The GUCR remains one of my favourite races in the UK and I’m fortunate enough to have secured a spot in the recent ballot and will be taking part once again in 2014.

A few weeks ago the 2014 GUCR race wasn’t really on the agenda at all to be honest as I have the Centurion Slam planned for next year but when the social media circles started buzzing with discussion about the upcoming ballot and my old running buddy (Stouty) advised me he was putting his entry in, I realised I just didn’t want to miss the race as I enjoyed it so much and ended up submitting an entry myself.

The Grand Union Canal Race

For those who don’t know the event itself is a 145-mile non-stop race along the Grand Union Canal from Birmingham to London.

The event starts at 6am on the Saturday morning on the last bank holiday weekend in May and runners have to complete the event in a time limit of 45 hours although there are some cut off times at checkpoints along the way.

There are no qualification standards aside from an entry ballot as the event is usually oversubscribed and runners are expected to be physically prepared enough for the race. The generous 45 hour time limit (just over a 3.2 mph pace) and allowance of a pacer from half way and crew support mean that there is an opportunity for a good many runners to complete the event and I know the race organiser (the loveable Dick Kearn and the equally hardworking Jan) is keen not to make this an “elite” race.

This is one of the main reasons I enjoy the race so much. It’s the community feel and atmosphere which characterizes the race for me. During the race there is simply a collective willing from everyone, be it a fellow runner, supporter, marshals or crew for everyone to make it to the finish at Little Venice.

Over the few years I have taken part, lots of characters and moments stand out which makes the race a great experience from the crack of dawn start at Gas Street when you stand sleep deprived on the gloomy start line, to encountering the fantastic volunteers (and Henk) who help out year after year, to the regular runners and characters who you see participating in the race to getting to Navigation Bridge or seeing the left hand turn marking coming off the canal marking the last 13 miles and finally to the finish flag at the end be it Sunday morning (Pat), afternoon, evening or even into Monday night.

Despite the mention of a generous 45-hour time limit, the length of the route and uncertain weather at times (see 2012 below) mean that the finish rate is around the 50% mark each year. Running, jogging, walking and crawling (and I’ve done all of those) 145 miles non-stop is a great achievement.

2010 Grand Union Canal Race

2010 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 012010, inexperienced muppets. 

My love affair with this race started in 2010. At the time I was a rookie Ultra Runner (a complete novice to be honest) running 25 mpw with a couple of marathons and 50 milers under my belt. Along with my ubiquitous running buddy Paul Stout we thought we could take on “the longest non-stop race in the UK”. Well, we did it but only just.

Aside from the challenge of completing the distance itself what hooked me into this race from quite early on was the fact that this event had a six month build up from the excited chatter and discussion on the Facebook page to the months of running and training for one single event. It was definitely going to be a challenge but we were both looking forward to the grand adventure, romance and imagery of running day, night and day from Birmingham to London along a picturesque canal in the summer months. Taking part in a really long distance event and slogging out the 145 mile distance with some great endurance runners actually finish the event was something which we wanted to achieve and a race to be associated with. “You’ve completed the GUCR? Awesome achievement man!” Stouty and I had also elected to run for charity, so there was some pressure on us to finish.

We certainly weren’t naive when we entered the race but we were totally inexperienced Ultra runners. I researched the race as much as I could, read as many blogs as I could find, prepared maps, organised hotel rooms, put together a detailed race plan and assembled a dream team crew (well a few mates and my Dad, his buddy and a couple of pacers).

We also upped our mileage to a huge 35-40mpw and I felt fit and confident on the start line. I had never done so much running in my life. At the time I hadn’t heard of runners doing 100+mpw or even considered the use of such things as electrolytes, salt tablets, energy gels (jury’s still out on them). I was regularly suffering blisters in all my previous Ultra races and shock, horror…. I didn’t even own a Garmin at the time! We just wanted to finish but set ourselves a 40-hour finish time so we weren’t under any time pressure during the race.

The full story of the 2010 race is here if you wish to re-read all the details:

My 2010 Race Video is here:

Re-reading this, a few thoughts stand out. I had my first encounter with true Ultra running greatness as Mimi Anderson walked down the steps on Gas Street towards the race start in a confident manner and gave us a “Good Morning Boys” (Stouty was trembling with excitement at being in the same vicinity as this legend)

A few minutes later I also recall standing on the start line and looking around at all these people who were older than me (undoubtedly hardened Ultra veterans with years and years of experience) and for one fleeting moment thinking.. “I could do alright here”. About 2 minutes into the start of the race everyone sprinted off leaving me and Stouty chugging along at the back (our traditional starting position at this event) with a long line of people heading into the distance I realised this was a completely different ball game and the aim was just to finish. As we arrived at checkpoint 1 some 10 miles into the race, our crew reported Mimi ahead by half an hour already.. in just 10 miles. Yes, reality really hit home then.

It poured down with rain on the first day and we got soaked. Looking at the pictures I don’t understand why I didn’t put a rain jacket on. However, with a crew and access to kit we could change clothes when we needed and head on. We ran most of the first day, marched the night and plodded into the second day and night.

2010 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 02Who needs a rain jacket? 

The night leg was horrible, I hadn’t slept well the night before (through excitement and probably some sub-conscious nerves) and I could hardly keep my eyes open. Every time we passed a bench at night I had to sit down and shut my eyes for 30 seconds. I tried to power nap en-route but couldn’t. I was literally falling asleep on my feet and settled into grabbing Stouty’s hydration pack in one hand, closing my eyes and letting him guide me forwards. I need to give Stouty some thanks here for dragging me through the night. If it hadn’t been for his company and support (you can leave the Bros impressions behind though) I may not have made it through the night and could easily have fallen asleep on a park bench somewhere. Our crew also did a great job in tending to our needs and keeping us going aswell.

We were concerned for the crew’s welfare and elected not to use pacers during the night (a mistake) but we corrected it for the next night.. as we were still going then!

2010 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Stout 01Stouty receiving some tender loving care from Andrew Smith 

My feet were also horribly blistered (I lost all the skin off most my toes, around the heels and also on the underside of the feet) due them being unused to such pounding, getting my feet completely soaked and a general lack of experienced care (I had thought about blisters but didn’t have the right approach at the time). This forced me to march with an uncomfortable gait. Stouty was suffering just as much with the whole underside of his foot one huge blister and without going into specifics, it got a bit messy at one point (apologies Sharon).

We stopped far to often, spent too long with the crew, shuffled along and learnt the value of wet wipes and sudacreme/Vaseline on a long distance run.

The second day was still a struggle but the weather improved and we marched on (the idea of running had long since been abandoned). We had a little lift when  complete stranger gave us £20 cash on the spot for our charity and we also tried to aid a barge owner who was stranded in the middle of the canal but it was a long day and went well into a second night.

2010 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 03Day 2

If you look about 6 minutes into the race video, then it sums up our moods pretty well. We were shattered, I was in some physical discomfort, my mind was fuzzy and playing tricks on me (I was convinced I spotted Stouty’s Dad at one point but it turned out to be a Post Box).

However, the idea of stopping or giving up never seriously crossed my mind. I had spent 6 months talking up my challenge and getting family, friends and colleagues to sponsor me and I simply couldn’t go into the office a week later and say “Sorry guys, I failed”. So despite the above, we trudged on and eventually struggled to the end of the race well into the second night finishing in nearly 44 hours and nearly last with only a few people behind us.

The end of the race was just relief. It was a low key finish to the race made more so by some complaints about noise from barge owners moored near the finish and a “silent” round of applause in the end. We were warned not to expect a grandstand finish as this was a low-key event. It was the sort of event where after 145 miles of effort, you may just get a little nod of acceptance or a pat on the back.

2010 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 04Finished! Nearly 44 hours after the start

 Despite our inexperience and the lack of some really good long distance mileage, we toughed out the finish but it was hard. Even now I consider this my toughest race experience because I was less equipped to handle it then I am probably am now with a few more years long distance running and experience under my belt.

The race was won by GUCR legend Pat Robbins in 26hrs 24mins with Mimi Anderson finishing first lady (and third overall) in a new ladies course record of 28hrs 12mins. In joint 40th of 44 finishers were Messrs Stouty and Ali in a rather unconvincing time of 43hrs 46 mins. Even GUCR late race finish specialist Rajeev Patel who almost annually battles jet leg and sleep deprivation the whole distance of the race finished ahead of us! (Rajeev is a great character, very colourful and chatty and flies out from the US each time he enters just to take part)

However, a couple of weeks later the pain had subsided, the blisters had healed and the memories of the long slow and frankly tortuous slog had disappeared. All the pain and effort had gone and we were left basking in our glory despite finishing nearly last.

I spoke to Stouty on the phone at this time and said “Let’s do it again next year!”

In all honesty, we both felt we could have finished it a bit quicker and we decided to really go for a sub 40-hour time.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race 

So one year later with a few more races and a few more miles under our belt (50 mpw in the five months before the event) and a possibly modest sub 40hr target we were ready to do battle once again.

 2011 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 01The 2011 er..Pro’s

The race registration was switched to the Travelodge in Birmingham Town Centre which meant O’Neill’s became the meeting point for the runners and this for me has created one of my favourite times, the pre-race meet, that time when runners converge to discuss races, training, preparation or just plain banter. It’s the time when everyone is showing a mixture of emotions be it confidence, nervousness or apprehension. Drinks are shared, views and ideas are exchanged, goal times are carefully guarded for fear of failure and everyone just hangs out together. I seriously love catching up with people who I haven’t spoken to face to face all year and may have just exchanged a few messages on the internet.

I met a few people this evening who are now good friends on the Ultra running circuit. If this race hadn’t been what it was, I could easily have turned up at the start, run my race, perhaps chatted with a few people during the race, finished and gone home. The GUCR has helped create a few friendships each year.

The full story of the 2011 GUCR race is here:

My brief 2011 Race Video highlights are here:

In terms of the story of the race I stood on the start line sleep deprived once again. The weather was cool and overcast but thankfully it wasn’t as wet as the previous year.

It’s fair to say that in 2010 Stouty and I felt like outsiders to the event, the unwanted newcomers who have crashed the party. With a 2010 finish, a few more contacts and knowing a few more people we felt like we were a little more accepted in the GUCR club and we could even chuckle as a few “rookies” missed the left hand turn along the canal path a mile or so into the race (we had done the same thing the year before!)

3 hours into the race and we were surprised when last years winner Pat Robbins caught us up (why was he behind us?) and wished us luck. Pat is a hugely talented runner and a remarkably relaxed and laid back individual, when he isn’t running the GUCR event he often helps out, running errands, transporting bags and supporting runners. Basically, an all round good guy on the circuit.

We got to Checkpoint 4 (Heart of England Pub) at 53 miles in just under 11 hours. Got to Navigation Bridge when it was still light (so ahead of last years times) although did stop a while at night for some hot food.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 02Navigation Bridge.. in the light!

We took greater care of our feet and blistering was reduced but I was suffering with a nasty blister on my heel despite my best efforts. The night leg was again a long walk and once again I was falling asleep on my feet and had to rely on grabbing Stouty’s backpack, closing my eyes and letting him drag me along at points. Once again, we regretted sending our crew to sleep as we could have done with a nighttime pacer. I did have a few stomach issues, puked up a gel but overall we were on target and arrived at the 100-mile point in 24 hours.

We met our crew at regular intervals from the second morning onwards and took advantage of a pacer, we probably walked more than we jogged but we were making progress and we had been seeing places in the light this year when it had been dark last year so we were well on target for a sub 40 hour.

However, we got to a point where we were slowing. Stouty had some physical injuries and was now hobbling and my stomach issues were continuing and I was sick on a couple of occasions but we plodded on. It was simply a case of seeing out the last few hours.

2011 Grand Union Canal Race Paul AliPlodding on Day 2 

Despite the fact that we both helped each other along the way, I couldn’t help but recognise that we moved at the pace of the slowest person (me at night in particular and then Stouty during the next day) so despite heading towards the finish on target for the modest time we aimed for, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed it wasn’t a better effort. (If you at the race video at about 10.20, I make the comment “we could do better” as we were being persuaded to retire by my Dad).

2011 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Stout 01Stouty feeling the pain, Day 2

However, we had set out to run the event together and we were damn well going to finish it together and around 8pm on the Sunday (in the light) and we finally strolled along to the finish of the race for the second time in a row in a time of just under 39 hours. It was also nice to get a round of applause this year!

2011 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali & Paul Stout 04I love this photo as it sums up our camaraderie, sense of humour, spirit and achievement

Physically, we were better prepared and had a better effort than the previous year but we still walked far too many miles. Despite a 5hr PB (how often can you say that?), it was pleasing to finish but I knew there was more to give.

Pat Robbins once again won the 2011 event in a new course record time of 25hrs 37mins. Claire Shelley was 1st lady and 3rd overall in 30 hours. Messrs Ali and Stout were joint 34th out of 53 finishers in 38hrs 52mins.

2012 Grand Union Canal Race

There was no 2012 race report as unfortunately I didn’t get a place in the ballot.

The weather was reported as being absolutely horrific with rain, rain and more rain. Debbie Martin-Consani was the overall winner in a new female course record time of 28hrs 1min followed by Iveagh Jameson in second place (and 1st male) finishing in 28hrs 53mins.

We spent some time running/marching with Iveagh during the night in 2011 and it was brilliant to see his result, which was almost a 10-hour improvement! It was also good to see the names of Keith Godden and Shane Benzie added to the list of finisher’s aswell.

2013 Grand Union Canal Race 

Another year on and another entry, this time I was going solo (Stouty had gone all “Triathlon” this year) and unsupported. This year, the GUCR was my main build up race to the Spartathlon and I wanted to see if I could get within the overall cut-offs and had targeted a 32-34 hour finish which would represent another 5-7 hour PB so is a massive amount of time to improve.

2013 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali 03Some familiar faces

In the two years since my last GUCR I had run a few more 100 milers, my weekly mileage was up to 60-70 mpw and I have 3 years of regular Ultra marathon running and experience under my belt.

The full story of the 2013 Grand Union Race Report can be found here:

My 2013 Race Video can be found here:

The Friday night catch-up was great and it was good to see some old friends and meet new friends (and Rob Pinnington). With two finishes out of two starts (although admittedly with very modest times) I was in the strange position of being a person who people were starting to look to for odd bits of advice, tips or experience.  I could no longer claim to be the new boy on the circuit and probably could no longer try and follow my usual approach of under promising and over delivering! I laid out my intention to set a new 6-7hr PB quite openly from the start, I had my own plan regardless of anyone else and was aiming for this.

 2013 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali 04Photo courtesy of Ian Pusey

It was a strange experience at first running the event without Stouty (although he did travel with me and crewed at some aid stations for most of the weekend) as I lined up at my usual position right at the back of the field as the runners set off. Once again, I was a little tired for a poor nights sleep. I wasn’t particularly nervous or apprehensive about the run but I am always conscious of over sleeping and missing the start of the race and was perhaps a little on edge.

I ran the first couple of hours with Mimi (who would have been further up the field in normal circumstances but was completing the second part of her GUCR double, London to Birmingham to London), took some good natured abuse from Stouty about still not being any quicker than a Grandmother who was probably very sleep deprived, very sore and very tired from already running 145 miles.

I worked my way up through the field enjoying the best weather I had experienced with some glorious sunshine and warm temperatures, the canal route had never looked better.

I was marginally quicker at Checkpoint 4 (53 miles) than last year but only by half an hour or so as I had been carefully pacing the event. I ran quite a bit with Tremayne Cowdry and it was good to have some company before arriving at the halfway point and meeting my pacer for the night Matt Dunn.

As I was unsupported, I had left a few small parcels of food bags in my kit and at each checkpoint tried to minimise the time I was there by topping up drinks, grabbing my food parcel and moving on although I did allow a longer stop at Navigation Bridge to grab my night gear and an early morning stop to have some cooked breakfast at the 100 mile point.

The night section wasn’t particularly great as usual and we marched for a good 50 miles. I had a little wobble in the morning where I started to stumble around due to my tiredness and had to sit down and simply shut my eyes for a while. Matt was good easygoing company and we chatted and marched for a while.

 2013 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali 02Need sleep!

I passed the 100-mile point about 22 hours in (so 2 hours ahead of schedule) but after a slow night leg my overall goal was slipping out over the 34-hour mark.

I got to the 120-mile checkpoint in 11th position to be greeted by Allan Rumbles and Stouty who were manning the aid station. At that point, I was well ahead of last years time and content to walk it in from there but I was drifting outside of my pre-race goal window.

Deep down, I knew there was more to give. Yes I was tired but there was nothing physically wrong with me and as this was my Spartathlon dry run I had to give more, this level of effort wouldn’t cut it in Greece and so I started to run. It was stop/start at first but I pushed and pushed. After many miles of walking when you start to hit 10m/m you feel you are flying.

2013 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali 01Actually running at the end 

I got to the last Checkpoint with 12 miles to go and pretty much ran through the checkpoint. A 34-hour finish was now achievable and perhaps even a little quicker and so I gave it as much effort as I could and the last 12 miles of this race were simply the best effort I have ever given in a race.

My usual tactic is to run the first half, march the night time leg and gradually slow down as you get closer to the end before a “fake” 50 yard dash at the end to look good for the supporters or anyone with a camera. This time, I was pushing and as I ran started to pick off more runners and I started to feel a bit more competitive.. ah so this is what racing feels like!

I finished really strongly having overhauled a 2 ½ hour gap on 4th place in the last 25 miles and running the last 12 miles in the same pace as the first 12 miles and was absolutely delighted with a 4th place finish. I had finally got a GUCR result I was satisfied with!

There may be some room for improvement particularly with a sluggish night leg but I think this may be marginal at best now. I can’t see another 6 hour improvement happening next time (and that still wouldn’t be enough to worry Pat).

2013 Grand Union Canal Race Paul Ali 05Satisfactory effort on the 3rd attempt 

James Elson won this year’s race in 29hrs 10mins with Sarah Thorne 1st lady in 34hrs 13mins, 2 minutes ahead of 2nd lady.  I spent a bit of time running with Sarah and leap-frogging each other during the night and into the second day and it was great to see her do well.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race

So here we are again, feeling fortunate and looking forward to be involved in another GUCR run 2014.

From the provisional start list, there are a host of familiar names of people who have been involved in this event over the past few years and some new names who have the chance to join the GUCR community, already I can feel myself getting excited about the event and looking forward to meeting up with and running alongside some old friends and make some new ones. I have also booked my hotel the night before already.. and it’s not the Travelodge next to O’Neils! I may even get more than a few hours sleep before the race this time (probably not).

I should mention the race is sandwiched between a couple of 100 mile races either side (Thames Path 100 and South Downs Way 100) and I will probably have to accept this may not be my fastest effort but it will hopefully be another fun adventure!

In terms of what I have learnt, a lot of my improvement has simply been down to more experience, more miles in the legs and the body being more used to the demands and rigours of long distance running. I can still improve my night running (and I use the term “running” in the loosest possible way) but I have learnt to stop wasting time enroute.

For those people who are running the event for the first time and haven’t tackled a distance over 50 or 100 miles you just have to be mentally prepared to see the race out. If you are sufficiently trained and can run the first 50 miles then you are unlikely to be under time pressure and then it’s just a matter of plodding onwards until the end. Pain is temporary, glory is everlasting or something.

Although with a finish rate of approximately 50% then half of your fellow competitors are likely to have suffered an injury (a few), not be physically fit enough to complete it (a few more) or not be driven enough mentally (a few more) to cope with the unrelenting distance of the race. So my advice, is train well, don’t tarry en route and keep moving forward and you can make it.

Stouty and I will be in O’Neils from 4pm on the Friday as usual and we hope to see some regulars and meet a few more people there.