2017 Grand Union Canal Race
Before I knew it, I was back at this familiar race for run (and hopefully finish) number six. Unfortunately, Stouty wasn’t with me this year but I brought a few friends (Alex Whearity, Paul Beechey & Wendy Shaw) from the running club (Reading Joggers) with me. I can’t say training has been brilliant this year with a few niggles here and there (a piriformis muscle strain seemed to take ages to settle down) but my running race results wise has been relatively good for me so no real complaints or issues heading into the race (i.e. no sandbagging!).
I travelled up as usual on the Friday and met Paul Beechey for a drink and bite to eat before registering at the Travelodge and spent the evening catching up with old friends and new ones. I made a conscious decision to head back to the hotel early and try and get a good nights sleep (I also had tried to ‘bank’ some sleep the week before with ‘not late’ nights). My races have been screwed up in the past going into the night phase tired and I didn’t want a repeat of the zombie shuffle at night particularly as I didn’t have Stouty to hang onto this time.
I had my kit all ready for the morning and set my phone alarm twice for 5.10 and 5.15 (yup, I was trying to maximise my sleep with the late’ish wake up) and drifted off to sleep around 10pm ish. I didn’t sleep brilliantly (woke up a couple of times but refused to look at the time) but I actually slept ok. I have a habit of waking up early when I know I have to be awake early (for an outing, business trip, race, whatever) but I’ve done the race enough times not to be worried about it. I did wake up the final time to the alarm call so thought that was a pretty good effort and hoped it would help keep the sleep demons at bay later that night.
The annual hello with Rajeev
I wandered down to the start about 15-20 minutes before race start, dropped off my bags, got a couple of pics, caught up with Alex, Wendy and Beechey (anyone else called Paul in my reports will be called by the surname to avoid confusion!) and got into position in the pack for the start of the race. Beechey, Alex and I had been exchanging a bit of pre-race banter and had a side bet of predicted checkpoint and finish times to keep us amused during the race. The gist of the banter between us was my old race reports and previous efforts and I’m the ageing veteran of the group, Beechey with his overly optimistic opinion of my ability (I can be really crap you know) and everything really along with his multiple running ‘strategies’ and Alex the fast young buck of the group who takes more selfies than the average millennial female facebook user. All good fun between us. On a more serious note with Wendy Shaw running aswell, it was possible that we could all finish within the Top 10 which would be an excellent result.
The Reading Joggers Ultra Team
Personally, a good outcome for the race was a new GUCR Personal Best and a Top 10 finish. Ideally, I would like to sneak under 30hrs mark and thought I was definitely capable of that. With a 17 hour 100-mile time, even if I took is steadier and ran say a 19-20 hour hundred, that would give me 10-11 hours for the last 45 which felt pretty do-able. Alex had entered the race supported and had fellow club runners Barry Miller and Adrian Lee as crew and who would also be ‘looking out’ for the other club runners which is a concept adopted by the crews during this race which helps build a bond between the runners during the race.
The strategy for the race was a steady relaxed run to conserve some energy in the legs. I had forgone the usual detailed excel based race plans but worked out approximate times of where I wanted to be and wasn’t going to overly worry if I was slightly ahead or behind target. I had fully expected to be a little way behind Alex, Beechey and Wendy at the start and would perhaps see a couple of them later in the race.
After a few brief words from Dick, we started out at 6am and headed down the canal path in Birmingham and through the built up area past a few shops and restaurants and underneath a few bridges as we headed out of the city.
I ran the first leg with Wendy on and off and Mike Blamires as Beechey and Alex worked their way towards the front. There were a few strong runners taking part and I was expecting half a dozen sub 30-hour times this year.
The first leg was reasonably warm but wet with light rainfall as we headed along the paths to the first Checkpoint at (Catherine deBarnes). I had prepared a few grab bags of food (one for each checkpoint apart from Hamborough where there is no access to drop bags) and picked up some wraps and biscuits, filled up my bottle with tailwind and headed out onto leg 2. I was running around 9.30m/m – 10m/m which was exactly the steady pace I wanted and did reign Wendy in a couple of times when she started getting quicker (she wanted a steady start aswell.. I wasn’t trying to hold her back of course).
Which of one of us can moan more during a race? 🙂
I continued with the steady pace towards the second Checkpoint at Hatton Locks passing a few people here and there and slowly working my way through the field, it was feeling warm’ish but there was still a bit of light rainfall. The terrain and scenery was all looking pretty familiar and little need to check my maps. I bumped into Russ Bestley and we had a brief chat as we arrived at the second Checkpoint at Hatton Locks together. My feet were feeling a little tight in the shoes and so I spent a couple of minutes removing one pair of light socks (I started with Injinji’s underneath a thin sock to prevent my toes rubbing) to give me feet more room to breathe and carried on with just the Injinji’s which felt a little better. Blistering is a very individual thing and something I’ve always experienced in races despite my foot care being a lot better than in the past, it’s something I always have to pay attention to on the long races. I envy those people who say they never suffer from them! Therefore, despite not wanting to spend too much time at Checkpoints, I was going to make sure I could look after my feet as long as possible and if I needed to spend a few minutes tending to a hot spot I would.
I left Checkpoint 2 and once again hooked up with Wendy and we spent a few miles running together as we headed towards the third checkpoint at Birdingbury Bridge (36 ish miles in) before I eased slightly ahead. I made the usual two ice cream stops at Braunston and another shop a little further ahead which went down very well. I bumped into Dave Barker around this point being crewed by Sarah and his kids.
Standard ice-cream/Lolly stop
I didn’t stay too long at Checkpoint 3 as the everything felt ok and trotted out towards the next Checkpoint. I bumped into Ian Thomas on this leg and ran on before stopping to use a bush ahead and then catching up with him again. I’m not sure if Ian noticed me in the bushes as he ran past but he was too polite to mention it. I was simply relieved at that point. Ian is still regaining his fitness after a few injuries this year and looked like he was just settling into a long day (and night and day).
I can’t recall speaking to many people along this leg and just trotted along at a steady comfortable pace. I did have a mini dip around miles 45-50 where I took a few walk breaks and made sure I ate some feed and was on top of my hydration. The weather was warm and humid but manageable and I was using the occasional water point to soak my head and hat and put some water on my arms and chest to cool the skin.
I managed to pick up the running again as I arrived at the 53.1 mile Checkpoint to see Alex just about to leave. We exchanged a quick word to see how we were getting on. It looks like Alex had gone out reasonably briskly at first but then elected to ease off and conserve his energy, he said he was going to walk a bit and I might catch him up.
I had pre-taped a couple of spots on my feet where I can often get a blister but found I was getting a blister higher up the foot and I stopped at the Checkpoint to dry my feet out from sweat using talcum powder, let the air get to them for a minute and then I drained the blister and re-taped over this part and also changed socks. After grabbing some supplies and filling my bottles I headed out at a walk whilst eating some food on the go before picking up a trot.
I texted the boys as I left the CP. Alex was a couple of miles ahead and Beechey must have been near the front as he was nearly 10 miles ahead by the time he texted. I settled back into a run by myself for a few miles but eventually caught up with Alex who was running with Tom Sawyer. As we ran together for a bit despite having run the race a few times I did make one tiny navigation error when I was chatting with Alex and not paying attention as I failed to cross a bridge as required. Thankfully Sandra Hopkins spotted us and gave us a shout and saved us a few unnecessary yards, thanks Sandra!
The three of us ran together until a few miles before Navigation Bridge. I hit a little low patch around this point and the guys ran ahead as I ran/walked a little bit and hit a few slower miles.
I arrived at Navigation Bridge after Alex and Tom had left but there were a couple of Danish? guys there and 1 or 2 others arriving and leaving. I hadn’t seen a huge amount of people for most of the day and had probably passed more people then had passed me so thought I was gradually moving through the field but wasn’t sure where I was position wise and it didn’t really matter as there was a long way to go and you can only run what you can run.
Refuelling at Navigation Bridge wth a double rice pudding
I stopped at Navigation Bridge to see Javed Bhatti, Keith Godden (who had appeared at nearly every Checkpoint so far) and Jamie Woods along with a few others. I wasn’t feeling 100% at that point and was still on the tail end of the recent dip but after a double helping of rice pudding, some fluids and grabbing my night gear I was ready to go. Javed observed I was feeling warm and had suggested I continue with the cooling strategies.
I set out at a march to let the food settle and it wasn’t too long before I bumped into James Adams, Drew Sheffield and Claire Shelley who were out to watch and support all the runners. They had been trying to work out where I (and other runners were) and had at first thought I was storming the race as they asked the Checkpoint volunteers if they had seen me (Have you seen Paul? Yes, he’s gone past already. Paul from Reading? Yes. A Reading Jogger? Yes. Runs some Centurion events? Yes. Half decent runner? Er..well…. the Tall Guy? Er No… mistaken identity that was Paul Beechey! Dammit.)
We jogged back to where there car was parked a mile or so up the road and having just refreshed myself at Navigation Bridge followed by meeting the guys and having a laugh and a joke lifted me from that current dip. I left the guys where they had parked their car and started the jog to the next Checkpoint at 85 miles. I bumped into Stu Wilkie briefly who was waiting to meet his runner and said hello as I ran on.
I had a pretty good leg to 85 miles with a fair amount of running. I don’t think I had ever got to that Checkpoint before without using my head torch and despite it getting close to darkness I still had enough light to see. The temperatures still felt warm as I was still just running in a T-Shirt. As I got close to the Checkpoint I could see a head torch flashing towards me as if someone was running towards me. As it was getting dark, I grabbed my head torch as I’m not sure if they saw me at all and then we sort of startled each other as my head torch revealed ‘The Human Badger’ (James Adams in Badger costume) with another runner and me appearing out of no-where with my light switched on when we got quite close to each other. We had a bit of a laugh as we jogged to the CP and had some food and drink (thanks Glynn and others who were stationed here) and grabbed my mid-layer as I anticipated it cooling a bit more.
It was now time for the start of the night leg. I enjoy the first few hours of being out at night until I get sleepy and then it’s not much fun at all and I do all I can to keep awake (music, conversation, even some running.. occasionally). The next few miles were pretty good, I was by myself plodding along in the darkness and doing ok. I was probably a little behind where I wanted to be but feeling ok.
I had an amusing incident passing a pub, which had a band on late with a few merry revelers sitting around. They had obviously seen runners passing as they started applauding politely which was nice and then one chap saw my race number (Number 1.. for alphabetical reasons) and thought I was either the leader or pretty decent (wrong on both accounts) and demanded a selfie with Number 1. He didn’t bother asking my name but shouted “Hey Number 1 (I felt a bit like Will Riker), can I get a photo with you?” In this situation, the thought of my randomly appearing on a strangers Facebook feed was amusing so I duly obliged so if anyone ever sees that photo in the future then please let me know.
After a few miles, I caught up with Alex and Marcel McKinley who were trotting along together. A friendly face at last! Alex wasn’t having the best time at this moment and as I set out for a bit of a run he backed off and told us to crack on. No big deal, as everyone has their good and bad points and I had been through a couple of minor dips already so Marcel and I continued on with a good run walk and we chatted about a few races and Sparta as he is running this year. We caught up with Pete Summers and the three of us stuck together until the next Checkpoint. To keep us going, I was micro-managing each mile to give me something to focus on and I decided to run 0.8 of every mile and then march the last 0.2 of a mile with Peter and Marcel tagging along behind. Pete was fine with this but Marcel was probably having a bit of a dip at this particular point as he started moaning about “that was longer than 0.8 of a mile!”. “If you’re going to moan you can get to the back I retorted” before starting the next run/walk bit. Having said that Marcel stuck with us until we shortly navigated past the Aylesbury Arm turn off and arrived at the 100 mile Checkpoint.
We arrived here around 1.45am in the morning and nearly 20 hours into the race. This was probably an hour behind where I wanted to be so the time at the Checkpoints looking after my feet and a couple of dips had lost me an hour. Still, 10 hours to do 45 miles was perfectly do-able as long as I could get through the night and keep the run/walk going to some extent. It wasn’t disastrous by any means but I was almost 3 hours slower than my 100m PB so a fair way off best although a steadier pace was planned. Unfortunately, I got a text from Alex at this point confirming that he had been struggling and had dropped from the race, which was a sad news to hear.
I sorted my feet out again, dried them out and changed socks before heading out.
The next leg is always the toughest, 20 miles long between Checkpoints for unsupported runners and always during my sleepiest time of the night. I started out ok but after a few miles slowed to a walk as I was feeling a bit tired. It was around here that I must have had a momentary lapse of concentration as I stumbled over to my right and fell into some stinging nettles up both legs and onto my right arm suffering a few scratches and that tingling sensation for the next 5 hours! The only benefit was the additional discomfort did help keep me awake as I took some pro-plus to help with the drowsiness.
After picking myself up and dusting myself off I carried on. I was battling the sleep demons a bit and my feet were now starting to feel pretty uncomfortable. Despite all my best efforts, I was suffering some blisters once again and I slowed from a run walk to a fast march.
It seemed to get a little light quite early maybe 3.30 – 4.30am so the real darkness certainly didn’t seem as long as normal and despite finding the most comfortable method of travel on the feet to be a fast march I was a little more mentally alert.. well I didn’t fall into the canal or any more bushes.
I don’t recall seeing anyone until the next Checkpoint although I did pass near somewhere where I could hear someone shouting for ages. I was wearing my iPod and took my headphones off as I thought someone might be shouting at me from behind. I didn’t think I had taken a wrong turn at all but looked round and didn’t see anyone but I did hear a drunk guy in the distance shouting “Arsenal, Arsenal” for about 10 minutes until I got far enough away from him. It was simply a drunk fan probably risking an arrest for being a nuisance for disturbing the local neighbourhood.
I arrived at Springwell Lock to see Jerry Hunter and Maisie crewing as another runner has just left ahead of me. Jerry made me some hot food as I decided to have ‘another’ good look at my feet. I had a new and slightly painful blister on the heel which was sore and I taped it up as it was a ‘hard blister’ and then I looked at my right toe which was a huge ‘soft blister’ underneath my taped toe. (Warning.. the next paragraph is not pleasant) I decided to drain it and took a needle to pop it and cut the skin of the blister to prevent it re-sealing only to find that the entire flap of skin and toenail was coming off my toe leaving a bloody red raw stump. That was going to be very.. very tender and so I carefully tried to dry and clean the area before wrapping the whole flap of skin back together with Rocktape and added a few more wrapped layers of tape to keep it cushioned as much as possible. I also switched shoes to my Conquest 2’s which had higher cushioning to help with the heel blister. It was a bit of a patch up job but I just needed to be able to march it in from here with only 25 miles to go.
I dropped all the unneeded kit into my drop bag (i.e. head torches and extra layer) and set out for the final two legs. I tried running a few steps but marching felt like the most ‘comfortable’ of the ‘uncomfortable’ options and I settled into a fast march. I managed to maintain a march just shy of 4mph so was still making reasonable progress but not quite managing the speed I needed to hit ‘dream’ goal. However, I was probably still ahead of where I had been before so it wasn’t all bad except for the fact that I was now in this limbo position of knowing I could march it in but it was going to be an uncomfortable and slow several hours. Essentially, that was the plan for the race which was a little frustrating especially as I had tried to look after my feet (Keith G later suggested slicing the side of the show with a Stanley knife to allow the toe more room or try some shoes with a wider foot which I will look into).
I marched to the Hamborough Tavern checkpoint as a couple of guys overtook me (Gordon I think and Marcel) a couple of miles before the Checkpoint. Marcel was kind enough to pause and ask if he was ok to carry on running or did I want some company. He was running well and there was no way I wanted to slow someone else when they were hitting a purple patch so I waved him on.
I passed Sarah Sawyer running out to meet hubby Tom who from all accounts was having a tough time of it. She was being very positive with the usual ‘Well done, you’re doing great’ and all I could think was that I had just walked 20 odd miles which had taken me nearly 7 hours.. ‘Great I was not’ but I waved a hello and plodded on.
As I arrived at the final Checkpoint I had a little lift when Mark Beer (who I hadn’t met before) had randomly arrived at the Checkpoint to take a look at the race and offered to buddy run (walk) me to the finish. I did make it clear that all I could do was walk at this point but he was unperturbed and after a quick top up and a few nibbles we set off for the final 13 miles. I said to Mark, it would be nice if I could just fast forward the next leg. I knew I was just going to be able to march it at just under 4mph so the finish time was set it was just a bit of a pain to have to experience it once again.
To be fair, having Mark as company was a great lift as I had someone to talk to and take my mind off everything else and the 3 hours it took to march to the end went a lot quicker than the last 3 hours by myself. Mark was good company and hopefully I didn’t whine too much. Hopefully I’ve passed on all my wisdom from all the mistakes and issues I’ve had over the past 6 races!
Pete Summers finally caught up with me and was running very strongly at the end (how I dearly wished to even run a bit at that point) but we saw out the final meandering turns, hump back bridges and cyclists until we got to the finish. Mark informed me that I was in the Top 10 which was quite nice to hear and despite not seeing that many people although I knew I was nearer the front than the back. I purposely hadn’t kept up to date with the other runners efforts apart from asking how my fellow club runners were getting on.
About a mile from the end
I didn’t even try and break into a run at the end. No point faking a run when I had marched for 35 miles. I crossed the line in 31.43 which was in fact a new PB on the course by an hour and finished in 8th position which was the positive spin on the result. However, the realistic position was that I hadn’t achieved the potential sub 30 so fell a little short of where I ‘could’ have been if everything went well…. but with a race of this length nothing ever goes perfectly does it?
I’m a “dab” hand at this race by now (I’ll get my coat)
However, upon reflection 75% of the race went ok and I would probably have taken that result at the start so no complaints overall. It was also my 6th finish in 6 attempts which started with a 43-44 hour effort in 2010 so a 12’ish hour improvement from my slowest to my quickest time to date.
In terms of the rest of the Reading Joggers Ultra Team, Paul Beechey had a fantastic run finishing 2nd in 26.40 and is going from strength to strength in his races. Wendy finished 2nd lady in 32.46 and 10th overall, so 3 runners in the Top 10 is a great result for the club. I’m sure Alex will also be back stronger next time. Thanks to Barry and Adrian for supporting the team on the day.
Mark (future GUCR finisher) and myself
Well done to everyone who finished the event and commiserations to those who did not. It’s definitely a race which requires some degree of physical fortitude and a lot of mental toughness to keep going when you’re tired/bored/blistered etc.
I should also mention a fantastic performance by Cat Simpson who broke the female course record from another great female athlete with a superb run, well done Cat.
So overall, no complaints and I will be back again.
My final comment is the usual thank you to Keith, Dick, Wayne and all the helpers and supporters who helped put the event on. Thanks very much guys for your time, effort, energy and enthusiasm over the weekend.
Reading Joggers (minus Alex and Beechey who was home and in bed by then)
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