Well it’s official, the Grand Union Canal Race is my nemesis race. Despite attempting and completing the race 8 times now, I’ve never put in a ‘good’ performance although admittedly the first few years I was an ultra running novice.
Those of you who read my recent Thames Path report (here) will be aware I’ve had a slow start to the year as I’ve been recovering from injuries and haven’t yet regained my motivation and desire for ultra running, the ‘mojo’ has simply disappeared at the moment and I’ve been going through the motions with my running at present. Yes, there’s a thread of truth in my Spartathlon profile here.
The GUCR is a race I didn’t want to miss particularly as I had badgered Keith in the months beforehand to organise some nice looking blue GUCR shirts this year to which he kindly obliged. I took my usual Friday afternoon train to Birmingham and arrived early to help out at registration for a short period before heading to the pub and doing my best to bring the mood of the group down with talk of injuries, lack of desire, retirement and so on (sorry chaps). It was going to be a busy weekend for me as I had to run the GUCR, get home Sunday evening before catching a flight out to New York early on Monday for a family holiday. I was looking forward to getting the race over with so I could relax afterwards.
I met up with fellow Reading Jogger Alex “Wheaton” Whearity for a quick drink in the hotel beforehand where he talked about putting in some effort and ‘making a statement’ which he thought he was relaying instructions to me but in reality he was building up his own confidence after a DNF at the event 2 years ago (which we’ve obviously commented upon a few times over the last 2 years). Alex simply had a score to settle this year but he was in exceptional form, had a crew and “pacers” (buddy runners obviously.. no-one makes that mistake!) ready and was well prepared for the race.
I tried to get an early night but never sleep well in a hotel and had a crappy nights sleep as usual. I stayed in bed as long as I could the next day and then wandered down to the start cutting it pretty fine turning up 5-10 minutes before the race. Truth be told I wasn’t feeling emotionally invested in the race at all and knew I was physically a bit below par and did my best to keep a low profile. You know when you’re feeling fit and ready and this wasn’t one of those times.. more regular consistent training is required but I think I’ve turned the corner with injuries so hopefully I can build upon this over the summer in the run up to Sparta.
I had simply decided to ‘enjoy’ the race and whatever would be, would be. Despite inwardly feeling a bit morose, I put on a smile and a brave face and tried to get on with it and set off with good intentions. We set off promptly at 6am in good weather and I headed out near the front chatting to Nathan and Ian before settling down into a comfortable pace.
I’ve written so many GUCR race reports that I don’t want to repeat a lot of what has been written before so will summarise key elements of the race.
The first leg was fine and I breezed through the first checkpoint at Catherine de Barnes and onwards towards Hatton Locks (CP2). The weather was lovely and warm (although it was a but muggy later) and I paused briefly at CP2 to grab some snacks and refill my bottles. I bumped into Ian Thomas somewhere around here who had taken a bit of tumble which unfortunately led to an early retirement on this occasion which was a real shame.
Hatton Locks (Photo Ross Langton)
I had a dip around 30 miles which wasn’t entirely unexpected as this was longer than my training runs but fuelled up at Birdingbury Bridge and got myself moving again. I spent a lot of the next few legs with Mr Prithech.. Prythek.. Pritherik… Simon and I did my best to to bring his mood down with talk of retirement and packing it all in.. to which he was having none of it. We had a couple of ice cream stops along the route which was nice and refreshing and spent the next 25 miles or so together. My pacing for these legs was ok, not as quick as I’ve run these sections before but ok.
I unexpectedly caught up with Sergey who admitted his build up and training had been less than ideal for work/lifestyle reasons and despite run/walking some of the course early on, managed to dig in, keep moving and eventually finished second. A great effort to keep going and eventually pick up the running to earn a very respectable finish.
Birdingbury Bridge Checkpoint (Photo Ross Langton)
I think I had another dip around the 60 mile’ish mark and walked a section here before picking up the running and heading into Navigation Bridge. This is pretty close to the half-way mark and the point at which I have faded on most occasions through blisters and/or niggles or lack of motivation to run. This next section is the real test of character for me.
Arriving at Navigation Bridge
I had some super hot chilli which had a real kick in it and after letting this settle down for 5-10 mins picked up the running. This next leg was the absolute best section of the race for me as I ran the entire section strongly and reeled in a few runners arriving at the 85 mile point in the light (a rare occurrence for me) and bumped into James Adams and Glynn. Nathan Flear was here with crew members Darren and Dave, unfortunately Nathan wasn’t having a great day and decided to call it a day at this point. I tried to persuade him to march out a few miles with me in the hope that the running would come but he’d already walked a few miles and didn’t fancy a death march to which I jokingly quipped ‘That’s no big deal I death march 50 miles all the time’.. how prophetic these words would turn out to be…
Arriving at the 85 mile checkpoint (Photo Credit James Adams)
I set out towards the 100 mile checkpoint when it soon got dark. The weather was still warm and muggy and I was comfortable in just a tee shirt. The 85-100 mile section was a bit more run/walking and I slowed here.
I paused at the 100 mile checkpoint to eat some food and put on a warm hat and jacket as I started to cool when I stopped moving but as I set off again at a marching pace I was absolutely sweating (even just walking) and had to strip off back down to a tee shirt and shorts, no complaints about it being cold near the canal this year.
The sleep demons kicked in around here and I was finding it really difficult to stay awake. A lack of banked sleep hours the week before hadn’t helped and this did genuinely feel pretty bad to the extent that my vision was blurring and the canal path seemed to be converging in front of me as if I was going cross-eyed despite splashing water on my face and blinking rapidly to clear my vision. I took a couple of pro-plus and found a bin I thought I would rest my head on my arms for 30 seconds. I must have dropped off for a couple of minutes as the next thing I knew I was all disorientated and sliding off the bin and falling to the ground. I managed to catch myself and marched on feeling a bit rotten.
100 mile checkpoint (Photo Credit Phil Bradburn)
This point was pretty much the end of any sort of effort and running. I sulked, I walked, I dozed, I walked, I decided I would be retiring after Sparta and I can’t motivate myself to run ultra’s any more.. game over. There was no real danger of a DNF just a simple acceptance that I would be walking the rest of the race. Mentally, I had completely lost any sort of motivation to run.. this was the exact feeling why I’m not enjoying the long distance running. I texted my buddy Rob Pinnington, he would absolutely love the fact that I was suffering. Gallows humour and all that.
Physically, I was starting to pick up some niggles here and there. My shin ‘twinged’ from time to time which I suspected was an early sign of cramp so I took a few more S-Caps and my right quad was really sore as well as my left knee. Despite my best pre-care and taping efforts my toes got trashed again.. which is pretty bloody annoying. Despite all my efforts and different techniques I seem to be really susceptible to blisters. The change of gait and time on feet were starting to have an effect. However, despite this discomfort the main reason I slowed was lack of motivation so I’m not using any physical niggles as an excuse these were just an inconvenience.
Trying to kill some time on my feet, I had a quick search off race updates and was delighted to see that Alex was storming the race and I sent him a quick good luck note.
Despite walking for hours through the night I only saw a couple of people when they passed me (I was expecting more) but did bump into Simon again who arrived shortly after me at Springwell Lock. I tried to be a bit more chipper each time I arrived at a checkpoint, it was probably the only conversation I would have for hours between each checkpoint!
It’s pretty depressing knowing you’ve only got 25 miles to go but at walking pace this is going to take you several hours and I trudged on as Simon and buddy runner Graham passed shortly after. They asked if I wanted to run but I was adamant that I was walking now.
I finally managed to find some company shortly after Hamborough Tavern when Pete Summers caught up with me. Pete was also have an off-day and marching the last leg and we decided to accompany each other for the last half marathon or so trading various stories which really did help pass the time. I had some good ‘banter’ with the support crew here and tried to persuade Duncan to write ‘hilarious banter’ next to the runners comments for me.. he wrote ‘nemesis’… the git.
Pete and I walked the meandering canal path until we finally arrived at the finish with Pete kindly acting as substitute for Stouty so I could get my usual finish line photo accompanied by a shaven headed man. The finish time was 33 hours 20 minutes for finish number 8 of which the last 13-14 hours had been spent walking.. another typical below par GUCR performance and I felt pretty crappy about it.
Nathan had turned up at the finish to watch some of the runners to which I quipped.. “You know that 50 mile death march I mentioned…you were probably wise to bail as that wasn’t much fun at all!” (I may have replaced the words ‘wasn’t much fun’ with a different choice of words!).
Sprint finish with Pete… not (Photo Credit Keith Godden)
LLCR 1 attempt decent, KACR 1 attempt ok, GUCR 8 times..not gone sub-30 hours (www.canalrace.org.uk)
After thanking Keith, Dick and crew for their support (despite my mood, I do appreciate the volunteers efforts to host the race and felt a bit guilty about not really giving it the effort the race deserves) and then headed home as I had a flight to catch the next day.. which was pretty uncomfortable!
My new summer look for airports is now compression tights, shorts, thick socks and a knee support.. I think the look it might catch on!
The new summer airport look (Photo Credit Sally-anne Ali)
Thanks to the GUCR organisers and ‘family’ of volunteers for putting on the race. Huge congratulations to Alex who had a storming race finishing 1st in a shade over 25 hours.. a fantastic performance and effort in a big league race and he has years of ultra-running in front of him (we tell him he won’t be really good until he hits 40). I’m really proud of you mate and what a great way to come-back and respond to your DNF at this race two years ago.
Writing this a week or so later and I’m not feeling much different about running to be honest. I could summarise the report with a simple ‘brave face.. crap race’.
I need a bit more physical recovery time (only managed one short jog home from work at the moment and the knee/quad is still a bit sore at present). After these niggles settle down I absolutely have to focus on training for Sparta and getting back into good shape. If I approach that race with the same attitude I have shown in the last couple of races then that has DNF written all over it. The old adage that ultra-running is more mental than physical is absolutely true, trying to run a race with a general feeling of apathy is pretty challenging.
If I can start to get myself in good physical shape, then hopefully that will spark some interest, desire and motivation (I’m trying to convince myself here). I’m still struggling to dig myself out of this ultra running melancholy at present and a long-break from ultra running after Sparta/Thames Trot 10 is looking increasingly likely.
PS – Family holiday was lovely but walking around NY for the first day or two was a bit of a struggle!