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Clock watching on the canal
This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 5 July 2021
A weekend away at my in-laws meant a rare chance for me to run on a flat route. I’ve run along the Great Western Canal from its start in Tiverton, Devon, many times, but never right to the other end. OK, it’s only 11 miles long, but it felt somehow symbolic of my recent efforts to increase my distance, that I should be able to manage to run the entire thing - there and back, of course.
Jo Pavey once told me she did lots her of training runs along this same stretch of canal before the 2012 London Olympics - where she finished seventh in both the 5,000m and 10,000m. If it is good enough for Jo, it’s good enough for me.
The weather forecast was for rainstorms, which helped reduce the number of family outings taking place on the towpath, which is narrow and can get a little perilous when it’s full of waddling toddlers and slow-reacting grandparents. In the end, the rain held off most of the way, and when it did come it was a welcome relief on a hot, muggy day.
I started off easy and tried to slip into a pace I thought I could manage all day, a cadence that felt like I was just tripping along without any real effort, without pushing in any way. But of course, my old friend Garmin came along for the ride, and I started noticing that I was hovering around 8 min/mile pace. “OK, that’s good, let’s try to keep it about there,” my rational, sensible self decided. My other self, however, the part that thinks I’m secretly a Kenyan runner underneath, still waiting to burst out and fulfill all that potential I had as a 14-year-old when I cruised to victory in the Northampton cross-country, started egging me on. “Push it a bit, go on, you’re no slouch. You can handle it.”
I was soon clicking through the miles at 7.20 min/mile pace. It felt good to run a bit quicker. Like I was edging back towards those post-Kenya and Japan days when I ran all my PBs and felt like a serious club runner with one eye the sub-elite start at the London marathon.
I tried to get into the mindset required of the Self-Trancendence 3100, where running will have no end, but will just go on and on. I tried to focus on the enjoyment of the movement, appreciating the fact that I could run like this. One day, I thought, I’ll be one of those older folk on the path, looking at the runner going by and thinking back fondly to the days when I could do that. Well, these are those days now, so I should fully embrace them, and feel grateful, now, in the moment.
For a while it felt great, these positive thoughts bringing a smile to my face. I started to appreciate the trees, the tropical-like green water of the canal, the warm breeze, the flecks of rain on my face. That too, that enjoyment and appreciation of my surroundings, helped me to cruise along happily.
But it’s like being on a tightrope, holding such positivity in your mind while you’re running hard. The negative thoughts are only a slight tilt away. “Oh god, how much further? My legs are starting to ache already. Not even halfway yet. Boy, it’s hot. How am I going to handle 52 days of running, I’m done already and I haven’t even been running for two hours.”
I tilt back to centre, breathing in through my nose, enjoying the satisfying sound of my feet on the smooth gravel track, my cadence still high. “What a joy to be out running, through such sun-dappled countryside, barely a soul around.” I try stilling my mind as though I’m meditating, holding myself in the moment, listening to my breath.
That is, until my Garmin decides to get involved again. I look at it and it says I’m running 18 min/mile pace. Wait, that’s not true. I keep running. Now it says 14 min/mile. It must have lost me for a moment. Will it find me again and readjust? My average pace has dropped as a result. That annoys me. All that effort to hold and average 7.40 pace, and my watch is now telling me I’m averaging 7.57. (Yes, I’m getting fixated with the details!) Well, that’s a lie.
I start to get annoyed with my watch. Breathe, I tell myself. You’re still running the same pace, the same distance, regardless of what Mr Garmin here says. Just ignore him. But part of me, that part that is always crunching numbers and doing sums and planning what to call each run on Strava, can’t let it go. Now it’s all going to be wrong. Idiot watch!
And so it goes. I meet a friend with a mile to go, just when my legs really are starting to ache, and he runs with me, back the way he came, and helps me bring it home relatively comfortably in the end. Twenty-two miles in just under three hours. On a hot day. That’s a decent workout.
It’s wonderful to stop, as always. I think about all those times I’ll get to stop in the 3100 race. So many moments of bliss. I imagine that my personal aid station, which I’ll pass every half a mile, will call out to me on every lap, beckoning me in with its place to stop, to sit, to eat and drink. Though of course, the joy will be tempered by the fact that I’ll always be moments away from starting again. Until the final stop. The stop to end all stops.
Will that be the joy to end all joys, I wonder?