Canalathon 50k 2017 (& 16!) with Britta Werner and Mike Chaloner

Canalathon, 26.03.2017 and 27.03.2016, 50km with Britta Werner

The run is from Manchester to Sowerby Bridge along the canal. There are also 75km and 100km options.

I chose this event last year, as I really wanted to run a marathon but felt the pressure (self-imposed) that I needed to finish it 4 hours. I’d never ran a marathon or more than a ½ marathon when I registered so knew that was very unlikely, so I chose an ultra instead (with a bit of – “ahhh I am going to be 40/midlife crisis” going on in there). The reason I got into running, after all, was because I wanted to run long distances.

So a flat course with mixed terrain, nothing too challenging and definitely no danger of getting lost, with a cut off of 9 hours and starting where I live in Manchester, it seemed like the perfect race.

When I did it in 2016, all this was new to me (I had only been running for just over 2 years at the time). The first mistake I made was not going to the toilet beforehand as the queue was far too long, so after 15km, I finally found somewhere a bit sheltered. I asked a few guys if they knew if there would a toilet but of course, it’s easier for them.  Anyway…

I also didn’t eat early enough in the race and hit the wall at half way. The aid stations (two of them) didn’t have many vegan options, I think there were only a few peanuts and I felt uninspired by the energy bars I brought.

Because of the bad floods in the area around Christmas 2015, there was a diversion which led you onto a busy road up a hill – my mind and my knee really didn’t like this, so the second half was just rubbish. Even back along the canal, I couldn’t find a lot of enjoyment in it. A drizzly Sunday where no clothing options seemed right (gloves on and off, headband on and off, another layer on and off). So I finally managed to walk/hobble/run through the finishing line after 6 hours and 10 minutes.  However, I really liked the camaraderie. I met Katie, also a Vegan Runner, and we ran most of the first half together, and met another women during the second half who helped me get through it. Also chatted to others along the way which made it a more enjoyable event.

And you know it is:  post-race amnesia, an email with Early Bird discount and you find you have registered again for following year.


So I did it again.

I was less prepared this time –  I missed a few of my longer runs but felt less injured.  I nearly didn’t do it but my friend (who has been running for 40 years and originally inspired me to run) convinced me that I would be OK. Learning from past mistakes, I went to the toilets before the race. I also made myself some date balls which are easy to eat and actually tasty compared to some packaged energy bars.

It was a beautiful sunny day so I thought I would just enjoy being outside if nothing else.

Knowing the course definitely helped. I was very surprised how quickly I found myself in Rochdale (about 12 miles in), so I never really hit the wall. Having run another ½ marathon distance with a Vegan Runner friend the day after a half marathon race really helped, as I knew I was ok on tired legs.

The path starts with tarmac, patches of cobbles (especially under the bridges where it is a bit slippery) and mostly gravel or compact trail surface. Apart from a few mini inclines, it is really flat. The path is wide enough for three, sometimes four people. The route is, of course, open to the public, but they were all really friendly and helpful and moved aside and cheered.

There was one bit past a pub where everyone applauded, there was a women with two kids following her husband (I was about his speed, so saw them several times), there were even a couple of girls cheering “Go Vegan!”. So the sun definitely helped to bring out supporters which really helped me.

There were three aid stations this time. At the first and second there were vegan flapjacks, bananas and peanuts. The third also had humous wraps. When I got to the first station, another women was just asking if anything was vegan. I never had a chance to speak to her, so thanks for asking -I would not have known that the organiser actually made sure to provide vegan food.

There was a 3-mile diversion along a busy road towards the end of the course with a steep incline, but the smooth surface and the thought of ‘it’s only a parkrun distance’ got me though with no problems. The same for the last section, as it was ‘just another parkrun’ to the finish line. When I recognised the building where the finish line was, I nearly cried. I’d completed it again and actually really enjoyed running it this time. I finished in 5:57. Not many people can say that they have a 50km PB. I will never be as fast as the guy who won in 3:34 or the guy who finished the 100km in 7 hours, but I’m happy with my result.

And yes, I’ve registered again with the Early Bird discount, especially because a few other Vegan Runners said that they might be up for it next year.

I also know that I didn’t push myself and concentrated on enjoying it a bit too much, I might actually be able to run it a bit faster one year. So seeing myself improve on the same race will keep me motivated.

One issue – the t-shirt has got a questionable design!

-Britta Werner

Canalathon, 26.03.2017, 50km with Mike Chaloner

On March 26th, a beautiful Spring morning, I ran the Canalathon 50KM race from Manchester to Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire. A drive down from Edinburgh the previous evening and the clocks going forward meant that I arrived at Ancoats at 7.30AM a little blurry-eyed and groggy, but it was too late to start making excuses, I’d had this race booked since the previous year, it was time to run my first ultra-marathon. I registered, met a friend and colleague Martyn as he got off the coach and then waited for the race to start. After the usual safety briefing and countdown, off we went, along the canal taking in 31 miles of industrial architecture, motorways, lush green countryside and small mill towns, but not before a lap of the Toys R Us car park to meet the distance requirement.

For the first few miles you run through Miles Platting and Failsworth, scenes included a huge gondola shaped like a swan on the canal, a surreal image that for a second had me questioning if I was hallucinating, fortunately, Martyn pointed it out at that moment. With my sanity reassured, I carried on running. As I repeatedly checked my watch, I noticed I was running about 30 seconds a mile above my intended time; every single piece I’d read online before the race had said to take the first half of the race at a very leisurely pace but a mixture of the adrenaline, excitement and favourable running conditions made me decide this pace was fine and that I should continue.

Andy, a training partner and friend met me in Failsworth, he graciously let me steal his energy drink from him as I ran past and cheered me on, his enthusiasm and support was a great boost even though I was early into the race and meant that the doubts about going out too fast were pushed further from my mind. Some old college friends were waiting to cheer me on in Chadderton and then Paul, another training partner met me shortly afterwards to run with me the next 9 miles to Hollingworth Lake.

One you’ve run through Chadderton, the housing estates, mills and other common sights of Manchester thin out; the browns and greys of the city are replaced with the more lush green of the countryside, despite having only run 7 miles or so, the contrast of the scenery compared to how it was of the start was quite dramatic . Me, Martyn and Paul talked and the miles ticked over, the first half of the race is a very steady incline, but it was practicably unnoticeable save for the occasional short steep incline as you pass a lock. About 10 miles in, the race leader of the 100Km (there was also a 75KM and 100KM distance) passed us running towards Manchester at a pace that seemed reminiscent of the opening scene of Trainspotting where Ewan McGregor’s character, Renton, is being chased down by security guards.

We got to the first aid station a few minutes later which and were stocked with clearly –labelled vegan food which included flapjacks, peanuts and falafel wraps. I grabbed a handful of peanuts, a wrap and quickly drank a cup of deliberately flat coke and continued to a short section of road which left the canal and briefly joined a pavement and you cross over a road where you re-join the canal. At about 12 miles, Martyn mentioned he was having an issue with his toe and was going to stop for a second to rearrange his footwear, he suggested we carry on and so, still feeling pretty good, we pushed on.

At Littleborough, Paul concluded his pacing duties and another friend, Mike, took over to run the second half with me. When I entered the race I didn’t know that I would run the entire race accompanied, but somehow it fell together and made the event much more enjoyable and far less daunting; instead of it being this almost huge distance, it felt like several training runs that just happened to be happening straight after each other. Mostly.

By this point, the scenery has changed again, the green fields are replaced again by a shallow valley either side of the canal, barges and boats are far more frequent on this section and the uniformed semi-detached houses in the commuter towns are far less common, instead, lock keeper cottages and stone built terraces are what draw your attention between checking your GPS, fumbling around for gels and, most importantly, watching where you’re going. Little Bridges, essentially planks of wood with crosshatched steel segments on them cover gaps where there inbuilt overflow runoffs and canal markings stating the distance to both Manchester and Sowerby Bridge serve as the most heavy duty mile markers I’ve ever seen.

On one section as you go through Todmorden, you have to cross a bridge and re-join the towpath on the opposite side of the canal on the same side of the bridge, arrows mark the way, but somehow me and Mike both missed them and I ran across the road and then stood scratching my head wondering how to get back onto the canal but we quickly realised our mistake and got back on. At the time I tried to blame the error on poor course marking, but in retrospect, the arrows were there and I had failed to spot them, I think I’ll have to sharpen my navigational skills somewhat before taking on an unmarked fell race.

I rang my wife shortly after that stating that I was Just over 20 miles in and was feeling really good, almost immediately after I hung up the aches and muscle soreness started to creep in; I’d been steadily taking in nutrition over the course of the race (or, ‘eating food’ to use the non- ultramarathon vernacular) but despite that, my calf muscles and hamstrings were beginning to tighten. I dropped my pace and hoped that the stiffness and soreness would go, or at least not get any worse, I mentioned to Mike that I may have to start ‘digging in’ a bit more. This was also the time that my need to use the bathroom kicked up a gear, just as I began to seriously consider jumping over a wall to resolve the issue, I spotted a pub right by the canal. I went in and in very un-British behaviour, asked a man about to enter the cubical if I could push in front of him as I was competing in a race, thankfully he obliged and so with the issue sorted, I continued. One small downside to the brief stop was my watch pauses if I stop for any amount of time and so I was not entirely sure how far behind my watch was with the official chip time, making me unsure of exactly how long I had left to meet my goal time of sub 5 hours.

By Mile 25, the aches and stiffness had become more apparent, my longest training run leading up to the race had been 24 miles and so this psychological barrier combined with the overzealous early pace meant that the aches where quite noticeable. I ignored the pain as best I could, but in order for me to keep moving, I had to drop my speed further; I’d gone from sub goal pace, to way over goal pace within the course of 4 miles, if it dropped much more in the last 6 miles, I’d miss my goal time.

I dug deep and carried on, the final aid station was a welcome sight, I grabbed some more peanuts (I wanted the salt more than anything) downed some more flat Coke and grabbed a bottle of water. The next few miles left the canal and continued on a road, the hard tarmac pavement felt more jarring by comparison to the gravelly paths the majority of the rest of the course had been on. I looked at my watch; 28 miles said the top left display, ‘Just a Parkrun to go, they’re easy enough…’ I thought to myself.

The last three miles were pretty tough, I just wanted the race to be over and for the first time I started to have negative thoughts creep into my head: ‘you’ve definitely missed sub 5, your pacing was well off, how could you be daft enough to make such a fundamental error’ ? I got passed by about 4 or 5 runners in the last few miles, each time it cemented by suspicions that I’d messed my pacing up and was paying for it in the later stages. Whilst I think that was part of the issue, I also think that I underestimated how hard going beyond the marathon distance, even by as little as 5 miles can be, you’re going to feel it, I need to be more resilient, push harder and give those negative thoughts less attention when I run my next Ultra.

I tried talking to Mike about how I’d gone out too quick but I was pretty tired by this point and according to him, what I was saying sounded more like I was speaking in tongues as I tried to articulate what was I was thinking. I decided to try and focus on my running form; I slouch quite a bit when I get tired and so despite it not feeling like it, I straightened my back and looked up, as I did I made eye contact with a woman on a barge, who congratulated me and said ‘well done, keep going, only 800 meters to go’. This gave me a boost, despite having resided myself to have missed my goal time and pushed on for the final stretch until I heard the ‘beep’ of a chip timer syncing as I crossed the finish line. I smiled, knowing I’d finished strong and, all things considered, I’d had a good race (it wouldn’t of an ultra-marathon if there hadn’t been any low points). The man at the finish line congratulated me and said, ‘nice work, just snuck in under 5 hours’. I asked him if he knew what my time was and he relied ‘four fifty-nine, forty something’. My official time was 4.59.43; I’d come in under 5 hours by a whole 17 seconds. Seemed quite a fitting end to what was a very enjoyable day’s running.

A huge thank you to Martyn, Paul, Andy, Adam, Sarah and Mike for being part of my first ultra-experience and to cannonball events for making it happen. Also a massive debt of gratitude is owed to my partner Laura and our two boys, Isaac and Jude for being so supportive.

-Mike Chaloner