Following my recent DNF in the Thames Ring 250 in June my wife and son had started calling me ‘DNF’ and I was told not to come home if I didn’t finish the Kennet and Avon Canal Race (KACR). No pressure then!
In fairness, when I look back on recent race results, excluding my virtual races and solo adventures of 2020 I need to go back to October 2018 to find my last decent race. In 2019 I started five races and had two sub-par performances and three DNF’s, and my only real race in 2020 was a disappointing 48 hour race in Athens. So perhaps DNF was an apt name for me.
The Kennet and Avon Canal Race is a 143 mile race from Little Venice in London to Bristol following the Grand Union Canal, the Jubilee River, the River Thames, and the Kennet & Avon Canal. It is the second race in the Canal Race series – the first race being the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) from Birmingham to London which I have completed in three times previously, and the third race being the 130 mile Liverpool to Leeds Canal Race (LLCR) which I have yet to participate in.
To be honest, my main reason for competing in the KACR was simply to add another line to my ever-growing map showing where I’ve walked since 2014.
With the race starting in London (Little Venice) at 6am I decided to save some money and sleep in my own bed the night before the race. It meant an early start, leaving home at 4am for the 90 minute journey via two buses and the tube through to the Paddington followed by a short walk to Little Venice, but after my experience with less than ideal sleeping conditions the night before the Thames Ring, I decided this was the best idea for me.
I also discovered that both the last bus on Saturday night, and the first bus on Sunday morning, from Bristol back to London cost only £3, so I booked a seat on both buses. If I had a good race, I would be able to catch the Saturday night bus back home 38 hours after race start. If I didn’t race so well, I would be on the 4:30am bus on Sunday morning.
The race got underway at 6am with 74 starters – 72 runners and 2 walkers (the legendary Sandra Brown competing in her 208th race of 100 miles or further – a world record – and myself) in perfect conditions. The weekend weather forecast didn’t look great but it would be a warm, sunny day to begin with before forecast heavy rain and thunderstorms overnight.
Sandra and I settled at the back of the field walking a little under 8 minutes per kilometre in the early stages of the race. We arrived at the first checkpoint (12 miles) about 30 seconds apart and a minute or two behind the last of the runners. I stopped for just a few seconds to refill my water bottles and collect some more food, and set off after the runners ahead of me.
During the second 15 mile leg I caught and passed a few runners reaching the next checkpoint in a shade under 6 hours. A good pace, and a little over 30 minutes inside the cut-off time limit. One of the concerns when walking in running races is being eliminated by not meeting the early cut-off times which are designed for runners – because it is a running race. Having got through CP 2 I should be OK with over 3 ½ hours to complete the next 14 miles and then even more time after that between each checkpoint.
It was now early afternoon and starting to warm up a little. We passed a few ice cream vans beside the river but it wasn’t until we got to Maidenhead that I found one that excepted Google Pay. I had forgotten to take cash with me – an amateur mistake – and wasn’t even carrying a debit or credit card, just my phone. At Maidenhead I bought a calippo and then at Henley I had my first short rest when I bought a 7UP and sat down for a break in the shade.
All was going well and I continued to pass runners from time to time. Many of the runners had their own support crew and in a friendly event such as the canal races, support crews are only too willing to help other competitors – which was just what I needed as I was only carrying two 500ml water bottles and in the heat I was consuming in excess of 2 litres of water between each checkpoint.
At some point around 45 miles I was walking along talking to another runner when we missed a turn off which resulted in us adding about 1 ½ to 2 miles to our journey. ‘Bonus miles’ as they are called in ultramarathon races.
I reached Sonning Lock, the 50 mile point, with 52 miles on my watch. My time was 11 hours 55 minutes. I was still on target to catch the 8pm bus home on Saturday night – 93 miles to go and 26 hours until the bus leaves.
We reach Reading shortly afterwards and that was my next rest stop. How could I not stop when it was dinner time and we walked right past a McDonalds? We had actually passed a McDonalds at lunchtime too, but I decided to miss that one.
I ate my tea while walking and shortly after finishing my tea, to my surprise I caught Sandra again. The last time I had seen her was about 45 miles earlier at checkpoint 1, but with my extra mileage when I went the wrong way earlier, and the 10 or so minutes I was at McDonalds, she had caught and passed me. I walked with Sandra and a few other runners for the next few minutes through to CP4 at 57 miles, and once again I only stayed a minute or so – enough time to refill my water bottles and get some more food.
During the next 13 mile leg it began to get dark and this is when I started to struggle a little. As a rule I enjoy walking through the night but I felt like I was struggling this time. In hindsight, I suspect that I hadn’t fully recovered from the Thames Ring which had involved 80+ hours of walking on almost zero sleep. I also found that my head torch wasn’t working properly, and it was then that I remembered that it hadn’t been working properly during the last hour of the Thames Ring either. Something I had forgotten until now. I mucked around trying to get it to work but in the end I settled for having a dim light that didn’t really light up anything more than a meter in front of me. At some stage probably about five miles before the next checkpoint I either caught two runners or they caught me (I can’t remember which), and I decided that with a failing head torch my best option was to just sit in behind them through to the checkpoint – which is what I did.
I arrived at checkpoint 5, 70 miles, in 41st place in 17 hours and 7 minutes. I had my spare handheld torch in my dropbag as well as some warmer clothes for the night section, so I stopped for a short break and tried to charge my head torch to see if that helped (it didn’t) and change clothes. We were told that the weather forecast for the night still didn’t look good, with thunder and lightning plus heavy rain forecast. So whilst it was still warm I packed some wet weather clothing into my backpack and also changed into my waterproof socks.
Leaving checkpoint 5 I found that my handheld torch worked much better than my head torch but I still couldn’t get into a rhythm. I felt like I was still struggling a little – just going through the motions. But I was still passing the occasional runner and figured that that meant I wasn’t the only one who was struggling.
As it turned out, it didn’t rain overnight (apart from some occasional drizzle), or at least not on my part of the canal, but there was lightning in the distance. The waterproof socks proved to be worthwhile though as we spent a lot of the night and the next morning walking through long, wet, grass and the waterproof socks kept my feet completely dry.
My goal, if I wanted to finish in time for the 8pm bus, was to get to CP7 at 99 miles in around 24 hours but I was going too slow and didn’t arrive at the checkpoint until 7:39am (25 hours 39 minutes). Physically, I was still feeling reasonable, and I had passed a few runners overnight – the checkpoint log shows that I was now in 31st place – but it was unlikely I would finish in time to make the Saturday night bus. I wasn’t too worried though. My number 1 goal was simply to finish. The time didn’t really matter.
Once again I was in and out of the checkpoint as quickly as possible. It still wasn’t raining but the checkpoint team said that there was still an ‘amber weather warning’, so I continued to carry my wet weather clothing.
Saturday turned out to just be one very long drag from one checkpoint to the next. At various times I caught up to both of the lead women but they kept pulling away from me and I was unable to stay with them. Admittedly, they were running and I was walking. They would go on to finish just one minute apart, and one hour ahead of me.
A lot of the underfoot terrain was hard going, and I didn’t really enjoy it. But I was always going to finish this race. It never got to the stage where I needed a rest, although I did take breaks of around 10-15 minutes at both CP8 and CP 9 (116 and 130 miles). I didn’t really need the breaks but I had found that my watch kept stopping if I tried to recharge it while walking (a loose connection I think) so I used the need to recharge my watch as an excuse for a rest.
I finally completed the race at 9:13pm, finishing in 25th place in 39 hours and 13 minutes.
The race finished beside a boat which the organisers had arranged to use as the finish line HQ. This proved to be perfect for the athletes finishing during the night as it was an indoor place where we could rest and even sleep. In my case, I cleaned myself up (sponge bath) and then slept until 3am before walking through Bristol’s nightlife to the bus station for the much faster trip back to London – the 4:30am bus having missed the 8pm bus the previous evening.
I had originally entered the Liverpool to Leeds Canal Race at the end of August, but after the Thames Ring I withdrew from that race because I also have the Sri Chinmoy 24 hour track race in London in September followed by the Lon Las Ultra across Wales in October. I think the reason I struggled so much during the KACR was that I hadn’t fully recovered from the Thames Ring and I think the LLCR might be just one race too many this year.
I’ve always wanted to do the Sri Chinmoy race in London as it is an opportunity to do a race without any travel (before or after the race) and I haven’t done a track race since 2014. Normally the race conflicts with the Roubaix 28 hour (walking) race in France, but with travel outside of the UK not necessarily guaranteed at present due to Covid, I have decided to use the opportunity to compete in the Sri Chinmoy event. Watch this space for my next race report.