Sunday 31 January 2010

The Tortoise, the Hare and the Ultra-runner - and other musings during an Ultra

My approach to ultra training may appear chaotic to some, running a different location every weekend, eating large takeaways to refuel - come to think of it thats probably not unusual. But, I think I'm doing the right thing by me - and what is not chaotic about running a long, unconventional distance on varied and unpredictable terrain? So I'll keep doing random things, satisfied that if I'm doing good miles then the body will figure out what its meant to do and the mind will sort the rest. 

So far this year I've run 23 miles on fresh snow and ice from my doorstep into the short sharp hills of the East Yorkshire Wolds. I've done nearly twenty miles on moorland around ilkley including snowdrifts, hands on knees climbs and toe-freezing meltwater. Then last week I did nearly twenty again on Marsden Moor, less snow cover than Ilkley but some of the drifts were mounstrous, and this was on the paths!

So what this weekend? Well, several old forum buddies and I decided it was time for one or our regular Canal runs. This is where a few of the northern contingent in Marathon training meet up early doors in Leeds and take the Skipton train. Handily, this train follows close to the Leeds-Liverpool canal creating a great point-to-point, nearly flat, LSR route. Its also a nice change of scenery for me. Being an "Ultra-ist" rather than "marathonist" right now I decided to make the most of this flat, easy, route, and joined mark in taking the train all the way to Skipton. Several others took a later train and got off a bit earlier in Keighley. The loosely formed plan was that we would catch them up on route for a bit of a saturday morning chinwag.

For the unitiated in Yorkshire waterways the Skipton to Leeds navigation is 29.2 miles. By road it is probably less, but where's the fun?? The towpath is mostly flat, cinder-path, occasionally muddy, ocassionally hard-packed mud with stoney bits, and irregularly concrete or stone. Also being a canal, its only major descents are short and somewhat steep at the lockgates. There are no ascents at all in this direction. The route out of Skipton is pleasent enough, following Airedale, initially on higher ground than the river. Views of green fields, countryside, occasionally a golf course and lots of interestingly named narrow boats and some premium real-estate on the canal with little jetties out back. What with conversation taking some weird tangents during a long, long run - at one point Mark suggested if he lived out here he'd make a few quid with BBQ in his back yard to entice the narrow boaters who tootle past. Somehow the talk got onto bars and I suggested I would convert my narrow boat - which I don't really intend to buy - so it had a long bar running the length of the boat and plenty of stools along for thirsty boaters.

After a sandwich stop I phoned up the shorter run gang - 19.5 from Keighley being there poison. Despite the fact we were catching them up, it seemed I'd miscalculated and we probably wouldn't be up with them by time we finished... DOH!! We'd set off 30mins earlier on train, but journey was longer and we had nearly ten extra miles - not sure how I'd figured we'd catch them at the slow pace 29-miles makes necessary. Oh well, on with the show.

So we all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. But in 2010 an ultrarunner challenged them both along the Leeds-Liverpool canal. As predicted the hare bolted off but soon realised the difference between a marathon and a sprint and had to stop to rest. Being a bit ahead of the plodding tortoise and ultra-ist and being a hare, he also took some time to have some fun with a few of the local lady hares. After the business was done, he was out like a light, leaving the ultraist and tortoise to battle it out.......

Well no, not really, the ultra runner had picked up the tortoise pretty early doors and placed him back down shell-first. Tortoise was defeated by his inability to self-right. So the clever human ultra-ist had won the day, even having time to stop for ham sandwiches along the way.

The above never really happened, this was just something that crept into my mind sometime beyond 20m. Conversation wasn't quite as stimulating or regular at this point, due to the accumulated hours of effort, so the imagination takes over a bit I guess. Since leaving Skipton we had passed the most scenic bits towards Silsden where Airedale is wide and the sides quite tall, creating a scenic patchwork of farms, small settlements and the river. From Keighley onwards it got a bit more industrial; not bad industrial though, with the grand old mill and factory buildings standing majestically amongst modern buildings, obviously scrubbed clean of soot and the like. At Bingley we had 5 and 3 gate locks giving us a near 100ft drop in quick sucession. On from here, some more countryside, more industrial buildings all leading to Leeds. Later on the canal runs parallel to the river making for some interesting bits as you "aquaduct" over the river and then a chance to observe the rower-types doing their saturday morning workouts.

At about 11m to Leeds I'd called Keighley team, they were closing in on 6 to go. So we stopped worrying about catching them and took a drink/food break, breaking into some 50p Golden Syrup cake from Somerfield - bargain carbs, ideal for a runners backpack, if a little bulky for a road marathonist  to carry (there loss, maybe they too will see the light one day). I think both of Skipton team had a bad patch at twenty or just beyond, but the carbs kicked in and the closing miles went easily enough, still tootling along at about 9:30 pace, through the more gloomy outskirts of Leeds. Mark commented these bits were like a cleaned up version of the early miles of Round Rotherham 50 - doesn't say much for that one.

We shuffled into Leeds centre hitting the steeps off the canal near the car park at 13:15 - 4:35 - 29.2m - just below 9:30 pace, pretty pleased with ourselves. All that was left to do was to observe the important post-long run ritual of a pint. What goes well with a print?... A pie of course, being in central Leeds, Greggs was on hand to supply. How's that for a professional refuelling strategy? Well works for me and I'm not exactly slacking up


  1. Good running, good eating and one hell of a good imagination

  2. it might only seem chaotic to those not in the know ;)

    greggs though! you're a class act de!

  3. top stuff and love the stories your head ends up creating in those later miles that you are out :)