Grand Union Canal race

Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR), from Birmingham to London, 145 miles, 45 hour time limit.

I first heard about GUCR back in 2008, just after I started running ultras. A former colleague, Jim, ran it that year finishing in 40.23. At that point, having never run more than 32 miles, it sounded completely insane. As I finished longer races it began to seem less silly. I thought I’d give it a shot at some point; as a Brit you’ve kind of got to if you want to consider yourself a serious ultra-runner. But 145 flat miles didn’t really appeal, my running heart was in the hills and
UTMB was the big goal.  However after the LDWA Games 100 and Run 24 last year I finally realised that I’m better (strictly speaking, less bad) at long and flat than hills. So I decided to focus on long and flat in 2013: a sub-24 hour 100 and a GUCR finish were the goals.

Training went OK. I ran the
Thames Path 100 as a training run (finishing a bit slower than I’d hoped) and fitted regular back to back long runs around work/life. I spent most of May in Santa Barbara for work, trading my usual 90 min car commute for a (power) walk along the seafront. I ran lots while I was there, but lost two weekends to the long journey there and back. Overall I didn’t manage quite as many long runs as I’d hoped, but I felt relatively fit, with no niggles.

My main goal was just to finish. Looking at past results people who finish 50-100 mile races in the same times as me typically finish GUCR between 40 hours and the 45 hour cut-off. So I set 40 hours as my ‘if everything goes to plan’ goal, with a rough break-down of 11 hours for the first 50, 14 for the next 50 and 15 for the remaining 45 (in fact, rumour has it, 48). Somewhat optimistic given my 50 and 100 mile PBs of 10.22 and 24.33. At some point I thought about what the ‘fastest time I could ever dream of’ was. I pulled 36 hours out of thin air (largely because that’s what the time cut-off for the 150 mile Spartathlon is). And then put it back again when I realised that would involve running a 100 mile PB, and then keeping going at the same speed for another 45 miles...

I was fairly laid back up until a couple of days beforehand, when the enormity of 145 miles hit me. In a 100 things usually get tough after 70-80 miles. Gutting out 20-30 miles is doable, but 60-70? I’d been practicing a 25 min run, 5 min walk and eat strategy in training. In training this translated into 5mph for back to back long runs up to 30 miles. At the Thames Path 100 I’d kept the run-walk routine up to 70 miles, before switching to ‘try and run as much as possible’ (i.e. not much). So the big question mark was how long I could keep the run-walk up, and how slow I’d be after that (the final 30 miles of my first 2 100s degenerated into 2mph death plots).

After reading numerous race blogs complaining about sleepless nights in noisy hotels in Birmingham I’d spent hours agonising about where to stay the night before. I even considered spending a small fortune on a 4 star hotel. In the end I booked the bargain budget Comfort Inn at the back of the train station (down at heel but away from the pubs and clubs) on the grounds that I’d be less pissed off at spending 40 quid on a bad nights sleep than 100. I often struggle to get to sleep (full stop, let alone the night before a big race), but after stuffing myself with cold Dominos pizza I was exhausted and fell asleep not long after 9. I guess jet-lag can sometimes be an advantage...

Getting up at 4.45 wasn’t too much of a struggle, and I managed a couple of cheese rolls before heading off to Gas Street basin with my drop bag for the start at 6.00. I’m used to being right at the back for the first 30+ miles, but the start was more restrained than usual. I’m don’t know how many were behind me early on, but I’m fairly sure it was more than the usual one or two (or zero...). It took a while for the field to thin out. There was a lot of back-and-forth overtaking, as people took walk breaks at different points and supported runners met their support crews. I stuck to my 25:5 run:walk-eat plan, with short breaks at the first two checkpoints, at 11 and 22 miles, to refill my water bottles and restock my food supplies (hula hoops, Mule bars, and blackcurrant and espresso GU gels). The only issue early on was my bowels. With the early start and no coffee for breakfast I hadn’t had my usual morning trip to the loo and now I needed to. However the urge never coincided with the availability of toilets and I didn’t want to waste time finding a suitable bush at this point.

Fortunately the weather was a lot drier than it had been for the past few days (and I needn’t have crammed my drop-bag with multiple changes of clothes). However as the morning went on it felt far hotter than the forecast 15-16 degrees. Up to 30 miles I’d been averaging 5mph, but it was beginning to feel like hard work so I backed off a bit. The canal was far more interesting to run along than I expected, however it was also a bit harder. I had a mental picture (even though I’d seen real pictures...) of relatively smooth gravely paths. However in many places it was grass, or stoney single track.

At Braunston at 44 miles my first silly mistake became apparent. There are taps with water at various points along the canal, however you need a key to unlock them. The organisers would supply one at race registration, or you could get one from eBay. I decided to order it from eBay, so I knew I had it. When the key arrived I was surprised by how big it was, but didn’t think too much about it. Since the taps were there I’d decided to only carry two 625ml bottles. Given the heat I was rattling through the water and had nearly run out when I spotted one of the taps. However its lock looked nothing like my key. A passing canal boat owner pointed out that my key was for opening locks on some random canal in, I think, Lancashire and kindly unlocked the tap for me. This solved the immediate problem, but water supplies were going to be a recurring problem. Otherwise things were going well, my maths brain was enjoying doing pointless calculations about exactly how far through each running block I was and I started overtaking quite a few people.

At Norton junction I wussed out of the shorter ‘cross a lock gate’  option and took the slightly longer bridge crossings.
50 miles passed in about 10.30, not too far outside my PB.
At checkpoint 4 at 53 miles I nearly forgot to take my headtorch from my drop bag and had to reclaim it from the baggage van. The checkpoint crew told me I’d make it to the next checkpoint at 70.5 miles before dark.  I wasn’t so sure, and took the headtorch, but they were right.  Once there I
sorted myself out with night gear (merino wool base layer, hat and gloves and a windproof jacket, plus a thin fleece in my rucksack) and had a few mouthfuls of  quiche and beans (before I realised the quiche had ham in it...). There were a handful of other runners there and I felt well and truly out of my depth as they discussed their past runs at Spartathlon (which has a 50 mile cut-off an hour inside my PB...) and the Viking Way. I grabbed a handful of Ritz biscuits and headed out into the dusk.

Throughout the support for (support-crewless) unsupported runners like me was overwhelming. In the later stages my drop-bag was usually waiting by a chair and the checkpoint crew (which included the course record holder and four time winner Pat Robbins...) would wait on me like a King. I usually try and avoid stopping for too long at checkpoints, setting off again as soon as I’ve finished organising kit and eating, but I felt far perkier immediately after these short breaks.

During this stage mistake number 2 became apparent when the battery on my super-duper-flashy Suunto Ambit GPS ran out. I bought it for it’s 40+ hour battery life. However when I set it up for the race (removing altitude from the data fields, since it’s a bit superfluous on a canal...) I forgot to set it to 1 min recording intervals. It had served its main goal, monitoring my pace in the early stages, but it turned out I’d miss it later on.

A few miles before checkpoint 6 at 85 miles I felt really cold as the temperature dropped to just above zero and I struggled to run for the full 25 minutes. I forced down some pizza, and decided to switch to 10 min run, 5 min walk. At checkpoint 6 I had some soup and put on my fleece.  Once I got going again I felt a bit hot, but decided this was better than cold, and kept the layers on. I was checking off the bridge numbers, so the sequences of bridges around Milton Keynes with a,b,c,d suffixes were really dispiriting. Occasionally I thought trees in the distance might be a bridge, but I don’t think this really counts as a hallucination (more like simple wishful thinking). Sore patches were appearing on my feet, on the edges of the balls of both feet and on the tops of 2nd toes and my usually comfy running tights were chafing, but otherwise I was feeling OK. I kept the 10:5 run:walk up through the night and passed some more people.

The final few miles into checkpoint 7 at  Grand Junction Arms at 100 miles went on forever, but I got there just after dawn at 5.10ish, 23.10 into the race. A PB by 1.20 and my first ever sub 24 hour 100.  I ditched the fleece, and switched the hat for a buff, but it was still quite cold so I kept the rest of the layers on. I managed some beans and bread for breakfast and drained a blister.

The next 20 mile stage took about 6 hours, but it didn’t seem anywhere near that long. The temperature rose rapidly and I peeled off layers. I also ran out of water again, but luckily begged some off a support crew who were waiting for their runner. Eating was beginning to be a struggle (one packet of hula hoops took an hour) and my running wasn’t much faster than walking, but I stuck to the run-walk strategy. I was trying not to think about potential finish times too soon (since if things go wrong you can rapidly lose a lot of time), but sub 40, and potentially substantially sub 40, looked like it was doable. As the morning went on the tow-path got busy and having to weave my way around wayward people, bikes and dogs was hard-work. At one narrow point a walking group were walking 3 abreast, filling the path. There was nowhere for me to go (apart from into the canal), so I stopped. And not one, but two, of them walked straight into me.

At Springwell at 120 miles I drained another blister and taped that foot up, slathered on sun-cream and ate some Ritz crackers and tinned fruit (the only food that appealed at this point).  Drop-bags aren’t available at the final checkpoint, so even though it was midday I took my headtorch (just incase).

The next few hours went quickly again, and I kept run-walking. But somewhere around 130 I started struggling, and exchanged the run-walk-eat strategy for simply walking. I ran out of water and had to stop at a pub and buy some (undrinkable sweet and fizzy) lemonade so I could fill my bottles up in the toilets. I also kept getting the urge to wee so I had to keep an eye out for suitable bushes to clamber into. During one of these stops I belatedly noticed that the label on my running tights was at the front. I’d put them on back to front on Saturday morning (mistake number 3). This explained the chafing issues. I didn’t fancy taking my shoes and tights off in a bush by a busy path, so I left them as they were.

A bit later I came across some some nice looking benches, so I stopped (largely as a excuse to sit down) and drained and taped the blisters on the other foot. By now my stomach was really bloated and I felt a bit sick. Just before the final checkpoint at Hamborough Tavern a stinky factory made me retch in a bush. Throwing up would probably have helped, but it didn’t happen.

At the final checkpoint I deliberately took my time to get some food down, more Ritz crackers (I should add them to my running food list) and fruit. Someone asked how I was feeling. I moaned about my stomach, but they told me I looked/seemed quite perky. They may have been lying.
It was a bit demoralizing watching two runners I’d passed in the night (including Mimi Anderson in the final stages of her double GUCR) pass through without stopping. But with 33.30 on the clock and 12 miles to go, the sub-40 was going to happen, provided I didn’t do anything silly. I left the checkpoint right behind a runner (and his pacer) who I’d caught just before 100 miles and had been running fairly close to ever since. My goal was to keep them in sight. I managed it for a while, but eventually they pulled away and I succumbed to repeated one minute sit breaks. There weren’t any benches so I sat in the silliest of places. On a branch. Not a proper tree trunk, but a ~5cm diameter branch which only touched the ground at the ends and bent as I rested my weight on it. Even on the ground (getting back up again was fun). I stopped in another bush and tried, and failed, to empty my bloated stomach from either end. While I was in there, another runner zoomed past (he looked pretty fast from my viewpoint in the bush at least).

The full consequences of mistake 2 (the GPS dead battery), and mistakes 4 and 5 then became apparent. The organiser had provided laminated maps, but they were a bit awkward to carry, so I’d printed the maps onto waterproof paper. The night before I realised the final section hadn’t printed, but I didn’t think this was an issue as there was no navigation required beyond `keep the canal on your LHS’. However without a GPS or map I had no idea how fast I was moving or how far I had to go and no way of setting goals apart from picking objects in the distance to focus on.

Mistake number 5 was forgetting to take my hard-skin removing device to the US with me, allowing hard-skin to build up on the balls of my feet. The blisters that had formed earlier were under thin skin, easily drained and not particularly painful. But with the extended walking big blisters had formed deep under the leathery skin on the balls of my feet. They hurt, and I couldn’t drain them.

At some point I came across the runner I’d been trying to keep up with, sat on the verge with his pacer, suffering from heat stroke. After a quick chat I pressed on, and miraculously, started feeling a bit better. The canal signposts started counting down the miles to Paddington. I even tried to run again, but it felt slower and more effort than walking so I stuck to power walking. I even set myself an arbitrary time goal: taking 3 hours off Jim’s 40.23. Finally the end came into sight and I broke into a sort of run, finishing in 37.17 in 27th place (out of 88 starters, 54 finishers).

Dick Kearn, the organiser, gave me the very impressive finisher’s medal and thanked me for coming so far to take part. This confused me. Not just because it should be me thanking him (and I did) but Chesterfield to Birmingham isn’t far. Had he confused me for one of the European entrants? [The penny dropped a few days later: when I’m tired I regress to speaking in broad bumpkin.]

I spent a while at the finish eating and waiting for my finish bag (which had got separated from my drop bag) to arrive, before waddling off to my hotel. I’d chosen somewhere with a 24 hour reception in case I finished close to the 3am cut-off. As it was I got there, showered, phoned home and was in bed before dark.

I’m really happy (and surprised) to finish well under 40 hours. Most of the people who finished between 35 and 40 hours have marathon PBs between 3.00 and 3.30. My marathon PB is 4.18. I don’t think I could run much faster than that; I’ve never run a sub 8 minute mile (not even downhill...) and I can count the number of sub 9 minute miles I’ve run on my fingers.  However I’ve spent a bit of time beating myself up about the time and places I lost in the last 15 miles. In particular because I’m used to passing people towards the end of ultras, not being passed. And my stomach problems were probably due to dehydration, caused largely by my key screw-up. I keep telling myself that that goal is to get to the finish as fast as I can (not to pass as many people as possible) and I think I did that as well I could on the day.

36 hours doesn’t seem so far-fetched any more. Will I be back to give it a go? It’s tempting. But apart from the last 15 miles things actually went pretty well.  If things went wrong earlier on (e.g. rain induced trashed feet) I could lose a lot more time, and end up outside 40 hours. Maybe it’s best to take the 37.17 and run...

I’m pondering races, like Viking Way and the Thames Path 250, which I previously thought were beyond me (Spartathon still is unless I somehow find some new ‘go faster’ legs). And I need to find a new goal for the British Ultra Fest 24 hour track race in August, since the sub-24 hour 100 is already in the bag...