Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Grand Union Canal Race Report (GUCR) 2011

Lying on the grass by the side of the canal at Springwell locks would have been very tranquil if I was on a picnic with the family, but I was 120miles into a 145mile race. To then be told that you only have 25miles to go was the most alien thing I had heard all weekend. Mentally I was in the bottom of a hole that had a cover on it, and I could not see any way out. My body felt spent, my ability to make simple decisions was evading me, in short I was a physical & emotional wreck.

The race start time was 6am on Saturday May 28th, but in truth this race started in November when I successfully got through the ballot. My whole training plan needed to be re written to cater for this race, I had already got a good fitness and ultra distance base. However I had not run an Ultra since June that year so I set about getting signed up for some Ultra’s as training, so I could get to the start line in the best physical position I could. Inevitably I got to the start line feeling as if my training could have gone better, but then I guess most runners probably think this, but what’s done is done, and you have to work with what you have at that moment in time.

Sat Morning  - Early

The alarm clock was due to go off at 3.30am on the Saturday morning but I was awake before it went off, having not slept well due to a mixture of excitement and fear.
I got my running gear on apart from my socks and trainers as I wanted to leave these off until the last minute.
Breakfast was the usual weetabix & honey with coffee, which I ate while doing the last checks to the kit and gear we were taking, most of which had been sorted the night before.  We had practically filled the Espace with food, spare clothes, maps and other stuff that was chucked in,  just in case we had forgotten anything.
My crew for the weekend was my good wife Anna & her friend Steph, who were crewing up to the 65mile point at Stoke Bruene. Then my brother Gerry was taking over for the night section while the others slept, to be ready for the second day.  That was the plan anyway.
My Mum & Dad dutifully turned up at 4am to look after the children for the weekend, so after a quick last minute check on what to do and when, we set off on our way to
Gas Street Birmingham
, picking up Steph on the way.
I had read so many reports about this race and watched video footage, so I knew what to expect at the start. It still does not prepare you for the sight you are greeted with though, when you drive down Gas Street and see the race organisers setting up the registration (we arrived at 5am) and then 100yards down the road are the remnants of the Friday night revellers still spilling out on to the street seeking taxis to take them home to sleep off their night of exuberance!
We parked up and I went and got my race pack, which consisted of my race number, crew 
t-shirts & the all important toilet key (which was not used).  While there I asked where the toilets were, and was told best thing to do is use the canal (which did make me chuckle I must admit, but not quite so good for 2 ladies!).
While all this was happening I had met up with Tom (we always seem to meet at these registration desks) who looked well and raring to go. I said I would catch him later as I had more pressing matters.
So we set off in the hunt for the toilet which seemed a long walk (that’s a daft statement considering what I was about to undertake).  Eventually we found our way to a shopping mall with underground parking where the toilets were found and used. I did not know it then but that was the last time I would use a proper toilet for a long time!
Back at the car I finally put my socks & running shoes on & got my other kit ready, pictures were taken and suddenly we were making our way on to the canal for the off.

The Start

Start – Catherine de Barnes (CP1) 

Dick gave us some advice warning us not to take too many painkillers and the adverse affect this could have, and then suddenly we were off.  As always with Ultras the start was fairly relaxed, Tom and I had made our way to the back at the start, as we planned to keep it very steady through day one; the broad plan was to get to Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles) by about 9pm.

We settled into a nice easy pace, which would hopefully see us through the first day comfortably. I was surprised by how quick some people were running off ahead of us. We had discussed our pace and were going to run at around 4.5 – 4.75mph, we figured with the inevitable drop in pace overnight that should see us through to a sub 35hr finish. The way some of the folks went off I figured there was going to be a lot of sub 30hr finishers this year or they had got there strategy very wrong.

We were soon heading away from the built up section of the canal which meant we were heading away from Birmingham.  I was very much looking forward to running this section through to Gayton as a lot of it is on the edge of the area where I live, places like Warwick and Leamington spa, but I have never visited them only driven through them on the way to somewhere else.

It did not seem long before we caught sight of some people loitering by the canal which we guessed were support crews, we certainly did not expect it to be Anna & Steph as they had said they would meet me at the 10mile point. It was a surprise and nice to find we were 10miles in already!  Anna showed us a dead squirrel she had found in the canal (she has an eye for spotting such things she found a dead dog later on). We quickly went on our way as we did not require anything specific and we were soon heading into the first checkpoint at Catherine – De – Barnes 10.7miles. We got there at 8am which was 15 mins ahead of the schedule we had set. We had our number taken and sailed through, not requiring anything.

CP1 – Hatton Locks (CP2)

Up to the first check point both Tom and I had commented on how congested it felt as there were around 6 runners ahead of us and about 5 just behind. One guy in particular stood out as he had a big mass of curly hair (he was immediately dubbed fuzzy head) we found out later his name was Rob. There was another guy behind us who stood out I never saw what he looked like but he was very loud and kept going on about a book he was going to write about this experience in this race (which I thought was a bit presumptuous as there was a long way to go). Once we had got through the first check point we found that the field had thinned out somewhat which suited us. I find if there are people ahead of you then you get sucked into their race strategy and end up totally forgetting your own.

The scenery by this time was looking amazing, and where ever you looked there were rolling green fields a totally tranquil setting. We quickly came across Anna & Steph again at around 17miles at around 9.15; it was there we decided we were running way too quickly ,as I think we were then half an hour up on schedule.

There were a couple of other support crews there and one guy said he had run the race 5 times so I guessed he knew what he was on about. He said “There is a great fish and chip shop at Weedon so make sure you have some”. Well he was the second person to have said that to me, Rory (who was due to run the race but pulled out due to injury) had mentioned this previously but I had decided against the idea. Now though that was 2 multi finishers saying the same, and Tom cottoned on to the idea and seemed keen so we said we would make our decision by Brauston (44 miles in).

We went on our merry way I was thoroughly enjoying the whole experience; it is what I do for a hobby, so if I did not enjoy it then I guess it would be time to give up.

We soon reached Hatton Locks at 10.30, which incidentally is a fantastic picturesque place to visit, and I thought it is a great place to bring the kids to explain the lock system to them as there are so many in close succession. This was the 22.5miles in and checkpoint 2, and we were informed that we were in around 80th place which surprised me mainly just by the pace some people had gone off at, but this race is about you and what your capable of, so placing was of no importance to me.

CP2  - Birdingbury Bridge(CP3)

We headed off away from the locks still in a very buoyant mood; it was around this time we started to pass a few people. Up to that point people had been passing us apart from one lady at around 20miles who said when I passed that she was disappointed in her failing body, I guessed she was going to retire.

We were soon at the next place that Anna & Steph were dutifully waiting 27miles in. Tom decided to go playing on the park equipment nearby, I told him he might regret that later.  I had decided for a sock change here as I did not want the shredded feet experience I had on the Ultra 100 last June. This done we headed off knowing that the next stop would be checkpoint 3.

Again we carried on picking people off as our run walk policy continued its relentless forward motion. We did not have a strategy as we both believe that you should listen to your body, some people will adopt a policy of running for 25mins and walking for 5mins or something similar which can work great. For me I tend to run the flat and down hill and power walk the hills, but in this race this proved difficult as it is predominately flat. So we adopted a policy of walking the up locks and then continuing the walk for a couple of mins. Or we would see a canal boat with a bridge around 200 yards further on and we would treat ourselves to a walk. It became a game which helped no end I guess if we were doing the timed run/walk policy it would have taken the fun out it.

We soon saw Anna & Steph sat on the side with food for me, Tom ran on as the official check point was ½ mile further on. I was treated to a pot noodle and rice pudding and coffee which all went down well; it all seemed very surreal sitting there with other crews distributing their wares to various other runners as they came in.

I was soon on my way to find Tom at checkpoint 3, and soon realised there were a series of locks that required negotiating before I got to CP3. About half way up them I came across a runner in a blue wig - we had seen him a couple of times, the last time he was with another guy on a push bike, who was giving him some food. The guy was Danish and he said that the guy on the push bike was Danish also but lived in the area, had checked the race entry, saw that there were 3 Danish guys running so had decided to come out to support them with some food. The runner was completely bowled over by this act of generosity.

I eventually arrived at Checkpoint 3 at around 1.15pm to see Tom had finished and was pretty much ready to go which was good timing, so off we went happy in our task.

CP3 – Weedon (CP4)

The next 9 miles were a bit of a drag if I’m honest, slightly monotonous and not a lot happened on the runner front, apart from we played cat and mouse with a couple of other guys. They would run on seemingly miles ahead, and then 20 mins later Tom and I would catch them again, overtake them only to be overtaken about 5-10 mins later!

We got to Braunston Marina 44 miles in by 3pm, where we were met by Anna & Steph at this point with more sustenance to keep us going.  We decided that fish and chips was a must at Weedon 9 miles further on.

Braunston Marina

We headed on looking forward to the next section as we knew we had a break from the canal, this would provide us with something to think about and a change in the muscle being used as there was a reasonable hill to encounter. We safely negotiated this section, there was even a marshal to stop the traffic on the road so we could safely cross, I have never experienced that in an Ultra before, a nice touch I must say.

We were soon back on the canal, now we had the added interest of mile markers, someone had suggested on a running forum (James Adams I think) that after Braunston there are mile markers you just have to remember to add 44 to the number on the marker for your total mileage. These were great to give you an idea where you were.  We were soon heading into Weedon having picked off a few more runners on this section.  We got to the checkpoint in around 30th position happy in the knowledge that 53 miles was complete.

Steph was there to greet us but Anna was still getting the fish & chips as the shop opened at 5 and we were there at 4.55pm. While waiting we replenished our supplies and had some more coke which was going down well (normally I don’t like coke but it seemed to be having a very good affect today). Then Anna arrived bearing the sacred fish and chips.

CP4 – Navigation Bridge (CP5)

Well we decided to walk on and eat our well earned tea on the hoof so to speak.  Every runner we encountered either looked at us as if we were mad or had that jealous look of why the hell didn’t I think of that. One runner said I have a pot noodle to look forward to; it’s not a patch on fish & chips. We passed a party of around 5 lads on a canal boat that just laughed & thought it was a fantastic idea, the food of champions so to speak. With our tea consumed we walked for around 20mins to let it settle, and then we broke out into a run which seemed comfortable so on we went.

We soon caught and passed the 2 people we had been playing cat & mouse with earlier, much to the annoyance of one who said “not you again we thought we had dropped you way back”. Well sorry for running would you like me to DNF for your benefit.

We were both looking forward to getting to Gayton Junction as we would then be on familiar territory for 40miles or so as this was the route of Rory’s Ultra 90 we had both completed in Jan.

It was soon reached and Anna & Steph were there to greet us with an unscheduled stop.  This was for a sock change which I had asked for at the 65mile point as my feet were feeling a bit sore. So Anna felt sorry for me and decided to bring them to the 60mile point.
Socks changed it was onto Blisworth Tunnel where we had another diversion, this one is not so nice as its along the road, but its still one to savour as it gives you a break from the canal, then it was on to Stoke Bruerne, where I was having some more food and getting changed into night gear, which was basically a long sleeved top and head torch.

Gerry my crew man for the night section was at Stoke Bruerne when we arrived at around 8pm, and it was nice to see that the logistics worked out 2 weeks before were working well.  Anna & Steph were heading off to Leighton Buzzard for a well earned rest; they said they might see us at Tesco.

While we were stopped we got passed by a few folks not that this bothered us as we soon were heading off chasing them back down.  This next section seemed to go on for a long time considering it was only 5 miles, but eventually we arrived at Navigation Bridge at around 9.30pm, only half an hour off target, to be fair I was pretty pleased with that effort 15.5 hours for 70.5Miles.

CP5 – Bridge 99 (CP-6)

We did not stop as Tom did not want anything so we were quickly away leaving a few folks in the checkpoint. I knew that the biggest drop out happened here and I was keen to remove myself from any potential self pity (I feel sympathetic to runners who drop out but you have to be selfish and think of your game plan and listening to someone’s drop out story would be no good for moral).

We drove ourselves forward knowing that the night section would be hard, as your body thinks it should be resting and not still working, so it becomes a mental battle with your physical self to keep going. We did not want to just walk the night section as we felt the cold would seep in and start affecting us.

Gerry was at the 74.5 mile point which we reached.  Here we had a quick stop to consume fluids, and I had my first red bull.  We both did not consume any food (this was a mistake which I was not to realise until much later).

We pushed on having agreed to meet Gerry at the next official checkpoint at 84.5miles.  This section took absolutely ages to complete. We got there eventually in around 1am and I managed to get a coffee and grabbed some more red bull off Gerry,  but again no food.

CP6 – Grand Junction Arms (CP-7)

We were keen to get to Leighton Buzzard now which was only 5 miles away, but that 5 miles went on and on and on. It was the lowest point of the race so far for us. The canal is a dark lonely place at night - I was glad I was with Tom because at times it was kind of spooky with the trees and bushes seemingly taking on unnatural shapes. We kept our head torches firmly on the ground as this section is predominately grass so there is a danger of turning your foot down a rabbit hole.

Tesco’s was reached just before 3am and we found that Gerry was there along with Anna and Steph as they were both up from their rest. I think they were all worried that we took a lot longer than we thought to get to that stage. They were giving hot drinks to Rob (Fuzzy Head).  Anna tried to get some food in me but I was refusing all food, but I did have a hot chocolate and a can of coke though.

Tesco's is a Dark place!
(in more ways than one)

We both got ourselves up and going again and we plugged ourselves into some music to hopefully give us a different dimension to this never ending night.  We trudged onto the next checkpoint which was at 99.8miles, practically 10miles away. It was at this point that I began to hate the mile markers as I am sure someone had deliberately not got the positions right. Or we thought one had been missed out and the next one we would see would be 2 miles further on, only to be bitterly disappointed when the next one came into view reading 1 mile on from the last one.

We passed Rob who had sought some aid off some people.  By this time it was getting light and we thought it could not be too far to the checkpoint.

We had a slight navigational worry which under normal circumstances would have been no bother, but at this stage even map reading was a slow process. We knew we had to cross a bridge and then the checkpoint should be close. As we approached the bridge we saw Gerry standing on it, he had come down to meet us - that was certainly a welcome sight. We decided to walk it in with him from there obviously he had to endure some banter about how far it was which he took very well (Well he gave as good as he got really).

Then suddenly we were at the checkpoint practically 100miles complete and it was just before 5.30am. Tom went and got his food while I went and got porridge, rice pudding and 2 cups of coffee which went down well.  Gerry decided to leave us here as it was going to be gone 8am before we next saw the crew so this seemed prudent

CP-7 – Springwell Bridge (CP-8)

I was keen to keep going at this stage as I knew if I stopped for to long I would start to cease up and would not want to continue. There was one guy at the checkpoint that looked in a bad way (found out later it was EPS off one of the forums I am on, he had walked practically the whole night on shot quads). So having got Tom out of the checkpoint we carried on our way.

It had got to the point now where it was mind over matter, we had to force ourselves to run (well shuffle to be fair at this stage)
The running sections were getting shorter which was a worry but there did not seem to be anything we could do about it. We even tried the policy of run walk; we ran for 20mins & then walked for 10mins and kept repeating the process. This worked up to a point, but again it was too mechanical and difficult to maintain when your body was failing physically.

I had a phone call off Anna to say they were getting us a MacDonald’s breakfast and would meet us at the 115mile point with it. At that stage we were about 3 miles away, so we tried to speed up to get there quicker just because it sounded like a treat. When they came into view we sprinted the last 200yards to them (dead heat I reckon) and arrived at 9.30am.
When I tried the food it tasted horrible and I could not get it down, I managed to force some of it down but this was becoming a real issue for me. Hydration wise I was fine it was food I could not consume and without it I was going downhill fast.

We set off knowing that the next 5 miles would bring us to 120mile checkpoint at Springwell locks. By this time Rob had decided to join us and walk/run with us, the problem was all 3 of us were at an all time low and no one had the motivation to run. Usually if one is feeling down the other can crack on and drag them through it but this was not happening. All I could think about was what valid excuse I can come up with at the check point to tell Anna that I am giving up and to phone it in.

When we finally did get to the checkpoint at about 11.15am, I flopped on the floor and said “That’s it I am done, I can’t finish in a reasonable time so it not fair on you two to be out here going into another night plus we have to think of the family”.
I thought this seemed a reasonable justification to finish here, thus the blame would be on our tight schedule as opposed to my failure.

Of course Anna saw straight through this, I had had a conversation with her some weeks previous on the quitting issue, and I had said to her that at some stage my mental state could be such that I would want to quit, but I said you have control in that situation as you will have the all important phone number to HQ.

She just said “Look get some food in you”, and like a naughty child I threw the food at her feet, so she unwrapped some chocolate gave me a piece and said just suck on that. Which I did and then finished the bar.

CP8 – Hamborough Tavern (CP-9)

She then said “Right let’s walk the next section and see how you go, its only 3 miles”, to which I agreed.  I shouted to Tom that I was walking on and that he would probably catch me up as my walk at this stage seemed more like a penguin waddle.

We set off and then Anna had a phone call, it was Rory asking her about my progress When she told him what had taken place he wanted to speak with me. I can’t tell you all  that he said but suffice to say he said all the right things to get me back in the game. It got quite emotional at one point and I thought I would cry, which certainly means my emotions were laid bare at that moment.

All I can say is that after that 3 mile section I was mentally strong and I said my thanks to Anna and carried on through onto the next section which they told me was 5 miles.

My buoyant mood carried on through this whole section and I ran walked it fairly well. I had a couple of map reading moments as my brain was finding it difficult to make small decisions even on simple map reading issues. This was all safely negotiated, and I arrived at the next stop 128.5miles in around 1.30pm.  Anna gave me some pasta but I apparently just made faces at her again, very much the spoilt kid syndrome! I did eat it although I did spit some chicken out which did not want to go down.

I was raring to go on the next section as I knew this was the section where the turn was for the Paddington branch (Bulls Junction), I was happily bumbling along when suddenly in the distance I could see what looked like a left turn and I thought this was it. It was as well, the magic turning it’s like the home stretch all be it still a long stretch.

I started running along this section thinking the checkpoint will only be just round the corner, but no it was a long way down but I carried on running and felt really strong when I reached it (I probably looked a gibbering wreck). It was the famous Henk I had heard so much about who kicks you out of his checkpoints by swearing at you. To be fair I thought he was quite polite, maybe because I was only there for about 2 mins if that. Anna & Steph were there but I did not need anything, I left at around 2.45pm

CP – 9 - Finish

So on I went to the next place where Anna and Steph were meeting me.          I was running strongly now knowing I only had 12 miles to go. I got through to 6 miles to go fairly quickly by 4pm, and met up with Anna & Steph who had a coffee waiting.

Then it was on to the last section 6 miles to go on this grand adventure. These 6 miles seemed to go on for a long time. I kept seeing runners coming the other way I was stopped by a couple of them and they said the finish line is not far about a 1.5 miles.

So I carried pushing on, then a cyclist stopped and said “You are 10 mins away mate keep going”.  After he left I thought is that 10mins walking, running, cycling what?

Then suddenly I spotted what looked like a white banner, I have seen lots of photos and videos of this finish that I figured it had to be the end. I broke into a run and just hoped it was, as I don’t think I could have broken into another run this was my last effort.

Finally the full finish line came into view I could not see individual faces I just saw the banner saying FINISH on it. I crossed it hands held aloft, where I saw Anna & Steph and then I saw Dick and he was holding the medal I had been dreaming of for the last 6 months. It almost seemed a surreal moment when he put it round my neck, but the sheer elation of what I had achieved was about to wash over me in waves. I had various pictures taken, it was then I realised that I had got 18th spot in 35hrs & 29mins which was around 5.30pm on Sunday evening, I was absolutely over the moon at that point.

The Aftermath

We did not stay long at the end as obviously we had a family to go back to, who were all itching to see the medal before they went to bed.

I was bundled into the car where I attempted to have a wet wipe wash and change into some clean clothes, and then I found a pillow closed my eyes and promptly fell asleep. I woke up properly when we were dropping Steph off, and then we were home.

I got in the house and the boys wanted to see the medal, they had made cards saying well done & we are proud which was very touching.

My Mum and Dad had done a fantastic job looking after our 4 children for the weekend. Then Gerry turned up with his wife Larysa, to offer their congratulations.

We reminisced about the whole adventure, the highs and the lows.
They all could see that I was tired and my eyes had started to droop somewhat, so they politely said their goodbyes.

So that was it my adventure was over all I needed to do was wash the grime of the last 2 days away and look forward to my next adventure in 25 days time the Ultra race 100

Will I be recovered enough by then who knows time will tell.

A number of thankyou’s are in order :-

A big shout out to Dick and the crew you put on one hell of a race.

A big thanks to my support crew Anna, Steph & Gerry without them I would not have been able to take part.
A special thanks to Anna & Rory who without their intervention and correct reading of the situation at 120miles in, I would in all honesty probably have not completed this race.

Also a big thanks to my Mum and Dad for doing the equally important job of looking after the children, which is no mean feat.

Also Last but by no means least thanks to Tom my running buddy for 120miles, I am glad you finished it mate.

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