It was a busy weekend of sport; the end of the Premier League season, England winning a Test match against New Zealand, Lewis Hamilton blowing the Monaco Grand Prix (with teammates like his, who needs enemies?) and the start of the French Open tennis at Roland Garros. You are forgiven, therefore, if you missed mention of a little running race in the middle of England.
I say “little” warily. Little only in the sense that few people have written about it and fewer still have run it. Not many have done both.
James Adams, though, is among that number. Last weekend he lined up and duly completed what is actually a pretty big race; 145 miles (233k) from the centre of Birmingham to the centre of London along the Grand Union Canal. The winner Dan Lawson set a new record time of 22 hours and 16 minutes while Adams finished a little over 13 hours behind him. Not fast enough to win, perhaps, but fleet enough and solid enough to complete the course, like a reliable member of the peloton.
Indeed, his book Running and Stuff is a view from the saddle which offers, though Adams’ personal experience, a guide to some of the great ultra races around the world, along with an attempt to answer the question that people always seem to ask ultra-runners: why the hell do you do it?
Adams is still relatively new to the ultra world. Having run his first London Marathon in 2000, he made the step up to ultras in 2007, looking for a test that is physically and mentally incredibly demanding but also more stimulating than the city marathons.
“I got bored of road running for a number of reasons, one of which is the repetitive nature of it. Whether it’s a 26-mile road through Paris, Berlin, Deptford or Luton it’s still the same. You can compare races all around the world directly with each other. Here (GUCR) you can’t even compare the same route I ran only one year apart with itself.”
Running and Stuff logs his progress – some may want to call it an obsession – over the four years between 2007 when he ran his first ultra, Tring 2 Town, and 2011 when he cashed in his well-timed redundancy to run across the USA, Los Angeles to New York in 72 days. That is roughly 50 miles a day for two and a half months. Maybe obsession is right.
In between there are tests aplenty from the GUCR to Badwater, his first adventure in the US, and from the Marathon des Sables in Africa to the legendary Spartathlon in Greece*.
A book of this nature might get repetitive (a verbal road run, if you will) were it not for the colour and honesty which runs through each race.
There is pain and vomit and diarrhoea as well as pleasure in the natural beauty of the surroundings and the simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other. There is humour, too, thank goodness. Plenty of it. Adams does a nice line in humour.
The Marathon des Sables comes out of this as possibly the biggest dud of all –“the focus seemed to be on making a great DVD rather than putting on a great race” – while the Spartathlon, an epic 153 mile (246k) trek from Athens to Sparta, comes through as a mean but glorious bastard, a bit like Leonidas himself.
“My limited (and I would not have used the word limited before Sparta) experience of ultras was that they can have a way of breaking you into pieces and putting you back together again in a better way than before. It is normal to feel in pieces during a long race at some stage, feeling like you are not going to finish or you can’t finish. My experience had taught me to remember these moments but not to succumb to them. Races are so much more satisfying when you can look back on the moments you felt terrible and in despair and say that you got over them and finished the race.”
And perhaps that is the reason why people like Adams and Lawson like to test themselves in Sparta or Badwater or even the Grand Union Canal.
©Barney Spender 2015
Follow me on Twitter @bspender
* Barney Spender’s film The Road to Sparta, covering the 2014 edition of the race, is scheduled for release in September 2015.