Grand Union Canal Race 2014 – Race Report

This is a long, and fairly irrelevant report.  It may well take you longer to read it than it took me to run 145 miles from Birmingham to London.  Don’t say you havn’t been warned:

Four of us drove to Birmingham late on Friday looking for an adventure: me, Jon & Jo (husband and wife) who were my two buddy runners, and Steve, a mate who would be doing most of the driving over the weekend (for more details about these three heroes, look at my pre-race report – it was too long to go on here!).

Apparently we missed most of the Bank holiday traffic, arriving about 10pm, I don’t know where it went, but I was grateful we weren’t stuck in traffic for the night, as I need my beauty sleep! Horrendous stories of noisy nightlife didn’t materialise in the hotel we were in, and after a swift beer (or two) in the bar I was tucked up in bed by 11pm, with the alarm set for a respectable 4.20am. Although the nightlife was quiet, I have to say that Steve’s snoring was something out of this world, and I have real sympathy for his wife, kids & next door neighbours.

A short but decent night’s sleep had me bouncing out of bed before the alarm had been going for long, and into the bathroom for a silent breakfast and a coffee. Ask anyone who’s done an Ironman, where you generally have to get out of bed at 3am to be ready for a swim-start at 6am, and a 4 or 5am start is a lie-in.

We walked to the start, which was quiet when we got there but rapidly filled up with fellow runners. And they looked good, very good. I was there, knees-knocking, and these guys all clearly knew each other, and knew the organisers, and were very relaxed indeed.

Looking worried at the start!

Looking worried at the start!

Their kit looked professional and worn-in, while mine was a bit of a hodge-podge of things I’ve found that worked for me, rather than specific running kit. Some of them even had ‘gaiters’ over their trainers, presumably to keep mud and grit out. Some had super-looking rain-jackets; some were in vests (despite the forecasts of heavy rain for the first day). I ummed & ahhed, before finally deciding to play safe and set off wearing my 4 year- old £50 Millets not-very-waterproof-anymore jacket, that only kept me dry for the first hour, but was cooler than anything other jackets I’ve worn.

I glimpsed a couple of runners I knew through twitter…Paul Ali and his mate Stouty, the previous 4 years winners Pat Robbins (looking awesomely relaxed), and the only other person I knew at the race, Derren Peters.

Before I knew it we were filing down from the road to the canal side, and as I filtered my way to the back, the very very back, I wished luck to Derren (who magically appeared at the back of the pack too), took a picture of everyone waiting expectantly (from the back) and then rather quickly, we were off!

Waiting for the off!

Waiting for the off!

Right then, tactics. On a run this long, I was thinking it’s quite simple. Go slowly, but keep going. It’s not the speed of your first 50 miles that decides your time, but the pace of your last 50. I’d planned to cover the first 50 miles in perhaps 13 or 14 minute-miles, which would include time for stops, meeting points, walking etc. My detailed plan (spreadsheets and everything….very exciting!) had me getting to 48.5 miles at about 4.15pm, ready for a change of shoes & socks, food etc. Before that I would have met the support team 3 times at 18m, 30m and 36m. I was trying to keep the meeting points to a minimum in the first 50m so I could get my head down and not have too many interruptions….slow and steady being the key.

So there I am, gentle trotting the first few miles at (I think) a slow 10 or 11 minute-miles, and all I can see is the pack of runners disappearing into the distance. While there were a few behind me, and a string of runners ahead, the majority disappeared from sight within a few minutes, never to be seen again. I was telling myself not to panic, not to speed up, but there was clearly a different tactic I wasn’t aware of – that of galloping away and then presumably holding on when it got tough. Luckily I got blocked in behind a group of comedy Germans in matching running tops, who fanned out across the narrow path and held me back for the first few miles.

After that I could hardly see anyone ahead, so it was difficult to worry about the other 90 runners who must have been steaming ahead. I settled into a good groove, and followed my plan of running 6m, walking and eating, then running another 6m. I had a bit of banter with a couple of other runners around me: Clare who had her name typed rather than written on her race number, but didn’t know why (teacher’s pet!), a German girl in shocking pink & black tights who was worried as she had DNF’d at mile 93 last year, and a few others. It was a typical happy group of runners, out on a Saturday morning.

Quite soon after we started, a lot of people started taking off their water-proofs as the predicted rain had held off. I kept mine on, firstly, as I was still thinking it would rain, and secondly it was too much faffing to stop and pack it away. Having said that, I was so hot for the first few hours, it was almost a pleasure when the rain started….for a few minutes. I took a little bit of pleasure to watch everyone have to stop and put their waterproofs back on, but as the rain was getting worse and the puddles bigger, I think everyone put their heads down for the morning.

The puddles were a pain, mainly because the path was often rutted grass with an earth channel or ‘groove’ along the middle, wide enough to run in, but narrow enough for a puddle to be 2 feet long and reach each side of the earth groove.

Mud mud, glorious mud.

Mud mud, glorious mud.

To keep feet dry you had to run at the very edge of the slope of the earth channel, which dipped the sides of your feet in to the water but kept most of it out. Slippery, muddy, splashy, shitty were all words that spring to mind…..and a good way to twist an ankle as you skipped from side to side of the puddles. However, ‘feet dry for as long as possible’ seemed the way to go.

I got to mile 18, first meeting point with the support crew, feeling good. That didn’t last long, as I confidently ran past Jon waiting for me under a bridge (ruining a nice pair of shoes) thinking the meeting point was further on, rather than at the bridge. Don’t ask why, I’m still not sure myself what happened. Luckily I had enough food to get me to the next meeting point (just in case!) so I phoned back to my crew and apologised, and we arranged a new meet at mile 24.

That went rather more according to plan, and my first proper nutrition of hot Smash did the job. I felt great, and was running well. Still enjoying the whole experience.

Somewhere around here I saw Pete Jonson from Thanet Roadrunners, running really well. We had a chat while he overtook me and although I shadowed him for a while, he was making great time and I watched him disappear into the distance, looking very comfortable.

A few more hours, a few more centimetres of rain, a few more cups of smash and a few more miles done. I hit the 48 mile meeting point at New Inn at about 3pm, looking forward to a dry pair of shoes and something else to eat. This was the first time I had sat down since starting and I could feel my legs pop as I did.

I set off strongly, enjoying the dry feet and softness of new shoes….right up until they got wet again.   Sometime around here I started to get pain in my right knee, that stopped me running until it subsided and I could start again. I’ve no idea what this was, but it would come back to haunt me later.  

I was about 1hr 15 mins ahead of schedule, but put that down to the rain (which seems to cool me down and speed me up) and my own stupidity – I expected to pay for it later.   After the first 50 miles was done I was gently entering the unknown, and I knew the night section would be tough.   However, my support team would be running with me from mile 70 which would help enormously, and even better I had arranged for a pizza to meet me at mile 65.

Magic pizza at 65 miles.

Magic pizza at 65 miles.

So I would walk from 65 to 70, eating hot pizza, and then be ready and fuelled for the night. I should explain my relationship with the 65 mile pizza. It’s something like hero-worship. Not just the taste, the hot-ness, the calories which I so desperately crave, but it’s the link to family sitting around the TV, and the fact that walking along, holding and eating a pizza when you feel so hungry you’d like to eat the box, is a magic experience. I’d recommend it to anyone, provided you can run for about 10 hours beforehand to work up a powerful hunger.

Anyway, that pizza floated me from mile 65 to 70….Navigation Bridge. I’m going to call this half way, even though it’s not…it felt like it, and I’d purposefully told myself that the first half would be done at Navigation Bridge. I planned to change into my night clothes, have a go with a few baby-wipes to clean up a bit, and generally re-start with a clean approach. It was about 8.30pm, now a full 1.45hr ahead of where I’d planned. I was averaging (according to my Garmin) just over 12 minutes per mile, including the time spent in meeting points, which was far better than I expected, but I still fully expected to pay for it later. At Navigation Bridge, there were a few people sitting in the comfy chairs at food station there, and I could feel some of them looked tired. With the help of my support crew, I just wanted to keep moving. A quick change, and quick chat, and Jon (my buddy runner) dressed all in Lycra was all it took me to get going again. I would be marching rather than walking or running, but at a speedy 13-15m/m, rather than anything slower. Jon happened to mention to me that at that point there were 26 people ahead of me. I’m afraid to say that my language at that point was a bit ripe, as there clearly was no way only 26 people ahead, even if (as he said) there’d been a lot of drop-outs.

It was time for a bit of maths to get me through the next few miles, and readjust my targets. I was at 70m and my next big milestone was going to be 100m. I’d inhaled the pizza at 65m, I had a buddy runner, and so despite the night section being slow and tiredness having its own challenge, I needed to keep the pace up. 30 miles at 15 m/m would be 6.5 hours, which would mean I’d get to 100m at 4am….an amazing (for me) 100m in 22 hours. Much much faster than I ever expected, and faster than I had any right to expect. I should be feeling tired and wanting to stop, not motivated enough to calculate how quickly I need to push the next 30 miles. I blame the magic pizza myself.

So, I had a pace of 15 minutes per mile that I knew I couldn’t drop below, and overnight it was dangerous to run on anything but the best surface, as a twisted ankle would not go down well at this stage. I did manage a bit of running, and Jon was superb in keeping up a constant chat to keep my mind on the job. He would run or march just behind me, keeping me in touch with the canal and what I was doing. Perfect.   The 14 miles I did with Jon (on his first stretch) was probably the most conversational, and he kept me entertained with his stories. Later in the night I was probably rather more subdued and listening a lot less, but that first leg was great.

At 10pm I had a lovely conversation with my wife who would be heading to the airport for Spain at 5.30am the next morning. That was a bit sobering, thinking where I’d be (and how I’d feel) in the very early hours of the morning. I was fairly lucid at this point I think…lucid enough to realise that I had no Doritos at home, and that it was possible I may finish and get home, but have no crisps to eat. Cue some emergency texts at 10pm, which I’m pleased to say resulted in 8 large bags waiting for me on Sunday evening when I got home…phew!

Anyway, back to the running: Jon stayed with me until mile 84, the checkpoint at Water Eaton. I was still feeling OK, managing a bit of running, but mostly marching. A few quick mouthfuls of Smash, and a pepperami to eat. This may sound disgusting, but it was working well with warming me up and keeping up the constant flow of fuel. Unfortunately, by this point I’d had about 5 or 6 of the cups of Smash, and they were losing their attraction (which was a shame, as they were easy to make and digest). In a few miles time, the Smash would start to make me retch, which is never a good sign, more a psychological then physical reaction I suspect.

At mile 84 I swapped buddy runners from Jon to Jo. It was about 11.45pm, I was still awake and alert, but getting tired and the darkness wasn’t helping. Usually I like running in the dark, and feel quite alert, but not this time. I was pretty much marching all the time now, and felt rough as the mileage started to catch up with me. Jo was doing her best to keep me focused, but I was content to maintain the 15m/m pace and let the night slide away. Jo is (apparently) extremely accident prone, and Jon had made several comments about her falling in the canal at some point during the night. Not being entirely sure whether this was true or not (although she had the grazes from a fall the previous week, so maybe it was) I endeavoured to keep her on my non-canal side as much as possible. Later on the run it was her doing the same for me as I stumbled, shattered along the path. Funny that.

Jo was going to be with me to the checkpoint at Grand Junction Arms, about mile 99.8. I got in at about 3.40am, feeling very tired and Jon (bless him) was very apologetic that the car was in a car park about 50 yards away from the canal. I had to walk though the official checkpoint, where some runners I’d been chasing for a while had just got in (I think one was Natasha, but the rest are all a bit of a haze), and were sorting themselves out with hot food. I had the massive benefit of my crew having it all waiting for me, so after a quick celebration (in the dark) that I’d done the 100m, and in 21hr 45 mins too, I grabbed my beans (aaah, beans…so much of an improvement on Smash, it was like a gourmet meal) and headed out with Jon. As I went through the checkpoint back to the canal, I could see the runners still there….I’m convinced if I’d had to sit at any point, I’d have never got up again…or at least I would have stiffened up badly.

I had planned to change my shoes at that point too, but I was feeling good with some food inside me, and decided to wait till later. I was lucky that I waited, as about a mile later we hit a long stretch of foul-smelling, ankle-deep, unavoidable mud. The only tactic here was to go fast, lifting the knees up and having as little contact with the ground & mud/water as possible. Easier said than done after 100 miles, but Jon set me a good pace to follow and scooted off seemingly floating above the slime. I followed, tramping through, splashing everything around me and trying not to slip and slide too much. This felt like it lasted ages, but was probably a hundred metres or so. By the end my shoes were covered in mud and very wet indeed…I was lucky that I hadn’t changed to new ones just a mile previously.

Plodding on with Jon, he remarked that I wasn’t taking any coffee or caffeine on board, even though I was clearly getting tired. I explained that I’d only had coffee during one overnight run, and it left me feeling nauseous for an hour, even though I can happily drink vast quantities of coffee usually. I didn’t intend to have any coffee on this run, and so far, had felt decent enough without it.

Jon stayed with me until Boxmoor, at mile 108 and our next meeting point by about 5.50 am. Another cup of beans for fuel and a much needed change of shoes did the job, and we set off quickly, still marching a lot more than running, but still at a better-than-15 minute per mile pace.

The next stretch, with Jo, was nothing less than 12 miles of hell. I knew it was a risk having such a big stretch without the support crew meeting me, but at the time of planning it, this was when they would find a nice cafe to have some decent breakfast and wake up after a long night shift.   I expected to be doing miles 108 to 120 from about 8.30am to 11.30am, and would have had some bacon rolls or something nice to go on my way, in decent daylight, feeling awake. In reality, it was 6am, daylight but very cold, and I was suffering from the lack of sleep and my body wanting to rest. My mindset was that 120 miles left me with only a marathon to do, which would be great and very motivational, but the 12 miles still to do before hitting that mileage felt very long indeed, and moving at 15 mins per mile would take me a massive 3 hours to cover. That’s 3 hours with no meeting points, no fuel, and poor Jo having to try to keep me awake and going.

I hit those three hours head on, and kept marching on, but I’ve never had the experience of my eyelids closing and falling asleep while continuing my forward motion. I don’t remember a great deal about those three hours, those three dark hours, and I’d like to say I didn’t complain or whinge during them, but I have a feeling that Jo might have a different story. Anyway, like all bad things, the hours passed, and I do remember saying to Jo as we neared the next meeting point at mile 120, that I needed coffee, lots of coffee. And maybe some ravioli (for a change). I think I can see a food trend emerging as I type this, as I seem to be talking more about the food than the race!

Right then, I’d survived to mile 120, Springwell checkpoint 8. I have a vivid memory here of arriving here feeling just horrendous. Tired, aching, sleepy, cold, horrible. Head down, wanting to stop, just rubbish. Does that give the right impression?

I then tasted the sweetest nectar in a cup of coffee that I’ve possible ever had. Steve is clearly a master-chef! It was thick, black, god only knows how many spoons of coffee powder were in this little polystyrene cup, but wow, it hit the spot. It was like the Popeye cartoon of him having his spinach and all the energy running down his arms to his hands, and then down his legs to his feet. In the space of 20 seconds I was back. Then, even better, I had about half a tin of hot ravioli. I don’t know what was in it, but it was so good I then grabbed the rest of the tin (cold) and literally drank it down. Normally wouldn’t have touched it cold, but it was not a normal day. So, a cup of very strong coffee, and a tin of half-hot and half-cold ravioli, and 2 minutes later I was back! Firing on all (well, some) cylinders and feeling good. I only had a marathon to go, and although tired I knew I could survive a marathon.

Jon was back with me for this next stretch, and I’m pleased to say he had me doing a quick 7 mile interval session just to keep me awake. I couldn’t run slowly for any distance, as my right knee would start to hurt too much, but I found I could do 100 steps ‘flat out’, which in reality was probably only 9 minute miling, but it felt bloody fast. After 100 steps I would slow, march for a few minutes and then Jon would beast me into doing another rep. This started because I caught up to an amazing German girl, Helen I think, still running, but clearly in some pain with shin-splints. She had bright orange neon socks (not sure why I remember that), and was running consistently slightly faster than I could march. We leapfrogged back and forth a few times, before Jon suggested his ‘run quickly’ strategy, and this seemed to wake me up even more and started to get my blood flowing. 7 miles of this passed quickly, and suddenly I was at mile 127. (Somewhere in this stretch, I managed an 11.5 minute mile and a few 12.5 minute miles, whereas the rest of the second half was all about 13-15 minute miles.)

I had another tin of hot ravioli waiting for me (yum!) and a coffee. Unfortunately, in my excitement, I grabbed what I thought was coffee (actually turned out to be ravioli) and shouted over my shoulder for Jo to catch me up, and kept going. I was steaming along, half running & marching, spooning ravioli into my mouth, not pausing to think of poor Jo, trying to catch me up while carrying a cup of coffee and another cup of ravioli….not easy! But she did catch me up, and even more impressively most of the coffee was still in the cup!

Anyway, as expected the next 10 miles or so went quickly, lots of marching, little bits of running, the sun was out and although I was keen to get to the finish, I was able to appreciate that this had been an amazing experience that would be sad to come to an end. I remember Jon putting a load of Neurofen gel on my knee to see if that would ease the pain, but other than it being rather surreal to watch him anoint my leg, it didn’t remove much of the pain.

GUCR PAiddington signpostSomewhere here, after the Paddington turnoff that signified a simple 13 miles to go (only 13? That’s easy! Not.) We went past a rave on the other side of the canal that was pumping out music like you wouldn’t believe! This must have been about noon I think, and there must have been a lot of pissed-off people in the neighbourhood, as this was not the time for a quiet afternoon nap with that racket going on.

At the final checkpoint I saw Nici Griffin, who seemed to be buzzing with energy, even though I guess she was as tired as anyone. She excitedly showed me her checklist that had me at 11th place, and said I might be able to catch the next person up if I hurried. I‘d like to say that this spurred me into a flash of energy, but at that point I was in survival mode, just hanging on to the end.

Final changeover of buddy runners at about mile 140, goodbye to Jon who I would see at the finish and hello to Jo for the last stretch. Both of these lovely people had run (in sections) about 37 miles, in the dark through the night with no sleep, and then through the day, with no sleep. Just to help me out. Steve, my mate that was driving, had done most of the cooking through the night, and stood around waiting for me, getting cold without even a run to relieve the boredom. Top people, who gave up their weekend just to look after me (but they did say afterwards how much they’d enjoyed it).

I’d like to say the last stretch of 5m was a glory lap-of-honour that I cherished and enjoyed. In reality I was desperate for it to end. I’d realistically expected to finish about 10pm, but I’d hoped to finish in daylight, and here I was coming in to finish somewhere about 3pm so I should have been dancing. I was so stiff I remember groaning with each step my right leg took. Unfortunately, there are a couple of really steep but very short inclines in the last couple of miles, over bridges I guess, including one near a Sainsbury’s that looked vertical to me. Jo was having to push me up them while I hauled myself up the handrail and I had no power or flex in my legs to get me up the slope. Coming down the other side was worse as it was asking me to stretch my quads/calf/everything else in ways they just didn’t want to.

With about ½ mile to go, feeling like death, we’re marching (yes, still bloody marching!) along, when what should happen but a couple of sprightly GUCR runners should skip past us, looking like they were full of beans. I’d like to say I shouted my congratulations to them for looking so fresh (and frankly being able to run at this stage), but in reality I shouted that after 145 miles I wasn’t going to be overtaken on a sprint finish in the last half mile…and set off in a lumbering jog in pursuit. To their credit, both guys turned round with a look of surprise on their faces (I don’t think they’d seen me) and they slowed right down to allow me past and to sort-of run/hobble for about 45 seconds, by which time I was truly buggered and could not run another step even if I had the 4 horses of the apocalypse chasing after me. Bless them; the two guys walked the last part to ensure they stayed behind me, and Luke & David ‘official’ finished a minute later than me. I thanked them afterwards, but again, thanks guys, people like you make the ultra scene what it is.

Slightly shocked - I've finished!

Slightly shocked – I’ve finished!

So, we’re down to the last hundred yards. I could make out the very ‘subtle’ finish in the distance, just about managed a run to the line, and got a handshake & chunky medal from Dick, the organiser, which meant a great deal. My support crew were all there taking photos, and I was slightly in shock and disbelief that I’d actually finished. The finish times were all being written on a whiteboard (sexy laser-display board) and it was a real shock to see Pam write my name, with only ten names above.   110 started, and only 61 finished. I was 11th. Wow.

After that I’d like to say I stuck around and clapped all the other finishers in until it was dark, but I was pooped, so clambered into the car that was just around the corner, took my shoes off (ah, bliss), and lasted about 5 seconds before falling asleep on the drive home.

So…thoughts? I’ve seen some comments about this GUCR being tougher than usual due to the conditions on Saturday, with the rain, puddles and mud etc. I’ve no idea about that, but I’d been training in the rain for most of January and February, so it felt like home to me. I was lucky to have dry shoes every so often, which held my feet together better than some, I suspect. Obviously my amazing crew, although never having done anything like this before, got it all spot-on, and worked together to get me to the finish. Jon, Jo, Steve, I’m so grateful I can’t really put it into words. So I’ll just buy unlimited beer when we can get to the pub together. Thanks guys.

I’d like to thank Dick and all the amazing volunteers that manned the various checkpoints and feed stations. Tirelessly cheerful, superbly organised, you make this event what it is.  Everything they say about the race is right, from the brilliant atmosphere to its toughness. 

I’d also like to thank Heinz, the makers of the finest beans and ravioli anywhere in the world. I’m not quite sure how I feel about those funny aliens that make Smash, but they got me through the first two-thirds of the race before I started retching at the thought of slimy bland disgusting instant potato, so thanks to them too.

Look Mum, I'm famous!

Look Mum, I’m famous!

 

Thanks to my long-suffering family (Claire, Michael & Abigail) for not complaining as much as usual when I kept disappearing at various odd times for the last 5 months, and Thanet Roadrunners (especially Mark Foster and Derek) for not complaining when I kept turning up at various odd times (usually Sunday mornings) with a rucksack and a cup of smash.

Thanks to everyone that got in touch through my twitter (@24hourbob) to say well done, or keep going. It meant a great deal.

And finally, what else but to thank my legs, for all their support (boom-tish).

 

 

Someone very wise once told me that it was really important to allow yourself to succeed every so often…..to challenge yourself to do something you didn’t know you could. Here I am at the end of another journey, finding that I can go 145 miles in under 45 hours….who’d have thought it?

Bob

Great support crew!  From left, Jo, Jon, me & Steve.

Great support crew! From left, Jo, Jon, me & Steve.

 Post script:

4 days later. Legs still hurt like hell. Stiff as a board. A long muscle in my back hurts every time I lift my right leg. There are pictures on the net showing people’s feet completely destroyed, just horrendous. Apparently the guy that finished 4th is still in hospital on antibiotics (but to be fair, I’m not sure if that’s due to the run.)

And I’m idly looking through Twitter to discover that the time I did GUCR in is a qualifying time for the Spartathlon…..153 miles in Greece….burning hot in the day, freezing cold at night….up & down mountains…rabid dogs…much tougher cut-off times…..entry field from all over the world, with some world-class runners taking part……and a drop-out rate of 70%.

I wonder if I could do that?

 

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