If you want to know how not to prepare for the race of your life you could do worse than read Michael Hutchinson’s delightful (and delightfully funny) book on his attempt to break the hour record on a bike. No slouch – he has a handful for national time trial records to his name – a week before he was due to attempt to cycle further than anyone in history in one hour, at the Manchester Velodrome, he was dragging a cardboard box across London in the middle of a heat wave only to discover that it contained the wrong bike.
The closest I’ve come to ‘the Hutch’ is being lapped (twice) by him around Richmond park some years ago. However, I would suggest that preparation for running your first ultra for nine months could be better served than turning up at the wrong station (Paddington) at 6am on a Saturday morning to be told that trains for Wendover leave from Waterloo (incorrect), and then hurtling to Marylebone for the 6.30am train, leaving a packed breakfast and lunch somewhere on the Euston Road.
All was forgotten when the whistle blew at the start line at 8.51am outside The Shoulder of Mutton pub and 200 runners skipped off down the road in -4 degrees. There was not a wheeze of wind, and just as well, as we started the 45 miles cross-country to meet the Grand Union Canal and head back to Paddington.
For most this is a start-of-year blowing out of the cobwebs. A friend of mine had put on 6kg since September, something even I could not match. For others it was a stepping stone to the MdS. I had no ambition at all. Given that I had run fewer than 100 miles in the previous 4 months I had considered even getting out of the woods a minor miracle. As it was, that wasn’t as easy as it sounded. I followed one group down a dead-end, and then another to a 10 ft high fence covered in razor wire. Twice I tried to take matters into my own hands. Twice I ended up far behind the group I had aimed to put some distance on.
By 25 miles the familiar gremlins had begun to craw: legs seizing up, head lilted over – you know the feeling. But it was my back that was killing me – too much time spent leaning over the cot. With the third checkpoint in sight I was already figuring out how to throw in the towel and get home in time for the boy’s bath.
And then I saw the pork pies. There’s not much that gets between a man and his pork pie and washed down with a cup of tea, with the sun still on my face I resolved to bludgeon my way to the 31-mile checkpoint.
Few races at this time of year take place in such glorious weather and I think that even some of the spectators were wishing that they had put their trainers on as on days like this there are few greater pleasures than lilting over the countryside, and few simpler
than turning over the page of a map, another checkpoint counted off. That the route took us over the clogged artery of the Northern Circle made feeling even more satisfying.
Having spluttered my way along the last 15 miles, nearly chocking on a flapjack, I trundled into Little Venice just after 6pm, a stately 8:34 for the race. For the final few hours I had fantasised about a burger and chips and a curry. In the end I got both, but not before cycling home – not something I would recommend – and putting the boy the bed.
The Hutch had a second attempt at the hour, and in perfect conditions he nearly did it, getting to 45 minutes at record speed. He is now though in semi-retirement, his bike not quite hung up (he still sleeps in an oxygen-deprived tent to boost the red blood cells). I had feared that my running days were coming to an end, simply because I don’t have the time to clock up the miles as I should, and over the weekend I envisaged a graceful retirement to kicking a ball around the park. However, the science suggests that I have yet to peak as an ultra-distance runner, and contrary to what I imagined I don’t bad as I expected – 7 pints goes a long way in a recovery. So, it’s back to the calendar and time to mull over another race. I heard there was one in Greece in September. I’d better talk to Mrs H first though…