The Country to Capital Ultra is a 43 mile point to point race from Wendover in Buckinghamshire to Little Venice in London.
As the name suggests, the route covers approximately 23 miles of glorious countryside, woodland trails and muddy tracks before hitting the Grand Union Canal for a further 20 miles of canal tow path – finally finishing in the heart of London next to Paddington Station.
I’d gone into the event well prepared. I’d recently completed 55 miles in ‘Stride the Extra Mile’ – a local event organised to raise money for Primrose Hospice, whereby you could complete as many 1 mile loops of our local park as possible within 12 hours. The following week, I’d joined a few friends for a trail marathon around mid Wales. I was feeling strong and fitness was returning after being sidelined with Achilles Tendinitis for the best part of 4 months.
Kit choice was my biggest concern. I own lots of running shoes -probably way too many according to my wife! From winter trail shoes to hybrid summer trails, from long-distance road shoes to lighter, faster HIIT shoes, I’m fortunate enough to have them in my collection. But what I don’t have are shoes that have enough grip and traction to cope with wet, wintery, muddy trails but also have enough cushioning to cope with the additional 20 miles of canal path. With no bag drop at the half way stage, its a choice of grip versus cushioning – and after much deliberation, I’d opted for grip with my Scott’s Supertrac. Not great on canal towpaths but with the recent bad weather, I wanted to ensure I’d have enough traction to keep me upright for the initial 25 miles of wet, muddy trails before we hit the canals.
I’d travelled down to Tring, just outside Wendover on Friday afternoon with Jasper, booking ourselves into the local Premier Inn. With the majority of my kit sorted, we grabbed a bite to eat before heading back for a decent nights sleep! (with 3 kids and a new puppy at home – a decent nights kip is a luxury not to be overlooked!)
Registration was relatively stress free – albeit with 300+ runners huddled into the Shoulder of Mutton pub avoiding the rain, it was a bit of a squeeze.
Nevertheless, race numbers attached, trackers securely in our packs and drop bag (for the finish line) handed over – we were soon sent on our way. 300+ runners making our way down the high street at 8.45am with the road temporarily closed off to traffic and plenty of local support cheering us on – it was a nice touch.
The first couple of miles were a mixture of bridleways and farm tracks and it didn’t take long before we settled into our race pace. With both Jasper and I training for 100 milers later this year, we’d agreed to treat this as a training run, stay together and enjoy a day out on the trails. In addition, with the course being unmarked, it’s great to share the responsibility for navigation with someone – the last thing you want to do is add unnecessary mileage onto an ultra!
By the 10k mark I’d started to overheat. With light rain forecast, becoming persistently heavier throughout the day I’d opted for a long sleeve base layer underneath my waterproof jacket. Despite the relatively easy pace, the undulating course meant that I was overheating and it felt like I working harder than I should have been – especially on the climbs. Jacket discarded, I regrouped with Jasper and settled back into a comfortable rhythm.
We reached the first checkpoint at mile 8 and stopped briefly to see what was on offer. Although limited, there was sufficient water to refill our flasks and a variety of sweets and home-made cake to top up sugar levels. Not the greatest selection for an ultra but considering we were only 8 miles in it didn’t pose too many issues at the time.
Conditions underfoot ranged from saturated fields, muddy trails and wet bridleways – I was in my element. With only 2,300ft of elevation gain within the first 25 miles, there were no major climbs and any ascents felt comfortable in comparison to what I’d normal take on. I was also happy with my choice of footwear – watching fellow runners struggling with the terrain and sliding around whilst I had sufficient grip to stay upright reconfirmed my shoe choice and I felt confident in the conditions.
Before long we reached checkpoint 2 at mile 17. Both Jasper and I were still feeling strong at this stage – running well within ourselves – and enjoying the trails. The checkpoint had the same offerings as checkpoint 1 – disappointingly no diet coke or any variety of savory options – so we grabbed some chocolate and promptly carried on.
We’d spoken to numerous runners throughout the day and the reoccurring topic of conversation was around how monotonous the canal section was later on in the race. I struggle mentally with any distance covered on canals whereas Jasper thrives on them – give me hills, views and mud any day over flat, soulless canals. To say I wasn’t looking forward to that section was an understatement.
It really is a race of two halves.
At mile 23 we joined the Grand Union Canal and the start of our problems.
The initial plan was to maintain a steady, comfortable pace up to the 30 mile marker – where we’d then adopt a run/walk strategy dependent upon how fatigued we were to the finish line.
However, this didn’t quite go to plan. For the past mile or so, Jasper had been struggling with low sugar levels – as a result of not fueling properly – and was starting to feel nauseous so we decided to walk it out whilst taking some fuel on board. We implemented a run/walk strategy – using bridges as markers and although the miles ticked along slowly, Jasper was still struggling with his energy levels.
Aid station 6 at mile 27 came and went – again with limited food options – but at this point we had increased the ratio of running to walking and were making good progress – even overtaking the runners that had passed us since we joined the canal.
By mile 30 my issues started.
I felt good within myself. I was tired but felt like I had plenty of energy in the tank – probably as a result of the unscheduled run/walk strategy – but my feet were becoming a major issue. With next to no cushioning in my trail shoes, I could feel every footstep along the canal and the constant repetition felt like someone was sticking needles in my foot. On top of that, my ankles were becoming sore as they were taking the full force of every step. It wasn’t excruciating but enough to justify in my head that walking was the sensible option- frustrating for both myself and Jasper – who had now fully recovered and was itching to press on to the finish.
We maintained a run/walk strategy for the next 3 miles – again using bridges as markers. If I’m being honest, the repetition and lack of interest on the canals probably didn’t spur me on and although we were moving at a slower pace, we were still overtaking other runners who by now had all seemed to have adopted the same strategy.
By mile 34 we’d reached a milestone – the countdown to the finish line was within single figures and this momentarily led to an increase in effort on my behalf.
It was short-lived.
I’d lost all motivation.
I desperately wanted to get to the finish line but a combination of the uninspiring view, the pain in my feet and the urge to walk was too overwhelming. Although we hadn’t set a specific time goal, Jasper and I had discussed it the night before and agreed that on a good day, we’d be looking at 8 hours, on an average day 9 hours and if anything went drastically wrong then it would 10hrs+ or a DNF. Up until joining the canal, we had made good progress and were on target for a sub 8 hour finish – so ahead of target A. Even with the run/walk strategy along the canal, we were looking at finishing around the 8.5 hour mark – I’d convinced myself we were still on target so lost all desire to push on.
With 5 miles to go we were fast losing daylight so out came our headtorches – and with it came a renewed source of energy. Now, whether it was the fact that we only had 5 miles to go or it was just too dark to physically see the canal I’m not sure (I suspect it was the latter) but I found a second wind, ignored the pain in my feet and pushed on towards the finish line – much to Jasper’s surprise – crossing the line in a time of 8hrs 38.
Exhausted, both physically and mentally, but delighted to have finished.
We were rewarded with a bottle of non alcoholic cider and a half decent medal (to go with the t-shirt which we received at registration) before being promptly moved on – the finish line being on the canal with limited space made it feel a bit underwhelming.
We located our drop backs, changed into some warm clothing before heading back to Marylebone Station to get our train back to Wendover. (We were originally planning to walk the 1.5 miles back to the train station before google maps suggested we headed back along the canal that we had just run along).
We called an Uber!
In summary, it really is a race of 2 halves.
Not having a drop bag before you hit the canal section ruined it for me and on that basis, I wouldn’t go back and do it again. Being quite a nostalgic race, I’m glad to have done it and enjoyed Jaspers company (as always) but there’s plenty more races out there to try. As a final note, for the distance involved, we were both generally disappointed in the offerings at the aid stations – whether this was impacted by Covid restrictions I’m not sure, but I’ve certainly seen a much more varied selection at lesser known events.