Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) 145 miles from Birmingham to London – 23 May 2015

Race date 23 May 2015

It was a shock to learn back in November 2014 that I’d been lucky enough to get a place at GUCR for 2015. During 2015 I was going to concentrate on the Centurion Grandslam and was going to save the longer (those over 100 miles) for 2016. But I knew that GUCR operated a ballot system and that it was hard to get a place if you were wanting a ‘supported’ place ie if you didn’t have a ‘crew’. I didn’t have a crew and didn’t feel there was anyone I could ask to be my crew so I thought the best way to get a place for 2016 was to put my name in during 2015 ballot and then I’d probably be unsuccessful but would then stand double chance in 2016 (that’s how the ballot works). Anyway I woke up to lots of Facebook messages and tags on 11 November which indicated friends had stayed up to read the ballot results and I was in.

I was confident with being able complete 100 milers but have not yet completed  one over 100 (and in fact had DNF’d when attempting T184 in 2014). But of course I would give it my best shot. It’s an amazing iconic race and I knew I’d learn loads from doing it – even if I failed to complete it. I also suspected that if I failed (or indeed if I completed it), I’d want to do another canal race organised by Dick Kearn again so I also put my name down for Liverpool Leeds Canal Race (130 miles) in August. It wasn’t the brightest move doing these two biggies as well as the Grandslam as they fall just a couple / three of weeks before/after Centurion 100 mile Grandslam races so I knew my feet and legs would be wrecked most of the year :-).

The approach to race week 

A week or so before the race and nerves were beginning to get to me. My left foot was still ruined from Thames Path 100 a fortnight before and I was brewing a chest infection and my asthma was poorly controlled. I was also not sleeping very well – not helped by suddenly deciding that wine was good fuelling mechanism for my body. In fact mentally I wasn’t quite ready for it. It’s an iconic race  – the ultimate UK classic ultra – that I should be reading up on and studying the route / reading past reports about, soaking up the culture of the vent,  but I just wasn’t finding the time to do that. I’d not even recc’ed any of it (other than the last 50 feet near Paddington)!

Getting head in race mode

Stu  – who did the race in 2014 – tried to do his absolute best to get me excited about GUCR. I knew how much this event had meant to him – especially as he’d run it with Dave Rowe last year. He knew I needed to start living and breathing GUCR and to start feeling both excited and a little bit scared about what was coming. So with a daily GUCR related countdown post on facebook he tried his utmost to get me into race mode.

1 day to go 2 days to go 5 days to go

I got in touch with Ellen Cottom who had both slammed and done GUCR last year to see if she had any advice as the concept of recovering in between the 4 x 100 mile grandslam races which are about 6 weeks apart was hard enough without chucking in GUCR 145 miler in between too. She was brilliant and said actually GUCR wouldn’t be the problem.. it’s the later Grandslam ones where I’d then struggle. This all made more sense. She also offered to help buddy over the night section (as at that time Stu was just going to do the last 26 miles with me) – this was such a generous offer that I thought about it for a while but realised that it might put more pressure on me on race day itself to stick to a certain schedule. When I told Stu about the offer he then agreed he’d be happy to buddy me overnight anyway as he would only be awake worrying anyway so he might as well join me :-). To make things a bit simpler for people to keep track of me (and for Stu to work out where I was without me constantly phoning / texting), I hired one of the open tracking trackers (along with 9 others) which made things a lot simpler on the day/night/day

http://maps.opentracking.co.uk/gucr15.cfm

Normally for a race, I don’t really need to do much mental prep.. I don’t really run much – only average 35-40 miles a week max (that includes race miles), so tapering doesn’t really ‘get to me’, I just work on pacing charts and laminating things.. or even just laminating pacing charts.

I optimistically did a pacing chart for 37 hours ish (this was based on my recent TP100 time of 21 hrs 56, but going out slower and crawling towards end).. As it turns out, things fell apart after 50 miles or so due to onset of tonsilitis which really got to me from that point, but at least the pacing chart was still helpful in having easy access to details of how far next cp was, and where convenient loo stops were etc.

pacing

I also tried to think about what would motivate me to keep going if/when things got tough out there. I know to date I can just plough through 100 milers with bog all training through sheer luck and will power (and just pay for it in suffering afterwards or during the last 25 miles), but I was a bit nervous about going over 100 miler.. at T184 I’d DNF’d at mile 100.. what if 100 was my limit? It was all a bit unknown territory so thought I’d try to have something up my mental arsenal sleeve rather than doing the normal ‘install idiot chip on race morning and get going’ πŸ˜‰

  • I wanted matching bling to Stu’s – he’d been flashing his 2014 medal at me since we got together in February.. like a carrot.. I wanted it -it was big, heavy, and detailed and just a really special looking bit of bling
  • It was the ultimate classic iconic ultra marathon race of the UK. Dick Kearne is the grandfather of ultra running in UK. The history of the race itself – not that I’d had time to give it the studying it merited unfortunately – was enough to make me want to finish this and all this represented
  • I wanted to make Stu proud of me. Or rather I didn’t want him to be coming all the way to Wolverton to buddy me through the night – giving up valuable night’s sleep at a critical time for him – just for me to bail before end.
  • I didn’t want to believe that 100 mile was my limit.. the ghost of T184 DNF was playing on my mind a little bit.
  • There was generous cut off times and the maps were really detailed, in theory if I just kept going despite any pain, I shouldn’t get too lost and should have time to finish and even if I did a really slow time, the ‘time on feet’ would be great training for the Hill ultra looming in the calendar for December.

Race itself

The day before race day (the Friday) was a nightmare. Kanye (my youngest) had really bad cough and trouble breathing so I had to take an emergency day off work and work from home interspersed with panic packing of bag, and trip to doctors and trying to squeeze a days worth of work into a few hours remote working over a dodgy vpn connection.. quite stressful.

I was also feeling a bit poorly too and was hoping that the suspected tonsilitis was just nerves (it wasn’t)

I got to Birmingham around 6pm and registered at the Travelodge and saw Dick and the lovely Gill (one of Dick’s committed band of helpers) who gave me the GUCR hoodie, tshirt and waterways key that I’d ordered. I’m not normally a fan of orange but though I’d make an exception for such an iconic race.

at 3.45am my alarm went off and I gingerly got up and realised I was very stuffy and had sore throat. Not great then.. but put it down to stuffy hotel and set off the start line, bumping into Paul Ali and Stouty in the hotel lift. Gas street was full of mingling runners, quite a few looking familiar – either from past races – or just from facebook. Was great to see so many familiar faces.

start

Dick made the announcement at the start line that this would be the last GUCR that he would be the main organiser for and that he was passing the mantle over to Keith. When I heard this I was even more determined to get to Little Venice and have the privilege of Dick giving me the finishers medal. I was also so glad that I’d got in the ballot as it seemed like it would be the end of an era.. that said I’m sure it won’t be and that Keith will continue to run this classic race in the way it deserves to be organised.

the off

At 6.02am we were off.. I set off at a comfortable pace, keeping at 10 minute miling up until the first checkpoint. This was faster than my pacing chart but the terrain was easy and it was about 30 secs per mile slower than TP100 pace so I felt confident enough.  CP1 was CAtherine de Barnes bridge.. the was a few turns and crossing of bridges but actually it wasn’t that hard = so far – to navigate.. and there was still people in sight at this stage.

At mile 13, a yellow Centurion shirt passed me and I panicked thinking I’d gone out way too fast but then saw it was James Adams rather than Matt Perkins so calmed down a bit… though when Paul Ali and Stouty passed me at mile 18, I wondered if /I had gone a bit fast to start with as I know they’re well faster than me but I was feeling ok at this stage so just kept a 10 minute comfortable pace up through cp 2 etc. at Hatton Locks. I then took a call from Stu (he was going to join me later at mile 70.5) but had decided to do a parkrun in the mornning.. He’d got another PB! .. I chatted on the phone but realised this was slowing me down so ended the call and carried on passing the marathon point at 4 hours 35 ish… I was still feeling ‘ok’ at this stage but my throat was beginning to hurt a bit more now.

At CP3 I met Ann Bath which cheered me up and I had my first taste of canal food – cheese quiche and beans!. I rudely wolfed it down really quickly with no table manners whatsoever and said goodbye and thanks and headed back out. My throat was beginning to hurt more though.. I’d been trying to eat the snacks I’d taken with me along the way and had snack bags (each bag to cover between 2 cpoints so between 22-30 miles approx).. I realised though that the bag I’d picked up at cp3 wasn’t getting touched.. and I’d struggled to swallow the food as my throat was so sore.. in fact my tongue felt swollen too and my glands were definitely inflamed and I felt like I was all puffy necked.. I looked at my garmin and saw it was mile 36. But I felt so tired. I couldn’t understand it as I’d normally be full of energy, enjoying chatting to people, listening to my mp3 and enjoying the scenery but all I wanted to do was lie down on the grass and sleep.. I though I’d walk for a bit to try to get my energy back, sipping on some cola. It didn’t work. the cola tasted wrong and it hurt to swallow. I realised the ‘suspected’ tonsilitis might well actually be tonsilitis rather than ‘pre race nerves’.. but I also knew that I wanted to get this race done. I had plenty of time.. I could suffer it through.. I was well ahead of pacing plan and it would be all good practice for the hill. I knew I’d feel stupid if I pulled out for what effectively is just a sore throat (ok one that was also giving me a temperature and extreme exhaustion and a blocked nose etc… ) but I knew I could tough it out. That’s what I do.. ..

I managed to do a bit more running once the surface got firmer and I ran (with odd walking break) on auto pilot up to mile 50 which I got to in 9 hrs 40 – not a great time (as I’d got to mile 50 on garmin at 9hrs 9 at TP100) but going slower was fine and was all still ahead of plan.

the ‘run/walk’ plan can to a stop though at mile 56. The severe blistering on my left foot (from TP100 3 weeks ago) was causing problems, as were new hoka induced blisters, which was changing my gait and now my right quad was very tight. I’d been warned by a PT a couple of months ago that he’d never seen such tight quads in a woman and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if I tore it before long.. so I played it safe and stopped running. This was a bit earlier than planned.. I’d assumed I’d be running up until the night section so this was a little disapointing. But in all honesty I was feeling really rough anyway. Although the paracetamol had helped a little bit, I felt I needed more of it way too soon and my throat hurt so much. It was a struggle trying to swallow. I turned my iphone off airplane mode and dropped a feeble note on facebook just letting people know I had a bug so was walking as I didn’t want those tracking me to worry what was happening. I also phoned Stu to update him too. I didn’t think it would affect the time I’d meet him at CP5 for buddy duties, but I didn’t want to explain then that he’d be having to walk rather than run with me overnight. He tried to cheer me up by saying he’d try to get my quad going again.

I got to CP5 and it was lovely to see Stu. It was also a surprise to see Rich Cranswick there still too as he was waiting for Rob Bateman for his buddy duties.. I knew Rob’s faster than me so realised I wasn’t the only one struggling today.

I plodded on through the night with Stu.. he did all the ‘above and beyond’ buddying duties. He listened to my constant negativity moaning.. “I’m so tired’.. ‘ I don’t feel very well’ – I said that a lot.. an awful lot.. ‘I just feel so ill’… ‘My effing feet’.. ‘oh F*(k!’ etc. etc… he tried to fix/ tape up some blisters.. he put up with me moaning about his headtorch bobbing around which was making me feel sick.. I guess the only thing I didn’t do was try to quit..

At CP6., we saw Glyn at CP and I tried to fix some more blisters.. we realised there was nothing I could do as they were taped already so I just hobbled woffled down a butty, ignored my snacks other than cheese, clambered out of the chair and moved on. Someone helpfully said that the best thing to do with blisters is to ignore them.. so that was the plan – for the next 62 miles… Rodrigo Freeman (Brazilliangunner) also popped into the checkpoint too – he’d seen on the tracker that i was there and that Naomi was on her way so he popped to say hello.   The night was so hard though. I felt so ill, my chest and throat were killing and I just wanted to cry. I was trying to stay awake but was dropping off on my (painful, but let’s ignore that fact) feet. In fact I knew I would have fallen asleep and weaved into the canal if Stu hadn’t suggested I just lie somewhere for 20 minutes or so. I didn’t sleep but it was good to get weight off feet. It was some random piece of metal that I was lying on. Stu passed me a warmer innov8 jacket too and put an emergency blanket over me and I used my pack as a pillow. It was hard when people passed me in my sleep, including 2 women, but I knew I’d long given up chasing a time or position. Stu took some time to update social media and also let me know that Thomas Garrod and Natasha had both had to pull out which I was sad about. I did feel sorry for Stu as I knew this wasn’t what he’d anticipated by coming to buddy me on the canal. He would have envisaged keeping me going on a running with walking breaks schedule, not a ‘walking / napbreak to stop her falling in’ schedule. And all I could remember saying were just repeating at random intervals the following phrases

  • I don’t feel very well
  • I feel so ill
  • I just want to sleep
  • My throat hurts..
  • Ow…
  • mmehh…
  • ooh.. nice legs… nice calfs (Stu had kindly obliged in wearing his short skins compression wear with bright green shorts on top for his buddy duties just to keep me entertained and motivated πŸ˜‰ )

The rules of the race say that you mustn’t stay still for over 30 minutes (or might be 40 but we decided it was 30 to be on safe side), so after 25 mins, Stu said we needed to get moving again. He’d updated facebook just to say I’d had a nap in case anyone was tracking me and wondered why I hadn’t moved. He said that facebook had been busy and read out some messages.. I just grunted and said ‘ow’.. ‘I don’t feel very well’ and glared when he tried to do a Sunday selfie πŸ˜‰

Around 5 am onwards – might have been before – it was beginning to get light. We plodded on and aimed for the next checkpoint for breakfast. I was well behind my original schedule now. I knew I had plenty of time to finish but I really wanted to get the last train home from London and not to get stuck in London overnight. Stu needed to get back to Bristol as he was working the bank holiday and I knew I’d be gutted if I had to say goodbye to him and let him travel back whilst I plodded on alone and stayed in London overnight. I was quite upset at the thought that time might be slipping away for this and we did have our first bicker as I was just head down and trying to keep it moving and not really responding – all because I didn’t wanted ultimately to finish together and celebrate rather than Stu going home alone but it must have seemed like I was ungrateful and didn’t want him there. Bicker over we got back on track and got breakfast at CP7 The Grand Junction Arms where the delightful Henk was waiting. I did find it hard to swallow but as it was 6:30 now it was good to try to eat something that wasn’t a damn energy bar so egg on toast was ace. The check point crew were amazing as ever. Getting you in, and out, and my drop bags were always there ready and waiting. It was about mile 100 too.. it was about 06:48am when I got there so realised it was quite a slow 100 mile as had taken me nearly 25 hours but all in all I didn’t care.. there was still 20 hours (if I really needed it) to finish less than 50 miles left  – I struggled to work out how many hours I’d need to finish in to get the last train back but thought I’d just work that out later when I could clock what pace I could sustain given how sore my throat was (walking hurted it, eating hurt it.. drinking was hard..) and how worse my blisters would get.

We toddled off. The original plan had been to get to Croxley (mile 117.5 ish) in time for Stu to get train to Westminster to do the Westminster mile, and then he’d maybe come back and join me later. The problem was I was now behind schedule. I didn’t want Stu to have to walk all the way to Little Venice with me either. It would be boring. the night was over so it felt less dangerous.. navigation was going fine (even for me!) so I suggested he looked at ways to find a train station not too far away to get over to Westminster. I could tell he was in two minds about whether this was the right thing to do, but I was really sure it was so he left me around 8:30 and ran to Hemel Hempstead station to travel onto Westminster.

It was strange – but ok- being back on my own again. I plodded on still feeling ill and extremely tired. I did have a bad vomiting moment where everything I’d eaten and drunk for 9 hours was deposited over the bushes.. that hurt my throat big time.. but I then got some water from a boater and carried on sipping. I realised I was going through a ‘falling asleep’ phase again so lay on a bench for 25 minutes-  setting my alarm as I knew the rules about not staying still too long. I didn’t sleep because all the passers by kept stopping to check I was ok by talking to me.. (in retrospect I should have hidden in a ditch!). I think it helped and when the alarm went off I updated fb to let any worried stalkers via the tracker know I’d had a rest and wasn’t dead in a ditch, and set off again.

Plod, cough, plod, sip water, plod, ow, swear etc.., check garmin, try to work out bridge numbers and distance to go,,, get confused on maths and time.. then work out about 5 miles to next cpoint at Springwell Lock. Luckily there was also lots of cafes selling icecream and anytime I saw any I bought some as it seemed to help my throat.

About just about 10am I realised I had about 37 miles to go and that I would – easily – unless something else really bad happened – make the last train home. I sent a text to Stu letting him know this. I knew he’d feel guilty for having gone to the do Westminster mile and hoped this would make him feel less guilty. it was for the best for both of us. I suspected he’d track me down and join me as soon as he could afterwards.. so I told him that having traipsed through the night with me was no excuse and I was expecting him to still get a mile PB in Westminster (actually he wasn’t far off.. not quite a mile pb but 5:39 is pretty impressive on zero sleep and that amount of trudging on feet all through the night)

I got to cp8 (Springwell Lock) at 13:39 and had some lunch. Glyn was there again.. with his cans of energy drink.. I turned it down this time figuring I’d done my duty in taking them off his hands so far. There was another familiar face there too but it took me until about 5 miles after the checkpoint to register ‘oh that must be Lindley Chambers’.. sorry Lindley – my brain was a bit frazzled by then…. I also realised there was about a marathon left to go. I’d gone past the magic 120 mile part. It felt ‘in the bag’ but also knowing that ‘nothing is in the bag’.. I was still ill with horrendous sore throat and also the blisters weren’t magically healling as I trudged.

About 4 or 5 miles after the checkpoint (and 2 more icecreams later) I heard someone running behind me. I thought – bloody hell – that’s a bit showing off this stage in the race isn’t it ! I looked around and it was Stu :-). A sight for sore eyes indeed. I could now add the ‘nice legs’ back to the list of random sentences I was spewing out. He was happy to have found me too. He’d dropped me a facebook message (which I’d not read as had deliberately stayed off the book) saying to rest up and wait for him at cp8.. it was nice to be reunited πŸ™‚

reunited

Stu was as ace as ever – he was glad he’d got such a good result at Westminster mile and had met up with the lovely Joanne Sinton-Hewitt as he was running as part of parkrun wave. It was funny though him wearing his Westminster mile medal along the GUCR route.

It was great too as I could send Stu off on crewing duties (i.e. icecream buying duties) so I could keep the pain in my throat down. I was still suffering but was confident I’d get to the end (though ‘you never know’) and was looking forward to seeing Nici Griffin at cp9 just past Bulls bridge turn.

We bumped into Chris Edmonds who had just caught me up and we arrived at cp9 together. Just a half marathon to go πŸ™‚

cp9

I shot out of cp9 with one mission – to finish without needing headtorch.. I did a couple of 14 minute miles as felt elated to be on home stretch … a long 13 mile home stretch… but the elation didn’t last long as my throat still felt very bad. This stretch was in fact a bit of a drag… the seediness of outer bit of London – cans, motorbikes, rubbish strewn everywhere… it wasn’t a picturesque route and it was a slog.. but slog it we did and arrived finally at Little Venice without the need for head torch around 9.15pm.

I’m not proud of my time –  it was very slow as I didn’t run at all after 50 miles. 39 hours ish isn’t the best that I could do. I know that.

I’m not proud of my ‘negativity’ through the race. I wasn’t perky, chatty or positive.. I was in pain.

But I am proud I finished. I’m proud that I slogged it out and always knew I could. It will be something I can ‘pull out the mental armoury bank’ when I’m in a similar situation again.. e.g. however ill I’m feeling, I can probably still do another 115 miles ish.. I didn’t quit. I got the job done. It’s a good one for the CV.

finish

I also feel Stu and I probably know each other a little better now after that slog on the canal. We have different strengths that can complement each others and we have our matching medals too.

matching medals
Day after obligatory swollen feet shot – at least blisters covered

4 days later 

Foot swelling gone down

 

Reflecting back, am thinking that it probably worked out well being ill and having to walk so much on race day as I would probably be much more wrecked generally if I’d gone faster at GUCR and I finished safely – albeit slowly – and was still 4th lady. I feel so privileged to have been allowed – as a 1st timer with no crew – to have a place on GUCR and have hugest respect and gratitude towards the massive behind the scenes crew of volunteers who make it all possible.  

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3 thoughts on “Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) 145 miles from Birmingham to London – 23 May 2015

  1. Pingback: The Grand Union Canal Race 2015 – A long slog from Birmingham to London • Richard walks London

  2. Pingback: GUCR 2015 | luckygolden888

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