Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Grand Union Canal Race 2016

I remember for a very long time being told by so many this is the "best" ultra race on the UK calendar. In fairness many will still make this bold statement. Regardless of the validity of this statement it grabbed my attention and so I entered the race. This story, however, does not begin in 2016. It begins in 2014 with a DNS. I was under trained and ill prepared. Even I'm not foolish enough to try and blag 145 miles. Instead I supported a friend and ran the past 45 miles with him. Many reading this will see 45 miles as inconceivable, but having run further and subsequently finishing the GUCR, I can safely say the difference in the two distances is massive. If you can eat one slice of pizza you don't suddenly assert that you can eat three large pizza's... well not without vomiting, maybe passing out and possibly ending up in hospital. By this virtue very similar to the difference between running 45 and 145 miles.

Having been part of my friends experience I understood the buzz around this race and the desire of so many to complete it. During 2014 I shared many highs and lows with runners. There was a huge camaraderie and sense of a united front trying to slay a beast. 145 miles seemed impossible and in so being drew many to try. Those that fell urged others towards the finish. The course for the most part is also beautiful and develops an aura of a world separated from ordinary life. In 2014 I remember being delighted and very proud when my friend finished, but also very envious. This race was firmly logged on my bucket list.

So it came to be that 2015 I would try the Centurion Grandslam. I got close, but to no avail. Now under the watchful eyes of Edwina Sutton I changed my approach to running, not my love, just my approach. I was to be purposeful in my training and consistent. In entering the ballot for GUCR I hoped by virtue of having a crew that I would secure a place, but in my mind I readied myself for making other plans. Following the draw the results went live at about 1am. I was in and I could not resist a message to my crew. They were equally delighted. My focus now increased further and specific training was now in total dedication to running a flat 145 miles.

Week in and week out I stuck to plan. My love hate relationship with sugar meant my weight was not falling off, but everything else was going great. So the race got closer and plans became real. I was hitting personal checkpoints in my training and then BAM! I get a message from my crew. 2 out of 4 could not help out. No animosity as it was for health reasons and I would never want someone to jeopardise their health on my behalf. I was worried that i would not be able to source alternative crew. Bloody hell what it did next was energise everything. I became aware just how much people believe in me and supported me. So many who would have helped but were out  of the country. It did not stop me rapidly sourcing crew.

My best friend Sam Robson pretty much dropped everything and at the risk of a disgruntled wife he sought her approval (Thanks Jen), was then on my car insurance and on the crew. Bryan Webster and my wife Zoe were already planned to be supporting at certain junctions of the race. I really needed one more person... in stepped David Barker. Now this is a man who ran A100 in under 16hours and then went and helped at the Reading Aid station. On this day he would be finishing work and then leaving Kent at 3am to get to the race start. He would then support until 4am and then look after his children whilst his wife went to her own race (thank you Sarah.)

So with a revised but in no way compromised crew I was ready for race weekend. Conditions looked favourable if potentially a little hot, but heck I was going to be running over 2 days, anything could happen. So on the Friday i packed my gear and got on a train to Birmingham. I could not get as way as early as i would have liked. It became a little bit of a rush to the premier inn and then registration. There was a buzz around town and i recognised a few runners all displaying the nervous energy. As i approached the Premier Inn i bumped in Tom Garrod. He was in fine form and clearly ready for the race. I always love catching up with Tom, he is an absolutely inspiration to anyone over coming adversity. The registration is without a doubt the most understated registration i have ever experienced. I collected my Hoodie, T-Shirt and canal key and my name was ticked. That was it i was registered and good to go. I made a vow that i would not put on the Hoodie or the T-Shirt until i completed this race. It felt like i had not earned them yet. I took the decision to head back to the Premier Inn, rather than join the crowd. I caught up with a couple of runners and then proceeded to bed. A quick chat with my running coach, a review of kit and a panic of whether i had anything and then lights out.

The alarm went and blurry eyed i woke up. It was 4:45am and the start of a very long period of time awake. My mind was clear and the training was done. Everything i could do to prepare had been done and could no longer improve my chances of completing this race. A call from Sam to check i was awake and the dawn of what i was about to undertake was washing over me in droves. I gathered my kit and covered my feet in anti-chafing powder, before getting dressed. Now i should at this point note that the powder is brilliant stuff, but slip and it may look like the aftermath of a party hosted by a Rock and Roll band. For future reference i will apply this stuff to my feet in the bath, in order to reduce such aftermath. So once again probably like a party hosted by a Rock and Roll band.

This is not what it looks like.

Willing, ready and hopefully able i headed downstairs. Sam was patiently waiting for me and then the gloom of the rain was visible. Seriously all signs had pointed to no rain and already it was chucking it down. Forecasts were for this to progressively clear as the morning progressed. I put it to the back of my mind and decided that what would be would be. Nothing was going to stop me from crossing that finish line. I dont think i have ever been so determined to complete a challenge. If it was going to rain then so be it. The iron being, as this report will show, not long into the race i would have killed for it to rain just a little bit.  

At the start line i was relieved to know that David had arrived and he and Sam would now be together to assist as my crew. The start was awash with nervous energy. I caught up with Rodrigo Freeman and Mark Haynes. Both were well prepared and ready to get going. After the race announcements, cautions and advisory's we were released upon the canal. Truth be told it was all very anti-climatic. Imagine the 100 metre start line of an olympic final, everyone crouched low in their blocks, the gun goes off and all bar one runner of eight stands up and begins a casual walk. Magnify these proportions to 150 runners and this was in effect how the start would have translated to an outsider. Inside though i was running to a plan. It was a case of slow and steady and leave enough running for the final 45 miles. Oh sure i will just take it steady for 100 miles and then run the last 45 miles. Bloody hell what was i thinking. Who considers this a normal way to spend a weekend. Well truth be told i saw nothing about this weekend as normal, but i did see this opportunity as a blessing, a peaceful one and something i would grab with both hands, until i reached Little Venice. i trudged along with Mark Haynes and watched Rodrigo disappear into the distance. 

Super excited to get going.

There i am "whizzing" by.

The rain was a distant memory and rapidly the world was heating up. I say world as nothing beyond the canal and the rhythmic pounding of my feet seemed to exist. I was becoming encapsulated by the melody i was creating on the tow path. I was losing any concern for the stresses of my daily life. I was focused, i was calm, i felt positively in control. I arrived at my first meeting point right on schedule. 10.7 miles completed in a little over 2 hours. I was feeling good as i took supplies from my crew. All was going smoothly, yes it was heating up, but everything was in working order. It seemed on the surface like it was going to be a lovely day of running. I even had the chance to laugh off an error when i realised my crew had passed me the spare bread i forgot to tell them about. Yum sandwiches with no filling. Well at least i made some ducks happy. Cruising in to mile 18.1 at 9:32am i was 4 minutes ahead of schedule and not feeling too bad. By this point it was hot though. I could sense the danger that the heat was going to be a problem. As i trundled away from my crew i was feeling warm and the naive optimism of "what could possibly go wrong" was being replaced by "you fucking idiot, its 145 miles of course it was going to be brutal." In any event i decided the best course of action was to ignore myself. 

Collecting my bread with no filling.

I had an opportunity to run a little with Ashley Hurd. He was keen to complete the race. I left him around mile 15 where he was supported by his wife. I did not see him after that and was sorry to hear he DNF'd. At about mile 18 i saw Phil Bradburn and would frequently see him along the course. Time was drifting a little for me. Nothing to panic about at this point. I was well under the cuts offs and not too far shy of my A race pace plan. With that said i was feeling increasingly worse. The heat was bloody appalling. I was left with indigestion and a sense that my body was slowly imploding. I was drinking regularly, but some how could not quench the first. I wanted to eat and project everything from my stomach in equal measure. Both options held little appeal and i was slowing as a result. A furiously hot day with the sun bouncing off the tow path causing increased intensity. At mile 30 i looked like shit, I felt like shit and my ever honest crew told me i was looking great.... lying bastards. I still had loads of running in my legs, but i could not muster the energy. I was not prepared to contemplate a DNF, but it felt like the body was failing my mind. At mile 34 on the verge of frying my body i saw a safe haven, a utopian vision of tranquility. I could not have asked for it to be better placed to save my race. Now truth be told it was a break in the hedge that created a space completely enclosed. Beautiful shade and a swing hanging from a tree. I was in no mood for a swing, but i did force some calories in and sit down and close my eyes for 10 minutes. Maybe i could cool down, hit reset and get moving. Well reset is about right. My body temperature dropped and as i stood up had a massive head rush. I felt nauseous, but was keen to get moving. One step... two step... and we were playing anything but "round and round the garden." I toppled to my knees and vomited violently into the canal. I have since been informed that a number or runners passed me and assumed i would be DNF'ing. The little voice in my head decided that i 'only' had 110 miles left to race so i may as well press on to the finish. 

A beautifully scenic route

Hot and feeling like utter trash.

The next phase of the race was spent trying to ignore the heat and watching other runners also rationing their water. I seemed to struggle to compute a simple bloody lock on the canal tap. Thankfully a Canal Boat resident took pity on a sweaty salt ridden runner and showed me what i was doing run. He was very friendly and i think resisted patting me on the head and telling me it would be ok. I filled my water bottle and set back off. Approaching Braunston Locks i was anticipating seeing my crew. I knew they were due to appear and probably would just be relieved to see that i wasnt dead. It transpired to be a downhill stretch to my crew and at 44 miles there was my crew with fresh coffee. I sat down and took in the view. I was not feeling great, but was revising my targets. This race was about achieving and showing myself that the seemingly impossible could be done and reassuring myself that the only boundaries that apply to me as a runner are the ones i set myself. I was down, but far from out. I was over a 100 minutes down on my planned pace. Apparently vomiting in a canal and sitting on the side of a canal wondering what the fuck is going on takes up a lot of time. I knew i had stopped too much with my crew. I was wasting time, but i needed to get myself focused and this was the only way of keeping me in the race. On the plus side the stretch down to my crew saw the first of many running friends appear, Nick was full of encouragement. I am sincerely always touched by the running community and their happiness to give up time and support. 

My crew worked tirelessly from start to finish.

After a bloody good cup of coffee, thanks David, i felt a lot of better and was determined to get into a rhythm. I may have felt shit up until now, but i was NOT going to get myself timed out. 

"Could murder a cuppa."
Feeling like trash, but a cracking cup of coffee worked wonders.

Now in this race whilst the cut offs are very generous the cut offs up until CP4 force you to keep a reasonable pace. I was finally in a good place. By this i mean i was resigned to feeling like crap and was able to turn my brain off to this. I ran safely and for decent periods of time. I was struck by the surprising beauty of the course. It was proving to be a very scenic route and the heat was reducing and my pace increasing. I was happy i could make it through the cut off at CP4 with plenty of time. I was trading places with a few runners. Glyn Raymen reminded me we needed to get a bloody move on or we would be timed out. Shit.... really... you mean i fell asleep in a bush, vomited in a canal and demonstrated my ineptitude to open a basic lock... all to get timed out. Bollocks to that. I picked up the pace. This was a liberating moment. I reminded myself no matter how bad i was feeling i could and would still run. I ran a few good miles, but Glyn and other runners were still panicking. I then asked them what time they thought the cut off was. "7pm" was the response i got. For those unfamiliar with the race the cut off was 7:30pm. The relief in that moment is hard to describe. I had grinded to this point and would come in to the checkpoint with plenty of time to spare. I saw my crew briefly, clambered over the lock at Buckby Top Lock and jogged down the steps. I was ok and fast realising that Mountain Dew was settling my stomach. Yep so the influx of the caffeinated ghost buster coloured bottled substance began. I continued the run to CP4 and came through there at 6:55pm. I was 35 minutes under the cut off and could now relax into the race. 

There are not many races i can think of where 53 miles and 13 hours in i can comment that it was time to relax into the race. With that said i was relaxing and feeling in control. I had planned to arrive at mile 53 by 4:54pm. So yes i was 2 hours down, but heck i was in the fight and this fight was not going to be won by knockout. It was going all the way to the 12th round and i was going to need to win this fight on points. From this point you approach Blisworth Tunnel. It was a very pleasant evening and still light, although the sun was fading fast. Climbing up the hill i took a comfort break and in the process discovered a dropped digital camera. This was handed off to my crew and i believe successfully returned to its owner. It is worth noting that this section has a suprising bit of incline, but it doesnt last long and is definitely runnable. Do not be deceived into thinking you have to walk the hill.
The inspiring Tom Garrod in top form.

Finding some rhythm in the heat.

I was feeling ok, tired and fatigued from the heat of the day, but generally in good spirits. My next mental goal was Navigation Bridge. It felt like it would never appear and whilst not exactly half way it felt to me like this was my midway checkpoint. About 4 miles out i found myself running with Ian Shelley and Jay Close. I was very grateful as a couple of silly navigational errors could have caused me undue distress. They kept me on the straight and narrow and as we came up to the top the hill i stopped for a quick coffee. I then pressed on into the darkness and the descent down the road. Navigation Bridge was looming. In my haste i crossed a road and plodded down a hill. Something didn't seem right and after about 400 metres i checked my map and could only assume i should have turned left at the crossing. I saw a flash of light that appeared to be trying to attract my attention. I retraced my steps and at the junction i could see nobody. Maybe i had made the flash of light up and then there it was again, but slightly further down the road. I ran down after it, hoping that i would not becoming like that crazy dog chasing the ice cream van. As it was within about 50 metres of the runner i heard "thank fuck for that." It was Ian Shelley expressing relief. It turns out he had seen me drop down the hill and was worried i would not realise. We chatted for a bit and then he pointed me to the point in the village where you access the canal. I pressed on and it was apparent that Ian sadly was approaching the end of his race. I am for ever grateful that he appeared to instill his last amount of energy into motivating me to get to Little Venice. For this who will run the race remember to turn left at the cross roads and when you head down the hill you cross the road and there is a gate that lets you back on to the canal. 

Running along the canal, in the dark, i was reflecting on what i was trying to do. I was knackered and nearly 18 hours into my race. Then from the darkness appeared the well lit bridge. I heard my name, well i thought it was my name. Oh that's pleasant i thought and then it became a scream and a cheer and a whoop and a holler. Finally i had made it and there was my crew, my friend Anne and her partner and my wife. Anne appeared drunk on the energy of watching all these running loons coming through for several hours. Zoe was genuinely concerned for me. I was cold and exhausted. I went to the car and slept for 10 minutes. BIG MISTAKE! i strongly advise anyone undertaking this race to resist sleeping in the night. I got bloody cold, bloody quick. I was not making sound judgements and failed to make a sensible decision to put on running tights. Yes i added layers, but the quickest act would have been to wear running tights. After a limited effort to eat something i took a few hugs  and some swigs of Mountain Dew and pressed on. I now had running support with me and only 85 miles to go. Sounds so simple when written on paper. 

At this point in the race my crew excelled. I could not have done this without them and my sincere thanks to them all. Bryan Webster joined us at about mile 80. It was good to see another friendly face. When i received no sarcastic banter i knew i must look like shit. Photographs and crew accounts would safely verify that i looked like garbage. David left us at this point to get himself home, huge thanks to David for nursing me through 80 miles. 

Yep looking brilliant.

We pressed on to mile 85 and what was CP 6. I could not keep my eyes open and i could barely put one leg in front of the other. I decided i needed another nap. Naomi Newton-Fisher was at this checkpoint. I was so tired i could barely must a hello, so apologies if i was in any way rude. I bolted for the car and reclined the seat. The plan was 15 minutes and then really make progress. With this plan in place Zoe came with me to have a power nap, in truth i think she was more worried that i may swallow my tongue. After somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes i sat bolt up right and was ready to crack on. I knew that if i didn't get moving it was game over. I caught Bryan on the hop, but he responded admirably and chased after me along the tow path. For the next few miles things were going ok, but i really needed a shit. Yep the glamour of ultras is the reason i got into these things. Any way after a couple of failed bush visits i decided it was pointless trying and just pressed on.

The sun was up now and we were in for another hot day. Oh good, i enjoyed this so much the day before. As if to test my legs, or take the piss Bryan and i approach a swan along the canal path. It was blocking our route and there was no alternative way to pass. So i picked up the pace and jumped pass the swan. The swan swore and hissed and darted its head towards me. Thankfully the swan missed and now it was Bryan's turn to get past. So he lined up and ran past.. and.... nothing... nope nothing. The swan gave him no notice. So remember people Swans are evil and pray on the weak. 

Beware of the killer Psycho Swan.

Pressing on Bryan and i arrived at the 100 mile mark in around 27 hours. I got to use an actual toilet and felt significantly relieved. The joy was captured in a photo taken by Bryan. As we left the checkpoint Bryan and i discussed the fact that despite how bad i had been feeling i had still gone through the 100 mile mark in 27 hours. This moment and the rising of the sun gave me a sense of renewed vigour. I still had running left in my legs and felt able to press on. I reviewed the race to this point and realised there had been some seriously low moments, but i had overcome each and everyone. I was feeling better than i had felt at mile 30 and i was growing into the race. I had loved every moment of the race. Yes the near disasters were not pleasant in the moment, but the challenge of the race was why i entered. I did not go to Birmingham for an easy and unfulfilling experience.

Yes a poo can be this rewarding.

So running along the canal on the Sunday it did not get as hot as the Saturday, but it was a beautiful day and i was enjoying my running. I was struggling to eat anything and probably pissing my crew off as i rejected all things i had requested. I believe at one point Bryan suggested to Zoe that she just reheat the last set of noodles as i would not bloody eat them any way. I can't say i blame him as well as it transpired he was right. I am not sure at what point it occurred but Sam and Bryan swapped out pacing duties. I was tired, but running with a smile and growing in confidence that i would get the finish. I was bettering my revised target times and sustaining pace. At about mile 110 i felt like i was in a Rocky movie as various running friends appeared to offer their support. Paul Radford was out and in good spirit. In addition Phil Gatsky appeared. I had first met Phil when i swept Thames Path 100 and bullied him to leave the mile 91 aid station. It was a welcome period of support and i believe i ran the next 5/6 miles straight with no walking break. With power of others around me and my further consumption of Mountain Dew i was feeling good. Phil ran with us for about 9/10 miles and it was a huge element of support. 

Beginning to feel better and get back in the game.

My crew working super hard!

The clock continued to click and it was apparent that i was going to be out running into a second night. Once i accepted this the rest of day was great. At Springwell lock i knew there was just 25 miles to go. Yep only a marathon to go. If it were not for the 125 miles in my legs then this would be a doddled. I pressed on and Bryan jumped back in as a pacer. My body felt tired but ok. This was with exception of my feet. Every step made my feet feel like they were being dipped in lava. I am sure i was walking barefoot on hot coals. I could not run, i could barely walk, but i wanted to get to the finish. We had considered whether Zoe would run with me or not. At this point it would be anything but running. 

Only a marathon to go. NB: I am not sponsored by Mountain Dew.

As Bryan and i progressed along the tow path i started chanting "ow fuck, ow fuck, ow fuck fuck." For whatever reason this worked. Provided i continued to repeat the chant i was able to continue running pace. We ran past some highly diverse cultures. This included a barge bar and a man in a whacky top hat... oh the temptation to have a pint, but i would have passed out in the canal. Everyone was happy and engaged and even as the sun was setting the moods were lifting. I was on the look out for the famous left turn and the sign to Paddington. Honestly as i was chugging down more Mountain Dew i convinced myself that someone had moved the left hand turn. It was not there and i was convinced we must have missed it. Of course we had not and eventually the left turn appeared and so did more swans. These were more friendly than the previous swans and we passed without issue. Sadly this last section was littered with rubbish... sigh.. come on people.

The relief at the sight of the left hand turn. I promise i am not sponsored by Mountain Dew.

At CP9 I briefly caught up with many runners i knew, both who were running and those who were crewing. I sat down briefly to compose myself. I took on some fluid and some more Mountain Dew (i may have been glowing green at this point.) I wanted the race to be done and so got up and pressed on. We decided Bryan would continue to run with me rather than switch Sam back in. Bryan and i were in momentum and he was now zoning out my swearing and recognised that my body was telling me to sleep when it should keep running. Bryan appropriately forced me to keep moving. He rewarded me with limited rest breaks at appropriate times, but in general there was little break. We caught up runners and for the first time in hours we were overtaking people. This felt good and aided the miles being ticked off.

A well earned rest break. Can you spot a theme in what kept me going.

The sun was setting but our pace was improving. I could not believe the miles were ticking away so well. Then before i knew it we were at mile 139. Bloody hell 6 miles to go. We had sustained such a pace that we were there 30-45minutes faster than anticipated. I took on some more Mountain Dew and Zoe confirmed that she was going to run the last 10km with me. I was overwhelmed by this gesture. 

A moment with my wife that i will treasure forever.

My wife and i have shared some of the most incredible memories in life that no one else will ever share with me. We have shared a marriage proposal in Spain, entering into a marriage, Zoe has walked in the last 9 miles of SDW100 with me, she has given me two wonderful children and here we were about to share the most amazing moments of this race. I couldn't  have wished for a better partner to finish this race with. Don't let this blog present our marriage as perfect, we argue, fight and disagree, but Zoe is my hero and the love of my life. I am who i am because of her and she inspires me to be a better parent and generally better person. I guess in that way we are a lot like the GUCR race. It is not always easy and there can be a lot swearing, but ultimately the journey is without a doubt worth the challenges. I prepared myself to walk in the final 6 miles. I knew Zoe had been training and was becoming capable as a runner, but my feet hurt. I held her hand and as we walked into the darkness i knew in that moment it was only about me and her. Yes there was a huge wealth of support and people i could not have achieved this race without and social media was bursting with encouragement, but in that very moment it was only about Zoe and i. The world was quiet and we pressed on. Zoe shared with me that she had been training up to  10km distance to run this last leg in. Oh come one Zoe with the emotional blackmail. Now i had to bloody run. So on we ran, and it was wonderful. We entered into banter and counted the miles down. I calculated that we could walk it in about 2 hours. Zoe's response was to tell me that we could or we could run and be finished in 70 minutes. Zoe was absolutely right and we ran. I entered into a facebook countdown. Zoe had found the Bryan balance of supporting me, whilst also ensuring i did not stop running. Mark Haynes had obviously found a second wind and passed me with about 3 miles to go. Zoe and i pressed on and the last 2 miles seemed to go on forever. I could have sworn that Little Venice would never appear. In that moment i did not want it to. I wanted this experience and the moment with the love of my life to last forever, it was a wonderful feeling. Then in the distance there was a flicker of a light. The light was dismissed by Zoe, but i became like a kid at Christmas... "Its a light a light... i can see the finish." It felt to me like a lighthouse shining its beacon. I could see the finish and knew the home straight was in my grasp. This whole journey had lasted for over 41 hours and in truth the real journey started months prior. I was happy, i was grateful and i was proud. As i crossed the line i felt so drained. Suddenly i had no more energy. There were other runners also sat, all looking broken, but all in their own state of reflective euphoria. 

We left the finish after i received my doorstop medal. I could barely stand with it around my neck. Nonetheless we got up. After many hugs and congratulations it was time to get a taxi. I had contemplated walking the mile and a bit to the hotel. Thankfully both Zoe and Bryan exercised common sense and informed me they would like to be at the hotel in the next hour. We got to the hotel and as i was signing in nearly fell asleep on the reception desk. Thankfully there were lifts, the rooms were large and the bed comfortable. I flopped on the bed, fell into the shower and then back onto the bed. I was tired, but elated. I went to check my phone and respond to some comments. My phone went crazy with beeping and updates. I was falling asleep whilst holding my phone. I was shattered, but peaceful and was experiencing a sense of fulfillment. I had achieved a bucket list race with wonderful memories and vomiting in the canal seemed a life time ago.

In reflection this was such a good race. The diversity of cultures that i experienced on the canal was like no other i have experienced. It was so much fun and everyone was friendly and interacting. On the whole the race was beautiful, genuinely beautiful with diverse scenery. I loved the different sites, although no site tops that of the flashing finishing beacon and the bloody big medal. I can put in a better performance and i am sure i could go quicker (i will be back,) but no finish will have the magic of this first finish. GUCR 2016 was magical.

GUCR is beautiful.

Very tired crew member.

A medal worthy of the experience.

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