Grand Union Canal Race 2015 – Andrew Woodrow
(.pdf version here)
Garmin track, splits etc here
I had vowed never to run it again; once down the course was enough, it lacks the scenic splendour of the Alps, I’d had a long hard slog to the finish last year and a brief if probably unnecessary spell in hospital afterwards etc etc. But now I was looking forward to it; I’d settle in as if on an old, comfortable armchair and revel in the familiarity of it all as if I was settling in for a weekend with the papers. With two small kids at home I don’t get weekends on the sofa with the papers anymore, so it would have to be the GUCR instead. I knew the way, I knew that the understated nature of both the race itself and the course are a huge part of the appeal, and that landmarks which, given the way they are spoken about should be enormous, actually just sit in and are part of the landscape (the ‘Navigation Bridge,’ for example, described as a major landmark / the ‘almost halfway’ point, a critical place in anybody’s race etc is not Northamptonshire’s answer to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but actually a small concrete structure by a pub).
With a rather shambolic organisation, which resulted in a plan ‘the same as last year but just don’t end up death marching the last 18 miles, and then you should be good to sneak in under 30 hours,’ I’d written to my crew while making the plan that the aim this time was to:
- Run under 30 hours
- Run the last bit
- Be in a fit state to go to the pub at the finish
- Not have to go to hospital, like I did last year.
With those being in reverse order of importance.
At registration Dick asked if I had a time in mind after last year’s 30 hours 22 minutes. This was the first time I’d run the same ultra twice (’I’m flattered,’ said Dick), so there was some kind of expectation, which I found a bit annoying. There are lots of great things about ultras but one of the best, in my book, is they are not comparable. The distances are for the most part random, the terrain varies from flat to mountains, weather always plays a role and so on…so while the man on the Clapham omnibus can probably relate to someone saying they ran a city marathon in under 3 hours, running 100 miles (or however far) in whatever time is usually so far beyond the bounds of the imagination that you’ll get a blank look and a muttered ‘impressive’ pretty well regardless…along with perhaps a slight shaking of the head and a comment that you should be locked up somewhere. Anyway I digress, up until now time on an ultra has been irrelevant as I’ve never run the same course twice, so as long as I’ve had a good day out all’s good. But now I had a previous time to beat, and the history of the GUCR is littered with people who have posted a pretty fast time one year, only to find themselves trailing by several hours the next.
I said to Dick that I hoped to sneak in just under the magic 30 hour mark, and left it at that. Off to the pub for an enormous burger and a pint, say hi to a few others and gossip with Stu the crew as to how exactly we were going to get through this one.
Saturday dawned grey and dry…it looked perfect conditions. The weekend would not be hot, and it would not rain either. Plums had arrived late on the Friday so the three of us headed off to the start, where we stood around taking selfies and eating stuff.
James Adams confirmed he had books for sale and that my crew could pick one up at a checkpoint on the way…unfortunately we never met up on the towpath but I have since ordered the book (is James the only one to have turned a profit while running the GUCR?). Dick’s send-off speech over-ran for the first time ever, but as he was using it to announce his retirement from organising the GUCR we indulged him. Dick created and nutured this race into the British ultra run and I’m pleased that ‘I did it in the Kearn years’ – and hope it maintains its understated format and appeal in a world where everything is sponsored and televised.
Anyway 6:01am and we were off, like last year I was somewhere in the front half and not bothered about the pace, 6 min / km (about 10 minute miles) would be fine to begin with until everyone settled down over the course of the first few stages. The mudbath of a towpath leading out of Birmingham had been re-surfaced since last year, and I ran along with Russ Bestley, whom I had met last year, for a few miles. Russ of course is famous for 2 things (1) having face-planted on the towpath near Berkhamsted last year and (2) being fitted with a pacemaker. He was on his way to membership of the 100-marathon club, with this being his hundredth marathon or ultra, so it was good to see he banished the ghosts of ‘Dead Russ Corner’ and reached Little Venice this time. His crew was also familiar from last year ‘I thought you said you wouldn’t be back,’ said one to me in the early stages. It turned out this was one of the few conversations I would have with another runner for the whole duration, as within a few miles of the start, well before the first checkpoint at Catherine de Barnes, I found myself on my own, and it pretty much stayed that way for the rest of the race. Running solo I was surprised at how much of the canal I did not remember from last year – not just the occasional corner but huge sections of it had been completely wiped from my mind, to the extent that I sometimes wondered if I was following the right waterway.
Plums and Stu, battle-hardened after last year’s crewing, were ready for a series of Formula-1 style pit stops. I’d decided I was not in it for the food this year and would eat only ‘Perpetuem’ (about a bottle every two hours), and supplement this with baked beans (with and without sausages), muesli bars, packets of crisps and the new secret ingredient, pepperami sticks. Salt tabs every few hours up to midnight and more frequently thereafter. Aside from the baked beans, which would be ordered at the previous meeting point, Plums and Stu would meet me with a buffet selection, I would take one of something to eat on the way, they would switch out the water bottles and Perpetuem, and I would be on my way in well under a minute. Stopping at meeting points costs time, and I reckon you are much better off grabbing something and eating it on the hoof than standing around.
Plums and Stu had also resolved to meet me much more frequently than last year, and it worked out at about every hour or so. Another reason to keep the stops short, and it certainly resulted in a much higher consumption of perpetuem and food in general, especially over the second half.
So out towards Checkpoint 2 at Hatton Locks. I was already running solo, with the occasional glimpse of other runners. The ‘Guy in Green’ (GIG) was a particular ‘landmark’. Plums and Stu met me half way, with Plums posting pictures on Twitter and reporting that he was in the process of making me into a ‘Social Media Sensation.’ I thought about re-tweeting them until I remembered Plums alone makes up a high proportion of my followers. On-on through the scenic countryside, down through Hatton Locks, where my parents had arrived with chocolate, and to the meeting point at the bottom lock. Hatton Locks are impressive and also very long…the bottom lock took a long time to heave into view. I grabbed a packet of crisps and said I’d take my first walking break in 2 miles, on completion of the first marathon of the day on the towpath in Warwick, or was it Leamington Spa? 4 hours 5 minutes, not bad going. A boater remarked it was appropriate that I was walking along eating Walkers crisps; I’m not sure he understood my reply.
The canal and towpath in general where much busier this year than last; it helped that it
was dry. There were enough people ahead of me at this stage that I did not have to explain what was going on; Leamington Spa seemed full of girls out jogging, most of whom applauded and cheered as I passed by. Crowds of cheering women…what’s not to like? And why doesn’t it happen on my regular run-commute?
And so it continued, through CP3 at Birdingbury and onto the junction with the Oxford Canal. The Oxford Canal section is noticeably different to the Grand Union itself; much windier, as it follows contours rather than having locks and embankments, and the towpath feeling even more rural than the adjacent rural sections of the GU. I met Plums and Stu for the first portion of baked beans somewhere along this section, and again, with Mum & Dad, at the Admiral Nelson pub just before the Braunston Tunnel. Last year it had been the crew’s favourite point, as they had a good pub lunch…this year it looked like the same was in progress, with a number of crews scattered around the pub’s canalside garden. 45 miles down; I was keeping a good pace at around 10 mins / mile, and had not seen another runner in hours. A little later I remarked to Plums and Stu that I was looking forward to having a buddy runner as even I was finding the going rather solitary.
I started catching a few people on that section after the Braunston tunnel, where the canal is sandwiched between the M1 and the West Coast mainline. The GIG was reeled in and disappeared behind; I then repeatedly caught the same person several times, only to be re-overtaken when I had a walking break. It was a pleasure to meet the legendary Mimi Anderson along this section too; we crossed paths a number of times between here and Tring. My crew reported later that they had been vociferous in their support for her, my Mum recognising a fellow granny. I have yet to convince my Mum to follow in her footsteps, but if she ever does, I will gladly crew.
100km passed in just over 10 hours; what was I thinking cruising along still at 10 minute miles? Through scenic Stoke Bruerne, where some kind of canal festival was ongoing, resisting the tempations of the ‘Candy Barge’ moored there, which is an entire narrowboat crammed to the gunnels with sweets. Past the bottom lock, from which point buddies are allowed, and on towards Navigation Bridge – the official half way point. It was just before this point that I was struck by ‘runner’s trots’ for the first time, and dived through a hole in the hedge just in time. Hopefully just a one-off, I thought. Never had it before and hoped it would pass. It didn’t until just before the M25.
Dick was at Navigation Bridge to oversee proceedings; as the inn is closed, crews had been directed a couple of miles further on, and I met mine just after the historic Iron Trunk Aqueduct, 2 miles further down the towpath and close to the ‘real’ half way point.
Stu was determined to actually run a section or two this time, and set off with me for the first stretch of buddy-running. It was good to finally have company as we made our way through Wolverton and approached Milton Keynes, enjoying a run / walk mix. I was slightly ahead of last year’s times but not really thinking about it; I knew that provided I was inline with last year and then just kept going for the last section, I would have a good race. Plums took over buddy duties as we entered Milton Keynes proper, and we ran through the town, under bridges festooned with bat-droppings (it was too early for the local yobs to be lurking under them). We were making good progress though Fenny Stratford and its famous lock, until a few hundred metres before the checkpoint at Water Eaton I had to dive into the bushes again. I staggered out a few minutes later and started walking towards the checkpoint, now visible in the distance. This was very odd. I was falling asleep on my feet. I swayed about the towpath; I could not keep my eyes open. Plums went round and walked on the ‘canal side’ of the path so he could catch me if I staggered too far in the direction. I limped into the checkpoint feeling horrendous. I had the runs, was feeling sick, and couldn’t stand up or keep my eyes open. The wheels were coming off big time. What was going on?
We paused for thought here – I said that if this continued it would be highly dubious that I could continue. Various other people’s crews and the checkpoint-manners all made supportive noises. Stu produced a tin of beans and sausages. The checkpoint guys handed me a coffee. I swallowed a salt tab. The world stabilised and stopped spinning. The next possible meeting point was a mere 2 miles away; we agreed I would walk it with Plums and see how things looked. Off we set, coffee in hand.
Within a mile or so we took a gentle jog. Things seemed OK. We met Stu and said we were back up and running – we’d take things easy over the next few miles to make sure, but it seemed that beans, coffee and a salt tab had done the trick. Rock on! We carried on up to Soulbury Three Locks at 87 miles where we finally donned headtorches and I added a long sleeve shirt for the night…Stu had a run-in with a bunch of drunks in the pub carpark while waiting for us and Plums escorted him back to the car to avoid them picking a fight. 2 or 3 runners came past us at this stop, Mimi Anderson and Rob Soutar amongst them. Plums and I caught them up after a few miles and from there for a few miles after I had my only ‘running in a group’ of the race.
Stu picked up buddy duties again after Leighton Buzzard so he got the ‘towpath by night’ experience, with occasional exchanges with Rob and Mimi. He reckoned he’d done his bit though as we approached Tring, so I was re-joined by Plums for the assault on the summit – marked by several locks around the Marsworth and Bulbourne junctions, and a couple of conveniently located bushes as the runners trots had turned out to be not just a passing phase, and a final flat bit to Tring itself.
I hadn’t had much of a plan up to here apart from ‘keep in line with last year’s plan’ – but had given the last 50 miles a little thought. ‘Plan A’ was that, provided I felt fit, we would resist the siren call of the Tring checkpoint, to which I had willingly succumbed last year with its promise of coffee and noodles, and instead take a shorter stop at Cowroast Lock, 2 miles further on. I would then continue buddy-less overnight, with perhaps one meeting point before Hunton Bridge, just inside the M25. The aim was that Plums and Stu could get a little rest and be fresh to attack the final stretch in the morning, and if it all went wrong and I needed something, they would be no further than 10 miles away in any case.
At 18 hours 35 minutes for the 100 miles to to Tring I was pretty much bang on last year’s schedule, even with the delays caused by having to nip behind bushes, which was fine. We modified Plan A slightly by taking coffee at Tring and walking the first part of Tring Cutting with it, as then Stu would not have to prepare both coffee and beans at Cowroast Lock. There, Plums retired to the car, Stu made beans, and after a pretty efficient stop under the circumstances I got going. One meeting point planned at Hemel Hempstead 108 miles. It was just me and my headtorch down the towpath; like last year I was feeling good for the night section and, without anyone to talk to or scenery to look at, it was a case of head down and run on. I ran 1.5km and walked 500m, counting steps (750 double steps for the 1.5k) to avoid looking at the watch. I love night running; at our meeting point Stu reported I was making 7mph and asked how it was possible to re-generate my body, like an octopus growing back a severed limb. Through Hemel Hempsted and under M25 before dawn; last year it was getting light at this point. Even by our Hunton Bridge meeting point I could not take off the headtorch. Plums rejoined for the section to Springwell Lock as it got light; now we were running 1km and walking 500m. Less than a marathon to go; course record holder (possibly still, at that point) Pat Robbins was in residence with the Check Point crew, headed by Lindley as a warm up for his epic Thames Ring directorship next month. I took a coffee to go, walked with it for a bit and picked up the 1k run / 500m walk cycle again.
Last year things had begun to fall apart about here, and coming into to the meeting point at 127 miles I had reported to Plums and Stu that that was going to be it for running. This year I was trotting along quite nicely, wondering whether the wheels would
fall off dramatically like they had yesterday evening. I ran through the portentious 127 miles and met Stu at 128. Plums was rested and fed, he reported, and up for buddying the last section along the Paddington Arm. 4 miles to Checkpoint 9…I reduced the ratio to 500m run / 500m walk but was still running and making 5 mph average. 205k in 24 hours…this was turning out to be beyond expectations. Last year it has taken an age to slog up to the famous left turn at Bulls’ Bridge junction; this year, here it was already. I texted Stu to request sunglasses, took a rubbish selfie as the sun was right behind the signpost that everyone takes a selfie with, and turned left. This was it. A half marathon to go. I ran / walked up to Checkpoint 9, where Ross Langton was good enough to get a pic of me on the road section (avoiding the colony of towpath-resident swans) looking like I was out for a Sunday morning jog. 214km and 26 hours down…
The whole crew was at CP9; Plums, ready to run, Stu, with the selection from the buffet, and Mum and Dad, roused from their slumbers for an early start. Plums and I headed off; 20k to go, that was 20 of the 500m on / 500m off. I was feeling good but beginning to doubt I could keep running for another 20k. Luckily Plan A worked well; Plums was fresh and off we went. Last year this had been a real slog – I think it took about 4 hours. Plums and I had deathmarched it in silence; the decaying industrial nature of the canal here, the rave being held in scrubland on the northern bank, Plums calling off the miles agonisingly slowly…none of that happened this time. We ran / walked, talked a bit, noticed the litter, enjoyed greeting yet more girls out running, managed to keep ahead of a S unday morning jogger, were cheered on by a few passers by who knew what was going on, and got to Sainsbury’s Alperton, half way along the branch, in little over an hour. Another runner’s crew was there and I wondered if we were being caught up (it turned out that I was actually catching ‘their’ runner, Matt Giles, and they had missed him; they only got to him at Little Venice after he had finished!).
A final switch out of water bottles, a bite to eat, and we were off over the North Circular
aqueduct and along the last industrial stretch by Old Oak Common. We’d changed to run 400m / walk 600m but kept the pace at 5mph overall. Every time we started running my thighs screamed silently, but not for long. Past the gasholders and onto the first of the mountains of Marylebone – a series of steep ramps which represent the biggest hills, apart from the tunnels, of the whole race. We kept running and talking. We were in a fit state to appreciate the remarkably graceful curves of the Westway flyover from below. Round the last bend, around a slight diversion and onto the final straight. We ran across the line. 28 hours 18 minutes, 2 hours and 4 minutes quicker than last year. I’d run the final 50 miles at a time within minutes of that of the middle 50 miles, which just goes to show that it is possible to come back from a crisis that almost had me pulling out at 85 miles.
‘Well snuck under 30 hours’ said Dick, as my second GUCR medal was hung round my neck. It would be another 3 hours before the next runner challenged his finish banner. I was 7th overall (last year my slower time had me 4th, which shows what a field there was this year). We’d run the whole thing, I was feeling pretty good, under the circumstances, and the only point unachieved was having a pint at the pub at the end. But, epitomising my dodgy planning for this one, I’d arrived before opening time. Plums and Stu said that instead I can be the designated driver on their planned ‘Grand Union Canal Pub Crawl,’ on which they will have a pint in every pub they have used as a meeting point over the last couple of days.
This race is genuinely something special. When it started it was one of a few ultras, and while I doubt running 145 miles is ever going to be anything but a minority sport, there are masses of other out there now. This one stands out though as it is not like the others. Not the merest hint of one of those logo’d flags, run by a bloke in a van with masses of support from a superbly organised bunch of helpers, many of whom have been involved in the race for years. Your own crew, other people’s crews, whether crewed or crew-less the support is immense and makes the race more than just a race. It’s an institution.
I won’t (quite) say ‘never again,’ I’ve made that “Steve Redgrave at the 1996 Olympics statement” before, but as Plums has already taking the precaution of booking himself elsewhere for next year, it won’t be 2016, at least not as a runner. Maybe it’s time to assume towpath duties!
How the others got on – a few reports from this year’s run, some of whom I met on the way:
Paul Ali, GUCR stalwart on his 5th go
James Adams, Famous author and occasional ultra runner
Nick Reed who should be an author given his report
Mimi Anderson, Legend and runner of ‘the double’ in 2013
Richard McChesney, walker extraordinaire
Roz Glover whose crew to time out to do a race of his own
Rob Soutar one of the few I actually ran with (for a bit) this year.
A few random thoughts on stuff people may or may not want to know about running the GUCR…well it worked for me, which probably means something else will work for you:
– Crew – these people will make your race. They probably won’t break it; you as a runner are more likely to do that by yourself. But get a good crew and agree on fast stops and you will do yourself a massive favour.
– The distance. Yes the towpath is longer than the official ‘down the middle of the canal’ distance of 145 miles. My Garmin reckons it is 237km or 147miles, which is similar to Heron Maps’ figure and various others who have measured it over time. But you are running a canal race, not a towpath race, so 145 miles it is.
– Shoes. Everyone asks the shoe question. I wore Brooks Cascadia and Falke ‘RU4’ bog standard running socks. Taped up toes; no blisters, I may yet lose 1 toenail. Did not remove shoes or socks during the race. Actually it would be pretty difficult to take socks off if you kept your shoes on anyway. You are probably going to be OK in any regular road or not too traily trail shoe. You might regret anything too minimal (like my usually preferred Nike Frees).
– Food. This time I ate:
17 servings of ‘Perpetuem’ – makes eating easy if you drink it.
5 big tins of baked beans (some with and some without sausages)
4 or 5 pepperami sticks
A few packets of crisps
Somewhere between 5 and 10 muesli bars
Plenty of salt tabs
3 cups of coffee
A bit of chocolate
My gels, like last year, remained untouched.
– Clothes. Shorts, a T shirt supplemented by a long sleeve Helly Hansen, gloves and a hat at night. Headtorch was a SupraBeam V3 Air which I can thoroughly recommend. Aside from adding (and taking off) the long sleeved top, gloves and hat at night, I didn’t change clothes. This was a big improvement on last year where the waterproof had to be donned and un-donned several times, and soggy t shirts changed.
– Training. Without wanting to sound too blasé about the whole thing, I don’t think of myself as someone who ‘trains’. I run-commute to work most days but the vagueries of family life and a job with a fair bit of travel means that some weeks I run 10 times and others hardly any. I’ve always gone for the ‘run short, fast and often’ approach rather than the ‘grind out the miles’ approach, mainly for practical reasons – either I have dropped the kids off and am late for work, or I am leaving work and am late for picking them up. One long run a week, but long is not really ‘long’ – the longest run I had done since last year’s GUCR was a stately 30km (19 miles). Taking Jan 1st as the official start of GUCR training, this year I did:
Jan 201km, 29 runs, average 7k/run, max 11k.
Feb 251km, 32 runs, average 7.8km/run, max 19k
March 300km, 32 runs, average 9.4km/run, max 22k
April 206km, 22 runs, average 9.4km/run, max 21k
May 170km, 19runs, average 8.9km/run, max 30k (excluding the GUCR)
Total 1130km, 134 runs, average 8.4km/run, average speed 13.5km/h
– Other stuff: Arrive in Birmingham early on the Friday, get your last minute shopping done before hotel check in time, check in and go to sleep for the afternoon. Last year I remember feeling sleepy for much of the Saturday; this year I had had my best sleep in months!
The Grand Union Canal Race…is there anything you would rather be doing on a bank holiday weekend?
Possibly there is, but if not, see my report here.
Garmin Connect Track incl splits etc: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/507989611
Right then. Here’s an offer you can’t refuse – the chance to spend the 24th and 25th of May viewing the countryside (and whatever else there is) between London and Birmingham. You even get a free night beforehand in Birmingham in the top-rated ‘Premier Inn Birmingham Broad Street (Canal Side)’.
Email me for more info…
Another one that I never got round to writing up, but it’s a highly recommended event. If 78km doesn’t float your boat, they have a number of different distances from 10km and up, all finishing in the same stadium at Davos in the afternoon. Complete with the usual Swiss efficiency (transport to Davos is included in the race entry), good checkpoints, and opportunities for the more intrepid spectators to see you – another one for my ‘do again’ list.
My photos can be found here
I was stopped on a hairpin about half way up the Col du Tricot. Maybe a bit more, maybe less. It was 1am, I’d been racing for 18 hours and 100km. ‘That last hill on the profile,’ Elisabet had commented two days ago, ‘it’s harder than it looks. It’s not just a little hill. Make sure you keep something for it.’ A random Icelander with whom I had queued to collect the start number giving her two cents worth, based on her own previous experience. But I hadn’t kept anything for it. I was stopped, my last energy gel had been slurped up, and I thought I was running low on water.
If that wasn’t funny then, to quote Yossarian of Catch-22, there were a lot of things that weren’t even funnier. The coming descent to Les Houches for a start, a drop of 1,200 toe-destroying metres over 9km into the Chamonix Valley. Someone passed where I stood and I tucked in behind him to see if I could get pulled up the mountain. Or her, as it turned out. What was it about the Col du bleedin’ Tricot and fast running women?
Rewind 18 hours to the pre-dawn, getting ready for the start. The bus to Courmayeur, hanging around in the sports hall, the short walk to the start, dropping off the bags. Everything working as it should. I found a spot
reasonably near the front as part of my tactic to have a good couple of kilometres through town prior to picking up the trail somewhere in the top 200 or so, to hopefully minimize queueing in the first narrow sections and more importantly, at the first couple of checkpoints until the field spread out. This would happen quite naturally over the first section and sooner or later I would find myself among those going more or less the same speed as me.
See my full report here
And more pictures here