Country to Capital organised by Go Beyond is a classic season opener to the UK ultra calendar. Low key and low fuss. The course divides up in a similar way to some of the longer standing US classic 50 milers in that it's a race of two halves. 22 miles on a hot potch of footpaths, bridelways and road to the Grand Union Canal. Then a 20 mile straight shot down the towpath to Little Venice. At 42 miles with about 1000 feet of climb, it really isn't going to get any flatter than this at a trail race, in fact it's a net down hill so it doesn't count.
Race day dawned this year cold, dry and sunny. Conditions could not have been better and rarely has the course been in better knick.
The first 400 metres have become known as Race to the Gate. An event within an event. The origins of this initial sprint were founded after it was recognised early on, that the sharp right turn off of the high street could only really be negotiated one at a time so that it was worth hammering it down the perfectly graded initial road descent to beat the rush. This has developed in to a hunt for pure glory. In 4 previous outings I've had 4 second places. This time I wanted it all, my hopes bolstered when serial nemsis Tim Adams pulled out the night before with a broken fingernail. Except I mentioned to Dan Gritton at the start that he should go for it too, and he promptly dropped me like a sack of shit. Whilst there was a yawning gap to 3rd place, Dan was well ahead of me. My 400-800m pace is awful right now. Though it's possible his performance didn't count because he isn't on strava and thus didn't contest the current (greatest) leaderboard (of all time) for that segment.
Diving through the gate in to the alley, we were both completely wasted so I jogged with Dan and waited for the wave of front runners to join us. Dan looked and sounded like he was at the circus. Before the race I had talked about running a 5:30ish overall time. I assure the reader familiar with the outcome, that this was not 'hot-dogging'. The race is a great leveller because who really knows what kind of shape they are in come mid-Jan? As Chris Brookman, Jon Ellis and Svein Ove Risa caught up to me at the head of the field, I fell in line and at the top of the first of 2 'climbs' on the course, I was still with them so I stuck around. If I'm honest, I expected to be dropped without having to go harder than I was willing to at that point, but that didn't happen.
We rolled on as a group of 4 to Check Point 1. Chris, Jon and I all knew the route so that saved any messing around. Svein had no clue so he stuck with us like glue. Everyone seemed to be coping well with the pace.
Down the Chess Valley and up through the short woodland climb, the group splintered for the first time and there were some horse impressions to be heard from behind. I took the opportunity in the run up to Check Point 2 to push it a bit on any marginal descents and see if anyone went off of the back. My La Sportiva Helios SR, the greatest shoe of all time were handling the mixed terrain well, but I took a big heel skid on some ice on a short road descent ending up in the ditch to the side, however managing to keep it upright was my omen that this was to be a good day. As we got to that second check point, Chris had fallen back just a little, Jon stopped to get something and Svein and I hammered straight through. Checking back on the rollers to Denham and David Hellard was now in third keeping us in sight probably for nav reasons but seemingly unable or unwilling to close the gap. With only a couple of miles to the canal I had a frank conversation with my man Svein. I told him the directions once we hit the canal - 7 miles or so, turn left, see you later - and he asked me if I was planning on dropping him? I told him no that was for him to kick on ahead if he wished.
As we hit the towpath, my watch said 7:02 average pace. My plan was just to try to hold it there and run as even a set of mile splits as I could. Something in my mind seemed to be able to rationalise this being do-able. Last time I ran this stretch of canal, I shat my way to the finish from there in 5+ hours having already covered 125 in the GUCR, in comparison this shouldn't be too bad.
Svein stayed on my shoulder and I decided then that he probably couldn't pass me otherwise he would have done. As we neared check point 3 I decided to put the boot in, hitting the dibber board and kicking the aid station table in one fell swoop like a total amateur. It was so embarrassing. I managed to stay upright however, and I think the shock was enough to scare Svein. I held the same pace to the left turn at which point I checked behind and couldn't see him.
The 'I'm running in the moment, just feeling the natures' is probably the right attitude for 100 milers, but in a straight time trial on a totally flat canal path, that approach is not correct. I decided this was the day to try to 'channel Zach Miller' (4:17: Vid. Another Vid) instead and basically just grit my teeth and run as hard as I could. Plumbing for a Gu gel every 20 minutes as I had from the start gave me just enough fuel in the fire and looking back on the canal as an overall it's one of the most pleasing sections of a race I've ever run. My watch at the finish said 7:03 miling on it, so I'd dropped about 30 seconds on the canal over my average split. I knew where they were too, fumbling a gu on to the ground 12 miles out, and hiking the ramps by Saino's with a mile to go (those ramps suck).
I figured from the canal turn that my time was likely to be around 4:56, but the urge to run under 5 was the over riding one. I knew that if I could sustain that I probably wouldn't get caught and in the end my splits from every section of the course were the fastest, so that was borne out.
In the end I finished in 4:59:19, a pleasing 20 secs under my team mate Danny K's 2014 time, though I have resisted the urge to mention it so far. Ed Catmur's CR 4:48 is light years ahead.
The standard in UK ultra's continues to rise. The average of performances this year were way above any that have come before in part due to the gradual improvement and longevity of so many in the sport. There aren't rafts of new names cropping up, it's the same guys and girls who are putting in the work year after year, accruing that vital base mileage that yields stronger performances. There are no short cuts in this sport!
-Thanks to the guys in our little lead pack for the company at the start, it made the time fly.
- Congrats to my main man Drew Sheffield for bagging his 8th consecutive C2C finish, the only person to have kept such a record going. I can't wait for you to be that weird guy that people point at in a few years time and go, 'that dude has done them all. Surely there are other races out there?' Maybe they already are.
Drew & Claire (Photo: Tim Adams)
- Congrats to Sam Amend making the transition over from the road too for a super ladies course record despite some nav issues. And to Susie Chesher and Jess Gray for pushing her close. It's great to see closer, faster women's races. Our team runner Debs Martin-Consani ran the race too (below), getting in some early season miles and happy to enjoy the day, a solid work out as she builds up to her main season races ahead.
Drew, Debs, James. The Team at the Finish (Photo: Nick Greene/ Debs Martin-Consani)