I was just stood there, staring down at the moon's perfect reflection in the canal. It was a clear night and getting colder. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and no noise other than the shuffling of boxes between vans. There is a pub just opposite us but it's closed. It's 1am now and its patrons and owners have retired for the night. As have the people who live in the nearby boats. They are all in bed now. I don't even know where I am sleeping tonight. I don't even know if I am sleeping tonight.
We have to be quiet, a little noise is generated when a team of four supporters bearing baked beans arrive. They are the Ferrari pit stop crew of James Elson who we are expecting to emerge from the darkness soon. Robbie, Paul, Claire and Graham talk as if they are torn between pampering James or torturing him. "Let's give him the beans, He'll eat those. If he doesn't then make him. Perhaps he'd like the sauages too? Make him have a sausage. No that's cruel".
At the same time I help out Allan, Pat and Paul by moving things from one van to another. Water, coke, bin bags, chairs, a toilet. We are being directed by Dick, the inventor and orchestrator of this whole scene. Soon we will drive off to another part of the canal and recreate the same scene, act 7 of this long long play. In the meantime we have a chance to relax, stand shivering in the dark and enjoy a luke warm cup of instant coffee, hoping it will reduce the nodding motion I am already suffering.
I break away from the chatter and get distracted by my own thoughts, or thought rather, it's hard to have more than one at a time at this stage. I tried to sum up what it feels like on a Saturday night to be on a canal towpath just outside of Tring, cold and tired, not knowing when or where or if sleep is coming, eyes hurting from being blinded by headtorches, wet feet and a mouth that feels like a badger's arse. I am surrounded by others who are here just like I am, for the same reasons I am and I try to pick a word that describes all of this.
The word I go for is normal.
That then starts off another sequence in my head. Why is this normal? When did this become normal? Why would being wrapped up in bed at home with my wife in West London feel abnormal tonight? What happened in my life that made this normal?
But I have to put that on hold for a moment because James has just arrived. He is the race leader at this 100 mile point and looking pretty fresh. He grabs some cherry tomatoes and eats a cup of beans. He then turns around and starts fiddling around in his shorts as the crew make calculations about his next movements.
This is still normal.
I have been where James is a couple of times now, stood in the dark having run 100 miles and knowing that I have 45 miles left to go. When I say I've been "there" I don't mean this bit of canal but in his head. We are different people with different ways of doing and thinking but it is very likely that I have felt many of the things he is feeling right now.
So you might think that I could empathise with him right now, that I know how he feels and can relate to his predicament. You'd be wrong. I can't. Though I have been there many times before I can't just go back right now. What I have are memories of when I was there, I can only remember what it felt like, I can't feel like it. Every time I access the memory it changes, distorts slightly every time, contaminates even. It feels great to recall them but in doing so they are moving further away from the original. The only way to know truly what it's like is to go back in there, to run those 100 miles, to feel the sleep deprivation, the sore legs, the paranoia and sickness. Every experience has a half life, some longer than others. The only way to retain the joy of reliving memories is to constantly be creating new ones.
So this becomes normal.
James thanked his crew and then he and Drew marched off under a bridge as the rest of his crew packed up the stove and boxes and made an exit. It was time for me to leave too, heading on to the next main stop 20 miles along the canal.
Allan, Paul and I head out in the van and I get an opportunity to ponder on how I got here. I understand the addiction to the sport but why the Grand Union Canal Race? It could have been any race. Well actually no, not every race holds you like this one. For the last 6 years, except one I have been at the side of the canal either running, crewing or supporting. You could say this was my first ultra love, I never imagined you could go through the kind of things that are gone through in 30+ hours of physical effort and then feel better for it. Few other races do this, that's why I'm here. Now near Watford trying to drift asleep in the van but hurting my neck to do so. I get out, shivering and wait for the sun to come up. Opposite a car park full of doggers, I watch them leave one by one including a guy on a bicycle. It's really cold now, I have all my layers on and I am still shivering, still tired, still hungry, still aching, still enjoying my normal bank holiday weekend.
Rolling out of a hotel at 5am on a Saturday morning and strolling down to Gas Street Basin seems about as normal now as getting up for work. I head down the stairs, say good morning to the guy on reception who know the drill by now and head out on the busy streets of Birmingham. There are still people around from the night before, young girls staggering around in heels and not much else, guys looking for another place to drink. I recall a few years ago at 5.30am a car of men pull up beside us and ask "do you know where there are any strip clubs around here? Sadly we didn't.
Some of these runners have what it takes to complete 145 miles of non-stop motion. Some of them do not. However there is a subset of these "do nots" who will pick up whatever it takes along the towpath somewhere and finish. For those this will be the greatest day(s) of their running lives. I run out to a bridge about 100 meters from the start, just past a really small tunnel that many of the runners will have to stoop under. In 24 hours they will all look like that, hunched over like old men. It's hard to know what to say to runners who are 100m into a race that is 230,000 meters long. Well done? Keep going? You are doing really well? I want to say something to everyone I know but I know about half of the field here and just can't spread my encouragement that far. I am hoping later I will get more of a chance to talk to them one to one.
I go back to bed to get a few hours sleep before we set out on a long weekend. The early parts of the race are wonderful to be involved in but at this point extras are not really necessary. Right now the runners are elated to be in the early stages of the best ultra marathon in the UK. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and no doubt this ultra family reunion is getting into full swing. The first place I go to is the Weedon checkpoint at 53 miles into the race. We unload the dropbags onto a narrow slope at the exit of the path, trying to put them in some sort of order so that we can grab them quickly for the runners to access them.
This is a really interesting point of the race. Runners will have fanned out into a natural order according to their own expactations. The first runner through will be expecting to win, those near the front will be expecting to get this finished by tomorrow lunchtime, those in the middle will have their own times in their heads and those at the back are here to finish around sundown tomorrow.
In the runners heads projections are being made. 53 miles in X means 145 miles in Y. Most support crews are juggling a combination of drinks, snacks and excel spreadsheets. These sheets detail whether the runner is hitherto having a good race or a bad one. Having run through here a couple of times before and on hearing accounts of hundreds of runners over the years I try to imagine how probable these estimations of Y are. I know that in 50% of cases they are quite wrong and in 49% of cases they are way out. 8 hours elapse and no runner yet, either that means that no one has set out on a suicidal pace (rare) or that the course record will be safe for another year.
We hear reports that there was an early exit from the race made by Brendan Mason, a runner I met in Badwater, an Australian living in Beijing. That is a long way to come for a race, well worth it unless of course you stack it after 3 miles, fall on your water bottle and puncture a lung. Brendan did a great impression of the black knight in Monty Python, it's just a flesh would. It wasn't, it was an organ wound and when he arrived into hospital via a disjointed route of a pub and Henk's hearse he had to have two litres of blood removed from the bag he is supposed to breathe with. Most people will fall over at some point in the race, that however was astonishing bad luck. Dick has rolled over Brendan's place for next year, I really hope that is more successful that when he rolled over this year.
The first runner Craig is in around 8:10, he looks worn. James and Cliff arrive together about 10 minutes later, James looks less worn, Cliff also does however he drops out soon after. Most of the runners at the front try to go through with the minimum of fuss, not listening to the chairs that call out like Sirens. These tests will be issued all over the race, right now it's an easy test to pass, the chairs look like Lady Gaga and sing like Geri Halliwell. Later on they will look like Kylie and sing like Aretha Franklin. It will be hard to run away from.
The spread of food on the table teetering on the edge of the tow path looks amazing. Crisps, nuts, pinapple and cheese on sticks and all sorts of drinks. I should have asked Dick to do our wedding catering. Gemma frowns at my attempted humour. As the runners arrive we yell their number, decide whether it is less than 350 and if so march up the path and find their bag. It's warm an they are getting through plenty of water. We take bottles and pouches and re-fill with not quite the same speed as a F1 pit stop. There are not a lot of similarities between formula 1 racing and ultra running. I find this much more exciting to watch. Though many of the runners look like they have enough kit to go into space, special shoes, compression gear, wicking fabrics, effervesing nutrition, zips and straps, satellite naviagation and bio-statistical feedback these things will not finish the race for them or even make much of a difference. Brain and Balls, those are the things that will finish the race.
The hardest part is keeping the brain on your side. It is designed to keep your body alive 24 hours at a time. It is programmed to stop you suffering without a point. It doesn't really care for long term benefits. Anyone who has finished this race or similar will know just how good the long term benefits are but the brain will not be interesting in this. All it cares about is getting you through the day so that you can sleep safely at night, with no fear of attack or hunger. It really doesn't like it when you start running into the night. For many of the runners this starts at Navigation Bridge, 70 miles into the race.
I got to Navigation Bridge around 6pm. James Elson was now leading by quite some margin and had already gone through. We were waiting for the rest of the runners to come in. Stood on the bridge we could see into the distance and get early warning of all the runners. We automatically make judgements on the runners style, like some reality TV show panel scoring runners as they gave us a two minute demonstration of their form. Some passed with flying colours, they might go on to great things, they would certainly be invited back to running boot camp. Others we were not so sure about, they looked tortured, messed up, awkward, tired. We have no place judging these people though and no one has the inclination to mock their efforts like they would do on TV. " Are you sure that running is your thing? Doesn't look like it. My Grandma could run better than that after her hip replacement" Speaking of Grandmas....
A couple of days ago I set out on quite an ambitious run, to run to Birmingham along this canal and then back again along with the race. The dream was to get up to Birmingham in around 36 hours, having left Paddington at 9am on Thursday morning. This was an idea that seemed so sensible 15 months ago when I first had the thought. A few weeks before I took a little knock and hurt my ribs, risking starting the attempt. In the end that was not an issue except that in those three weeks of not running I got stiff and fat(ter).
But in those few weeks where I'd normally go through the usual excitement and then panic about the race I felt very different. Actually I did not feel much at all. I was putting off thinking about it much more than I have ever done with anything. I completely missed the "Event Horizon", the time beyond which you have fewer hours between now and the start that you do between the start and the finish. I should have hit this sometime Monday but it passed without a whimper. I didn't really talk about it much. My Facebooking was minimal. I wrote a blog out of obligation almost. I didn't really want to do this.
So we set off from Little Venice at 9am on Thursday with little fanfare. I think I had already decided that I was not going to make this. I was not in shape to complete a double, nor was I in shape to really have a go at racing one way. Just to be sure I decided to screw both options up.
Mimi Anderson and I were putting in a decent pace for the first miles. Reaching the marathon stage in 3.55 (which a few years ago would have been a marathon PB for me, now it was one down, ten to go) we had an ambitious target to get to Tring in 7 hours. My PB for running that is about 6.45. We were making good time but my groin was tightening and I was finding it harder to keep up the pace. As it got harder my mind started to think of the other things I could be doing instead of running and when these sound better it's hard not to quit. In fact as soon as you start thinking of the alternatives it's as good as decided. I thought about a relaxing night tonight with Gemma, pottering around some town tomorrow, seeing all of the GUCR runners at the pub on Friday night and then helping them all get to Little Venice on the Saturday and Sunday. This seemed like a wonderful alternative to doing what I was doing right now and so I quit. I could have gone on but I didn't really want to.
I felt bad for Mimi as we said we'd do this together and I was now leaving her. She however had no issues with her desire to finish this and I had no doubts about her ability to finish it. She got up to Birmingham in 32 hours, well ahead of the schedule and looking pretty good at the end. Except that it wasn't the end, Birmingham was half way.
Navigation Bridge is a low point of the race for many runners. It starts to get dark, the head torch decision has to be made and the runners are not even half way yet. It's only another two miles but with the long stop most runners take at this bridge it could be another hour until they reach half way. I recommend runners ignore this place.
Still it is OK for the supporters, there is a nice pub with beer and burgers. In fact Rudi the Belgian runner has a stash of beer that he takes a sip of on the way. He leaves the rest of the Trappist 9.3% beer for anyone else who fancies it. I do.
Jen Bradley arrives, I hear from her support that she is having a tough time but she is looking really well. Jany comes though and is joined by Rob who would go on to run 57 miles of canal with her. He may as well run the race and get the medal, the best piece of metal I have ever recieved in a race. Mimi is still looking ludicrously strong. Paul Ali comes and goes pretty quickly with his runner. Others come and slump in the chairs.
While at the pub we talk to those who have no idea what is going on and are keen to discover. Their line of questioning is very predictable and understandable. "Is this some kind of race? Where are they running to? Where do they sleep? Surely they are allowed to stop an eat?"
The reactions are understandable and I am very careful not to patronise since I remember when I thought the same. Some might be tempted to subscribe to the multitude of stories and articles declaring that ultra runners are "different" from normal people along some dimensions such as motivation, resolve, resilience, fearlessness or mental strength. We like to talk about how "we" are somehow more suitable for this kind of endeavor. We like the awkward dumbfounded responses of others who don't understand and use this to validate our theory that "we" are different, either through genes or upbringing, like we are doing this because of some childhood trauma. I have come to realise over the years that this is complete bullshit. We are not different at all. There is no "we". Certainly not beforehand anyway.
The people running here are absolutely normal, they are the teachers, doctors, dentists, plumbers, journalists, self-employed, unemployed, students and data geeks. Mothers, fathers, grandparents and grandchildren. Most are very nice people you'd love to get to know, some are dickheads. Perfectly normal mix of everything. All that is happening here is the mastery of a hobby, it could be playing the piano, pantomime or painting. This is the result of a few years skill acquisition, nothing more complicated than that.
It takes time and practice to get good at this, to be comfortable with this and yes you do change in the process. I imagine like becoming a parent (I wouldn't know).
So to anyone watching, anyone - this could be you. Perhaps not tomorrow or soon but certainly one day. You just need to know the secret. Which is this.
As the runners came though I told them how much daylight they had left. Two hours became one hour and by then the sun was behind the trees and struggling to help the runners anymore. This is where it gets really hard. This is where the Sirens start to find their tune.
After seeing most runners though, some now have support runners to guide them along the path we head off to the next station at 85 miles. There is nothing to it, just a gazebo in a little cutting in the canal. We ditch a load of bags there, discover that James is the only runner through and then head on to Tring, 100 miles.
After waiting for hours at Tring we then hop on to Springwell Locks, 120 miles, less than a marathon to go. Most runners see this in daylight and are perplexed by just how little ground they covered in the night. I see James again who looks only slightly more tired than he did 5 hours ago in Tring. I have not slept either but I can't complain. I have potentially another 18 hours of this.
I follow James' crew 2 miles at a time to the final checkpoint of the race, Hamborough Tavern. The canal sure has its rough sections, some of the industrial parks outside Birmingham, the underpasses in Milton Keynes and abandoned warehouses closer to London. This 50 metre section is by far the worst in the whole race, covered in litter and Swan shit, opposite a building with "Quality Food" plastered on it, this stinks.
But the runners are usually overjoyed to see it, mainly because they don't have to stay too long. This point comes just after one of the best parts of any race I have ever done, the left turn. The instructions for the race are quite simple, navigation-wise anyway. Run 132 miles and turn left. Now they had turned left, there is nothing left to remember. There are two remaining landmarks to complete this race, the Alperton Sainsbury's and the Ladbrooke Grove Sainsbury's.
The next through is Kevin McMillan. I met him three years ago on a winding road in Greece. It was great to see him right up there in second place and by the speed he was going it looked like he could take first. It was not to be in the end though he did that section 45 minutes ahead of James. I was really pleased for James though, he has done so much for the sport in the UK.
It goes quite quickly though and I get to see all of the runners in the race from James through to last place though I do miss some while eating a curry with Gemma and I miss one while in McDonalds getting coffee. We are having bets on who will run through the wall of Swans. I don't see any of the leading men doing so. Jany Tsai ran through without even noticing them, so excited was she to finish. It was great to see so many people that I had not seen for more than a day, even though I was following them.
Everyone is pretty happy so long as they get here in the daylight. We have a great team of people here, George takes the runners number, Fiona gets the food, Paul wears the Yellow jacket to make it all official and I tell them they are doing really well. I hear updates from Springwell Locks about when runners are leaving there and when they are likely to be here. We are talking many hours now. Lindley comes through, practically crawling. He has been in a bad way since early on but unlike most in his predicament he carries on.
Others come and go, no one really likes to hang around. I hope it's not my company. Peter Johnson seems up for a picnic though.
I am most concerned about Rajeev, he was pushing the cut offs at all stages but I am amazined and pleased to see that he arrives here well ahead of the cut-off and ready for the 12 mile slog into Paddington. He has done this before, he knows what to do but like I said earlier he won't remember exactly what it's like. He gets to do it again now though and I am a little envious. I speak to him a little as I walk with him along the path.
This checkpoint should close at midnight. At around 11.45 I run out to try and see the two remaining runners in the race. Pretty quickly I do see Spencer who sounds tired, I can't see his face, it is obscured by a head light. I go on, past the left turn and up the canal into Hayes. It is actually pretty scary, industrial units let out a menacing hum. I run further and faster up the path and see no one until a cyclist says there is no one out there anymore. I return to report his absence and a little counting shows that there actually was no one else. I spent 20 minutes looking for a phantom. I've been awake now for almost 40 hours, I am tired but I want to head to the finish, just to see.
I get a lift with a couple of guys who made the mistake of being in Dick's family and hence will always be spending their bank holiday weekends doing this. His family get extended every year.
I go to the finish and get to see just a few of those magical moments when a normal person feels like they are awesome in its purest form. Carl Miles makes it across at the third time of asking. I see Liz Tunna, thinking I was being blinded by her torch when that was her hair. When 2am came I decided to leave and walk down the canal to home, hopefully seeing those who were about to finish.
I saw almost everyone. Lindley had spend 6 hours on that 12 mile section. Rajeev was quicker. There was a back spasm around 4 miles to go from John but he made it in, even if he was walking sideways.
I turn off at my bridge and there is only one runner left to come in. I stand there for a while amongst the drunks. They are normal too, just like the runners. I don't see any sign except Pat Robbins, the king of this race comes down and says he is out looking for him. He'll be down that path for sure but just how far is anyones guess.
I have blathered on for far too long now. Thank you Dick and everyone for putting on such an amazing event. I'll be back next year, hopefully running. Normally.