Written by Paul Ali - http://ultraavon.com/
Firstly an admission, I don’t really enjoy running. So why was I lining up at the start of the 2010 Grand Union Canal Run on an overcast Saturday at 6am in the morning and 145 miles away from the finish?
Stupidity? Maybe, but I like a challenge and ever since I broke my ankle in 2007 playing football, I wanted to complete a challenging event to prove the injury was behind me. I was joined by my friend Paul Stout (Stouty). We had both completed the Thames Path Ultra in Jan 2009 without any real experience of distance running (having only run a Half Marathon distance beforehand) and then spotted the Grand Union Canal Race, when it said it was the “toughest non stop running race in the UK” we just had to do it! Stouty’s friend Shane Benzie also joined us on the run.
Both Stouty and I had also decided to raise money for Charity. I was supporting Cancer Research UK which I have supported in the past and Stouty was raising money for the The Children’s Hospice.
We needed to up our training from the 50-mile distance to even have a chance of finishing the race and to be honest with a high failure rate; we just wanted to finish and knew that we would end up run/walking at some stage. We training solidly for 5-6 months beforehand and were both covering an average of 50 miles per week. We also had decided to run the Thames Trot and Compton 40 as warm up races aswell.
I knew this was nowhere near the mileage some people run in preparation but I reasoned we were just a couple of amateurs training to finish.
Stouty and I had also planned to run the race together. We complement each other quite well I think as I like to organise and plan the logistics and races and Stouty is the better trainer and runner, so he keeps me going during the race.
We enlisted the aid of a few people to act as a joint support crew. First in was my dad (Baz) and his friend Cliff along with a couple of my friends Alan and Matt. In addition, we were also going to be joined by a couple of buddy runners EJ and Nina who run regularly with Stouty. Finally, Stouty’s family (Dad Stuart, Wife Vicky and In-Laws) would also be meeting us at various points for support.
We organised some rooms at the Maypole Travelodge for the Friday, the Premier Inn in Milton Keynes on the Saturday (obviously not for us runners) and a backup Travelodge room for the Sunday night in London (which we didn’t end up using). The £10 Travelodge room deals came in handy to keep costs down.
In terms of equipment, we had several changes of kit including rain gear and the usual maps, head torches etc.
In each of my previous Ultra runs I had always suffered blisters and this was going to be my biggest obstacle. I had tried various methods to help manage this and settled on a using compeed plasters on my heels on the obvious blister points, strapping the toes and using sealskinz (waterproof) socks. This had worked well at the Compton 40 where the only blisters I suffered were on the toes; so two larger pairs of trainers to change into when my feet swelled up in size would also come into play. My tactics partly worked with my heels not really affected by blisters but my toes really suffered during the race so it was only a partial success overall.
In terms of food, we went to the extent of working out a rough menu with the support crew in advance and supplemented this with lots of things we could pick at. Our menu for the day started with porridge prior to the race (simply add water), followed by sausage sandwiches and then pasta (all made in advance). Towards the end of the day we had tinned fruit, pot noodles and a burger from a nearby pub. The next day was more of the same starting with porridge, then fruit, a burger and lots of snacks including some home made cake, flapjack, jaffa cakes, crisps, mars bars and tuc biscuits. We didn’t go hungry!
Saturday Day 1
After checking in at the Red Lion Pub on the Friday and collecting our race numbers we headed back to the hotel for some food (there was an hour wait at the pub). Our Friday night meals were a subway sandwich and a pot of pasta from Sainsburys.
Unfortunately I didn’t sleep too well and I awoke at 3am on the Saturday and after trying to drop off again, got up at 3.30am and started to get my kit ready.
A couple of hours later we were making our way to Gas Street for the start. I was yawning already and feeling tired before we had even started! As we pulled into Gas Street we saw at one end keen Ultra Runners unpacking their cars. This was in stark contrast to the other end of the Street where revellers were coming out from the Gas Street Basin club, one day ends for some and another one starts for others!
As we made our way to the start we bumped into Mimi Anderson, whose website we had come across a month before and from reading her achievements was a real inspiration to us. Mimi, gave us a confident “Morning Boys!” looking every inch the professional runner she is as she made her way to the front of the pack as we made our way to the back of the grid, that was probably the last we would see of her.
Despite not expecting to see any other recognisable faces, I did spot Anna Finn (didn’t know her name at the time) who we had seen doing the Thames Trot in February.
Just before 6am, Dick Kearn the organiser said a few words and then a few minutes later we were off in overcast conditions. We followed the pack along the Canal Paths in Birmingham and as the minutes wore on the pack began to spread out.
We had planned to run together and meet our crew at each major checkpoint and once in-between major checkpoints after Hatton Locks. Despite our aim being just to finish, we had estimated a finish time of about 40 hours for the purpose of planning meeting times with our crew. Our first stop was Elmdon Heath (9.7 miles) due to the checkpoint colour restrictions and we met the crew here at about 7.45am where we wolfed down some sausage sandwiches.
“Where’s Mimi?” we asked. “She came through half an hour ago”, came the response.
We then carried on as it started to rain and continued past the Catherine De Barnes checkpoint long enough to log our numbers and headed towards Hatton Locks (22.5 miles) at a reasonable pace. We arrived here at about 10.30am, soaked but an hour ahead of schedule. Thankfully, the rain started to ease off slightly at this point.
It started to rain again as we continued running and met the crew briefly at Fosse Road Bridge (31 miles) and before arriving at Stockton Bridge (35.1 miles) completely soaked through at around 1.15pm, still making good time. We had some lunch here (pasta) and I needed to attend to my ankle (padded my heel to stop this rubbing). I had already changed my shoes earlier to ones, which were half a size larger for extra comfort as my feet had began to swell up already.
As it was still wet, it didn’t seem worth changing kit yet so we carried on, met our crew at Braunston Marina (44 miles) and then stopped at the Heart of England Pub (53.1 miles) where a tin of fruit (pear) went down very well. My feet were getting sore at this point but nothing major and so we carried on. I also changed my running shoes into the largest size (my so called “clown” shoes) for comfort. We had now passed the 50-mile mark (the distance of our previous couple of Ultra Run) and were in unknown territory.
We bumped into a couple of runners (Gary – a vet of several GUCR runs) who was having an ice-cream at a shop just as the rain had eased off and it looked like a good idea so we stopped for an ice-cream briefly before going on.
I think it wasn’t much past this point where we saw a lone runner standing underneath a bridge. “Are you all right mate?” we asked. “Yeah fine, just waiting for my Chinese to be delivered!” and as we carried on we saw a lady with a bag of Chinese food walking to meet him at the bridge. Excellent.
Gayton Junction (60.6 miles) was our next meeting point, but at this time we had slowed down to a jog/walk and with some stops being longer than planned we had eaten into and time we gained so far and we now not too far off our original scheduled time. We arrived here around 8pm ish and we picked up our head torches and I changed into some comfortable night gear. On reflection, I should have worn something lighter as the light canvas trousers were difficult to run in and the weather despite being wet was quite mild.
The next stop was Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles) and we were looking to arrive at 11.30pm ish which was about 1hr 30 mins ahead of the cut off point at 1am. At this point, Stouty was struggling with blistered feet and I was struggling to keep my eyes open. There was little conversation between us at this point as we trudged onwards. As we arrived at Navigation Bridge, we saw some people with flashlights overlooking the path. Stouty thought he saw Shane’s wife Trudy and so I shouted “Trudy” and waved at the top of my voice. Unfortunately, it wasn’t her, but the contents of the pub poured outside to give us an amazing cheer as we approached.
We checked in and met Alan Turner, EJ and Nina who had travelled up on Saturday to help crew/buddy run the next day. Matt had stayed on with them as Baz and Cliff had retired earlier to get some sleep as they were doing the morning checkpoint. From talking to the crew, they had expected a lot of sitting around and waiting for us and were quite surprised by their eventual level of involvement. It was good to hear they all got involved in the spirit of the race and were encouraging other runners, talking to other support crews, giving other supports lifts to other checkpoints and generally offering assistance when needed. They guys and girls all did a fantastic job for us and enjoyed their experience.
We had decided not to ask the crew to meet us during the middle of the night so they could all get some sleep, so the plan was for us to get past Bridge 99 (84.5 miles) and meet at the Grand Junction Arms (100 miles) in the morning but we were already an hour behind our original schedule at this point so we probably needed to revise this. We agreed to speak to them in the morning to check how far we had progressed in the night and organise a meeting a point later. Again, we stopped here for longer than we needed to but I wolfed down some food grabbed a clean jacket and we were off again, our toughest stretch was ahead. The night phase would make or break us.
Sunday Day 2
Progress was very slow during the night and we mainly walked. I remember there being sufficient light at night to navigate almost without your head torch but we kept these firmly planted to the floor to watch out for loose stones, rocks or any obstacles on the floor. As the hours rolled past, we became more and more tired to the point where I was trying to keep one eye open and one eye closed. Stouty appeared less tired but blistered feet were causing him some pain. We got to the point where I needed to stop and rest my eyes, so we would stop for a minute whilst I just sat their and shut my eyes after which I felt better for a few minutes and we carried on. I don’t think we saw many (if any) people at that point.
We were “encouraged” at one point near the Milton Keynes area by a young man, half cut, half dressed, hanging out of his flat window with a “WelldoneGoodJobMate” shout or something like that.
During the darkest hours we both started to imagine things such as flickering shadows becoming people in the bushes and found a grass snake to be just a stick in the ground. However, we both recognised these as just tricks of the light and carried on.
Finally, dawn began to break from around 4am and we plodded into Bridge 99 (84.5 miles) at around 5am where we stopped for a while whilst Stouty had his feet strapped up by one of the marshals Andrew Smith (A Runners World hello) and I just sat in the chair taking the weight off my feet. Again, the stop was longer than planned but necessary at this time and a cup of tea was most welcome. There were a small handful of runners here who we spoke briefly including “Norseman” Dave who we had chatted to briefly on the run.
The only problem with sitting down is that you have to stand up again and it really does take 5-10 minutes to get your feet and legs to work again. We started off at a stagger and then carried on. We were now about 2 hours behind our scheduled time but still had 3 extra hours allowance before the 45 hour cut off point. My concern was that we were getting slower and slower.
I received a call from Baz and Cliff not long after, who were awake and ready to meet us. So we arranged to meet at Soulbury Three Locks where I changed into a clean set of kit, got rid of the light canvas trousers (which had been annoying me) and also, let us say used the facilities as Stouty ploughed on ahead.
Let me just pass on one bit of advice. If you have to use the “facilities” on the run, then make sure you make a good job of it otherwise you may find yourself sore in the rear. I’m not admitting to anything but needless to say both Stouty and I did request use of sudacream more than once during the run.
I trotted on and caught up with Stouty who was maintaining his staggered march but was not looking too good. I felt extremely tired and wanted a power nap at the next point to see if it would make me feel better. I suggested the idea to Stouty, but he didn’t want to stop as he felt he wouldn’t be able to get going again. Therefore, I decided to run ahead and build up some time, try and get a power nap and then catch him up.
I met Baz and Cliff at Tesco’s and tried to have a sleep in the back of the car with the instructions to wake me after 20 minutes maximum. After laying their for10 minutes I couldn’t drop off despite feeling extremely tired and decided to carry on.
The weather was really nice on the Sunday morning with sunshine and warmth and this seemed to keep us going. Another day in the rain and that could have been the end of the race for us!
We heard that Shane had got to Navigation Bridge just on the cut off time and had carried on, then felt extremely tired and fell asleep on a park bench and awoke when his mobile went off. Needless, to say he retired at that point but it was a good effort to get 70+ miles after minimal training and having just arrived back from South Africa during the week.
I caught up with Stouty and ran ahead to Slapton Lock (94.2 miles) where I tried to power nap again, but again I couldn’t drop off. So I ran on, spoke briefly to a runner I caught up with and pressed ahead and finally caught up with Stouty.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning by now, warm and sunny and we sat down briefly next to some unnamed lock on a park bench. I did my usual thing of shutting my eyes for a minute and Stouty did the same. All we could hear then was the sounds of the birds twittering away and the sound of running water as we gently drifted off almost (almost!) in each others arms as a barge sailed past with the owner giving us a strange look. Then we snapped to alertness together, realising that we both could have fallen to sleep at the moment. I splashed some cold water from my bottle into my face (another tactic to keep me awake) and we plodded on. That moment there could have ended the race for us if we’d fallen to sleep.
We bumped into Brian New running with someone. I had seen Brians website and knew he had some great personal motivation for running the race, so I shook his hand and wished him all the best.
We got to the Grand Junction Arms (99.8 miles) at around 10.30am and met Baz and Cliff and then had porridge for breakfast (just add water) and a cup of tea and despite knowing it would pain me to get out the chair. As I sat down, one of the marshals was doing a good job of keeping the runners going and was virtually ejecting one guy from the point (presuming he was hitting the permitted time allowance at each checkpoint). It was time to go as Stouty and I would have been chucked out next. We were probably 2 ½ – 3 hours behind schedule now but we had just about made 100 miles only 45 miles to go. I had a thought at that moment that the leaders had probably finished about now and we still had a third of the race left.
I think it was round here, when we passed a barge slowing down to a stop as they approached a lock in the opposite direction. The owner of The Naughty Hobbit barge saw the numbers on our vest and asked what we were doing. We explained we were running from Birmingham to London and after indicating we were both running for charity, he kindly gave us £20 cash on the spot as a donation! Stouty took a picture of me shaking his hand and thanking him (alas it was under a bridge and was too dark) but we were overwhelmed by this kind act from a complete stranger and it kept us going.
Around here my feet were really sore (feet were severely blistered around the toes now) and I was extremely tired. Having made the 100 mile point was an achievement and felt as if I could just lie down on the grass and sleep. However, there were charity donations on the line along with people’s expectations and I could not stop not even having completed the event (no disrespect intended to those who did not make it for various reasons – it is a tough race). Call it determination or drive (or some might say stubbornness and being bloody minded) but jog, run or crawl I was going to finish this damn race.
We carried on slowly and then met all of the crew at Boxmoor Bridge (108.5 miles) where our buddy runners Nina and EJ joined us for a couple of legs. We both benefited from having other people alongside us to keep us going and we even ran some of the distance here. As a result of this, we managed not to lose any further time and maintained the time at 3 hours behind schedule.
We got to Springwell Lock (120.3 miles) at around 5pm ish where Baz and Cliff were going to depart after a fantastic effort crewing and Nina and EJ would also be leaving us aswell. I had to sit down for a little while as Stouty received further treatment on his feet (thanks Runners World, Lurker).
However, Matt Brown was going to join us at Cowley Lock for a leg or two as Alan would meet us at the checkpoints. Stuart (Stoutys Dad) and Vicky (Stoutys Wife) had been stopping at several checkpoints on the Saturday and would also meet us at the checkpoints on Sunday aswell.
Stouty had an embarrassing incident as he grabbed the sudacream at the checkpoint and to spare everyone’s blushes nipped under the bridge to apply it. However, he failed to see a complete stranger jogging in the opposite direction who had got a startle as she ran past Stouty with his leggings pulled down to his knees to our laughter.
We both ate a burger, loaded up with water and then set off for our next checkpoint Cowley Lock which was about 127.5 miles distance. We met Matt and Alan here and Matt was ready to act as our buddy runner (walker) for the next leg or so.
At this point, we both knew we would finish but every mile seemed more and more of a drag and every checkpoint seemed to get longer and longer. I also remember the ground being quite stoney and my feet were almost screaming out with every step we took. We had both been taking some Ibuprofen tablets which thankfully numbed some of the pain and made it bearable.
Matt did his best to keep the conversation going and keep the pace up to a quick trot. At this point, I just wanted to settle into my own little shell and was quite happen to tag along behind Stouty without saying a word in a world of my own and just focussing on taking the next step and the next step.
We had an eventful encounter with a barge owner who had got themselves stranded in the river and were unable to move and needed pulling to one side. He gave the three of us a call for help as we were proceeding past him. My arms were ok, so I thought “What the hell, a few minutes helping someone is not going to kill us” and we stopped to assist. Unfortunately, the barge owner couldn’t throw this rope far enough to us (about 20 feet short) and he beckoned us to continue and would wait for another barge to assist him. We reluctantly continued.
We arrived at Hamborough Tavern (133 miles) at around 9.15pm ish as it started to get dark. We had caught up with a few runners around here including “Norseman” Dave again and a couple of the Norwegians. We met Alan, Stuart and Vicky here and Stouty had to comfort his lad Alex who was very tired and upset his Daddy was going again. We spoke briefly to Andrew Smith who was marshalling here, he was encouraging people to get a move on, only a half marathon to go and you’re there. It sounded easy until I worked out that at the pace we were going, we would take about 4 hours to get there!
We moved on with Matt leading the way. He took a video clip here where we both look absolutely shattered and he asks us whether we would do this again. We both responded with a “No”, so it must have been a bit of low point for us despite getting closer to the finish. There was a diversion in place here which meant we had to go through the streets. I pulled the map from my bag, squinted at it trying to make sense of it and then handed it to Matt, “You lead the way and we’ll follow” I said. Matt led us through the diversion and we eventually got back onto the canal which was a welcome relief and we carried on.
We met Alan at Piggery Bridge (139 miles) at around 11.30pm ish and Matt joined him to drive ahead to the finish. We had been leap frogging a few of the runners now and could see a group of about 6 or 7 of us all finishing around the same time. We stopped here for a bite to eat (I was hungry) and then carried on, only 6 miles to go!
With one final leg to go we were nearly there. We were both determined to get there as quickly as we could and set off a brisk trot. I think we overtook a couple of people, said a few words to them and carried on. We decided to try and avoid stopping now and just keep going. Sleep deprivation was having an affect on us now as I started to stagger a bit as I walked but we just locked arms together (in a manly way you understand) and walked on together.
I remember that last leg seeming to be never-ending, we saw the Paddington signs and then started to look for a light or group of people to indicate the finish point. Every corner we walked around, we thought we were home but weren’t and we both started to get a little irritable as metres turned into miles. Honestly, 6 miles has never seemed so long.
At around 1.40pm we eventually saw a light and a few people ahead with a finish sign. We had been pre-warned it was a low key finish as many barge owners were asleep and as we made the last few steps, we walked in together finishing the 145 mile distance in 43 hours and 46 minutes. We had finished! How did I feel, well relieved more than elated to be honest.
Dick Kearn was their to greet us and give us the medal which I can only describe as an iron horseshoe and after a few congratulations and handshakes I slumped to the ground with a cup of tea feeling really weary. I was starting to feel really cold and started to shake as my body was no longer exercising and keeping the heat up, so I spoke to Alan and said “Let’s go home”. Stouty was getting a lift home with Stuart and Matt and we said our good-byes and departed. I would liked to have stayed to see the last few people in but I was cold and tired and just wanted to get home and sleep.
Alan had kindly cleared the back seat of the car as we drove back to Reading. I apologised in advance for not talking to him as I crashed out in the back of the car to wake an hour later when he dropped me at home. My legs had started to stiffen as I staggered into my house with Alans help and then my wife Sal awoke and helped my get in and out of the bath. I felt much better after a bath although my feet looked a mess which I couldn’t be bothered to deal with at 4.30am so I put on a pair of socks and went to bed.
I only managed to sleep for 5 hours that night which surprised me and I only managed a similar amount of the next night. I guess I was still pumped full of adrenalin as despite feeling tired, I just couldn’t sleep.
Physically, my little toes were shredded and looked like two little red stumps and I had blisters around my toes which were all painful. Thankfully, my heels were relatively fine and the patch up job I did before the race had worked. My right calf was sore for a day but the rest of my legs felt absolutely fine.
I limped about for a couple of days (I had planned to have the week off work on holiday) and then got some decent sleep towards the end of the week.
So how was my Grand Union Canal Race experience? I thought the planning went well and we didn’t need anything we hadn’t thought off. I was glad Stouty and I ran this together with a support crew. I would like to thank Baz, Cliff, Alan, Matt, EJ & Nina along with the support from Stouty’s family, we wouldn’t have managed this without them. All credit to those who ran this unsupported, that has to be tough.
The other competitors I found all friendly and happy to have a quick chat and the marshalling was good with a nice mix between assistance and encourage to keep you going. Getting started after stopping for too long is a real danger.
It was tough on the feet and on the mind particularly when I was trying to keep myself awake at night. Some good nights sleep is essential in the week before as you won’t sleep the night before then run and you will also be tired from getting up early.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed to have finished a few hours over our scheduled time but when I think of how tired I felt and the pain I was in with blistered feet I can take solace from the fact that I did manage to finish the race particularly when the attrition rate was 50% (that in itself was a better result than previous years). Our tactic of taking it easy worked reasonably well, we still had energy on the second day to run (feet permitting) and we just about kept ourselves awake. Our race plan had been to break up each leg into 10 miles between meeting points which worked well as we were never too far away from our next meeting point. The buddy runners also really helped on the second day to keep us going which meant we could finish comfortably within the 45 hour limit without having to push it later on which could have been a struggle.
In addition both Stouty and I had raised over £1,000 each for our respective charities, so our efforts meant money had been raised for some very good causes.
Thanks to Dick Kearn and all the marshals for hosting and supporting the event, it’s definitely tough and something I would never have believed I could have done a few years ago when I started running. My “horseshoe” medal is definitely one I’m proud of. I’m glad to have done it once but I’m not sure I’ll be back!