Is Chalfont and Latimer station located in Siberia? That’s one question I asked myself as we sat there with the doors open for what seemed like an unnecessary length of time with nobody getting on or off. I didn’t have a thermometer to hand but I’ll bet it was somewhere around -20°C, I don’t care what the BBC weather app said.
Is Chalfont and Latimer even a real place was another question I had. I mean it seemed like we’d been on this train forever and getting nowhere fast. When I say we, I of course mean my fellow running companion, Mr Bear and I, who were on our way to Stoke Mandeville station en-route to our hotel for the night.
The hotel (a recommendation from other runners) looked – on a map – to be a very short walk from the station. That was bullshit too. Google Maps tells lies. It also didn’t bother to inform us that the only way to walk there was down the darkest road in the world, even passing World’s End Lane on the way – an omen if ever there was one. After a day in the office followed by two hours on public transport the evening was already wearing thin.
It was Friday 16th January and Bear and I had travelled up from Bath to somewhere north of London to enable us to do nothing simpler than run all the way back to London. It wasn’t a random location for the start of a run, although that argument could hold water, this was for Country to Capital, a 42.5 mile ultramarathon that takes runners from Wendover to Paddington.
Organised by Go Beyond Ultra, I’d heard good things about the race, in particular the cake. I like cake, and I like fruitcake even more, so what better way to spend a Saturday in January plodding my way back to London eating lots of it.
After checking into our hotel we made our way up to the nice little room and ditched our bags ready for a quick break before heading back down to the bar for some food.
“Look, there’s a letter here addressed to you”, said Bear. I looked. He wasn’t lying. Sure enough, on the desk was a letter that had been posted to the hotel yet addressed to me. I was a little bit scared.
Even worse, as I gingerly opened it, inside was another envelope with my name handwritten on it and a magic wand with a twinkly star drawn next to it, sealed with a wax stamp. This had now gone past odd and was veering into creepy territory.
Here we were in a small hotel, in the middle of nowhere – past the end of the world – that somebody else had recommended and there was a letter for me.
It was all a bit Hammer House of Horror. I wondered if I opened the envelope if a finger might fall out or the lights go out and a floating pig appear at the window. I actually began to shake.
Bear and I looked at each other giggling in fear but desperate to know what lay inside the handwritten A5 envelope.
I opened it up and slid out a letter, a postcard and another envelope. My mind was whizzing with possibilities and Bear stood behind me at enough of a distance so as to not get hit with the Anthrax as I pulled open the final envelope.
I slowly unfolded the letter and read the note inside. It was one of those moments when you don’t fully take in what is in front of you. I had to read it about three times before I properly understood it.
There was no finger, there was no deadly poison. What there was however was a note from Danielle at LateRooms.com. I don’t personally know anybody called Danielle, but this particular one worked in the Magic Making Department and had written to me to thank me for booking through them and by way of a thank you had sent me a £100 voucher for Up & Running, just in case I ran low of anything.
Now I’m a cynical old fool and know that nobody ever really does anything for nothing. But despite the fact that I know LateRooms.com obviously carry out this kind of thing to generate good publicity as much as a warm feeling of loyalty among their customers, it was clearly something that some thought and effort had gone into. Fair play I say to them, because once I’d gotten over the shock of it all and realised it wasn’t actually sinister, it made me smile.
I of course completely fulfil their unwritten remit by even writing about it here, but do you know what I think they deserve it. Take note other booking services.
Nerves settled, Bear and I made our way down the the restaurant for our seemingly obligatory pre-race steak and chips. Very nice it was too. Whilst in the bar we also met up with fellow ultra runners, and the very people who put me onto the hotel in the first place, Phil Hall and Simon Welch.
Over our steak and chips we chatted about the upcoming race as well as others, including the South Downs Way 100 we are also all running in June.
Dinner sorted we headed back up to our room to grab an early night ready for the run in the morning. It had been an exciting night for two little boys away from home. Tomorrow we were going to London.
After a fairly good night’s sleep we got up, waited around a bit for the breakfast to be delivered to our room, realised it wasn’t going to be, so got dressed and ready to head down and out.
As I was pulling on my tights and thermal top I spotted a framed poem on the wall that I hadn’t seen in all the excitement the night before. It was a copy of If by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a poem I knew a little of but not all. I stood there momentarily and skimmed over it, until I came to the last section. Unless there was a poem written about running along a bland industrial canal almost being attacked by swans there couldn’t have been a more apt thought for the day.
I smiled at the relevance of it. We were certainly going to be running for more than sixty seconds, I was looking forward to becoming a Man. With a capital M.
After getting a taxi to Wendover where the race started (by a taxi driver who didn’t seem to know where Wendover was), we registered in the pub and collected our race numbers.
Heading back outside into the car park there were hundreds of people milling about deciding quite how warm or cold it was going to be that day. The outlook was for heavy snow, but as I looked up into the clear sky and saw the low winter sun rising it seemed that yet again the forecast was complete bullshit.
Looking around I bumped into James Adams, Andrew Cooney and Susie Chan, all runners whom I follow and talk to on Twitter. As with the guys the night before it’s always nice to be able to put real live faces to digital names.
We had a bit of a natter and before we knew it it was time for the off. Three-hundred or so runners blasted out of the car park of the Shoulder of Mutton heading towards one small kissing gate at the bottom of the high street. Bear and I ambled down at the back, not really bothered about getting there first. It was going to be a long day and we weren’t really in that much of a hurry.
The first “half” of the race took place running through the scenic Chiltern Hills, which to be honest I always thought were around Malvern. Just shows how much use a Geography ‘O’ Level is in real life. But hey – stay in school kids.
It was a mix of woodland trail path and little villages, which slowly passed by as we ran. The first half an hour or so was very pleasant, like a jog in the countryside. Then the weather changed. The forecast wasn’t bullshit after all. The snow came, and came it did with a vengeance.
Within a span of a few short minutes we went from no snow to near blizzard conditions. The snowflakes were huge too. It was like somebody had left the washing machine on and the bubbles had filled their house and escaped out of the chimney before falling back to Earth (I didn’t study science at school).
We ran on for sometime with the snow coming down, but then almost as abruptly as it arrived, it stopped and vanished again. By the time we reached the second checkpoint the sun was out and it was warming up. We ditched our jackets and donned our shades.
Miles passed and as we made our way over the M25 we had a sense of coming closer to the big city. The route was still winding even after reaching the Grand Union Canal. You might think that canals are long and straight beasts, but that is a complete fallacy. Lucky really otherwise it would have been even more boring than it was.
To be fair it wasn’t a completely dull route, and the benefits of following the canal meant it was very difficult to get lost, unless you found yourself swimming. I guess it’s just the flat repetitive nature of it that make it slightly less interesting to run on than through a wooded trail. Still, being flat meant for a much better pace.
Earlier in the week Bear and I had decided that we would look at running something around the nine to ten hour mark. This was based on nothing short of guesswork. We felt in reasonable shape, but not in any kind of position to be knocking out a prize-winning performance.
For me it was more of a training run anyway (how bonkers does that even sound – when 42 miles has become a training run?) for the upcoming 77 mile TransGrancanaria I’m running at the start of March. For me it was all about seeing how my fitness was and how I felt afterwards. Being able to get up the next day and keep running, day after day. If I couldn’t run well on a fairly flat course like this then the 28,000ft I’m going to be climbing in Gran Canaria was going to be even more of a worry than it already was.
Ticking off checkpoints as we ran down the canal, we hit the one turning point onto the Paddington spur of the canal, took a left and carried on towards the endpoint. This section of canal was even more run down in places and the mud was so thick it was like being back in the woods.
Unlike squirrels and mice running around however the only wildlife we had to endure were several groups of drunks and a national conference of swans. Now I’m an animal lover, but as I ran through the bevy of swans all I could think about was how they are supposed to be able to break a man’s arm. Ready for any attack, I ran through with fists clenched ready to punch any swan in the head that thought they were a bit tasty. As luck would have it – for me and them – none of them moved.
We ran through checkpoint four and then five (obviously stopping to register) and with just six miles left we picked up our pace and headed for the bright lights of Paddington. Without knowing quite how far it was (the official distances varied) we took up the approach of running a mile quickly (I say quickly – about 9 minute pace) before walking briskly for a minute as the mile clocked over.
Much to our surprise our pace for the day had been much quicker than we had anticipated. We were not on for a ten hour time, nor a nine. With some quick super maths on behalf of the Bear we realised we could be on for a sub eight hour time. That wasn’t something we even thought possible, let alone factored for.
With the distance left ticking down quickly we soon found ourselves running through blocks of flats towards the finish. People lined the canal and stood on bridges cheering us on. The miles climbed with the time. Eight hours slowly came and with the finish not quite in sight we knew we wouldn’t quite make it. But given it was a goal we never had in the first place, it didn’t really matter.
As we came around the final corner we saw the banner across the bridge and the bright lights of the finish. We crossed the line in 08:03:45. What a result. I was so excited I even forgot to stop my watch for another minute.
Country to Capital done. 42.5 miles completed in a much faster time than we ever thought possible. Overall very pleased with that. We expected something so much slower. We could have run faster had we put our mind to it and I think certainly gotten in under eight hours if we really had that as a target. Another time maybe.
A great race and an ideal one as your first ultra if you fancy stepping up the distance past a marathon and want something a little different. Just go dressed for the weather, and don’t get off at Chalfont and Latimer. No such place exists.