Written by James Elson - http://www.centurionrunning.com
The Grand Union Canal Race is one of the longer standing 'classic' British Ultras. The Race Organiser, Dick Kearn, isn't just a pillar of the ultrarunning community, he is the foundation of it. Many runners don't realise how often they have been helped by him, either directly or indirectly, in their ultrarunning lives. He sits on the committee of the TRA and has worked selflessly to try and better the sport for all of us, especially through the late 90s and early 00s when the sport was much smaller and enjoying less success than current boom times. He organises the Compton Downland Challenge (40), the Thames Ring 250 and the GUCR but helps every year along with his wife Jan, at Caesars Camp, SDW100, NDW100, TP100, Winter 100 and countless other trail events across the country. Dick has been extremely generous with his help for our events and I really wanted to run his pride and joy, the Grand Union Canal Race, to see how it really should be done.
The GUCR began in 1993, with 20 odd runners and 5 finishers, Dick himself winning it that year. After a short hiatus the race returned in 1997 and has been held annually since. For a long time it was the longest non-stop ultra in the UK at 145 miles, only recently being surpassed by a few others of note. Much like any classic ultra, those who have run it talk so fondly of the organisation, route, camaraderie and the event as a whole, that it's hard not to let the seed of one day running it yourself, start to creep in after a while.
I've had a busy year to date, personally, with time for a 100, an Ironman and a dozen or so marathons and ultras since the start of 2013, and thankfully to this point everything had gone to plan. Although a busy schedule i'd only really 'raced' twice, at the trail 100 Rocky Raccoon in Texas and the London marathon. I admit that there were times during March and April when our own Centurion calendar started to get busy, that I thought I wasn't doing GUCR justice in my training, but bit by bit the excitement started to build and I decided to plunge in with both feet. This is the only way to tackle an event of this nature. You are either in all of the way, or not at all. You can't fake 100, let alone 145 miles and I was definitely all in.
In terms of a report of the race, I could sum it up quite quickly by saying it went to plan. I came away winning the event in a time of 29 hours and 10 minutes, bang on schedule and without any major issues to talk of. I absolutely loved the whole experience and was more emotional at the finish line than perhaps I have been for any other event in the past which says a lot about what it meant to me. If you want to go in to the realms of the super long, it's really not necessary to look any further. Everything you've read or heard about this event is right on, it's just an all round heart warming experience. For those of you who enjoy detals of suffering, pain, mile splits, racing tactics etc, you may want to read on, otherwise well done for getting this far.
The race begins at Gas Street Basin in Birmingham at 6am on Saturday and travels 145 miles down the British Waterways network of canals all the way to Little Venice in London, a stones throw from Paddington Station. If you plot it on the map it just looks like an epic point to point journey run right from the start, and it is.
My planning going in was good. Not exemplary, but good. I had chosen the supported route so I had got a crew together to see me through the journey. I had worked out a nutrition plan. I had decided on gear, shoes, timings for the crew and all of the other little details you need to cover off to minimise issues on race day. And I had devised a pacing plan that I felt happy with. I'd talked at length to Debbie Martin Consani, the 2012 overall winner of the event, about her plan and she had kindly forwarded on her logistical prep and other details that saved me hours of pouring over maps etc. I can't thank her enough for being kind enough to share that information. I had two pacing plans, a fast and a slow. My time for 100 miles at Rocky Racoon in Feb was 17:32. I knew from my splits there that I could expect a roughly 9 hour 100km, 13:30 80 mile and a potential big slow down from then on if I couldn't eat properly. I felt that a 4mph average for the last 45 miles was do-able but would be much harder than it sounded, because with short breaks for food and high levels of leg/ foot pain it would be hard to keep enough running in there to balance out a walking pace. Rightly or wrongly I told my crew that my intention was to win the race. My fast plan was 27hrs30 and my slow plan was 30hrs30. I had no idea who else would be a contender, other than Craig Stewart who is a phenomenal athlete. I knew that if he had a good day I wouldn't be able to hang with him, and I was more than prepared for that. But I went in with total faith in my ability to churn out a sub 30 hr time and knew that something not too much faster than that would put me in the mix. The final confidence boost I took going in, was having the experience of Badwater behind me. The total disintegration of my race from 17 miles in to the 135 there, the cripplingly slow death march to the finish and the unprecedented pain and suffering of that event stood me up. I knew that however bad it got on the canal, it wasn't going to get close to that and therefore I knew I could put the distance out of my mind, and run my own race. Not worrying about the collosal mileage saved me a ton of mental energy and stress. It was going to be me, my crew and what I love doing the most, running long and relaxed.
Dad and I left home the morning of the race for the 90 minute drive to the start. When I hopped out of the car I was met with a sea of friendly faces, too many to mention. I had a couple of 'what are you up to today' type questions, before people found out I was actually running for once rather than helping or organising.
At 5:55am we wandered down to the canalside and Dick gave us a short brief on the day. 6am dead and we were off. I didn't want to get pushed along too fast at the beginning but I also just wanted to stay in the front and control my pace, so I settled in alongside Kevin Mcmillan and we chatted the first 11 miles away to CP1. Our pace average was 8:50 per mile, it felt chronically slow and I knew that there would be some behind who simply wouldn't be able to resist picking it up. Sure enough Craig popped out around 500 yards from the CP and pushed straight through without stopping building himself a 30 second lead. I stopped and changed bottle and food, said hello to the all time legend, GUCR champ and CR holder Paddy Robbins and pushed on now in 4th. Over the course of the nest 12 miles to Hatton Locks, Craig stopped a lot, met his crew, others came and went moving too fast and then slowing down and so on and so forth. The race shook itself out a bit and as I ran down through the CP at mile 22, Craig was 4 or 5 minutes ahead and the rest of the field were behind me. I felt relaxed and comfortable as I soaked up the abuse from Henk (Caesars Camp RD) as I barrelled through the CP.
Mile 22, photo courtesy of Rachel Smith
At mile 28 the next meeting point, I made a critical error. I came in to meet my dad and delved in to the food box, with my old racing chum Richard Webster told me not to race Craig, there were so many familiar faces around I got distracted and left without any food. I started to blow really quickly and struggled to maintain my consistent 9 min miling. The heat was just starting to get up a little and I cursed my stupidity. I had to stop for a bathroom break here and watched as Cliff Canavan King came past looking very strong on a rare uphill section. As time wore on, I got lower and lower and as we hit the exit off the canal at Braunston, I was in trouble. My first guardian angel appeared at that moment in the form of Drew and Claire. They'd come out to see me early on before they took over crewing properly at mile 65 and armed me with a handful of crisps, a gel and some coke. Within 5 minutes I was back on track and feeling spectacular after 15 very low miles. When I got to mile 45 I was flying. I grabbed handfuls of food and made my way out of the meeting point at a good clip which I maintained all the way until I hit the 53 mile CP. Just as I came in there, I passed Cliff who looked to be in trouble, walking in to the CP. I tapped him on the shoulder meaning it as a 'hang in there buddy good job' but I later got told it looked like a racing tactic as I didn't pause for breath going through that CP high fiving one of the boys as I ran hard straight through.
Mile 45 Photo Courtesy of Paul Navesey:
2 miles later I met my wife Lisa and my Mum who were down to crew 35 to 65 for me and they told me Craig was just a couple of minutes ahead and walking. I still felt incredible and couldn't hide my enthusiasm very well as I rushed picking up food and went straight on out. 10 minutes later I passed Craig and he had unfortunately pulled his quad, struggling to walk well I urged him to try and walk it off at least and puill it around. He sounded like he thought that could happen, I really didn't want to see his race end early but I also wanted to make the most of feeling that good so I pressed on. At mile 60 Gayton Junction I had quite the local crowd of Northampton spectators and my first full sight of the overnight crew: Robbie Britton, Paul Navesey, Graham Shircore, Drew Sheffield and Claire Shelley all there to cheer me on. What a crew this was: 4 GUCR finishes, 1 win, and every one of them an experienced 100 mile runner. I felt good, they said I looked good, I was in the lead and running strong, things couldn't be going any better at that point.
I was maybe 30 mintues down on tip top schedule but what else could I hope for! 5 miles later after the long drag up the road alongside Blisworth tunnel and I was at the canal museum mile 65, picking up my first pacer, Robbie.
Largely ignorning my pacing schedule to this point I started to concentrate on times from this point on. I had wanted to hit 65 in 10 hrs and was a bit perturbed to see that I had done it in around 10:25. The next section I broke up in to 5 mile blocks, where my crew met me, swapped in a bottle and some food, sometimes swapping in a pacer and keeping the overall pace high, running everything with the exception of 1 x 50 pace walking break every 2 -3 miles in order to shake my legs out. Doing that makes a huge difference to the efficiency of your running stride and saves you minutes after a few miles. Time ticked by fast as we rolled through the CPs at 72, 84 and on to mile 90 all with plenty of daylight still to play with. The one disappointment here was my increasingly regular toilet breaks. I didn't ask for splits to the guys and girls behind at any point, but I knew my toilet stops were costing me too much time and boy did I whinge about it.
As we got to mile 95 we switch on our Petzl headlamps and after a short stint of running with Drew, we rolled in to the CP at mile 99.8 with about 17:35 on the clock. I was now on plan still feeling great and without any other major issues.
At this point my crew took over in what I can only describe as one of those 'going above and beyond' type moments. I was getting cold and decided to go for the long tights here, but the one chair id packed wasn't around so rather than sit down I began to strip naked from the waist down in order to change. What transpired though was a wobbling mess of a runner, so Rob grabbed me from under my arms, Paul undid my laces, and two of the others changed my tights and shorts for me. Remembering it now it felt like I was being fed at the same time just to save precious seconds, but whatever the case it A. must have been horrendous for them B. was totally unexpected and C. worked like a dream! Within two minutes of being in, I was out on the trail running towards mile 105 with my new pacer Stu Blofeld.
With a stomach going rapidly south, more and more items from my food box were dropping off of the preverbial menu. First went the cheese, then the scotch eggs, then the sausages and crisps until we were down to cookies, baked beans, rice pudding and tomatoes with the odd gel thrown in. Still enough to go on but not ideal.
The crew short of a cooking pan, raced off to Stu's house locally to pick one up and began serving me warm baked beans every hour or so that we met. Seriously, this was formula 1 racing type stuff, I'd run to the CP, drop to a walk, wander up to the warm pan with a spoon, shovel it in as fast as I could, put the spoon back in and start running again. Wow.
It was dark now as we went through Berkhamstead at mile 105 and on other unknown towns that just blurred in to one. I knew I had a lead because looking back up the long dark lonely canal path, there were no bobbing headlamps behind. Robbie swapped in for Stu at mile 110 and I produced a real stomach clearing puke, the type where 8 retches in there's nothing left. But we started running again straight off the bat, a blank canvas on which to start eating again and feeling much better for it.
At mile 115 I had a small slip in to a river as I visited the number 2 in a secluded bush away from the canal, but again it was over and done with quickly and before long we were running in to Springwell Lock, mile 120 and the second to last major CP at 4:45am or 22hrs45 minutes in. James Adams, Allan Rumbles and Paul Stout were there, it was just getting light and the end felt very much within reach with under a marathon to go. Again I put down the food quite quickly and made my way down the final stretches before the left hand turn in to London proper. This was the one section of the race that looking back now, dragged. I'd only ever run this part of the canal before race day, but I'd run it 5 times in the old Tring to Town and then Country To Capital the past 4 years which has the same final 20 miles as the GUCR. I kept looking for the entry point of the C2C course on to the canal so I could count in familiar landmarks but it just never seemed to arrive. Drew with me at this point kept my spirits up here, but it only really turned around 3 or 4 miles later when we passed in to familiar territory.
Rob took over and around 2 miles before the left run, and 131 miles in to the race, Drew asked me if I wanted to know what my lead was. I said yes and he told me 2hrs and 12 minutes. Despite having 14 miles of a 145 miler still left to run I admit that at that point I waved my hands in the air as if to say well I can do this, it was just confidence that I felt good enough to finish the job off I guess. We turned left on to the final 12 mile stretch, made our way through the stinking Hamborough Tavern CP at mile 133 and pressed on at a brisk walk with very short bursts of running thrown in, towards the finish line. I managed to get a bacon sandwich down and yet another cup of coffee from the still seemlessly organised crew and pressed on to around 7 miles from the finish. At that point Drew jumped back in to pace me to the finish and let me know that reports of Kevin Mcmillan really picking up the pace in 2nd, were floating around. When your brain is that fried you start trying to do stupid calculations about how slow you could afford to go, based on Kevin running 7 minute mile pace the last 12 miles and still hold on.... In reality I knew I could walk it in from the turn and had taken the somewhat lazy option to do pretty much that. In my eyes why risk blowing up and collapsing to run a marginally better (but way off Course Record) time, as opposed to finishing feeling good and enjoying the morning sunshine? Also, my legs were starting to feel battered by now and some blister issues were mounting the misery I felt every time I ran so I was looking for the easy road.
In the end we ran the last 5 miles like we were being chased. We kept looking over our shoulders, expecting to see Kevin bolting around the corner. But luckily the margin I'd built in the first 120 was plenty enough and with 29 hours and 10 minutes on the clock I crossed the line in to a big hug with Dick Kearn and his massive beard, for a first place finish. The whole family were there, something that has never happened to me at a race before, so somehow they must have gotten a clue that I might just pull off the win....
In the end 53 people finished out of a total of 88 starters which is a phenomenal percentage given the distance. Conditions were almost perfect but nonetheless it must be one of the highest finishing rates in recent times. Provisional results are here.
What did I take away from all this?
Firstly, I haven't won anything particularly notable since the Three Forts Marathon in 2010. During the spring of that year I was in the best form of my life and everything felt easy. Im still not quite there but being able to convert a very precise race plan on paper, in to reality, over a course as long as 145 miles is a really satifying thing to have done.
Secondly, my old plan of eat as many gels as I can until I explode with minimal real food, is gone for good. I reversed it here after much deliberation. I always aim for 300kcals an hour during 100km plus races and that stayed right for me, but introducing 200kcals of real food/ coke and 1 gel per hour was a formula that held up well for 110 miles. After that, well I won't get hung up on it because a bad stomach after 20 hours of running is not really a shock and i was able to keep just enough going in not to break down in to a death march
Third, this is an incredible event. Even if you think it's something you wouldn't fancy because it's just too long, go out and see it next year. Drop Dick an email and volunteer for him. You'll never ever forget it. From a runners perspective, it was flawless.
Lastly and most importantly, I need to thank my crew. It goes without saying that running this race unsupported is a lot harder than running it with a crew. I was concerned in parts about mine, but they blew me away with their efficiency. I didn't need to sit down once the entire race, didn't wait for anything I needed whether it be a bowl of beans or a spare jacket. They put up with the usual whinging and pushed me on with encouragement every time i saw them. Having pacers helped enormously with the night section when it's easy to drop your pace and start getting cold. They gave up so much for me but as always, if you want to run the best time you can, you need to get a crew who understand you, what you need and can wipe those precious minutes and seconds off by catering to you as you meet them. I can honestly say that if I ran the race again, I wouldn't be able to make any time savings at all through better or different crewing. It was sensational.
Whilst GUCR was an A race, the 4th of 5 this year, the biggest thing I take away from this weekend is that the 5th goal is within reach. Sparta is 8 miles longer and has an overall cut off of 36 hours. It's totally incomparable to GUCR. The day time temperature is 20 degrees hotter than it was this year, it holds punishing road descents an ascents as well as the two mountains after 100 miles of running. I learned a lot this weekend and I will need to employ all of those things if Im going to make that statue in September.
Thanks for reading and sorry it was so long, but 145 miles IS a long way!!!
40 miles: 6:11
50 miles: 7:58
80 miles: 13:09
100 miles: 17:34
120 miles: 22:24
140 miles: 27:43
145 miles: 29:10