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A Coventry Way

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Alastair McLaughlin shares his experience of an Ultra event in Warwickshire.

A Coventry Way is a full circumnavigation of the city of Coventry. It was started in the 1970s and thrashed out over decades of path finding (literally thrashed out in some places) by some local runners who were training for mountain marathons by running in the countryside around the city.

The challenge then, is to do the whole forty-mile route in one go. Some walk, some run, some form relay teams. All start when they feel like it on the day – so there’s a stretched-out circle of tired folk round Coventry from before dawn to after dusk.

Getting ready in my head, whenever I have a running event to do I always set out my excuses first. It’s not part of any planned psychology, it just tends to happen. I think I’m a positive pessimist: by planning for the worst, I’m well prepared – but often pleasantly surprised.

So this event’s excuses are:

- I had a chest infection that developed into a minor bout of pneumonia over the New Year and into February, so my training has been shortened.

- I’ve never run this distance before.

- It’s a self-navigated course, so I might get lost along the way.

- It’s going to be the hottest day of the year so far...

With all those problems to overcome, I decided that I would be pleased if I just finished the course. Naturally, some part of me also optimistically predicted a finishing time based on my closest similar distances. I tend to complete the 33 miles of the Marlborough Downs Challenge in 6.5 hours – so I guessed between 8 and 9 hours would be pretty good going.

There are checkpoints along the way, with food provided, but I have learned that you can’t rely on the world to provide veggie friendly options. So I carried my own provisions and they barely fit in my pack! I also took extra isotonic tablets to let me replenish my drink, as I reckoned I’d need to refill my two-litre Camelbak once or twice along the way.

Setting out this year were over two hundred entrants. It was a breezy, very sunny day, and warming up even at 8:00am as I arrived. The car park at the starting point, at the Queens Head in Meriden, was filling up with cars, and people in hiking and / or running gear. I got my start time logged, started my tracking app, and set out.

Straight away, I felt my calves tighten up – I get this sometimes when I’m not properly hydrated. I slowed my pace, had something to drink, and shook it off. The opening section was uphill, in rolling middle-England countryside – with an unfortunate cattle aroma (one of the local farms near Meriden is rather intensive in its housing of the cows). Breathing through the nose, I found myself falling in with an ultra-runner called Glyn – he was a Grand Union Canal veteran. We chatted for a long stretch up until the first checkpoint, where I met up with a friend and his kids who cheered me on. It’s good to get support!

This event doesn’t draw crowds, so peer support from chatting with fellow runners along the way is key. Lots of gelatin-based snacks were available, sadly. It’s amazing how many running events want to hand out jelly babies and Haribo! But some Jaffa Cakes were on offer.

Between checkpoints 1 and 2, we had a diversion in place near Kenilworth. Glyn lingered longer than I wanted to at CP2, so I made off on my own. Through Bubbenhall and on to Ryton-on Dunsmore, where we ran through some narrow paths among industrial sheds – a bit grim after the open country – and then crossing under the Eastern side of the A45 to head north. I spotted some leisurely horses paddocked by the path. I doubt they’d have made better progress than us runners! As I came up on CP3 I was grateful for a rest. I’d only done 19 miles by that point.

Halfway and harder going From Wolston, I headed off through open fields toward the Fosse Way, over the Avon and along a straight and deeply hoof-pitted bridleway (the mud was like concrete with the dry weather), up to Brinklow. There are the remains of a motte-and-bailey castle at Brinklow, though, thankfully we didn’t have to climb it!

Out of Brinklow, at CP4, I refilled my Camelbak. Over halfway now. The route joins the Oxford Canal path for a few miles and passes under the M6 (concrete and noisy traffic) and the Nettle Hill Bridge (iron aquaduct, much quieter). Coming off the towpath, we headed toward Ansty, and then across what I have come to think of as the Plains of Gorgoroth! It’s like something out of Mordor – a ploughed field of crumbled earth so dry, it was like staggering across rocks. I swear I could hear Sam Gamgee trying to encourage me onwards. Once again, the course came back to the Oxford Canal, before turning north to Barnacle and into Bedworth.

Here, I got lost. After making it to the checkpoint in a pleasant housing estate, I paused and chatted with other walkers and runners, had a Jaffa cake or two, and drank some water – and then set off in completely the wrong direction. If it hadn’t been for a helpful driver at some lights about a kilometre away sending me back the way I’d come, I’d have been properly lost! Back to the checkpoint, and off in the right direction.

This urban section was the trickiest: the signs were harder to spot, and fellow challengers were harder to see among the everyday townsfolk. I tagged along for a bit with a challenger who knew his way, going at a brisk walk rather than a jog, and I was grateful not only for the guidance, but for the rest. To be honest, I’d been walking longer sections between jogging by this point – about 30 miles.

Back over the M6, and down into Corley Moor. I’d been warned this would be a quagmire, but it was hardly even muddy today. On to Corley Moor village – the Red Lion looking very inviting in the sunshine – but onwards to the next checkpoint. I should have refilled my Camelbak again – I ran out of water as I went through Birchley Hays Wood, as I washed down an energy gel to pep me up for the last stretch – but a fellow challenger let me have some of his. Very thankful!

The course runs mainly downhill from there, gently enough to ease the legs – and I finally came in sight of the Queens Head again – some 8 hours and 53 minutes after I’d set off. Food was being served – mainly carnivorous at a glance, but to be honest, I didn’t feel hungry so much as thirsty and tired. I collected my certificate, changed into soft shoes and headed home for a decent thirst quencher.

Observations - there were lots and lots of kissing gates along the way, which break one’s stride, so I tended to walk up to and away from them, rather than run. The course was generally well signed, as the Coventry Way logos were well-placed at turns and gates and so on. The few places that caused confusion were when we passed through built-up areas (just a couple in the whole 40 miles), where it was easier to miss the signs.

This is a challenge I will definitely do again, but I hope to make better time in future (with fewer wrong turns) – but the biggest challenge for me is just finishing!

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