Another Ultramarathon Running Blog

2013 Grand Union Canal Race

Some of you may have read my pre-race blog post and will know this event was a key build up race for Spartathlon this year and I had a target of completing it in 32-34 hours which would represent a big improvement on my previous efforts (walks) in 2010 and 2011 which I wasn’t really satisfied with. This year I would also be running unsupported (i.e. without a crew and just relying on the aid station support).

Stouty and I travelled in style from Reading to Birmingham by train in 1st Class on the Friday afternoon (it was only £3 difference in price) and we enjoyed the best. train-ride. ever. in a virtually empty carriage with waitress service away from the masses.

After arriving and checking into the Travelodge Hotel in Birmingham Central about 2 minutes walk from Gas Street, we headed down to the finish to see Mimi Anderson complete the first part of her GUCR double. We bumped into Dave Baker and a guy named Peter and wandered down the canal path. Mimi’s crew had been keeping everyone up to date on her progress and Becky texted me to confirm she wasn’t far from the finish. We waited for a while and then as an impatient spectator I decided to walk down to meet them.

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Mimi being congratulated by James.

She soon appeared with crew in tow and then I jogged ahead to the official finish (the start for the next day) point where a group of people were waiting for her, Mimi completed the first part of her GUCR in under 32 hours and headed off to get some sleep before the return leg the next day.

We tried to apply some peer pressure to James Adams to start the GUCR the next day after having been forced to retire from his “double” attempt with Mimi with a groin injury and for a moment he appeared to be wavering but I think common sense prevailed the next morning.

Then it was time for the traditional Friday night get together and one of the aspects of the weekend which for me makes the event great. I hung around in O’Neils having some food and catching up with other runners some of who I hadn’t seen for months or even years with everyone excited/apprehensive about the race the next day. I was pretty excited and confident of a finish and an improvement on 2011. A finish is never guaranteed with dropout rates of 50% each year but this is largely related to the weather conditions in my opinion. The challenge for me was hitting my 32-34 hour target to put me on course for Sparta.

As more runners arrived, there was the usual greeting, catching up and some banter amongst runners. The best wind up was convincing Stouty that his GUCR place he let go a couple of months ago through injury was now available with a few late drop outs. I could see that desire building in him as more runners arrived and started chatting about the race and we even took it to the point of trying to organise spare kit for him and getting him to study a race plan but eventually I had to tell him not to do it as he has put a lot of effort , time and cost into his first Half-Ironman triathlon in a few weeks.

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 Do or do not: There is no Tri.

I decided to retire to bed at 8pm to finish my kit preparation and was in bed by 9pm. I needed a good nights sleep after being awake at 4am that morning. Did that happen? No it bloody didn’t! Despite, ear-plugs and a night mask I was situated 1st floor opposite O’Neils and could hear every drunkard, couple argument, smashed glass and car horn in central Birmingham on a Bank Holiday weekend. I had a poor nights sleep (3-4 interrupted hours at best) partly due to the noise and partly due to the excitement of the race. I read a tweet from Rajeev Patel who flies in from America to take part in the race a few days before, suffers jet lag and attempts the race on even less sleep than myself! Saturday night was not going to be pretty I thought to myself.

Eventually I got up and got myself ready for the race as Stouty knocked at 5.30am and we made our way down to the start of the race and said hello to the to other runners, supporters and crew members.

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Picture: Peter, Rajeev, Paul, Keith and Lindley.

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Stouty and Avon. Picture by Allan Rumbles.

The start was a bit rushed this year as Dick only managed half his speech before the scheduled 6am start. He kindly pointed out that I had referred to the GUCR as a “run” and not a “race” in a recent Facebook post to the masses…. I just looked around in a “Who’s that Paul Ali bloke” type expression.

2013 GUCR 11The race start.

Soon we were off, I started right at the back as planned as the trail of 88 runners headed off into the distance. I then realised that I hadn’t switched my Garmin on and starting fiddling with this as we jogged out of the cobbled paths and pavements running alongside the canal area of central Birmingham.

I ran a lot of the first leg with Mimi who frankly I wouldn’t normally see as she would be miles ahead in normal circumstances and I was reminded by Stoutys motivational threat to me the night before of “I’ll punch you in the arm if Mimi finishes ahead of you after already giving you a 145 mile lead.”

As we ran and chatted for a while I managed to clip Mimi’s heel on the run and narrowly avoided becoming the most hated man on the internet by nearly preventing the first Double GUCR (the David Beckham incident of Ultra Running) but thankfully this didn’t cause a trip and we carried on.

My plan for the first leg was between 10-11 minute miles and I was on target as I arrived at the Catherine de Barnes checkpoint. Whilst I was running this event unsupported (apart from a night pacer primarily to keep me awake) I had packed some food bags to pick up and I grabbed the first one and walked on for a little while to consume some of the contents.

2013 GUCR 10

Any guesses to the person on the right?

I picked up the running again as I headed towards Hatton Locks, the weather was coming out well with nice warm sunshine. This feels quite strange but it was going to be a lovely warm weekend for running…. at last! I caught up with Jerry Smallwood who was looking a little hot and bothered and I suggested he backed off for a bit. Unfortunately, Jerry wasn’t having a good day with the heat but battled bravely on. I also caught up with and ran with Natasha for a while who I’ve said hello to on a few runs but never spoken to at length and the miles flew by at this stage as we made our way through some scenic grassy paths and chatted about running and races.

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Saying hello to Ernie Jewson on the run. Picture by Ian Pusey.

I drifted on ahead after the Hatton Locks checkpoint where I saw Claire Shelley supporting and Allan Rumbles and Paul Stout and a few others enjoying a coffee by a canal side café. I didn’t tarry here but grabbed a drink, topped up my bottles and continued on. I caught a brief glimpse of Henk but sadly didn’t see him again and experience any more of his infamous banter. I did hear one quote which made me chuckle “I’ve saved a seat for you on my death bus” says Henk, which he saidy to every runner who ran past him!

I can’t recall much of the leg between Hatton Locks and Birdingbury Bridge but I was passed by a Barge moving in the opposite direction when the enthusiastic barge owner bellowed out to me American style “YOU GOT THIS MAN, YOU GOT THIS!” I was only on mile 30… but I waved and chuckled to myself and plodded on.

At Birdingbury Bridge I saw a few more familiar including James Adams who was snapping a few pictures and I pulled the “Bionic Man slow motion pose”, ran into the checkpoint, topped up my water grabbed some food, accidentally ignored Stouty and ploughed on.

At the 40 mile point I had my first little dip and a few walk breaks started to occur. I took a gel (my only Gel of the race  although I ate some Shot-Blocks aswell) and ate some food but hooked up with Tremayne “Dill” Cowdry. We ran quite a bit of the race together never too far apart and sometimes together. I think Dill pulled me along a bit here to be fair. I stopped for a cold can of coke and an ice-lolly at one point which went down well as the day was feeling pretty warm.

2013 GUCR 09Traditional Ice-cream stop.

We arrived at the Heart of England pub (53.1 miles). My race plan had allowed for a reducing pace over time and had suggested a 15.55 – 16.45 time and I left at 16.20, spot on so far. Dill and I became separated for a while as I stopped at the official checkpoints for supplies and he stopped at different points as he was being supported by his wife.

The next 17 mile leg to the traditional halfway point at Navigation Bridge was long. Despite topping up both my bottles at the last checkpoint, I ran out of water and my bottles were kindly topped up by a group of ladies quaffing champagne (a glass was offered but declined) on day out on a barge.

I caught up with Lindley at this point who was having a little bit of a tough time of it at that point. I cheekily asked him whether he thought he went off too fast after going through the first couple of checkpoints in course record type pace. He didn’t deny but didn’t want to admit that he did! Lindley finished the race in 44 hours or so after an epic deathmarch which was a gutsy performance and I’m really looking forward to reading his blog about the race, its going to be interesting I think.

The GUCR must be well known the barge owners as I passed one going in the opposite direction when the chap was on his mobile phone to someone and commented “You will never guess what, its Birmingham to London day ain’t it!”

I started to have another dip around the 60-65 mile’ish mark but once again I hooked up with Dill and we tagged along together for a while and I stopped briefly when he met his wife again and she kindly provided me with a bottle of coke to keep me going. I spoke to Sue and Nici briefly who were supporting Lindley and stopped for a brief picture. I did wander into a canal side pub to get a pint of Orange juice and Lemonade at one point but the two queue’s to the bar were far too long.

There were a few other odd runners in sight, I was generally drifting slowly past people but you would occasionally start leapfrogging the same people. We met up with the two Ian’s before Navigation Bridge who had paired up and ended up leapfrogging them (and they leapfrogged us) all the way to the 120-mile point.

As I got closer to Navigation Bridge, I got a bit of spurt on, as I knew I was meeting my only pacer for the event Matt Dunn who had kindly agreed to see me through the night. Stouty was yet again helping out a here and I rolled into the Checkpoint for one of my two planned key stops. This was the traditional halfway point and I arrived within my 8-9pm schedule about 14-15 hours into the race and looking forward to some hot food by this point.

I politely declined the offer of some warm quiche and had a bowl of beans and bread, got a food bag out with more supplies, my head torch and night gear and stuck an extra layer on. I also changed my socks and put an extra layer of sudocreme on my feet, which were looking remarkably good with no blisters at that stage. I was probably here for 15-20 mins, so maybe a few minutes over my planned 15 mins but I hadn’t been idle it just took that long to sort myself out.

A few more people arrived at the Checkpoint including Dill and Sarah Thorne. I had progressed to 20th position at this point about 2.5 hours behind the leader James Elson who was doing a grand job at the front and probably 2.5 – 3.5 hours or so ahead of those plugging away at the end of the field.

Matt and I headed off as it started to get a bit more overcast and the temperature started to drop a little bit. I decided to walk for a mile or so to let my stomach settle after the hot food and we then tried to get a bit of a jog going. I was starting to feel a little tired now especially after a very poor nights sleep the night before and also due to being on your feet for 14 hours and knew the night leg was going to be a battle against the sleep demons.

We passed a few people one of who commented “Oh, its that Birmingham to London Walk”… Grrr. No need to remind me I wasn’t running at that moment.

It was completely dark by now, very chilly due to the lack of cloud cover and a haunting mist was blowing its way across the canal reducing visibility on the path due to reflecting the torch light. My Lenser H14 was super bright and doing a fantastic job lasting the hours of darkness on one set of 4xAA batteries, the torch is well recommended. I was actually feeling the chill now and put my jacket and gloves on but didn’t feel completely warm.

It was great to catch up with Matt and we chatted quite a bit earlier on with recounting race details to this point and how people had been getting on. We jogged/marched for a few miles but gradually the pace started to drop, the amount of running got less and less and I started to feel more tired. I took a few Jitterbean Caffeine sweets to perk me up and we trudged through to the Bridge 99 checkpoint. The race schedule had allowed me to 14-15 minute mile for the rest of the race resulting in a 33-34 hour finish and we just about held this pace together. After a stop for coffee (and a coffee for my pacer was much appreciated) we set out again.

Running starting to become harder, my right quad was pretty sore and I stopped to stretch this out at one point, I was feeling pretty sleep deprived, cold and I started to feel every inch of every mile of the 145 mile distance.

The pace was tipping just over the 15m/m mark but we were marching on ever forward but the mood was darkening. We saw a few other runners’ overnight, Sarah and Alayna had paired up. Dudley (I think) drifted past us and the two Ian’s were sticking together. Dill also caught us up but I didn’t recognise him at first as he had changed into black ninja gear at night.

We passed Jen Bradley and pacer, Jen was battling bravely onwards in obvious discomfort which was confirmed when I asked “How’s it going?” and she then started to reel off a list of each and every ailment.

I had a real low moment around here. I was struggling a bit during the night and being kept awake by a constant flow of caffeine sweets from Matt but I wasn’t enjoying the night shift, it was long, it was hard and I was cold and tired. Conversation between us dropped to a minimal “Are you alright?” from Matt and I pondered my thoughts in a despondent mood. In fact, at one point I had mentally binned the Thames Ring (how the hell am I going to survive 5 days on my feet if I can’t do one here), cancelled any overnight Ultra’s and almost chucked in Ultra Tales so I could sit at home and just watch TV for the rest of my life. It was all that surface layer of negativity the mind is fond off, physically I kept plodding on…

My toes were feeling a bit sore now as my feet had started to swell a bit and I made the decision to change into some trainers half a size bigger at the 100-mile point. I had a race window of 21-23 hours and had arrived in 21.45-22 so within schedule (actually a 100 mile PB) but overall time was drifting towards the 34 hour mark. I also had a mini cooked breakfast here and changed my socks once more, as my feet were soaked through from the wet grass. It was just about getting light and I left my head torch in my bag. I spent 25 minutes here, which was much longer than planned but needed.

To keep the pace up to 15 m/m, every time the Garmin beeped a new mile I tried to run even if it was for a hundred yards and Matt dutifully kept pace. I tried to pick a landmark ahead and get to it. Our conversation earlier that night had started from debating world issues, reviewing economic policies or articulating different political viewpoints (maybe not) and had now descended into sports, films and who would you select to form your team of survivors in the event of zombie apocalypse (..Chuck Norris, Bear Gryls, McGyver and Ola Jordan by the way).

As the sun came up I thought I had survived the night leg but the sun was too bright, my feet were feeling sore from the constant pounding and I was experiencing some tunnel vision from sleep deprivation and tiredness. Matt could sense I was getting a little worse as I started to stumble around at a few points and he kept a careful check that I wasn’t going to fall into the canal.

At about 115 miles I had to stop, I had to just sit down and shut my eyes to give them some rest, some respite from the tiredness and the bright sunshine, just a few seconds. Matt kindly photographed that moment when I was at my worst.

2013 GUCR 03

Where did it all go wrong? Picture by Matt Dunn.

There were only a few miles to go until the next checkpoint but this leg was the longest, almost 20 miles between checkpoints but I knew Paul Stout and Allan Rumbles would be at the next checkpoint and then there would be less than a marathon to go.

I had agreed with Matt that his pacing duties would involve getting me through the night from the 70 to the 120 mile point. He had his own event the next week and I didn’t want to jeopardise his chances of that event and so he left me as agreed with 25 miles to go.

I sat in the tent taking refuge from the brightness of the sun. Paul Stout and Allan Rumbles were skillfully manning the checkpoint and organised a few drinks, gave me a pep talk and I emptied my bag of any kit I didn’t need for the final two legs. Allan told me I was in 11th position and if I gave it a bit of effort I could even make 10th.

Having spoken to Stouty afterwards he said I looked pretty “rough” (not the exact words he used to be fair) and he even offered accompany me to the next checkpoint as I was looking shattered.

Adrian Lee had also come along to watch me on the last few legs and said hello as I left the Checkpoint and walked along with me for ½ a mile to get me going.

At that point I was simply content to walk it in to the end. It would be another 6 or 7 hours walk and would put me around 34-35 hours, outside of my target but still a 4-5 hour personal best. Could I claim that as a success? Deep down, I knew the answer was a no. I came with a target to put me on course for Spartathalon, I had a bet with my Daughter that I could make 32-34 hours, I told the world (the handful of you who read this) on my blog that was my goal. Too many people to disappoint and so a little switch flicked in my head that I needed to dig deep and turn this around and I started to jog a bit, then a bit more and then I ran. I started to get a bit warm and stripped off my baselayer and then carried on.

I passed Adrian and Matt who were waiting a couple of miles ahead to check up on me and I hardly noticed them as I ran past. I caught up another runner ahead (Phil I think) and then continued on heading towards the famous left turn with the Paddington sign marking the final leg. I kept running, pausing for a walk and then going again.

I turned down the offer of a massage by a group of ladies out on a power walk after a brief conversation and carried on. I spotted Adrian again who said there were two people ahead possibly within reach… and the competitive mindset started to creep in.

I eventually caught up with a guy from Belfast called Geoff who wasn’t 100% sure of his directions and we got to the next checkpoint pretty close to each other overtaking Sam Kilpatrick on the way who was now resigned to a walk due to a slight injury. I was now in 8th place with Geoff 9th and was thinking I would love to be in the top 10 of the GUCR and make my time target. Suddenly from being down, everything was in reach but it needed an real effort.

2013 GUCR 16

Running into Checkpoint 9. Picture by Louise Ayling.

I ran into the next Checkpoint, said hello to Fiona McNellis manning the checkpoint who didn’t recognise me in the shades at first, grabbed some water and ploughed on. 8th position with a group of people possibly hot on my heels, I had no idea who was ahead but knew people were behind and not by much. Suddenly this 34 hour target was back on by my calculation and perhaps even a 33-33.5 hour target.

My mind was strong, the competitive spirit was there, my legs felt pretty good, the sore quad had disappeared and there was even a hint of fear of being caught up and so I ran, and I mean really ran.

2013 GUCR 17

Running! Picture by Ian Pusey.

I started clocking 10 minute miles which doesn’t seem that quick but after 133 miles that was fast. It wasn’t a consistent run more short bursts as I was forcing myself to drive on, pause for a walk and then drive on. I put in my quickest miles of the entire race at miles 136 and 138 both sub 10m/m, I was flying!

The path along the canal weaves around so you can’t see a massive distance ahead but I thought I spotted another runner ahead and so I chased hard and caught them up. I’m not exactly sure what the protocol is in this type of position when passing runners late in a race. We were still a few miles out and so I paused for a brief walk said hello, wished them all the best and pressed on. I guess there’s a mutual respect to everyone out on the course and I didn’t just want to run past someone without saying hello and acknowledging that. However, after 30 odd hours on my feet I just wanted to get the job done now and finish the race.

I pressed on now in 7th place and spotted another person ahead and drove on, passed them wishing them all the best and pressed on. A little sneaky part of my mind made sure I ran far enough ahead so I was out of sight before pausing for a walk break before pushing on again. From the long drawn out walk of the night, the miles were now flying by, I was in the zone and closing out a race like I’ve never done before. I pushed on and saw the 6th place man, then the 5th man and then the 4th man (Rudi and pacer I think) pausing to say hello and wish them all the best before pushing on.

I was a little concerned about others catching me up, there were a group of people around me at the 120 mile checkpoint as I left and anyone of these could have caught me up if they were running.

Adrian had driven ahead to catch me one more time and I think he was taken back by my remarkable turnaround. He had seen my shuffle into the 120 mile checkpoint and saw me out from there just to make sure I went in the right direction and now I was out hammering the last few miles of a 145 mile run.

I finally got to the familiar built up area outside Little Venice which marked a couple of miles to go and recognised the arched cobbled bridge which I strode up. I would be lying if I didn’t say there were more than a few glances over my shoulder to see if anyone was pushing at the end. Everyone I had passed was either walking or walk/shuffling and I thought if I ran then they couldn’t catch up. I couldn’t relax now I had to push on and not stop.

The last couple of times I had got to this point it seemed to take an age to get to the end. Hell, I death marched a 44 hour effort 3 years ago and it seemed to take an eternity. This year, I was flying I didn’t want this to end… well I did but I was feeling pretty good.

I carried on running and then finally I could see the white “Finish” sign ahead of me. There were a crowd of people around so I shouted “Coming through” and weaved amongst a few walkers before running to the finish line. I had promised myself I would run the last 100 yards no matter how bad I felt. The two previous finishes I had simply walked over the finish line. I had walked so much of the race those times, I didn’t feel I deserved to run over the line having walked for most of the race.

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The sprint finish! Picture by Sally-anne Ali.

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The High Fives. Picture by Sally-anne Ali.

I ran the last few yards in and high fived a few people at the end before seeing my wife and daughter at the end and giving them a big hug before turning to Dick with a huge grin on my face and asking “Surprised to see me Dick? Well it is a race and not a run” as he awarded me the finishing medal (a pretty heavyweight medal. I will have to weigh it against Ian Berry’s Kent Road runner medal from 2012 to see if it’s the heaviest I own) and giving me a firm handshake as I thanked him and the crews for all their support once again.

2013 GUCR 05

Finished and happy.

I had finished in 32hrs 47mins in 4th place (and 15,000 calories later) in one of the most iconic UK ultras. I was absolutely delighted. It was by no means the perfect race for me, the night leg was pretty much a 50 mile march, I was absolutely shattered and down at 115 miles but surprised myself with the way I managed to turn the race around and I absolutely smashed the last leg. In fact, I ran the last 12 miles in the same time as the first 12 miles, after 133 miles and with my propensity to deathmarch these long races at the end that was astounding.

2013 GUCR 06With Sal and Annabelle. Picture by Adrian Lee.

I was shattered but on a bit of a high and I sat down on the floor and had a drink. I would like to have hung around to watch others come in and enjoyed the moment more but frankly I needed some sleep. Stouty had texted me to see how I was faring and I let him know I had finished and the result. He was delighted for me and Allan took a quick look at the checkpoint stats and worked out I was 2hrs 35mins behind the 4th place person at the time with 25 miles to go. That’s how to finish a race!

Despite this being my 3rd GUCR finish, this was one I was finally satisfied with the result. Strategy and pacing wise the plan was sound, despite a couple of minor dips it was good from the start until Navigation Bridge at mile 70. The evening/night leg/early morning from 71 – 120 miles can still be improved upon, I think the lack of good sleep before was a factor and something a hotel switch the night before can help with but there’s still work to do there. However the transformation from 120 miles to the end felt great and absolutely made the race for me.

During the race I didn’t have any real stomach issues as I mainly relied on real foods (I only took 1 gel). Despite one blood blister which came late on, my feet did feel battered from the pounding but are remarkably blister free so the Drymax/Sudocreme effort has done its job.

2013 GUCR 04

A heavyweight reward for your efforts.

Stops ended up a little longer than planned but they were all for a purpose (eating, sock change, kit swap etc.) so not considered wasted time at all.

I should also give a big thanks to Matt Dunn for pacing me during the night. Cheers buddy I owe you one and also mention Sally-anne, Annabelle, Stouty, Allan, Adrian and others I saw along the route for all their support.

I can’t finish this blog without adding my personal thanks to all the helpers, marshals, supporters, organisers and Dick himself for putting hours of effort into organising this race year on year. People talk about why this race feels so special and my take is as follows:

  • It’s a tough challenging event and anyone who finishes this deserves massive respect for being out on your feet for so long, especially those people who are out there for 40 hours plus. (I’ve done that and it’s really tough).
  • It’s a great value event. it’s low key, well organised, it’s not glamorous has no glitzy presentation or slick marketing.
  • The people make it special. There’s a great loyalty and community about the same group of people be it runners lucky enough to get a ballot spot to the supporters and organisers turning up yet again on the last bank holiday weekend in May. It’s not just the weekend of the race, it’s the entire build up from the months before by the Facebook group, the excitement and support on the weekend of the race itself all the way through to the post race banter.

Overall, it feels great to be a part of the GUCR family for an event which feels quite special. I’m already planning to do this again and would love to notch up a streak of results and maybe even try and go a little bit quicker (although a 12 hour improvement from attempt 1 means this will now be marginal improvements!) This event is not just a long race, its an Ultra institution. The day Dick eventually retires, I will be standing in line (with several other people I’m sure) volunteering to keep this race going.

Finally, a few other notes and congratulations. Well done to everyone who started and those who finished this race. The weather was perfect and I think that resulted in the highest finish rate in recent years. Particular mention to James Elson on his 1st place finish and well done to Mimi Anderson who completed her Double Grand Union Effort covering the 290 miles in less than 80 hours with only a few hours sleep in the middle. That was an amazing effort and it was a pleasure to run with you for a while.

Hopefully, I will be back again next year.

11 Responses to “2013 Grand Union Canal Race”

  1. Mark Clay

    Fantastic. Very inspiring. Congratulations on a superb achievement

  2. scbrobson

    Fantastic work Paul! Congratulations on a brilliant race and a great report. Really pleased to see you reach your goals, and fantastic that you can eveb see some ways to improve. Sub 30 next year?!

  3. Rajeev

    Fantastically well done, Paul! You ran a superb race the night section notwithstanding!! Good luck for the Spartathlon!!!!



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