Some sentimental and self indulgent claptrap
"Did you know I had a book out?" I said to Dick Kearn at the end of the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race on Sunday. He laughed, you don't need to have gone onto Facebook more than twice to know that I did.
But this was a bit different. I said that this book would have never been written if it weren't for him and his race. There was perhaps a little sun cream in our eyes as I gave him a copy. We had both been up for the best part of two days.
I feel that before I go into the "race report" I should really try to explain why this race means so much to me.
I signed up to this race in 2008. Back then I didn't know many ultra runners or much about ultra running. I signed up because I loved the ridiculous idea of running from Birmingham to London in one go. Without wanting to sound too wanky about it I think my life as I know it now began on the canal seven years ago.
I spent the months before the race laughing at the stupidity of it, I spent the weeks before the race in despair as I didn't know how or if I could do it. I then did it. Then I spend weeks in utter awe of myself for doing something that I still didn't really know how I'd done it.
Now please forgive this detour into self congratulation, but I think I managed to put into words what this race does to a person better than most had done before. The race changed me and somehow I think I got that down into a word document. This word document was published in the trail running association magazine later moved with the times and became a "blog" and later it was to become part of a book, moving old-school again. I do feel a bit awkward and embarrassed when someone comes up to me and says that this race report what what got them into ultra running or inspired them to try some of the big stuff. I have been made to feel awkward many times in the past seven years.
I'd like to think that people read that race report, read what a transforming experience the GUCR was for be and thought "I want that".
And from then on I was to be known as the runner with that article, and then with that blog, and then with that book out. This eclipsed any actually running achievements I actually had, which was fine because I think the writing is much better than the running.
And right now I am in an extended lull in ultra running. I have not finished a big ultra in 26 months, the last time I ran 100 miles was a DNF in the Spartathlon nearly 2 years ago. I was looking to revive my love of these distances and going back to where it started seemed like the place to do it. And I was really itching to have something to blog about.
OK the race
The race started pretty much the same as any other, with a guy asking me "excuse me, do you mind if my little girl strokes your badger?" and then a chap shaking my hand and saying "Thank-you for the brain farts".
We all crowded into the Gas Street tow path ready to be set off on a bombshell, that this would be the last GUCR that Dick Kearn would direct. I think this was a blow to everyone there. I find Dick and the GUCR hard to separate in my mind.
The horn sounded and we all shuftied towards the first low bridge. This is a funny time where you are not really sure who is in front of you and who is behind. In my head I had an idea of a few people I'd be running near and could chat to for a while.
I spent the first few miles really needing the toilet. I hadn't quite nailed my coffee-poo routine. I got out of bed at 4.00, put the Premier Inn kettle on at 4.05, had boiling water by 4.37 and didn't quite manage to drink enough to do the loosening.
2 craps in the first 2 hours is not a great start to a 30+ hour race. At least if I continued until the end I might get down to race weight. I came here with 30 hours in mind if things went well. Though I didn't really consider it at the time I got a little virus right on the day of the race. Well actually Gemma had been telling me all week that I'd got bad breath, which is usually a sign of something brewing. Anyhow the early miles were just feeling a bit harder than they should and this could be having 10% knocked off me by a virus.
It's a bit soul destroying when you are 10 miles into a 145 mile race and you already know you are going to suffer more than you should. I felt I trained pretty well for this, I had a good peak month in April, knocking out 100 mile weeks at a reasonable pace. I did most of the training that I wanted to do, lost a bit of weight and got to the start line in decent form.
After a stop start first 15 miles I got into a bit of a rhythm but it always felt hard. Not just my breathing but my body felt a little more worn than usual. I had rested well in the last three weeks, done only a few miles though my short runs in the week before felt harder. I don't want to wang on about excuses but if you are aiming to run this in 30 hours you really need to get to the 50 mile point in around 9 hours and still feeling pretty fresh. I wasn't even going to get to Hatton Locks (22 miles) feeling fresh.
However I think I quickly came to terms with the loss, I wasn't going to get what I came for but I sure as hell was going to get this done. Dick made an emotional announcement at the end of the race that this was to be his last GUCR. I find it hard to separate Dick and the GUCR in my mind. I still don't think i have got there yet. I think the GUCR is one of those races that I will only DNF if I have to.
I think that's quite fast running for balancing a glass on my head
In the first few hours I was running with Stephen McCallister and Natasha Farid, they were doing some sort of timed run walk and I was just running as much as I could and stopping every few miles to stretch the groin. The groin issue seems a recurring thing when I run for a long time at 9 minute miles but I've got used to it, it usually goes after a few hours of running and stretching.
Paul Rowlinson was close by too, always looking cheerful, even after his DNF in the Bingo Run after running 55 miles. Frank was here too though looked like he was struggling early.
Just before the 3rd Checkpoint in Weedon (36 miles) i was caught up by Paul Ali and his wife Paul Stout.
I was keen to get through Braunstone Locks as quickly as possible but then I saw Paul Ali and Stout sat there with ice-cream. Couldn't say no really. I stopped to buy one and walked on, enjoying what is actually a nice bit of the canal. I realised at this point I wasn't quite carrying as much water as I should, I only had a litre which was not quite getting me through the 18 mile sections.
At Braunstone the mile markers start, I was getting too obsessed with them at this early stage. I got to the 53 mile point in about 9.30 hours, not too slow but not the "9 hours and coasting" I wanted. I was amazed by the selection of cakes for different allergies there, there were at least two that were gluten free. I remember the days when cake was cake, back before gluten intolerance was fashionable.
The next section was a rough one, the 17 miles up to Navigation Bridge. Along here is the diversion off the canal over the Blissworth tunnel and then through the very nice town of Stoke Bruerne. I keep advising people to not stop too much at Navigation Bridge, at 70 miles and often reached in the evening this is a place where many a GUCR has died. I had arranged to see Gemma sometime after Navigation Bridge as the canal spends 10 miles hugging onto Milton Keynes. She asked if I had any requests and for an ETA. This ETA kept getting revised upwards and eventually was 8.00. I stopped for some food at Navigation, chatted to a few people there and then headed off and immediately bumped into Stu Wilkie who I chatted to briefly. 2 miles on in Wolverton at around the half way mark I saw Gemma who had bought along my delicious cup of coffee. There were loads of people there, Noel Jones, Ian and Katie Williams (Mr and Mrs Fetcheveryone) and David Bayley. Gemma has cooked me some really nice sausage but I completely spoiled my appetite with the sausage roll and beans I had only 2 miles ago.
Gemma walked with me a bit, she said I sounded terrible and strongly suggested I take some paracetamol for my throat. I think the last time I took pain killers in a race was one day in the LANY race and before that the last time was my blood pissing incident in the Spartathlon 2009. However taking them seemed to relieve some of the discomfort in my throat and in my bones and I managed to get a bit of a jog on.
A while after I ran on I texted Gemma to ask where she was next meeting me and she said Peartree Bridge. I looked on the map and that was at 81 miles. I was still on 76 and said I'd take ages to get there. However I made a call to try and run the whole thing and I got there in not much time at all. It was dark before I arrived at that bridge where I got more coffee and sausages.
The next 5 miles I actually got a decent pace going, I overtook a few people. The lady who ended up finishing second who was utterly incomprehensible and Andy Horsley. This happened the second year I did it, everything going crap for the first 75 miles and then BOOM. I was timing the miles, keeping them under 10 minutes mostly and the next checkpoint actually caught me by surprise. Glyn was there with cans of energy drink. I changed into warmer clothes and headed back out with 16 mile to Tring, the 100 mile point. I started calculating, if I can get this done in 3 hours then that's 21 hours for the 100. If I can get the next 45 done in 11 then that's 32 hours total. That's not bad. That gave me hope that I could get a half decent time.
Extrapolating a good time out of a purple patch sure does lift the spirits and makes the size of the task feel more manageable, just like extrapolating a rubbish time out of a difficult section will make the whole thing seem bigger and harder. I was in contact with Drew who was crewing for Mark Perkins who at this stage was at least 30 miles ahead of me and not even winning!
Something I often forget, until I'm there is that the 5 mile section into Tring is pretty miserable. There are a few locks to climb, which isn't the worst part. It's being in the middle of nowhere, trying to run along a path made of rubble and having to cross over a load of bridges. Luckily there are still signs from another race that's been dead for 3 years guiding the way through some of this. It always takes longer to get to Tring than you'd imagine. There is a building with two red lights that make it look like a huge robot head with eyes piercing into you. It's like a war of the worlds robot seeking out to destroy you, or waiting to give you soup.
Some point along here I saw Natasha getting into Henk's van. She looked really upset (probably more do do with getting into Henk's van rather than dropping from the race). She had been vomiting blood which doesn't sound nice, she had just run a hard 100k on road recently and that is going to take a lot out of you, I'd guess more so than 100 miles on a trail. I was gutted for her, she seemed to be enjoying it so much earlier on and helped me through a rough time.
I ended up in Tring at about 2130 hours, I was pretty pleased with that. It's not a bad 100 mile time in it's own right and way less than the 24 hours it took me to get here in the second time I did this (first was about 19). I spent half an hour getting as much food and drink in me as possible, the next stretch was 20 miles and with the sun about to come up this was going to be a long one.
I also sold a book! Did you know I had a book out? To Gavin. I even managed to scrawl some incomprehensible drivel in it.
The checkpoint had the usual mash feel to it, one guy (Thomas Garrod I think) lay down in the back asleep while the guys I'd been running near for the past 12 hours were all here, Paul A, Paul S, Andy, Paul R.
After a nice sit down toilet stop I headed out from Tring onto the path which I knew pretty well. It was now 4am, I knew the sun was coming up soon, that the path was going to improve and that I still had a fair bit of running in me. 10 hours to chump out this remaining 45 miles? Optimistic and perhaps unrealistic but it was enough of a lift to keep me going.
This part of the canal brings back vague memories of my first ultra in 2007 when I started in Tring and headed to Paddington. Having a series of memories that make you feel better about yourself really can help kick away some pain, at least for a while. It's like caffiene or sugar I guess, it helps but you can overuse it and it's returns are diminishing. But now it was working better than a morning cup of coffee. 8 years ago I was going to run 45 miles to London from here and that was a really big deal, I did it pretty well and never looked back. Then little more than a year later I was here again, about to run to London but just having run the 100 miles from Birmingham. I went on to do that kind of thing about 6 times and then a few years ago I ran my first ultra again, every day for more than two months.
And I wrote a book about it, did you know that? You can buy it here.
Now this additional diversion into self appreciation I think is significant. Like I said I feel like I've been out of it for the past two years. I've not really done anything significant, the most lasting memory for me is my lame DNF in the Spartathlon in 2013.
I was banking on this race to bring me back. The great time I wanted wasn't going to happen but at the very least I just wanted to get something finished. It felt right to go back to the source, to where it all really started for me and hope that some of the magic re-ignites my ultra running flame which has cooled in the past few years. I think something must have lit again, I was 5 miles into this race when I realised I was going to suffer so much more than I deserved, yet the thought of dropping out didn't even occur to me. Coughing up at Milton Keynes where my wife and the car were just a 20 minute drive from home on a Saturday night it would have been dead easy to "put this down to experience" and save myself for something else. But I didn't. I was getting pulled along, slowly and splutteringly but getting to Paddington was never in doubt. I was more like the 2008 James and the 2011 James than the 2013 and 2014 James.
It's almost like rehab. I've been in a malaise for a while and need 145 miles of canal to get my head straight. Gazza should have done this.
The sun rose before I could get out of Hemel, not ideal but then I realised I was running along a pub crawl route that some friends of mine have done a few times. At 6am the pubs were closed, even in Hemel. I managed to cover this distance in less time than the 10 mile 6 pub stretch normally takes.
It was at some point down here that I got a message on the Centurion Team group (did you know I'm on an elite ultra running team?) That Mark Perkins had finished in 22 hours something, 20 odd minutes behind Dan Lawson. Those were both astonishing times from very capable runners each who had big races still in their legs. It was only a matter of time before 24 hours was broken on this course, I never thought it would happen twice by such a big margin.
As the sun came up I really started to struggle with my breathing, the path was a bit dusty which was getting into my lungs and making my cough and sore throat worse. Running a mile would leave me a bit wheezy. The painkillers were helping but not enough.
Sounds like making excuses, it sort of is. I've been here over the 100 point of a race 6 times before and always had a fair bit left to carry on with at least a bit of shuffling. I probably could have done more running if I had the inclination but I was just a lot more knackered than I normally would be here.
So I put together a series of arguments as to how I was going to tackle this race from here on in, always seem watertight when 26 hours into a race and often follow the line of least resistance. I am really knackered, running makes me cough, splutter and a bit miserable, it's a really nice day, 34 hours would be fine and with 8 hours to do 30 miles that should be easy, yeah lets just walk the rest of this.
So I really just braced myself for a grand day out, it was 8ish in the morning and the sun was shining and what better way to spend it than walking along a canal?
I was still close to a fair few runners. Paul Ali and Stout were nearby as were a few others who I didn't know.
I was met at abour 115 miles by Tim and Laura who have become canal groupies in recent years. They gave me a wonderful McDonalds breakfast which went down really well. McDonalds gets a bad rap for serving filth to idiots but in all my years of running I have just never found a better way of shoving 500 calories inside me in less than 60 seconds. Show me how I can do that with an organic pan piped quinoa and spirula salad?
I left Berkhamsted and headed towards lovely Watford where Mark Studdart popped out and walked with me for a bit. It was nice to catch up (or get caught up) and chat to him about how drunk his wife got the night before and other things.
I was convinced that Lindley had moved this checkpoint. I forgave him because he gave me a bacon roll. Here once more were the usual crew of the Pauls, Andy, Dan and some others. It was about 9am, less than a marathon to go.
Off I walked with Paul Ali for the next 12 miles or so, via another ice-cream. He had 4 in the whole race. With 27 hours on our feet, the sun starting to get at us again and a tiredness taking over it seemed like a perfect time to play a game of ultra twat. We basically each take turns proposing an ultra twat and then discuss. This is a great way to pass a few miles, so and so is a wanker, whastisface is a dick. It can be quite funny if one suggests someone who you thought was OK. I've never been so tired that the ultra twat I have proposed was the twat I was currently playing the game of ultra twat with.
Anyhoo, what happens in Uxbridge stays in Uxbridge.
Paul had a millimetre view of how far away the end and the left turning was, this was his 5th running of the GUCR. I started to get a bit frustrated with my slowing walking pace and the fact that people had the rudeness to come out here on a bike ride on a Sunday morning. The section towards Bulls Bridge is a bit awkward and narrow and most of the cyclists were very pleasant and accommodating but the energy cost of having to look up and make decisions interferes with the ability to move my arms and legs. At this stage you really just want to put your eyes down and shuffle.
Th left turn came at last, it is always a wonderful sight. Well, wonderful for what it means in the context of the race. If I can quote myself from 7 years ago "Ultra running gives you a strange sense of romance for places that are otherwise shit". What follows now is probably the worst couple of miles on the entire GUC. You are knee deep in discarded cans, needles, goose shit, fly tipping and shopping trolleys and then at the end of all that you get greeted by Nici Griffin.
This is the last checkpoint of the race, the last two years I spend 15 hours here. It's grim but is great fun when there are loads of people around. Most of the battle here is to stop the people who like to chuck bread all over the checkpoint so that the psychotic swans all swoop down and destroy.
Nici did her best Henk impression and told me to fuck off out of her checkpoint but she could not do it without a smile and a hug, like I imagine Henk did in his early years. Jen Bradley was there too and wanted to run with me towards Paddington. Hopefully it was clear to her that not much running as going to be done now though when she told me I had slowed to 2 miles an hour I put a bit of a run on, running about a mile but then spluttering to a halt again.
My body was really hurting now, I had a sore shin which was probably caused by walking too much. I felt I had a couple of tastly blisters too.
A slight romantic detour..
I have run this last bit of canal a million times, or maybe a few dozen. It was my old commuting route to work. Every now and then I'd say "oooh a new dog shit bin!" The canal here is pretty grim, London has mostly abandoned this waterway.
Claire and Drew popped out to see me into the last few miles. They had time to get home from Mark's finish, tackle an ant invasion of their house, have a few hours sleep and the drive back to London to see me.
Without wanting to bore you all too much further I finished. It was about 35 and a half, I would have said at the start that was a pretty poor show but I am quite pleased with it. I was hoping to have a great race like I did the first time or at least something I could write an entertaining and epic race report like I did the second time but this was really a case of just carrying on knocking out miles while feeling shit. Something I've not been able to do for the past couple of years, something that was able to do in spades years ago.
It was nice to see it come back. I'm going to need it again next month.