Months of muddy runs, 6am weekend starts, cancelled plans and Radox baths culminated in the big day yesterday: Canalathon.
We decided to write a two-parter to share our experience of the day.
Embarking on my second ultra was something I enthusiastically vowed never to do after last summer’s Intro Ultra but I somehow found myself lining up in a cold Manchester retail park sandwiched between Chaz and the eventual winner, who soon left us for dust – hotly anticipated by my boyfriend Jak – seconds into the car park lap which pre-empted our entrance onto the Rochdale canal at Manchester Ancoats.
Within the first minute I realised I had a mammoth #kitfail on my hands as the brand spanking new Nike Pro leggings I stupidly decided to take on their maiden voyage were slipping down at a rate of knots. Hoiking them up 6 times in the first mile prompted me to burst into tears at my pure stupidity, leaving Chaz gallantly suggesting we could jump into a bush and swap pants in the hope she’d fare better in them. Not the best of starts.
Four miles in I stopped to pull the leggings of doom up as far as they’d go and miraculously they didn’t bother me for a second for the remaining 27 marathon miles. Possibly a combination of sweat, Trek bar consumption and sheer determination. But the moral of this story is clear: learn from my mistake and only EVER race in failsafe gear to avoid a heartbreaking wardrobe malfunction. Or pack spare shorts if you are hellbent on fashion experimentation.
For me there were many Canalathon positives. The weather was beautiful (we are both sunburnt), the views were gorgeous and the marshals were lovely – welcoming, encouraging and just the tonic every time, we left with a spring in our step. One supporter absolutely got us through the dark moments – we deduced at the finish line he was there to support a girl who finished just before us but every time we saw him (at least 5) he had kind words and a big smile to spur us on. He even offered us a lift to the finish line at one point and we were incredibly close to accepting. If you ever read this, Liverpudlian guy in the white top – thank you for being our Canalathon guardian angel!
We completed the race in 6.48 which included about 6 toilet stops, some more al fresco than others – a motorhome showroom and a new vegetarian café launching that day were our salvation on miles 14 and 21. Fundevogel – thanks for the hospitality, we’ll be back!
All races are a mental game, it’s a cliché because it’s so true and yesterday proved this more than ever. At some point Chaz’s Nike+ app lost us so we approached the final aid station confident we had the last 2 miles in us only to be told another 5 lay ahead. Seems like nothing now – what’s another 3 when you’re doing 30+? But it was a crushing blow at the time and we suffered psychologically from that point on. Guessing games are no fun in those conditions.
The lifesaver came in the form of Jak and our dog Bernard like a mirage hobbling up the towpath in our direction with just over a mile to go (officially this time). He jogged along with us for the final stretch which gave us the jolt we needed to make it over the line. Hearing how he had managed to finish an amazing 8th really cheered us up in our moment of gloom and we eventually made it to Sowerby Bridge with a smile on our faces to welcome applause and salted peanuts.
Having never completed an ultra before I was probably less mentally prepared for this than my Canalathon comrades, but sometimes it’s better not knowing what’s ahead. As we’d had over an hour waiting in the freezing cold at Central Retail Park in Manchester (the only point at which the spare top layer, hat and waterproof jacket on the kit-list actually came in handy) we were itching to start and get it over with, and it was with bemusement that we actually set off at the front of the start line. This was quite amusing until we got going and herds of people overtook us within the first thirty seconds.
As explained above, Ali had a turbulent start to the race and once one of us goes on a downer, the other automatically presumes the role of upbeat sister, so I had to keep spirits high. The first 10 miles went quite well after ‘pant-gate’ (seriously, who wears brand new, never before tested pants on a race?!) and a few al-fresco toilet stops (in the words of a fellow Canathlete who passed me while I was waiting for Ali to finish her business in a bush, when you gotta go you gotta go) and we were delighted to see our first aid station around the 10 mile marker. A few jelly babies and some water and we were on our merry way.
The middle third was probably the most enjoyable. We were more in the swing of things and as Ali mentioned the scenery was so nice you couldn’t help but enjoy it. It was along this stretch that I got a blow by blow account of season 4 of Homeland which happily passed an hour or so. We had mentally separated the race into 6 x 5 mile sections (with an extra mile thrown in) so it was good to reach the halfway point and we were desperate for the next aid station after these 20 miles. Even though we were exhausted and just wanted it to be over with at these stops it’s nice to take a few minutes to chat to fellow runners and the marshals (who were all also runners I’ve just read on the race organisers blog) and everyone was so friendly. It was also nice to pass the 100km runners (as they completed the route back to Manchester) and they were all really encouraging giving us a ‘well done’ and the odd thumbs up as they passed us (despite them being around 40 miles into their race).
Once setting off on the final third it really hit us how far we had to go. I always thought I’d be more positive in this third and it would seem easier but every mile just got harder and harder. Every part of my body was aching at this point and neither of us could really summon the energy to converse anymore (which is big news for us). The only thing keeping us going was that we had to finish it somehow so there was no point stopping (although the offer of a lift to the finish line circa mile 28 was very tempting). We eventually did cross the finish line to a small applause, a bottle of coconut water (followed by some beers) and dreams of hot baths awaiting us.