“It doesn’t get any easier does it?” mentions James Adams as we trudge along the grassy canal bank 30 or so miles into the Grand Union Canal Race. These were words that I kept going back to time and time again during this race as I thought long and hard about the GUCR, ultra marathons and running in general and what it currently means to me.
My Grand Union Canal Race story began in 2010 when Stouty and I set out to complete this classic British adventure travelling 145 miles along the canal paths through the English countryside. We had just started to get involved in ultra running but having only run a couple of 50 mile ultras beforehand were totally ignorant of the physical and mental demands and discomfort you go through during these long races.
Despite the grey and overcast weather, we had set out in 2010 from the Gas Street location in high spirits and finished… nearly 44 hours later; into a second night feeling sleep deprived; with aching legs; blistered feet and having had our will power sorely tested to the limits. It was long, it was arduous, it was never ending but we eventually persevered and completed the challenge. “Never again”, we said…
5 years later and I was lining up for my 5th running of the race in 6 years, having missed out on the ballot in 2012 (thankfully missing out on the reported horrendous wet conditions that year).
My training and build up to the race had been ok. I had run lots of miles this year but perhaps didn’t quite commit to the long runs or quality work if I’m honest. My last ultra event in April (The Oner) wasn’t a great effort where sleep deprivation affected my will power and ultimately my performance. Having had to stop for a short sleep at a checkpoint may have been an excuse for not achieving a time I thought I was capable of but deep down I knew that I haven’t been able to summon up a lot of enthusiasm for events and I was lacking that spark, that emotion, that driving force you need when things start to get a little more difficult in a race. I was missing that extra 10% of effort you need.
The challenge is that it gets harder to get better and the key for me is that ability to push yourself during the latter stages of the long distance race especially the night leg. Training puts you in a good physical position to race and then it’s down to your personal will power to endure the discomfort, the sore feet, the tired legs, the sleepy phases (in particular for me) and trying to keep a run going. I know I have been guilty of settling for the easier option (i.e. marching a race in) on some occasions. I had a conversation with a running buddy before the race about wanting to finish a race completely destroyed knowing you have given a race everything and admiring people who can push a race to those limits. For me, there is an element of running within the comfort zone.
I had hoped the GUCR would shake me out of my current ambivalence towards races. This has been one of my favourite races for a number reasons. Firstly the length of the race makes it a challenge to complete it (with 50% of entrants typically DNF’ing for various reasons) so finishing is an achievement. Secondly, the camaraderie between runners, marshals and supporters is second to none with everyone genuinely interested and willing each runner home. Thirdly, the low-key approach is also a feature of this event. This is not a race you will see reported in a magazine with glossy advertising or social media adverts with sound bites hyping up the toughness of the challenge. It doesn’t need to advertise itself, the runners who take part in the event each year do that for the race.
The week before the race had seen me focus on getting some good sleep beforehand. My kit, equipment, travel arrangements and logistics were all repeated from previous years. Having the experience of doing the race a few times meant I was pretty relaxed about the race, maybe even too relaxed.
However, the traditional Friday night pub meet was brilliant with a fantastic turnout and thanks to everyone who made the effort to come along for a drink. It’s not very often that runners can congregate the night before the race, chat, ask questions, meet new people who share a common interest or enjoy some good natured banter. It was midway through the evening that I finally started to feel the buzz for the race, finally I was looking forward to this.
Friday Night Pub Meet
I stood on the start line after an average nights sleep having woken at 3.30am in the morning and laying in bed for an hour before eventually getting up and making my way to the start line for the 6.00am start. I’ve never slept that well in unfamiliar surroundings and never had a good nights sleep before the GUCR so why change a habit.
What else would you get up to at 5am on a Saturday morning? (Photo by Ross Langton)
The Race Director Dick Kearn, a longstanding stalwart of the ultra running scene gave his pre-race talk and to a lot of peoples surprise announced this would be his last year as Race Director after 21 years of organising this race.
I would like to thank Dick (and his wife Jan) and everyone else who has marshalled, crewed or supported the race for their efforts. I have no doubt that the race will continue to be known as the classic British ultra under the stewardship of Keith Godden who will now be taking on the race. (Note to Keith: Can we start at 7am or 8am from now on please?)
Pictured with Stouty & Dick
Stouty and I took up our usual positions towards the back of the field (although Kate Hayden was keen to ensure she stood behind me) and we set off at 6am on a sunny morning along the canal paths out through the centre of Birmingham and beyond watching a stream of runners head off into the distance.
And we’re off!
Stouty and I paced it pretty steadily, aiming for no more than around 10m/m which we maintained for most of the first day taking a few minutes out to eat after each Checkpoint and a periodic walk/eat break between Checkpoints to break up he distance.
The first 50 miles is more rural with the canal path leading out through Birmingham and along track paths past the first Checkpoint at Catherine de Barnes at 11 miles and on towards the second Checkpoint at Hatton Locks 22 miles in. Starting near the back meant we had initially passed a few people before people settled down into similar pacing groups where you then find yourself leapfrogging the same people around you for the next several hours.
Arriving at CP2 (Photo by Ross Langton)
I was running with Stouty feeling pretty good and running comfortably. There wasn’t a huge amount of conversation between us if I’m honest, we were just settling into the race. We had agreed that if one us was stronger then they would go on ahead which would encourage the other to catch up and we would hopefully avoid the pitfall of running at the pace of the slowest person for the race.
We arrived at Checkpoint 3 at Birdingbury Bridge, topped up our bottles, grabbed a couple of pre-prepared snacks and pressed on.
We caught up with James around here and had a brief chat before moving on towards the 4th Checkpoint at the Heart of England. At that point I was starting to feel some uncomfortable chaffing in a sensitive area despite having put plenty of cream on before the start of the race. The inner lining of my shorts was rubbing quite badly and at the next Checkpoint I swapped shorts (thanks to Ernie Jewson for holding up a coat to protect my modesty) and put copious amounts of sudacreme on the affected area. I thought I had packed a pair of comfortable Salomon trail shorts which I have worn several times on long distance races but when I changed I realised I had packed a pair of cheap running shorts I only use for short runs.
Stouty had run on at this point (as per team orders) although I caught up with him a few miles later and we continued on.
At Braunston Marina about 44 miles in we stopped for our usual ice cream, cold can of coke and a couple of minute sit down which always goes down well. James caught us up here and was also persuaded to buy an ice cream before we all set off again.
The traditional ice cream stop
Stouty’s form took a bit of a dip here and he slowed down a few times and started to have a few negative thoughts. I felt as if I was the stronger of the two at this phase of the race and it was left for me to keep the steady pace going and for Stouty to tag along. It was a fairly long 17 mile leg and at one point Stouty decided to take a walk break and I ran on with a shout of “catch me up”.
The pace was really really steady, I was feeling good, not pushing it hard at all.. dare I say it sensible pacing. I felt like I could run all day at that point (well I had been going for a good part of the day at that time).
A few miles later I had my first dip about 60 ish miles into the race where I slowed to a walk near Blisworth Tunnel. There’s a mile or two section which deviates away from the canal onto a road and I walked for a few miles (miles 64-67) at a brisk pace. I was trying to convince myself that by walking a bit more it would give Stouty a chance to catch up but in reality I was having a dip in mood and needed to eat some more. Here was a fine example of where I could have pushed along the road stretch but took the easier marching option.
Fortunately, I passed what I’ve dubbed the “Candy Barge” which was selling sweets and treats which I ran past, took a double take and then went bag to buy a bag of sugary sweets. I walked on for a while hooking up with Peter for a bit. We took a minor deviation crossing on the wrong side of the canal at one point before a kindly local pointed us in the right direction (Sam Robson, I think that’s where there was a slight error in my personal map/bridge crossing instructions).
The “Candy” Barge – Amazing scenes
After downing the bag of sweets, I had a massive sugar rush and picked up the running again and ran into Navigation Bridge feeling good.
There were a few familiar faces at Navigation Bridge with Peter Chandler doing his best Henk impression by swearing at me and accusing me of being a diva when I asked for bread and beans instead of the offered quiche and beans. Ian Thomas, Gil, Rich Cranswick and Pat Robbins were here and I had something hot to eat, changed my shoes and socks, applied copious amounts of sudacreme again, attended to a blister on my little toe (cut, drain and tape) and had a bit of banter with the people there before getting ready to head out. As I was just starting to leave we spotted Stouty on the approach to Navigation Bridge but Pat sensibly suggested I go on. Stouty had been having a tough last leg with a few surface thoughts of pulling out but I heard Pat chucked him out of that Checkpoint.
Fetchpoint (Picture by Dave Bayley)
I carried on stopping to use the public toilets fortuitously placed a mile after Navigation Bridge and a short while later was surprised to see an unofficial “Fetchpoint” manned by Ian “Mr Fetch” Williams, Dave Bayley, Gemma (Greenwood!) and a few others. I ran on and then passed Nikki Mills and Chris who was pacing someone before eventually catching up with Andy Horsley who was marching at that point.
Here I made a mistake and settled into a march with Andy (who was great company by the way). I once again was trying to convince myself that I was allowing Stouty time to catch me up but in reality I should have been pushing and trying to maintain a jog for longer. Andy was walking pretty briskly (a 4mph pace) and that seemed like an easier option than actually running. At that point, it was only just starting to get dark and I hadn’t ever been that far into the race with good light conditions but that point there was where I started to lose my focus and missing that extra 10% of effort.
“The physical symptoms of being out on your feet all day were starting to show. My legs were sore, my knee was uncomfortable and despite switching to a pair of Hoka’s which helped cushion my feet although my feet had swollen and my toes were being squashed resulting in a few toe blisters”. That was what I was telling myself, my mind was doing a deal with myself and agreeing a compromise by settling for a march to the end so I don’t DNF, accepting it won’t be as quick as running (knowing you have plenty of time on the cut offs) and thinking that this will be the most physically comfortable way of getting there. Once you finish, you realise that what you were suffering was no different to anyone else and then feel the disappointment of not trying harder. Yes, I was lacking that bit of drive and with Andy being around at that time meant I had fallen into some comfortable company. My quickest time when I have run this race is the year I ran it by myself (Stouty had gone all Triathlon that year). Is that a coincidence, I don’t know.
Andy and I marched along to the next Checkpoint at Bridge 99, 85 miles into the race. Andy kindly gave me one of his protein shakes, we ate a hot dog served by Glynn Raymen and then headed out from the Checkpoint just as Stouty headed in.
We walked out from the Checkpoint once again convincing myself I was allowing Stouty to catch me up but again in reality being guilty of not making more of an effort. I recognised this and told myself this but couldn’t sum up the effort to muster a run. I was starting to feel pretty tired and sleep deprived and munched away on my caffeine sweets as soon as I felt a wave of tiredness and swaying coming on.
The 100-mile checkpoint arrived about 21 hours into the race. On the way we picked up Sam Kilpatrick who was ‘almost’ sleep-walking to the extent I had to grab his arm to steady him. I gave him a few caffeine sweets which seemed to perk him up as he chatted away enthusiastically as Stouty then caught us up and the four of us (including Andy) arrived at the Checkpoint.
It was around here that Stouty and I started talking about our pact. We were both at a bit of a low and questioning why we put ourselves through this most years. Eventually, we started to form the idea that if we both finished, this would be our last GUCR. We have both done the race 4 or 5 times, there was nothing left to prove and helping our in a support crew role is probably long overdue. That was the extent of our low spirits at that point.
A few other people were there or just arrived after us and I tried to eat a Cheese roll which didn’t go down that well and I only managed to nibble on that and drink half a cup of tea. Stouty announced his intention to quit at this point and was probably at his lowest point of the race here. A few of us started to persuade him to carry on before Andy and I left with a message to catch us up.
I heard that Stouty half took his number off to retire and was going for a kip before Pat watched him throw up then filled his water bottles up and told him to go “on your way” (that may not have been the exact words he used!).
Night turned to day and it was really clear and bright early. I thought that would perk me up but I was still feeling incredibly sleepy and had the odd minor stumble as I munched my way through my caffeine sweets to try and stave off the waves of tiredness. I was genuinely feeling dead tired at that point and the march became a little slower.
Stouty caught us up and seemed like a changed man and he started to follow a 2-mile run, 1-mile walk routine for the rest of the race. He caught up with us and we hung together for a while (and I actually did a bit of running at that point) and we absolutely, most definitely agreed that this would be our last GUCR. Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, definitely, perhaps, maybe, we will see…
Stouty eventually ran on and this was another moment where I should have tried to tag along with Stouty but I was feeling dead on my feet and the negative emotions won out and I settled into a continuing march (back to the missing 10% of effort again).
Andy and I joined back together and we were walking at just over 4mph pace and arrived at the Springwell Lock Checkpoint which was being manned by Lindley Chambers and team. Stouty had been through 20 minutes before and was pressing on. We stopped for a hot dog and a can of coke (thanks Lindley) before dumping what kit wasn’t needed for the last marathon and then set out a few minutes later.
The sleepy phase had passed as it was now over mid-day although physically I was feeling some discomfort and took a couple of ibuprofen which took the edge of the pain in my legs and feet but didn’t eliminate it.
The weather became a little more overcast but still felt warm as we trudged towards the final Checkpoint before the end at Hamborough Tavern. We stopped for an ice cream at a shop (what’s an extra few minutes now?) when James caught is up again and I walked with James for a bit with Andy marching on slightly ahead before leaving James to his own thoughts and hooking up with Andy once more. By this point, we had been travelling together for 50 miles, were ‘still’ on friendly terms and decided to finish the race together. Colin Barnes passed us around here also marching to the finish a bit quicker than us.
About a mile before the next Checkpoint is the famous left hand turn marking the start of the last 13 miles. We didn’t tarry long at the next Checkpoint which was being manned by Ed Catmur and Nici Griffin and we marched on. Stouty had been through the Checkpoint an hour before us now (our ice cream break must have been a little long!). Actually, he was giving a fantastic level of effort to still be running at this point.
Final Checkpoint (Picture by Nici Griffin)
12 miles to go doesn’t sound like much in a 145-mile race but this took forever. I glanced at my Garmin far too many times during this leg here watching the “miles to go” tick down ever… so… slowly trickle down by a fraction of a mile here and there as we followed the meandering path towards the end. Of note was the amount of litter and rubbish (and general disrespect) people show this area which is frankly disgusting along this part of the canal, a scenic route towards the finish it is not.
There were a couple of moments which broke up those last long arduous miles when we spotted Jen Bradley, the lady jogger who was out running and then went and bought us some ice lollies (which was very much appreciated thank you. I think that made it my fourth ice cream stop of the race) and Drew & Claire passing us with a couple of miles to go. The closer we got to the finish, the more my body seemed to hurt. I was marching a touch quicker than Andy and thought I could get ahead, sit down for 30 seconds to take the weight (and pain) off my sore feet and knee which was throbbing before catching him up again but it seemed to get harder and harder to get up off the bench or seat and I resorted to leaning on a wall or standing hunched over.
We got down to the last section after Piggery Bridge and tried to savour those last few miles especially those cheeky hump backed bridges near the end of the race.
The Garmin gave us an accurate but tortuous countdown towards the end and as we spotted the finish line banner, we broke into our agreed 50 yard (well maybe 10 yard run) finishing in just under 35 hours.
GUCR finish number 5 (and Stouty has grown a bit taller) (Photo by Ross Langton)
“Everything from the waist down hurts, but job done” (Picture by Ian Thomas)
There were elements of the race I did enjoy, particularly the banter and interaction with runners before and during the race or with Checkpoint crews which I always look forward to. The first half of the race up to Navigation Bridge was pretty good and steady but after giving in for the second half I felt very little emotion at the end of the race. I didn’t feel elated or satisfied just a little disappointed with my personal effort and in a bit of physical discomfort. It certainly wasn’t my best performance and it was not the worst but it was the one I was probably most disappointed with.
Once again it’s a tale of mixed emotions, finishing a 145-mile event which has a 50% DNF rate five times is a fair achievement. However, knowing that I could have given a bit more effort (i.e. the extra 10%) means I’m really questioning why I put myself through this amount of pain and discomfort when I’m not getting much personal satisfaction from the finish or result. Blimey, I’ve just realised my report sounds like I’m Rob Pinnington. 😉
This might seem a little harsh and maybe I’m taking events like these for granted knowing that I’m capable of finishing comfortably time-wise within the cut-offs but not quite giving that 100% effort. With Spartathlon coming up in a few months I need to summon the motivation and enthusiasm pretty damn quickly otherwise I could easily crash and burn in Greece, that’s a real risk with my current mindset.
A few updates and thanks to conclude the details about the race. Well done to everyone who completed the event.
Congratulations to all the finishers especially Dan Lawson who shattered the previous course record finishing in 22.16 followed by Mark Perkins who also broke the course record finishing second in 22.42, absolutely phenomenal running guys. There’s a few mentions to Mimi Anderson who was first lady home and Russ Bestley for not falling over and smashing his head this year and finishing well.
Well done to first timers Naomi Newton-Fisher, Chris Edmonds, Andy Nuttall for completing the race (and any others); Peter Johnson.. for just being Peter Johnson; James Adams who will tell his own story but battled through a tough race to earn his finish and Liz Tunna who came in as the last runner in some discomfort but this doesn’t tell the story of Liz’s strong character as some of you may not be aware that was Liz’s 4th GUCR finish in a row.
A massive well done to my running buddy, Paul Stout. From being down and out on maybe three occasions, he recovered, rallied and raced to the finish to record his quickest GUCR time. Take that attitude to Spartathlon and you will be kissing the foot of Leonidas guaranteed. I was really proud of your motivation and effort but as a bloke we don’t mention these things out loud to each other, so I will write it in the blog and hope you read it (he gets bored of my blogs so may miss this!).
Thanks to Andy Horsley for the company over the last 50 miles or so, it was an absolute pleasure to run (march a lot!) with you during the event and hope to catch up again soon. Well done on your quickest finish and we’ve definitely retired from this race, definitely, perhaps, maybe… we will see.
Thank you to all the marshals, supporters and crew (and Pat Robbins who popped up at nearly every Checkpoint) who kindly gave up their time to help organise and man this event. It was great to see lots of familiar faces at each of the Checkpoints, everyone who gets involved in this race does a wonderful job which I’m sure everyone appreciates. I know I do.
Finally, I also want to offer a huge well done to Fiona McNelis who took on her first Grand Union Canal Race. This event was a massive challenge for Fi and she has put in a lot of effort over the past few months training and preparing for this event. It was great to hear she successfully completed the event on her first attempt, an outstanding effort.
Please don’t be put off my tales of woe and misery, completing a non-stop 145 mile race is a fantastic achievement and one which you should be quite rightly celebrating for a couple of weeks. I can now proudly wear my “Team Fiona” hat.
Go Team Fi! (or Go on, go on, go on, go on Team Fi)