at aid stations. I grabbed some cake and walked on through the checkpoint munching as I went.

Back to running and by now I was feeling positive: my legs were running freely, my heart rate was low and I was keeping myself well-fed and hydrated. As is the case with ultras, you often fall in with someone running at the same pace and it's time to chat and enjoy the experience. Between CP1 and CP2 I fell in with a couple of runners with whom I shot the breeze, discussed everything from work to parenthood to running and training and upcoming events but something kept happening that meant I was often moving on from one runner to the next - hills. Not steep, power-walking hills but long, shallow hills that had my companions slowing their pace and occasionally walking but, very unusually for me, I just kept ploughing on and didn't really feel like it was causing any future damage to the second half of the race.

Going into the race I had been concerned that I hadn't done enough specific hill training bearing in mind that, even though the C2C is 43 miles with just under 1500ft of climbing, all the climbing is done in the first 23 miles of the race. But it seemed my fears were misplaced and even the long drag up to CP2 had me distancing my running companion of the moment.

CP2 to CP3 - the diversion

Again, I was quick through the checkpoint - grabbing some gels for later, avoiding the jelly-babies and taking another handful of fruitcake. Walking out of CP2 and it was time to look for the diversion that had been put in place for some reason.

The diversion was something I had been slightly concerned about because I was following last year's track on my Garmin watch and didn't want to get lost. Last year between these checkpoints I had taken a wrong turning adding about 500m and a ruddy great hill to my C2C so was keen not to make the same mistake again. As it happened, that mistake would play a role in this year's race as well.

Following the first of the route markers (unheard of in Go Beyond races) we were out into some open fields then an interminably long road section with squeaky-bum distances between the course signs.

It would have been easy to get lost here but I knew we were running pretty much parallel with the normal course so I ran on with relative confidence. I could have stopped to check the route map issued to all runners at registration but hey, I like to live dangerously.

At the end of the road section we crossed a main road and headed up a very long and steep hill. At the top I came across a small group of runners desperately checking maps and Garmins (other GPS devices are available) to figure out where they were. I, however, knew exactly where we were. We had just climbed the hill I had run down and then back up the year before so when I called out which way to run and set off in that direction there was some questioning of my confidence. A short recount of last year's cock-up and everyone was happy I knew what I was doing. Then the shutters started to come down.

Up to now everything had been going fine but I was a good 3.5 hours into the race and a lack of sleep from a trying week at work was doing its best to take its toll - but I was ready. Until now, all gels had come from the left side of my pack but now I went to the right-hand pocket and my first caffeine gel. I was still feeling positive so it was an easy mind-game to keep going until the caffeine kicked in and when it did it was business as usual.

By now the course was beginning to flatten off which meant we were approaching the canal and there would be no more hills (except one... near the end... which I will come to...near the end). The pack were strung out now and I would run alone from this point to the end of the course.

Onto the canal and I began looking forward to CP3. Last year this checkpoint had been a few hundred metres short of the marathon mark and I had made it there in about 4.45. I checked my watch and was somewhat disconcerted - I was past the marathon point and I knew there was still a way to go. Turns out the diversion had added about 3km to the course and it was only now I had the clarity of thought to be able to do the maths to figure that out. I was also pleased to see I had gone through the marathon in 4.13. As my flat course marathon PB is 4.02 I was chuffed to bits and still running well. I had another caffeine gel and trotted on.

CP3 to CP4 - afternoon sun: darkening skies

I arrived into CP3 in a quite astonishing 4hrs 26mins. 20 minutes ahead of last year and with an added 3km in the bank. I will admit, CP3 on this course is one of my favourites - it is past halfway so you're now running home and it's stocked with all manner of savoury foods including pork pies, cocktail sausages and mini scotch eggs. I took time to refill my now empty bladder, grabbed a handful of savouries and carried on. Last year I think I'd spent nearly 10 minutes at that checkpoint but this year I was gone in no more than three.

I'll admit, this is where last year's race began to play on my mind. I'd stayed positive so far but last year this was where the wheels had come off and I began to wonder if the same would happen again. It didn't. I continued to run at a decent pace even though my Garmin was playing up - sub 4min/km? I don't think so.

It was at this point the sun actually came out. I had joked earlier in the race that we might not notice if the sun actually came up as the skies were resolutely grey, dull and distinctly British. But here I was, in the afternoon winter sun, trotting along the Grand Union Canal and feeling pretty good about myself. I was massively ahead of any kind of schedule and sub-8 hours was definitely achievable. Oh, Andy, you fool.

CP3 to CP4 is supposed to be about 10k if you listen to the people manning CP3 but I knew this wasn't the case. It's definitely further. Maybe not by much, but by enough to play on your mind... and your legs.

At 52km, I hit the canal turn and the (in)famous 'Paddington 12.5' miles sign. You can tell yourself it's a short training run to the end; the kind of distance you don't usually get out bed for. I know you can tell yourself that because it's what I did. I did it last year as well. Didn't work then. Didn't work this year either. I might have been running between 6-6.30/km but it was hurting. My legs were stiffening up and my heart rate kept spiking. I was also beginning to feel sick.

There was nothing I could about the legs. The heart rate meant dropping the pace a little which the legs were doing of their own accord anyway so I just had to deal with the sick feeling. I'd been here before in other races so I knew what it was. It is not a need to vomit - it's actually sore abs from the prolonged effort. I could still take on gels knowing that I needed to but I had no appetite at all.

Then I realised something really rather important. I was still running. Not walking. Not employing a run/walk strategy. Not using vlogging as an excuse to walk (see the video above). I was actually running. And, with that realisation, I carried on, feeling just a little bit lighter on my feet.

CP4 to CP5 - 'It's not that far'

The checkpoint came and went in a blur: a couple of cups of water, my own gel and then onwards. Leaving the CP I allowed myself my first walking break but kept it to 500m. My Garmin was still occasionally recording weird splits and my head was tired from keeping a positive outlook (keeping the darkness at bay takes more than just a few caffeine gels) so there was no way I could figure out what kind of end time was in sight. And really, at that point, I didn't care.

But, as the title says, it's not that far from CP4 to CP5 and also knowing CP5 is the final checkpoint before the end is an added bonus. So on I trundled but now the hurt had moved. It wasn't in my legs anymore; it was in my shoulders and my back and my chest. Basically, the entirety of my upper body was sore and aching and cold (remember the sun? Yep, that had gone in and put its hat away for the day).

I was also getting p***ed off with other runners. It wasn't their fault - they were employing their late-race run/walk strategies but God it was annoying. Oh look, you've passed me going at a decent clip and gapped me by 300 or 400 metres. And now you've stopped to walk so I'm going to pass you in a couple of minutes. And I do pass you but now you've got your breath back so you start running again and I can hear you coming but we're like a couple of lorries overtaking uphill on a dual carriageway and this is the slowest passing manoeuvre on the planet but I'm in a dark place and it's doing my head in. Will you please just bog off! But they didn't and I kept running at my rather sedate 7.40ish/km.

CP5 to the finish - how far?!

At CP5 I made a massive mental mistake. From last year, I had it in my head that it was about 8km/5miles from the CP5 to the finish line so was absolutely distraught when the chirpy girl at the checkpoint told me it was 'only 10k to go'. 10k?! I wanted to curl up and cry. Everything hurt, I'd used all my caffeine gels and there was no way I could get to the finish line before the time ticked over the 8 hour mark. There was 10k to go; I was at 6.45.20 and was running at 7.30/km at best. I could do the maths and it wasn't looking good.

OK, come on, Kirky. Get your backside in gear and get going. 8 hours might have been off the cards but I could still go under last year's 8.22 so there was still something to work for.

The next 5 kilometres were torturous. The interminable game of cat and mouse with the run/walkers continued (not) apace; I had no appetite and no desire to drink and the monotony of the canal was driving me to distraction. With no way points of any note, I couldn't even break it down into manageable sections - next bridge, next corner etc etc - so it was just a step by step drag. Then I got to 67km.

At 67km something happened that had definitely not happened it last year's race. My body stopped hurting and my legs just opened up. It wasn't a conscious decision but all of a sudden my stride lengthened and my heart rate, that had been stuck at about 150bpm for the last two hours, elevated and I was off.

I snapped the pacing elastic that had tethered me to my infuriating running companions and pushed on with the finish line fast approaching. My times dropped steadily from 7.30/km to 6.42/km in the final kilometre. I went through last year's final distance of 69.3km 44 minutes ahead of last year's time. I came to the 'hill' at Sainsbury's - a short, steep rise up to the road and back down to the canal - and kept on running. No walking for me. No need to keep anything in reserve so it all got used.

The red dot for the end of the course was showing on my watch by now so I knew I was close and just kept running. I was running past landmarks that I recognised from last year and was desperately trying to remember how far they were from finish.

I looked at my watch and the red dot was getting closer. I flicked screens to check my time and all of sudden sub-8hrs was back on the cards. It was going to be close but it was doable. My legs got the hint I wanted more from them and they duly obliged though heaven knows where it came from. I hammered along the waterside and dodged through the railings there to slow down bikes as the red dot drew ever closer to the centre of my watch face.

Then the low bridge that marks the finish hove into sight and I broke into the ultra-marathon version of a sprint finish, ducking under the bridge and crossing the line in...



To say I was/am pleased with my race is something of an understatement. I achieved all my goals despite the course being 3km longer this year. I went under last year's time of 8.22. I even finished sub-8hrs. And, for the most part, I enjoyed it.

Of course, consistent training was the key which lead to consistent running with only two walk breaks of 500m each. And, I managed to remain pretty positive throughout so now I'm looking forward to my next race - the Thames Trot on 3rd February. A relatively flat 48 miles... I hope.

Stats and stuff

Age: 42
Height: 117.8cm
Weight: 79kg
Trainers: Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3
Pack: Nathan VaporAir
Nutrition: SiS Go gels