Pre-Grand Union Canal Race report – training and background stuff.

Hmmm, a few background notes that might make sense of what comes in the main race report:
I am a very average runner. Not the slowest, but also never in danger of being in the front 30%. I can run reasonably quickly, I’ve done a marathon in 3 hr 32 min, but I don’t enjoy putting myself in pain that I can easily get rid of (by going more slowly).
I do enjoy running usually. I like going somewhere, or logging miles that I know add up to a decent total. I enjoy the uncomfortable tightness in legs after a 20 mile run or longer. Although it hurts, it is a good pain that indicates I’ve done something that will make me healthier / fitter. In the same way I used to be proud of a particularly bad hangover, meaning that I’d really had a skinful the previous night and so must have really enjoyed myself (a logic I now have to question, reaching middle age unfortunately).
I’m stubborn & organised. I like to finish what I start, and do it as well as I can. I don’t see the point of not finishing something. I’m a good planner, ready for any eventuality, although this sometimes means I only use a quarter of the kit I may pack, at least I’m ready for any weather conditions – from torrential rain to heat wave requiring mosquito repellent and suntan cream.
I generally do one big event per year. It used to be a marathon in April / May. This allowed me to train through the crappy winter months of Jan & Feb, enjoy the sun appearing (while training) in March & April, and then complete the event and return to normal life in May (and carry on normally, just running for recreation, all the way to Boxing day). After the Paris Marathon in April 2011, I thought it may be fun to try a 24 hour event (the 24 hour Challenge at Marshside, organised by the very excellent, which was very close to home, just to see how far I could go. I’d done a 32 & 50 miler, and found them tough, both mentally and physically. I did the 24 hour run on nothing much more than marathon training, and somehow covered 105 miles in a burst of stubbornness that surprised myself. I marched (rather than ran) most of it after 45 miles, but found I could just keep going at a decent pace (about 15 mins per mile) consistently with a positive mental attitude. The only problem was that firstly, I got very disoriented during the second half, and secondly I was in pieces when I finished: couldn’t lift either leg to get up the stairs, couldn’t bend my ankle to drive for three days, was a stiff as a board for a week, and I didn’t run for three months.

Just finished my first Ironman, no wonder I look pleased!

Just finished my first Ironman, no wonder I look pleased!

I stopped worrying about running after that, as I couldn’t see how I could ever top 100 miles.
So, logically, I turned to triathlon, having considered but discarded the thought of an Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, then a marathon) in 2010 as too difficult. I completed IMUK in July 2012 & Outlaw in 2013.

The two Ironman trialthlons were a bit ‘samey’ so it seemed right to return to ultra and proper challenges that put me back in the same ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ position…..






Right then….let’s talk about the GUCR. 145 miles from Birmingham to London, along the path of the Grand Union Canal, with a cut-off time of 45 hours.  This year was the 20th year of running, bery impressive!

Feckin' long way!

Feckin’ long way!

Firstly let’s consider the first line of the website “Britain’s longest toughest non-stop running race”. That was enough to catch my attention, and while the race reports made it sound great & tough, the dropout rate of 25% – 50% made it sound just plain tough. It is heavily over- subscribed, so entry is mainly by ballot. I’d been entering ‘not seriously’ for a couple of years, but I actually remarked to my wife that I had a feeling this year that I would get in…And in November I found out I had. Cue real excitement, real trepidation, real emotion (‘what have I done’) and that lovely feeling in the pit of my stomach of ‘I’m not sure whether I can do that’. Bring on lots of race reports of previous years, some quite positive, some just awful to read. Bring on a few YouTube videos, but to be honest they didn’t allow you inside people’s heads which is what I was looking for, but rather just showed you what the weather and scenery was like.

Not my feet!!  But they look bloody painful!

Not my feet!! But they look bloody painful!

Bring on pictures of feet that took your breath away, and stories of hospital visits and lingering medical conditions brought on by the race that lasted for months afterwards.
So that brought us to Boxing Day. I work in retail, which means November and December are pretty much a write-off in terms of free-time, so Boxing Day is the day I do my first 6m run at the start of my new year of training. All through Jan and February, I had one simple idea: to run longer than usual. My typical run had been 6 miles, perhaps pushing to 13 miles or 20 on a proper long run. Now my logic was to make my previous 6m run into a 10m run, and then make anything longer into a 20m run. I would fool my brain into thinking that whereas I used to skip out the door for 50 minutes to complete a 6 mile loop, now I would convince myself that I was doing exactly the same actions, but going for a little longer, to complete 10 miles instead.
The general accepted training regime for an ultra is to complete back-to-back 20 mile runs on consecutive days, to run on tired legs, but not to work them so hard they get injured. I did not have the luxury of having days off together, but thought that simply running for as far as I could in the time allowed (on days off, mornings, evenings etc) would get me there.
On a Sunday, I previously used to meet my running club (the mighty Thanet Roadrunners) at 8am for a 10 mile run, but now I decided I would get up a little earlier and complete 10 miles before meeting them, and so squeeze 20 miles into the same time. I’d still be home at 10am to spend the day with the family.

I would usually have a day off in the week (and working Saturday) so on that day I would see the kids off to school, and then go for a 20 mile run. Allowing me the afternoon to catch up on anything that needed doing. I was lucky enough to be able to meet with a great runner called Mark Foster (also from Thanet Roadrunners) on a few of these Tuesday runs, and drink in his advice along the way.

Just one of the many massive meals I was allowed after a good run!

Just one of the many massive meals I was allowed after a good run!

So, two decent long runs in an average week, coupled with 10 mile runs whenever I have time in the evenings or morning. Never any run less than 10 mile, and every run with a rucksack I was planning on using on the day. It seemed like a plan.  Not forgetting the massive amounts of food I’d be allowed to eat.

On a couple of occasions I had to adjust my normal schedule to fit in something else:
For example, I always try to complete a 10 mile race at the end of January, the Canterbury 10, as it is exactly the same period of time after Boxing Day each year and it allows me to test my progress since then. But I didn’t want to waste a Sunday morning with just a 10 mile run, as usually I was doing 20 miles or more. So this year I got to the start nice and early, ran the route twice, to get in my 20 miles, and then ran the race proper, so that I could still see what I had left in my legs. After 20 miles already done I was definitely slower (I finished 10 minutes off my PB), but it was surprisingly good fun, and I was surprised how much I had left in the tank that became apparent in race conditions. If I’d been slogging away on my own I suspect I’d have been slowly grinding down to a stop. In a race situation I was actually getting quicker.
On another weekend I decided I needed to see how I would cope with the lack of sleep of running overnight…would I lose all activity as I got colder and slower, or would I fall asleep on my feet? Or even worse, would I make it through the night, but not be able to function as I got tired the following day. So I finished work at 10pm on a Saturday night, got home and changed into my running stuff, and left the house at 11.45pm.

Just heading out for an overnight training run!

Just heading out for an overnight training run!

It was a beautiful night, and as I ran I could feel the excitement of doing something new and different going through my veins. I ran from my house through some dark woods (which I’ve run many times in daylight and were infinitely more scary in the dark) before running up through the centre of Canterbury nightlife at 2am. Then from Canterbury back towards home to make up my first 20 mile loop. Legs starting to get tired but actually feeling very awake and alert. Then I was running in the opposite direction towards Whitstable, and towards a 24 hour McDonalds, which did me a mug of boiling water to make up some Smash instant potato, and a cup of coffee. I don’t think I was feeling tired enough to need the coffee, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time. With both coffee and Smash inside me, I could run to Tankerton and then follow the coast line all the way to Margate, ready for meeting my club for the usual Sunday morning 8am run, and my last 10 miles. I got there feeling good, and loved the cries of incredulity when I said I’d run all night, and would be joining them for the run that morning. That convinced me I would be able to cope with the night portion of the GUCR, although I didn’t know what effect having run all day would have on my legs.

Dawn breaking at Reculver, lovely!

Dawn breaking at Reculver, lovely!

I told some of the team at my work about my idea of running 145 miles, which was generally met with the standard response of “why?” and “you’re mad”. I started to get plans together for the race itself. I knew I would need some support runners, which are allowed to accompany a racer from mile 65 (usually the start of the night section) to help with navigation and to rescue runners fallen in the canal. I asked about in Thanet Roadrunners whether there were any people mad enough to want to accompany me along 70 miles of canal, in the dark and likely rain, with little encouragement or ‘crowd support’.

Strangely, I got a few replies, the best of which came from a husband and wife team (that’s good, I thought, not too much arguing) who were respectable marathon runners although had never done over that distance. I’d be asking them to cover 35 miles each, in stages, with time in-between stages to cool down and get stiff, and then start running again, as well as feeding me, keeping me positive, staying warm and dry and awake. Not an easy task by any means.
I had already lined up a mate, Steve, to drive the car. Steve used to run, but hasn’t for a number of years, and certainly has no experience of ultra events. His expertise lies in being entirely un-flappable, with a wealth of hidden talents, and I was confident that he could cope with anything the event could throw at him. For example, when he first agreed to take part, I spent an enjoyable evening with him going over amongst other things, the details of the race and how I thought the days would go. At some point I said that one of my biggest concerns was staying awake though the full length of time, as 45 hours was a long time to remain awake, not even considering driving or running at that stage. Steve said he didn’t think it would be that much of a problem, and nonchalantly walked to get a framed certificate hanging in an obscure part of his house, that shows he was the Guinness Book of World Records holder for the longest game of checkers, at 108 hours. He’d done it while a student, and the record has since been stopped as it is considered ‘unhealthy’, but it was good to know that someone in the car would be staying awake for the duration.

So, that was my support crew organised. Steve to drive the car along the 145 mile route from Birmingham to London, and John and Jo to run alternate legs with me from about mile 70 to the end.
By the end of March I was starting to consider the route itself, basically a long canal towpath, and the likelihood of getting lost on it. With the internet forums saying it was easy to navigate and very difficult to get lost, and with the organisers producing maps and instructions that looked deceptively simple, I knew the obvious thing was to trust everyone around me and not worry about it. Thus, on Easter Monday, I caught a train from London up to Birmingham New Street station, with just my rucksack (bursting with essentials and killer-heavy) and set off to follow the course over about 4 or 5 days, staying in B&Bs and really get to grips with the route.

GUCR peaceful canal

Peaceful canal!

I could write even more about my experiences on this week. But I won’t. I fell in love with the canal, got hungry & thirsty, struggled to find B&Bs and almost had to sleep rough on the first night. I pushed much too hard and ended up completing about 40 miles each day, which meant my legs gradually got trashed. I grew to hate my rucksack and specifically its extra weight, and developed sores on my shoulders. But after 3 days I’d completed about 110 miles of the route, with another 10 miles of travel to and from the canal finding places to eat (pizza!) and sleep.

Canal food!  Yumyumyum

Canal food! Yumyumyum









The final weeks passed quickly, and packing seemed to take ages, as always.

Packing...can't see the kitchen sink in there yet!

Packing…can’t see the kitchen sink in there yet!

My wife had pre-arranged to fly out to Spain to see her parents on the Sunday morning of the race, taking my daughter, and she had shown me the dates and times of the receipts, so I knew they’d definitely been booked before I got into the race. I’d rather dangerously promised to take my son camping the week that my wife was in Spain, which meant the week following the GUCR, stiff and sore, I would be spending the week in the cold & rain on a campsite,  rather than on the sofa watching telly. Ooops, but what could go wrong?

I was ready for adventure!


If you survived that monstrous reoprt – well done you!  Now for the actual race report…hopefully it’s a bit more interesting (and talks alot more about food too!)


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