Liverpool to Leeds 130 mile canal race

Not so much a race report but a few notes to reflect on for taking on a very long race.

I only made it to checkpoint 3 at 40 miles – just shy of ⅓ into the 127 mile race and called it a day. Normally after such a short outing in race I’d probably not even bother writing it up but as I often read back through my own posts before a race and because I do get the occasional person read this blog while doing their own research I’ll share my somewhat shortened experience.

It’s been a bit of a mixed year of running and the LLCR130 was the biggie for me, the race I really wanted to take part in most of all. I felt I’d wanted to challenge myself in a big distance race after having run well in some key races throughout the year including a sub 35 10k pb, 4th place at Barry 40 mile, completing 9 ascents at UMTLM and recently winning the 75 mile Kirklees Way in the midst of the summer heatwave.  Races aside though, my training consistency perhaps hasn’t been what I’d had in mind with this race on the horizon.

Pre-race planning

I’d originally planned on running this race unsupported and just relying on my drop bag and the checkpoints for food, drink and anything else as I went but thanks to a relatively late bit of good news my friend Sam from our club kindly offered to crew or join me on the course and over a drink we organised a rough plan for my pacing schedule and that Sam would join me at about 75 miles and run through to the finish which if on plan would have been great to have had company through the night section and into the last 25ish miles into Leeds.

My goal was a sub 29 hour finish. A big goal for sure and a massive step into the unknown but I need that focus and something to aim for and finishing under 29 hours would be a time that is eligible for the Spartathlon ballot. Could I do it? Frankly I had no idea but it didn’t feel unreasonable as something to strive for.

The rest of my pre-race planning was a little sloppy looking back and I didn’t really confirm enough things in my mind (hotel & train ticket) until a couple of days before. These are the little things that should ideally be sorted (along with any support and actual race strategy) well in advance so there’s less to worry about nearer the time.

In the end, I found a room at a Z-Hotel 5 minutes walk from the start and my train ticket was actually pretty reasonable for traveling on a bank holiday weekend Friday at 4pm.

Race plan

With a loose goal of 29 hours we decided to break the race into 25 mile segments with an ever slowing split for each of 4:30, 5:00, 5:30, 6:15 and then the final 30 miles in 7:45. Slow start, slower middle followed by a slower finish.

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I figured I’d still be running a reasonable amount through 50 miles and potentially still at 75 although with significant walking thrown in it didn’t feel like hitting the 75 mile mark and meeting with Sam would be too out of reach in 15 hours on a flat course. At that point I’d figured we would then slow fairly significantly through the night and be pretty much walking to the finish from here with the occasional trot whenever possible.

Race reality

The turnout for the race was significantly lower than I’d expected. I know the canal series is very popular and I’d expected a good 100+ runners but sadly numbers were down and only 36 of us started on a slightly chilly morning at 6am and apart from some sporadic showers in the first couple of hours the weather for running was about spot on for the first day.

My Ambit 2 no longer has the battery life for anything beyond a marathon so I don’t bother trying to use it for longer races and just track my time on Strava on my phone instead. It’s sometimes a little tricky to judge pace but to be honest the plan called for me to go really slow from the start so I tried to just stay barely above a shuffle.

The first few miles of a long race are always quite nice with everyone just chatting and sharing past stories etc and I had a nice chat with a couple of folks as the first few miles ticked by easy enough. It always feels a little intimidating to me when I hear what other people have done in other races or the canal series and I can’t lie when I say it gets into my head and I find myself questioning what I’m doing here and whether my goals are just stupid.

Start to CP 1 (14.5 miles)

I was surprisingly disciplined and maintained an easy pace from the start and so hitting the first CP in just over 2h30 was about on schedule but this felt way harder than it should have done. I could already feel a little tension in my hip flexors, both my achilles were warming up a bit and the soles of my feet already felt a little tender.

There’s absolutely no reason 14.5 miles in 2h30 should have been anything but an easy stretch so getting to the first CP sweating and with tightness in my hips and sore feet wasn’t exactly an encouraging start but I thought it would just be one of those runs where everything just settles in after a few hours and you get in the zone. Wrong.

CP1 – CP2 (25.7 miles) 

Didn’t really need anything but a water top up and a gel to replace the one I’d had on the previous stretch so no need to hang around at the CP and just carried on along the path for another couple of miles before my hips and in particular my feet really started to become a concern. Not enough necessarily to knock me off the pace just yet but as I hit the CP in just around the 4:30 pace target I was already thinking about taking walking breaks and this absolutely wasn’t in the plan yet. I’d figured on running consistently through to around the 50 mile point at least.

I honestly don’t know what was going at this point, I grabbed more water, had a couple of cups of coke and picked up a Nom Butter from my drop bag and left the CP. It was feeling painfully like it was going to be a very very long day at this point and I started walking at about 30 miles and the running – such as it was – was already a shuffle at best.

The seeds of doubt were already well and truly sown at about 30 miles and I admit I do sometimes suffer from a tactical inflexibility to just go with the flow when things aren’t going well but I was prepared and knew I’d have to accept and embrace pain and difficult times in this race so I switched off and walked. And walked. And walked. At least there was now less than 100 miles to Leeds …

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LLCR130

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It was good to get to Wigan Pier and a change of scenery to a more elaborate canal system and the Wigan rise series of locks so checking the map showed the next CP was only a couple of miles with the climb and a couple of bridges along the canal. Physically I’d unraveled at this point, my feet felt tenderised, my achilles were very sore and my hip flexors were making even walking uncomfortable – something that happened at last year’s Self Transcendence race and having now reached the checkpoint in a downward spiral I’d pretty much decided to pull out early.

CP3 (40.2 miles) – Retirement

Anyone who’s run a few ultras knows that sometimes you just need to get yourself to the next rest point, take a bit of a break if necessary and have a brew and food before you make any hasty decisions and so with 40 minutes available at a checkpoint (you had to leave in that time or be disqualified) I had some food, took off my shoes and sat down for bit. My main concern with moving forward was my achilles and my hips combined with the prospect of somewhere around 6 hours walking to the next CP and despite the kind words of encouragement from fellow competitors and the CP crew I was the first to pull out of this years race and call it day.

I simply felt way more battered and beaten than I should have at this stage and my mind had shut down the possibility of turning this into a 24 hour ultra walk from here on.

It feels pretty weak and pathetic in retrospect and writing it down in the form of a half report/half reminder should I or anyone re-read this but I don’t regret my decision – it was based on the situation at the time, the distance and time left and took into account some ongoing and niggling issues I’ve been managing. It wasn’t a rushed decision, I took pretty much my full 40 minute allowance at the checkpoint to square off my choice and it felt right enough.

The big regret is of course being at home the next day watching the other runners complete their races after battling through the night and feeling the sense of missing out and the “what if” of whether I should have carried on walking through the afternoon and into the night.

Next time?

I’d hoped that finishing this race would be my biggest achievement to date and I fell well short both physically and mentally on the day. It’s now been 3 years since finishing my only 100 miler (the White Rose Ultra) and in that time I’ve had a good level of personal success at shorter ultra races where I can perhaps utilise my speed and willingness to suffer at a higher effort level for shorter spells a little more than the longer races but there’s just something about a race where the distance is measured in 3 digits that captures the imagination.

My training for this race was almost certainly sub standard for the goal I’d set but in reality I have the fitness level to finish an event like this but I need to address the achilles and hip weakness before trying something like this again. The route itself is nice enough and the low key organisation and friendliness of the race crew and competitors were top notch but I need to get myself in a better place before taking on something that’s going to last more than 6 or 8 hours.

Kit wise, having a drop bag moved from checkpoint to checkpoint was helpful but I’d be sure to carry a reasonable amount of fluid between checkpoints as there’s not much scope to refill on the canal path. The rest of my gear was my standard kit really so tried and tested and in the fair weather of the first day didn’t really need much.

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Final kit check and drop bag filled for my first attempt at the Liverpool to Leeds 130 mile canal race tomorrow. Nervous and looking forward to getting going in the morning and hopefully my legs and mind get me along the route and into Leeds on Sunday. Never run this far before so I guess it's going to be an experience one way or another and just hope the rain holds off for us.

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James – If you’re reading this with a mind to doing another canal race next, make your hips strong and practice running 10 minute miles on a flat route for a long time.

Anyone else, if I can help answer any other questions based on my short experience don’t hesitate to give me a shout.