Another Ultramarathon Running Blog

2014 Grand Union Canal Race

Well here we are again, after a fairly decent effort last year I hadn’t originally planned on running this race in 2014 (as my plans were to run the Centurion Grand Slam) until Stouty persuaded me to put an entry into the ballot and run with him this year if we were successful as he was targeting a Spartathlon qualifier (a sub 37 hour finish but we were aiming to follow my 32-34hr plan from last year) and wanted his buddy to run it with him. So, the 2014 GUCR was going to be a 145 mile “fun run”.

Fast forward a few months and we were travelling up Friday afternoon by Reading on a packed train to Birmingham. We arrived to be greeted by heavy rain and then I remembered I was wearing my hat… bastard.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 21

 Hotel view overlooked Gas Street

We had changed hotel this year from the noisy Travelodge and checked in at the Premier Inn which was only a 5 minute walk to the start and actually backed onto the Canal at Gas Street. We got all our kit ready for the next day to save ourselves a job later and we made our way to O’Neils for a bite to eat caught up with various people as they arrived, met a few new people and then registered and collected the race tops I had ordered. This year Dick has added a technical T-Shirt and Hoody both of which I liked.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 24

 The traditional pub meet

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 22

 Stouty showing his pre-race nerves!

After a few hours socializing it was back to the hotel by 8.30pm and to bed. I managed half a nights sleep, sleeping from 9pm to mid-night and then I seemed to doze for the next few hours as people sounded like they were slamming doors as they kept entering or leaving the hotel. The Premier Inn ‘good night guarantee’ didn’t quite work on this occasion but it was a marginal improvement on being next door to ONeil’s and hearing the constant noise of all the late nigh revelers.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 14

 Peter Foxall, Lindley Chambers, Rajeev Patel, Keith Godden, Myself and Paul Stout

I eventually got up about 4.45am, washed, dressed, ate some porridge and made my way to the start of the race and caught up with several people who I hadn’t managed to catch the night before. We had the customary photos on Gas Street and then made our way to our usual position at the back of the pack for the start. Both Stouty and I were feeling remarkably relaxed.. I guess we are getting used to the event now! I had run the Thames Path 100 3 weeks earlier and despite managing my first sub 20hr finish, my knee had been sore and hadn’t really recovered before this event which I knew was a bit of a risk. The knee was once again strapped up but I knew it was runnable but hoping I could get through this race once more. You probably know what’s coming later in the report don’t you?

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 03

 Dick giving his pre-race speech

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 02

 The boys are back! I’m wearing the new GUCR technical t-shirt

Start to Checkpoint 1 – Catherine de Barnes (10.7 miles)

The race commenced at 6am as usual as we made our way from Gas Street in the usual overcast conditions against a cloudy overcast sky and a dull brick background. The first leg was just under 11 miles in length and we took a steady pace drifting past a few runners and chatting to others on the way. We caught up with and had a chat to Lindley Chambers, the legend Peter Johnson and Martin Illot (doing his 10th GUCR and aiming for his 8th finish… so I’ve got some way to go to catch him up) as it started to drizzle and rain.

We dodged our way around various puddles on the course trying to keep our feet dry as it started to drizzle on and off.

We paused briefly at the checkpoint to pick up a pack of sandwiches from my drop bag and Stouty also grabbed some supplies and we then trotted on.

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 Hatton Locks (22.5 miles)

The weather got worse as it started to rain more heavily and we both donned our waterproof jackets. With heavy rain predicted for most of the day I was keen to ensure that the top half of my body stayed dry particularly when going overnight.

The ground conditions for this part were wet, muddy and boggy which meant our feet got wet and muddy quite early into the race.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 15

 Approaching Hatton Locks (Photo thanks to Javed Bhatti)

We passed a few recognisable landmarks like Knowle Locks and Shrewley Tunnel before arriving at Hatton Locks to see Javed Bhatti out taking some photos as he accompanied us to the Checkpoint.

James Adams and Nici Griffin were at this Checkpoint, I received the expected “lucky hat” abuse as it was pouring by now. We refilled our drinks bottles, grabbed a pre-prepared bag of snacks each from our drop bags and marched out whilst eating some of this food.

Checkpoint 2 – Checkpoint 3 Birdingbury Bridge (35.9 miles)

We trotted on maintaining a fairly steady 10m/m pace. There were a string of runners around us with the odd couple of people leapfrogging us. The ground conditions were still wet and muddy and I was thinking about a complete sock change at the next Checkpoint.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 06

Stouty and I were both in reasonable spirits and chatted about nothing as the miles were ticked off in a steady manner. I think it was around here where we saw Gemma Carter out on the course as she was crewing Jerry Smallwood and we said hello as we trundled on. The rain was still pretty constant which was a little depressing but there wasn’t much we could do about it.

We arrived at the third Checkpoint in around 6 hours where I paused for some hot food whilst Stouty pressed on and I agreed to catch him up.

Checkpoint 3 – Checkpoint 4, Heart of England Pub (53.1 miles)

I caught up with Stouty after a couple of miles as we took the sharp left at Napton Junction and headed towards Braunston. By now the rain had thankfully eased off and we even saw a touch of sunshine.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 04

 Braunston Ice-cream stop

We stopped at the little shop at Braunston to buy and ice-cream and drink which has become a bit of a tradition and after a short break marched up the “Braunston Mountain” (a tiny bit of elevation gain) as we diverted off the canal route for a mile or so.

We were still running a steady pace with the occasional walk break but by now I could feel some hot spots on my feet and I decided to stop and review these have at the next Checkpoint.

There was a small crowd at the Checkpoint with James Adams making his second appearance along with Sharon Weldon. Mimi, Tim and Becky had also made an appearance in a barge they had hired.. sorry to say they hadn’t had the best weather at this point.

Stouty didn’t want to hang around whilst I was sorting my feet and we had pre-agreed that one would push on if this situation arose as chances are the other person would catch up later rather than slow the both of us down. It would also add as a little incentive for the other person to catch up.

I spent about 10 minutes re-taping my feet and putting on clean socks. There were no obvious blisters but a few sore points. I had a spare pair of shoes but wanted to save these for the second half of the race at least. After a brief bite to eat, water refills and foot care I marched out eating some food on the go.

We had covered the 53 miles to this point in about 9.5hrs so overall were on target and had run everything at a steady pace at this point.

Checkpoint 4 – Checkpoint 5 Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles)

I caught up with Stouty after a few miles and we ran along together. It felt like I was driving the pace on this leg so I don’t know if Stouty was having a low moment or not. If he was, he didn’t say as we continued our progress towards the next Checkpoint.

Navigation Bridge is the traditional (not mathematical) halfway point, an oasis on the bridge for runners where you can re-fuel with hot food, hot drinks, pick-up the night gear and then head out for the night leg.

I think this leg became a bit more of a run/walk and so a few people we had been leap-frogging for a while (Izzy and Russ) moved on ahead and a couple more people drifted past us. Once again the rain fell down quite heavily turning this leg into a bit of a slog although we were still “on plan” as I had allowed for a reduced pace the further we got into the race. We arrived at the checkpoint to be greeted by Shane Benzie (who had been following my tracker online) and James Elson doing the food.

After a warm drink, a bite to eat and grabbing our head-torches and an extra layer for the night, we headed out. This had been our longest stop so far (20 minutes) but was our planned refueling point for the night.

We left here about 8pm, 12 hours into the race.

Checkpoint 5 – Checkpoint 6 Bridge 99 (85 miles)

We were due to meet our buddy Paul Katisivia-Corderey (making us a group of Paul, Paul and Paul) a few miles ahead of Navigation Bridge.

I stopped at toilet at a lock to use the facilities and (I think) for the first time in 4 years of running the event actually used my GUCR lock key.

A short while later we met Paul and this freshened up the conversation as he talked about his recent attempt at the “Olympian” race (a Greek 100 miler in the Spartathlon mould) earlier in the week and other general ultra running chat.

By this time, my knee was starting to feel sore and it felt like I was the one slowing the group down. We settled into a run half a mile/walk half a mile routine which I felt I could cope with. My feet were also feeling pretty mashed despite the re-taping at Checkpoint 4 and the soles of my feet were feeling pretty uncomfortable as I could feel the on-set of blisters.

The weather became gloomy, then dark as we turned our head-torches on. I used the Lenser SE07R in low power mode and didn’t need to change the battery at all that night whereas I used it in high power mode at the Thames Path 3 weeks earlier and had to change the battery 3 times (I use the rechargeable battery packs for this torch which I believe are coming soon from the UltraMarathonRunningStore).

We marched, jogged and chatted until we got to the next checkpoint to see a few friendly faces of Jamie Woods, Kevin Mayo and Glyn Raymen (who delivered cans of Redbull for us which I was thankful for as I was starting to feel a little weary.

I managed to force down a hot-dog, had a warm drink and patched up my feet and changed my socks again before we headed out to the next Checkpoint.

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

From this point onwards, Stouty and I were resigned to marching as our feet were feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Whilst I had been trying to maintain and care for my feet during the race (without success) it was fair to say my sock/shoe strategy just did not work for these conditions and I may have been better using a different shoe (which could expunge the water better) and sealskinz socks. Stouty’s tactic of “not looking at then at all” didn’t seem to be working out that well either and we were both in some discomfort.

The night had seen continuous rain for several hours and so we were well wrapped up but depressed. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost my Salomon gloves somewhere as they were packed but may have fallen out of my backpack at some point

Stouty’s partner Jo was going to meet us here to say hello at the next Checkpoint and this was where our buddy Paul would also depart having seen us through most of the night.

We had a tiny navigational issue just before the checkpoint where you cross over a lock as there was a temporary closure of the route due to some maintenance work but we worked our way round this and arrived at the next checkpoint about 3am in the morning to meet Jo. 21 hours had now elapsed and the last 30 miles had taken us 9 hours which was slow going.

I tried a bacon sandwich here but was suffering with some stomach cramps and couldn’t eat it. I nibbled on some bread, drank a hot a cup of tea as the checkpoint staff kindly threw a blanket over us both as we were getting cold and may have changed my socks again.. I can’t recall this Checkpoint too well to be honest.

After Stouty said goodbye to Jo and we thanked Paul for accompanying us (much appreciated mate) we trudged out to the next checkpoint Springwell lock.

Checkpoint 7 – Checkpoint 8 Springwell Lock (120 miles)

I left the checkpoint ahead of Stouty as he was still organising himself and he agreed to catch me up. I needed to be helped out of the chair and my sore knee was incredibly stiff after the stop so I wanted to get a start and try and work a bit of flexibility into the knee.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 12

 Trudging along (Photo thanks to Andy Nuttall)

There was a nasty little section of this checkpoint which was pools of water and mud which started to irk me a bit but I trudged on and Stouty eventually caught me up a mile or two later.

The first signs of daybreak could be seen as we continued on this leg which was a bit of a killer at 20 miles in length.

Truth be told, we were both suffering with foot pain. Every step from this point felt like I was walking on a bed of nails, I wanted the race to be over. I was slipping into those negative emotions and thinking about how long 45 miles would take to cover even at a hopeful 4mph pace and a more likely 3mph pace, I didn’t want to keep suffering this foot pain, I was feeling really fuzzy headed and drowsy by now… I just wanted it all to be over.

It’s probably a good time to point you to the video footage I shot on my camera. If you look at the 10min 12second point onwards, you could see how tired I was looking around my eyes. I was having real difficulty staying awake at this point and was dropping off. I like to try and capture my emotions during the race and thought Rob Pinnington would appreciate the misery I was in.

There were a few comments about stopping but I don’t think we were really serious it was perhaps a little release and confirmation that we were both resigned to slugging it out.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 20

 Approaching Checkpoint 8 (Photo by Andy Nuttall)

The weather did improve as the sun came up during this leg and the weather started to come out lovely and warm which was a welcome relief after a miserable Saturday.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 05Shortly before the Springwell Lock is the famous “hanging monkey” which I actually spotted for the first time.

We trudged along to Checkpoint 8 and arrived to see a few familiar faces. Baggage man Wayne was there and probably the only person we saw at every single checkpoint along with Andrew Smith and Andy Nuttall along with one or two others.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 13

 Pot-Noodle stop (Photo thanks to Andy Nuttall)

The last 20 miles had been a long slog and sitting down for a few minutes was a welcome relief. As the rest of the route was pretty good I changed into my spare pair of shoes and put on some clean socks. My feet didn’t really feel that much more comfortable but the shoes and socks were dry and at least would stay that way for the rest of the race. I grabbed Pot Noodle from my drop bag which Andy made up for me, consumed this and then got ready to head out.

Stouty was taking a bit longer and he agreed to catch me up.

Checkpoint 8 to Checkpoint 9 – Hamborough Tavern (133 miles)

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 11

 Putting on a brave face (Photo thanks to Andy Nuttall)

No complaints about the weather conditions now, which was lovely and warm. Stouty and I marched on together without too much conversation between us.

Physically, I was hurting. Me feet were really sore, my calf had swollen and my knee was stiff and aching. I’m struggling to think of a race where I felt physically worse. There was no giving in just a question of marching on and seeing out the time.

We stopped at a small café where Stouty used the facilities and I bought an ice cream. Again, any stop was a welcome relief from the constant pain. I felt as if I was walking on a bed of nails with every step causing me to wince in pain.

We plodded on trying to maintain a 4mph pace but probably closer to a 3-3.5mph pace. Stouty started to falter on this lap and his pace reduced and he asked for a brief stop describing the pain in his feet as so intense that he felt like passing out. I was getting a little annoyed as everything was hurting and even the briefest stops was now prolonging the agony, I would rather have just marched on so this could all be over sooner. The only relief was that I was feeling a little more alert as the day progressed and had got over that earlier spell of lethargy and sleepiness.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 07

I started to edge ahead but kept Stouty in sight and we eventually reached the Paddington turn off so I knew I was only a mile away from the next and final checkpoint.

We crossed the bridge and turned left to the checkpoint and ahead we saw Glyn Rayman (again) jogging towards us with a couple of energy drinks. legend! Stouty had put an SOS call out on Facebook and Glyn had taken it upon himself to give the boys a little lift, which was much appreciated.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 19

 Beer stop (Photo thanks to Nici Griffin)

We slowly marched to the Checkpoint to see Nici Griffin and James Adams on duty again amongst one or two others. I was pretty keen to get on with it now and plod on but Stouty wanted a little sit down which prompted a bit of er..“banter” between us. I believe I may have used the phrase “Are you going to stop f*****g around now?” James kindly let me have a sip or two of his pint which was rather refreshing and we soon plodded on… 12 miles to go.

Checkpoint 9 to The Finish at Little Venice (145 miles)

Despite only being 12 miles away, this leg took us 3.5 hours as we both slowed even further with constant stop starts. My knee was really giving me some trouble now as I limped along.

We slowly plodded a few miles as a few other runners drifted past us, some of the even running.. bastards! (Sorry Pete C)

We met a couple of buddies Matt & Debbie who came out to see us and who kindly offered to give me a lift home. After a brief pause at seeing them Matt drove the car to the end and Debbie along walked with us.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 08

Oops hobbling (Photo thanks to Matt Studdart)

We followed the path as it twisted and turned as a few more runners came past us. I was becoming slightly hacked off with all the cyclists zooming past without much consideration for the pedestrians.

The plod continued and we eventually we reached the humped back bridges which thankfully had an arm support otherwise I would never have got over it.

Glyn Raymen had jogged out to meet us and we started to chat when I looked around and realised Stouty wasn’t there. It appears his pace had slowed even further so I hobbled to a place I could sit down about a mile from the end and wait for him so we could finish together.

As Stouty caught up the others ran on to grab a photo at the finish and we hobbled the last few hundred yards to the end to the cheers and applause of the people at the end which was much appreciated.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 09

 Finish number 4 (Photo thanks to Matt Studdart)

We crossed the line and I immediately sat down, thankful that this was over. Dick awarded us with the awesome heavyset GUCR medal which made my total number of finishes to four and Stouty started to savour the finish. Me, well I just sat down feeling well… just relieved.

We had finished in 35hrs 20mins which wasn’t a bad time at all and we had achieved the aim of getting Stouty a Spartathlon qualifying time (under 37hrs) so objective achieved but personally I felt a little empty and not in the least bit satisfied with the race. I don’t know whether it was because it was a slower run than last year or the discomfort of the second half of the run with my feet horrible blistered despite my inadequate efforts to look after them. I had been mentally low for hours and hours and finally crossing the line wasn’t enough to lift it with much of a smile at the end.

Sarah Thorne (last years Ladies Champion – as she was too humble to mention this to others at the end) and Glyn kindly looked after me and I spoke briefly to Tim as I sat in the chair getting a little cold and shivering. I threw on my smock jacket and wrapped myself in a blanket and sat there for a while watching one or two others finish before Matt & Debbie kindly gave me a lift home.

After sitting down for a prolonged period I couldn’t walk without support and Matt ran ahead and took the bags to the car as Debbie helped me shuffle to the car. The guys bundled me in the car and gave me a lift home after which I had a bath, a bowl of ice cream and went to bed for 10 hours.

2014 Grand Union Canal Race GUCR Paul Ali 10

 Ouch, ouch, hurty for 60 miles

At the time of writing a few days later , I still feel a little despondent about the race and can honestly say I still don’t feel satisfied with it and I can’t quite put my finger in why. I suppose the fact that I’m still struggling to walk with sore feet is probably an obvious reason, maybe the pain and discomfort needs to go away fully before I can take some satisfaction from the achievement of finishing or perhaps I’m just being a bit hard on myself. (I’m not looking for any “You did great, well done” comments here. I’m just reporting how I’m feeling at the moment).

For various reasons (some within my control and some not) it hurt for so long and perhaps I was fed up with another long deathmarch as there’s no option to me but to try and finish these things despite the discomfort… heaven knows how I am going to feel when I DNF a race. This genuinely felt like one of the hardest races I took part in and whilst not as bad as my first GUCR (a 44 hour march with even worse feet and even worse tiredness) this was definitely the second hardest.

I guess it means I need to go back again, run it again and enjoy it more. I can’t leave my favourite UK race with these memories.

Thanks to Dick and all the volunteers, helpers, marshals and crew without which we wouldn’t have this wonderful race. The organisation was once again great and it was good to see lots of familiar faces helping out on the course. Particular thanks to buddy Paul Katisiva-Corderoy for the company, Glyn for popping up with drinks from time to time and Matt/Debbie… I couldn’t have got home from the finish without you!

Well done to everyone else who finished and commiserations to those who didn’t. I wanted to add a quick note to Jerry Smallwood who I desperately wanted to earn a finish this year. This might seem like an empty comment but from what I heard you battled through the worst of it and I really do hope you return again one year and earn the finish you deserve.

In summary, I guess it was a tough year for me personally and I’m still smarting a bit but I will be back and aim to feel better about finishing the race next time.


2 Responses to “2014 Grand Union Canal Race”

  1. Trails and Ultras

    Bearing in mind you had run a 100 a few weeks before, started the race with a dodgy knee, had to contend with constant rain and what looks like trench foot, I don’t think you did too badly!


Leave a Reply to Trails and Ultras Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: