Biggleswade Athletic Club’s endurance expert Ed Jones went more than the extra mile at the gruelling Kennet & Avon Canal Race – a 145-mile slog that’s the rough equivalent of five and a half consecutive marathons.
Having warmed up with June’s Norfolk 100k Ultra Marathon – a relative breeze at 62 miles – Ed arrived for a 6am start in Bristol, with 45 hours to complete the course.
“There are checkpoints with food and water every 15-20 miles,” said Ed, “so you only need to carry enough to get you between these. You are not allowed to be stationary for more than 40 minutes, so while you can sit down for a rest, and possibly a very quick nap.”
Arriving for the start in grey and blustery conditions alongside 75 other starters, Ed went over his gameplan: “I adopted my usual approach of treating it as a nice run in the countryside, and just to focus on getting to the next checkpoint. I settled into a steady comfortable pace, picking off a few slower runners and chatting to a few others.”
Having left the city centre for the more picturesque Avon Valley, after the initial marathon distance of 26.2 miles Ed was well-placed. “It came up in about four hours, and I was surprised to find myself in ninth place – which suggested I was going too fast!
“I went through Checkpoint 2 and then on to the spectacular Caen Hill Locks – where 29 locks raise the canal 237 feet in two miles. Checkpoint 3 brought us into the Vale of Pewsey, with the downs of Wiltshire rising impressively either side of the canal. My pace was beginning to slow now, with more walking breaks, and my knees getting a little sore at the base of the kneecap, but I was through 50 miles in just over 9 hours, and got a bit of a second wind as I went through halfway in under 15 hours.”
The unique nature of the event made for a great sense of camaraderie among the competitors. “Although it is a ‘race’, for everyone except a few at the sharp end of the field the goal is to finish, and positions are really not that important. People therefore tended to hold gates open for each other, call someone back if they’re seen heading the wrong way, and pause for a chat and to check everything is OK.”
“Beyond halfway Saturday evening was starting to draw in and the drizzle was turning into more persistent rain. We were approaching the outskirts of Reading.” The need for camaraderie also became apparent. “The field was really strung out – I would only see one other runner in the next 10 hours – and my mood was starting to dip. Suddenly in the dusk I caught an electric blue flash, and a kingfisher darted from some trees, and flew along the canal. It was a magical moment, gave me a real boost and made me resolve not to give up.”
Having successfully negotiated Reading’s late-night revellers, Ed picked up the Thames Path, where the gravity of the endeavour started to hit home. “A combination of the darkness and fatigue leads to hallucinations. I always see bridges across the canal which turn out just to be overhanging trees. And the usual suspects are branches and logs that look like snakes or crocodiles.”
At Henley, dawn was breaking and with it came a significant milestone – the 100 mile point. “It was nice to get the scenery back, and this was some of the nicest of the whole race as we followed the river with the wooded slopes of the Chilterns rising steeply on either side, interspersed with picture postcard villages and towns. The pain in my knees was making running difficult now, and I was having to work hard to make myself even do short bursts.
“I arrived at Bray, 110 miles, at about 11am on Saturday morning – just as the crew there were cooking some bacon. They offered scrambled eggs as well. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything better.
“I took the opportunity of the food stop to change into some dry shoes and socks, although by now I had pretty much given up on the running. Running wasn’t appreciably faster than my walking pace, hurt a lot, and I was wary of causing more damage – so resigned myself to ‘death marching’ the final marathon and a bit.
“As night fell for the second time in the race we reached Little Venice, and then the right turn into Paddington Basin, and the very low-key finishing line. I summoned a shuffling jog for the last 50 metres, and finally crossed the line at 21:24.”
His finishing time was a superb 39 hours and 24 minutes, and on crossing the line he learned he had come a brilliant 21st, with only 36 completing the gruelling route.
Ed added: “Having had a few days to recover, I’m perhaps a touch disappointed to be quite a bit slower than a race over similar distance last year. On the other hand I’ve struggled to fit in enough decent long runs, and I’ve now notched up a PB for ‘time on feet’. I just need to decide what to do next!”