Left Hand Path (Canalathon 75KM)

March 28, 2015

Last Sunday I completed my fourth race of the year, and second Ultra, the Canalathon 75K. 47 flat(ish) miles from Manchester to Sowerby Bridge. What should have been a relatively simple race, proved to be anything but after getting lost and ending up in Halifax, whilst also having had several weeks at the mercy of the black dog.

After last month’s nightmarish marathon my confidence was shattered, the thought of running 47 miles when I struggled so badly with 26 was daunting. As much as I tried I couldn’t shake the anxiety about the race off, whilst I went into the Peddar’s Way blissfully ignorant of what running 40+ miles felt like, I spent the majority of the week wondering if I could even reach the 50KM finish line. These nerves were not helped by the fact that I had been losing the battle against depression for the past couple of weeks.

Whilst I started the year planning on not just raising money for Mind, but also awareness of the conditions they support and I suffer from, I felt a growing sense of failing to do the latter. Much as I meant well and had the intention to talk openly about my condition and raise awareness, it has been much easier said than done. Up until a few weeks ago nobody at work knew about my depression, whilst it’s something that I feel is better being out in the open, it felt like it was too big a subject to bring up. It probably seems a ridiculous notion, but for 9 months I had been anxious about adding any colleagues on Facebook. There was a strong personal/work life wall that I had built up, a wall that I felt I could hide behind when needed. The feeling of wanting to crawl into a deep, dark hole had returned, and on a few evenings I tried my hardest to do that. Ditching my bag at the door, turning the lights off and falling into bed and trying to force myself to sleep. Knowing I had a big race coming up, but also a week off work I made that step and systematically began finding and adding colleagues. Going into work the following week I felt very vulnerable, whilst I still hadn’t broached the subject with anyone, I had opened the door so anyone that wanted to could discover it for themselves.

An impromptu short break in the Lake District the week before the race came at an ideal moment, allowing me some well needed rest both physically and mentally. Whilst it was excruciating being in such a beautiful part of the county and having left my running trainers at home, I had to be on my best behaviour. No running, no visits to the gym, just gentle walks and lots of stretching ahead of Sunday’s 46+ mile race. It was a big weekend for Ultra running, with the Hardmoors 55 and Bingo Race on the Saturday and the Oldham Way Ultra, alongside the Canalathon, on the Sunday. No race is complete without me rushing around to get to the start in time, I had attempted to be organised, going to bed at 8pm the night before but once again found sleep evading me. After 5 hours sleep I was up and started piecing together my last bits of kit, before driving to Sowerby Bridge for the coach transfer to Manchester. Alongside collecting the race number at registration we were also handed our finisher t-shirts and medal, now it was just a case of earning it.

A surprisingly quick coach journey later and we arrived at the start in Ancoats, on a bright, sunny Manchester morning. A quick lap of the car park, seemingly to try and stretch the group out a bit and it was onto the towpath. For the first few miles the view was a scenic as Manchester gets with factories and housing estates, and it would take a while for the bunched up crowd of runners to thin out a bit. Alongside the 75KM, there were also 50KM and 100KM options, with the 50KM proving most popular and starting from the same place as the 75KM. I often have difficulty pacing myself in multi-distance races, and I always find myself trying to keep up with those running the shorter distance. This again proved to be the case with my early miles bouncing around the 9:00 min/mi pace, and I wouldn’t find my own rhythm until I was running by myself.

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The required kit list had asked for both a set of waterproofs and a spare, long sleeved top. Whilst the Peddars Way blizzard taught me that you can always be thankful of carrying all this extra kit, on the day it proved to be unnecessary. Shortly after the first feed station, around 13 miles, I would have to stop to take the thick baselayer I had on under my vest, as it began to feel soaked with sweat. Once well clear of Manchester and heading towards Calder Valley I was surprised by how scenic the course proved to be, ignorantly I assumed as it was to be run alongside canal that it would be a rather boring, repetitive view, but instead we were looked down on by some beautiful landscape. The relative heat had began to wear me down a little, having not taken enough on at the first checkpoint I was flagging a little before reaching the second.

“You’re well past halfway” said one of the marshalls, believing me to be running the 50KM, not quite I’d just reached the 20 mile mark and had an entire marathon left to run. Thinking it would be another 10+miles to the next checkpoint at the 50KM finish, I stopped for longer than normal to make sure I got as much in me as I could, refilled my water bottles and continued on wards walking until I felt that the food had properly gone down. Last August when running the Halifax Marathon I became dehydrated towards the end of the race and had to stop to throw up, before nearly collapsing at the finish line. Whilst the temperatures were not on the same level, I was anxious to learn the lesson. At the beginning of the race I had toyed with going to the toilet, a long queue for just two portaloos meant that I only opted for a pee, but as the miles went on I began to feel like I might have to make a short stop. Ultimately I didn’t, fear of squatting down and cramping up and not being able to get off the toilet, or if I was outdoors, far worse things happening, scared me off.

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A marathon down, 20 more miles to go

At the next checkpoint around the 26 mile mark in Hebden Bridge there was an issue with the water, but thankfully I didn’t need to refill my bottles and knew I could rely on the aid station at the 50KM finish. After a couple of cups of coke and a handful of sweets I was on my way, I grabbed a couple of sausage rolls to try and eat whilst walking but found them a bit too dry and ultimately I couldn’t stomach them. The next six miles to the 50KM finish was fairly incident free, though the pedestrian traffic had begun to pick up as we reached Sowerby Bridge so families and dogs were added alongside geese for the wildlife I would have to dodge. Coming into the 50KM checkpoint/finish there was a small crowd of runners and spectators that would cheer as soon as a runner came into sight, a great feeling I’m sure for those that had reached the end, but for me I was only 2/3 of the way through.

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50KM Checkpoint: The last feed station I’d see for a long time

It would be after leaving this penultimate feed station that things would take a turn for the worse. Little over a mile up the road there was a lock on the side of the canal which intercepted the towpath we had been running alongside. Thinking nothing of it I continued round this lock, as I had done before in the race and headed up in the same direction I had been running. Soon I was in familiar territory, on a part of the Halifax Marathon route and running along what would turn out to be ‘Hebble Brook’. Unaware anything was wrong, I continued to follow red chalk arrows that had been marked on the path and following the runner I could see in the distance. Soon I began to catch him as we headed into increasingly built up areas and dangerously close to the centre of Halifax. After stopping to check the map and the course on my phone I found that we had come quite a long way off course, as we headed back in the same direction we came, there was another pair of runners heading towards us. Shortly after stopping to explain that they were heading in the wrong direction and trying to work out just exactly where we needed to go, another pair would come round the corner under the bridge.

We all were confused as to how we ended up in the wrong place after following both the flow of the water and the red arrows. Further debate over the placement and reason for the arrows and consultation with the course map and some young kids found that we had to return back to the locks that we had nonchalantly passed just over a mile after the 50KM checkpoint and follow that direction. In total I had ended up running 3.5 miles off course, and added at least 45 minutes to my time. Interestingly the official race report acknowledges the fact that a number of runners went the wrong way at this point, including ‘experienced’ runners and those that would finish on the podium, meaning that at least half of the field had got lost and all run various distances. No admission that perhaps this point could have been marked clearer, the red chalk arrows along the wrong path were placed there by somebody, either a course marker that got as lost as we did or they happened to be completely unrelated.

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The right and wrong towpath

After about 20 miles I had begun to think about potential finish times, whilst the 8 hour mark would have been great I knew I could expect to finish within 8 1/2 hours at least. This detour not only added unnecessary minutes to my time, but also miles in my legs, something that I desperately didn’t need. Now, finally back on the correct path the feed station that should have been 7.5 miles away was now 11, and those extra miles really began to take their toll whilst my pace didn’t really seem to drop, my legs were getting heavier with each step. The journey to the last feed station brought with it a sense of Déjà vu, again I followed the red, chalk arrows off the towpath and away from the canal into the centre of Brighouse. The arrows did little to ease my concerns as I ran a mile along a road through an industrial estate, I had been in this situation before, innocently following markings and ending up wildly off course. The runner who I had met with outside Halifax caught me up at this point, both as exasperated as each other, “if we’ve gone wrong again, I’m fucking stopping.”

Eventually a fluorescent shape appeared in the distance, that’s got to be the next feed station, it can’t be much further away. As we got closer, he walked further away, he was merely spotting for runners slightly ahead of the checkpoint but the sight of a table and food was very, very welcome. I stopped for as long as I needed, eating what I could stomach before then heading back for the finish. As I got close to the canal, several runners were heading towards me, including the other four that got lost outside Halifax, looking as concerned as I probably did. I reassured them that this time they were heading in the right direction, and how much further they would have to run to get to this checkpoint.

The last 7 1/2 miles to the finish were a bit of a blur, by this point I was spent and moving forward with momentum and instinct only. After 9 hours on my feet temptation to stop and walk was overwhelming, and these miles were very much more a battle for the mind, than the legs. As my watch ticked past the 49th mile, it began to look like I was about to run a 50 miler, I began retracing the course in my mind and knew that I had at least a mile to go before arriving back at the 50KM checkpoint. Only the 75KM finish had been brought forward and as I saw the marshals in the distance and looked down at my watch I knew it would be tight, it was,  49.89 miles. A race that I had been wanting to end for hours, had now ended just that little bit too soon.

After collecting my bag from the Leisure Centre it was time to hop back in the car for the short drive home. Takeaway pizza, a nice bath, and cold pizza for lunch the next day did their bit to aid the recovery, but whilst my legs felt reasonably OK my knees were in pieces. An hour of badminton and a 5 mile run home on the Tuesday probably came a day too soon, but my recovery times seem to be getting much better.

This past Monday I had a Doctor’s appointment and have been once again referred back to Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hopefully this time I am able to get an appointment and they’re not repeatedly cancelled. On Friday I ‘survived’ my first work night out since the infamous Christmas work night out over a year ago that ended up with me running away and having a bit of a breakdown, sitting down, sobbing against a hedge. This time no crying, though had my bowling ability deteriorated any more I may have come close, just good chat and good laughs. Now to arrange an appointment and start to get the ball rolling on treatment again.

All this suffering isn’t just for fun, it’s part of the 15 marathons/Ultras I plan to run this year for Mind. So if you have any spare pennies, please visit my JustGiving page.

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