A couple of miles into Country to Capital yesterday, a runner came past me.
“Oh, hello”, he said. “Weren’t you on the bridge last year?”
The bridge in question is at mile 25. By the time I got to it, I could barely remember my own name. There could have been a dancing bear there, and I wouldn’t have noticed. I certainly wouldn’t have noticed to the point of being able to identify the bear as I overtook it 371 days later.
Country to Capital is one of the first ultra races of the year, and is one that runners return to year after year. It starts in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, and takes you along a mishmash of footpaths (including bits of Ridgeway, Chiltern Link, Chess Valley Walk, Chiltern Way and South Bucks Way) until it brings you out on the Grand Union Canal just north of Uxbridge. It’s very much a race of four parts…
Part 1: The Country to Capital Express (optional)
The first Saturday morning train from London Marylebone to Wendover arrives at 8:00am and the race starts once all the runners coming by train have been registered. That means you don’t have to worry about the train being delayed and you can spend the journey there swapping race plans, drooling over other people’s snacks and generally talking ultra talk.
Part 2: Wendover to the canal (20 ish miles)
This section is undulating (though net downhill) and extremely weather dependent. We were lucky. It was cold enough to firm up the mud without turning it into ankle-breaking ridges, it snowed but didn’t rain, it was sunny, it wasn’t windy and the icy patches were relatively few and far between. Basically, it was about as benign as it comes.
The route isn’t marked, so front-runners probably really benefit from recceing the course. When you’re towards the middle of the pack, the route is the standard parkrun route (follow the person in front). Having recced the route, I had a couple of surreal “I have a platoon of voice-controlled minions” moments at the odd junction when I called out directions to small posses of hesitating runners and had them turn, as one, to follow my commands.
I also had a monumental navigational fail. At one point, everyone headed straight on, when my recce run had suggested heading left through a small wood. “No problem”, I thought. “It’s just the other two sides of a rectangle. It’ll come out in the same place.” It did. Sort of. Once you’d navigated a set of extremely slippery stepping stones. That’s navigate as in “slip off and fall in the icy-cold stream”. Oh well. Live and learn.
If the stream was the low point, and the minions were the comic relief, then the high point was the completely unexpected support of Andy Bailey (my Winter 100 crew) at checkpoint 1 and the promise of his smiling face at checkpoint 2. It’s amazing how much of a lift a friendly face gives me.
Part 3: The canal
My race plan was to take it easy to the canal and then deliver even sub-11 splits for each of the 20 miles along the towpath, so I fired up my Garmin as I reached the canal and went for it as best I could.
The first 7 miles weren’t too bad. I passed “the bridge” (there were no dancing bears that I noticed), picked up some Country to Capital cake at Aid Station 3 and then kept my eyes peeled for the turn onto the Paddington Branch.
And then I lost it. When you turn onto the Paddington Branch there’s about a mile of muddy goo and you know you’ve about a half marathon left to run. All my good intentions went out the window. I stopped thinking in terms of Aid Stations (there were only three miles to go to the next) and started calculating how much longer I had to run for. Walking to eat turned into walking for a minute at the start of each mile, and the canal just stretched on and on and on. I struggled through Aid 4 and on to Aid 5 and the five or so miles between the two seemed interminable.
As I left Aid 5, I hit rock bottom. And then a miracle happened. We reached the North Circular. Now, as miracles go, this may seem like an odd one, but this is the bit of the canal which blows my mind every time. It goes over the road. You run along the canal, look down, and there, beneath you, is a massive dual carriageway. Rationally, I realise that aqueducts have been around forever and there is nothing particularly strange about a water-carrying bridge over a road, but in my heart it’s magic. I decided to celebrate the moment with a chocolate-covered toffee waffle. I pulled it out of my pack, opened the packaging, held it between my teeth while I tried to put the wrapper back in my bag, and then promptly dropped the damn thing on the towpath. Into the mud and the filth left behind by the shoes of a hundred and fifty runners. And probably the odd dog or two.
I could have cried. But instead, I bent down, picked it up, wiped it down as best I could and ate it.
And that was when the miracle happened. Two runners behind me joked about the 15 second rule as they passed. And then another two runners suggested that I run with them for a bit as we were meant to be paired off by then. And I ran my first complete mile since forever and then realised that we weren’t much more than a parkrun away from the finish.
At which point I stopped walking and just ran. And barring two ridiculously steep bridges, I ran straight through to the end, where I was met by Rachel and Alma and Kate. And bling. Lovely, lovely bling.
Part 4: The pub (highly recommended)
We’d planned to go to The Warwick Castle, but that was the other side of the canal and my legs refused to make the trek. So instead, we ended up in The Bridge House, along with some familiar Centurion faces. And after a couple of hours of that, we hobbled home.
Will I join the returners and run this race again next year? I don’t know. The social side is without equal, and the first half of the route is great, but I’m not sure that I’m cut out for 20 miles of unrelentingly flat towpath. Which is a pity, as I’ve a date with the Thames Path in three and half month’s time.