Bib #16 – Canalathon 50k
We all remember our first. First 5k. First half. First marathon. First trail race.
First race in Europe.
With a job that can take me (voluntarily or otherwise) to more than 20 U.S. states and six continents, I have an easier time than most justifying a destination race. So when a colleague scheduled a business meeting in London, I was on the ahotu international marathon site before confirming with him that I would, in fact, attend his meeting. In a matter of minutes, I had registered for Manchester Canalathon 50k, a two-hour train ride from London. (And then I accepted the business meeting).
To be clear, this was not my first race outside the U.S. In fact, my very first marathon in 2014 was at the Great Wall of China and, earlier this year, en route to a business meeting in India, I’d stopped in Dubai to run the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, Race #7 on the year.
But the Great Wall and Dubai races were international fields; races that, in many respects, are identical to Boston or New York or Chicago; featuring many thousands of runners from all over the world such that you get little sense you’re not at “home,” apart from the scenery (in China, anyway. The Dubai course looked like any hot, dry city with greater-than-an-average-number of mosques and few women.)
The Canalathon was different. It was a legit, non-Americanized race. Here’s how you can tell:
It was a 50k/75k/100k: Fair, these distances all exist in the U.S. But anyone who has run one will tell you that trail races, especially ultras, are decidedly more low-key than road races. A race like the Canalathon draws just a couple of hundred people at most (264, in fact, across all three distances), making it a “local” event, akin to your neighborhood 5k. (Okay, 5k times 10 or more). While I have no way to confirm, I’d bet my race medal on the fact I was the only American in a sea of Brits.
It’s not “race stuff,” it’s a kit: Sure, they speak English in Manchester. But not the English we speak in the U.S. So, the night before in my hotel I wasn’t busied by “laying out my race stuff” the way I typically am at home, but instead readying my “race kit.”
And it’s packed for the zombie apocalypse: Canalathon represented my 7th ultra since January 2016, and the first one I’ve ever participated in that didn’t allow drop bags — individualized bags runners leave at certain spots in the race (typically at aid stations) where they can stash extra clothing, a change of running shoes or other necessities. As ultras can last five hours on the short end, and over 24 hours on the long end, sometimes you need things as weather or other conditions change. But no drop bags were allowed at Canalathon. Instead, there were strict requirements about what needed be packed in the kit to be carried on our backs (or, a backpack in U.S. parlance). Specifically: (1) an extra shirt; (2) a waterproof raincoat with taped seams; (3) waterproof pants with taped seams; (4) a hat; (5) gloves; (6) a headlamp; (7) a whistle; and (8) two foodstuffs (like chocolate or a granola bar). No joke — race officials checked for all of these items before we were allowed to step onto the course, and warned that, if we failed to pass a random, spot inspection mid race (by ditching some of these unnecessarily bulky items, for example), we’d be disqualified.
Those that have run ultra before are reading this and thinking, this is ludicrous. And, if you’ve never experienced an ultra before, now is the time to think to yourself, this is ludicrous.
The Canalathon course traversed a wide, flat, dirt and stone trail from Manchester in the south to Sowerby Bridge, 50km to the northeast. At no point during the race are runners more than a 5 minute walk to civilization; 10 minutes to a pub, even. I point this out because I’ve never been required to carry this much gear in trail races at 14,000 feet in Colorado in the summer where you can experience freak rain or snow and can be up to several hours from aid if you need it. And, sure, I’m the person who was treated for hypothermia at my last ultra, but the weather for my last ultra also wasn’t this:
“Hey, you never know,” I heard the race official performing another runner’s bag check say. No; I’m pretty sure I know.
And NO HEADPHONES! Okay, a lot of races discourage headphones. But the last time I’d received an, ANYONE CAUGHT USING HEADPHONES WILL BE DISQUALIFIED warning was during a half-marathon in 2006 (where I found my rule-abiding self surrounded by runners in headphones, none of whom were disqualified). In 2006 Miley Cyrus debuted on the Disney Channel as Hannah Montana, and iPhones weren’t invented yet. You get my point; we’ve evolved.
And no electrolyte: Ultra-marathoners are alternately fuel obsessed and fuel agnostic. For example, the same runners who insist they can only race with a specific brand and flavor of electrolyte drink also have no qualms about eating cold bean burritos, moderately stale pizza, and scalding, sodium-laden Campbell’s tomato soup mid-race. Most ultra aid station offerings read like a megaband backstage buffet rider (minus the alcohol). After 50km or more of constant forward motion, the body wants what the body wants.
Canalathon’s two 50k aid stations (few and far between by the way), get two stars. There were these cut up peanut buttery fudgy things that, surprisingly, were not very sweet (much appreciated after standard gels and gummies start to feel as though they are burning away your stomach lining from the inside out); some bananas (not my fave); Coke (love); a little hummus; and no electrolyte. Again, for the uninitiated — imagine showing up to a wedding reception hours and hours from civilization for a couple that you don’t know and learning it’s a “dry” event. Had you known, you may have made a different choice.
But … lest you think I regret my European race adventure — think again! Races, for me, are like chocolate cake — even when it’s bad, it’s not that bad. Canalathon wasn’t even bad, only different than what I experience in the U.S. And isn’t that why we travel in the first place; to experience something that we can’t experience at home?
I will remember my first European race fondly, and look forward to my next first race adventure!