North CANUM Ultra Race Report (2022)

The North CANUM ultra is a 50 mile race following two waterways in North Wales – the Llangollen and Montgomery canals. The route starts near the Berwyn range in the town of Llangollen, and finishes in Newtown.

Although the route is quite flat, along the way you get to experience breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, and take in the beauty of the endless canals and countryside.

Race result

This race was my best performance in an ultra marathon so far. In summary, I ran the 51 miles distance in 09:01 earning second place, coming in just 6 minutes behind the leader.

North CANUM ultra 2022 – Strava activity link

Training

Having just finished the VOGUM ultra one month before, I spent a few days resting before resuming my usual training plan, which was about 50-80km of weekly running. I tried to keep to 1 or 2 faster tempo runs each week, with the remaining being easy ‘base’ building and a single weekly long run (25-35km).

In amongst the running I did very short strength and core training sessions (admittedly not nearly enough!) Maybe 15-25 minutes a week total.

My goal for this race (having looked at the previous year’s results and timings) was to get it done in 10 hours or less, with 9 hours being my ‘would-be-amazing’ stretch goal.

Pre-race

As the route is one-way starting in Llangollen and finishing in Newtown, I would not be able to park the car and drive home again. With that in mind, I roped my wife and kids into spending the weekend in Llangollen.

We rented a small cottage for the weekend, right on the canal. It was beautiful, and only a 5 minute walk from the start line.

I prepared all my gear the day before, just after we arrived at the cottage, and did the short walk to the registration hall to make sure I knew where to be at 05h30 the next morning.

North CANUM ultra gear check and preparation
Sorting out all my gear for the North CANUM ultra. This is the mandatory list that I would carry, as well as what I would wear on the day, plus a spare pair of shoes for the drop bag.

My pre-race dinner that evening was pasta with red pesto, and I doubled up with a potato soup that my wife prepared. The pasta was boring, but the soup was delicious!

North CANUM ultra - carb loading
Unfortunately I didn’t snap a pic of the soup, so this will have to do. We settled in quite late at the cottage, but luckily most food was prepared the day before by my lovely wife.

I tried to get an early night, but as usual my brain was overactive from all the preparation and thoughts of the event. I only ended up getting about 4 hours of sleep.

North CANUM Ultra Race Day

Event registration was super smooth. As usual, Rhys and the team at Pegasus Ultra Running were highly organised.

I had some friendly chats with my race peers and saw one or two familiar faces from the previous VOGUM I ran the month before. The running community is always so friendly – one of the reasons I really love these events.

Walking down just before 7am to the canal, we had our race briefing and were told that one small section of the route was changed. At bridge ’83’ we would need to keep following the canal instead of following the GPX map route. This would knock a few kms off the total distance, bringing the total distance down from roughly 52 to 51 miles (82 km).

North CANUM ultra - race briefing
The race briefing at the starting bridge next to the canal in Llangollen.

Start to CP 1

At 7am sharp the race started. Starting near the front, I set off keeping an easy pace. To my surprise nobody was overtaking me. My target pace for the first half of the race was about 6 minutes 30 seconds per km.

North Canum ultra starting bridge view
My first few steps into the race as I pass under the initial bridge

Alex (eventual 3rd place) stayed right on my tail for the first 10km or so. It was either this slight pressure, or the flat canal paths that led to me keeping a faster than anticipated easy pace going. I really struggled to slow myself down and was hitting a pace of about 5:45 per km initially.

The first 12km was faster than I had planned.

In hindsight this pace was absolutely fine. I finished the race later on with surplus energy in the bank, so I am happy I didn’t forcefully slow myself any further at this point.

Keeping Steven (currently in 1st place) in my sights, I kept going, occassionally losing him around corners. He was running very well would have probably maintained 1st place all the way had he not unfortunately taken a fall later on in the race.

Approaching Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Soon we were upon the great Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – the main attraction of the area. This 18-arched stone and iron behemoth is the highest canal aqueduct in the world.

Here is a short video I took as I ran across it:

A brief stop at CP1

A short while after the aqueduct, I arrived in 3rd place at CP1. I had been consistently sipping my tailwind and water mix every few minutes, and needed a refill.

The brilliant support crew offered to refill my water. I wasn’t thinking clearly though and didn’t get my tailwind powder mix out quick enough, so I lost a few minutes as I retrospectively added the mix to the refilled soft flask.

Declining food and snacks I made my way onward toward CP2.

I had no issues maintaing a good pace of around 6:00 to 6:25 per kilometer all the way to CP2 at roughly 19 miles / 30 km.

CP2 – another quick stop

I arrived at CP2 right behind Alex, and with eventual winner Terry right on my heels. At this point I was in 3rd position.

At this checkpoint I refueled with coca-cola in my reusable cup and had my 2 litre soft flask partially refilled again. This time I remembered to get the tailwind out!

The sun was out and it was rapidly warming up. I was sweating a lot, and layers of salt were already forming on my face. Proper hydration was going to be key. I kept this in mind, trying my best to remember to keep sipping.

Having arrived just after me, Terry set off just ahead of me, and I was quick to follow.

Just after leaving in Terry’s tracks I remembered that my shoes had filled with small stones and gravel from the canal track. I stopped for a minute to empty my shoes of the nuisance. Someone recently said to me during an ultra event “personal maintainance during is super important” (referring to niggles like stones in your shoes). Leaving them in my shoes to try to save time would only lead to more bother and negative energy as the miles piled on and discomfort set in later.

CP3 – A shady oasis (and bag drop)

Checkpoint 3 was situated at about the 28 mile (45 km) mark. I had left a drop bag with a bunch of options for myself depending on how I felt. Among other things, I had prepared:

  • Spare shoes – an older pair of Hoka Speedgoat 4s
  • Trekking poles (in case my legs felt tired)
  • Change of clothes and socks
  • Can of coke, snacks, sweets

My shoes were still feeling fine, and I definitely didn’t feel the need to deploy trekking poles. I was still running strong and had not stopped to walk once.

I did change to remove my base layer though. It was way too hot to still be wearing it. I grabbed a can of coke from my bag, and a few chewable packs of sweets from the snacks on offer.

The supporting crew were all smiles and help here – once again, brilliant support.

I left feeling strong, sipping on my coke as I ran (and tried my best not to spill!)

Putting down some power

As I had surpassed the half way mark, the next phase of my strategy kicked in. I had planned to put in as much effort as possible once I reached the 40-50km mark. Keeping my heart rate down in the first half of the race was my primary objective, and my hope was that it would now allow me to open up the throttle a bit in the second half.

The next miles to CP4 felt long and arduous, but I still managed to surpass my desired average pace for the second half.

Pace averaging faster than I expected for the half way mark

CP4 recharge

CP4 arrived after what felt like an eternity. I had had enough of the canal views by this point, and my legs were a little uncomfortable.

I had a small bit of snack bar and hydrated for the 3-5 minutes I stopped here, taking the opportunity to once again empty the new collection of small stones and gravel from my shoes.

The remaining canal paths held some surprises. There was a lot of overgrowth in parts. I could have done with packing a machete!

Chasing 2nd place

Having been in 4th place for the last few hours, but maintaining a good solid pace throughout, I had been making up the distance between myself and the top three. Between CP4 and CP5 I gained two positions to get to 2nd place.

I really did surprise myself here, but in hindsight it makes sense – I had worked hard to keep up my speed and not stop to walk at all. I was also lucky to not have any bad pain or niggles at this point. My right hamstring and both hip flexors were starting to ‘talk’ to me, but that was about it. I didn’t have any cramps and I could fairly easily push through the slight discomfort.

Soon I spotted an orange dot in the distance. It was Alex (currently in 3rd place). He seemed to have slowed due to muscle cramps. I slowed as I passed him, asking if he needed anything – he confirmed muscle cramps in the legs were slowing him, but he was soldiering on.

Now at 3rd place, I focused effort on keeping up my pace. I was pretty sure Alex would fight to get 3rd position back, and there was the chance that I could catch Terry. The last couple of checkpoints had me arriving just after he was leaving them.

Later in this segment I passed Steven, who had been running strong earlier on in the race. Unfortunately he had taken a fall on the trail and was going to walk it in. Steven declined any assistance and seemed to be happy enough power walking along (I’m pretty sure he absolutely soldiered on and managed to run most of the remainder in too, based on his 4th place finish!)

I now knew that Terry was in 1st place and I had just taken 2nd place. More reason to keep up the efforts!

Checkpoint 5 was on the corner of a road as the canal path ended and forced us to cross over. I downed some more coke, grabbed a cup to go, and set off as quick as I could.

To the finish

I could almost smell the North CANUM ultra finish line at this point. There was some work to do, but I knew I still had the energy the keep my pace up.

The kms ticked over slowly, but I held a steady, quick pace, dipping below 6:00/km as I neared the end.

Spirits were high as I maintained 2nd position and was cheered on by random strangers walking the canal.

Soon the finish line was in my line of sight. I sped forward to finish in 9 hours and 1 minute, massively surpassing my goal of 10 hours. I was just 6 minutes behind Terry in 1st place (phenomenal effort Terry!) but elated to have achieved 2nd place.

I am very happy with the result – as I run more ultras I am continually finding new ways to improve and optimize my performance. I’m slowly picking off the low-hanging fruit (optimizations) as I go. There are also always mistakes, errors, and lessons to learn from – I know I’ll find and make many more of those too.

North CANUM ultra - finishing photo
A nice little handmade wooden trophy for the top 3

Thanks again go to Pegasus ultra running and the brilliant team. They really do put on great events in stunning locations across Wales. The North CANUM ultra was yet another well executed event. If you’re new to ultra running (psst – no cut-off times!), or want to try something new, I highly recommend their ultra events in Wales.

2 thoughts on “North CANUM Ultra Race Report (2022)”

  1. Congratulations, Sean!! Your consistency is fantastic!
    Your paces in the first 10km look so similar to the last 10k – that’s very solid running. Very much like an unstoppable train. 🙂
    I also love the beautiful route along the canals. It’s different from your spectacular coastlines, but also very scenic.
    With only 6 minutes difference to 1st place, I’m pretty sure you will win your next ultra.
    Loved reading this recap!

    Reply
    • Hey Catrina,

      Thank you so much! My only hope is to replicate as many variables as possible on my next. Will be tough, but at least I’ve learned a lot of ‘stuff that works’ for me.

      Yes, beautiful route, but I’m all ‘canaled out’ now. Bring on the coast and mountains again.

      In fact the next ultra is in a few weeks’ time. It’ll be the same distance but with a couple thousand meters of elevation this time. We’ll see how it goes, but my goal for that one is to just finish in a decent time. No plans on going full out!

      Thanks for reading as always 🙂

      Reply

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