How long does it take to get from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington? Clearly the train is the best option as it will take around 1h 40m to 1h 44m. Pretty quick. Driving is naturally a bit more challenging due to getting from city centre to city centre but with reasonable traffic one can make it in 3 hours or so. Cycling? An experienced (not professional) cyclist should easily make it under 12 hours. So how about running? Well, it took me over 40 hours of running, jogging, walking and stumbling and here’s the story.
The Kennet & Avon Canal 145 Mile Race
KACR stands for ‘Kennet & Avon Canal 145 Mile Race’. 2017 saw its inaugural edition happening on Friday, 28th July. Starting from Bristol Temple Meads at 6 AM the runner had 45 hours to cover the 145 miles and get to London Paddington at 3 AM on Sunday at the latest.
The Kennet and Avon Canal is in fact 87 miles long so we’re short of a few miles. I guess if the name of the race was to reflect the whole route it would have to be:
‘The River Avon, Kennet & Avon Canal, River Kennet, River Thames, Eton, Slough, Slough Arm and Grand Union Canal 145 Mile Race’
I imagine that wouldn’t look too well on a medal, so let’s stick to the shorter name :).
The organisers set up 9 checkpoints along the way to cater for the racers: offer drinks and basic food to all runners and access to drop bags to unsupported runners, i.e. those who run without any support crew.
In April this year I attempted to run Mark Cockbain’s Viking Way Ultra, which I failed and then described in detail on my blog here. This was my first attempt at running more than 100 miles and since then I have been looking for a chance of redemption. It might have been around May or June that I found out there were still places available for KACR. Despite earlier plans, I signed up.
My training this year has been rather patchy so instead of regular weekend long runs and the usual ultra training I focused on experiences. In May I raced in a 100k navigation race Kierat in Poland. Then in June and July I tasted skyrunning: Vegan 3,000 Ultra and Lakes Sky Ultra, respectively. These events ensured that I had some decent mileage done. On the other hand, Lakes Sky Ultra was just two weeks before KACR, so I didn’t have as much time for recovery as I wanted. Nevertheless, I was super excited about running in KACR and confident I would make it a success.
Before the race I had expected to finish it in around 35 hours. That seemed reasonable. In 2016 I ran 100 miles (Centurion South Downs Way 100) in 22.5 hours. Since SDW100 was quite hilly, I assumed the first 100 miles of KACR should take me 20-21 hours. Leaving 14-15 hours to cover the last 45 miles would allow for a comfortable 3 mph walking pace. As you will see shortly I was a bit too optimistic.
In the preceding week I bought my race supplies so a variety of bars, gels, nuts and nibbles to eat on the way. That was necessary as I was to run as an unsupported runner. On Thursday I packed my whole stuff (race kit, spare clothes, food, sleeping bag etc.) and set off by train from Oxford to Bristol where I stayed for the night.
I got out of bed at 5 AM on Friday, ate something, packed my 3 bags (race pack, drop bag and finish line bag) and arrived at the start of the race a couple of minutes before 6 AM, pretty much missing the race briefing! I just managed to leave my drop bag and the finish line bag with the organisers, took a couple of pictures and there we go, the race started!
Start – CP1 Bath (13.7 miles)
I quickly settled into a nice pace somewhere in the middle of the group of 76 runners who decided to tackle this event. I met my friend Rod with whom I started chatting and for the first couple of miles we ran together. The first 1.5 miles took us along the Feeder Canal after which we joined River Avon. This was a very picturesque part of the journey with lush vegetation along the river. The morning was lovey and warm so very enjoyable.
After 9 miles from the start we left the river and entered Bristol & Bath Railway Path: a nice and very runnable cycle route. Running felt easy and at 8:05 I arrived at the first checkpoint. That meant I averaged over 6.5 mph which was surprisingly fast… too fast. On the other hand I knew I’d slow down soon, so I didn’t worry too much. I grabbed a few bits of food to eat, refilled my water bottles and after 5 minutes departed the checkpoint.
CP1 Bath – CP2 Hilperton (27.4 miles)
A couple of miles along River Avon through beautiful Bath and we joined the Kennet and Avon Canal. I gradually settled into a more relaxed pace, enjoying the views. At around the 20-mile point I realised that I was already quite tired and started to introduce more frequent walking breaks. Still I enjoyed the nice views of River Avon winding its way through the valley. The canal even crossed the river a couple of times over aqueducts which offered good views.
I arrived at CP2 at 11:00, so the 13.7 miles from Bath took me just under 3 hours. 27.4 miles in 5 hours was still a very good time. I was properly tired and needed to rest, eat and drink (especially drink because I was sweating excessively). I also let my feet dry since they got wet from running on grass, taped the balls of my feet and put on a dry pair of socks. No longer fresh and happy to run I left to conquer a long, 17.4-mile long stretch.
CP2 Hilperton – CP3 Honeystreet (44.8 miles)
I have a very vague memory of most of this stretch, very likely due to tiredness. This was essentially miles of canal, locks, bridges, all in a blur now. I would jog for a few minutes, then walk a bit and then again and again. I didn’t even feel very hungry, so had to force feed myself at regular intervals. I felt very thirsty though, so it was great I could refill my water bottles a couple of times along the way.
The only notable exception and a memorable fragment of this stretch was the famous ‘canal mountain’: the Caen Hill Locks. Earlier in the race I was looking forward to seeing this marvel of engineering. Sadly, by the time I got there I was so exhausted that it took me ages to climb the hill and quite a few runners easily overtook me.
Eventually, at 15:20 (over 4 hours to cover 17.4 miles) I arrived at the checkpoint. There I stayed for over 10 minutes to gain some energy. I ate a hot dog, drank some coffee, re-hydrated myself, refilled my bottles and grudgingly left to continue this journey.
CP3 Honeystreet – CP4 Oakhill Down Bridge (60 miles)
Similarly to the previous stretch, this one was 15.2 miles of unremarkableness (gosh, I had to check if this word really exists!). The only exception was Bruce Tunnel, which lies on the summit pound of the canal, i.e. forms the highest point of the race.
I eventually reached CP4 at 19:20. This meant I covered 60 miles in 13 hours and 20 minutes. This was slower than I had expected: 12 hours would have been desirable. The last two stretches were more walked rather than jogged, I was tired and didn’t feel like eating, hence the slowdown. At the CP I re-hydrated and refilled my bottles. I also took a take-away Pot Noodle soup and I must say this was absolutely delicious, totally gourmet stuff! That proves how tired I was, right? I also took my head torch as the next CP would be reached in the dark.
CP4 Oakhill Down Bridge – CP5 Newbury (72.4 miles)
While I rested at the CP it started to rain and the first few miles I was jogging/marching in conditions far from pleasant. Somewhere past Kintbury it got dark enough to turn on my head torch. I kept passing the bridges, the locks, but the path to Newbury seemed never-ending.
A bit of a high point was when I saw and passed under A34 just passed the 70-mile mark. That meant I was approaching Newbury and the CP. It wasn’t until 22:50 or so until I made it to the half-way point. 72.4 miles covered in under 17 hours. That meant I am on track to make it to Paddington in time, but surely not in an overall time of 35 hours or so.
I rested, ate, and drank there. I also let me feet dry a bit and put on a new pair of socks. Feet were rather fine at that point and there was no need to do any serious maintenance.
CP5 Newbury – CP6 Reading (86.4 miles)
I left the checkpoint and continued through Newbury and Thatcham. I can’t really remember now if I was running at all… perhaps a bit at times. The memories are blurry. It was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other and so on, counting down the big red dots on the map (indicating each passing mile) and counting down the numbers of bridges till the next bridge where I was supposed to cross the canal.
After I passed Aldermaston, so around the 81-mile point it must have been around 2 AM and on top of being tired I started to be very sleepy. In my case it shows as stumbling, veering from one side to another and pretty much feeling like drunk! To keep myself going I start talking to myself and singing, which is what I did until I eventually made it to CP6 which sits just before Reading. The time was around 3:30 AM. 86.4 miles done in 21.5 hours.
I ate some baked beans (or a hot-dog, can’t remember) and announced to the CP crew that I need to lie down for a few minutes. One of the kind and super helpful volunteers grabbed a tarpaulin sheet on which I could lie down and covered me with a blanket. I don’t think I slept, but clearly my mind rested. It’s like I was almost having dreams, but not properly asleep. After the 10 minutes I felt somewhat invigorated and left the CP having spent there in total around 25 minutes.
CP6 Reading – CP7 Aston (102.8 miles)
The first few miles felt fine due to the nap. I even did a fair bit of running. Around the 90-mile point I passed the centre of Reading and it started to dawn. By the time I reached River Thames I could stash my head-torch and enjoy a lovely morning.
Just pass Wokingham Waterside Centre sleep deprivation hit me with its full force again! I had to make frequent stops and close my eyes for 20 seconds or so. During this time some dream would start and when I opened my eyes my mind was a bit rested and I could walk or jog again. This dragged on for 20 minutes or so. I eventually took a caffeine gel and this helped to keep me going.
I passed Sonning and a dreaded bit of Thames Path began. I remembered the muddy and slippery path all too well back from Thames Trot 50 that I ran in 2015. Going was slow and I was despairing how I hate this stretch and how exhausting it is. Well, at least it’s ‘just’ 2.5 miles so I was relieved to reach Shiplake. But there going was again slow as my brain was forcing my eyes to close. At this point I was resolved that I will lie down for 20 minutes at the next CP! I marched through Lower Shiplake in a daze and just managed to do a bit of running through Marsh Lock and then through Henley-on-Thames.
In Henley I could enjoy a fantastic, sunny and warm morning, but as soon as I crossed the Bridge and crossed the 100-mile point (at around 7:30, so in 25.5 hours- well behind my target) I again had to fight the urge to sleep. The last 2.5 miles to the CP were endless and I was despairing how long they were taking! I was literally on the verge of a mental breakdown. I needed sleep badly and the prospect of it was the only thing that kept me going.
I finally reached the CP past 8:30 AM. I asked the crew to wake me up in 20-minutes time and I laid on a tarpaulin, surrounded by other runners’ drop bags and drifted off. Like before, I don’t think I properly slept, but my brain certainly rested. I actually woke up on my own. Got myself together, ate a bit, drank a bit, refilled my bottles and set off. Altogether I spend about 30-35 minutes there.
CP7 Aston – CP8 Bray Lock (116.5 miles)
The weather was lovely: sunny and warm. I enjoyed a bit of running while making my way through picturesque and affluent areas on the banks of Thames: Hurley, Marlow, Bourne End, Cookham. I mean a bit; the vast majority of my time I spent marching vigorously and enjoying pretty views. The good thing was that I was focused on going forward and wasn’t sleepy.
Past Cookham I started seeing loads of people wearing Macmillan Cancer Support t-shirts doing some sort of walk. Turned out this was their Thames Path Mighty Hike event from Windsor to Cookham. Over 1000 walkers took part and I kept gradually passing them over 4 miles or so! A lot of traffic on the sometimes narrow Thames Path.
Just before Maidenhead it started to rain and cooled down so I managed to do a fair bit of running. Past Maidenhead it stopped raining and I was left with a mile to CP8, which I eventually made at 13:40. 116.3 miles done in 31 hours and 40 minutes. More importantly: 28.7 miles left to cover in 13 hours! That meant for me a lot and I felt confident I was going to make it. Moreover this was already the farthest I’ve ever gone!
I spent a good 20 minutes at the CP to eat (thank you crew for a delicious fried egg sandwich!), drink and fix my feet. I had a number of blisters to pop, clean and tape, which wasn’t at all a pleasant exercise. Once I did the dirty work I put on a clean pair of socks and the shoes and continued on.
CP8 Bray Lock – CP9 Yiewsley (128.4 miles)
The first mile was agonisingly slow because the freshly mended feet were super sensitive. It got better after a while and I managed to do a couple of miles of strong jogging along Eton Rowing Lake until Boveney Lock. I refilled my water bottles there as there was to follow a long stretch with no water points. This actually turned out not to be true: there were open shops in Slough, so I could buy food and drink there if I wanted to.
Past the lock tiredness caught up with me and I was done with jogging. I left Thames Path and went on through Eton and then into Slough. Just before Slough it started to rain heavily and in such ugly weather I slowly proceeded through Slough until I reached the start point of the Slough Arm of the Grand Union Canal.
The 5-mile canal was dragging on endlessly! The weather was glum, the rain was relentless, I was cold and tired. I was so tired I didn’t feel like eating anything since the last CP. I just wanted to make it to CP9 and warm up there. I did a mix of jogging and walking along the canal, gradually covering mile after mile.
When I reached the Grand Union Canal it fortunately stopped raining. After less than a mile, at 17:50 or so I arrived at CP9. This left me 9 hours to cover the final 16.6 miles. I expected I would do it in 6 hours. I took my time to eat a hot soup, and drink hot tea. I changed to a dry base layer, put on my proper waterproof jacket, got my head torch from my drop bag and set off for the final stretch.
CP9 Yiewsley – CP10 London Paddington (145 miles)
The first 2.5 or so miles to the Bulls Bridge went fine and I even did a fair bit of jogging. From there I had 14 miles to go. Similarly to earlier canal stretches I was counting down the bridges and checking against the map how many miles there were left. At one point I was under the impression that I covered a lot of ground but it turned out I had still 12 miles to go!
I tried to stick to a routine of running for a while, then briskly walking for a while etc, but found it hard to maintain as I was constantly slipping to very slow plod. Tired legs and painful feet didn’t help and would constantly remind me of themselves when I sped up. Still, after I slowed down I would gather myself, tell my companion that we’re now running and we’ll run… Oh, wait a minute, what companion? Did I not say that since CP7 I haven’t seen pretty much any runner? Yes… the hallucinations were just starting to begin. 😀
Now, I don’t want to exaggerate and I’m not trying to be super entertaining here. This is my true account of the most vivid hallucinations I’ve ever had. I hallucinated a few times in my life, always during ultras, always at night. Usually these would be mild, more like starting to dream while walking, imagining seeing a comfortable bed. This time, they were proper hallucinations. In a nutshell, I though someone was running with me. Once I said to him ‘let’s run’ I immediately saw there was no one, so I realised I am hallucinating and a moment of clarity came. I would shake my head, slap myself and continue on. However, after a short while my mind would slip into hallucinating again and I would start goading my imaginary buddy runner.
Another funny thing I experienced is that I felt that certain parts of my body disassociated themselves from my body. Namely legs: I had to keep talking to them and convince them that they need to go as I tell them. Or my urinary tract: I had to ask it to stop making me pee frequently. I was peeing clearly more than I was drinking which was worrying me.
This went on for endless miles. With 6 miles left it got dark and it only exacerbated the hallucinations. Now every tree, every bush, every bench looked like a person hiding and getting ready to jump onto me. Moored longboats seemed to be full with people. It wasn’t until I got very close to them that I realised there was no one.
With about 4 miles to the finish I got some weird energy kick and ran for 10 minutes or so, then I fell back to a painful plod again as this exhausted me. 2 miles to go… 1 mile to go… and the feeling I’m almost there, but the last bit along the canal was dragging on and I started to worry if I’m heading along the right canal! I eventually made it to Little Venice, my worries disappeared and I made the final push. Just behind the corner I saw the finish line which I crossed at 23:13. Keith Godden congratulated me and awarded me a beautiful and well-deserved medal.
It took me 40 hours and 13 minutes to cover 145 miles from Bristol to London. Out of 76 starters, 36 people finished, while I ended up being the 25th finisher. I didn’t make it before my self-imposed target of 35 hours, but that’s ok. It was by far the farthest I’ve ever run and the longest time on my feet in one race. Considering how hard it was for me it a great success and I am very happy I managed to redeem myself after the unsuccessful attempt at Viking Way Ultra earlier this year.
I love running point to point ultras because they are an adventure. A long distance to cover, constantly changing surroundings and often splendid views and of course a reward in the end. Running along a canal for hours is something I find strangely appealing and magical. It is also hard, because at times the miles seem to be endless and one has to have a lot of willpower to continue. But it’s worth it in the end. Despite all the tiredness and suffering I went through I totally recommend this race. Not only the route passes through beautiful places, but the organisers and the checkpoint volunteers do a splendid job supporting the runners. Plus, the race has a fantastic, low-key ambience and it is a great test of one’s abilities and endurance, which I am glad I passed.
For the post-race record, my feet were a mess: badly blistered and macerated. On Sunday, just after the race, I could hardly move. My legs were sore, but feet were in such sorry state that I wasn’t bothered by muscle pain too much. Next couple of days feet healed a bit and I started to be mobile again. I felt generally tired, sleepy and moody throughout the whole post-race week. At the time of writing of this paragraph (Saturday, August 5th) my body still hasn’t fully recovered, but I know I am getting there. To sum up: for a runner who hasn’t thoroughly prepared him- or her-self for such race, this is a gruelling and exhausting experience so I very much recommend to train wisely!
One final thought. There were countless moments during the race when I hated the idea of running such extremely long events. Nevertheless, at this moment I know I have to run the Grand Union Canal Race next year. This proves that running ultras is addictive and pain is temporary. 🙂
All the best,