Grand Union Canal Race
I was introduced to GUCR a couple years ago. I had asked Mimi Anderson to help me in my training for Lakeland 100 and that same year she was running both TP100 and GUCR not long after. I was inspired to have a go and in autumn 2015 I entered the ballot for the 2016 race. We were on a club away trip for Porto marathon and I remember getting the email from GUCR to say I was unsuccessful. Never worry, I thought, I’ll enter TP100 instead. I figured if I could run 100 miles around the lakes 100 miles along the Thames would we easy peasy. 71 miles into Thames Path and I had my first DNF ever. Completely gutted but just as stubborn I put my name in the hat for the GUCR again. This time I did get in, excited and determined that I would have another go at the relentlessness of a very flat ultra.
I had already decided that 2017 was going to be a big year of running. I wanted to do something this year for Heart Research UK which meant that Andy (my husband) had plenty of time to practice crewing for me during my own 5 day run from Glastonbury to Canterbury in March.
The kit I had and food I trialled during those 5 days worked really well so I did much of the same for GUCR and spent the few days before the race stock piling crisps, flapjack and pot noodles.
We travelled up to Birmingham on the Friday morning, getting the last few bits of work out the way before my boss called me and told me to get my running head on and stop for the weekend. Arriving in Brum we checked into the hotel, and went out in search of beer for Andy and pies for me, before registration where we picked up our runner and crew shirts and hoody.
Saturday was an early start, I hadn’t had much sleep but had my porridge and cup of tea and felt ready to go and excited for the race. All 107 starters lined up on Gas Street, Birmingham for what would be a long day or two of running.
The first few miles were lovely, nice and cool, with a bit of rain coming down between 5 – 10 miles.
Andy missed me at the first crew point so I ended up not eating anything until around 13 miles. I had plenty of electrolyte which saw me through and when I did see him it was nice to get some banana cake and flapjack which I ate on the go. I’m always keen to not stop long if at all and very rarely sit down in the first half of any ultra, I like to crack on.
Once we got into the first 26-30 miles we got into the swing of things a bit more, Andy stopping every few miles to see me, swap my bottles for full ones of electrolyte and hand me cake, gels, duck wraps and ham & cheese sarnies.
Plodding along I chatted to many other runners. Two told me that they had DNF’d this race before and gave me an insight into what to prepare for in the latter stages. Paul Pickford, who I ran with for a while, mentioned that we were perhaps running a bit too quick so we slowed a bit as we followed the route over a tunnel.
It was getting warm so Andy went to Tescos and found me some smoothies and cherry tomatoes. It was nice to have something refreshing. In other ultras you are often in the middle of nowhere so going for a wee behind a bush was easy enough, but here at some points it would be miles of stinging nettles before I could find a suitable spot behind the hedge to go!
The next 20 odd miles were great, I felt quite good and gave myself little walk breaks now and then. At Gayton Junction in the afternoon (60.5 miles) I reached a section I had recce’d before. Coming off the canal at Blisworth Tunnel I chatted to a chap who was stopping for a big meal with his crew the other side, before carrying on through the night. I came down into Stoke Bruerne and Andy had some coke and cake waiting for me but I didn’t fancy much else. I should have collected my headtorch and another layer here but didn’t really think to do so. This meant using my iPhone torch for the last 15 minutes into the halfway cp at the Navigation Inn.
General sights you became used to the whole way down the GUC….
- Canal boat moored with people in having tea/reading paper/painting the outside
- Canal boat steaming down the canal with the wife/wives in the front with a book, the husband(s) at the tiller
- Canal boat in the lock, wife operating lock, husband giving her slightly patronising advice from the tiller
- Ducks, Swans, Geese, Heron (bonus points for those)
- Bicycles with bells on or with a cyclist who asks excuse me
- Bicycles without bells or lights on with cyclists who don’t say anything, but a) expect you to telepathically know when to move or b) move you out the way when they ride past
- Other stuff; dead stag, dead badger, dead fish, plastic bags …
- Dishevelled looking runners, staggering along, mumbling about bridge numbers, tunnels, electrolyte, swan attacks…
There were a few people who had obviously seen all the runners and were asking what we were up to. The most common question being “when do you stop for the night and go to your hotel?”
This was fun at first but by day two became boring to explain over and over. Also the closer I got to London the more I felt that people didn’t really see you there. For the most part during the second half passers by didn’t stop to ask if you were ok when you were sat on the side of the path, crying, in the foetus position, or emptying stones from your sock for the 100th time.
Getting into the checkpoint at Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles), I was happy to be around 3 hours inside the cut off time of 1am. I had originally planned on having a snooze here, but I felt really good so instead I just had a full change of clothes, socks, and a cup of tea sat in the back of the car. I put on my skins leggings, which, other than my husband, are pretty much the glue which holds everything together. I decided against changing trainers. My Saucony peregrines were holding up well and I felt happy to carry on in them. I was feeling chilly so put on a load of layers but within 10 minutes I was pretty warm again.
The next section took me through Milton Keynes and I was quite happy trotting along with some short walk breaks.
Two of our good friends Nick & Jess had messaged my race WhatsApp group to say they were on their way up. One of our friends had a big 50th birthday party back near home, Nick and Jess we’re up most of the day, went to the party, then drove up at around 10.30pm to come find me near Milton Keynes. I was so thankful that they did! We have all run a few ultras together before and both are fantastic support crew with tonnes of experience, normally up in the fells on much hillier ground. Around 6-7 miles passed and I was excited to hear Jess was waiting for me on the canal path ready to buddy run for me.
When I arrived she was there bouncing up and down like she generally does with all her energy, and we made off into the night with the boys promising to meet us at the next CP, Water Eaton. Jess was literally the best person to have run with me. She has the perfect mix of chattiness and motivating words to get you through a difficult night phase. We walked, shuffled, and talked our way through the next few miles until the check point at Water Eaton (mile 84.5) where the boys were waiting with a pot noodle for me. I sat on a bench for 5 minutes and tried to eat as much as I could, wary that we were all getting a little cold. We got up and carried on, again having a good chat, enjoying the clear night, and plodding along! Before I knew it, it was 3.30am and the sun was coming up. I really couldn’t believe how quickly the night had gone. On both NDW100 and Lakeland 100 I had really horrid night sections, where I was practically sleepwalking and massively slowed in pace. But with Jess, we powered through and when the sun came up I felt bright and ready for the second day. We had slowed somewhat but I had already accounted for that in my pacing plan so was happy with our speed. We saw Andy and Nick at Tesco in Leighton Buzzard (90.5m), both fast asleep in their cars, and we woke them to recount them the story of the lobster on the path. A fellow buddy runner had come past and asked if we’d seen the lobster on the canal path 100 metres back. Jess and I later said that we had both looked around expecting to see a pink lobster (tiredness kicking in!). Before we realised the buddy runner meant crayfish. Another 10metres on and we saw one ourselves, just a little grey crayfish sat by the canal. Jess gave it a poke with her feet. During an ultra random stuff like that is the sort of thing you can’t work out was real or not. We had a proper laugh about it at the time. It probably doesn’t seem funny now.
We arrived into CP7 at the Grand Junction Arms (99.8 miles) just before 7am I think. And although the night had been fab, I was now ready to shut my eyes for 10 minutes. I took my shoes off, sat in the front seat of the car and put my feet up on the dash. Covered my eyes with a jumper and tried to switch off. Didn’t work, my feet hurt and were so itchy that I just got straight back up. I had a bit of heat rash on my feet, and every time I stopped the first thing I wanted to do was rip off my socks and scratch my toes!
I changed back into my shorts and put on my Hokas before eating a wrap and getting back on the path. Around 100 miles in and that had been my first real stop and long sit down. Although I was a little over the 24hr mark that was a massive 100mile pb for me (after 29.50 at NDW100) and that little bonus made me happy! 45 miles to go.
The next few miles were a warm, hot blur. I remember making our way through to Berkhamsted, a section I had recce’d and there were lots of bank holidayers out and about on the towpath. After a couple miles, we saw the boys at an impromptu pit stop and Nick mentioned that if I didn’t have to carry all my kit I should let Jess have most of it. I kept my mandatory kit in a small pack round my waist, but Jess took the rest out of my montane belt which was a real weight off me.
The sun was coming out and felt quite strong. We kept plodding along, seeing the boys a little further on where Nick had bought a BLT sandwich which had so much black pepper in it made my eyes water. We were all laughing in that way you do when you’ve been out on the town all night and you’re so tired you can’t remember what your doing anymore. Luckily good old Jess got me cracking on and her general motivating words were fantastic. It’s well known that I am absolutely rubbish when it comes to maths. So Jess was working out the pacing and the time she expected I would finish if I kept moving forward. We figured I could be in around 11pm even if I slowed a bit. 4 hours inside the cutoff and still on Sunday. I’d be happy with that, so it kept me going.
The towpath was getting hot and there was not much breeze around. I put my sun hat back on and was drenching it with water at every opportunity. After another 7 or 8 miles Andy phoned to say that our friend Carol had driven up and was near us. They had to sort parking but would then be on their way for her to take over buddy duties.
At this point it felt like we were walking on the sun. The towpath section we were on had no shade, and the sun was beating down on us. I was taking proper huffy, grumpy breaths, and struggling for motivation. Luckily Jess had topped up some electrolyte at the last meet point, but we were working our way through it and it looked like the crew point was at least 3 miles on – about another 45 minutes. Bad times.
Thankfully after around 20 minutes Andy came running round the corner to meet us with an ice cold bottle of water. Wahooo. We eventually made it to the crew point and had a quick sit down on the floor. Carol was here to take over from Nick & Jess and do the next few miles with me. Poor Jess had zero sleep since Saturday morning and had done way more than I ever expected of her. I know that Andy felt much better too after Nick had arrived to help with crewing and we really felt that we couldn’t have done it without the both of them. We said our goodbyes and Carol and I started on the next section to Springwell Lock (120miles).
It was now around 1pm in the afternoon and we worked our way along the tow path slowly ticking over the miles. We were having a good chat and generally just trying to keep my mind off my itchy and painful feet. It was still quite warm and after a while Andy caught up with us beside a pub garden to give us some Calippos! We kept moving, mainly power walking and eventually at around 3pm got into Springwell Lock – 120miles. Just before the checkpoint Andy had pulled up behind the path and had put the air con on in the car. I jumped in the front seat where it was nice and cool and took my shoes off, shut my eyes and tried to switch off for 10 minutes whilst Andy and Carol filled up water bottles and sorted me some food.
Again I couldn’t actually get any sleep, I wanted to stop for longer but I kept seeing other runners pass us on the path so I figured we’d be better to get going. Carol gave me some tea from her flask and we wandered down to the checkpoint. At the check point I saw Peter Foxall a Facebook friend who comes from my hometown and was driving the sweeper bus. Although I didn’t really need to take anything from the checkpoints during my race, the volunteers were always superb, and even through the night were enthusiastic and friendly and incredibly supportive. I daren’t go near an official checkpoint chair during the race, and was wise to….
We were now in the last marathon, as it were, and although we were going around 17min/miles, it felt like every one was taking an hour. But we were still on track for an 11pm finish. It was really interesting to see the canal change. During the section through Uxbridge the canal looked gorgeous and clean. Large run offs meant the water was flowing along whereas other areas had looked stangnant and green. Families sat on their private decking overlooking the canal enjoying wine and BBQ’s, paddleboards floating alongside. I wanted to jump in the water and cool off. Every mile or so I would add or remove a layer. It seemed my body couldn’t regulate temperature very well anymore.
I was now on the final page of the GUCR maps and I was counting down the miles to the Paddington turn. Out of Uxbridge, flats and city developments started to appear along the canal, student accommodation emitted funky smelling smoke which floated down the towpath.
By mile 130, the sun had gone in and rain started to come down. Luckily at a brief pit stop half a mile before Andy had given Carol and I our montane waterproofs at the last minute ‘just incase’. We were lucky as we passed two unsupported runners pausing under bridges to keep dry.
Finally, the sun appeared and with it the Paddington turn. 13 miles to go apparently. I was so delighted to have reached it we pulled out the camera for a pic.
Around 500 yards on from the turn and Andy was waiting by the path. I did a final sock and shoe change and ate some of Carol’s rocket fuel flapjack. We shuffled up to the checkpoint (133 miles) and grabbed a cup of tea. We were bang on schedule but kept moving, taking our drinks with us.
Unfortunately, at some point in the next mile or so, my right knee went. I don’t know when or how, but it just stopped working. Every step gave me a shooting pain up my right leg and I became as slow as a snail. For 20 minutes or so we walked. I tried to run but it seemed too much. I tried to take my mind off the pain by counting the plastic bags I saw in the canal. I got to 40 within about 100 yards and stopped as it was becoming less distracting and more upsetting!
Carol consoled me and reminded me that my legs had been going, pretty much relentlessly for 133 miles, and although they were tired, I hadn’t had one bit of serious pain up until now. I’d done pretty well and I put it solely down to daily yoga for the past 6 months. I thought back about the other runs I had done this year, and how similarly, each time I raced, my legs felt tired afterwards, but I never had any pain or injuries. I thought about my London Marathon pb, and how my little legs could run under 8 min miles for 26 miles. If I can do that, I thought, then I can get moving for the last 10 of this race. So we managed to get into a shuffle run that seemed to work. I was only going slightly faster than walking, but I had a momentum, and we kept it up for about 40minutes (thats what it felt like anyway!).
Before long it was getting dark and Andy appeared along the path. He had stopped right behind a bakery which smelt absolutely amazing. No cakes or bread waiting for us, but instead I got out the voltarol and rubbed a little on my knee.
We said our goodbyes and said we’d see him at the finish. My mum was in London working at the London 10k and so was getting on the underground to Paddington. These last few miles were taking an age. So it was all hands on deck to keep me going. My boss Jo had earlier text me to say that she was tracking me and did I want a chat, so I gave her a call. Then Carol went through the running club WhatsApp group and read out a load of messages which made me smile.
We continued our shuffle and slowly ticked down to 5, then 3 miles to go. Just a ParkRun I thought.
We looked around took in the sights of the canal now we were 142 miles or so from the start in Gas Street Birmingham. I couldn’t believe that I was in London. It didn’t feel like London or look like it. I couldn’t see any sky scrapers, just the odd red double decker to remind me. I felt like maybe I was somewhere further up, I can’t have run all the way to central London!
Around 11pm, finally, after counting down the bridges we saw the sign for Little Venice. We picked up a very slow pace and eventually could see the finish in our sights. The last 100 yards I could just see the lights of the finish and the gantry, and as I got closer the finish line crew led by Dick Kearn who cheered us in. As I crossed the line, I shook his hand and thanked him and organiser Keith for a fantastic race. I took my incredibly heavy medal and finally sat down.
2 weeks on and I still can’t believe that was me. I did that. I can’t have done it. I certainly couldn’t have done it with my lovely support crew. I am incredibly grateful to them for giving up their time to come and help. Only one more race to go for 2017 I promise!