15. January 2017

Country to Capital 2017: Resurrection

The annual Country to Capital race takes a few hundred enthusiasts from Wendover to London Paddington in what is said to be the opener of the ultra marathon season. There are stark contrasts between country and capital, and it was interesting to observe the gradual transition.

Somehow, I was coerced into signing up for the Country to Capital 2017 before I had even run my first ultra. But then, life is not a checklist, so I knew I wouldn’t do all the training just to be able to tick that one off.

It’s Saturday morning, 6.15 AM. The alarm on my analog alarm clock rings. Remembering that I had also set an alarm on my phone in the evening (just to be safe), I turn it off and decide that I might as well doze for a few minutes until my phone rings. After a short while though, I get nervous and check my phone. Fortunately, because I had the alarm on my phone configured to ring on weekdays only. Well, I have just mastered the first obstacle in the race.

Arriving at Marylebone Station, I notice that most passengers are in race gear. And then the whole train is full of runners. The poor other passengers who have to endure all the runner’s talk, tieing of shoes, changing of clothes, eating breakfast (I miss a proper bakery, I really do). At Wendover, the mob leaves the train and goes through the registration procedure in a record time. I have never, ever had such a short time between arriving at the start (8.15 AM at Wendover Station) and the actual race start (8:40 AM). Extremely efficient. Kudos to the organizers at making such a thing possible.

After a week of fighting a cold / flu in the beginning of January, I wasn’t sure whether I would recover in time. But fortunately, I did. Well, everbody needs a hobby. So, what’s yours? Resurrection. Actually, I felt strong and well-prepared in the morning – somehow one just knows. I had the goal of completing the 45 miles (72 km) in less than 7 hours, and I decided that 6:30 h would be my stretch goal. However, I run without checking the time, so I will only learn in the finish whether I manage or not.

The race briefing is shorter than a minute, and off we go. There is a race within the race, and this is about getting early to the gate down the road leading to the public footpath. The gate and the footpath is narrow so there is an incentive to arrive there early. Also, the best runners race this just for the sake of racing. I am content with arriving there early, there are many more kilometers to go (70, but let’s not think about that too much).

The race course is unmarked, so you either stick to a runner who knows where to go, you explore the route in advance, or you use map & compass and maybe GPS to navigate. I took part in a recce run in December so was somewhat familiar with the first 25k of the route. But mostly I stick to other runners, some of them telling me they have run the race before.

The first half of the race is pretty much country. It goes mostly downhill though. It is muddy here and there but I have seen much, much worse in January. In one place, A whole road crossing is flooded. Some runners including me balance on the curb to avoid stepping into the water. Other runners “laugh” at us and run straight through the huge puddle. When I tell another runner I don’t have any spare shoes in my drop bag, he laughs and claims my shoes are going to be dry by then anyway. Thanks for the reminder, many dozen kilometers left to go.

I notice that I started off to fast. On the way to checkpoint 3, I pay the price, and have to slow down accordingly. The second part of the race goes all along the Grand Union Canal. It can’t get any flatter. But it is also very flat. I mean, it’s flat, flat, flat. There is no variation. And there are boats. And then more boats. Just boats, boats, boats. There is no variation. Endless pounding on the towpath. Litter on the right, litter on the left. Litter, litter, and more litter. Welcome to the capital.

The race feels getting longer and longer. My legs don’t want to run anymore, but I have no interest in stopping, or walking. Walking feels like a concession. I don’t want to make that concession. On it goes, more canal, more towpath, more boats. The sign pointing to Paddington (13 miles) near Southall is a relief. Two more checkpoints.

Oddly enough, nobody is overtaking me, so I compared to other runners I realize I might not have dropped so much in speed as I thought. Once I get to a few miles close to Paddington, I decide to tap into my last reserves and speed up again. Rarely have I been so glad to see the finish line. I finished in 6:23 h, achieving my stretch goal. Happy!

Then off to do some cheering for the other runners who want to know how many bridges there are left before the finish. Great work. But then it was starting to get cold, so I left. I did not need my head torch but some runners did. These are the heros, being out there on the course in the knowledge that many others have already finished. Respect.