Another Ultramarathon Running Blog

2011 Grand Union Canal Race

2011 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 01

This is probably the longest blog I’ve written but I suppose it’s fitting for the longest running event in which I have participated. Be warned, you may need to be an experienced Ultra-endurance blogger to make it through to the end of this report. I’ve tried to add names, times and details as best I can remember but this may not be 100% accurate especially after 30-40 hours of no sleep. Anyway, read, divulge, enjoy and feel free to comment.


I’ve written up the pre-race thoughts in a previous blog so I won’t repeat that information here.

For those that haven’t read it the brief summary is that we had just about hobbled home in 2010 GUCR, had trained a bit harder for the 2011 GUCR and had a sub 40 hr target in mind with a 38-40hr race plan agreed with the crew. To be honest, I was pretty confident that we were going to make the sub-40 target as it seemed to be a fairly modest goal.

Stouty, Shane Benzie (another GUCR entrant) and I travelled up by car on Friday from Reading to Birmingham. Stouty’s mate Paul Reed (so that’s another Paul) drove us up and was going to provide crew support for Stouty and I (Shane was an unsupported entrant) Saturday morning. The rest of the crew; Alan, Matt B (Fetch: Cheeky Conswala) and Matt C (Fetch: Cogs1) were travelling up Saturday lunchtime and were going crew the remainder of the race. In addition, Stouty had also organised some buddy runners (Harris, Nina and EJ) for a bit of company after the allowed 65 mile point.

We arrived in Birmingham at around 6pm and went direct to the Travelodge to register and collect our numbers. I checked in there and Stouty and Shane went to check in at their hotel which was a few minutes to drive away. There was some pre-race talk of meeting in O’Neills with other runners/crew and we decided to meet there and get something to eat.

Stouty and Shane took a bit longer to arrive than I had expected and I was hanging around in the pub surreptitiously trying to spot a GUCR t-shirt on someone. However, a short while later Ogee turned up with Firemannotsam and soon there was a small group of us having a chat, drink and something to eat. It was good to put a few names to faces at last. I didn’t get a chance to speak to everyone but a quick hello and name check to Rajeev, Claire, Jerry, George, James, Jany, Paul W, Mike, Dino, Allan, Lindley, Sue and Neil (apologies if I missed anyone at the table). Stouty (who I introduced as “The Wife” as we run all these events together) and Shane turned up shortly afterwards and also had something to eat.

The mood was generally positive with a little bit of apprehension (Claire!). The cold hard reality was that 50% off us probably wouldn’t finish the race that weekend which was a sobering thought. Ogee was feeling a little disappointed he wasn’t actually doing the race anymore following his withdrawal a few weeks earlier but a decision had been made and Firemannotsam was now relying on him to crew. It was a really enjoyable couple of hours and gave people a chance to meet and talk beforehand which sort of bonded everyone together, a pre-race meet the night before should be made a compulsory part of the race agenda in future.

I had something to eat and headed back to the hotel at about 9.30pm to get my kit and equipment ready for the next day. I had my camelbak packed, clothing laid out and even put some compeeds on the heels in preparation before I drifted off to sleep at about 10.30pm armed with ear plugs in to negate the street noise from outside.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race

Race Day

Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep fantastically well and awoke at 2am to the sound of my stopwatch going off every hour. I was still awake at 3am as the stopwatch was thrown across the room but eventually drifted off and dozed to about 4.45am when I got up. Despite missing the comforts of your own bed, I was paranoid about oversleeping especially as Stouty and Shane were staying elsewhere and I think this accounted for my poor sleep pattern. As a contingency, Stouty and I had agreed to call each other in the morning to check we were both up.

I had a cup of tea and a pot of blueberry porridge for breakfast, looked out the window to see a late night reveller worse for wear struggling to walk around a bollard and got changed into my gear. To avoid chaffing, I applied a liberal amount of sudacream to the usual spots (including my feet), this worked really well as I did not suffer from any chaffing at any point during the race. I find sudacream a better option than Vaseline in these situations. I also used one of the tri-belts (available for purchase pre race at £2) for displaying my number which was easy to clip on/clip off when you changed clothes. I had my tri-belt from last year and had my spare number pinned on this in case I needed to use this.

I walked to the start of the race with a couple of other runners and waited for Stouty, Shane and Paul R to turn up so I could handover my overnight bag. The weather was cool and overcast with plenty of grey clouds in the sky, it looked like we might have some rain in the morning. Stouty and the others arrived at about 5.45am, we got a quick picture before I bumped into distinctive Ex-Pat Scot very briefly but didn’t have time to chat as we made our way down to the start.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race
2011 Grand Union Canal Race

We spotted Lurker and give her a quick hug before we took our usual position somewhere near the back of the group. Lurker had been Stouty’s saviour last year as she looked after the mess called his feet midway through the race, we were rather hoping with better preparation that we wouldn’t have a repeat this year.

Start to Checkpoint 1 (Catherine de Barnes 10.7m)
A few minutes before the scheduled start time Dick gave his pre-race speech and warned runners to take it easy and not to overdose on painkillers and a few moments later we were off with 92 runners jogging through the quiet, built up area of Birmingham and ducking under the low bridges.

@UltraKent had an early incident when he cut his hand on a bench to the cries of “man down” and the joked threat of the earliest withdrawal ever but he continued on. Stouty and I jogged together with Firemannotsam and chatted casually as we headed towards Checkpoint 1.

The race plan was to complete the first 50 in about 10 hours or so and with Checkpoint 4 being 53.1 that was our target to hit in about 11 hours at a comfortable pace, we then aimed to run what we could in the light before fast walking the night leg and aiming to get to Grand Junction Arms by breakfast leaving us with the rest of the Sunday to complete the last 45 miles.

A couple of miles in there was an instruction to turn left and “do not cross the bridge”. However about 10-15 runners went across the bridge but were called back to some small amusement as I had done the same thing last year. With the threat of rain, some runners had put on waterproof jackets but a few miles into the race, we see one or two people taking them off as they were too warm with the extra layer.

The 38-40 hr race plan had predicted a Checkpoint 1 arrival at 7.47 – 7.57 and we had planned a 10 min stop to eat some pre-made sausage sandwiches at that point. Stouty and I had been debating whether to eat at Checkpoint 1 or not but came to a decision to follow a pattern of eating little and often even if we didn’t quite fancy it (which we didn’t at the time).

We arrived at 7.47, spot on the timetable but literally a minute before Paul Reed arrived and we decided to press on to the next Checkpoint. However, as soon as the opportunity to eat the sandwiches had passed I started to hunger for the sandwiches.
2011 Grand Union Canal Race

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 (Hatton Locks 22.5m)

I recall this part of the run as uneventful as Stouty and I chatted whilst making reasonable progress across the track path and grassy banks next to the canal. The weather was still cool and overcast at this point and the skies grey.

We ran along with another runner Bob for a little while and had an unfortunate incident when a startled rabbit jumped into my path. I stopped to let it run back but it panicked and then leapt straight into the canal and probably didn’t get out, I felt bad at that point. We also seemed to be playing leap-frog with a short dark haired lady (Helen?) for a lot of the morning who was making really good progress but she eventually drifted off ahead of us as the run progressed.

We also spotted Binks a few times (armed with camera of course) who was crewing for Drew Sheffield and we also got a “Fetchie” shout from Winelegs I believe at one point, it was quite nice to have that little extra community support. I had added a few GUCR runners on twitter and was posting the odd message and checking progress of others on the way although I did forgot to add the #GUCR hash tag a few times. I wasn’t aware at the time that Ogee was providing constant updates to the Fetch forums.
About 3hrs in, Pat Robbins (previous winner from 2008, 2009 & 2010) caught up with us. For someone who has that constant pressure of being viewed as the man to beat each year he was remarkably relaxed about the race and we had a brief chat on route. He commented to us that “he had a target in mind for the race and if that got him in first then great and if it didn’t, it didn’t”. He dropped back briefly following his planned run/walk strategy but overtook us a short while later as he continued on ahead. It’s good to talk to other runners on route as it firstly kills some time but also you do get that feeling that there is collective willing “from everyone for everyone” to do well be it from fellow runners, crew or passers by who pick up on the race.
Our next meeting point with Paul R was actually a Hatton Locks bottom (this was due to certain Checkpoint restrictions in place to reduce crew traffic at different locations) and so we decided to stop briefly at Checkpoint 2 to refill our drained hydration packs just in case he missed us again. We didn’t tarry too long, thanked the marshals and continued on. The predicted arrival time was 10.02 to 10.21 and we rolled in at 9.53 so we would have been spot on if we had stopped for our sandwiches at Checkpoint 1.
Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3 (Birdingbury Bridge 35.9 miles)
We covered the mile and a half to Hatton Locks Bottom and met Paul who had our sandwiches which we wolfed down before carrying on towards Birdingbury Bridge. I think we also ate some crisps (Monster Munch) of course as I recall insisting to Stouty that he pass me the pickled onion flavoured packet that was in the food bag.
Despite starting right at the back we now judged our position about half way up the field with about 40-50 people ahead and a similar number behind us and we had started to recognise a few of the crews for people who were running at our sort of pace. Ogee was here supporting Firemannotsam but was taking on the big brother role and looking after all the Fetchies (top bloke). I remember commenting to him that he was looking leaner than the last time I saw him, and it appears his injury concerns are history and he can continue working towards Spartathlon later this year.
We often find the 20-30 mile part on an ultra the toughest as training runs don’t usually exceed these distances but with the couple of stops at Checkpoint 2 22.5 miles briefly and then at 24 miles, this leg was broken up quite nicely.
Shortly after we left the meeting point we were caught up by another runner (Adam) who had travelled back from Dubai for the race where he works 9 months out of the year. We jogged with him and chatted for a while before he continued on at his own pace.
We got to the 30 mile point (Butt Bridge 34) in about 5hrs 15mins which was 30 mins ahead of our planned schedule and took a brief video clip here. We both felt pretty good although the inside of my left knee was a little sore probably due to running on the uneven ground.
I think it was around here when Claire (Ultratigger) caught us up and we jogged together very briefly before she ran ahead near where there are a group of locks which get higher and higher, she looked really strong and the running seemed effortless to her.
The next agreed meeting point was at Birdingbury Bridge, we had estimated an arrival time of between 12.56 and 13.27 and we actually arrived slightly earlier at 12.40 so about 16 mins ahead of schedule. We met Paul R here again and I used the deep heat spray on my knee and at that point had no blisters to report. However, my calf was feeling a little sore as I had a little niggle a couple of weeks before and even paid for a sports massage the week before the race to have some work on it but that little niggle was still there and getting a little worse. We saw Dino Ilaria at the checkpoint having some food, refilled our hydration packs and then moved on.
As we left the Checkpoint we spotted LucyG who was marshalling during the race and waved a hello before pressing on.
2011 Grand Union Canal Race

2011 Grand Union Canal Race

Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4 (The Heart of England Pub 53.1 miles)

Again making sure to thank the marshals, we set out from Birdingbury Bridge towards Checkpoint 4. At that point the weather took a turn for the worse and it started to rain lightly and then got heavier and so we stopped briefly to put our matching “his and her” rain jackets (yes we have the same jacket but different colours I’ll have you know) at which point Dino Ilaria passed us looking quite strong. We continued along a grassy narrow part of the bank for several minutes before the rain eased off and we stopped to pack our jackets away. I had tightly wrapped my rain jacket in my bag and secured this together with some elastic bands but after 20 minutes wear and some rain it was a lot more difficult to fit it snugly back in to my backpack.

At 40-odd miles, I shot a quick bit of video. Stouty reported his legs as aching but ok apart from that.

I had tweeted that some videos had been added to YouTube but had a message back they someone couldn’t view them. Thinking there was some problem uploading them I didn’t bother to add any more, so apologies if you were expecting to see some more live updates. I think what had happened is that my uploaded videos were still processing so couldn’t be seen at that time as I checked after the race and they were ok. I guess that means you will see these videos for the first time now.

At this point, Stouty and I were following a run 2 miles, walk ½ mile strategy and being quite disciplined in following this as we headed towards the next crew meeting point at Braunston Locks where Crew 2 (Matt C, Matt B and Alan) would take over for the remainder of the race although Paul was going to collect our buddy runners for Sunday that evening and return so he would still be tracking our progress during the race.

However, partly due to a combination of us being at the fast end of the schedule (relatively speaking of course) and partly due to travel/traffic/diversion issues, it wasn’t clear whether the guys would meet us in time. Matt C (Cogs) had access to my location via a phone app and had been monitoring our progress. It was agreed that they would go onto Buckby Top Lock and meet us there instead with Paul Reed meeting us briefly at Braunston.

Paul Reed met us at Braunston Locks and we paused for some food. Surprisingly for me, I didn’t have much of an appetite and passed on the Jaffa cakes and Mars Bars but ate some flapjack and a couple of satsumas, gulped down an energy drink and grabbed a large handful of jelly babies. As we were eating, we saw Anna Finn approaching and wished her luck as she carried on ahead. My knee was still a little sore and required the further attentions of the deep heat spray. The weather had been steadily improving following the earlier rain and it was now warmer and sunny but still a little breezy.

We left Paul R and continued on to Buckby Lock where we met the crew at the pub opposite the lock, it was now starting to feel like a warm summers day. Matt B had brought some freshly made pasta for “lunch” and we had planned a longer stop to consume some food and change into new socks. I ate a few mouthfuls of pasta but didn’t really fancy much more and swigged down some full fat rocket fuel coca-cola (well recommended for sugar and caffeine content). I was feeling a little sick to be honest and blamed it on the jelly babies, I made a mental note to switch to wine gums from this point onwards. I also changed socks, checked my feet which looked ok but decided to change into my old comfortable but not too beat up trainers as my current pair were a little damp. With hindsight this may have been a slight error of judgement but we’ll cover that later. I thought I felt a slight blister on my little toes so as an extra precaution put a gel toe-cap on each little toe for extra protection.
2011 Grand Union Canal Race

We walked a little first before jog/walking the next 4-5 miles to Checkpoint 4 at Weedon.

We got to Checkpoint 4 and stopped briefly to refill hydration packs, said our goodbyes to Lurker who had kindly been following our progress and messaging us via twitter and left at 16.45. The race plan had predicted a 16.50 a 17.36 arrival time so we were a few minutes ahead of schedule. We had made our target of Checkpoint 4 by 11 hours, had no real injury issues barring tired aching legs and a couple of minor niggles to knee and calf and felt as if we were in a good position.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race

Checkpoint 4 to Checkpoint 5 Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles)

We did pass one runner ahead who was limping visible as we caught him up, it was a chap called Mike and unfortunately had suffered a pulled ham-string and was limping slowly, his race was over as he could barely walk let alone run. We asked if there was anything we could do for him but he had called into Race HQ already and would limp on manfully to the next meeting point/Checkpoint.

Our next planned meeting point with the crew was at Stoke Brueme’s Bridge at 65 miles. This was the point when buddy runners were allowed and we were going to be supplied with one each as Matt C was going to run a leg and as a bonus Stoutys neighbours were visiting friends in the area and Harris was going to join us for a leg.

Stouty and I were continuing our run/walk strategy of a 2 mile run followed by 1/2 mile walk and we seemed to be on track when we met the crew. However, I do recall us slowing down when we met the crew. We were running low on water but didn’t have too far to go. We did pass another runners crew who kindly offered us some water but we had just enough to continue and knew the crew weren’t too far ahead.

I would comment that I found it noticeable this year how the crews really got into the spirit of the event and offered support or supplies to other runners, more so than in my previous experience (which was absolutely fine). At a few points, people offered us support as our crew reciprocated this offer to other runners.

We also met Mike’s support crew further ahead as they were asking if we had seen him. We had to quickly explain he was hobbling a few miles back and I think they went out to collect him.

Matt and Harris joined us and we started jogging/walking to Navigation Bridge although we had started to slow. However, wWe were still in good spirits as we were 3 hrs ahead of last years time already and we actually got to Navigation Bridge in the light! The predicted arrival time was 21.03 to 22.07 and we got there at 21.00 so again pretty much on plan.

Speaking of the plan, I had devised an excel spreadsheet with a rough pace guide which predicted checkpoint arrival times. I had used our 50 mile Thames Trot run as a template for the first 50 miles and then made an allowance for a reduced pace the further the race wore on including a planned brisk walk during the night leg. The crew were armed with copies and I had carried a mini (laminated of course) version of the plan marked with checkpoint meet times, locations and distances. Coupled with the Garmin, this gave us a pretty much exact picture of our progress against plan during the race. (Happy to share the document with anyone who wishes to use it in the future – just add a faster pace than me and you’ll be fine).

Stouty had refused to wear his Garmin and just wanted to run and then ask me questions about how we were doing, how far to the next Checkpoint etc. I was at the opposite end of the spectrum (i.e. a control freak) and wanted precise plans, times, distances etc. That little race plan I carried was brilliant, it told me everything I needed to know to answer Stoutys questions. The only difficulty came when the first Garmin started to run out of battery life at 12 hrs from a full charge (Garmin 305) at about 57 miles (2 hrs better than the advertised 10 hrs though). We started the second Garmin at that point but then had to keep adding 57 miles to the distance, no mean feat during the darkest hours when you’ve been on your feet for 12 hrs +! I think we grabbed our head torches at this meeting point in case it got dark earlier then expected and Matt C also carried a portal power unit and charged my phone so I had a full battery for the night leg.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 02

Checkpoint 5 to Checkpoint 6 Bridge 99 (84.5 miles)

We had a cup of tea at Navigation Bridge and saw another runner there with large frizzy hair (Rob?) before we moved on. By this point I had a continuous thirst and was finding myself urinating frequently. I put this down to a lack of food inside me to absorb the water I was drinking as I had not really eaten much by this point and was still feeling a little sick, nothing major but just not feeling 100% right.

The crew had a small gas stove with them and we asked for some hot food at our next meeting point at new Bradwell. This was to be our last crew meet for the night as once again we had planned to walk the night shift at a quick pace, conserve some energy, give the crew some rest and then see how we fared in the morning. We also had two official Checkpoints before we had intended to meet the crew so we could get a hot drink there and refill hydration packs as required.

It was about 4 miles to our meeting point at New Bradwell Bridge by which time Harris had departed and it had started to get dark. Matt C had the Champions League Final game on an internet radio station and we listened to Barcelona dominating United and eventually winning. I don’t recall us doing a lot of running at this point but we had factored in a reduced pace at this point.

We met the entire crew there as Paul Reed had returned with buddy runners EJ and Nina. Matt B and Alan had got the gas stove working and we had half a tin of sausages and beans each aswell as a few snacks along with a pint of Orange Juice and Lemonade from a nearby pub. I felt a little better after the food which was probably the most I had eaten all day and we got our night gear on (leggings, hat, gloves and a warm top) before we said our goodbyes for the night and carried on. This was one of our longest stops and slightly longer than I hoped but it was necessary. A small handful of runners came past us at this point including Firemannotsam who was still running well at this point.

Our crew were on standby during the night but we were only going to call them in a real emergency to be honest.

We started our brisk walk but were both feeling sore and had both started to get blistered feet. Last year I had worn compeeds around areas of my heels prior to the race start as this was the point I often blistered. This had worked fine last year but I had really suffered bad blistering on the toes where my taping effort was insufficient. After last year I had blisters on every toe and my little toes were two red stumps being stripped clean of all skin and the toe nail.

This year, I had invested in a few pairs of toe socks following a tip from Runners World (thanks Mimi) and they seemed to work in my practice runs (Compton 40, Ridgeway 40). I had also suffered from a bit of chaffing in various areas last year but the coating of sudacream was working well so far.

I thought I had all the bases covered, in fact I didn’t suffer any chaffing at all, had no blisters on the toes so far but my bloody heels were killing me! I was a little annoyed that despite taking exactly the same precautions as last year, the gods were conspiring against me to put another obstacle in my path.

We shot a couple of late night videos which can be seen here:

By this point Stouty had a large blister on his heel and so we hobbled towards Checkpoint 6 and arrived at around 1.30. This 10 mile leg from the crew meeting point had seemed pretty long, especially as we had been walking and we weren’t covering the miles as quickly as we had during the day.

I checked my feet, drained a blister on my left heel to relieve the pressure and put some more compeeds on them. However, my left heel was really sensitive and it hurt to walk on it. I spoke to Andrew Smith the marshal there who kindly dug out a bid of lint cloth which I used as padding on my heel, we were patched up but still hurting a little. There were a few people at the Checkpoint when we arrived but I can’t recall names or faces I’m afraid.

We thanked the Marshals and left Checkpoint 6 at 1.47, our predicted arrival time had been 12.52 to 2.08 so at that point we were closer to the 40hr finish point and had slowed to the tail end of our race plan but were still within tolerance.
2011 Grand Union Canal Race

Checkpoint 6 to Checkpoint 7 Grand Junction Arms (99.8 miles)

This was the longest hardest leg for the both of us and it seemed to take an eternity even at a brisk walking pace. As we left Checkpoint 6, an unknown runner passed us and then another (Iveagh – a tall Irish guy) caught us up and decided to stick with us for the night as the night leg can be tough and the company’s a bonus. For us, it was dark, there was no moonlight, the canal banks can be narrow at points and were tired from 12+ hrs of exertion. Personally this was my hardest leg as despite my efforts in the past week to get some extra sleep, a combination of a poor nights sleep the night before, an early start and running for most of the day meant I felt tired at night to the point that I was falling asleep on my feet. You know this is happening and you start playing this dangerous game of closing one eye, then the other and then you pick yourself up with a startle as both seem to close at the same time.

I just had my wits about myself to recognise this and grabbed one hand on Stoutys backpack as he led me through parts of the route. This is where the benefit of having a buddy runner or teaming up with someone is clear, left to my own devices I could have easily fallen into the canal or bush or even a canal-bush if I let my guard down for a few seconds and I’m thankful to Stouty for getting me through that part of the night. I did take a couple of pro-plus tablets at this point which also seemed to help.

Iveagh was kind enough to let me borrow his portable charger as I had forgotten to pick up the spare Garmin at the last crew meet and the current Garmin was unlikely to last until the next crew meet. At this point, the weather felt a little breezy and there may have been some light drizzle which I found helpful in keeping myself awake. I perked up a bit and  marched to the front of our little group and then upped the pace to marching speed as we passed the Tesco Store in Leighton Buzzard.

However, the tiredness seems to hit you in phases and as we started to see the first signs of light my body started to shut down. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced “hitting the wall” during a race before but this felt like it. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, my limbs we feeling heavy and the mind was starting to wander. I decided to use the 1 emergency energy gel I was carrying to give me a kick. That proved to be a mistake as soon as a started to swallow the goo like gel substance my body rejected it and I spewed the entire contents back up. I sipped some water and carried on but wasn’t feeling too great.

Most of the night time conversation was with Iveagh as Stouty followed us a few yards behind but Iveagh continued on ahead when it got a bit lighter as Stouty and I stopped for a few mins around Slapton Lock to check our feet which were feeling more and more uncomfortable.

I also had my first “sit down” (nudge nudge wink wink) here. My advice is to use wet wipes as you can also wash your hands with a clean one and bring a couple of sandwich bags to carry the used wipes with you until you find a bin.

We were about 5 miles from the Grand Junction Arms which is a great point to reach at nearly 100 miles and we plodded on with sore feet for over an hour until we arrived there at 6.15, the race plan had predicted 5.56 – 7.29 so we were closer to the 38 hr time now. Despite the various niggling injuries we were in a great position, 100 miles done in just over 24 hrs, the tough night leg out of the way. Once we met the crew, had breakfast and sorted out our feet I felt we could make some real gains on our schedule. We had 14-16 hours left to cover 45 miles so even a 3mph walk would get us home. If we could run/walk parts of this and exceed this pace then I genuinely felt at that point we had a chance of coming in at around 37 hrs and exceed our expectations.

We grabbed a cup of tea at Checkpoint 7 and saw Iveagh tucking into his breakfast. We didn’t stay too long as we had planned to meet the crew at Cowroast Lock and then thanked the marshals and then moved on. We were told that Matt Giles had retired not too long after arriving at Checkpoint 7 in a blistering time of 14-15 hours, he set out again but returned a short while later and couldn’t carry on I think due to exhaustion and a knee injury. It was interesting to hear details and messages being relayed during the race on other peoples progress. We did check to see if Shane had retired but there was no reference to this and we assumed he was still making progress. (Stouty had called him a couple of times but didn’t make contact)

Just before the Checkpoint, we captured another video clip in which Stouty describes our feelings and emotions. It wasn’t a high point of the race and Stouty looks visibly tired in the eyes.

Crew Tips

I think the guys had also settled into different roles during the weekend. Matt B (who had crewed for me last year) appeared to be the team organisor. Alan (again another 2010 crew veteran) was our nominated driver and spent most of his time at checkpoints running back to the car when we asked for something else we had forgotten and Matt C was more hands-on with his first aid skills coming into use when attending to injuries/sore feet. So I think the team worked pretty well. EJ and Nina were also going to meet us at the next point and act as buddy runners for most of Sunday, in fact they ended up accompanying us to the end so Stouty and I had someone else to talk to for a while.

Our race schedule was also fairly accurate (although I was hoping we could dip under the 38-40 hr bracket from this point) and had the relevant information marked (meet points, times, menu etc). A couple of times during the race we did alter pre-planned meeting points but it was simply a case of selecting the next postcode on the list and heading there.

I was also carrying an iPhone and had given Matt C (another iPhone user) access to the “Find My Phone” application. With this facility, he could track my phones location remotely on a map application without me having to constantly run an application on the phone (I think it must just ping my phones location even when it is in standby mode) as opposed to me transmitting a constant GPS update which kills the battery life. In fact, my wife also used the application to track my progress at home. It was extremely useful and accurate but does involve giving someone access to your iTunes Account details (I had recently changed my credit card on the account and the old one wouldn’t have accepted payment which gave me some comfort over Matt going mad and downloading hundreds of pounds worth of apps or music!)

The other crew tip was to have all your kit, food and equipment neatly organised for easy reach and access. I had packed all the food and equipment into two plastic containers. This allows you to see what’s in the box easily and the container can easily be carried in and out of the boot of a car. In addition, if the weather is wet then it will protect the contents. Within the kit box, I had various sub boxes of items (i.e. plasters, batteries, spray etc) all labelled again for easy access. I had produced a detailed list of every item in each box but it was fairly easy to see and pull out what we needed. The only supplies the team had to purchase on route were some extra compeed blister plasters (we had other cheaper blister plasters but these were simply not as good) and some extra strapping for Stouty’s ankles.

In terms of food, we had lots. My love of Monster Munch crisps has been well documented but the rest of the list included; tinned food (sausage and beans, meatballs, spagehetti), tinned fruit (pear, peaches), mars bars and jaffa cakes (usually a favourite but I didn’t touch anything chocolate as I had been feeling queasy), snack bars, porridge pots (well recommended and you can just add water), bananas (didn’t touch), satsumas (went down very well), wine gums (lovely taste and you can chew them), jelly babies (made me feel sick and won’t touch again), biscuits (didn’t touch), pot noodles (went for Sainsbury’s basic and they were – spat out the contents of these at one point), flapjack (good) and a large box of home made welsh cakes from my Mum (awesome). Matt B has also made some fresh pasta on the Saturday morning which we added to the menu. We also had a few energy gels and powders but had only planned to use these if needed.

I bought enough food for the crew to snack on and still had loads left over. The guys found café’s or pubs to eat their main meals and then snacked on other items as needed. There are a couple of Tesco’s on route and if they needed anything else they could have easily acquired it on the day.

Our spare kit was carried in a sports bag and then we had assorted bottles of water, sports drinks and coke (again well recommended for the sugar/caffeine content) packed into the car. It isn’t necessary to bring all the water out each time so the guys could grab a small supply for each checkpoint.

Finally, we had a small gas stove for cooking hot food which we only used once the night before but possibly should have used again. I think the guys may have had some initial trouble getting it going but we had been supplied with some hot food, so they got there in the end.

Overall, the crew were well organised and we have no complaints over the service we received. Great job team!

Suspicious Behaviour?

The following information was passed onto my by the crew, I’ll repeat it here but make no further comment upon it as we don’t know the exact circumstances of the incident and I didn’t witness these events first-hand.

Early on the Sunday morning, a white van pulled up and appeared to drop off a runner who appeared to be taking part in the race. The runner was described as male, wearing a fluorescent yellow t-shirt, shades and a hat and he ran off quite quickly. Unfortunately, the crew didn’t get a glimpse of the runners number but they thought it most strange that they had been at the canal bank quite some time waiting for us and never saw this person run past them, the crew considered this behaviour a bit odd.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race

2011 Grand Union Canal Race
2011 Grand Union Canal Race
Checkpoint 7 to Checkpoint 8 (Springwell Lock 120 miles)

After the Grand Junction Arms stop, Cowroast Lock was only 2.5 miles ahead and it wasn’t long before we met the crew under the Bridge. This was going to be a major stop as we both needed running repairs on our feet and we had planned to refuel with some hot pots of porridge.

We both sat down on the canal bank just after the bridge as Alan brought out the porridge all made and ready to eat. The checkpoint meetings and crew organisation was absolutely spot on now with a quick text being sent a mile or so before the planned meet with a list of requirements and the crew having everything ready when we got there.

We ate some food and Matt C tried to pad Stoutys heels which were suffering from blisters.

I sorted out my own feet and drained the blisters on my heel and then padded my running shoes as best I could with animal wool. My feet were uncomfortable but runnable and I decided to take some ibuprofen (I had resisted taking these until I felt I absolutely needed to).

As we were eating breakfast, a small group of runners passed us. Matt C asked if they wanted anything but they seemed ok and carried on.

After a longish stop, we were ready to carry on and had about 6 miles to go until the next meeting point at Boxmoor where EJ and Nina were going to meet us to run. In addition, my Dad (Baz) was going to meet us and give us some morale support.

After this stop we immediately got a bit of a run going and we made reasonably quick progress towards Boxmoor. However, with a mile or so before the checkpoint Stouty pulled up a bit. We had a quick chat and agreed that I could run to the next meeting point and wait for him there. I didn’t want us to tarry too long at the next checkpoint as we had just had a major stop but with the weather coming out warm I wanted to change out of my night gear into some fresh clothes and have a quick chat with Baz so I was hoping to run ahead and gain a few extra minutes to do this before Stouty caught up.

I ran ahead by myself until I could see the crew ahead. Baz captured this on film and I looked pretty ok at this point.

I had a complete change of clothes here (including shorts) which to be honest smelt and ate a bag of monster munch crisps.

Stouty had something to eat and I think Matt C looked at his feet again but we were soon off with EJ and Nina accompanying us. The next agreed meeting point was Springwell Lock (Checkpoint 8) but this was 12 miles ahead so would be one of our longest legs.

The weather was really nice at this point as we jogged a bit and walked a bit towards the next Checkpoint. It was good to have some different company to talk to (no offence Stouty) to take your mind off the run. I was still finding myself diving into the bushes far more frequently than a supposedly fit guy should but put this down to plenty of water (I still had a feeling of thirst I couldn’t shake but was drinking plenty) and a lack of food to absorb it. My calf was also feeling pretty sore at this point.

I think we slowed down a bit on this leg as we arrived at Springwell Lock at around 1pm (predicted time 11.32 – 13.25) so we were closer to a 39.30 finish now but had some contingency in the plan for the last 25 miles.

When we arrived at Springwell we stayed on the right hand side of the river as our crew were there but called in our numbers. We got news from the crew that Shane was still going and only about 10-15 miles behind us, so he had exceeded his effort from last year (got to 80 odd miles and fell asleep on a park bench!).

Stouty wasn’t feeling great at this point and Baz leapt in with some morale support by thrusting a video camera in his face and demanding he announce his retirement from Ultra races at this point and we have the video clip of Stouty saying “Never, never again”.  It was then my turn for the Spanish inquisition (which was all well intentioned and amusing to play back later) but I shook my head, refused and can even be heard saying “We could do better” so I think I was starting to realise that the pace was slowing due to the various accumulated injuries. The rest of the body felt ok and I had definitely woken up from my night time slumber but the legs and feet were feeling the affects of the race now which is pretty relentless with mile after mile of canal path.

The crew had acquired some extra tape/strapping and Matt C tended to Stoutys ankles and strapped them up at this point.

The good news was that we had less than a marathon to go, the bad news is that this was now looking like it was going to take us about 8 hours to finish. If we hadn’t been suffering as much, this would have been the point where could have gained some time. The race plan allowed plenty of contingency time (which we eventually used) but this also afforded us the opportunity to make some gains, based on our current progress we wouldn’t be making any gains.

Checking my phone, I also picked up the messages that Claire (Ultratigger) was close to our had just won the womens race in about 30 hrs which was an absolutely amazing effort.

Checkpoint 8 to Checkpoint 9 Hamborough Tavern (133 miles)

We set off from Springwell Lock with EJ and Nina and headed towards our next agreed meet point at Cowley Lock about 6-7 miles away. Matt’s first aid worked well at first as we managed a trot but a short while later Stouty was visibly limping. I recall trying to set a good walking pace but there were no attempts to run beyond this point, we had now planned to march home and we looked like we were going to be under the 40hr mark (as per the original planned aim).
At Cowley Lock, Baz said goodbye as he was heading home. We had received a message that Shane had pulled out at 107 miles and was now heading home. That was a pretty good effort from Shane and he actually exceeded my expectations as I had joked with him in the car journey to Birmingham that he wouldn’t get beyond the 102.5 (Cowroast Lock) marker. He did, but unfortunately only a few miles further. Matt C joined us as buddy runner at this point.
I think Matt C and EJ had both cottoned onto the fact that I hadn’t been eating much and insisted I ate something. I didn’t feel like it but tried to snack on a few small items of food although jelly babies and mars bars were an absolute no go for me as I was still feeling a little sick.
We continued on from Cowley Lock. There was about 6 miles to go Hamborough Tavern as we marched on towards the famous left turn which marked the start of the last leg. I was pacing ahead slightly with Stouty & others behind and I’ll admit to feeling a little emotional for a moment or two. The ibuprofen must have been wearing off as my feet, calf and knee were killing me and every step felt like torture.
I was also starting to process my thoughts and feelings about the race in my head and was unsure how I felt at that precise time. All my training runs and efforts for the last 6 months had been building towards this event and I was physically suffering (although had no doubts about finishing as I could easily walk it in) but mentally had different emotions as this was a mixture of pleasure in bettering last year and making our target and some real disappointment in not doing better. We all know the GUCR is a tough, long and unrelenting race and will often throw challenges at you through injury, blisters, weather, sleep deprivation etc. I guess the mark of achievement for finishing these races is whether you can overcome these challenges (some good runners today didn’t make it). In some cases you can’t (an injury may physically prevent you from continuing) but often the issue is there to be overcome and sometimes that’s the challenge of the race.
About a mile or so before the left turn, I needed to use the facilities and dived into a bush again. I was still feeling unwell and was also a little sick at that point. EJ who had been walking with me turned round to find I had disappeared from sight and as Stouty caught up they all thought I had fallen down the small bank into the bushes and started calling out for me. I responded with a sheepish “I’m ok” thinking they would leave me alone as I finished depositing the contents of my stomach from both ends of my body but they started to press further “What are you doing? Are you having a No 2?”. I responded with another sheepish “Yes” and Matt waited for me as Stouty and EJ carried on.
A little while later we arrived at the left hand turn and Matt C ran on ahead to prep the crew. Stouty was really starting to struggle now and had dropped behind me and so I arrived at Checkpoint 9 a couple of mins ahead to be greeted by Andrew Smith and Henke (I think) who said “You don’t want to sit down, Paul”. He was right, I didn’t but was waiting for Stouty so made some vague comment about waiting for my race mate and had something to drink. The crew tried to get me to eat something and I may have eaten a couple of welsh cakes although I still had that sicky feeling in my mouth. I was quite keen to push on now and just finish this damn race!
Stouty arrived a couple of minutes later but wanted to stop for something more substantial to eat. I wasn’t happy to stop for too long as I was now eyeing 39-40 hr finish times and I suggested I walk on slowly and pause at our final crew meeting point at Piggery Bridge and wait there if he was still a behind me. Matt said he would accompany me and I think EJ or Nina were going to follow Stouty.
Checkpoint 9 to The Finish at Little Venice (145 miles)
I set out by myself at a slowish pace and sent the following tweet “Just left Checkpoint 9. Stouty stopping to refuel. Plan to wait at Piggery Bridge so we finished what (we) started together”. I missed out the “we” bit of the tweet but you get the message.
I was still feeling a little queasy and still frequently urinating. A short while after Matt C caught me up I was nearly sick again but stopped at the throat retching part and didn’t bring anything up. Stouty actually hadn’t stopped that long at Hamborough and was visible behind me and so we walked on with our different buddies towards Piggery Bridge.
Matt C was being supportive and asking how I was doing and it felt good to get a few thoughts off my chest. I actually started to feel better at this point onwards. I wasn’t really tired, the weather was coming out really warm and I had taken another ibuprofen so the pain was being numbed. Stouty looked in a worse state than me to be honest and I didn’t want to be another burden to the crew again so basically just “manned up” a bit and carried on.
We arrived a Piggery Bridge to see the whole crew there. We didn’t stay too long as we were close to the finish but just before we left Sue turned up looking for a bit of support as Lindley was really struggling ahead and wanted to know if we had any suitable painkillers or pro-plus tablets. Paul Reed had something in his car which he went off to “fetch” (like the pun?) and I had some pro-plus left over in my backpack and we agreed to catch him up ahead.
Sue said he was only a mile ahead and hobbling slowly with Ogee for company. From her description it sounded like he had a bit of a meltdown and had refused to move at one point, surely he couldn’t be considering throwing in the towel with a few miles to go?
Stouty and I started to move on at a slightly quicker walking pace. EJ and Nina were going to continuing buddying us. Matt B, Alan and Paul R headed onto the finish whilst Matt C was going to run ahead and catch Firemannotsam and Ogee with the medication and then go onto the finish. I sent a tweet to the effect of “firemannotsam needs rescue or something”, I thought he may find it amusing…. in about a weeks time.
Matt C caught up with Firemannotsam and Ogee and handed over what we had, rumours of 5 pro-plus being taken in one go have yet to be confirmed. I was pacing ahead of Stouty and caught the guys up. Firemannotsam was hobbling badly, had gaffa tape strapped round his knee and was moving slowly but he was still moving. I tried to give him a bit of encouragement although I’m not sure how much he was taking in at that point. Ogee was also encouraging him and keeping him going, so I knew he was in good hands.
After a quick chat with the guys, I decided to hang back for Stouty who was doing a “Lindley” (i.e. hobbling along) but a couple of minutes behind us. We started the race together and we were damn well going to finish the race together.
We paired up again and continued on with the girls until we started to recognise the familiar signs of the finish. Ahead of us we could see Ogee and Firemannotsam but it seemed completely pointless trying to catch them up as the finish was about our own goal. In fact, if we had tried it there may have been a comedy sight of a group “zombie shuffle” towards the finish… best not to embarrass ourselves further.
We shot a couple of videos in the last couple of miles. I think this neatly illustrates Stoutys high and low points during the race.
2011 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 03
With a mile to go, our buddies ran ahead to the end to await us coming in and Stouty and I marched in together. It was still light, we were under 39 hours and we were nearly home, the mood was good! I spoke to my wife and daughter who wanted to be on the line when we finished and so I put the phone “on speaker” and gave the girls a running walking commentary for the last few minutes.

As we passed the park on the right and followed the angle of the canal around a slight bend to the left we saw the fantastic sight of the finish sign and a small crowd of people who started to give us a wave and a cheer. I jokingly asked Stouty whether he wanted to complete yesterdays suggested finishing pose (he had offered to carry me on his shoulders as we crossed the line if we finished in the light – although this may be grounds for disqualification for receiving a lift?) but he didn’t rise to the bait.

There was some encouragement from the finishing crew to jog the last 50 yards which I nearly fell for but Stouty resisted and I recall Stouty raising our arms up in a victory pose and I gave him a bit of hug on the shoulders as we walked the last few yards to the finish home. Looking back at a few pictures, I definitely caught the sun as I was looking a bit tanned, unshaven and well a bit dirty.

Stouty was happy as the aim this year was to get some applause at the end of the race, previously we had finished so late (1.30am in the morning) that a barge owner had complained about the noise and we had received a welcome but muted celebration.

As we crossed the line, it was great to see the entire crew there giving us some applause and cheers along with a few other finishers, supporters and marshals. Dick was waiting on the line with a couple of medals for “the local boys” (we don’t live very far away from him) which he placed around our necks and gave us the usual firm handshake and congratulations.

We spoke to a few other people who congratulated us (name checks and thanks to Binks, Winelegs, Springypanther and a few others including a couple of marshals). We spoke to Ogee, Firemannotsam and Iveagh our Irish buddy from the night leg aswell and sat down on the side of the canal with a can of Stella each just to take in these last moments of the race.

It was great to finish in the light with a few people around and receive some support and congratulations from other people and crews, it felt pretty good at that moment. We saw our names being added to the board together in a final finish time of 38hrs 52mins.

I was happy to have achieved the original goal but I had that immediate feeling that we should have done a little better. The last 25 miles took us maybe 8 hours, so that’s where we could knock off a couple of hours (I was going to say “easily” but stopped myself there) next time. Still, it was a new Personal Best time and you shouldn’t ever be disappointed with that.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race

2011 Grand Union Canal Race

2011 Grand Union Canal Race

2011 Grand Union Canal Race
2011 Grand Union Canal Race
Alan took me back home and I fell asleep in his car quite quickly whilst Stouty was taken back by Paul Reed. I got home and had a bath, the toes were pretty much ok which was a big bonus but I had a large blister on each heel including one which had filled with blood. I was half tempted to get the camera and capture it for the benefit of the facebook group but couldn’t really get out the bath. I eventually got out after a good soak and then crashed out about mid-night and awoke about 6am the next morning. I spent about 2 hrs thinking of moving towards the kitchen for a cup of tea but waited until the missus and daughter woke up for that.

I actually felt much much better than I had the previous year. My knee and calf were injured (the calf more so), my heels were blistered but I could hobble around. I had a cold bath (not quite ice cold) and soaked in there to see if that would give me any benefit and had a lazy day with the family but did sleep again that afternoon for about 3 hours.

I managed my first run on the Thursday lunchtime as I returned to work, the feet are a little sore as the new skin is formed on your feet, the sore knee is settling down but the calf is still quite sore so will be taking it easy for a couple of weeks. I feel pretty good that I had recovered much quicker than last year where I was wiped out for a week, had shredded toes and couldn’t walk for a couple of days. I have noticed that an effect of wearing the toe caps is that it may have cut off some circulation as my little left toe felt a bit numb for a couple of days.


I really enjoyed the whole weekend from meeting people on the Friday to the running, chatting, banter with crews and runners over the weekend. I think we felt a little like “outsiders” last year, basically we were a couple of ex-amateur footballers trying to get into one of the UK’s toughest races with all manner of athletes who had been doing it for years and we had never run more than a half marathon race before our first Ultra in 2009. We felt like we didn’t belong last year to be honest.

However this year, largely thanks to Fetch we had a few more acquaintances and some other external support. It was a really great feeling to see people you didn’t really know encouraging you via Twitter or Fetch and willing you along to the finish. In addition a few crews recognised us as along the way and gave us some encouragement which was fantastic. I guess it’s nice to feel part of the running community.

Physically, we were better prepared and ran more than the previous year and we have both recovered reasonably well. The final time of 38.52 is what we had planned (our checkpoint window was 38-40 hrs) but I still feel a little disappointed over the sluggish finish and end result although I’m not sure I’ll ever do another race where I can boast a 5 hour improvement in my Personal Best time. At least, it gives us a target next time and we can now boast 2 starts and 2 finishes. Someone did comment that cutting out the tweeting and videoing may save me another half an hour aswell… but I do like to capture details/pictures of the race for the blog.
Someone asked me after the race how I would rate my run (must be a marathon talk listener) and after a bit of consideration would say the event is definitely a 9+ out 10. When I entered the GUCR, it was a six month build up to an event and you I enjoyed  the whole journey (X-factor cliché I know). In terms of result, I would rate it as a 7/10, good result, on target but room for improvement and I think we are capable of going a bit quicker if we can manage our feet better and avoid injuries.
To be fair, when you run with a buddy you end up running at the slowest persons pace the whole way round. My slow phase was definitely part of the night where Stouty literally dragged me along (and helped me avoid falling asleep or perhaps falling into the canal) although I recovered well into Day 2, where Stoutys ankles started to give him some real issues as the race progressed particularly from Sunday lunchtime onwards and he deteriorated from a run to a jog to walk during the event. We always said we would start and finish the race together and that’s what we did. Never leave a man behind is the motto and on another day it could have been me hobbling along at the end and I know Stouty would have stuck with me.

Would we do anything different? Probably not, the planning and organisation was spot on really and nothing went wrong as such. We may well have benefited from getting the crew to provide more support during the night or even having a buddy runner during the night but our plan was to fast walk this leg. We did our level best to avoid blistering and this was much improved from last year but I guess can be worked on further (if anyone has any further tips we would love to hear them) and injuries on the run are just a matter of luck really. Overall, I’m happy with the planning and organisation and we did improve on certain areas so our GUCR race experience and know-how seems to have improved.

Next time? Well I may be back another year to tackle it unsupported for a different experience. Will “The Wife” (Stouty) return? Well he did declare his intention to retire from the GUCR several times over the weekend but you never know, let’s put it down as a maybe.

And we come to a few thank you’s. Firstly, the crew were once again brilliant and looked after us really well (despite the slow start!), so thanks to Paul R, Alan, Matt C, Matt B, Nina, EJ and Harris for all the support, assistance and company over the weekend and to Baz for the morale support aswell.

Thanks to Dick and his team including all the people who make the effort to put on the race, it is a special race and one which I am delighted to have completed again.

Thanks to my family, Sal and Annabelle for supporting me before, during and after the race and thanks in advance for letting me do the race again in the future…

Finally, thanks to the running (Fetch / Runners World / GUCR Facebook) community for all your support, tweets and messages. It was really good to put a few names to faces and I hope to see some of you again at future events.

2 Responses to “2011 Grand Union Canal Race”

  1. James Adams

    Wow, thats a brilliant write up. I love all the detail you have managed to capture and so glod you took photos and vids and tweeted. Awesome team effort you two and was really great to see you both at the end. See you next year I hope.


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