Like the race, this blog is rather long and took me quite a while with several breaks to complete. I’ve described all the main features of the route (that I can remember) so it might be of interest to folks considering trying the race in the future, or at least give an insight into what it felt like for me at each stage of the race. I hope you’ll agree it was worth it!
Now I’ve caught up on a bit of sleep, worked on reducing my calorie deficit, and my legs are starting to regain a bit of mobility again. Already the memories of the weekend are starting to fade, so while it’s still reasonably fresh in my mind, read on to join me on an epic 130 mile trans-pennine journey from Liverpool to Leeds!
For those who haven’t heard of the LLCR130, it’s the shortest of three Canal Race ultras (the Grand Union Canal Race GUCR and Kennet & Avon Canal Race KACR are 145 miles each!) which make up the “Canalslam” series. Organised by Keith Godden and Dick Kearn of Canalrace C.I.C. and put on by an army of willing volunteers, all three races have a deserved reputation as no-frills, inclusive, cheap and friendly. Unlike some other ultras, no prior experience is necessary – although completion of a Marathon is recommended. GUCR is now so popular that entry is via a lottery, while entry can be obtained directly for the other two events if you’re reasonably quick after entries open! Another unique feature of the canalraces is that it’s possible to enter as an “unsupported” competitor i.e. without your own crew, and the wonderful race team arrange for your drop bag to be ferried ahead to each checkpoint in turn, as well as providing hot food cooked (microwaved, at least) to order at several. I took this option, and can’t thank enough the behind-the-scenes logistics people that had my bag ready and waiting for me when I arrived 🙏
I first attempted LLCR in 2019. At the time we were living in Runcorn so the start was fairly close to home. Various things went wrong during the race that conspired to end with a DNF after 100 miles, but I always planned to come back for another crack at it. 2020 being what it was, the first chance was going to be 2021. I had done a couple of 30-40 mile ultras earlier in the year, and had been able to train consistently since recovering from breaking a toe in March so was feeling in pretty good shape. My plan was to set out slower, with the expectation that the wheels would stay on this time and by CP4 or 5 I should have caught up and passed my previous self. With that in mind I made two schedules – firstly a target of 27 hours (12:30 mins/mile), which seemed achievable if everything went to plan, and secondly a fallback ‘catch the train’ target of 30-and-a-half hours (14 mins/mile), which was the latest I could make it back to Perth on the train on Sunday, although I was also prepared to walk it in to make the final cutoff of 40 hours if needed – I just wanted to finish this time!
On Friday 27th Julie dropped me off at the station in Perth and I made the journey via Edinburgh and Wigan to Liverpool Lime Street. The journey ended up being delayed due to late running on the West Coast Main Line and a resulting missed connection but I arrived in Liverpool around 5.30pm (with the bonus that I would get the whole ticket price refunded!). I checked in to the budget International Inn hostel, then headed over to the start location at Old Hall Street to register for the race. It was a mile or so from the hostel to the start but as I’d actually managed a decent taper and three full days of rest, I was happy to stretch my legs after a day sitting on trains. I opted to put down a £5 deposit for a “British Waterways” key – I didn’t need to use it in 2019, but it would come in handy this time, as it turned out. I stopped off for a pre-race Pizza Hut on the way back to top up the carb stores and hit the sack at around 8.30pm.
I had actually managed quite a decent amount of sleep before my alarm went at 4am! A quick shower, on with my running kit and a slightly random breakfast: PBJ sandwich, sausage roll, oat bar, banana and apple, washed down with 2 cups of tea! The walk to the start line was a bit surreal as most of the bars and clubs were just kicking out, mostly in the direction of McDonald’s at Liverpool Central station, judging by the tonnes of waste deposited all over the place 😲 I made it to the start line just after 5.30am, handed by drop bag into the waiting van, and had time for another cup of tea before Dick’s refreshingly minimal race briefing (something like: don’t get lost, don’t fall in the canal, and have fun). The 70 starters lined up at the arch on Old Hall St which marks the original terminus of the Canal at Clarke’s Basin, and on the stroke of 6am we set off!
Start: Old Hall St – CP1: Bell’s Swing Bridge (14.5 miles)
It actually takes most of the first mile to reach the present end of the canal. 70 runners on a mass jay-walk across the dual carriageway at Leeds Street must have surprised the few drivers to be out that early in the morning! This little ‘intro’ served to give the runners time to string out before hitting the towpath, but has the downside that your GPS distance never quite matches up with the mile markers on the canal for the rest of the race 🤷♂️
One of the mistakes of 2019 I was sure I was going to avoid was setting out too fast, so once on the canal I quickly settled in to a steady pace of just under 10 mins per mile. The miles flew by through a mixture of rough industrial and pretty parklands of Bootle and Aintree as the sun rose in the sky, before popping out into the countryside at the town of Maghull. I even saw a yellow Merseyrail train passing on a nearby line – as anyone who knows me will realise, trains are an auspicious omen for a run! Before long I reached the first CP at Bell’s Swing Bridge, at about 2 hours and 25 minutes, a few minutes earlier than planned but importantly a full 15 minutes slower than 2019.
Although my legs were feeling good, my stomach had been a bit ‘churny’ since the start. My usual staples of dried fruit and honey-roasted nuts weren’t sitting well for some reason, but I’d had a few gels. After topping up my water (plus a few SIS Hydro electrolyte tablets), disposing of gel wrappers and picking up a few more from my drop bag I was ready to go with a minimum of faffing. Thanks to the CP volunteers who always kept an eye out and had my bag ready, this routine was quick and efficient and I only spent a few minutes at most of the CPs. I downed a can of ginger beer in an attempt to settle the stomach and grabbed a packet of pancakes to munch as I left. As the sun was now fully up and it was already warming up, I decided to swap my buff for a sun hat – a good decision as it was only going to get hotter!
CP1 – CP2: Ring O’ Bells (11.2 miles)
The next section to the Ring O’ Bells pub near Burscough Bridge is almost all rural with nice views over the surrounding fields. The towpath is grassy in places, but is still good for running and as it is the shortest section of the route at a little over 11 miles, the distance flew by in around two hours at the same steady pace. Before long the steep stone bridge over the Rufford branch of the canal to the North appeared and half a mile further on the checkpoint came into view. A quick restock, grabbed a few chunks of watermelon (my favourite race food!) and Haribos from the extensive CP2 buffet and I was off on my way again, still a few minutes ahead of my planned pace and feeling good. I was running in 16th place at this point although I had no idea at the time – I did get some updates from Julie who was watching the race progress from the LLCR Facebook group, but these were usually some hours after the fact. Probably a blessing in disguise as at this stage I was happy running my own race, managing my pace and not worrying about what anyone else was doing anyway!
CP2 – CP3: Red Rock Bridge (14.5 miles)
This section of the route is quite varied, with lots to see and distract me from having run a Marathon and trying not to think about the fact there are nearly four more to go. Shortly after leaving the CP you pass the 100 miles to Leeds marker – only double digits left to count down! For the first time the route crosses to the right hand side of the canal, and there are a few locks to ascend, which gave a nice excuse for short walk breaks. Underfoot is a mixture of gravel paths, some woodland (mostly dry) paths with a few roots and then a long paved section as you pass the DW stadium on the run in to Wigan. I remembered this section from 2019 as being blazingly hot and having very little shade. Fortunately the temperature never got much above 20C, significantly cooler this time, although I was still glad of the sun hat. I started to pass quite a few runners on this section, many of whom were walking presumably after having started out too fast, so my pacing plan was still working well and I was able to stick to it.
The ‘main event’ of this section is the ascent of 21 locks through Wigan. There are lots of interesting historic industrial buildings, some cobbled sections and again more good reasons to take a walk break on the uphills! The locks are actually spread out over about 2 miles, so there were a lot more flat and runnable sections between than I remembered. After a quick drink from the convenient tap at the top lock, and soaking my buff which I’d kept wrapped around my wrist, I made good speed again on the last few miles into the CP. This was particularly encouraging as this was where I first started to really struggle with the heat and pace during the 2019 edition.
The only thing that was not quite going to plan at this point was food intake, so I was looking forward to CP3 as the first location to obtain hot food, and it was lunchtime after all! After a short stop, I headed off with a cup of oxtail soup and a hot dog, still on schedule and now up to 8th place.
CP3 – CP4: The Navigation Pub (14.9 miles)
I didn’t remember too much about the next section from 2019 as I think I had been in the early stages of heat-stroke – the only memorable point being the miraculous appearance of the Top Lock pub a few miles past Chorley where I had been able to obtain some ice! This year it was quite an enjoyable section of good towpath and easy running. A little bit of walking in the middle as I climbed the flight of locks, and instead of stopping in the pub made use of the water tap and the Canal & River Trust ‘facilities’ opposite. Not much further on, I passed the 50 mile marker and still felt like I was making good progress. It was definitely warm, but not too hot, and there were plenty of trees providing shade over the towpath.
Before long I was arriving at the next CP beside The Navigation pub. Since I was still feeling a bit sicky, I thought I’d opt for liquid calories and had some coke at the checkpoint before heading off with a random selection of cocktail sausages, watermelon slices (the CP crew recorded my passing with “Watermelon slices are my friends”) and some gingerbread men! Still in 8th place but having made up 10 minutes on the runner in front, things were about to take an ‘interesting’ turn…
CP4 – CP5: Business First (15.5 miles)
I made it under the bridge and out of sight of the CP (luckily for them) before chundering the entire cup of coke and the rest of my stomach’s contents into the verge. Amazingly, within a few minutes I was feeling fine – better than I’d felt all day in fact, and the food I’d picked up at the CP went down a treat! Unfortunately this was to be short-lived and within a mile or so I bonked as I’d just lost all of the morning calories from my digestive system and had to resort to run-walking. The next ten miles out of Blackburn were definitely my lowest point of the race. Even reaching the half-way marker didn’t help, as it just made it easy to work out how long it would take to finish at the pace I was going!
There is a saying “when going through Hell, keep going” and at least I did keep moving and continued to stuff in as much food as I could tolerate. With about five miles to go to Burnley and the next checkpoint the canal passed through a lovely rural section. As the sun started to sink, the temperature dropped and calories started to flow again combining to produce a proper runner’s high. I ran the rest of the distance to the checkpoint non-stop, including one mile in under 10 minutes as I caught and passed a few more runners 😁
I arrived at the checkpoint in good spirits again, but conscious of the need to keep eating (reminding myself: “low mood, have some food!”) so when the CP crew offered hot food I decided to go for some chicken hot pot. The chicken and sauce were a bit too rich for my delicate digestive system to manage, but the potatoes on the top were great, and it was good to get some solid, warm carbs down, not to mention a hot cup of coffee (black, 2 sugars was my staple order for the next few CPs), and I set off again munching an apple, ready to face the night ahead.
CP5 – CP6: Salterforth (13.2 miles)
Now feeling positive again, I was looking forward to the next section which has lots of interesting features, as well as the relief of running in the night after a long, hot day. After assuring an incredulous local that I had in fact started in Liverpool (yes, today!), and was headed non-stop to Leeds overnight it was less than a mile until the detour around the Gannow Tunnel. By the time I rejoined the canal it was properly getting dark and time to turn on my head torch. Shortly after that comes the famous Burnley Embankment, although I couldn’t see much of the view as it was too dark!
At this point I settled into a routine where I would eat a little food (nuts, fruit or a gel), have a drink and carry out any ‘admin’ such as checking the map, charging my watch, or checking my phone while walking, then run the remainder of the current mile and all of the next. This helped to keep me motivated, moving well and after just a few of these two-mile blocks I was at the last series of ‘up’ locks which take the canal to its highest point at Foulridge. The sky was mostly clear and I could see plenty of stars and the cool, calm conditions brought on a wonderful feeling of being literally on top of the world! As I approached the Foulridge Tunnel, patches of mist started to drift in, the first of what turned into some quite dense fog later in the night.
Unlike 2019, I navigated the paths over the tunnel without mishap and popped back out onto the canal in Foulridge – over the top and headed downhill to Leeds! It’s less than a couple of miles of good, wide towpath to go till the next checkpoint and I soon arrived and got acquainted with the excellent CP volunteers. It seems unfair to single out one particular CP as they were all incredibly helpful but I promised the CP6 volunteers a 5 star review on Tripadvisor as they had ready-cubed watermelon served in a Tupperware – what luxury! I thoroughly recommend visiting if you’re in the area 🤣
I picked up my gloves from my drop bag as it was starting to get a bit cold, before heading off on my way, in a good mood (“I’m Happy Days”, apparently). Having arrived in 4th place I left in 3rd as Mark Denby was stopped at the CP after retiring from the lead with an Achilles issue.
CP6 – CP7: Bradley Swing Bridge (16.5 miles)
The next section I regard as the real crux of the course. Not only is it the longest distance between CPs and (depending on pace, I suppose) done in the darkest, coldest part of the night, it has a lot of narrow, rooty and grassy towpath, which is wet with dew and often covered in slugs, snails and frogs – it can be hard going! This section is also notorious for being foggy and it certainly lived up to its reputation this year. I don’t think I saw much further than 50 metres ahead of me at any point.
Perhaps spurred on by knowing I was in a ‘podium’ place and not knowing how far behind 4th place might be, I was able to keep up a good pace with the same combination of run/walking that I had developed earlier in the night. There are a couple of flights of locks and a few canal cross-overs to keep things interesting and it was nice to do the full towpath past Gargrave (which had been avoided via a diversion in 2019). The section between Gargrave and Skipton is just monotonous, however, and the neat, flat, white gravel towpath seemed never ending. Eventually I reached Skipton, which actually passed rather quickly (perhaps my memory was skewed by the 30min/mi death shuffle I was in by this point in 2019) and shortly after I reached the 100 mile marker at about 2.30am, knocking about 3 and a half hours off my previous 100 mile time!
A mile beyond and I reached Bradley Swing Bridge, the terminus of my 2019 LLCR attempt… everything from here on was going to be new! Arriving at the checkpoint I was “super chirpy” according to the crew and also surprised to see Steve Hobbs who had been 2 hours ahead of me at the CP6. Turned out he’d fallen asleep on the trail and also had another nap here before I’d arrived. I had another coffee and we were just both about to set off when out of nowhere I was chunder-struck again and disappeared behind the CP tent to empty my stomach for the second time in the race ☹️
Once again, I felt fine straight afterwards so grabbed as much bland food as I could carry – brioche and pancakes – plus some Haribo and set off into the enveloping mist in pursuit of Steve!
CP7 – CP8: Railway Bridge (13.9 miles)
After a mile or so I caught up with him, much to his surprise as he thought I had snuck off ahead, when it fact I had been busy throwing up. After a brief walk together we broke off into our own respective run/walk routines. I put together a few solid miles of running with the aim of dropping him and soon I was alone in second place, although nervously checking behind for a head torch in the fog every time I slowed.
I can’t say I remember much of this section… having failed to keep down my latest caffeine dose I was starting to get seriously sleepy. While I ran the effort was keeping me awake but when I walked I was veering around all over the towpath and had to make sure to keep well away from the canal’s edge 😬 I also started seeing things: mainly shapes of faces and animals in the gravel and rocks of the path, but also every shadow on the canal looked like a bridge, some of them quite elaborate!
Fortunately I made it unscathed through to dawn, and as I descended the Bingley five-lock flight I was able take off my head torch and gloves and pack away my reflective jacket. Getting quite a boost from the daylight, and determined to stay in 2nd place I ran the rest of the way through Saltaire and Shipley to the final checkpoint.
I think the crew here were pleased to have someone to arrive as Sergey Ionov had passed through in first place a several hours before! I just had a quick stop: more coffee, brioche and pancakes (almost a proper continental breakfast), unloading all my rubbish and night gear that was no longer required and I was off for the final half-marathon (ish) to the finish.
CP8 – Finish: Office Lock (12.6 miles)
I had been really looking forward to this section. Having been to a few events by It’s Grim Up North Running (I also recommend their events if you’re looking for friendly, fun and interesting races in the area) I had run several bits of the canal before. In fact, it turned out to be a bit of a slog! My legs started to seize up, the miles seemed to go by so slowly and now that it was light and the fog had lifted I kept expecting to see Steve catching me every time I looked round. Even reaching single figures to go, and counting down the distance didn’t help much. Due to the precise length of the canal, the mile markers count up in whole miles from Liverpool, but mile-and-a-quarters to go to Leeds – which was oddly demoralising!
Finally I reached 6.25 miles to go (one “Dron Loop” – a regular route near home), 4.25 miles (one “Dunbarney Loop“), a 5k to go… The last few miles of the canal had a lot of runners out for their Sunday morning runs – a few of them spotting the race number and giving encouragement, most of them probably wondering why I was stumbling along so slowly! With two miles to go the Aire Valley Marina has two arched entrances that have to be crossed 😡 but at long last I reached Spring Garden Lock (number 6) which indicated a mile to go.
With the finish finally getting close, my legs came back to life and I ran my fastest mile of the whole race. All of the emotions of the last day and more on my feet, two years of training, planning and waiting welled up and I didn’t know whether to laugh, shout for joy or cry – I think I did a strange mixture of all three. As I passed under the railway bridge and the finish banner came into sight I broke into a full sprint, crossing the line in second place with an official time of 27 hours and 12 minutes, almost bang on my original schedule!
I thoroughly enjoyed the warm finish line welcome from Dick, Keith and the rest of the team, a gratefully received handshake, and the amazingly weightly LLCR finisher’s medal. I had time to speak to Julie on the phone, without whose constant encouragement by Whatsapp I would have struggled to finish, and could finally sit down without needing to get up again and run 😮💨
The famous LLCR hospitality wasn’t over yet though, and there was hot food (sausage and mash – fantastic), tea and all sorts of fruit, biscuits and other goodies. I changed out of my running kit and had a quick damage inspection – everything hurt, but nothing was actually broken, exactly how it should be at the end of such an epic race. I had a few ‘interesting’ looking blisters on each foot, although these hadn’t actually caused me any bother during the run, but was otherwise unscathed! Steve came in third about 25 minutes later, and it was great to cheer him in, although I’d lost the ability to stand up by that point… After an hour or so I was ready to hobble off to the train station in plenty of time to catch my train North. I stayed awake just long enough to change trains at York, and then next thing I knew I was waking up near Stirling!
Looking back, I take an immense amount of personal satisfaction from my successful completion of the LLCR. Not particularly my finishing position (although that was undeniably nice, on any other year my time would likely have left me somewhere lower down the top 10), or even my finishing time (athough I’m also pleased with that) but the fact that I executed my race plan to almost to perfection, not getting fazed by everyone speeding off at the start and continually picking up places as others slowed or dropped out. I faced plenty of my own challenges of course, not least the stomach issues, but managed to overcome them and for 90% of the race I was genuinely having a great time! Oddly enough, I’m glad that the winner was nearly 3-and-a-half hours ahead as there’s no lingering regret that if only I’d tried a little bit harder I might have passed him. Sergey was in a different league – congratulations on a great race 👏👏👏
Finally, I’m incredibly grateful to all of the organisers, volunteers, behind-the-scenes team, crews/supporters and of course the other runners that make LLCR the great event that it is. Dick asked after the finish “will I be back?” and at the moment I don’t have any plans to. However, Julie is thinking about KACR 2022 so I may well find myself back on a canal, but only in a supporting capacity…. at least for now 🤔
Final note: most of the photos are mine, a few are taken by Keith Godden or others and were posted to the LLCR Facebook group.